I hefted the last sack of oats into the back of the wagon and as it landed I heard a deep voice behind me.
I was going into a crouch as I spun and my hand was already throwin’ my pistol. I’d heard the whisper of his gun leavin’ leather before the end of my name had come to my ears. My bullet hit him in the side of his neck. The blood spurted bright and violent. His gun was just out of his holster. Not even to the stage of pointin’ at me. His eyes had that surprised look I’d seen before. Not shocked even, just surprised that it hadn’t turned out like he had been imaginin’. Imaginin’ takin’ down a top gun. Imaginin’ it as he was practisin’ his draw back home on the farm maybe. Or practisin’ out on the trail, and thinkin’ how fast he was.
I could hear someone screamin’. I watched as he sank down to his knees. He fell forward and the blood started to drench the dust around his head. His hat had come off and sat upside down, next to him. His yella hair was dirty. Dirty and now getting dark with his blood. His right arm was close in to his body, and the gun was still in his hand.
Murdoch’s voice was soft, but it wrapped itself around me.
I slowly stood straight up, and I dropped my gun back into the holster.
Murdoch took hold of left my arm then, and he drew me, gentle, to his side. Then his arm wrapped itself around my shoulders, and he guided me up onto the boardwalk, and into the store. I remembered to breathe then, and took in a mighty breath, and then Murdoch had me hugged to his chest and his arms tight around me. I felt myself lose every bone in my body, so Murdoch was all that was holdin’ me upright.
I don’t know how long we stood like that. I know I felt Murdoch’s chin resting on top of my head.
Allan Creane, the Sheriff of Green River, had come in to the store. I tried to stand on my own two feet, and Murdoch felt my attempt, and he unwrapped me, but still kept his arm around my shoulders. I looked at the sheriff and he nodded to me.
“There were three witnesses saw the whole thing, Johnny. You should just go on home with your Pa.”
“Thanks, Allan.” Murdoch’s voice was quiet.
I nodded, and then I walked over to the counter and held onto it with both hands, lookin’ hard at the dull shine of the wooden top.
Mr. Tait, the store-owner, was holdin’ a shot of brandy towards me.
I took it and downed it, and it burned on the way down, but then fired up my cold inside. I mumbled a thank-you, and then looked over at Murdoch.
He spoke low to Mr. Tait.
“George, I’ll settle the bill next time.”
“Sure Murdoch. Just get the boy home.”
The boy. Not Madrid. Not ‘that killer’. Or ‘that scum’. And not ‘get him outta my store’. These were the only thoughts in my head.
“Come on, Son.”
Murdoch took me by the arm as we left the store. I knew there were a lot of people gathered in the street now, but I didn’t look their way. I could feel eyes on me though, and the hum of talk that had stopped when I came out, started up again. I climbed up on to the wagon seat. Murdoch climbed up same side as me, and made me scoot over. He released the brake and heyed up the team, but as soon as that was done his arm came around my shoulders again.
He kept tight hold of me until we were on the outskirts of town. When he loosed me he reached for the canteen and held it to me, and I took it and drank.
The whole scene was startin’ to play in my mind, so I didn’t even hear Murdoch speak at first.
“- practising, Son.”
“I didn’t hear what you said?”
“I said that you have been right to keep up your practising, Son.”
Tuck was working in the barn when Johnny and I pulled up.
“Tuck, Scott was working with the crew at Pepita Creek. Would you please find him and ask him to come home?”
“And Tuck, tell him to I want him to wait for me in the barn.”
Tuck nodded and headed towards the corral.
I headed inside with Johnny.
I heard the horses just over an hour later. I was heading for the French doors when Tuck knocked and his head appeared around the door jamb.
“Scott’s in the barn, Boss.”
I crossed the yard and hardly had one foot inside when Scott started talking. He was standing straight and proud, and he had some high colour in his cheeks.
“Murdoch – I know my behavior was reprehensible. Perhaps you think I deserve a hiding – but Sir – I am eighteen years old and –“
“Scott, hold on there. I just wanted to talk to you privately before you came in the house.”
Scott blushed furiously, and quickly looked down at his boots. His rigid posture relaxed.
“It’s Johnny –“
“Is he okay? Tuck said you were both fine –“
“Yes, yes, we’re unhurt, but –“
And I filled him in on what had happened in town.
We were finishing breakfast. Johnny was quieter than usual, but he had been talking to Scott about the day ahead for both of them. Scott and his crew would be working at Pepita Creek, clearing, and using rocks to shore up one side of the bank.
I had insisted that Johnny was to spend the morning on his usual chores before he could start working with two green broke ponies I’d acquired at the last horse auction. Working with gentling our horses was his main delight in ranching. He’d been champing at the bit, as it were, to start breaking horses, but I didn’t want him doing that before he’d filled out a bit more. He was too light to be struggling with the weight of a bucking and pig-rooting horse, even though he declared it was not the weight that mattered, but his own determination. I could well believe it. But I was too worried to let him.
I finished my coffee and addressed Scott.
“Son, before you head out this morning I would like to see you in my study.”
Both boys looked at me with surprise. I routinely used the desk in the great room for most tasks, not using the study all that often. They both knew that when I wanted to see them in the study they were in trouble. The door could be shut so that when I delivered a lecture which perhaps was a little louder than normal, the rest of the household wasn’t too disturbed.
I had also given Johnny his first hiding in there, so he was not fond of the room.
“The study Murdoch?” Scott looked very ill at ease.
“Yes Scott. We shall begin our discussion in there, but perhaps conclude it in the barn. It really depends on your explanation of this ‘reprehensible behaviour’ you mentioned yesterday, doesn’t it?”
I had risen and turned as I said this, and I strode out of the room without glancing at the boys. I could just imagine their faces – Scott appalled, and Johnny amazed. I couldn’t help the grin on my face. I had no intention of taking my belt to Scott. He had turned eighteen, as he’d pointed out to me, and was past the age where a licking was appropriate. I wasn’t going to let him in on that just yet though. Let him stew on it – it would do him good.
I sat behind the desk in the aforementioned room, and waited. Ten minutes passed, and I began to grow impatient, when Scott finally appeared in the doorway. He certainly looked uncomfortable .
"Shut the door behind you, Son.”
He did as asked and then hovered at the back of the room.
“Sit down Scott.”
I kept my voice gruff. There are times sons need to be wary of their fathers. I held to the premise that a boy or a young man should have a healthy respect for his father’s displeasure. Scott certainly looked wary as he lowered himself into one of the straight- backed chairs in front of my desk.
“Now Son, I would like to know just what you meant yesterday when you mentioned you had behaved ‘reprehensibly’? I am very interested to know just what you have done.”
I know I was growling. I couldn’t help it. I sat back and steepled my fingers together and looked at my older boy from beneath my frowning eyebrows. Scott looked flushed and awkward, but then he straightened in the chair, clenched his hands and sat his fists on his thighs.
“Murdoch, two weeks ago I was responsible for damage to a window in town. I – I had had too much to drink, and I, I, um, became involved in a fistfight, and I –“
He stopped speaking and ran a hand through his hair.
“Yes? Go on.”
“Well, I spent the night in jail. Sheriff Creane let me out the next morning, but I have to pay for the window. I do not have the funds, and I wired Grandfather for assistance. It was not forthcoming.”
Scott was red in the face now, and he had wilted a bit.
“I see. I take it this was the recent Sunday morning when you arrived home in a very sorry state?”
Scott nodded once , and looked down at his knees. He looked miserable.
His shiny blonde hair fell across his forehead. When he’d arrived at Lancer, only a year ago, his hair had been quite short, as befitted a Lieutenant in the Cavalry. He’d been so thin then. Constant fighting, worry and poor food had kept him skinny, even though he was still sinewy and strong. Ranch work and Maria’s excellent meals had put a healthy glow in his cheeks, and just enough cover on his long frame to make him a handsome young fellow. He was taller than Johnny by a few inches, but Johnny was still growing. It seemed neither of them would be as tall as me.
I never tired of looking at Scott, or of his little brother. Both my sons had features that called their Mothers to mind, so for me to look on the faces of the children of my lost wives was a feeling I still could not quite get used to.
Scott glanced up at me through his brown eyelashes, and the eyes of Catherine looked upon me as they first had all those years ago in Boston.
“Murdoch? I’m sorry to have disappointed you…” Scott trailed off, looking down at his hands.
I shook myself out of my reverie. My son needed some guidance.
“Well Scott, it’s all very well to be sorry, but that doesn’t get the window paid for does it. “
I was giving him my Stern Father voice, and it resonated with the voice I’d heard from my own father on many occasions.
“I’m disappointed mostly by the fact that you preferred to ask your Grandfather for money, rather than me. Or was that a device to keep your bad behavior from me?”
Scott looked pained, but he was nothing if not forthright. Quite the opposite of Johnny, who had learned at an early age to skirt around the truth, if it was in his own best interests.
“Naturally I preferred to not involve you Sir, and it was my own money I applied to receive from Grandfather. Unfortunately, Grandfather is the trustee on my account till I turn twenty-five, and he made it quite clear that I can have full access to my money only if I return to Boston.”
So there it was. Harlan’s neverending quest to have Scott return to him. I could hardly blame him of course. He had raised my stolen boy for sixteen years, and losing him to first the Cavalry, and then worse, to the man he held responsible for the loss of his daughter. Well, I’m sure he was seething, and, I had to admit, lonely for the companionship of this fine young man.
