The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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EM

 

 

The Way It Could Have Been, Year Two

Disclaimer: These characters are not mine.  I’m just borrowing them. 

 Part 1

An almost twelve year old Johnny Lancer sat on his hard school bench and stared idly out the window.  The trees were bare and the sky was bleak as the storm clouds moved into the San Joaquin Valley heralding the coming rain.  Johnny hoped he’d make it home before the storm broke, but he figured he’d be struggling into his slicker before heading home.

Johnny jumped as he heard the uncomfortably close wooden ruler strike the desk in front of him. “Johnny!  Johnny Lancer!”

Johnny had the grace to look guilty as he gulped and looked up at the angry face of his teacher, Mrs. Edwards.  “I’m sorry Ma’am.” Johnny muttered looking down at his hands.

“You better start paying attention young man, or do I need to send a note home to your father?”

Johnny’s head jerked up at the threat, and he quickly shot a look at his teacher. “No Ma’am.  I’ll pay attention better.  I really will.”  He assured.

“Let’s see exactly how well you’ve been paying attention then.  Read the next passage.”

Johnny hated reading aloud in class. The other children his age could read better than he did, though he was much better than he had been.  He felt his hands grow clammy as he gripped the book and began to read the first line silently.  He always found that easier but he still found himself translating first into Spanish then to English which caused his teacher great consternation.

“Stand up Johnny.”  Mrs. Edward reminded him.

Johnny shuffled to his feet and wiped one hand on his pants leg before starting.  “The yellow dog chased a ….skir…” Johnny stopped and looked at his teacher for help.

“Sound it out. S Q . What sound is that?”

“S Q.” Johnny repeated and blushed a bit as a couple of the other children snickered.

“Quiet. All of you.” The teacher admonished. “Try it again, Johnny.”

“Sqir…rel.” He sounded out slowly. Then with a grin, he said triumphantly, “Squirrel!”

“Very good Johnny! Now put it all together.”

“The yellow dog chased a squirrel into a hole in the ground.  The dog begin…”

“Look at that word again.”

“Begin…began.  The dog began diggin’ ta  git  at that squirrel.”  Johnny stopped to look at his teacher for approval.

“Good Johnny. I want you to read it once again, but don’t cut off the ends of the words. Also look at the second to the last word again.”

Johnny reread the sentence and saw his error. “The yellow dog chased a squirrel into a hole in the ground. The dog beg..an diggin..g to get at the squirrel.”  He smiled as he finished knowing he’d gotten it right.

“Very good Johnny.  I want you to finish reading this chapter while I give an arithmetic test to the 8th graders.”

Johnny sat down with a feeling of relief as he heard the groans of the older children and he was once again lost in his own thoughts as he just barely heard the drone of the classroom.  He tried to read the chapter but he couldn’t keep his mind on the story as he thought once again about his brother returning home soon from school for the winter break.

 

***********

Murdoch smiled with satisfaction as he watched Luis work the buckskin gelding in the round corral.  The horse was loping on a loose rein and had come a long way in the last month since Murdoch had bought him from the Vinson Ranch.  The young horse was green broke, but Luis had brought him along quickly and Murdoch was looking forward to giving him to Johnny for his birthday.

“He’s looking good Luis.  Three more weeks of riding him and he’ll be a good mount for Johnny.”  He watched as the vaquero brought the horse to a halt in the middle of the corral.

“Si senior.  He’s got a good mind.  Juanito will have no trouble with him.” The vaquero said while idly patting the horse’s damp neck.

“We just need to keep him out of sight for a few more weeks.  I want Johnny to be surprised.”

The vaquero grinned showing white teeth under his bushy mustache and nodded in agreement with his patron.  “I think he will be very surprised, Senior.”

“I hope so.  Speaking of surprises, how is that palomino mare doing?  Is she eating better?”

The vaquero had dismounted and was leading the gelding to the fence.  He scuffed his boot in the sand before answering. “She’s eating only grass from the meadow.”  Luis shook his head.  “The baby is kicking all the time.  He wants out of there.”

Murdoch nodded and replied, “I hope it doesn’t come too soon.  She shouldn’t foal for another month or so.  Well, there’s not much we can do except keep an eye on her. Why don’t you fix her a warm bran mash and see if that will entice her to eat.”  Murdoch put in over his shoulder as he headed back to the house.

“Si Senior.”

Murdoch met Paul half way across the yard. “Did you get all the supplies?”

Paul took off his hat and wiped the inside band with his handkerchief and shook his head.  “That store in Morro Coyo isn’t good for much these days.  They were out of about half the supplies.  I got their last sack of flour and they don’t expect to get another shipment  of salt in for a month.”

“I guess we’ll have to go to Green River tomorrow.  Maria’s already read me the riot act about letting her pantry run dry.” Murdoch’s lips twitched at the ear blistering he’d gotten yesterday and steeled himself for an unhappy cook when he returned to the house.

“Johnny and Teresa should be home in an hour.  I hope they make it back before the storm comes in. The wind is really picking up.” Paul observed as he watched a few of the remaining dry leaves swirl around at his feet.

“It will be snowing in the high country tonight. A good night to be inside.” Murdoch replied.

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

Johnny stood with shoulders slumped at his teacher’s desk while she wrote the note to his father.  He kept his eyes down as he waited for the note that would seal his fate for the afternoon.  His teacher had really laid into him when she caught him staring out the window again.

“I’d keep you after school as well but with this storm coming in, we’re letting out of school early today.  You give this note to your father and return it to me tomorrow with your father’s signature.  Do you understand?”

“Yes Ma’am.” Johnny said forlornly.

She handed him the note. “You and Teresa go straight home.”

“Yes Ma’am.” Johnny turned and fled the classroom to meet up with Teresa in the cloak room. 

Teresa was already bundled up in her slicker and she watched as Johnny slowly pulled his slicker on. Gathering up their books, they stuffed them into saddlebags, then they saddled their horses and headed home.

Teresa for once kept quiet for most of the ride and Johnny was grateful. She had a tendency to chatter and it drove him to fits of temper at times and this was definitely not a good time.

Johnny hunched over trying to stay warm as another cold blast of air cut through the oil cloth.  He would have liked to go faster, but knew that Teresa wasn’t allowed to lope unless her father had a lead line on her pony.  She was a pretty good rider, but Charley had a mind of his own and the little chestnut pony was apt to run away once he got started.  Johnny figured he was already in enough trouble so he was not about to make it worse by doing something foolish.

They were about a mile from the house when a crash of thunder caused both children and their mounts to jump in surprise.  Cierra spooked and Johnny almost fell off his mare.  He had his hands full for several minutes when Teresa’s voice caught his attention.

“Jo…hnny!!”  She cried.

Johnny’s heart fell to his stomach when he realized that Charley had the bit in his teeth and his neck bowed as he raced away with Teresa clinging as best she could.

“Hold on!”  He shouted after her as he kicked Cierra into a gallop.  Cierra was Scott’s old mare and while she was no longer young, she could run when she needed to. Johnny held on and prayed Teresa wouldn’t fall.  He slowly began closing the gap and he could see Teresa’s terror stricken face.  She was pulling back with all her strength and it was having no effect on the wildly galloping pony.

“Teresa, grab hold of one rein and turn him in a circle.” Johnny yelled.

The girl threw him a white faced look and he knew she was too scared to slow the pony down herself so he managed to bring his mare alongside.  “Hold on!” He leaned over and grabbed a rein and began slowing the pony while trying to control his own horse as well.

“Whoa…whoa.” He soothed the two frightened horses.  Both were breathing hard as they halted and he jumped down and caught Teresa as she slid off Charley.  Johnny saw the tears streaming down her face as the girl sobbed and clung to him. “It’s okay Teresa. You’re safe.”

After a few minutes, she stopped shaking and looked up at Johnny, “You saved me Johnny. Thank you.”

Johnny blushed and pushed the girl away and turned back to the horses.  “It wasn’t nothin’.  Come on, mount up. We gotta get home.”

He mounted and saw that Teresa hadn’t moved.  “Come on, Teresa!  We gotta go!”

“No.  I don’t want to ride…ever!”

“You love to ride.  You gonna let Charley get away with that?”

Teresa shook her head and tears began to slip down her face once again. “I…I can’t.”

Johnny sighed and held a hand down.  “Here, climb on behind me.”  He removed his foot from the stirrup and helped Teresa mount behind him.  “Now hold on good.”  With that he started Cierra home at a trot leading Charley behind.

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

Murdoch and Paul stopped mid sentence when they heard thunder rumbling in the distance followed by a flash of lightning.  They both looked down the road in the fading light hoping to see Teresa and Johnny riding through the gate.  Their hopes were dashed as they both cringed at the crash of thunder and lightening momentarily brightening the sky.

“We better ride out and meet them.”  Murdoch announced as he walked swiftly to the barn.

Paul, right beside him, matched him stride for stride as the two anxious fathers went to saddle their horses to escort their children home.

As Murdoch adjusted his cinch a final time before mounting, Paul pointed.  “There they are.”

Murdoch felt a wave of relief wash over him only to be replaced with concern when he saw that Johnny was leading Teresa’s pony.

“I wonder what happened.” Paul muttered as he trotted toward the pair.

“Papa!” Teresa squealed while sliding off Johnny’s mare.  Teresa rushed into Paul’s arms; tears once again streaming down her face.

“What happened Johnny?”  Murdoch asked.

“Aw nothin’  much.  The thunder scared ‘ol Charley here and he run off.  Teresa’s afraid to ride him home.” He said with obvious disdain in his voice.

“Did she fall off?”  Paul asked as he anxiously checked Teresa over for injury.

“No.  She just didn’t wantta get back on.”

Teresa’s sobs were starting to subside and she looked at her father and took a hitching breath.  “Charley ran and I couldn’t stop him.  I…tried so hard and he wouldn’t stop.”

The girl looked like she was going to burst into tears once more so Murdoch suggested, “Teresa, I think Maria is making some hot chocolate.  Why don’t you and your father go get some.  Johnny and I will take care of the horses and join you in a few minutes.”

Teresa threw the big man a smile and walked hand and hand with her father to the house.

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

Murdoch and Johnny quickly unsaddled the two horses and had them brushed and bedded down for the night.  They worked in silence and Murdoch knew there was more to the story, but Johnny seemed intent on keeping it to himself.

With a sigh, he resigned himself to having to pull the information out of his son.  “Anything else you need to tell me son?”

Johnny glanced up quickly from where he was tapping the curry comb against the stall wall to remove the hair.  He went back to tapping, and shook his head.  Nothin’ else to tell.”

Murdoch shook his head and decided to ask Teresa about it later.

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

Late that evening Murdoch sat at his desk working on the books for the ranch. He snapped the ledger shut, stood up and began turning down the lights and locking the doors.

He walked quietly upstairs hoping for a good nights sleep to prepare him for another busy day. He stopped outside Johnny’s bedroom door and opened it. There was just enough moonlight filtering in through the window so he could easily make out his son.

Murdoch walked over and smiled at the sight in front of him. Limbs spread in all directions, he wondered how anyone could sleep like that.  Johnny had kicked the blankets off the bed and had the sheet tangled around his waist.  Murdoch carefully straightened the sheets and pulled the blankets back over his son and tucked him in.

Before leaving, Murdoch brushed a lock of dark hair out of his eyes and he felt a swell of pride in Johnny’s actions today.  “Good night son.”  He whispered as he made his way out of the room and to bed.

***********

Part 2

Johnny rode Cierra at a trot behind the wagon.  Paul was going into Green River for supplies and he decided to drop Teresa off at school.  He said at breakfast he’d work with Charley and get Teresa back on tomorrow, but today she could ride in the wagon.

Johnny had breathed a sigh of relief when he heard it was Paul going to town today.  His father had been planning on going himself, but something had come up, and he’d changed his mind.

Johnny glanced at the grey sky that matched his mood and hoped there wouldn’t be another storm this afternoon.  The unsigned note burned a hole in his pocket and he knew he was in big trouble.  He’d wanted to give the note to his father this morning, but he just couldn’t bring himself to do it.  His father was still happy with him and had praised him again for his quick thinking yesterday. He just couldn’t bring himself to let him down.

For a moment, he thought about telling Paul, but decided against it.  Scott would be home tomorrow, maybe he could keep it a secret until then, and he hoped their father would be so happy to see Scott, he wouldn’t be so disappointed in him. Johnny realized with a start that Paul was calling to him and he’d gotten about 100 yards behind the wagon.

“Come on Johnny.  Wake up.”  Paul called with a chuckle in his voice.  As Johnny caught up to the wagon, Paul continued. “I swear Johnny, you have your head in the clouds most of the time these days.  I don’t know how your teacher gets you to pay attention.”

Johnny blushed and didn’t answer, but quickly threw a warning glance at Teresa as he saw her open her mouth to tattle on him.  Teresa saw the look and said nothing but raised her eyebrows in warning.

The trio pulled into the school yard and Teresa jumped down as Johnny led Cierra into the corral.

“You kids be good.  I’ll pick you up after school today Teresa.  Johnny you wait here until I come for her.”

“Yes sir.” Johnny replied as he followed Teresa into the school house.

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

As the children filed into the classroom, the room filled with their noisy chatter and laughter as they took their seats.  Mrs. Edwards stood off to the side and waited for them to assemble.

She watched as Johnny headed for his usual seat by the window.  “Johnny.” She called.

Johnny froze and looked at his teacher. “Yes Ma’am?” He managed to croak out.

“Over here.  Since you can’t seem to pay attention, I’m moving you over here in front.”

“But, Mrs. Edwards, that’s where the little kids sit.” He protested.

“I’m aware of that, but it’s also where I can keep an eye on you.  Now stop arguing and sit down.”

Johnny slowly walked across the room and sat where she pointed.  He heard the other kids snickering at him as he sat with the little kids, and he bowed his head staring without seeing the desktop in front of him.

Mrs. Edwards was busy getting the class started on their school work.  Johnny was two desks away from Teresa and he could see her giving him a sympathetic smile.  He felt trapped by the wall on one side of him and the teacher’s massive desk in front of him. He gripped the side of the desk in an effort to force down the panic rising in his chest.

Johnny took deep breaths which seemed to help him calm down but he was concentrating so hard on trying to relax, he didn’t realize Mrs. Edwards was talking to him.

“Johnny!” Her voice rang with exasperation.  “After yesterday, I thought you would be on your best behavior today.  I see I was wrong.”

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Edwards.” He replied miserably.  He liked his teacher and didn’t want her to be angry with him.

“Please give me the note I sent to your father.”

Johnny frowned and reluctantly dug the note out of his pocket and handed the wadded up paper to his teacher.

She unfolded it and glared at the young boy in front of her.  “It’s not signed.  Did you show this note to your father?”

Johnny looked at his hands. “No Ma’am.  I forgot.” He mumbled.

Several of the nearby students were listening attentively.  It seemed that while no one wanted to get into trouble themselves, there was always a fascination in watching another child in trouble.

“All right young man.  I will deal with you later.  In the corner. Now!” She pointed and Johnny walked slowly to the corner behind her desk.  He’d been here before and knew he had a long day in front of him.

Johnny lost track of time.  His legs were beginning to ache and he shifted his weight from foot to foot.  He’d already counted the knotholes that he could see in the wood from his limited vantage point, and he was beyond bored.  He knew it must be getting close to recess, and while he wasn’t looking forward to the rest of the punishment he knew he had  coming, he just wanted to get it over with.

After what seemed like hours, Johnny heard Mrs. Edwards send the class outside to recess.  “Johnny come over here.”

Johnny turned relieved to get out of the corner, but dismayed at seeing the paddle in his teacher’s hand.

“Bend over the desk.” She instructed.

Johnny did as he was told and held his breath.  He didn’t have long to wait until he heard a crack and felt blazing pain across his rear end.  Twice more the paddle came down and Johnny felt tears fill his eyes.

“Now maybe with a sore rear end, you’ll remember to pay attention.  Go wash your face and go to recess.”

Johnny walked gingerly out the door as his teacher began a new note to his father.

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

The rest of the day passed quickly.  Johnny’s punishment would have been the talk of the class except two of the older boys, Mike and Toby had gotten into a fist fight during lunch which ended with each of them getting a bloody nose and a black eye.

Mrs. Johnson was clearly exasperated at the trouble the children had caused and was thankful the school week was up. She intended to have conferences with the three boy’s fathers, and she sent notes asking them to visit her by way of Jimmy, the young man who ran errands for the stage line.

She looked at Mike and Toby standing contritely in their respective corners and Johnny shifting uncomfortably on his hard seat and hoped the rest of the day would pass uneventfully.

The clock finally chimed three o’clock much to the relief of the teacher, and her students. She brushed a stray wisp of hair off her forehead and announced, “Don’t forget to do your homework over the weekend.”

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

Johnny saddled Ciera and leaned against her while waiting for Paul to come pick up Teresa.  Today had been a bad day and he wasn’t looking forward to what his father was going to say when he got home.  He didn’t have long to wait as he glanced up at the sound of a buggy approaching.

Johnny’s heart sank as he saw his father climb out of the buggy.  “Pa.”

Murdoch walked over to his son and towered over him. “It seems you’ve gotten yourself in a bit of trouble, son.”

“Yes sir.” He mumbled.

Murdoch reached out and gently grasped his arm and turned to lead him back into the school. “Teresa, please wait by the buggy. I’ll be just a few minutes.”

“Can I swing?” She asked.

Murdoch threw her a smile, “Sure honey.  I’ll call for you in a few minutes.”

Murdoch then gently pushed Johnny in front of him to face the music.

“Mrs. Edwards, I got your note.” Murdoch said by way of introduction.

“Mr. Lancer, Johnny has me at wits end. Yesterday, he was staring out the window day dreaming whenever I looked at him.  I gave him a note that he failed to give to you.  I paddled him today, but I just don’t know what else to do.”

Murdoch frowned and looked down at his son.  “Look at me Johnny.”  He waited until Johnny raised his head and he looked into his son’s dark blue eyes for a moment before asking. “Well? What do you have to say for yourself?”

“I…um…I forgot the note.”

“Forgetting to give me the note is one thing.  Not paying attention in class is inexcusable.  I’ve dealt with this before with you and I told you the last time that if I found out you were misbehaving in school again, that you would be punished.  Remember?”

Johnny’s eyes dropped once again and he whispered. “Yes sir.”

Murdoch turned to the teacher. “Mrs. Edwards, I’ll take care of this at home and I can assure you, Johnny will be a most attentive boy when he returns to school on Monday.”

“Thank you Mr. Lancer.”

Murdoch turned the unhappy boy to the door and they headed home.

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

Johnny pushed the mashed potatoes around on his plate and allowed the sounds of the men’s voices to wash over and around him. Why his father had insisted he eat supper with the cattlemen, he had no idea.  He would have much preferred eating in the kitchen and escaping early to his room.  Now he was stuck trying to be on his best behavior around his father’s friends and business associates.

Clive Harper and Stuart Robinson were old friends of his father’s and fellow ranchers. They had arrived earlier this evening and were staying over to attend tomorrow’s Cattlemen’s Association meeting.  Johnny had met each of them once before and they had both tried to strike up a conversation with him which only left him more tongue tied than usual.

Johnny looked up as the men’s laughter caught his attention.  He had tuned out Clive’s story but from the laughter, it must have been a good one.

Clive wiped his eyes with his napkin and took another sip of wine.  “Now you know Johnny, your father was a hell raiser in his younger days.  I could tell you stories…”

“Clive.”  Murdoch interrupted quickly.  “Don’t believe everything you hear Johnny.  Mr. Harper has a reputation of stretching the truth as far as he’ll stretch a dollar.”

“That’s for sure!  Why old Clive here…” Stuart started in on a story about Clive and before long Johnny was once again tuning the men out while he rearranged the cold potatoes on his plate.

Johnny came back to awareness when he heard his father’s voice. “Son, bid Mr. Harper and Mr. Robinson goodnight.  Gentlemen, help yourselves to some brandy, and I’ll return in a few minutes.”

Johnny wiped his mouth with the napkin and set it on the table.  He felt slightly light headed as his father’s words sank in.  It was time to pay the piper as his father had warned him earlier and he knew the next few minutes were going to be highly uncomfortable, not to mention the rest of the night.

“Good night Johnny. Sleep well.” Harper called as Johnny was herded by Murdoch up the stairs.

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

A half hour later, Johnny wiped the last of the tears from his face as he shifted to try to get more comfortable in his bed.  His father’s lecture still ringing in his ears and his father’s hand still stinging his rear made it hard to get to sleep.

His mind wouldn’t shut off to give him peace as he explored once again his feelings for his father.  He felt bad that he’d let him down, but he felt secure that his father loved him enough to punish him and then talk it out after to make things right.

In the past when his stepfather punished him, Johnny’s anger and hurt would often cause him to lash out at anyone and everyone including his mother, then he’d feel guilty about it for days on end.

Sighing, he swung out of bed and padded quietly over to his dresser.  He opened the top drawer and rummaged under his folded clothes until he found the envelope.  He reread the letter and crawled back into bed.

As his restless mind began to relax, his thoughts drifted once again to what life would be like if his mother would come home and they’d be a family again.  ‘Just me, Mama, Papa and Scott.  The way it should have been.’  The letter from his mother fell to the floor as he fell into a deep sleep.

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

Johnny looked down the road once more as he slowly pumped water into the water trough in the big corral.  He’d been working for most of the day trying to keep his mind off Scott’s arrival.  Even though he’d been busy going from one chore to the next, the day had drug on slowly.

With a sigh, he pulled down on the handle as another gush of water filled the trough to the brim.  His arms ached from the strain of pulling on the handle and he was grateful to finish that chore for the day.  His weekend chores were much more strenuous than his school day chores, but for the most part he didn’t mind.  He liked working out doors and as he got older he would be doing more and more ranch work.  He especially enjoyed riding out to the herd and looked forward to calving time.

His attention was drawn by the dust being kicked up by his father’s palomino mare as she walked across the corral to get a drink.  He watched as the winter sun reflected off her golden coat in iridescent shimmers.

Most of the horses had their heavy winter coats, but this mare had begun shedding even though it was still winter.  Cipriano had told him it was because she was heavy in foal and mares tend to shed some of their coat before foaling.  Winter so far had been mild so she didn’t need so much protection as she was stabled in the barn each night.

Johnny was fascinated by the golden color of her coat and marveled at the contrast to her almost white mane and tail.  She had large golden brown eyes that looked at him kindly as she began drinking from the freshly filled water trough.

He idly watched her, wondering about the color of her baby.  Would it have the golden color of the mother or the copper color of the father?   His father had told him that in order to produce another golden palomino, they needed to breed the mare to a chestnut stallion.  He said that a good palomino would be the color of a newly minted gold coin.  When you mate two palominos, the color is diluted. At best the foal would be a light palomino, at worse it would be an albino foal with pink skin and blue eyes.

