The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Tina

 

 

Zenith Of His Desires

Chapter 1
‘They’ Are the Smart People’

 

Scott rode for over an hour looking for his new brother at Murdoch’s insistence. There was a part of him that was concerned and a part of him that knew he shouldn’t be. Johnny was a grown man after all, able to make his own decisions with or without his or Murdoch’s help and had done so from what little Scott knew for a very long time.

He found him at last, sitting on a flat overhanging rock that jutted precariously out from a sheer cliff face overlooking the valley below. It made his heart flutter in his chest to see Johnny sitting there, legs swinging in the open air beneath him, looking for all the world like a kid on a swing rather than a man who had just gotten over a severe bullet wound to the back.

Scott brought his horse to a halt next to the golden palomino admiring the beauty of the surroundings and the fine specimen of horseflesh their father gifted to them on their first day home. He smiled at the significance of what the word meant to him, amazed he was already thinking of this wondrous and wild territory as his home.

He picked his way toward Johnny and sat down beside him, the two of them brothers, the uncalculated, surprising new factor in his life looking down at what should have been their home all their lives. “It’s beautiful . . . isn’t it?” he said with awe.

Scott waited for an answer . . . expecting one, but not getting it as he hoped. He blinked, leaned over the edge and looked down at the sheer drop below with a soft whistle before turning to look at his brother. “I’m not fond of heights.”

When his brother didn’t respond a second time, Scott asked, “You not talking today or what?”

“What do you want me to say?”

“You could try answering my question for starters,” Scott replied.

Johnny sighed and looked down at the lean fingers on the ground beside him and back out across the valley, “I guess it is.”

“You know, Johnny . . . this brother thing works a whole lot better when you put more effort into it.”

“I answered your question,” Johnny said with quiet reserve.

“Barely,” Scott said with a hint of annoyance. He wondered if this was what is was like between brothers. Would they have been this way their whole lives or more open, more carefree and spontaneous with each other? He thought the answer a solid 'yes.'

Johnny turned to look at Scott, his dark blue eyes squinting under the brim of his hat. “What do you want from me?”

“I want that cocky, little, know-it-all brother, that you were before you turned into this morose skeleton of a man I hardly know at all.”

“Morose?”

“Gloomy . . . depressed . . . miserable . . . take your pick,” Scott replied waving a hand through the air. “What’s got into you? Why are you so standoffish and quiet lately?” Scott asked.

“Didn’t think I was bein’ that way,” Johnny said calmly. 'How could you hardly know me, when you don’t know me at all?' Johnny thought. 'If you really knew me, you’d leave this place and never return or have the old man send me right back to the pit of hell I crawled out of.'

“Well you are . . . or I should say . . . you have been ever since we signed those papers,” Scott retorted. He nudged Johnny in the arm with his elbow, “Come on . . . tell me what you’re thinking when you look out there,” Scott coaxed, spreading his hand toward the valley below and the ranch they now called home.

Johnny took off his hat and wiped away the sweat on his forehead with the sleeve of his shirt. “Guess I don’t know what to think.”

“Why not?”

“Cause I don’t know if it’s real . . . if it’s permanent or not,” Johnny told him honestly.

“I don’t understand, Johnny. Look out there. You own one third of everything,” Scott declared.

“I can see it,” Johnny stated matter of fact. “Don’t mean it can’t be taken from me if the old man decides he made a big mistake asking me to come here.”

“That’s crazy, Johnny! Murdoch wouldn’t do anything like that,” Scott told him.

Johnny shook his head and put his hat back on, “That’s because you trust people, Scott. I don’t.”

“That hurts, Johnny,” Scott said looking down at his hands. He had hoped in the short time they’d been together that he and Johnny could trust each other after everything they had been through. Apparently he thought wrong . . . or maybe thought it too soon.

“I ain’t tryin’ to hurt you Scott . . . I don’t know any other way to think. I stayed alive a lot of years by not havin’ trust in people. The one person I did trust . . .” Johnny’s voice trailed into nothingness, his guard up suddenly when he realized what he’d been about to say. He didn’t think Scott could possibly understand the daily anguish he was going through since he’d learned the truth about his mother.

Scott thought he knew what Johnny had been about to say but he didn’t press, knowing it was too personal an issue to take up with him so soon in their relationship. How could he when he knew so little and their father hadn’t done much more than issue out commands since the first day they’d arrived?

Of course Johnny had been too ill and Scott too absorbed in learning how to become a rancher for any of them to take the time to talk and set some things straight. And even if there had been time, he wasn’t all that sure that Murdoch would tell them anything they wanted or needed to hear. To Scott, Murdoch seemed just as reticent and mistrustful as the rest of them.

The ‘old man’, as Johnny was prone to calling their father, seemed closed off to baring his soul and speaking of the past, good or bad. Murdoch had made no verbal attempt to make right any of the wrongs done to them with a few comforting words or brief explanations that might have dispelled some of their doubts about him as their father, either before or after taking him up on his offer of a partnership.

But unlike his recalcitrant little brother, Scott had no qualms about accepting the offer, such as it was. He was an adventurer at heart, not so much ruled by his feelings as Johnny seemed to be, and held no high expectations about Murdoch in the first place. For years he’d felt the loss of both father and mother, but loved and nurtured by his grandfather, he felt little pang in his heart over it other than wishful thinking when he was a child growing up.

The man he met as father was much as Scott expected, no less, no more. Cold, hard, rigid . . . a curiosity to Scott who wanted to know more about him the longer he stayed. Explanations would come later. It was human nature to become closer, to know one another once the relationship had a foundation upon which to build. Until then, Scott thought logically, he would bid his time and do his best to discover the complexities of the one variable he hadn’t counted on when he traveled across the country . . . having a brother he knew nothing about.

He knew intuitively that Johnny wasn’t ready for secret confidences just yet, but he wanted to say something, anything to break the uncomfortable wall of silence between them. Scott wanted to bond . . . to plant the seed of trust he hoped would grow with time and encouragement.

“There are rules you know,” Scott said thoughtfully without looking at his brother.

The reaction Scott hoped for came quickly, hook, line and sinker. “What rules . . . what are you talkin’ about?” Johnny asked while trying hard not to sound too curious.

Scott smiled. Playing big brother might not be as hard as he at first thought it was going to be. “The rules they have between brothers.”

Johnny picked up a pebble and threw it into the air, watching it arch and then fall to the ground below with a grin. “Who’s 'they'?” Johnny asked uncertainly, playing along with Scott’s game for now. Sometimes . . . only sometimes . . . it was easy to like having a brother, especially one that seemed to have all the answers to the questions in the universe.

Scott grinned when he got the dubious response he expected and picked up a pebble too, throwing it out into the open and letting it drop to the ground like Johnny had done. “'They' . . . are the smart people in the world. The people who make up the rules so bothers like us know what to do.”

Johnny snorted softly, the corners of his mouth edging upward into a rakish smile that was remarkably handsome on his face and caused crinkles to deepen around his deep blue eyes. Johnny had called him pretty. But if he was pretty, then his brother was beautiful.

“That doesn’t tell me who they are, Scott,” Johnny remarked with a wry grin.

Scott shook his head and had to catch his hat when a slight breeze blew up the rock face and threatened to send it flying off his head. Johnny laughed, the sound bright as sunshine, full of musical warmth that caressed the listener. Scott took his hat off and then resettled it on his head a little more securely, feeling happy to be alive and sitting next to the boy, the brother he’d wished for as a child.

“Make sure you don’t go reachin’ for it if it flies off in that direction,” Johnny pointed toward the vast openness in front of them. “Don’t think they got a rule for jumpin’ off cliffs just to catch a two dollar hat.”

Scott laughed, rich and throaty sounding, genuine pleasure in his slate colored eyes as he regarded his brother. “I think I need one like yours,” Scott said indicating the leather thong that hung from Johnny’s hat.

Johnny regarded Scott mildly, his eyes searching for something in Scott’s face before he blinked and turned away again, as if he couldn’t find what it was he’d been looking for.

It seemed a small eternity that they stared down at the valley, absorbing the rustic scene below them before Scott continued his conversation. “I always wanted a brother,” he commented with a quiet seriousness. “I conjured one up in my head when I was little.” Scott laughed about this part of his life, his eyes crinkling with fine lines and blue bonnet gentleness. “Spent a lot of time telling him what he could and couldn’t do.”

“You tellin’ me you’re one of them smart people who made up the rules?” Johnny asked, responding to the lightheartedness of the conversation.

Scott leaned back, hands splayed wide on the gritty surface of the ground, lifting his face toward the bright yellow sun. “I graduated from Harvard. I suppose you could say that I qualify as being smart enough to make up a few rules when it comes to imaginary brothers.”

“Is that how you used your fancy education back east?” Johnny asked.

Scott turned his head and looked at his brother. “Most of the time. But don’t tell anyone,” he said conspiratorially.

Johnny cleared his throat and leaned back, following Scott’s example and closed his eyes. “I ain’t tellin’ anyone anything.” Johnny commented thoughtfully, “Ain’t none of my business no how . . . just seems like a waste of time though, if you ask me.”

Scott sat up and pushed his hat back off his forehead a little, “I didn’t think it was a waste of time. Didn’t you ever imagine having a brother or a sister when you were growing up?”

Johnny opened his eyes, sighing as he sat up straighter and plucked a pebble from the ground. He rolled it around between his fingers, then squinted and drew back his arm tossing the small rock into the air. “Guess I did a time or two.”

Scott hoped his brother would go on. He waited, but gave up when Johnny seemed more intent on crossing his ankles and kicking his boots back and forth while he fingered a small band of turquoise beads around his wrist. Someday you’ll talk to me, Scott thought. Really talk to me.

“You going to stay up here much longer?” Scott asked, switching to another subject, the original reason he had been out looking for Johnny instead of pouring over the accounts with Murdoch.

Johnny stopped kicking and leaned so far forward to look at the ground below them that it almost took Scott’s breath away. One slight move and he could slip right off and Scott wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. His palms got sweaty just thinking about it, hoping Johnny would say he was ready to go back so he wouldn’t have to tell him that Murdoch demanded it.

As if reading his brother’s mind, Johnny replied, “Guess we should get back. The old man didn’t want me stayin’ out too long anyways. Figure I been gone now ‘bout twice as long as he said I could.” With his head bent Johnny added quietly, “Guess you already knew that though, otherwise you wouldn’t be here in the first place.”

Scott wondered if he had been that clear as to why he was there all along. He had hoped not. He had hoped that Johnny would have seen his arrival for the better cause. Scott had wanted to spend time with him, talk to him, grateful for the opportunity to do so, but the fact was, Murdoch had sent him out to search for Johnny and bring him home.

“Are you always able to do that?” Scott asked.

Johnny scooted back, propping the heels of his boots on the rock, his hands splayed beside him on the ground. “Do what?” Johnny replied.

Scott pushed himself back and crossed his legs, “Read people. You knew as soon as I sat down that Murdoch sent me to get you?”

Johnny laughed and pushed himself to a standing position, “Didn’t have to read you to know that, Scott. Murdoch ain’t let up on the reins since I got here.”

Scott stood up and faced his brother, “He worries, Johnny.” Would his brother believe him?

Johnny started to turn and walk away but Scott grabbed his arm and kept him from leaving. Scott’s heart skipped a beat when Johnny looked down at his hand and then slowly moved his dark heated gaze up his arm and to his face.

Johnny shook his head slowly, a veil of warning swirling in the depths of stormy blue eyes, “Don’t ever grab me like that.”

Scott swallowed the lump of first fear in his throat but immediately chased it away. He knew how Johnny felt about physical confrontation. They had fought once before. Then as now, Johnny had that same look, toxic lethal ferocity, a man fully prepared to strike back if threatened. He should have known better. “I apologize, brother. No harm intended.” He fingers relaxed letting go of Johnny and dropped to his side.

The storm in Johnny subsided by sheer willpower, vanquishing all trace of the wildness that had been there a moment ago. He dropped his eyes, hiding the overwhelming sadness in his heart, the hate that made him coil up and strike like a rattlesnake just for being touched. He couldn’t help it though. It was his way. It kept him safe, distant from anyone who might hurt him if he opened the door to his heart too wide. Black curling lashes fluttered like soft feathers in the breeze when Johnny looked up, smiled timidly, cautiously, and then turned, making his way toward his horse. “You like to swim, Boston?” he asked over his shoulder.

Scott stared at his brother’s back, watched the muscles ripple beneath the faded red shirt Johnny wore as he reached down and grabbed the reins into his hand. Once again Scott was shocked, stilled by the look that had been in his brother’s eyes and then by the quicksilver change in Johnny’s disposition after he walked away. He shook off the disturbing feeling and replied, “I do.”

Johnny put a foot in the stirrup and pulled himself up into the saddle with an inaudible grunt. The pain in his back still bothered him, but he tried not to let it show. He sat up straight in the saddle and got his other foot in the stirrup, then leaned forward on the pommel while he waited for Scott to mount up. “Want to find a spot tomorrow . . . go swimmin’?”

Scott noted the exhaustion on Johnny’s face, the forced attempt to change the turn of the conversation, but kept his thoughts to himself. Johnny was offering him an opportunity to spend more time alone with him. He didn’t want to spoil the offering by remarking on how Johnny must be feeling or break the unspoken truce and forgiveness between them. Murdoch would do that on his own, none the wiser for any plans they might make before heading home.

“Sure . . . You got a plan for how we can get away?”

Johnny smiled as they pulled their mounts around and rode them down the rocky path that led to the valley below. “Not right this minute…but give me a while and I will.”

 
Chapter 2
Hard Knocks and Bruised Knuckles

 

“Sam said not to overdo, Johnny,” Murdoch reminded.

Johnny sat on the arm of the sofa facing his father’s desk, his dark head bowed, his hands in his lap, his fingers constantly in motion as he listened to Murdoch go on and on about his health and disobeying the doctor’s orders.

“He didn’t tell you all that stuff for his health. He said it for yours.” Murdoch got up from his chair a little stiffly, grabbing the cane that leaned against the edge of the desk. With his back to Johnny he stared out the great window overlooking the front drive and corralled pastures. “It took me nearly three months before I could walk without constantly being in pain, and in all that time . . . I’ve had to use this blasted thing,” he said, gritting his teeth and shaking the wooden staff for effect. “A wound like yours . . . like the one I suffer from . . . makes a man tired,” Murdoch added, dropping the bottom of the cane to the floor with a louder than usual clunk.

Johnny lifted his eyes without moving his head to look at his father. It was strange for him to hear someone admonish him for not caring about his health, for pushing himself too fast, too soon. Being this way was a part of him, he knew no other because of the life he’d led. His world swam before his eyes and he beat down the incomprehensible feelings he didn’t understand and shifted guiltily on the arm of the chair. “I wasn’t gone all that long.”

Murdoch sighed and limped around his desk to stand in front of his son. He laid a hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “You worried me. I had visions of all manner of bad things . . . and I didn’t like them.”

“I don’t understand why you were worried. I can take care of myself,” Johnny told his father. Looking up into Murdoch’s pale blue eyes he was taken aback for a second by the look of concern he saw on his father’s face. He swallowed self-consciously, feeling almost sick from the loopy feeling in the pit of his stomach, his insides churning because of the closeness . . . the touch of the hand he wasn’t prepared to accept just yet, not from Murdoch, not from Scott . . . not from anyone.

Johnny slid to his left, off the arm of the sofa and moved to stand in front of the open fireplace, breathing in . . . out . . . counting . . . uno . . . dos . . . tres, his hands flexing and un-flexing with nothing to keep them occupied other than the invisible confusion he wanted to knock out of his head if he could.

Murdoch’s hand dropped to his side when Johnny moved away from him. I can take care of myself. It hurt to have his son be so detached, so unaccustomed to the compassionate touch of another human being. It made him wonder if Johnny had ever been close to anyone. He thought perhaps not, except for his mother. But if she had been close to him, able to lovingly touch and hold her son, it must have been a long time ago.

Murdoch wasn’t sure when ‘it’ had happened. He hadn’t asked. What he knew, he knew from Johnny’s nightmarish fevers while struggling to survive the bullet removed from his back. The words echoed despondently in his ears, I can take care of myself. He wanted to cry in anguish. The Pinkerton reports hadn’t contained enough information, nothing that could have prepared him for the insurmountable peak of hatred he would feel when he learned the true extent of his son’s abuse.

During Johnny’s fevered state of mind, frightening visions were screamed into the night. Sketches of horror that made Murdoch weep for his son in the dead of dark as Johnny tossed and turned his head fitfully on the pillow. The depiction of evil was horrendous, too much for even him, a helplessly horrified father, unable to accept what had happened to his child, without losing his mind. His heart had bled from the knowing on that night, and wept for tainted love unpredictably lost forever to him. His anger toward Maria, toward the man who killed his adulterous wife and tortured his son, overwhelming him, swamping his soul with a tidal wave of fury, a need for vengeance so raw, so blistering, he thought he might die of it if he did not find some kind of release from his sorrow.

And yet Murdoch was compelled to show nothing of his feelings. He was a drowning man, a sinking ship in a sea of guilt he was unprepared to face just yet. But there would come a time. He vowed to Heaven on his knees the day his sons came home that he would face his past, explain his life, the life he unwillingly gave to them . . . and ask for their forgiveness despite what he told them in the beginning. But first he wanted loyalty, commitment to who he was now and not who he used to be then. 'A tall order,' Murdoch thought. Selfish and maybe a little cruel, but then he felt that way. It was who he was, what he made of himself after the hard knocks that beat the selfishness into him.

Murdoch subconsciously rubbed his fading bruised knuckles and limped over to the chair beside the fireplace where his son was standing. Hating that he could still hear the words in his head, I can take care of myself. He sat down, placing the walking cane beside his leg. “I know you can take care of yourself, Johnny. No one said you couldn’t.”