But dammit, this fine young man should have grown up at my side. What of my loneliness? To have lost my dearest, beloved Catherine, and then have our newborn son whisked away to the other side of the country. To have never set eyes on the baby that we had made together, and longed for and dreamed about. It had been a hard and bitter time in my life. But even worse was returning to Lancer five years later, after travelling to Boston to try and bring Scott home, only to be thwarted by Harlan and his battery of high priced lawyers.
To have gazed upon my little boy, all big grey blue eyes and that glossy mop of straight blonde hair. And that polite little voice with the lisp, and the tiny hand in mine. Only a few moments with him before Harlan ushered him back to the boy’s fifth birthday party, closing the door behind the small form. Closing the door on my hopes. That night I had got so drunk I shook for two days after, and was sicker than I’d ever been. But even at my drunkest, the sorrow had not been blunted one iota. I buried it deep, covered it with work and harsh denial, and just kept sending letters to my son, year in and year out. And never a reply, because, of course, Harlan intercepted every letter I sent. And then, not one month after returning from Boston, Maria had left with Johnny, just short of his second birthday…
My face must have reflected my thoughts, as fleeting as they were, because Scott coughed gently.
“Murdoch, I want to remain here. I want to live with you and Johnny.”
I stood abruptly, and startled Scott. I was full of emotion, but didn’t mean to encumber him with all of that. I turned to the window and looked out while I mastered my feelings. Breathing deeply and choking down the lump in my throat.
“Scott, Harlan did a fine job raising you. But you are my son, and all I have ever wanted is to have you here with me. This is your home. You may choose to travel, or go to university as we’ve discussed – whatever you want. Wherever you go, Lancer is here and it is your home. I want you and Johnny here with me.”
I turned back and gazed at my beloved son, sitting now with his arms resting on the chair arms, his hands clasped, his head down.
I had been about to ask him if he understood that, but when he lifted his head and looked at me with glistening eyes, I didn’t have to. Scott gave me that half smile that he had, eyes alight and lips pressed together, and he inclined his head in that nod that acknowledged what we left unsaid. We were both breathing pretty deeply.
“Now Young Man, back to business.”
Scott’s colour immediately rose in his face and he nodded again and looked uneasy.
“I will pay for the window and you can either do extra chores to earn extra money, or I will deduct two dollars per pay until it’s paid for.”
“You’re giving me a choice?” He sounded a bit unsure.
“Scott you’re eighteen. I expect you to make plenty of mistakes as you find your way as a man. But I trust you to learn from those mistakes, and to act on what you learn. I might not always be happy with the decisions you make, but I think the time has come for you to be responsible for yourself. “
Scott sat up straighter, but still looked unsure.
“Son, I’m not saying you’re on your own. I hope you will discuss anything with me that you want to. And I’m not saying I’m not going to let you know in no uncertain terms what my opinion is. But as much as I will no doubt be tempted, I don’t think me hauling you out to the barn at your age will have the desired effect.“
I couldn’t help my grin as Scott’s face flooded with colour. I’d actually only given Scott one hiding; the result of him outright disobeying me and endangering his life. He had been appalled to find himself in the barn, with me applying my belt to the seat of his pants. I think his mortification had hurt more than the licking. It had been a few months back when he was still seventeen, and had only been living with me a few months.
He had been very well raised and had also had that stint in the military, so what with that, and his own steadfast character, he was not the undisciplined, reckless and hot headed young man that his brother was. Plus he was a young man, whereas Johnny, for all his adult experiences, was still very much a boy.
Scott was no namby pamby saint though – far from it. He was as stubborn as his little brother, as stubborn as me, truth be told. He had daring and courage to burn. A quick, intelligent mind and a sharp sense of humour. Compassion and a highly developed sense of justice for one so young. Really, Johnny had the same attributes – but he was still an undisciplined boy who most definitely needed a very firm hand to instill some responsibility and to keep him from mischief. And to protect him.
“You’d best get out to Pepito Creek now. I’d like you to come back by way of the Aubrey’s, so you can ride home with Johnny. I’m going to ride there with him and tell Clayt what happened in town. If Alan Creane hasn’t come out here this morning, I’ll go on in to town and see him.”
Scott nodded as we made our way out of the study. He realized I didn’t want Johnny left alone at the moment. Neither did I want my youngest son’s routine disrupted. I thought it was good to keep everything normal for him.
He was hanging around the Great Room when we entered, and his head shot up to observe us closely. He looked surprised to see that I had put my arm around Scott’s shoulders. I gave Scott a slap on the back as he headed for the front door to collect his hat and rig.
“Johnny is there some reason you’re not started on your chores?”
I spoke sternly as I fixed him with a displeased look.
“Just on my way now, Murdoch.”
He hastened out, grabbing his own hat and rig, but not because he was keen to get to mucking out, but because he wanted to interrogate his older brother. I shook my head and smiled as I heard him call to Scott to wait up.
Johnny was working with the roan when I led his horse and mine over to the corral and told him to finish up. He left me cooling my heels while he went to the outhouse and then washed up. He came strolling back as though he had all the time in the world, but I resisted being sharp with him, and just handed Pancho’s reins to him.
“You don’t need to babysit me, Murdoch.”
He had his hands low on his hips and his voice was soft. I detected the challenge.
“Just let me stay close for a couple of days, Son. It makes me feel better.”
He pulled his hat low on his head and looked up at me from under the brim. Then he nodded, and turned and mounted.
Allan Creane had not come out that morning, so after a quick word with Clayt Aubrey, before Johnny commenced his lesson, I rode into town.
Allan told me that the drifter who’d challenged Johnny had nothing on him to identify him. He had stayed at the hotel the night before and signed in as ‘B. Jones’. He had asked the clerk how long it would take him to ride to Oaksbridge, so he was just passing through. Yesterday morning he’d asked the saloon swamper if the kid loading the wagon across the street was Madrid.
“Used to be.” The swamper had replied.
That’s when Jones had made his move against Johnny.
Allan had looked through his ‘Wanted’ posters and though Jones wasn’t named, he could have matched three or four, or none, of the descriptions. So this young man was dead, and to be buried in a town he didn’t know, and under a name that may or may not have been his. His nondescript gun and horse and saddle would pay the undertaker.
On my way home I stopped where Cripple Creek bent itself around some large mauve and sand coloured boulders. I let Chieftain drink and graze, and I sat on one of the large rocks and let the sun warm my bones. The sound of water and birds, and the hum of the dragonflies wings was a balm.
My mind drifted back ten months to another young man with a bullet in him. A fourteen year old gunfighter who already had a reputation along the Mexican border, and even further afield. One who was so proficient with his Colt that his tender years only added to his deadly persona. Johnny Madrid to all who came across him in the range wars or in ‘the game’. This ‘game’ was certainly no game at all. It referred to the practice of standing up to anyone who challenged you to see who was fastest. Appalling.
My search for Johnny had entered its twelth year. Since my wife Maria had left with him, I had followed every lead I had had about him, either searching myself, or paying the Pinkertons to do so. Their latest report had devastated me with the information that Johnny was working as a hired gun. I had drunk a lot more scotch than was good for me that night, and had woken abruptly the next morning because of nightmares. Ghastly nightmares of a black haired toddler with a gun held firmly in his hands. And with an accusing, angry, hateful look in those eyes that had always been so innocent and full of laughter.
As each year had passed, I’d increasingly wondered if Johnny could be brought home, even were I to locate him. I pressed on though, as I thought that just to have he and his mother live somewhere on Lancer land would be better than to have him adrift from me forever. This latest news was a heavy, shattering blow. The Pinkertons believed that Maria was dead, and that my younger son was embarked on a deadly course. What hope now of bringing him home into my life, and being a father to him?
Then the first miracle had occurred.
I received a wire from Scott. He wished to travel to Morro Coyo and wondered if I would be prepared to meet him? Prepared to meet him! I had read and re-read the wire, refusing to believe it could be true. Then I had staggered, and if I hadn’t been close to my desk I believe I would have fallen.
I knew that Scott was serving in the Union Army. My father-in-law, Harlan Garrett had informed me that Scott had lied about his age and enlisted at sixteen. Harlan was doing his damndest to locate the boy, and bring him home, and had asked that I seek the help of anyone I knew in the army who might assist. By the time Harlan tracked Scott down, he was a Lieutenant, having received a field commission in the Cavalry. When his superior, General Sheridan, learned that Scott’s enlistment had been illegal, he honourably discharged his seventeen year old Lieutenant. He insisted Scott had done enough and that he should return to Boston. Scott was so incensed at his Grandfather’s interference that instead of returning to him, he headed to California.
Harlan had deprived me of Scott at birth. My beloved Catherine had been on her way to San Francisco, as we had deemed it unsafe for her to stay at home. The San Joachim Valley was being ransacked by land pirates. She and I never dreamed the baby would come a full month early. When Catherine died an hour after Scott was born, Harlan had the baby brought to him where he waited in San Francisco, and from there he spirited my son away to Boston. Harlan made sure my attempts to recover Scott were never successful.
So to stand in the hot afternoon sun in Morro Coyo, and watch my first born step down from the stagecoach – words cannot describe the tumult in my heart.
A padre, and an older woman had emerged first, and I had assisted them both down. And then before me was a tall, gangly youth, dressed in what I imagine was the height of fashion in the east. He stood as straight as a die, and our eyes met.
“You’ve got your Mother’s eyes.”
I hadn’t even realized I had spoken out aloud, as those soft, blue eyes looked into mine with open wonder. Then he broke the spell we both seemed to be under.
“I’m pleased to meet you, Sir.”
He spoke with a cultured Eastern accent of course. He extended his hand to me, straightening up into a military stance as he did so. I shook his hand, and tried to tear my gaze from his face.
