"You set one foot off this ranch boy, and you will get a licking you will never forget."
Murdoch's voice had that quiet, deadly tone I'd come to recognise in the three years I'd been back living with him. I looked away to hide my temper from him, something else I'd learned since he'd brought me home to Lancer when I was 14. I sure as hell hadn't forgotten any of the lickings he'd given me, but I didn't intend for him to know that.
At 14 I'd been fending for myself since my Mama had died when I was 12. She had run off from Murdoch Lancer when I was two years old and we had spent the next 10 years scrabbling and scraping to make a bare living in one poor village after another along the Mexican border. She told me that my Pa had thrown us out cause he didn't want no Mex wife and half breed son. I'll never know why she said those things because the whole time Murdoch was either searching for us or hiring Pinkerton agents to try and find us. By the time he and my older brother Scott found me I was a hard case, and only returned to the ranch with them because I was injured after being back shot by a low down mangy son-of-a-bitch who blamed me for the death of his cousin in a gunfight.
You see I'd taken up hirin' out my gun after two years of constant practice. I'd taken up a gun to protect me and I got real good with it, and I was earning quite a rep with it, and no-one was going to be pushing me around no more. But it was a disheartening way to live and I was lonely, though I wouldn't have admitted that to anyone and didn't even admit it to myself. I didn't trust no-one and even after Murdoch showed me the Pink reports I had a hard time letting him or Scott get close to me. I was real defiant, downright ornery. Always pushin' Murdoch to the brink. I was not used to being told what to do and sure as hell wasn't planning on letting some old man tell me how to live.
Murdoch was real patient for about two months while my back was healing and I thought I had him bluffed. But I sure as hell had that wrong.
Once the Doc gave me the all clear Murdoch sat me down and told me I had had enough time to adjust to my change in circumstances and I should now listen real close to what he expected of me. I was to obey him and I was to quit cussin'. If I let him down I would know about it. I remember smirking and saying,
"Sure Murdoch" while planning to go on doing what I damn well pleased.
Scott was 17 and he had grown up in Boston with his Grandpa. He'd run off to join the War between the States and after a year in the Cavalry had come out to California to make a life with Murdoch. He was a lot more mature in his ways than I was and he tried to warn me that I'd better mend my ways but I didn't listen to him either.
Not two days after Murdoch laid down the law I stepped over the line. I said I was retirin' for the night but instead slipped out of the house and went to the bunkhouse (Broken Rule 1) to play cards (Broken Rule 2) with some of the hands. This loudmouth Collins started riding me about being too young to be outta bed that time of night and was my Daddy waiting to tuck me in when I got back. He didn't expect me to launch myself across the table and plant my fist in the middle of his ugly face (Broken Rule 3). He was twice my size and a lot older than me but my temper had got the best of me and the next thing I know I'm pummelling him and he's pummelling me right back. The next thing I know the Lead Hand Darby was hauling me off Collins and then the bastard hauled me kicking and cussin' (Broken Rule 4) up to the hacienda.
Darby begged Murdoch's pardon for disturbing him and then filled him in on what had happened. Murdoch stood in front of me, all 6'5" of solid muscle, arms folded, and he didn't take his eyes off me. I was still full of sass and it didn't help my temper that my ear was painin' where Collins had got a lucky hit on me. I was steaming and when Murdoch thanked Darby and saw him out I yelled a mouthful of prime Spanish cusswords after him.
"That's enough John!" Murdoch looked like thunder. Then he started real low, but real intense.
"John I told you you had to change your ways and not two days later you've disobeyed me and I won't have it. Sneaking out to the bunkhouse, gambling, fighting and cussing - it's time for you to learn that you need to mind me."
I raised my hand to point in his face but before I knew it his big hand had closed around my wrist like a vice and I was being dragged mighty quick like to his study.
"Take your fuckin' hands off me old man!" I roared as I struggled to free myself.
Next thing I know I'm face down across Murdoch's desk and it's then I hear Scott's voice behind me.
"What's going on - "
As it was all too clear what was going on Scott skedaddled real quick and I heard the door slam behind him.
I was still struggling and cussin' a blue streak and then Murdoch's belt suddenly landed across my rear end.
"Fuck!" I gasped, full of fury and disbelief that this was happenin'.
Well that big ol' belt kept landing and my backside was feeling godawful sore, but I kept swearing and fighting, until Murdoch paused.
"We can keep going John, or you can stop your mouth and we can end this now - your choice."
Well I was nothin' if not stubborn and I cussed him out and that belt commenced to fall again until suddenly my fight and my struggling and my runnin' off at the mouth all left me. Murdoch immediately stopped swinging that belt around. His grip on my wrist he'd been holding in the small of my back eased up. I was breathing real hard and so was he.
"Johnny I'm sorry it had to come to this but you need to realise that I am in charge of this ranch and of you and of Scott."
He grabbed me by the scruff of my neck and pulled me to my feet. I started rubbing my rear end furiously. I glanced up and then dropped my head quickly and wrapped my arms tight around myself. He still had the belt in his hand as he crossed his arms in front of himself.
"It's up to you son whether this happens again, but now you know what is going to happen if I think you need it. So you get up to bed now and think hard about that. I expect to see a real change of behaviour and a change of attitude from now on - don't disappoint me."
Those last words came out real low.
He left the study then and I watched him go out of the front door. I knew from there he could see straight to the barn. But the thought of trying to sit a saddle was enough to keep away any thoughts I had of hightailing it out of there far from my mind. I stood kicking the corner of his desk for a while and then decided I was just too plum sore and exhausted to do anything but collapse in my bed. I slowly made my way upstairs and just as I closed my door I heard Murdoch come in downstairs. I knew he had been waiting to see what I would do.
I splashed my face with water and then shucked my clothes and crawled real careful like into my bed. Face down was the only option as my rear end was throbbing like I didn't know what. I heard a quiet tap on the door and then it opened and Scott's voice was soft and concerned.
"You OK Johnny?"
"I'm fine!" I ground out. "Other than my rear end feeling like 500 beeves just stomped across it! Yeah, I'm just fine and fuckin' dandy!"
"OK! Good! I'll see you in the morning then...."
Now that was so like Scott I almost laughed. Always making the best of things, and, I was learning, always keeping an eye on me like no-one had ever done for me my whole life.
I think that's why I didn't light out even when I could sit my saddle again. I did think about what my new life with Scott, and yes, even with Murdoch, was like compared to the life I'd been leading the past few years. I'd been knocked around plenty before I picked up a gun, but I knew that getting a lickin' from Murdoch for disrespectin' his way of living was a whole lot different from being beaten just because I was there.
I sure didn't change overnight, and Murdoch and me were to have plenty of rows, and I was to end up in the barn face down plenty more times. Scott said Pa kept two bales of hay stacked in the corner of the barn specially for our "discussions".
But he never once tanned me without me knowing that, like it or not (and I sure as hell didn't) I actually had it coming. And he never, ever treated me like I was worthless like Mama's men so often had. In fact he was the opposite. He always made it clear that he was hell bent on me knowing that I was capable of being a real good person, and he was going to do everything in his power, whether it was tanning me or encouraging me, to guide me onto the straight path where I belonged.
He had faith in me, and that was the best feeling I had ever had.