 

Reaching out to stroke the mare’s wet muzzle, he looked down the road once more and his heart jumped at seeing Cipriano riding in with Scott beside him.

“Scott!” Johnny called as he spooked the mare by dashing in front of her.  He squeezed through the rails and ran toward Scott.

Scott caught Johnny in a bear hug and swung him around.  “Hey little brother. You’ve grown a mile since the last time I saw you.”  Scott put Johnny back on the ground and ruffled his hair.

Cipriano had a huge smile on his face seeing the two Lancer boys together once again and silently took the reins of Scott’s horse leaving the two boys to continue their reunion.

“Is Pa home?” Scott asked.

“Yeah.  There’s a Cattlemen’s meetin’ goin’ on though so ya might not want to go in.”

Scott stopped to consider for a minute and then started for the house.  “Come on. We’ll go in through the kitchen…maybe Maria will give us something to eat.  I’m starved!”

“She’s been cookin’ all day just waitin’ for you to come home.”

“Let’s not keep the lady waiting then.” Scott replied as he threw an arm over his brother’s shoulders.  He looked around at the house and barns. “It’s sure good to be home!”

**********

Part 3

Johnny and Scott sat in the kitchen and could hear that the Cattlemen’s Association meeting was breaking up.  Scott looked at his brother and raised an eyebrow, “I guess I put it off long enough.  Pa’s going to start wondering if I don’t make an appearance.”

Johnny frowned, “Don’t go in now. Wait till they leave.”

Scott sighed, “I wish I could, but Pa likes to show us off to his friends. Let’s go little brother and get this over with.”  With that, he took hold of Johnny’s arm and easily got him up and began pulling him toward the door.  He smiled to himself as his brother’s boots slid across the tile in token protest. “Walk.” Scott commanded.

“I’m comin’, I’m comin’” Johnny grumbled as he was propelled through the door into the living room.

“Scott!”  Murdoch called in greeting.  The big man crossed the room quickly and shook his son’s hand.  “I was wondering where you were.”

“Good to see you too Pa.  I was just hanging out with Johnny in the kitchen.”

"Maria fed you I take it.” Murdoch said with a smile.  “Come in boys and say hello.”  With that he pulled Scott into the room and Scott had a firm grasp on Johnny so they were towed along behind Murdoch like kites.

The next ten minutes were consumed by greetings and handshakes.  The men commented on how much Johnny had grown since the last time they saw him which brought a frown to his handsome face and a chuckle from Scott.

Stuart Robinson looked Scott up and down before asking, “Well Scott, did you leave a special young lady back in Sacramento?”

Scott blushed and looked down before meeting the man’s eye and responded with a cheeky grin, “One or two.”

This brought a round of laughter from the men and merited Scott a slap on the back from the rancher. “A chip off the old block Murdoch.  You better watch this boy or you’ll be a grandpa before you know it.”

Murdoch sipped his whisky and smiled, “There’s plenty of time for that, Stuart. Plenty… of… time.” Murdoch frowned slightly.

Clive addressed Scott, “Your father has been bragging about you going to Harvard next term.   Have you decided on a course of study?”

“No sir. Not yet.  I’m thinking of Law, but haven’t made up my mind.”

Murdoch rescued him by saying, “There’s still plenty of time for that.”

Johnny had been standing quietly close to Scott, but his attention was drawn by Jason Levy, “Johnny, I hear you’re quite a hell raiser in school.”

Johnny flushed and mumbled, “No sir.”

“That’s not what I’ve been hearing. Fighting, and causing a ruckus is what I hear.” He chuckled.

“Johnny had a few problems last year, but all is well now.” With that, Murdoch began moving the man toward the door.

The cattlemen left shortly thereafter much to the Lancer’s relief, and the three of them could now reconnect as a family.

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

As soon as the last man left the house, Murdoch turned to Scott and gave him the bear hug he’d wanted to give him ever since Scott walked through the door.  As President of the Cattlemen’s Association he had to maintain an image, but he cast that aside with his sons.

“Come on boys sit down.  Scott tell us what you’ve been up to since the last time we saw you.”

Before Scott could start, Johnny cut in. “He’s got a girlfriend…two of them.” Johnny said in obvious disgust.

“Thanks…brother.” Scott said and Murdoch could tell that Scott was planning revenge.

Murdoch marveled at how quickly the two boys could reconnect and start their bantering.  He raised his eyebrow at Scott and chuckled to himself; his son’s were not the only Lancer’s who could tease.

Scott swiftly did a little damage control, “They’re not my girlfriends exactly.  Friends…more likely.  They’re just two nice girls I met this term.”

“Are they pretty?” Johnny asked.

Scowling at his nosy brother Scott answered slowly, “Yes…yes they’re pretty.”

Murdoch chuckled but a little voice told him he needed to have a talk with his son before he returned to school.

**********

Murdoch smiled slightly as he chirped to the matched team pulling the buggy.  He watched as Scott twisted a bit in the seat to swat his hat at his younger brother who had been needling him to distraction for the last half hour since leaving church.

“Poke me again, and I’ll knock you off the seat.” Scott warned.

“Pa won’t let you do it. Will ya Pa?” Johnny quickly responded.

“No, I won’t…” noting Johnny’s look of triumph at his brother, Murdoch added, “but I just may do it myself if you don’t settle down.”  He didn’t miss Scott’s own look of triumph in the look he threw at his younger brother.

“Since you boys have so much energy, when we get back to the ranch, I’ve got some chores for you to do.”  This time he had to turn his head away as he heard the matched groans coming from his sons.  His grin under control, he turned back and said.  “You both owe me some work in the chicken coop and hog house.  When we get back, I want you to change into your old clothes and get to work.  You should be done in time to take a bath and get ready for Sunday supper.”

“I’ll clean the chicken coop.” Johnny quickly offered.

Before Scott could protest, Murdoch intervened, “You’ll both work together.”

“But this is the last time, right?  I bin cleanin’ that chicken coop every month and you said till the end of the year.  It’s the end of the year, right?

Murdoch again suppressed a smile noting his youngest was acquiring the negotiation skills of his older brother.  “We’ll see.  I kind of like knowing the chicken coop gets a good cleaning every month.”

“But….I already gotta clear the table…for… ever!” Johnny complained bitterly.

Scott couldn’t hold it in any longer and laughed out loud until he cut it off quickly at his father’s look.  “Sorry sir,” He muttered.

A short silence ensued while they listened to the rhythm of the horses hooves punctuated by creaking wood and leather.  Another minute went by before Scott spoke, “Well Johnny, if you’d just apply yourself at your studies, maybe you could graduate.  Who knows? Before long you could be washing the dishes and making up the beds.”

Murdoch hauled hard on the reins with one hand and caught Johnny with the other as he launched himself at his brother.  “Enough! Both of you.  Johnny! Settle down.”  He shook Johnny slightly and held him firmly while fixing his oldest with frosty blue eyes. “Scott!  What’s come over you?  I expect you to behave better than that.  Now both of you, change places and not another word out of you until we get home.”

Duly chastised, Johnny and Scott silently exchanged places in the buggy and Murdoch started the horses home with a slap of the lines.

“He started it…” Murdoch threw him an angry look, and Scott wisely cut off what he was going to say. The Lancer family went in silence the rest of the way home.

***********

Murdoch looked up from the couch where he held a leather bound book in his lap.  He heard the sounds of his sons as they argued back and forth.  He got up and walked through the front door and stopped short at the sight of two muddy and smelly boys standing on the porch.

“What happened?” He asked in surprise.

“Johnny…pushed me into the pig pen.”

“Did not!”  Johnny defended quickly.  “I…I slipped and grabbed hold a Scott and he pulled me in with him.” The muddy smaller boy explained.

“Get to the bath house and get cleaned up good.  Put your clothes to soak.  If Maria has to do it for you, she’ll have your hides.  Now git, both of you.”  Murdoch ordered before turning back to the house thinking that these days were definitely the best days of his life.

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

The next week passed quickly.  Johnny looked forward to getting out of school each day and had made a real effort to pay attention.  He had noted his father’s satisfaction when Scott had shown him his school report with high grades.  He was determined to make his father proud the way Scott did and show him he was a real Lancer too.

He rode home that Friday afternoon along side Teresa who was chattering brightly as usual.  “So Johnny, what do you think you’re getting for your birthday?”

Johnny shrugged his shoulders, “Don’t know.”

“I’m sure it will be something special” the girl hinted.

“Why?”

“Well silly. It’s your birthday and it’s your first one, so everyone’s going to give you real special presents.”

Johnny looked the girl over doubtfully, “What are you gettin’ me?”

Teresa laughed and tossed one long braid over her shoulder, “I can’t tell you that. It would spoil the surprise.”

Johnny frowned at her teasing, “If ya ain’t gonna tell me, why bring it up?” With that he  dug his heels into Cierra’s side and sent her loping down the trail toward home with Teresa trotting on Charley to catch up.

**********

The next morning Johnny awoke and smiled at the sun streaming through his window.  Today was his birthday.  His twelfth to be exact.  After a couple of weeks of gray gloomy weather, this bright sunny day was all he could ask for on his birthday.

He quickly got out of his warm bed and shivered as he donned his socks, jeans and blue flannel shirt. Stuffing his cold feet into stiff boots, he grabbed his jacket with one hand and smoothed out his hair with his other and headed into the hallway.

Scott opened his door and had to stop short to keep from bumping into his brother. “Out of the way, squirt.” Scott said as he shouldered past Johnny and the race was on; down the hall as the two raced down the stairs into the kitchen to the surprised looks from Maria and their father.

“Settle down, you two.”  Murdoch said by way of greeting as his two sons took their seats.

Maria brought a serving platter with bacon and as she set it down murmured, “Feliz cumpleaños Juanito.”

“Gracias.” Johnny smiled as he snatched a couple of pieces of bacon for himself.

“Next time use a fork son.” Murdoch reminded gently. He reached over and poured Johnny a glass of milk. “Scott?”

“Yes sir, thank you.”

Murdoch set the pitcher down and watched for a moment as Johnny stuffed a piece of pancake in his mouth.  “After you get your chores done Johnny, I want you to spend a couple hours on your school work.”

Johnny stopped chewing and looked sharply at his father in disappointment.  “Chores?  I wanted to go for a ride today.” He looked at his brother hoping for a show of support.

Scott picked up on the look, “It is his birthday Pa, maybe he could get a day off.”

“We’ve got a ranch to run Scott.  No time for such foolishness.” He said gruffly. ”Let’s get going, we have a full day ahead.”  He stood and waited for his two sons to follow suit and noted the down cast eyes of his youngest son.

Maria had her back to the men and if Johnny had looked, he couldn’t have missed her shaking shoulders, but instead he was lost in his own dark thoughts about how unfair it was that his father thought work was fun.

Johnny walked slowly behind his family to the front of the house.  He waited while his father and brother mounted their horses, already saddled and waiting for them at the rail.

They both turned to look at him in expectation. “Are you coming?” Murdoch asked.

Johnny looked at them, surprise showing all over his face.  He looked at the buckskin saddled and waiting, and realized Jose was holding the rein out to him.  He saw his saddle was on the horse, a small smile crossed his lips as he quickly mounted the horse and looked at his father.

“Happy Birthday son.  He’s all yours.”

Johnny stroked the tawny neck and ran his fingers through the black mane. “Thank you,” he whispered as he looked at the smiling faces of his father and brother.

"Let’s go then!” Scott said as he wheeled his horse and kicked him into a gallop with first Johnny and then Murdoch coming fast behind him.

It was a glorious day for a fast ride and the Lancer’s were taking full advantage of it.

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

Part 4

Johnny sat on the couch and looked with stunned amazement at all the gifts given to him by his family.  Maria had fixed a special supper including his favorite Mexican dishes.  The dishes and flavors reminded him of home…not home exactly… he reminded himself, but of his mother’s home.

Maria was serving coffee and Johnny looked up into her smiling dark eyes before glancing at his father.  He quickly looked down at the handcrafted belt Paul and Teresa had given him.  He traced the design with his finger and only looked up when his brother reached over and took it out of his hands.

“Let me see that, Johnny.”  Scott whistled, “This is mighty fine leather work, brother.”  He nudged Johnny trying to rouse him a bit. “Why don’t thank Paul for giving it to you.”

Johnny flushed a bit, as in his amazement over the generosity he had just experienced, he’d forgotten to thank any of them.  He looked at Paul, “Thank you for the belt. I really like it.” He quietly responded.

Paul smiled, “Happy birthday Johnny.  I’m glad you like it.”

“Son, you’ve had quite a birthday today.  Maria you out did yourself tonight.” Murdoch smiled and nodded his head toward Johnny.

Johnny picked up on his father’s cue, “Maria, Gracias, el alimento era bueno.” He smiled fully into Maria’s eyes which raised a matching smile from her.

Maria reached over and ruffled Johnny’s hair, “Da nada, nino. Feliz cumpleaños.”

Teresa had been admiring all the gifts when her attention was caught by a package on Murdoch’s desk.  “Johnny!  Here’s another present for you.” She brought the plainly wrapped package over to the couch.

Paul caught Murdoch’s eye. “Honey, maybe that’s not for Johnny.”

“Yes it is.” She insisted. “It’s got his name on it.”  She quickly handed it to Johnny before her father could say anything else.

Johnny looked at the package and froze at seeing his mother’s familiar handwriting. He drew in a deep breath and looked at the five sets of eyes locked firmly on him.  He was tempted for a moment of heading to his room so he could open the package privately, but Teresa once again cut in.

“Open it Johnny! Let’s see what it is.”

Sighing, he started working the string off the package and gratefully accepted the pocket knife handed to him by his brother.  He sliced the strings and handed the knife back to Scott before carefully unwrapping the paper.

Taking another deep breath, he looked at his father who nodded in encouragement.  He ran his fingers under the edge of the package, and pulled back the paper.  Everyone leaned forward to see the contents.

“Shirts.” Teresa said in disgust.

Johnny ran his fingers over the exquisite stitches of embroidery on the front of the shirts.  The intricate designs took his mother hours to do and he felt overwhelmed by the emotion flooding over him.  He stood up quickly and fled the room with a quick thank you thrown over his shoulder as he ran up the stairs.

Scott quickly got to his feet, intending to head for the stairs when Murdoch’s voice called him back.

“Scott, let him be for a few minutes.  I’ll go check on him in a little while.”

***********

Johnny sat on his bed, head bowed as he let the emotions of the day wash over him.  His thoughts warred with each other leaving him spent and limp.  His body felt so tired he wasn’t sure he’d have the strength to undress for bed.  He momentarily thought of taking off his boots and rolling into bed, but with a sigh decided to wait a few more minutes hoping for a measure of strength to return.

His fingers idly stroked the rough linen and the tiny stitches.  The cloth and thread overwhelmed him with loneliness and pain.  He felt split in two as he thought of the loving family he had downstairs.  They had given him so much and now he felt like he was betraying their love and trust with his yearning for his mother.

‘She doesn’t belong here anymore.’ He told himself firmly.  His father had made that clear on several occasions and he hadn’t missed the tight lines on his father’s face whenever Johnny had asked him to mail a letter to his mother.

Johnny sat motionless for a few minutes more and just as he felt like he could finally undress for bed, he heard a soft knock on the door followed by the sound of the door opening.

“Johnny?”  Murdoch spoke softly as he nudged the door open and came into the room.

Johnny raised his head and tried to smile, “Pa.” He was surprised at how strained his voice sounded even to himself, he once again looked at the shirts on his lap.

Murdoch knelt on the floor and rested both hands on his son’s thin shoulders.  “Johnny, look at me son…”

Johnny slowly raised his head and met his father’s eyes.  He felt the tears threaten to spill over and fought to contain them.  His father’s kindly eyes made him want to hide in embarrassment for his thoughts.

“You miss her, don’t you son?” Murdoch said gently.

Johnny ducked his head and nodded in response.

Johnny heard his father sigh, which caused him to tense involuntarily, and just as suddenly, he relaxed as he felt himself enveloped by his father’s strong embrace. Johnny melted into his father’s warm body and slowly drifted off to sleep.

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

The grandfather clock in the living room struck ten o’clock and Scott once again looked toward the upstairs hoping to see his father return.  With a sigh he tried to pick up the thread of the book he was reading, but before long he glanced again toward the upstairs.

He tried again to immerse himself in the book when his frustration got the best of him.  He snapped the book closed and stood up just as Murdoch came slowly into the living room.

“How’s Johnny?”  Scott snapped.

At his father’s raised brows, Scott softened his tone, “Sorry sir.  I was just worried. You were gone for so long.”

Murdoch walked over to his favorite chair by the fireplace and with a groan sat down and rested one long leg on the ottoman. “I think he was just overwhelmed and didn’t quite know how to cope with it all.  He’s asleep for now. I’ll check on him later.”

“He seemed to be pretty upset with his mother’s gift.” Scott ventured.

“Probably not the gift so much as he’s missing her.”

Scott didn’t know what to say at hearing that.  Johnny didn’t talk about his mother or his life before coming home, and his father had been a closed book where his second wife had been.

A sudden uncomfortable thought came over him and without caution, he asked. “Do you think she’ll ever come here?”

He watched as his father’s mouth twitched. Finally Murdoch found the words to answer his son’s very perceptive question. “Ah…No…I really don’t think so…but…well she’s unpredictable so I suppose she may show up someday.”

Another unwelcome thought flashed across Scott’s mind, “Sir?  You’re not still married to her are you?”

The silence grew as Murdoch stared into the fire. Scott was afraid of the answer while at the same time determined to hear it. He couldn’t explain to himself why it was important to know now, but it was.  He had known about Maria for years and it never occurred to him to ask his father before.

“Sir?”  He prodded.

“Scott it’s complicated.  Legally I’m still married to her.  As you know she abandoned the marriage…”  He stopped for a moment and turned away from those sincere eyes looking back at him, eyes wise beyond his oldest son’s years.

“Is that why you never remarried?  You were hoping she’d come back?”

Murdoch sighed and shook his head.  “You have to know?”

“I don’t know why it’s important, but suddenly it is.”

Another sigh and a pause, “For a long time, it was my dream.  Maria would come to her senses and come back on her own.  I’ve actually known where she was for a number of years.” He confessed.

“What?  What did you say!”

“I’ve known where Maria and Johnny were since Johnny was about five.”

“But why didn’t you get him? Why did you leave him with that woman?”

“That Woman…is his mother.” Murdoch said loudly.

“I still don’t understand. I thought you were looking for him all these years.” Disappointment rang in Scott’s voice.

“Scott, try to understand, Johnny was a little boy.  He needed his mother.  I had people keeping an eye on them and at the time, they had a decent life.”

“Better than living here with us?”

“I had to make the choice Scott.  I’d hope to negotiate with Maria.  I wanted to try to get her to compromise. Maybe move closer to Lancer so I could be involved in Johnny’s life…but it wasn’t meant to be.  Maria met someone. A decent man.  They were raising Johnny in a real family.  But then, his stepfather was killed in a mining accident.  I went down to Mexico to bring them home, but when I got there, they’d disappeared.”

Scott frowned at this new information.  He’d always had this image of his father as desperately seeking his youngest son for all the time he was growing up.  It was disconcerting to suddenly find out that there was more to the story.  Before he could ask another question, his father continued.

“I lost track of them until Johnny was ten.  The Pinkerton’s located them in San Piedras. They reported they were living with a man who owned the cantina there.  I asked them to keep an eye on the situation and when it became clear that Maria wasn’t doing right by him, I instructed them to bring him home.”

Scott watched his father, as the man seemed to age before his eyes.  He looked at the man’s work hardened hands, clasped tightly in his lap.

“Thank you for telling me.  I wish Johnny could have come home before, but I guess I understand your reasons…kind of like letting me stay with grandfather until you could take care of me.”

Murdoch raised his head and two sets of blue gray eyes locked as the two men shared an understanding born of love and trial.

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

 Part 5

Scott stood in the door way of the barn and watched Johnny as he groomed his new gelding.  Johnny’s movements were slow and methodical. The buckskin stood still in enjoyment with some uneaten hay sticking out of the corners of his mouth.

Murdoch had asked Scott to find Johnny, but all thoughts of calling him back to the house fled his mind as he watched Johnny care for the horse.  ‘No riding, today.’ Scott thought regretfully as the rain started pounding down.

Rousing himself, he walked fully into the barn and closed the door just enough to keep the rain out.

At the sound of the barn door closing, Johnny looked up and smiled at Scott.  “Hey Scott.”

“Time for lunch Johnny.  Maria’s almost got it on the table.”

“Okay…just a few more minutes and I’ll be along.”

Scott crossed his arms, knowing full well his brother’s definition of ‘a few minutes.’ “I’ll wait, it looks like you’ve got him pretty well groomed.”

Johnny added a few more brush strokes and stepped back, eyeing his work critically. “He’ll look a lot better once his winter coat is off, but I guess for now that’s the best I can do.”

“Have you picked out a name for him yet?”

“No…I’m still thinkin’ on it.  One will come to me once I get to know him better.”

Johnny tapped the brush on the stall slats to loosen the dirt and hair before returning it to it’s place.  “Too bad it’s rainin’. I was really hopin’ to ride him today.”

“Maybe tomorrow.” Scott suggested.

“Yeah…maybe tomorrow.” 

Scott watched Johnny toe the dirt floor for a minute when a wave of sadness came over him that seemed to be surrounding Johnny.  With sudden insight, he took hold of his brother’s arm and walked him over to a bale of hay.

“What’s wrong, Johnny?” He asked quietly.

“Nuthin’”

“Come on now Johnny, something’s wrong.  Maybe I can help.” Scott offered.  The longer Johnny took to answer, the more concerned Scott became.  Just as he was going to prod a bit more, Johnny looked up at him.  The sadness in his younger brother’s eyes caused Scott to take an involuntary gulp of air.

Johnny once again focused his eyes on the toes of his boots and folded a stalk of hay over and over.  He sighed, then spoke so softly that Scott had to lean close, “The last time I saw my Mama was a year ago today…The day after my birthday it happened.”

Scott swallowed at the news.  He knew Johnny had been home for almost a year, but he hadn’t thought of the cost to his brother and the memories the anniversary would stir up.  “Are you sorry Pa brought you home?”

“No…well not exactly.”  Those dark blue eyes pinned Scott once more, “I just wish I could see her again, you know?”

“You miss your mother.” Scott stated.

Johnny nodded and tossed the hay to the floor.  “Yeah…I miss her.”

“Maybe some day you’ll see her again.” Scott was trying to be helpful without causing undue hope.

“She says she wants to see me too, but she I don’t think Pa will let her.”

“She said that?  When?”

“In her letter.  She said she was gonna try to come see me as soon as she could. But…I wasn’t to tell anybody”

Scott was aware that their father checked over Maria’s letters to Johnny before giving them to him, and he couldn’t believe he would have allowed her to tell him that. “When did she tell you that?”

“In her last letter, the one that she sent with the shirts.”

