Spoilers: All the episodes, primarily Blind Man’s Bluff, Legacy, along with Lancer Pilot, The Lion and the Lamb, and Warburton’s Edge *(A line from A.E. Houseman’s poem (Last Poems - 1922) is used in Warburton’s Edge: “I, a stranger and afraid, in a world I never made.” If the writers can play fast and loose, so can I. But I’ll do my best not to do it. It certainly takes the pressure off a bit. LOL. Author end notes will acknowledge the writers of episode dialog used in this story.
+ + +
Murdoch Lancer sat at the large wooden desk and leaned the leather swivel chair back a fraction. He raked his long fingers through his hair. Pensive, his forehead rucked in thought. In his hand, he held an unopened letter. He stared at the front of the envelope, rereading the return address. The person's name scrawled in the upper left-hand corner caused his heart to quicken double-time.
It hadn’t quite been a year, but the boy was almost himself again. His natural exuberance, his infectious joy had finally returned. It was no longer lip service, no longer artificial smiles and vacant eyes. It had been such a long time healing. The letter he held could very well bring his boy’s world crashing down on him again.
Murdoch lifted his right leg and rested it on the desktop while he distractedly tapped the letter against his open palm. He closed his eyes a moment while he considered the turn of events the letter might render, acutely aware regret would be his once it was opened and read. It would be so easy to walk away from it, tossing the letter into the hearth fire’s flames.
His thoughts were interrupted when he heard Scott and Johnny on the stairs headed on their way to the kitchen for breakfast. No doubt Johnny would slide down the banister and land as sure-footed as a cat at the bottom. Murdoch smiled as he pictured it in his mind’s eye. Johnny was still such a boy at heart. He envisioned Scott watching him, his face no longer holding his usual serious visage.
Murdoch grinned and shook his head slightly, thinking about his youngest son. Johnny had a way about him and could easily bring smiles and laughter to every person he met. Murdoch saw how captivated Scott was by his younger brother. Oh, Johnny could pester and annoy Scott mercilessly with his teasing, going a bit too far on occasion. But it was plain as day, Scott loved his brother, would die for him, as Murdoch would for his boys.
Again, he heard the loud laughter. Murdoch smiled. It seemed Johnny was quite vocal this morning. Murdoch enjoyed their tomfoolery, however usually keeping it to himself. Though, it did little good as Johnny would always see through the pretense. He lowered his leg and stood to full height, the movement still as fluid and effortless as a young man. As he opened the top drawer of his desk and placed the letter inside of it, he thought to himself, Whatever news it contains can wait another hour or so. Murdoch was not willing to disrupt their world just yet. All too aware it would have to be faced head-on shortly, but determined it would not be right at that moment.
With a grin, Murdoch stood and strode toward the sound of his boys conversing, punctuated with bursts of laughter. Murdoch entered the kitchen to see Johnny holding Scott in a friendly, affectionate headlock.
“What’s all the noise about this morning, boys?” After a beat, he said, “Johnny, let go of your brother.”
Scott pushed Johnny’s hands away, feigning a punch to his midsection. “My ever optimistic, albeit misguided, brother believes he can win the affection of sweet Mary Margaret Flaherty in time for your festivities next week, Murdoch. “
Murdoch looked over at Johnny who stood grinning back at him, hands on his hips. “Well, Johnny I would have to agree with Scott on your optimism. Miss Flaherty’s mother, Fiona, is highly protective of her daughter.”
Scott piped in, saying, “Mary Margaret’s future is more in line with God than gunman.”
“What are you getting at, Scott? The likes of me isn’t good enough?” Murdoch saw a change in Johnny’s stance, his eyes darkening with hurt. “I know a thing or two about God and Catholic girls and I know a thing or two about Mary Margaret.”
Scott laughed. “Oh, I bet you do, brother. I can only imagine.”
Murdoch saw the subtle changes come over his youngest and decided to steer the conversation away from the topic of Mary Margaret Flaherty. Johnny never spoke of his Roman Catholic upbringing, though Murdoch had witnessed what he believed was his son kneeling in troubled prayer over the senseless killing of his beloved Lucy, as well as, his mention of the prodigal son after the Warburton mess. His heart had sung after Johnny had said he didn’t have to think about whom he was most. Murdoch had rejoiced at Johnny’s admission, ready and willing to offer him the fatted calf, ready and willing to offer his boy the world.
Murdoch often wondered if his untamed son had been forced to endure punishment and penance at the hands of overbearing, sanctimonious clergy. The thought of it made his blood heat. How many times before that had Johnny been left on their doorstep when Maria had found brighter opportunities for her day or week or even worse, months? Murdoch fought the creep of nausea rising to his throat. Scott, though fatherless, had so much more than Johnny. Certainly it wasn’t perfect, but he was safe in a home, with all the comforts, not wanting for anything. Except for you! Except for you!
Murdoch grunted his discontent. Would every conversation with his boys forever lead him to this? How had he ever expected the past to stay in the past? What a fool he had been even to think such things or that he could make it so. Full of yourself, Murdoch Lancer, that’s what you are!
“Murdoch?” A soft voice grabbed his attention. “You all right, Murdoch?”
Murdoch looked up to see Teresa and his sons staring at him, concern for him evident. “I’m fine, Johnny.” He moved to sit at the table. “Let’s eat, shall we?”
“You know, I don’t especially go for those freckle-faced redheads anyhow. Scott, if I recall properly, those Irish fillies are more to your liking.” Johnny smiled and ducked his head, his words gentle. “Besides, I’m not much of a dancer and you know how I feel about having my fun organized. She’s all yours, Scott.”
Calm settled over Murdoch, but his heart hurt a little for Johnny. Had he taken his brother’s teasing the wrong way? Did he really believe himself not good enough for the Flaherty girl? With eight daughters under one roof, it was far from easy to find suitable husbands for each of them. Fiona Flaherty had her mind set on a cloistered life for several of her girls. Heaven forbid Johnny should soil that spotless dove. There were so many others for the choosing. Johnny need not single out the most challenging of them all. Of course, that was Johnny’s way. He seemed to constantly choose the more difficult path for himself. Thinking too much about it, Murdoch could feel the start of a headache coming on him.
“Mary Margaret is a lovely girl, but as you know, Johnny, she’s leaving for the convent at summer’s end.”
“That’s just it, Murdoch,” Johnny said, “Mary doesn’t want that life.”
Murdoch looked over at his son and saw the concern and compassion in those remarkable eyes. “Has she told you that or are you just surmising? I realize you might find that sort of life unappealing, but perhaps Mary Margaret does have a calling like her mother said.”
“A calling,” Johnny said, scorn in his voice. “Mary Margaret has a calling as much as I have a calling to be the pope or even Scott for that matter.”
Murdoch stifled a laugh. “Well, Johnny, are you willing to marry her?” He studied the boy and saw him squirm, ducking his head.
“You know I’m not, Murdoch,” Johnny admitted. “But it don’t make it right to force a pretty thing like Mary into such a life.”
Murdoch turned to Scott and Teresa who had been quiet throughout the conversation. “Well, Scott, Teresa, what do you think about all this?”
Scott was usually of a practical mind and Teresa, though, young, had tremendous insight.
Scott answered first. “Eight daughters living in a very small home, working a very small farm, with limited prospects for their daughters to find suitable husbands worth their weight, well, I certainly can understand their dilemma. Supporting such a large family is burdensome, to say the least.”
“Should have thought about that before they brought all those kids into the world,” Johnny said, looking pointedly at his brother. “The fault is theirs.”
Teresa reached over and touched Johnny’s arm. She then asked, “You don’t mean that do you, Johnny?”
“Yeah, Teresa, I do. I’ve seen too much of it, seen too many kids going to bed hungry, bellies aching, their papas using up the last of the dinero, drinking their disappointments, and their mamas weeping and wringing their hands, waiting on God and the Saints to save them.” Johnny stopped talking and looked away from them and out the nearby window.
Murdoch reached across the table, hesitated for a beat, and then touched his long fingers to Johnny’s hand. The boy started and looked up at him. “Were you one of those children, son?” Murdoch asked.
There was no hesitation, no good-natured joking, no smiles, no usual dance of avoidance, only flat-out honesty. And it cut Murdoch to the quick.
“Yeah, Murdoch, I was.”
Murdoch placed his hand on Johnny’s. His emotions roiled: sorrow, anger, and loathing for the woman he had given his love. The taking of his son had been a spiteful thing to do, personal and vindictive. He still could not grasp what he had done to deserve such treatment. And what had their son, their beautiful boy done?
“I’m sorry, Johnny,” Murdoch said. He could think of nothing more to offer, but one day he would have the right words.
“It’s all right, Murdoch,” Johnny said, unburdening him with a smile. “It was no fault of yours.”
Teresa stood up, hastily wiping at her eyes. She smiled and said with a forced lightness, “There will be no one hungry today or any other day. Not while I’m here to make sure you’ve all eaten well.” Maria came up beside Teresa at that moment, holding a platter of steaks and a skillet of scrambled eggs. Teresa made her way over to the cook stove, grabbing up a frying pan of bacon and another of fried potatoes. Maria continued moving back and forth from table to oven, filling the long wooden table with food. Teresa poured each of them coffee and Maria, smiling down at Johnny, filled his tall glass with ice-cold milk.
When Teresa finally sat down, she looked at Johnny and said, “You’ll never know hunger again.”
Johnny smiled, holding her gaze only a moment, the boy seeming to be overcome. He lowered his eyes, biting his lip. “Thank you, Teresa,” he said with a slight catch in his voice.
Murdoch glanced over at Teresa who was watching Johnny with conviction still strong in her eyes. She had certainly found the right words to say, words that once again escaped him. It wasn’t because he was incapable, but because he allowed his own hurt and uncertainty override all else. The feelings were so powerful, his Achilles’ heel. Although, he felt it would pale in light of Teresa’s vow, Murdoch needed to say something to his son.
“Look at me, Johnny,” he said.
Johnny raised his head and turned to him. The blue of his eyes were markedly brighter and he swallowed convulsively. Murdoch said, “I give you my word, Johnny, you will never want for anything again.”
Johnny smiled and held his gaze. Murdoch saw genuine gratitude and love in his boy’s eyes.
“I mean it. “ He then looked at Scott. “That goes for you as well, Scott.”
Scott nodded, his eyes fixed on his brother. No doubt struggling with the notion of his younger brother as urchin, rifling through other men’s garbage, begging in the streets, or out and out stealing. If only, if only, those words played over and over in Murdoch’s mind. The Pinkertons had come up empty-handed, time and time again, and Johnny’s whereabouts had remained a mystery. To comfort himself, over the years, Murdoch imagined Maria and Johnny living a comfortable life, both of them untroubled and safe, especially his boy. But that dream was dashed, the hope fading with each small revelation of Johnny’s past.
Murdoch had told the boys on that first meeting, the past was in the past. Well, it wasn’t, not by a long-shot. His heated words with Harlan came back to him, bitter and unbearable. “It’s all in the past,” the old man had said. “Not to me it isn’t, no sir, it’s right now!” A torrent of anger, a rising swell let loose after all those years locked inside of him. He was a hypocrite in the highest order, a fraud, expecting his sons not to dredge up the past, to just let it die when he, himself, had been guilty of the same when push came to shove.
Johnny’s laughter released him from his reverie. The boy shook his head and said, “Well, this certainly turned into a gloomy funeral, and it’s all my doing. “ Johnny looked down at the plate of food in front of him. “I have a way of doing that don’t I? Take a simple thing and turn it inside out and upside down. I’m grateful you put up with the likes of me.”
Scott laughed and patted Johnny on the back. “You do have a way of keeping things interesting, brother. I can’t say that I’d want it any other way.”
Johnny looked at Scott, his eyes dancing. “Thanks, Scott.”
Murdoch clapped his hands together. “Well, let’s eat before the food gets any colder.”
The boys tucked into their plate of food with relish, conversation full-swing along with good-natured teasing and laughter.
Murdoch thought to himself, crisis averted, but then he remembered the letter, very much hoping there wouldn’t be another.
+ + +
That afternoon, Murdoch, now seated in the cool shade of the portico, had gone to his desk and removed the letter from the top drawer. Teresa, finding him outside alone, resting his eyes, had brought him a glass of lemonade. He had placed it on the flat wooden arm of the leather-cushioned chair, after drinking most of it down in three large swallows. Murdoch was comfortable and would have been content, except for the opened letter resting on his lap.
In a few short days, Doctor Sam Poovy would be back in Hard Luck taking care of some long overdue business dealings, and Mattie Cable would be with him. Murdoch was indebted to the older doctor for treating Johnny’s head wound after the bushwhacking, as well as, helping Johnny escape those that wanted to do his son harm. Sam had saved Johnny, only to tear his heart out, taking Mattie away with him without a proper goodbye.
It had been difficult to watch his son, at first overjoyed having his sight back, only to be struck a harsh blow, losing Mattie in that same moment. Johnny had catapulted from the bed and had wrenched himself away from the hands holding him from her. Scott had been beside himself. Murdoch had tried to give Johnny time before he had gathered his son up from the dirt track and had half-carried him back to the hacienda. Johnny had been heartsick.
Murdoch ran a weary hand over his face. He sighed and reached for the sweating glass of lemonade. It was a lovely summer evening, heading toward night. A breeze tried to grab up the letter from his lap and he willed it to blow away. Johnny would soon be home from a long, laborious day of digging post holes and running wire. He figured the best approach would be straight out, allowing Johnny to take it all in and then decide from there if he cared to see Mattie.
Murdoch felt annoyance bloom in him. With Mattie returning, Johnny’s hopes would raise, his expectations with certainty not met. For all the dime novels that wrote of Johnny Madrid, he was no stone cold killer. Quite the opposite and because of that, Murdoch worried for the boy. Could he stand up to more heartbreak? Would he, as father, allow such a thing to happen to his child again and again?
He looked out into the distance and saw Johnny riding in on his golden palomino. He loved to watch Johnny ride, a handsome figure of both horse and man. Once in the main corral, Johnny handed off the horse to Cipriano. Usually, he would mind his own mount, but Murdoch saw his son was not carrying himself with the same liveliness he typically had. The boy looked downright exhausted.
Scott had gotten home several hours earlier. He had bathed, then eaten, and was now reading in the comfort of the great room’s large sofa. Years ago, Murdoch had the sofa custom-made, wanting it long enough to hold his tall frame with room to spare. Scott came close to Murdoch’s height and complimented the size and comfort of the sofa often. Johnny spent most of his time doing somersaults across it. Murdoch couldn’t suppress the grin thinking about the first time he had caught the boy in the act. Scott had nearly fallen over from laughing so hard, all the while clutching at his stomach and groaning from the ache of his muscles. Murdoch, needing to be seen as the boss, the one who called the tune, could muster very little bite behind the reprimand. Johnny, for all his sass, was a delight and could make him smile easily and often.
Scott was the spitting image of Catherine. He had the coloring, shape and set of her eyes, also, the fine, angular features, long aristocratic nose, and slim frame. A fragility and delicateness belied the true warrior beneath the surface. Murdoch saw Scott to be, when provoked, a man without sentiment, hard-nosed and dangerous. Had it been the years of war, changing a gentleman scholar into a man who gave no quarter when he believed in a cause? Or was it the nature of the beast? Murdoch admired his fire and chose to think it was owed to the Scottish blood burning through his veins.
Johnny, on the other hand, although dark like Maria in skin tone and hair-coloring, was the image of Murdoch’s mother and her mother before her. The bluest of eyes could speak more eloquently than words. Johnny had that power as well. Murdoch’s dear sweet mither dreamed such dreams for him. The New World, she would say each night before slumber and again at morning’s light, you must reach the New World. She had fought his father mightily about his need for an education and she had won. He held genuine affection for his father, but he loved his mother deeply. She had been a treasure to him. She had held in her heart a gift of dreams, opening up the world to him. The winged life was his because of her and one day he would tell Johnny all about her. One day…
“I see you woolgathering, old man,” Johnny said, softening the words with an affectionate smile.
“You caught me.” Murdoch grinned and shifted in the chair, sitting up taller, the letter falling from his lap. Johnny reached for it at the same time as Murdoch. He saw the boy’s sharp eyes taking in the signature on the letter. Johnny rose up slowly, transfixed. Murdoch stayed silent, watching. He could see the pulse on Johnny’s neck jumping, too fast.
Johnny lifted his eyes from the letter and looked at Murdoch. “From Ol’ Doc Sam, huh?”
“Yes, Johnny, it is.”
“How is he?” Johnny pushed his hat off, letting it fall down his back, catching at his neck by the stampede strings. He handed the letter to Murdoch. His hand shook.
“He’s well,” Murdoch said, grappling with how to approach the issue of Mattie. At sixes and sevens, he thought to himself.
Swinging his right foot and then toeing his boot into the clay tile flooring, Johnny said, “Mattie, is she well too?”
So the boy had broached the subject for him, which gave Murdoch some relief, surprised by his apprehension. He was not a man who feared much, but it seemed he had become someone else entirely. The reason why came to him and rang loudly in his head: You are father. He was surprised and a bit disturbed by how obvious it was, as he considered himself a clever man, as well. Things had certainly taken a turn of late.
“Johnny, have a seat,” Murdoch said, “I need to speak with you.”
The boy looked at him, his eyes wide open, his breathing quick.
It was all he said to Murdoch as he sat down in the chair across from him.
“Doc Poovy, Sam, will be arriving in Morro Coyo on Saturday. He’ll be here taking care of some loose ends he hadn’t been able to complete before going back East.”
Johnny watched him intently. Murdoch worried the boy was close to faint, his breathing was erratic and he had broken out in a sweat. Murdoch’s hand roved in his trousers’ pocket then pulled out a crisp white handkerchief. He handed it to Johnny along with the glass of lemonade.
“Drink that down, son. You look nearly done in.” When Johnny emptied the glass, Murdoch took it back from him. “Feeling better?”
Johnny nodded and ran his sleeve over his mouth to wipe away the remains of lemonade.
“Here, give me the handkerchief.” Murdoch stood up and took the cloth from Johnny’s shaky hand. He started to pat it gently across Johnny’s forehead and then to his temples. “You shouldn’t be perspiring like this. Are you feeling puny? Murdoch studied his son’s face, waiting for a reply.
Johnny lowered his head and smiled. He spoke in that soft way of his. “I’m fine.”
“Are you sure, boy?” Murdoch handed the handkerchief to Johnny. “Keep it.”
“Thanks.” Johnny grinned. “I have to admit, I was feeling a little green there for a spell.”
“I know this is difficult for you, Johnny.” Murdoch waited.
“Yeah, it is.” Johnny looked at Murdoch a beat and then looked down at his boots.
“You should eat.” Murdoch’s voice was grim.
“I’m not feeling all that hungry.” Johnny spoke so quietly, Murdoch had to lean over, their heads near to touching each other.
“Johnny, this doesn’t have to concern you at all. It’s just that, well, Sam felt you should know Mattie would be coming back with him.” Murdoch plowed on, saying, “He wrote that Mattie was hoping to see you. She’s doing well at school. She’s learned how to sign. She’s excited to show you.”
“And then what?”
“What do you mean, Johnny?”
“After, when Sam’s business is done, then what will she do?” Johnny stood and looked out toward the corral.
“I don’t have an answer for you, Johnny.” Murdoch sat back in his chair, placing the empty glass on its arm. “I thought I might meet them at the stage depot. I’d like them to stay at Lancer. Would that be acceptable with you?”
“I … it took so long to get…” Johnny’s voice broke, turning his back to him.
Murdoch stood and went over to the boy. He gripped Johnny’s shoulder. “I know, son. “
They stood in silence.
Murdoch cleared his throat, trying to find the right words. He struggled to speak, but his voice was lost to him. Collecting himself, he began softly, speaking to Johnny’s back. “When your mother left me, left Lancer, taking you from me, I didn’t think I could ever, well, it was nearly impossible to move forward, move on. I searched and searched for you for days, weeks, months. I was gone so long Lancer began to suffer, my health. I was too overwrought to think straight. Paul, Teresa’s father, thought it was best to return to Lancer and hire Pinkertons to continue the search.
“It wasn’t my intention to bring your mother back against her will. She made her choice. She wasn’t happy. Perhaps, she hadn’t been happy for a long time. I didn’t realize. I couldn’t see it until it was too late. She wanted more than I was capable of giving, the attention she needed. Lancer took so much of my time then. And then there was a child … not that she didn’t love you, Johnny, she did very much.” Murdoch shifted to stand facing Johnny, but he couldn’t bring himself to look directly into the boy’s eyes. He hoped what he spoke about wasn’t making matters worse.
“Your mother leaving was a blow, but the worst of it was losing you. She took you from me because she knew you were my heart. She knew I loved you more than my life, more than this land.” Murdoch hung his head. “Some things are never gotten over.”
“Oh, Murdoch … “Johnny looked up at him and said, “I’m sorry.” The boy’s eyes were wet, glittering in the dimness of evening light. The sorrow he saw in them close to eviscerated him. Before he could speak a word, Johnny then said, “I wish she would have left me with you.” The loss and longing in his voice were palpable. It shattered Murdoch’s heart to hear it.
“I do, too, Johnny, I do too, more than anything.” Murdoch draped his arm over Johnny’s shoulders. “When you and Scott first arrived at Lancer, I said to you and your brother, what’s in the past is in the past. I know it seemed ruthless, and I suppose it was. Strike first before you are struck. I still do believe what’s in the past is in the past. It has to be or we can’t move forward, can’t move on. There’s a poem by William Blake I’d recite when things got difficult. Would you like to hear it, Johnny?”
“Sure, Murdoch, sure,” he said. Johnny set his foot on the rung of the chair with his head bowed.
Murdoch paused a moment, brought his fist to his mouth, and ran his thumb over his lips. He lowered his hand and folded his arms across his chest. He was well-aware of the power of his voice, a brilliant orator. Johnny would sit transfixed when Murdoch shared his stories. He began the poem, his voice soft, restrained.
“He who binds himself a joy, does the winged life destroy, he who kisses the joy as it flies, lives in Eternity’s sunrise.”
Johnny looked at him, his eyes shining with curiosity. “What does it mean, Murdoch?”
“For me, the meaning was to live in the present. Remaining fixed in the past or looking too far ahead, you lose your step in life. You will never find pleasure in the moment’s happiness. “
“The winged life, I like the sound of that.”
“I do too.” Murdoch smiled. “Well, son, what do you think? Are you ready to move forward? It’s entirely up to you, your decision.”
“I’m scared.” Johnny brought his hands to his face, as though hiding away. He lowered them and turned to face Murdoch. “But like I told Mattie, I’ve been scared before.”
Murdoch stood directly in front of Johnny and cupped a hand around the back of Johnny’s head with affection. “The difference is now you’re not alone.”
Johnny nodded. “Tell Ol’ Sam, we got his room ready. Mattie, too.” He put his hand over his stomach. “Feels like I got a bucking bronco inside of me.”
“Nothing you can’t handle, I expect.” Murdoch rubbed Johnny’s back. “I want you to eat something before you grab a bath and turn in for the night.”
“Okay, are you coming with?” Johnny asked.
Murdoch shook his head. “Not just yet, son. I’ll be in shortly.”
Johnny walked to the front door, talking over his shoulder. “See you inside.”
All at once, Murdoch’s body shook. He recognized it as fear, but not for himself. He saw the letter on the seat of the chair where the wind had blown it. The envelope had fallen on the floor out of reach. He took up the letter in his hand and moved out from underneath the portico. The wind had been steadily rising all evening and it snatched at the letter in his hands. He closed his eyes and loosened his hold on it. In an instant, it was gone from him. Murdoch watched it lift up over the barn roof, across the grasses and out of sight. If only they could be shucked of it that easily. Murdoch turned away and went inside the house.
+ + +
Johnny stood on the boardwalk beside Murdoch, his eyes keen as he watched a brand new Concord Coach barrel its way into Morro Coyo.
“Beauty isn’t it?” Murdoch’s eyes were lit up like a kid’s and Johnny smiled at his father to see it. “The braces underneath are made with strips of thick bull hide rather than springs. It saves the horses from a lot of jarring and the passengers, at times, feel like their being gently rocked. “
“Well, I’m glad Mattie and Sam are riding in style then.” Johnny lowered his head and kicked at a scattering of pebbles on the wooden walkway.
“How are you feeling, Johnny?” Murdoch gave him a look of fatherly concern.
“Remember that bucking bronco?” Johnny grinned.
“Yes, I certainly do.” Murdoch frowned.
“Well, I think the rest of the herd found me.” Johnny took in a deep breath and let it out as the stage coach made its way down the road toward them.
“Johnny, you don’t have to do this, if you’re not ready.” Murdoch gripped his shoulder and turned Johnny to face him. “More than likely, Sam will head on to Hard Luck and Mattie can go with him. Tomorrow’s another day.”
“Thanks, Murdoch, but I think I need to face this thing head-on, don’t you?” It was all he could do to keep his voice from shaking, his nerves about to wobble him out of his boots. He faced down many a pistolero with nary a concern, steel-eyed and steady-handed. The likes of this was something he wasn’t sure he was ready to confront. But having his father beside him made it a little easier for him.
“Remember, Johnny, I’m right here and whether you stay and face this now or ride off, it will be fine. No matter your decision, it will be fine. “ Murdoch gave a gentle cuff to Johnny’s chin.
Johnny smiled and dipped his head. “Not the kind to turn tail and run. I’m staying.”
“That’s my boy,” Murdoch said as the stage pulled directly in front of them. “Here we go, son.”
Johnny momentarily forgot how to breathe and Murdoch gave him a strong shake, bringing him back to his senses.
“All right, Johnny?”
Johnny nodded his head several times. “Yeah, yeah, I’m fine.” He removed his hat, rolling its brim in his hands. His palms were sweaty and his heart was close to bursting from his chest, his ribs most certainly unable to contain it. He swallowed hard several times, his mouth desert dry.
“Murdoch,” he whispered. “I don’t think …” Johnny was about to turn away, when he heard his name called.
A smile came to his face without thinking. “Hello, Sam,” he said.
“Son,” Sam said, gripping Johnny’s hand in his. “Listen, boy, I have a favor to ask of you … for Mattie.”
He seemed ill-at-ease over something and Johnny grinned at him. “You know I’d do anything for Mattie, Doc.”
For some reason, he felt a stinging in his eyes at the honesty of that. What in blazes! The thought of Mattie being so close after such a long time was making him loco. His heart beat hard in the ribbed hull of him and he reckoned he’d soon be falling dead on the boardwalk in a matter of seconds.
“Would you close your eyes, Johnny, and keep ‘em closed until …” Sam hesitated. “Well, just keep ‘em closed is all I’ve been instructed to tell you.”
Johnny looked over at Murdoch. His father gave him a reassuring nod and a small smile. Johnny nodded back. “Murdoch?” was all Johnny said and his father was beside him. He looked at his father for a long beat and said, “Thanks.”
Sam had gone back to the stage, his hand reaching outward into the recesses of the stage coach.
“Close your eyes, son.”
And Johnny obeyed, trying to keep his limbs from shaking off and his breathing steady. “Madre Mio!”
“Hold steady, son.” Murdoch pressed up against him and Johnny was grateful. Oh, Mattie. I don’t think I can do this. He remembered the note she wrote. Becuz I luv you, it said. Was that love, Johnny wondered, running? He thought he had worked all of this out months ago.
“Murdoch…” A soft anguished moan escaped. His emotions were starting to stampede on him. “I can’t …”
He felt Murdoch step away from him, and on the edge of panic, he nearly opened his eyes to see where the man had gone. It was the fragrance of rosewater that let him know Mattie was there. His breath caught and his knees nearly buckled. He found his senses and his voice bit by bit. Her hand gripped his and raised it to her shoulder.
“I remember, Mattie,” he said softly. “You want me to see you like I did that day.”
Two taps to his lips and Johnny threw back his head in genuine laughter. His hat slipped from his grip and landed on the boardwalk at his feet, his attention only on Mattie. He ran his hands over her shoulders and around her neckline. “You’re wearing a dress. It has lace. It’s a fine dress, Mattie. Is it the same dress?”
Two taps to his lips in reply made him grin. “You’re wearing your hair down. It’s a lot longer and I bet it’s shining as bright as the sun right now.”
His fingers glided over her forehead and down the length of her nose, stopping on her mouth. “I can’t believe those lips have never been kissed,” he said.
One kiss was given to his palm.
He laughed. “Oh, then you have been kissed?”
He felt the two taps to his lips and smiled. “I bet he was an ugly fellow.”
He felt her pull away, and he remembered again how it was the day she’d left. “Don’t go,” he had said, frantically reaching out to find her hand. But it had been Teresa’s hand that held his, not Mattie’s. He abruptly shoved away the memory, coming back to himself at the sound of one hard stamp of a boot heel against the boardwalk.
Johnny grinned and said, “Simmer down, now. Simmer down.”
He heard the shuffle of footsteps, relieved to feel her next to him again, and then she pressed up closer to him, kissing him. Johnny brought his hands up, cupping her head and he kissed her back. Then he lowered them down to her shoulders and pulled her close to him, his eyes still closed. He felt her tears on his face, close to bawling like a kid, himself. Johnny pushed her back to arms’ length and slowly opened his eyes.
His heart leaped at the sight of her. “Oh, Mattie, you’re so beautiful!”
She shook her head and pointed at him.
“I’m beautiful?” She gave two loud stamps of her boot heel followed by a grin that lit up her face. Johnny threw back his head again, laughing.
Oh, Mattie! My sweet Mattie! Welcome home!
Murdoch stepped over to them, retrieving Johnny’s hat from the boardwalk, while Sam went about gathering up their luggage. “Johnny, help Sam with the baggage and I’ll bring around the buckboard.”
“Okay, Murdoch,” Johnny said, still grinning like nobody’s business.
“Good boy,” Murdoch said, grinning back. He gave a couple of pats to Johnny’s shoulder and then placed the hat square on Johnny’s head. Laughing, Johnny watched as his father made his way across the busy road. When he turned back to Mattie, he saw she was wearing a small chalkboard tied around her neck like an oversized necklace.
“What’s that for Mattie?”
She smiled and quickly began writing and turned the board toward him. “So I can talk to you,” Johnny said, reading it aloud.
“Good,” Johnny said to her. “We got a lot to talk about, don’t we?”
Mattie wrote quickly and turned the board to him again. “Yes,” she wrote.
Johnny could hear Murdoch calling his name as the buckboard moved closer. “Let’s give Ol’ Doc a hand before he pulls something.”
“Very funny,” Sam said with a smile. Mattie was bent over in silent laughter. Johnny could hardly contain his joy. He felt Murdoch’s eyes on him as he pulled up with the buckboard.
When Johnny placed a couple of bags into the wagon, Murdoch asked, “Is everything all right, Johnny?”
“Yeah, Murdoch, everything’s real good.” Johnny met his father’s gaze and held it for a time. “She’s a pretty little thing, isn’t she?”
“That she is Johnny. That she is,” Murdoch replied.
“To think I nearly missed out on this.” Johnny grinned at his father and walked over to Mattie who was struggling with a larger suitcase. “Hey, now, let me get that.”
