The Prodigal Son
A WHN for
This little one parter was inspired by discussion of
Thanks as always to my betas Linda & Lacy
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The Prodigal Son
A WHN for Warburton’s Edge
It was close to two in the morning by the time Scott wearily approached the hacienda. The long ride into town to deliver Driscoll to the sheriff coupled with his worry about his father and brother had drained him of his usual boundless energy. Driscoll had complained the whole way, blaming Warburton for his predicament, conveniently overlooking the fact that he had shot the man in the back. When he had started in on Johnny for siding with Warburton Scott had told him harshly to shut up and had ridden ahead, seeking space in which to think.
The problem with Warburton had blown up while Johnny was away on business. Murdoch had despatched his eldest son to Sacramento to meet with their lawyers in the hope of obtaining an injunction. Scott had returned from Sacramento with the news that his mission had been unsuccessful just as the cattlemen had been convening their meeting. There had been no opportunity to speak to Murdoch and no reason to believe there was anything wrong… until Johnny had burst in with the news of the shooting. Even then the full significance hadn’t registered. After the fight with Driscoll Johnny had stormed off and the meeting had degenerated into complete chaos.
The news that Johnny had signed on with Warburton as Johnny Madrid had shaken Scott to the core. It was only later, after the other ranchers had gone, that Murdoch had explained Johnny’s reasoning. While Scott hadn’t condoned Johnny’s methods, he was proud of his brother for doing what he felt was necessary to protect their father. Then Murdoch had dropped the bomb-shell…Johnny was staying with Warburton and was making it his business to ensure that the cattle reached market. He was publicly siding against his family and neighbours.
While Murdoch went to Warburton’s camp to try and broker a deal and to persuade Johnny to return home, Scott had collected the shell casings left by his brother and had ridden into town. His discussion with the gunsmith had pointed him toward Driscoll and the man had been arrested on suspicion of attempted murder…possibly even of murder, as Johnny hadn’t thought Warburton would survive the wound.
Scott had last seen his father sitting at his desk, staring into space. Murdoch’s thoughts had clearly been a long way from Lancer. Loss had been etched into every line of his face. It had all happened so quickly…this disintegration of the fledgling family unit…and Scott had honored his father’s request to stay out of it – until now. He was damned if he was going to allow his family to be torn apart by ‘an Eastern adventurer’, as his father put it, and a hotheaded rancher who had taken the law into his own hands.
Lights were still shining through the downstairs windows as Scott arrived home. He had left Jelly in town to tidy things up with the sheriff in the morning. Jelly had tried to dissuade him from riding home alone in the dark only to have Scott demonstrate that he had inherited his full share of Lancer stubbornness. If he had to ride into Warburton’s camp and drag his brother home he’d do it.
Memories surfaced, of Johnny leaving after an argument with Murdoch over a wild horse. Scott had believed that he had lost his brother that day, only for Johnny to swallow his pride and come home. It had been tough for a while after that, like walking on eggshells as Johnny and Murdoch had worked on restoring a tentative peace. Scott had stayed out of that one too after his visit to town to speak to his brother. These were grown men who knew their own minds and they had to find a way to build a relationship with each other. He’d offered advice to his brother when Johnny asked but other than that he’d stepped back and hoped for the best. It had been working just fine until Warburton had provoked a range war by hiring guns, and his impetuous brother had found himself caught right up in the middle of it.
After stabling his horse he walked quietly toward the front door. He was hot, dirty and tired. Removing his hat he wiped the back of his hand across his sweat-streaked forehead. His plan was to grab a few hours sleep, speak to his father and then…then what? Common sense told him that he couldn’t just go barging into the enemy camp. Jelly had confessed to his meeting at the cantina with Johnny and a girl who could only be Warburton’s daughter. So, by now, Johnny’s true identity would be common knowledge. This only served to increase Scott’s fear for his brother. How would hardened gunfighters take to the news that Johnny Madrid, one of their own, was actually Johnny Lancer and the son on the man leading the opposition against Warburton? For all he knew Johnny could be dead or they could have decided to hold him as a hostage to force the ranchers to back off. Suddenly the idea of sleep didn’t seem so appealing.
The front door opened soundlessly and Scott stepped into the entrance hall, his eyes drawn to the light shining from his father’s desk. He was shocked to see his father sitting where he had left him so many hours before, staring at something held in his hand .
“Murdoch?” Scott dropped his hat and gloves on a table as he passed. As he neared the desk he stood on something on the floor that crunched underfoot. He looked down and then at the desk, frowning as he realised that there were shards of glass lying everywhere. The lamp, he realised, was the one that normally sat near the mantle…the original lamp being shattered into dozens of pieces. He pulled over a chair and sat down. “What happened?” He could see now that the item Murdoch was staring at so intently was a picture of his brother, taken not long after Johnny had recovered from the bullet wound inflicted during the fight to save the ranch from Pardee.
Murdoch looked up then and gazed sorrowfully at his eldest son. “Johnny’s home.”
Scott sagged in the chair in relief. “Is he alright?”