He had the fine, high cheekbones of the Garretts, but his nose and mouth were so like my Mother’s. His hair was short, and it looked to be the ash blonde colour my own had once been. He had the rangy build of the Lancers, although he probably hadn’t reached his full height yet. He looked underfed.
I realized I still held his hand, and quickly released it.
“Scott, I can’t tell you how happy I am to have you here –“
We were interrupted by Hazy, as he commenced tossing luggage down from atop the stage.
Scott and I hastily retrieved his two bags, and handed off several to the Padre and the woman. My eyes kept flitting to the face of my son, and I realized he was cutting glances at me.
Luggage sorted, I turned to my son, who I still couldn’t quite believe was actually there.
“Son, you’ve had a long trip, and I thought we could have lunch at the hotel before we start for home.”
At the word ‘son’, Scott’s head had jerked, but he had tried to cover it.
“Lunch would be most welcome, Sir. I had not assumed I would stay with you – I have no wish to inconvenience you.”
Seventeen years of loss, longing, bitterness. I felt so overpowered by my feelings. Feelings I was accustomed to keeping rigidly tamped down. Now those feelings rose in me and I didn’t know whether to grab the boy and hug him to death, or spin him around and smack his backside hard enough to lift him off his feet…
Instead I kept my head down and kept drawing in breaths until I had regained some composure.
“This way.” I breathed it out, and noticed Scott was looking at me with faint surprise.
“Son, you are coming home with me. Lancer is your home, and it always has been, and it always will be.”
I don’t know how he received this, as I couldn’t look up.
Lunch was a blur for me. I ordered and ate, and we both spoke of Scott’s trip. I found myself chatting about California, and beef, and transport, but all I could do was take in the sight and sound of this flesh and blood young man before me, and marvel that every part of him was mine and Catherine’s. I finally had a real connection with my beloved first wife, and it was heartwarming, truly heartwarming.
Scott and I travelled out to Lancer, and I stopped the buckboard on the section of the road that had an unhindered view down on the whole of the homestead and surrounds, right back to the mountains. Scott stood up from his seat, and when he looked from Lancer to me, I felt that whatever happened, he felt a connection start right then. I didn’t know if it was a connection to the land, to me, maybe to both, but it was a start.
Scott was a proper young man, with Eastern ways, and I gruff Scotsman, who had been denying any of my softer feeling for years, but we soon seemed to establish an easy rapport. We talked, gradually at first, but then with increasing candor, and I felt, increasing affection. The second night he was at Lancer I told him of my second marriage, and about Johnny. He was dumbfounded that he had a brother, and it was the first time I saw him overcome. It was also the first time I placed my hand on the back of his neck, and showed some of the love for him that had flooded my hard Scots heart the moment I had laid eyes on him.
Scott was a son to be proud of, and, I had to grudgingly admit, his Grandfather had given him a solid upbringing and certainly an exemplary education. Once we had this immaculate young man suitably outfitted, he took to learning about ranching with a vengeance, and it was a daily pleasure for me to watch his efforts, his determination, and his increasing skills. He could already ride beautifully, and was more than proficient with a rifle. He was able to master the book keeping effortlessly. Everything else would come with time.
Scott had been with me for three months when we received the Pinkerton report that would change all our lives.
‘Confirmed. J. Madrid in Paguay. Shot early March. Recovering slowly.’
T.Cleever, Pinkerton Agency.
I had addressed my concerns to Scott about being able to bring Johnny home, but he had been adamant that home was exactly where his brother needed to be. So within two hours of receiving the Pinkerton Report, Scott and I were packed and on our way. My Segundo Cipriano stepped into the breech as he had so many times in the past, when I’d taken off on what had been fruitless searches for my youngest.
Three days later we arrived in Paguay, and headed straight to the Sheriff’s office. He told us that Johnny had been working for a rancher who had had problems with rustlers. The job was finished and Johnny had spent a night in town and then headed out early the next morning. He had been shot in the back on the outskirts of town. He would probably have bled to death if the doctor hadn’t been returning to town that morning and had found him in time. He had tended Johnny at his surgery for a few days, but then had needed the bed, so Johnny had been moved to the hotel. He was recovering, but was still in no position to leave. His horse, rifle and saddle had been sold to pay for the accommodation at the hotel.
Scott was all for rushing straight there, but as anxious as I was, I convinced him that we should speak to the doctor and ask him to introduce us. We made our way to Doctor Slade’s and were fortunate to find him in. He was with a patient though, and the wait to see him was hell.
I introduced myself and Scott when he finally emerged.
“I believe I owe you a debt of gratitude for saving the life of my younger son, Johnny.”
Explanations – and payment- followed. Slade was a taciturn, stone-faced man, who told me that he wished me success with reclaiming my son, but thought I should prepare myself for failure. He agreed, however, to accompany us to the hotel and make the introductions.
As we approached the hotel, I could barely contain my trepidation, and when I glanced at Scott I could see the tension in his pale face.
Slade greeted the desk clerk and led us to a passage behind the front desk. He motioned us to wait and knocked and called out, before entering the door to what appeared to be a box room.
“Madrid! You there! Madrid! Can you wake up please?”
I then heard the first words from Johnny since he was two years old.
“What the fuck!?”
We heard some shuffling and a pained gasp – quickly bitten off.
“Madrid, I have two people here who wish to speak to you –“
“Well Doc, less’n they’s a couple of whores, I got no interest in seein’ ’em. Tell them to fuck off, and go organize some decent food from that fuckin’ pendejo out the front will ya?”
Scott and I looked at each other and I expect my expression mirrored his – scarlet and appalled.
Slade looked red and disgruntled when he emerged, and he strode past us with his stony face.
“He’s all yours – and welcome! Good day!”
I glanced at Scott again and then I did my own striding, straight into the room. It was a box room, barely big enough for a cot against the wall. No window, and it reeked of sweat and urine. In such a small room I must have looked even bigger than my six foot five, and the boy on the cot actually looked intimidated –but not for more than a heartbeat. He then glared up at me with eyes that were as perfect a match to my mother’s as it was possible to be, and my heart lurched within me.
“What the fuck!?”
It seemed it was his favourite expression. I felt Scott behind me, and I felt the horror flow from him like a wave breaking against me. Whether for the room or the occupant, or both, I didn’t know.
“Johnny – don’t be afraid –“
He followed that exclamation with a mouthful of Spanish and English curses such as I had never heard.
And then he fainted.
“Scott – go and book two rooms, please. See if the kitchen can prepare some broth. And ask for a bath to be arranged for one of the rooms.”
Scott nodded and left. I quickly went to work while Johnny was out to it. I flung back the sheet and then stripped the dirty socks and drawers from him. I noticed fresh blood on his dressing, but at least the dressing itself seemed clean. He was so thin. As Johnny groaned and stirred, I wrapped the bottom sheet tightly around him, and then gently lifted him into my arms.
I held him to my chest as I last had twelve years before, and without even thinking, I pressed my face hard against his head, and I felt that my heart would burst. I tried to master my emotions, but as I breathed in the foetid smell of my poor neglected boy, I vowed to do all in my power to give him back the home and family he had so grievously been denied so many years.
He groaned again, and I looked into his face as his eyes flickered open. I could see confusion, and then alarm as he tried to focus.
“Johnny, a cuishle …” (child of my blood) I breathed as his eyes found mine.
He was looking into my eyes, and he calmed, and for a moment he was looking at me with the eyes of the child he once was. The anger and insolence was not there, but it soon returned, as he moved and realized he was tightly wrapped and helpless. The panic and anger flared, and so did that mouth.
“What the fuck! You bastard! Let me loose –“
“Calm down, Boy. You need help, and Scott and I are here to see you get it. Keep still or you’ll open that wound and lose more blood, and then you’ll be even more helpless. Understand?” I growled it out.
He seemed to consider what I’d said, and at least he stilled while he did so.
“Who are you, Old Man?” The voice dripped with insolence again.
“Johnny, I’m your Father. I’m Murdoch Lancer.”
Once again the eyes went to shock and wonder. He became even more still, if that were possible, but he breathed deeply and quickly. Like the fall of a curtain, the wonder in those eyes was replaced by a cold disdain.
And then he spat at me. Unfortunately for him, he didn’t have the strength to spit far enough, and his spit fell back on his own face. His look of rage and embarrassment was all it took for my sudden anger to leave, and instead I couldn’t help a grim smile. That was obviously even more infuriating for him, and he did the only thing he could. He closed his eyes.
I quickly transported him to the two rooms Scott led me to. I placed Johnny down on one bed and then opened the door for the desk clerk to come in and position the bath in the room. I sent Scott off to the store to buy two sets of clothes for his younger brother.
Johnny may have been awake, but he was not about to open his eyes and acknowledge me. The clerk made three trips up with buckets of hot water and towels. As soon as he left I lifted Johnny over to the bath, unwrapped him, and quickly slid him into the water. It was only waist deep as I’d instructed, as I needed to keep the wound dry. Johnny groaned as he entered the water, but he kept his head down so I didn’t know if he was unhappy or not. His mumbled swearing could have been anger or pleasure, but it was definitely anger when I started to scrub at him. I ignored his protests, understanding his horror at being bathed by someone who was a stranger to him. I scrubbed everywhere I could reach while holding him secure, and then I handed him the cloth and told him to finish the job. I turned away as much as I could so he could have a semblance of dignity.
