Murdoch Lancer turned heavily onto his back, one half of his subconscious fighting to awaken, the other locked in a nightmare that had plagued him sporadically for almost two decades now.
“Papa! Papa come!” the dark-haired toddler with eyes the color of a summer sky over the Mexican desert sobbed as he was carried away. “Papa, come get Johnny! Papa….!”
Murdoch ran as fast as he could, but the distance between them continued to lengthen as the shadowy figure of a woman carried his tiny son away from him. “Johnny! Johnny!” he bellowed but the child’s cries grew more distant until at last the man found himself alone next to a yawning chasm in a dead landscape. Dark, leafless trees stood guard over a desolate plain. Overwhelmed by grief, he stared into the bottomless pit beside him. The urge to step off came over him and he wondered how long it would take to hit the bottom, if there even was one.
“Father?” a tiny voice in the wind caught his attention. Murdoch looked up and around, trying to locate its source. Then he saw him, a small boy about five with golden hair and eyes that bespoke the blue-grey of a New England sky in winter. The child stared at him, eyes wide with curiosity and something else – a question perhaps – but he said nothing more.
“Scott?” Murdoch breathed. He frantically looked left and then right, searching for a way across the abyss that stood between them, keeping him from his firstborn child. Frantic to reach the boy, to touch this child whom fate had prevented him from holding even once, he considered whether the distance could be jumped but it was too wide, too deep. No bridge could be seen in either direction.
“Scott, wait there, boy….” he called to the child. “I—I’ll find a way to get to you! Don’t worry, I’ll find a way—“
The boy continued to stare, a look of profound sadness in his eyes until a dark man appeared out of nowhere and took his hand. The child never took his eyes off Murdoch as the man turned and began to lead him away, into a mist that had risen up behind them.
“No! No, wait for me!” Murdoch yelled. “Let me touch him—hold him—just once…. Please!”
The shadowy man kept going, and the boy allowed himself to be pulled along, his head turned back and his gaze on Murdoch until at last, the dark, distant haze swallowed him. Murdoch Lancer’s head dropped to his chest, his heart broken, and he stepped forward into the breach…..
“Unh!” the man gasped, sitting up suddenly and looking around his overlarge bedroom. He scrubbed his face and was not surprised to feel tears on his cheeks. It was the same as always this dream and each time when he awoke, the sadness hung over him for the rest of the night. On such nights, sleep did not return, not even after drinking of copious amounts of whiskey. He’d tried that often enough, along with wandering the quiet, empty rooms of the hacienda or even riding for miles around the ranch he loved. Always the same.
Perhaps tonight though…. Murdoch Lancer threw off the bedcovers and rose, pulling his robe on over his nightshirt and shoving his large feet into leather slippers. He opened the bedroom door and walked quietly into the hallways. The light of a full moon shone in through the window in the hall, making a candle unnecessary as Murdoch moved soundlessly to a door at the end of the hall. Taking a deep breath, he gently turned the knob and stepped into a room, one that had been left unoccupied for many years. Moonlight shone through a window whose shutters had not been closed, and a cool breeze blew across the room. A dark-haired young man lay sprawled on the bed, arms and legs akimbo. Pooled on the floor next to the bed was a lightweight Indian blanket and next to that a pair of pants and a shirt lay almost atop a pair of boots that had been discarded in the middle of the room.
A smile tugged at Murdoch’s lips. He crossed to the clothing and picked up first the shirt and then the pants, folding them neatly and putting them on a chair next to the bed. Next he picked up the boots and lined them up under the chair. Finally, he lifted the blanket and gently laid it over the boy who started a little then he quickly snuggled into the blanket’s warmth and sank back into sleep. Murdoch stood a moment longer, simply watching Johnny sleep before quietly leaving the room, closing the door behind him.
He moved across the hall and quietly opened a second door. The shutters on the window has been closed but the slats had been left open to allow a bit of night air to come in and cool the room. Moonlight shone through, casting fingers of light over his older son. Scott lay on his side, facing away, and his breathing was slow and even. Murdoch couldn’t hold back a smile as he looked around the room. No clothing lay on the floor or even on a chair. He had no doubt everything Scott owned was hanging in the closet and his boots were probably lined up below them. Every item in the room seemed to have, and be in, its place. The father appreciated the orderliness of it and his gaze moved back to the young man asleep in the bed, obviously worn out from the long days of a rancher, so unlike what he’d known back East.
