This is a WHN after The Kid
Murdoch Lancer sat at his desk and read for the third time the cattle contract to ensure it was advantageous for the ranch. He reached for his pipe and took several long puffs in order to get it burning just right and he savored the rich tobacco. The grandfather clock chimed two o’clock and he took one last puff and put the pipe in the ashtray.
As he tried to focus his eyes on the small print of the contract, he felt irritation rise as he thought, ‘Scott should be here. I’ve grown accustomed to him looking over these contracts, then sitting down and discussing them. If Johnny hadn’t taken off like that, Scott would be here now.’ His anger began rising at being left alone by both his sons.
Johnny left over a week ago after that kid who took off on Johnny’s horse, and they hadn’t heard a word from him since. ‘Typical of Johnny,’ he thought. Just takes off during our busiest time of the year and doesn’t even bother to send word. Then Scott had to leave to take a string of horses to Modesto that Johnny was supposed to take, and now he was alone running the ranch and trying to make heads or tails of these contracts.
With mounting frustration, he stood up and walked over to the sideboard and poured himself a small whisky. ‘It’s a bit early, I suppose,’ but he’d been up since dawn, and besides, he’d earned it, he reasoned. As he turned toward the fireplace sipping the rich liquid, he heard a horse ride up, followed by a gruff call.
“Hello, the house.”
Murdoch set his glass on the mantle and walked over to the French doors, opening them wide to see the sheriff of Spanish Wells tying his horse to the hitching rail.
“Gabe, what brings you out here?”
The sheriff straightened his black vest and took off his hat as he walked up to Murdoch who was waiting expectantly. “Got some news for you Murdoch.”
Murdoch felt a tightening in his stomach as he often did when his son’s were off the ranch. “What is it?” He dreaded the answer.
Gabe’s dark mustache twitched as he saw the worry lines in the rancher’s face. “We better go inside, Murdoch.”
Murdoch led the way back in and turned and looked at the Sheriff with apprehension. He crossed his arms and waited for the news.
“A stranger came through town yesterday. He was in the saloon talking about a range war down ‘round McCall’s Crossing.”
Murdoch felt Gabe’s blues eyes staring intently into his as the man tried to read him. Murdoch could feel his features freeze at the name of the town.
“Ah…what else did he have to say?”
“Just that Johnny Madrid had hired on and was cutting a wide swath down there. He’s really making the ranchers squirm.”
Murdoch couldn’t breathe for a moment as he walked back to his glass of whisky, and with his back to the sheriff downed the contents in one gulp. “Drink sheriff?”
“No thanks Murdoch.” Gabe waited for any comment from Murdoch about his statement and when none was forthcoming he asked, “Where’s Johnny?”
Murdoch turned toward him with a full glass in his hand. “McCall’s Crossing. He left here over a week ago.”
“I wonder what trouble he found down there that made him hire out?” Gabe mused. When no answer was forthcoming from Murdoch, he placed his hat on his head and turned to leave. “If I hear anything more, I’ll let you know.”
“Thanks Gabe,” Murdoch said vaguely from his place on the couch where he’d sat when his legs couldn’t hold him anymore.
Murdoch had no idea how long he sat there on the couch lost in his dark thoughts. He’d even blocked out the sound of the grandfather clock chiming the long hours. The afternoon sun was beginning to make a last appearance as it set over the western hills and he could hear Maria in the kitchen preparing his supper.
Teresa was visiting a friend at a neighboring ranch for a few days and Jelly would be finishing up feeding the stock before settling into his own digs. He thought about inviting the older man to supper, but he wasn’t ready to talk about his fears and disappointment just yet.
He’d spent the last several hours trying to figure out why his son, who was working so hard to change his life, and leave behind the life of a gunfighter, would jump back into that world.
Surely Johnny knew that crossing that line, would make it that much harder for him to come back and settle in. He wondered in despair if Johnny would ever be able to be just Johnny Lancer or if the lure of Johnny Madrid was too strong.
He’d suspected that Johnny would take on his persona of Madrid when he left the ranch on business trips, but he’d never questioned him and Johnny had never volunteered the information. Murdoch had assumed that his son needed the protection that his well fought reputation brought when he was a stranger in a strange town.
On the few occasions he traveled with Johnny, he’d seen the way men seemed to want to challenge him and Johnny never backed down. He would take it and spit it right back throwing out a challenge meant to rile the other man into drawing on him, or tucking tail and backing down.
He’d wanted to interfere and pull Johnny away, but he was afraid that in interfering, he might be the cause of his son’s injury or death, so he’d always stepped back and let his son play out his hand. Most men backed down from that cold stare and calm arrogance, thank goodness.
When Johnny had left after that boy, his son had been angry. For the second time that boy had stolen Johnny’s horse and none of the Lancer family had any doubts that was going to be one sorry boy when Johnny caught up to him.
