His world was upside down. He thought he had things worked out in his head, but the shock of seeing his old friend and fellow gunfighter, Tom, “Too Tall” Pickens, on display when he rode into the town had thrown him as hard as any rank horse ever had.
Sickening the way chicken shit people liked to display their back shooting work. His eyes had immediately gone to the exit wounds and the blood stained shirt. Creepy how they had left Tom’s sky blue eyes open. It just wasn’t right to do that to a dead person.
The threatening sky must have read his sudden mood swing because it opened up, sending the people on the street running for cover. He pulled his rain coat collar up and closer, after donning the long black coat in anticipation of rain some miles back.
He rode past Welch’s Hotel, the telegraph office, saw something called the Chop House & Sample Room. It also suggested lodging, which made him wonder what kind of samples there were. There was an intersection after Blooms, which seemed to have everything, and then his eyes found the saloon. He paused for a moment, but only a moment. First he needed to see to his horse. They had ridden long and hard today to put some more miles between them and Lancer.
He didn’t have to go much further before he came to the livery. He rode the palomino right into the big barn before he dismounted, water running off the both of them.
“Here, here, what’s this?”
An old man, a hunch in his back, with a shock of wild white hair came running out of a little room.
“I need a stall for my horse.”
“With manners like yor’n you sure you don’t want one too?” The old man grumped, but took the reins.
Johnny ignored his comment. He’d done a lot of that lately.
“How long ya gonna stay?”
“Oh, I don’t know, maybe a day, maybe a week. Just depends on how long this rain keeps up.”
“Well, that’ll be five dollars for the week.”
Johnny stared at him.
The old man stared back. “In advance.”
Johnny licked his lips, took a deep breath, and exhaled, before reaching under his coat into his waistband for the tiny leather pouch with his coinage in it.
He produced the required amount and then some. “I’ll unsaddle him. He don’t cotton to strangers much.”
He took the reins back from the man who was busy counting the money. “Where to?”
“Oh whichever one suits his highnesses fancy.”
He noticed that every other stall had a window, so he took one that did. Not that Barranca would care much for the rainy view, but he’d be much quieter if he could see outside.
By the time he had the horse stripped, the old man had come back with a bucket of water and some oats. “I’ll give him some hay when you get outta the stall.”
Johnny took the hint and gave his horse a strong pat on the rump. He and the old man exchanged places. As they did, Johnny turned back, “Hey, what’s with the dead man out by the train depot?”
“Him? Well, was said he was cheatin’ at cards. He went upstairs with one of the girls, when he come out, he left. Somebody shot him in the back. Sheriff checked the posters and found out he was some gunfighter. Sheriff likes to display the likes of him. Thinks it’ll ward off the bad elements.”
Johnny snorted. So the sheriff did it, even though he didn’t kill Tom, and didn’t know who didt. Yep, sounded just about like enough half assed kind of town he was looking for.
The saloon rented rooms too. Johnny took one, stowed his wet coat, his saddle bags, and his rifle (under the mattress), and headed out front. That is, after double checking the lock on the door and jamming the window.
Downstairs, he found a table near the back He ordered a bottle of whiskey and something to eat. A large bosomed woman came out with a bowl of beef stew and some bread. Moments later, she came over with a lager of beer. “It’ll go down better with your dinner.”
He gave her a nod and she disappeared.
Settling back in his chair, he took in the room while he ate. The stew was hot and soothing, the beer, ice cold. Probably kept the kegs out in the mountain stream he’d noticed that ran behind the town.
The place was starting to fill up. The rain was driving men inside; that and the impending darkness.
Nothing and no one seemed to alarm him. He was far enough north and far enough from his old life time wise, that he figured he was okay. Just another bustling town on a rainy day, but he still accounted for everyone walking through the door.
Leaning back for a stretch, he pushed his empty bowl away, and pulled the bottle and glass to him when he returned to sitting. Before he could pour his own drink, the woman grabbed the bottle almost from his hand and poured his drink. With her other hand, she dropped a handful of coins on the table. The girls’ll be down soon. You up for some cards first?
