She was wearing red velvet. Johnny imagined he could feel the softness without even touching it. She always wore red velvet, the vibrant warm suppleness of the fabric a disguise for her insensitive heart. For the last three nights he had been coming in and watching her from his corner table, the one that was out of the way and dimly lit. No one noticed him or offered to speak to him especially her. He preferred it this way because he only wanted to observe her movements and watch how she interacted with the men who had come to pay homage to her.
She floated around the room as soft and gentle as a breathy sigh, her feet seeming to never touch the ground. Her clothes were made of the richest velvets, deep crimson red and trimmed with satin and lace. She was adorned in jewels that sparkled when the light hit them making her seem as if she were not of this earth.
She moved from one patron to the other laughing at their antics as they vied for her attention. They were practically falling over themselves to gain her attention if only for a moment. The illusion of her beauty cast a spell over them. It seemed no one was immune to her magic, no one that is except Johnny. He knew the truth and for the first time, in quite awhile, Johnny Madrid Lancer was feeling confused, apprehensive, and maybe just a little out of control.
Fate could be a fickle beast. Scott was suppose to have made the trip to San Diego but at the last minute negotiations on a deal that he and Murdoch had been working on, supplying beef for the army, were threatened to fall apart. There had been no choice but to pull Johnny off of the crew that were rebuilding the bridges in some of the northern pastures. This wasn’t his favorite type of ranch work to do but he stepped up and made the trip to finalize the purchase of a new bull and secure its delivery.
The Red Velvet Saloon wasn’t the type of establishment that Johnny normally frequented. He preferred the more earthy cantinas with water stains on the bar, names carved on the tables and the floors had almost as much dirt on them as the streets in front of them. Manners stopped at the swinging doors and breeding was in reference to bloodlines in livestock.
Johnny was walking by the fancy saloon on his way to a small adobe building at the end of the street when a familiar voice stopped him dead in his tracks. It was a voice he thought he would never hear again. The memories it brought caused pain to spread across his chest so severe it took away his breath, the type of pain that only comes from a broken heart.
He looked inside and when he saw her he had to fight the nausea, bile invaded his throat and bitter memories his mind. He was sweating profusely and Johnny knew if he didn’t sit down soon his knees would more than likely buckle under him where he stood. With shaking hands he pushed open the doors and moved inside staying close to the walls but never taking his eyes off the woman who was chatting and laughing with a group of men.
Johnny found a table tucked in a dark corner, shadows his only companions. For the next three nights he had come into the saloon and watched this woman as she moved from table to table, beguiling the men with her beauty and put on charm. Every night she made the rounds to all of the tables, all that is, but his. It was as if she were avoiding him. Johnny wondered if he reminded her of someone from her past. It crossed his mind that maybe she recognized him and maybe that was why she never approached him. Johnny had caught her staring at him a few times as if she were trying to remember. He never really looked up enough to let her have a full clear view of his face. He had to ask himself if he was afraid. Or maybe he just didn’t care. No, that wasn’t true. He cared, he cared very much.
This was his last night. Tomorrow he was going to head home. His business was concluded and he was needed back at the ranch. He was needed by his father, brother, and sister. That thought alone warmed him and the cold pain from the first night didn’t seem quite so intense.
Johnny had sat in the saloon for over an hour when he decided that it was time to leave. He stood and tossed some coins on the table to pay for his untouched drink. When he turned towards the door to leave, he came face to face with the woman in red velvet. For several seconds their eyes locked onto each other. She never said anything to him, and the painted on smile never left her face. The only thing that betrayed the truth was her eyes. She knew who he was and Johnny waited for her to acknowledge him, but she never said a word. Nothing betrayed what she was thinking, feeling. If she felt anything at all. No, she simply stepped aside, showing him no more notice than if he had been a stray dog who had wandered into her path and wasn’t even worthy of a kind word or a kick.
Then, seeing the gleam from the newly minted silver dollars he had dropped on the table, she reached out; touching him lightly on the arm. She smiled, canting her head, the words coming in a breathy whisper, the only warmth in her eyes the reflection of the coins. “Come back and see me sometime…Cowboy.”
It took all the control he had to simply tip his hat at her. “Ma’am, I doubt it.” He strode out the door. He could feel her staring at him but he never looked back. There was nothing to see. She had made her choice like she did nearly ten years ago and tonight, so did Johnny.
~*~*~*~*~ L ~*~*~*~*~
“Johnny, welcome back!” Murdoch enthusiastically greeted his son. “Did you have a good trip?” Putting his arm around the boy’s shoulders, he escorted him into the house.
“Yeah, got the bull and at a good price too. He should be here by the end of next week.” Johnny leaned into his father relishing the embrace and the warmth of his touch.
“Johnny!” Teresa ran up and threw her arms around her brother. “I missed you so much.”
“I missed you too Teresa.” Johnny hugged her to him as he once again basked in the love that was expressed by the simple gesture of a hug.