Johnny crossed his arms over the mantle and laid his forehead on them, toeing at some imaginary something or other with the tip end of his boot. Back and forth, a slow, grating shuffle that had rhythm and no meaning to it. “Then why do you do it? It ain’t doin’ you or me any good. I’m gonna come back if that’s what you’re worried about.”

The shuffling stopped abruptly, as if he had an unexpected notion. “Or is it that you don’t trust me?” Johnny stood up straight and dropped his arms to his sides and turned to Murdoch. “Is that it?” he asked accusingly, as if he already thought he knew the answer. His face was dark and smoldering, shadowed by his secret deep-rooted fear of being unwanted by his father.

Murdoch frowned and sighed wearily, “No, Johnny . . . that isn’t it.”

The grandfather clock bonged to the hour, loud in the middle of their conversation, low and mournful, a reminder that supper was getting nearer. One more hour . . . and it would be their thirty-sixth meal together. Murdoch had been counting . . . foolishly, happily, eccentrically, from day one. He told no one, they would think him crazy insane for doing so. It was his secret . . . his delight that the number of times they ate together was growing and growing in number. How stupid, yet how wonderful, he thought and smiled while they waited for the deep musical chime to end. Dinner together . . . his idea of family . . . of good times and pleasant evenings spent with each other. His past . . . his new future, Murdoch hoped.

“Then what is it?” Johnny asked, floundering with the content of the conversation.

“Concern . . . for your health . . . for your well being. Is that so hard for you to imagine me doing?”

Johnny stared at his father, gauging Murdoch’s tone, weighing his sincerity while doubting it all the same.  “A little.”

Murdoch sighed and picked up his cane. He stood up, wincing, putting a hand behind his lower back. When he saw Johnny move toward him, hesitate and wait, he looked up and grinned assurance, “I’m fine . . . just need a little axle grease to get me going.”

“You want me to help?” Johnny asked hesitantly.

Murdoch shook his head, “No . . . no need. I’m fine really. Just about to get this thing licked if my back wouldn’t stiffen up so.”

“Can I go then?” Johnny asked, his momentary concern for his father evaporating when the man straightened without further trouble, a full head taller than him, with a hard chest and set of broad shoulders massive enough for Johnny to wonder if his father was invincible. Johnny thought he was and backed away as Murdoch limped across the room, heading for the front door, the healing injury, no weakness on behalf of the man who had just finished lecturing him.

“Yes . . . but don’t go far. Dinner will be ready soon and you know what the rules are about that.”

The door was opened then closed behind Murdoch. He limped his way toward the barn, each step getting stronger, better as he moved. I can take care of myself. 'Someday we need to talk, you and I,' Murdoch thought. Really talk. And then, when that day comes, I want to wash away the hurt and the pain of those words I hate . . . the ones that keep you from my heart. '

 

Chapter 3

My Golden Son

Murdoch watched his fair-haired son, his first-born, loving the smoothness of his features, the litheness of his body, so familiar, yet so different, so manly compared to his Catherine, Scott’s mother. The child he had but one memory of, this man so very much like his dearly beloved wife, was a wonder to him, an amazement that startled and pleased Murdoch immeasurably. He marveled at how well Scott had turned out, despite the fact that he had been raised his entire life by a man that Murdoch both despised and to some degree, begrudgingly admired.

The last quality was a surprise to Murdoch. He hadn’t expected to feel this way, a quandary of mixed emotions about Catherine’s father. Harlan Garrett was a despicable man, a treacherous thief who took what belonged to Murdoch without regard to right or wrong, only seeing things in his way while others wilted and died by the wayside without a by your leave or a may I please. Harlan was immeasurably rich and Murdoch hadn’t been able to fight the man and take back what belonged to him . . . his son.

Murdoch limped up to the corral and crossed his arms on the top rail, watching as one of the vaqueros lent his experience in shoeing a horse with patience and ease to the eastern dandy. Already, they respected and admired the long lost son, the golden caballero who could ride like the wind and face the devil head on. Scott’s skill with a rifle, his courage, his fierce commanding leadership in the heat of battle earned him the status of legend in the making with or without the skills he needed to run a ranch from the get go. The vaqueros thought him to be honorable, a young man who could learn, a good man who would one day assume his father’s role, el Patrón del rancho.

Scott looked up from the hoof he was working on, smiled at his father and finished driving the last nail in the iron shoe. His thighs bulged, squeezing the horse’s fetlock between tight muscles before gently setting the hoof down with a sigh of satisfaction. He stepped away and watched as Pedro inspected his work.

“Muy bueno,” the older man said, smiling at Scott.

“You think I’m finally good enough that I could do it without you next time?” Scott asked.

The vaquero smiled, big and toothy, pure fantasy white in a face the color of rich brown earth. He shrugged, glancing quickly at Murdoch then back to Scott, “Es posible.” Pedro grabbed the halter and led the horse into the barn, his teaching done with.

Murdoch pushed away from the corral as Scott climbed through the rails and then clapped his gloved hands together a few times to rid the kid leather of dust and dirt that clung to them. “I think you impressed him,” Murdoch told his son, watching with carefully hidden fascination as Scott pulled one yellow glove off then the other with precise care just like he did with all his things before stuffing them inside the leather of his belt.

“You think so?” Scott asked, pulling a handkerchief out of his back pocket and wiping the sweat off his brow.

Murdoch chuckled and picked up his cane from against the rail, “I’m pretty sure. He’s singing . . . can’t you hear him?”

Scott cocked his head to the side and smiled at his father, “Yes I can, now that you’ve mentioned it.”

Murdoch clamped a hand on Scott’s shoulder, “When Pedro’s happy . . . he sings. So I think you did all right.”

“Good to know, Sir,” Scott said swiping at the dirt on the sleeves of his tan shirt.

Murdoch winced at the title Scott bestowed upon him time and time again. He hated it almost as much as he hated Johnny’s too independent nature. His son’s good manners, tight-lipped politeness were achingly painful to see and hear, too refined for his taste and too remindful of where Scott had learned his manners in the first place. He begrudged Harlan the years he claimed Scott and for the sanctimonious reasons he gave for keeping his son from him. No matter the reasons, they hardly made up for the loss that Murdoch experienced or the suffering he endured by having no contact other than a brief, five-minute introduction twenty years ago. Too long ago, too little time, too little memories for comfort or solace in his life.

In that minute, watching his eldest son, Murdoch wished for time to roll back, to start over. How different he would do things if he but had another chance. He would beat the stuffing out of Harlan, escape with his child, make haste to find Johnny and put his family together as it should have been.

“Murdoch . . . Sir?” Scott asked, looking at his father with concern.

Murdoch sighed, his breath heavy, his heart gladdened to hear Scott’s voice but not the Sir. Never . . . he would never get used to that so long as he lived. Father . . . Pa . . . Murdoch . . . they settled for Murdoch. Ah well, better than Sir.

Scott touched Murdoch’s shoulder, reminding Murdoch so much of himself. “Sir? Are you alright?”

Murdoch coughed into his hand, “I’m fine. Just got caught up in some thoughts . . . I’m sorry . . . didn’t mean to worry you.” He wanted to tell his son what he’d been thinking, but not now. It was too soon. He would though . . . one day, when he gathered up the courage to do it. And then, he would make it right with Scott somehow. But for now, he couldn’t trust himself, his overwhelming hatred for Harlan was too great, too complicated and sour on top of all his other wounds. 'Someday we need to talk, you and I,' Murdoch thought. 'Really talk. And then, when that day comes, I want wash away the hurt and the pain, the title that I hate . . . the one that keeps you from my heart. '

Murdoch started toward the house, his cane thumping the ground right alongside his stiff leg that limped when he walked, hurt when he sat too long. “You come on up to the house, Scott. Get washed up soon . . . you know how I feel about dinner.” The cane kept thumping, the leg lifting, the heel of his boot keeping time and rhythm with its wooden counterpart.

Scott watched his father limp away, his back rigid, his vest swishing with every swing of his right arm. He wondered what had been on his father’s mind, what had him so lost a moment ago. He’d seen the look a few times, embarrassed by the intensity of it. At times, it was as if he were on display, being watched and regarded as if he might do something wrong . . . and not. The pensive moments were more than that, and Scott knew it. What a dysfunctional motley crew they were . . . his new family. Scott had yet to figure them all out, except for Teresa perhaps.

She was the easiest of all of them. Sixteen she was, full of pride and unrestrained, unpolished eagerness to make them all a family who loved and cared for one another. She was full of sass . . . spit and vinegar . . . a girl raised in a man’s world with a man’s zest for life, for adventure. She was no wilting flower, no hothouse pampered, run of the mill, society debutante who couldn’t find her own slippers if the house were burning down. Teresa was mother, sister, daughter, cook, housekeeper, rider, roper and doctor when they needed one. A sharpshooter in her own right, not afraid to point a gun and kill to protect if she had to.

Teresa could run with the best of them, Scott thought. She was as adept at digging out a bullet as she was roping a steer, not that there had been much call for her to do that sort of thing. But in her exuberant youth, she’d shown him that she could, and been proud of it. And the surprising thing of it all, the men had let her, Murdoch too for that matter. They seemed to take it for granted that she could do most anything, not all, but most.

The ranch thrived on it, this show of pride and accomplishment by all. Teresa was just a small part of it, but a vital part that held them all together. Her faith, her love and compassion, her femininity when she used it was the glue that kept the three of them from going in three different directions, from butting heads every minute of the day. Like a queen bee, they respected her place in the home and often tempered their words and their actions for her benefit.

Scott washed up at the basin near the house, glad to get the dirt and grit off his face and neck. He couldn’t wait to take a bath. Dinner was almost ready, though, and a bath would have to wait. Murdoch had one main rule . . . Dinner . . . .six o’clock sharp. If you’re late . . . you better have a damn good explanation. He hadn’t asked his father why, but he did wonder with an infinite patience that neither Murdoch nor Johnny seemed to have, expecting that sooner or later the answer would eventually reveal itself.

“Scott!” he heard his name being called through the open door by Murdoch. A loud bellow and it made Scott want to smile. Ordinarily Murdoch hardly ever raised his voice, the exception being when he and Johnny argued. And generally that was only when they were both in one of their moods to be stubborn and pigheaded rather than calm and diplomatic with each other.

Johnny might disagree with his assessment, thinking Murdoch argued all the time, but Scott thought he was right even if Johnny didn’t. They were alike those two, though neither would admit it for a second.

He snapped the damp towel over his shoulder, glancing out across the lawn toward a large towering oak where Johnny sat beneath its shady boughs long after his homily with Murdoch was over, his knees drawn up, his forehead resting on crossed arms. Scott sighed helplessly, thinking it must be hard on the boy to be lectured to after so many years of having to answer to no one but himself.

Murdoch bellowed again, intruding upon Scott’s rambling secret thoughts, this time calling both their names to come inside like some squalling seafaring captain along the Barbary Coast. He would have laughed out loud at the absurdity of it, but suppressed the urge to when Johnny lifted his head and pushed himself off the ground with a guttural sounding grunt that Scott could hear from where he stood. The sound burned his soul and pierced his heart through and through.

He winced at the reminder of Johnny’s injury, thinking maybe the lecture by Murdoch had been too much for his brother. But then again, as his gaze met Johnny’s veiled and granite stare from across the lawn, he wasn’t so sure that Murdoch didn’t know just exactly the right thing to do after all. Cunningly enough, the man seemed to have ways of bringing Johnny to life in a manner that Scott had yet to quite figure out. It was certainly something he meant to put a little more thought into later on when he was alone and could examine his thoughts more closely.

Reluctantly pulling his gaze from Johnny’s, Scott put a stop to all the varied thoughts in his head but dinner, he was hungry after all, and waved a hand toward Murdoch to let him know that he’d been heard. His verbal response, a very polite and proper, “We’re coming, Sir.”

 

Chapter 4
A Little Slice of Heavenly Pie

The house was quiet save for the crackling of burning wood in the fireplace. The hour unusually late, his family in bed, while he, Murdoch, sat quietly alone and reminisced the evening spent together. A peaceful setting it had been, a glass of scotch, a thick cherry cigar, the latest edition of the Daily Chronicle held lightly in his hands while he sat near the cozy warmth of the fireplace. A little slice of heavenly pie, his dear mother would have called it . . . until he had ruined it with his infernal guilt ridden conscience and private self-loathing for being properly addressed.

Johnny had fallen asleep on the sofa, his head on Teresa’s lap, one arm hanging loosely off the edge of the cushion, while his other, his left, was tucked comfortably under his cheek, oblivious to the soft kisses of the yarn that occasionally drifted across his face while Teresa knitted over him. Not a scene Murdoch would have predicted of his tough ex-gunfighter son. Almost too domestically tranquil, too opposite the wild thing that Murdoch expected from Johnny. The very essence of the serene picture made Murdoch wonder what else he would discover that was contradictory about his young son as the days passed and time brought them closer together.

Teresa sat at the end of the sofa, the one nearest to him, her ankles crossed, her right foot wiggling back and forth while humming a soft gentle tune, blue eyes full of concentration as her fingers worked the yarn feverishly with her needles over Johnny’s dark head. Then there were moments, the melody would stop, the pretty face would scrunch and the fingers would unravel what had been done so meticulously. Teresa wouldn’t complain, except maybe in her head. She was content, happy it seemed to Murdoch as he watched her from the corner of his eyes sigh and shake her head delicately at the mistake she’d made. Murdoch’s heart fluttered as he watched her without her knowing, smiling when she smiled, wishing Paul could see the woman she had become in such a short and eventful time of their lives.

Scott sat across from him, his hair still wet and remarkably dark, drying by the heat of the fire to a burnished gold, his nose buried in a book he couldn’t put down. He wore a white shirt, tails out, one leg casually crossed over the other in soft tan colored pants and white snowy socks. Murdoch watched his son surreptitiously over the top of his newspaper, reach over without ever taking his eyes off the page, pick up his drink and sip at the liquor in his glass and then set the drink back down again. Precise movements, no unnecessary motion wasted, no written words missed in the process, until . . . 

Murdoch had been caught . . . staring, conspicuously like a peeping tom. He sucked in his breath through his nose, quickly lowered his eyes to the newspaper and pretended they hadn’t just made silent contact with each other from across the room. It unnerved him to be caught out like that. To have his inner thoughts exposed like raw bacon sizzling in a frying pan. Scott had a way about him, a look that said he knew exactly what was going on and that he knew exactly what it was that Murdoch had been thinking. Catherine had been like that. She had been able to see right through the rough exterior of his personality and find the man who loved and could be loved.

“Murdoch?” Teresa asked quietly from her seat.

Murdoch looked over at her, noting that Scott was once again engrossed in his book. “What is it, sweetheart?”

She smiled at him and set her knitting between her body and the arm of the sofa. “Are you alright? Can I get you anything?”

Murdoch pressed the newspaper to his lap and thoughtfully rubbed a finger along the side of his nose. “I’m fine, dear.”

“You’re sure . . . I don’t mind.”

“I’m sure,” Murdoch, guaranteed her.

“Should I put another log on, Sir?” Scott asked politely.

Murdoch looked at his elder son. Could Scott see it in his eyes . . . the hate for that damnable word? “No, no . . . It’s getting late.” Murdoch averted his gaze, waved off the offer and stood up, letting the paper slide to the floor unheeded. He stretched and yawned while looking at anything other than Scott so his son wouldn’t see how much the proper title affected him. Polite to a fault, Murdoch thought. He liked, but didn’t like it all the same. He wanted to be alone, to think about it all the sudden.

He picked up his cane and limped heavily toward his desk. “You should wake Johnny. It’s getting late and the day starts early around here.” The cane thumped loudly on the floor. “In fact, you should all go to bed.” He sat at his desk, the leather chair creaking under his weight and pulled open a drawer, his manner and tone telling them all that they had been summarily dismissed for the evening whether they intended to retire right then or not.

They had, and with no grumbling whatsoever for the sudden interruption of their quiet evening. Like a good soldier Scott had awakened his little brother, helped Teresa to her feet, and then offered a polite good evening to Murdoch just as he would to any stranger before leaving the room. Teresa had kissed him on the cheek, a little worry in her eyes but keeping any thoughts she might have had to herself, and followed Scott’s example. Johnny being tired and more than willing to go to bed after a long day, waved a sleepy hand toward him and trudged up the stairs behind Scott and Teresa without a word.

It all seemed perfectly normal, Murdoch thought while sitting alone in the dark. But he knew different. He knew there were things left unsaid between them, things that needed to be discussed and confronted regarding their lives, but he was afraid. Discussing their past without him in it meant acknowledging and facing his two greatest failures in life, something Murdoch wasn’t quite sure he was ready to face just yet. But as fate would have it, it was just a matter of time . . . a single night of heart wrenching eavesdropping that would eventually lead him on a path to finding the courage he lacked.

 
Chapter 5
Playing Hooky

 

“You’re slick . . . you know that . . . Right?”

“Ain’t nothin’ slick ‘bout it, Boston. Either I go to Doc . . . or he comes to me. I can’t help it if Murdoch could see the sense in lettin’ me ride to town, instead of Doc comin’ all the way out to the ranch,” Johnny replied.

“What about that, ‘I promise to take it slow and easy’ remark you made?” Scott asked. “Are you telling me that wasn’t said just to give us more time?”

“It is what it is, Scott. Murdoch can take it any way he wants. In the meantime, we’re goin’ swimmin’.”

“I have to hand it to you . . . you came up with a plan . . . and it worked.”

Johnny looked over at Scott, a mischievous smile on his face. “Didn’t have to come up with a plan . . . Murdoch gave me the idea when he said that ol’ doctor was gonna come out to see me in a few days. Just thought I could save that ol’ bag a bones the doc calls a horse a little less work.”

Scott rolled his eyes, “And he bought it . . . just like that?”

“Well . . . you heard me when you came strollin’ in on the tail end of it. I had to convince him to let me. I’m gonna go ridin’ whether he likes it or not. Might as well be to go see the doctor. Good as any reason, I figure.” Johnny laughed softly, “Guess he thought so too.”