Mattie stamped her foot once, her features showing her annoyance.
“What are you saying, I’m a darn fool?” He smiled at the bittersweet memory of those words.
Mattie smiled, her face lit up like the noon sun. Johnny gave her a quick kiss and then grabbed the luggage away from her, running for the buckboard. He could hear her behind him, giving chase. She caught up with him grabbing hold of his shirt. He pulled her along, laughing. At the wagon, she stubbornly moved to help him lift it.
“You sure are a feisty thing,” Johnny said. “I remember that well enough.”
Mattie reached a hand out and touched his face. Johnny closed his eyes, remembering that tender touch. He had been a blind boy, frightened and alone, on a sandy river bank, until he felt that glorious, gentle touch.
I love you, Mattie,” Johnny whispered. “I love you.”
+ + +
The Lancer hacienda was alive with activity as Maria and several of her nieces completed last minute details for the evening’s revelry. Colorful paper lanterns had been placed along walkways and strung from trees surrounding the patio and courtyard, as well as, from the archways of the portico. The sight brought Murdoch pleasure and the anticipation made him grin like a schoolboy.
His only concern was for Mattie. The journey west had exhausted the young woman and she had been in deep slumber since her arrival at Lancer that morning. Nearly a fortnight traveling, at times in the most uncomfortable conditions, did not tender adequate sleep. Johnny, too, had been sleeping most of the day. Murdoch had forced the edict upon him, well aware the boy hadn’t slept at all the prior night. Murdoch had considered cancelling the festivities with the short-notice arrival of Mattie and Doc Sam, but he didn’t have the heart to let down the hands. He, also, suspected Johnny would have taken the burden of the men’s disappointment on himself, doing everything in his power to make things square.
He would look in on the boy after he took a once around the patio. He liked things to be precisely right and he was happy to see the tables clad in simple white linen cloths, rather than the usual red and white check and blue and white check oilcloth. Each table held several elegant well-placed silver candelabras. The food would make an appearance within the hour as neighboring families arrived.
Johnny had personally extended the invitation to the Flaherty family several weeks ago. Murdoch was pleased with the gesture. Seamus Flaherty worked hard to support his family, a good, principled man who had fallen on hard times on more than one occasion. He never took to sullenness or drink because of it. Seamus’ eight daughters were proficient in Irish step dancing, as well as, clog dancing and Murdoch hoped they would perform for him and his guests. Though it wasn’t the dance of Scotland, it was enjoyable all the same and brought back memories of the Old Country.
Sam would likely be away from Lancer for several days and nights. The invitation to stay at Lancer had turned out to be in Mattie’s best interest. Sam, too preoccupied with business, would have little time to be with the young woman. At Lancer, Mattie would be well-cared for and never want for company. But most of all, Johnny was happy.
Murdoch’s thoughts circled back to the morning. Johnny had been so scared, but wanting Mattie so badly at the same time. The boy’s tawny complexion had become washed out, pallid, and he’d momentarily appeared to have forgotten how to breathe. Murdoch had worried for Johnny throughout the entire welcoming. But things had worked out, and Johnny and Mattie seemed to fall right into step with one another. Murdoch saw an easy rapport between them. A year apart and all the heartache did not seem to diminish their affection. Johnny seeing Mattie for the first time had been a moment Murdoch would not soon forget. He would be forever grateful to a merciful God for returning his son’s sight to him. Johnny reading Mattie’s face with his fingertips had struck him hard, bringing tears to his eyes. How frightened his boy must have been without his sight!
Murdoch would never hold any ill will against Mattie Cable no matter the choices she might make in the days ahead.
“Murdoch?” He turned to see Scott, walking over to him. The cut and color of the young man’s coat and trousers were a close match to his own, the crisp white shirt and string tie to boot. They were very much alike and it pleased Murdoch well. Johnny, on the other hand, though full of life and always on the hunt for excitement, seemed to hang back or hide out entirely at these affairs. It was a mystery to Murdoch and he fervently hoped tonight with Mattie at his side, he might allow himself some enjoyment, even if “organized”.
“It all looks wonderful!” Scott said. “Is Johnny still resting?”
“I believe so,” Murdoch said, smiling at Scott. “He’s lost a lot of sleep the last few days.”
Scott sighed. “Yes, I know. I had heard him pacing the hallway, and when he finally did sleep, the occasional nightmare.”
“Has your sleep suffered as well, Scott?” Murdoch turned a concerned eye to his son. “Has Johnny kept you awake?”
“I’m fine, Murdoch,” Scott said grinning. “The military has turned me into a light sleeper. That said, I can sleep well anywhere I lay my head, even standing, if necessary.”
Murdoch laughed and said, “We must make do the best way we can.”
“Indeed,” Scott said, looking around the patio and then the courtyard. “It appears everything is well in hand out here,” and then turned to look down the long dirt drive, seeing the beginning of wagons making their way toward the house. “Our guests have arrived.”
“Scott, do a favor for me, will you?” Murdoch asked as he watched the line of approaching riders and wagons.
“Certainly, sir, what is it?”
“Rouse your brother and have Teresa look in on Mattie,” Murdoch said. “I think the party will do Johnny a world of good.”
“I do as well, sir,” said Scott as he turned on his heel, heading to the French doors. As an afterthought, he said, “He’s going to have himself some fun tonight whether he likes it or not!”
Murdoch let out a laugh and he saw Scott grin widely back at him before he entered the house.
Maria caught his eye and he gave her thumbs up. “Es muy perfecto, Maria!”
Murdoch shook his head, thinking of his boys, and still smiling, strode to the front portico to greet his guests.
+ + +
Scott sat on the left side of Johnny on the bed, touching a hand to his younger brother’s shoulder. Johnny was sleeping on his right side with his hand underneath his pillow. His gun, Scott knew, would be at his fingertips.
When Johnny had first arrived at Lancer, he had possessed a measure of chariness, markedly guarded. Unaware of the consequence of this characteristic, Scott had once found himself looking into the black bore of Johnny’s gun barrel, a dark and fearsome eye, and then into his brother’s where he saw his own death before Johnny came to recognize Scott to be who he was and of no harm to him.
Penitent, he had told Scott about the long lonely emptiness of nights high above a nameless border town, a strewn of rocks his bed, clutching a handgun to his chest like a child would a favorite toy. His bedtime story had been an angel’s prayer, Ave Maria gratia plena, and the howling of wolves his lullaby. When there had been no stars or moon to speak of, he had lain awake in absolute darkness, thinking the world had ended and he remaining forever alone. Scott had asked his age and he had smiled back at him, not answering.
Scott called Johnny’s name, rolling his bare shoulder a few times. He slept the sleep of the dead. With this thought, he felt a shiver run through him, chastising himself for his morbidness.
“Johnny, wake up now, boy,” Scott said. “Come on, brother, you don’t want to keep Mattie waiting.”
He felt Johnny’s body tense, all at once alert.
“It’s Scott, Johnny,” Scott soothed. He brought his hand down, placing a small amount of pressure on Johnny’s shoulder to hold him in place as the boy got his bearings. “You awake, little brother? I don’t need any extra holes.”
Johnny flipped over on his back. He grinned up at Scott. “You catch on quick, Boston.”
“I was top of my class at Harvard.” Scott grinned back at Johnny. “The party’s starting without you.”
“Murdoch is like a kid with his festivities and fandangos,” Johnny said, running a hand over his hair, making it stick up in several directions.
“Yes, he is and he wants you to be a part of it,” Scott said, pulling Johnny up into a seated position. “Have you forgotten something, brother?”
“Now what’s that, Scott?” Johnny brought up his knees under the blanket, folding his arms across them.
“Mattie, Johnny. Have you forgotten about her?”
Johnny flung himself back against the pillows, smiling broadly, his arms raised above his head. “I thought I’d been dreaming it all.”
Scott patted Johnny’s stomach. “No sir, not a dream. She’s as real as real can be and I believe Teresa is helping her get ready for the party.”
Johnny grew serious. “Do you think she’ll be fine with all this? It’s a lot to get used to.”
“I, for one, believe Mattie will be just fine. You, my boy, are an entirely different story.” Scott stood up and pulled the blankets down off Johnny. Scott grinned. “Thank you, Lord.”
“For what?” Johnny asked.
“For underthings, brother, in particularly, you having them on,” Scott said.
“It’s only because Teresa never knocks.”
Johnny stretched and then sprung out of bed. He had an enviable grace about him, balanced and fluid, every movement as precise and elegant as a dance.
Johnny moved to the water pitcher and basin. He poured out some water and wet a small towel, running it over his neck, torso, and underarms and then down his arms. Tossing it aside, he poured more water into the basin. He set down the pitcher and began to splash water on his face, the sopping bangs dripping everywhere. Scott walked over to him and pulled a towel from the cabinet beneath the water basin.
“Here,” Scott said, handing the towel over to Johnny.
“Can I ask you something, Scott?” Johnny lifted his eyes and looked at him. His nose and mouth were hidden by the white towel, making the blue of his eyes appear more pronounced.
“You can ask me anything, Johnny,” said Scott, enjoying these companionable moments with his brother.
Johnny grabbed his pants from the chair and worked them on, and then snatched up a soft buckskin shirt in a light brown. The coloring of Johnny’s skin, hair and eyes looked striking against the shirt.
“Good choice, brother,” Scott said with sincere approval. “If you were a single man, I might have been worried tonight.”
“Still should be, Boston,” Johnny said, as he ran around the room, looking under the highboy and the smaller dresser. Then he was on his knees, looking beneath the bed. He came up with his boots with a grin. “I guess I was out of it.”
“You were. I’m glad you were able to get some sleep.” Scott moved to the bed and started making it.
Johnny watched him and then said, “When I first met Harlan, he said you’d been engaged to Julie. “
“That’s right,” Scott said, puzzled. “But you knew that.”
“Yeah, I knew, but we never really talked about it and I’ve been thinking about things lately. About women mostly, I guess.”
“Well, to be completely honest, there’s not much to say,” Scott said. “The crux of it was I asked, twice, and twice it all went south. That’s a little hard on a man’s ego.”
“She’s a darn fool. No other explanation.”
“Thank you,” Scott said, smiling over at Johnny.
“You’re welcome.” Johnny gave a thoughtful smile and his face softened, showing a hint of sorrow. He inclined his head slightly in that way of his and said in a quiet voice, “Harlan called my mother a foreigner that day. You remember, Scott?”
“I do, Johnny, vividly.”
“He said it like he had a bad taste in his mouth.”
“It wasn’t you saying it, Scott.”
“I know, but I held myself accountable,” said Scott. He lowered his head and thought with wonder, How does he forgive so easily and with such good grace?
“I know how you feel about me, Scott,” Johnny stated straightforward.
“I hoped you knew. Not a thing will change that,’’ he said in return.
“Likewise, Scott,” Johnny said, his voice soft with emotion.
He watched in silence as Johnny fiddled with a button on his shirt, preoccupied. Scott waited for him to address whatever was still on his mind.
“I never told you this,” Johnny said and then paused. He gave Scott a shy smile and lowered his eyes. He began again, looking up at Scott, more assured. “The day before you left for Boston, I heard the old man and Harlan fighting. I couldn’t hear all of what was said out in the hall. ” Johnny chuffed out a laugh and pushed his bangs off his forehead. “One thing, though, was clear as a bell, Harlan calling me your half-breed brother. Nothing I haven’t heard before, but the way he said it … I don’t know … well, I reckon I got what was coming for listening in when I shouldn’t.”
Scott stood stock-still, feeling the old anger revisiting him. Damn you, Harlan.
“You never told me,” said Scott. “Why?”
“He’s your abuelo, Scott,” said Johnny.
“And you’re my brother,” Scott answered forcefully. “I’m sorry you had to hear that Johnny. You and Murdoch and Lancer are the best things that have come into my life. I’m proud to call you my brother. Don’t ever think otherwise, no matter what simple-minded people might say.”
Johnny lowered his eyes and smiled, pulling on his boots. Then he stood and walked over to Scott. Standing there, he held his hand out to him. Scott grinned, holding Johnny’s gaze for a time, then shook his brother’s hand firmly.
Suddenly, there was a look in Johnny’s eyes Scott knew all too well. “Well, go on and say it.”
“Say what?” Johnny asked.
“Say whatever is on your mind. You will eventually. So just come out with it.”
“Okay.” Johnny grinned. “You remember when we first met, don’t you, Scott?”
“How could I forget?” Scott said, as though it pained him and then asked, knowing the answer. “Do you remember?”
“Yeah, I do,” Johnny said, “vividly.”
Scott laughed and tugged on the back of Johnny’s neck.
“Before I came to Lancer, I was one shot away from dead. But a guardian angel sent by a higher power, that’d be Murdoch, saved me.” Johnny laughed and said, “A big, bearded guardian angel with a billfold full of dinero who thought it would keep him safe. Didn’t have sense enough to realize the Rurales took what they wanted and killed who they wanted. Maybe it was just arrogance. He brought me what I needed, though, time and a gun. When that angel was riding away like the devil was on his tail, he asked me if my father could expect me at Lancer. I told him, I’d even ride to hell for $1,000.00.” Johnny shook his head, not able to suppress an ever-widening grin. “Getting on that stage ten miles out from Morro Coyo stuck between a popinjay and a padre, I reckoned I was halfway there.”
Scott laughed and said, “If you only knew what I was thinking.”
The brothers looked at each other and broke out in loud laughter. Johnny started to choke and Scott pounded his back.
“Enough of this now, brother, Murdoch’s going to have our heads. We’ve got a party to attend and you have a very lovely woman waiting for you to escort.” Scott ran a discerning eye over Johnny. “But before you go anywhere, you need to tame that head of hair.”
Johnny reached for a comb on the dresser and ran it over his hair, getting it caught in a tangle of long strands. “Son of a ….”
Scott stepped over to him. “Here, here, let me do it.” He swatted Johnny’s hands away. Scott pulled hard, trying to get the comb freed from Johnny’s black thatch of hair. Johnny’s eyes watered and Scott laughed when he saw it. “Don’t be a baby.”
“You hurt,” Johnny whined. “And, Scott, if you tell a living soul about this, I’ll shoot you. Brother or not. ¿Comprende?”
Scott nodded, giving Johnny back the comb. “I understand completely. Now if you’re done threatening my life, I would like to go to a party before the guests have gone home for the evening.”
He ruffled Johnny’s hair and ran out the door. He laughed when he heard Johnny’s shouts of annoyance.
“Scott! What did ya do that for? I just might shoot you anyway. Scott! Come back here!”
In no time, Scott was downstairs and out the French doors, safely at his father’s side. He was greeting guests when Johnny finally arrived at the party with Mattie beside him.
The joy and pride he saw in his brother’s eyes having Mattie on his arm filled Scott with overwhelming sentiment.
He saw his father glance in Johnny and Mattie’s direction, clearly feeling the same. Scott believed this moment to be near perfection. And it will only get better, he thought to himself, as he spotted one of the Flaherty girls.
You were right, Johnny, my boy. Irish colleens are more to my liking.
He caught his brother’s eye and grinned over at him. When Scott pointed at Katherine Flaherty, Johnny laughed and vigorously nodded his approval.
Yes, brother, it’s going to be a night to remember.
+ + +
Johnny was happy and the sweetness of it frightened him.
Mattie, all smiles and curiosity, clung to his arm while watching the dancers promenade around the courtyard. The colorful paper lanterns lit up the night, the laughter and chatter, a warm hum through him. The music was lively, Murdoch and Teresa taking a turn around the dance floor. They looked in high spirits. Scott was dallying with Katherine Flaherty who was a few years older and twice as pretty as Mary Margaret, if that was at all possible.
Naturally vigilant, his sharp-eyed gaze ran a quick circuit over the courtyard and party guests. He saw Mary Margaret looking in his direction, her bottle-green eyes unsmiling. It unnerved him to see the iciness there and not knowing the why of it. Most of the ranchers stood together in a huddle by the table crammed with food, their discussion had a hundred times and Johnny in the midst of it more often than he liked. The hands were strung out in a line against the back wall, paper lanterns above their heads lighting their faces, as they pointed at the ranchers’ daughters and joshed one another. Not one the nerve to request the first dance.
He saw Scott was dancing now with Katherine, pressed up against her closer than Fiona Flaherty would have approved and Johnny let loose a wicked grin at that. He noticed Murdoch was watching Scott, as well, while Mrs. Chatfield was bending his ear and Mr. Chatfield, off by the punch bowl, bending his elbow.
Johnny was happy and the sweetness of it frightened him.
Aside from an occasional romp with dancehall girls, he wasn’t much of a dancer, and not knowing if Mattie had a mind to it made his belly knot, a bright heat burning in him. It made him think of the days before his luck had turned. The fiddles were sawing out a familiar song and most of the guests made haste to dance, even the bashful hands, finding a partner. Mattie was watching with a smile on her face, her hand finding his.
“Oh, Mattie, I got to tell you, I’m not much good at dancing.” Johnny sighed and said, “Never learned proper.”
Mattie turned to him, setting her arms around his shoulders. She then leaned close and laid her head against him. Her body swayed to the music and he began to move with her, remembering all that time ago, how they had made love through the night, his other senses so potently sharp and all-consuming in his blindness. Mattie brought a hand to his cheek and then ran her thumb over his lips. He kissed it, his eyes tethered to her face, no longer aware of anyone or anything, but her.
He remained longer at the social because of Mattie, usually leaving early, and only making an appearance for Murdoch’s sake, being solicitous to the neighboring ranchers and their wives, and a quick drink with the hands. After Wes’ death, Johnny had remained friendly with the men, but kept a deliberate remove. It had been partly out of guilt, blaming himself for Wes dying, and partly out of wanting to please his father. He chastised himself for months after his return home, working himself hard from first light until day’s end.
Johnny was surprised and relieved when Murdoch had taken him back with open arms and then indulged him further with a day of chasing wild horses. It had helped ease the guilt some. He finally understood why Murdoch had let him go without a fuss, the old man hoping he would find his way back on his own, wanting Johnny to want Lancer as much he did. A hard lesson learned for him. If only he had been stronger, had been more of a boss than a friend, Johnny was certain Wes would still be alive. Two lives lost because of one wild stallion and his own fear of being fenced in, of losing something that measured up to nothing at all. “Let’s move forward,” Murdoch had said, “an unfortunate turn of events.”
But it had been well before the loss of Wes that Johnny had found himself skirting the border of these socials. Seeking out a quiet corner, he’d hunker down on his haunches, watching everyone. He became that kid again, looking through the hacienda windows of the wealthy Mexican families while his mother had worked their night-long galas. He would watch her dance for them and he would feel ashamed to see it. She had been tragically beautiful with each twirl and lift of her dress and toss of her coal black hair, all the while losing her soul. He blamed his father then, not wanting to believe her culpability in these things. When he was older, he understood the currency of a woman’s body and he had cried hard at the knowing.
When his mother had been happy, she would sing to him and would dance around their small room. She had wanted to teach him the Spanish and Mexican dances, with a proud claim of their Spanish background, her mother’s family from Barcelona and Madrid and of vast wealth. She had danced with a sorrowed grace in the telling of it, crying before she had finished, and then later had gone out into the night to ease her mind and Johnny left alone, again.
The sound of the music came back to him in a dizzying rush and he pulled Mattie tightly to him.
“Teach me to dance,” he said to her. “Teach me to dance."
+ + +
From across the room, Murdoch was keeping an eye to Johnny and Mattie. He couldn’t shake loose the memory of a similar social from a year ago when Johnny had set off for the line shack to relieve Lem Cable, finding the older man gravely beaten and near death. Cable lived long enough to send Johnny on a precarious hunt, inadvertently becoming the hunted. It had been two days of peril for both Johnny and Mattie. As Johnny bluntly put it, he felt like he was waiting to be slaughtered. The boy was resourceful and self-sufficient, but Mattie was the reason he was still alive. No matter how much Johnny pressed her to leave, she would not budge. Murdoch was indebted.
He watched as Mattie bent and shifted her fingers in different positions, Johnny’s eyes intently following the movement. If Murdoch recalled correctly, seeing her pinkie travel downward and hook around, it was a J. The next finger movement was simple to read as her fingers formed a circle. J and then O, of course, was the beginning of Johnny’s name. Johnny had made her sign it for him over and over again on the ride back to Lancer, fascinated by it all. He had shown Mattie some Indian sign he had picked up along the Mexican border and time spent in the Texas cow town of Tascosa. Mattie had mimicked them back to Johnny with a pleased smile on her face.
The music lulled and he began to hum one of his favorite Scottish Airs while he continued to watch them. He spotted the housekeeper, Maria, approaching Johnny followed on her heels by Teresa. Maria spoke for a moment to Johnny and then Johnny searched the courtyard. Murdoch stepped forward, wondering if there was some trouble. Johnny saw him and waved Murdoch over to them. He waved back at Johnny and made his way to his son.
“What is it?” Murdoch asked, set on the edge of worry.
Johnny took hold of Maria’s hand and said, “Senora Maria esta cansada. I’m going to take her home.”
Murdoch noted Johnny would often add Spanish into his conversations with the vaqueros, as well as, those who worked in the hacienda out of deference and, perhaps, acknowledging his Mexican blood.
“Good,” Murdoch said, placing his hand on Johnny’s shoulder.
“I’ll stay with Mattie, Johnny,” Teresa said, looping her arm through Mattie’s. “I haven’t seen the two of you eat a thing all night. I’ll get a plate of your favorites together while you’re gone, and I’ll see to it that Mattie eats as well.”
“Gracias, Teresa,” Johnny said.
Murdoch turned to Maria. “Muchas gracias, Senora, you’ve done a fine job. Es perfecto! Go home and get some well-deserved rest.”
“Gracias, Senor Murdoch,” Maria said, smiling. “Maňana I will cook for mi chico el deseo de su corazón.”
Johnny grinned and ducked his head, visibly pleased. Murdoch clapped Johnny on the back. “He does have a way…”
“Si, Senor Murdoch,” Maria said. “He is a good boy. That is his way.”
“Your words please me,” Murdoch said, laughing at the look of discomfiture on his son’s face, heightened more so when Mattie gave him a quick kiss on his cheek.
He looked up at Murdoch and gave a self-conscious grin. “I’m not sure what I’ve done to deserve all this, but I thank you for it,” Johnny said. His black hair had slid down across his forehead and he raised a hand to brush it back in place.
Murdoch turned away from Johnny when Teresa took in a sharp breath, her hand covering her mouth. She shook her head, her brow rumpling in concentration as she reached out to Maria and began to discuss what still needed to be done for the party and then on to the breakfast menu for the following morning. As she settled herself, she drew Mattie into the conversation with ease.
Murdoch was glad to see Mattie and Teresa getting on so well. His thoughts went to Tallie Warburton. The young woman seemed to thrive at boarding school, sending Johnny letters on a regular basis, Murdoch as well. Teresa would happily take over the correspondence when he and Johnny hadn’t the time due to cattle drives and distant auctions or other pressing matters. Murdoch often wondered if boarding school would be the proper choice for Teresa, rather than her sometimes isolated life on Lancer. Well aware, she would not leave without a fight. He would think about that another day. Perhaps, he would write Tallie for her opinion in his next letter.
“Are you ready, Senora?” Johnny asked, interrupting Murdoch’s thoughts and the women’s conversation. “I shouldn’t be gone too long, Mattie. Teresa and Murdoch will take good care of you. Will you be all right?”
Mattie smiled and gave two taps to Johnny’s mouth. Murdoch saw the amusement in Johnny’s eyes. He couldn’t help, but grin at the two of them, so protective of each other, their caring obvious. Murdoch tried to remember how that felt. It had been so long. He was happy for his boy and hoped nothing would spoil this time for him, despite his underlying worry.
Teresa hastily turned to talk to Maria again. To Murdoch, the young woman seemed needlessly anxious. Mattie listened with close attention to the two women. Her intelligent blue eyes bright with the desire to understand and seemed more than willing to lend Teresa a hand.
“Mattie will be fine with us, Johnny,” Murdoch said in a soft, reassuring tone. “Just hurry back as the night is still young and Mattie is a fine hand at dancing.”
“Yeah, she is, me not so much,” said Johnny with a smirk, looking at his feet. “I can’t quite picture Lem giving her dance lessons.”
Murdoch gave a deep chuckle. “You’re right, I can’t either.” He thought a moment and then said, “From what I saw you’re a quick study.” Murdoch paused, remembrance suddenly strong in him. “Your mother danced brilliantly. Everyone around her would stop to watch. She was mesmerizing. But you know that.”
“Yeah, I do.” Johnny stared straight ahead, his eyes gone dark, sore with disdain, and then guttered out, expressionless. Murdoch wondered what he could have possibly said to make his son shutter himself away from him. His heart dropped, wanting to bring back the lightheartedness between them.
Murdoch looked at Johnny, waiting for the return of his boy. He had hoped speaking about his mother would please him, holding a deep curiosity about their life together at Lancer. Murdoch had been reticent at best about those days. Johnny was tentative when he approached the subject of his mother. He seemed afraid the mere mention of her name would draw blood. She had left with a man, a gambler. Years later, Murdoch had finally petitioned for divorce. How many years had Maria remained with this man? Was he a father to Johnny? Had he treated him well? There were so many questions Murdoch had about Maria, the life she gave her son, but too afraid to ask for the sake of the child. Murdoch inwardly flinched, chastising himself, fully aware of the truth of things. It was for his sake, as well. His time with Maria had been so brief, but the passion, both remarkable and terrible, would not be so easily forgotten. Maria had, indeed, left her mark on him.
Murdoch tried to ignore the people around him, some so close he was certain they could hear every word he spoke. Things needed to be said, though, so he shunted onward. “I had admired her grace, her charm. You are very much like her in that way,” Murdoch said, meaning every word. “I would watch her take you up in her arms and dance with you around your room. How she loved to dance! She tried teaching me, but I was hardly any good. It had been a time of ease in our lives.”
“It would make her sad,” Johnny dashed out in one long breath, closing his hands tight into fists, his voice hardly audible.
“Dancing?” Murdoch asked, surprised by what his son said and dreading what he would tell him next. Even the most innocuous roiled into something disturbing. Her dancing had been such an agreeable memory for Murdoch and selfishly he didn’t want it ruined.
“I reckon it made her think of how things had been before,” Johnny said to him, his gaze on the swirl of dancers. “She was too proud to admit her mistakes.” He looked at Murdoch. “I could hate her for that, for what she did.” Johnny lowered his head, his arms loose by his sides.
Murdoch raised his hands and gripped Johnny’s shoulders. “Don’t,” was all he said. “Don’t.”
Johnny nodded and looked at Murdoch so intently, he lost his breath. In those eyes, Murdoch saw such anguish, as piercing as a howl of despair, but he also saw wisdom gained from a life hard-fought. Johnny’s war was different from the one Scott had fought, but it was war just the same.
Johnny said, “I wasted too much time hating already.”
“I’m sorry if I was the root of it,” Murdoch said, not caring anymore if someone was in hearing distance.
“My mother made me believe things, lies,” Johnny said. “It makes me sick inside.”
“No more, Johnny,” said Murdoch, giving the boy’s shoulder a squeeze. “Let’s have an agreement.”
Johnny lifted his head, curious.
“Let’s not let the past ride roughshod on the present,” Murdoch said, giving his hand to Johnny. “What do you say?”
Johnny canted his head and gave an amused smile, shaking Murdoch’s hand. “Yeah, agreed, old man.”
“Now get going,” Murdoch said feigning annoyance. “The senora is waiting on you.”
He laughed as Johnny went over to Mattie and twirled her around, giving a kiss on her cheek and a quick hug to Teresa before leaving. He offered his arm to Maria with a small bow and they made their way out the courtyard gate toward the family lodgings on Lancer.
Murdoch moved to stand beside Mattie. He looked at her and smiled. She was wearing one of Teresa’s dresses, a dark blue silk. It brought out the blue of her eyes and her face had a healthy glow. She wore her long light hair down except for a small section brought up with a lovely pearl comb. She had gone from a pretty girl into an attractive woman in a year’s time.
“May I have this dance, Miss Cable?”
Mattie gave him a timid smile and then nodded her agreement, holding out her hand to him.
He bowed to her and took her hand and joined in with the cadenced flow of dancers to her wide-eyed delight. Murdoch laughed out loudly to see her joy. With a tilt of his head, he looked up at the night’s starlit sky and made a wish on Polaris as he stomped and spun around the dance floor.
His wish was for Johnny and Murdoch spoke it aloud, “Dance, my son, dance,” letting it lift up and alight on the swell and pulse of music.
+ + +
Heady from the dancing, the music, the milling of people, Mattie was both exuberant and exhausted. She had excused herself to sit alone on the veranda, waiting for Johnny’s return. Teresa had been bustling about, not stopping for a moment. Mattie had replaced empty platters and filled depleted bowls of punch watching the men add their own particular ingredient when they thought their wives weren’t looking; the bowl of punch nearly done before Mattie had made it back to the kitchen. Shortly after, Teresa had shooed her off with a full plate of food: potato salad, biscuit, fried chicken, butter squash and corn on the cob and the sweetest glass of punch Mattie ever tasted.
The fried chicken and corn on the cob left her sated and slick with buttery oils. Putting aside her plate, she searched for her napkin. Nowhere to be found, Mattie grinned and stuck one finger in her mouth and then another, going on this way until all her fingers were cleaned or nearly so. She spread her fingers, wiggling them, making fists, and then fluttering them like birds’ wings, flying free. How important these hands, these fingers have become! she thought to herself. They gave her words. They gave her voice.
She stood up and spun around, her arms raised above her head, lowering them to her sides, dancing like the prima ballerina in the ballet she had recently seen in Connecticut. The young woman had been exquisite, telling a story without words as Mattie did in her own way.
Mattie wrapped her arms around herself, and grinned. In her memory, she held a song her mama would sing to her, no lovelier voice had she heard since. The melody was bright and quick and the song played in her head in her mama’s voice and her feet began to tap, little by little, until she fell into a full-out dance jig, clapping and kicking up her heels in her newly bought shoes. There had been so much music then.
After a time, she stopped, breathing heavily and feeling a little bit dizzy. She sat and studied the stars. Every night as a child, she would seek out one familiar star and make a wish. She had wished for words. But she had stopped wishing after her mama had died, taking the music with her. Mattie shook and felt the watering of her eyes. It was right to remember the departed, even if it hurt.
And then Mattie thought of her Uncle Lem. It had been one of the worst days of her life and one of the best days. She was saddened by the death of her uncle. He had cared for her, kept her safe and he loved her, despite her being a mute. Doc Sam had said her Uncle Lem thought her silence was a judgment from Heaven. She had raged at that, her mama having told her she was her angel, a gift, and had a voice only God could hear. Uncle Lem had been wrong, but she had forgiven him long ago. Johnny had told her that her uncle’s last thoughts were of her.
Mattie heard someone move behind her and she was startled by it, her old ways of retreat an unrelenting cry deep inside the pan of her brain. It was a woman, young by the sound of her voice, the cloying scent of lavender filling the air. Mattie didn’t turn or move, remaining frozen in place. She clenched her fists, uncertain if the woman was a threat to her.