“Ah…” Understanding then, but Scott immediately wondered if he should say anything to their father about this turn of events.

The sound of a horse pawing the dirt caught their attention.  They walked over to see the palomino mare biting at her sides.

“Maybe her baby wants out,” Johnny observed.

“No, it’s still too soon.  Pa says she got another month to go, but she sure seems restless.”

“Think we should tell Paul?” Johnny asked.

They watched the mare settle down and start to eat again, “No, we’ll check on her after lunch.  Maybe the foal was kicking.” Scott decided.  “Come on, let’s go.” Scott slapped Johnny playfully on the arm,  “Race ya to the house!”

Scott took off running through the rain to the safety of the house with Johnny just a little bit behind him.  Scott stopped short as he reached the relative safety of the patio and Johnny crashed into him, almost falling.  Scott reached out and steadied him.

“What’d ya stop for!” Johnny yelled.

Scott laughed.  “Ya gotta watch where you’re going little brother.”  He gave him a little slap across the back of the head and headed into the house before Johnny could protest further.

********

Murdoch looked up as the boys walked through the front door. “Oh there you are.  I was beginning to wonder what happened to you two.”

“Johnny just had to put a final shine on that new horse of his.” Scott teased.

“Maybe you should do the same to that mangy lop eared plug you ride.” Johnny retaliated.

“Oh yeah?  We’ll see about that.  If the weather’s nice tomorrow, I’ll race you to the windmill and back.”

“You’re on!”

“All right boys.  That’s enough!  I better not find that the two of you are racing your horses.  It teaches them bad habits.  Now Maria has lunch ready and I want a little peace and quiet while I eat my meal.”

As soon as Murdoch turned to walk to the kitchen, Johnny shoved Scott and Murdoch turned around with a frown on his face only to find his two angelic looking sons following him into the kitchen.

**********

The Lancer family made short work of their lunch; Scott and Johnny had gotten over their rivalry, at least enough to once again talk civilly to each other.  Murdoch folded his napkin and looked at his two sons for a moment.  “Since it’s raining so hard today, why don’t you go upstairs and cleanup your rooms.”

“Mine is clean.  Well…mostly.” Scott amended when he saw his father’s raised eyebrow.

Johnny didn’t say a word as he knew he had clothes on the floor and he’d kicked some under the bed just yesterday.  “Come on Scott, we may as well get started, nuthin’ else to do.”

Scott chuckled and nodded at his father as he followed Johnny’s lead to go upstairs and get out of their father’s hair.

Murdoch took his coffee to his desk.  He looked out the glass plate window at the sheets of rain coming down.  This kind of rain kept the boys inside and unless he kept them busy, they were sure to get into something they shouldn’t.  He glanced down at his desk calendar and was acutely aware that next week would be the anniversary of Johnny’s return.  He’d decided they wouldn’t make a big deal out of the day as he knew Johnny was still dealing with his sorrow over his mother.  He figured they’d treat it just like any other day.

*********

Evening fell and the fire was roaring in the Lancer family fireplace.  Murdoch and Scott were engaged in an all out battle of chess.

Johnny sat on the floor with his knees drawn up to his chest and watched the flames dance over the logs in the fireplace.

He looked up at the sound of Scott’s voice crowing, “Checkmate!”

“Nice job son.” Murdoch praised.  “I’m heading for bed.  How about you two?’

“I’ll be up in a minute, as soon as I put away the pieces.” Scott replied.

“All right.  You boys don’t stay up too long.  Good night.”

“Night.” Johnny replied from his place on the floor.

Johnny sat back against the couch and watched as Scott put the game away.  Scott walked over to the sideboard and poured himself some brandy as Johnny watched in amazement.

“Hey.  I don’t think you’re supposed to do that.”

“Don’t worry.  I know what I’m doing.  I’ve had brandy lots of times.  Cigars too.  Jason Henderson appropriated some from his father the last time he was home.  A few of us like to go down to the park in the evening, talk about politics, smoke a Cuban cigar and sip a fine brandy.”

Johnny looked at his brother like he was nuts, “You’re gonna get in trouble if Pa finds out.”

“And just how will he find out little brother?  Unless you tell him that is.”

“I won’t say nuthin.  Just don’t think it’s right though.”  Johnny was silent for a minute then asked.  “What’s that appro thing?  You know that Jason did.”

Scott took a sip of his brandy and savored it before answering. “I take it your asking about appropriated?”

“Yeah, that’s it.  What does appropriated mean?”

“Well…it’s kind of like borrowing…but more permanent.” Scott felt distinctly uneasy at this line of questioning.  Giving himself a good shake, he had to admit he wasn’t setting a good example for his younger brother.

"Johnny, Jason took the cigars and brandy from his father without his permission.”

“Like you took Pa’s brandy?”

‘Damn all little brothers.’ Scott thought for a moment.  “You got me there.”  He drained the glass.  “I’ll do the right thing and tell Pa, that I drank some of his brandy…tomorrow.  Go on up to bed, I’ll be up as soon as I turn down the lamps and bank the fire.”

“Good night Scott.”

“Night brother.”

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

Johnny started toward the stairs when he remembered he wanted to check on the palomino mare one last time before he went to bed.  For a moment he thought about having Scott go with him, but he figured there was no point in both of them getting wet.

He grabbed his coat and dashed out into the rainy dark night for the barn.  As he slid the heavy barn door open, he waited a moment for his eyes to adjust to the darkness.  The horses nickered softly to him as he reached for the lantern.  Once he had the wick lit he, walked over to the mare’s stall.

His eyes opened wide in alarm at seeing the mare down. She was covered with sweat and was moaning while she strained and pushed in order to rid her body of the foal that was struggling to be born.

Johnny almost dropped the lamp in his surprise, but caught himself just in time. He hung the lamp from a post and quietly opened the door of the stall. He spoke softly to the mare as he approached her cautiously.  “It’s gonna be all right girl.”  He stroked her sweaty neck and then moved around behind her.  Wrinkling his nose at the sight of the foal still half inside its mother, he crouched down to get a better look.  The foal was trying to breathe but the membrane covering the foal’s head hadn’t broken and Johnny became concerned the baby would die.

He grimaced as he touched the slimy covering and was surprised by the warmth of the placenta.  He tore the thick covering and the foal’s nose pushed free to gasp in large breaths of air.  Johnny kneeled in the straw in fascination as the mare gave two more big pushes and the foal slid free of its mother’s body.  Johnny was only vaguely aware of how wet his clothes had become while kneeling in the wet straw. He looked closely at the foal and realized a boy colt had been born this stormy night.

The new born foal lay on his side breathing hard and the mare also lay still.  Then to Johnny’s amazement, nature took over, the mare sat up, turned her neck around to the foal and began nickering sounds of welcome to the new baby.  The foal sat up and turned to his mother.  Their noses touched and Johnny watched in amazement as the mare bonded with her foal.

Johnny jumped up scaring the mare with his sudden action.  “Sorry girl,”  he soothed, “I gotta tell Pa and Scott.”  With that Johnny ran out into the night for the house anxious to tell them about the new colt.

***********

Part 6

Murdoch felt groggy as he scraped the last of the shaving soap off his face.  In the mirror, his tired eyes squinted back at him.  ‘When did I get those lines?’ He asked himself as he peered at the wrinkles leading from his eyes and mouth.  ‘Too many days in the sun…and too many sleepless nights worrying about the ranch…and the boys, I guess.’ He finished wiping his face dry and headed downstairs to the kitchen.

Paul was already seated at the table when Murdoch arrived.  “The palomino mare foaled last night.” Murdoch said by way of greeting.

“Filly or colt?” Paul asked around a mouthful of eggs.

"Colt. Looks like he’ll be a palomino like his mother. Johnny was out there when he was born.”

Both men looked up when they heard the unmistakable sounds of a boy jumping down the stairs two at a time.  Murdoch rolled his eyes as he took a sip of coffee.

“That Johnny’s going to take down those stairs if he’s not careful.” Paul chuckled.

“Good morning!” Scott’s cheerful voice greeted the two men.

“Good morning son.  By the noise you were making, we thought you were Johnny.”

Scott’s face showed his surprise, but before he could respond, Paul asked, “Where is your brother?”

“He’s not in his room, he probably went to the barn.”  Scott replied while reaching for the eggs.

Murdoch pushed himself away from the table, “Maria, keep my breakfast hot.  I’ll go bring him in.” With that he left the kitchen to haul his youngest son back to the breakfast table.

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

Murdoch was careful not to startle the mare as he could see she was dozing, head down and one hind leg cocked.  Considering she had given birth just eight hours before, she was looking pretty good.  As Murdoch approached the stall, a small smile graced his lips at the sight that warmed his heart.

Snuggled in the straw was a light colored foal resting on his dark headed boy; both fast asleep.  The mare raised her head as if to warn him to be quiet then lowered her muzzle to nuzzle her foal, then she gently nuzzled Johnny on his cheek.

Both boy and colt awoke with a start.  Murdoch watched with amusement as the colt stuck his head into Johnny’s chest and began suckling on the boy’s shirt. “Not me, boy!  You want yer mama.”  Johnny urged while pushing the colt away.

Murdoch held his breath as the colt struggled to his feet and somehow didn’t step on Johnny.  “Howdy Pa.” Johnny greeted as he also struggled to his feet. “He’s a beauty ain’t he?”  Johnny rubbed the colt with one hand while he stroked the mare with the other as he watched the colt greedily drink his breakfast.

“He sure is son.  He’s going to make a nice horse someday.  We’re you out here all night?”

Johnny stopped rubbing the colt for a second before responding, “I tried to go to sleep, honest. I just couldn’t.  I came down here to check him one more time, and I guess I went to sleep.”  Johnny started rubbing the colt again and added in a whisper, “He likes me.”

Those blue eyes looked up suddenly and bored into Murdoch as Johnny asked, “Could I have him Pa?  Could he be my horse when he grows up?”

Murdoch had it on his lips to remind his son that this was a working ranch and they raised livestock to be sold, but those earnest eyes looking at him with such trust, tempered his response.  “It will be quite a while before he’s old enough for you to ride, but I’ll tell you what.  You take good care of him. Train him and teach him what he needs to know and if you’re good, I just might let you have him.”

“Really! On the true?”

Murdoch smiled as Johnny rushed into his arms. “On the true son…on the true.  Now let’s go get some breakfast before Maria feeds it to the hogs.”

***********

Scott spent his day keeping busy trying to work out the best way to talk to his father.  Guilt kept nagging at him over the confession he knew he needed to make and his active mind plotted out the best course of action.

While he was pretty sure Johnny wouldn’t tattle on him, he knew that his brother might say something inadvertently.  Right now Johnny was preoccupied with the new colt so he was safe in taking a little time to figure out how to talk to his father.

On the one hand, Scott felt he needed to confess taking the brandy, on the other, a stubborn part of him rationalized that he was nearly grown, doing a man’s work most days, shouldn’t he be entitled to privileges other young men had?  As he returned to the house with most of his argument in place, he steeled himself for his presentation to his father.

As he expected, he found the man at work at his desk and was thankful the living room was deserted.  The grandfather clock struck  Four O’clock and Scott saw his father take a sip of whisky and savor the taste as he closed the ranch ledgers.

“Sir, may I talk with you?” Scott asked politely.

Murdoch looked up and Scott was gratified to see a look of affection sweep over his father’s face.  “Oh course son, sit down.”

Scott sat in one of the chairs in front of the big desk and fidgeted in the seat for a moment before clearing his throat. “Well sir, it’s like this.  I’m 16 now and getting to be a man.  I …ah mean…soon I’ll be going off to college and I ah…”  he trailed off losing his nerve as he saw the perplexed look on his father’s face.

Murdoch realized this is what he was waiting for and dreading.  He had known ever since Scott came home for winter break, it was time for a talk.  “Scott, I think it’s time we had a little talk. Er…You’re growing up to be a fine young man.  The Lancer name stands for something and you have always done the name proud.  When you return to school, I want you to remember that a man’s reputation can haunt him for many years if he’s not careful.  You need to choose your friends wisely son, and make sure you treat  young ladies with respect at all times.”  Murdoch stopped and gazed at the blushing young man in front of him. “Do you understand what I am saying son?”

“I think so sir…but”

“Scott, I have no doubt there will be temptations along the way, but you have a good head on your shoulders and a wonderful future ahead of you.  I trust you won’t bring disgrace on this family son. You’ve been raised to do the right thing, and while I don’t expect you to marry the first girl who comes along, I do expect you to choose wisely and wait until you are old enough to handle the responsibility.”

Scott felt his ears burning and he was sure they were as red as his face.  “Yes sir.  I understand.  It’s just…well I wanted to tell you that I drank some of your brandy, sir.”

Scott waited for his father’s reaction and it wasn’t long in coming.  He heard a cross between a snort and a laugh and looked at his father in expectation.

“That’s what you wanted to talk to me about?’

“Yes sir.  I know I should have asked first.  I just…I don’t know, I guess I was just trying to act grown up.”

“Son, drinking doesn’t make you grow up anymore than hanging a gun on your hip. I have to say I’m surprised and a bit disappointed Scott.”  Murdoch watched his oldest hang his head.

“Pa, I’m really sorry.  I won’t do it again until you say its okay.” Scott offered.

“You knew it was wrong, but you did it anyway, but at least you told me.”

Scott pulled a piece of loose skin off his fingernail as he waited to hear his sentence. He looked up with surprise when his father chuckled.

“Why don’t you go get cleaned up for supper.”

“That’s it?  I’m not going to be punished?”  Scott asked in surprise.

“Scott, I suspect you’ve been punishing yourself all day long, building up the nerve to come talk to me.  Let’s just leave it at that.  Son, you’re almost a man and while I think you’re still too young to drink, ultimately it is your choice.  On the other hand, if I catch you taking my good brandy again without my permission, I’ll tan your hide.  Now get cleaned up for supper.”

Scott rose and smiled, “Yes sir.  Thank you sir,” and headed upstairs to change for supper.

Murdoch just shook his head and grinned at the departing back of his oldest son before turning his attention back to ranch correspondence.

**********

Four days later Scott and Murdoch were riding in from the range when they stopped to watch Johnny and the little golden colt running together in the small grassy pasture near the barn.  Johnny was dashing this way and that, but the little colt had gained his legs and was following his playmate at breakneck speed, with his mama trotting behind ever so watchfully.

When Johnny tripped over a rough patch of ground and took a tumble in the grass, they couldn’t help but laugh as he went down in a pile of arms and legs.  They watched in amusement as the colt cavorted around the fallen boy. He was snorting with his tail in the air, and the colt seemed to be laughing at his young friend.

“Johnny told me you were giving him the colt.”

"How could I not?  That colt is going to think he’s more boy than horse.”

Scott chuckled before turning his horse toward the barn. “We better start checking Johnny’s bedroom to make sure he’s not sneaking that colt into bed with him.”

Murdoch pulled his horse to an abrupt halt.  Scott looked at him quizzically.  “Sir?”

Murdoch had his eyes locked on the buggy which had just pulled up in front of the house, or more accurately the woman getting out of the buggy.  Murdoch dismounted and handed the reins to Scott.  “Get Johnny and stay in the barn until I come for you.”

Scott opened his mouth to protest but seeing the grim lines on his father’s face, decided he better do as he was told.

*******

Murdoch felt his rage grow with every long step he took to reach the buggy and the waiting woman. “Maria!” He snapped even sounding harsher than he meant to.

The woman’s eyes narrowed as she watched the color rise in her husband’s cheeks. “Murdoch.” She said by way of greeting assessing the man before her.  She couldn’t miss the beginning of gray hair peppering his temples and the lines in his tanned face.

“What are you doing here?  What exactly do you want?”

“Aren’t you even going to ask me in Murdoch?  Offer me a spot of refreshment?”

“Stop stalling Maria!”

“Fine.  I’ve come to see my son.”

“Don’t you mean our…son?” Murdoch corrected her.

Maria looked uncertain for a brief moment before she covered her lapse with a smirk.  “Yes of course. Our son.  Where is he?”

“Come inside.  I want to talk to you before you see him.”  With that he turned and marched ungraciously to the house leaving the woman to trail along behind him.

As soon as they were both in the house, he rounded on her. “I knew you’d show up here someday.  He’s just starting to settle in and he’s happy.  I will not allow you to hurt him Maria! He misses you, but this is his home.  If you say or do anything to hurt that boy again, I’ll…I’ll…”

“What will you do?  Hit me?  Kill me? What exactly will you do Murdoch?  I love my son and I miss him.  I tried to stay away, but I can do so no longer.  I have to see him and I need to be with him.” She added defiantly.

Murdoch felt a coldness wash over him at the stubborn set to her mouth.  She was still very beautiful but defiance shrieked in every line of her body.  Defiance he had battled with many times in the past and more recently in their son.

“I’ll go get Johnny, but I’m warning you Maria, watch what you say to him.”

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

Part 7

Johnny and Scott waited in the barn.  They both felt nervous and neither could think of anything to talk about.

Finally Johnny asked, “How much longer do ya think we gotta stay in here?”

“Until he comes to get us, I guess.” Scott paused while he pulled some more hay out of the bale he was sitting on.  “It won’t be too much longer I’m sure.” He predicted.

“Are we in trouble?”

Scott smiled, “No.  Not this time…at least I don’t think so.  Unless you’ve done something I don’t know about?”

“Naw. I’ve been good.”  Johnny mumbled while kicking his heels into the hay bale.  Johnny threw back his head and stared up at the ceiling, impatience showing in his tense body.

Both boys jumped as the barn door slid open.

“Boys?”

“Over here Pa.” Scott replied as he stood and hauled his brother to his feet.

Murdoch strode quickly to his sons and motioned them to sit back down.  He hauled a bale of hay over, positioned it in front of the boys, and sat facing them.

The silence grew until they all felt like screaming when Murdoch cleared his throat.  “I…ah …I have something to tell you.  It’s quite a surprise actually.  Johnny, you’re mother’s here son.  She’s come for a visit.”

Before Johnny could react, Scott yelled. “What!” then a bit quieter, “Sorry for yelling.”

“She came to see Johnny.”  Murdoch took hold of Johnny’s hand.  “You do want to see her, don’t you son?”

Johnny’s eyes were huge as he looked into his father’s kind eyes. “Yes,” he breathed. “I want to see her.”

Scott slapped the barn wall in frustration. “I don’t think she deserves to see him…”

“Scott!”  Murdoch said sharply.  “This is not the time or the place.” He nodded toward Johnny who was looking at his brother as though he’d grown two heads.

“Dontcha want me to see my mama, Scott?”

Scott flushed with shame as he realized he wasn’t being supportive of either Johnny or their father.  “Sorry Johnny, I…um…I was just surprised to hear she was here.” He covered.

“I told ya she said she’d come.” Johnny reminded.

Scott threw a rueful glance at his father and shrugged his shoulders.

“Johnny, come along. Your mother is waiting in the living room to see you.”

********

Johnny practically dragged Murdoch across the yard toward the house in his haste to see his mother.  His excitement growing with each step until he let go of his father’s hand and ran the last few yards to the French doors.  He burst though them and straight into his mother’s waiting arms.

Murdoch watched the joyful reunion of mother and son with a jaundiced eye and finally walked over to his desk and sat while the two of them hugged.  He had to admit Maria seemed to be pulling out all the stops including crying real tears while she exclaimed over how much Johnny had grown in the year since she had seen him.

Both mother and son were seated on the couch, shoulders touching when Scott ventured in through the front door.

“Scott, come on in here.  Maria, this is my older son, Scott.”

Scott reluctantly came into the living room to meet the woman who had caused his family so much heartache.

Maria stood up to face Scott and Murdoch felt stunned when he realized how young Maria looked.  He found himself breathless at her wild beauty as his wife met his son for the first time.

“Scott. It is a pleasure to meet you.  Johnny’s letters have been filled with so much about you, I feel I know you.”

“Ma’am.” Scott said politely.

Murdoch went over to the fireplace and added a couple of logs as the older Maria brought a tray from the kitchen.  She looked at the Patron’s wife with a baleful eye as she placed the tray with coffee and chocolate on the side table.  Without another word, she turned on her heel and headed back to the kitchen, her disapproval on display to all.

Maria watched her leave and chuckled slightly as she accepted the steaming cup of coffee from Murdoch. “She still does not like me.  How sad.” She murmured, a slight smirk gracing her lips.

Murdoch handed Johnny a cup of chocolate, “Blow on it, it’s hot and don’t spill.”

He walked back over to the serving tray, grateful for the activity, “Scott, would you like some coffee or chocolate?”

“No sir.” Scott said stiffly.  “I’ll let Maria know to set another plate for supper and ready the guest room.” He said it more as a question than a statement.

Murdoch stopped as he was pouring his coffee and said, “Yes. Johnny’s mother will be staying…a few days anyway.”

Murdoch sat in the blue chair facing his wife and son.  He really needed to speak to the woman in private to set some ground rules, and find out why she was really here. He wasn’t about to let the two of them be alone together until he’d had a chance to talk to her.

“Son, why don’t you help your brother get the guest room ready?”

Johnny looked from his father to his mother and saw his mother’s slight nod, “Okay…” He looked uncertainly at his father, “You don’t want her to stay in your room?”

“Johnny!” Murdoch exclaimed and then felt his face flush red.

Maria saved them both from further embarrassment.  “Nino.  I am very tired from my journey, I am looking forward to a good nights sleep and the guest room will be just fine…now go, you rascal.”  She laughed as she snuck a look at Murdoch’s flushed face as Johnny ran out of the room.

“Well that was awkward.” Murdoch sighed as he added a little whisky to his coffee.  He held the bottle up to Maria and she shook her head no.

“Sit down Murdoch.  We need to talk.”

Murdoch sat awkwardly facing the woman he loved who had caused him so much pain over the years.  Johnny’s prodding had broken the ice just enough, so he chuckled at the idea and he took a healthy sip of his fortified coffee, before replying.  “We have much to talk about Maria, beginning with why you’re here.”

“I told you before. I missed my son.”

Murdoch looked at her skeptically before replying.  “Why now?  It’s been a year.”

Maria raised an eyebrow, “I’m surprised your spies didn’t inform you.  They seemed to have kept you up to date on everything else in my life.”

“What the devil are you talking about?” he demanded as irritation with the situation once again forced the issue.

“Roberto…he died.” She stated bluntly.

Now it was Murdoch’s turn to raise his eyebrows.  “I didn’t know.  I haven’t had a report from the agency in two months.”

“I left San Piedras a month ago.  About two months ago there was a gun fight in the cantina and Roberto was killed.”

Murdoch felt nothing but disdain over this news.  “What is your business here Maria?  You get lonely now that scum you called your man is gone?  I know exactly how he treated Johnny, and you get what you deserve.” His anger now getting the best of him.