“You know if he finds out we snuck off to go swimming we’ll never hear the end of it?”

“I reckon so.”

“Doesn’t that bother you . . . his lectures?” Scott asked.

Johnny shrugged and relaxed his hands on the reins of his horse, “Nope.”

Scott in all his sophistication, snorted inelegantly. “You’re lying to me!” He pushed his hat back and kept his horse in sync with Johnny’s. “I see how you look after he’s put you through the ringer.”

“So.”

“You hate it!” Scott declared knowingly.

“I can take it,” Johnny stated flatly.

Scott shook his head. “That’s just it, Johnny. You don’t have to take it.”

Johnny swallowed and shifted uncomfortably in his saddle. “Can’t do anything ‘bout it, Scott.”

“Why not?” Scott wanted to know. Maybe now he would finally get an answer to this puzzling problem. Johnny was talkative enough today. Not so withdrawn and melancholy as he had been the day before.

Johnny turned and looked at Scott as if he had grown two heads. “Are we talkin’ ‘bout the same man?” he asked seriously.

Scott’s eyes went wide, his brows lifted, arched, his hands splayed wide over the pommel of his saddle, expressive in his answer. “Yes,” he rolled the word.

“Well . . . then you should already know the answer,” Johnny replied as if he were talking to a simpleton.

Scott had to think what it was that Johnny was saying without saying. And then it hit him as they turned off the road and crossed a wide pasture of knee high grass and scattered cotton wood trees. “You’re scared of him . . . aren’t you?”

“Aren’t you?” Johnny asked in return.

“I asked you first, little brother,” Scott tossed back to Johnny.

“A little.” Johnny pressed his knees to his horse and the golden palomino took off, heading for a small pond not too much further away, its crystal clear blue water, shining like a flat jewel in a depressed part of the land surrounded by weeping willow, clusters of white birch and leafy cottonwoods.

Scott kneed his roan, still unnamed and a little tetchy if he wasn’t handled just right. No match for the speed of the stallion that Johnny rode, but a good partnering for him. When he reined up to Johnny’s horse, unburdened of its reckless rider, Scott dismounted and walked down to where his brother waited for him.

He was flummoxed by the admission, scarcely believing it, unaware he had a skeptical look upon his face when he stood next to Johnny. With his hands on his hips he said, “I don’t believe you.”

Johnny squinted and pushed his hat back, “Believe what?” He turned away, sat down and began to remove his boots and socks.

Scott sat down and followed suit, “That you would be scared of Murdoch.”

Johnny tugged on his second boot, “He’s big, Scott.”

“So?” Scott said, starting on his second boot as well.

“So . . . He could knock me into next week if he wanted to.” Johnny got up, barefoot and pressing his top teeth into his bottom lip, tugging on his blue print shirt, pulling it free from the tight cinching of his two belts.

Scott started unbuttoning his shirt, pulling the tail of it from his belts while he was still on the ground. “He wouldn’t do something like that, Johnny.” Scott knew he wouldn’t. Not after seeing the unspoken pride and contentment on his father’s face last night when he had been caught unaware of it showing.

Johnny unbuckled his gun belt and put his rig down on the ground, his gun face up, easy to grab if there was a need. He unbuckled his belt and took his pants off, leaving him clad in only a pair of cut off johns in the meantime. “I ain’t ‘bout to press too hard and find out.” Johnny grinned, “Leastwise . . . not yet.”

Scott stood up and undressed. He figured one way or the other his little brother would come up with something to get them out here. He was prepared and had a cut off pair of johns the same as Johnny.

Johnny laughed, pointing at Scott’s naked torso, “Might be . . . the ol’ man’ll find out where we went without any of my help.”

Scott dropped his head and with palms flat on his chest, ran them down to his flat stomach. He grinned, “Guess it won’t take much sun to give us away, huh?”

“Nope.” Johnny shook his head. “I ain’t much better though after bein’ cooped up for so dang long.”

They walked together, side by side until they reached the waters banks. A stark contrast between them, one light, one dark, but the same . . . brothers, and that’s what counted for both of them on that day . . . a day they took a chance together, played hooky and became a little closer as friends for having done so.

 
 
Chapter 6
Ol’ Swayback and Barranca

Murdoch laid the big heavy hammer he was using on top of the black anvil where he was working. He put the side of his hand up to his brow and felt that overwhelming relief he always felt whenever he saw either of his sons coming home. There was a part of him that worried when they were gone. He knew someday, the longer they lived with him, that he would get over that odd feeling, but not all the way, never completely. Life had been too hard, his grief too intense and painful to ever let it go completely. Time was a healer and he believed in that, in some small way, his hurts would be healed but not forgotten.

They rode into the yard, looking sun kissed and bronzed, more than they had been that morning and more than they should be for having only ridden to town and back. Paternal instincts warned him, knowing all about boys, told him. There was more to their color, their happy smiles, their warm greeting. “Boys,” he said, not letting on. He knew . . . but he didn’t. No harm, he thought. It was good to see they took a chance, spent time together if his guess was the right one. And it was.

“Murdoch,” they said at the same time.

“You boys are just in time. I’ve got three horses that need shod. Johnny? You think you’re up to it? Scott . . . you?” Murdoch asked.

Johnny nodded his head, Scott said, “Yes, Sir.”

“Good. You two stall your horses and I’ll have the last shoe finished by the time you get back.”

Johnny and Scott dismounted. They led their horses into the barn and began the routine of getting them unsaddled and groomed for the night ahead. “We’ll let ‘em stay here for now . . . when we’re done, we’ll come back and let ‘em take a roll in the corral.”

“That’s just going to get them dirty again,” Scott remarked critically, hooking a stirrup on the pommel and loosening the cinch under his horse’s belly.

Johnny pulled the riding gear off his horse, “Guess we’ll just have to clean ‘em again . . . won’t we?” Taking the blanket and saddle, Johnny carried them to the stand where he put his gear away, wiping at the leather before he left and started brushing down his horse. “Besides . . . Barranca here likes a good roll . . . Don’t yah boy?” he crooned to the horse.

“I can’t believe you gave your horse a name already!” Scott exclaimed over his shoulder as he stowed his gear away.

“Had to. He’s too nice a horse just to call ‘im 'horse',” Johnny said with pride in his voice. “When are yah gonna give ol’ swayback a name?” he asked teasing, Scott.

Scott looked at his brother with mock severity, “He is not a swayback and you know it.”

Johnny laughed, but refrained from saying any better.

Scott removed the bridle and his horse shook his head as if glad to have it gone. A quick scratch behind the ears and the sturdy red roan whinnied loudly, appreciatively at his owner. “I haven’t given mine a name yet. Guess I should come up with one now that you have.”

Johnny frowned and looked over his shoulder at his brother, “This ain’t no contest, Scott.”

Scott started brushing his horse, “I know that. Just seems to me that if your horse has a name now, then mine should too.”

“Then give ‘im one,” Johnny said matter of fact without taking his eyes off the job he was doing. “He ain’t gonna name himself.”

“How did you come up with . . . what did you call him?”

“Barranca.”

“Yeah . . . Barranca. What is that . . . Spanish?”

“Sí . . . Named ‘im after a place I used to go to when I wanted to be alone. It was a pretty little valley that ran through a canyon, and when the sun set . . . it was all gold and perfect. Might have been a good place for a little horse ranch if a man could stomach the climb down and the climb back out . . . it was pretty steep goin’ either way. Hard place to get to, even with a good horse.”

Scott took a mental note, give his brother something he liked talking about, like horses, and Johnny was suddenly a very talkative man.

“So you considered horse ranching at one time?” Scott asked, hoping his brother would continue, surprised when he did.

“Thought about it more than once, breedin’ horses . . . few cattle. Just never had the cojones to make it happen.”

“Why not?” Scott asked curiously.

The hand that was grooming Barranca stopped mid stroke, thinking on whether or not to answer Scott supposed.

“Guess I was too scared.”

Scott slid his hand along the back of his horse and walked out of the stall to stand at the one Johnny was in. He crossed his arms over the top of the chest high slatted wall and thoughtfully watched his brother’s smooth, even, strokes. “You’ve surprised me twice today, little brother.”

Johnny looked up from where he’d squatted next to Barranca’s front legs, “How’s that?”

“You used to be Johnny Madrid. From what I understand . . . you’re a legend. And legends like you . . . aren’t supposed to be scared of anything.

Johnny laughed and straightened up, “Where did you get that idea?”

Scott smiled and laced his hands together, “Read it.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Um hum. Dime store novel . . . Baldemero’s.”

Johnny stood up slowly, regarding his brother with wary eyes. “What else did you learn in that book?”

Scott pushed away from the wall, turning away from Johnny and the awkward suspicion that was suddenly between them. As he walked away he called back over his shoulder, “I learned that little brothers are way over exaggerated by people who obviously don’t have any.” Scott turned back at the door, hardly able to see his brother from his vantage point with the sun behind him, “The descriptions in that book . . . they just don’t fit.”

“Fit with what?” Scott heard Johnny say.

“Those rules I told you about,” Scott answered, leaving his brother behind, smiling when he heard the faint sound of laughter and Johnny’s bold retort.

“You never did say exactly what those rules were, Boston!”

 

 

Chapter 7
My Way and My Rules

Dinner was on the table. His sons, they were there with him. Murdoch felt like a king on his throne. He wondered if this was what his father had felt like, supposed he must have. There had been eight of them back then, in his golden youth, five boys and three girls. A big family compared to the one sitting around the dining table tonight.

They were all alive, his siblings that is . . . their parents, long since gone from this world to the next. He wished them alive for the first time in . . . well . . . it had been ages, he thought wistfully. But he wished they could see his sons . . . they were beautiful if such a word could be used for two grown men.

He was proud of them, though he hadn’t told them so . . . one so fair, so refined and cultured . . . the other . . . darker, so bold and wild, so much like he had been before sailing off into the great unknown, traveling around the world until he finally settled in America.

His leaving Scotland had been a great adventure, a tumultuous affair of the heart that was soon conquered and tamed by Scott’s mother, Catherine. She was his first love, his first kiss, his first everything. She’d taught him all it meant to be a real man, tampering the wildness in his soul, softening his heart, if only for a while.

His first love, she’d had time to do all that before she left his side forever to join the angels’ choir in Heaven. The wildness was still in him, alive and well, just beneath the surface of his skin, a predatory ripple of feeling he learned to restrain with controlled willpower. He could feel it now and again, burning through his pores, making the hair on his body tingle, but he never, ever, let it breach the walls of decorum ingrained in him by his Catherine.

Breaking from his reverie, Murdoch sighed inaudibly, asking Johnny, “Did, you see Sam Jenkins today?”

Johnny stopped the fork of roast beef he was about to put in his mouth and answered with a succinct but reserved, “Yes.” He had in fact seen Dr. Jenkins after their swim, but only because Scott hadn’t stopped badgering him to do so just in case Murdoch should ask. At the time, he’d been annoyed but now he could honestly say he was glad that he’d followed big brother’s advice. Murdoch was appeased, and he could forget all about it, or so he thought.

“What did he have to say?” Murdoch asked, a little annoyed that Johnny didn’t elaborate on the doctor’s assessment of his health.

Johnny chewed on his food, swallowed and drank some water to wash it down before casually answering, “Said I was good.”

“And?”

Johnny shrugged. “And, nothing. Doc said I was good.”

Scott slid his boot toward his brother, tapping lightly against Johnny’s ankle.

“What?” Johnny asked, his fork in midair, his question directed at Scott. He wanted to eat, thought he’d said enough on the subject, and really didn’t understand the query or the tapping underneath the table.

Scott rolled his eyes and gave a quick almost imperceptible nod toward their father, sending Johnny a silent message that he needed to explain things a little more than he was doing if he wanted Murdoch to stop the mini inquisition.

Johnny sighed and set his fork down with a frustrated clank. “Doc said I look good, said I could go back to work so long as I don’t go all half cocked, ridin’ around the ranch like the devil was after my hide so he could skin it. He said he doesn’t want to have to come back out here and . . . ”

Murdoch coughed into his hand, “Johnny . . . thank you . . . I get the picture.”

Murdoch was certain he knew the rest of what Doctor Sam Jenkins had told his son. The man was an old friend of many years, but he could sling out some of the most colorful, harsh tongued language imaginable if he felt put out and his patients weren’t following his instructions to the letter. Murdoch knew that as a patient, even a healthy one, Johnny could be difficult at best, and down right irritable at his worst. So he could just imagine what Sam had to say if he suspected or knew for a fact that Johnny hadn’t exactly followed his orders to the letter and gone swimming instead. Of course he had no proof of anything, and for just this once, he was not about to go looking for it. He changed the subject.

“Teresa, are you still wanting to go to town tomorrow?”

“Yes I do,” she replied, “If we can fit it into the schedule.”

Murdoch drank a healthy sip of wine, “I was thinking one of the boys could take you.”

“That works for me,” Teresa said cheerily, spooning a small helping of vegetables onto her plate.

Murdoch looked from Scott to Johnny, “Who wants to take her?” he asked.

“I will, unless you’d like to, Johnny,” Scott replied, looking to his brother.

“Nope,” Johnny said with disinterest. “Already been to town once this week. And besides, Doc says if he sees me anywhere near his office again in the same week he’s gonna stick that ole stethoscope right up my …”

“Johnny,” Murdoch reprimanded slowly, drawing out his son’s name.

Seeing the raised eyebrows on Teresa’s face, Johnny shifted in his chair and mumbled a quick apology before tucking back into eating his food.

“Sir?” Scott looked to Murdoch for his approval on the matter.

“A done deal then,” Murdoch replied. He forked a hunk of roast beef and spoke to Johnny. “You’ll take a ride with me tomorrow, Johnny.”

Johnny coughed, choking on Murdoch’s announcement, his eyes tearing as he tried to swallow. For a second he thought he might just die of mortal fright. Alone, with Murdoch, just the two of them? Why? A thousand answers ran through his head but none of them, not one single one of them could get past the choking lump in is throat.

“You okay?” Murdoch asked, scooting his chair back and acting as if he were going to get up and help if there was a need.

Johnny wiped at his eyes with his napkin and righted himself on his chair. His eyes widened and blinked, staring at the food left on his plate. Clearing his throat he nodded and said, “Yes.” He felt like he croaked out the word as scratchy as it felt coming out.

Johnny was on the verge of telling his father he didn’t think that going with him was such a good idea when he felt the nudge of Scott’s boot under the table again. He looked at his brother and wished he could throw himself over the top of the table and smack the silly grin off Scott’s face. In his sudden fear of being totally alone with Murdoch, there was a strong urge to fight, to hit something hard enough to scrape his knuckles, and make him forget about the tremors coursing through his body. He hated feeling this way. He hated…

“So, what are you and Johnny going to do tomorrow, Sir?” Scott asked politely, ignoring his brother’s angry stare, his eyes telling Johnny to keep quiet about how he really felt on spending the day alone, with their father. He understood Johnny’s feelings, truly he did. To some degree, albeit a much lesser one, he had felt the same way the first time he and Murdoch had spent an entire day alone.

Murdoch relaxed, sipped his red wine and said, “We’re going out to Black Mesa where I took you last week. I want to look for a herd of wild horses that have been running the hills around there.”

Scott wondered if the last was said for Johnny’s benefit. It seemed so. He and Murdoch had gone there last week, but it hadn’t been to look for any wild horses. Could it be that Murdoch knew of Johnny’s passion, his love for that particular part of ranching? And if he did, then that must mean that Murdoch was more astute than Scott gave him credit for where Johnny was concerned. He’d only discovered his brother’s passion for horses just that afternoon in the barn.

Whatever the reason behind the saying of it, the topic raised Johnny’s interest considerably from just a few minutes ago. His eyes brightened, his face almost eager as he looked at his father. “You mean it? We’ll go lookin’ for a wild herd?”

Murdoch showed no sign of his inner delight. He schooled his features and let them all think it was not such a big deal to him, more a chore if anything. “Yes, Johnny. I mean it.” He sat his fork down and leaned back in his chair, his hands splayed across his stomach as if he’d eaten too much.

“There’s a big white stallion in that particular area I want to find. The vaqueros call him, Loco Blanco, Crazy White,” Murdoch explained. “He’s been raiding some of the local ranches . . . including ours.”

“Is that how we lost those four mares a few weeks ago?” Scott asked.

Sighing, Murdoch said, “It is, and it isn’t the first time he’s come down out of the hills and kicked in a few of our fences trying to free our mares. He nearly killed two of our hands last year when they got close enough to get a rope around his neck.”

“I wish you’d told me. I coulda been lookin’ for ‘im already.”

“I didn’t tell you because I knew you would try,” Murdoch commented dryly to Johnny.

“It’s just a horse, Murdoch,” Johnny said. “He can’t be all that hard to catch.”

“Some of my best men have tried,” Murdoch told him.

“Murdoch, you have me now. I can find that ol’ horse and have ‘im back here in no time. And I don’t need any help doin’ it.”

“We’re only riding up there to look, Johnny.”

“But if we find ‘im . . . I don’t see any reason not to go after ‘im,” Johnny told his father.

Murdoch looked at his younger son with indulgence, “There’s one reason I can think of.”

“Aw Murdoch . . . Doc only said all that stuff cause he has to.”

“Makes no difference,” Murdoch replied pushing his chair away from the table. He stood up and walked around the end of the dinner table, stopping to put a hand on Johnny’s shoulder. He held firm when his son tried to move away from the touch, and bent close to his ear, “When Doc gives the okay . . . that horse is all yours. You can take him any way you want. Until then . . . you’ll do it my way. Alright?”

Johnny’s eyes darted to his father’s hand. He wanted to shrug it off his shoulder, the look he gave, said so. But Murdoch kept it there, waiting, watching, wanting to make sure that Johnny understood he would brook for no argument on the subject and at the same time, wanting to stake a claim on what belonged to him, to his heart for all time.