“I didn’t mean to frighten you, Mattie, isn’t it?” Out from the shadows stepped a pretty girl dressed in a homespun dress of cotton. Though, the dress was simple, the color was a beautiful dark green, making her fire red hair burst in radiant flames around her face and over her shoulders. The effect was stunning and Mattie felt very plain next to her, even though she wore one of Teresa’s incredibly expensive, store-bought dresses.
Mattie gained her composure and nodded to the girl, smiling.
“Where’s Johnny?” The girl asked, her gaze penetrating.
Mattie lifted her hands to her mouth and shook her head several times, trying to indicate she couldn’t speak. The action made her feel ashamed, somehow less.
The girl tittered and then said, “Oh, that’s right, you aren’t able to talk. How awful that must be for you.” She stepped closer to Mattie. “I’m Mary Margaret Flaherty. Johnny is a good friend of mine.”
Mattie smiled. Her hands shook a little and it made her angry at herself. She had traveled far from her home, going to a strange place, to a strange school, meeting so many people in a short time with confidence and strength of will, but in this place, at this moment, her nerves were getting the better of her. The American School for the Deaf and Mute, though for students a few years younger than herself, took her in and taught her how to speak with sign. Although, it seemed, at times, it was as useless as speaking a foreign language.
Her fingers tracked to the side pocket of her dress, remembering she had placed a stob of chalk there. She found it and gripped it in her hand, pulling it free. The clay tile floor would work as a chalkboard, and Mattie knelt on the ground, hiking the bottom of her dress up so as not to get it dirty. Mary Margaret let out a gasp and began to laugh.
“What pray tell are you doing, Mattie?” asked the girl, her tone mocking.
Mattie looked up at her and waved the girl over to her. She pointed to the floor.
“No,” Mary Margaret said. “I’ll just stand here while you do whatever it is you’re going to do.”
Mattie nodded at her and began writing:
Johnny will be back soon. He walked Maria home.
Mary Margaret bent down and read it aloud. “Good,” she said. “I need to talk to him.”
Mattie stood up and looked around again for her missing napkin to use to erase what she had written. She didn’t think Murdoch Lancer would appreciate chalk markings on the fine clay tiles of his veranda. Suddenly spotting it under the chair nearest her, she dropped to the floor onto her hands and knees. With her dress pulled up, exposing her legs, she stretched for it. Mattie would have preferred pants and one of her Uncle Lem’s old shirts, but she wanted to be pretty for Johnny.
“You are a funny little thing, aren’t you?” Mary Margaret said, shaking her head and giggling into her dainty cupped hands.
Mattie looked at her. This time she didn’t smile, only feeling the heat of shame burning through her. A knot formed in her stomach and she felt the sting of tears. She bent lower and reached out her hand further, snatching the napkin out from beneath the chair. Mattie stood and went over to where she had written the words for Mary Margaret. She rubbed the cloth napkin over the clay tiles. The words smudged and then were wiped out, leaving a fine layer of chalk dust. In the morning, she would pour water over the tiles to clean them. Satisfied for the moment, she stood and walked over to a chair beside Mary Margaret.
Mattie sat stiffly, her hands folded on her lap. She looked up at the stars and took a breath, then released it.
“Why are you here?” Mary Margaret asked. “Why did you come back?”
Mattie was stunned by the question, certain her face undoubtedly showed her feelings.
“I know all about you, Mattie. All the girls in town were talking about how you broke Johnny Lancer’s heart. You had your chance and you left,” Mary Margaret said her eyes wide and her face flushed. “Johnny promised to take care of me. You shouldn’t have come back. I don’t want to be unkind, but you don’t fit here and you surely don’t belong with Johnny.”
Mary Margaret rose from her chair and stood close to Mattie, placing her hand on Mattie’s rigid shoulder. “You must see this, don’t you? You and I can’t even have a simple conversation. Do you expect Johnny to do that odd hand gesturing for the rest of his life? It looks so peculiar. People were watching like you were a sideshow, a freak.”
Mattie sat with her eyes downcast, barely breathing, and her heart thumping in her ears. Although, it hadn’t been loud enough to block out the girl’s cutting words.
Mattie stood up, spelling out Johnny’s name in sign and crossing her hands over her heart. Inside her head, she shouted over and over again: “Johnny loves me! Johnny loves me!”
“I’m sorry, Mattie,” Mary Margaret said, her tone suddenly sounding regretful. “You may think I’m cruel, but I’m not.” She shook her head and then wrapped her arms around Mattie. “You just don’t understand. Johnny is all I have. He promised me!”
Mary Margaret let go of Mattie and walked to the edge of the veranda. Mattie could see she was crying. She had difficulty reconciling the horrible, vicious girl to the apologetic one shedding copious tears. Mattie’s head spun and she felt the return of dizziness, but the cause this time was dire. Her ears rang with Mary Margaret’s words: “He promised to take care of me!” What had Johnny promised this girl? What did it mean?
Mattie walked over to Mary Margaret and touched a hand to her curved shoulder, patting her gently, and then set it there, remaining still for a time. Then Mattie lowered her hand, turned, and walked away into the protective shadows of a summer night.
+ + +
Johnny had been away longer than he had wanted. The children frightened by noises had been huddled under their bedcovers for hours waiting for their mama’s return and wouldn’t rest until Johnny tracked down and destroyed the monster in the night. It turned out to be a very old feral cat trapped in the kitchen pantry in its search for food. Johnny had released it outside and the pitiful thing taking only two steps had fallen over dead.
Overheated and a little grimy after the quick removal and burial of the rank cat, Johnny made his way back to the social. He combed his unruly hair with his fingers and then pulled Murdoch’s monogrammed handkerchief from a small side pocket, wiping away the sweat from his face and the dirt from his hands. Johnny shook his head, smiling at his sentiment, the handkerchief holding as special a place as the gold watch Murdoch had given him. Although he had tried so hard to deny it! Darn fool that he was!
He shook his head with a smile on his lips and made his way to the back veranda. His steps were light and he began to hum. His humming soon bloomed into lively singing. He knew the song well enough, and let his voice carry out into the moonlit night, unbridled and hope-filled. The words went as such, every note met with clear and perfect pitch: “If you don’t love me, love whom you please. Throw your arms ‘round me, give my heart ease. Give my heart ease, love, give my heart ease. Throw your arms ‘round me give my heart ease.” * So buoyant was Johnny, the line in the song offering a sweetheart their release, didn’t hold sway at all.
He saw her before she spotted him. Though, she wasn’t the one Johnny had hoped to see waiting for him.
“Mary Margaret,” Johnny said with a slow smile. “Why are you out here all alone? I can’t believe your dance card didn’t fill up quicker than an arroyo in a downpour.”
“It did,” she said, matter-of-factly, “but your name wasn’t on it.” Mary Margaret took his hand, clasping it. “I thought you cared for me, Johnny.”
Johnny tilted his head, looking at her. He didn’t like the track of the conversation, working to keep hold of his bright mood. “What are you saying?”
“Just that, Johnny Lancer,” Mary Margaret said, petulant. “You promised me things.”
“I promised to help you, Mary, not marry you, if that’s what you’re getting at,” Johnny said. He smiled and lifted a hand to her shoulder. “I do care for you. It’s just that… well, we never once spoke of marriage, Mary Margaret, and you know it. We never courted. Shucks, I never even stole a kiss. We’re friends is all, good friends.”
*Down in the Valley (Traditional)
Mary Margaret lowered her head. “I know, Johnny. But seeing you with Mattie made me think crazy things. I just kept thinking I didn’t want to share you, not with her, maybe not with anyone. It won’t be long before I’m sent away, but I swear Johnny, they can’t make me,” Mary Margaret said. “When I saw how you looked at Mattie, I got angry, thinking you forgot your promise to me, just plain out forgot about me.” She began to cry, then.
Johnny pulled her into a hug and ran his hands over her hair from crown to shoulder. She was a beautiful girl and he knew a few of the boys working Lancer would give their soul to have her even look their way. But ranch hands don’t make suitable husbands or so Fiona Flaherty decreed. He saw her as a woman particularly full of herself for one living so lowly. If it hadn’t been for Murdoch Lancer being his father, Johnny was certain he would be turned away at the Flaherty’s front door with his hat in his hand and a boot to his rump. It riled him some to say the least. At times, Mary Margaret carried her mama’s airs.
For a moment, he caught the scent of decay in the dry breeze akin to the odor that had clung to the dying cat. Johnny wondered if it was only in his head, like a warning. His mother had been superstitious and Johnny gave weight to omens only a fool would ignore. God had His ways and Johnny did not gamble with things either way. It had saved him more than once.
“Come and sit down for a minute, Mary Margaret,” Johnny said, pulling her to a high back wooden chair. When she sat down, he kneeled in front of her, holding her hand. He heard a sharp intake of breath and it came to him she might believe he was going to ask for her hand. He needed to sort things out quickly before he found himself married with a fire-red brood of his own.
“Listen, darlin’, I think I’ve got a solution for you and your troubles,” Johnny said, knowing if her hopes were pinned on a life with him, she would be sorely disappointed. He prayed the freedom to choose her own path was her strongest desire. “I have a good friend in Sacramento. She’s a well-known seamstress, venerated by the vaqueros. I showed her the stitiching you did on my jacket when she was in Morro Coyo visiting family. She thought it was very good. She’s offering you an apprenticeship with her, if you’re so inclined. It comes with room and board and a small wage,” Johnny said, looking up at her.
She’d been silent, straight-faced, throughout his speaking, but he felt the tightening of her grip on his hand when he had mentioned the apprenticeship. “She’s willing to take on another girl, say your sister Katherine, if she’s as good at stitching as yourself.”
“Oh, Johnny, you’re wonderful!” Mary Margaret leaped up, pulling Johnny to his feet with her. “You’ve given me back my life! Katherine has a finer hand than I. She’ll be so pleased. As the days were coming closer, we’ve had wild notions of running away to San Francisco or even further north where women are scarce, willing to take our chances even at the expense of all decency.”
“I reckon I know what you’re hedging at, Mary Margaret, and that life’s not free.” Johnny turned away and looked off into the shadowed night, memories rising like ghosts, dark and painful. “I don’t want to hear any more of that talk.”
“All right, Johnny. I’m sorry,” Mary Margaret said. “Thank you for taking care of me. I should have believed in you. Sometimes it’s hard to think the best in people. I knew you were a man of your word, but still I didn’t have faith. Not just in you, Johnny, but in God, Himself.”
Johnny pulled out a slip of paper from his pocket. “Her name and address is written there. She’ll be expecting you in a week’s time. If you don’t show up, the apprenticeship will go to others. There are a lot of girls would jump at this opportunity if offered them.”
Mary Margaret hugged him tightly to her, not letting go of him. She started to cry. Her crying grew mournful, near to wailing.
“What’s going on, Mary? I can understand shedding some tears, but something else is going on here. So out with it, girl!”
She gulped in air, still wracked with sobs, and rubbed hard at her eyes. “Johnny, I’m so sorry. I did a horrible thing.”
Johnny’s stomach clenched and a breath caught in his throat for a long moment. Mattie.
“There was talk about Doctor Poovy being back and towing Mattie Cable along with him. All the women were talking, hoping she’d leave Johnny Lancer in peace. They said she left you after a near-blinding and she broke your heart completely. We were all in tears from the telling of it. Whether it was the whole truth or not, I knew one thing, she didn’t deserve you, Johnny. Not after leaving you like that, without a proper goodbye or explanation.”
Johnny reacted badly to her words. He grabbed her by the arms hard, shaking her. “Now you listen to me, Mary Margaret, that’s my concern and not yours and not the women in Morro Coyo or Spanish Wells or Green River. It’s my concern.”
“I apologized to her, Johnny,” she said. “I apologized to Mattie.”
“Where is she now?” Johnny asked, his temper cooling.
“She went off,” she said, pointing out into the darkness. “I said some cruel things to her, and I’m dearly sorry for it. Will you forgive me, Johnny?”
“I expect I will one day, but not right now,” Johnny said. “Go back in to the party. Tell Katherine the good news and dance with some of the boys. That’ll keep them happy for the rest of the summer, maybe, the rest of the year.”
“I am sorry, Johnny, but I know Mattie understood how I was feeling,” said Mary Margaret, “because she loves you, too. You have a powerful grip on people, Johnny Lancer, once they take you into their heart and come to know you.”
Johnny took a breath and then let it out slowly. He pulled Mary Margaret to him and then said in her ear, “I forgive you. Now go, be happy, and celebrate. If Murdoch is looking for me, tell him I took a ride with Mattie and there’s no need to worry.”
“I do love you, Johnny,” Mary Margaret said and she kissed his lips long and hard.
“I know you do, now git,” said Johnny. Mary Margaret turned away, lifting her skirt in a run toward the courtyard. She turned to look back at him a moment and smiled. Johnny shook his head and grinned, remembering a line from the poem Murdoch told him and said it aloud, “He who kisses the joy as it flies …”
Illumined by a full-blown moon, Johnny turned and headed out into the gray-lit landscape of a summer night.
+ + +
The last of the guests had left Lancer around midnight, replete and heavy-eyed. Scott, having had a full work day, was feeling the end result of being up before sunrise and heading toward another day without sleep. He hadn’t a moment to rest as it seemed every woman of marrying age had been thrust upon him by their well-meaning, but overeager mothers. All were more than willing to have a moment of his company, all but a few. Ironically, those who felt as put-upon as Scott were the ones he found the most appealing.
For the most part, his night had been spent in the company of Katherine Flaherty. Scott found her to be a gentle soul, kindhearted, and having an extraordinary wit. But the high point of the night had been when Mary Margaret came frolicking into the courtyard about ready to burst with news for Katherine.
Scott’s mouth turned up at the corners in a grin, remembering their enthusiasm. Laughter immediately led to tears of joy and relief. Their jubilation conjured up unbidden memories of the war when those too long captive had been granted reprieve. It had given hope to all those who still remained caged that one day they too would walk in the light of day as free men. But it had not been so readily gotten with the complete and utter breakdown of the prison exchange. Spirits had flagged and health had diminished, Scott, himself, falling into deep despair. But with spring had come a slow rebirth, the sufferings of winter a healing scar upon the heart.
“Penny for your thoughts, Scott,” said Teresa with a smile. Surprisingly, the young woman looked as fresh as she had at the beginning of the evening. Murdoch sat across from him at the long wooden kitchen table, his head in his hand, long fingers curled around his coffee cup. He looked over at Scott seeming to be interested as well.
Scott cleared his throat and ran a weary hand over his eyes and then through his fine blonde hair. He smiled a soft, thoughtful smile. “I was thinking about Katherine and Mary Margaret,” Scott said, wondering what Murdoch thought of the girls’ good news.
Murdoch laughed, shook his head and said, “Even Fiona seemed relieved and Seamus was elated. He confessed he had a chilly time at home, both Katherine and Mary Margaret barely speaking to him. Fiona was too great a force to go up against.”
Scott frowned and said, “I still don’t understand why Fiona would push her girls into a life they didn’t want.”
Murdoch took a mouthful of coffee, looking as if he was sorting things out in his mind. “Well, Scott, from what I understand Fiona’s father had been an indentured servant when he arrived in America as a boy. He had to work for many years to fulfill his contract. Fiona’s father balked at the notion of servitude, feeling like chattel. He vowed that his family would only know freedom. Fiona couldn’t fathom her daughters in a similar plight, preferring them to do God’s work rather than marry badly or be indentured to anyone.”
“So she’s fine with this apprenticeship for the girls?” Scott asked.
“I’m certain Fiona will iron out all the details,” Murdoch said with a grin. “I hope Johnny’s friend is a patient woman.”
Scott laughed. “Once again, the white knight saves the day. I’ve never been more proud of him.”
“I didn’t realize how caught up Johnny was in this whole thing. I knew he was concerned, but to actually have gone out of his way to find a solution for the girls…” Murdoch’s words trailed off and he looked at Scott with wonder. “A father wants to believe his influence and guidance shape his children,” Murdoch said with a self-deprecating shake of the head,” but the fact of the matter is Johnny‘s moral compass has always been true north. “
Scott nodded and said, “Well, sir, as a son, your son, I’d say heredity has a strong hand in it as well. “
Murdoch raised his eyes to Scott, regarding him intently and gave a small smile. “Thank you,” was all he said. But, Scott was stunned by the unbridled gratitude he saw in his father’s eyes and had to look away. He busied himself by reaching for the pot left on the table, and poured a splash of coffee into his cup. He turned back to look at Murdoch and saw his father wore a serene expression while sipping on his coffee. Scott was glad to see it.
Although exhausted, Scott was too restless to go bed, making the decision to sleep in on Sunday morning. His mind was filled with the night’s events, still feeling like he was on the dance floor, spinning and twirling to the music, his arms around one of the many women who waited for their moment to dance with him. He had lost track of Johnny’s whereabouts midway through the party. Scott was surprised Johnny had stayed at the social as long as he had, more than certain Mattie was the reason for it. He was well aware of Johnny’s unease at these more structured affairs, in addition to, his deep cynicism, having been exposed to humanity’s underbelly at a tender age, so much so it could have turned the boy into something vile and heinous. However what had emerged from the ugliness of that world was a soul lit brightly with fair play and empathy and goodness.
It never occurred to Johnny that he was either good or kind or compassionate. It was as though it was a thing so ingrained, a natural inclination, the bone and marrow of him, his absolute heart, he never gave it a second thought.
For Scott, after the war with its homecoming of lavish parties and women and all that money afforded, it gave him no satisfaction and very little peace, especially in those nights of remembered horrors and cruelties and death. He had been adrift in decadence on a downward spiral to hell. But then as Johnny had said, a guardian angel in the form of a Pinkerton Agent had come a calling right at the moment Scott had unceremoniously dropped from one of many ladies’ balconies, escaping like a thief in the night. Scott smiled remembering Johnny had called Murdoch a higher power. Murdoch was indeed a distant, though benevolent god, their saving grace and Lancer their sweet, sweet redemption.
A thought came to him then, quick and unexpected, about his brother and if he hadn’t been so tired, he might have thought twice before vocalizing it. His usual restraint had vanished. His voice was only a whisper when he looked toward his father and said, “Miserere mei, Deus.”
“What’s that?” asked Murdoch, his face showing his bewilderment.
Scott smiled and said, “Psalm 51. Have Mercy on Me, O God. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. A merciful God offers the sinner clemency. I believe in such a God, but I often wonder if Johnny does. He forgives, but he won’t allow himself to be forgiven. Making amends, paying a debt, for what? Certainly, not for murder! If that were the case, I’m a sinner as well!”
Murdoch’s shoulders slumped and he dropped his head to his chest, his eyes downcast intent on his cup of coffee. Scott hadn’t realized the impact of what he said would be to his father as sharp and actual as a physical blow. He hadn’t considered the underlying thread running between parent and offspring, like a circuit shunting all life’s circumstances into the heart of them, no matter the time or distance apart.
Scott sighed and pressed on, having tamped down the ramrod already. “Johnny was so young, Murdoch. Jelly told me what Absolem Weir had said that day after I had left the table to find Silas. He said Weir had seen Johnny in a gunfight ten years ago in Santa Fe. Ten years ago! My God, Murdoch! Johnny couldn’t have been more than twelve years old at the time. He was just a boy, a mere child!”
“Who knows the truth of Weir’s story? Johnny had never admitted or denied it,” said Murdoch. Scott saw his father was determined not to tread hard on the issue.
“I don’t really think the place actually matters, Murdoch. The truth of it is Johnny was a boy with a fast gun. Weir knew it was Johnny’s Achilles’ heel,” said Scott. “It still is and will be until he can let go of the killings. In my opinion, I think he’s looking to you for his salvation, for you to offer him pardon for those dark, bloody years. ”
Murdoch sighed and said, “I’m not God, Scott. How do you propose I offer Johnny this salvation?”
Scott smiled. “It’s simple really, just accept him. Just love him.”
“I do, Scott. He knows that.”
“Yes, Murdoch, I do believe he knows, now to just get him to realize he’s deserving of it.”
“And how about yourself, Scott, do you look to me for the same thing?” Murdoch asked. Scott detected no malice, but he still felt an ugly tightening of his bowels at the vague reference to his time at war.
“I’ve made peace with it and with myself,” said Scott, finding the truth in those words, a truth a long time coming to him. “I’ve forgiven myself for most of it, and being here at Lancer has been like the balm of Gilead. I’m grateful to both you and Johnny for that. “ Scott smiled and to ease the mood, said, “Speaking of Johnny, have you seen him?”
“Seen him?” Murdoch asked, seeming to be briefly perplexed by the shift in conversation. “No, no, I haven’t. Oh, wait, yes, Mary Margaret said something about Johnny taking a ride with Mattie. The moon offered enough light. But they certainly should have returned by now.”
Teresa rose quickly as if anxious to run from the room. Scott had forgotten the poor girl had been there, so intent was he on speaking his mind on the subject of his brother.
“I’ll check to see if Mattie is back and if she needs anything,” said Teresa.
“Thank you, sweetheart,” said Murdoch. “And after that I think you should get to bed yourself. We’ll sleep in on Sunday, so don’t worry about an early breakfast. “
Scott grinned at Murdoch having mirrored his own thoughts. They were so likeminded most times, his previous statement about heredity held great merit. He gulped down a swig of coffee and then stood up to stretch his legs, sore from all the dancing and the long hard day of running wire. He rubbed a hand down each one. Scott saw Murdoch grinning over at him. “Do you find something amusing, sir?” Scott grinned in spite of himself.
“You were in quite the demand. I believe every woman there had their sights on you. Thank goodness, Johnny had Mattie to keep him safe from the horde. I’m not sure if I’d ever get him to attend another social.”
“And what of me?” asked Scott, feigning hurt feelings.
“I think you’ve had far more experience at these affairs. I will say you handled yourself quite well,” said Murdoch, lifting up his coffee cup to him as though in acknowledgment of his fortitude and tact.
“Thank you, Murdoch,” said Scott, working the stiffness from his back. “I think I’ll go check on Johnny, tell him all about what he missed. All the women thinking he’s a hero. That should get a good laugh out of him.”
“Go easy on him, Scott,” said Murdoch, his tone contemplative. “Johnny’s had a lot on his mind.”
“Don’t worry, sir,” said Scott. He smiled at his father, thinking what a far cry the man was from the one who had greeted him and his brother upon their arrival at Lancer. It had taken everything in his power not to storm out of the room like a petulant child that day. But he had remained, holding his own against this man, his absent father, an undeniably commanding and intimidating figure. Surviving war and the time spent in a Confederate prison had given him a resolve and courage to face everything life sent his way head-on, even the likes of Murdoch Lancer and that of a black-haired, blue-eyed pistolero.
+ + +
Johnny had gone off half-cocked, not thinking to search around Lancer or through the many rooms of the hacienda. If Scott were with him, he would have suggested it as it would have been the sound thing to do. But as a rule, Johnny relied on instinct, and this time his gut told him Mattie, a girl with strong impulse to be unfettered, would likely take to the hills and rivers and woodland or maybe return back to her homeplace up Hard Luck way like a hurt wild thing. The only thing he was certain, Mattie would be on foot.
The full-size moon had been hiding itself away the past hour and his eyes strained to see the track ahead of him. The trail was a hard traverse in the light of day, foolhardy in the inky light of night’s darkest hour. Still he strove on, not wanting Mattie to believe he did not care enough to come for her. Unsure of what had been spoken between the girls, but a growing certainty it was a cruelty expressed about Mattie’s inability to talk, causing her to feel different, not good enough to be among regular folk.
It was a thing he knew all too well as a boy and had endured it more times than he liked to recall. Becoming Johnny Madrid had provided him a safe remove from such cruelties. There had been for the most part deference rather than derision. But even with his metamorphosis into the pistolero, Johnny Madrid, it had come several years too late, not able or willing to hold back the bitter tide of hatred, the unrelenting swell of fury in him. An ocean’s worth of it like to swallow him up and spit him out, sputtering and dying in the muddy wash. He had only one whom he held accountable and with killing in his eyes, he set off with that in mind. But he knew himself to be a liar, a four-flusher betting against himself, his heart not looking for reprisal, only for a father’s love.
The early days at Lancer had not been easy on him, his trigger finger itched like nothing he’d felt before, his hand quick as lightning traveled to his hip more times than he would have thought possible without making good on it. The old man had a way of getting under his skin and making him feel small and wrongheaded and in need of some finer points of discipline that involved woodsheds and switches. It wasn’t until Scott’s mentioning of how he thought Johnny enjoyed being scolded by his father, like an errant schoolboy, that it set him to ponder the notion and seeing the absolute truth of it.
All the years free as an alley cat, listening to no man, answering to no one, he had convinced himself he had it made, and life could hardly get any sweeter. But deep down, deep in the soul of him, in the far reaches of him, there was a frightened, sobbing, snotty-nosed kid who wanted a father so badly he felt the cut of it right to the flesh of him and the wanting of it scared him near to death.
Murdoch had told him his side of things in few words, a straight-shooter. His mama had lied to him, had torn him from a fine home, a pa who loved him more than life, more than Lancer. She had nearly destroyed him, nearly destroyed Murdoch. Still, Murdoch had said she had loved him, and he would have believed it as a child, but as a man grown, no longer content with the taste of scraps, saw plainly it had been the worst kind of love, a selfish, needful love with him doing all the giving and her all the taking.
Johnny rode on caught up in his remembrances, pulling his attention from the precariousness of the dirt track, though, aware of a niggling of something, like a small itch, trying to draw him back and away from his thoughts. It gave him a degree of irritation, immediately swapped by a startling rush of panic as he felt Barranca’s hind end dip, his back legs scrambling for purchase, and then a moment steadied. A breath released as Johnny took stock, only in that slip of time to find he was falling from the saddle and the horse loose from him. Eyes closed, hands protecting his head, Johnny cursed at his luck as he rolled and pin-wheeled down the side of a ravine.
It seemed to him as a dream, the damage felt, but moving too quickly to judge the extent. The pain was on an endless roam from one urgent jolt to another, bringing a ringing to his ears or jab to his back or knee or wrist or ankle. The right side of him was taking most of the impact, his gun a hard aching press into his hip as he struck and then bounced along rock face and large stones, rolling limp and loose as Mattie’s rag doll. But the final cruelty struck when Johnny’s foot tangled in a small deadfall, his body still rolling, his right leg unable to follow, rotating too far, feeling the dry snap of his shinbone, the searing pain, white-hot and close to intolerable. He felt the rise of sickness coming on him, but fought it down as he finally stilled to a halt, not quite at the foot alongside the running stream, but on a smaller lip that held him in a cradle of black sage.
Johnny hurt too badly to even consider the notion of being dead, though part of him preferred the idea of it. The part of him wanting to survive was kicking and shoving the other aside, fighting to get him to take an accounting of the hurt done to him. He groaned and cursed as he struggled to pull his right arm free from beneath him. It hurt something fierce, but he could tell it wasn’t broken, knowing he had a bad situation already with his leg. He wasn’t quite willing to know the truth of that yet, deciding to do an appraisal, first head then to foot.
A run of blood dripped into his eyes when he turned to get a look at where he had fallen. He raised his uninjured hand and touched fingers to a gash on the right side of his forehead. It throbbed then and the bleeding gushed considerably as all head wounds had a predisposition to do. With a shaky hand, he located the handkerchief and pressed it hard against the wound to staunch its flow. The cloth adhered to the deep cut, the gumminess of the blood, holding it in place.
He wished for his bull’s-eye canteen or rather Scott’s bull’s-eye canteen. He smiled to himself and thought how once again his sentiment had gotten the better of him. After hearing his brother had spent a year in a Confederate prison, Johnny had stumbled across the canteen, tossed aside in a jumble of his brother’s discarded belongings and felt a deep calling to keep it with him. It was as if he was protecting his brother somehow, holding the bad memories, the cruelties, and the heartbreak in his hands, the canteen becoming a token for him of sort, taking something bad and making it into something sacred, a talisman. In the light of day, it made no sense at all, but he felt better having it with him. Scott never questioned him about it, though he did see his brother smile when he first saw it hanging from the pommel of Johnny’s saddle.
Fat lot of good it was doing him. He thought about Barranca and hoped the horse wasn’t injured, though it seemed the palomino had managed to stay on safe terrain. If Barranca had fallen with him, Johnny believed he wouldn’t have survived it, either seriously injured by the crushing weight of the horse or more than likely dead. He was only five miles out from the Lancer hacienda. He could only trust Barranca would make his way back to home.
He shifted a little and the entire of him started hurting, his chest especially, and his breathing came in shallow bursts. With his good hand, he felt around for softness in his ribs. The ribcage seemed to be intact, but the bruising would be severe, the rise of colors on his chest and whole right side of him would be a sight. The coppery smell of blood was not helping his queasiness and the right side of his face was already swollen, his bruised eye starting to close shut. The most worrisome and painful injury was his leg. He felt the snapping of it over and over. If he kept his leg perfectly still, the pain was tolerable, but his right boot was getting tighter around his toes and ankle. He swore his entire right side was swelling to twice its normal size, his foot and leg the worst of it. The boot would need to come off before all was said and done, remembering the old Scottish skinning knife with its hilt of bog oak tucked in his left boot, a gift from his mother. When he got home, he would show it to Murdoch pleased that his father seemed more willing to talk about things. The notion gave Johnny a momentary peace.
But he had to get home first.
It took everything Johnny had to muster up the guts and strength needed to haul his broken and battered body into a seated position. Johnny took a deep breath and hoisted himself up on his elbows. A groan broke from him as he lifted himself up higher. He locked his elbows, bracing there for a time to keep from falling over into the deep nest of nearby sage. He tasted blood and he wanted to spit it out and into the earth, but he didn’t have the energy. He swallowed it down and nearly gagged on it. Johnny closed his eyes and opened them, one only partially.
Johnny took a deep breath and released it, settling his stomach. One by one, he brought his hands to his lap, grateful to have not tipped backward. It made him smile at the one small accomplishment. His injured wrist had become an afterthought; so many other hurts were making themselves known. Every part of him throbbed with pain.
Johnny needed to focus. His leg was a priority. He began to search for branches, his hand running over the ground as though sightless. The branches would have to be solid enough to be used as a splint. He had to keep going, keep on one task at a time, as it looked as though he would have to get himself out of the mess he was in alone. Luckily enough, there was plenty of brushwood around for him to use. Johnny reckoned some had broken loose from the deadfall where his foot had gotten caught. He gave a derisive snort at the idea of being lucky, scorning the branches that had broken his leg, but now would help save it, save him.
Johnny let his head fall back and closed his eyes, talking loudly into the stillness of night. “Yeah, that’s what you are Johnny Lancer, lucky!” He began to laugh wildly, until it turned into a long moan, and then his world went black.
+ + +
“Murdoch, she’s not here!” Teresa entered the room in a rush, her alarm obvious. Before he had a chance to speak, Scott came into the kitchen.
“No Johnny, either, Murdoch,” said Scott. “I think it’s a bit too late for a moonlight ride as it’s nearing one o’clock and the moon has been lost to cloud cover for several hours now.”