Maria wrapped her arms around herself as she nodded. “I know I should expect nothing of you Murdoch.  Roberto loved me in his own way.  Johnny too.  He just didn’t always show it, especially after he started drinking.  Since you took Johnny from me, it wasn’t right with Roberto after that.  Before he died, I was going to leave him.  Come up here and see if I could work something out with you about Johnny.”

Murdoch listened with half an ear and at that final statement leapt to his feet.  “Now you want to work something out?  Now?  After all these years?”

“Si.  Yes I do.  He’s my son too.  Our son needs his mother.  He needs both his parents.” She finished quietly.

Murdoch stopped his pacing long enough to stare at her in disbelief. “What are you proposing?”

Maria leaned forward and fumbled with the coffee cup as she pushed it further onto the table in front of her. Her head came up with a defiant tilt of her head that Murdoch remembered so well, “I came back to be with my son. You need to figure out a way to deal with it.”  She stood up and looked at the man who was her husband, “I’m going to see if that guest room is ready.” 

Murdoch watched in amazement as she turned and walked with measured steps out the door leading to the stairs.  He felt drained and rubbed one large hand over his face before marching over to the side board. He poured himself a stiff drink.  He quickly downed that one and poured himself another.  He turned when he heard Paul’s voice.

“I don’t think that’s going to make her go away.”

Murdoch poured one for Paul and handed it to his long time friend. “Sit.” He motioned with his own drink.  He walked over and settled back in one of the blue armchairs. “I don’t know Paul.  That woman still has the power to twist me inside out.”

“I can see that.” Paul waited a moment before adding, “What does she want?”

“Who knows?  She claims she just wants to be here with Johnny.” He took a sip of whisky and shook his head.

“Here?  As in here at the ranch?”  Paul questioned in disbelief.

“I don’t know; it appears that way.” Murdoch’s voice rang with frustration. “Her…Roberto was killed in a saloon fight and now she claims she had planned to leave him.  I just don’t know what to think.”

“You don’t think she wants to get back together with you?” Paul asked.

“That is out of the question!  I have no interest in having that…that woman back in my life!  She’s caused enough trouble and I won’t allow her to hurt this family any more.” Murdoch vowed.

“Well, my friend, I have some news for you.  Some of the boys just carried a large trunk and a couple of valises to the guest room for her.”

“Over my dead body!”  Murdoch said as he got up and headed for the stairs.

**********

“Maria!  Maria!”  Murdoch shouted as he stormed down the hall to the guest room at the end.  He didn’t wait to knock but flung the door open.  He surveyed the trunk and bags.  “What’s the meaning of this?  You are not moving in here!”

Maria smiled sweetly at him which infuriated him even more, “Now Murdoch, of course I am.  This is my home too, that is unless you want me to leave with Johnny and move someplace else.”  She turned her back and continued her unpacking.

Murdoch reached out and grabbed hold of her arm, spinning her to face him. “Under no circumstances will I allow you to take him away from me.  Is that clear?” He thundered as he gave her a shake.

Maria struggled to free herself from the hand bruising her arm.  “Let go of me. You’re hurting me!”  She cried.

Before Murdoch could react either way he felt a small fist punch him in the side and before he knew it, he was being pummeled. “Let go of my mother! Stop hurting her!”  Johnny yelled.

Murdoch quickly let go of Maria to confront his angry young son.  “Johnny.  Johnny stop, it’s alright. I’m not hurting her.”

Johnny rushed to Maria’s waiting arms and began crying as she sought to comfort him.  “I’m alright Juanito.  Stop crying por favor.  Your father did not hurt me.”  Maria looked up at Murdoch and shouted. “Get Out! Can’t you see you’ve done enough harm?”

“Johnny…I…”

“Go!  I will deal with Johnny.” Maria commanded, and Murdoch turned and left the two of them alone.

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

Part  8

Scott watched his father for several minutes as the winter light began fading over the west hills.  He watched as Murdoch swung the axe again and again splitting wood for the fire with a vengeance.  In spite of the chill in the air, his father’s shirt was plastered to his back and Scott waited until the man took a breather to wipe the sweat out of his face.

“Pa.”  He said tentatively to get his father’s attention.

Murdoch straightened up and turned around to see his oldest leaning a shoulder against one of the support columns.  “Scott, I didn’t see you.”  Murdoch looked at his oldest son and was touched by the concern he saw in his face.

“Are you all right?”

Putting down the axe, he wiped his hands on his pants leg.  “Yes son.  I’m all right.”  He gestured toward the pile of wood.  “I’m done for now. That will hold us for a while.”

Scott crossed his arms, “So she’s staying?”

“Yes for now.”

“How do you feel about that sir?”

Murdoch shook his head.  “There’s not much I can do about it for now.”

“Just tell her to get out.  Leave and never come back.” Scott’s anger was beginning to get the better of him.

“Scott.  She’s Johnny’s mother.  I can’t just kick her out.  Think about your brother.  Think about how much that would hurt him.  That boy has already been hurt so much, I refuse to do anything else to cause him harm….even if it means putting up with her.”

“I can’t believe this.  That woman has caused so much trouble and you’re willing to forgive her and let her stay here.  I just don’t understand.”

“That woman is his mother and I can’t allow Johnny to feel he needs to make a choice between us.”  Murdoch tried to appeal to Scott’s sense of fairness and the love he knew he had for Johnny.  “See it in Johnny’s eyes son.  He loves his mother.  Yes he loves us too, but we can’t ask him or expect him to stop loving her.  We all need to compromise to make this work.”

Scott’s head came up suddenly, “Make what work?” suspicion ringing in his tone.  His expression showed a flurry of emotions across his handsome face, “You still love her and…You want her back.  You think she’ll come back to you because of Johnny.  This is just great!  She’s using Johnny to worm her way back in here and you’re using Johnny to get her back.”  Before Murdoch could say another word, Scott turned and walked away in disgust.

******

Supper that night was an uncomfortable affair for the Lancer family.  Murdoch sat sullenly at the head of the table.  Scott sat next to him, equally sullen.  Maria sat at the other end of the table and from time to time spoke with Johnny.

‘One big happy family.’ Scott thought.  ‘I wonder if this is what it would have been like if she hadn’t left.   Night after night of this mindless silence while she destroyed their family.’

Maria came in to start removing dishes and Johnny got up to help her.

‘Nino?”

“Clearing the table is my job, Mama.”

Maria nodded at her son and looked at Murdoch with a little smile.  She watched as Johnny carefully carried the plates and silverware into the kitchen.  To Scott’s relief, she excused herself to retire to her room, declining coffee or dessert.

Scott took a sip of water and watched his father finish his wine.  Johnny came back in for another load of dishes and asked, “Where’s mama?”

“She decided to turn in for the night.” Murdoch answered. “When you’re done there son, join me in the living room, I want to talk to you.”

“Okay, Pa.”

After Johnny left the dining room, Murdoch looked at Scott, “Son, I’d like to speak to Johnny alone if you don’t mind.”

Scott pushed his chair back, “Sure.  I wouldn’t want to be in the way.  I’ve got a good book to read anyway.”

******

Murdoch shook his head as he made his way into the living room.  It was bad enough he had to cope with Maria’s sudden return without having to deal with Scott’s anger.  He hoped Scott would think more about their conversation earlier and realize he needed to be supportive of his brother if there was any chance for them to survive this assault on their  newly formed family.

Murdoch jabbed the poker into the smoldering logs and rekindled the fire.  He added two more large pieces of oak and watched in satisfaction as the fire roared to life.  As the large fireplace once again brought warmth to the Lancer living room, he turned and waited for Johnny.

He mulled over his options and hadn’t decided on his best one, when Johnny appeared in front of him.  He looked down in surprise when he realized he had been concentrating so hard, he hadn’t even heard Johnny’s approach.  He smiled down at Johnny as he thought ruefully, that in itself was unusual, as Johnny had a tendency to run instead of walk, and rarely went anywhere quietly.

“Son, let’s sit by the fire.” He gently led Johnny to the ottoman and sat himself in the chair in front of it.

“Pa, are we gonna talk about Mama?”

Murdoch’s lips twitched in amazement at the way his young son had at cutting to the chase.  “Yes.  I…ah... know you’re happy to see her again and I want you to know, I’m happy for you.  It’s just that I don’t want you to get your hopes up that she’ll stay.”  He looked at Johnny’s large blue eyes and could see the questions forming.

Johnny leaned forward, “What do you mean Papa?”

Murdoch groaned silently as he’d come to realize that Johnny only called him Papa when he was feeling insecure.  He shook himself mentally, ‘Of course he feels insecure.  We all do.’  He struggled for another moment on how to proceed, but seeing the fear growing on Johnny’s face, he made a quick decision. “Son, you’re growing up now and I know you’ve seen several of your mother’s relationships fail, I just don’t want you hurt if this doesn’t work out for her.  We both love you son and we want what’s best for you.  It’s just that your mother and I…well…we’re still married but we don’t feel like husband and wife.” He stopped to gauge the boy’s reaction. Johnny was looking down at the floor so Murdoch continued. “Do you understand son?”

Johnny slowly looked up at him and shook his head, “No, I guess I don’t.  I mean maybe you could love her again?”

Murdoch’s heart was breaking for his son’s dreams and his own. “I will always love the memory of your mother when we first met and married, but son, we’ve grown apart. We’re different people now. I don’t want you to be hurt if it never happens.”

Johnny held his father’s gaze and Murdoch had to fight to not look away.  Those dark blue eyes seemed to penetrate him to his very soul and his son’s next words shook him to his boots. “But… she loves you.  She’s always loved you.”

Murdoch felt the blood drain out of his face and his mind went blank.  The look on Johnny’s face rescued him from the shock that flooded him.  He decided he needed to move the conversation along and quickly.  “Son, that’s between your mother and myself.  I want to talk about the ramifications of her living here.  I need to prepare you…”

“Rama…? What’s that.”

“The consequences…the things that might happen.” He restated and when he saw Johnny’s nod, he continued. “This is a small community and everyone knows everyone’s business.  I don’t give a hoot what anyone else thinks but there will be some who will have some strong opinions about your mother’s return.  I just don’t want you to be hurt. You can always come to me.”

Johnny smiled, “I know Pa.”

“Johnny, some of the children at school may also tease you about our situation.  I know it may be hard, but you can’t let it hurt you.  I know you son, you’ve got a bit of a temper, and you may want to punch anyone who says something bad about me or your mother.  You’ve got to try to ignore it the best you can and come to me or your teacher if they pick on you.  Can you do that son?”

“I’ll try Papa.”

Murdoch reached out and took his son in his arms and hugged him. His heart broke at the thought that he couldn’t protect Johnny from the barbs that were sure to come his way due to his parent’s actions.

“Go on up to bed, son.  Get a good nights sleep.”  Murdoch gave the top of Johnny’s head a kiss and then mussed his hair.

He leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes as he heard his son’s soft footsteps as he ran out of the room for the stairs.  He heard Johnny thump up the stairs and smiled at the resilience of the young.

He sat in his chair as the fire died out pondering Johnny’s words. ‘She’s always loved you.’ Echoed over and over in his mind.

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

"Here he is Mama.  He’s all mine.”  Johnny pointed at the buckskin gelding.  “Pa gave him to me for my birthday.  I’d been ridin’ Scott’s mare, but she’s gettin’ too old and slow, and I like to go fast.  This buckskin horse can really move. What do ya think I should name him?”  Johnny finished with a rush.

Maria chuckled at her son’s enthusiasm. “Slow down mijo.  I know you like to go fast, but give me a chance to catch up.”  She walked up to the gelding and held her hand to him. “Good boy,” she crooned as the horse sniffed her fingers.  She idly scratched his forehead as she admired the pretty horse.  “He’s a beauty Juanito.  He deserves a special name don’t you think?”

“Si Mama.  I been tryin’ to come up with a name.”

“How about  Valiente?” She suggested.

“Valiente?  Valiente”  he rolled it around and smiled.  “I like it.  Hey boy, you’re name’s gonna be Valiente.  You like that?”

Both mother and son laughed as the horse nodded his head and then jumped back as he blew dust from his nose all over them.

Johnny wiped the moisture from his face grinning as his mother wiped her face clean.

“Thanks a lot horse.” She said with good humor.

Johnny grabbed her hand and began dragging his mother to the barn. “Come on Mama. I got more to show you.”

Maria allowed herself to be pulled along as Johnny launched once again into his nonstop narration.  She’d seen the new puppies and kittens.  The rope swing Johnny and Teresa played on.  His favorite climbing tree and his horse. She wondered what could be so special in the barn that he’d saved it for last.

They walked into the barn to the largest stall from the back.  Maria was flooded with memories.  Murdoch had built this huge structure, just he and Paul, and she remembered bringing lunch out to the men. A basket in one arm and Johnny in the other with Paul’s new wife, Angel, tagging along.

She had other memories as well as she looked at the ladder leading up to the loft. A night of passion with her handsome husband flashed across her mind. Her smile turned to a frown as she remembered a horrible fight soon after that, which started her on the road to leaving the man she thought she’d spend the rest of her life with.  Soon she was pulled back into the present by Johnny’s insistent voice.

“Come on Mama.  Come on over here.”

She hurried along to the box stall and peered over the door.  Her breath was taken away by the sight of the beautiful mare standing protectively over her sleeping foal.  A foal the color of the straw he was so gently nestled in.

“A baby.” She whispered.

“It’s a colt, and papa said he’s gonna be mine when he grows up.” Johnny looked a bit uncertain and changed it to, “Well he said he might be mine anyway.”

“He’s a beauty Johnny.  He’ll grow up big and strong, just like you.” She predicted.

“You should see him run mama.  He’s gonna be a real fast horse and smart too.”

“Let’s not wake him up Johnny.  I’ll see him run later.  I need to go into town, do you want to go with me?”

Johnny screwed up his face and toed the dirt floor for a moment. Town was not his idea of fun, but he didn’t want to disappoint his mother.  “Okay.  Can I drive the buggy?” he asked hopefully as he walked with her out of the barn where the buggy was waiting for her.

She smiled her teasing smile at his audacity. “No…I don’t think so.  If I remember correctly, the last time I let you drive, you almost tipped us over.  You go too fast.”

“Come on Ma, I was just learnin’ and  Scott’s been givin’ me lessons.”

The pair climbed into the buggy and Jose handed the lines to Maria.  Maria held them for a moment and quickly made a decision.  She passed the lines over to her grinning son and held on as Johnny started the horse with a slap of the reins.

Neither were aware of the watching eyes of the Lancer patriarch as the buggy lurched  forward with a grinning Johnny in control of the eager horse.

“Follow them.” Murdoch stated to the tall man awaiting instructions.

“Yes sir.”

“And anytime that woman leaves this ranch, you keep her in your sight.  Is that clear?”

“Very clear.”

“Good.  I may want another agent keeping an eye on my son as well.”

“Just let us know sir. The Pinkerton Agency is always at your service.”

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

Part 9

 

Warning:  Strong Language.

Maria and Johnny entered Morro Coyo much more sedately than when they left the ranch. Maria had taken hold of the lines figuring that Johnny was too inexperienced to wind their horse and buggy through the narrow streets.  It had been a wonderful drive into town and Johnny had chattered and pointed out places of interest to Maria the whole way.

She hadn’t want to curb his obvious enjoyment of her company, by pointing out that she used to live here too, so she privately marveled at how much Johnny had come out of his shell.  She could see the changes in her son and didn’t doubt that they came from the stability of living with his father.

As they entered the edge of town she saw the guarded looks thrown her way. Maria knew the rumors of her return had already spread like wildfire, especially in the Mexican community.  When she had first come to the area, as Murdoch’s young bride, she was looked down on as a poor Mexican girl out to get what she could from the handsome gringo rancher.  She heard more than one snide remark from the good ladies of the area and knew she had only been included in the community events because she was Murdoch Lancer’s wife. So many memories, good and bad, she mused.

She smiled to herself remembering her husband’s shocked look when he forced her to attend the inaugural Governor’s Ball.  She didn’t want to leave Johnny, less than three months old at home, while she went with her husband to Sacramento.  Murdoch was adamant that his wife accompany him and when she balked, he packed her bags, loaded her on her horse and practically dragged her to Sacramento.

That was probably their first big fight, at least as far as she could remember.  The more Murdoch pushed her to be charming to his friends, the more stubborn and angry she got.  He became angry with her when she refused to purchase a suitable dress and he finally went out and bought one for her.  He even brought a seamstress to the hotel and had it fitted to her while she stood detached and angry.  He called her a child and threatened to take her over his knee if she didn’t behave.

Maria smiled at the memory of that dress.  It was a design of the latest style with a slightly suggestive bodice.  Her husband had good taste, she had to admit as the creamy white silk and taffeta clung to her body and draped suggestively to the floor.  Maria could remember the look on Murdoch’s face as he impatiently waited at the foot of the sweeping staircase, growing impatient as he was a stickler even back then for being on time.  He’d left Maria alone for the bulk of the day so she had ample time to prepare for the evening festivities.

As she walked slowly down the staircase she became aware of every person in the lobby staring at her as she descended the staircase like a queen. Her hair arranged faultlessly and adorned with a red rose bud.  A ruby necklace sitting lightly on her collarbone and her stylish silk dress dyed black as her token protest at being forced to attend the ball against her will.  She well remembered the rage in Murdoch’s face as he held out his hand to escort her to the carriage and the whispered words of outrage as he gripped her arm tightly.

The ball that night had been a success.  Murdoch recovered his composure a bit by the time they arrived and his wife was the dark exotic beauty amid the soft pastels of the night. The Lancer’s had arrived so to speak in California society, but she knew from the stony silence that followed, their marriage was in trouble.

Maria slowed the horse to a walk as she realized Johnny had been talking to her.  “I’m sorry mijo.  What did you say?”

“Can I get some candy at the store Mama?”

“Si chico.  When we go to the store, I’ll buy you some, but first we have other things to do.”  Maria stopped the horse in front of the old Spanish church.  She arranged her lace mantilla so it covered her head and climbed out of the buggy.

She held Johnny’s hand as the two of them walked into the dark fortress. They stopped just inside to allow their eyes to adjust to the flickering light.  Maria walked into the chapel and dipped her fingers into the holy water making the sign of the cross and waited for Johnny to do the same.  She knelt and prayed for a few minutes and began lighting  candles while her lips moved silently.

“What are we lightin’ candles for mama?” Johnny asked in a loud whisper.

“We’re thanking Him for all the good things we have in life Juanito.”

“You mean like Papa, and  Scott, and Valiente?”

Maria smiled as she lit the last candle.  “Si muchaco, like your papa, brother and your horse.” She chuckled as she rose and the two of them made their way out into the brisk winter sunshine.

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

Maria and Johnny walked down the old wooden board walk hand in hand. Maria marveled at how little the town had changed in ten years.  The adobe walls were patched a bit more but otherwise nothing much had changed.  They made their way into the general store still run by the Baldermero’s.

Senora Baldermero gasped as Maria entered.  “Senora Lancer!    You are here…I mean you have returned.” The older woman covered her slip.

“Si.  I have returned.  You know my son Juanito?” Maria said pushing Johnny in front of her.

“Buenos dias Juanito.  I have not seen you in town for several weeks.”

“Si Senora.  I’ve been helpin’ out at the ranch.”

Senora Baldermero’s attention turned back to Maria.  “What can I get for you Senora?”

Johnny wandered off to admire the guns in the locked case as his mother selected a shirt and riding pants as well as some creams and other ‘women’s’ do dads.  It wasn’t long before he heard his mother call him.

“Johnny?  I’m ready to leave. What kind of candy did you want?”

Johnny had already spent some time admiring the candy and he pointed to the peppermint and licorice.  Maria selected several sticks of each and added a couple others as well.  She handed the bag to Johnny and her final words to the shop keeper were, “Charge it to my husband por favor.”

Johnny and Maria both had their hands full of packages when Johnny saw a rough looking man cross the street ahead of them and head their way down the board walk. The hairs on the back of his neck began to rise as the man stopped, blocking their path.

“Well, well, well.  What do we have here?  A Mexican slut and her bastard son.  Can I help carry you’re packages Ma’am?” He asked with a mock tip of his hat.

“Out of our way Senor.” Maria replied and tried to walk past him.

He grabbed her arm and spun her around causing her to drop her packages. “You’re Lancer’s bitch ain’t ya?  I don’t know how he can stomach havin’ the likes of you smellin’ up that fancy house of his. Why don’t you go back to the gutter where you belong and take your bastard with you.”

Maria struggled to free herself from the man’s grasp.  With a sharp pull, she found herself free only to discover that Johnny had launched himself at the man, and was pummeling him with his fists. She started hitting the man to get Johnny away, but he back handed her and knocked her to the dirt.

Johnny’s limp body fell next to her and she scrambled over to him.  “Johnny!”  She heard a commotion and braced for a blow that never came as she realized someone had come to their rescue. The ugly man who had confronted them was being punched by a tall man into submission.

While Maria registered that she didn’t have to worry anymore about being attacked, her thoughts and fears turned to Johnny lying motionless next to her.  She rolled him over and gasped at the black eye already forming on her young son’s face.  She felt all over his head and her hand came away bloody at the back of his head.

Maria felt a gentle hand on her shoulder as Senora Baldermero handed her a blanket and a cloth. Together they washed Johnny’s wound and bound it up. Both women silent in their thoughts.  Senora Baldermero kindly wiped the dirt off Johnny’s face and shook her head when the boy did not awaken.

“Is there a doctor?”  Maria asked anxiously.

“No Senora.  The nearest doctor is in Spanish Wells.”

A male voice penetrated Maria’s fear for her son.  “Ma’am.  If I could be of assistance?  I’ll send someone to fetch the doctor and I’ll drive you and the boy home.”

Maria looked at the man with suspicion and he introduced himself. “Andrew Douglas, Pinkerton Detective Agency.”

“I know who you are Mister Douglas.  Now please get the buggy.  I need to get my son home.”

Maria returned to holding her limp son and continued to stroke his hair as she prayed and murmured to her silent child.

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

Murdoch heard shouts and the sound of a buggy being driven into the yard hard. ‘Johnny.’ He thought.  Maria needs to grow up and start acting like an adult.  She knows better than to run a horse to the stable.

He walked out to scold them, but the sight of the Pinkerton agent at the lines and Maria holding their son stopped him in his tracks.

“What happened?” He snapped.

“Johnny’s hurt Murdoch. He won’t wake up!”  Maria cried as once again tears coursed down her dirty cheeks.

“I sent a man for the doctor but it will be a couple more hours at least before he gets here.”  Andrew informed Murdoch.

Murdoch scooped Johnny from Maria’s arms and carried him effortlessly into the house.  He climbed the stairs two at a time and kicked the door open to Johnny’s room. He carefully laid the boy on the bed noting the bandage around his head.

“How long has he been unconscious?”

Maria looked in confusion at her husband and then back at her small son before shaking her head.  The agent filled in the details once again, “About an hour and a half.”