“Alright,” Johnny said, the word hardly more than a pitiful begrudging whisper, chained to his father’s grip by an invisible bond he was both loath to break and yearning to be free of at the same time.

Murdoch broke the wickedly emotional spell, patting his shoulder, “Good . . . I knew we could see eye to eye on this.”

They didn’t, not really, Johnny thought, feeling oddly bereft now that Murdoch’s hand was off his shoulder. But he let it go for the time being after he looked up and saw his brother watching him carefully from under lowered lashes with a slow grin on his face. Scott had known what he was doing, keeping him from shooting off at the mouth and ruining the opportunity Murdoch eventually revealed. Was this a part of the rules, Johnny wondered? Big brother looking out for little brother?

Shyly, he grinned back at Scott, forgetting all about his earlier anger toward him. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad having a big brother and playing by his rules after all. Might help though if he knew what those rules were . . . might save him from wanting to belt his brother every time Scott kicked his foot under the table.

 
 
Chapter 8
Shame and Constant Sorrow

 

Murdoch tossed and turned, unable to sleep. He finally threw back the blankets and climbed out of bed, his nightshirt wrinkled and bunched up around his waist, until he wrenched it downward and straightened it out. He hated the blasted thing, wishing he’d just put on a pair of long johns instead.

He would have too, but decided instead to go downstairs, thinking maybe all he needed was a cool glass of water to settle him down. He was thirsty. Murdoch opened the door to his room and silently made his way down the hall and the stairs. The house was solid, no chance of creaking stairs so he walked with confidence in the darkness, knowing he wouldn’t wake anyone with his nocturnal visit to the kitchen, using his hand against the wall and the railing to get to the lower part of the house without tripping.

He would have gone into the kitchen, but stopped just short of doing so when he heard hushed voices in the room he planned to visit. Johnny and Teresa. Murdoch waited, listening by the door, afraid to interrupt the nocturnal confidences he guiltily overheard by eavesdropping on them, ashamed of his cowardice by the time they were done.

****

Johnny drank the whole glass of water he poured for himself. He needed it after the hell he’d just gone through. His hair was matted in sweat, his body still shaken and trembling from the nightmare he’d had. He set the glass down and rubbed his hands up and down his face to clear the ugly gruesome visions from his mind. He was tired, wanted to go back to sleep, but couldn’t seem to find the strength or courage just yet to go back up. Another drink, he thought. And then, he would make himself go up whether he wanted to or not.

“Johnny? Is that you?”

Johnny’s heart jumped, a piercing arrow of surprise shooting through his shoulder blades, startled by the softly spoken inquiry he hadn’t expected so late. Teresa. “Yeah . . . it’s me.”

Teresa padded her way into the kitchen, dressed in her nightgown and robe. “I couldn’t sleep . . . I came to get a glass of water.” She walked up to the sink and grabbed a glass out of the cupboard. “I’m sorry I startled you. I didn’t mean to.” She kept her voice soft and low, just above a whisper because of the late hour.

Johnny inhaled through his nose and let out a deep breath, a long throaty sigh. “It’s okay.” There was enough light from the moon shining in through the window, but Johnny asked anyway, “You want me to light a lamp?”

Teresa brushed the back of her hand against her forehead, taking a deep drink before she answered. “No . . . I’m fine . . . I can see well enough. Just needed a drink.” She tilted her head to the side a little, looking at him thoughtfully. “You don’t look well. Are you alright?”

Did she know? Had he lost his edge since coming to Lancer? Was he so transparent that she could tell he was hurting inside? He was, but she didn’t need to know it for fact. He was haunted by the truths she revealed to him, angered because she’d been the one to tell him instead of his father or his mother when Maria had lived. But none of that was her fault and he didn’t want Teresa to know how much she hurt him with the truth. He swallowed, nodded, told his lie and hated doing it. “I’m fine.”

Teresa reached up, emboldened by the dark shadows that filled the room and hugged the luminous puddles of light at their feet, and pushed the clammy bangs off Johnny’s forehead with the tips of her fingers. She wasn’t sure she believed him. She dropped her hand back to her side a little self-consciously, knowing he didn’t like to be touched in such a manner. She couldn’t help herself. At that moment he seemed almost as lost and forlorn as she felt inside. She sighed, thinking them a sad pair, tilting her head toward her shoulder, imagining the caress of her father’s fingertips on her cheek. “You’re sweaty.”

“So are you,” he said quietly, jutting his chin at her.

Teresa smiled sadly, “I know. I . . . I had a bad dream.”

Johnny tentatively reached out, pushing back a thick strand of hair, hooking it around the back of her ear with such gentle tenderness it made Teresa almost want to cry for the memories it gave her. Her father used to do that very thing, push her hair back behind her ear . . . kiss her on the forehead . . . hold her as if to never let her go, saying he loved her so.

“I had a bad dream too,” he confessed to Teresa, barely above a whisper. Why he told her, he didn’t know. “The weather I guess,” Johnny offered as a lame explanation. They mirrored each other, two lost and lonely souls brought together by their frightening dreams.

Teresa nodded, dropping her eyes to the floor, the two of them staring at nothing but their bare toes, wondering what the other had dreamt of. Johnny hooked his thumbs in the waist of his pants, pushing back the white front panels of his shirt, lost in his own dreary nightmarish thoughts until Teresa spoke to him.

Her voice was so sad, so heartbreaking and innocent. She sniffled, clasping the glass between her hands in front of her, “I saw my father . . . the way I remember him. Tall, strong, handsome . . . smiling.” Her words trailed off, a mere whisper. She turned her head, staring over her shoulder into the empty darkness of the kitchen, a staged backdrop where her dreams could be seen and played out in her mind.  “And then . . . he was walking toward me . . . in the middle of my dream, nothing around him but blue skies turned black.

"He called my name . . . he begged for me to go to him, but I was afraid, Johnny . . . I was so afraid. There was so much . . . so much . . . blood.” She closed her eyes, swaying on her feet, her hands very nearly crushing the glass she held before she blindly set it down on the counter.

Teresa held her breath, holding back a year full of tears until she thought she’d die of suffocation. Trembling, she opened her mouth, breathed in and breathed out, the sound harsh, ragged in her throat. “He held his hands out to me, Johnny. And I finally ran to him . . . as fast as I could . . . and held him as he fell . . . dying in my arms.”

She shook her head and reached for a towel on the counter, wiping her face, her eyes. “He spoke to me one last time, Johnny.” Fat tears finally gave way and spilled from her velvet blue eyes. She closed them tight against the pain in her heart, her lashes thick and wet against fine boned cheeks. “He said . . . ” her voice hitched, she wiped her tears away in one hard swipe, as if angry at the world, “he said . . . he said . . . he loved me.”

Johnny couldn’t stand it any longer. He pulled Teresa to him, wrapping his arms around her and hers around him. He laid his cheek against the top of her head and willed the unshed tears in his eyes to go away. He crooned and held her tight for long unselfish minutes, brushing the back of her head with his slow steady hand. He let her cry, harsh, ragged tears that left the body breathless. Life had been hard on Teresa, and sometimes Johnny forgot in all his self-centeredness, that she was just as lost, just as sad and angry for the hand fate dealt her, as he was about his own loss. He ached for her . . . for them . . . for the sadness that never went away.

He squeezed his eyes closed, hating the moisture he could feel welling up under the lids. Teresa pulled away from him, but kept her hands clinging to the upper part of his arms. “Tell me,” she said, searching his face in the dim light. She wanted to know him as he knew her. She knew from experience, shared misery often led to comforting solace.

Johnny’s eyes were so dark, more slanted and closed off by her asking him this much. He couldn’t do it. It was enough to say he dreamt badly, enough to hear her pain and let it inundate and touch his heart. He shook his head, barely discernible and started to back away. He was done with this. He never let anyone touch him . . . and this . . . this closeness was suddenly more than he could bear though he’d instigated it. He just couldn’t do it, never should have allowed it . . . not even for her. He shielded his heart, erected a barrier to hide his near panic and tried but failed miserably to move away.

Teresa sensed his overwhelming fear through her grief, his need to run away and hide from exposing too much of himself and the heartache that he felt. Her hands moved up his arms, sliding slowly, tenderly until they reached his face. Like the gossamer wings of a butterfly, she held him between her hands, her eyes shining and bright from her tears. “You can tell me,” she whispered to him tenderly, coaxing his sorrow through the invisible shell he put between them.

Johnny’s heart filled with lonesome hurt, a hurt so strong he thought he would die of it if she kept her hands on his face and kept looking at him that way. As if he could tell her anything, and she could make it all right again, when he knew she couldn’t. She was just a girl after all, not even someone who knew him very well. And yet… He closed his eyes, bent his head, held captive by the invisible chains of her heart that kept from being able to just simply walk away. He was a prisoner of her mercy, her understanding compassion and desire to free his soul from the grip of his self inflicted prison of emotional torture.

There was a flood inside him . . . an angry torrent of emotions he feared letting loose because he might drown in the misery and sorrow of it, it was so strong, so overpowering it made him feel weak. How could this tiny wisp of a girl do this to him . . . make him feel like crumpling at her feet and cry until he couldn’t cry no more? In that moment he almost hated her.

He opened his eyes and through the swimming waters in them, shook his head stubbornly, fiercely, his breath catching in his throat while bound by the chains of her naïve sisterly love for him, “I . . . can’t!” His breath was ragged, pleading, “Please let me go.”

Slow hot tears rolled down her eyes, she could feel his wanton suffering, knew he wanted her to let him go, but knew in her heart that Johnny needed this . . . had needed it all along just as she had needed his comfort. “I won’t let you go . . . I won’t let you walk away and suffer all alone. You need me.”

Her knowing of him, it was Johnny’s undoing. The thing he feared most he did. He dropped to his knees, pushing her away from him and sat roughly on the floor, drawing his knees up to his chest and wrapping his arms around his legs. He buried his head on his kneecaps, silent deadly unshed tears of mournful frustration and years of bad memories making him feel like he was suffocating, strangled by the hands of every man who ever took their fists to him. Everything inside of him shattered like broken crystal, thousands of tiny shards, prickly and sharp, shredding the man, his soul, until he felt like a raw open wound with the sting of salt rubbed in for good measure.

Teresa sat beside him, undaunted by his physical strength of avoidance and wrapped her arms around his trembling shoulders, afraid because of the silence, the thick air around them, reeking of oppression and despair. She pulled him down, and he let her, until his head was on her lap, hidden in silver shadows cast by the moon. The cold floor beneath them, she brushed his bangs, smoothed a hand over his face and gave back to him what he had given to her, comfort and unadulterated loving support. Teresa lowered her head, kissed his throbbing temple. “Tell me,” she whispered into his ear, bandaging his wounds with the healing balm of her affection.

He fought her mentally until the dam exploded and his body shook with great tearing sobs of misery he could no longer control. Masculine cries, gut wrenching, soul bearing tears that gushed out of him like a raging river untamed. The hated memories spilled out of him for the first time that he could remember.

He spoke of his mother, of watching her die, the meager life they shared. Revelation after revelation came rushing out of his mouth like a cascading waterfall. He spoke brokenly of the abuse he’d suffered, of starving and most grievous of all, how by his hand he had killed the man who had killed his mother, his tears so heavy, his breathing so hard, she could barely comprehend what he was saying to her.

“I had blood . . . on my hands . . . on my face. He hates . . . me. She told me . . . she swore it . . . over . . . and over again.” His words were jerky, hitching, rambling from one place of wretchedness to another. “I wanted . . . him . . . I . . . I . . . needed him. I wanted my pa. I asked her . . . I begged her. I didn’t care if he . . . if he . . . hated me. They beat me . . . tortured me . . .  all I ever . . . ever wanted was my pa. I wanted him . . . I . . . I . . . I . . . wanted him to . . . save me. ” Johnny pound his fist onto the floor over and over again, anger mixed with grief, “She . . . she lied to me! She . . . she let . . . she let them . . . hurt me.” The pounding got louder, harder against the floor, the fury more intense. “I hate her! I hate her! I hate her!” he cried with every pounding force of his fist until Teresa thought he might break the bones in his hand.

Teresa bent her head down, her hands caught in his hair, afraid for him, pure strength in her hold of him, “Johnny . . . Johnny.” She held his shoulders, “Ssshhh.” She rocked him, whispered in his ear, calm soothing words that broke through the madness and made him slow down and catch his breath, though it hitched haltingly in his chest. Sing song words of comfort like he remembered hearing the night before, only different, more soothing because these words were for him and him alone. The sweet melody of her gift made him feel better, made Teresa feel better.

The moonlight shifted, sliding like slow molasses across the floor, blanketing the two misfit mourners in velvet blue darkness as they clung to one another and shared a past best left forgotten when the telling was done. The grieving sadness . . . the constant sorrow . . . the bleeding hurts . . . those feelings weren’t gone, but confiding to one another and allowing that weaker part of themselves to be exposed . . . made it all, a little bit better, a little bit easier to live with and gave to them a closeness they thought long lost to their imprisoned bereavement.

****

New hurts were made that night, new sorrows of a different kind that gave way to a better understanding and promise to make things right with the world . . . with his sons. Murdoch silently backed away from the wall, climbed back up the steps, shamed because of his cowardice, his inability so far to address his sons individually or otherwise. He’d told them the past was the past . . . dead and gone. Maybe for him . . . but not so he realized, for his children though they were grown. He knew in that moment, walking blindly toward his room in the welcome dark of night, why he hated what he hated, the too polite ‘Sir’ and the too independent ‘I can take care of myself’. Vile, corrupt products of their past . . . a past he’d been afraid to confront or share, but now knew . . . he must face.

 

Chapter 9

The Wild Son

Murdoch and Johnny waved goodbye as Scott and Teresa drove away. The sun was up, shining brilliant and sassy in the sky. The light kissed the world around them, made everything pop with a fusion of bright vivid colors.

Johnny loved days like this, when the earth was beautiful to behold, when he could look up into the vast sky above him and get lost forever in the undulating blue waves of a heavenly ocean. “It’s a good day to look for those horses,” he commented serenely, his face bathed in glorious sunshine.

Murdoch smiled uncertainly at Johnny, his heart heavy for all that he now understood about his son. He had worried most of the night about what the morning would bring, not sure that Johnny’s temperament would be up to spending even a short time with him. It wasn’t like his son to comment overly much in the first place, especially in light of what he’d overheard the evening before, so it pleased him even more to hear the observation. He owed Teresa much for even this small little change in his son so soon after their gut wrenching, secret confessions to one another. 

With his cane thumping beside him, Murdoch turned to go inside the house, “It surely is,” he remarked. “Why don’t you get our mounts ready and I’ll be out in just a few minutes.”

Johnny looked over his shoulder, watched his father walk away, his right leg stiff with each step. It worried him of a sudden, an uncommon feeling he wasn’t used to. “You sure you can do this, Murdoch?” he called loudly with his hands on his hips.

Murdoch stopped just before going inside the hacienda. Was that concern he heard in his son’s voice? Another rare trait coming from Johnny, two things he owed Teresa for. Without looking back, he answered, “I’m sure.”

An hour or so later, they neared Black Mesa. The way out had been slow, steady, companionably quiet. No unnecessary words between them, though Murdoch ached to make their time more personal. He wanted so badly to speak of last night, to offer some kind of comfort that should have been his right, his duty as a father, but couldn’t bring himself to do it. Though the words he longed to say were near to busting out of his chest, it didn’t seem the right time or place for such an intimate and controversial conversation. Only God knew when the time was right, but deep in his heart he prayed that he would know it too.

Murdoch pulled up on his reins and Johnny stopped beside him. “We’ll head up there,” he said pointing north toward a steep rise. “The top of that ridge will give us the best look at everything we can’t see from here.”

Johnny looked up to where his father pointed and gave Murdoch a nod before spurring his horse in the direction they needed to go.

Murdoch watched his son ride away, feeling more than ever at fault for the silence that existed between them. He found it hard to talk about nothings, when all he could see and hear was his son’s wretched cries in his head and wonder if Scott too held inside him long bled hurts untold. He felt time pressing in on him, pushing him to address each of his boys about their respective pasts. Wanting more than ever after last night to do so quickly, but how . . . and when. That’s what bothered him most, kept him from being more open and caring of mind toward them. His fists tightened, he would not think on it just yet. He wanted this day to be special for Johnny, his main reason for deciding it so quickly when Scott offered to drive Teresa to town.

They climbed the rise, high and steep, until they reached the plateau overlooking the valley on the other side. Here there were great stands of trees, Sugar Pine and Silver Fir, Tall Cedar and Spruce. A ribbon of sparkling blue water snaked its way through the basin. The scent of honeysuckle drifted through the air, sweet and sugary, and all through the grasses, white daisies and yellow goldenrod, pink manzanita and clusters of blue violets . . . all in all, a profusion of colored jewels against the rugged backdrop of the great Sierra Mountains.

They sat their horses, side by side, looking down at the valley, both men lost in the wonder of it all. “It always takes my breath away,” Murdoch said so quietly that Johnny was pressed hard to hear him.

Barranca shifted and the saddle leather creaked. Johnny looked at his father from beneath the rim of his hat. “All this belongs to us?”

Murdoch thought he heard awe in Johnny’s voice. Pride swelled in his chest. He was reminded of how he felt the first time he came to this valley. Pushing back his hat he said, “Everything you see.”

Johnny dropped his chin almost to his chest and Murdoch wondered why he did so, and what he was thinking. Not wanting another chance to escape him, Murdoch asked, “What are you thinking, Johnny?”

Johnny lifted his head and looked at his father with troubled blue eyes full of incomprehensible questions, “I don’t understand.”

“What is it that you don’t understand?”

“How she could leave this?” he swallowed, unable to say his mother’s name.

Murdoch sighed deeply, hardly able to keep from looking away. “I don’t know, Johnny. I’ve asked myself that question a thousand times over.” He shifted uncomfortably in his saddle. “If I knew the answer to that question . . . I might know why she took you from me in the first place.” There . . . he said it. Johnny gave him the opening, and though it wasn’t when he thought he would say these things, he could do nothing less than be honest with his son.