“I’m worried, Murdoch,” said Teresa, her dark eyes looking to him for reassurance.
“I don’t think we need to be concerned about Johnny and Mattie, Teresa. Time may have escaped them, especially Johnny,” said Murdoch, smiling as he called to mind Johnny’s efforts to be more attentive to schedules and deadlines. It was a battle hard-fought by his high-spirited boy, sorely aware it hadn’t quite yet been won. This might very well be one of those times, he reasoned
Mattie had run free most of her days in the surrounding hills, boyish and unschooled, the wildlife and the homestead animals her only companions. Her Uncle Lem and Doc Poovy and his wife the only people she had associated with in recent years. She, too, was high-spirited and not the least bit interested in tracking time’s passing. Johnny had called her feisty and she was at that. Murdoch supposed he should be concerned about the young woman’s virtue, but he put his trust in Johnny not to create a scandal. Moreover, Johnny loved Mattie and would never harm her in anyway. They had previously spent a night alone without proper chaperonage and none the worse for wear.
Of all the women who had come and gone from Johnny’s life from Laura to Lucy, from infatuation to flirtation, Mattie seemed to be his one true love. Johnny had fallen hard for many of the women, but the love hadn’t been sustained nor hadn’t been mutually shared, ending as quickly as morning spun its way into night.
The loss of Laura had been difficult for Johnny, having proposed marriage to the determined single-minded woman. But one thing his son had was an understanding and forgiving heart. Murdoch felt a warmth rise up in him, and his throat ached with curbed emotion, thinking how gracious and unselfish Johnny had been with Lucy and with Laura before her.
When acknowledging Johnny’s past, Murdoch was stupefied by how well his son had turned out having lived a critical time of his life entrenched in bloody violence. Johnny had told Laura all about Johnny Madrid and Murdoch was privy to what Johnny had told her, sharing his words with Murdoch. Johnny had been looking for assurance, holding an absurd and unfounded belief that his honesty about Johnny Madrid may have actually been the real reason for Laura’s change of heart. It had been such a quick about face, it had left Johnny reeling. After Johnny had time to think things over, he talked things out with Laura and understood her heart, as well as his own.
Johnny chafing at times under his authority, Murdoch felt it was best to let the reins go and allow the boy time alone with Mattie without feeling constrained. Her stay could very well be limited to only six more days, if Mattie were returning to Hartford. The question hadn’t yet been broached and Mattie hadn’t spoken of her plans.
“I think you both should turn in for the night,” Murdoch said. “Johnny can find his way home without our help. I’m sure they’re on their way back to the ranch as we speak.”
Scott ran a hand over his face. He grinned, looking a bit sheepish. “If Johnny knew I was planning to ride out looking for him with some of the boys, he’d never let me live it down. In fact, he’d be pretty steamed about it.”
Teresa smiled. “I think beneath it all he would be quite pleased, Scott. I can tell he loves having an older brother fussing over him.”
“A sister as well,” said Scott, his eyes soft with fondness, and then added, “and more so a father.” His voice was heavy with sentiment, noticeably affected.
As Scott and Teresa spoke about Johnny, images of his son came to Murdoch. He could see Johnny’s face in his mind’s eye, his absolute bliss, as they all sat around the dinner table together. Murdoch cherished those times, also, and insisted all to be present for meals. Johnny made a herculean effort to be there for his dinners, but mostly for the company of his family.
There was no sweeter word than family, Murdoch mused. Although the word, sons, had a sweet sound to it as well.
“I’m going to be up for a bit more, do a little reading before I turn in. Get some rest. If Johnny and Mattie aren’t back in an hour’s time, we’ll look for them,” said Murdoch. “I really don’t think there’s anything to worry over, but we’ll err on the side of caution.”
“I agree,” said Scott. “Wake me if they’re not back soon.”
“I will,” said Murdoch, giving Teresa a goodnight hug. “Good night, Scott, Teresa. Sleep well.”
“Try to get some rest yourself, Murdoch,” Scott said. “I’ve got an uneasy feeling about all this.”
“Scott,” said Murdoch, drawing out Scott’s name placatingly. “You’re seeing ghosts that aren’t there.”
“I hope you’re right,” said Scott.
“You’re exhausted. Go on to bed,” said Murdoch. “I’ll get you straight off if need be, I give you my word. Rest yourself and no worrying about your brother.”
Scott smiled and looked Murdoch in the eye. “It’s easier said than done, sir. As I’m sure you are well aware.”
Murdoch laughed at Scott’s words. “I’m very much so!”
“Well, goodnight, then.”
“Good night, son.” Murdoch made his way from the kitchen to the great room and stood at the bookshelf for a time, his mind wandering to Johnny. Scott’s feeling of foreboding had seemed to have wormed its way into his thoughts. The hour was growing late and Johnny would have had Mattie back at a reasonable time. The book he had wanted was in front of his nose and he shook his head at his distracted state of mind.
During the party, he couldn’t shake loose the memory of another social from a year ago. Johnny had nearly lost his sight then. It would seem absurd to think fate would be so cruel a mistress as to put Johnny again in another dangerous situation. He prayed it wasn’t so.
+ + +
Johnny slowly awakened to a light rain. A breeze had picked up and the ground was damp. The pain hadn’t reached him, yet, and he had an odd sensation of not really being fully aware as if he were floating between the borderland of wakefulness and dream. He mostly wanted to stay in the dreaming, but he slowly felt himself lifting to the surface, leaving behind a soft comfort deeper than slumber.
The whole of him felt too warm and the rain cooled him, but alternately made him shiver. The ripple of movement started at his shoulders, very slight, and steadily built as it rolled over him, crashing against his ruined leg. A hurting so severe hit him then and he let out such an anguished yell he suspected any night creatures around had scurried away in fear.
Lord God! Sweet, sweet Jesus!
Johnny hurt and was tired, so tired. But he heaved himself up despite it and stretched out his arm to where the sticks had fallen from his hand when he had lost consciousness. His movements were unusually stiff and awkward, his fingers uncooperative, the right hand nearly numb. With his deerskin coat and blanket roll tied behind the saddle’s cantle, he had only his shirt for cutting strips of fabric to tie and hold the splints in place.
Johnny felt sick and he shivered hard again. Desperate to hold back the tide of agony, he tensed, which only made things worse. He howled out a moan as the bone-deep throbbing rolled over him. He took in a long breath while his mind grappled with the pain, his thoughts turning to his father for strength.
“Murdoch,” he whispered, as he tugged at the shirttail and fumbled with the buttons. He uttered his father’s name over and over again like a sacred prayer, a holy chant.
Johnny was surprised by this unexpected need, and he wondered to himself when he had become so reliant. Laura had believed he was self-sufficient, independent, needing no one. But Johnny recognized it for the lie it was. Johnny Madrid had been a mask, a façade, a scared kid playing at being something he never really chose. But over the years, the playing got dead serious as his reputation grew as a fast gun. There was no denying he was good at it and he took pride in the fact of it. Not a back-shooter or a bushwhacker, always faced a man head-on and fair, even when those who called him out were as evil as the day was long. He never took the killing of a man lightly, and to this day he still felt the sickness of it deep inside him like it had been with the first.
Unlike Sexton Joe or Ishem or Pardee, Johnny supposed he had been cut of a different cloth, holding near to him a strong sense of right and wrong. He smiled, remembering how Tallie Warburton saw the good in him right off, firmly believing in him, even more so than he believed in himself. “I knew you were different. I knew you couldn’t be like all those others…I could feel it.” She had said with such certainty. He remembered he had smiled at her, dipping his head a moment to work through all he was feeling. Her words had moved him, pleasing him deeply, although it had made him a bit self-conscious, almost bashful.
And then there had been Lucy who had seen the good in him, as well. “Because you’re you,” she had said to him. He had wanted to know more, to know what she had seen in him to make her smile at him like she had, to make her look at him like she had with such fondness. There had never been praise or kind words or open affection when he was a boy. He had been scorned by his stepfather and ignored by his mother. He had watched on helplessly as she had become more and more sullen and distant toward him. Johnny sighed and raised a shaky hand to his face and wiped away the wetness there. Had he been crying, he wondered, or was it just the rain?
His thoughts wandered to a brilliant Mexican day, the sun blazing on the back of his neck, his head bowed, and his face hidden by the wide brim of his hat, his knees still damp from morning dew where he had been made to kneel for hours on a grassy slope, waiting. When the Rurales had called out to him, Johnny, knowing it would be the end of him, had been scared, but resigned, having made a fragile peace with God, the blood on his hands held out for Him to smite or forgive. He had lived the best way he could with what he’d been given, although he would forever carry a deep shame for some of the things he’d done to survive. But the plain fact of the matter was he had survived. He damn well would give himself that, whether his father or brother approved the means or not.
He’d been in tighter jams before and had gotten through them fine on his own. Sure, he would have rather had Murdoch or Scott’s company, but he couldn’t just wish them to be with him. He’d stopped believing in miracles a long time ago. He grinned and thought to himself, well, with the exception of that one day. Maybe he was more like Tallie than he realized with all her storybook notions. Kindred spirits, she had called them and Johnny a prince on a mission of peace. But even Tallie had to learn the lesson of things he’d been schooled in years ago as a young boy, that life didn’t often tender happy endings.
With that thought the pain in his leg and ankle flared and he was close to yanking the boot off his foot, a foolish idea at best. He leaned forward slightly and stretched a couple of fingers into his boot. The old Scottish skinning knife tucked inside slid out easily enough, though his foot and ankle were expanding considerably. He would worry about that later. Two fairly straight and sturdy branches were laid out on either side of his right leg and then he took his shirt and began to rent the cuff with the knife. Several slices were made in the fabric, tearing the sleeve into long strips.
After finishing that, he put the torn shirt back on, hoping to warm up enough to stop the shivering brought on by the night’s dampness and what felt to be an oncoming fever. Lifting a trembling hand to the right side of his head, he pulled on the handkerchief, but it was stuck fast with congealed blood. Johnny left it alone and began to work without thought on his broken leg, biting down hard on his bottom lip. He slowly positioned his leg to extend straight out in front of him. To his relief, Johnny couldn’t see blood or the white edge of bone. The leg needed to be set, but Johnny was not up to such things by himself. Instead, he made a quick attempt at bracing the limb with gentle hands, making sure he knotted the strips of fabric as tautly as he could make them. The splint lent him a sense of well-being, though he knew it to be an invention of his somewhat optimistic nature.
To the left-side of him, having slued down the ravine with stone and brush, Johnny found a branch, thick and nearly to his own shoulder height. He grinned as he took a firm hold of it with his left hand. “That’ll do,” he said and took a breath. He then jackknifed his good leg and began to raise himself up, bracing against the wood staff. He stood only briefly before dizziness overcame him and he began to sway like a sapling in a strong wind.
After he settled, his head no longer spinning, he moved the long stick to his right side, even though he would have some difficulty with his bad hand. The branch poked him under his arm, making things uncomfortable and a little painful. But it hurt far less than his leg and chest and hip and head. He hobbled forward, following the small stream in the direction of Lancer. The rain still fell, a bit more hard-driven, but not torrential. If the rains became too heavy, it would be dangerous, likely turning the small stream into drowning waters. The thought made him pick up his pace. To ease his mind, he tried to remember the poem Murdoch had recited to him. Frustrated, he cursed, not able to think of it, but he did remember it had to do with holding on too hard to joy. With that, Mattie came to mind and he couldn’t rid himself of a dark and sobering thought: For a second time, she had run away from him.
As he slogged along in his misery, one line of Murdoch’s poem did come to him and Johnny frowned. With an inconsolable shake of his head, he said it aloud, “He who binds himself a joy, doth the winged life destroy…”
+ + +
With candles and oil lamps still brightly lit in the great room, Murdoch tried to focus on the lines of the book, but continued to read the same sentence over and over again. He slapped it down on the sofa cushion in frustration. It was nearing two o’clock in the morning and Murdoch could no longer deny the truth of things. Johnny, although a little wild and impetuous, would never have kept Mattie out so late. Something had to be wrong. Clearly, Scott had a strong intuition when it came to his brother. The boys’ close bond would have brought Murdoch a great deal of pleasure if the matter hadn’t been so ominous.
Murdoch started when the room’s clock struck two, its chimes too loud in the silence of the large home. The room seemed to be without air and Murdoch rose from the sofa and moved hurriedly to the French doors, opening them in a wide sweep. He drew the early morning air deep into his lungs. His worry was getting the better of him and he instinctively knew he needed to settle himself and gain a cool head.
An image came to his mind’s eye. Murdoch saw himself again sitting on the portico reading Sam’s letter. Now, going over everything once more in his head, the realization of what he had done staggered him. He had, quite honestly, given his son very little choice in the matter of Mattie and Sam’s visit. Without any actual regard to Johnny, he had decided to invite them to stay at Lancer. Murdoch suddenly recalled a heated conversation he had with Scott involving, the then stranger, Jelly, and his convalescence at Lancer. Scott had wanted the older man ousted, sent packing, but Murdoch had stuck in his heels, proclaiming: “As long as my name is on the deed, I decide who stays under this roof!” At least, he had the forethought to temper it with this roof and not my roof.
Oh, he had asked Johnny if he wouldn’t mind and allowed him the option of saying no, but Murdoch saw he had boxed the boy into a corner. All things considered, had his need to control, to call the tune, taken precedence over all else? he wondered. It mattered little that it had been the courteous thing to do and Lancer could easily accommodate their guests. As a father, his son’s feelings should have been first and foremost and he had failed the boy greatly. Johnny hadn’t even been angry when he had mentioned the invitation. Murdoch now saw with astonishing clarity his son’s love for him. It had been greater than Johnny’s own needs. Murdoch bowed his head. He felt ashamed.
“Johnny,” he murmured, “Johnny,” but his boy wasn’t there to answer him.
When Murdoch heard the sound of shod hooves on hardpan and a flash of gold from the corner of his eye, his breath caught and his knees turned to water. He stepped forward with a tight grip on the door handle, steadying himself. Coming to his senses, he ran back into the hacienda and began shouting for Scott and Teresa. In little time, they were in the room with him, sleep-tousled and frantic.
Scott was the first to gather himself and asked, “What is it, Murdoch? Is it Johnny?”
“You were right, Scott,” said Murdoch. “Johnny’s palomino came back with no rider.”
“Damn it!” Scott said, going to the open doors and straining to see the horse for himself.
“Believe me, Scott, I wish I was wrong,” Murdoch said. “We’ve got to assume something has happened to Johnny and Mattie.”
“Barranca would never leave Johnny,” Teresa said, visibly shaken. “He’s even taught the horse to come when he whistles.” Teresa was near tears and Scott took her in his arms.
“It’s all right, Teresa,” said Scott. “I have every faith in Johnny he will keep himself and Mattie safe.”
Murdoch pulled himself out of his trance, his fear for Johnny nearly paralyzing him. Once more, he brought to mind that night, feeling the trembling of his entire body. He had shook with such force as he had let the letter take flight in the wind. To be shucked of it that easily, he had said. The letter had stirred in him such foreboding, and he’d been overcome with regret, along with an overwhelming urge to pitch the letter into the flames of the hearth without mention of it.
“Yes?” Murdoch asked distractedly.
“I’m getting dressed and then I’ll alert the men,” Scott said. “Teresa, would you get some provisions together, food, water, some medical supplies? I’ll get them on my way out.” Teresa nodded and hurriedly left the room. “Can you think of anything else, Murdoch?”
“What?” Murdoch asked, unable to focus.
“Murdoch, are you all right?” asked Scott, his concern evident.
“I knew, Scott. From the moment I held that letter in my hand, I’ve been on edge, waiting for something to happen. The stronger the feeling grew, the more I tried to ignore it. Your brother might very well be in serious trouble right now because of it.”
“Being on edge is understandable, Murdoch, as any father would be when a son has had his heart broken.” Scott walked up to him and gripped his arm. “Johnny will be fine, sir. I’m certain of that.”
“Yes, yes, of course, you’re right.” Murdoch gave a thin smile and nodded. “I’ll get my things and meet you at the stable. Wake Cipriano. He knows the land and reads sign better than anyone.”
“MURDOCH!” Teresa’s shout reached them in the great room. Murdoch glanced at Scott, alarmed. He recovered and ran through the doorway leading to the kitchen, Scott following him at a fast clip.
“Teresa, what’s wrong, sweetheart?” Murdoch stopped up short, surprised to find Mattie Cable soundly asleep at the long wooden kitchen table. His mouth gaped as he glanced back at Scott who stood behind him with a look of bewilderment on his face. “Teresa, would you kindly wake Mattie. But try not to frighten her,” he said.
Scott grinned. “While you’re doing that, I think I’ll go check Johnny’s room again.”
“I don’t understand what’s going on here,” said Murdoch. “Scott, I don’t think you’ll find Johnny there. But Mattie should have the answers we need. Go on, Teresa, wake her.”
Murdoch gave a quick glance at Scott, watching his son grapple with his disappointment and worry. “We’ll find him, son,” he said, trying to sound as certain as the statement made.
Scott nodded and they both stood beside Teresa while she called softly to Mattie. The young woman swam up from sleep and looked around with unfocused eyes. She ran a hand over her face and then started when she saw them around her.
Teresa sat down next to Mattie and hugged her. Murdoch forced himself to stay quiet, allowing Teresa time to question the nervous girl.
“Are you all right, Mattie?” Teresa asked.
Mattie nodded her head and smiled. Her smile was stunning and lit up her face and it reminded Murdoch of Johnny. He felt a twinge in his heart at the thought of his boy and he took in a sharp breath and shuffled his feet, trying to regain his composure. He felt Scott move closer to him, his eldest son’s presence giving him much needed reassurance.
“Were you out riding with Johnny?” Teresa continued to question Mattie, trying to shape each one for yes or no responses.
Mattie looked at them, her face reflecting her confusion. She shook her head vigorously and rapped her knuckles on the tabletop one time for no.
Murdoch stepped forward and put his hand on Mattie’s shoulder. “Mary Margaret had said you and Johnny were taking a moonlight ride.”
At the mention of Mary Margaret’s name, Mattie’s face crumpled and she lowered her head into her hands. Her shoulders quivered slightly and Murdoch thought she might be crying.
“Mattie?” Murdoch questioned gently. “Mattie, what’s wrong?”
She lifted bright blue eyes to him. Tears ran down her cheeks. Teresa, thinking ahead, pushed a writing tablet and pencil across the table to Mattie. Murdoch nodded and then sat down next to Mattie in the chair at the head of the table. “Johnny’s missing Mattie. Barranca came back without him.”
Mattie brought a hand to her mouth and she began to cry again in earnest.
“Mattie, listen to me,” said Murdoch. He needed the young woman to focus. If Johnny was hurt, they could not waste time. “You have to tell us everything that happened, please. Johnny needs you. He needs us.”
Mattie nodded and wiped her face, taking in a deep breath. She began to write about meeting Mary Margaret on the veranda and the girl’s initial cruelty toward her, telling Mattie that she should go away and leave Johnny Lancer alone. When Murdoch read Mattie’s words about Johnny promising to take care of Mary Margaret, his heartbeat caught for a brief moment. Reading what Mattie had written, Murdoch understood immediately Mattie had misconstrued Johnny’s intent. Her handwriting was close to illegible as she wrote with urgency. Her thoughts seemed jumbled and anxious. Especially when she put into words how she had run away from the hacienda, had run away from Johnny. She, at first, had felt betrayed and hurt, but then she had come to her senses aware Johnny would never be so cruel to her and she had made a dreadful mistake.
It had taken her some time to get back, having lost her way more than once. When she had finally arrived back at Lancer, she was tired and thirsty. She had entered the kitchen from the back veranda and had sat down for just a moment when she must have fallen asleep. She had woken to Teresa calling to her.
Murdoch stood up and pressed a hand on Mattie’s shoulder. “Thank you, sweetheart. Teresa , perhaps, Mattie would like to freshen up and get a change of clothing.”
Teresa gave a small smile and took Mattie’s hand. “Come on, Mattie. You’ll feel much better once you’re out of that dress.”
Mattie shook her head and banged her knuckles on the tabletop. She began to sign Johnny’s name.
Scott bent down and looked directly at Mattie. “We’re going to search for Johnny right now. We need you and Teresa to stay here just in case he comes back to the hacienda. Will you do that for Johnny, Mattie?”
Mattie lowered her head and shrugged her shoulders. Scott lifted her chin with his fingers and looked at her for a long moment. “Will you do that for Johnny?”
Mattie nodded, sniffling. “Good girl,” Scott said, pulling Mattie into his arms. “Good girl.”
Murdoch caught Scott’s eye and said, “Let’s bring Johnny home.”
+ + +
There had been a hard rain for several hours, but it had at last tapered off into a dreary mizzle. The sky, still thick with clouds, was beginning to lighten in the east. A gray cast fell across the valley and over the distant foothills. It was nearing five o’clock in the morning. Murdoch looked over at Scott and then to Cipriano. He watched as they scoured the ground for sign, even though the rain had washed away any clear trail. It had been decided early on to break up into groups, one going on to Green River, another Morro Coyo, and the remaining, Spanish Wells. Murdoch, Scott and Cipriano were headed to Hard Luck. The familiarity of it all had not been lost on Murdoch, although this time Jelly was in San Francisco, visiting an old friend.
Murdoch had sent Jelly a wire about Mattie Cable’s homecoming shortly after he had received the letter, wanting the man’s opinion. Of course, Jelly had not been pleased and was ready and willing to cut his visit short. Murdoch had told the man straight-out he was overreacting. Mattie had said she loved Johnny in her simple handwritten note and there had been no doubt, Johnny loved Mattie. They wanted to see each other again. It was as simple as that. The worry and fuss over it was preposterous and getting out-of-hand. Completely blown out of proportion, he had said to Jelly. Just let sleeping dogs lie.
Murdoch shook his head, annoyed with himself. “Just let sleeping dogs lie,” he had said.
They were approaching the same small falls with its fresh water pool where they had come upon Barranca a year ago. Murdoch looked around slowly, his eyes taking in everything. The tules grew tall and lush along the shoreline and the waters were crystal clear. It was an idyllic spot, but it made Murdoch shiver knowing Johnny nearly lost his life in this place. Fortunately, Mattie was familiar with the surrounding country and that alone, at the outset, saved them both, hiding Johnny from the bushwhackers until the danger had passed. Johnny had been unconscious and may well have drowned if Mattie hadn’t pulled him to safety. There was an inner strength and determination in Mattie that Murdoch could not help but admire.
He sighed and ran a weary hand over his face, deeply troubled. They had gone too far. They must have passed Johnny somewhere further back. Perhaps, it had been where the trail forked. When Scott had first approached the nearly impassable trace, he had cursed under his breath. Murdoch had turned to him, saying: “Even Johnny wouldn’t be that reckless…”
Scott had fought him, wanting to take the narrow trail which could scarcely fit the width of two horses, side-by-side. The right side of the trail dropped down into a fifty foot deep ravine and to the left was a steep rise. It was quicker, but far too risky and the rain would have made it even more dangerous to navigate. Murdoch had chosen the longer, well-traveled path. Of course, Scott had shown his disapproval quite openly, glowering at both Murdoch and Cipriano as they rode and when spoken to, his words had been clipped and heated.
Scott had been correct once again. Johnny, no doubt, had been worried about Mattie and had been hot to find her. Of course, the boy would have been that reckless. Murdoch shifted in his saddle, trying to alleviate the pressure in his lower back and hip. He grimaced, covering it by reaching for his canteen. He took a deep pull of water and then looked over the landscape. His boy was back there, alone, perhaps hurt or worse. But he chose not to think of the worst. He couldn’t bear that, not again. He wouldn’t allow God to take his boy from him again.
No, damn it! Not again!
+ + +
“Patrón! He is here! He is here!” Cipriano’s shouts cut as sharp as a knife through the morning’s gloom. The air was heavy with moisture, but it had finally stopped raining. Scott pulled on the reins with a gentle hand, not wanting to stir up his mount. Even a novice tracker could see where Johnny had gone over and down into the ravine. His heart raced, feeling the pinprick of tears. Dear God! Dear God! Johnny!
Dismounting, Scott gingerly moved forward to the edge of the ravine, Murdoch sidling up next to him.
“Can you see him?” his father asked. The fear in his voice was pronounced.
Scott shook his head. “No,” he said.
Cipriano pointed to a large thicket of black sage. “There,” the man said. “Do you see the cloth?”
Scott followed Cipriano’s line of sight. He had been a superior marksman during the war, having a natural aptitude and a keen eye. Scott saw the strips of fabric immediately.
“The color of the cloth is similar to the shirt Johnny was wearing,” Scott said. “But I don’t see him.”
“Juanito returns home,” Cipriano said. “He follows the river.”
“How do you know for certain?” asked Scott.
Cipriano said, “The climb would be too difficult. It is what I would do.”
Scott nodded and smiled back at the man. “Yes, it is what I would do as well.” He looked at Murdoch. “At least we know he had survived the fall.”
“Now to find him,” Murdoch said and patted Scott’s shoulder.
For more than an hour they worked their way back along the narrow, crumbling trail and then to the fork headed toward Lancer. The river broke off from them and out of view, but Cipriano led the way, descending down a large hill and through a dense stand of hardwood trees. Scott could hear the sound of moving water in the distance and hastened toward it, only to stop up short when he came to a low ridge. He looked over the lip and his heart met his throat. Johnny lay at the bottom along the riverbank, his entire right side floating in the shallow waters.
His brother looked more dead than alive and Scott had to quiet his mind as the long-stilled memories of war riffled before him like a thousand daguerreotypes. Every image made his stomach tighten and he was on the cliff edge of illness. His stomach convulsed, but he kept it down the way he had been raised to keep things down and hidden from the light of day. Anger, loneliness, unhappiness, feelings never to be recognized, questions never to be asked or answered, his mother – the sainted, his father – the devil incarnate. It had all been hidden behind a wall of refinement and propriety.
The sound of his father beside him, his sharp intake of breath at the sight of Johnny, and then his rash and impulsive movement to go to him, brought Scott back to the present.
“NO!” Scott heard himself shouting, “NO! It’s too dangerous!”
Murdoch stopped and looked at Scott for a long beat. He rubbed a hand over his face and nodded.
“He needs us, Scott,” Murdoch said to him.
“I know, sir,” said Scott.
At that moment, Cipriano rode up behind them. The man’s face a dark shroud, indicated for them to go with him. Serous coal black eyes watched them as they mounted and wheeled their horses around and followed. Cipriano spoke with a quiet voice. “A deer trail runs to el rio,” the man said. “Vamanos por favor.”
They made their way down the trace in slow cautious increments, a small tight string, one behind the other. Scott thought only on their descent, he chose not to think of anything else. The Book of Common Prayer was a soldier’s staple and a plea ran over and over in his mind, warding off his dread: Good Lord, deliver us, from lightning and tempest; from plague, pestilence, and famine; from battle and murder, and from sudden death. And then another of his own making: Don’t die, don’t die, don’t die…
+ + +
They were finally at the river and Scott, along with Cipriano, dropped down from their saddles. Murdoch watched all this as if in a dream, everything slowed, muted and muffled. Scott and Cipriano were quickly alongside Johnny, and Murdoch turned his eyes away from them, waiting for the inevitable.
In his misery, he envisioned how it would unfurl. They would slowly turn to him and they would say: Johnny is dead. Your sweet boy is dead. His anger rose, frustrated. He cursed Maria and he cursed fate. He had been robbed of so much and now this. Damn it to hell!
Scott calling out his name was as loud as a thunder clap, intruding on his thoughts, and Murdoch jumped slightly. It had been much easier to feel nothing, hollowed out, empty. Even anger would have been easier than the agonizing sense of loss, the excruciating fear. His heart banged loudly, echoing through him. His chest ached from the fierce pounding, and he raised a hand, his fingers rubbing hard against bone, skin, muscle. Murdoch watched Scott stand, saw his lips moving, words forming there, but unable to hear, the beating of his heart deafening him.
It was Scott’s smile that saved Murdoch, brought his heart to a slower rhythm, allowed him to breathe, to hear.
“What?” Murdoch asked, needing the words spoken again.
“He’s alive! Johnny’s alive!”
Murdoch dropped down from his saddle, gripping the saddle horn to steady himself, to gain his legs.
“Thank God,” he whispered, “Thank God.” It was as close to a prayer as he would offer, owed to the scores gone unheeded. He untied the rawhide strings from his blanket roll attached to the saddle and made his way over to the men. His legs felt weak, but he found a gradual control over them with each step forward. Cipriano and Scott had moved Johnny to drier ground, laying him gently on one of the blankets. It was getting warmer, rays of bright sunlight splitting through the clouds every so often. Murdoch hovered over the men, his shadow covering them. They looked up at him and Murdoch saw a flicker of something in Scott’s eyes. Had it been concern or annoyance? he wondered.
Murdoch knelt down on the spread-out blanket near Johnny’s left side. He saw the right side of Johnny’s face was badly swollen, a myriad of scraps and cuts evident. A soiled handkerchief had congealed to the right side of the boy’s head from the blood. Right away, Murdoch’s thoughts went to the older furrow that had run between Johnny’s left temple and brow. It had healed slowly, but only leaving a slight scar. Murdoch grew queasy. The boy had so many scars, not so prominent to notice, but enough for a father to recognize a hard life lived by one too young.
“Murdoch?” Scott’s voice pierced through his wanderings.
“What?” Murdoch blinked up at his eldest boy, his head clearing slowly.
“Johnny is hurt too badly to travel by horseback,” said Scott.
“Si,” Cipriano said from the blanket near Johnny, agreeing.
Murdoch nodded. “I’ll stay with him. Scott, go back to Lancer and get help. We’ll need a wagon and blankets. Cipriano, ride into Spanish Wells for Sam Jenkins and meet us back at Lancer.”
Cipriano nodded at him and said, “The doctor will want to know his injuries.” He stood and moved to Johnny’ right side, pulling his knife from the scabbard. His touch was soft, gentle, and the knife moved through the thick fabric as if through air, avoiding the strips of cloth holding the splints in place. Johnny’s leg was a horrible sight, discolored, swollen, his ankle as well. Murdoch then stopped up short, his gaze settling on a familiar hilt of a knife jutting from Johnny’s boot.
Murdoch shook his head and blinked hard several times. Was it an apparition? he wondered. Was it real? He had lost a similar knife well over twenty years ago. It had been a gift from his father. The man had not wanted him to leave Inverness, disapproval looming between them, rigid and insurmountable. It had been his grandfather’s knife and his grandfather’s before him. On the day of Murdoch’s leaving , his father had given the knife to him as a symbol of sanction and love. It had been a father’s blessing.
At the time, Murdoch had felt redeemed, reborn, his heart and feet light as he walked the gangway to the ship carrying him to the New World. He was no longer bound to his father, the man releasing him, letting him go, knowing doing otherwise, would destroy them. With the gift of the knife there had been a note attached with the lines of a poem, the same poem he had shared with Johnny. It had said: “He who binds himself a joy, doth the winged life destroy.”
