In response to the February 2013 Lancer Writers Memory Challenge
Memory: the ability of a material, etc, to return to a former state after a constraint has been removed
The rainy season had been long and damp, but spring arrived with a soft warm breeze on a Sunday in March. Johnny took his morning coffee outside and sauntered over to the corral. He leaned into the top rail to watch a handful of horses nose contentedly through fresh hay. His heart was peaceful, and he savored the increasingly familiar feeling.
"Johnny!" The call floated from the direction of the house. He turned to see his father striding toward him. Johnny raised his coffee cup in salute, and Murdoch waved back.
"Johnny, you better hurry. We're leaving in a few minutes," said Murdoch with a smile as he joined his son at the fence.
Johnny returned the smile with a duck of his head. "I think I'm gonna stay home today," he said. Looking up, he motioned with his free hand as if to encompass the world. "Just too fine a morning to waste it inside, you know?"
Murdoch's smile froze in place for an instant. "It is indeed a fine morning, but I don't think going to church is a waste of it."
Johnny nodded. "I know, I know, but I don't think I could stand sittin' in that little building listening to the reverend talk about hellfire and perdition when I could be out here..." His voice trailed off when he saw the firm set of his father's jaw.
"It's not about what you want, John. We go to church to thank the Lord for everything he's given us."
Johnny dropped his head and spoke softly. "Maybe my way to thank the Lord is to enjoy his creation."
Murdoch looked hard at him through narrowed eyes. "I can't force you to go. We'll talk about this later." He turned abruptly and stalked back to the house, taking Johnny's sense of peace with him.
Church attendance was down compared to the past few months-apparently Johnny wasn't the only one who preferred to spend the day enjoying the Lord's creation. Murdoch tried to pay attention to the service, but his thoughts kept going back to the disagreement by the corral. His son was a good man; he knew that. But Johnny had grown up without the benefit of a father's wisdom. No one had been there to set a good example for him. No one had taught him the importance of community. And Lord knows what his religious upbringing had been. Murdoch owed it to his son to do his best to make up for all that. He hoped it wasn't too late.
After the final hymn most of the congregation lingered for coffee and cookies outdoors in the warm sunshine. Murdoch saw Sam Jenkins approach Scott; he heard the doctor note Johnny's absence and hope it wasn't due to illness . Murdoch hurried over to join them, raising his voice to answer Sam's question.
"No, Sam," Murdoch replied as he clapped his hand on Scott's shoulder. "Johnny isn't ill. My younger son decided he would rather play outside than come to church today."
Sam shook his head. "Can't say as I blame him," he said. Scott smiled.
Murdoch frowned. "Now that Green River has a church and a minister, don't you agree regular attendance at Sunday services is important?"
Sam squinted at his friend. "I only meant it's a glorious day to be outside. If I was as young as Johnny and had a horse as fine as that palomino of his, I might be tempted to play hooky myself!"
Murdoch sighed. "I just wish he understood the concept of obligation to..." Murdoch was interrupted by the voice of an elderly woman calling his name.
"Mr. Lancer?" Looking past Sam, he saw Audrey Waters making her way to him. The retired school teacher approached with a steadiness that belied her near-blindness.
"Miss Waters, a good day to you," Murdoch greeted her. Sam motioned to Scott; they nodded farewell and moved away, smiling conspiratorially and leaving Murdoch to the company of the outspoken school marm.
"Good day to you, sir," she replied, taking his arm. "Would you be so kind as to walk me home, Mr. Lancer? It's a beautiful day, and I would love to spend some of it enjoying fresh air in the company of a gentleman who is a pillar of our community."
Murdoch noticed her unusual choice of words, then dismissed it. He liked Miss Waters. She would have been his sons' teacher if...he stopped that thinking as he always did. The past was past.
"I would be glad to," he said, forcing his mind back to the present.
The day's gentle breeze had dried the last puddle of the rainy season; the dust of summer hadn't risen yet. The old lady walked with firm, slow steps as she clutched Murdoch's arm.
