It was very late. Murdoch was bone tired and wanted nothing more than to climb the stairs to his bedroom and shut out the world for the next twelve hours. He dismounted, taking his horse’s reins and preparing to walk him over to the barn. Out of the shadows one of his wranglers, Jesus, magically appeared and relieved him of the burden. Thanking him, he marveled at the loyalty he was constantly shown by the people who lived and worked on his ranch. He wondered if Jesus had been waiting for him, or if he had just happened to be passing by at that moment.
Murdoch had been to a Cattleman’s Association meeting that had turned belligerent. During the course of the evening, tempers flared and one man, Jacob Cutter had been especially vocal. The meeting had run several hours over their allotted time and as they were all leaving, Jacob had collapsed. Murdoch had been among the men who carried him to Doctor Jenkin’s office, but there had been nothing to do. Cutter had died. The doctor figured it was probably his heart.
With nothing more he could do, Murdoch had headed for home, but Cutter’s sudden death had stricken him to his core. He couldn’t call Cutter a close friend, but he had known him for years. The man had two sons, both less than twenty and a daughter who would be getting married in a month. Cutter hadn’t left his home tonight with the intention of dying. But now, it had happened. He wondered if Cutter had been ready.
The long ride from town passed without Murdoch noticing the familiar landmarks and without really marking the passage of time. He was deep in his own thoughts when his horse stopped by the hitching post near the front door.
No one here at the ranch could have known he’d be after midnight getting home. He had left immediately after dinner. Neither Johnny nor Scott had made it home for dinner before he left, and as he made his way into the house, he unaccountably missed them. He quietly opened the heavy wooden door and let himself in, limping slightly as was his habit when he was extremely tired. He softly closed the door behind him and stepped down into the living room.
Someone, probably Teresa, had thoughtfully left a lamp burning on the table near the door. He reached for it and lifted it aloft to guide his way through the darkened house. As he passed the sofa, he saw Teresa, just rising from the soft couch.
“Oh, Teresa. You shouldn’t have waited up.”
Teresa yawned. “I didn’t really mean to. I guess I fell asleep reading. What time is it?”
“It’s just after midnight. You go on to bed. I’m heading upstairs myself.”
Teresa stood and yawned again. “Alright. Goodnight, Murdoch.” She turned and trudged off toward her own room.
In the upstairs hall, Murdoch saw a light glowing from beneath the door to Scott’s bedroom. Looking further down the hall, he saw the same coming from under Johnny’s room door. He decided that if his sons were up, he’d like to see them before retiring.
Since the two younger Lancers had come to live with him, he had found himself enjoying, and even seeking out their company. On those occasions when one or both were away, he found himself thinking about them, wondering what they were doing, how they were. It was a new experience for him, one that he found not altogether unpleasant. For many years, he had not had the opportunity to have others to worry about, or to care about. Oh, he cared about those who worked for him, but he realized now that he had never known what caring was until Scott and Johnny came back into his life after so many years.
This past year had seen him acquire a family, first Teresa after the death of her father, and then the boys. He found that he had mellowed, had learned to give a little more, to bend a bit and not be quite so rigid. To hear Johnny tell it, he still didn’t know how to bend very far, but Murdoch knew that he had made great strides in that area. If Johnny thought he was rigid now, he should’ve seen him a year ago.
Many years of solitude had made Murdoch introspective at times. Even with a ranch full of people, he was usually alone at night. Those times were when Murdoch searched himself and saw what was lacking in his life. A smile warmed his face as he realized that now, he was lacking for very little. He had all he could hope for. His sons had filled the empty places, and then some.
Murdoch rapped softly on Scott’s door and then quietly opened it. A voice inside said, “Come.” Murdoch stuck his head in first, then followed with his body.
“Am I disturbing you?”
Scott was stretched out on the bed, fully clothed and on top of the coverlet. His long legs were crossed at the ankles and his white socks showed that the only thing he’d done so far to prepare for bed was to take his boots off. The room was bathed in a soft orange glow, lit only by the light of one lamp by the bed. Scott held a book up to his nose, which he put down when he saw his father come in. He made no effort to get up. “No, sir. Come on in. How was the meeting?” He pushed himself up to sit against the large wooden headboard.
“Fine. Fine. It ran a bit late.” Murdoch walked over and sat on the bed, leaning against the post at the foot of the bed. “How was your day? I missed you at supper.”
Scott looked up, surprised, then smiled. “My day was full and busy.”