Murdoch had been his father’s joy, his life. But he had loved him enough to release him, to give him the winged life. Murdoch would do no less for his sons, for Scott and for Johnny.
“Go quickly, please,” Murdoch said, his eyes meeting Scott’s.
Scott nodded and moved to his horse. He looked at Murdoch and then turned his eyes to Johnny for a long time. He seemed unable to make himself leave his brother.
“Scott, you need to hurry,” said Murdoch. “I give you my word, I will keep him safe.”
At long last, Scott, flanking Cipriano, turned his horse and made the rise to the deer trace and was soon out of sight.
Murdoch then settled Johnny in his arms to wait for Scott’s return, his back pressed against the rough bark of a tree. With little sleep, he began to doze. He clasped his son’s hand as he fell into a dream. In his dreaming, he struggled to keep his hold on Johnny. The river waters began to rage around them and it seemed in the briefest of time, Murdoch had only one of Johnny’s fingers left in his grip. Startlingly, it changed from a young man’s into a baby child’s. The one small finger curled around his larger one and then in that moment slipped away from him.
Murdoch woke, sweat-soaked and breathing heavily. It took some time to gather his wits. He began to hear murmuring, a voice. With budding awareness, he realized Johnny was talking. He saw the boy was looking upward at him, wide blue eyes unfocused and troubled.
“I tried, Murdoch …just couldn’t…”
“Couldn’t what, son?” Murdoch hitched Johnny up closer to him, holding him in his arms like a child, hoping to warm the shivering boy, even as the early morning cold gave way to the warmth of midday.
“Couldn’t save her, couldn’t save her.” A wretched sound sprung from Johnny, tearing a hole in Murdoch’s heart. It was an ancient sorrow, its roots deep and virulent. Maria. Johnny convulsed as he seemed to be struggling to hold things back, as if he were keeping dark remembrances locked inside of him in the black forbidden recesses away from good, away from light, away from Murdoch.
A choked-back sob came then and another after that. Murdoch held onto Johnny tightly as he felt the slide of his own tears hot on his cheeks. Years upon years of loneliness and loss flowed out of him, slowly at first, but then a wide-open burst.
“We couldn’t save her, Johnny,” Murdoch found himself saying. “We tried. We did our best. We loved her, but it wasn’t enough.”
Johnny groaned and trembled in Murdoch’s arms.
“Mi nino dulce,” said Murdoch, “my sweet, sweet boy.” He pressed his lips against the crown of Johnny’s head, closing his eyes, remembering Johnny as an infant. There was a pining strong in him to hold his boy in his arms until he understood the absolute depth and wellspring of a father’s love. Murdoch gradually realized the intensity of his hold on Johnny was causing him pain, but he couldn’t bring himself to let go, a raw desperation there.
His throat was tight, constricted, making it hard for him to speak. He didn’t recognize his voice when he said, “You loved her, Johnny. That’s all a child can do.”
“It wasn’t enough,” whispered Johnny into the air, a sigh.
“It’s not your fault, son,” said Murdoch.
“Why wasn’t it enough?” Johnny seemed far away, lost, making Murdoch frightened. He gave a small shake to Johnny’s shoulder.
Johnny took in air, though it seemed grudgingly, and then rested his head against Murdoch’s chest with a loud sigh. The entire of him finally relaxed in Murdoch’s hold.
“Te amo, Pa,” Johnny said, drifting off to what Murdoch hoped was sleep.
Te amo, hijo,” Murdoch said, hugging the boy to him. Murdoch remembered Scott’s words about Johnny making amends, looking for clemency, but it wasn’t at all what Scott had thought. It wasn’t about being a hired gun, a pistolero, or even about those he had killed. It was all about Maria, saving Maria, saving his mother.
Every hard luck cause, even when his cynicism and his better judgment told him to walk away, he had remained, especially for the women and children. Murdoch thought back to Johnny’s return from paying the back taxes on a piece of forgotten Lancer property. He had been grinning from ear-to-ear, even though he had returned with an arm in a sling after having been shot. Johnny had bubbled over with joy, happy to be home and happy to have given a home to a mother and her son. Murdoch saw the parallel between the desperate woman and her young son and the younger Johnny and his own mother. Perhaps Johnny believed with each person saved, he was saving his younger self, as well as, saving his mother, saving Maria. Murdoch sighed. All the complexities making up the weave of Johnny Madrid Lancer, its warp and weft, the intricate pattern and particulars, were well worth the knowing, no matter the constant tangles and twists.
Johnny was twenty-two, a man, but he was still Murdoch’s little boy. He saw the same unbridled joy, the same open affection, the quiet ease with people , the genuineness, as he had seen long ago. It was all achingly familiar. Johnny had laid bare his heart, his soul unguarded, even after life had taught him it would only bring him hurt. In spite of everything, his child, his son still remained hopeful.
Murdoch began to rock, remembering the rhythm of things, humming a long-ago forgotten lullaby, and his heart overflowed. “I love you, Johnny, so, so much.”
And there a father held his son, waiting for deliverance.
+ + +
Dreams came to Johnny or what he reckoned to be as such. Although, it wasn’t a certainty as the grisly imaginings were far too authentic and vivid not to be real. Johnny shivered, but continued to feel the run of sweat down his sides, rolling across the small of his back, his chest, his face. He coughed and coughed again, dry as dust. Desert hot and a thirst he’d not known the like of in some time. With the dreams commenced a remembering of terrible things, kindling a reckoning long banked, a bitter burning, the fear and sickness stronger in him than he had ever felt.
Ghosts walked with Johnny, haunts abounded, startling him when an image was conjured of a child, long-ago forgotten, splayed dead in the road on the edge of a Mexican village where Johnny had taken shelter as a young boy. The village, though poor, had been hospitable to a woman and her blue-eyed son. Still his fever-dream continued to wend through the pan of his brain and Johnny watched himself on a rawboned grulla reining up next to the small corpse, hackles high, feeling the hair of his arms and neck rising, a primal chariness, his eyes keen. It was to him as tangible as it had been on the day when he, all but a starveling, had come back alone to the village and onto the calamitous scene, his mother years gone.
In his haunted dream, he could see further on where an old dead woman had been propped up on a broken chair, the eyes hollow and sightless, but her head atilt at the sky watching, waiting for God’s army. He bowed his head respectful of the departed. In the old woman’s lifeless body, he recognized her bravery, her mettle. In death, her hands still clenched a clay-beaded rosary and a bloodied rock stuck with bits of hair and scalp. A small satisfaction sparked in him then, a shimmer of light where he had only darkness.
Across the dreamscape, Johnny rode on toward the church. Skewered by their heels, five men hung from poles as if venison, throats slit. A rill of blood ran over their faces into their stunned, open eyes to finally pool into the dark earth. He dismounted and knelt in front of them, blessing himself with his right hand, making the sign of the cross. He dipped his fingers into their blood and scraped them down his cheeks, first one and then the other. He stood and walked over to the church, a sacred place plundered and besieged by Lucifer’s legion. The whole of the village laid there, mother upon the child, father upon them all, an ineffectual shield. Blade and bullet pierced flesh, finding vital places. His screams ruptured from him then, tears spilling and mixing into their blood, trying to remember faces and families he’d known as a boy. But he had stopped trying, couldn’t bring himself to look anymore, flesh gone bad, decaying. The village had stood for many years, fortunate for far too long.
Johnny shuddered with pain, both in body and spirit and watched as he reeled out of the church. His teeth grinding, jaws clenched. He wanted to run from the village, run from the wretched departed. Only in his febrile imaginings would he have ever returned to this place. He looked toward the low mountains, across a familiar land, recalling a particular splendor in the elephant tree and prickly pear, organ pipe, milkweed, and white sage. But to many, it remained a piece of hell on God’s good earth. It had been all he’d known.
Johnny turned away from the sunlit landscape and looked over the village, shocked to see his mirror image, kneeling in prayer as he had done that day, years prior. He could hear the words spoken, the voice aggrieved: Avē Marīa, grātiā plēna, Dominus tēcum. Benedicta tū in mulieribus, et benedictus frūctus ventris tuī, Iēsus.Sāncta Marīa, Māter Deī, ōrā prō nōbīs peccātōribus, nunc et in hōrā mortis nostrae. Āmēn.* He was no longer sure of the real or the imagined.
His half-dreaming eyes caught sight of something far-off, a shadow, and he strained to see it. He began to hear voices calling his name countless times, voices he knew well. Johnny did not want them in the village, did not want them to see its horrors. He called back in his distress for them to go from him, but in his heart he hoped they would come, fearing he would remain forever between two worlds, caught in the borderlands of his delirium. But only to himself did he plead: Save me from this hell! Come take me from here!
Johnny was too tired to sort out or consider things further. Come if they will, he couldn’t keep them back from it. He only wanted to sleep, and he again watched himself from a barn swallow’s vantage as he took his tatty bedroll from the place behind the cantle and sought out a corner of the despoiled church. He outspread his blanket away from the bloated corpses and thick pools of blood, leaving only a small space for him up against the altar.
Johnny struck a Lucifer match and lit all of the prayer candles. The Virgin Mary stood in silent sanction of the votive offerings in a niche far above the glowing candles of tallow. Her eyes were closed, her face serene, her head bowed, and Johnny thought to himself, She had been a good mother to her Son. An odd and sudden notion came to him wishing she’d been his. He groaned at his lunacy. “NO MORE! NO MORE!” Johnny cried out, his howls of anguish reverberating off the whitewashed walls of adobe.
All at once, he felt sore from boot to crown, his right leg felt heavy, sheathed. His head throbbed and his chest ached. He lowered down to the floor and stretched out on the blanket. The candle light was comforting, the church restful, even though he could sense the spirits of the departed around him. He recalled a childhood prayer: If I should die before I wake … if I should die…, and then fell into blackness.
+ + +
Scott watched Murdoch soothe Johnny and his heart was full. But there was, also, a measure of sadness for the years lost. He swiped at his eyes, resumed his vigil, and held his breath when Johnny called out from some long-ago haunting. His heart pained him, a twinge, seeing Johnny cling to Murdoch like a lost and frightened child, even as his shouts told them to stay away, to leave him. At first, Murdoch seemed taken aback, as if having been hurt by it, but soon recovered, not letting the raving deter him from comforting his ailing son.
The morning hours were rife with intermittent waking and moments of lucidity. But then Johnny would slip back into alarming hallucinations and delirious ranting. In his delirium, Johnny had spoken Latin, giving Scott quite a surprise. It was a prayer he recognized as the Hail Mary. When Scott raised a questioning eye to Murdoch, his father gave a quick mention of Maria’s religious background. She had been a devout Catholic, which gave Scott pause, thinking about her marital infidelity.
His fatigue was taking its toll and if he were thinking clearer, he would have made the connection himself. Nevertheless, he was still amazed, hearing his younger brother speak flawless Latin. A language he had found a bit of a struggle conquering as a young boy, remembering his Latin oral exam, grueling at sixteen, but a requirement for admittance to Harvard. Romance languages, of course, stemmed from Latin and Johnny’s fluency in Spanish certainly made it easier for the boy. Even with a minimal of formal education, Johnny was smart as a whip.
Scott closed his eyes for a brief time and stifled a yawn. He moved his head from side-to-side, working out the crick in his neck. Their vigil over Johnny was both unnerving and tedious. Scott’s mind began to wander as he attempted to picture a much younger Johnny in church at quiet prayer. The thought amused him greatly, alleviating some of his tension. By that point, he was half-aware of the goings on in the room, having fallen into daydreams, and he started violently, as if assaulted, when Johnny began to scream. He bolted upright to his feet only to lose his balance and land on his knees, his chair falling over with a thump against the floor.
In the span of a breath taken, the war let loose, a fierce burst upon him like a dark and dangerous squall, an angry gale. Shaken, his gaze traveled the room, seeking escape, but he could only see before him two Rebel soldiers, rank, bloodied, and broken – a father laying beside his son, ten years old at best, an open ditch for a grave. “I am sorry, he whispered, I am sorry.” He pulled in a lungful of air and then another, desperate to even out his breathing. Again, he looked around the room, this time his eyes locking with his father’s. He could see Murdoch’s panic at being caught between his two sons’ needs, but seemed to be moving to come to him. With his wits returned, Scott begged him off, stumbling from the room in a rush, his stomach in upheaval, vomiting in the nearest basin he came across.
Once outside on the portico, he brought to heel his wild emotions with a large dose of fresh air and four fingers of Bourbon. A wind came out of the north and he thrust his face into it, his long hair blown back from his damp forehead and temples. He stood a moment with his face lifted into the wind and watched the dust from the pathway rooster-tail and rise like singular ghosts, one after the other, and Scott giving each one voice, saying their names. In memoriam, the departed rose up from the dusty earth as if souls endeavoring toward better things, to be rid of war’s hardship and horror, and seeking the peace of God’s embrace.
After a time, thinking things out this way, Scott felt much improved. He returned to the room and nodded reassurance to his father, the man having more than enough on his mind with Johnny. Scott sighed and bit down hard on his lip. His brother was ill, very ill. Doctor Jenkins had come and gone, Mrs. Annie Drake near to begetting, and quickly immersed himself in the task at hand, setting and immobilizing Johnny’s leg in a short plaster cast, taking care of the multitude of cuts, scrapes, and deep bruising from the fall and then had stated bluntly, they would have to wait and see if any issues arose of the lungs.
That had been yesterday afternoon, and true to form, Johnny had started to develop rales. It had been discovered by Teresa when she had propped her ear against his chest and had heard the crackling and rattling. The head wound, along with several deep gashes along Johnny’s lower back and hip, had grown infected. The wounds had not been cleansed in a proper or timely fashion and dirt had grimed into the deep lacerations. While making his way home in the pouring rain, fever had come on Johnny with a vengeance. He’d been out of his head since their return to Lancer.
Scott now stood quietly by the open window and watched while Murdoch slipped out from beneath Johnny, lowering him down to the mattress with remarkable gentleness. It seemed to Scott in a manner evocative of a new father on tenterhooks, hoping not to wake the napping babe. Murdoch touched a hand to Johnny’s forehead, his eyes wet, dark with worry. He turned to Scott and said, “He seems to be sleeping. I need to…” Murdoch’s words fell off, drifting, his exhaustion apparent.
“Murdoch, please do get some rest. I’ll be here for Johnny,” Scott said.
Murdoch looked at him, his gaze intent. “I can’t promise you Johnny won’t…”
Again Murdoch let his words trail off, although his eyes expressed his concern well enough. Scott looked away sorely ashamed of his earlier show of weakness. He felt his father’s hand pressed against his back.
“Scott, son, I’m worried about you,” Murdoch said. “But I do know you’ll take good care of your brother.”
Scott turned and gazed at Murdoch, swallowing several times before he was able to speak. “Yes, I will, sir. Thank you for saying so.”
Murdoch nodded and patted Scott’s shoulders. “I’ll be back in an hour or two.”
“Just rest, Murdoch,” Scott said. Murdoch gave a slight smile, looked over at Johnny for a long beat, and then finally left the room.
Scott moved a small cane chair next to the bed. He sat a hairsbreadth away from Johnny, so close to feel the heat of his brother, peppering Scott’s forehead with sweat. He lifted a hand to Johnny’s brow, checking the fever’s potency. Without thought, Scott reached over to the bedside pitcher, pouring out water into a near empty bowl and took up a cloth to bathe his brother. The task had been done so frequently throughout the night and morning hours, it felt reflexive, as if a child reciting lessons by rote.
At that moment, Mattie and Teresa came into the room with a large bowl and socks, one of cotton and one of wool. Scott smiled over at them and wrinkled his brow, curious. Teresa grinned and said to him, “Mattie has a wonderful tea remedy for fevers. It’s made with peppermint, yarrow, boneset, and elder flowers. That should help Johnny sweat out the fever and clear his lungs.”
Scott nodded. Before coming back to Johnny’s room, he had gone into the kitchen for some mint tea to settle his stomach. He had come upon Mattie and Teresa milling about, soaking soiled and bloodied linens in the soapstone sink, collecting cone flower, boneset, and yarrow from the kitchen garden for pots of tea and poultices, filling pitchers and bowls with tepid water mixed with vinegar and gathering clean towels to be used to bathe Johnny, with hopes of abating and loosening the grip of fever.
“And are the socks a cure as well?” asked Scott, smiling.
“Yes, Scott, as a matter of fact they are just that,” said Teresa, smiling back at him. “When I had a very high fever as a child, my father had soaked a pair of cotton socks in cold water and then had placed them on my feet, layering them with a pair of wool socks. My fever broke soon afterward.”
Teresa walked to a low dresser and set the bowl down and began to wet the cotton sock. She lifted it up and wrung it out a little bit. “I’ve put vinegar in the water as well. I’ll bath him with the water and vinegar mixture afterward. Unfortunately, it will only be the one foot. I hope that will be good enough.”
Scott stood and walked over to Teresa. “What do you need me to do?” Scott asked. Teresa smiled and gave an appreciative squeeze to his arm.
“I’ll need your help moving Johnny when I replace the poultices and put clean bandages on his wounds. Mattie will give Johnny the tea when it’s ready and I’ll do the vinegar bath a bit later.”
Scott looked over at Mattie, forgetting she was in the room. She seemed deeply saddened, almost broken. Her hands moved about like hummingbirds. He realized she was talking to Johnny while he slept. Scott had taken a cursory glance at her book left on the sofa table, showing the alphabet and some frequently used words. It was impossible for him to even follow her swift fingers, but her sorrow was palpable.
Scott held mixed feelings about Mattie and Johnny’s relationship. With Mattie’s limitations and her seeming uncertainty about Johnny and his feelings toward her, Scott couldn’t hold back his worry for his younger brother. It had been a long road back for Johnny. The Johnny who made him laugh with just a quick glance, a lift of a brow or a grin had almost been lost to him. Scott needed the teasing, annoying, high-spirited, and just plain joyful brother to be by his side every day of his life. Perhaps childish, perhaps selfish, but the truth of it could not be denied.
Just as Murdoch felt, things did not seem to settle right for Scott either. As harsh as it sounded in his mind, he couldn’t help himself, but think Mattie did not belong with Johnny. He had no idea the outcome of things and undoubtedly couldn’t hold back its tide. Johnny, once more, would need to make his own way. But Scott preferred the boy wasn’t put through the mill again.
Of course, Johnny would be angry with him, if Scott told him how he felt about Mattie. But he was certain Johnny would thank him later for his concern, his insightfulness. Scott felt eyes on him then and looked up into Mattie’s blue searching ones. Had she read his thoughts, Scott wondered. Had he spoken aloud in his fatigue? He smiled at her as a flower of guilt bloomed in him. She seemed to be so ingenuous, so childlike, qualities he surprisingly discovered Johnny possessed.
Great God! What a mess! Scott thought to himself. Johnny was finally able to just be a son, a brother, to just be a boy. And everything Scott had in him wanted to protect that boy, even from a sweet, little thing like Mattie Cable.
+ + +
*Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinner, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
+ + +
Johnny woke thinking he had been cast from hell and received into heaven for beside him a seraph was lying asleep. The light hair, bone-white, ethereal and pure, spread in a sweep across his bare chest and he thought of angel’s wings. But still he was hard-pressed to put faith in his good fortune for God was privy to his ways.
The creature stirred and his heart thumped against his ribs, frightened and unsure of what was expected of him, waiting to be hauled up by the ear and pitched into the street. Purgatory had always been his best hope, but not this place, not for Madrid.
At that moment, the angel rose up and looked at him. Her eyes, a burnished blue, were the color of a cloudless spring sky. She moved her lips, but Johnny couldn’t hear what she was saying and he became frightened.
“What?” Johnny asked. “I can’t hear you.” Though curiously, he could hear his own voice as loud as a clanging bell.
Her bird hands began to fly around him, fluttering. Sign, he thought to himself, but it was foreign to him. And his mind ran off without his consent: Your mother was a foreigner wasn’t she? Foreigner, fornicator…foreigner…fornicator… He couldn’t stop until he shook his head to rid himself of the disparaging and cruel remark, one of his own making.
“I don’t understand,” Johnny said aloud to the angel. But he understood clearly when her lips touched his and her body, as sure and solid as his own, lay over him. What kind of angel was this? he wondered.
She smiled and he smiled back. He was startled a moment when he felt what he recognized as pain, growing steadily. His leg was the worst of it and he groaned.
He thought to himself, Not heaven then, not heaven.
Too exhausted, too scared, he closed his eyes and let the darkness hide him away.
+ + +
Evening had fallen on the Lancer hacienda without Murdoch’s notice. All within were either reading or dozing or searching the kitchen for an after-dinner bite. Teresa and Mattie had gone out on the veranda after the simple, but satisfying meal. Everyone relishing the food, as well as, the fact that Johnny was recovering at a remarkable pace. Murdoch could hear scraps of a one-sided conversation and then sudden silence. He went to check to see if all was well and smiled to see both women soundly asleep. It had been a trying few days and nights for everyone.
Murdoch left them to their repose and went back inside, going room to room lighting the oil lamps. He entered the great room, on his way in search of Sam Poovy who had returned to Lancer midmorning, the third day after Johnny’s fall. He sighed, realizing he had lately been marking time this way. There he found Scott stretched out on the sofa reading the third book of Virgil’s Georgics. Murdoch lit the lamp on the sofa end table and raised the wick, gaining more light.
Scott smiled up at him, dark circles prominent on the gaunt face. “Thank you.”
“Brushing up on your Latin or animal husbandry?” Murdoch asked with a grin.
Scott laughed. “I wonder if Johnny can read Latin as well as he can speak it.”
“He may have been pushed into learning the prayers,” Murdoch said, contemplating things. “Perhaps now is not the time to get into it, though. Agreed, Scott?”
“Agreed,” Scott said, resting the book on his stomach and closing his eyes.
Scott opened his eyes. “A little, but I’m too restless to sleep.”
“Maria will be sitting with Johnny for a few more hours and then I’ll be with him through the night. I’d like you to get a full night’s sleep tonight, Scott.”
“And yourself, Murdoch?” Scott asked, sitting up straight, his gaze intense.
Murdoch ran a hand over his hair, looking toward the front entryway. “Don’t worry, I’ll sleep,” said Murdoch, a hint of a smile at his son’s solicitude. “Have you seen Sam?”
“If I’m not mistaken, I think he’s sitting out on the portico or in the courtyard. He mentioned getting some air,” said Scott. “Are you concerned about Johnny, Murdoch?”
“No,” said Murdoch quickly. “No. Sam was going to look in on Johnny after dinner. I wanted to get his opinion on things. See where Johnny stands. No need to worry, Scott.” Murdoch tapped Scott’s stocking foot and said, “Well, I think I’ve kept you from your reading long enough.”
“Murdoch,” Scott called to him as he was headed to the French doors.
“Yes?” Murdoch waited in silence.
“You’ll let me know about Johnny, won’t you? I mean, if anything’s wrong?” asked Scott, his tone apprehensive.
“Of course, I will, Scott,” said Murdoch.
“All right then, thank you.”
“Scott, please get some rest.”
Scott nodded and turned his eyes away, picked up the book and began reading.
Murdoch found Sam on the portico, head back, looking up at the sky, the moon discernible in the east as the night crept in slowly.
“Sam,” Murdoch said in quiet greeting.
“Murdoch,” Sam said, gesturing for Murdoch to join him.
“Have you seen, Johnny, yet?”
“Yes, a little over an hour ago,” said Sam. “I gave him a sleeping draught for the pain. The infection is abating and the lacerations are starting to heal. His lungs are clearer. Mattie’s tea seems to have worked its magic. He’s still fevered, but nothing to worry too much over. Overall things look fine. Sam Jenkins is very good at what he does.”
“Yes, he is at that,” Murdoch said, studying the man next to him. “So what aren’t you telling me?”
Sam shook his head, looking at Murdoch, and then quickly turned his eyes away. “It’s not about Johnny’s health. I assure you, he’s on the mend. I know you had a rough time of it with the fever and the pneumonia scare, but that should no longer pose a threat.”
“Then what is it, Sam? What’s making you so pensive?” Murdoch pressed on, worry niggling at him. “All through dinner, you seemed distracted. Is it business? Is there something I can do to help?”
Sam looked directly at Murdoch and said, “Mattie loves Johnny, believe that.”
“I do,” Murdoch said, perplexed.
“Mattie took the trip back here with me because she needed distance and time to make an important decision,” said Sam, suddenly not able to meet Murdoch’s gaze.
“What decision, Sam?” Murdoch asked, his stomach tightening with dread.
“A young man from Mattie’s school, a teacher there, has asked for her hand in marriage. He’d like to marry in the fall.”
Murdoch balked at the news. “I don’t understand.”
“Mattie wanted to see Johnny again. It’s been a year and she knows feelings can change. She’s not presumptuous about those things, about Johnny. She just needed to see if she still fits here.”
Murdoch was baffled. “Why would she think otherwise?”
“You know the answer to that as well as I do, Murdoch.” Sam seemed piqued.
A slow realization of what Sam was not saying began to take root. “Mattie’s muteness has never been an issue for Johnny. I know Johnny loves her.”
Sam persisted. “But you also know it takes more than love to hold a marriage together. “
“Well, it’s a good start, the strongest of foundations.”
“Don’t be mulish, Murdoch,” Sam said frustrated.
“Then say it straight out, Sam.”
“His name is Nathan Carlson. He’s a good man and he loves Mattie. She fits in his world, Murdoch,” Sam said. “She has hopes of becoming a teacher. Mattie can contribute something there, feel of value, worthwhile.”
“Mattie has lived here all her life, Sam,” said Murdoch. “She knows this country better than most. She can work a farm, run a household. She fits out here just fine, as well.”
“How did she fit, Murdoch?” asked Sam. “Up in the hills, alone? Not with people. Not in the real world.”
“But that can change. With Johnny, that can all change,” said Murdoch, not able to completely deny Sam’s words. But his fealty to Johnny wouldn’t allow him to concede.
“And how well did that work?” Sam asked, his voice sounding tired.
Holding back his ire, Murdoch said, “Well, Sam, Johnny has already been hurt by Mattie’s insecurities and uncertainty, running away on him like she did a few nights ago and now you’re telling me this. Johnny could have been killed, could have died, looking for her. He’s head over heels for that girl while the entire time she’s been considering a marriage proposal from another man. His heart has already been broken once. Now you’re saying she may very well do the same to him again.”
“I’m sorry, Murdoch,” said Sam. “A girl like Mattie has to be practical about things. Not everyone has the luxury of marrying for love.”
“I think you’re wrong, Sam.” Murdoch said, lowering his chin to his chest, disgruntled.
“Am I, Murdoch?” asked Sam. “Let’s be honest, you know yourself that love isn’t enough.”
“And why would I know that?” Murdoch snapped his head up and glowered over at Sam.
“Maria,” Sam said, his voice scarcely raised above a whisper. “Johnny told …” He didn’t continue, going silent.
Embarrassed, Murdoch thought to himself, as he damn well should be. Murdoch gritted his teeth, holding down his anger. “You know nothing of it!” He paused a moment to calm himself. “Not one more word about it, Sam. I mean it!”
“I’m sorry, Murdoch,” Sam said. “I meant no disrespect to you. I’m just trying to explain the situation as best as I can.”
“I understand,” said Murdoch. “And I appreciate your candor.”
“A man like Johnny Madrid must have had a lot of women. Girl like Mattie shouldn’t be hard to forget.”
“A man like Johnny Madrid…” Murdoch said, saddened. “Is that what you really think, Sam? Is that what you think of Johnny?”
Sam was silent.
“Well let me tell you about a boy like Johnny Lancer. He’s caring and decent, even after life had shown him nothing, but ugliness. He’s a good boy and he’s my boy and I don’t want to see him hurt again. Gone a year without a word and she’s expecting what from Johnny? A marriage proposal before the trip is over? Is that it? Yes, Johnny does love Mattie, but these things take time. They need to get to know each other. Are you telling me, if Johnny doesn’t propose, then Mattie will marry Carlson? Is that how it works? Forcing Johnny’s hand? But then she might not want to marry Johnny when it’s all said and done. This doesn’t seem like Mattie. I don’t think she’s thought this through or thought about the consequences. “
“Be that as it may, I’ve already given my consent to Carlson. I am truly sorry, Murdoch, but I have to think of Mattie,” said Sam.
“Yes, I suppose you do,” said Murdoch. He shook his head and looked out into the newly dark expanse and then up at the sky. The light of the stars shone brittle and the crescent moon loomed sharp as a sickle. “Sam,” Murdoch said, nodding his head. He turned away and walked into the house, leaving the other man to his thoughts.
+ + +
Johnny recalled telling Pony Alice that loving people came down to time and trust. Funny thing about trust though, you had to trust in yourself first, a thing that hadn’t always come easy to him. Mattie didn’t seem to trust him the way it ought to be for people who loved each other. With his mind still on her, his thoughts began to break apart, scatter, remembering what Murdoch had told him he had said to Lizzie Cramer’s daughter, Jenny, before she had turned her back on her mother. Murdoch had tried to tell her about new beginnings and second chances. He had, also, asked her how she felt about Lizzie. Johnny grinned, hearing his father’s voice in his head, saying: “Love is the easiest feeling in the world.” The ol’ man sure was a sentimental fellow.
Funny thing about love, it really was the easiest feeling in the world.
But then why did it seem like it was getting harder and harder with Mattie? When they had been alone together, it had felt like heaven might feel. But when the world came to calling, things got uneasy. No longer in Cable’s small cabin, no longer in darkness, Mattie his entire world, her touch his only guide, her lips – Oh, to bottle that forever. But that couldn’t be done. If only she hadn’t run away from him. If only. He didn’t think he could stand up to that grief again.
Johnny grimaced as he shifted himself to get more comfortable in the bed. He could only remember brief moments of Mattie in the room with him. But, he did remember being reassured over and over by his brother and father, to the point of their slowly rising exasperation, of Mattie’s safe return.
When Johnny had finally been lifted from the haze of opiates and teas and the pungent smell of vinegar, he had been embarrassed by what he viewed as the end result of his so-called rescue of Mattie: A broken leg, stitches and bruises, and lungs filled up with so much fluid to make him feel a weight on his chest heavier than an anvil. The fever had been the worst of it, though, with the terror dreams, lost between worlds. He had prayed for the return of his waking life and when he had come back to it, Murdoch was there, as if a rebirth in his father’s arms—a womb. Though it had taken over twenty years, in that moment, Johnny recognized how it felt to be safe, absolute and true.
With the bedroom window open, he heard birdsong and he smiled. He hoped Pony Alice was happy and Jenny Cramer, too. But he reckoned she’d been handed a world full of regret, turning away from her mother like she did, impossible to bring back life to those long dead.
Johnny looked up, hearing the click of the latch, and the snick of the door being pushed open. Murdoch stood there in the doorway, sturdy and long-boned, and Johnny’s first thought was, as it had been since meeting his father face-to-face for the first time, this man couldn’t in truth be his father. Murdoch had said he favored his paternal grandmother, Murdoch’s own mither. Murdoch had said the strange word like a prayer, something sacred and valued. The eyes, he had said, you have her eyes.