As soon as I felt him still, I turned back and lifted him from the water and sat him on the chair I’d left the towels draped over. I pulled both towels around him and ran my hands over his legs and chest to blot the water up. He was quiet now, worn out I guessed. I moved him to the bed, propped up on the three pillows I’d arranged, and then I moved the chairs from both rooms over to the bath. Once again I lifted Johnny over and laid him on the chairs with his head hanging over the tub.
“Jesus, Old Man…”
“When you have clean hair, I’ll let you rest.”
I supported his head and washed his hair. The water was none too clean, but it was better than leaving his hair so dirty and matted. His hair was long, creeping towards his shoulders. Once it was reasonably clean I was surprised at how thick and soft it was. So much like Maria’s. Almost as black as hers had been, too, and once it was dry it shone with health, though the boy himself was far from healthy. He was skinny and pale, though his skin had the dark honey tones of his Mexican heritage. He had a couple of scars on his back and legs, but I thanked God that he was relatively unscathed. Although, I thought darkly, not all scars are on the surface.
I pulled the towel up from his upper body and gave his hair a rough swipe while he commenced cursing again.
“There’s soap in the tub, Young Man, and I can easily transfer it to that dirty mouth of yours. Quit your cursing, or I’ll be tempted to do just that.”
“Fuck you!” was the charming rejoinder I received.
I transferred him to the bed, leaving a towel on the pillow and the other wrapped around his hips. I covered him up to the chin and stood back. He lay still with his eyes shut. He had his Mother’s long eyelashes. Two thick, black crescents that rested on his cheekbones. Now that he was clean and not scowling, his face was that of a very handsome boy. The straight nose, the well shaped mouth, so like the pouting mouth I remember him having as a toddler. On the verge of pouting as I studied him. The chin was strong and showed promise of squaring more as his jaw grew into manhood. His ears stuck out slightly, evident now because his hair was damp, clinging around his head and ears, and curling into ringlets.
I couldn’t help my grin, and when he suddenly cracked one eye open, I had to laugh.
He was angry that I had caught him off guard, and he coloured up, and of course he hissed another curse at me.
Just as I opened my mouth to admonish him the door opened, and Scott arrived carrying an armful of clothes. Behind him came the clerk again, tray in hand.
I took the tray and Scott dumped the clothes on the other bed.
“Well, he certainly looks improved with all that dirt gone!”
Johnny opened both eyes when he heard Scott’s voice.
“I’m thirsty.” He sounded as sulky as a two year old.
Scott immediately filled a glass with water and held it to his brother’s mouth. Johnny turned away as he struggled to free his arm from the bedding.
“Can do it myself.”
He took hold of the glass, but his hand was shaky, and Scott put his hand over Johnny’s and helped him guide the water to his mouth. He drank deeply and then Scott took the glass.
“Here, Scott, get him to eat, and then he can sleep.”
I handed the bowl of broth and the spoon to Scott. Johnny’s scowl deepened, but he seemed to realize that he would not be able to manage by himself. The trip upstairs, and the bath, had taken a lot out of him, but I was sure it would make him feel better once he’d had a sleep.
Scott began to feed his brother, and Johnny certainly seemed to be hungry. The broth smelled enticing, and it was full of tiny bits of beef, so I imagine it was the best meal he had been offered since he had been shot. He finished all of it, and then all of the egg custard that was also on the tray. He even got some colour in his cheeks. I felt inordinately pleased when I noticed it.
His eyes were closing though, as exhaustion took over. But he needed one last thing before sleep. I could see him struggling and his obvious discomfit. I pulled back the covers, eased him up to the side of the bed, and then told Scott to place the chamber pot on the chair next to the bed. I turned my back while keeping a firm hold on him, and as soon as he’d finished, I eased him back into bed and covered him. He’d dropped the towel to the floor, so I scooped that up and covered the pot with it.
Johnny was asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow. Scott and I both stood looking down at him. I noticed we both stood the same, hands on hips, and we both had the same small smile about our mouths. I grinned at my elder son, and he grinned back.
“Scott, he’s going to be a challenge.”
“Murdoch, I enjoy a challenge, and I have a feeling that you do also?”
“With your help, Son, I believe we can convince him that he belongs at home with us.”
“Sir, I think that his being injured is a blessing in disguise. He needs help, and that gives us the time to do the convincing. If he was well, I doubt wild horses could have kept him with us. He certainly seems to be a cantankerous child.”
“I have heard that word used in connection with me. The Lancers are a stubborn breed. I know I have my share, this boy sure does – and I have seen traces of it in his brother.”
Scott raised one eyebrow at me, but his eyes were amused. I looked back down at my other son.
“So this young, stubborn Lancer, has two older, and just as stubborn Lancers to contend with. Johnny is coming home to stay – even if it kills me!”
Scott watched over his sleeping brother while I went and spoke to the doctor. He told me the blood loss would make Johnny weak, until food and liquid built him back up. The pain he was in was because of the wound of course, but the doctor suspected the bullet had cracked the collar bone and that would make Johnny’s healing take longer. He should wear a sling, and he had tried to get Johnny to do so, but the boy wouldn’t listen.
“He’ll listen to me.” I’d growled.
I wanted to start for home, and Slade agreed that Johnny could travel in a wagon as long as he was cushioned and cared for.
“And watch for fever.” He warned.
I left his office and made enquiries around town, but the only wagon possibly for sale seemed to be on a ranch five miles from town. When I returned to the hotel Johnny was still sleeping, and Scott was also dozing. He had his stocking feet on the end of Johnny’s bed, and the book he’d been reading had fallen to the floor. Both boys were snoring gently, and I took a moment to take in the sight of my sons asleep together, just as they should have been as youngsters.
It didn’t do to dwell on such thoughts, so I nudged Scott and handed him his book. He stood and stretched, and we both gazed at the dark haired boy in the bed. He hadn’t stirred.
I filled Scott in, and then sent him to eat in the hotel dining room. When he returned I did the same, and then set off for the Breeton ranch where I was able to buy a small but quite sturdy wagon. Breeton also sold me two horses and harness. The horses were pretty ordinary animals, but would do the trip, and that was all that counted.
Back at the hotel, Johnny had finally woken. He was still pale, and still surly.
Scott was helping him drink. From the pungent aroma in the room I realized Scott must have also helped him to relieve himself. I quickly removed the chamber pot from the room and disposed of the contents. Back in the room I told both boys about the wagon and horses.
“Ain’t no way I’m goin’ to your place, Old Man. You can just get fu-“
“That’ll be enough! You are really not in a position to argue, Son –“
“An’ don’t be calling me son, you bastard! You threw me and Mama out and didn’t want no son then! So don’t be actin’ like a Pa now!”
He glared at me, but I was too taken aback to reply. I breathed heavily and then I sat down next to the bed. Johnny looked at me warily, drawing back into the pillows as far as he could. He had a sheen of sweat on his forehead, and I hoped it was just from his temper.
“Johnny, I don’t know what your Mother told you, but I most certainly did not throw you and your Mother out -”
I swallowed my anger and my bitterness.
“Johnny, I am not a liar. It grieves me deeply that your Mother has told you that I didn’t want the two of you. She must have had reasons for telling you that. I don’t understand. Your Mother left with you of her own accord, and I have searched for the two of you for years. I can show you every report from the Pinkerton Agency that they’ve sent me, when I paid them to do searches.”
Johnny’s angry eyes never left me, but I saw the flicker of doubt in them, before he turned away and closed them.
“My Mama wouldn’t – she wouldn’t –“
But he couldn’t finish the sentence.
I could see he was struggling. He was biting down on his lip, and he was trying hard to control his breathing.
I was struggling myself. The thought of this boy believing that I had not wanted him and his Mother. The thought of him losing Maria, and believing himself alone in the world. Not coming home to me because of the lies he had grown up with. Turning to the gun, because he couldn’t turn to me. My heart had ached for years for the loss of my two sons. Now the ache intensified at the double loss that Johnny had been dealing with since his Mother died. I looked around at Scott. This boy too. Life had certainly dealt harshly with my family.
I stood quickly and went and wrung out a cloth and returned to Johnny and wiped his face. He twisted away from me, but then he turned back and looked at me. I held his gaze, and I watched those blue eyes as he assessed me. He was the first to look down, and I watched those black lashes tremble.
“Johnny, all that has kept me going, kept me building the ranch all these years, is the thought of one day sharing it with you and your brother.”
His head swung around sharply at that.
“Brother? You tellin’ me you got some bastard on someone else after you threw Mama out?!”
I was too shocked to answer for a moment. I turned to look at Scott, and saw he was as taken aback as I was. Scott stepped forward though.
“Johnny – I’m your brother, Boy. Your big brother.”
Johnny’s shock would have been amusing if it hadn’t been tragic. He looked from Scott to me and back again, as he tried to absorb this new revelation.
“You’re an Eastener.” He stated flatly.
I sat down and put my head in my hands, and then looked up at my sons.
“You mean to tell me Son, that Maria never even told you that you had an older brother?”
Johnny couldn’t seem to take his eyes from Scott. They were full of wonder, and I could see his mind working overtime. If his Mother had deprived him of the knowledge of an older brother, what other deceit had she practiced?
“Scott grew up in Boston with his Grandfather. His Mother had died after giving birth. I met your Mother a couple of years later in Matamoras. She – we got married, you were born. You were not quite two when your Mother left with you. Scott has only recently returned to live with me. He’s three years older than you are, John.”
Scott smiled at his little brother, and Johnny’s face actually softened.
“Boston, huh? So I was right in thinkin’ you was some dandy Easterner playin’ at bein’ a cowboy.”
“I’m afraid you are right, Little Brother. But I’m learning, and I hope with your help to learn a lot more.“
Johnny’ s face closed down again, and he looked exhausted.
