A “High Riders” WHI
touchstone n : a test or criterion for determining the quality or genuineness of a thing.
<<And I want you off.>>
It had sounded so good to say that, to let the words roll off his lips and hang solidly in the air. They’d surrounded and attached themselves to him, tying him to the thing missing in his life – family and heritage…a sense of belonging and permanence. For the first time ever he had a name – a real name – to claim. And land - he owned actual space in this life.
But then that thick-brained Coley had managed a shot, and it had all gone to hell. At least Pardee’s bullet had missed the mark. Well, ‘missed’ if the mark had been Johnny Madrid’s brains, that is. Damned satisfying to see Pardee fall for good after that, even if it wasn’t Johnny Madrid’s bullet that had drilled him. Scott had taken that honor instead, his aim perfectly accurate despite having only a spare moment to sight and fire. At least the coup for the kill remained in the family…
Johnny grunted and reached again for the bottle of Murdoch’s brandy – his eyesight was fuzzy…it took him two tries before his groping fingers encountered the decanter. Family – is that what they were? Three men – a crusty old landowner, a cavalry fighting Easterner, and a drifting gunfighter…tied by blood and what else? They had no history together, no memories to share – not that the old man wanted to talk about the past, anyway. How could three strangers be family to one another? Johnny brought the container to his dry lips and drew in a big swallow, then settled it carefully into his lap. No need to spill it. Family…
Well, there were some advantages to wearing the Lancer name. This fine brandy, for one. It easily warmed the gullet and would make digging for Pardee’s bullet now buried in his back a helluva lot more tolerable than it would be otherwise. And after that lead was pried out of his shoulder blade, he supposed he could enjoy – for one last time – that bed he’d been using upstairs. Damned enjoyable, that bed, made him wish he’d never see a straw pallet or a stall of musty hay again in his life. Getting shot, for all its unpleasantness, didn’t seem so bad if your name was Lancer. But not if your name was Madrid. And it seemed that Madrid was the only name anyone remembered around here. Johnny Lancer – well, he’d only existed for a brief time back up there on that hill.
Johnny allowed himself a sigh and gave up on the thought of the bed. Accompanying the exhaled breath came a well of unexpected emotions that drifted out into the air around him, swirling like snowflakes he’d once seen in the high country. They floated merrily, bobbling on an unseen current, then landed back onto him, filling his chest with a strange heaviness, poking at the space in his lungs with their pointed tips. The voice rose up into his mind again, full of scathing, vehement words, the meaning of which had attacked his judgment and his intelligence. Had they come from a stranger he would have cast them aside with a shrug and a more-knowing smile. But they had had been issued from the white lips of his father, a man he didn’t know but somehow felt connected to. And those words coming from the man had lashed him and sliced him down through muscle and sinew, reached deep inside to gouge at that space where he held precious feelings …
<<You young fool! You damned idiot…! What were you trying to do? Running off and not telling anyone – where did it get you? By God in Heaven, you’ll never do that again…>>
Murdoch Lancer had a grand way of throwing down on a man. In that indeterminable space between passing out and waking in his father’s arms he knew just where he stood with the old man. It was all across Murdoch’s face – in the lines around his nose, in the disappointed slant of mouth, the discouraged stare. Even with the pain washing over him, the words issued from his father were perfectly understood. If the old man didn’t know what to think before Johnny left Lancer to find Pardee, then he certainly knew what to think upon Johnny’s haphazard return.
Well, better to know – clear out – where he stood with the old man. Murdoch wanted nothing to do with those who took from others – robbers, land pirates, gunfighters – those like Johnny Madrid. So how could he accept that kind into his own family? Johnny snorted to himself. The old man had said that the past – good or bad – was over, but apparently he’d only been referring to his lack of participation in his sons’ lives, and not the sins his sons may have committed. And Johnny Madrid had committed many a serious sin…
Not like his brother Scott, who had nothing to hide. Johnny didn’t know the details of his brother’s life, but Scott’s upbringing showed plainly in his dress and his manners, his speech and his actions. Hell, the man had been an officer in the U.S. Army and not some dandy from the East after all. Scott was a man of guts and action – he probably had a box of medals stashed in a drawer somewhere, as a testament to his honorable behavior.