In that moment, Johnny had felt solid and rooted, belonging. He imagined a crimson cord connecting him to Murdoch and Murdoch to his mother and his father, as well, watching as it ribboned out across the seas to Scotland and then another cord, golden this time, connecting him to Scott. Like a fairytale, he supposed, like Murdoch had said when Pony went home to her uncle, happy ever after. He had pushed that notion aside, claiming happiness was cheap and didn’t always last, but what they had was so much more. But, as time went on, Johnny found he could give credence to both.
Murdoch stepped into the room and grinned. “You’re awake! Good! Good! Maria is getting your tea.”
“Hey, Murdoch,” Johnny said, his voice a raspy whisper. The next thing he knew, Murdoch had his hand cupping his forehead.
“Cooler,” said Murdoch, “good.”
“Yeah?” he said. “How many days?”
“This will be day four,” said Murdoch. “You gave us quite a scare.”
“Sorry,” said Johnny, waiting for the lecture about his impulsiveness and what was he thinking taking that trail at night. He held his breath, bracing himself. But there was no look of disappointment, no sour expression, no eyes flashing with irritation or disapproval. Johnny went to pinch himself, but groaned with the effort. The pain from the movement alone assured him he was awake. His father looked down at him with a worried expression.
“Try not to move too much,” Murdoch said. “You’re bruised and cut up from head to toe.”
“The way I’m feeling, I expect that’s no exaggeration.”
Murdoch smiled. He turned and pulled a small chair, Johnny didn’t recognize, close to the bed, sitting.
Johnny watched him and then to his horror right beside Murdoch appeared a vision of the Virgin Mary with bloody mayhem at her feet. His heart hammered in his chest and he struggled to catch his breath.
“Easy, son,” Murdoch said, a light touch given to Johnny’s shoulder. “The bruised ribs are giving you a lot of grief, I imagine.”
Johnny focused on his father’s face, his nerves settling as the holy specter diffused and then vanished.
“Chest’s a little heavy, but I reckon I’ll live.”
Murdoch chuckled and Johnny smiled at him. It always gave Johnny a sweet satisfaction when he made his father laugh or grin, softening his features, able to see the boy in the man.
“Murdoch?’ Johnny tilted his head, grateful not to be flat on his back, but lifted up a little by the pillows. Helped his breathing, he figured, and didn’t make him feel so defenseless. He had already found his gun at the bottom of the pile, knowing it’d been Scott who’d put it there. With chambers empty, though, but he couldn’t fault them, not with the dreams he’d been having, everything real and then not. He felt blown open and raw, having walked with all manner of ghosts.
“Thanks, I mean, well, thanks.” Johnny chanced a glance at his father.
“Johnny—,” Murdoch began, but stopped short, something there on his mind, ready to be spoken, but caught back as if a kite run short of twine.
“You all right, Murdoch?” Johnny asked. A pain in his head came on him and caused him to jerk his body. He groaned, a reflex, something he couldn’t control. He bit his lip and closed his eyes. Again the palm rounded his forehead, cool and gentle, and Johnny smiled, relaxing into his pillows.
“Sleep, Johnny, just rest,” Murdoch said, his voice a comfort to him, a soothing shelter.
Drowsy and nearing sleep, Johnny began to mumble.
“Hush, now, sleep, son,” Murdoch said.
Johnny tried to raise his heavy lids, but found no matter the effort, his eyes stayed firmly shut. But, he discovered he was able to talk and spoke one word. “Safe,” he whispered, “safe.”
A far-off voice reached him, maybe, his father’s. “Always,” it said to him, “always.”
+ + +
When Doctor Sam Poovy entered the room, he woke Johnny from a light sleep. There was something different in the man’s eyes, though it winked out as sudden as a dying star. Johnny remained quiet, working through what he had seen there, unnerved, when he sensed a measure of reserve on the man’s part. Sam walked over to the bed, unsmiling, eyes shuttered fast, without expression. All Johnny could determine was the old doctor had something on his mind and Johnny most likely wouldn’t like it when he heard it. Only a few hours before, Sam had given him a thorough going over so he was certain it wasn’t about his injuries. To Johnny’s way of thinking, it had left only Mattie.
In the corner of the room, on the edge of shadow, the Blessed Virgin stood watching. Áve María, grátia pléna. This time calm settled over him at the vision, and he gestured for Sam to sit in the small cane chair. The man nodded at him, his face in a half-scowl, his scar more pronounced. Sam sat and ran his hands over the top of his thighs several times and cleared his throat, a loud guttural sound.
Johnny still hadn’t spoken. The entire of him pulsed, heartbeat jigging in his throat, behind his eyes, in his limbs. He remembered a black dog, a stray. It would come to him each night from the alleyway outside the cantina begging for scraps. He’d watch for it, eyes straining, sensing it in the darkness, but seeing only shadow. There, but not there. Johnny closed his eyes, coalescing into the blackness, hidden, a black dog. He started to drift off, thinking how the starving dog had died on a summer night, black as obsidian.
Johnny started, round-eyed and breathless, when a hand lifted his arm, fingers pressed against his wrist. He settled his breathing, realizing it was Sam. His other hand had slid under the pillow, a reflex, gripping his gun. He’d sleep with it this night, pressed against him near his heart like he did as a boy, and he would remember what life had been and what life had become.
“Johnny?” Sam called to him, concerned. “Hey there, son, you seem a mite muzzy. Could be the remains of fever, I suppose.”
“Tired is all, Sam.” Johnny closed his eyes and shifted his hips. “Darn leg pains me some.”
“I think tomorrow we’ll get you up with some crutches. Get some air,” Sam said, patting Johnny’s shoulder.
“Sounds good to me,” Johnny said, grinning and then grew serious, asking, “When you leaving, Sam?”
Sam had difficulty meeting Johnny’s gaze, but said in a confident voice, “I was set on a week’s stay, but, with you being laid up like you are, not having time with Mattie, I thought extending it would be for the best.”
“I’m grateful,” said Johnny and then fell silent. For some reason, he hadn’t a clear understanding of what he was feeling. Only aware of a peculiar numbness, akin to when he’d fallen into thinly iced pond, his mind barren, frozen. Months ago, he had gotten shut of Mattie, tamped it all down, a miserable thing to do. But he had done it. He had given his heart to others before Mattie and after her. Some he had loved, some only passing fancies. Their names and their faces came to him: Julie, Tallie, Lucrece, Jessamie, Melissa, Catha, Callie, Lucy, Laura …
Laura had been love, a whirlwind romance like Murdoch and his mother. He had uncaged his heart, had dropped to one knee and had offered her the world, his world. And she had said yes to him, alight with joy until her mission resounded louder than his avowed love. It had hurt to let her go, but he couldn’t tether or truss her. He would have never done such a thing, no matter how much he had wanted her in his life. Her passion had been what had drawn him to her. Only a fool would jess a soul that needed to soar. He’d want no part in breaking her spirit, every day seeing her sad, accusing eyes, pining for another life. No part. He’d given her a hug and a kiss, a bittersweet goodbye.
“Listen, son,” said Sam, “there’s something I need to tell you about Mattie.”
Johnny looked over at the doctor, pushing himself up higher with a grunt. “Has something happened to Mattie, Sam?”
“No, no, it’s nothing like that,” said Sam, standing up and moving to the window. He turned and walked back to the bed and stood over Johnny, looking down at him for a long time. “Never mind, son. It’ll keep for now. Mattie’s been itchin’ to see you. I’ll send her in, if you’d like.”
“Sure, Sam, sure,” Johnny said, “I’d like that just fine.”
“All right,” said Sam, walking to the door. He looked back at Johnny again with the same look in his eyes. What in blazes? Johnny wondered, unnerved by it all.
“Get some rest, son,” Sam said and was gone.
Maria brought him some broth and tea shortly after Doc Sam had left him. Johnny waited for over an hour for Mattie, but she never came to his room. He struggled to keep his eyes open and Maria scolded him to rest. She sang him a song he remembered from his childhood. With it came a fine memory of his mama. Maria sat on the side of the bed and stroked his hair as she sang. Johnny was embarrassed at first, but then he began to relax, his head dropping against her shoulder. He tried to fight it, tried not to let go, but found himself on the rim of sleep. Images like gossamer wisped around him. Mattie, he called out to her in his mind. Then a thought like a firefly, she’s run away, lit bright and then gone.
+ + +
Murdoch watched Johnny as he slept, remembering Maria. The night of Johnny’s birth, the pains had come upon her gradual, however not with the brutal and sharp blow of hard labor. Maria had looked beautiful in the twilit room, propped against pillows, unperturbed, serene. When her water had broken, soaking the bed linens, there still had been no discomfort too severe to make her cry out into the night’s stillness. She had wanted a bath and Murdoch, although, very much worried and afraid, indulged his wife in its simple comfort.
Only the old housekeeper had been in the hacienda that night; Paul gone off for the doctor. All else were away for the evening. She was an older woman with an eye for tragedy, her rosary beads clenched in one hand, making the sign of the cross over and over, and murmuring prayers as she prepared Maria.
“We suffer in childbirth because of our sins, the sins of Eve,” Maria said, repeating the old woman’s words. “She believes it is not natural that I am without pain.”
Murdoch smiled and kissed her on the mouth. “Perhaps it is because you are too good,” he said and touched her swollen belly.
Maria smiled up at him. “This is good,” she said. “This should be.”
Murdoch nodded. “Yes,” he said, “this is good. This child should be.”
Not quite a quarter hour later, Maria looked over at him, her dark eyes, calm. “The baby is coming,” she said. “I must push.”
Murdoch scrambled up from his perch on the nearby stool and reached for a large white towel wrapping Maria and lifting her from the tub. Though heavy with child, she was slight, fine-boned, fragile. She was young, only twenty, her face a reflection of such trust.
“Mi dulce άngel,” he whispered to her, and then next, he was shouting for the old woman. He carried Maria to their marriage bed and gave a kiss to her cheek. Although, He had sent Paul to get the doctor sometime ago, he was certain his only source of aid would be the old housekeeper. At the thought, Murdoch ran from the room to the kitchen, hoping Paul had finally returned. He began to shake with anticipation and fear. The child meant far too much to him, this longed-for nascency. It was against God’s law to covet something so wholly, all-knowing of a man’s heart, certain He would recognize the greater love for the new life within the womb, his progeny, than for the Holy Trinity, Itself.
Murdoch fretted there would be a reckoning, a lesson exacted, a burnt offering, but still he could not stop the wellspring of emotions. Exhilarated, Murdoch returned to their bedroom. He stopped short, seeing the old woman hunched over Maria praying and then noticing him, stared hard into his eyes and shook her head, her lips downturned, her eyebrows pinched.
“Un pie …” She said and crossed herself.
Murdoch took in a sharp breath. Breach, the baby is breach! Murdoch found his voice. “You must turn the baby. Help her!”
“No, senor, soy muy frάgil. I am too weak.”
“You must do this!” Murdoch demanded of her. “You must!”
Maria lifted her hand, holding it out to him. He lumbered over to her on wooden legs rigid as tree limbs.
“Por favor, mi amor,” Maria whispered. “You must for our child.”
“For our child,” he mumbled back to her, the entire of him without sensation.
Stricken, Murdoch agreed, unnerved, a deep shuddering breath taken as he thrust his hands into her. He turned the babe with a rancher’s practice, her blood dark upon his hands. And then he tore the child from her as she, two years later, would do the same to him.
Murdoch reared back at hearing his name, unfocused and anxious. They traded gazes for a time, Johnny’s frightened. Murdoch ran a hand over his face, composing himself. He gained his footing slowly and then lowered his hand and looked at Johnny.
“What is it, son?” Murdoch’s voice was surprisingly steady to his ears.
“You were a million miles away,” Johnny said.
“Caught up in memories,” said Murdoch, looking to change the subject.
Of course, Johnny would have no part of it and persisted with a question.
Almost shyly, Johnny asked, “Were they about me, about my mother?”
“Yes,” whispered Murdoch, “the night you were born.”
“Tell me… please,” Johnny said.
Murdoch smiled and began to tell him about that night, omitting the more grisly particulars. The memory of his sweet, young Maria softened his heart and he held no bitterness or ill-will toward her in the telling. The story unfolded from him, genuine and tender.
After Murdoch finished speaking, Johnny turned his eyes away and haltingly said, “My mother was pregnant … wasn’t she? I mean … before you married her … wasn’t she?”
Murdoch, caught off guard, assessed the boy before him. “What makes you think that?” he asked.
Johnny seemed to ignore Murdoch’s discomfort, plowing onward. “Oh, I don’t know… I guess it was something you said or more like something you didn’t say. Don’t always have to hear the words, to know what someone’s getting at. ” Johnny ducked his head, still not able to meet Murdoch’s gaze.
“It’s true, Johnny, your mother was pregnant with you before we married,” said Murdoch. “But it didn’t change the way I felt about you or about her.”
“I know,” Johnny said in a quiet voice.
“That day, I almost spoke out of turn. I was angry, but to mention something like that out of spitefulness toward your mother would have been unconscionable. My behavior was the behavior of a man trying to protect himself, protect his heart. ” Murdoch stood while the image of Johnny plummeting to the ground, felled by a bullet, sprung to mind. He again felt how he had felt that day, eviscerated, and all but destroyed.
“You know my heart now, don’t you Murdoch?” Johnny asked.
“Yes, I do, my son, very much so.”
“Good, that’s good,” said Johnny with a smile.
Murdoch recalled Maria’s words: “This is good,” she had said to him. “This should be.”
Yes, he thought to himself, this is good. This is very, very good.
+ + +
Mattie woke to a bright, full sun aslant from the east. Golden bars of morning light pushed through the open shutters and Mattie eased herself up slowly and leaned back against the large wood headboard. She stretched out her arms and reached her fingers up toward the ceiling, now fully awake.
Oh, Johnny, she thought, Johnny.
Her stomach fluttered with a hundred butterflies at the thought of him, giddy and something else, like need, remembering the touch of his lips, his mouth, the press of his tongue against her own. Mattie inhaled a breath then, and lying back she proceeded to settle her thoughts, wishing him beside her.
Was this love? she wondered. And then her mind like a traitor bared her secret to her, known, but denied for the past three weeks. Nathan Carlson. She felt a woman with two lives which was wholly amusing to her, scarcely living at all a year ago. But thanks to Johnny and Nathan, as well, she had choices. To revel in this notion was foolish and short-lived, not relishing the thought of hurting either one. She scoffed at her conceit, warning herself, Johnny’s spoken not one word of the future, marriage or otherwise. Doc Sam had made his mind known well before their journey, giving Nathan his consent. The decision was said to be hers, but it never quite felt that way to Mattie. The urgency of it all seemed to ring false. She was in no hurry to wed, no hysteria for a brood of children or the trappings of a home.
She had missed these hills, this land, mightily, hidden away from the talking world. Her silence of words taught her the silence of body and mind, her soft breaths the only sound from her. So quiet she had been that the sparrow and wren, robin and jay would alight around her. She had missed the silence. In all of Johnny’s frenetic energy, the core of him was as calm as a hurricane’s eye. Mattie had never met anyone like him. From the moment she saw him, there had been a strong pull, what he had mistaken as pity was love, irrefutable and mystifying or, at least, what she imagined love to be.
Mattie had gained confidence at the school, told she had a quick mind. It all came easily to her and in a year’s time had practically completed the curriculum, ranking well above all others. She’d been hungry for it all, a starveling, for the years denied her of partaking in life. But with all she had seen, all she had learned, her world was still insular, only able to communicate with those like her. Even with Johnny there still was a wall not yet vaulted, everything needing to be put into script, nothing realized in the moment, life needing to be spelled out on a board of slate, urgency and emotion lost.
Could it be overcome? Mattie had left Johnny because of her failing, but had returned with confidence, with a faint hope the failing was not of import. Nathan made her believe other men desired her, dispelling her fear that Johnny’s love had been merely based on the circumstance they had shared—Mattie, his savior, his lifeline, more debt than love.
Mary Margaret’s words had struck the bedrock of her as if a spade unearthing all her fears, hitting deep and true. Her faith in Johnny, initially forgotten in her turmoil, had in the end given her purchase. She had seen the goodness of his heart, a boy so gentle and sweet, so loving, still obvious to her eye even when hidden away behind a chilling and dangerous manner. His need of it was understood as it was similar to her need to run away, to hide from peril, akin to the woodland creatures fraught by those more powerful, swifter, having been given gifts from the start of it all where she had been forgotten, overlooked, making of life what could be made, taking what could be taken. Were they of a kind, her and Johnny? she wondered.
The truth was plain to her. She loved Johnny Lancer more than she loved Nathan Carlson. But with Nathan she felt a better fit. With Johnny alone, apart from the world, she felt significant, self-assured. Yet, around people, for the most part, she felt inadequate. The knowledge sat in her heart, weighted and sorrowed, and she felt at once burdened by it. This, of course, was the reason for her return, to understand her heart, to flush out her feelings like wrens hidden away in hedgerows, keeping an eye to their flight. Then a sudden realization lit upon her like a lightning strike raising the hair upright on her bare arms and neck. It would be Johnny hurt more than she would be, thoughtlessly inflicting it upon him. Certain she would never be forgiven this time as he’d so kindly allowed in the past.
If only to be just the two alone, squirreled away from the world, but family meant everything to Johnny, shut from it so long. The sacrifice would be too great for him. He deserved much more than her. He deserved someone like Mary Margaret, spirited, confident, beautiful. She should never have come back, disrupting his life. Johnny had always been too far from her grasp, out of reach. But still she wanted him all the same. In her dreams of him, it all unfurled badly, all things ending in ruin. Mattie sighed and looked around the room, trying to clear her head. She thought of Johnny, sorely injured and suffering because of her. She raised her hands, her fingers lifted, shifting and twisting, her agony unvoiced, muted, as she signed over and over: R U I N.
+ + +
Scott helped Johnny from the bed, glad to be doing it, feeling the fine tremors through his brother’s frame and this only from five days ailing. Johnny was all lean muscle, but spare, and days with only tea and broth as sustenance had taken any meat there was to him. His face, rounded and boyish with a hint of dimples when he smiled, now appeared too thin, sharpening his features slightly, the bones beneath defined, more prominent.
“How are you holding up, brother?”
“Fever liked to kill me.”
“Give me more of your weight,” said Scott. “No arguments.”
Johnny gave none as he struggled to gain his footing.
“Don’t let no one come in, huh, Scott,” Johnny said, breathless, winded just from standing.
“They’re all either sleeping or at breakfast, Johnny. Don’t worry.”
“Bad enough you had to dress me like a little kid. Couldn’t even get my own pants on or button one button. Not like I got shot up bad, just rolled down a hill. Done that plenty of times and never even got a scratch on me. Just plain hard luck.”
Scott stopped a moment and handed a crutch to Johnny. “Here try that for a fit. Is it comfortable enough?”
Johnny tucked the swaddled end of the crutch under his arm, shifting his weight off of Scott. He watched as Johnny’s eyes closed and as he sucked in a noisy breath.
“You all right, Johnny?” Scott asked, extending his hand to his brother, but not yet touching him.
“Yeah, yeah,” Johnny whispered. “Give me a minute, okay?”
“As long as you need, brother,” said Scott.
Johnny shook his head. “Well, ain’t this a fine thing,” Johnny said, his disgust at himself evident.
“Listen, Johnny, you’re lucky to be alive,” Scott said. “And no matter how annoying or inconvenient this is to you, all things considered, you’ve gotten off pretty easy. Anything you need, I’ll be there to help you. We’re just grateful to have you home and on the road to recovery. I’d pay any price--” Scott stopped speaking when his eyes began to water and he sucked in a hard, long breath. Amazed, always, by the powerful affection he had for this boy and in such a short stretch of time, grown closer to him than any other man on this earth, a tie more than blood.
A contemplative look came to Johnny’s face. “I reckon you’ll come to regret that offer, Scott,” Johnny said and a beat later, said, “So you’d be my … what’s the word for it…valet… that’s it… like Jelly had during the whole Lorelei business?” Then Johnny grinned at him, and Scott laughed full-out and throaty.
“You wouldn’t be taking advantage of your favorite brother now would you?” Scott asked, taking on Johnny’s weight when he noticed him starting to wobble a little.
“I’d like to sit for awhile, Scott,” Johnny said in a soft voice. “But not bed, all right?”
“Sure, Johnny,” said Scott. “How about sitting in the chair right by it?”
“All right,” Johnny whispered, his gaze cast down, looking at the floor as Scott walked him over to the chair and helped lower him to it. “Damn!”
“Come on now, boy,” Scott said. “You’re doing great. Just catch your breath and we can work with two crutches.”
Scott wasn’t certain what was going on inside Johnny’s head, although he was surprised when his brother looked up at him and asked him a question that Scott was hesitant to answer. His attention shifted back to his brother’s soft, but insistent voice.
“Well?” Johnny said. “For the second time, what do you think of Mattie, Scott?”
Scott smiled. “I think she’s a lovely girl and I will forever be indebted to her for saving your scrawny hide.”
“Besides that, Scott,” Johnny persisted. “I reckon I’m asking you what you think of me and Mattie, you know … being together.”
“Are you talking about marrying her, Johnny?”Scott asked, trying to keep his emotions harnessed.
“Not sure,” said Johnny.
“Well, if you are talking marriage, I’d suggest getting to know each other better first.”
“Yeah?” Johnny asked as he raised his head and looked up at Scott with blue eyes that hid nothing, every part and parcel of him exposed.
“Yes, Johnny,” said Scott, “you’ve asked for my opinion and that would be it. Mattie’s been away almost a year now. People change. And really how much time did you have together before she, well, before she left?”
“You mean before she ran away from me, from Lancer?” Johnny sounded weary.
“Is that really how you see it?” asked Scott.
“Can’t help not to, Scott,” Johnny said. “Twice she ran.”
Scott was silent, merely nodding.
“Hard not to notice the girl’s got a habit of running.” Johnny bit his lip, his fingers pulling at the padding on the top of the crutch.
“As far as I can figure it, Johnny, she misunderstood your intentions with a certain red-headed young lady,” said Scott.
“She could’ve talked to me about it!” Johnny groaned. “That’s the heart of it right there ain’t it?”
Scott went to speak, but Johnny continued on.
“Not that I give a darn, but Mattie does. She can’t stop worrying over being mute and for some reason she thinks I oughta be feeling, oh, I don’t know, I guess something. I don’t even think about it.”
“I know you don’t, Johnny,” said Scott. “But I do know something else is bothering you. What is it? Talk to me.”
“I can’t be party to it again.”
Scott waited, but Johnny remained silent. The boy was worrying his top teeth against his bottom lip, and seemed to be struggling to hold back tears.
“What is it, Johnny?” Scott asked, bending over to be closer to his brother.
“I can’t trust her not to leave me just like my mother did with Murdoch,” said Johnny. “She’s going to run again.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that Johnny.”
“I do, Scott. I lived for years with a woman who ran. My mama said she didn’t belong at Lancer, didn’t fit, even though she claimed it was Murdoch in the end that sent us packin’. I can tell Mattie feels the same way about not fitting. Don’t matter what I tell her, it’s got everything to do with what she believes. A person won’t ever be happy feeling out of place.”
“But if you love Mattie, I’d say that’s half the battle, wouldn’t you?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
Johnny turned his eyes away from Scott. “I was thinking about what Teresa had said…about how Murdoch asked for my mama when he’d been hurt. She’d said Murdoch loved my mother. Funny thing is I never once thought to ask if my mother loved Murdoch. Maybe she might have at first... Murdoch talked like they had loved each other some, but my mother was young, a little wild...didn’t take to being tied to one man or one place. She didn’t fit here at Lancer because of who she was. I don’t have the stomach for it, Scott. Not again. No matter what side of the coin I’m on this time.”
“It seems you’ve put a great deal of thought into this,” said Scott. “One thing I know for a certainty is that Mattie does love you, Johnny.”
“Yeah, I know and I love her too,” said Johnny. “But I reckon love’s not always enough.”
+ + +
Johnny hadn’t been to church in some time and when he went to enter Saint Patrick’s, he still wore his gun slung low on his hip and his hat still set on his head. After he’d left Lancer, what seemed like a lifetime ago, to meet Day Pardee, he had stopped at this place, praying at the kneeling rail, staring up at Christ on the cross in all his suffering. The wounds had scared him as a young boy, wondering how a man could stand up to such things. But long grown, Johnny understood that grit and guts spurred on those who bore all manner of malady and misery. In his heart had been a slow burn of anger and sorrow and damnable hope that never really quit him, somewhere on the loose down deep inside.
Now, at the church entrance, Johnny stood with crutches snug tight against him and rammed up beneath his underarms. He groped and cursed as he struggled to make the one step and keep the heavy oak door from slamming shut on him. Once inside, dripping sweat and winded, he stood a moment and looked around the vestibule. Candles lit up the narthex and the statues of saints lined the back walls. He waited while his eyes adjusted from the brightness of the day to the dim light inside. Incense smoke hung in the air like death, the stink of loss.
He’d told Mattie he would wait in the wagon while she filled Teresa’s list at the local mercantile. She had written on her chalkboard that it was worrisome enough having to face folks in the general store without needing to worry about him and his whereabouts. He was not to be a gadabout, the saloon, especially, was off-limits. He’d already given Murdoch his word and swore to take it easy, the man only willing to let him go with an avowed promise. Johnny smirked. It was a wonder Murdoch hadn’t made him sign it in blood.
Johnny blessed himself and then lifted his hat off his head and let it fall down his back to catch at his throat by the stampede strings. The gun remained holstered, though it rubbed against the healing wound on his right side, an annoyance more than actual pain. It’d been a compulsion to come here, without thought, but as he stood in the cool, silent darkness of the church, the waning incense no longer tightening his stomach, he felt calm. Johnny loved the music most, yet the quiet pleased him as well.
Lifting his casted leg, he hobbled forward into the nave of the church. The parishioners were largely of Irish descent, recalling the first time he had seen Mary Margaret and the rest of the flaming-haired Flaherty litter. It had been a sight to behold. Johnny had waited out front to talk with her, but Fiona hadn’t allowed him more than a quick how do you do with any of her girls. Johnny often wondered why nothing had come of things between them, remaining only friends. He smiled to think of her that day. Even then Mary Margaret’s tongue was too quick, speaking without thought. Johnny shook his head. His Adam’s apple bobbed and he bit the inside of his mouth. He sure was going to miss that girl.
Johnny again moved forward, working his way down the main aisle and stood underneath the nearly full-size crucifix. It was a splendid sight. The elaborate glass-stained windows, candelabras and chalices of gold were, to the congregation, irrefutable proof of their tireless faith; many barely money enough to keep their homesteads afloat or food on the table. Johnny had seen the likes of it on a less grand scale, throughout the border towns.
On both sides of the altar, a host of candles like pinpricks of stars in the night sky lit up the dusky alcove. As he stood, with Jesus above and the Mother Mary beside, the fever dream came back. The pulse of blood in his temples matched his heart, seeing again the blooded and defiled village church. He blinked it away hard while he mumbled a prayer, his lips moving without sound.
Gathering himself, Johnny thought of Murdoch. He was certain his father would be surprised to learn his son, Johnny Madrid Lancer, had received all the boyhood sacraments, only Last Rites remaining, but more than likely not too far off. He grinned wickedly, thinking that Scott had the right of it, saying he’d be dead before he was thirty. But things are different now, aren’t they? Johnny silently questioned. “Yeah, they are,” he answered aloud.
Johnny eased himself down into a pew, leg jutting awkwardly to the side just as a priest in black cassock and white collar, emerged from the sacristy. His hair was as dark as Johnny’s and the eyes were just as blue, though the skin was pale and freckled on the bridge of his nose, making him appear younger than his thirty-eight years. Johnny had liked the man from the start, offering him the comfort of a forgiving Lord if a fallen man was penitent enough. The priest had opened his arms and the church to him as if he were Johnny’s own personal savior and if Johnny hadn’t recognized the sincerity there, he would have believed himself to be this lowly servant of God’s personal ticket to heaven, his mother lode. Johnny had always believed in the possibility of forgiveness, of redemption, even if a man sought it on his own.
“Johnny, how are you, my boy?”
“Declan.” Johnny grinned up at the man. “I’m fine, just fine.”
“Well, if you don’t mind me saying so, you look far from fine,” said Father Declan with a hearty laugh.
“Took a fall from my horse …” Johnny said, ducking his head, still grinning.
“Not from that fine horse, Barranca?” asked Father Declan.
“One and the same,” said Johnny.
“Have you come by today for any particular reason, Johnny?” asked Declan. “Anything I might be able to help you with?”
Johnny ran a hand through his hair and then lowered it down to the back of the pew in front of him, tapping his slender fingers lightly on it. “What would you say if I told you I’d been seeing things?”
“Things?” asked Declan.
“Well, more like visions…”
“Visions…?” Declan prodded him.
“Yeah, visions … of the Virgin Mary,” said Johnny.
“I’d say you were blessed, but I would also say by the look of your injuries you had a tincture or two of opium.”
“Was running a fever … had some dreams…” Johnny swallowed hard and turned his gaze away from the priest.
“I think it’s a message,” said Father Declan.
“How so … what do you mean?” Johnny lifted his head, locking eyes with the priest.
“I’d say you’re subconsciously trying to tell yourself something. Has there been anything concerning you recently?”
“A whole slew of things, I reckon,” said Johnny.
“If you’re willing to share, I’m willing to listen,” the priest said.
“Well, Declan, I thank you for that … but… I might just sit here real quiet-like and parse things out for myself awhile … if that’s all right?”
“More than all right, my boy,” said Father Declan. “I’ve faith you’ll find the answers.”
The priest stood and gave a squeeze to Johnny’s shoulder. “It’s a fine thing you’ve done for the Flaherty girls. You’re a good man, Johnny Lancer.”
Johnny ducked his head. “Now, there you go … a man of the cloth, no less, telling a falsehood in God’s house.”
Father Declan shook his head. “That’s your trouble right there, John Lancer. When are you going to stop punishing yourself?”
Johnny smiled and shook his head. “Good seeing you, Padre.”
+ + +
Mattie Cable stood, close to tears, behind bolts of fabric, shelves of canned goods and other sundries, spending three quarters of an hour being bumped, shoved and plainly overlooked. Teresa’s paper list of items was crumpled and the words smudged in the balled up dampness of her tight fist.
Why had she agreed to this? she asked herself.
And then she remembered the look on Johnny’s face. He had been filled with such joyous anticipation for the trip, a need to be outdoors with the sun and a cooling breeze on him, the early morning holding the first taste of autumn. She dearly wanted to head toward Hard Luck Notch to revisit the cabin, to be how they had been that night, but this time better. Johnny sighted and she able to communicate with more than taps. If only it could be with her voice, if only…
Mattie visibly cringed at the sounding of the shop’s bell over the door. Another customer, certain to shout over her, and she would again be waiting to be noticed, waiting to be served. She moved hurriedly toward the counter and watched the frazzled shopkeeper. It was her bad fortune to have come on one of the busiest days. Had Teresa known it would be like this? she wondered.
“Why, Mattie! It’s you!”
