Preamble: This is really a sequel to a story I’ve had in my head for some time now. Charlie is a woman Johnny met on an ill-fated stagecoach ride who turns out to be a bounty hunter. Her full name is Charlotte Christine O’Donnell. She has since become a friend of the whole Lancer family.
Scott rode out to the west range checking for signs of Charlie anywhere around. Not seeing any, he dismounted at the boulder and sat down under the largest tree. Removing his hat, he prepared to wait as long as it took. He almost jumped eight feet when he heard Charlie say, “Been waiting long?” He got up to greet her. Charlie stepped up to him and gave him a quick hug. “Thanks for meeting me out here. I appreciate how difficult this is, but I can’t think of anyone else to tell about this.”
40 minutes later , the tale was told and Scott remounted Remington and rode back to Lancer wearing a pensive expression. He was quiet all evening, responding in monosyllables when questioned.
“Heh Boston, where ya at tonight? That’s the second time I’ve asked if you want to play chess.” Johnny looked at his brother quizzically.
“Sorry Johnny, I guess I was thinking about something else. No, I don’t feel like playing chess tonight I think I’ll just go on up to bed . Goodnight all.” With that Scott mounted the stairs to his room ,continuing to be lost in thought. It was going to be a long night.
The next morning Scott realized that he had been right, it had been a long night filled with many thoughts and little sleep. He made his way wearily to the breakfast table. Murdoch and Johnny were already eating breakfast prior to starting another hard day at work . Teresa came in from the kitchen carrying a platter of bacon and scrambled eggs. “Good morning ,Scott. You’d better start eating quickly before Johnny eats it all!” Scott managed a weak smile in answer to her bright, cheery one.
There was little talk at the table, Murdoch, Johnny and Teresa eating, Scott pushing food around his plate.
Finally, Scott looked up and calmly said “I have to go on a little trip today, I should be gone about 2 days, three at the most.” Immediate silence followed this comment as the other three occupants of the room stared at him as if he had suddenly grown another head.
Murdoch found his voice first. “I was planning on you and Johnny checking out the North Bend Creek, there’s evidence it’s blocked somewhere and it should be cleared before the heavy rains begin.”
“I’m sorry, Murdoch, this is important and I have to take care of it now.”
“What could have come up so sudden , Boston? It’s not like you to take off like this.” Johnny’s voice was worried. Teresa said nothing, but her face too was worried.
“I’m not ‘taking off’ brother, I’m merely taking care of some business. It’s nothing for any of you to worry about. I won’t be gone that long.” Laying his napkin beside his plate, Scott rose from the table. This decision had been difficult to make, but this business needed to be taken care of now. He kissed Teresa’s cheek, shook his father’s hand and backhanded his brother’s stomach . He grabbed his hat from the tree and picked up his bedroll from the chair where he had placed it when he came downstairs this morning. Without another word, he marched out the door, head held high, back straight, stride sure. No one would ever know how unsure he was of his mission.
Scott rode south for several hours before turning slightly east. Charlie had been explicit in her directions, and Scott followed them carefully. He was an hour away from his goal when he decided to stop for a while, rest and eat something. He led Remington to the nearby creek to drink his fill, then let him crop the lush grass while Scott himself ate. He never really liked jerky, but it was better than nothing. He knew he was just putting this off . Would she really be there? What would he say if she was there? He thought again, for the thousandth time it seemed, about the story Charlie had told him. From anyone else, the story would be unbelievable. But Johnny trusted Charlie and Johnny was nothing if not an excellent judge of character. So, Scott trusted her too. They couldn’t tell Johnny, it would be too cruel if it turned out she wasn’t really … It was up to Scott to check this story out, to somehow protect his family. Sighing, Scott finished his jerky. It was time to finish this. He mounted his horse and rode on.
An hour later, Scott rode into the yard of the orphanage. Children were playing and yelling but they stopped to stare at the stranger among them. Scott hitched Remie to a protruding tree limb and walked to the door, knocking firmly. The door was opened by a young woman, dressed in a black habit.
“żPuedo ayudarle?” (“May I help you?”)
“Excuse me sister, my name is Scott Lancer. Is, eh, I’m looking for,.. That is..” Scott’s words seemed to tumble out of their own volition, making no sense whatsoever.
Another voice came from inside the orphanage, “What can we do for you, young man? I am Sister Maria Jose, the Reverend Mother here.” A kindly faced elderly woman, also in a black habit, looked quizzically at Scott.
“Reverend Mother, I am sorry to bother you, but I’m looking for someone. I was told there was a Maria de la Vega here.”
“Maria? Of course, Maria is here. She is a helper here, a how do you say, toma de todos los oficios (jack of all trades). She is invaluable to us, Mr. Lancer. What business do you have with her?” The look the Reverend Mother now gave him was suspicious. Scott decided he did not want to be on the wrong side of this woman.
“I would just like to speak to her if you don’t mind. I..I promise, I will not hurt her in any way.” Scott could not have said why he felt compelled to offer that assurance to the woman standing before him. The Reverend Mother looked into his eyes for what felt like hours before nodding her head toward another door. “I will get her, please wait in the courtyard.”
Scott walked out the indicated door. He was surprised to see a quiet garden with a bench under a sheltering tree. Walking over to the bench he sat down to wait. He didn’t have to wait long. He stood as a woman walked out the door. She was slight, with long black hair caught back with a string. At her right temple her hair was white, as if it had been painted. She held her left arm stiffly crooked and had a slight left limp. She looked at him with courage, for he could see she was afraid, but faced him anyway.
“Senor Lancer? I am Maria de la Vega.” Her voice was soft and strong as if she would face her fear in him.
“Maria de la Vega y Lancer?” Scott’s voice was also soft.
“Si, Maria de la Vega y Lancer.”
“Si, Maria de la Vega y Lancer.” The woman looked at Scott bravely. He was reminded of a scene from the War, when he had witnessed a man facing the firing squad after being caught spying for the Confederacy. This small, beautiful woman with tiny age lines around her deep brown eyes faced him with the same courage and defiance, as if she knew the end was finally coming to her.
He didn‘t know what he was going to say to her, but “I am Scott Lancer, Murdoch Lancer’s son, ma’am.” He watched her closely, waiting for some kind of lead for this conversation.
“Murdoch.” The name was said softly, sadly. Then, “So, he has sent you here to kill me?”
Startled, Scott stammered, “K...kill you?! Murdoch would never…why would he ever…?” He seemed to be having trouble finishing his sentences today.
“Yes, señor, kill me. For killing his son. My Juanito is dead because of me.” Tears filled her eyes at this, and she looked down as if she would find some comfort in the hard earth beneath her feet. Then, she again lifted her eyes to his. “I can never forgive myself for what I did to my son, how could Murdoch ever forgive me? All these years, I have waited for what I knew would come one day. Murdoch would come or send someone to make me pay for the evil I did.” She stood quietly then, calmly waiting for him to strike her down, almost seeming to welcome it.
“You are mistaken about many things, ma’am. Murdoch not only did not send me here, he doesn’t even know where I am. But, mainly you are wrong about my brother, Johnny. He’s not dead. I left him at Lancer this morning.”
To say Maria was astonished would be a gross understatement. She stared at him, her mouth opening and closing many times as if she were trying to speak but couldn’t quite get the words out.
“ Sabía que decir mi hijo está vivo? Él no morir?” (“Did you say my son is alive? He did not die?”)
Scott could barely hear what she said and could not understand all of it. But he was able to grasp the incredulity and hope within the words. “Yes, Johnny is alive and well; it’s alright. He’s okay-- he’s okay.” Scott tried to soothe the frightened, crying woman. He grabbed at her as she started to sink to her knees but was unable to catch her in time to stop her from kissing his dusty boots.
"Gracias, gracias. Oh gracias, Madre de Dios! Mi hijo está vivo! Gracias, gracias. me siento más indigno pero gracias, Dios, ahorradores para mi hijo! " ("Thank you, thank you. Oh thank you, Mother of God! My son is alive! Thank you, thank you. I am most unworthy but thank you, God, for sparing my son!") Her tears were flowing and her hands were clasped in prayer. Scott held her to his chest trying to give her some comfort.
Finally, she quieted and looked up at him. Her face, covered with her tears, wore a beautiful smile, the same smile he had seen before on his brother’s face. “You are an angel, senor. An angel come to deliver news of great joy to me!”
“No, ma’am, I’m no angel. And I really came here for answers, not to deliver news. Charlie O’Donnell told me her friend lived here in great sorrow and loss, her son dead and she estranged from her husband. She said it suddenly occurred to her that her friend’s story and my brother’s seemed to be very similar. Johnny had told me his mother was dead, killed by the man she lived with. He said he saw her lying lifeless on the floor, blood around her head. He said he grabbed the man’s gun and shot him, killing him before running away. I don’t understand, Senora, how could you still be alive, when he saw you, dead.”