Johnny Madrid …well, he didn’t have any medals of that sort, or even a box to hold them in. He could have added a few notches on his gun, but that was the sort of pride that he abhorred. He already carried enough guilt for taking men’s lives. What had started out as self-preservation had turned into blood pay over the years. The money eased some of the accompanying shame – some. But the guilt was never far from him. It hung around him like a bad smell. That stink had made him a loner, a wary man with a reflexive nature, sensitive to unnatural sounds and movement, observant of the way a man’s eyes predicted thoughts and actions. He could sniff the air and detect when it was time to make a fast exit, how long he should lay low, when it was time to start picking up afresh. Death was a heavy and demanding passenger on his shoulders. And it wasn’t until he’d stood before Murdoch Lancer just a couple days ago and heard the old man’s offer that he’d thought maybe – just maybe – that he might be able to wrest that cold, bony grip from its perch and stomp it into the dust.
For a few dauntless moments while he breathed on that hill overlooking the estancia, he truly believed that it had been his, especially when Pardee had tried to take it away. He had a gleaming flash of understanding just exactly what the old man – his father – had been fighting for. Pardee might as well have been ripping off a limb. But then the old man’s words had come tumbling out, and it was all over.
“There you are! We’ve been looking…”
He flinched hard as the girl, Teresa, entered the great room. She was carrying things in her arms, a pitcher and some cloths, which she shifted to one side. She pointed with her free hand to the decanter he was balancing on one thigh. “I could have brought that to you.”
He glanced down and straightened it from its tilted position, that self-preservation creeping up from the place he’d stashed it so recently. “No need.”
“You really shouldn’t have left the portico – we were worried that you’d wandered…”
“I’m not out of my head yet,” he told her. But if he put any more brandy into him he would be. That would only delay his leaving. And he had to leave – he couldn’t stay, despite the longing turning in his heart. He wasn’t wanted here. And his staying would only hurt them. He was damned, one way or the other.
Teresa took two crisp steps forward, her heels tapping on the solid floor, tap-tap. The sound promptly repeated itself in his brain – tap-tap, tap-tap,tap-tap, like the annoying tick-tock of the overloud clock standing sentry on the wall, reminding him that it was time to go, just as soon as the pain stopped rolling over him.
“You’ve probably had too much already,” Teresa told him. “You’ll only end up with a headache in the end.” Her gaze searched his face. He saw a mix of emotions reflected there – concern, confusion, maybe even a little fear. It couldn’t be compassion or friendliness, could it? No, he didn’t want her to feel sorry for him, to fret over him. She’d get too close and then be hurt by him, by who he was. His fingers wrapped around the slim neck of the bottle and he took another swallow, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. The numbness further drifted through him, working down past his knees to his feet. So much for getting up…
“S’working fine from where I sit,” he drawled, regretting the tone even as it slid past his lips. But he didn’t want any more kindness from her. That sort of caring was dangerous.
“Suit yourself then,” she replied in a flippant voice that relieved him a little. “But you’ll need tending, either way…”
She had brought something else into the room with her – the air was alive with a tense new thing. He caught the scent and his senses quivered in response to the trepidation twisting in him. Something hovered above them; soundless, yet full of noise, like a darkening wind preceding a storm. A protruding finger of dread emerged to caress him – he felt its iciness run down his cheek – he twitched—
She had touched him. Johnny drew back, his hiss whistling past his clenched teeth before he could stop it. He put his hand up and brushed her off. “Don’t…”
She straightened. “Johnny, I’m no stranger to wounds. Who do you think tended Murdoch after Pardee shot him?”