Mattie’s breath caught, recognizing that voice at once. She would be humiliated again in front of all these women, in front of this girl and Mattie was overwhelmed with an overpowering urge to run. Without clear thought, she turned and pushed by Mary Margaret, seeing the startled look in the stunning green eyes and the sudden pout of the perfect full lips and the fiery shimmer of her red hair as she shifted her head slightly to watch, wide-eyed, as Mattie lunged past her and out the door.
At the wagon, Mattie took up the reins and with that a quick realization came to her, aware she’d lost the list and then another one, far more disturbing to her. Johnny was not in the buckboard, waiting as he had promised. Anger bubbled up in her then, furious at Mary Margaret, at Johnny Lancer, and Teresa, as well, making her feel like a fool, worthless, inadequate, just plain dumb!
Near tears, she sucked in a hard breath through her nose and calmed herself a speck. The noonday church bells began to toll and Mattie closed her eyes a moment, finding respite in the sound. It was coming from the Catholic Church, those papists, her Uncle Lem had called them, and it had never been said with kindness. But the great shining cross, and the brick and stone building, and the lovely bells were beautiful and made Mattie believe in better things, in angels, and heaven, and being with her mama again.
She opened her eyes and looked across town toward the church. There on the church stoop, watching her was Johnny. He grinned and lifted an apologetic shoulder and Mattie found she was unable to remain angry at him. She grinned back and waved. She flicked the reins, prodding the horses forward with hopes of an uneventful and hasty exit out of town, certain Johnny would notice her failure soon enough.
She drove the buckboard on toward the church. It was set alone away from the town and a far piece from the road, surrounded by tall, old pines. A black wrought iron fence enclosed a well-kept area of grass that grew around the entire building, along with an assortment of flowers bordering its foundation. Mattie thought it was very pretty and wondered what it might be like inside.
Coming up to the church, she waved again to Johnny and he waved back and began to make his way down the first of several stone steps. Mattie tensed, looking over at him every so often while she reined in the horses and set the brake. She willed him not to fall, moving as quickly as she could down from the wagon seat. All at once, she had a sense of something bad about to happen, and she turned back around toward the church. In horror, she watched as Johnny lost his footing, falling onto his back and sliding down the steps on his hind end, coming to an abrupt halt at the bottom, the crutches caught up in the wrought iron hand rail.
Mattie ran to him and saw he was breathing, but unconscious. Her hands shook uncontrollably as she brought them up to his face and moved them slowly over his chest, arms, neck, and legs. Nothing seemed to be broken. Mattie stood and looked around for help. The road was empty.
In a panic, she raced up the church steps and opened the door, stepping inside. Her breath caught in her throat and her heart thrummed in her chest. Frightened, she made her way into the church, but froze in place at the sight of the line of statues. Mattie couldn’t bring herself to go any further and she was near tears in her frustration. She began rapping her knuckles on the wooden door as hard as she could, stamping her boot heels against the planked floors, as well.
After a few minutes, she grew concerned for Johnny and rushed back out to him. He was still unconscious. She looked around and spotted a mountain of a man entering the livery. It was the closest building to the church and she stood up, in tears, and started down the stone path to the road. At the livery, with blurred vision from her crying, she ran right into a man in all black garments.
“Where’s the fire?” he asked with a wide grin.
Mattie shook her head, her hands flailing, signing Johnny’s name, her mouth moving ineffectually.
“You must be Johnny’s Mattie,” the man said. “What’s wrong child?”
Mattie nodded, swiping at her tears, pointing toward the church and tugging at the man’s sleeve. She signed Johnny’s name again and then began to run into the road. Mattie heard him shout at someone, but didn’t turn to see what he was doing, hoping he would follow her.
At the sight of Johnny lying so still at the bottom of the stone steps, Mattie began to cry in earnest. She dropped alongside him on her knees and lifted his hand into hers and gave a kiss to his palm. She held his hand and waited.
The dark-haired man came up beside her and fell to his knees. “What did you go and do to yourself now, Johnny boy?” he asked.
Mattie watched as he lifted Johnny’s head, cupping the back of it, and felt faint when it came back bloodied.
“Are you well, sweet child?” he asked her. “You’ve gone pale as stirabout.”
Mattie took a deep breath and let it out, then took in another. The wave of dizziness passed and she began to search her pocket for a handkerchief.
“I sent Caleb Martin for Dr. Jenkins,” he said to her. “It won’t be long now.” At that his gaze shifted, looking off down the road. “Here they come.”
Mattie could have kissed him, blushing at the realization that he was a Catholic priest. Doctor Jenkins and Caleb Martin came toward them down the narrow path together in a rush.
Doctor Sam Jenkins stopped and shook his head. “What the devil is this boy doing in town?”
Mattie felt her eyes grow wide, her shoulders lifted with tension. The doctor turned away, kneeling down next to Johnny. He began to examine him.
“Nothing else is broken and the cast isn’t damaged…” said the doctor.
The priest held up his hand, showing the blood. “Split his head open, he did.”
“Of course, he did,” said the doctor. “Lift him up, Father, so I can get a look at it.” The priest knelt behind Johnny and lifted him up by the shoulders, Mattie supporting the drooping head. Doctor Jenkins looked at the injury, dabbing a cloth there for a time. He reached over to his bag and brought out a bottle. He took a bandage and poured a liquid on it and then poured more of it on the back of Johnny’s head. He placed the square cloth on the wound.
“Get me more bandages from my bag, girl,” he said to her. Mattie hurriedly dug through the bag and handed a roll of white cloth to him.
“Nothing too serious, no stitches needed,” said the doctor, winding the bandage around Johnny’s head. “He should be home in bed, not wandering all over creation.” The doctor looked over at the priest. “I swear this boy has Murdoch Lancer wrapped around his finger. What were they thinking?”
The doctor glanced over at Mattie. “Bring my bag closer to me, dear.”
Mattie picked up the black bag and stood beside the doctor. She waited there for a beat and then pulled on his shirtsleeve to get his attention. He looked at her and said, “Sorry, child I keep forgetting you’re not able to speak.”
He reached in his bag again. “Sal volatile. Smelling salts,” the doctor grinned when he said it and put an open vial underneath Johnny’s nose. “Time to wake up, Johnny boy.”
Johnny began to rouse, coughing softly. He lifted his hand to knock away the bottle from beneath his nose. “Get away from me with that!”
“John, open your eyes. This is Doc Jenkins. Do as I say, Johnny, open your eyes for me.”
Johnny did so slowly and asked, “Doc, what happened?”
“What do you remember?” Doctor Jenkins asked as he lifted Johnny’s lids and looked into each eye intently. He turned to the priest. “No sign of a head injury.”
“Thank God for small favors,” the priest said with a grin and a wink at Mattie.
“What do you remember, Johnny?” the doctor asked again.
“Mattie,” Johnny said.
“She’s right here, boy,” said the doctor. “Take his hand, Mattie, there you go.”
“I was going along all right… but then things got a little grey on me… then nothing,” said Johnny.
“You fainted,” said the doctor matter-of-factly. “Have you had any solid food in the past few days? Don’t waste your breath. I can answer for you. No, you haven’t. You haven’t had enough food to feed a rabbit and here you are gallivanting around town when I gave strict orders for you to stay quiet and rest. Father Declan and I are busy men. We don’t have time for your foolishness.”
“Sorry, Declan. Sam,” Johnny said contrite.
“Caleb, come on over,” said Father Declan.
“Why’s Caleb here? What’s he coming over here for, Sam?” Johnny asked as he struggled to push himself up from lying flat on the ground.
“To help get you in the back of that wagon, that’s what he’s coming here for,” said the doctor.
“Sam, will you wait a minute, please,” Johnny said, leaning on an elbow. “Will you just wait a minute?” As the men surrounded him and began to lift him, Johnny continued to protest. “Will you listen to me for a second? Just listen to me! Hold on, now! Will you put me down? Just put me down!”
Mattie followed behind the men while they carried Johnny down the stone path and then at the wagon, got him settled on the blankets placed there by Teresa before they had left Lancer. “Just, in case, Johnny gets tired out from the trip,” Teresa had said.
Doctor Jenkins turned to her. “Get this young man home and get him to bed. He needs his strength back before he makes any more trips to town. Is Doctor Poovy back at Lancer?”
Mattie looked at him and shrugged.
“Is that a yes or a no?” asked the doctor impatiently. Mattie began to sign that he would be away from Lancer for the day and wouldn’t be back until tomorrow morning.
“What she doing there?” Caleb Martin asked, watching her with narrowed eyes. “It’s an odd thing for sure I’ll say.”
“She’s signing,” said the priest. “Unfortunately, Miss Mattie, I’m not familiar with it.”
“Forget it,” said the doctor, leaning over the side of the wagon, rolling Johnny’s shoulder. “Johnny? Hey now, boy, wake up!” Mattie hurriedly climbed up and onto the wagon seat. She turned to look at Johnny, surprised to see the doctor give a gentle tap to Johnny’s cheek and then push his hair from his bandaged forehead, a soft smile of affection gracing his lips. He quickly pulled his hand away when he noticed she was watching him and seemed embarrassed that she had witnessed the display. Doctor Jenkins looked away and cleared his throat. “He’s out, exhausted. Now, girl, you remember to tell … well … let Murdoch Lancer know that I’m going to have a word or two with him about this boy. You got that?”
Mattie swallowed and nodded her head yes. Was that clear enough for you? she thought angrily. She had all that she could take, desperate to get away from town before Mary Margaret turned up again.
“You remember what I said, now, Mattie!” Doctor Jenkins shouted after her.
Mattie nodded, her back to them all, as tears spilled down her face and her small frame shuddered, wracked by hard sobs. A horrible thought came to her then as she drove the wagon out of town: It’s all in ruin, repeating it over and over in her head, remembering how she had signed out the word only that morning. She couldn’t stop herself as she raised her right hand up, angry, frustrated, ashamed and began to sign the word R U I N over and over, until she heard Johnny calling her name out in his dreaming and the sadness she heard there in his voice hurt her heart.
+ + +
Scott burst through the front door and into the great room, his hands whipsawing in agitation. “What the devil happened, Murdoch? Where’s Johnny?”
“Calm down, Scott. Johnny’s in his room resting,” said Murdoch, his voice soft, worn-down.
“It was just a quick trip to town …what could happen with just a simple trip to town?” Scott walked toward the desk and stood with his hands on his narrow hips.
Murdoch glanced up at his son. “Apparently enough had happened to bring Mattie to inconsolable tears and Johnny back to bed with a very bad headache. On top of all that, I will soon be hearing from a very irate Sam Jenkins, who has promised to give me a very stern lecturing. Mattie mentioned something about Johnny having me wrapped around his finger. That’s just nonsense!"
Though the situation had been upsetting to Scott, he couldn’t hold back a grin seeing the look of exasperation on Murdoch’s face at the notion of him being a pushover when it came to Johnny.
“Well, Murdoch, if it’s of any consolation, it’s not just you,” said Scott, trying to offer balm to his father’s wounded pride.
Murdoch rose to his feet with a groan, hand to his lower back.
“Are you all right?” Scott took a step forward, but Murdoch brushed him away with a flick of his hand.
“I’m fine, fine,” he said. “I should have let the men carry your brother to his room, but …”
“But, you insisted on doing it yourself,” said Scott, finishing his father’s sentence.
“Yes, though with some help,” Murdoch said, a bit snappish. His father shook his head. “He’s lost weight so quickly.” Murdoch eyes were distant, lost in thought, but then smiled and looked over at Scott. “Well, Maria and Teresa will see to that soon enough.”
Scott smiled and was about to speak when Murdoch cleared his throat and looked at him with a startling intensity. Scott froze in place.
“I want you to know, having you and Johnny here at Lancer means everything.”
“It means everything to me, as well,” said Scott, choked up by his father’s rare, but heartfelt sentiment.
“Johnny seems to be happy here …” Murdoch seemed hesitant. “Wouldn’t you say?”
“Well, Johnny would be the best person to ask, but I’d say yes. I think Lancer has been his first real home in some time. It hasn’t been easy for him, but you know all that already.”
“Yes, I know that, but I don’t know enough,” said Murdoch, frustrated.
“Have you asked?” Scott didn’t wait for a reply. “Maybe he’s protecting you or maybe he thinks you don’t want to know. You did say the past was to be kept in the past.”
Murdoch nodded, but Scott could see his father’s mind was conjuring up other motives.
“No, Scott, I think it’s about Maria. He’s protecting her even now. It’s always been about protecting her.”
“Well, sir, she is his mother no matter what she’s done.”
“Yes,” said Murdoch distracted. “Of course, you’re right.”
“Yes, Scott?” Murdoch trained his eyes on him.
“What’s really going on with you and Johnny?”
“Going on?” asked Murdoch. “I’m not sure what you mean.”
“You seem troubled,” said Scott. “Should I be concerned?”
“Why do you ask?”
“Murdoch!” Scott shouted in annoyance.
“Don’t raise your voice to me, Scott!”
“I apologize, sir, but you’re being far too cryptic and on top of that you can’t seem to focus on anything lately. You seem a million miles away.”
“And if what you say is true, Scott, do you think it’s any of your concern?” asked Murdoch.
Scott bristled at his father’s question, the man purposely provoking him to remind Scott of his place. No matter the admission of fatherly affection, Murdoch wanted it known he would ever more call the tune. “If it concerns my brother and Lancer, then yes, it concerns me,” he said.
“Scott,” said Murdoch, relenting, his intimidating air deflated. “All you need to know is your brother is my first priority, my only concern right now. I won’t let anything happen to him if I can help it.”
“But why the need for concern?” asked Scott, not willing to be so easily placated.
“Do you trust me, son?”
“Yes, sir, with my life,” said Scott with conviction and without hesitation. He witnessed the look, first of surprise and then overwhelming gratitude, in his father’s eyes.
Murdoch’s voice cracked with emotion when he spoke. “Thank you, son.” Murdoch walked over to him and placed a large hand on Scott’s shoulder. “When the time is right, you’ll be the first to know. Just watch out for your brother.”
“I always do,” said Scott, grinning. “It’s not easy.”
Murdoch chuckled, looking at Scott once more with such unsettling intensity. It seemed as if he was trying to grasp the moment in his hands, sketching it into memory, a painting to look at over and over again with fondness. Scott had often watched Murdoch with Johnny in quiet conversation, his father always taking a beat before laughing at Johnny’s quip or joke, the boy so quick-witted, so affable. To Scott, it always seemed Murdoch was spellbound, watching it all from a distance, trying to capture and keep it all in his mind’s eye so as not to forget a thing. His face seemed to say, who is this incredible boy that’s come back into my life? Blessed, the word best to describe it was blessed and Johnny, the blessing, his grace.
Scott had wondered if Murdoch had felt the same about him, but he was never jealous, always joyful at the growing bond, the newly born love between Johnny and Murdoch. In fact, he found himself so sentimental at times, he would find his eyes filling and he would need to go and settle himself discreetly.
But in this moment, everything he had seen in his father’s face for Johnny was reflected back at him, for him, and he felt his eyes sting and had to turn away from it.
With a cough and a palm quickly passed over his eyes, he recovered, turning back to his father. “Well, I’ll hold you to that, sir. Now, I believe, I’ll go look after that brother of mine.”
“You do that,” said Murdoch. “And take some stew to him on your way up, will you, Scott? Sam wants him to eat.”
“Certainly,” said Scott. “We’ll talk more this evening, if that’s agreeable with you.”
“I look forward to it,” said Murdoch. “And, Scott, thank you.”
“You’re welcome, sir,” said Scott. “But know, I’ll do anything to protect Johnny.”
Murdoch nodded at him. “I would expect nothing less.”
Scott nodded back, leaving his father in the great room alone with his secrets which did nothing for Scott’s peace of mind, well aware, secrets never stayed kept.
+ + +
“What became of your mother?”
Johnny had waited for Murdoch to ask that question of him for some time, but his father never did quite get around to it. Johnny could count on one hand the times they’d spoken of her. Once on the day Johnny had first arrived at Lancer, another time when he had met Laura Thompson, and then at the social with Mattie before everything had gone to ruin, and again, most recently, when Murdoch had told him about the night he was born.
A part of Johnny was glad of it, not willing to admit she’d left him, too. He expected it was because of what he had gradually become, what she had turned him into with her lies—angry, vengeful, owning a powerful hatred for men who hurt the weaker among them, who mistreated women and children alike, all those helpless. And they all wore the face of his father.
What Johnny knew of Murdoch Lancer had come from his mother and a small daguerreotype of their wedding portrait, he had found years ago in her belongings. Thinking on it, things made sense, how in the portrait Murdoch’s hand had been placed over his mother’s abdomen, his mother, smiling, set in the crook of his arm, and Johnny suddenly mindful that only flesh had separated him from his father’s fingertips, the flat of his palm. He remembered the feel of that hand on his forehead, his father’s touch tender, caring. In the daguerreotype, Murdoch sported a wide grin, his eyes shining. He had the face of a man in love, content, and Johnny just now willing to acknowledge that, his faith for so long only in his mother.
Johnny wanted to remember everything about those early years, but memory always failed him. So he would listen to stories, and as if in a play, he would map everything out in his mind, and like a daydream turned authentic, it would take shape, be breathed into life, no longer imaginings to him.
At the age of twenty-two, Johnny was finally content. When he played it out in his mind, his father would come to him and ask, “What became of your mother?” And he’d reply slow, laconic, soft, for the first time in a long time, uncaring, “Don’t rightly know old man, but it appears she loved me ‘bout the same she loved you. Not near enough.”
A knock on the door brought him out of his thoughts, at once feeling the pounding ache of his head, an angry throbbing behind his eyes. “Come on in,” Johnny said in a voice only loud enough to be tolerated. Scott had come and gone no more than ten minutes before and Murdoch had stayed with Johnny a good amount of time before that.
The door opened, and he smiled to see Mattie’s grinning face peeking in at him. When she came into the room and moved closer, he could see the shadows under her eyes and the shadows within as well, and it made him sad.
She climbed up on to the bed, her hair falling forward, blocking her face from his view, until she turned toward him. She smiled, dipped her chin, and was shy a moment, but overcame it, lifting her eyes to his. She took a breath and straightened her shoulders and then stilled. She raised a hand and touched his face, her eyes moistening. A tear sprung there, then another, clinging to her pale eyelashes reminding Johnny of dew on fine blades of grass.
Johnny took her hand and squeezed it. Do you love me, he wondered to himself. And then he said aloud to her, “¿Me quieres?”
Mattie looked at him perplexed, lifting her shoulders, her face a show of confusion.
He smiled at her, his voice low. “Nada, cariño, no es nada,” he said.
Mattie wiped at her eyes and then dug in her skirt’s pocket. Out of it appeared a small writing tablet and a pencil nub.
Johnny watched her, saying: “That’s right … dry those tears. No need to cry, now. You know what? I never did get around to asking you where you were last night. I was looking forward to seeing that pretty face of yours.” He touched her pale arm and ran his hand up and down it. “Doc said you wanted to see me. I waited, but you never came.”
Mattie looked at him with wide eyes and shook her head. She began to write and then handed the tablet to him.
He didn’t tell me.
He felt Mattie’s eyes on him as he read. “Well, then I guess that explains it.” He smiled at her. “I’m sorry ‘bout today, Mattie. It seems I’ve been making a mess of things lately.”
Mattie took the tablet out of Johnny’s hand and again wrote in it. She thrust it back at him.
No! My fault! I’m sorry. He read what she had written and then said, “A lot of regret going on here.” He smiled and said, soft, “Oh, Mattie… when did things get so hard?”
Mattie looked at him for a long time and sighed, opened her mouth, stopped and shook her head.
“You got something on your mind, Mattie?” Johnny asked.
Mattie shook her head one more time, and leaned forward, close to him. Her eyes wide, she pressed her lips against his, and he couldn’t stop the smile that came to him. “Well, now, girl …”
She straddled him, mindful of his leg and sore ribs, kissing him. She touched a finger to his swollen right eye, the bruise on his cheek, and then lifting his right hand, kissed his sore wrist. He felt himself reacting to her touch, and he closed his eyes a moment when dizziness washed over him, surprised to find Mattie unbuttoning her blouse upon opening them. He couldn’t think then, didn’t care to, only aware of the sensation of Mattie and breathing in air. He remembered everything about her from the time they’d been together. He placed a hand on her chest over her heart, not saying a word to her, feeling her heart beating against his palm.
“Go bolt the door, Mattie,” said Johnny, his breathing fast, his heart in time with it. She got down from the bed and went over to the door. She opened it and stuck her head out into the hallway. She turned around and smiled at him, shutting the door and securing the lock, and came back to the bed.
Johnny watched her, the bitter taste of regret on the back of his tongue, his throat tightening with want and sorrow. He felt weary, too old, unsure. “I don’t know, Mattie…don’t think we should…”
Mattie leaned over him, her blouse falling open, a pale breast exposed. Something constricted in his stomach, taking in a sharp breath. Mattie looked at him and smiled. He could feel the fabric of her skirt rucking up along his bare legs, his night shirt shunted up to his waist. Johnny suspected there’d been another kind of schooling going on since their time together, Mattie’s naivety long since gone, somehow seasoned. Well, he’d been no saint himself. He gave her the reins, too tired to decide the wrong or right of it, just needing to be with her.
Johnny kissed her mouth, acquiescing, and placed himself in her hands.
+ + +
In the morning, Mattie woke violently ill, hand to her mouth as she slipped off the bed and moved to the water basin, getting sick. She felt faint and sweat popped along her brow line, above her lip. Chills commenced and she began to shiver. After her stomach settled, she walked wobbly-kneed back to the bed and dragged herself into it, pulling the covers up and over her head. Regretful, thinking of the picnic she and Johnny had planned for the day. She heard the birds singing, figuring the hour to be close to six o’clock. She heard stirring in the hallway and then a quiet knock on her door.
“Mattie? Are you awake?”
It was Doc Sam. Not having strength enough to move off the bed, Mattie rapped her knuckles hard twice on the bedside tabletop, hoping he could hear it. Mattie didn’t have to wonder too long, hearing the door open and then the slow shuffle of footsteps as he walked over to her.
“What’s the matter girl?” asked the doctor, taking the coverlet off her head. “You’re too pale. Something not agree with you?”
Mattie shrugged and silently moaned, holding her stomach.
“Does your belly hurt, Mattie?” asked Doc Sam.
Mattie nodded her head that it did hurt, but more from the intensity of her recent bout with sickness. She still felt a little queasy.
“Lie on your back Mattie, I want to examine you,” said Doc Sam.
Mattie complied, turning from her side onto her back. The movement made her woozy and she really would have liked a cracker or biscuit as she was beginning to feel a staggering hunger. She was confident Doc Sam would figure out what was wrong and would get her the medicine she needed. Mattie sighed and thought of the week gone by and the few scant days that lay ahead.
Her stomach flipped thinking about Johnny and Nathan, Hard Luck and Hartford. Every time her head offered her the solution, her heart fought it tooth and nail. She knew what her decision should be, but she couldn’t let go of him. It took her by surprise that it didn’t matter to her how unfair it was to all involved and the worst of it yet, she still hadn’t told Johnny about the marriage proposal.
She recalled to her mind how strangely he had looked at her when they had been together, as if he had known she had been with another man. She had been lonely and Nathan had been kind and not unhandsome, in fact, his appearance was very well-favored. Mattie had told Johnny goodbye near to a year ago, remembering her note, embarrassed by the misspellings, the crude handwriting. She had been all but illiterate, unworthy of a man like Johnny Lancer.
But then Nathan Carlson taught her so much in one year, handing her the world. Johnny had been the first to love her, telling her she was beautiful, making her believe in things outside the four walls of a tumbledown cabin. Mattie had wanted more, wanted it all, but she couldn’t have it all, no matter what she had wanted. She had left Johnny, had let him go and because of that she had hurt him soundly. Believing then, her departure had been a selfless act, and, perhaps, it had been, but not this. Nothing about her return back to Lancer, to Johnny had been unselfish. She was like a child wanting a toy out of reach, not happy with the bright, shiny one she held in her hand. A slow realization kindled and grew to flame, aware she hadn’t thought things through at all.
Mattie felt a hot burn in her gut, wanting to vomit again. Even though a girl, who never really belonged anywhere or to anyone since her mama’s death, she knew exactly when things didn’t fit, when she didn’t fit, no matter the desperation to hold on, to lay claim. Snatching time with Johnny on her back, playing at love, but unsure of intent, she felt saddened and ashamed, and more so, when she had sensed it on Johnny’s part, too. Mattie had learned quickly how to please herself and in doing so please the man. Nathan had called her wild, without inhibition, and she had smiled at him. This she could do well, this she understood, a language without words, her body hummed, sung out, gave her voice, control, releasing her.
Mattie frowned, grew cross at the continuous poking of her abdomen. She became concerned seeing the look on Doc Sam’s face.
She tapped him on the shoulder and signed what?
He sank down on the side of the bed and ran a hand down his pants leg. He coughed, avoiding her gaze, sighed and shook his head. He finally said, “Mattie when was your last monthly, child?”
Mattie looked at him. She couldn’t remember, not ever being regular. She shrugged her shoulders and sat up in the bed.
“You’re pregnant, Mattie,” said Doc Sam, and Mattie couldn’t help but look at him in disbelief. No! No! She screamed inside her head.
“Is it Nathan’s child, Mattie?”
Too stunned to sign, Mattie rapped on the bedside table, twice. Who else’s could it be? Certainly not Johnny’s, but how she wished it to be so.
“Well, that settles it, Mattie,” said Doc Sam. “You can’t expect anything from Johnny Lancer now. It wouldn’t be right. You will be telling him the truth of things soon, I hope. Come on now, get up and get dressed.” He moved to the window and opened the shutters, lifting up the sash. A cool breeze filled the room, the air clean, fresh, the sun bright, marking yellow squares of light on the floor, the bed. Mattie remained fixed, dazed, and, perhaps, if she was honest, relieved, the decision out of her hands. She thought all this while Doc Sam spoke, though mute to her ears.
Birdsong lifted her eyes to the open window. There a small wren was perched on the sill, its tiny head working in a quick, delicate motion and then stilled suddenly, the eyes like tiny black beads, watching her. Mattie’s breath caught, stunned, aware of something meaningful in the moment, a portent of sorts, and then before she could move from the bed to get closer, it flew from the sill – gone.
+ + +
Sam Poovey had come to Murdoch, interrupting his breakfast, with a look of urgency in his eyes. The usual pleasure of a quiet steaming cup of coffee in the morning, instead brought Murdoch immediate discomfort, as it was now stirring up the acid of his stomach, and this occurring without one word, yet spoken. Murdoch had been alone in the kitchen, Scott already having eaten and gone off to tend to the books, as well as, Teresa, who was currently taking care of the weekly laundry with Maria, and Johnny still sleeping. He remained at the table with a miserable headache and burning eyes, not having slept very well for over a week.
Murdoch pushed his weariness aside and offered a thin smile to the doctor. “Would you like a cup of coffee, Sam?” He reached for the coffee pot that sat on the large wooden table with one hand and a nearby mug with the other before the doctor had a chance to respond.
“Yes, thank you,” said Sam, outwardly troubled. He took the mug from Murdoch and then sat down hard on the seat at the opposite end of the table. Both men, facing each other, sipped at their coffee in silence.
Murdoch sighed and ran a hand over his hair. He picked up the coffee mug and took a long drink and then set the mug back down slowly onto the table and said, “Is there anything the matter, Sam?”
Sam looked up at Murdoch, a bit dazed having been in deep thought over something Murdoch suspected would not end well.
He stared at Murdoch, but then as if ashamed, turned his gaze away from him. “Mattie’s with child,” he said in a thick voice.
Stunned by Sam’s announcement, Murdoch sputtered, rendered speechless. Without forethought, he shouted, “Not Johnny’s!”
Though beside himself, Murdoch could see Sam staring at him, wide-eyed and pensive. “No, Murdoch, it’s not Johnny’s. Mattie’s too far along to be your boy’s.”
“So the father is Nathan Carlson then?” Murdoch fumed, but tried to remain reasonable. “I assume Mattie will be accepting Mr. Carlson’s proposal now that she’s with child.”
“Yes, Murdoch, your assumption is correct,” Sam said. “She needs to accept the proposal and marry quickly. This baby will not be born out of wedlock. “
“And Johnny, has she thought of him in any of this?” asked Murdoch, his tone still calm
“Mattie will speak to Johnny today about the proposal and the pregnancy,” said Sam.
Murdoch felt at a distance from everything, his thoughts moving sluggishly as if through molasses, his mind not willing to take it all in, not willing to think about Johnny in all this. Calm held him like stillness before a killing storm. But then his calm all but flew from him when he heard Johnny’s voice in the room.
“What proposal? And who’s pregnant?” Johnny asked, working his way slowly to the table.
Murdoch stood and helped Johnny settle himself in the chair next to his. He looked over at the doctor.
“Would you mind giving us a moment, Sam?” asked Murdoch. “We’ll talk later.”
“Sure, Murdoch,” Sam said, standing quickly. “Johnny.”
“Sam,” said Johnny. He looked up at Murdoch, his eyes alert, questioning. “That man looks like he’s about to be sick. So what did I just interrupt? Anything I should know about?”
Murdoch sat down and stared out the window, not able to look Johnny in the eye. “There’s no easy way for me to tell you this, Johnny,” he said.
“Just say it straight out then,” said Johnny. Murdoch turned back to his son, seeing the fear in his boy’s eyes.
Murdoch lowered his head, his heart quivered in his chest, an irregular beating. He coughed to settle it, finding his words. His mind finally coming around, he said, “If I could make it right for you, I would, son, so help me, I would.”
“Murdoch, please … you’re spookin’ me …” Johnny’s eyes filled and Murdoch’s throat constricted at the sight.
“Several nights ago, Sam told me of a marriage proposal offered Mattie. He said Mattie wanted to see you first before she made her decision. His name is Nathan Carlson, a teacher at Mattie’s school.” Murdoch paused, watching his boy and then said, “Johnny, Mattie’s pregnant with his child.”
“What?” Johnny laughed, incredulous. “What?” He shook his head and smiled, but Murdoch could see a trace of uncertainty in Johnny’s face, then betrayal. “If you knew, why didn’t you tell me before this? Why? It was you brought her here, brought her back into my life. You did this …” Johnny groaned. “Was waiting for something to happen…the world to end… and it did, it did… here you are knowing about it all along, knowing everything and keeping it a secret.”
“No, Johnny, no, it’s not like that at all.”
“Then what’s it like, Murdoch? What’s it like? From where I’m standing it’s like a man holding his cards close to his vest, keeping things hidden. You going to tell me you were protecting me? Only thinking of me? Well, let’s just say, you’re too late for that … just too late.” Johnny’s voice broke, “You’re my father.”
Murdoch was stricken, remorseful. “I know,” he whispered, “but it wasn’t my place, Johnny. I had hoped Mattie would tell you before—”
“Before what? Before I started having feelings for her again, before I started thinking about how we would spend our lives together? Too late on all those counts, old man, too late!”