Maria’s face was white, her hands trembled. “Arturo Ortega was a violent man. Juanito tried to tell me how cruel he was to him, but I could not think of any way to get away from him. Every time I tried to leave, he would drag me back, threatening to hurt my son. That day, I saw him hit Juanito. I attacked Arturo, then. But he turned and hit me and I fell and hit my head on something. That was all I remember until weeks later. The sisters were moving through the village, on their way here where they had been given land for an orphanage. The neighbor who had been caring for me since I had been found was glad to give me over to others. She told the sisters that Arturo had been wounded but had left the village after healing somewhat. He told her my son had “gone wild”, grabbed his gun and started shooting, and that I fell trying to get away from Juanito. He said they would never be able to find my Juanito, that he was gone for good. The neighbor was sure that my son was dead and buried somewhere in the desert. The good sisters took care of me, helping me to heal when all I wanted was to die. Now I have this weakness in my left side and this” reaching up to touch the white hair at her right temple, “as a constant reminder of the loss of my son.” A sad smile briefly lit her face, then a deeper smile took its place.
“Please, tell me. Is Juanito happy? How did he find his way back to his father’s ranch?” Again the smile dimmed. “I lied to him, you know. I made him believe that his father did not want him, that he had thrown us out. In reality, it was only me Murdoch no longer wanted. But I could not lose mi hijo, mi bebé!” The tears had another beginning, dropping from her eyes, down her cheeks to her clasped hands. “But, he must not have believed me, he must have realized his father loved him for he went back, went home.”
Scott was silent, unable to think how to explain the circumstances of Johnny’s return to the ranch, so much more recent than Maria knew. How to tell Maria about the time between Johnny’s flight from the horrific scene of his mother’s “death” and his life at Lancer. No, that was not his story to tell, it was Johnny’s or his father’s. Instead of answering, he asked, “Why do you say Murdoch did not want you? I was told you ran away from him, that you wanted someone else.” He knew this was none of his business, but, still, he wanted, no, he needed to know.
Maria seemed surprised. “Why, she told me, Vanessa Parker. Although, I suppose she is Vanessa Lancer now. Murdoch spent so much time away from me, gone so much and so distant when he was there. Vanessa explained Murdoch was spending time with her, instead of me. She said he loved her and she, him. But he wanted his son, his Johnny. She came to me one day and very nicely explained it all. Murdoch would divorce me and marry her. Together they would raise Juanito and Scott, you. She said she only told me so it would not be such a shock, so I could “prepare” myself. She even looked around the room, planning how she would redecorate it. Yes, she had many plans. “
“I was heartbroken, I loved Murdoch so much, and now to lose him and my son! No, I couldn’t let that happen. I had already lost Murdoch; I knew once he made up his mind to something, there was no changing it, and he no longer loved me. So, that night, I packed my son up and carried him away.”
“Why didn’t you go to your family? Surely, they would have taken care of you and Johnny.” For some reason, Scott felt the need to understand why Maria had done what she had done. He had to know why his brother was forced to make the decisions he had made, why he had had to go through so much in his life.
“I knew I could not . They would say a son belongs with his father and send my Juanito back to his father. I fled to Mexico, tried to make a living sewing, cooking, anything I could. But it was not enough.
“Senor Scott, there is nothing so heartbreaking as to hear your child crying in hunger, with no place to sleep. I did what I had to do, I started dancing in the cantinas. Then, I…” she faltered here, head bowed in shame, then raised her head again, looking at the garden wall, not at Scott, “I sold my body, but I fed my child.” She sighed. “ I thought a few times that I had found someone to care for us, but again and again, I was disappointed. Finally, there was Arturo.” She stared down at her hands.
Now it was her turn to be silent. They sat together in the silence, both knowing the rest of that story.
Finally, Maria looked at Scott. “Please, Senor, do not tell Juanito that I live. For me, it is enough to know mi hijo is alive and happy. It is not necessary to disturb his happiness with his family.”
“But you are his family, at least a part of it. You are a part Johnny thought he lost. You can’t deny him the chance to know you again.” Scott thought wildly that he should just sling the small woman on Remington and carry her to Lancer as fast as he could. He believed her story, if for no other reason than the fact she made no effort to excuse herself or her actions. She had made mistakes, huge mistakes, but they were mistakes. And Maria had been, what, 19 or 20 when she had fled Lancer? Hardly more than a child, terribly afraid for her small son, of losing Johnny after having lost the man she loved. Yes, Scott could understand the choices she had made, however wrong they may have turned out to be. Scott imagined the reception at Lancer if he just brought Maria back with him. No, it would not be fair to Maria or Johnny. Or Murdoch for that matter.
After a far from restful night spent sharing the pitiful stable with Remington and a donkey belonging to the nuns, Scott had an early morning breakfast with the sisters and Maria. The evening before he had reluctantly promised Maria he would not tell Johnny she was still alive. He had then spent time telling Maria carefully edited stories about Johnny. Johnny breaking Barranca and how devoted the horse was to Johnny and vice versa, Johnny teaching school, Johnny and,…no, better not tell that one. He had finally persuaded her to stop calling him ‘Senor Scott’. After all, the woman was his stepmother, and he liked her. He could hardly believe it, but he actually liked the woman who had stolen his brother from his home so long ago. Looking at Maria now, Scott could also understand how Murdoch had fallen in love with her. Even with age around her eyes, gray in her hair, a weakness in her left side and dressed in an old dress made of rough brown material she was a beautiful woman, enchanting and exotic.
But, all the time he was talking, he was also thinking. What was he going to do? Tell Murdoch? Teresa? He couldn’t reach Charlie at this point, she had said she was hunting a man in Nevada. He had thought things were complicated before he got here, things were twice as bad now. What was he going to do?
He spent some time after breakfast chopping firewood and performing other small chores for the orphanage. The children watched him as he worked, the little boys ‘helping’ him, the little girls giggling. What was he going to do? He bade Maria and the Reverend Mother goodbye at mid morning and started on his way home. What was he going to do?
That sentence kept running through his mind all the way back to the ranch. He was no nearer to an answer to that question when he spied the white arch of Lancer. He was tired, so tired. He thought he had been tired ever since Charlie had told him her story. Add to that, two nights of very little sleep and two days ride and, yes, he was tired.
Wearily, Scott dismounted by the barn door and lead Remie inside. The family would have eaten dinner hours ago. He hoped Teresa or Maria might have saved him something on the chance he did make it home tonight. He took care of his horse, putting Remington in his stall next to Barranca’s. Since Barranca wasn’t there, Scott wondered where Johnny was. Finished caring for his horse, Scott plodded his slow way out of the barn and to the house. Perhaps God would smile on him tonight and he wouldn’t have to face any of his family until he had gotten some rest. A light was burning in the great room when he stepped onto the veranda. No, it seemed God wasn’t smiling tonight.
As Scott entered the house, Murdoch looked up from the papers on his desk. His look was grim and critical, a look given more to Johnny than Scott in the past.
“Scott.” Murdoch’s disapproving voice said a lot with that one word.
“Murdoch.” Scott tried to keep his voice level. “Where’s Johnny and Teresa? The house seems awfully quiet tonight.”
“Teresa had a headache and went to bed. Johnny went to Green River for some more supplies to finish the mill repairs. The store wasn’t getting them in until late today so he stayed in town overnight.” Scott could tell Murdoch wanted an explanation for where he had gone and why he hadn’t been here for two days doing his share of the work.
“Well, I’m glad to see you alone tonight.” (Liar!) “I need to speak to you about something, about where I’ve been the last couple of days.”
Murdoch nodded toward the chair for Scott to sit down but instead Scott walked over to the cabinet and got out the good Scotch. He needed some liquid courage tonight it seemed. He raised his eyes questioningly at Murdoch, who nodded again. Scott poured two glasses and walked over to hand one to his father. He then stood staring down into his glass, trying to gather his thoughts. All right, Lancer, think of this as a military campaign. What would you do? Attack?
“Who is Vanessa Parker?” Scott’s question obviously surprised Murdoch. The elder rancher’s expression changed from grim to questioning.
“Vanessa Parker? Van…Oh, now I remember! Scott, why do you want to know about a woman I haven’t even seen in almost twenty years? Does she have something to do with why you went away so suddenly? She married a man, uh, Jed? Joe? No Jud, Jud… Buckley, I think. Why?” Murdoch did not seem to be a man nursing a broken heart over this woman. Could he really have cared that much about her and then just let her marry someone else, just let her go, forget all about her?
“Someone told me you were, um, ‘close’ to her some years ago. They said you were going to get a divorce and marry her.” Scott’s voice was carefully neutral.
“Get a divorce and marry her? Who in the world would say something like that? And why now? What exactly is going on, young man? I want to know and I want to know NOW!” Murdoch’s voice rose steadily throughout this tirade.
“Then you weren’t going to marry her?” Scott insisted on an answer to his question.
“No! I wasn’t going to marry her! I didn’t even like her much, she always seemed to be in the way, showing up when I was in the middle of something, asking questions. Why she never went to the house to bother the women I don’t know. I think she was around here after Maria…left, but I didn’t have time for her then. I had to find them…him, I had to find my son.” Murdoch distress increased as he talked. “Why are you bringing this up, Scott? What could this possibly do with your going off on business for a couple of days? What business did you have to attend to, son?” Murdoch’s voice had softened to a whisper.