He tried to keep his voice neutral. “Did you pull the bullet out of him?”
Teresa frowned. “No, but--”
“Then, please…” The word came out so softly, old and unused. “Just don’t…”
He didn’t want anyone touching him, undressing him, reinforcing his physical weakness. Especially not Teresa. That he hadn’t even made it across the yard was mortifying enough. He hadn’t been out for long, but it had been long enough for the old man to gather up his rage and let everyone hear it. Well, Murdoch had told them he called the tune.
Johnny shifted painfully. No matter – his job was done here. He’d had a plan and executed it, committed himself to helping Murdoch Lancer, a vulnerable old man underneath all that hardness of his. And that vulnerability had touched Johnny, like it always did. It wasn’t anything more than that. Just helping out an old man with a need. To care anymore was just too dangerous – for him and for them. So why was he still sitting here thinking about could-have-beens? He’d ridden with a bullet before – he should do so now. Forget those arms that had carried him, belonging to first his brother and then his father. They were just men, not any real kind of family of his. Lancer – he couldn’t wear that name now, and had never worn it before. His past would hurt them, and had already showed the ferocity of its bite. He’d bring trouble to Lancer, more of the kind they’d just routed. He knew what he was, had accepted it a long time ago, shortly after he’d placed his first mortal bullet and was rewarded for it. And Murdoch knew what he was, too. The old man knew. Better to go now and leave off any more funny notions of family. It would never work.
There’d been a twinkling of hope up there on that hill that he’d found a way to bury Johnny Madrid. Then, he’d fallen from the palomino, and so from his father’s grace. Johnny let out a sigh. Murdoch’s angry invectives that followed revealed that there was no chance for redemption. All these thoughts were just wasting time and energy.
Teresa was still close by, staring at him. “I told you to leave me alone,” he grumbled at her.
She flung up a hand. “That’s it?” she asked, the exasperation in her tone rolling over him. “You’re just going to sit there and bleed to death?”
“No one is going to bleed to death.” Murdoch Lancer made his way into the room, stooped and limping, his cane banging heavily as he brought it down to lean upon. “I told you to stay put,” he snapped at Johnny, his eyes burning in the shadows of his dirt-smudged face. “Was that so hard?”
Johnny tilted a glance up at him, gritting his teeth to settle his swooping vision. “Got everything all buttoned down?” he countered, relishing the liberation of his tongue from his conscience. He smiled when the old man deepened his scowl. << Just so you know, old man, he thought, <<I ain’t gonna cave just because of a bullet in my back…>>
“Scott’s handling the rest,” Murdoch told him stiffly.
Scott – the good son… Johnny nodded, and pushed aside the pinch of embarrassment that came with the thought. Scott was a good man. But he couldn’t help commenting, “Ol’ Boston, he’s real reliable that way, isn’t he?”
“Seems to be,” Murdoch nodded. “But considering it was his plan to draw Pardee into the open, he should be the one to finish the job.”
Johnny slammed the brandy bottle back onto the small table – Teresa jumped a little. He shoved it aside. “I had a plan,” he shot back.
“A plan that nearly got you killed!” Murdoch’s voice seemed to end unsteadily.
“Didn’t happen,” Johnny replied, though his own confidence was starting to fade under the increasing pain. He sucked in a breath to shore it back up. “You wanted my arms and my legs and my guts for this fight? Well, I gave them all to you – and more. So don’t go comparing me--”
“Why did you go off like that? This wasn’t a case of one winner. Together we--”
“Does it matter how it got done?” They didn’t understand. Pardee could have infiltrated the hired hands and worked himself into the Lancer confidence – Day wasn’t above any tactic to ensure success, and Johnny knew it.
“You did your job as near as I can tell,” Murdoch responded. His voice seemed to soften. “For a while I wasn’t sure which direction you were headed in.”