He studied her for a moment. The service surprised him. “Yeah, yeah, I’m up for some poker.”
“Good. I needed one more for a good game. I got some boys wantin’ to start a game. Want me to send ‘em over.”
He wondered if she was setting him up or just recognized his kind, and the fact that he wouldn’t want to move from his dark corner.
He watched her as she floated across the room to various tables talking to different men. He held his glass in his left hand and his right hand played with the coins. He picked one up and twirled it through his fingers, half smiling, half frowning at the familiar trick. He sighed, and flipped it into his palm and read it while he took a sip of his drink. He laughed inside when he read it, “Fat Ann’s Saloon – Good for one screw.”
He put it down and sorted through the rest. They all had to do with free screws. He had enough to last him a week. That sounded like a good idea; especially if the rain set in.
He poured another whiskey.
The stage pulled in to the depot in mud a foot deep. It had been raining for three days. First Murdoch, then Scott exited the stage. Scott noticed the stiffness in his father’s movements, but said nothing. Murdoch would never admit to feeling bad, but his son had been home with him long enough to recognize the signs of strain on his father. He could ring Johnny’s neck for pulling such a stunt. The boy needed to settle down.
Scott caught his father’s bag, handing it to him before catching his own before it fell into the mud. Stage drivers, they weren’t too particular. He looked at his father with raised eye brows to ask, “Where to now?”
“Let’s get a room. I need to stretch out a bit.”
“Well, there’s a hotel over there. I wouldn’t mind a little nap myself.”
Scott eased alongside his lumbering father. The corners of his mouth turned up ever so slightly at the thought of how well their strides matched. It was something they had in common. He wondered if Johnny had such thoughts, comparing himself to their father and looking for signs that they were indeed his blood kin. Well, maybe he would ask him after they hauled the boy back to Lancer.
A frown and a dark feeling came over him at the thought. If they could haul him back. Johnny was stubborn, now THAT was a trait Johnny and Murdoch shared. It would be funny if it weren’t so tragic. Neither of them ever figured Johnny for a quitter or one to walk away from a fight. It just wasn’t in him.
But the way he lit out of Lancer had really taken the air out of the entire ranch, especially Murdoch.
Everything had been going well. Johnny and Murdoch were getting along, their battles somewhat behind them. This came out of the blue. Johnny had returned from a trip where he had bought some very nice breeding stock. Murdoch was very happy and proud. Two weeks later, they awoke to find him gone.
“To find him gone.” The words triggered a memory of their first day at Lancer. Murdoch had spoken them in reference to Johnny and his mother’s disappearance. He was reliving that same scenario, awaking to finding his son gone once again.
Well, at least there was a note. If one could call it that.
Inside the hotel, they booked a room and went upstairs. A bellman had carried their bags and went about building a fire in the fire place. “I can send someone up if you’d like dinner in your room.”
Scott was grateful for the suggestion.
Murdoch went immediately to the bed by the window, looked out it for a moment and then turned and pulled off his muddy boots.
“I can get those boots cleaned, shined and back by the time you finish your dinner.” The bellman offered. Scott looked at his father who nodded and Scott retrieved the boots and sat down to remove his own.
Scott tipped the bellman who once more told them he’d send someone up.
The woman came up shortly after the bellman’s departure. She showed Scott a menu. He called out the choices to Murdoch who remained on the bed and called back his decision.
Scott unpacked his things and then began to undress a bit, removing his tie, and jacket. He moved over by Murdoch’s bed and stared out the window. The rain had started up again.
“No sir. But then the telegraph Val got was that he’s been holed up in the saloon down the street for three days. With the weather what it is, I don’t see him changing his plan.”
“Well, I’d like to eat something, maybe take a nap and go over tonight. I’d like to see for myself what he thinks he’s running too.”
Scott rolled his eyes. He didn’t think Johnny was running to something as much as he was running away from something. He just hoped it wasn’t Murdoch.
Breaking glass and boisterous laughter jarred them into consciousness. The room was dark. Groggy, Scott got up and went to the window. Down below, the street was full of cowboys, mounted and on foot. The rain was still coming down, but they didn’t seem to care. They were drinking in the street and watching a brawl. One man had thrown the other through the window of the post office across the street.