Scott was silent for a moment, looking at his father. Finally, he decided what he would do. “Charlie O’Donnell came by here the other day. She sent me a message and met me out on the west range. She wanted to tell me a story about a friend of hers. She had met this friend when she had been wounded a couple of years ago. Her friend found her while on the way to town to buy some supplies for an orphanage. This friend brought her back to the orphanage and helped nurse her back to health along with the nuns living there. Charlie said she felt drawn to this woman and they have become close friends. But her friend always seemed sad. Finally this friend told her why. The woman had been married at a young age and had had a son. Her husband had a ranch and was busy building it up. They were working very hard together, but they seemed happy. For about two years that is. Then the woman found out her husband didn’t want her anymore and she took her son and ran away. A few years later, her son died. She was sure it was her fault. She spent every day mourning her son, and her lost love. Charlie said the last time she visited with her friend, her friend said something that struck a chord in her, made her think about Johnny and his history. She didn’t want to go to Johnny about this, she was afraid she might hurt him in some way. So she came to me and told me the story. I went to the orphanage to talk with the friend. The friend’s name is Maria de la Vega…y Lancer.”
Murdoch became increasingly pale during this recitation until he was so white Scott was afraid he was going to lose consciousness.
“Murdoch, are you all right? I’m sorry maybe this wasn’t the best way to tell you.”
Scott was worried when his father just sat, looking pale and shaken.
Gently, Scott said, “Murdoch, I went to the orphanage. I talked with Charlie’s friend. I believe she is Johnny’s mother.”
Murdoch finally spoke. “No, Johnny said Maria is dead! This woman is a fraud, trying to cheat us in some way! She can’t be… No! Johnny…!” Murdoch started pacing in front of his desk.
“Murdoch, sit down and let me tell you her story. As I said, I believe her.”
Scott spent the next twenty minutes relaying Maria’s story to his father. Murdoch would not sit but stood staring out the window as Scott talked. He continued to stare out the window after Scott finished.
“You believe her.”
“Yes, I do.”
“And Vanessa told Maria that I was going to divorce her.”
“Yes. Apparently Vanessa wanted you and Maria was in the way.”
“And so was Johnny.”
“What?” This had never occurred to Scott.
“Of course, why would Vanessa have ‘warned’ Maria I was going to get rid of her? She must have realized Maria would never give up her child if she could help it. She hoped Maria would get scared and run away with Johnny. Then Vanessa would be there to ‘comfort’ me, I would get a divorce because Maria had left me and marry her.”
“And she wouldn’t have a stepson around to worry about.” Scott shook his head.
Scott was startled at that. He had never heard Murdoch use coarse language. But “Which woman?”
“Vanessa Parker Buckley! She not only ruined my life and Maria’s, she ruined Johnny’s! How many times could Johnny have been killed, how much did he have to suffer that he shouldn’t have or wouldn’t have if it weren’t for that woman? He could have grown up here, at Lancer with me and Maria, safe and happy. But, instead…”
They both knew what the ‘instead’ was--Johnny Madrid!
“Do you know where she is now? I don’t remember any Vanessa Parker or Buckley around here.”
“Jud Buckley was a rancher around here. But he never wanted to put enough effort in to make his ranch successful. Oh, he talked as if he were successful, and spent money enough to seem so, but he was a sham. Anyway, while I was in Mexico looking for Johnny and Maria, Vanessa married Buckley. She must have gotten tired of waiting for me to come back to be ‘comforted’. Then, Buckley’s ranch folded, I believe Paul told me he couldn’t pay all his debts even when the ranch was sold. They left; I don’t know where they went. I was engrossed in other matters at the time.”
Scott took a sip of his drink and then realized he was pouring the Scotch into an empty stomach. An empty stomach in a tired body. He sighed.
“So, you believe Maria’s story?”
Murdoch turned toward his son and stared into his eyes for a moment. Scott thought he had never seen Murdoch look so sad.
“I’m afraid I do.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to talk to Maria.”
Murdoch rose from his restless bed even earlier than was his habit. Last night he had sent his exhausted son to bed after getting him something to eat. He had told Scott he would leave early in the morning and had gone over with him what work needed to be done for the next few days.
“I’m going to talk to Maria.” That sounded simple, but Murdoch knew it was anything but simple. To face the woman he had loved so long ago, the mother of his son, the woman he had thought was long dead, was unbelievably difficult. But Murdoch had never shunned doing the difficult before, and he couldn’t do it now. He would have to face her, talk with her, figure out what they would do now.
He packed some food and his bedroll and saddled his horse. No one was around this early, except for Dewdrop. Jelly’s goose; flapping his wings and honking, watched Murdoch getting ready to go as if he knew something momentous was happening.
Murdoch mounted his horse and started off at a steady pace. Scott had given him directions last night and so he rode south. As he rode along, his mind continued the conversation he had been having with himself all night. When he had something difficult to do, he always felt better if he planned exactly what he would do or say; so he could control the situation, he supposed. The problem was, this time he couldn’t seem to plan what to say.
Murdoch’s mind kept going back to the last time he had seen Maria. He had finally made arrangements to buy the land adjacent to Lancer. This land would increase their holdings by a third. He was to meet the seller twenty miles away and sign the papers after handing over his hard earned money. He had left the house much like today, early and preoccupied. But, first he had gone in to check on Johnny; finding him fast asleep. Johnny slept then, much as he did now; all over the bed, with the covers twisted around him. Murdoch had straightened the covers and kissed his sleeping son goodbye. Maria, too, was sleeping. Had he kissed her goodbye? He couldn’t remember, and now it seemed so important. Had he kissed her goodbye for what he later would know was the last time?
He remembered returning three days later to the news that Maria had left with a gambler who had been around the area for the last week or so. And she had also left with their, his, son. Murdoch had tried to follow them, but couldn’t seem to pick up their trail, getting conflicting stories from nearly everyone with whom he talked. How could they disappear so fast and so totally? Finally, he had heard the gambler was dead, killed by someone who did not like to lose. But, when he went to the town where the gambler had been killed, he could find no one who knew anything about a woman and boy traveling with the gambler. Murdoch was frantic.
Maria, Maria, where are you?
He had searched for what seemed like eternity. He rode into Mexico, he went to Maria’s family. No one had seen or heard from her, or so they said. He had searched and searched, leaving the running of his beloved ranch in Paul O’Brien’s capable hands. Finally, he put the search in the hands of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. If anyone could find them, it would be the Pinkertons. But even they, for many years , were unsuccessful. They would find word, but then Maria and Johnny would be gone by the time the Pinkerton agent showed up. Then, they reported they had ‘found’ Johnny, or at least found out about him. His baby boy was a gunfighter, a killer of men. The Pinkerton agents chased after Johnny Madrid from California to Mexico and back; to Nevada, even Montana once. But they had never caught up with him, until two years ago. Finally, they found Johnny just in time to save him from a firing squad. Johnny never did explain why he was to die in front of that firing squad, just shrugged his shoulders and gave Murdoch that impudent smile of his. That smile which he was well aware irritated his father beyond belief.
So, at last he had his baby back. No, that wasn’t right. It had taken quite a while and much arguing between them, but he had finally gotten it through his hard Scot head that Johnny was not the same boy he had lost those many years ago. No, Johnny was different from what he had imagined he would grow to be. But, when he finally realized that, he also realized that he liked, no loved, Johnny Madrid Lancer. His son had grown to manhood sooner than most would have. He was faster than lightning with his gun but he was also just as fast at helping others. He never made a big deal of it, just people who needed help, found they had help.
Johnny worked hard, and he played hard. And he was a wonderful brother to Scott. Those two, together, continually amazed Murdoch. Johnny was in turns mischievous and serious. He had an infectious laugh and, at times, an entrancing smile. Yet he could instantly turn into Johnny Madrid with cold careful eyes if the situation warranted it. Murdoch was aware he had only begun to really know his son, but he was enjoying the learning.
For the past two years Murdoch had been happy. He had his sons with him, he had a beloved daughter in Teresa and he had his ranch. What more could he want? What about Maria? He had hated her for many years, had felt cheated when he heard she was dead, beyond his power to get revenge. He had loved her so much and then she had rejected him, for what seemed was no clear reason. That Maria could prefer someone she had just recently met over him was difficult for Murdoch to face.
And now Scott came to him with this amazing story. At first, Murdoch had again felt the rage which had overwhelmed him when he realized Maria and Johnny were really gone, and he could not find them. Then, as Scott went on with his story and stated his belief in the woman, the rage had burned out. Now, he was left with a hollow place inside him, a place seemingly filling again with equal parts doubt and hope. If this were really his Maria, what would they do? Would she want to go home to Lancer, to him? Or would she think it was too late? Did he want her to come back to him? What about Johnny? She had made Scott promise not to tell Johnny she was still alive. But was that really fair to Johnny? Was it fair to Maria? If what she had told Scott were true, didn’t she deserve more than to live out her life in poverty, caring for children not her own?
The further Murdoch rode toward his destination, the more questions occurred to him.
What would he find when he got to the orphanage? What would he do, what would he say if Maria refused to even talk with him? For a wild moment, Murdoch pictured himself kicking down the orphanage door, hunting down Maria in the building and making her listen to him! But, wait. He still didn’t know what he was going to say to this woman. What if she really wasn’t the same woman, just someone carrying out a careful fraud?