“Well it’s about time you got your sorry carcass back here. Thought maybe ya decided to take a little vacation,” Jelly quipped, slapping Johnny on the back making it very clear that he had missed his young friend.
Smiling at the older man Johnny replied, “I missed you too, Jelly.”
“Juanito! You come home at last. Let me look at you.” Maria gave her niño a hug and then stepped back to give him a critical once over.
“You lost weight while you were gone. Did you not eat?” She admonished, tugging at his clothes as though she were considering taking them in for a better fit.
“Awwww, Mamacita, no one feeds me as good as you,” Johnny stated, batting her hands away so he could hug the round little woman to him, happy in the knowledge that he had so many people who loved him.
“Where’s Scott?” Johnny looked around for his brother.
“Hey, who is this? Jelly, have you been dragging home strays again?” Scott marched through the door and immediately walked up to his brother and grabbed him around the neck, pulling him in to a hug. “Glad you’re back, Little Brother,” he grinned.
“It’s good to be back, Big Brother,” Johnny replied as he returned the hug.
“If ya ask me, he’s just tired of doin’ your chores,” Jelly remarked gruffly.
~*~*~*~*~ L ~*~*~*~*~
Johnny sat on the wall watching the clouds floating across the moon. It was good to be home. It was good to have a home. He had everything he could ever want right here.
Even knowing all of this, Johnny still couldn’t help the pain that still stabbed at his chest. He wanted to pretend it didn’t matter but his heart wouldn’t allow him to deny it for long.
“Johnny, you should be in bed,” Murdoch admonished his son tenderly.
“I know,” Johnny whispered, sorrow quelling his voice.
“Something is bothering you son? Would you like to talk about it?” Murdoch studied the boy in the fleeting moon light.
Johnny didn’t respond right at first. Murdoch had learned that when dealing with his youngest son he often needed to reach into his reserve of patience. Johnny would talk when he was ready. In this case, when he felt he could trust his emotions not to embarrass him in front of his father.
Once Johnny was sure he could trust his voice he finally responded to his father’s inquiry. “I saw her while I was in San Diego.”
Murdoch felt his heart begin to race. He knew who Johnny was referring to. No one else could cause his son this much pain.
“Did she see you?” Murdoch held his breath as he waited for Johnny to answer.
“Yeah, she saw me,” Johnny answered.
Murdoch closed his eyes for a moment; so many scenarios running through his mind; all of them bad. He hesitated to ask but for Johnny’s sake he knew he had to continue. “What did she say to you?” the man’s face softened in concern as he waited to hear what his son had to say. For a moment Murdoch didn’t think Johnny was going to answer him until he heard his son’s sigh.
“She… she said, ‘Come back to see me sometime cowboy’.” He shrugged, as if it didn’t make any difference. “That’s it, that’s all she said.”
Even though Murdoch had to strain to hear the words, the pain in Johnny’s voice was loud enough to break his heart. “Maybe she didn’t recognize you,” Murdoch suggested; ashamed when he heard the disbelief in his own voice.
“She knew who I was. She knew and denied to herself and to me that I was her son,” Johnny replied, his chin quivering, as he was on the verge of losing control. “She didn’t want me ten years ago and she don’t want me now.”
Murdoch couldn’t stand it any longer. He was incapable of just standing by and seeing his son in so much pain. Even though he knew his sympathy and concern might be rejected, Murdoch took a chance and pulled his boy into an embrace in an effort to comfort him. To his surprise Johnny seemed to melt into him. Murdoch knew that for his son to accept this type of gesture from his father that he was in a bad emotional place.
“I wish I knew what I did to make her hate me that much,” Johnny mumbled into the strength and sanctuary of his father’s broad chest.
Murdoch gently grasped Johnny’s chin and tilted his head back, his left arm tightening around his son’s shoulders. “Johnny, listen to me. I don’t think your mother hates you. She just doesn’t have the ability to love anyone but herself.”
“Why did she take me away then?” Johnny asked.
“I don’t know son. I will never understand why she took you. I’ve wondered that very thing for nearly twenty years,” Murdoch admitted.
Johnny shrugged out of his father’s embrace and took a step back; wrapping his arms around himself in an all too familiar stance.
Murdoch watched his son for a moment wishing he could find the words that would offer comfort. Not sure if he was doing the right thing, the worried father leaned in close to his son’s ear and whispered, “I have no words that can make the hurt go away. I wish I did but all I can do is promise you two things. One, I promise I will always love you and two, I promise that you will always know it. I will never deny that you are my child. I hope this is enough to help ease your heart, Son. It’s really all I have to offer you.”
Johnny looked up at his father. His eyes were bright with the tears he fought to hold back. Not trusting his voice he nodded slightly, and then ducked his head again.
Murdoch squeezed Johnny’s shoulder before he turned and went back into the house. He knew his son needed some time alone. No matter what he said, Johnny would have to work it out on his own.
~*~*~*~*~ L ~*~*~*~*~
Murdoch sat by the window in his bedroom waiting to hear the footsteps that would tell him Johnny had made it to his own room for the night. He had prepared for bed but knew he wouldn’t be able to sleep until he heard the familiar steps that signaled his son had retired for the night.
