With thanks to my beta, Margaret Pollitt, whose input vastly improved this story. Merry Christmas, my friend!
The shadows of the fire-lit great room were Murdoch’s old friends. Comfortably tired, he sank deeper into his leather armchair. Slippers warmed his feet as he savored the final finger of whiskey in his glass. Scott sat at the end of the sofa; his tumbler held brandy instead of whiskey. The Christmas Eve fire was dying down; it was just past one o’clock in the morning. Soon the clock would strike the half hour, and Johnny would come home.
Murdoch inhaled deeply. “I knew you had a good upbringing, Scott. I knew you fought in the war. I felt I knew what to expect. I wasn’t surprised by you.”
Scott raised one eyebrow.
“Well, not entirely.” Murdoch was relieved when his son smiled faintly back at him.
“But Johnny…I had no idea who he was. His reputation was frightening.” Murdoch stared at the small flames licking the charred logs. Did Scott understand what Johnny had been? Murdoch hadn’t told him; how much had Scott heard? Had Johnny said anything?
Maybe this conversation was premature.
No. It was time. “That first day, I wondered if bringing him here was a mistake. His anger…” Johnny had bristled with barely contained anger. And he wasn’t alone—Scott’s anger had seethed beneath the surface.
Scott turned away from Murdoch’s gaze. Stretching his legs closer to the fire, he crossed his ankles. “I think he had certain…ideas….We both did. We had preconceptions—of you—that were unfounded.”
Murdoch rubbed a hand across his face. He was just discovering how true Scott’s words were, but he wasn’t ready to explore the lies or half-truths fed to both his sons. “I suppose your brother’s attitude was not surprising, given his history. But now, I’m surprised by how much more there is to him.”
“Johnny is a good man.” Scott lifted his glass in a salute.
Murdoch took a sip of whiskey before raising his glass. “Both of my sons are good men.”
He wished he’d a hand in making them that way.
Scott dipped his head in acknowledgement, then finished his own drink. “You know, Johnny surprises me, too, sometimes. Just when I think I’ve got him figured out, he weighs in from a different direction completely.”
Murdoch nodded. “At first I was afraid he lacked a moral compass…”
The hiss of a log falling off the grate made both men jump. Scott shifted his weight to lean toward his father. “Far from it, sir. Johnny has a strong sense of right and wrong.”
Murdoch smiled at Scott’s swift defense of his brother. “No, I agree with you. It was my mistake. One of several I made when I didn’t know him very well.”
Mistakes made became lessons learned... “I remember a discussion Johnny and I had about right and wrong, concerning Charles Warburton. You were in Sacramento, I believe, trying to get that injunction. Johnny had already gotten mixed up with Warburton’s gunfighters.”
The moon that night had been nearly as bright as it was tonight. Johnny had leaned against a table, slicing an apple, listening. “I wanted him to understand Warburton’s transgressions from the cattlemen’s point of view. Johnny didn’t argue, didn’t even raise his voice. All he said was that telling a man he couldn’t sell his own property was swinging an awful lot of weight. And then something about Warburton not wearing his hat square on his head… Your brother can pack an entire volume of meaning into just a few words, can’t he?”
Scott agreed with a small smile.
As he stared into the fire, Murdoch’s mood darkened. “I thought he was taking the matter too lightly. I was wrong. He took it very seriously. I realized later how it hurt him to stand against his family.”
Murdoch sighed. “Johnny had to kill a man to save my life—a man who had been his friend. He was devastated, and my heart broke for him, Scott. He told me there was a time when all he’d ever wanted to be was Johnny Madrid, good at his trade.”
Scott averted his eyes but said nothing.
“I told him he always would be Johnny Madrid. I thought he needed my acceptance.”
Johnny had known better. He told his father that when Tallie asked him who was he more, Lancer or Madrid, he didn’t even have to think about it. But Murdoch thought about it, and he didn’t know. He had to ask. Another mistake on his part, one he couldn’t bear to tell Scott.
He let silence grow between them for a moment. “Then he told me I had a prodigal son, if I still wanted one. I was speechless. He was asking if he could come back home. I hadn’t realized how much siding with Warburton cost him. I didn’t know I had made him feel so unwelcome.”
Scott rubbed his forehead. “He was unsure of his place, in the early days. Less so now, I think.”
“I hope so.” Murdoch leaned his head back against his chair, closing his eyes to focus on the memory.
The following morning Johnny had come to the breakfast table quiet, pale. Murdoch had offered condolences on the death of Isham. Then he apologized for not understanding his son well enough to know who he really was. That was when Murdoch truly learned who his son was.
“The next day your brother told me not to worry. He said he’d been good at his old trade, but now he was going to get good at his new trade.” And just like that, he’d let his clumsy father off the hook. “He has a capacity for forgiveness I never expected.”
“I’ve noticed that, too. It’s a quality I never would have associated with someone in his profession.”
Scott rose to throw a last small log on the fire, then leaned into the mantel. Murdoch swirled the whiskey in his glass, watched the whirlpool he created.
“Since you brought up the subject…” Scott turned back to sit on the sofa. “I asked Johnny if he’d always wanted to be a hired gun, if it was a dream come true for him to become Johnny Madrid. He told me his dreams were never that big.”
Murdoch’s soft “Oh” was lost between the ticks of the grandfather clock.
Scott blew out a breath. “He did say it meant he could forget what it was like to be hungry all the time.”
The words hit Murdoch in the gut. Until he’d learned of Maria’s death it had never occurred to him his son might go hungry; since then it had been one of his biggest fears.
Scott must have read his face. “Sorry, Sir. I shouldn’t have repeated that. But what I was getting at was something else he said.” Scott’s expression lightened. “He told me than when he realized he could afford sporting girls any time he wanted, he knew life just couldn’t get any better.”
Scott laughed, and after a heartbeat Murdoch joined him. Thank God for his sons’ humor. Thank God they were both home where he could take care of them.
The warmth of the room made Murdoch’s eyelids heavy. He may have dozed a little. Scott stood and wandered over to the single candle burning in the front window. The moon on this cloudless night would see Johnny home, and the candle would tell him he was always welcome.
“Murdoch, if you’re tired I can wait up for him.”
Murdoch grunted and took a last sip of whiskey. “Thank you, Scott. But I’ve waited many years to see the faces of both my sons on Christmas morning. Even if it’s at two a.m., it’s a moment I will treasure for the rest of my life.”
Murdoch rubbed unexpected tears from his eyes. Then he heard Barranca’s distinctive lope coming up the lane. Johnny was home from Misa de Gallo.
It was Christmas Day.
*Misa de Gallo is the Mass of the Rooster, the Catholic Church’s traditional midnight mass on Christmas Eve.