I sent Scott downstairs to find some supper for his brother. I took the cover from one of the pillows on the spare bed, and with my knife I sliced it open. Johnny looked on, feigning disinterest.
“This is for a sling for you, Son.”
The interest turned immediately to rebellion.
“Ain’t wearin’ no sling, Old Man.”
“The doctor said it’s necessary for your collar bone to heal properly.”
I held the sling towards him.
“I believe it’s your right arm which will be damaged if you don’t wear it.”
His gun arm. I could see the thought settling and his look of rebellion didn’t depart, but he nodded once.
I arranged the sling around him and knotted it above his shoulder. He was grimacing as I gently lay him back on the pillows. Not a sound though. He was one tough kid.
It took two days to furnish the wagon with pallets and blankets, and provisions for the trip. I didn’t rush, as I wanted to get some decent food into Johnny before we set off. At Johnny’s insistence, I retrieved his Colt and holster from the sheriff. Sheriff Durk had taken possession of the rig from Doctor Slade, who naturally had not wanted Johnny to have access to it. The Colt was a mean looking piece of iron. It had been adjusted for Johnny’s hand. Even the rig was specially made. It made my blood run cold.
The three days of decent care, and a good bed, were beneficial to Johnny. He slept a lot, ate well, and remained as sullen as ever. He continued to swear at every opportunity, and he was insolent to me and cool with Scott. He only ever referred to Scott as ‘Boston’. I saw Scott’s puzzled look whenever Johnny had sassed me, and I had let it go. I knew it riled Scott, but I also knew that Johnny was in no condition to deal with the retribution he was deserving of. I had to rise above it. Once we had him at Lancer, and once he was settled in and had accepted us as his family, that’s when I would start to tighten the reins.
The trip home had been uneventful. Johnny was stoic. We took it slowly, and we continued to ply him with good vittles and plenty of fluids. He realized that the sling actually alleviated the pain, so he didn’t buck at wearing it. He was actually getting some colour back in his face.
When we camped overnight, I would watch him without him knowing, and I would see how he studied Scott. He mightn’t have been thrilled to have found himself saddled with a bossy father, but I was sure that he was secretly pleased to have discovered an older brother. It seemed to fascinate him to watch Scott. Scott was adept at setting up a campsite, at caring for the horses, even at cooking. But from our conversation, Johnny realized that Scott was a complete novice at ranching. I think it pleased Johnny to know that he was at home in the West, and so at least in one area he had the advantage over his older brother.
Our arrival at Lancer caused quite a stir. Everyone at the ranch knew I had gone once again to locate Johnny. So when the wagon came through the Lancer arch, many of the vaqueros and homestead workers called out greetings, and there was much waving and whistling. Scott was driving, and I was riding alongside, and I could see the look of surprise on Johnny’s face. It was nothing compared to the look of shock he’d had when I had stopped the wagon at the rise above the ranch. I had helped him sit up, and had pointed out the extent of our holdings. His face had shown how stunned he was, but he had clamped his mouth shut. I wondered at his thoughts. I knew he still struggled with the information that he and his Mother had not been thrown off Lancer. I felt that his head had accepted it as the truth, but that his heart still felt the tug of betrayal each time he thought about it. He was coming to terms with the fact that he had been betrayed, but rather than me, as he had grown up believing, it was his Mother who had deceived him. I felt for him, and hoped that in time the hurt would be blunted.
Scott pulled the wagon to a halt at the front of the hacienda. Cip and Maria were both there immediately, both anxious to greet my youngest. Cip undid the wagon gate as I dismounted and handed my horse over to Milton.
“Welcome home Mr. Lancer.”
I nodded my thanks, and Milton threw a grin at the boy propped up in the wagon, before he headed off to the barn.
Cip turned to me and we shook hands, and Cip too, threw a smile at Johnny.
“Welcome home, Juanito.”
Johnny at least had the grace not to scowl at Cip. He gave a nod. Scott appeared next to me, and Cip shook his hand too, and with his left hand he gave Scott’s shoulder a squeeze.
“So, Senor Scott, you now have the pleasure of a hermano!” he joshed.
Scott looked delighted, and we all ignored the sulking face in the wagon.
“Okay Johnny, hold tight while we pull the pallet to us.”
Cip and I each took a corner and hauled the pallet straight towards us. I then proceeded to lift Johnny as I had each time I’d taken him from the wagon, but this time he protested.
“I can stand.” He hissed.
I knew he couldn’t stand for long, but I let him down and I merely supported him around the waist.
“Oh, Juanito, my Juanito!”
Johnny was confronted with the woman who had helped birth him. Maria stood before him, almost the same height, and she took his face in both her hands. He was too surprised to recoil, and then he saw the tears and the love that suffused her face, and he held still as she pressed her face to his and kissed him on the forehead as her tears fell.
“Corazon, bebe, nino…”
Maria suddenly let him go, and she swept into the house, her rapid Spanish instructing us to bring the baby to his bed at once, what were we thinking keeping the nino standing there, when he should be in his bed.
It was the first time I saw Johnny smile. He obviously had some experience with the kind of bossy Mexican mothering that Maria excelled at. He tried to walk, but two steps and I’d had enough of his bravado, and I picked him up, ignored the curse, and a minute later we were upstairs and I deposited him in his bed.
Maria kept up a steady stream of Spanish as she pounced on him. Before he knew it she had his pants undone and was about to strip them from him.
“Jesus!” He protested as he grabbed at them.
Maria immediately scolded him for blaspheming, but she backed off and gave Scott and Cip and I a dozen orders. We got Johnny settled in bed, and the minute he was covered she was by his side. She bent over him and murmured endearments in Spanish, while stroking his hair and face. I was amazed at how he accepted it from her. She dropped a kiss on his cheek, and with tears in her eyes, she rounded on us again, checking that the doctor had been sent for and such. Then she kissed her beloved Juanito again, and sailed out of the room to organize food, crying with pleasure as she left.
As soon as she was gone, Johnny’s face resumed its customary signs of bad temper. I had observed though, that the insolent frown he liked to bestow on me was increasingly more of an effort than a natural default for him. And I had also noticed a trace of eagerness about him whenever Scott came near. Johnny was doing his best to conceal it though.
“Son, this is your room from when you were born. I know you won’t remember it, but it once held your cradle, and then your crib.”
He slowly looked around the room, but was careful not to show his reaction.
“My room is just down the hall, and Scott’s is across from you. He’s in the room his Mother and I had ready for him, but of course in the end he was born on the way to San Francisco.”
I looked across at Scott, and he was looking at me with his surprise evident.
“I didn’t realize, Murdoch. I thought you’d just assigned me that room when I arrived.”
I nodded and smiled at my elder son, then turned back to Johnny, who was watching us both with those assessing eyes of his.
“We’ll leave you alone for the moment, Son. Try and get some rest before Maria comes back with enough food to fatten a regiment.”
Over the next few weeks Johnny’ s health continued to improve. His disposition was another matter. He was always on his best behavior with Maria. She plied him with food and affection, and he took those things from her with increasing ease. As his health improved, so did his appetite, and Maria and I were both relieved and happy when he put some meat on his bones. He was still as slim as a reed, but his cheeks were no longer slightly gaunt, and his ribs didn’t stick out.
Sam came out regularly to check how Johnny’s health was. Johnny had been surly with him too, but Sam had threatened the boy with ghastly medical procedures if he didn’t mind his manners, and he had no further problems.
Sam urged me to be cautious. He realized that Johnny hadn’t been held accountable to anyone but himself for a long time. He was not used to being part of a community, let alone a family. My dear friend and neighbour, Aggie Conway, was more positive. She only met Johnny briefly, but she told me she was confident that I could handle any fourteen year old boy. Even one like Johnny, who had lived a harder life than most men we knew. She too, thought that Scott, who she was growing increasingly fond of, would be a major influence on Johnny’s willingness to stay.
Quite soon after bringing him home, I showed Johnny the thick folder of Pinkerton reports. He saw from the dates that I had indeed been searching for him for years. He was non-committal though. I knew that he was struggling to reconcile everything he had been told by his Mother, with the reality of what was now before him. He was used to holding himself tight, and holding himself separate. He was certainly not accustomed to being cared for. Just to have three meals offered to him each day seemed a wonder to him. He made short work of every morsel placed in front of him.
Scott and I spent time with Johnny in his room. We would take a book and sit next to his bed, and we would let Johnny feign sleep. Scott took to reading aloud and he chose books he was sure would pique Johnny’s interest. He read through ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ and ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’. Johnny would make no comment – but then he would forget himself and snort with disdain at what a character was doing. Or he would burst out with a more robust opinion, one which usually involved the words I kept protesting the use of. Scott sometimes left the book on Johnny’s bedside table, and then would note when he returned later, that Johnny had read on by himself. We were both relieved to know that he was able to read. We had found that any questions, even the most innocuous inquiry, and Johnny would clam up. He obviously had no intention of opening up to either one of us about his life before we found him.
Three weeks of good food and lots of sleep, and we started bringing him downstairs. He would be installed on the sofa, or on an invalid chair out in the porch. The fresh air did him good, but also made him want to start getting around. He was set on getting over to the corrals. When I told him he was not to leave the porch, he told me he’d ‘go where I fuckin’ well please’, and he threw in the standard ‘Old Man’ for good measure.
I gritted my teeth, but Scott heard and was incensed.
“You keep a civil tongue in your head, Boy!”
He glared at his younger brother, standing over him, fists clenched.