They’d been a little surprised when Johnny didn’t return in a day or so, but they knew Johnny well and figured he was taking the kid home to McCall’s Crossing. Murdoch shook his head. Maybe they didn’t know Johnny nearly as well as they thought they did, especially if he was foolish enough to get caught up in a range war down there. In a sudden flash, Murdoch was afraid nothing had gotten through to him here at Lancer.
At the sound of Maria calling him to supper, he took his dark thoughts and sat at the long table alone and mulled over his disappointment in his younger son.
Johnny stretched out beside the campfire and sipped the strong coffee. He leaned back against his saddle and listened to the two horses munching grass behind him. He’d briefly thought about leaving Dusty behind for the kid, but in looking at the tiny corral and scraggly crops, decided the horse might be a burden on the young brother and sister trying to scratch a living out of the land.
He set his cup on the ground beside him and stretched out to add more wood to the fire. The muscles in his back began protesting the long ride and he thought of home. He should have sent a telegram explaining his absence as he was gone a lot longer than he’d planned, but the telegraph wires were down to McCall’s Crossing. He would have had to ride ten miles out of his way to send the wire.
Still and all, it might’ve made the old man a bit more happy if he’d done just that and he could of had a soft bed tonight instead of this hard ground. On the other hand, he reasoned, he’ll get home tomorrow this way where if he’d stayed in Morgan Hill tonight, he would be gone another day.
His thoughts turned to the events in McCall’s Crossing. He’d been lucky things turned out the way they did. It was never a sure thing. So many things could’ve gone wrong when playing that game. He’d seen so many things about himself in that boy and as he’d told Dorie, he’d grown up hatin’ and spending all his time learning to using his gun. He’d been desperate for her to see the road her brother was on.
Yesterday, out on that porch, his black kid skin glove on his left hand, his right ready to draw, he’d felt the sweat pop up on the back of his neck as he watched the two rancher’s eyes for a sign they were going to draw on him.
To his relief they knew they didn’t stand a chance against him and resigned themselves to their fate. When they told their side of the story about how Andy’s father got killed, the boy wasn’t going to accept it. He had too much hurt in his heart to just let it go and he was achin’ for a killin’.
Johnny gambled and pushed the boy, prodded him to make a decision, and to everyone’s relief the boy made the right one. He took a giant step toward manhood that day when he begged Johnny not to kill the ranchers. With a nod of his head, Johnny sent the two men on their way.
And here he was. A day’s ride from home, and no closer to knowing exactly what he was going to tell his family as he was that night when he sat watching the sleeping, troubled kid, grieving for his father. He’d sat with his head bowed as he thought about what his decision would cost him. Resurrecting Johnny Madrid could only mean trouble for him and his family, but looking at the murmuring boy, he couldn’t let him go home without the help he needed.
Johnny smiled briefly thinking, ‘never hired out for $27.56 before.’ With a shake of his head, he got up to check the horses one last time before turning in for the night.
Jelly walked out of the barn. Glad that his chores were done for the day. He plucked a piece of straw out of his rough plaid shirt and started wearily toward his room. He was looking forward to a quiet night.
The Boss had been a bear all week. Bellowing at the men, storming around like a hound dog with a sore nose. ‘Lordy, I hope one of them boys gets home soon or them tiles on the roof’ll need replacin’.’ Jelly thought with a glance at the hacienda.
He stopped at the water barrel, using the ladle, he quenched his thirst. As he replaced the wooden lid, he turned at the sound of hoof beats and couldn’t help the wide grin that broke out on his face. “Wa’ll now ain’t you a sight for sore eyes. ‘Bout time you decided to show up ‘round here.”
He walked over to where Johnny swung wearily out of the saddle. “Hey Jelly. Miss me?” Johnny said with that grin that usually got him out of trouble most of the time, though Jelly seriously doubted it was going to help where the Boss was concerned.
Jelly took hold of Dusty’s reins and followed Johnny and Barranca into the barn. “Not a bit. Did you go somewhere?” Jelly teased.
The two men made quick work of unsaddling and grooming the horses. Once they were munching hay in their stalls, Jelly worked up his courage to warn Johnny. “Your Pa’s not been too happy since you boys left.” He ventured.
Johnny raised an eyebrow, “Where’s Scott?”
“He took them horses to Modesto.” Jelly left out the silent, ‘like you were supposed to.’ But Johnny heard it anyway.
“Damn, I forgot about that. So how long has Scott been gone?”
“Three days. He should be back tomorrow or the next day.”
Johnny stood there for a moment, head bowed, biting his lip and scuffing the toe of his boot in the dirt. He finally looked up at Jelly, “Old man pretty mad, huh?”
“He ain’t been too happy. Now you just head on over there and get it over with.”
Johnny took a deep breath and shrugged his shoulders, “Yeah, easier said then done.”
Jelly slapped Johnny on the back as the two parted in the yard, “The boss’s bark is worse than his bite. You know that… and Johnny?”
Johnny stopped and looked back at the older man, “Yeah?” He was squinting a bit into the setting sun.
“Let him get it all out. It’s been festering for a couple days and he needs to let it go.”
With a nod, Johnny turned to meet his fate in the Lancer living room.