Murdoch had found since his injuries at the hand of Pardee, he could not ride as long as he could before; his back stiffening with an almost unbearable ache when he tried. But suddenly, he looked up and realized he had ridden for hours without noticing the ache in his back. His mind was so full of questions, possible answers and more questions; it didn’t have room left in it to notice the pain. He stopped and dismounted under a nearby tree, hitching his horse to a convenient limb. He walked around, stretching his back and legs. It would not do to arrive at the orphanage and then, not be able to walk.
After getting sufficient exercise, Murdoch pulled out the bit of food he had packed. He had been unable to eat before leaving home, his stomach rebelling at the thought. He had had only a cup of strong black coffee. Now, he ate the sandwich and apple he had packed, washing it down with water from his canteen. Finished, he gave his horse a drink and, after returning his canteen to his saddle, remounted to continue his journey.
Finally, he saw the adobe building in the distance. It was late afternoon and he could see children outside, running and playing. He stopped for a moment before continuing on.
He rode into the courtyard, carefully guiding his horse around excited children. Two strangers in one week! Murdoch dismounted. There was no hitching post so he tied his horse to the same protruding limb Scott had used days earlier. He started to walk toward the door, when a young nun came out of it. She took one look at the tall older man and her eyes grew round and wide. She turned and ran back in the door she had just exited.
Murdoch could hear her calling, “Reverendo Madre, el Reverendo Madre, un hombre…”
He continued walking, children clustered around him. He raised his hand to knock on the open door when an older nun came to the door.
“Yes, senor, may I help you? Children, go back to your play. It is nearly time for you to perform your nightly chores and prepare for cena.” Children scattered at this order. The nun raised her eyes to Murdoch, questioningly.
Murdoch removed his hat before answering. “My name is Lancer, Murdoch Lancer. I would like to speak with Maria de la Vega, por favor.”
A small smile flitted across the nun’s face. “I see. It seems we are having an abundancia of Lancers this week. Maria is in the kitchen, preparing the food for cena. Come, I will show you the way.” She led him down a short hallway, and then indicated he should enter the kitchen.
He stood in the doorway and looked at Maria. She stood at the table in the middle of the room, making tortillas. She must have sensed him looking at her, because she looked up. Astonished, Maria froze. Her lips moved, “Murdoch!”, but no sound accompanied the movement. They both stood silent for a moment.
Then, Maria said, “I asked Scott not to tell Juanito I was alive, I did not think to ask him not to tell you. Welcome, Murdoch.” Her voice, surprisingly, was unchanged after all this time.
“Am I really welcome, Maria?”
She looked at him. New, deep lines on the forehead, and from the nostrils to the corners of his mouth. His hair was no longer light brown, but gray. Eyebrows lightened over quiet blue eyes; eyes that held great sadness. So much change in that dear face, but still the face of the man she had loved those years ago.
“Ciertamente, you are welcome, Murdoch. You are just unexpected.”
A small boy ran into the room, crying. “Maria, Maria, me ayudan. Me cayó herido y mi rodilla!” (“Maria, Maria, help me. I fell and hurt my knee!”)
Maria gathered the small boy to her. “Hay allí, Roberto. Me tendrá cuidado de ella.”
(“There, there, Roberto. I will take care of it.”) She comforted the small boy and took him to the sink, placing him on the edge and washing his scrape. Then she carefully dried his eyes and placed him back on the floor. She looked up at Murdoch, a soft smile on her face.
“I am afraid there are few quiet places to talk here at present. Perhaps we could talk in the garden after the children have eaten and are settled? Would you eat with us, my..um, Murdoch?”
“Thank you, I would enjoy that. Uh, is there somewhere I could wash up?” Murdoch felt his speech stiffen. To his ears, he sounded like a callow youth.
Maria showed him where he should go to wash and then left him to return to the kitchen to finish preparing the meal. The children and sisters ate at the long table in the hall, older children placed next to younger ones in order to help them through the meal. Murdoch sat at the end of the table, the place usually reserved for Padre Pedro when he would visit the orphanage. The food was simple, but Murdoch found himself enjoying it. He said little during the meal, instead watching Maria where she sat down the table from him. The children watched him throughout the meal, clearly entertained that this tall gringo was sharing a meal with them.
Maria found her hands shaking when she tried to eat. Somehow, she had never expected Murdoch to come to see her this way. For years, when she thought of him, she had thought he would come to end her life one day. Some days were so difficult for her in her grief, she would have welcomed death. But now, here was Murdoch actually here, calmly sitting at the same table with her, eating the food she had prepared. Madre de Dios! What did he want? Did he want her to go away, to leave her sanctuary? Did his wife, finding Maria was relatively close after all these years, have him come here to send her away? Where would she go? The nuns had been so kind to her through the years and she had a close friend in the Reverend Mother. They had worked together to build this orphanage. How could she start over?
Dinner over, Maria started to bring dishes into the kitchen with help from some of the children. Surprisingly, Murdoch started to help but Maria shooed him away. She could not work with him there. She sent him to wait for her in the garden.
Murdoch walked around the garden, enjoying the coolness of the evening and the peacefulness around him. He could hear Maria and the children as they finished cleaning the kitchen and washing the dishes. He enjoyed hearing the laughter and camaraderie, it reminded him of home. Suddenly, he wished his family were here with him; Scott, Johnny and Teresa together, with him and Maria. He could feel this wish take over him like an ache.
“Pido disculpas for keeping you waiting, Murdoch.” With his back to the door, Murdoch had not seen her approach. Her voice had a slight tremble, as if she were nervous. Of course, she was nervous! So was Murdoch nervous. He found it very difficult to think at that moment.
“I was just enjoying the night.” What a stupid thing to say, thought Murdoch.
“Si, it is a nice night.” Sparkling conversación, Maria, she thought . “Please, let us sit.” She indicated the bench under the one tree in the garden.
They were both silent as they sat side by side, both trying to think of a way to start the conversation. Finally,
“Murdoch, I…” They both spoke at the same time. After a round of “You go first”, Murdoch indicated Maria should begin.
Maria took a trembling breath, gathered her courage and began. “Murdoch, I will not go, I cannot. You have to understand.”, she pleaded.
Murdoch was first startled and then felt the anger start to build in him. “I don’t see why not. I know Johnny would want you to and so does Scott.”
Murdoch could not understand why Maria’s eyes began to fill with tears at this. Couldn’t she give them a chance to start again, find their way?
“But, I cannot go. Why would Juanito want me to? Please, Murdoch!” Maria began to sob into her apron which she had been wringing in her hands.
“Of course Johnny wants you to, or at least he will once he knows you are still alive! Maria, please, give us a chance!” It was Murdoch’s turn to plead. He awkwardly started to pat Maria’s back. He had never been comfortable dealing with a crying woman. Maria said something he could not understand between the sobbing and the muffling apron.
“Maria, lo siento, Maria, I can’t understand. Please, look at me, talk to me. Please!”
Murdoch took out his handkerchief and began to gently wipe the face she turned up to him. “There, that’s better. Now, just talk to me, novio. Why do you feel you can’t go? I understand if you couldn’t go right away, but maybe you could just think about it, consider it?” Murdoch’s voice was soft and warm.
“To go away from my home, away from those who care about me? Please, Murdoch, do not make me go! She must not make me go!” Maria’s voice was becoming hysterical, desperate.
“Wait, Maria. Who must not make you go? I don’t know what you are talking about.” Murdoch was clearly confused, she must not make me go?
“Her, your wife, Vanessa. I can understand she would not want me near, but I promise I will not, como se dice, interferir in your life, in Juanito’s life. I will just stay here, living quietly. Please, Murdoch.” Again, tears were flowing down Maria’s face.
“My wife…! No, no Maria. You don’t understand! You are my wife! We were never divorced, I never married or wanted to marry Vanessa.” Murdoch was frantic to make her understand.
“But you loved her. You left me alone so you could be with her. You hardly spoke to me when you were there, you were thinking of her. She told me…!” Maria vehemently tried to make Murdoch understand..
“Yes, I left you alone, way too much, as it turned out. But I was preoccupied with building the ranch up. There was so much I wanted to give you and Johnny. And too, I wanted to get Scott back from his grandfather, which would have taken so much money. I was so preoccupied with doing and planning what else I would do, that I just , I just, forgot that I needed to share what I was doing with you.” Murdoch reddened at this admission. Yes, he had been a sorry husband to Maria. He had never realized this before in all the years since Maria had left.
Silence followed this. Maria’s tears had ceased and now she wore a pensive look. After a few minutes, she said, “Perhaps, if I had known or had someone confiar in, I would have demanded more, um, atención from you. Perhaps, it would not have been so easy to believe her words.” Maria hung her head, watching her hands wring her apron again. All through the years since she had left Lancer, she had relived the visit from Vanessa Parker. Again and again she heard the hateful, frightening words. Now anger began to blaze in Maria. How dare she! How dare that…! Vanessa had ruined Maria’s life; hers, Juanito’s and Murdoch’s. Maria stood and began to limp quickly around the garden, muttering angrily in Spanish.
It had been twenty years since Murdoch had seen Maria like this. Yes, she had always had a temper. Slowly, Murdoch’s face lit up in a smile. Yes, indeed, his wife had a temper!