Johnny looked as though he would fire up too, but then he just got an infuriating smirk on that insolent face.
“Why Boston, you going to make me feel unwelcome if you’re not careful.”
“Just watch your mouth, Johnny. You need to learn to respect your elders.”
“You think you can teach me that, Boston?”
Johnny made the last word sound like a curseword, but I quickly intervened before Scott got any more angry.
Scott and I went inside, and Scott gave vent to his anger, but I calmed him down and told him not to rise to Johnny’s bait. I failed to heed my own advice, however, when I went out to the porch half an hour later and found the invalid chair empty.
Johnny had done what Johnny delighted in doing – disobeying. I found him over at the corrals, leaning heavily on the fence. He had obviously overdone it. He was pale and sweaty, and hanging on to that fence for dear life.
I remonstrated with him, letting him know how thoroughly displeased I was. That stubborn boy used my words to steel himself, and he gave me that same smirk he’d given Scott. I ignored his defiance and half carried him back to the house. I took him up to his room and deposited him back in his bed. My hands were itching to turn him over and tan his skinny, little backside. Instead I checked the dressing and the sling, and then I put distance between us, for both our sakes.
It was that night that he got a fever. Scott and I usually took turns checking him through the night. I was sound asleep when Scott woke me, and I followed him in to Johnny’s room and felt his forehead. Johnny swatted at my hand, and turned away from us. He was warm, but not too bad. I still started the regimen which Sam had advised should this happen. Cold cloths, lots of fluids. When he failed to respond Maria mixed up a poultice of vinegar and baking soda, smoothed it between two sheets of linen, and applied it to his chest. We changed it every two hours.
Still he got worse. I sent Walt into town to bring Sam out. Scot and Maria and I took turns tending to Johnny who slipped from being our customary recalcitrant patient, to not even knowing who we were or where he was. He thrashed about, and we had to restrain him so that he wouldn’t further damage his shoulder. His cries and curses rent my heart. All through the day we did our best to tend him, and still Sam didn’t arrive.
I felt as though I would not survive if Johnny did not. For him to have battled the odds of a bullet wound, loss of blood, and then the neglect of being barely cared for by strangers, but now to succumb – how was it possible? To face the possibility of losing either of my sons after years of yearning to have them with me – I found myself weak with dread.
It was about eleven that night when the fever finally broke. I had not left his side for hours, and had just ordered Scott to go and lie down for at least an hour. Maria was in the kitchen, crying as she mixed yet another poultice. I had just finished wiping Johnny down from head to toe. Though I’d used the water fresh from the well, and had shaved ice into it, Johnny’s body had been so hot it dried the water as soon as it touched him. Then he had become extremely still, and suddenly, as drenched in sweat as he had been in water when I washed him. I began to wash him again, and it was then I realized that his body was cooling. I could hardly believe it, till Maria came in and checked him, and our eyes met above the bed.
She fell to her knees by the bed, clutching her nino’s hand, and praying quietly in Spanish as the tears ran down her face. I sat down heavily, my head in my hands, and tried to breathe normally.
“What’s happened – no! What is it?”
Scott’s frantic tones brought me to my feet, and I moved to him when I saw how stricken he was. I grabbed his shoulders and shook him to get his attention.
“Scott – he’s fine! The fever has broken – he’s going to be fine.”
Scott sagged in my hands, and I quickly helped him to the chair by the bed and lowered him into it. His hand went immediately to Johnny’s brow, and when he felt how much cooler his brother was, he looked at me with such relief and joy that it was the end of my strength.
I left the room and made my way downstairs and out to the porch outside the kitchen. The sky was dark, and the stars were so bright they looked fantastical. I could hear the cattle as the constant background noise of our lives. There were also the sounds of the night insects, and a few muted noises coming from the bunkhouse. One of our horses whinnied loudly, and a whickering reply came from others.
I continued trying to breathe normally, but my rigid body didn’t seem to be able to relax enough. And then the floodgates opened. Years of tears suppressed, years of grief denied. I began to sob, and once started did not seem able to stop. Great juddering waves coursed through me, and I cried enough tears to fill a waterhole. My body still held me rigid and upright, and that was my undoing. As the sobs wracked me my back protested, and because of my inability to just give way to my feelings, my back decided to bring me to my knees.
That was how Maria found me a few minutes later. On my knees, clutching my back, and crying like a fool boy.
She wasted no time dispatching a hand to town on another search for Sam. Sam actually arrived at the ranch before the hand had returned. He had finally got back to town from the Dreeton’s ranch on the other side of Morro Coyo, and he’d found the message about Johnny. It took a shot of morphine to put me to sleep and finally let my back muscles release. I would be sore for days, but my relief at Johnny’s recovery was all I needed to help me mend.
The next night I sat by Johnny’s bed. I sat on a low chair so that I did not bend over the bed. Johnny was asleep, but a calm, healing sleep. I sat and held his head in my hand, using my thumb to gently stroke his cheek, over and over. His hair was now as long as an Indian’s. I stroked it back from his eyes, and kept doing that as it fell back over his face. I wondered if the love I felt for this disobedient, ornery boy, could communicate itself to him through my touch. Fanciful, I thought grimly, must be the after effects of that damn morphine. No, I chided myself, I needed to come out and tell this son, and my other one, just how I felt.
Johnny stirred then, and I quickly removed my hand. I didn’t want to startle him, or cross over the boundaries he had set. Not yet, anyway.
The fever had set Johnny’s recovery back, but he slowly regained what he had lost, and it gave Scott and I more time to slowly chip away at the boy’s hard shell. It was not easy. Scott seemed to establish a bond with him with very little effort, but it was not so easy for me. Even though Johnny was easier in Scott’s company, he still kept himself very contained. With me he had returned to his prickly, goading persona, seemingly wanting to test how far he could push me. I could see that his health was steadily improving, and that the time was nearing when I would bring him up short. He thought he had the measure of me, and it amused me to see my feisty, young son, a young man who prided himself in getting the measure of a man, miscalculate so badly where I was concerned.
The day Sam allowed Johnny to remove his sling was a relief for us all. He had been increasingly champing at the bit to leave it off. I had found one way to attain his compliance was through his sweet tooth. Any time he bucked, I would instruct Maria to not let him have any of the sweet foods he craved. He was far too tough to even acknowledge that he minded, but he did. It gladdened my heart whenever I saw these signs of the boy in him he tried so hard to deny.
Sam had given him a set of exercises to do to strengthen his arm, and I knew that Johnny did those diligently because he needed to regain his shooting skill. As soon as the sling was removed he challenged me.
“Old Man, I want my rig back now.” As usual, no please, thank-you, or how do you do.
“I’m sorry, Son, but that gun is not suitable for the life you’re leading here.”
Johnny looked down at the hand he was flexing and un-flexing.
“First thing is, I want my rig. Second thing is I ain’t leading no life nowhere that don’t suit me. “
He stopped flexing and looked straight into my face, his eyes hard.
“Third thing is, I want my fuckin’ rig.” His voice was cold.
I drew myself up to my full height and crossed my arms. I had to hand it to him, he didn’t show by even a flicker that he was intimidated. Most men had a healthy respect for me when I glared at them, but not this boy.
“Johnny, I accept that you will feel safer, and probably will be safer, wearing a gun. But it will be a serviceable gun such as most ranchers wear. Wearing a gunfighter’s rig is advertising that you are a shootist, and can only bring that sort of trouble to you. Your rig is in my safe, and in my safe it will stay.“
I could see the turmoil he tried to hide. He knew he couldn’t force me to hand the gun over, and his frustration at that was infuriating for him. But he didn’t want me to see that, and so he struggled to find a way to beat me.
“I could ride outta here right now,” he tried .
“Johnny, you do not have a horse.”
As the colour suffused his face, I knew I had to reach out to him, and I knew the best way to do that.
“Why don’t we go down to the corrals now, and you can choose any horse on the ranch for your own?”
I turned on my heel and strode off out of the house, praying that he would follow. I reached the corral and greeted old Ced, who was just emerging from the barn. I had my back to the hacienda, and I leaned on the fence while asking Ced about the dun he’d been treating for a week. Ced began to fill me in, and then he paused, and to my great relief, he greeted Johnny.
“Hey, Young Fella. I see you got your wing outta that kerchief now. That mean you ready to ride?”
I turned casually and gave my bratty, young son a small, warm smile.
He didn’t smile back, but at least he met my eyes, and then he looked at Ced and nodded.
The horse Johnny chose was a blue roan with black stockings. I had noticed him myself when the hands had brought him in with three other wild horses. He looked a fine, sturdy animal, but was not large enough for me to consider him as a second mount. He had been broken for about three months, and he was spirited, but no rogue, so I was happy for Johnny to have him.
It was a pleasure for me to see Johnny go over the horse with a fine tooth comb. He was excited, and he didn’t even try to conceal it. He talked to the horse, and petted him, and I saw some of the boy he should always have been. He obviously appreciated horses, and he got into a detailed conversation with Ced about how the horse had been broken, and how Johnny thought horses should be gentled.
“Johnny, Ced will show you the tack room and you help yourself to what you need. But Sam said he wanted you to wait another week to ride. I want you to wait. You can work with the horse all you want – but no riding. Okay?”
Johnny was intent on his horse, and didn’t even realize that for the first time he had called me ‘Murdoch’, and not ‘Old Man’. I felt the warmth of our first easy conversation, and I watched him for another moment as he petted the horse, and talked easily with Ced. It was a start.