When the man tried to climb out, the other one jerked him out and back down onto the boardwalk, where they went at it again.
Scott felt his father leaning against him peering out from his bed. “Where the hell did all those people come from?”
“Well, sir, it’s Saturday night.”
“Want me to light a lamp?”
“No, I got it.” Murdoch rolled over and sat up. “It’s right here next to the bed. Be careful, they could start shooting.” Murdoch struck a match, illuminating the creases in his face as he lit the wick.
Scott turned at the sound, noting that his father looked even older in the light. He went back to his bed and sat down with a sigh. “So, you still want to go down there tonight?”
“Yes.” Murdoch had his feet on the floor now and rubbing his face and eyes, “What time is it?”
Scotch reached over to his jacket which he’d hung on the bedpost. He reached inside the vest pocket and produced a watch. His long fingers flipped it open with ease.
“It’s around 10:30.”
Murdoch let out a loud breath. “Well, let’s get going.”
From the window, they heard the sheriff and some deputies arrive, firing shots to get the attention of everyone. Authoritative voices took over, a momentary silence, and then the laugher filled the air again.
Scott pulled on his boots and changed his shirt while Murdoch seemed to drag himself to the bureau where he poured some water in the basin there, and splashed it on his face.
What the hell are you doing brother? Scott wondered as he changed. Johnny was his own man, and a dangerous one at that. He seemed to have grown fond of his family, but he wondered if that would be the case when he was confronted by Murdoch. Murdoch and Johnny couldn’t see that they shared the same temperament. He wasn’t sure what Murdoch would do when he saw Johnny. He prayed he wouldn’t make a scene. As for Johnny, well, he knew no limits and Scott’s best guess was it would all depend upon how Murdoch approached him.
The only good that he could see in the entire situation was that their father clearly cared for them. Murdoch hadn’t been the same since Johnny had vanished and the fact that he was willing to chase after him affirmed that.
Murdoch toweled off his face and Scott took his turn at the basin while Murdoch got his attire straightened out and pulled on his boots. Scott could hear his father straining to do so. Damn you Johnny.
They pulled on their long rain slickers and hats. Murdoch left Scott to lock up the room.
Following his father down the stairs Scott ran some scenarios through his mind, none of them ending well.
The saloon was standing room only, and little of that. Before they entered, they pulled their hats down low. They wouldn’t stand out at all, or even be noticed, as most everyone work raincoats.
Johnny, on the other hand, wasn’t so hard to pick out. He sat in his usual spot in any place, the back corner. Knowing he’d want a clear view of the door, although, tonight, that was nearly impossible, they moved down the wall, jostling their way through the crowd to the end of the bar. From there, they had a view of Johnny in his corner on the opposite wall next to the bar. He was turned slightly away from them, but they knew his peripheral vision had his end of the bar covered.
Johnny was playing poker. There was no expression on his face from what they could see. He wore a new hat, pulled low, its blackness contrasting with his stark white shirt. Two saloon girls stood near him and took turns getting drinks for the table.
The other players seemed serious too. While Johnny had a big stack of chips, it wasn’t outrageously bigger than the others. Scott smirked. He knew Johnny was baiting them along. He’d played enough poker with his brother to know that Johnny had an uncanny ability with cards. Johnny played a tight game, always making money, never losing much. Seldom did Johnny really go for the kill and take everyone’s money. Scott had seen him fold some very good hands in the interest of keeping the peace. But, when he got ready to leave, he’d rake in a small fortune and leave the other players broke.
“Gentlemen?” The bartender was in front of them.
“Whiskey.” Murdoch grumbled.
Two glasses appeared from below the bar, and the bottle was retrieved from the counter behind the bartender, who poured the first round.
They stood at the bar enduring the bumping, shoving, and loud boisterous cowboys and saloon girls. The smell of whiskey, stale beer, and smoke overwhelmed them. If that wasn’t enough, the piano played loud and fast, adding to the chaos.