After fifteen minutes of this, with Maria seemingly becoming more and more angry, she finally ran out of steam.
“Oh, Madre de Dios!” Maria clapped her hands over her mouth and then quickly crossed herself. “Perdóneseme, Dios! Oh, mi temperamento, mi temperamento! Pensé que había superar este pecado!” She was mortified. She whirled around to stare at Murdoch. He was laughing!
“Murdoch! You, you…!” Maria spluttered. She stared at Murdoch for a full minute and then she, too, laughed! She laughed so hard, the tears started to rain down her face again and then she laughed more.
Finally, they both stopped laughing. They were again sitting together on the bench, Murdoch with his arm around Maria, Maria leaning into his side.
Murdoch became serious, but he kept his arm around Maria. “Maria, I never looked at Vanessa. She kept showing up wherever I was working, kept asking questions, getting in the way. She kept showing up, but I never looked at her! I loved you, I loved our son, and I could never do anything to jeopardize that. What she told you, it was all lies! You must believe me!”
“Si, I believe you, Murdoch. I believe you.” Maria sighed. “It seems we both have made some…. mistakes. The question becomes what are we going to do now?” Quite unconsciously, Maria laid her head against Murdoch’s chest.
Scott slept hard through the night. He had had three very difficult days with very little sleep and now he finally got the rest he needed. He woke early in the morning, dressed and left his room. He stopped at Murdoch’s door and knocked. Getting no answer, he assumed Murdoch was either downstairs or already gone. He went down the back stairs to the kitchen. Teresa was already there, starting breakfast. She looked up and smiled a relieved smile.
“Scott! You’re home! I’m so glad. Did you take care of your business? I s everything okay?” Teresa bubbled.
Scott smiled. “Yes, I took care of my business. Everything is fine. What’s for breakfast? Did Johnny say when he would be back?”
“He had to ride over to check on something while he was waiting for the supplies and then was going to bring the supplies out to the mill. He was going to leave the supplies there and ride back here so he and Murdoch could go over how they were going to move cattle over to another pasture, or something. Anyway, Murdoch will let you know. Where is Murdoch, it’s not like him to be late for breakfast.”
“I talked with Murdoch last night. He, uh, he had to leave this morning to take care of some business.” Scott tried to speak casually, as if this were an everyday occurrence.
Teresa stood absolutely still, staring at Scott with her mouth slightly open. This was nowhere near an everyday occurrence.
“What?! He didn’t say anything about this yesterday! What is going on, Scott?”
Scott sighed. It was a good thing he had gotten a good night’s sleep last night. He had a feeling he was going to need it.
“Teresa, I can’t tell you anything, at least not right now, all right? Wait until Murdoch gets back and talk to him about it.” Scott tried to placate the irate girl.
He sat at his place at the table and began to fill his plate from the food Teresa had placed there earlier. He knew it was going to be a long day, especially when Teresa slammed the platter she was holding down on the table. Great, he couldn’t wait for Johnny to get home so he could make someone else angry at him.
He busied himself doing the paper work he had discussed with Murdoch. He was uninterrupted since Teresa apparently wasn’t talking to him now.
He was in the middle of adding a column of figures (for the third time!) when he heard someone ride up to the house. He stood and walked over to the French doors and looked out. He watched as his brother dismounted from Barranca, smiling and whistling. Scott hoped Johnny would continue in that frame of mind, although he didn’t expect it to last.
“Hey, Murdoch, I’m here now.” Johnny called as he walked through the door. He hung his gun belt and hat on the tree by the door. Then turned and his eyes lit up.
“Scott, you’re home! Great, I’m tired of doing all the work around here!” Johnny teased. “Where’s Murdoch? He wanted to go over moving the herd.”
“Uh, Murdoch said to tell you to go over the plan with me, he had to go on a little trip. He’ll be back in a few days.”
“Wait, wait, Boston. You get home then Murdoch leaves as soon as you get here? What’s going on? What aren’t you telling me?” Johnny’s face was concerned and headed toward angry.
“What should I be telling you, Johnny? I’ve told you everything I could. Come on; let’s get started on those plans, now. Murdoch will be plenty mad if we don’t get this taken care of while he’s gone.” Scott held onto the futile hope that he could somehow mollify his bother.
“Then let him be mad! You are going to tell me what is going on, and you’re going to tell me NOW!” It was amazing; Johnny didn’t look like Murdoch, was a great deal shorter than him and had a different accent. But, at this moment, he sounded just like his father. Scott sighed again. Johnny did not sound at all mollified.
Murdoch and Maria had talked a little while longer, but many questions were left unanswered until tomorrow. Maria showed him to the little stable behind the orphanage and Murdoch made himself as comfortable as possible. He made a mound of hay and placed his bedroll over it, then settled down for the night.
The next morning, he was awakened by the crowing of a rooster. He stretched his stiff body and rose. The hay was slightly better than the hard ground, but just slightly.
He found water and a small mirror set up for him and shaved before going inside for breakfast.
A good night sleep seemed to have energized the children, whose voices were raised at the table, at least until the Reverend Mother walked in. As she entered the hall, all the children stood at the table then sat when she sat down. A brief blessing was spoken and then everyone began to eat.
Maria, helped by a young nun, served the meal, offering a shy smile and quiet “Good morning.” to Murdoch. After breakfast, the children were dismissed to school, joined by the nuns. Maria started to clear the table and Murdoch began to assist her.
Nothing had been resolved last night, Murdoch and Maria barely touching on the few of the many points they would have to resolve. It was while Murdoch was bringing in more firewood, he realized they hadn’t touched on a very important fact they would have to discuss. Maria knew nothing about Johnny Madrid. Scott had said Maria thought Johnny had come to the ranch shortly after fleeing the scene of her ‘death’. She had no idea of the long path Johnny had had to tread to get back to Lancer.
Murdoch dumped the firewood in the box then turned and watched as Maria continued cleaning the kitchen. She had a large kettle of soup simmering on the back of the stove for dinner. There would be tortillas and milk for the children’s lunch. Maria was humming softly as she went about her work.
How quickly he had again become enamored of watching this woman move about the room. All of these years he had held his anger to himself, like an armor against the pain of losing Maria. This woman, who had brought him back to life after losing Catherine, had left him again, an empty shell. That shell had begun to be refilled with the return of his sons, but now he thought he was again fully alive. Maria, Maria. Oh, somehow they would have to find a way to start again, find their way to being a family, a complete family with him, Maria, Teresa and his sons.
Maria turned to Murdoch. “I must go out to tend the garden, now. If you like, you may come out with me.” Again, she offered her shy smile to Murdoch.
“Only if you let me help.” Murdoch gave her his own smile.
“Todos derecho, si usted insiste. This way.” Maria led Murdoch out the back door and headed toward the garden. Together they spent a couple of hours tending the little garden. Murdoch was amazed the orphanage was able to eek out enough to feed the children, nuns and Maria.
After the garden was tended and a few vegetables harvested, Maria and Murdoch returned to the kitchen. Maria was going to clean the chapel, Murdoch said he would do a few chores that he had noticed needed taking care of. The day passed quickly and before Murdoch knew it, dinner was again completed and dishes removed. Murdoch again waited in the garden for Maria to finish. Finally, there she was standing before him.
“Murdoch, I know we must talk, but first please, tell me about Juanito. He is well and happy? Scott told me stories about him, he sounds to have grown into a wonderful man.
You have done well with him. And with Scott, as well, such a kind, thoughtful young man. Tell me, how did you finally get Scott from his grandfather? I know you thought it would be very difficult, and expensive.” They had sat on the bench and Maria looked up at Murdoch as she spoke.
“Well, uh, really I…Maria it’s not how you think. I did not get Scott away from his grandfather. Scott was raised in Boston, he came to Lancer just two years ago, after I sent for him. A man was trying to steal the ranch, run me off. I sent for help from Scott and…from Johnny.” Murdoch had not realized how difficult this would be. He was proud of both of his sons. He was proud of the man Johnny had become, but he was not exactly proud of Johnny Madrid. He was thankful to him for keeping his son alive, but he couldn’t say he was ‘proud’ of him.
“Help from Johnny? No entiendo, why did you have to send for help from him, wasn’t he there to help you?” Maria was puzzled.
“No, Johnny wasn’t there. Maria, I didn’t know where Johnny was, I hadn’t seen him since the day you left. Johnny didn’t come back to me after you ‘died’. It happened like this….” Murdoch told Maria the story of Johnny Madrid, as he knew it. He told her about hiring the Pinkertons to find her and Johnny and then, just Johnny. He told her of the years of waiting for word about them, about their son. He told her how he had continued to build his ranch and send money to the Pinkertons for the search. He told her about how Scott had grown to manhood in Boston, with no word from his father; how he had joined the army and gone to war, returning to Boston to lead a frivolous life until one day a Pinkerton agent found him and told him his father wanted to see him. He told her how his sons had come home, unknowingly together, to face their father and receive their inheritance. Murdoch talked on about seeing his sons for the first time that day. He talked about how angry they all were, how he had told Scott he looked like his mother and Johnny how he had his mother’s temper. Maria had been silent throughout his recitation, but she colored at this admission.