Johnny had been eating supper at the table with Scott and I since he’d become strong enough to sit through a meal. What was commonplace for other families, was a thrill for me. Initially I could see my youngest was extremely ill at ease. I noticed he surreptitiously observed everything Scott did. I was careful to talk about the ranch and the community, keeping all the conversation general, so that both boys felt included. Scott’s manners and conversational skills were impeccable of course. What gratified me enormously though, was the way in which Scott enfolded his little brother into his warm and welcoming personal circle. I knew Scott still felt a certain reserve with me, but he had none with Johnny, and he accepted him as his brother unequivocally. I’m sure Johnny felt Scott’s acceptance.
I would see the way he looked at Scott sometimes, as if he couldn’t figure out how Scott worked. He seemed to be searching for any signs of insincerity, but he could find none. Because it didn’t exist in Scott. I know Scott had grown up in the rarified air of the Boston well to do set. It was likely the servants he dealt with daily had more refinement than many of the people he encountered here in California. And yet Scott accepted everyone he met with the same equanimity. He might quirk that eyebrow of his, or press his lips together, but other than that he gave no outward sign that he was perturbed by even the roughest of manners. I imagined that it was his natural way of looking at people, but also that his stint in the army had thoroughly educated him in dealing with a vast range of people.
Johnny would eat steadily, and add as little as possible to the conversation. He listened to every word though. He spoke more to Maria than to either of us. Scott asked them both to talk to him in Spanish, as he was doing his best to learn the language. I could see Johnny was pleased to feel he could impart something to Scott – and I judged that Scott had intended that.
Johnny’s pleasure in having a fine horse was the catalyst for more conversation that night than we had ever had from him.
“Wait – is that the blue roan they caught out near Yellow Canyon?” Scott asked with interest.
“Why, Little Brother, you’ve chosen the horse I had in mind for a second mount.”
Johnny stilled, and then put his fork down – something he usually never did when there was still food on his plate.
Scott was appalled.
“Johnny, I was fooling with you. He’s a fine animal, and I’m pleased you chose him.”
“I ain’t got no right to –“
I cut him off immediately.
“Son, Scott will tell you, and I am telling you, that you have as much right as he has to choose any horse you want on this ranch. This ranch means more to me than anything God ever created. I’ve got a grey hair for every good blade of grass out there. But the ranch means so much because it’s what I have built for my sons. This ranch is here to provide for me, for Scott and you, and for every person who works for us. It provides the food in front of you, the clothes on our backs, and everything else we require. The horse is yours. What are you going to name him?”
Both boys were looking at their plates. I started eating again, and asked Scott to pass the bread to me. He looked at me as he passed the plate. His eyes were warm. We both glanced at Johnny. He still hadn’t picked up his fork, and he was looking down. Those eyelashes were like a curtain over his eyes, let alone the sweep of thick hair that fell almost to his nose.
He picked up the fork and started eating. The tension in the air vanished. I shared a look with my older son. I felt that we had had just had our first real talk as a family.
As soon as we rose from the table, Johnny made a beeline for the door. Scott smiled at me and followed. I knew they were both going out to check on Johnny’s horse. It was over an hour later when they came in, just as I was about to go and insist Johnny come in and rest. Scott joined me in the Great Room, but Johnny headed straight for the stairs. He was on the landing leading to the stairs when he turned.
I looked up at him, but Scott kept his face to the book he’d opened.
“Thanks for that horse.”
I replied that he was welcome, but he had bolted as soon as those words were out of his mouth. Scott and I looked at each other and both of us grinned like Cheshire cats. And then as the door above us slammed shut, we both laughed.
If I thought that Johnny’s pleasure in owning a fine horse, and his actual thanking me for it, would change everything, I was of course, mistaken.
Next morning I woke him as soon as I was dressed. He’d been accustomed to sleeping in every day, and having breakfast prepared for him when he came downstairs.
“Johnny, you’re recovered enough now to come down for breakfast. We eat at six-thirty every morning, except Sunday. You have half an hour to be at the table, Son.”
He was sprawled face down, and when he lifted his head I couldn’t see any of his face as his hair was like a shiny, black mop. He groaned and dropped his head back into the pillow.
At six-thirty I threw my napkin down on the table and barreled upstairs and made my second appearance in my youngest’s room. He had not moved. I threw back the quilt, and before he could respond, I’d grasped him underneath his arms and hauled him to his feet.
“What the fuck-“
“Watch your mouth! You have ten minutes to be washed and dressed – and combed – or you will not get any breakfast this day.”
“I’ll fuckin – “
I strode out of the room and didn’t listen to his threat.
Precisely twelve minutes later, that little bastard strolled into the kitchen as if he was the sole owner of the whole ranch.
Instead of the dark frown he usually bestowed on me, he gave me that insolent smile I knew oh so well.
“Mornin’, Old Man. Boston.”
And he sat and started in on his breakfast .
“Johnny, orders are at seven, and I would like you to be there. Until you are fit to ride, I want you to work with Ced around the homestead. You’ll have regular chores each day, and when you can manage, you’ll have certain tasks set for you. Those tasks will earn you three dollars a week. Any questions?”
“Yeah. What’s the combination to the safe?”
He and I glared at each other.
“I have put a rig on the coat rack at the front door. You are to leave it there when you come in the house. Do you understand me?”
The belligerent look was firmly back in place. Scott was observing our exchange with interest.
“It will take me months to learn a new piece, Old Man. I want my own gun.”
“Your injury means you will have to learn to use those muscles again, anyway. You have no need for a fighting gun on this ranch. When you go into town, you’ll be with me, or with Scott.”
He looked mutinous, but for once, he held his tongue.
“Now, I’m going out to give the orders. You’d better finish up your food.”
I left him to mull over that as he shovelled the last of his eggs into his mouth.
At the end of each working day I would check in with Ced. He told me that Johnny did everything he asked him to. He didn’t balk at mucking out, or any of the menial jobs that are generally the tasks of the young and the old on a working ranch. After lunch he would spend hours schooling Pancho. Ced had watched him work and said the boy was a natural with horses. He also showed signs that he had been schooled himself in certain techniques that real horse aficionados practised.
I made sure to be at the homestead myself the next afternoon, and I watched Johnny and his horse working together to build a rapport. It was a pleasure to watch him. He was so engrossed he didn’t even know I was there. When he finally led Pancho towards the barn, I listened to the soft endearments he was showering on the animal. As soon as he realized I was there he stopped abruptly.
“Johnny, you are very skilled at that. You’ve had someone teach you some of that, I guess?”
Johnny slowed his pace and I fell in beside him. I think he liked hearing my praise, but the stubborn, little cuss feigned disinterest.
“Maybe I did.”
He must have realized how rude his response sounded, and to my surprise, he looked uncomfortable.
“It’s easy to learn something you got a real interest in.” He added the words quietly.
I felt like he had bestowed a gift on me, such was my pleasure in his speaking so politely.
“Perhaps you would like to work with any of the new horses we get? Would that be something you would like to do?”
He led Pancho into his stall and took the brush from the shelf. As he started to brush the horse down, I could see him struggling to answer. By saying he would like that, he was saying that he was a part of the ranch, maybe even a part of the Lancer family. It was the first time I had put a direct question to him that involved our future. I was about to change the subject, not wanting to corner him, when he suddenly answered.
I had been a thirteen year old boy in Scotland the last time I had done a cartwheel. And yet at that word I had the utterly ridiculous desire to do one!
Instead I reached out and put a hand on the boy’s shoulder, just for a half second, and then I turned and left.
With each step forward it seemed we took two back. I think Johnny was so ill at ease at giving any quarter to me, that he would react immediately after by becoming more obstreperous. He was cantankerous for the next three days, and even when I told him he was free to ride, he snorted a laugh that intimated that my permission for him to do anything was amusing. Which, until now, it probably had been.
I fixed him, and Scott, with a glare.
“Don’t think I don’t know that the two of you have been riding the past three days” I growled.
They both had the grace to look surprised, and the look that flashed between them was comical.
“Scott, I expect you to be a positive influence on your younger brother. I do not expect you to assist him in defying my orders.”
Scott opened his mouth to speak, but Johnny growled his own response.
“I never was much good at taking orders.”
I took a deep breath, and then I turned to Scott.
“Scott would you please leave us.”
Both boys looked uneasy, but Scott nodded and departed.
“Sit down, Johnny.”
He continued to stand, his uneasy look now replaced with a cool appraisal of me.
“Johnny, sit down. Please.”
He still hesitated, but then he took an exasperated breath and dropped down onto the sofa.
He listened as I then proceeded to tell him of my expectations. That I wanted him to stay at Lancer. That it was his home and always had been. That he had a family that wanted him. That I wanted what was best for him, whether he thought so or not. That he had had to live in the world of men, but that did not make him a man. I wanted him to grow up to being a man while living with us, where he had safety and trust and the affection of a family.
But it was a two way street. He would have to accept my authority. I didn’t imagine that that would be an easy thing for him. But I would call the tune. It was something he needed to come to terms with. I had been patient, because he had long been on his own, and he had been injured. But that was no longer the case. I had tolerated his swearing, his poor attitude, his disrespect. But I would not tolerate it any more. I would appreciate his changing his behavior so that we could all live harmoniously. I knew he was capable of behaving appropriately.
And then I delivered my last piece of advice.
“Do not disappoint me, John. If you do, there will be consequences.”
He had remained quiet throughout. He had sat with his hands restlessly rolling the toggle on the stampede strap of his hat. Now he looked up, and the cool look had changed to that irritating half smile. I had expected an explosion, an argument, swearing. Instead all I got was,
Well that certainly took the wind out of my sails. I found I couldn’t think of a thing to say.