He wanted to curse Maria for the pain she had caused their son. Whatever problems she and Murdoch had between them, she had to know it was wrong to punish their child over them. At the same time, he could not help but feel a certain amount of pity for the woman. She had no idea the joy their son brought to his life. He was so alive in everything he did that it affected everyone around him. Very few people were immune to the charm that was Johnny Lancer. He smiled as he thought of some of the hard cases who had finally melted once Johnny had poured on the charm, even the formidable Widow Hargis.
Murdoch contemplated making the long trip to the border and looking for Maria and confronting her for what she had done to destroy their lives, for destroying their son’s life. However, on further thought, he realized there would be no suitable answer that could heal the pain her actions inflicted so many years ago. The only thing that would help Johnny now was the love and the support he would only get from his family.
After a while Murdoch heard the creaking of the second to the top tread of the stairs, and then the quiet squeak of Johnny’s door as it was opened, and then shut. He knew that with just a little time his son would heal. It would be a permanent healing because the best medicine would come from Scott, Teresa, Jelly, Maria and of course him. Johnny’s doubts and insecurities would eventually fade away as the love from his family filled the void left by his mother’s rejection.
~*~*~*~*~ L ~*~*~*~*~
Scott sat at the kitchen table sipping on a cup of coffee while Maria finished preparing one of her hardy breakfasts. He pondered on Johnny’s mood last night. His brother seemed so glad to be home but later at dinner he seemed somewhat distant. He joined in the conversation but offered very few details of his trip. He would only discuss the business aspects. Something was bothering Johnny and Scott was more than a little concerned.
Murdoch was surprised to see his oldest already seated sipping his first cup of coffee. He was usually always up long before either of his son’s made it down.
“Good morning, Son,” Murdoch greeted Scott.
Morning, Sir.” Scott replied. The greeting was an automatic response prompted by years of training in a house where manners had been more important than genuine concern. It was as if the younger man were miles away.
“Something wrong Scott?” Murdoch enquired as he studied the look of deep concentration on his son’s face.
Scott was roused from his dark musings. “I don’t know, Sir. Perhaps.”
“Want to talk about it?” asked Murdoch.
“I really don’t know what to talk about. It’s just that I’m worried about Johnny and I really don’t know why,” Scott explained.
Murdoch poured himself a cup of coffee and sat down across from his son. “What about Johnny?”
“I think my brother has something on his mind that is causing him some conflict. Knowing Johnny the way I do, I know he won’t ask for help. I just wish I knew what I could do to make things better for him,” Scott informed his father.
Murdoch sat quietly sipping his coffee studying his son for a moment. It still amazed him how his boys had bonded so quickly and so securely. Neither boy could hide anything from the other for very long no matter how hard they tried.
Setting his cup down, Murdoch felt his cheeks color. “I’m sorry Scott, did you say something?”
“I asked if you knew what was bothering Johnny?” Scott watched as his father shifted uncomfortably in his chair.
“Scott, something happened while Johnny was in San Diego purchasing the bull,” Murdoch said.
“What?” Scott asked, his concern inching towards worry.
“Let’s just say he came face to face with a part of his past,” Murdoch replied, reluctant to reveal Johnny’s heartache.
Scott still had questions but it was a relief to know that his brother had discussed the issue with their father. Johnny was such a private person; he generally refrained from discussing any problems with his family and tried to work them out on his own. The results were often not very positive.
The blond smiled at his father and nodded his head; deciding to let the subject drop. Murdoch was relieved and grateful that Scott wouldn’t badger Johnny for any further information. He knew that his elder son was respectful enough to wait and let his brother come to him when he was ready to talk about it.
Ten minutes later a whirlwind known as Johnny swept through the kitchen. His obviously happy mood dissipated the gloom and doubt shrouding the room, as easily as a fresh breeze blows feathery dandelions seeds into free flight.
“Ahhh, Mamacita, breakfast smells good and I’m starved.” Johnny hugged the little housekeeper from behind while trying to snatch a hot biscuit from the pan.
Smacking his hand she began to scold the scamp. “You did not leave your manners on the trail Juanito! Sit and wait like your papa and brother.”
Rubbing the back of his hand, Johnny planted a kiss on Maria’s cheek before turning and joining his father and brother.
Johnny sat down; grinning as he produced a biscuit he had somehow managed to snatch after all. Scott grinned back shaking his head at his little brother’s antics.
“Are you feeling better son?” Murdoch asked as he scrutinized the boy closely.
“I sure am.” Johnny happily replied.
“You do seem unusually chipper for this time of the morning.” Scott teased; “and you haven’t even had your first cup of Maria’s fine brew.” It was a standing joke within the family: Johnny’s grouchiness before his morning much of coffee. “May I ask why?” Inwardly, Scott was very happy to have his brother back.
Johnny turned to his father and smiled before answering. “Well you see Brother, it’s all about the promises we make and the one’s we keep.”