“Scott was in Boston, but where was Johnny? Please Murdoch, I must know.” Maria whispered softly.
“Johnny….Johnny was a lot of different places. He…” How was he going to tell her that her son had lived by his gun, had become Johnny Madrid?
“Maria, you have to understand. Johnny had hard choices to make, choices that he had to make in order to live. He survived. He survived the only way he could, by picking up a gun and learning to use it. He became Johnny Madrid.” Murdoch’s voice was shaky. “He became a gunhawk, selling his services to others. He’s fast, very fast. And he can become cold when he has to be. But he can also be warm and giving. As a matter of fact, he usually is warm and giving. He is a son to be proud of, Maria.” This last sounded pleading.
Maria got up from the bench and limped toward the garden wall. She stood still, with her back to Murdoch. Was she too horrified to speak? Angry? Disappointed? What?
Finally, Maria turned back to Murdoch. He face was sad but determined. “He had to make these choices you speak of because of me.” This was not a question. “¿Cómo alguna vez puede perdonarme? Robé su vida. (How can he ever forgive me? I stole his life.) My poor son!” Tears slowly began to trickle down her face.
Murdoch stood and walked to Maria. He pulled her into his arms, cradling her soft body to him. “No, no, you mustn’t think that way. What you did was because you believed the lies told to you. And you believed those lies because I gave you nothing to disprove them. It is my fault, Maria. If I had been a better husband, none of this would have happened.”
“No, Murdoch, I should have demanded that you talk to me, tell me what was going on. I was too afraid of losing you, I suppose. And then, it seemed I had lost you and would lose my bebé too. Perdóneseme, oh, por favor, mi amor, me perdone! (Forgive me, oh please, my love, forgive me!)” Maria laid her head against Murdoch’s chest and wept against his heart.
Murdoch held her for a while, resting his chin atop her head. “You know, it is really Vanessa Parker who is to blame for all this. If I could get my hands on her! But I don’t know where she is, though maybe I could send someone to find her, make her pay for all the unhappiness she caused.”
“I do not think I want to see that woman again. I don’t know anything on earth that could be enough for her to pay for all the pain she has made us. Oh Murdoch, what are we to do?” Maria’s head was still nestled against his chest.
“Come home with me, Maria. Come back to Lancer. I swear I will be a better husband to you, please say you will come.” Murdoch pleaded.
“Johnny, why are you so upset? Murdoch will be back in a couple of days.” Scott spoke soothingly to his brother.
“And then who else will just disappear? Huh? Teresa? Jelly? ” Johnny sounded frantic.
“No one is going to disappear, no one has disappeared. Murdoch and I just had to tend to some things, that’s all! Murdoch will be back in a few days, okay?” Scott tried to reason with his brother.
“What business, Scott? Why can’t you just tell me what’s going on?” Scott found it hard to resist that pleading tone in his brother’s voice. Murdoch, you’d better get home fast!
“Murdoch, you know I cannot just go back to Lancer with you. Too much has happened. It could cause you so many problems, both you and Juanito. I would not do that to you or him. Just think! There is so much that has changed, you have changed and so have I. No, we cannot go back.” Maria’s voice was soft, almost tearful.
“But Maria, we can make it work, I know we can. Johnny will be overjoyed to know you are still alive!” Murdoch pleaded.
“Murdoch, no! You don’t even know me anymore! For all you know, I could be just pretendiendo to be caring or the woman you remember. I could be a murderer or a heartless simulador. No, it is not possible.” The tears had restarted, raining down Maria’s cheeks. She brushed them away and turned from Murdoch. “And, I do not know you or my son anymore. We cannot just take up where we left off.”
Murdoch’s voice was sad, but determined. “In that case, we should get to know each other. What about coming for a visit at least? You need to talk to Johnny, anyway. We can’t keep this from him, you know. “
Maria considered this for a few moments. “Todo derecho, Murdoch. Talk to Juanito, ask him what he wants. I…I may have hurt him too much in the years after I left with him; he may not want me to return to Lancer. Si, Murdoch, talk with Juanito and Scott as well. This decision is not merely ours to make.”
Murdoch left early the next morning, determined to talk to his sons and begin the healing of his family. Riding back to Lancer, he found his mind traveling back to the days when he and Maria first met. He remembered the intoxication of those days and the time after their marriage had begun. He remembered Johnny’s birth and the first time he had held his small son in his arms. He could remember feeling so powerful, like he could live forever, climb mountains, and defeat any enemy. He had felt determination to retrieve his older son, then, to complete his family. Yes, he would go to Boston, tell Harlan he wanted, no, needed his son. Johnny was only three months old when Murdoch had completed arrangements and gone to Boston. That trip had been a fiasco; the one bright spot had been meeting his son for the first time, shaking his small hand. He had returned to Lancer, to Maria and his younger son, defeated for the moment but still determined to somehow wrest his son from his father-in-law. That determination had been finally conquered when Maria had left with Johnny.
Looking into his own heart, Murdoch realized how much he still loved Maria. He had been so unbelievably hurt to think Maria had preferred a stranger to him. He had felt such rage at that idea! He knew if he had found that gambler then, he would have gladly choked the life from him. But now he knew the truth, Maria had not rejected him, could still possibly love him. Murdoch allowed himself to dream of a wife, sons and a daughter living together at Lancer. This dream carried him home and he arrived there with a smile on his face. The smile lasted until he entered the house to be confronted by his glaring younger son.
“Murdoch.” This was said so coldly, Murdoch could feel the temperature fall in the room.
“Well, Murdoch. Did the, uh, business go as expected?” Scott’s voice questioned as he maneuvered himself between his father and brother. He had seen the smile on Murdoch’s face when he had entered. Now, if they could just explain things to Johnny before he blew up again.
“Yes, Scott. Actually, it went better than expected. Did you two get things taken care of here? What about the plan to move the cattle?” Murdoch’s voice was calm, but he was beginning to get irritated at Johnny’s attitude. What was going on?
Johnny continued to glare at his father. He knew his attitude was unreasonable, both Scott and Murdoch had a right to go off “taking care of business’ without telling him any details. But somehow he felt so, so abandoned, so left out. Johnny hated feeling this way; he hated how angry it made him feel.
“Murdoch, you must be tired after riding so long. Why don’t you get cleaned up for dinner and then we can go over the plans afterward?” Scott felt it would be better to keep Murdoch and Johnny apart at present, maybe Johnny would cool off now that Murdoch was home again.
Murdoch was silent for a moment, continuing to watch his glaring younger son. Then, “Yes, I am tired. But after dinner I want to have a little talk in private with your brother, Scott.”
Dinner was a mostly silent affair, Scott occasionally venturing a remark not really answered by anyone. Teresa had been glad to see Murdoch home again, but continued to harbor anger toward Scott. Scott would be glad when this whole thing was settled and people could stop being angry at him for nothing.
After dinner, Teresa cleared the table and went in to wash the dishes, Scott volunteering to help, leaving Murdoch and Johnny alone for their ‘little talk in private’. Maybe he could mend some fences with his ‘little sister’, too.
Johnny never liked having a ‘private little talk’ with Murdoch, he always felt like a five year old caught stealing cookies. But this time he felt Murdoch was the one in trouble. After all, just who had left the ranch without explanation?
Murdoch went to the cabinet and poured himself a drink, asking Johnny if he wanted something. Johnny answered, “Tequila” and went to look out the French doors when he received it, turning his back on his father.
Murdoch took a sip of his drink and tried to think how to start this conversation. Well, sometimes it was best to meet things head on.
“Johnny, I need to talk to you about where I’ve been and who I went to see.” Murdoch then went on, telling Johnny how Charlie had come to Lancer and told Scott about her friend and about who she though she was. How Scott had gone to the orphanage and then returned to Lancer, telling Murdoch what he had heard. How Murdoch had also gone to the orphanage.
“Johnny, it was Maria, it was your mother. She told me how she had been lied to, told I didn’t want her. She ran away from Lancer with you because she was afraid I was going to take you away from her, that she would never see you again.” Murdoch started to go on with the story, talking to his son’s back.
Suddenly, Johnny whirled around. “No! My mother died over ten years ago! You’re wrong!” Johnny raged.
“No, Johnny! You’re mother’s not dead! I just spoke with her, it is Maria! Try to understand, she thought you were dead, all these years she …”
But Johnny was gone, out the door and headed to the barn. After a moment, Murdoch started after him. When he got to the barn, Johnny was almost finished saddling Barranca. Again, Murdoch tried to talk to him, but Johnny ignored him. Johnny led Barranca past his father, not saying another word.
“Johnny! Please, just listen!” But Johnny was gone, galloping off as he had done so many times after arguments with his father.
“I take it; he didn’t take the news well.” Scott had followed the noise to where his father stood in the yard. Together they watched as Johnny’s form became smaller and smaller.
“He doesn’t believe his mother is still alive, or he refuses to believe it. I don’t know what to do to help him.” Murdoch’s voice was sad.
“You know how Johnny is, sometimes you just have to give him some room, let him work it out himself.”
“Maybe.” Together, the two men walked back to the house.