Maria knelt by the bed as Murdoch undressed their son and pulled the covers over him. Satisfied they had done all they could for now, Murdoch pulled Maria up by the arm and walked her into the hall. “What happened to him? What did you do to him?” He shook her roughly.

“Nothing. I did nothing!  We were attacked…”

“What the devil happened?” Murdoch snarled.

“Mr. Lancer, a man accosted them on the street and he hit both your wife and son. It happened so fast I couldn’t stop him. I think Johnny may have hit his head on the edge of the boardwalk as he went down”

Murdoch closed his eyes at the painful image and then asked, “Why? Why would someone do such a thing?”

Murdoch still held Maria’s arm tightly and she only shook her head. “Please let go, you are hurting me.”

“I want to know Maria.  Who was this man?  Did you know him?  What did he say to you?”  He released her arm and watched as she took a step back. She rubbed at the spot on her arm where he had held her tightly.

“Now is not the time, Murdoch.  Our son is lying there hurt and…now is not the time.”

"Damn it Maria!  I want to know!” His anger getting the better of him.

Her nerves had been stretched too thin and her temper took over, “You want to know? Fine!  He called me a whore.  Lancer’s whore to be exact and Johnny, your bastard.  Then he grabbed me and Johnny tried to protect me and that scum hit him.  He hit him!”  Maria’s tears once again were streaming down her face and she pushed her way past a stunned Murdoch and fled to Johnny’s bedside.

Murdoch thanked the agent for his help and asked him to tell the kitchen help to bring fresh bandages and hot water so they could care for their son.  He approached his sobbing wife and saw she was shaking uncontrollably.  He took a light blanket out of the trunk and wrapped it around her shoulders and handed her his handkerchief.  “Here.  He’s going to be all right Maria.  Doctor Jenkins will be here soon and he’ll get Johnny sorted out.  Why don’t you get changed and cleaned up?  I’ll watch over him.”

“No, I have to stay with him.  I can’t leave him.” She whispered.

Murdoch gently put an arm around her and helped her to her feet.   “Maria, go change and wash your face.  If Johnny sees his mother like this it’s going to scare him. Now go on.” He urged gently.  “Do you want me to ask Maria to come help you.”

He noticed the slight stiffness at that suggestion. She recovered her composure and stated coldly.  “No that will not be necessary.”  She glanced tenderly down at her still unconscious son and whispered, “Keep him near.  I will soon return.”

*******

Murdoch stroked Johnny’s forehead and talked quietly to him. He kept reassuring Johnny that he was safe at home and he was going to be all right.  Murdoch dipped the cloth in the cool water and wrung it out while wondering if it wasn’t himself he was reassuring.

“Pa! Pa!” Scott yelled as he ran down the hall.  “I heard Johnny’s hurt.” Scott practically skidded into the room stopping short at seeing the look of anguish on his father’s face.

Scott walked closer to the bed and saw the pale face of his young brother lying still as death. “What happened?  Is he going to be all right?”  Scott sank into the chair next to his father.

“From what I can tell, Maria was accosted on the street and Johnny tried to help her.  He was knocked down and hit his head.  He’s been unconscious for the last two hours.  I thought he was going to wake up a little while ago, but he settled down again.” The lines of worry deepening as Murdoch worried over his youngest son.

“So it’s her fault Johnny got hurt.  What did I tell you? If anything happens to my brother, I’ll make her pay.  I don’t know when or how but I’ll make her pay.”

Both Murdoch and Scott looked up to see Maria standing in the doorway and it was obvious she’d overheard every word.  She walked into the room and went to the other side of Johnny’s bed.  She knelt next to her still son and placed a soft kiss on his cheek. She gently brushed back a stray strand of hair and looked slowly up at Scott through her long thick lashes.  Meeting his eyes she stated. “If my son does not recover, I will pay for it for the rest of my life.” She bowed her head and ran her hands though Johnny’s hair as the family waited in silence for the doctor to arrive.

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

Part 10

The family waited by Johnny’s bedside as he slept as in death.  With every passing minute their fear grew stronger as the dark haired boy seemed lost to them.  Murdoch pulled out his time piece and after a brief look, snapped it shut.  He paced to the window and looked out in vain searching for sight of the doctor’s buggy.  As he walked back to his youngest son’s bedside, he squeezed Scott’s shoulder.

Scott looked up at his father. Blue eyes met blue, mirroring the dread each of them felt and their fear for the youngest member of the family. Murdoch shook his head at Scott’s question and Scott dropped his head into his hands once again.

Maria sat in a chair by her son’s bedside and rested her head on the mattress in exhaustion.  She breathed in time with Johnny as if she could give him the strength he needed to come back to them.

A sound caught Murdoch’s attention and he rushed back to the window.  “He’s here.” Relief evident in his voice.  “I’ll bring him right up.  Son, wake Maria up please.” He asked over his shoulder as he headed downstairs.

Scott cleared his throat and looked at Johnny’s mother.  “Ma’am?  Wake up. The Doctor’s here.”  No response as far as Scott could see.  ‘How can she sleep now?’ Scott wondered.  He walked over to her and tried again. “Maria” and gave her shoulder a little shake.

Maria woke with a start and turned to Scott in surprise. Her eyes flew back to Johnny. “Is he…? Did he wake?” She whispered.

“The Doctor’s here.” Scott replied.

“Oh, bueno.”  Maria stood shakily and tucked some stay hairs back into her braid in time to greet the doctor as Murdoch hustled him into the room.

**********

“Maria, this is Doctor Jenkins.” Murdoch said by way on introduction.

The Doctor nodded in greeting, but his eyes were focused on his young patient.  He took hold of Johnny’s limp arm and felt his pulse, before asking, “How long has he been unconscious?”

“About three hours, maybe a bit more.” Murdoch answered.

am nodded and began examining his young patient.  His face remained impassive neither giving hope nor discouragement.  He lifted each of Johnny’s eyelids before carefully unwrapping the bandage from his head.

“Not too bad.”  He muttered.  Sam glanced up at the anxious family and told them, “I’m not going to stitch it right now.  There’s a great deal of swelling, so I’ll make a decision in a day or so after I see how it looks.” He began bandaging Johnny’s head once again.

Murdoch couldn’t hold it in any longer, “Is he going to be alright Sam?”

“I believe so, Murdoch.  I think he’ll come around soon on his own, but I want to examine him when he’s conscious, so I’m going to give him a little help.”  Sam rummaged around in his medical bag before turning back to the prone boy.

He opened a capsule under Johnny’s nose and paused watching the boy’s reaction.  Johnny reacted with a shudder and a gasping breath.  Sam put a gentle hand on his shoulder. “It’s alright Johnny.  Wake up now son.”  When Johnny seemed to go back into a deep sleep, Sam waved the capsule under his nose.  “Talk to him Murdoch. He’s having trouble waking up”

Murdoch sank to his knees next to Johnny’s bed.  He rested one hand on his son’s forehead and whispered.  “Come on Johnny, wake up.  You’ve got to try son.”

Johnny seemed to be trying to come around.  His arms jerked and he took a couple of deep breaths.  His eyes opened very slightly and then closed.  “Johnny! Son try to wake up.”  His voice sounded strained to his own ears and his heart hammered in his chest as he watched Johnny struggle to awaken.  He tried again, “Son, it’s Papa.  Your brother’s here too….and your mother.  We’re just waiting for you to wake up.  Please son.”

Maria kept stroking Johnny’s hair murmuring to him in Spanish and Scott couldn’t hold back any longer.   He joined in, “Hey Johnny.  You’ve got to wake up.  Valiente needs to go for a run and that new little colt has been asking for you.”

Scott’s face broke into a huge grin when he saw his brother’s dark blue eyes slowly open.  “He’s waking up.”  Scott whispered.

Murdoch gave Scott a quick hug before returning his full attention to Johnny.  Smiling at his obviously disoriented son he murmured, “Welcome back son.”

Maria squeezed Johnny’s hand and waited until his eyes focused on her.  “Mama? Is that really you?” He croaked.

“Si Niño.  I am here.” Tears were once again coursing down her cheek.

Johnny lifted a shaky finger and touched her wet cheek.  “It’s okay Mama. Don’t cry.”

Maria managed a smile to reassure him.

Johnny slowly looked at his brother and father and asked in a quiet voice, “Is somebody sick?”

“We’ve been worried about you brother.”

“You had an accident Johnny.  Don’t you remember?”  Murdoch once again felt the dread settle back on him.

Johnny stared at his father, then shifter to his brother, then his mother.  “No…I don’t remember.”  He closed his yes and gasped in pain.  “My head hurts.”  He whispered as he raised a hand to his forehead.

Sam decided it was time to take over and start examining his young patient.  “Take it easy Johnny.” He reassured the boy as he checked his pulse and listened to his heart.   “You had quite a blow to your head, so that’s what’s causing your headache.”

“Ti..red.” Johnny slurred and his eyes stayed shut as he drifted off to sleep.

Sam saw the anxious looks on the faces of the Lancer family and sought to reassure them.  He checked Johnny’s breathing and noted it was light and effortless and then he lifted his eyelids.  “He’s sleeping.” He pronounced.  “Let’s let him rest for a little while, then we can wake him and see if he’ll drink some water.”

The doctor ushered the three Lancer’s out of the room as Maria came into the room carrying a fresh pitcher of water and took the seat next to Johnny’s bed.

“I will take care of him Patron.” The older woman assured Murdoch.

“Gracias Maria.  We’ll be downstairs talking with the doctor. Let us know if he wakes or if he needs anything.”

“Si Senor.”

**********

“He’ll need bed rest for as long as he has a headache.  You’ve got to watch him carefully for dizziness.  He’ll probably be nauseous and his coordination may be affected for a few days.  It’s best to keep him in bed to avoid a fall.  That’s the most important thing.  If he hits his head again, he may have more complications.”

Sam stopped and looked at his old friend nod his understanding. “Oh and don’t be surprised if he can’t remember what happened.  Don’t press him about it. His memory may or may not return.”

Murdoch replied, “It’s probably best if he doesn’t remember what happened to him.  From what I hear it was brutal.” Sadness filled his words.

The doctor looked at Maria sitting off by herself in the blue wing backed chair and Scott sitting on the couch staring into the fire. He shook his head at the surprising turn of events in the Lancer household.  No one had taken the time to explain to the doctor, the events that had taken place in the last few days.  “If he doesn’t wake on his own in another hour, wake him again. Try to get him to drink some water and broth.  No food until tomorrow.  Make sure he is talking and coherent before you let him go back to sleep.  Someone should be with him all night and wake him every two hours. Any questions?”

“When will you be back Sam?” Murdoch asked anxiously.

“I’ve got to go over to the Miller’s and check Janie’s new baby.  I’ll swing back this way on my way home and check Johnny.  I’ll be a couple hours at least. Send someone to get me if you need me sooner.”  The doctor gathered up his bag and started toward the door.

“I’ll walk you out.” Murdoch offered.

“Thanks…” Sam stopped and looked once more at Maria.  He had noticed the bruise on her cheek but in the last hour, it had gotten darker. “Ma’am, are you sure you’re okay? I can check you over if you like.” He offered.

“No Doctor.  I am fine.” She replied without looking up.

Murdoch began to walk toward the door with Sam, when the doctor leaned in and said quietly, “I can find my own way out Murdoch, you go on back and take care of your family.”

Murdoch smiled gratefully and turned back to the living room.

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

“Scott?  Would you go up and sit with your brother?”  Murdoch asked.

“Sure.” Scott got up quickly, relieved to leave the tension between Maria and his father.

As soon as Scott left the room, Murdoch turned to Maria. She hadn’t met his eye since she arrived back with Johnny and Murdoch now wanted more answers.

“Who did this Maria?”

She shook her bowed head and refused to meet his eyes.

“I want his name Maria.  I’ll teach him to beat a child. Now tell me everything you remember about him.”

Maria’s shoulders were shaking as she began sobbing quietly.  Murdoch felt anger, then remorse, and anger again.  “Our son is upstairs in his bed with a concussion and all you can do is cry!  It’s time you started being a responsible mother Maria. Now tell me who did this!”  His voice rang firmly.

“It was Santana.”  Now her head was held in her hands as she tried to master her emotions.

“Jose Santana?”

“Si. It was him. I…I’m so sorry Murdoch. I never meant for Johnny to be hurt, you have to believe me.”

Murdoch sank into his chair by the desk as memories of years ago came crashing down on him.  He stared out the large window without seeing the green pastures that normally brought him such peace.

He remembered that night.  He had taken Maria and Johnny with him to the Santana estancia for the fiesta celebrating the marriage of Jose Santana’s brother.  Sometime during the fiesta, he noticed that Maria had been missing for quite a while and Johnny was getting fussy and hungry.  He left the baby with Senora Santana and went off in search of Maria.

A cold, old anger settled in the pit of his stomach as he remembered finding his wife being kissed by Jose Santana.  He’d wanted to destroy the man right there but the newlyweds had just come into view, so he gathered up Maria, and roughly led her back to the party.

Maria had claimed the man attacked her, but Murdoch hadn’t believed her.  He had settled into stony silence after the rage had poured out and after a few days, husband and wife had gone back to their usual routine and the incident was never spoken of again.

He wondered what had caused the man to attack her now.  Was it that he still lusted after her or was it more?  A few years after Maria left, the Santana’s fell on hard times and Jose had been left penniless.  He had spent years and all his money fighting the government to gain title to the land that had been in his family for generations.  He won the war, but the battle had cost him dearly.  The prolonged fight cost him his wife as she died an early death.

His brother left to join his wife’s family in southern California and Jose was left alone.  With no money to run his rancho, squatters soon moved onto his land, and he didn’t have enough vaqueros to fight them off.

Murdoch had felt some pity for the man, but not enough to try to help him as he felt betrayed by the advances he’d made on Maria which he blamed for her eventually leaving him.

With this latest attack on Maria, he had to consider the possibility that she had told the truth back then.  He raised his head and stared at her intently.  If she had told the truth, that Jose’s advances were unwelcome, then he had made a very big mistake that had cost him his family for over ten years.

He stood up and walked over to Maria.  He could see her visibly shaking.  He shook his head and pulled the throw off the couch. He wrapped it around her shoulders snugly and spoke to her quietly, “He’ll be alright Maria.  Sam said so.  We just need to find a way to move past this and make sure our son is never hurt again. Agreed?”

He waited a bit and she only nodded but she still was shivering.  Murdoch felt frustrated by her inability to pull herself together and talk to him about what happened.  He fixed himself a drink and poured a double for her.

He walked back to Maria and offered her the whisky.  “Drink this. It’ll help.”

Maria looked up and shook her head. “No.  I don’t need that.  Leave me alone.”

“You need this, now drink.” He said forcefully.

“I said No!” Angry now, she wiped the tears from her cheeks and stared defiantly at him.

Murdoch looked at her with shock at her sudden anger.  It had been a long time since he had experienced her mercurial anger.  He watched in fascination as her anger quickly turned to remorse.

“I’m sorry Murdoch.  I have no right to be angry with you.  It’s just that…that I don’t drink.  I’m an alcoholic.  I’ve been sober for six months.”  She looked at him again, eyes blazing in defiance. “That’s right, I was a drunk.  For the last several years I drank when I was happy, when I was sad, and just about any other time. I…I guess I drank to be…free.”

She paused and then continued, “I don’t expect you to understand, but I’m sober and I intend to stay that way.  I realize what I threw away and how much I hurt Johnny.  I intend to make it up to him.”  She paused and took his measure before standing.

“I’m going to check on Johnny.” She started for the stairs and Murdoch caught her as she passed out in his arms.

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

Part 11

Murdoch carried Maria in his arms upstairs as he had done in the past. ‘Light as a feather,’ flitted through his mind as he settled her on the bed. He looked down at her pale features and a calliope of memories crashed down on him.  He felt unwanted feelings wash over him. Feelings of tenderness, awe, and yes, he admitted to himself, love.  Following on those feelings were ones of regret, anger, jealously and hurt.

Murdoch prided himself on being a strong man and his Scottish upbringing influenced his demeanor.  He’d held his feelings at bay so many times, but today he found himself unable to push his feelings into any kind of order.  ‘Order. Where did the order go in my life?  I thought she no longer had the power to hurt me anymore or make me love her.’  He shook his head and gave into temptation.  He carefully pulled a light quilt over Maria and leaned down to tuck it around her still body.  He pressed his lips lightly against her forehead and quietly left the room intending to have Sam check her over when he returned.

Murdoch approached the door to Johnny’s room and stopped when he heard Scott and Johnny’s voices.  He listened just long enough to tell that while Johnny’s voice was still weak, he was indeed awake.  He pushed the door open and entered to see Scott’s smile.

“He’s awake and hungry.” Scott reported.

‘Hi  Pa.  Can I have something to eat?” Johnny’s big eyes looked at his father with such anticipation that it hurt Murdoch to have to deny him.

“No son.  Not just yet.  Doctor Jenkins will be back soon.  He needs to give the okay, so for now, we have to wait.”  He walked over to the table by the bed and poured a fresh glass of water. “Drink some water.”

Scott stood and let his father take his seat.  “I’ll go get you some broth. I know Maria’s been keeping some warm for you.”

Both father and son laughed at Johnny’s pained expression.  “I don’t want broth.” Johnny’s voice had all the evidence of a whine to it and Murdoch breathed a sigh of relief knowing full well that Johnny wouldn’t be complaining unless he was feeling better.

Murdoch reached over and picked up the book that Scott had been reading and raised his eyebrows at the title. “Has he been reading you this?” Murdoch asked.

“Yeah, kind of.  It’s boring though.  All those fancy words and he don’t like it none if I stop him to get him to explain.”

Murdoch smiled and turned the book of poetry over, “Yes, I can see why you’d both be frustrated.  Perhaps, we’ll read you a book about a man who goes to sea and is swallowed by a whale.  That should hold your attention.”

“What’s a whale?’

Murdoch sighed and began explaining as he watched his young son’s eyelids get heavier and drift off to sleep.

**********

Murdoch hadn’t realized how much time had gone by when he heard the door open again and he saw Sam and Scott enter.  He motioned them to be quiet and asked Scott in a whisper to sit with Johnny for a few minutes before he ushered Sam out into the hall.

Murdoch reached behind him to close the door, while the doctor waited expectantly, “How’s he doing?” Sam asked unable to wait any longer.

“He seems to be better.  He just drifted off to sleep.  Sam . . . I want you to check Maria.  She collapsed a little while ago.  It may just be strain, but I . . .  I  think you should check her over.”

Sam gave his old friend a quizzical look and replied, “Very well.  First let me pop in and check Johnny and then I’ll see to her.” The doctor left Murdoch standing in the hall as he went back into Johnny’s room.

Murdoch moved on down the hall feeling old beyond his years and went in to check on Maria.  He raised the flame on the bedside lamp and saw she was still deeply asleep.  Growing more alarmed by this than anything else, he felt anxious for Sam to come check on her.

Sam came through the door, bag in hand.  Murdoch stood and met him at the door. “How is he?”

“He’s awake and drinking some broth. As long as he handles that alright, he can have some soft boiled eggs in the morning.  I’ll give Maria the instructions before I leave.  He still has a headache, but his pupils are even.  It was a close call Murdoch, but I think he’ll be all right.  The main thing now is to avoid another blow to the head.  I’d keep him off horses for a couple of weeks and make sure he only rides well trained ones. No galloping for a month.”

Murdoch groaned, “He’s not going to like that.  I just gave him a new horse for his birthday.”

“It’s for his own good, Murdoch.” Sam warned.

“I know, he’ll mind it.” Murdoch assured.

“Now let’s check Maria out, shall we?” Sam said as he moved to Maria’s bedside.

“I think she’s been asleep the whole time.” Murdoch offered. “Maybe I should have had Maria sit with her.  I shouldn’t have left her alone.”

Sam began checking Maria over.  He was methodical and made sure he didn’t miss anything obvious.  Murdoch turned his back and looked out the window at the low setting sun during the more intimate parts.

Sam took Maria’s pulse once more and smiled at the picture of Murdoch looking out the window.  He cleared his throat and waited until Murdoch turned back around.

“How is she?”

“She has a mild concussion and a cracked rib.  On top of that general exhaustion is what’s causing her to sleep like this.  Keep her in bed a day or so and she should be right as rain.”

********

Sam took Murdoch’s arm and led his friend from the room.  He urged him down the stairs.  “Now as for you, I’m prescribing a good nights sleep, after a good meal.”  He raised his hand at the expected protest, “Let Scott sit with him and then Maria can take over.  Where’s Paul?”

“He went into Green River to send a telegram to the Marshall.  Then he’s going to see about a posse to track down Santana.”

Sam sighed as he knew Paul was one of the few people who could talk some sense into Murdoch and with him gone, that left it up to the family doctor. He settled on the couch and waited until Murdoch settled down as well.  He watched as the big man fiddled with his glass of whisky and then tossed back the remaining liquid in one swallow.

“It must have been quite a surprise to see Maria after all these years.” Sam ventured.  Getting no response other than a nod from Murdoch, he continued. “She hasn’t lost any of her beauty that’s for sure, even now when she’s certainly not at her best.”

“She’s as beautiful as the day I first met her.  Too bad it’s only superficial.”  Murdoch grunted as he levered himself out of the chair and poured himself another drink. He offered the decanter to Sam, who shook his head no.

Sam watched Murdoch settle once again in the blue wingback chair and asked, “What are you going to do?”

“I wish I knew Sam.  I can’t kick her out without hurting Johnny and I won’t let her take him with her.  I won’t live without my boy again Sam.  I can’t.” He spoke with conviction.

“Has she asked to have Johnny back?”  At Murdoch’s shake of the head, he ventured on, “What does she want?”

“I wish I knew exactly.  She’s made veiled threats about taking Johnny, but at the same time she seems to want him to stay here and be here with him.”

“Here as in this house?  How will that work?”

“I don’t know.”

“Ah Murdoch, are you thinking there’s a chance for the two of you to resume your marriage?  I mean after all these years and well everything…?”

“We haven’t talked about any of it.  I planned to sit her down and talk it out with her, but now that Johnny’s hurt and she is too, I haven’t had the opportunity.”  Murdoch was silent a moment as he stared at the amber liquid sloshing in his glass.  He raised his steely blue eyes and stared into the dying embers of the fireplace. “Johnny wants both his parents to get along.  Hell, he deserves both his parents getting along.”

“What about you Murdoch?  Can you put it all behind you? The hurt and anger?” Sam probed.

Murdoch took another sip of his whisky and spoke carefully. “Some things, yes. I could forgive her. Some things, I already have.  I know she took good care of Johnny for most of his life.  He had a good home and plenty to eat.  It was the last two years.  The years when they disappeared and I couldn’t find them that her life fell apart.  I’m not sure I can forgive her for the last two years.  I’m not sure I can forgive her for telling my son I didn’t want him and that I kicked them out.  Everything else.” He stopped and made a sweeping motion with his hand. “I could forgive everything else, but that…I just can’t”

“Maybe you should ask her why. If you could forgive everything else, maybe that would be a good place to start.” Sam said gently.   He stood up and finished his drink “Send for me Murdoch if Johnny or Maria need me.  I’ll stop by in a couple of days to check on Johnny.  He should be on the road to recovery by then.”