“Teresa said she ran off with a gambler.” Cold, detached, still not wanting to believe but knowing it was the unbearable truth.

Murdoch could only nod his head and stare down at the valley below. A hard lump swelled in his throat.

“I searched for you.” A piece of cold hard truth that only pacified the person telling it.

“For how long?” There was bitter doubt from the child within, a son needing to know the answer for his own peace of mind.

Murdoch took his hat off, pulled a white handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped the nervous sweat off his brow. “Days . . . weeks . . . months . . . Years.” He swallowed the hard lump. “You . . . just disappeared off the face of the earth.”

Time stood still, a wall of uneasy silence between them until Johnny reached up with his right arm, swiping his sleeve across his eyes. “I . . . I wish you’d found me.” It was all the wild son would say, and it was hard saying it to the rigid man who was a father and a stranger.

A snorting streak of white lightening bolted from out of nowhere, the echo of its hooves and ferocious whinny, bouncing from one end of the valley to the other, colliding with their discontented thoughts. The earth rumbled and a trail of color thundered down from the hills beyond. They ran as if chased, through the snaking river like shiny multicolored satin ribbons blowing in the wind, running wild and free, recklessly across the valley, in and out, down and around through the trees and over brush and rock.

The conversation over but not forgotten, Johnny stood up in the stirrups, his face alive, more animated than Murdoch had ever seen it before. The palomino moved restlessly, prancing as he lifted his head and challenged the leader with a call that was fierce, crazed by the nature of the beast. Challenging snorts stretched his nostrils wide, barring large white teeth that could take a huge chunk out of a man in seconds. He shook his golden head, whipping his mane and tail, rolling his eyes backward, his mouth chomping the air in wild frenzied excitement. Hard to control, the golden neck arched, pulled tight on the reins and stepped back unwillingly under Johnny’s direct command with his hands.

Murdoch could see it in his eyes, his heart lurched, called Johnny’s name, not so loud, a careful warning he thought was enough, but soon found it wasn’t. Horse and rider moved away, each step a kingly stomp upon the ground. The golden horse reared, and Murdoch sucked in his breath, unable to breathe for fear his son would slide off, but didn’t. Murdoch’s authority was rejected, tossed back at him amidst the dying thunder of pounding hooves and the thrill of a chase that could not be ignored.

And then he was alone, watching the wild decent, angry and yet feeling the same need to run recklessly down the hillside after them, remembering a time when he had done the same. The sorrel bay snorted, moved to the left, the right, tail swishing, poised for the run if Murdoch’s hands but allowed it. The thick head pulled down, every muscle bulging in its neck, straining on the tightness of the reins, his brown mane billowing in the breeze.

He didn’t know why he did it afterward, foolish thing it was. He kicked his horse, his big sturdy bay, leaned back in the saddle on the decent, man and beast, chasing the thunder, reckless, so much like his wild son, so much like the man he used to be and still wanted to be.

 

 

Chapter 1O
Stop the World From Turning

 

“You know, Scott . . . you don’t have to stand there waiting for me. Besides . . . it makes me feel like I have to hurry,” Teresa said a little exasperated.

Scott was leaning against one of the tables in the general store, his arms crossed, his hat pushed back just enough that a tuft of blond hair peeked from beneath the hatband. Teresa thought him mighty handsome in his blue shirt, sleeves rolled up to the elbows, brown pants snug, fitting his muscular thighs like a glove. She shook her head, distracting, that’s what he was, casually standing there with that devil may care grin and tapping his fingers along his biceps.

“I wish you would,” Scott said matter of fact.

“Oh, Scott, for crying out loud. Go find something better to do. I can’t think or make up my mind with you staring at me.”

He laughed, dropped his arms and said, “How much time do you need, Miss Grouchy?”

Teresa sighed. Normally she had a little more patience, but not today. She hadn’t slept well, and to top things off, her and Johnny had spent a great deal of the night talking after the two of them had broken down in each other’s arms. She was glad they had, she felt closer to Johnny for it. But today she was dealing with those feelings and at the same time, trying to appear normal, as if nothing had ever happened in the first place. She wondered if Johnny was doing the same.

“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be this way.”

Scott walked up to her, slipped a finger under her chin and lifted her face to his. “It’s okay. Sometimes . . . I feel a little grouchy too when I don’t get enough sleep.”

Teresa frowned and pushed his hand away, “Do I look and sound that bad?”

Scott chuckled, the sound was more than pleasant, “Only a little. Tell you what. I’ll go get a beer over at the saloon. You think by the time I get done you’ll be ready to go?”

She nodded, pushing back a wispy strand of hair that tickled the side of her face. “I suppose I could be.”

Scott put his hand behind her head and kissed her on the forehead. “Then I’ll be back in a little while.”

He turned to walk away, straight shoulders, firm steps, gun belted to his waist like every other cowboy, no longer the eastern dandy that he used to be by outward appearances. “Scott?” Teresa called before he left the store.

Scott stopped, put his hand along the doorframe and looked back at Teresa over his shoulder, “Yeah?”

“Thanks.”

He smiled, slid his hand down and rested it on the butt of his gun. “You come running if there’s any trouble.” He stepped into the sunshine, not really wanting to leave her alone, remembering back to when they’d had trouble in Baldemero’s. It hadn’t been all that long ago and yet . . . it felt like a lifetime ago.

Scott wandered across the street, the view from the window of the saloon, easy to look through and watch for trouble. He didn’t expect any, but he was cautious all the same. For the most part, Green River was a peaceful town and soon, a new sheriff would be taking his post to make sure that it stayed that way.

He pushed his way through the swinging doors and sauntered up to the bar. There were few men inside the saloon this time of day. Two were sleeping off the night before, heads down, snoring loud, arms splayed wide along the tabletops. A third man wasn’t much better off, his drunken head bobbed up and down until his chin finally propped itself on his chest, his long arms hanging limply at his sides.

“Hey, Scott,” Frank Dobe called out as he finished polishing one of the nearby tables.

“Hi, Frank,” Scott said putting one foot on the brass rail under the bar. “You have any cold beer for a man who’s waiting on a lady to finish her shopping?”

Frank laughed and threw the white damp towel over his shoulder. He made his way around the bar, pulled on the tap and filled a clear mug to the brim with beer, wiping away the foam that spilled down the sides and onto the countertop. “That ought tah fix yah right up, Scott.”

“Thanks, Frank.” Scott pulled out a coin and plunked it down on the counter. He left the bar and walked over to the table in front of the window and sat down with a grateful sigh.

“You in town with, Teresa?” Frank asked as he cleaned the countertop of the bar.

“You guessed it,” Scott answered sliding down his seat a little and kicking his boots out in front of him under the table.

“Johnny with yah?” Frank asked.

Scott shook his head, took a drink of his beer and licked his lips when he set it down. “No . . . he’s out with Murdoch today.”

“Nice day for it, if those two can get along for any length of time,” Frank commented casually.

Scott thought so too, but refrained from commenting on it. He was about to inquire on the health of Frank’s pregnant wife when the back corner door suddenly opened and one of the saloon girls came through it. Scott knew who she was, Clara O’Riley. He’d spent a time or two with her since coming to this part of the world. She was pretty, slim, still fresh faced though she was one of the more expensive call girls. Tall for a woman, their eyes nearly met square on when the two of them stood face to face. Long hair, a burnished gold, pinned up on the back of her head, made her seem even taller, more refined and stylishly elegant.

She walked to the far end of the bar, all grace in her lithe body, wearing a moss colored dress with cream tatted lace, more expensive than the average girl who worked upstairs would wear, even if they could afford it. She let her hand slide along the polished surface of the bar, smiling at Frank, then at Scott. “Mornin’ Frank,” she said, checking her hair out in the mirror over the bottles of liquor. Her lips were pink, just a hint of color added to make them seem more blush. Her teeth were perfect, white and even when she smiled at Scott.

She crossed the room, sat down in the chair opposite from Scott. He tucked his boots in, scooted back in the chair and leaned with his elbows on the table. “Clara.”

Her blushing lips parted, she smiled, ran a hand along the table and touched Scott on the knuckles with her fingertips. “Scott.”

Scott moved away from her touch, pulling his mug closer to his chest. The smile on Clara’s face grew wider, teasing. She thrummed the pads of her fingers lightly on the table, saying nothing, yet saying everything with a sparkle of amusement lighting her cat green eyes.

“You’re up early,” Scott remarked. He lifted his beer, watched her over the brim of his mug, drank slowly and set it back down again.

“Not so early if you really knew me,” Clara said. Her voice was like silk, it attracted him like a moth to a flame. She seemed too refined, too cultured for the line of work she was in. He should have asked her why, but never did, always too caught up in his lust when they were alone.

She laughed, not so loud, but softly, as if she found him oddly funny, but didn’t want to hurt his feelings. She liked Scott, wished at times their circumstances had been different in life. She’d thought more than once they could have made quite a pair, in a different world. His face was readable and she knew he thought about it too. “We talked about that some . . . remember?”

The corners of Scott’s mouth went up, “So now you can read minds?”

Clara shook her head and Scott sucked in his breath. She was damn beautiful, her neck, kissable. “Among other things.” She laughed, small and light, lowering her eyes to the fingers that were now making little circles on the table. “You do make me laugh, Scott Lancer. I like that about you.”

Scott looked out the window toward the store. Everything looking fine, he brought his gaze around to Clara and raised the corners of his mouth into a small smile.

He liked her, liked the way she teased and smiled at him, spoke to him with that soft smoky voice that sounded like pure velvet. He leaned over his mug, tapping the brim of it with the pads of his thumbs. “There’s a whole lot I like about you.” Scott’s eyes dropped from Clara’s, traveled down to her chin, her neck, the top of her creamy bosom, rounded and firm beneath the lining of lace that made her feel more proper during the day.

Clara leaned forward, grinning from ear to ear, “Why Scott Lancer . . . I do believe you are toying with me,” she declared softly to his seductive tease.

Scott shook his head and studied her for a moment before answering. “If you really knew me, then you’d know I’d never toy with perfection.”

Clara slid her hand across the table, picked up Scott’s beer and took a drink from it, all the while watching him as he watched her. This wasn’t the first time they’d played this game, and it wouldn’t be the last. She sat the mug down, ran her tongue along her lips, smiling as if with a secret, “I do know you . . . very well I might add.”

Scott shifted in his seat uncomfortably. The room seemed hotter. He pushed his hat back wishing for a cool breeze. “You up for company Saturday night?” he asked knowing her answer but still wanting to hear her reply.

Clara rubbed a finger along her pink lips, her green eyes dancing with yellow flames, “Honey . . . I always have time for company when you’re around.”

Scott scraped his chair back and stood up. Chin lowered slightly and a smile on his face, he said, “Then I’ll be seeing you . . . Saturday night . . . for a little company.” Scott tipped his hat, started to walk past Clara but stopped when she grabbed his hand in a light grip.

Scott looked down at her, eyes shadowed by sandy colored lashes. He raised his eyebrows, asking without asking.

Clara tilted her head up at Scott, “Bring that new little brother of yours too.”

Scott looked at her oddly, confounded by her request. He shook his head, “Don’t you think it’ll be a little crowded with the three of us?”

Clara dropped Scott’s hand and held her stomach as she laughed. “Oh, Scott . . . Like I said before, you do make me laugh.”

Scott knit his brows, “Well . . . what else was I supposed to think?” he asked.

Clara smiled up at him, “Not that.” Then she said wickedly, “But I guess we could . . . ” She let the suggestion trail off with a wicked gleam in her eye.

“Very funny.”

Clara grinned, “I thought so.”

Scott narrowed his eyes at her, “Why did you tell me to bring Johnny then?”

She sighed and picked up the beer mug Scott left on the table and finished off the last golden swallow. Licking her lips she said, “The girls want to meet him. They saw him riding into town yesterday, looking fit as a fiddle.” Clara shifted, turned in her seat and stood up. Her eyes fastened on his lips as she spoke, “You know, I wouldn’t mind an earlier visit if you were of a mind to be a little reckless.”

Scott grabbed her hands, stilling their wandering trail upon his chest, “You know I can’t do that,” he told her, giving her hands a slight squeeze while wishing in that moment that he could say he would come see her sooner.

Without lifting her head, she raised her eyes to his, the color of sweet clover, her mouth closed in a delicious pout that Scott ached to kiss away. “Well if you change your mind,” she told him coquettishly, “You know where you can find me.”

He kissed her then, a mere touch of the lips, barely enough and yet . . . too much for so early in the morning with her looking so fresh, so sweet and ready to pluck off the vine if he were of a mind to right then and there. Scott took a deep breath, “You do tempt me, Miss Clara O’Riley.”

Clara sighed wistfully, “But not enough to change your mind.” She shrugged turning a rosy colored cheek to Scott, smiling with disinterest at the drunken man sleeping slumped over at the far table. Indicative of her life she thought, wishing once more that things could be different, that she was a real lady with whom Scott would stop the world from turning just to be with.

“See yah Saturday night, Mr. Scott Lancer.” As she walked away, regal and proud across the saloon, Clara called over her shoulder, “Don’t forget to bring that little brother of yours.” And then she was gone through the corner back door, the only sign that she had ever been there in the first place, the sweet scent of jasmine and the lingering feel of her soft blushing lips on his.

Scott touched his lips with his fingertip, grinned and wondered if he might find a way to surprise Clara. He liked her more than just a little and wanted to be with her. When they were together he felt in her a kindred spirit, a person who on the outside looked one way, but was altogether something else on the inside. Something like the way he felt dressed in his new western clothes, a gun strapped around his waist, tough leather boots upon his feet. Looking nothing at all like he had been and yet he still felt the same inside, refined, cultured, a man of society, but a man with a new set of priorities, a new zest for life because of his new family.

“You leavin’, Scott?” Frank asked as he brought in a box load of new liquor bottles to put up on the shelf in front of the mirror.

“Yeah, I’m leaving,” Scott answered as he moved his eyes from the corner door to the bright sunshine that streaked over the swooping curves of the saloon’s batwing doors.

“If you get time, you and Johnny come by Saturday night. Got some new entertainment comin’ in for a little singsong. If yah like that sort of thing.”

Scott waved and grabbed the top of the swinging doors. He looked back and on second thought said to Frank, “Might be in a little sooner, Frank.”

“Yeah?” Frank asked with a knowing smile. He laughed and set his box down on the floor, plucking out a dark green bottle and wiped it off with his cleaning rag. “You do that and Miss Clara is gonna think the world done come to a halt.”

Scott smiled at the thought. “Then I guess I’ll just have to stop the world from turning,” he said under his breath, pushing through the doors. “See you later, Frank”

Frank grunted an unintelligible goodbye, never knowing he had been instrumental in granting at least one of Miss Clara O’Riley’s deepest wishes.
 
 
Chapter 11
Three Times the Fool

 

“Why couldn’t you just listen to me for a change?” Murdoch bellowed as he brought a pan of water and a couple towels into the great room.

“It ain’t nothin’, Murdoch. I wish you’d stop fussin’ and leave me alone,” Johnny said as he swiped at the hand that tried to touch his right temple with a cold wet towel.

“If you push my hand away one more time I’m going to smack it good!” Murdoch barked. “Now be still.”

Johnny sighed and leaned back against the sofa, allowing his head to lie upon the top of the cushion. “You’re makin’ a mountain out of a mole hill, Old Man.”

“So you’ve said . . . for the third time,” Murdoch remarked sarcastically as he dabbed at the blood on Johnny’s forehead.

“Are you done yet?” Johnny asked before Murdoch was finished with his ministrations.

“I’m not done by a long shot, boy,” Murdoch said, dabbing just a little rougher than was necessary on the uninjured part of Johnny’s face. “You’ve already got one hell of a bruise beginning to show.”

Johnny pressed his hands against his belly and laughed cynically, “Ain’t entirely my fault yah know.”

“Are you getting smart with me?” Murdoch asked irritably while daubing at the dried blood on Johnny’s face.

With his eyes closed, Johnny retorted crossly, “No!”

“No what?” Murdoch asked placing another wet towel over the swelling cut.

Johnny stomped his right boot heel on the floor when Murdoch pressed a little too hard on the wound. “No, Sir . . . Ow!” he yelped. “Damn, Murdoch! You tryin’ to take my head off or what?”

“Don’t cuss . . . and no . . . I’m not trying to take your head off. I’m trying to make it stop bleeding if you’d just hold still and be quiet.”

“I’m tryin’ to,” Johnny snapped at Murdoch.

“Try harder then and I’ll try to be more gentle.” It was about as close to an apology as either of them could make, but it seemed to work between them as the harsh tones lessened.

The wet towel was taken off and Johnny opened his eyes. His father was right over him, peering closely at the cut that was just above his right eyebrow.

“It’s deep . . .  Sam is going to have to stitch it up.”

Johnny shook his head from side to side, stopping as soon as he realized that wasn’t a very good idea. His head hurt, and the more he moved it now that he was sitting down in one place, the sicker his stomach felt for doing it.

“I don’t need Doc stitchin’ up my head. It’s just a little cut. In a day or two . . . you won’t even notice it’s there,” Johnny told his father quickly. The last thing he wanted was for that ol’ saw bones taking a needle to him.

“Hold this,” Murdoch said, putting the wet towel back over the wound and ignoring his son. He tried to be gentle, but knew he was failing miserably. His hands were shaking something terrible and his stomach rolled when he saw the open cut on Johnny’s temple.

Johnny hissed in pain when Murdoch put the towel back on, he felt like cussing some more but kept his mouth shut. He knew Murdoch wasn’t trying to deliberately hurt him. His father had been this way since the first moment Johnny opened his eyes and heard Murdoch frantically calling his name after being grazed on the head by one of Loco Blanco’s lashing hooves.