It was said in a bland way, but I felt that underneath, he was actually dismissing me.
Okay, I thought. You think I’m just talking to hear myself speak. Well, my Son, you just go on thinking that and see what it gets you.
I nodded at him, and he got up in that light and easy way that he did anything physical, and he sauntered from the room.
I had not expected Johnny to turn into an angel after our talk. And he didn’t.
It was a Tuesday night, about two months after we had brought him home, when he finally pushed me too far. He had been out all afternoon, riding Pancho to the East pastures. He rode out most afternoons, aquainting himself with the layout of the land. He scoffed when I worried about him getting lost.
“I been all over Mexico and the border states, Old Man. Ain’t likely to get myself lost on a little ol’ hundred thousand acres.”
We enjoyed a delicious supper of Mexican food. Johnny was delighted, but Scott drank lots of milk with his meal. This also delighted Johnny, and he good naturedly joshed his older brother about his ‘delicate Eastern dandy innards’. Scott was happy to agree, and to chide Johnny that he would one day ply him with lobster and oysters, and see how Johnny’s Mexican vaquero ‘innards’ would fare with Boston shellfish. I loved to hear them bantering with each other, and I was getting to hear more of it.
After dinner the two of them sat in front of the fireplace and played chess. Scott was surprised at how good Johnny’s game was. Scott had never been beaten by anyone younger that he was, and Johnny’s satisfaction at unnerving Scott was the first time I heard the boy actually laugh. Scott then feigned even more displeasure, and Johnny chortled with glee.
“What’s a matter, Scott? That fancy school not teach ya how to be a good loser?”
“It taught me how to teach insolent lads some manners, Boy, so you had better watch yourself!”
Johnny chortled some more as he got to his feet and stretched.
“Goin’ to bed,” he announced as he headed out of the room.
Scott then challenged me to a game, and was peeved when I also beat him. I was feeling more contented than I think I had felt in eighteen years. I smoked my pipe, drank my scotch, and thought of how well things were progressing with the three of us. As Scott pondered his chess strategy, I gazed at the top of his head. The small fire we had going was enough to make lights dance across his shiny blonde hair, and to light the fine bones of his face. His long, brown eyelashes once again put me in mind of his Mother, and my heart swelled to think of how much she would love this boy. I decided he should know that.
“Scott, you have so much of your Mother in you.”
He looked up, surprised. He flushed faintly, with pleasure I thought.
“She would have been proud to see the man you’re becoming, Son.”
This time his colour became high.
“Scott, I’m proud too. I hope you know how much it means to me that you are here?”
He nodded, but though his jaw worked, he didn’t speak for a moment.
I knew he was thinking of what he wanted to say, because he suddenly made a very foolish move with a knight.
“Murdoch, I am glad to be here. I care about Grandfather. I know that…that ....he cares for me, too. But here at Lancer…at Lancer…with you, and Johnny… Well, I feel like I am part of a family.”
Scott looked steadily at the board. I looked at the top of his head. Then I looked at the board, and he looked at my head, and then we looked at each other and smiled.
An hour later I had pulled back the covers on my bed, and was just removing my second boot, when I heard a commotion downstairs. I had heard Scott’s boots thumping down the backstairs to go to the outhouse, but this noise was coming from the front entrance, and I could hear the unmistakable sounds of Johnny’s cursing.
When I reached the bottom of the stairs I found that bullheaded, obstinate boy, struggling in the iron grip of our Lead Hand, Darby. Darby quickly filled me in on what had been going on while I thought my young son was fast asleep in his bed.
Johnny had been out in the bunkhouse, playing cards. I had previously told him he was not to spend any time in the bunkhouse. And certainly not to be out there gambling. He’d got into a fist fight with one of the men, Collins. Collins was a thick headed wrangler who was much older, and heavier, than Johnny. It had not been Collins though, who had started the fight.
Johnny stood listening, rubbing his ear which was swelling just in the time we stood there. His eyes were blazing with temper, and as I thanked Darby and saw him out, that brat of a boy hurled some Spanish epithets after him. I was quite sure they were the worst I had ever heard.
I had reached the end of my tether. I calmly turned to my son and told him so.
Instead of being contrite, or even the slightest bit discomfited by my obvious displeasure, he fired up even more and raised his hand to point in my face and express his displeasure!
What followed was not pretty. But after two months of restraint, of patience, of forbearance, all on my part of course, it was time to teach this little hellion how to mind his manners. He did not enjoy the lesson. He was a slim, fourteen year old, and of course was no match for an irate father of my size and determination. He found himself sprawled face down across the desk in my study, and I had just freed my belt from its belt loops when the door opened behind us and I heard Scott’s voice.
“What’s going on –“
Even though Johnny was cursing a blue steak, I still heard the door quickly pulled shut behind me. For the next few minutes I diligently applied that belt to the skinny, little backside of my son. He was furious, and didn’t stop swearing, but he was pinned to that desk, and he was not going anywhere until he accepted that a fourteen year old boy was not going to rule the roost at Lancer. I stopped at one point, and I gave him a chance to cease his appalling cussing, which would have ended the licking, but the determined, hard headed, contrary, little blackguard spouted off even more. My sigh was lost in all the racket he was making, as I continued to tan him.
Finally he came to the realization that he was the author of his own fate. The struggling stopped, and with it the bad mouthing. It was certainly a relief for me, and I immediately stopped the licking and hauled him upright.
He rubbed madly at his behind before his pride overtook him, and he stood there looking quite shocked, and very subdued. He wrapped his arms tight around himself and listened, head down, as I told him I expected him to do what was asked of him from now on, or, regrettably, there would be a repeat of what had just happened. He looked like a rabble. His long hair was all awry, his shirt was hanging out and pulled sideways, and his face was scarlet. So was his swollen ear.
I left him then, and I walked out the front door. I had hoped that it would not come to this, but I had been resigned that eventually it was bound to happen. I personally had never met a healthy boy, in my own boyhood in Scotland, or in my adult life in America, who hadn’t at some stage had, or would have greatly benefitted, from a hiding. I had had plenty of hidings from my Father, and I knew that there was something about a father’s hand that had a way of blunting a boy’s more reckless tendencies.
I stood out on the porch, but this time I was not listening to the sounds of the night. I was instead listening to what was happening in the house behind me. I wondered what I would do if Johnny went upstairs and collected his few belongings and then tried to leave. Should I lock him in his room? Should I let him go, and wait with my heart in my throat, hoping that he would cool down and return? If he didn’t return, I would go after him – of that I was sure.
He had had that tanning coming since I had brought him home. He was an undisciplined boy, and it was my job to rein him in. I had no desire to break his feisty spirit. But he had to learn to eventually live as a civilized, responsible man. He had missed out on so much up until now, and he deserved to have a father who cared for him. And as far as I was concerned, discipline was part and parcel of that. I had bided my time, and knew that Scott had wondered at it, but I had needed to try and establish some sort of relationship with him first. I needed him to care about what I thought of his actions.
My breathing had returned to normal after all my exertion, but my heart was thumping with trepidation. I could hear a low, steady thump coming from the study. This was good. He was thinking - not tearing off in a hot headed rage. I stood there, my arms folded, my belt still in my hand. The thumping stopped, and then I heard his footsteps as he came out of the study. The footsteps reached the back stairway, and then up the stairs they went. Usually he pounded up the stairs, but tonight the steps were slow. I stepped inside and pulled the front door closed. I couldn’t hear anything for a few seconds, and then I heard what I wanted. His door shut, but shut quietly. If he was leaving, he wouldn’t have bothered shutting it. Or he would have stormed up the stairs and given the door an almighty slam to herald his intention of packing and then storming right back out.
My breath whooshed out of me. My shoulders dropped from where I held them tense against my neck.
I went upstairs to my room and dropped the belt on the chest at the end of my bed. I had left my door open, and as I sat down on my bed, I heard the gentle knock against Johnny’s door. His door creaked open, and I could hear a murmur of voices. Scott was checking up on his little brother. I couldn’t hear the words, only the tones. Scott’s voice; a soft enquiry. Johnny’s answer; a disgruntled, peevish retort. Scott said something else, and then there was the faint noise of the door closing.
I couldn’t help my smile as I slowly unbuttoned my shirt.
I felt then that we were going to be alright. In spite of all the odds stacked against the three of us for so many years, we were now together. Scott had survived a truly horrible war and found his way to Lancer. Johnny had survived his own wars, and he was home here too.
God knows, I had no illusions that from now on it would all be sweetness and light, smooth sailing and happiness everlasting. But I felt that the tenuous link that we had begun to thread between three different people, all with vastly different backgrounds, was a link that would hold. It would strengthen, and it would hold. If it took the last breath from my body, it would hold.
It had held. As I sat by Cripple Creek that day, thinking back, while the sun warmed my back, I felt the other, familiar warmth that resided inside me these days. Ten months on from finding Johnny in Paguay, we were a family. Like in any family, there were good times, and like the day before, very bad times. But both my sons knew that I was there for them, and they had long known that they had each other’s backs.
We had each been through so much in our separate lives, before we all finally found ourselves together at Lancer. Now together we had been through some tough patches, but our separate experiences had made each of us resilient, and we each brought that to our new life together. Johnny would recover from the previous day’s gunfight, probably much faster than I would. Scott might decide to go away to university. But he would come back when he graduated. Lancer was home for me, as it had been for the past twenty years. But now I knew without any doubt, that Lancer was my sons’ home too, and wherever they went, and for however long they might be gone, our ranch would be there waiting, and my boys would come back to it. Would come back to me.