“Thank you Sam.  For taking care of them…and well…for…ah…this.”

Sam clapped Murdoch on the shoulder. “Anytime, Murdoch.  Get some rest, and I’ll see you again soon.”

**********

Murdoch closed up the house and dimmed the lights downstairs, and  slowly climbed the stairs.  He’d planned to check on Johnny and then get a few hours of sleep, but instead went to Maria’s room.  The door squeaked as he opened it and he saw her jerk awake at the noise.

In a hushed voice he soothed, “Sorry Maria.  I didn’t mean to disturb you.”

She coughed and struggled to sit up.  Murdoch helped her by arranging her pillows and allowed her time to wake fully. “Gracias.” She accepted the glass of water he offered.

Murdoch watched as she stiffened, threw the covers off and struggled to get out of bed. Without thought, he held her by the shoulders. “No Maria.  You need to stay still. The doctor said you have a concussion and a cracked rib.”

The movement ignited the pain in her rib cage and her head started pounding.  “Johnny.  I have to be with Johnny.” She hissed through clenched teeth and held her side as she tried once more to get out of bed.

“Maria!  He’s doing fine.  He’s resting and you need to be also.  The doctor left some medicine to help you sleep.” He turned to get it off the table.

“No Murdoch.  Give me a minute.” She slowed her breathing and found the pain tolerable. “It’s alright. I really don’t need anything.”  She fixed Murdoch with a steady gaze. “He’s going to be all right?”

Murdoch held her hand and squeezed it gently. “Yes.  He’s going to be just fine.  In fact, he’s a little put out because he’s not allowed to eat anything until tomorrow.” Murdoch chuckled and he was rewarded by the smile that had attracted him to Maria when he first met her.

“That sounds like our son.  I could always tell when he was recovering from some sickness when he started demanding food.” She put the glass back on the bedside table and picked at a thread on the blanket. “Murdoch, thank you for taking care of him…and me. I know I don’t deserve it, but thank you.”

In the face of her sincerity, Murdoch could do nothing but nod.  “You get some sleep.  I’ll need every able bodied adult in this house to keep that boy in bed for the next couple of days, so rest up now so you can do your part.”

She smiled and nodded. She slid back down into the bed and pulled the covers up and closed her eyes. Murdoch began to leave, when her voice stopped him. “Who’s with him now?  Who’s with our son?”

“Scott was sitting with him earlier. Maria’s with him now.”

Maria’s sharp voice surprised Murdoch. “No!  I don’t want her taking care of him.”

Murdoch’s eyebrows raised and he wondered if Maria was suffering from the effects of the concussion. “It’s all right.  Maria loves Johnny like her own. She’s practically part of the family. She’ll take good care of him.” He reassured.

Maria stared at him, frowning. “Part of the family.” She repeated half to herself.  “Yes, I suppose she is at that.”

“Don’t worry, I’m going to check on him before I go to bed. I’ll spell her in a couple of hours and sit with him myself.”

Murdoch watched as Maria’s eyelids seemed to grow heavy and she settled down to sleep. ‘Women!’ He thought.  ‘Just when I think I begin to understand them, I realize I don’t have a clue to what they’re thinking.’

*********

Johnny squirmed in the bed as he roused himself awake.  He’d spent a restless night waking every few hours to find first Scott, then Maria, and finally his father at his bed side.  Each time they made him drink some water or broth. Now his insides were sloshing around with all that liquid, and he needed to do something about it.

He saw that his father had given in to sleep and he didn’t want to disturb him while he made his way outside to the privy to take care of his suddenly urgent need.  He carefully pulled back the covers and swung his legs over the edge of the bed.  ‘Cold.’ He shivered as his bare feet touched the oak floor.  Once his decision was made, he levered himself out of bed and had to hang onto the bedpost while he waited to the room to stop spinning.

He took just two steps toward the door, when his father’s voice made him jump in surprise.  “And where do you think you’re going young man?”

Johnny turned quickly and his eyes traveled up to meet his father’s before focusing on a point between his father’s chin and the hands resting on his hips.   “I ah….I need to go…” he gulped.

“Use the chamber pot. That’s what it’s there for.”

“I wanta go to the outhouse.” Johnny insisted.

Murdoch pointed toward the corner where the chamber pot had been placed, and took hold of Johnny’s arm and supported him while he took care of his needs.  He helped Johnny back into bed and tucked the blankets securely around his young son.  “You try to go back to sleep, son.  It’s another couple hours before dawn.”

“I ain’t tired anymore.  I been sleeping for hours.” Johnny complained.

Murdoch steeled himself for what he knew was coming.  “You’ve got to close your eyes Johnny, so sleep will come.”

“But, I’m hungry and Doc said I could eat in the mornin’ and it’s mornin’ ain’t it?”

“It’s still night time, see how dark it is?”

To Murdoch’s relief, Johnny sighed and snuggled back down into his bed. Murdoch pulled the lap blanket over himself and tried to get comfortable.  Johnny’s small voice broke through his drowsiness.

In a voice close to a whisper, Johnny confided, “I saw her.  I saw Mama in my dream.”

Murdoch began to tell Johnny it wasn’t a dream when he realized that his son had drifted back to sleep.  “If only it was just a dream son.” Murdoch whispered as he too drifted off into slumber.

***********

 Part 12

Murdoch watched Johnny wolf down his soft boiled eggs and chuckled as he wiped the back of his hand across his mouth to wipe away his milk mustache.  He shook out the napkin and handed it to his son, “Use this.”

Johnny accepted the napkin with a smile, wiped his mouth and sighed. “Good.  I feel much better now.”

Murdoch took the tray and set it on the dresser before turning back to Johnny.  “Son, the doctor wants you to stay in bed today, so if you need anything, anything at all, you let one of us know.”

“Okay…but I feel much better.  I can get out of bed…”

“No you don’t.” Murdoch said firmly.  “You’re going to stay right there.  If I find out that you’ve been out of bed, you’re going to be a very sorry young man. Understand?”

Johnny fidgeted with his blanket, and Murdoch waited while he watched the emotion play across Johnny’s young face.  Murdoch knew Johnny was struggling to be obedient. One thing he’d learned in the last year was once Johnny agreed to do something, he generally kept his word.

Murdoch was rewarded for his patience when Johnny looked up at him and finally agreed, “Yes Pa.  I’ll mind it and stay in bed…today.”

“Doctor Jenkins will be the one to say when you can get out of bed, Johnny.  He’ll be back this afternoon to check you out.”

Johnny frowned and chewed on his lower lip.  “But what am I gonna do all day?”

“Rest.  I also think it would be a good idea to keep up on your school work.” Murdoch hid a smile at the frown on Johnny’s face. “You were supposed to return to school today and now it looks like you’ll be off all this week.  I don’t want you to get behind.”  Murdoch handed Johnny his reader.  “Start with this,” he instructed.

Murdoch turned to leave the room with the tray when he turned back at Johnny’s question.  “Papa, Is my mama all right?”

Murdoch turned around and tried to arrange his expression to hide his relief.  He returned the tray to the dresser and settled in the chair next to his son.  “She’s going to be fine, son.  How much do you remember?”

Johnny’s big blue eyes were bright with unshed tears, “That man hit her and she fell…” he stopped as a tear leaked out and trailed down one cheek.  He looked down and whispered, “I was so scared.”

Murdoch reached out and hugged Johnny to him tightly.  “It’s all over son, you’re both safe.”

“I don’t remember a lot of it.  I don’t even remember going to town, or how we got there.  I just remember seeing him hit mama and she fell.” Johnny’s voice trailed off weakly.

“Doctor Jenkins says you may never remember all of it Johnny, but try not to worry about it son.” Murdoch murmured into Johnny’s hair. He felt Johnny start to squirm and he released his hold as his son regained his composure and once again wore the mantle of a grown up twelve year old.

Johnny smiled at his father, “Thanks Pa.  I feel better now.  Spose she can come see me today?”

“I believe so son.  I saw her a little while ago and she was getting dressed so I think she intends to be in here in a little while.”

Johnny grinned and picked up his book, “How much do I gotta read?’

“At least one chapter today. I want you to work on your arithmetic and spelling too.”

“Spelling too?  But I’m sick.” Johnny whined.

Murdoch laughed as he left the room knowing his boy was on the road to recovery.

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

Murdoch came into the kitchen just as Paul entered.  Maria was busy washing the breakfast dishes and had her back to the men.  “Sit down Paul.” Murdoch waved toward a chair as he poured fresh cups of coffee for both of them. “Any news?” he asked as he sat down.

“Santana was found dead behind a cantina in Spanish Wells this morning.  Knifed.”  Paul said shortly as he sipped his coffee.

“Who did it?” Murdoch asked.

“No one knows or at least no one’s saying.  He got into a fight last night over a poker game.  Got drunk as a skunk and that’s the last anyone saw of him till the swamper was dumping the garbage.”

“Who brought word?”

“Ricardo said he heard it in town and I met him on my way back from dropping Teresa off at school. He was heading out to tell us as he knew we had an interest.”

“News travels fast.”  Murdoch replied.

Paul nodded, “I better get to work.  Scott’s going with me to check on those heifers, unless you need him here?”

“No, It’ll do him good to get away.  He’s having a hard time with all of this.  Maybe he’ll talk to you.  He’s sure been avoiding me since she arrived.”

Paul nodded and neither man noticed Maria’s tense shoulders as she silently went about her business.

*********

“Well little brother, I better get going or Paul’s likely to leave without me.”

“I wish I could go too.” Johnny’s voice portrayed his wistfulness.

“I know, but you need to rest and recover….besides today’s a school day.  At least you’re getting out of that.” Scott teased feeling a bit guilty at encouraging his brother’s dislike of school.

Johnny looked at the book on his bedside. “Pa’s makin me do school work anyway.”

Scott laughed, “That’s our Pa, always thinking of ways to keep us busy. You be good little brother.  I’ll see you later this afternoon.  Maybe I’ll even let you beat me in a game of checkers.”

“Let me?  I can beat you any day with one eye closed.” Johnny retorted.

“That’ll be the day.  How about you play me with both eyes open and see how you do first, then we’ll see who’s the best  player.”

“You’re on Scott! Be prepared to lose.”

“You want to make a little bet on that Johnny?” Scott asked, his eyes bright as he tried to hold back a grin at seeing Johnny’s eagerness to accept a challenge.

“What’ll we bet?”

“If you lose, you’ll groom my horse for me while I’m back at school.”

Johnny’s mouth twitched as he considered. Scott was rewarded with a grin and he was delighted by the sparkle in Johnny’s eyes as he agreed. “Okay and when I win, you gotta clean the pig pen by yourself the next time Pa makes us do it.”

“If you win, not when.” Scott corrected.  He held out his hand to shake on the deal.  He felt much better at seeing his brother happy and more like his normal mischievous self.

A soft knock on the door interrupted the moment when Maria asked, “May I come in?”

Scott had to bite his tongue to keep from saying ‘No’, but instead he replied, “Come on in, I was just leaving.”

“See ya Johnny.”

“Bye Scott.”

Scott hurried out the door as he heard Johnny greeting his mother with happiness.  Scott felt sudden anger and a flush of jealousy at the intrusion by Maria in his family.  Why is she here? What does she want?  He asked himself for the hundredth time as he stomped down the back stairs to the kitchen.

*********

Maria waited in the kitchen for Scott with her arms crossed over chest, ready to chastise him for running down the stairs.  One look at his face and the words fled.  “What’s wrong chico?”

“Oh that woman.  Johnny’s mother. I just can’t stand her. I wish she’d leave!” He spat.

Maria placed one hand on each of Scott’s shoulders and looked up into his troubled gray blue eyes. “Hijo, She is an evil woman.  We have to make your Papa see her for what she is.”

“I know, but how?  I don’t want to hurt Johnny.  I just think she’s got Pa wrapped around her little finger and he doesn’t see through her little ploy.”

Maria spoke with conviction, “She’ll show her true colors eventually, but there’s nothing wrong with us helping hurry it along. Si?”

Scott smiled, “Si.  Nothing wrong with it at all.  Gracias Maria.” Scott gave her a kiss on the cheek and a quick hug before heading to the barn.

Maria watched him leave with a smile on her face as she planned how she was going to get rid of the woman who could take away her family.

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

Paul and Scott rode toward home in compatible silence.  It had been a very good morning.  The heifers were all accounted for in the lower meadow and were growing fat on the winter grass.  These young cows were due to have their first calves in the spring, and they would be moved closer to the house in a month or so, but for now, they were checked on every few days.

They stopped their horses on the bluff overlooking the ranch and Paul thought now would be a good time to broach the subject with Scott.  “Hold up a minute Scott.”  Paul saw the question on Scott’s young face.  “I want to talk to you about your Pa and this whole situation with Johnny’s ma.”

Scott settled down in his saddle, and began combing his horse’s mane with his fingers. “What do you want to say?”

“I know this is tough on you son.  Maria’s got all of you thrown for a loop.  You just have to trust your Pa to make the right decisions where she’s concerned.”

Scott snorted and shook his head.  “I don’t know Paul. All the sudden it’s like he’s gone all soft whenever she’s around.”

“He loved her very much Scott.  He may still love her, but the important thing is to let him find out how he feels and work it out with her.  You know he’d never deliberately hurt you or your brother don’t you?”

Scott sighed and looked at the scenery without really seeing it, “I know.  I know he wouldn’t hurt us on purpose, I just don’t understand how he can be willing to forgive her so easily.”

“How do you know he’s forgiven her, Scott?”

“I know my father Paul. She’s got him tied up in knots and I intend to be around to pick up the pieces.”

Paul knew better than to try to argue with a Lancer, even a young one when he saw that look of determination. “You’re so sure of what he’ll do?”

“Yes.  He’ll do the right thing…even if it’s for the wrong reason.”  Scott gazed grimly at the older man and started his horse for home.

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

Maria left Johnny’s room and closed the door quietly.  He had just drifted off to sleep and she was going to return to her room for a nap as well.  Her head was pounding and sleep was what her body craved. She turned and bumped into a solid but soft wall.

 

“Perdón,” she began when she realized she’d bumped into the woman who had made her life a living hell when she’d lived here many years ago. She felt her arm being grasped in a tight hold as she struggled to get free.

The older woman dragged her a few feet down the hall. In rapid Spanish she told Maria exactly what she thought of her and her tactics to return to the house where she was not welcome.  “You do not belong here.  You have never belonged here.  You have brought nothing but disgrace and shame to this house and I will not allow you to hurt this family again!”

Maria finally freed herself from the strong grasp of the housekeeper.  “You will not talk to me that way.  I let you intimidate me before, but I am no longer that young girl.  You chased me away from my home and I will not allow you to do that again!” Maria’s voice was now no longer quiet.

“You’re a whore and nothing will ever change that!” The older woman spat.

Maria swung her arm and tried to slap the woman, but her arm was caught in a firm hold.

“You have never been welcome here.  You think he loved you, but he never did.  He only married you because you were with child, and he did the honorable thing.”

“No!  He loved me!”

“Never!  He was happy after you left.  He didn’t have to deal with the disgrace of having a whore for a wife and a child that was not his.”

Neither combatant woman were aware of his presence until they felt his strong hand  pulling them apart.  “What the devil is going on here?” Murdoch said in outrage.

“Murdoch…she…”

“I’ll take care of her, you go to your room.” He ordered coldly.

“Patron, I was just…”

“I’ve heard enough Senora. We will discuss this downstairs.”

None of the angry adults saw the dark haired boy as he quietly closed his door and slumped to the floor in tears.

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

Part 13

Murdoch struggled to get himself under control as he descended the stairs.  He was so angry that he could feel the blood coursing through the veins in his neck and he knew he had to calm down.  He took a couple of deep breaths as he entered the living room and prepared himself to get to the bottom of the angry discussion between his wife and housekeeper.

For all the years he’d known Senora Romero, she had been a loyal employee and practically a member of the family.  She had helped him raise Scott and had been a huge help with Johnny as well.  He couldn’t believe what he’d heard in the hallway.  Did she know something about his wife’s departure?  Was she in any way responsible?  He felt the rage begin, and had to mentally shake himself in order to speak to the woman.

“Sit down Maria.”  He ordered as he pointed to the blue chair.

The older woman sat stiffly upright and looked at him with impassive dark eyes.  A slight noise caused both of them to turn to see Maria Lancer slowly walk into the room holding her side.

“Maria!  I told you to go to your room.  I’ll deal with you later.” Murdoch commanded sharply.

“No!  I will not be chased away this time.  I have a right to hear what she tells you so I can defend myself from her lies.”

“You are the liar, you puta.”

“Stop it!  Both of you! Maria sit over here on the couch if you insist on staying here.”

Maria carefully sat on the couch and from the grimace of pain on her face, Murdoch was aware her ribs were hurting her.  He wasn’t to be swayed though from his focus on the housekeeper. He rounded on Senora Romero and pinned her with icy gray blue eyes.

“Now, what the devil was that all about?  What exactly did you mean when you said she didn’t belong here?  That she never belonged here?”

The older woman had her rosary beads out and was fingering them nervously in her lap as she composed herself to answer.  Finally she looked up at the man she had known for over 15 years.  “Patron, I could not stand by while she made a fool out of you. She brought shame on you and was not the wife you needed to build your rancho into the fine estancia it is today.  If she had stayed she would have brought ruin to your name and you never would have been able to claim Scott.”

Murdoch could see that his wife was starting to interject a response, but Murdoch made a movement with his hand and silenced her for now.  He crossed his arms and frowned. “Go on.”

“Senor,” Maria said gently, “I know there were many times when you regretted marrying her.  You told me yourself that you wondered if you did the right thing.  You wondered if she would ever settle down and fit into our life here.  You even worried that unless she did, you wouldn’t be in a position to bring Scott home.”

Murdoch turned his head to see his wife looking at him with tears in her eyes and then just as quickly, she bowed her head.  He turned back to the housekeeper, “I may have said those things in anger, but I never meant that I wanted her to leave; that I didn’t love her.”  His voice sounded small and far away even to him.

He turned to his wife.  “Maria, you must believe me, I never wanted you to leave.”

Maria Lancer stared into his eyes searching for the truth before answering, “I know I wasn’t the best wife for you Murdoch, but…I….was so hurt when she told me you didn’t want me here.  I had betrayed you, and I believed her lies and her threats.”

“Her lies and threats?”  Murdoch couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

The older woman pinned her dark eyes on Maria Lancer and her words rang with malice, “You betrayed your husband with another man.  Admit it.  You were nothing but border trash then and now.  You do not belong here, you never have.”

Maria jumped up from her place on the couch and fairly gasped from the pain in her side.  Murdoch placed a steadying hand on her arm which she immediately shook off.  “Every day,” She took a shallow breath so she could continue, “Every day, you told me I was not good enough for him, that he didn’t really love me, that he only married me because I was pregnant.”  She gasped as she ran out of breath and once again dismissed Murdoch’s hand with a shake of her head.

Maria looked at Murdoch, “You made me feel like a servant here.  Get this Maria, get that Maria.  You need to learn how to cook and clean and sew!  You never had time for me Murdoch.  You left me here alone with her!” She accused.  “I know what I did was wrong.  I can not defend myself for betraying you with Jose.”

Murdoch felt icy shock run through him as his long held suspicions were confirmed. “Why Maria?  Why him?”

 “At first I rejected his advances, but after I found out about you, I was hurt and I allowed him to comfort me.  He was gentle and attentive at first and I craved his attention. I needed someone and there was no one here for me to turn to.”

“What about me?  I was your husband.  You should have turned to me.  Talked to me!” Murdoch’s anger turned on his wife. “You had no right to leave and especially to take Johnny!”

Maria stared at him for a moment, “No right?  He’s my son too and he belonged with me.  Oh Murdoch, I know all about your little affair with that blonde gringa.  I was so surprised to find out you hadn’t taken up with her when I left.  You should have been grateful that I was gone.  Me and Johnny, your biggest mistakes.” She was scornful.

“What are you talking about?  I never…”

“Maria spoke with passion, “At the Jacobsen’s party, you danced with Anabelle Parsons and ignored me most of the evening.  You were charming and she sought you out whenever we saw her.  Suddenly you were coming home later and later and never had time for me. I know what was going on.”

“Maria, I was never involved with her.  I swear.  I was only working to build the ranch, for us for our family.  Who told you…” Murdoch was starting to put it all together and turned his anger on the housekeeper.

“You did it, didn’t you?  You told my wife I was having an affair.”

“I was protecting you Senor.  Senorita Parsons was much more suitable for you.  She was decent and pure, not like this puta who gives herself to a man, practically a stranger, and beds him before marriage.  She would have ruined you.”  The older woman defended.

“You had no right to interfere.  All these years I’ve trusted you.  All these years you have been part of my family. You sat by and watched as I suffered from losing my wife and son, and you said nothing.”  Murdoch began pacing to work off some of his anger in order to think clearly.

“Senor.” When he did not respond, she said louder, “Patron!  I have always been loyal.  It is she who has not.  She who bedded another man and carried his child…”

“What!  What are you talking about?”  Murdoch looked first at the older woman then his wife who would not meet his eye.

He walked over to Maria and turned her to him. Grasping her chin, he forced her to meet his eyes.  “Were you pregnant when you left?” He asked simply but his tone left no doubt he expected an answer.

Maria hesitated for a moment before responding, “Si.  I was with child.”

Murdoch’s blue eyes bore into her dark ones as he heart leapt to his throat, “Was it mine?”

Murdoch could feel her tremble and he willed her to answer, “I do not know.”

“What happened to the child Maria?  Tell me.”

“I miscarried about a month after I left.” Tears now ran down her cheeks.

“Why did you leave?  What possessed you?”

“She threatened to tell you and she convinced me you did not love me.  I…I knew when you found out I’d been with another man, you would throw me out.  I’d lose Johnny.  He was my life.  I went to Jose and he laughed at me.  He did not want a woman such as me.  I was desperate so I ….” She stopped as her cheeks flushed with shame, “I met Jeremy Taylor…and I convinced him to take me with him…me and Johnny.”

Murdoch couldn’t believe the tale he was hearing from the two women and all he knew now was he needed a stiff drink.  He paced to the side board and poured himself a double and downed it in one swift gulp.  He winced at the whisky burned its way down his throat and he turned to the two women.

He walked back over and towered over them.  “Pack your bags Maria!  I want you out of this house in an hour.” He turned on his heel and left through the French doors, unaware his son had overheard every word.

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

Scott stood in shock at what he had just witnessed.  He watched his father leave the house and the doors bounced back open with a bang as they opened to let the cool winter air into the house.