Murdoch knew he should leave him to his sleep but something pulled at him, not letting him simply leave. He advanced into the room, barely breathing and came to a stop next to the bed. The silver light of the moon lit the gold of his son’s hair. Barely breathing, Murdoch reached out a hand and gently brushed a stray lock off his first-born’s forehead. Father and son sighed almost in unison and then Murdoch backed out of the room soundlessly.
In the hallway outside the big man stood between the two closed doors behind which his sons slept and closed his eyes momentarily, allowing a moment of peace and contentment to wash over him. It had been only a few days since they arrived, days filled with fear and anxiety as the three of them had dealt with a threat against the ranch, an injury to his younger boy, and the nervous tension of three strangers trying to decide whether it was worth the effort to get to know one another. He’d made some mistakes with them, these sons of his, from the first moment. But a new hope rose within him tonight, on the heels of the old nightmare came a conviction that, however difficult it might be, he would not let this opportunity slip from his grasp. Sighing, the big man nodded to himself and headed back to bed, certain that sleep would return this night.
A few minutes later, one door in the hallway opened and a dark-haired young man slipped silently out of his bedroom and into the one across the hall.
The blond brother sighed loudly. “Truly, nobody here knocks, do they?” he said out loud to no one in particular.
“He come in here too?” Johnny asked as he crossed the room and sat on the foot of Scott’s bed. He reached out and snagged the extra pillow, punched it once to fluff it up then put it against the footboard and leaned back.
“Make yourself comfortable,” Scott said.
“I am,” Johnny replied, missing or ignoring the sarcastic note in the older son’s remark.
Scott smiled to himself and sat up, propping his pillow against the headboard and leaned back. “And yes, Murdoch made a short… visit
“Why ya s’pose he did that? I coulda shot him if I was a little more on edge… just walkin’ in on a body like that.”
“Yes. It kind of shows why it’s a good thing to knock before one comes barging into a room.”
“Yeah. Maybe ya oughta tell him that.”
Scott’s eyes narrowed. His new brother had shown himself to be not the least bit dense so he could only surmise Johnny was purposefully missing his meaning at this point. “I don’t think I’ll do that,” he replied.
“So why’d he do it anyway?”
“It may have escaped your notice but… I just met him the same time as you. I don’t have a clue why he does anything.”
Johnny rubbed a hand over the stubble on his chin. “All he did was fold up my clothes and put the blanket back on.”
Scott’s eyes widened with understanding. “Well… I guess I can understand why anyone might want to straighten up that room a little,” he smiled.
“Yeah, but Maria does that every day,” Johnny answered. “Don’t require no midnight visits.”
Scott shook his head and fought back a laugh.
“What’d he do in here?” the younger brother pressed.
Scott bit his lip, certain he was not ready to share this information. He wasn’t quite certain what Murdoch had been doing, only that he’d caressed the older son’s head in a way that Scott found puzzling and… nice. “Nothing really. He just looked in, I guess.”
“I don’t know,” Scott said. “I guess maybe….. Well, it’s just a guess but maybe he was just checking to make sure we’re okay.”
“Why? I mean, what the heck’s gonna happen when we’re sleeping? It’s not like I’m gonna steal away with the furniture in the middle of the night.”
Scott exhaled slowly. “Well, I don’t think that’s why he was checking up on us… I—I think it’s just a father thing.”
“A father thing? What’s that mean?”
“I’m not exactly sure but…. When I was a kid, I used to spend some holidays with my friend Will. He was one of seven kids. His father used to do that, every night. Before he went to bed, He’d just go from room to room, checking to make sure everyone was okay, and where they were supposed to be. At least, that’s what I always thought he was doing. It woke me up every night…. because I wasn’t used to it. But Will and his brothers and sisters, they just slept through it every night, never even realized he did that. When I asked Will, he was completely surprised. But his mother overhead me and she was the one that said that. About it being ‘ a father thing to do’.”
“Huh,” Johnny responded, obviously considering it. He shifted a little lower in the bed.
“I suppose I could be wrong about it,” Scott mused aloud. “I mean, he hasn’t been real ‘fatherly’ to either one of us so far…. But I can’t think of another explanation….” He looked at Johnny, waiting for his response but when none came, Scott looked closer and realized the younger man had fallen asleep. The older brother shook his head. Having a younger brother was a new experience to the Easterner. Having one come and decide to camp out in his bed was one he wasn’t sure how to deal with.
Sighing, he got out of bed and retrieved a light quilt that was hanging on the back of the chair by the window. He covered the younger man, then got back into his side of the bed and turned on his side. Scott smiled as he closed his eyes and fell back into a dreamless sleep.