The next day, Johnny showed up, still not talking. He ate breakfast and went about doing the chores assigned him. On Saturday night, he went into town with the men, avoiding riding with Scott. He never let anyone start a conversation about his mother, walking or riding away whenever anyone started.
Murdoch went on periodic visits to the orphanage, taking food, a horse (to replace the old donkey), anything he thought they could use. A month went by, and still Johnny refused to go see his mother.
One day, Johnny was repairing fence, alone. He seemed to prefer that these days, not talking much to anyone, not even Jelly. As he was struggling with the fence, he heard someone ride up. His gun was out and pointed at the rider as quickly as drawing breath.
Charlie raised her hands. “Hold it, Sunshine, I come in peace!” Her voice was lightly teasing.
Johnny snorted and holstered his gun. “What are you doing here?” He asked suspiciously.
“And it’s good to see you, too.” Charlie dismounted, ground hitching her horse. She walked up to Johnny and hugged his stiff body.
“I’ve got work to do, Charlie. What do you want?” These angry words were thrown at Charlie as she stood looking at Johnny.
“Cipriano told me where you were. I just came from the orphanage. I saw Maria and she told me what has been going on. Johnny, why won’t you talk to her? She’s very upset. She said Murdoch, Scott and even Teresa have been to see her, but no visit from her son!”
Johnny’s face became murderous. “My mother died! She died over ten years ago!” he said vehemently. “Go away, Charlie! I told ya I got work to do!” Johnny turned back to the fence he had been trying to repair and began again to work on it.
Charlie just watched him. This was her friend and she could tell he was hurting. What could she do to help him? She felt she had to try to get through to him.
“Johnny,” she said softly, “I’m not going anywhere. Maria is alive and living at the orphanage a days ride from here. Why do you refuse to face that?” Charlie stood watching Johnny, arms folded across her chest. She would wait him out if it took all day.
Johnny continued wrestling unsuccessfully with the fence, not answering Charlie’s question. Finally, he threw down his hammer. With his back still to the woman looking at him, he lowered his head and spoke very softly.
“What did you say, querido? I can’t hear you.” This was said very gently.
“I…I left her for dead, don’t you understand? I ran away and left her for dead! How can I…how could she…” These words seemed to be wrenched from Johnny.
“But, I just ran off and left her! I left her for dead!” Johnny’s voice trembled with emotion.
“Come, sit down with me, and tell me about it, okay?” Charlie’s voice was still soft, as if she were speaking to a skittish horse.
They sat under the large shade tree nearby. Johnny continued to hang his head and refused to look at Charlie as he haltingly told her the story. This wasn’t easy for him, he rarely talked about that time with his mother, telling Murdoch and Scott the bare bones, only. Slowly he told Charlie the story of his mother, Arturo Ortega and their last day together. “He was goin’ after me again, but this time it was in front of Mama. She started tryin’ to pull him away from me and he pushed her . But she came back, tryin’ ta keep him from hittin’ me again, so he hit her. She fell then and mustuv hit her head on somethin' cause there was blood everywhere! She didn't look like she was breathin'. I was so scared! Somehow, I grabbed Arturo's gun and when he came at me again, I just shot 'im. He fell down holdin' his stomach and there was more blood. I...I ran out the door, I knew they would hang me for killin' him. And Mama was dead, at least I thought she was...I just left her there! I just ran away and left her!"
“You were ten years old and just saw your mother ‘murdered’, you shot the man who ‘killed’ her! Of course you ran away! No matter how strong you were, you were a still a little boy.” Charlie wrapped her arms around him. “You can’t blame yourself for being human, you can’t punish yourself this way. And you can’t punish your mother, either. Johnny, Johnny, she thought you were dead! Ortega left a message that you were gone.”
They sat there together silently for some minutes, giving and receiving comfort. Then, “You’re sure she’s my mother, absolutely sure?”
“Murdoch is sure she is your mother and Maria is sure.”
They sat there quietly together. Johnny still seemed to be struggling with this and for awhile, nothing was said.
Then Johnny let out a long sigh and said, “Tell me about my mother.”
Scott decided to find his brother that afternoon. Maybe they could finish the fence and talk. If he could just get his brother to talk to him, maybe, eventually, they could get around to Maria and Murdoch. It was worth a try, anyway. They had tried giving Johnny room, letting him deal with the situation, but still no progress had been made. Scott rode toward the fence line Johnny was supposed to be working on. Finally, he saw Barranca and another horse, cropping the grass near a large tree. Getting closer, Scott could see that it was Saladin, Charlie’s horse. Then he caught sight of the two sitting under the tree, red head next to dark. Ah! Maybe, Charlie was getting somewhere with his obstinate little brother!
Scott continued to ride toward the two under the tree, calling out a greeting when he neared them. He didn’t want to get shot by either Johnny or Charlie by riding up unannounced. Johnny was sitting, arms on drawn up knees, head hung down. Charlie had one arm over his shoulders. She flashed Scott a small smile when she caught sight of him. Scott had not seen her for over a month, after leaving him with the beginnings of this saga.
After dismounting Scott walked over to the two sitting under the shade tree. He stood there looking at the two of them sitting there. He could see his brother was upset, not even looking up at Scott as he stood watching them.
“Charlie, it’s nice to see you again.” Although he was speaking to Charlie, he continued to look at his brother. What was he going to do? Scott hoped he hadn’t just ruined whatever progress Charlie had made with Johnny.
“Scott, you got here just in time! Sunshine here was just going to talk with your father, so you can help me finish this fence for him.” Charlie’s voice was again warm and teasing. Johnny lifted his head and turned to look at Charlie. Charlie leaned over and whispered in his ear. Johnny blushed and smiled then got up, offering a hand to pull Charlie up.
As he passed Scott, Johnny looked at him, “Thanks, brother.” Scott knew that was for more than fixing a fence.
As Johnny rode off toward the hacienda, Scott and Charlie continued the repairs on the fence. “May I ask what you just whispered in Johnny’s ear?” Scott queried.
“You can always ask.” Charlie said with a smile, then continued working.
Johnny rode up to the house and hitched Barranca. He hadn’t raced home, still reluctant to face this conversation with his father. But he knew it had to be done. He walked into the house, finding Murdoch seated at his desk supposedly working on paperwork. What he was really doing was staring off and lost in thought. Murdoch was startled when Johnny closed the front door. Johnny walked toward his father, again with head lowered. He thought he really felt like that five year old who had stolen all the cookies.
“Uh, hi, Murdoch. Scott and Charlie are finishing that fence, uh, ‘cause I wanted to, uh, talk to you.” Murdoch had never heard Johnny sound this nervous or less confident. But he was incredulous but happy to have Johnny here, wanting to talk.
“That’s great son! I’m really glad you want to talk. As a matter of fact, I had just about made up my mind to mount up and go find you.” A happy smile lit Murdoch’s craggy face. He indicated Johnny should sit. Johnny sat on the edge of the sofa and Murdoch pulled one of the side chairs over to face him. Head bent down, looking at the floor, Johnny tried to think what to say.
Murdoch, too, was trying to think how to start this conversation. Since finding Maria again he realized how badly he had screwed up by not sharing his thoughts, how he had lost everything he held dear because of his reticence. He had vowed to change that, to make more of an effort to be open with his loved ones. He knew this was going to be difficult (to say the least!), but he was stubborn enough to do it. He had to do it. He would not risk losing the most important things in his life again!
Before Murdoch could start, though, his son had already found his courage. “Murdoch, Charlie was talkin’ to me. About Mama, I mean. She said you were sure that this was Mama, at the orphanage. I…I know ya tried ta tell me about it, uh, before. But maybe ya could tell me again, what she said and all?”
Murdoch started the story again, how he had seen Maria at the orphanage, what they had talked about, the confusion at the beginning. He told Johnny why Maria had left Lancer with him, how she was afraid she would never see her baby again if she didn’t. He explained about Vanessa Parker and the havoc she had caused those years ago. He said Maria thought Johnny had come back to Lancer after her ‘death’.
“Did ya tell her about me? About Madrid?” Murdoch had never heard fear in Johnny’s voice before, but he heard it now.
“Yes, Johnny, I told her about the hard choices you had to make to survive. And I told her what a wonderful person you are, a son to be proud of.” Murdoch’s voice was warm and loving toward his son.
A blush stole up Johnny’s face at this. But “I guess I haven’t been actin’ like a son to be proud of, lately, though. Murdoch, I gotta tell ya why I’ve been so mad, why I acted like I did.” Johnny couldn’t stand sitting anymore, he had to be moving. He got up from the sofa and started to pace. “I was mad, well first, because everybody kept disappearin’, first Scott and then you. And then you came back and started talkin’ about Mama bein’ alive and all. I just…I…I left her for dead, Murdoch, I just ran away and left her with blood all over and…I shot Ortega, he had killed Mama and then he was comin’ after me again and I grabbed his gun and shot him. I thought I killed him and then they would come and hang me, so I ran. But I just left her there.” Johnny’s voice sounded heartbroken and guilty, on the verge of tears. Murdoch had never expected this, had never thought the reason Johnny was so angry was because he felt so guilty. Somehow, he had to help his son through this.