Both women were frozen from the verbal attacks wrought on them, and it was several moments before Maria rose from her chair and walked slowly to the kitchen.  Her shoulders were slumped as if the effort of walking were too much.

Scott quickly followed her into the kitchen, “You can’t leave. He didn’t mean it, I’m sure.”

“He meant it chico.  I must leave.” She sounded old and tired as she lowered herself into a kitchen chair. Scott watched as she traced her finger along the smooth edges of the wooden block.

“Let me talk to him first. He’ll calm down and see reason.” Scott was feeling desperate as tears came to his eyes.  “You can’t just leave.  Where would you go?”

Maria sighed, “I will go to my sister’s home in Vallejo.  She could use the company as she is alone now that her husband is gone.”

“But…I’ll miss you.” Scott said in an almost child like voice.

Maria smiled as her wrinkles became more prominent, “Nino, you have been like a son to me.  You are practically a grown man now and you must stand proud on your own two feet.  I can not be here to help you any more. I…” She could not continue looking at the distress on Scott’s young face.  She stood up, “I must go pack now.  Don’t cry. I will see you again before I leave.”  Maria hugged Scott hard and left the kitchen for her quarters.

**********

Scott sat at the table as the sense of loss settled on him then anger took over. Anger at his father and his father’s blindness toward his wife.  He took a couple of deep breaths and made a decision.  His father was going to hear his viewpoint if he had to tie him down. Scott rose to his full height, stood straight and marched with resolve to the blacksmith shop where he could hear his father beating angle iron into shape.

Scott hesitated when he saw the imposing back of his father bent over the anvil.  He was swinging the 5 pound hammer, striking the red hot iron, and bending it to his will.  An ironic smile played at Scott’s lips at the idea that his father was used to bending the land, men and his sons to his will, but he couldn’t seem to handle one 95 pound woman at all.

“Sir,” Scott said loudly and stepped back as he waited for his father to acknowledge him.

“Scott,” Murdoch said in greeting and wiped his shirt sleeve across his sweaty brow, leaving a streak of coal dust in its place.

“I want to talk to you about Maria.  About her leaving I mean.” Scott mustered all his reserves to stay calm while inside he wanted to yell and scream at his father like a child would.  He wanted to say how unfair it was.  How his father had no right to make this decision without considering how it would affect all of them.  He wanted to say how much he loved Maria and how much he would miss her if she left, but he said none of that as he sensed it would all fall on deaf ears.

“Son, this is none of your business.  It’s my decision and I’ll thank you to stay out of it.”

“None of my business?”  Scott’s voice raised in disbelief.  “Maria is part of our family.  If one of us does something wrong, do we have to leave?  That’s not how you raised me.”

“Son, this is a very complex situation. I can’t expect you to understand.  You’ll just have to trust me, and know that I’m doing what’s best for all of us.” Murdoch stepped closer and put a grimy hand on Scott’s shoulder. “Can you do that son?”

Scott looked up into his father’s intense blue eyes and was almost taken in by the sincerity until he had a sudden flash of his *stepmother* smirking at him across the dining table.  That memory strengthened his resolve.  His father may have fallen for her charms, but he wasn’t going to.  “No, I don’t think I can.” Scott said coldly.  “I’ll pack my bags and return to school.” Scott turned on his heel and marched toward the house.

He heard his father call after him, but didn’t hesitate as he threw the front door open and closed it with a resounding bang.

**********

Murdoch watched Scott march away from him and shook his head. Maybe it’s best for Scott to return to school.  Maybe he’ll be able to get some perspective on the situation, and it would allow Murdoch some space to come to terms with his wife’s return.

 He felt like he was going from one disaster to another.  Maria’s return was splitting his family apart.  He started to turn back to the forge and lifted his hammer to resume his work, when he realized he’d lost interest in his project.  Tossing the hot iron into the water bucket, he faced the fact that he needed to be in the house dealing with his problems instead of out here beating on a piece of iron.

He walked over to the water pump and worked the handle until he had the clear water flowing freely.  He ducked his head under the ice cold water and shook his head.  He scrubbed at his face and used the towel hanging from the pump handle to wipe it dry.

“Feeling better?”

Murdoch looked up to see Paul leaning against the side of the barn watching him intently.  Murdoch purposely hung the towel on the handle and turned to his old friend.

“Not particularly well, now that you mention it.” He hesitated.  “I guess you heard?”

“You’ve had a busy morning Murdoch.  Kicking Maria out couldn’t have been easy.”

“Paul, If someone had told me yesterday that she’d betrayed me like that, I would have told them they were crazy.  Now…” He shook his head, “I don’t know what to think.”

“Are you sure that’s the way it happened? I mean I just can’t picture Maria doing something like that.” Paul offered.

“She admitted it!  She said she was trying to protect me from my wife!  I just can’t believe what she cost me, what she cost Maria, and me, and Johnny.” Murdoch anguished. “Scott too.  This has affected him too.”

“So what now?  Will you be able to work something out with Maria now that you know?  Does it really change anything?” Paul said gently.

Murdoch looked at his old friend for a moment before responding, “I don’t know, but I intend to find out.”  With new resolve, he walked toward the house, just in time to see the buckboard pull away with Maria and her meager belongings stowed in the back. He stared as he watched the wagon move slowly out of the yard and was not surprised when Maria left the ranch without a backwards glance.

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

Scott watched Maria leave, standing at his bedroom window. He’d said goodbye to the woman downstairs in the kitchen and given her a slip of paper with his address on it.  He told her to get in touch with him if she needed anything and he felt a huge sense of loss at her leaving.

Sighing, he reached under his bed and pulled out his valise and began packing his clothes.  Most of his belongings were in his room in Sacramento, so he was mainly concentrating on the things he didn’t want to leave behind.  Pictures of his family, memories he would cherish of the happier times as he knew it would be awhile before he’d be seeing his family again.

He had been making his plans quickly and he didn’t want to leave anything to chance.  He intended to catch the afternoon stage to Sacramento and he needed to hurry if he was going to make it.  He also needed to make a stop at the bank so he’d have enough money for the passage.  He mentally thanked his grandfather for his generosity in making sure Scott had the means to fund his trip.  He knew his father would disapprove, so he was thankful he didn’t need to ask him for money, and he felt he was old enough to make his own decisions.

Scott picked up his bag and looked once around the room.  ‘Just one more thing to do.’ He thought as he picked up his jacket and headed across the hall to Johnny’s room.

He hadn’t seen Johnny since early this morning, so in case he was sleeping, he knocked quietly on the door. Getting no answer, he called, “Johnny?” Again, no response so he turned the knob and tried to open the door.  The door wouldn’t budge. ‘That’s strange, it’s locked.’ He pushed harder and felt the door give and he realized something was holding the door closed.

He pushed harder and the door opened enough to let him stick his head in and look for the obstruction. His heart froze in his chest when he realized that it was Johnny that was slumped against the door.

Scott squeezed through the opening and crouched down. “Hey little brother, what are you doing down here?”  He grew increasingly concerned when Johnny didn’t respond right away.  He reached a hand out and gave Johnny’s shoulder a shake. “Johnny?  Are you all right?”

Johnny looked up at him with bright eyes and shook his head, No.

“What’s wrong?”  Here get up and let’s get you back in bed.”  He pulled his brother up and helped him over to the bed.  Once Johnny was settled against the pillows and Scott pulled the blankets up over him, he noticed how pale his brother was. “I’ll go get Pa.”

“No!  I’m okay Scott. Don’t get Pa. Please…”

Scott returned to the bed and sat down facing his brother. “Are you sure?  You don’t look too good.”

Johnny fidgeted in the bed and pulled at the fringe on the blanket, “I just tried to do too much. That’s all Scott. I’m fine.”

Scott looked at him intently and asked, “Is there anything you need?  Are you hungry?”

“Naw Scott, I’m fine.  Just tired I guess.” He said yawning.

“Before you go back to sleep, I just wanted to tell you that I’m going back to school today.”

That woke Johnny up in a hurry.  “Today?  So soon?”  His disappointment was evident in his voice.

“Yeah, Johnny.  It’s time for me to go back.”

“But…. I’ll miss you.”

Scott ruffled his little brother’s hair and responded, “I’ll miss you too little brother.” He pulled Johnny close and hugged him and whispered into his hair, “I’ll miss you too.”

Scott pushed Johnny back and looked at his brother, knowing this would be the last time he saw him for several years.  He almost lost his nerve when he looked into his brother’s bright blue eyes full of tears he was trying to hold back.  As one escaped down his brother’s cheek, Scott brushed it away. “Don’t cry.  Maybe Pa’ll let you come visit me sometime.  That is unless you don’t want to.” Scott teased hoping to make Johnny feel better.

That brought a crooked smile across Johnny’s face and Scott quickly memorized that look as he once again hugged his brother. “I love you Johnny.”

“Love you too Scott” came out muffled from Scott’s chest.

Scott got up suddenly and left the room before he too broke down in tears.

He gathered up his bag and jacket and headed down stairs to say good bye to his father.

He stood for a moment feeling awkward, he  took a deep breath and walked into the room.  “I’m all packed and ready to go, sir.  He sounded too formal, even to his ears.

His father looked up and took in the valise at his side. He waited while Murdoch stood and came over to him.  Scott held out his hand, and almost lost his resolve when his father took his hand and pulled him into an embrace.  “I’ll miss you son.  I’ll try to make it to Sacramento in a month or so to see you.  Wire me to let me know you arrived safely.”

“Yes sir.  I…I ah…hope everything works out for you…however you want it to work out.” Scott ventured awkwardly.

“Thank you, son. I appreciate the sentiment.  Take care of yourself.”

“Goodbye Pa.”  Scott walked out the door to his new life.

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

Part 14

Murdoch watched Scott go until he could no longer see him.  A harsh sense of loss settled over him at the rift that had formed between himself and his oldest.  Ever since Maria returned, he felt like he was on a runaway horse.  He couldn’t stop it or get off.  In his desire to do the right thing for Johnny, he hurt Scott.  If he had sent Maria away, he’d hurt Johnny, but Scott would be mollified.  It seemed whatever he did, one of his son’s would be hurt.

Murdoch’s stomach growled with hunger as he churned over his dilemma and he realized that Johnny was probably getting pretty hungry about now.  He started toward the kitchen and in spite of his troubles, a crooked smile crept to his lips.  Without Maria, who was going to feed them?  He would have to ask around to get help for the kitchen right away or they would be eating a lot of scrambled eggs and beef steak. He always prided himself on his cooking but it was a bit limited to just a few tried and true staples.

Murdoch swung open the kitchen door and stopped short by the sight of his wife at the stove stirring a pot.  He stood and watched as she swiped at a stray strand of hair and tried without success to tuck it back into place.

“I didn’t know you could cook.” Murdoch observed.

Maria turned around with a half smile on her face, “It is quite a surprise, is it not?”

He walked closer and peered over her shoulder at the simmering soup. He raised his eyebrows, “meatball soup?” he inquired.

“Si.  It is Johnny’s favorite.” She added as she spooned some out into a blue ceramic bowl.

“I’ll take it up it up to him.  I need to check and see how he’s feeling anyway.”

“He was asleep when I checked on him a little while ago.”

Abruptly changing the subject, Murdoch began, “Maria, we need to have a talk.  We need to discuss all that happened and well…everything else.  Agreed?”

She set the bowl on the serving tray and carefully folded a napkin before looking up at him.  “Si Murdoch.  There is much to discuss.”

Murdoch nodded and picked up the tray. “I’ll get our son fed and then we’ll sit down and talk it out.”

Before Murdoch could turn around with the tray Johnny’s voice caught their attention. “I’m hungry.”

Maria hurried over to Johnny and felt his forehead, “You are not to be out of bed chico!”

“¡Pero I'm hambriento!”

Murdoch watched the two of them as Maria tried to assure herself that her young son was well and steady on his feet.  She began to fuss at him to return to bed and Murdoch did not interfere.

Johnny talked his way into sitting at the table and Murdoch watched with fascination as he watched his son wrap his mother around his little finger in a well rehearsed battle of wills.

Maria sighed as she placed a glass of milk in front of Johnny, “Mijo, As soon as you eat, you will go back to bed. Comprende?”

Johnny swallowed his mouthful of soup and smiled at his mother, “Si mama.  I understand.”

Murdoch sat down and watched Johnny eat. Something was bothering him about Johnny’s demeanor, and he wasn’t sure what it was.  Maria set two more bowls of soup on the table as well as bread and butter.  “Gracias.” Murdoch replied automatically as he watched Johnny eat.

Murdoch was aware of Maria sitting across from Johnny and it struck him deep how good this felt to see the two of them together, but as he had that thought, he felt bereft without Scott.

Johnny reached for a piece of bread and slathered butter on it.  He was meticulously filling in every available space with butter and reached to get some more, when Murdoch stopped him abruptly.

“That’s enough son.  Eat what you have.”

Johnny froze, his arm outstretched with his knife toward the butter.  He turned huge eyes on his father and then dropped the knife while scrambling away from the table. In his haste his chair tipped over and he ran toward the stairs shouting, “You’re not my father! You can’t tell me what to do!”

Murdoch looked at Maria and she was looking back at him with the same expression of grief that he was sure was on his face. Murdoch pushed himself away from the table and Maria arose as well. “I’ll go talk to him. He must have overheard this morning.”

“We will talk to him.” Maria corrected.  “This is something we should do together.”

Murdoch took a deep breath, “Let’s go.” Murdoch followed Maria up the stairs to Johnny’s room.

Maria tried the door and the handle wouldn’t turn. “Johnny, open the door.”

Getting no response. Murdoch reached around her and tried as well, “He’s got it locked. Johnny! Open this door this instant!”

“No! Go away!”

“Mijo, por favor. We need to talk to you.  We can explain, just let us in.” Maria pleaded.

Murdoch recognized his son’s stubborn silence and turned on his heel and went for the key in his room while Maria continued to plead with their son.

Murdoch returned with a long key and deftly inserted it into the old lock twisting it back and forth a couple of times before the lock opened. He pushed the door open to reveal his young son looking for all the world like a trapped animal.

Johnny was huddled on the bed with his back against the headboard, knees pulled up to his chest hugging a pillow like a shield in front of him.  He had his head down and he’d clearly been crying as the tears still ran in tracks down his cheeks.

Maria sat on the bed and took him in her arms and pulled him to her as he dissolved into a sobbing child.  Maria rocked him back and forth petting his hair to comfort him as he cried out the last of his shattered emotions.

Murdoch sat stoically as Maria tended to their son and waited for the boy to regain his composure. Once the distraught boy had himself under control, Murdoch handed him a glass of water and a wash cloth to wipe his face and nose.

“Gracias.” Johnny whispered as he handed the items back to his father.

Maria looked at Murdoch and he could easily read the pleading in her eyes to do something, anything to make this right for their son.

Murdoch cleared his throat, “Johnny, look at me.” He waited for Johnny to comply.  “Son, I am your father. You may have overheard the argument in the hallway this morning but they were not talking about you, son.  You must believe me.  I am, and always have been your father.” Murdoch looked intently into Johnny’s eyes and could see his son was struggling to reconcile what he overheard, with what his father was saying.

Johnny turned to his mother with the same questions written on his young face. “Si hijo. It is true.  He is your papa.  He always has been.”

“But why….?” Johnny started and once again looked down unable to meet his mother eyes.

Maria sighed and looked for a moment at Murdoch. At his nod she began, “When I was younger….I …did not use good judgment.   Your papa and I had some misunderstandings and when we left I was pregnant.” She stopped when she saw the look of surprise Johnny gave her.

“Did you have a baby?”

“No, mijo. It was not meant to be. I lost the baby a few weeks after we left here.  But that is what Maria was speaking of.  Not you my son.  I love you with my life and your papa does too. Do you believe me?”

Johnny looked intently at his mother and then his eyes turned to his father and he said clearly. “I believe you.”

Murdoch did not hold back this time, he reached over and drew Johnny into a bear hug.  “I love you Johnny and don’t you ever forget that.”

“I love you too papa.” Johnny fiercely returned the hug and then drew away long enough to smile shyly and ask, “Can I get out of bed now?”

“Nice try son.  You’re in this bed until the doctor says you can get up.  He’ll be back later this afternoon so we’ll see what he says.”

Maria stood up and pulled the covers down, “Come on nino, lay back down, you need some more sleep.”

Johnny slipped down in the bed under protest and his parent’s watched with amused smiles as their son’s eyelids sagged and he was soon breathing lightly, fast asleep.

Murdoch silently closed the door, and smiled briefly, “He had to try it didn’t he?”

Maria smiled back at the shared moment, “Si, he is his father’s son.”

*********

Scott shifted restlessly on the hard seat as the stage hit yet another hole on the road.  He was still furious with his father and even more troubling, gravely disappointed in him.  He had never doubted his father’s love for him. Even when Johnny came home and took up so much of his father’s attention and time, Scott never felt left out.

This was different.  He was being excluded and it felt like no one cared or even noticed.  On top of that was the anger and sadness over losing his dear friend, Maria. She had been a constant in his life. Someone who seemed to exist only to care for him, make sure he was happy and well cared for. Now she had been sent away…. like he was.

The coach hit what felt like a rock and almost hung in the air as Scott held his breath until the rocking and swaying stopped and settled back on its path.  Scott’s thoughts returned to his problems and try as he might, he felt his resolve slipping in his anger toward his father.  He loved his father and he knew deep down his father loved him without reservation.  ‘Why wouldn’t he listen to me?’  Scott asked himself over and over.  Scott had been so sure his father would listen to reason, but Scott wasn’t even given the opportunity.

Miles flew by and before he knew it, they stopped at a way station for a change of horses.  The next stop would be the ferry crossing and then many more long hours before they arrived in Sacramento.  He resolved to carry on with his plans.  He’d already sent a wire to his grandfather to let him know he would be coming to Boston a few months earlier than planned, before starting his education at Harvard. Scott looked out the window without really seeing the scenery and wondered how long it would be before his father found his note.

He hoped Johnny would be alright.  More than his father or the ranch, he’d miss Johnny the most. That thought stuck in his mind. ‘He’d miss his little brother the most.’

**********

Murdoch and Maria settled themselves in chairs in the living room. Maria  could feel her own tension rising as she knew this was most likely going to be a very unpleasant conversation, but she was resolved to see if through for her son’s sake.  She knew she had to stand up to what she had done if she had any hope of a future involvement in Johnny’s life.

She knew she had acted haughty to gain a foothold, but she also knew she had been bluffing hard and didn’t have anything to back up her claim if Murdoch really wanted her out of their life.  She was in the wrong. She had abandoned the marriage and she had no right to claim anything now.

Murdoch was a fair, if harsh man, so she hoped he’d forgive her failings as a young wife and mother.  At almost 30, she now knew herself better and knew how flighty and selfish she’d been.  She’d allowed another woman’s lies to take hold in her mind and she used those lies as an excuse for her own behavior. She flushed with shame at just the thought of all she had done, and waited for Murdoch to start the conversation.

Murdoch cleared his throat, “Maria.  I’m not exactly sure where to begin…there’s so much we need to talk about.  One thing I want to make perfectly clear, I never, ever, had an improper relationship with that woman or any other woman or wanted to.  It was you that I loved, and if somehow I made you feel that I wanted another woman, I am sorry.”

Maria looked at him in surprise as this was not the direction she expected the conversation to go. “I just thought…you’d grown weary of me. That I was too demanding and …I was too much trouble.  I know I did not please you many times.  I embarrassed you in front of your friends and business associates.” Her fingers nervously turned the silver bracelets on her arm.

“I don’t deny you made me so mad I saw red on several occasions with your antics, but I realized later, too late actually, that it was just that, your spirit that I loved most about you.  You weren’t like other women, bound by convention.  You said what you thought and didn’t let a little thing like the censor of others slow you down.”

Maria smiled slightly at the memories of those long ago days. “I was headstrong and wanted my own way.  The more you tried to control me, the more I fought you…I am sorry for what it is worth.”

“Why didn’t you come to me, talk to me if you were so unhappy?”

Maria shook her head and Murdoch stared as the light reflected off her dark hair, “I should have, but at first I trusted Maria.  I thought she was my friend and she told me men did not like to be bothered by such things. When she told me you were regretting marrying me, I did not believe her.  I ….refused to believe her, but then the fights we had…. The endless silence afterwards and nothing was resolved. I started having doubts and I was so scared of losing you.”

“She told you didn’t she?  That I was seeing another woman, and that I didn’t want you anymore.  She told you I wished I had never married you didn’t she?” His voice rang with his frustration.

Maria sighed, “Si. She told me that.” Maria looked up at the man she married 12 years ago with tears filling her eyes.  “I let Jose make advances toward me. I’d hoped you would fight for me or say once and for all you did not want me.  Jose made me feel safe. He was powerful…amazing how one so powerful can become so pitiful.”  She frowned and shook her head, “I was a fool. You did not even notice.  That is what led me to believe more than anything you wished me gone, even when you caught Jose kissing me, you did not fight for me, for us.” She stopped to collect herself as she had no desire to accuse Murdoch, as she knew she was solely responsible for her actions.

*********

Murdoch steepled his fingers and pressed his lips together while he collected his thoughts.  “It came out of the blue.” He shook his head, “I had no idea you were seeing Jose.  I knew something was wrong, I mean we seemed to argue constantly. Nothing I did seemed to make you happy.  I found solace in my work.  I took my happiness from my time with Johnny and I hoped and prayed you’d settle in with enough time.  I know now that was the wrong way to handle it. Problems don’t go away if you ignore them, I should have forced the issue and made sure we talked everything out.  I just wish you’d come to me, but I suppose I understand why you didn’t.”

“You are being most understanding of this, Murdoch.”

“We can’t change what happened Maria.  We have to move forward.  We can remain angry and resentful; allow it to hurt us and our son, or we can try to forgive each other. Which is it going to be?”

Maria looked at him with eyes shining as she’d hoped to hear those words from him,  “I have spent so much time searching for what does not exist anywhere but here. I promise to do nothing to hurt you or our son ever again. You have my word on that. Do you believe me Murdoch?”

Murdoch stared at the woman who he’d once felt such love and intense hatred for. So many emotions crashed down on him that he was unable to form the words he wanted to say for a moment.  He watched as Maria’s features changed from hope to anguish as she thought her words had fallen on deaf ears.  He gathered his resolve and spoke from his heart.  He reached over and took her hand, “I loved you with all my heart…I know I am not an easy man to live with Maria.  I’ve had to become hard at times to survive. I allowed myself to retreat into building the ranch in order to hide from my feelings when we grew apart.  I have learned a lot over the last few years.  If you would be willing, I would like to try again.  We’ve both come a long way to get back here. What do you say? We’ll take it slow and when it feels right, we’ll know. In the meantime…you…er…ah …can remain in the guest room.”