"I missed your son Johnny today," she said.
Murdoch answered tightly, "He chose to stay at home, Miss Waters."
She nodded. "You don't sound happy about that. You shouldn't worry, you know. He's a good boy."
"Yes, he is a good boy, but I fear his upbringing was not..." Murdoch stopped. This was not a conversation he wanted to have with a relative outsider .
Miss Waters pressed ahead. "His upbringing was not what it would have been had you raised him. Is that right, Mr. Lancer?"
Murdoch nodded before he remembered his companion could barely see. "Yes, ma'am," he said. "Johnny sometimes kicks at the traces a bit. Many of the social conventions we take for granted seem...unfamiliar to him."
"And yet he is one of the kindest people I know," the old teacher said thoughtfully. "Do you know, Mr. Lancer, that your son Johnny visits me every now and again?"
"He does?" He hadn't expected to hear that.
She nodded. "Johnny stops by to see me occasionally, usually late of a Saturday afternoon. He helps me around the house or in the yard-and let me tell you, Murdoch Lancer, that boy of yours is a worker! And then he sits right on my front steps and we talk a bit."
She paused for a moment. "I have had many students over the years, and very few of them make time to visit their old teacher. But Johnny, who tells me he has little formal education, seems to genuinely enjoy his time with me. Your boy makes me laugh! He has a way of using few words, but oh so well-chosen..." Miss Waters smiled.
Murdoch was surprised. He had seen Johnny rush to get done with Saturday chores so he could clean up and head to town, but Murdoch had assumed his younger son wanted to get a head start on the drinking and carousing so dear to the hearts of young men. Johnny had never said anything to make his father think otherwise.
Miss Waters still had a smile in her voice when she asked, "You had no idea, did you?"
"None at all, Miss Waters," Murdoch admitted sheepishly.
"And you wonder what else you don't know about your son, don't you?" She was still smiling, but Murdoch detected a serious intent behind her words.
"I know next to nothing about Johnny," Murdoch said heavily. "Except that he was alone for far too long."
Audrey nodded, but a hint of scolding entered her voice. "And you think he needs you to ride him hard to make up for that. You think you need to hold him firmly to those social conventions you mentioned because no one else ever did."
Murdoch was irritated by the impertinence of this woman. Only respect for his elders and his innate politeness caused him to bite off a sharp reply.
Besides, she was right.
The older woman continued. "Mr. Lancer, I imagine you are one of the forward thinking cattlemen who is using barbed wire fencing to manage your herds. Am I correct?"
Murdoch was confused by the abrupt change of subject; he found himself temporarily speechless.
"I take it from your silence that I have surprised you ," Audrey said with a chuckle.
She seemed to be having a very good time at his expense, Murdoch thought. "Yes. Yes on both counts-I am surprised we are suddenly discussing barbed wire, but I have begun to use it."
"You appear to be an educated man, Mr. Lancer, and you no doubt understand what a metaphor is."
Murdoch caught a glimmer of the old woman's tactics. "Yes, Miss Waters, I know what a metaphor is. Are you comparing my son Johnny to barbed wire?" He almost smiled. "He can be as prickly..."
"No doubt! And yes, I am. Think about this, Mr. Lancer. Barbed wire comes in a tight roll, and it desires to return to its original shape unless held firmly in place."
"Yes, that's one of the reasons the wire is so difficult to work with." Murdoch began. He stopped in mid-explanation as the light dawned. "I see. You're saying that my son is like a roll of barbed wire, and unless he is held firmly in place, he will return to his previous...way of life."
"No, Mr. Lancer, that is what YOU are saying." The old woman stopped walking and looked upward to peer closely at Murdoch's face. He was uneasy under her scrutiny. "I am saying that you've got it wrong. I am telling you that you've got it exactly backwards."
Murdoch considered this for several moments, then shook his head curtly and said, "I don't understand."