Murdoch walked to the front door and opened it. His voice was loud and it carried a long way when he called out, “Charlie!”

In seconds, Johnny could hear footsteps running toward the front door. “Yeah, boss?”

“I want you to go to town. Fetch Doc Jenkins and ask him to come out here as soon as he can. Tell him Johnny’s going to need some stitches.”

“I’m on it, Mr. Lancer.” Charlie turned to leave and the door was closed behind him with a forceful shove.

“I told yah I don’t need that ol’ saw bones, Murdoch.”

Murdoch stomped, near forgetting his limp and crossed the front foyer and into the great room. “You got kicked in the head by a horse’s hoof. What part of that mental picture are you not getting?” Murdoch had it in his mind real good. A frightening image that kept replaying itself over and over in his head. Johnny’s ‘Old Man’ riding hell bent for leather down one of the steepest hillsides on Lancer just to catch a wild crazy white stallion that couldn’t be caught by even his best vaqueros on a good day. Christ almighty, what had he been thinking acting like some foolhardy kid again?

Johnny shifted on the cushion and slid one hand to his neck up under his chin. “Murdoch?”

“What?” Murdoch demanded from the fireplace, hands on his hips as he angrily paced half limping back and forth. He was angry with himself, fuming for being such an idiot and putting his son’s life in danger. Of all the foolish things he’d ever done, roping that wild stallion was one of them. What had he been trying to prove?

Johnny pulled the towel down and lifted his head. It hurt to move but Murdoch was driving him crazy. “Would yah stop pacing . . . stop shouting? I feel sick enough as it is.”

Murdoch blanched, the last thing he wanted after what he’d done, was to make his son feel worse than he already did. “I can’t help it, Johnny. I feel terrible.”

Johnny sighed, rolled his eyes and laid his head back on the cushion, “You ain’t the one that got kicked in the head . . . remember?”

“That’s not what I mean, and you know it!” Murdoch exclaimed, not quite shouting but a little louder than he intended because he felt guiltier with every passing second. He kept seeing the mistake he made in his head, over and over again . . . and the blood . . . there had been so much blood. “I should get you upstairs,” he mumbled, “Get your shirt changed before Teresa gets home.”

“I ain’t movin’, Old Man.” Johnny picked up the towel and put it over his face again, gingerly pressing on the area where the wound was still bleeding a little. “I’m gonna be sick if I don’t keep my head still for a little while.” It was all he could do to keep from throwing up as it was.

The sound of a wagon approaching ended any disagreement Murdoch was about to give his son. “Damn!” he said walking with a burning limp to the door. He opened it, watching as Scott jumped off the wagon seat and then held his arms up to Teresa to help her down.

He could tell by the looks on their faces that they must have run into Charlie on his way to town. More than ever, he felt three times the fool knowing he was going to have to explain Johnny’s injury and every blasted thing that led up to it that was all his fault, which meant exposing his own stupidity.

Murdoch stepped back from the door when they got to him, Teresa glancing up at him quizzically before brushing her way past without saying anything to check on Johnny first. Scott stopped just inside the front foyer, turning to his father with questioning eyes when he saw his brother sprawled against the back of the sofa, a stained wet towel covering one side of his face, his shirt smattered with splotches of bright red blood.

“Charlie said something about him needing stitches. So what happened?” he asked with that calm reserve Murdoch had come to admire.

Murdoch’s face turned cold and hard on his elder son, “I think it’s plain to see . . . I just about killed your brother . . . that’s what.”

****

Sam closed his medical bag and stood up after checking one last time on his patient. The sutures were nice and tidy, eight little stitches that neatly blended over the line of Johnny’s dark brow. The boy looked as if he’d been in a bare-knuckle fistfight with a grizzly bear and after having thrown up, his disposition was a little less than pleasant to those around him. Not surprising, Sam thought, considering the whopper of a headache Johnny must be having.

He turned to the family who waited anxiously behind him in the great room. Murdoch had hovered over him almost the entire time he worked on Johnny. Telling bits and pieces of what happened, while poking his nose a little too close one time too many, until Sam asked him to back away until he was done. He understood how his friend felt, and even sympathized with him just a little. After all, Johnny was still recovering from the wound to his back by Day Pardee. Murdoch blamed himself for Johnny’s newest hurt and like any new father wanted to somehow make it all better . . . make it all go away if he could. But he couldn’t, and Sam told him so in that matter of fact way he had of saying things while he worked under Murdoch’s annoying scrutiny.

“I don’t know about the rest of you, but I could use a cup of coffee right about now.”

“What about Johnny? Is he going to be alright?” Murdoch asked with that same worried frown that had been on his face the whole time since Sam arrived.

“He’s fine. Now how about that coffee? I’d give just about anything for a cup right now. I was up all night with Heather Baines and she still hasn’t given birth to that baby of hers.” Sam shook his head and scratched at his chin. “I’m beginning to think it isn’t ever going to get here the way it keeps going back into hibernation.”

“You better tell ‘im what he wants to hear first or you ain’t gonna get anything, Doc,” Johnny said grumpily from the sofa.

“Is that a fact?” Sam asked skeptically, arching a bushy gray brow at Murdoch.

Johnny rolled his head to the left and cracked his eyes open to look at the doctor with a wry grin, “Might even smack yah if you don’t answer him quick enough.”

“That will be enough out of you John Lancer,” Murdoch warned, pointing a finger at his son.

Sam Jenkins harrumphed, snapping his medical bag closed and said, “I can safely say your son is going to live. I put eight stitches in his hard head and I’m recommending light duty for the next few days until he feels better.” He picked up his bag and walked to the front door, dropping it down on the tile floor with an exhausted sigh and a grump. “Should have been taking it easy anyways . . . but no one ever listens to me,” Sam muttered under his breath to himself.

“Is that all you have to say?” Murdoch asked sternly to Sam’s grumbling back, wanting more assurances concerning Johnny’s state of health than he felt he was getting.

Sam turned around and ran his fingers through his hair. “No it isn’t. I’d like sugar and a little cream too,” he added with the first hint of a smile on his face. He knew he was goading Murdoch, but there was a part of him that couldn’t help teasing his friend just a little. Murdoch was being the proverbial new father, more worried and anxious over Johnny’s little wound than he might otherwise have been with one of the hands. “Well?” he asked.

“Oh, for Pete’s sake! The coffee is in the kitchen!”

Sam laughed and walked to the end of the sofa where Johnny was laying. He leaned down and whispered into Johnny’s ear, “See . . . that’s how you get what you want without getting smacked. He stood up and smiled at Murdoch, “You gonna come with me and tell me how this happened?”

Murdoch limped across the room clearly exasperated with his friend, “I already told you what happened,” he stated emphatically.

“So tell me again,” Sam said following the tall rancher. “I want to make sure I have the story straight when I tell our poker buddies in town what an old fool you are.”

“You tell them anything and I swear to Heaven . . .” Murdoch could be heard saying, his words trailing off as he and Sam disappeared down the hall toward the kitchen.

“I think I’ll join them. Might do to have a woman around playing referee with those two,” Teresa remarked. “You want anything, Johnny?”

“No,” Johnny said without looking at her or opening his eyes.

Teresa looked at Scott questioningly. Scott held up his hand and shook his head, “I’m fine.”

“All right then,” Teresa said smiling at Scott and Johnny before leaving the room.

Scott sat down on the coffee table in front of the sofa, “How are you feeling?” he asked his brother.

Johnny cracked one blue eye open toward Scott, the good one, the one that didn’t hurt, and smiled easy and slow, “Guess I’ll live . . . leastwise that’s what ol’ saw bones said.”

Scott sighed through his nose and arched his sandy brows at Johnny, “Yes . . . that’s what Sam said. But I’m asking you . . . how do you feel? And no smart remarks.”

Johnny splayed his hands across his stomach and grimaced, “I feel like I could throw up again, but there ain’t anything left inside me.” He frowned and his forehead crinkled from the effort, “My head hurts and when I open my eyes I feel like I’m gonna fall right off this sofa.” He reached up and tentatively touched the stitches over his brow with a heavy sigh, “And I’m tired, Scott . . . real tired.”

Scott leaned over and put his elbows on his knees letting his hands dangle between his spread thighs, “You want me to help you upstairs?”

Another sigh and this time Johnny turned away and lay on his side, “Nope . . . think I’ll just sleep right here so the ol’ man don’t forget how he nearly got me killed today.”

“Johnny,” Scott drawled out in brotherly fashion, a fair warning that maybe Johnny was going to push Murdoch too far. “You know Murdoch didn’t intend for you to get hurt.”

“Yeah . . . I know. Don’t mean I can’t give ‘im a hard time though.”

Scott started in on a lengthy diatribe about reaping what you sow, that is, until he realized Johnny wasn’t listening to him. The boy who was barely a man, his little brother, he thought fondly, was fast asleep, his young face bruised and purpling from Loco Blanco’s lashing hooves, the spot just over his right brow, stitched like bird tracks and angry red. He shook his head, stood up and grabbed a throw that lay on Murdoch’s chair, covering Johnny while wondering if his brother would be up for a Saturday night on the town at the end of the week. He had high hopes that he would, for Johnny wasn’t one to stay down for very long.

Scott touched Johnny’s hair, smoothed it back and thought how wondrous it was to even have a brother. He still marveled at the very idea, wanting so much to spend more time with him, get to know him better. But at the rate they were going, ‘the getting to know him better’ part seemed like it was going to take a lifetime. He smiled, though remembering their afternoon playing hooky and thought, better a lifetime than no time at all.

Chapter 12
A Horse With No Name

Johnny walked into the barn and into the stall next to the one where Scott was getting his horse saddled and ready to ride. He crossed his arms over the top slat and laid his chin on the top of his forearms. “Where you goin’?” he asked.

Without stopping to look at his brother, Scott tossed a saddle blanket over the horse’s back and said, “Town.”

Johnny watched his deft movements, Scott’s rigid back as he hefted his saddle off the rack and tossed it over the blanket. Strong lean fingers grasped the stirrup on the far side and pushed it off, reaching beneath the belly of the horse to grab hold of the cinch. “It’s only Thursday. Must be somethin’ mighty important for you to go traispin’ off in the middle of the week . . . it bein’ late an’ all.”

“You could say so,” Scott commented while tightening the cinch.

“You name that horse of yours yet?” Johnny asked, abruptly changing the subject.

Scott stopped what he was doing; his hands idle on the seat of his saddle. “Aren’t you going to ask me why I’m traipsing off to town . . . aren’t you the least bit curious?”

Johnny shifted and stood up straight taking his chin off his arms, “Figured if you wanted me to know . . . you would have told me right off.” Johnny took hold of the rail and leaned back on the heels of his boots, smiling. “ ‘Sides that . . . I figure I already know.”

Scott shifted one leg in front of the other leaning heavily to his left while resting his arm on his saddle. Chin dipped, he looked sideways at his little brother and grinned, his blue eyes, light and dancing. “Oh yeah?”

Johnny pulled himself forward, then let himself fall back again, his face animated, tinted a myriad of colors around his right eye and cheek, “Yep.”

“Do tell then,” Scott challenged. He didn’t think there was any way on God’s green earth that Johnny could know about him and Clara. How could the little imp when he’d only been to town once after convincing Murdoch to let him go see Sam Jenkins?

Johnny let go of the slat and bent over to slide a wooden stool over so he could stand on it and look over the wall good and proper. “Well for starters . . . yah got your fancy pants on. Tucked in nice and tight inside those spit polished walkers on your feet. That blue shirt yah got on is buttoned up to the neck and you’re wearin’ a string tie like a noose under a jacket that’s too hot to be wearin’ in the first place.” Johnny lifted his chin, sniffing the air and then looked down at his brother. He smiled, “And I’ll bet a month’s wages if I was deaf, blind and dumb . . . I could still find yah in the dark cause a body could smell yah comin’ from a mile away.”

Scott snorted inelegantly, “You say all that as if I look bad and stink.”

Johnny shook his head and stepped off the stool, pushing it back to its proper place with the toe of his boot. “Naw . . . you don’t stink. You smell real pretty. Miss Clara ought a like it sure enough.”

Scott’s eyes narrowed at his little brother who was leaning against the stall wall again. “And what do you know about Miss Clara?”

Johnny stifled a laugh, but his smile grew wide, “You sound jealous.”

Scott dropped his arm from his saddle and faced his brother, taking a step closer toward him with a mock glare on his face, “I am not jealous. Now tell me how you know about Miss Clara . . . brother.”

“Nothin’ to tell yah . . . brother. Simple observations. Gotta be able to do that in my line of business if yah want to keep your head from gettin’ blown off.”

Scott made his way to the wall of the stall and laid his arms in like fashion along the top next to Johnny. “Ex . . . line of business and what observations were you able to make that gave us up, not that I’m admitting to anything.”

Johnny sighed and leaned his head a little to the right as he studied his brother. “You really want to know?”

Scott gave a curt nod, “I really want to know.”

“It’s late. No daddy in his right mind is gonna let his little girl see a man at this hour. No proper lady either would entertain the idea cause her reputation might get stained and all the gossips would shun her. That only leaves one conclusion . . . saloon girl. And with your taste . . . she’d have to be a looker. So I was bettin’ on it bein’ Miss Clara.”

“You know her?” Scott asked.

“Nope,” Johnny answered. “Saw her in town the other day when we rode in. She’s kinda fancy, like she don’t belong there, and she don’t look nothin’ like the other girls so I figure it has to be her. ‘Side’s that, she was watchin’ you from the window of her room. Kinda wistful like.”

“So how do you know her name?”

“I asked doc when he was pokin’ at my back.” Johnny leaned back from the rail while holding on. The glow of the lanterns flickered and danced behind him, giving Scott the impression his fidgety little brother could dance away with them.

He bowed his head and tried to see the toes of his shiny boots, “She is different.”

Johnny leaned toward his brother, “Sounds like you like her . . . smells like you like her.”

Scott grinned at his brother, “I do.”

Johnny thrummed his fingers on the rail, “Good. Now what about that horse with no name? Yah know . . . I told you a good horse ought a have a good name.”

Scott shifted from one foot to the other, “I’ve been thinking on it.”

“And?”

“I was thinking about calling him Sheridan.”

Johnny smiled, “After that smarted up fella in the picture?”

“Yeah. What do you think?”

Johnny pushed away from the wall and started out of the barn. Over his shoulder he said, “I think you ought a call him whatever you like.” He stopped at the door of the barn and turned around, his arms spread wide, “At this point . . . anything’s better than ol’ swayback.”

And with that remark, Johnny disappeared out of the barn, his likable presence sorely missed by Scott as he led the newly named Sheridan out of the barn and mounted up. But right now, there wasn’t anything he could do about spending more time with his brother. He had a surprise to make, an unexpected visit to a woman who knew how to make his blood sing with just the touch of her hand.

 
 
Chapter 13
Crossing the Line

Murdoch flicked his paper over his breakfast plate for the third time and Teresa thought sourly if he did it one more time she would get up and snatch it out of his hands just to make him stop. The man was perturbed of that she was sure. Neither Scott nor Johnny was at the table yet and being a punctual man, Murdoch was in his own way throwing a mild temper tantrum that grated on her nerves.

She hated starting her day off on the wrong foot, especially if she hadn’t slept well and last night she hadn’t slept well at all. The air hadn’t cooled off much the whole night long and she found herself getting up time and time again just to get a drink of water or to stand by the window in the hopes that a breeze might cool her off. It hadn’t and here she sat in front of her plate, yawning and tired, a full day ahead of her, cleaning and cooking.

Lord but she wished at times she were a man, able to go out into the world and work as they could out on the range. But the days of being able to do those types of boyish things were done and over with after the battle with Day Pardee started and her father was shot and killed.

Murdoch said she was a lady and that ladies did not do such things, as she wanted to do. Though the dictate rankled, she understood why he put his foot down.

The paper was flicked once again and this time she heard him sigh from behind his paper. “I can go get them if you want,” she offered.

Murdoch folded his San Francisco Chronicle and set it to the side of his plate. “That won’t be necessary darling. If they aren’t down in a few more minutes, I will personally go up and get them myself,” he threatened mildly over the rim of his coffee cup.

 

The words were no sooner out of his mouth when Scott, bleary eyed, his hair wet and combed over as if done with his fingers, came trudging into the kitchen. “Good morning,” he said quietly and sat down.

“Good morning, Scott,” Teresa said, glad that one of the boys arrived for breakfast before Murdoch had to go get them.

“Is your brother on his way?” Murdoch asked unable to hide the displeasure in his voice.

Scott smiled up at Maria when she picked up the coffee pot and poured him a generous helping. “I thought he was down already. He wasn’t in his room when I checked. Buenos días, Maria.”

“Buenos días, Señor,” the housekeeper responded with a smile.

“Then where the devil is he?” Murdoch wanted to know.

Scott sipped his coffee, “I suppose he’ll have to tell you that, because I don’t know.”

The remark was calm, relaxed sounding but nevertheless it grated on Murdoch’s nerves. “We have breakfast at seven sharp.”

Scott drank another mouthful of coffee, eyeing his father over the rim of his cup. “I know, sir. I apologize for not being on time. In the future, I’ll do my best to be more punctual.” He set his cup down, filled his plate with scrambled eggs and biscuits, ignoring the frustrated look on his father’s face. He knew the man didn’t know how to handle acquiescence with good grace, when what Murdoch really wanted to do was rant and rave to someone.

“When was the last time you saw him?” Murdoch asked forking his food.

Scott swallowed a bite of his biscuit, “Last night . . . in the barn.”

Murdoch picked up his coffee cup and eyed his son before taking a sip. “You have any idea where he might have gone this morning.”

Scott seemed to think on his answer for a moment and then finally said, “No, sir. I don’t.”

Maria fluttered around them, filling their plates with more food and refilling their cups with coffee. It came to Murdoch then, that maybe she might know something and so he asked, “Did you see Johnny this morning, Maria?”