“I’m not sure.” With a last longing look at the picture Murdoch set it carefully down on the desk. “Two men came here tonight intending to kill me. Johnny saved my life…he killed both of them.”
“Was he hurt?” Scott started to rise, intent upon going to his brother’s room.
“No…no, he wasn’t shot. He’s so fast, I never realised before.” Murdoch stared into the distance. “One of the men…Isham, I think he called him…he was Johnny’s friend. Johnny gave him the chance to walk away but he said he had a job to do. I think he knew Johnny was faster…Johnny killed his friend to save me.”
Scott sank back into his seat. “How’d he take it?”
“Badly. He told me that in the past all he’d wanted to be was Johnny Madrid, good at his trade.”
“And now?” Scott asked the question with a mounting feeling of dread. How did his brother feel, having gone back to living the life of a gunfighter. Could he settle again to a much more mundane existence as a rancher?
Murdoch shifted restlessly in his seat, the worn leather creaking in protest. “He said that Tallie, Warburton’s daughter, had asked him what he was most – Lancer or Madrid. Said he didn’t even have to think about it.”
Scott waited, certain now that they were coming to the reason why his father was sitting alone in the middle of the night looking as if he had lost a son rather than having a son come home.
“I asked him what his answer was,” Murdoch raised pale blue eyes, so unlike Johnny’s vivid sapphire ones, and pleaded for understanding. “I was afraid, Scott. I thought I’d lost him. I shouldn’t have had to ask…I should have known the answer by the fact that he came back to save me.”
“What did he say?”
“That I had a prodigal son if I still wanted one. I…I didn’t answer him. He leant back against me, so trusting, and I wanted to say the right things, I really did, but the words wouldn’t come. He pulled away from me then and said he had to see to his friend. I offered to help and he told me to mind my own business…that he didn’t need my help and never had.”
“Where is he now?”
“In his room. I’m not sure he’s going to stay. There was so much anger and hurt.”
The clock chimed three o’clock, shattering the heavy silence between the two men. Scott rose to his feet and stared down at his father’s bowed head. “Do you want him to stay?”
“Of course I do. He’s my son and I love him.” Easy enough to say when the son in question wasn’t there to hear.
“I’ll go and talk to him, see if I can smooth the way. After that it’s up to you.” Scott saw his father’s gaze drop to the picture again. Murdoch’s large hand closed gently around the frame and he lifted it so that the light from the lamp could catch it and bring Johnny’s face back into focus. He was still staring at it as Scott turned to leave the room.
After knocking softly on the door Scott turned the handle and entered his brother’s room. A lamp was lit on the nightstand, its wick turned so far down that it only gave the illusion of light. Johnny was sitting in a chair by the window, shrouded in darkness.
“Can I come in?”
Scott crossed to the nightstand and turned up the lamp, allowing the yellow light to penetrate further into the room. Johnny’s expression was closed to him, hard and brittle.
“Do you want to tell me what happened?” Scott sat on the edge of the bed, intently studying his brother’s profile. He waited patiently, was prepared to wait all night if necessary.
A soft sigh heralded Johnny’s decision. “Isham was my friend. We went way back. I guess it must seem strange to you…a no-good gun hawk having friends.”
Ignoring the interruption Johnny continued with his thoughts. “I never thought he’d stoop so low as to shoot an unarmed man. He came to tell me, to test me out. He wanted to see just how black my soul was. I told him no one was going after my old man so he knocked me out. When I came round he and Sexton Joe had left and I was tied up in Warburton’s tent. Boy, was I angry and scared…scared that they would get to Murdoch and kill him. Tallie talked her father into letting me go.” There was silence then, filled with memories that Scott couldn’t share. “I sent Sexton Joe to hell where he belonged. I tried to get Isham to give it up but he wouldn’t. I didn’t understand until he said he took pride in his trade and then it all made sense.”
“How did it feel, being Johnny Madrid again?”
“It was kinda exciting at first then, after Warburton was shot, I was just angry.”
“You were right about Driscoll doing the shooting. He’s in jail now.”
“Yeah, well it won’t bring Warburton back or make things right for Tallie…or me. Guess I was fooling myself that Murdoch would welcome me back again. I crossed the line this time and there’s no going back. It’s tearing me up inside, Scott. I never meant to go up against Murdoch. I only got involved to try and keep him safe.”
“He knows that and you saved his life. He’s sitting downstairs staring at your picture. He loves you, Johnny. He doesn’t want you to leave."
Johnny turned toward his brother and Scott got his first good look at a face full of sorrow for a good deed gone wrong. After a few moments a tentative smile appeared. “Yeah?”
“Why don’t you go down and talk to him? Will you at least do that?”
Life was returning to Johnny’s eyes. “Don’t reckon I’ve got anything to lose.” The decision made Johnny stood up. “Thanks, brother.”
“Anytime. Johnny? I’m sorry about your friend.”
“So am I, Scott.” With a last hopeful smile Johnny left his room and made his way downstairs. As he entered the great room his father looked up at him and smiled.