Johnny approached the house slowly, not yet ready for the confrontation with his father. He sighed in frustration as his mind turned over that word. ‘Confrontation.’ How had they settled into this pattern whenever they had a disagreement? It was like lighting a match to dynamite when the two of them got going at it.
Scott and Murdoch could talk through their disagreements; never a loud voice to be heard. He and Scott had learned to agree to disagree, but he and Murdoch went at it like two jealous bulls fighting over a lone cow.
As he reached out for the door handle, he heard Jelly’s voice in his head as sure as if he’d been standing behind him. ‘Let him get it all out.’ With new determination, Johnny turned the handle and steeled himself to take what ever the old man chose to give him.
After hanging his hat and gun belt on the stand just inside the front door, he made himself take the long walk into the great room that was his father’s domain.
Murdoch looked up from his desk at Johnny’s slow approach. “You’re back.” His statement was flat and to Johnny, his father’s eyes were like ice.
“Yeah, I’m back. Look…..ah…Murdoch. Sorry it took me so long. The…ah…telegraph was down in McCall’s Crossin’ so I couldn’t let ya know.” Johnny walked over to the fireplace keeping a safe distance from the old man. He always liked to be on his feet when Murdoch was on the prod.
Murdoch’s voice was low and measured, “I see.” He crossed his arms and stared at his son. Johnny felt nervous under his father’s glare.
“Well?” Murdoch asked.
“Well what?” Johnny answered quickly, hating the sound of sharpness in his voice.
“Aren’t you going to tell me what you were doing in McCall’s Crossing?”
Johnny shrugged and began flipping the beads hanging from the lamp shade of one of the ornate lanterns on an end table. “I took the kid back. It’s just him and his sister. They got 80 acres of farmland and they’re havin’ a tough time of it. I just helped them out a bit is all.”
Johnny felt the anger radiating off Murdoch across the room as he stood and walked toward him. Every instinct screamed at him to run, but he firmly held his ground. Murdoch stopped about a foot in front of him and asked, “Exactly what kind of help did you give them.”
Johnny dropped his head as he realized Murdoch knew. He had known from the moment he’d made his decision to help Andy that he was going to have to tell his family, but he’d hoped to be able to pick his time.
“You know what kind.” He muttered.
“What the devil were you thinking?!” Murdoch roared and Johnny jumped even though he knew it was coming.
Johnny bit down hard on the words that tried to fly past his lips. Instead he counted to ten and swallowed the bitter words. “I….uh….the kid, Andy…. needed someone to help him get even for what he thought them rancher’s did to his Pa. If I hadn’t taken a hand, he woulda found someone else or tried to do it himself. Coulda gotten himself killed….or worse.”
Johnny’s head was down and his voice was muffled. “Yeah….he coulda turned out like me.”
“Johnny….what happened.” Murdoch’s voice had taken on a much gentler tone and Johnny glanced up to see that Murdoch no longer looked angry; there was another expression, one Johnny wasn’t sure he recognized. ‘Concern?’ He wasn’t sure, but whatever it was gave him the strength to answer.
“Andy’s Pa was dragged by a horse after he was confronted by some local ranchers. Kid blamed them for his Pa’s death. That’s what he was doin’ when he ran off from McCall’s Crossing. Lookin’ to hire a gun so he could pay them rancher’s back for what they done to his Pa.” Johnny chanced a look at his father and could only see compassion on his face for what the boy had gone through.
“Murdoch, I know I didn’t handle it the way you would have, and I know it’ll probably cause some kind of trouble down the road, but I had no choice. I couldn’t let Andy carry the load alone. I …..”
“Son, was anyone killed?”
Johnny shook his head, “No. It didn’t come to that. Marvin and Jenks told their side of the story and the kid believed them. It was an accident and they felt real bad about it….especially after comin’ face to face with my gun.”
Johnny thought he’d pushed Murdoch too far with that last statement, but was surprised instead when Murdoch answered dryly. “I’ll bet.”
Johnny flashed him a little smile, “Look Murdoch, I regret that I had to go by Madrid down there in McCall’s Crossing, but Johnny Lancer just couldn’t get the job done. Andy needed help and….well…..I think he’s gonna by okay now. He’s got a chance anyway.”
Murdoch nodded, “I’m glad you could help him son.” Murdoch stepped closer and laid his large work worn hand on Johnny’s shoulder. Giving it a little squeeze, he added. “Just for the record, Andy is a lucky boy to have met you Johnny. A lot of people would have washed their hands of him after returning him to his sister. Some people would not have cared what happened to the boy….but you’re not some people….and I’m proud of you son.”
That lightning quick grin was the one Murdoch had missed all week as his earlier frustrations were washed away by understanding. “How about joining me for supper?”
Murdoch was rewarded by another grin, this one made his son’s eyes light up as he answered, “Best offer I’ve had all day. I’m starvin’” Johnny started toward the dining table when he stopped suddenly and looked back at Murdoch. “Hey Murdoch. Thanks…thanks for understanding.”