The same older woman who had approached Johnny his first night, made her way to the bar. She put a hand on each of their backs. “You cowboys look like you could use some cheering up. ‘Specially you.” She leaned in between them and stuck her face up to Murdoch’s. Murdoch’s face colored and he glared at her and turned his head. Scott had to bite his lip to keep from smiling.
She held her ground until Murdoch looked back, eyes, as cold as Johnny’s, Scott thought, as his father said, “Not interested”
“Suit yourself cowboy.” She removed her arm from Scott and dropped a handful of gold coins on the counter.
“’Case you change your mind.”
She walked away, letting her hand go from where she squeezed Murdoch’s shoulder and dragged it across his back, drifting dangerously close to where the long coat touched his buttocks. Murdoch looked the other way. Scott ducked his head to keep from laughing, and peered down at the coins, “All Night Check $3, Good For One Dollar In Trade Girls-Whiskey-Tobacco.” He wondered how many little brother had used.
Shouts came from Johnny’s table and a lot of good natured laughter and griping. Scott and Murdoch turned to see Johnny down a shot of whiskey and one of the girls plopped down in his lap and he pulled her tight against him and laid a long deep kiss on her, leaning her back almost prone.
Scott looked at his father. From the look on his face, there was no doubt in Scott’s mind that Johnny inherited his deadly stare from his father. He said a silent prayer for his family.
They remained there for about an hour. Scott watched both his father and Johnny. Murdoch had knocked back more scotch than Scott felt comfortable with. He was dog tired, but all his senses were on high alert.
They watched as Johnny drank, smoked, and played poker. The saloon girls never seemed to miss an opportunity to put their hands on him and he responded in kind when he wasn’t playing. The girls seemed to know the difference and kept their distance when the actual game was in progress.
Somewhere in the middle of the room, a fight broke out. The overcrowded saloon became a swirling mass of bodies, chairs, breaking glass, and overturning tables. Scott turned to try and protect his father from a flying bottle and found himself jerked away.
Murdoch had a death grip on his bicep, and dragged him as the big man plowed through the chaos, ducking and shoving his way to the wall, and to the door and out. The brawling had poured into the street as well. They made their way a block down before they stopped and caught their breath.
“I wouldn’t want to be the sheriff in this town.” Scott panted.
Murdoch shook his head. “This is insane. I’m going to bed.” He turned and headed toward the hotel.
Scott was relieved, but was worried all the same. What did Murdoch have planned? Had he changed his mind? Would he go back tomorrow without having talked to Johnny?
It was easy to catch up with his father, whose consumption of Scotch had slowed his pace considerably. Just my luck, Johnny gets the girls. I get a hung over Murdoch in a bad mood.
Scott followed his father as he trudged up the stairs and into their room. Murdoch didn’t even bother to light the lamp. He hung up his raincoat and hat, removed his gun belt and hung it next to them. Scott did the same.
Murdoch sat up. It was still dark, but not far from dawn. He had tossed and turned all night. He didn’t think his indigestion had as much to do with the scotch as with Johnny. He just couldn’t get the sight of the boy, no man, that’s what he was, a man. A man who played poker like a card sharp, shamelessly flirting and handling saloon whores, drinking, laughing and seriously dangerous. A man who seemed not to have a care in the world and cared for nothing beyond the moment he was living. Was that the real Johnny that he had seen last night? What happened to the Johnny who had struggled so hard to change and become a rancher? He had seemed sincere in his words and actions after the incident with Warburton and after the death of his friend Isham. It seemed he had hit bottom back then, had seen and wanted what his family had to offer him. He had worked hard since then and had made some very real changes until this. What was this? The note gave no real clue. He had seen the happiness in Johnny’s eyes as he told him how proud he was and what a great job he’d done on the cattle buying trip.
Well, one thing was for certain, he was going to get to the bottom of it for once and for all.
Good or bad, he was going to find out. He wanted nothing more than to drag his blue eyed son back by his boot heels, but today, he was either going to make arrangements to go back with his sons or he was going to cut Johnny loose once and for all. His stomach reacted to the thought. He closed his eyes and swallowed hard. He couldn’t continue to be torn up by his emotions anymore. He couldn’t hold Maria; maybe he couldn’t hold Johnny either. Maybe Johnny couldn’t help himself. Maybe he was born unsettled like her.