Maria took the coffee pot to the stove and set it down. Nervously she wiped her hands on the white apron strung around her waist and looked as if she wanted to be anywhere else than where she was at the moment. Murdoch was instantly suspicious that the good woman knew where his errant son had gone off. “Maria?”

She nodded her head, but then looked as if she might leave before telling. Murdoch stood up and went to her side, putting his hands upon her shoulders. “Maria, if you know where Johnny is, I want you to tell me, please.” He knew he sounded morning gruff, a little harsh, irrational even, but he couldn’t help it. The image of his young son lying bloody in his arms in a field of wild flowers just two days before was stamped upon his psyche forever.

His son should be at home, minding doctor’s orders, taking it easy, sitting across from his brother at the breakfast table, with an easy going smile, thus assuring Murdoch by his punctual attendance, that his illusion of the perfect family was the perfect reality.

His guilt for causing Johnny more harm was a monster in his gut, tearing up his insides and clawing at his heart until his thinking sometimes felt illogical and temperamentally disturbed. He knew he shouldn’t think or feel that way. He knew too that he should stop counting the times they sat down to eat, knew he should be more patient and undemanding, loose his restrictions and be at ease with both his sons, but it was such a hard thing to do when he felt their hurts just as deeply as if it had happened to himself.

The nervous housekeeper shook her head and turned a flaming cheek to Murdoch, biting on her bottom lip. She would not betray the muchacho’s secret confidences, not even to the patron, and not for so brave a thing as he was doing.

“Maria!” Murdoch said a little louder than he intended, frustrated by the woman’s lack of response and the fact that he was certain she knew something and was hiding it from him. He hated secrets, and in his frustration and unaccustomed worry, his fingers had gripped a little harder than he intended, unintentionally causing her pain.

She looked up at Murdoch, her eyes wide and a little frightened by his unexpected use of strength. “Usted no debe pedir . . .”

“Let her go, Murdoch,” came a hard-edged voice from the kitchen doorway.

Maria sagged beneath Murdoch’s hands. “Madre de dios. Gracias Jesús dulce!” she cried softly.

Johnny stalked across the kitchen, the spurs on his boots jangling hard with each determined step, and gently pulled Maria away from Murdoch’s grasp.

Maria put her hands on Johnny’s cheeks, smiled and brushed away the moisture in her eyes with her apron when she let go. “You a good boy. You tell your papa where you go. ¿Sí?”

Johnny nodded and gave Maria a kiss on the cheek. “Sí.”

Maria sighed and quickly left the room. She liked the patrón’s son very much, but she did not like coming between them when they argued, especially if the argument was going to be about her keeping a secret.

Johnny waited until Maria was out of the room and then he turned to his father, “Don’t grab her like that again. It scares her.”

Murdoch’s face turned three shades of red, “I didn’t hurt her or intend to scare her. I simply asked her where you were.”

Johnny shifted, standing heavily on one foot as he thrummed his fingers against his thigh, “It doesn’t matter what you intended. You still scared her and I’m tellin’ you not to do that to her ever again.”

“You don’t call the tune around here, boy,” Murdoch stated heatedly, more so because he did not understand the reaction of his younger son. He had no clue how things had looked to Johnny or what kinds of memories the very act of putting his hands on Maria evoked in his son’s mind having totally forgotten about what he’d heard that informative night in the kitchen. After the near deathblow from the white stallion to Johnny’s head, the only sound reasoning he understood was his and no other. He was right . . . and the rest of the world was wrong . . . and that included his son. It was his way and in that moment the way things would always be.

“I’m not going to argue with you about this, Murdoch. It has nothing to do with callin' the tune. She’s not one of your vaquero’s or some gun toting hired hand. She’s a gentle person . . . a woman.”

“And that woman is my responsibility. She’s been in my employee ever since you were born.”

“All the more reason why you should respect how she feels,” Johnny stated. “I shouldn’t have to stand here and tell you that she was scared. You should have been able to see that for yourself.”

Murdoch’s chest puffed out. “I was simply asking her a question, Johnny. There was no reason for her to be scared,” he claimed resentfully.

“There is if you were hurting her . . . and that’s what you were doing,” Johnny said not backing down to his father. He remembered all too well the look on his mother’s face when she was grabbed in much the same manner, and nothing Murdoch said was going to change how he felt about what he just saw.

“You’re crossing the line with me, Johnny,” Murdoch stated harshly, forgetting all his earlier concerns and well meaning ideas in the heat of indignation.

Scott pushed away from the table, his chair grating on the floor. “Will both of you stop it,” he said, growling for the first time ever. “Honestly . . . this has gone too far and I for one stand in agreement with my brother.” Scott pushed his chair up under the table, “Murdoch . . . you were a little too gruff with Maria and I agree . . . there was no need to handle her physically for an answer. And Johnny, it was unintentional . . . there’s no need to press how you feel any further. I think Murdoch gets your point by now.” Scott turned toward his father and his brother, “This is a ranch. We have work to do . . . so I suggest we get on with it.”

Teresa scooted back in her chair, “I second that,” she said. “Both of you, out of my kitchen unless you want to sit down like civilized men and finish eating without all this bickering. Johnny . . . I’ll go have a word with Maria and make sure she’s okay. Which I’m sure she is,” Teresa added assuredly for the benefit and concern of both men.

After Teresa left the room, leaving all three men standing in attendance to one another, Scott said, “Well . . . what’s it going to be?”

Johnny closed and opened his eyes, slow, heavy, glaring at his brother, “I said what I wanted to say.”

Murdoch never drew his gaze away from Johnny’s bruised face or the blue frosty eyes that could be so defiant one second and filled with deep longing the next. He felt cheated of a win, knew his thinking was ridiculous, but unable to help himself feel otherwise. He said in like tone to his young son, “I’ve told you what I think as well.”

Feeling more like an officer in combat, Scott sighed and splayed his hands along his belt, “Then we’re done. Johnny?”

Johnny dropped his eyes, no longer able to look his father or his brother in the face. They didn’t know or understand what any of this meant to him and he wasn’t about to explain any more than he already had. He turned on his heel and walked away, leaving Murdoch and Scott staring at his back and wondering each in his own way if life was ever going to get any easier between them.

 
 
Chapter 14
A Friend’s Advice

Thank God the day was finally over Murdoch reflected as he sat in his bedroom and pulled off his boots. It started off not so good and he partly blamed himself for that. Feeling mad and needing to vent, Murdoch had saddled up right after breakfast and rode into town to visit his friend Sam.

The man knew him better than he knew himself he often thought, especially now, when all that he ever knew seemed topsy-turvy. Right seemed to be wrong and wrong seemed to be right, and in all of it, Murdoch seemed more confused and beleaguered by the new challenges in his life than at any other time he could remember.

When he told Sam about what happened that morning, it nearly floored him that he hadn’t seen the entire episode in the kitchen for what it was. He mentally kicked himself for having to be told what was plain before his eyes, the shame and constant sorrow he knew full well after seeing and hearing Johnny the other night with Teresa. And yet, he still ignored it because it would mean facing up to some cold hard truths and confronting his son . . . both of his sons when he knew he wasn’t ready yet. He still lacked the courage and the faith, the conviction of his worth to them.

****

“What did you expect him to say when he saw you manhandling Maria? For Heaven’s sake, Murdoch, you were there when I took that bullet out of his back. Any fool can see he was abused while growing up. And if that’s what was done to him . . . imagine what his mother went through and what Johnny has seen and been through. You already suspect that Johnny was there when his mother was murdered, or have you forgotten that little piece of information about Maria from the Pinkerton report?”

Sam didn’t know that Murdoch’s worst fear and the report from the Pinkerton agency had been confirmed, and Murdoch wasn’t about to add that wicked piece of information about himself to his friend just yet. He’d look like a bigger fool than he was already feeling.

“No . . . I haven’t forgotten that little piece of information, thank you very much,” Murdoch ranted as he paced Sam’s front parlor. “I wasn’t thinking of that this morning. Nor have we spoken of it.”

“Have you tried?” Sam asked.

Murdoch stopped his pacing, rubbed at his lower back and glared at his friend, “No I haven’t. How can I when he doesn’t talk to me? How can I when the only thing I have in common with either of my sons is the here and now, the ranch, and even that tenuous connection doesn’t seem to matter when Johnny and I butt heads or Scott and I have a tactical disagreement.”

Sam sighed and crossed one leg over the other. His elbows rested on the arms of his chair, his fingers tipped together, steepled and tapping just under his chin in a slow thoughtful process as he studied his friend. “I would suggest you start by deciding what it is you want from your sons now they’ve signed the contract and have become a part of your life legally.”

Murdoch limped ungracefully toward the empty chair across from Sam and sat down heavily, “I thought I made that perfectly clear to both of them. The past is the past, dead and buried. They’re partners with me and I expect them to abide by my say so on all matters whether we talk about it or not.”

Sam’s eyebrows rose up in surprise, “What a strange thing for you to say.”

“Why?” Murdoch asked as he shifted in the chair to get comfortable. “I think I was completely upfront about what I expected from them and they both agreed. And, I might add . . . they did sign the contract . . . it was all spelled out.”

“And just like that . . .” Sam said dropping his hands to the arms of his chair and snapping his fingers, “they’re supposed to just accept whatever you do or say without question . . . never discuss the past with the father that didn’t raise them.”

“I didn’t say that,” Murdoch stated coldly.

“You didn’t have to. It’s very clear by your previous statement that that is what you meant. If not . . . then tell me I’m wrong.”

“You’re wrong!” Murdoch gritted.

“Then what is it you really want from them?” Sam asked helping his friend along, pressing on an old wound that had been buried deep within Murdoch’s heart for a long, long time. He knew what Murdoch wanted for his sons, for himself, but he also knew his tough friend would have a hard time admitting his real hopes and dreams for Scott and Johnny out loud. Nor would it be easy for him to talk to them independently about the role he played or didn’t play in both their lives. Doing so would mean opening up a Pandora’s box of old hurts and wounds that Sam thought neither of the boys were aware their father had right alongside their own.

“I want . . . ” Murdoch hesitated, thinking about earlier thoughts concerning each of his boys, one so golden and fair who called him, ‘Sir’ . . . the other . . . wild and untamed who could ‘take care of himself’. “I want them to know me . . . their father,” he finally concluded softly, as if the wind had been blown out of his sails.

Murdoch lifted his eyes from his hands, “But you knew that already . . . didn’t you?”

Sam smiled, “All too well my friend . . . All too well.”

Murdoch shook his head, “I don’t know how to do it Sam. How do I tell two grown men who think I abandoned them in their childhood, that it was all a mistake? That I loved them and wanted them . . . always,” he asked sadly. “What do I say to fix over twenty years of neglect and lies?”

Sam sat forward in his chair, clasping his hands together, “I can’t tell you what to say, but I can tell you that the last thing they need or want right now . . . is a boss or a business partner. You’ll never truly have their love or loyalty by acting out the only thing in your life that you’ve ever known. And just for your information, no man knows how to be a father until they start acting like one, no matter what has happened in their past or yours. They wouldn’t have stayed if they weren’t willing to know and understand the man you are today. Use your instincts my friend. You know . . . you have to crawl before you can walk, and you have to love if you want to be loved.”

Sam stood up and walked over to his friend. He clamped Murdoch on the shoulder and looked down at him with a fondness forged by their many years of friendship. “Go home Murdoch. Talk to them. Tell them what’s in your heart and let them know you care. Answer their questions if they have any and do it like a man . . . with bravery.”

Murdoch smiled tightly up at Sam, “I don’t feel very brave right now.”

“What man does when he’s on the frontline?”

Murdoch reached up and clamped a hand over Sam’s, “You’re a good friend, Sam . . . better than anyone knows. I’ll do my best to follow your advice.”

Sam laughed and pulled his hand out from underneath Murdoch’s, “Good . . . I’m glad you can see the sense in it.”

****

The soft leather boots were placed next to the chair with a tired grunt. Murdoch had had every intention of speaking to his sons that evening but never got the chance. As with breakfast that morning and almost as if in defiance of the one house rule he insisted on, his sons missed supper and came dragging in hot and exhausted near bedtime. Too tired to eat and too tired to talk, both men said their goodnights and turned in early, leaving Murdoch and Teresa to spend what was left of the evening together in a comfortable silence that neither was inclined to break.

Murdoch undressed down to his underwear and turned down the wick in his lamp. With the room dark and the windows open to allow the slight summer breeze. Murdoch settled in under the sheets and thin coverlet to reflect on his life while he stared at the stars on the black horizon.

All good intentions aside, Murdoch thought that talking to his sons was going to be a lot harder than he wanted. Even talking to Johnny that short bit of time while they sat on the hill and looked down over the valley in search of Loco Blanco had been difficult. Short as it was, the memories, the unknown parts he agonized over had been hard to speak of. He wanted answers, knew that Johnny did too. And that was where he was having the most difficulty . . . not being able to give or receive what he wanted to hear and know without either of them being hurt in the process. About the only thing he had to give were explanations for what he did know . . . and those . . . he thought lame and unacceptable if he were honest with himself and putting himself in Scott and Johnny’s shoes.

He supposed that fear played a big part too in his cowardice for not wanting to talk about the past. Like he told Sam, he wanted his sons to think of him as father, because that’s what he was, and yet that’s not what he had been to either of them. He worried over what he thought they would think of him if they knew just how inept he had been in keeping either one of them. It was a tragedy really when he looked back on it. He had been young, too full of himself and too absorbed to know better . . . and a coward to boot.

And now, looking at the man he had made of himself, he had to ask why he hadn’t moved heaven and earth to do then what he knew was possible now. What had changed him? He thought if dealt the same hand today, the outcome would be far different. His thinking, different with age, and no longer caring if he was the same young man, near penniless and just making ends meet, would never be convinced that Scott was better off with his grandfather. He would have punched the man and taken his son then and there in that grand hall of Harlan’s. He would have fought for his son tooth and nail, even if it meant the old man’s death by his hand.

Nor would he have sat idly by while other men searched for his younger son, his baby. He would have gone himself and hunted for his family. He would have killed the man who took his son, divorced his wife and brought Johnny home . . . any home . . . even if it was nothing more than a seedy hotel room. At least they all would have been together and Johnny wouldn’t have had to live the life he’d led, or be punished just for being his son. He and Scott would have been protected and loved. And he, Murdoch thought, would have been a better man for having done those things.

Hindsight was a bitter pill to swallow, though. There was nothing he could do or say to make those things happen . . . but he could tell his sons, if he were a brave man, that that’s exactly what he would have done and would do now.

He closed his eyes, his dreams, filled with images of what might have been, knowing in his heart of hearts that no one . . . not even his sons could be harder on him than he was on himself.

 
 
Chapter 15
It’s Saturday Night

Scott was just coming out of his bedroom when he saw Johnny about to enter his own room down the hall. “Hey, Johnny,” he called out.

With his hand on the doorknob, Johnny turned his head to look at Scott, a slow smile creeping upward on his face. He moved his hand from the knob, sliding it up the wooden doorframe as he tilted his head and whistled through his teeth at his smartly dressed brother.

“You’re mighty dressed up for a Saturday night on the town,” Johnny commented, looking Scott up and down from the top of his head to the toes of his freshly polished black boots.

Scott straightened the black string tie around the collar of his white shirt, “Too much?” he asked.

Johnny dropped his hand to his side and stood up straight, “Guess not . . . if you’re tryin’ to impress someone special.”

He started to turn away, walk into his room, but Scott stopped him with a slight grip on his arm. “You’re coming with me, aren’t you?”

Johnny laughed softly then leaned in toward his brother and wiggled his string tie until it was slightly askew, “Be kinda crowded with what you have in mind . . . don’t yah think?”

“Who says I have anything in mind?” Scott asked mildly, lifting his chin and straightening his tie once again, unperturbed by his brother’s mischief.

Johnny shrugged, “You tellin’ me you don’t?”

“No . . . but that doesn’t mean we can’t go into town together, have a few drinks and maybe play some cards.”

Johnny put his hands on his hips and dipped his head down, thinking, “I don’t know, Scott,” he said at last. He slid a hand along the right side of his briused face and looked up again, “I might scare off your Miss Clara lookin’ like this and well . . . that just wouldn’t be brotherly of me.”

Scott laughed and put a hand along Johnny’s shoulders, tugging on his neck, “I never said I was seeing Miss Clara and for your information, you look fine. A little beat up . . . but fine. Besides . . . who’s going to notice you when they could be looking at me.”

Scott stepped aside and jutted his chin in the air, turning his face left to right, showing off what was supposed to be his perfect profile to Johnny. And it was, Johnny thought. His brother was a handsome man, fair-haired with a hint of bronze kissing his face after long hours working outside in the hot California sun. Scott’s hair was a little longer now, a little lighter and not so dandified and perfect as when Johnny first met him. Tougher than he expected, Johnny still thought of Scott as Boston, an eastern dandy with a lot to learn in his tight fitting brown pants, crisp white shirt, and tailored doeskin jacket that fit his frame with perfection.

Johnny smiled at him and swatted him on the stomach. “Guess I’ll have to go then. A man as pretty as you are might need a little protection once the women get a whiff of that sweet smellin’ perfume you like to pour all over yourself.”

Scott grinned and said indulgently, “It’s not perfume, it’s cologne and you might try using it once in a while. At any rate, what I have in mind won’t require any protection from you little brother. Besides . . . that’s my job.” He winked at Johnny, “Those older brother rules, remember?” he reminded, swatting his brother back and walking down the hall toward the stairs. “I’ll meet you downstairs,” he called over his shoulder as he disappeared down the staircase.

Soon afterward Johnny made his way down the stairs, clean-shaven and smelling remarkably like the new cologne Scott had sitting on the dresser in his room. Scott smiled at Johnny’s bold attire. He didn’t know another man on earth who could pull off wearing such bright colors as his brother wore without getting into a fistfight with every man in town. The color of a summer rose set off Johnny’s dark features, complimented the ocean blue of his eyes and made Scott imagine paradise, lush island flowers and wild untamed waterfalls. Exotically handsome, Scott thought, even though half his brother’s face was covered with a fusion of colors that made him want to wince with imaginary pain.