If that was a compliment, it felt strewn with doubt. Johnny curled the fingers of his right hand around the arm of the easy chair he’d been warming, braced himself and shoved upright. “You got what you paid for, then,” he replied, weaving slightly. The pain in his shoulder blade sang to him as it skimmed fire up the back of his neck and down into useless left arm. He hitched himself forward a step. Damn his trembling knees! He could not pass out again. He would not. He took another shaky step.
Murdoch blocked him. He was a tall man, imposing despite the gauntness that hung around him, even with a cane dangling from his long fingers. “Sit down, you fool,” he ground out. “We’re not through…”
“Old man.” Johnny sucked in a breath and forced it into his quaking limbs. What did he want – hadn’t it all been said? “I don’t owe you anymore. I did what you asked me to do – your ranch is saved, isn’t it?” His shoulder collected his wandering pain into a single pulsing mass that seemed to expand with each breath. The edges of his vision were turning dark. But he would not pass out. He would not. “That’s what you wanted,” he continued, forcing the dark feelings into the open to choke off the others wanting release. “Your precious chunk of land…well, now you can keep it.”
Before him, Murdoch stood unmoving, his face held by a slash of mouth and cold eyes. “So that’s it – no ties, no commitments…”
Johnny nodded, careful not to move too quickly. “That’s it.”
“All this…” Murdoch’s large hand swept in a broad arc. “Everything here – family means so little to you?”
Family…home…the old man’s offer had been the most generous thing ever put before him. Dios, what man, if he was still a man of some integrity, wouldn’t want that? Johnny yanked on his flagging resolve. This was no place for him – it couldn’t be a place for him.
“Family?” Johnny echoed over the ragged clog in his throat; anger gave him the energy to say what his heart was protesting. “You think that after twenty years you’ll just snap your fingers and we’ll all say ‘sure’? You didn’t care about us until you started to lose this ranch. We’re no better off than your vaqueros out there.” He had to stop and swallow hard to keep that softness squirming in him from rising any higher.
“I asked you back, didn’t I?” Murdoch countered. “I sent Pinkerton men to find you – saved your damned hide from a firing squad. Offered up a full third of this ranch just as soon as we met--”
“This ranch,” Johnny spat back. “It’s all for this ranch…and that means you.”
“You’re out of your head, boy,” Murdoch snarled at him. “You’ve shed blood for this land and you don’t even realize the whys of it.”
“I didn’t do it for this ranch…”
Teresa stepped around the old man. “Yes, you did, Johnny,” she told him earnestly. “You did it for us, for all of us.”
No, not for them in the way she meant…
“We’re your family, Johnny,” Teresa continued. “You tried to save your family.”
Yes, a family. A family that could only be held intact if he left. Johnny Madrid could offer no family values if he stayed…his sins…why wasn’t the old man explaining it to her?
“I can’t stay,” he said as the pain pummeled him again.
Murdoch’s breath brushed his cheek; when had he stepped in so close? “Can’t?” he demanded. “Or won’t?”
Johnny drew in a rasping gulp of air. “Same thing, I figure,” he got out. There were so many things they didn’t know – he would never be able to fit into this family, not with the past he built, the ghosts of the dead he carried behind him…the stink of it rising up between them…
“Go then,” Murdoch told him in a strangely quiet voice. “Your choice…”
The only choice. The room went silent but for that wall clock urging the time – <<tick-tock, tick-tock, tick…>> Johnny closed his eyes and gathered a breath to turn away. It was done…
“But, Murdoch,” Teresa protested. “He’s--”
“He’s hurt, Teresa; yes, I know.”
Johnny opened his eyes, but the room was starting to sway. He saw Murdoch lean again on the cane. It didn’t seem that the old man really needed its support but rather wanted to get his eyes on a level with his son’s. And the old man caught his eye, dammit if he didn’t.
“You may have paid your debt to me, boy,” Murdoch began, “but I’m not through with you. No man takes a bullet for me and walks away untended. You want to leave, then fine, but you’ll have that slug cut out first.”