He flinched as Scott let out a moan and rolled over on his bed. Watching to confirm that his eldest was indeed fully enveloped in sleep, he threw back the covers and swung his legs over the side of the bed. He rubbed his eyes. The sky was dark with the earliness of the hour, as well as the rain that was sure to come again.
He pulled on his socks which were on the foot of the bed. He grabbed his pants and stepped into them. He moved as quietly as possible over to the basin and poured some water into it. Splashing it on his face, the coldness of the water accentuated his fear that it was the last day he would see his son.
He found his shirt in the dark and slid into it before sitting and pulling on his boots. He put on his jacket, checked his inside breast pocket for his billfold and then eased toward the door to retrieve his gun belt and bucked it on. He grabbed his hat and eased outside into the dim hallway. He pulled the door closed. With a deep breath, he cracked his neck, tugged on his coat collar and moved toward the stairs.
There wasn’t a soul on the street. The torch lights outside the hotel were still burning and he checked his watch by them. 4:30AM. Johnny should be in his room by now. Another nervous breath and he made his way down the boardwalk to the saloon.
There were a few drunks sleeping on the tables, and a couple of men still playing poker to one side. The bartender and a helper were picking up chairs, glasses, bottles and all kinds of debris from the floor.
When he pushed through the batwings, he blinked in the light.
The bartender turned to look at him with raised eyebrows and moved toward the bar and waited for Murdoch to approach. “What’ll it be?”
“I need some information.”
The bartender stared.
“The young man playing poker over in the corner last night. I need to know what room he’s in.”
“Lotta young men playin’ in here last night.”
“The dark Mexican one with the blue eyes, sitting right over there.” Murdoch pointed to the corner.
The bartender gave Murdoch a long look over.
“And what business of yours would that be?”
Murdoch stared at the bartender. He was prepared.
Reaching inside his breast pocket, he pulled out the billfold and removed a twenty, and laid it on the bar.
“Do you know who that man is?”
“Yes.” Murdoch laid out another twenty.
“He’s a good customer. You, I don’t know.”
“I’m a better one.” Murdoch laid down three more twenties.
The bartender snorted, snatched the money off the bar. “Room ten. Up the stairs, on the right.”
Murdoch turned and headed for the staircase. Stomach acid churned and made its way to his throat. He wasn’t sure he’d be able to make it down the stairs if Johnny didn’t agree to come home. Yes, he was prepared to cut the boy loose, but it would be a slow healing wound.
He made it to the top, caught his breath and then turned to the right. He found room ten with no problem. Standing in front of the solid oak door, he went numb.
He raised his hand. The knock resounded in the silence of the hallway.
Johnny jerked awake at the sound.
What the hell?
The pounding started again.
The girls on either side of him whined as he pulled his arms from under them.
He flung the covers back, shoved the blonde out of the way, got out of bed and pulled his Colt from its holster hanging on the post. He crept across the room and to the wall behind the door.
Outside, Murdoch heard the hammer click back.
“What?” Johnny challenged from inside.
“It’s me John. Murdoch.”
Stunned, Johnny called out in the darkness again.
Yep, it was the ol’ man alright. Damn!
Rubbing his face with his hand, he stepped to the other side of the door and pulled it open an inch or so with his left hand, Colt still raised in his right. It always paid to err on the side of caution.
Murdoch was alone. He looked ten years older than a few weeks before.
Consumed with concern, Johnny whispered.
He dropped his gun hand and pushed the door open, “Come in. No. Sorry. Wait a minute.” He blocked the entry with his hand still on the door. He looked back at bed. “Okay girls, get outta here.”
Moans and groans came from the two girls still in bed. “You heard me, go on.”
As soon as they had pulled on some clothing, Johnny opened the door. “Come on in.” He ushered his father in, switching his gun to his left hand. His right hand on Murdoch’s elbow, He escorted him to the chair where he stopped to whisk his shirt away before ushering him further.