“You look mighty fine,” Scott complimented sincerely.

Johnny stepped lightly off the bottom stair, grinning at Scott, “Been told a time or two I clean up good.”

“Both of you look very nice,” Murdoch commented idly while getting up from his desk and walking over to them.

Scott beamed and said, “Thank you, sir.”

Johnny just dipped his head not looking at or responding to their father. Murdoch noticed. He’d noticed it all the more because it was the same as it had been since their spat on Friday morning. A subject he had yet to talk to Johnny about or make amends for other than to take Maria aside and apologize.

Murdoch clamped Scott on the shoulder and said, “Why don’t you get the horses Scott. I’d like a moment with your brother before you both take off.”

Scott looked hesitantly between his brother and his father. He and Johnny worked hard the past week and the last thing he wanted was for one of Murdoch’s  ‘moments’ to turn into a shouting match or something worse just as they were about to leave for a little fun and relaxation.

Noting his uncertainty Murdoch gave Scott a squeeze of assurance and said, “It will only take a minute, Scott. There won’t be any problems between us.”

Scott arched his brows and looked at his brother with unspoken doubt clearly written on his face, “Johnny?”

Johnny shrugged and waved his brother toward the door, “I’ll be right out, Scott. Just give me a minute.”

Scott really had no choice in the matter. He gave a nod and left them to it, hoping the two men wouldn’t clash as soon as his back was turned.

Johnny lifted his head, his eyes cold and distrusting, still angry over Friday morning’s incident with Maria in the kitchen. “So what do you want?”

Murdoch mentally shook off the irritation Johnny’s cold stare gave him, knowing in a sense that he deserved some of what Johnny was dishing out to him after talking things out with Sam. He believed he had a better understanding of what his son must have thought at the time, but it still rankled to have that feeling Johnny gave him when he looked at him that way.

Murdoch cleared his throat and plunged on, “I took too long in doing this . . . but . . . I want to apologize about yesterday.”

Shorter than his father, Johnny had to look up at him to gauge whether or not he thought Murdoch was being sincere. He thought Murdoch seemed to be and some of the coldness he’d been feeling toward him since yesterday started to thaw. He shrugged and looked away. “Okay . . . But I’m not the one you should apologize to,” he said slowly.

Murdoch took a deep breath and mentally counted to ten.

“I apologized to Maria yesterday . . . if that’s what you mean.”

Johnny’s dark lashes blinked heavily against his cheeks, “Then I guess we’re done, cause that’s all I wanted from you.”

Murdoch laid his hand on Johnny’s shoulder and with some disappointment felt his son stiffen before shrugging away from his touch. “Johnny . . . I . . . ”

Johnny shook his head and reached for the handle on the front door. “Scott’s waitin’ for me,” he said pulling the door open.

Murdoch grasped the edge of the door with his hand, his arm effectively keeping Johnny from walking away from him.

“Your brother can wait for another minute,” he said, not wanting Johnny to leave before he had a chance to make things better between them. He was trying his best to remain calm, but Johnny made it very difficult for him to keep his patience at times.

Johnny sighed, not wanting to go through this with his father when he and Scott were just about to leave for town. Dropping his hand from the door handle he stepped back and put his hands on his hips, shifting most of his weight onto his left leg, waiting impatiently . . . warily. “Well?” he finally asked when Murdoch said nothing for just a little too long.

Murdoch dropped his arm, “I’m doing my best to apologize and make things right between us but you have a way of making my attempts seem useless.”

“You already said you apologized to Maria. That’s all I wanted.”

“It seems to me you’re still angry,” Murdoch pointed out.

“I’ll get over it.”

“Just like that? Without talking things out?” Murdoch asked.

Johnny shrugged and could no longer look his father in the eyes. He dropped his head and stared at the toes of his boots. “Nothin’ to talk about,” Johnny mumbled, shrugging again for emphasis, “I said I’d get over it.”

Murdoch could hear his old friend’s advice in his ear and knew he must say something to bridge the gap between him and Johnny so they could find a way to openly discuss their past when the time was right. He sighed heavily and plunged on ignoring his own fears.  “I know you’ll get over it . . . eventually. But I don’t think ‘getting over it’ is as easy as you claim. And before you start to protest,” Murdoch said, putting up a hand to ward off Johnny’s predictable objection, “I know for a fact that you haven’t gotten over much of what’s happened to you in your life, and it’s a subject I wish to discuss with you and Scott at a more opportune time.”

Johnny looked up at his father and for just the briefest of seconds fear flashed across his face. Was it possible that Murdoch had gotten up the night he and Teresa cried in each other’s arms? His father seemed to be intimating more knowledge about him than Johnny had given. Or was his father guessing after hearing him ramble in the throes of a fever while he was recuperating from his bullet wound? Both plausible explanations bothered him greatly. The last thing he wanted was for Murdoch to feel sorry for him or to think him vulnerable and weak. He couldn’t speak for Scott but he could certainly speak for himself when it came to discussing his past in any kind of morbid detail.

“Why can’t you just let it go? You said the past is past . . . dead and gone,” Johnny asked suspiciously.

“Because letting things go is how I wound up losing you and Scott in the first place. I realize now that I never should have made that remark. It wasn’t fair to either of you, and I refuse to let the same mistakes tear us apart this time around. We’re a family . . . I’m your father like it or not and I want things straight between us. Is that understood?”

Johnny swallowed and lifted his head, brushing back the bangs that fell over his brows with shaky fingers. He hadn’t really thought of it the way Murdoch put it. ‘We’re a family’ . . . it wasn’t something he was used to. And having a father to remind him and set him straight without it being at the end of a belt or fist blew every other thought right out of his head except the one he knew Murdoch expected to hear from him. He suddenly felt like a fish out of water floundering to find the right words that would allow him to escape and think on what Murdoch wanted from him.

“Yeah . . . I understand,” he said hesitantly, finding the only answer somewhere in his subconscious he thought acceptable. He glanced somewhat nervously at Murdoch then back to the tiled floor again. When Murdoch stood there, staring at the top of his head without saying a word, hardly breathing it seemed, the need to get away increased tenfold. His head bowed slightly, Johnny asked, “We done? Can I go now?”

“As long as we have an understanding.” Not a question from Murdoch, but a promise to continue later.

Johnny nodded not knowing what else to say in Murdoch’s commanding presence.

The silence stretched between them, slowing time uncomfortably until Murdoch finally stepped away and let Johnny pass.

Murdoch watched him leave from the doorway, feeling like he did so many times when he watched either of his sons walk or ride away from him. He felt like it was for the last time. It sent a chill up his spine he was hard pressed to ignore and gave him an unaccustomed worry he wasn’t sure he would ever get used to. He knew in that moment like no other that Sam was right. He needed to talk to his sons not only for their sake . . . but for his as well.

On impulse he called out, “Johnny!”

Johnny came to skidding halt in the dirt, turning on his heels toward Murdoch, “Yeah?”

Murdoch stepped out onto the tiled entryway. “It’s Saturday night. You and Scott have a care. Watch each other’s back and come home safe.”

Johnny grinned and touched the butt of his gun reverently with the palm of his hand. “No problemo,” he said. “Ése es algo que puedo hacer muy bien.” (That is something I can do very well.)

Murdoch’s eyes narrowed at Johnny’s reminder of how good he was with a gun, but quickly followed it up with a smile when he thought his son far enough away not to see him. Wild, Murdoch thought . . . reckless . . . a fistful of dynamite and trouble with a capital T, but Murdoch wouldn’t have it any other way. He loved his sons and soon . . . he’d let both of them know just how much they meant to him.

Johnny sprinted the rest of the way toward the barn, swinging up onto Barranca after Scott handed him the reins to his horse.

Scott studied his brother before they took off. “You okay?” he asked.

“I’m fine,” Johnny replied when he got settled.

“You want to talk about it?” Scott asked hoping to find out what was said.

Johnny’s first reaction was to say ‘no’, but then he thought better of it. Maybe it was time to let Scott into his life a little . . . tell him how he was feeling about the things Murdoch said to him. Wasn’t that what brothers were supposed to do? Confide in each other . . . compare notes? He figured he’d find out. It was a long way into town and he had a lot of mixed up thoughts going on in his head. Murdoch said they were family . . . Scott was always reminding him that they were brothers . . . and family. Making up his mind, Johnny decided to test the waters of his newfound relationship with Scott.

As they started out of the yard at a slow walk, Johnny turned to Scott and said, “Yeah . . . I think I do.”

 

 

Chapter 16
A Better Place

“You and Johnny have a good time last night?” Murdoch asked nonchalantly at the breakfast table the next morning.

“Yes, we did, Sir,” Scott replied as he filled his plate from the platters Maria had set on the kitchen table.

“I tried to wait up for both of you but Teresa caught me sleeping in the chair near midnight. She woke me and gave me a lecture for my effort then sent me off to bed like some errant child.”

Scott wanted to smile at Murdoch’s tone. Though his comment was casual enough, there was a hint of petulance in it that was barely contained. He forked some eggs and said, “I’m surprised you even tried, Sir.”

Murdoch cleared his throat, “I find it . . . worrisome when you’re both out late,” Murdoch commented over the rim of his cup. He blew on his coffee then sipped it gingerly when he thought it cool enough to drink. “I suppose I shouldn’t, hmm?”

Scott swallowed his bite and shook his head, surprised to hear Murdoch admit such a thing to him. It wasn’t something he thought Murdoch would normally say out loud or question for that matter so early on in their relationship towards one another.

With polite acquiescence he said, “No, Sir, you shouldn’t.” He watched Murdoch from the corner of his eyes and thought the silence lasted a little too long after his comment. He wondered what his father was thinking and added, “But it’s nice to know. I’m just not used to it, I suppose.”

Murdoch sipped his coffee then set his cup down almost too carefully. “Hmm . . . I suppose.”

The Sunday Chronicle was moved slightly, a biscuit was picked up without thought and Murdoch asked before biting into it, “Do you have plans today?”

Scott sat his glass of orange juice down on the table then wiped his mouth with the napkin on his lap. “No, Sir . . . at least . . . nothing that’s pressing.”

Murdoch pulled his gaze from the paper and quizzically raised his brows at Scott. “Oh? I was under the impression you might spend time with Miss Clara O’Riley today.”

Scott nearly choked on his eggs when Murdoch made the surprising statement. His face turned three shades of red and he had to put his napkin to his mouth to keep from spitting his food across the table. He almost choked again when Murdoch smiled faintly and picked up his paper to shuffle it open to the next page without so much as a glance in his direction.

His first thought was that Johnny had said something to Murdoch, but it only took a split second to instantly reject the idea when he thought about how tight lipped and reserved the boy was with all of them. If not Johnny, then who? He was on the verge of considering alternate suspects that made no better sense when Murdoch enlightened him on how it was that he knew of Miss Clara O’Riley.

“Frank Dobe came by yesterday afternoon.” Murdoch picked his coffee cup up and took a drink while perusing the paper. “Brings me my special order of scotch when it comes in on the stage, you know,” he remarked casually. Scott hadn’t known, and much to his chagrin Murdoch finished painting the full picture by adding, “Frank’s a talker when he’s not working behind the bar in his saloon. We had a pleasant visit while you boys were out working the other day. I’m sorry you missed him.”

Scott wasn’t. His embarrassment would have been double the way he felt right now. The next time he saw Frank Dobe he would have a word or two with the man about spreading gossip whether true or not concerning his private affairs. And if that didn’t work . . . he thought he might just strangle the man instead.

Without looking, Murdoch set his cup down and picked up his fork, regarding the paper as if it were a bug under a magnifying glass. Leaning forward, he placed a bite of food in his mouth then tapped the paper with his fork. “Says here that beef prices are going up.”

“Sir?” Scott said, realizing his father wasn’t going to continue the earlier part of their embarrassing conversation.

“Mmm?” Murdoch mumbled.

“Johnny mentioned last night that you might want to discuss some things with us.”

Murdoch looked up from his paper. For a moment, he seemed lost in his thoughts but then he turned to Scott and said, “Yes . . . I do. But I want to wait until after your brother has come back from wherever he’s gone to again.”

“I thought Johnny was still up in his room sleeping off last night,” Scott said forgetting momentarily about his earlier embarrassment in light of the news.

“One would think . . . but no. He was apparently up and long gone before any of us were out of bed this morning.”

“And you have no idea where he went?” Scott asked genuinely surprised to hear that Johnny had gotten up so early after the amount of tequila and beer they had consumed the night before. He still felt a little thickheaded and wondered how his little brother managed to shake the affects of the alcohol so quickly.

Murdoch stood up and shook his head. He tossed his napkin onto his plate, picked up his cup and carried it to the stove to pour himself another cup of coffee. “No I don’t, and I’m not going to find Maria or Teresa this morning and ask them. I figure after the way I handled things the other morning it might be best to lay low and find out from Johnny when he gets home.”

Scott grinned and settled back in his chair while Murdoch made himself comfortable at his end of the table again. “If you don’t mind me saying so, I got the impression from Johnny your apology went well.”

Murdoch scratched his chin then rubbed a hand along his jaw, “No I don’t mind and I’d say it went well too but after everything that’s happened . . . I feel the need to sit down with both you boys and have a good long talk about our pasts. I’m sure you both have questions you’d like answered.”

“I have to admit, I was surprised when Johnny told me that you were willing to. You made it clear the first day that you didn’t want to go into it.”  

Murdoch pursed his lips and stared long and hard at the wood grain of the table, “I thought I didn’t, but now I’m thinking it’s best  . . . Don’t you?”

“I know I have a few questions I’d like to have answered.”

The rest of the conversation was forgotten when at that moment Teresa came bounding into the kitchen. Her face was red from the exertion of running and her hair had come loose from the ribbon that held it back. “Murdoch, Scott . . . You’ve got to come quick. You won’t believe it!” she exclaimed excitedly. “You just won’t believe it!”

Teresa turned away from them and ran from the kitchen, not waiting to see if they followed. Scott and Murdoch momentarily looked at each other with confusion on their faces, quickly displaced by mounting curiosity when they heard the young girl yelling for Maria to come with her quickly. By the time the front door slammed closed they had both gotten up out of their chairs, Scott fairly running from the room while Murdoch grabbed up his cane and limped quickly behind.

Outside in the open yard space in front of the barn and corrals, men, women and children had gathered together in a great crowd. Some of them, men mostly, whooped and hollered, slapping their neighbors on the backs while others tossed their hats into the air and stomped their feet in wild crazy excitement. The women hugged and smiled at each other, while others like Maria and Teresa swiped happy tears from their eyes and grasped at the children that ran playfully around their legs.

Wondering what they could all be looking at that would give them so much to cheer about, Scott and Murdoch pushed their way through the crowd and finally saw what it was.

It was Murdoch who nearly stumbled and fell when he thought the breath in his chest would cause him to explode. Scott saw the surprise and utter disbelief on his father’s face, his wavering stance and grasped Murdoch by the arm to help steady him.

“I don’t believe it,” Murdoch whispered disbelieving his own eyes.

Scott pulled his gaze from Murdoch’s and held his hand up over his eyes to shield them from the glaring sun. A slow smile crept up his face and wonder deepened the lines around his soft blue eyes. His brother had pulled off a feat no other had been able to do according to every man, woman and child who lived in the area. Johnny was coming home, and behind him on a lead rope was Loco Blanco, the horse Murdoch believed incapable of being caught and of nearly killing his son.

Incredible, Murdoch thought when one of the vaquero’s ran to the corral, unlatched the gate and swung it open. The white stallion followed Johnny past the crowd and through the opening, prancing and unafraid of the throng that moved toward the corral to watch as Johnny dismounted. The same vaquero took Barranca’s reins and led him out of the pen, handing off the golden palomino to a small boy who gladly took over while the man latched the gate and turned to step on the rails and watch what would happen next.

The white stallion reared, his hooves rolling menacingly close to Johnny’s head. Murdoch sucked in his breath, limping ever closer until he made his way to the rails, watching in deep fascination along with everyone else. Johnny held the rope in his left hand and stretched with his right, speaking softly, promising the wild horse that everything would be all right.

Loco Blanco calmed, landing his front hooves hard on the ground while snorting through his nose and shaking his head up and down. His mane billowed, soft and snow white under the blinding sun, his black obsidian eyes blinked heavily and for a moment Murdoch and Scott thought he might charge, but Loco Blanco merely shook his head again and walked up to Johnny one hesitant step after the other. The horse nosed him on the chest then bent his head down toward Johnny’s hand. Murdoch heard Johnny laugh, then smiled when he saw his son take out a lump of sugar and feed it to the horse. How? When? He turned his head, caught sight of Maria whose gaze never wavered from his questioning eyes. She smiled at him and then he knew. He owed her another apology.

With head bowed, Murdoch was barely registering the significance of Johnny’s accomplishment when he looked up and found that Scott had climbed through the rails of the corral to stand fearlessly beside his brother. He could hear his boys laughing, talking, congratulating and jesting to one another in front of the wild beast, not really comprehending the exact words but catching the meaning behind them by the way they were with each other. Murdoch didn’t know how his son had done it and in such a short time, but Johnny had managed to tame the untamable.

And in that moment, he knew he had received without a doubt, the zenith of his desire. His boys were together, alive and well, under his roof and by his side, all that he had ever dreamt of these long lost years gone by. Never more than now did he feel right about knowing he would sit down with them and discuss their past. A past he finally felt at peace being able to discuss though the process might be long and difficult for all of them.

Through the eyes of his sons, he saw that the impossible was possible. It gave him the courage he lacked, the faith to believe and the heart to make their world a better place than that which they grew up in. They would still have their difficulties of that he was sure, but life looked different now. Life looked better, golden like the sun rising above the majestic mountains, better because they were home where they belonged at Lancer.

 

~ end ~

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