Murdoch, having stood when Johnny had started pacing, walked over to his son who now stood with his back to him. Gently, Murdoch reached out and turned Johnny around. Holding Johnny’s arms with his big hands; Murdoch said “Johnny, look at me, please. You were ten or eleven years old, you thought you had seen your mother violently murdered and thought the man who did it was going to kill you too. You shot that man and ran away. You were protecting yourself. If you had killed him, it would have been self defense. But you were a child! Of course you ran away! Any child would have run away. You survived, you survived! Not many children in the same circumstances could have survived as you did. Johnny, I guess I never told you before, but I tell you now. I am so proud of you, the man that you are. It breaks my heart that I couldn’t save you from the heartache you must have gone through, but, we can’t change the past, we can only live with it and try to go on.” Murdoch’s own eyes were filling with tears at he looked at his son.
“But Murdoch, I shoulda…there had ta be somethin’…” Johnny’s voice was soft and mournful.
“Johnny, there was nothing else you could have done, nothing. You have to let it go, son.” Murdoch pulled Johnny to him and, together, father and son wept for the past and the things that could not be undone.
When Scott and Charlie came back to the hacienda that afternoon, it was to a quiet house. They walked in the front door but found no one.
“Murdoch? Johnny? Teresa?” Scott called out.
“Scott, it’s about time you got home! Charlie it’s so good to see you again! Dinner is almost ready, so you both have time to clean up.” Teresa was her good natured self again, offering a sunny smile to the two new arrivals.
“Where are Johnny and Murdoch?” Had something gone wrong? Did Johnny and Murdoch get a chance to talk?
“They should be back soon. They went to gather some supplies for Johnny to bring to the orphanage tomorrow.” At this, Charlie and Scott shared wide smiles.
Dinner that night was anything but quiet. Everyone was talking, sometimes over someone else. There was smiles and laughter all around.
Johnny left early the next morning with a wagon full of supplies and Barranca tied on behind. Now that he was on the way, he was anxious to see his mother. It would take longer to get there with the wagon but Johnny was glad to be bringing something to his mother. He stopped at midday to eat and rest the horses and then finally arrived at the orphanage in early evening. As he drove up into the yard, Johnny saw an elderly sister come out the door, looking frightened. The hairs on the back of his neck went up, something was wrong!
The night before, there had been a knock on the orphanage door. A bedraggled Mexican man stood there. “Por favor, Sister. I have not eaten for awhile. I am on my way to find work, could you help me?” The man’s voice was oily, groveling. But the nuns had never turned anyone away from help. So the man was given food and allowed to bed himself and his horse in the stable. The Reverend Mother had misgivings about the man and said an extra prayer that night for God to forgive her for not trusting.
The next morning began like any other. Breakfast was eaten, the children set to their lessons. Maria went about her work. While the sisters were at their midday prayers, they suddenly heard screaming in the courtyard. Running out, they saw Maria struggling with the man, then he hit her and she fell to the ground. The man pulled out his gun and pointed it at her. Children were crying, standing near the doorway. The Reverend Mother sent the other sisters to care for them.
“Senor, Senor, por favor, no! You mustn’t!” The Reverend Mother pleaded with the man. The man looked up, then looked at the children who were being herded back inside.
“Arturo! No! You mustn’t hurt the ninos! Por favor, I beg you!” Maria pleaded with the scruffy man standing over her.
“Not hurt the ninos!” The man mimicked Maria’s pleading. “Just like you said about that little monster of yours those years ago! I’ll show you! I know that esposo of yours has been sniffing around you again! I’ll make him pay this time, pay for what that brat did to me!” Arturo Ortega said. He reached down and pulled Maria up. He held her close to his side and spoke to the sisters. “You tell Lancer if he wants his bitch back, he better give me money for her! He will bring a thousand dollars and take it to the burned out mill north of here. If I see anyone else, I’ll kill her, comprende?”
The elderly nun, although clearly frightened, stood looking bravely at Johnny. “Senor, por favor, you must give us time. We will try to send someone to Senor Lancer, but we must have time.”
Johnny jumped down from the wagon and walked toward the nun. “Sister, what are you talkin’ about? I am Senor Lancer, or at least one of ‘em. What’s the matter? Did somethin’ happen to mi madre? Tell me!” Johnny was beginning to get frantic.
Quickly, the nun told Johnny the story of their ‘visitor’ and what had happened that day. “Senor Lancer, I will send a boy to your father, he will…”
“No! That’ll take too long. I’ll go now, he won’t be expectin’ somebody to come so soon. Where exactly is this mill, anyway?” After getting directions, Johnny vaulted onto Barranca and galloped off to the north. He would do whatever he had to in order to save his mother. He couldn’t let her die again!
When Johnny neared where he thought the mill was, he dismounted and tied Barranca to a tree. If he could sneak up on Ortega, perhaps he could get his mother away without her getting hurt. Silently, he moved through the trees. He caught a glimpse of a dilapidated building beyond the trees. When he reached the edge of the tree line, he could see his mother sitting on the ground against a log. Ortega was standing over her and then turned and paced. Johnny could hear him ranting about “Lancer”, “money” and “your brat”. When Ortega got about five feet from Maria and appeared to be about to turn around back toward her, Johnny stepped from the sheltering trees and called out to him.
“Ortega! You wanted to see me?” He had approached so the sun was at his back, giving him the advantage. He could see his mother look up at him, startled. “Juanito! No! He’ll kill you! Run! It is all right, run!” She begged.
“So, it’s the little brat, himself! Not as I planned. Well, no matter, I’ll just kill you instead of your padre. Or, rather, kill you then wait and kill him. After I get my money, of course!” Ortega sneered.
“You’re not gettin’ any money, Ortega and you’re not killin’ anybody either. I’m goin’ to finish the job I started those years ago!” Madrid’s voice was cold and quiet.
Ortega felt a chill go down his spine. This was not working out the way he had planned. For years, Ortega had known where Maria was. But, since she was at a poor orphanage with no apparent advantage to him, he had let her be. Then, he heard of the reunion of Murdoch and Maria and decided he would get revenge on some of the people he blamed for his poor health and lack of money in his life. But this was not the child he had dominated and victimized those years ago, this man who stood before him; relaxed with a faint smile on his lips. That smile did not extend to the blue eyes watching him so intently. How he hated those eyes! For years he had dreamed of those eyes looking at him from over his own gun, that small hand firing the bullet into his body. It was a miracle he had not died, but that miracle had only made him more bitter and hateful to all around him. He had been reduced, finally, to begging and stealing in order to hold on to what he called life. This was his big chance, he would finally win out over the woman and boy who had caused such suffering in his life, he would win!
Ortega reached for the gun in his pants band. He never made it. Again, the blue eyes over the gun, again the bullet tearing into his body. He didn’t believe it, it can’t …
Ortega died in the dirt of the clearing, next to a small burned out building, a life wasted. He never knew; although it was Johnny Lancer he hated, it was Johnny Madrid who had finally killed him.
Maria had made no sound after calling out to Johnny, silently watching the play acted out before her. Johnny went to her and helped her stand. The two stood looking at each other for a moment. Then Maria’s hand went up to cup Johnny’s cheek. “Mijo, oh mi bebé,” she crooned. Tears stood in her eyes as she looked her fill at the son she thought she would never see again.
“Mama, oh Mama,” was all Johnny could say before he took her into his arms and held her tight. He hadn’t lost her, he hadn’t lost his Mama! Gracias, Dios, gracias!
They both started talking at once, apologizing for past mistakes, begging forgiveness. Each trying to tell the other, there was nothing to forgive. After awhile, they sat on the log and started really talking, telling each other about their lives, what they had done and become after being so tragically parted.
“Oh, Juanito, your papa! He will be so upset, we have to let him know everything is all right.” Maria suddenly looked worried.
“Yeah, ol’ Murdoch is probably gettin’ the news about Ortega right now. It’ll be faster if we just ride on to Lancer and send word back to the orphanage that you’re okay. I guess I better bury Ortega first. We’ll let the law know where he’s at.” Johnny said. After burying the man in a shallow grave, Johnny helped Maria mount Ortega’s horse and, mounted on Barranca, they started off at a fast clip. They were both eager to get to Lancer and reassure Murdoch.
They were near the Lancer arch when the met up with Murdoch, Scott, Charlie and a couple of hands riding out to rescue Maria. A look of relief lit all their faces when they caught sight of the two riding toward them.
“Maria, Johnny! Thank God you are all right! It took me a while to get enough money together…” Murdoch exclaimed.
“Uh, I don’t think you have to worry about that money, Murdoch. Ortega can’t use it now.” Johnny said quietly to his father. They shared a long look. Then, Murdoch turned to Maria.
“This wasn’t exactly how I hoped to welcome you home, novio.” He smiled and Maria offered him a quiet smile in return.
They sent one of the hands on to the orphanage to reassure them of Maria’s safety and then turned to ride to the house. Scott rode on one side of his brother, Charlie on his other side. “You all right, brother?” Scott asked.
“Yeah, Scott, I’m doin’ just great, now. She’s sure somethin’ isn’t she?” indicating his mother.
“Yes, she is that, Johnny, she is indeed.”
There was great rejoicing that night as Lancer welcomed Maria de la Vega y Lancer home again.