Barely covered, the two girls grabbed the rest of their clothes. Johnny was completely naked. He turned toward them and motioned with his gun, “Go on.”
Two huffs, pouty faces, and some sleepy steps and they were gone. As they left, Johnny slid his gun back in its holster and grabbed his pants from the floor. He pulled them on quickly, buttoned the fly just enough to be tucked in, and sat down at the foot of the bed, in front of Murdoch.
“What’s wrong Ol’ Man? You look terrible.”
Murdoch had not been prepared for the care and concern in Johnny’s eyes and voice, and even less prepared for the situation he’d found his son in. The shock had him stymied for the moment. The room smelled of stale perfume, whiskey, and sex. The bed covers were twisted and partially on the floor.
“You wanna shot of whiskey?”
“No. I want you to come home John.” Murdoch’s words spilled out. “But if you can’t, if this is the life you want, sleeping with whores and playing poker all night, then . . . then . . . you need, I mean we, we are finished.”
Johnny sighed and turned his head, staring into the dark, he bit his lip.
“I don’t understand you Johnny. You have a nice home, plenty of money, a stake in something that will last beyond your lifetime. A legacy for your children and yet, you keep running back to this life?”
“It’s . . .” Murdoch’s voice bounced off the walls. He had promised himself he would not lose his temper, no matter what.
He stopped himself before he told his son how disgusted he was with finding him with the two women. God, he has the morals of an alley cat. Does he do this at home? What do people think? Comments people had made to him about Johnny surfaced in his mind. He pushed them back and forged ahead.
“I thought we had moved past our differences, agreed to talk out issues, to respect one another. I believed you when you said that Lancer was what you wanted. But now, here you’ve run off again. I can’t do this again son. I want to understand you. I want to help you, but no more. Here and now, you either explain to me what the issue is, and go home with me to stay, or don’t ever come back.”
Johnny turned and glanced at his father before turning his head to face the other direction.
Murdoch waited for his answer.
Johnny closed his eyes, swallowed, inhaled deeply and let it out. He turned to face his father, head cocked to one side. Murdoch could see the hurt in his son’s eyes, but forced back the sense of hope that was trying to reach his heart.
“Not ever come back, huh?”
“Even if I was tryin’ to spare your feelings, keep the ranch afloat?”
“What the hell are you talking about? John, you have caused me to lose more time at the ranch and more grief with your antics, than I have time for. If you’ve something to say, spit it out! I’m not playing games with you anymore!” Murdoch’s bellow signaled the end of his patience.
Johnny looked down at his lap.
He ran his hand through his long bangs and looked up at his father.
“Okay. Truth is, I’ve done a lot of thinking the last two days. I shouldn’t I have left. I didn’t wanna leave. I don’t want to leave. But . . . well . . . I let myself get into a pucker about something that I should’ve told you and Scott about. At the time, it just seemed like the best thing. You know it don’t take much to set me off sometimes.”
“So what is it, John? We agreed . . .”
Johnny raised his hand and looked down. “I know, I know what we agreed on, but this was personal.”
“Is it a girl? Have you . . .?”
“No, no, no. Nothin’ like that. It’s the Cattle Grower’s Association.”
“The Association? Johnny, what the hell?”
“When I went on that buying trip, well, the last day, I was having breakfast in the hotel. I was sitting, you know, in the back, and there was a meeting of some of the local ranchers, who were clearly members of the association. They were talking about the Lancer trade and about how they would no longer do business with Lancer as a group if I represented the ranch. They mentioned some other names of people they said had stopped dealing with Lancer because of me. They were even tossing around ideas about petitioning to have you put out of the association.”
Johnny lifted his fingers to stop his father. “There’s more. It wasn’t just that. I came back through Green River. Seems they must have sent some kind of telegraph to some of the members up there. I heard some of the hands talking in the saloon. Last week Val told me he locked up Matt Pierson for drunk and disorderly. Said he was talking loud how he and the association were gonna ban the ‘high and mighty Murdoch Lancer from the association and when they were through, no one would buy Lancer beef because they would be supporting a gunfighter. That you were using me to scare people into selling cattle and land and that it wouldn’t be long before you started hiring more gun hawks to take over some of the smaller ranches.”