Murdoch smiled and nodded, “Yeah, yeah.” He continued nodding, “So, tell me about it.”
Scott laughed. “Well, Johnny and I cleared the undergrowth out of that stream up in the north pasture. It was damming up the stream, so we got that cleared out. Then we chased down about a dozen strays and got them back where they belonged, then we worked on that foot-bridge over near the mill. I’ll tellya, Murdoch, that boy can out-work three men when he really puts his mind to it.”
“Johnny?” Murdoch laughed. “He’s constantly surprising me.” He continued chuckling as Scott continued.
“Then, we spent some time at the mill with the men. I inventoried the stock while Johnny helped them fix the planer. Then we…” Scott paused. “Do you want me to go on?”
Murdoch was chuckling low in his throat. He held up his hand as if to stop the onslaught. “No, no, that won’t be necessary. I’m glad you boys had a productive day.” After a moment he added, “And did you have fun, Scott?”
Scott’s forehead wrinkled into a puzzled scowl. “Fun, sir?”
“Yeah, you know, did you and Johnny have some fun while you were being so productive?”
Scott eyed his father with the unaccustomed look of a son who just discovered a whole new side to his father that he didn’t know existed. “Yes.” Scott looked down at the book in his lap, and then back up into his father’s eyes. “Yes, sir. I’d have to say that we did have fun.”
Murdoch leaned forward and slapped Scott on the knee. “Good! Good. I’m glad to hear it.” He stood and arched his back trying to loosen tight muscles. “You should get some sleep, son. Dawn comes mighty early in these parts.” He grinned down at his son.
Scott tossed his book on the bedside table and swung his legs off the bed. “I was about to do just that when you came in.”
Murdoch turned for the door. Reaching for the doorknob he turned back, “Goodnight, son.”
“Goodnight, Murdoch. See you in the morning.”
Scott sat on the edge of his bed and watched in quiet disbelief as Murdoch quietly left, closing the door with a barely audible ‘snick’ behind him.
Out in the hall, Murdoch paused with his hand on the door, smiling to himself. One more stop to make, and then he’d be content to turn in. He quietly moved down the hallway. Stopping at Johnny’s door, he leaned in and listened for any sound inside. After a moment he knocked softly and waited. Hearing nothing, he quietly opened the door and stuck his head in.
The room was very dim, but a lone, low-burning lamp was by the bed across the room. Murdoch’s younger son was stretched slanted across the bed, his white- socked feet hanging off one side and one arm flung over a pillow and hanging off the other side. Johnny’s boots were akimbo on the floor, obviously lying where they had been dropped.
Murdoch pushed the door open and stepped inside. He moved quietly across the room and bent down to retrieve the boots. Picking them up, he set them standing up next to each other by the chair in the corner. Moving back to the bed, he stood with his hands on his hips, looking down at his son and smiling. Lying more or less on his stomach, Johnny still wore his brown pants and his favorite reddish work shirt. His shiny black hair was in his face, not quite covering his eyes, which were closed. His face was totally relaxed and his breathing deep. He was deeply asleep.
One thing that Murdoch could say without fear of rebuttal, was that since Johnny had come to Lancer, life had not been dull. He had the energy of a child and his good nature and twinkling eyes had charmed everyone he came into contact with. He had a strength and resilience of a man twice his size, not to mention a stubborn streak as wide as, well, as Lancer itself. Sure, Johnny had a dark side, but as the months had passed, Murdoch had seen less and less of that. He seemed happy here. One of these days, he had to get around to asking Johnny outright if he was truly happy here.
Murdoch had decided within himself on this very night, that he would never take anything for granted again. He would ask questions, he would be involved, and he would do everything in his power to make a home, and a ranch that everyone here would be proud of. It’s all he had to give to his sons. He had come close to losing them already, whether by outside influences, or by his own stubborn bullheadedness. He wasn’t going to risk that ever again, and when his time came, he would have no regrets that he didn’t give all he could.
Murdoch bent over the bed and pushed Johnny’s legs up onto the bed and reached over him. Taking Johnny’s arm, he lifted it off the pillow that he was hugging and pulled so that Johnny rolled onto his back, away from the edge of the bed. Johnny moaned in his sleep, then settling into his new position, he sighed. Murdoch reached down and pulled the sheet and blanket up over him and then lowered the wick on the lamp until there was barely a glow of light in the room.
Murdoch quietly let himself out and moved down the hallway to his own room. He could relax now. Everyone was in, everyone was safe. Dawn would come soon enough, and when it did, Murdoch would be where he needed to be.