As she resumed her deliberate stroll Audrey Waters snorted in irritation; Murdoch suddenly knew how her students must have felt when they failed to grasp one of her lessons. "You will, Mr. Lancer. Think about it."
They soon arrived at the teacher's front porch. Murdoch helped her up the steps and opened her door. Miss Waters turned back to him; when she spoke, her tone was softer than before. "Murdoch, I don't know what religious training Johnny received, and he may not know much about your social conventions, but his heart is good. You should be very proud of that son of yours."
As she stepped inside Murdoch said, "I'm not sure I completely understand what you're getting at, Miss Waters, but I appreciate what you've told me about my son."
Audrey studied his face closely. "Murdoch, as dim as my eyes are I can see you love that boy. That's what he needs from you." She patted his arm. "Now you go back to him and the rest of your beautiful family. Thank you for seeing me home."
She disappeared into her house, leaving Murdoch alone on the porch to wonder at all that the nearly sightless teacher had seen in Johnny.
Late that afternoon the younger members of the family congregated on the patio, enjoying the last of the day's gentle sunshine. Scott brought the chessboard out for the brothers' traditional Sunday evening game; Teresa paged through a magazine while she shared the latest gossip from her friends in town; and Johnny tried hard to ignore his growing sense of unease.
He had gotten over the initial dismay of disappointing his father in time to appreciate the rest of his day. He and Barranca had wandered forgotten back trails, tracked wildlife, and enjoyed a nap in a secluded grove of sweet smelling Jeffrey pines. Murdoch's words about talking later, though, did not bode well for a peaceful evening.
When Murdoch finally joined them he carried a tray with a bottle of wine and four goblets. His children watched curiously as he carefully uncorked the wine and poured some into each glass. Motioning for them each to take one, he cleared his throat.
"Johnny, I would like the entire family to hear what I have to say to you," he said. Johnny wondered what he was in for. He shot a nervous glance at Scott, who smiled back tightly and shook his head a fraction.
Murdoch looked directly at Johnny. "Son, I was not pleased this morning when you declined to attend church with the rest of the family."
Johnny dropped his eyes and stared at the flagstones of the patio as his stern-faced father lectured him.
"I was concerned you may not realize how important attending church is to a community like ours. This community extends beyond the borders of the ranch, you know. It includes the people in the towns nearby where we make friends, where we do business. A simple thing like a church service helps bring us all together. And it's important for us all to work together for the good of everyone."
Murdoch stopped for a moment. Johnny inhaled sharply and lifted his eyes to his father's, determined to take whatever the old man was about to dish out. He was shocked when Murdoch smiled at him before continuing. "But then I found out my apparently wayward son could teach his father a thing or two about community and about Christian charity."
Johnny tilted his head, greatly confused. He heard Scott give a quiet sigh of relief beside him.
"Johnny, I learned today that you are a good friend to those in our community who need it, and that you help them in the most Christian way possible-you keep your good deeds to yourself. You aid the less fortunate and you do it in such a way that their hearts are gladdened by your help."
Johnny gaped at Murdoch's words. "Son, I owe you an apology. I'm sorry I didn't trust you to be the good man I know you are. I've told you before, but it's important that I say it again: I'm proud of you." Murdoch turned to the rest of his family. "I'm proud of all of you. Cheers." He raised his glass to all of them.
Johnny found himself flatfooted. A response seemed called for, but he had no idea what to say. He looked at the wine in the glass while he digested his father's words. "I wish I knew what you're talking about," he finally said, shaking his head. Then a grin broke over his face. "Whatever I did to make you proud, I'm glad. And I hope I do it again. Cheers to you, too, Murdoch." He raised his glass to his father.
Still smiling, Murdoch reached out and put his arm around his son. "This doesn't mean you can skip church every week, young man," he said fondly. Johnny laughed out loud. The rest of his family joined in, and the peace he had felt that morning gladdened his heart once again.