Murdoch shook his head, “Johnny, Johnny.” But he was interrupted.
“You know me Murdoch,” Johnny stood up and paced across the room, “I act first, then think. It just ate at me.” Johnny paced back and stopped by the bedside table where he picked up a half full bottle of whiskey. He turned toward his father, “Sure you don’t want a drink?”
“No you’re not sure or no, you don’t want one?”
Johnny shrugged and took a long tug on the bottle. He moved back to his original seat on the bed, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
“Anyway, I ain’t done nothin’ but think about it since I left. Look, I appreciate all that you’ve done for me, but I don’t want you to lose the ranch over me. I’m not worth it.”
“That’s it? That’s all that sent you running back to this, this . . .” den of iniquity was on the tip of his tongue, but he stopped himself.
“No, not back. Just, away. I needed to clear my head. I shouldn’t have left, I should have told you and Scott, but . . . I didn’t want to hurt your feelings by telling ya what people are saying in town about me. You may not believe me, but I was planning on heading back tomorrow, to talk to you, to explain why I needed to leave. Besides, I pulled in $5000.00 at the poker table last night, with a dead man’s hand. Gotta leave here one way or the other tomorrow.” He half laughed.
Murdoch was both relieved and angry, not to mention impressed with Johnny’s winnings. He wouldn’t have earned that in the time he had missed at the ranch.
“Johnny, it may come as a surprise to you, but I already knew those things. In fact, this is nothing new at all. I don’t want to upset you, but these things have been said ever since you came home and people found out who you were. You wouldn’t believe how many threats have been made, how much business has been lost because you came home.”
Johnny was stunned. “Murdoch.”
“Son, I’ve been in this business a long, long time. I founded the Association. I’ve been a target for a long time. These men you are talking about. They are all newer to the industry. I’m not saying they can’t raise a ruckus, but it’s nothing we won’t weather.”
“But you’ve worked so hard, I don’t wanna be responsible for you losing business.”
“Son, you are not responsible. Well, we have lost a few buyers, but because of you, we have improved our stock and you have brought us some new customers. But it doesn’t matter. You are my son. I want you and Scott involved in what’s left of every day of my life, ranch or no ranch. Family is more important than the ranch. Together, is the only way I want Lancer to run. You, me, and Scott. This thing will work itself out, believe me. I’ve weathered worse.”
Johnny watched his father and saw the sincerity in his eyes.
“Son, I want you to promise me you will not do this anymore. You will come and talk to me, about anything, and I mean anything. I know more about you than you think I know. No matter how you think something will affect me, you come and talk to me. We will face any threats against any one or all of us as a family. You understand me?”
Johnny looked down at his lap. “Yes sir.” He drawled and looked up at his father, “So we’re square?”
“Yes, we’re square. But you have a lot of work to make up.”
Johnny shrugged and ran his hands over his face and through his hair as he arched his back for a stretch.
“Are you hungry, Murdoch? ‘Cause I’m starvin’.”
Murdoch couldn’t help but smile back at his son’s lopsided grin. Damn he loved that boy, but what a rogue.
“Yeah Johnny, I’m hungry. Get dressed and let’s go over to the hotel and get a good breakfast. Maybe your brother will be up by now.”
Johnny jumped up and pulled on his shirt.
“Don’t forget your winnings. Breakfast is on you, young man!”
Scott awoke with a start. Something was wrong. He looked over toward his father’s bed. Where was Murdoch? Very dim light was beginning to peep through the window next to the empty bed.
“Damn! Surely he didn’t go looking for Johnny already. God only knew what he’d find or how he’d react.”
He leapt out of bed and pulled on his clothes as fast as he could. He put on his gun belt and ran his hands through his hair before he slapped his hat on top of his head. He headed down the stairs, his long legs taking them two at a time. As he left the doorway he saw his father headed his way on the boardwalk, his long arm wrapped around the wayward one.