“Yes.  I want to try again too.” She was in his arms for their first embrace in many years and they both felt the years melt away leaving hope in the place of anger and disappointment.

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

Part 15

Murdoch walked Sam downstairs to see his old friend to the door.  He had just given them good news on Johnny’s recovery.  Maria stayed behind to help Johnny dress and Murdoch knew they’d both soon have their hands full keeping him quiet as the doctor ordered.

“That boy of yours is doing fine Murdoch. Just make sure he doesn’t overdo it.  Keep him in the house for a few days, off horses and out of trees for at least a week.  He should be able to go back to school next week.”

“We’ll have to watch him like a hawk, or he’ll be off running around outside before we know it.”

Sam threw his old friend a sympathetic smile, “He’s on the mend, and how are you doing?”

Murdoch sighed, “I’m all right.  So many things have been happening all at once.”  He looked at the family doctor who knew him so well.  “Maria and I are going to give it a try.  We’ve come to an understanding.”

Sam held Murdoch’s gaze for a moment, before offering his hand, “I’m happy for you Murdoch.  I hope it works out.”

Murdoch pursed his lips and looked out the window before answering, “Thanks Sam.  We’re both willing to try and we’ve talked through a lot of misunderstanding….a lot of hurt.”

“But?  You don’t seem all that happy.” Sam prodded.

Murdoch faced the doctor and rubbed his face with one large work hardened hand. He shook his head, “I just don’t know, Sam.  It’s Scott.  He’s having a hard time with all of this.  It’s my fault actually.  I got so caught up in Maria’s return and then Johnny’s injuries, I didn’t notice how upset Scott was becoming.”

“That’s understandable Murdoch.  Johnny was badly injured. Scott’s mature enough to see you needed to focus your attention on his brother. I can’t believe he’d resent you for that.”

Sam stopped at Murdoch’s upraised hand, “No. That’s not what I meant.  Scott was just as worried about Johnny as I was.  It’s Maria.  Scott kept pressing me to explain and I just didn’t have any answers for him…or myself.  I cut him off and he walked away.  He left this morning to return to school and I just feel….”

“What do you feel?”

“I don’t know.  Something about it felt so final.  I can’t explain it exactly, just something in the way he looked at me.  He’s got me worried Sam.”

Sam saw the indecision on Murdoch’s face and he knew his old friend was struggling with that as much as anything.  Murdoch Lancer was not a man used to being indecisive.

Sam, being the experienced country doctor he was, knew exactly when to prod and when to push and Murdoch was a man in need of a little push.  “Why don’t you talk it over with Maria.  Johnny’s going to be tied to the house for a few of days.  That should give you enough time to get up to Sacramento to make things right with Scott.”

The doctor picked up his bag and winked at his friend, “Maria herself needs a few more days to recover and it’ll do her good to mother that little rascal of yours while you’re gone.”

Murdoch chuckled, “Thanks again Sam. I’m beholding to you…for everything.”

***********

Murdoch turned to go find Paul to let him know he’d be in charge of the ranch for a few days when he heard Maria call his name from upstairs.  Something about her voice caused him to hurry to the stairs and take them two at a time.

“Murdoch!”

He rushed to Johnny’s room, “What is it? What’s wrong?”

“It’s this…a note from Scott.  Murdoch, he’s not just going back to school, he’s leaving for Boston.” She said gently offering him the note.

Murdoch wordlessly reached for the note and Scott’s neat handwriting swirled before his eyes. It was Johnny’s insistent voice that broke through the hurt flowing through him.

“Pa. Ya gotta stop him.  He weren’t supposed to go till July.  He told me hisself.  He can’t go now….he promised!”

Murdoch felt his eyes fill with tears to match Johnny’s.   Murdoch knelt down to be at Johnny’s height, “Son, I’ll go find him and talk to him.  I’ll see if I can convince him to come back.  I need a favor from you Johnny. Will you help me out?”

Johnny stood himself up straight and looked his father in the eye, “Sure, pa.  Anything.”

“I want you to stay here and take care of your Ma.  She’s still recovering and can’t get around real well.  The doctor said you both need to rest for a few more days and I don’t want to have to be worrying about you while I’m gone.  Will you do that for me son?”

“I’ll do it pa.  I’ll take care of mama and you just bring my brother home.”

Murdoch felt his heart stretch just a bit at the trust he saw in Johnny’s eyes.  “I better go pack, then.  If I get going, I can cut cross country and catch the last stage out today.”

He gave Johnny a quick hug and ruffled his hair and headed to his room to pack.  He quickly stuffed a spare shirt and a pair of socks in his saddle bag when he realized that Maria was standing in the door way watching him.

“Be careful Murdoch, and….bring your son home.  I know he left because of me…”

“No Maria. He left because of me.  I saw he was upset and I didn’t do anything about it.  I just hope I’m not too late.”

Maria walked with Murdoch down stairs, He looked at her once more and she stepped into his arms. Their brief kiss galvanized him to action, “I’ll be back as soon as I can.” He grabbed his gun belt and shrugged on his coat. He gazed at his wife one last time before settling his hat on his head, he turned on his heel and left the house.

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

Scott drew his coat up around himself and shivered as a gust of winter air blew in through the stage windows.  Even with the canvas coverings lashed down tightly, the cold gushed into the stage causing the four passengers to wish they’d arrive soon at the next stop.

Scott was looking forward to getting out and stretching his legs. This next stop crossed the river on the old ferry and took quite a while as the stage was maneuvered by hand onto the deck.  Fresh horses were waiting on the other side, and they should arrive in Sacramento an hour after dark.

He went through his plans once more, thinking about saying goodbye tomorrow to several school friends.  He wouldn’t tell anyone until tomorrow of his plans.  He would make a point to see Sharon and Samantha before he left the city as the three of them had grown to be close friends over the last semester.  He’d miss their good humor and high spirits.  The friendly debates and rivalry between the two girls had given way to true friendship between the three of them.  Scott smiled at the thought of them, and wondered where life would take all of them in the next few years.

His mind shifted back to his family and his problems at home.   He’d never been one to run from a problem, but try as he might he couldn’t see how he could be part of that household.  With a mental shrug he tried to push thoughts of them out of his mind, but they were stubborn and he found his lips twitching at his brother’s recent antics.

‘His brother.’  Those words radiated through his mind and hurt cascaded over him.  Giving up Johnny was probably the hardest thing he’d ever had to do.  He knew at some level, he wasn’t actually giving up his brother, but being apart from him sure felt like it. They’d grown so close so quickly and Scott felt a strong sense of duty toward him.  He knew he loved his brother with all his heart, but he also felt very protective toward him.

Johnny was a pretty independent boy.  He’d certainly seen some of the rougher side of life. He’d experienced things Scott couldn’t even imagine, but his brother retained a cheerful exuberance for life that Scott envied.  Johnny always seemed grateful for the small things and it was contagious. When they were together, Scott felt young and free, and he knew this feeling was going to be missing from his life on the path he had chosen.

Scott knew how much it meant to Johnny to have his parents together.  He hoped for his brother’s sake that they could make it work.  Johnny deserved that stability in his life.  Scott knew that Johnny loved their father and him as well the ranch, but he worried constantly about his mother.  If that burden was lifted from his brother’s young shoulders wouldn’t that be worth putting up with Maria in their home?  He rolled the question around and around as the stage drew further from Lancer.

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

Murdoch just barely caught the last stage to Sacramento. He’d tossed the reins of his exhausted horse to Clem at the livery stable and asked him to cool him off.  Then he’d rushed to the depot as the stage was getting ready to leave.

“Hold up!” he’d called. “One more to Sacramento.”  He tossed his saddle bags to the driver and hurried in to pay his fare.

Moments later he boarded the stage and tipped his hat to the middle age couple already occupying the coach. “Ma’am, sorry to keep you waiting.”  He held on for a moment as the fresh horses caused the stage to lurch forward.  “My name is Murdoch Lancer. I own a ranch about 10 miles south of here.”

“Marvin and Marybelle Tucker.” The man introduced.  “We live down near Stockton and we’re heading to Sacramento for a wedding.”

“I’m sure glad we haven’t had any rain for a few days or these roads would be bogged down in mud.” Murdoch tried making small talk but his heart wasn’t really in it, and he was grateful when the couple seemed happy to retreat into polite silence.

He allowed himself to relax into the seat, and tried to find the most comfortable position for his long legs and large frame. He crossed his arms and began nodding off  as the events of the last few days finally caught up to him.  He’d be at the crossing in 4 hours, and they would spend the night at the way station before resuming their trip to Sacramento.

He’d get to the school by mid morning and he’d just have to hope it was in time.  He’d go all the way to San Francisco if he had to if it meant he could square things with Scott.  He was prepared to apologize and more if Scott would give him the chance.  After they talked everything out, if Scott still wanted to go to Boston, he’d let him and wish him well.  He hoped though, he’d be able to convince Scott to come home and give the family a chance to be whole.

The miles flew by and Murdoch drifted off to sleep. His head nodded gently as the stage coach rattled and rolled its way toward Sacramento.

**********

Johnny was starting to fidget because of his forced inactivity.  Teresa was hunched over the checker board, and Johnny waited impatiently for her to make a move.  He had already planned several of his next moves based on what she might do and he was growing bored while she decided.

“Come on Teresa!  Move already.”

Teresa raised her eyes and looked at him with a frown.  She had one long braid in her left hand where she had been twisting it as she thought about her move. “Don’t rush me Johnny.” She admonished.  “I’m still deciding.”

“Well it don’t really matter cause yer gonna lose no matter which way you move.” Johnny informed her.

“That’s not true!” She cried.

“It is true.” Johnny asserted.  “See if you move here, I jump you like this and then you king me.  If you move here, I take all these.” Johnny made the motion of jumping over three of Teresa’s checkers.

“You think you’re so smart.  Fine!”  The little girl picked up the checker board and dumped it into Johnny’s lap, checkers and all and stormed out of the living room.

“What happened mijo?”  Maria asked as she came to see what the ruckus was about.

Johnny was down on his knees reaching under the couch for some pieces that rolled under there and he scooped up a couple before answering.  “She just got sore cause I was winnin’, that’s all.”

“She’s younger than you are Juanito, so you need to give her a chance.  I’m sure your brother has done that for you.”

“I win Scott all the time.  I outsmart him, he don’t let me win.” Johnny’s voice trailed off as he wondered a bit if maybe Scott did give him a chance after all.

“Still, you need to treat Teresa like she’s your little sister.  You owe her an apology for hurting her feelings.”

“You heard…?”

“Si mijo.  I heard.  Now go find her and then wash up for supper.  It is almost ready.”

Johnny brightened at the thought of food and quickly put the checkers and board in it’s place on the shelf  before asking,  “What’re you fixin’ mama?”

“Tamales, arroz con polo and I made some fresh tortillas.”

Johnny felt his mouth start to water at the thought of his mother’s tortillas.  “I’ll go find Teresa and I’ll be right back.”

“Hurry chico, but don’t run.’ Maria reminded him as Johnny slowed to a fast walk in search of Teresa.

********

Johnny and Maria enjoyed their first meal together in over a year.  Maria watched in satisfaction as Johnny ate everything on his plate with relish and even had seconds.

“Muchas gracias, mama.  That was good.”

“Gracias Johnny.  Now, you can help me clean up.  Then I think we both better go to bed early.”

Johnny got up and began clearing the table.  He carried several dish loads to the kitchen where his mother was washing them in a sink of hot soapy water.  He started to get the last of the serving plates, when he stopped and asked, “Where do you think papa is right now?”

Maria turned from the sink and saw the concern written all over her son’s face.  “He’s probably at the way station since its getting dark.  He said he’d be in Sacramento tomorrow morning.”

“What about Scott?”

“He’s probably almost to Sacramento.  He should be there in an hour or so anyway.” Maria wiped her wet hands on a dish towel as her son’s fragile emotional state was much more important than a few dirty dishes.

“Nino, come sit with me a minute.”

Johnny sat at the kitchen table across from his mother and held her eyes for a moment.  In a low voice, almost too quiet for her to hear, he said, “I miss my brother.  I miss Scott.”

Johnny raised head and Maria almost gasped at the sadness written on her son’s face and haunting those earnest blue eyes.  Desperately she sought words of comfort. “Your papa will try to get him to come home.  It’ll work out. I know it will.  He’s very special to you isn’t he?”

“He’s the best….he’s my brother.” Johnny said slowly as if that explained everything and Maria could see that in Johnny’s heart that did explain everything.

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

Part 16

Murdoch felt relief as the stage pulled into the station by the river.  His stomach grumbled and while he knew food at the crossing wouldn’t be as good as home, at least it would be hot and filling.

The couple across from him were stirring as the horses slowed for the final curve before they all stopped for the night.  “I’m so glad were here.” Mrs. Tucker sighed as she replaced her traveling hat and straightened her coat.

“At least for the night.” Her husband replied.

The stage rocked to a stop and the travelers climbed stiffly from the coach.  The stage agent came to greet them. “Welcome Folks.  Got a bit of bad news.  We’re full up tonight, the earlier stage couldn’t cross cause the river was too rough.  Water’s runnin’ a mite high tonight.  Storm musta hit the high country.”

Before the others could say anything, Murdoch asked, “Do you think we can cross in the morning?”

“Generally the river is pretty calm in the morning, we just couldn’t take a chance on it tonight.”

“Where shall we sleep?”  Mrs. Tucker asked.

“Actually, we have a room for the two of you, just not the gent.  Sorry, Mr. Lancer, you’ll have to bed down in the barn with the other men.  We just got us two rooms and another couple are already settled.”

Murdoch wasn’t particularly pleased with the arrangements, but he’d had worse and it was only for one night.  “Sound’s fine.”

“If you folks would care to wash up first, we have some hot food and coffee ready for ya.  The other passengers already ate, but there’s plenty.”

**********

Murdoch slid off the bench after eating his fill.  He figured he’d take a walk before retiring and said his goodnights to his fellow passengers.  He stood on the porch and took a deep breath of the crisp winter air.  With determined strides he walked down the steps and paced around the stage yard.  He felt full of nervous energy and while his mind was weary, he knew he’d have a hard time settling down to sleep.

He walked along the river and listened to the sound of the water as it lapped the banks and splashed against the waiting ferry.  The moon reflected off the water and he was amazed at the intensity of the night sky.  In winter when the sky was clear, the stars seemed to be close enough to touch.

After an hour of stretching his legs, he decided to sack in for the night.  The stage master had left a bedroll for him on the porch, so he collected his bedding and slipped into the dark barn.  He stood for a moment inhaling the sounds and smells of the animals inside.

He waited for his eyes to adjust to the darkness before stepping around the mounds of the  two sleeping men.  With a smile and sigh of relief, he noted the tousled blonde hair of one of the men.  Murdoch crawled into the bedroll and faster than he thought possible, fell asleep.

**********

Morning came and Scott carefully assessed his surroundings before shrugging off the bedroll.  Straw clung to his hair and had crept down into the bedroll with him. Somehow it had even found itself inside his shirt and he sat up frowning in disgust.  His nimble fingers unbuttoned his shirt and he brushed the offending straw off his chest. Now more comfortable, he rose and made his way to the outhouse and to the waiting water basin to clean up.

The cold water stung his face and he rubbed it briskly dry with the bit of towel provided by the stage agent.  He could see the stove pipe billowing out smoke and his stomach grumbled as he looked forward to breakfast and a hot cup of coffee.  He rubbed his hand across the light stubble on his cheeks and figured he could wait until he arrived at his destination to shave.

Scott turned to pickup his jacket and when he turned around his eyes opened widely at the sight of his father offering him a steaming cup of coffee.

“Here, son.  You probably need this as much as I do.”

Scott stared at him for a moment before taking the coffee cup, “Thanks.”  He held the hot mug in both hands and blew on it before taking a tentative sip.  He grimaced at the bitter brew. “Strong.”

“It’ll put hair on your chest.  In fact when I stirred it, the spoon stood up in it.” Murdoch tried to break the ice with a little joke that fell flat with Scott.

Scott sighed and decided to come right to the point. He was tired of his father avoiding talking about anything important.  “What are you doing here sir?  I mean shouldn’t you be home with your wife and son?”

Scott stared at his father with an icy expression and waited.  He wasn’t disappointed when he got the reaction he was expecting. “I don’t appreciate your tone young man!” Murdoch snapped.

“So you decided to come after me and begin acting like my father again, right?”

“I have always been your father and don’t you ever forget it!” Scott watched as his father struggled to regain his composure.   “I was going to come after you and try to explain what has been going on.  I wanted to ask you to come home and give us a chance.”

“And now?” Scott glared.

“And now, I’m going to remind you that you are a 16 year old *boy* and you are just going to have to trust me to know I’m doing the right thing.”

Scott set his coffee cup on the top of a fence post. He looked his father up and down and felt a little afraid, but at the same time it was strangely comforting to have his father act like his normal bossy self.  He realized with a flash this is what he’d been missing in the last week.  His father was normally so sure of himself but lately around Maria, he’d been practically giddy and transfixed by the woman. He hoped his father had found his footing and was getting back to his normal self.  That father was the man he respected and trusted. Still, he reasoned, he wasn’t just going to give in without an explanation.

“So what are you saying Pa?  Shut up and don’t ask questions?”

Murdoch’s tone softened, “Come over here Scott and sit with me.”

Scott followed his father to the bales of hay stacked next to the barn. Murdoch pulled out a bale and motioned for Scott to sit.  He pulled out another bale and he sat on it so the two of them could face each other.

Scott sat and waited for his father to make the next move.  It was now or never as far as he was concerned.  If his father failed to convince him, he’d get on the stage and he’d at least know he needed to move on with his life.  A large part of him hoped his father would say the words he needed to hear to make it right.

*********

Murdoch cleared his throat and felt his hands go clammy as he was unexpectedly nervous at having this conversation with his son.  He was generally self assured, but he knew a lot was resting on this talk with Scott.

“Son, I’m sorry I didn’t talk to you before you left about Maria.  I…..well….I have no good excuse.  I was just trying to figure it all out. Maria and I had a lot to talk through. We still do, but Scott we found out our marriage was interfered with, and a lot of the hurt and misunderstandings, were caused by that.”

“Is that why you fired Maria?”

“Yes, Scott. I wish there was another way. I know you loved her and she you, but son, she did something very wrong that affected us all.” Murdoch held a hand up at Scott’s protest. “I know, she may have thought she was doing it to help, but it wasn’t her place.  Her lies drove a wedge between my wife and myself and made a bad situation impossible.  It made Maria think I didn’t want her as my wife and she left taking Johnny with her.”

“She didn’t have to leave Pa. She could have stayed and talked to you.” Scott reasoned.

“That’s true son and she realizes she should have done that.  Scott, Maria was very young.  She was only 19 when she left.  She made a mistake, she knows that now.”

“Sir, how can you forgive her?  She betrayed you. She stole Johnny and lied to him, and now she just comes back and barges into our house like she never left?” Scott’s voice rose as his sense of injustice returned.

Murdoch sighed as he felt the full force of Scott’s anger and frustration.  Hoping to defuse it and explain he went on, “Son, she made errors in judgment. She was insecure because I failed to see how she was being treated by others in the community.  I didn’t notice that people talked about her behind my back and I didn’t realize she felt like she was failing me as the wife I needed.  She started thinking she was not living up to my expectations, and she started to think that I wanted to find a more suitable wife.”

“What do you mean, ‘a more suitable wife’?” Scott asked, clearly puzzled.

“Some of my associates evidently felt a Mexican woman was not a suitable wife for one of their business partners and Maria became aware of that.  She was led to believe that I was interested in another woman….”

Scott’s quick mind latched on to that, “Led to believe…as in Maria told your wife you didn’t want her anymore….” Scott’s voice dwindled away as the pieces of the puzzle fell into place.

“Unfortunately, that is what happened.  Maria knows she should have come to me so we could work it out, but instead she…..well…..turned to another man.” Murdoch stopped uncomfortable discussing something so personal with his son.

“Er…I see.” Scott sounded uncomfortable with the details of his father’s past. “So what now?”

“Maria and I have had a long talk. We cleared the air and we’ve decided to give it some time and see if we can repair the damage that was done.” Murdoch felt distinctly uncomfortable talking to his son about this but felt it was his duty as Scott’s father to explain, “Scott, I still love her and she loves me.  We want to try again, but son, I don’t want to lose you. I love you and I think Maria will love you too once she gets to know you.  Will you give us a chance, son?”

Murdoch’s eyes bore into Scott’s, full of hope that Scott would give him that chance.  Before Scott could respond, they heard the stage agent calling for them.

“Gents.  Stage is loaded and the ferry’s getting’ ready to pull out. Ya’ll missed breakfast, so you just gotta wait till ya get to Sacramento. Git on board.”

Scott and Murdoch watched at the crusty agent spun on his heel and stalked back to the depot.

Murdoch looked at Scott and waited, “Well, son.  Which is it?”

Murdoch waited while Scott made up his mind.  He heart felt like it was breaking as he watched his son struggle with his decision. He’d almost given up when his son rewarded him with a smile and a quiet, “Let’s go home Pa.”

Murdoch’s face felt like it was going to crack as a large grin broke out on his face and he reached across and gave Scott a hug.  He cradled Scott against his large chest and whispered, “I love you, Scott,” into the mop of blonde hair.

“I love you too Pa.”

“Let’s go home, son.”

*********

Scott and Murdoch rode back to the ranch from the stage depot in Green River.  It had been a very long two days but they had worked out a lot of hurt feelings on the journey home.  Their bodies were weary, but they both finally felt comfortable with each other and Murdoch, felt a lightness in his heart as his hope for the future burned brightly.

They stopped at the overlook and admired the way the setting sun bathed the ranch house and outbuildings in its yellow cast, softening the lines in the distance.

Murdoch smiled as he heard Scott’s contented sigh.  “Good to be home.” Murdoch voiced Scott’s thoughts.

“Yes….it’s good to be home.”

Father and son started together down the road leading to their home, both feeling content and ready to face whatever the future held.

As they trotted down into the meadow for the final mile to the house, Scott dug his heels into the sides of his rented horse and yelled, “Race ya!”

Murdoch quickly urged his own horse into a gallop and was quickly catching his son.  For the first time in years, Murdoch reveled in the feeling of his lost youth.  His heart soared almost as fast as his horse raced, and by the time they came upon the Lancer arch, he’d caught his son.  Both reined reluctantly to a walk and they both burst out laughing at the sheer exhilaration of the race.

“Better not let Johnny see us racing.  We’re always telling him not to race his horse.” Scott advised.

Murdoch tried to assume a stern face and failed miserably, “Not a good thing to do.  Give a horse bad habits.” He nudged his horse toward the house.

Tethering their horses at the hitching rail, they walked into the house with Murdoch’s arm slung over Scott’s shoulders.

“Maria!  Johnny!  We’re home!”  Murdoch shouted in greeting.

 

~end~

To Five Years Later

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