“Singing the tune again?” Johnny sneered with heavy sarcasm, the order shaking something loose in his wilting stamina. “Well, not this time--”
If he’d had a little less pain, enough to keep his head just a little clearer and his eyesight a little straighter, he would have detected the movement and sidestepped. But he felt one heartbeat and only half of the next before he was grabbed by an arm, stuffed into a dining chair and launched chest first into the massive table. He yelped, as much from pain as surprise. The old man’s large hands pawed at him, drawing his jacket away from his shoulders, tearing at the rent in his shirt, ripping the blood-stuck fabric away from his skin.
“Damn you!” Johnny hissed, straining to turn his head – to pinion the man who was his father with his shimmering gaze. “What the hell--?”
But his eye caught Teresa’s horrified look instead, her color-drained face, the wide eyes, the trembling lips – fear…. Instantly, he shut up.
Murdoch’s hand clamped onto his other shoulder, thick fingers curiously warm through the clammy fabric of his now ruined shirt. Dios, the old man was crushing him to the tabletop. And holding him there, because he was fast losing any ability to keep himself from slipping into the space between chair and table.
“Teresa,” Murdoch uttered with convincing calm. “Find Arturo and send him in here; he was on the portico helping the others. And then freshen that pitcher of water – make it plenty hot.”
Johnny saw her hurriedly move away, but her penetrating stare lingered deep near his heart. He tried to shake it away, but it remained lodged in the spot where a rib met the edge of the table.
“She ain’t gonna be happy,” he mustered from his face down, half-prone position. “You’re using her food table as an operating parlor.”
“She’ll forgive me,” Murdoch told him confidently and a mark of pride filled his voice. “She knows it’s best.”
If he was upright, Johnny would be willing to argue that Teresa probably knew otherwise than to dare confront the man who was now her guardian, and then thought it strange that he’d so quickly wanted to defend her. But Johnny found he was, quite literally, in no position to argue or defend. Besides, the effort would only be wasted. The old man had Johnny securely pinned in his grasp and with good reason. Johnny was no stranger to gunshot wounds – they could take a lot out of a man.
“I’ll send her out,” Murdoch offered. “There’s no need for her to see…that way you can holler if you want to.”
Pride kicked Johnny and he struggled for a good look. “You won’t get a sound out of me, old man,” he said over his good shoulder. “And I’m leaving as soon as it’s over.”
“If that’s the way you want it,” came Murdoch’s soft reply.
He didn’t want to go. But he knew he had to. <<My land…>> He wished it were so, Dios, how he wished…
Then the grip on him softened a fraction, as if Murdoch knew that he was keeping his son from falling again, to the hard ground, Lancer land, the good California earth worth saving. The hands were not restraining him, but holding him secure. Holding him here, to this house and this family. And he knew what that land meant, because he’d stood on it, felt its vastness envelop him, made him believe that it was his, that he deserved it…
There was something new in Murdoch’s voice. Something of need, of want. Vulnerability – Johnny felt it, that connection between them again. A lump rose up in his throat. He wanted – so much…hell, he wanted that damned bed upstairs for just one more night.
“I didn’t intend to buy you,” Murdoch said quietly. “It’s not about Madrid. You’re my son, dammit. My…son. For years I looked…My God, when you fell, I – and then Scott brought you back… I – said things…I didn’t--”
The whisper slipped out, and he was too tired to even try and take it back. For that one moment it had been his. And he’d believed in Johnny Lancer…
Murdoch’s hands on him shifted and gentled – a long arm came about him and rested there, warm and encouraging. And then, his father was crouching awkwardly beside him, blue eyes meeting blue. Was that concern now filling in the big face? It was hard to tell because it was getting so hard to see.
“It’s yours, son,” Murdoch told him in a soft, penetrating voice.
The words took up Johnny’s heartbeat and re-awakened his hope. He let it pulse through him for a moment more, savoring its shy warmth, then dropped his head to the table and let go.