Johnny pushed himself up from the chair, fumbling with his crutches. Murdoch started to rise, but Johnny stopped and looked at him. “Stay away, right now, Murdoch,” he said. Johnny stared at him for a long moment and then shook his head. “I need to think. Leave me to think, will ya … just leave me…”
Johnny turned his head away from Murdoch and slowly hobbled toward the kitchen door.
“Johnny…” Murdoch called after the boy.
“Not now, Murdoch,” Johnny said. “I just can’t right now. “
“All right, Johnny,” said Murdoch, “but, later we talk.” Whether Johnny heard him or not didn’t matter, Murdoch wasn’t about to let Johnny stand up to it alone. He sighed and practically fell into the chair. His head was in his hand, restless fingers drumming on the table top. Again he was taken by surprise when a voice spoke to him.
“Not just two days ago, he was having doubts about Mattie,” Scott said, as he had entered the kitchen from the great room.
Murdoch turned and looked up at Scott. “He was? You never said anything.”
“And you never told me about Mattie’s marriage proposal. You might say we’re both culpable.”
Murdoch looked at Scott and asked, “Sam tell you?”
“Yes, just now.”
Murdoch nodded. “Tell me what Johnny said, Scott,” said Murdoch, “please.”
“All right,” Scott said, sitting down at the table and pouring a cup of coffee. “Johnny was having doubts. He believed Mattie was going to leave him again, run from him again. He spoke of Maria, of his mother…” Scott paused and then said, “That’s why I couldn’t tell you. I couldn’t break his trust. It was difficult for him to talk about, but it all boiled down to Mattie not being able to make a life here, not fitting in at Lancer.”
“Like Maria,” finished Murdoch. He looked out the window again. It was ironic that the land he loved, his home, Johnny’s home, would drive off the two most important women in Johnny’s life. Murdoch had lived through it and he understood firsthand how badly it felt to have someone leave you, have someone run.
“Both sides of the coin,” said Scott.
“What did you say?” Murdoch asked, still distracted.
“Johnny had said no matter what side of the coin, he wasn’t going to go through it again.”
“So what changed?” asked Murdoch
“I couldn’t say, really. I suppose it was just spending time with Mattie without the world encroaching, falling in love again … believing in the possibility of happily ever after.”
“Happiness is cheap,” Murdoch muttered. Scott’s eyebrows rose, waiting.
“It was something Johnny had said awhile back. He didn’t seem to put much stock in happy ever after then.”
“Well, Murdoch, perhaps we’ve changed his mind somehow. It seems to me he’s believing in fairytales now.”
Murdoch shook his head, heartsick. “Not anymore, Scott,” Murdoch said. “Johnny just overheard a conversation …. Mattie’s pregnant.”
Scott frowned, his mouth falling open, taken aback. He immediately thought of Johnny, but knowing with certainty, it wasn’t his child. So not Johnny’s then, Scott repeated to himself, absorbing it. “Oh, Lord,” Scott said, “Oh, Johnny.”
“I should have burned that damn letter when I had the chance and never spoken of it,” said Murdoch.
“And have Johnny angry at you when he found out about it? No, you did the right thing, the only thing under the circumstance.”
“I didn’t have to let them stay under our roof here at Lancer.”
“You’ve got to stop second guessing everything, sir,” said Scott. “It’s done, now we have to figure out what Johnny needs from us, which will not be an easy task. In fact, the mood he might be in, I’d say it may be downright hazardous.”
“He’s my son, your brother. He can call himself Johnny Madrid, play at being a gunman, but he’s always been Johnny Lancer inside, at the core of him, always. I’ve known that since the first day I saw him. Even when he rode off to see Day Pardee, I saw something there in his eyes, asking me to trust him, hurt because I questioned him, doubted him. I’d been fighting so long; everyone seemed a threat, the enemy. But I had hoped what I felt about him, about my boy, was real and it was, Scott, it was. Dangerous? Every man has the potential to be, but Johnny, not to us, not to us.”
“I agree, sir,” said Scott. “So how do we help him?”
“All we can do is to wait and see,” said Murdoch. “Let’s hope Mattie does the right thing for both of them.”
“And that would be?” asked Scott.
“At this point, son, I’m not so sure.”
+ + +
Johnny was angry, but after some thought, he conceded he was angry at the wrong person. A man of integrity, Murdoch would never have intentionally hurt him or held back the truth. He had been right to have waited, allowing Mattie the opportunity to tell him everything. It hadn’t been Doc Poovy’s place either, even though Johnny reckoned that night in his room, he had been primed and ready to say something. Secrets always had a way of coming to light eventually, one way or the other.
The real bone to pick was with Mattie and why she hadn’t said a word to him. Was it her intent to fob off a baby on him that wasn’t his? Not that it would matter to him because he’d love it all the same. But, he believed, if fit to do so, a kid had a right to grow up with those that gave life to him. Only God had the power to take that away, not even their mamas had the right. Johnny winced, everything too close to the bad memories, too close to all the hurt. Maybe he should have run the day the stage came into Morro Coyo after all. Was it all worth a single moment when he’d seen the pride for him in his father’s eyes or heard him say: That’s my boy?
But then, he shook himself, wondering why he was laying all of it at Murdoch’s doorstep. He was a grown man, had taken care of himself for as long as he could remember, had made life and death decisions well before coming to Lancer. He knew his own mind and he always followed it. Plain and simple, he had wanted to see Mattie again, no matter the outcome. He’d drawn his gun, eyes wide open.
“Let ‘er buck,” he whispered, “let ‘er buck.” So what if he fell in the dirt, wasn’t the first time, wouldn’t be the last. “Oh, Mattie, this ain’t like you at all, not at all.”
Scott came into the room without knocking while Johnny, still mulling things over, struggled with his boot.
“Give me a hand with this will ya, Scott?’
Scott looked at Johnny with noticeable curiosity, his brows rucking, though he kept silent as he walked over to where Johnny sat on the small cane chair and took the boot out of Johnny’s hand.
“Lift up your leg,” said Scott, “and give me your foot.” He grabbed hold of the left leg and began sliding the boot over Johnny’s stocking foot, pushing his hand against the boot heel. Johnny’s foot went into place with a dull thunk.
“Thanks,” said Johnny, reaching for his crutches propped against the bed. Scott reached them first and stood in front of him, holding out a free hand.
“Let me help you,” he said.
Johnny took Scott’s offered hand and let his brother pull him up from the chair, taking the crutches one by one from Scott.
“So where are you off to, brother?” asked Scott.
“Picnic with Mattie,” said Johnny.
“Oh, I see,” said Scott, not able to look Johnny in the eye after Mattie’s name had been mentioned.
Then it appeared to Johnny, Scott had worked up some nerve because the next moment he was asking questions Johnny wasn’t ready to answer.
“Not now, Scott…later…”
“I think you need to talk about this,” Scott said, his eyes latching on to Johnny allowing no easy escape.
“Listen, Scott, I promise when I get back, we’ll talk.”
“We better, “said Scott, “or I’ll hold your feet to the fire.” Scott looked at him for a moment or two and asked, “Is there anything you need? Anything I can get you?”
“Could you see how Teresa is coming along with the picnic lunch and check to see if Cipriano had someone get the wagon ready?”
“Of course,” said Scott. “You sit in that chair until I come back.”
“Can’t do it,” said Johnny with a grin. “I gotta tell Mattie she’s going on a picnic.”
“I keep telling you, brother, there is an art to asking women to these things, a certain amount of finesse is required.”
Johnny grinned wider. “You remember where that finesse got you last time, don’t you, brother?”
“Well, that was most unfortunate,” Scott said with a shrug and an easy smile. “Like I said, you stay put and I’ll take care of everything, including Mattie. And don’t forget I still want to talk later.”
Distracted, Johnny looked around the room. “Yeah, Scott, all right.” He really wasn’t concerned about Scott at the moment. It was all about Mattie and what he would say to her that weighed heavy on him. He moved to the bed to wait for Scott’s return.
Johnny decided he’d be more comfortable lying down, so he scooted himself back against the headboard. His restless fingers tapped out a beat on his leg and he looked over at the window, watching the clouds trundle across the sky and briefly obstruct the sun. His eyes kept closing and with effort he tried to keep them open. It took longer and longer each time to do so, until finally he stopped struggling, slipping into sleep.
+ + +
They rode across a stretch of flat grassland, not as sere or brittle as the rest, owed to a circuitous stream, a meandering, bulging swathe, cutting through it. Not far from the stream was a grand-looking cottonwood and some distance away a box elder and silver lupine. It was a pretty enough spot to have taken Mattie, even though not a couple of miles downstream, the water ran into a small lake where he and Wes had spent one of several days, before Wes’s death, knocking around without need to answer anyone’s tune. Not far from the lake was the line shack where Lem Cable had been beaten to death, a real good drubbing, Jelly had called it.
Johnny wondered then why he had picked this particular place for a picnic. Had he needed a reminder of his own mistakes and poor choices, as well as, a reminder of what Mattie had been through only last year? Life was unpredictable, holding shades of grey, and Johnny fully aware judgments should never be hastily made.
He’d learned in life to take the good with the bad. Bitterness had never done a soul any good, remembering the toll it had taken on his mama. He had forgiven her a long time ago and even with the recent disclosures, he still kept his heart gentle toward her, knowing there was something there inside of her that drove her from good things. He felt it in himself sometimes, especially the time with Wes, throwing away the one good thing come into his life without some deep and serious consideration.
His pride and fear had kept him from going back, not trusting Murdoch to forgive him, to give him another chance, seeing the man, back then, more as boss than father. Patron or papa? Johnny had asked himself the question often enough. When he’d gone back with hat in hand, after cleaning up the Striker mess, he’d gotten his answer. He was surprised there’d been no questions asked and then days later, he had time spent alone with Murdoch, father and son, chasing wild horses. It had been on that day he fully understood about love of home and family, having no two ways of getting around a singular and altogether alarming realization that he, Johnny Madrid Lancer, loved his father more than he could have ever imagined. He’d been scared to death because of it and was visited by such a sharp sense of loss he believed had been a foretaste of how it would be without the man in his life.
There had been bad blood for so long, it was a hard thing to reconcile. Johnny’s loathing for his father had been set in stone while watching the slow ruin of a venerated woman as sacred to him as an altar relic, his mother then in his eyes nearly incorruptible. His hatred had been borne, when he had been able to put name to such things, and it had grown with him, for years his only touchstone.
But then there had sprung other feelings, which were like a fierce betrayal against his mama. Not properly schooled, but he had still considered himself brighter than most running loose in those border towns. He had eyes to see the loss of his mother’s innocence, owing it to her sorrow, to her loneliness, owing it to Murdoch Lancer. But he had a brain to understand the unfairness of that judgment made. Hard to cast the blame any other way so he chose to place it where he’d been told to do so for years, rather than on the one he had revered. Johnny had learned long ago the cost extolled from swift and erroneous judgments.
With Mattie then, it would be different. He’d allow her time, an explanation, in her corner for the most part before she’d even given voice to those things known and chawed on by others before he even had gotten wind of them. A tightening of his bowels with that thought, heat stoked and rose in him. Settle, settle, he told himself.
Johnny turned his head to watch her as they rode toward the cottonwood, his leg propped on pillows, to the side of him, behind his back, a thin cushion for comfort, but not too bulky to become unwieldy. Blankets were in the wagon bed, plenty of food, more than two could eat, and at that a flicker of thought came to him, more than three.
He called to mind Scott shaking him awake nearly two hours before, assisting him, looking at him in that way of his the entire time, Johnny seeing Scott’s worry and, nearly crippling him, Scott’s love, knocking the wind from Johnny every time. His brother’s words came back to him: “What are you planning to do? What obligation is it of yours? None! You owe her nothing!”
Johnny had lowered his head, knowing Scott’s resentment towards Mattie was borne of concern, of love for him, so he ignored the anger clamoring for voice, harsh words caged behind clenched teeth and a tight-clamped mouth. Hold your tongue, he said to himself. Johnny met Scott’s gaze and kept it while he said, “I need to do this, brother. I owe her my life, but more than that … I love her.”
Scott had been the first to look away, a glimmer of shame there in his eyes.
“Don’t Scott … please …I get it, I do… you know…I get it and I’d feel the same way myself if the circumstance was reversed …thanks, though…thank you for that.”
Scott had nodded and had gotten Johnny downstairs and into the wagon. Everything had been taken care of by his brother and they’d all come to see him and Mattie off, their faces a mixture of concern and dread. It had taken Johnny some time to come out on the other side of those feelings, but he’d managed to tell some stories and had made Mattie smile as they rode.
She had driven the buckboard beneath the large cottonwood, setting the brake. Johnny waited, at Mattie’s wordless insistence, on the wagon bench. He closed his eyes, feeling a whisper of a cool breeze raise strands of hair from his forehead. These moments could help a man forget the downside of things, he thought.
His eyes snapped open, aware he’d drifted off again. The fever had taken a toll on him, made him weak and vulnerable, not vigilant enough. He spotted Mattie there on the edge of the creek bank, busy spreading out the quilt and arranging pillows. The basket sat in the center of the quilt, bursting with biscuits and fried chicken, roast beef sandwiches, cold lemonade and an assortment of treats. He knew all this because he had stolen a peak in their travels, noting Teresa had gone all out, more than likely fretting over him going hungry. He cursed himself for giving too much away that morning – had it only been two weeks ago?
He started when Mattie touched his outstretched leg. It made him stop up short, acknowledging he’d been spending too much time inside his head of late. Woolgathering was a dangerous past time, likely to get a man like him killed. Lately, he’d been fancying the idea of living past thirty, having children and grandchildren, growing to a ripe old age and dying quietly with his boots lined up there on the side of his bed. If he was being optimistic, he would have to say, boot hill was no longer in the cards for him.
With a clear head, he reached for his crutches and handed them down to Mattie. Though his movements were slow and stiff, he got himself down from the wagon bench to the ground, all his weight onto his good leg. His crutches in place, he made his way over to the quilt, Mattie hovering in silence. His usual grace was lost to him, but he managed to lower himself to the quilt with a little dignity. Johnny grinned up at Mattie as she took the crutches and set them on the side of him. After that she went about taking items from the basket, handing Johnny a hefty roast beef sandwich. She leaned forward and shoved a red-checked cloth napkin into the neckline of his blue calico shirt. Mattie looked into his eyes for a long beat and Johnny only knew one thing at that moment: he loved her and no one or nothing else mattered to him.
“It’ll be all right,” he said to her.
A wheel of emotions spun across her face, her eyes lit bright, showed a struggle in them to understand, gain meaning, finally offering a watery smile, her eyes gone dark with sorrow. She then took her slate board and wrote: You know. The quickly wiped slate was as blank as her face, her eyes dulled with defeat, sulled up like an opossum.
Johnny gripped his fingers around her chin and forced her to look at him. “I know, Mattie. I know everything and I will marry you, if you’ll have me. I will marry you.”
Mattie looked at him, her eyes widening, tears sprung, a smile there on her face as well, reminding Johnny of a sun shower and the resulting rainbow. He recalled the folklore about a trickster or the devil marrying, which gave him foreboding, but shook it off as a foolish superstition.
Mattie turned the slate board to her and wrote, “Yes, I will marry you, Johnny Lancer. I will marry you.”
Johnny smiled when he read it and nodded in agreement, but recognized the need to ask about the father of her baby. He would not separate the man from his child, and he looked at her and stated his feelings plainly. She agreed and hugged him to her for a long time. Johnny pulled away from her and grinned. “It’s settled then,” and grabbing up his forgotten sandwich, said, “I’m near to starving.”
They ate in silence, a smile shared, a light touch given, a momentary respite. The day was pleasant, the sun keenly lit against the brilliant blue of sky. They made love after they ate with stomachs full and, all in all, satisfied, they soon fell to sleep side by side, Johnny dreaming this to be the whole of his world.
+ + +
When Mattie and Johnny returned home, Cipriano came out to greet them and immediately saw to Johnny and then to the wagon and horses. In a hurry, Mattie left to help Teresa with the evening meal, giving Johnny a quick peck on the cheek in her rush. With time on his hands, Johnny stopped in the courtyard to watch the doings of a mongrel cur, its hair hackled at the neck and its eyes transfixed on a smattering of brown birds in one of the fruit trees. It sat with ears perked and snout lifted, alert, watching the hop and skip of the wrens as they danced from branch to branch. At the shrill and unexpected call of a scrub jay cutting through the quietude of the late afternoon, the wrens took flight in a unified exodus to safer dwellings. The cur remained, unwavering, akin to a congregant’s belief in second comings. By and by, there was a flurry of wings and at the advent of the wrens, the mongrel turned to Johnny briefly as if to say, told you so, and once more both dance and vigil commenced.
Johnny grinned and shook his head, his spirits high. He began to trundle his way over to the front door. The crutches made opening it a little difficult, but manageable. Though, he had to stop for a time once in the hallway to rein back the edges of grey encircling his vision. As he gained focus, he heard his father’s voice coming from the great room and he called out to him: “Hey, Murdoch!”
“In here, Johnny!” His father called back in return.
Johnny hobbled onward, his eyes cast down at the floor in concentration, the crutches still slow going for him. The thump, thump, thump of the wooden base hitting the tiles was all he could hear, along with the ever growing voice inside his head, at first celebratory, but budding slowly into a pesky worry. Before crossing the room’s threshold, he shouted: “Hey, Murdoch, guess what?”
“What?” Doctor Sam Jenkins asked, “I should have examined your ears because it seems you’ve lost your hearing from that tumble you took yesterday?”
Johnny stopped up short, unsteady on the crutches, wavering slightly. “I didn’t know you were here, Sam.”
Doc Jenkins continued on as though Johnny hadn’t spoken a word. Johnny ducked his head, silent. “When I was told you weren’t resting as I had instructed, but had gone instead on a picnic, I could only conclude that the crack to your skull had done more damage than I had thought. “
Johnny looked over at his father and then to his brother who wore a smirk. He had a mind to go over to Scott right then and give him a good poke with his crutch.
“Get in here now, boy, and sit down. I’m this close to riding away from the lot of you. If you Lancers don’t have a whit of sense to follow a doctor’s orders, then I think I should leave you all to your own devices.”
Johnny tried to appear suitably chastised.
“Sit,” was all that Doc Jenkins said to him. After Johnny got himself settled on the sofa, Sam looked at him for a long beat. “Now, you hear me and hear me well, this time I expect you to do as you are told. I want you to stay put and get some rest. Is that understood?”
“All right, Sam,” said Johnny. “I will, I promise, it’s just Mattie’s visiting and—“
“And nothing, Johnny,” said Doc Jenkins. “Mattie can visit with you just fine right here at Lancer. No need to be wandering all over God’s green earth.” Johnny kept his eyes fixed on the older man. Sam took a deep breath and shook his head. “Do I make myself clear?” He turned his attention to Murdoch to Johnny’s great relief. “Are you listening to this as well, Murdoch?”
“I heard you clear as day the first time around, Sam. No need to keep raking me over the coals.”
“Well, then … all right, but mark my words, you’ll be looking for another doctor if this continues,” said Sam, looking pointedly at Johnny who in turn nodded his head several times and then gave one of his disarming smiles.
“Save it for the young ladies, Johnny. That doesn’t work on me,” said Sam.
Johnny laughed. “It was worth a shot, Doc. Am I forgiven then?”
“You’re forgiven, but you best behave yourself from here on,” said Sam. “Show me the way out, Murdoch.”
Murdoch moved to the sofa and stopped beside Johnny. “Stay,” his father said to him with a firm press to his shoulder.
Johnny nodded and looked down at his hands. After a time, he felt the sofa shift as Scott sat down next to him, his brother’s shoulder pressed against his own.
“So what are we guessing?” asked Scott, sounding amused.
Johnny smiled. “Not saying until Murdoch comes back.”
“What aren’t you saying until I get back?” Murdoch asked as he returned to the room through the French doors and stood in front of Johnny and Scott, his back to the fireplace.
“Well, it’s kind of lost a little bit of its shine but, it’s good news all the same,” said Johnny with a grin.
“Well, go on, Johnny, tell us,” Murdoch urged, his face animated.
“All right … well … it’s about Mattie and me,” Johnny said, looking first at Murdoch and then Scott with a boyish grin.
“Yes, go on,” said Murdoch, not able to hide his unease.
“Now, Murdoch,” Johnny said. “I know what you’re thinking and I don’t want you and Scott to get all up in arms. I know what I’m doing and I know how I feel … so…”
“Johnny,” Murdoch said. His father moved closer and looked down at him. It made Johnny feel like a kid wet behind the ears. “What’s this all about?”
“Mattie and I are getting married,” said Johnny. His announcement was met with stunned silence.
“Well, aren’t you going to congratulate me?” Johnny asked. Once again, he was met with silence.
With his head reeling, Johnny pushed himself up from the sofa and stood, taking an unsteady step only to stumble forward into Murdoch who grabbed hold of him. It seemed to Johnny that Murdoch took a long time releasing him and once righted he looked into his father’s eyes.
When he saw the worry there, Johnny said, “It’ll be fine, Murdoch. I promise everything will be right as rain, trust me.”
“No!” Scott bolted up from the sofa. “No! You are not marrying Mattie!”
A nerve struck, Johnny felt his temper flare, and he couldn’t hold his tongue this time. “Why’s that, brother? Mattie not respectable enough for your Eastern sensibilities?”
“Johnny, stop …” said Murdoch. “I want both of you boys to stop this now.”
“The baby’s not yours, Johnny, and there’s not any way around it. What about the father? Have you given any thought to him?” Scott asked, all but ranting. “You of all people know the consequences of keeping a father from his child. As do I, as do I”
“It won’t be like that, Scott. He’ll get a chance to be with the kid, I swear it,” Johnny said.
“But not all the time, not when he wants,” said Scott, as they stood face-to-face.
“It’ll work out,” said Johnny with a shrug.
Murdoch stepped between them and said, “Johnny, I think you need to give it more thought.”
Johnny looked at Murdoch, not wanting to plead, but hoping for some show of understanding. “She doesn’t love him, Murdoch.”
“Are you really certain of that, son?”Murdoch asked.
“I am,” said Johnny.
“And what about the concerns you had about her?” Scott asked, not giving in one jot.
“Mattie won’t run. Once the baby comes—”
A sound came from Murdoch, near to a moan, and Johnny shot a glance at his father, fearful. “Oh, Johnny...”
Johnny looked at his father then, his throat tight. His voice was barely audible when he spoke. “Mattie’s not my mother, Murdoch. Scott said that to me just this morning,” said Johnny.
“I meant it differently and you know it. Don’t you see, Johnny? You’d do anything you can to make things right for Mattie. Does that sound the least bit familiar, brother?”
Johnny grinned and wagged a finger at Scott. “Oh, now, I see what you’re trying to do,” he said, giving a mirthless chuckle, feeling the heat of anger on a steady rise in him. “Well you can just stop it, Scott. Just stop … stop trying to twist me up, twist it all up. You don’t have any say in this.”
Murdoch approached him and placed a hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “All right, Johnny, all right. Although, I wish you would reconsider things, we’ll accept whatever you and Mattie decide.”
“Murdoch!” Scott said.
“Enough, Scott,” Murdoch said, putting an end to the argument.
“Thank you, Murdoch…” Johnny paused, and then whispered, “Thanks…Pa.” Johnny saw Murdoch’s head lift at that, giving Johnny a quick smile, the man’s eyes bright.
Murdoch cleared his throat and then coughed. “Yes…well…” he said, momentarily tongue-tied, but quickly gained his composure. “But know this, Johnny, this family, your family—Scott, Teresa, Jelly and myself—will not stop looking out for you. You may not appreciate it at times, but that’s what a family does for each other. As your father, I will do whatever it takes to protect you, to keep you from harm.”
“That goes for me as well, brother!” Scott added on the heels of Murdoch’s words.
Johnny smiled and ducked his head. “I appreciate that more than you know.” He looked over at Scott who was still stewing. “Come on, brother. I could use me some company while I’m resting. Maybe you might read me something from that Emerson fellow.”
Johnny continued to watch his brother while Scott turned a hard gaze on Murdoch, his expression none too happy, but not saying a word.
Finally Scott turned and looked at him. “Sure, Johnny,” Scott said, his brother’s sharp eyes now trained on Johnny. “You go on ahead. I’ll come up shortly.”
“All right, Scott, but don’t be too long. And when you’re done palavering over me and my prospects, kindly let me in on it, would you?” Johnny grinned broadly, but he felt a twinge of something ugly stirring in him toward his brother. It was a feeling he wanted no part of, uncertain where it would lead and what he’d choose because of it. As he thumped out of the room and up the stairs at a slow ascent, one decision was made, and that was to hold in him neither what went before nor what was to come, just merely spending time with his brother and remembering the joy to be had in that.
+ + +
Johnny bolted upright in bed, looking around the room lit golden by the low wick of the bedside oil lamp and the day’s fading light. He must have dozed off and no one had wanted to disturb him. Though something had, and he strained his ears to hear it again. As he listened, Johnny put the hour close to seven in the evening. He reckoned Scott had left when he had fallen asleep, a struggle to keep his eyes open while his brother read to him. Johnny reached for the book on the table, knocking it to the floor at the attempt, a small paper fluttering out of it. Right then his ears perked to an unfamiliar voice drifting up from the dirt trace in front of the house and he scooted off the bed and hopped on his good foot over to the window.
There below him through the glass, he could see a carriage pulled up near the house and a stranger climbing down from it, a younger man about Murdoch’s height. He wore no hat, showing a shock of light-colored hair and an agreeable face lit up with an outsized smile. Suddenly, Mattie appeared there below him, a marked joy on her face as she tilted her head up to the man, unguarded and open. Johnny was surprised when she pressed up against the stranger and he began to kiss her on the mouth for a goodly span with a knowing ease, a comfortable familiarity. A witness to this, Johnny’s heart nearly quit him as he watched what he could only perceive as love.
At that, he took hold of the window sill with shaking hands to support his progressively weakening leg. The whole of him trembled to be back at that place of loss, all those feelings rising up and living in him again. But the worst of it was starting at the beginning of it all, the first loss, the first leaving, and the sharpest of cuts – his mama — no matter how pointed his denial.
Recognizing this, he fought not to think of Maria and his mind abided him to a degree, because as was his luck, he proceeded to remember another time gone before, another hurt, another selfsame moment, watching it all unspool. Clear as day, he could see Lucy in Gabe’s arms, hearing Gabe say he had asked Lucy to marry him. Why hadn’t he? Johnny wondered. Had it been the failed love – the loss? Johnny chuffed out a laugh. He had wanted to share Lancer and his life with so many women…
He thought again of Lucy. She had such faith in him, believing he could accept and understand her love for both him and Gabe Lincoln. Gabe had told Johnny everything after Lucy’s passing, needing to talk about her. Johnny’s heart had broken when Gabe had repeated Lucy’s words to him. She had said she loved him, but believed everyone had room in their hearts to love more than one person. It was so like Lucy. However, no matter how much Johnny loved her or she loved Johnny, Gabe had been the better fit. It was the same with Mattie and Carlson, and Johnny deep-down knowing this for some time. After seeing them together, even filled with the heat of jealousy, he could no longer deny it.
It was all water under the bridge now, Johnny thought to himself. But one thing he knew for certain, he was getting dang tired of the goodbyes.
+ + +
Murdoch had strong feelings when he watched Mattie, Sam, and a man, whom he believed to be Nathan Carlson, walk into the house, thinking to himself, of all the nerve and with Johnny right upstairs. Of course, he would be well-mannered, welcoming, as Scott, no doubt, would be; but, when Murdoch stole a glance at his son, those same high feelings colored Scott’s usually imperturbable face, as well. Scott was practiced at hiding behind facades and social graces, and Murdoch, at the moment, looked to his son to greet the new arrival for him.
They had been about to sit down for dinner, when the carriage had pulled up at the house. Mattie only minutes before had stepped outside with Sam when she had grown faint, needing air. Her face had become pale and beads of sweat had stippled her forehead and bridge of her nose, her breathing quick. Murdoch was all too familiar with the sickness of pregnancy from Catherine’s early months.
Mattie, now standing between the two men, still pale with a slight sheen of perspiration on her face, glanced his way, but she quickly averted her gaze when she saw he had been watching her.
A bad situation for everyone involved, he thought to himself, but more so for Johnny.
As he thought this, Scott introduced himself to Carlson and then looking over at Murdoch made the same curt introductions. Sam had the decency to look uncomfortable and gave Murdoch a shrug as if to say he had no idea why the man had come to Lancer. They began to settle at the table, Murdoch taking his place at the head of it. Sam sat down at the other end with Mattie beside him while Teresa sat on Murdoch’s right hand side. Scott took a seat on Murdoch’s left while Carlson sat across from Mattie.
“What about Johnny, Murdoch?” Teresa asked. “Should we wake him?”
Murdoch turned to her and smiled. “I think we should let him sleep. He’s had a long day.”
Teresa nodded. “Well, Maria had said she would put Johnny’s food aside for him. It’s in the warming oven.”
Murdoch stared over at Carlson who appeared to be in a lengthy conversation with Mattie, using sign. He replied to Teresa distractedly. “Good … good,” he said. Mattie and Carlson continued signing. Sam joined in whenever it seemed Mattie would start to get upset. Their hands moved like quicksilver, seeming to ignore all others in the room. He cleared his throat, annoyed.
“Perhaps, you might speak aloud for the rest of us, Sam, if you don’t mind. Or is it your intent to keep things private?”
“My apologies, Murdoch,” Sam said.
“Yes,” said Carlson, “please accept my apology as well. I often communicate silently with Mattie. Using sign has become so second nature to me that I forget others don’t understand.”
Murdoch had noticed Mattie appeared far more self-assured and happier to finally be a part of a conversation without having to write her words on paper or slate. As the food was served, quiet settled over the table, Murdoch all but smoldering.
So easily they sat at his table, under his roof, so content, so unconcerned, with Johnny upstairs unaware of their lives being discussed, dissected, and decided.
He wondered how Mattie could be so nonplused. Pregnant with one man’s child while betrothed to another and Murdoch still not made privy of what was thrashed out in their recent conversation before the meal arrived. He could no longer hold back his mounting fury.
“What brings you here to Lancer, Mr. Carlson?” The question voiced sharp as a bark. Murdoch saw Mattie jump, nerves jangling.
Well, not so easily then, he thought with a satisfied smile. Good, good. I vow you will not bring ruin to this home, to this family.
Murdoch’s thoughts tramped forward, remembering how it had been for him before, how he had mourned terribly for both boys and wives. The first loss, though difficult to bear, was somehow easier to take than the last. Death was one thing, dealt a bad blow, but missing was another, like voices on the wind, always haunting his dreams. With Catherine, mirrors had been draped in black cloth for far too long and his appearance mattered little to him, all alone in a grand hacienda, shooing off housekeeper and cook alike, not wanting normalcy to rise up again, not without Catherine, not without his boy.
But one morning, near to a year later, he had sprung from bed like Lazarus, wondering what had changed and then suddenly remembering his dream. Catherine had stood there at the foot of their bed, pale, lovely, and spoke to him. “Ashamed,” she had said to him. “I am ashamed.”
On that day, he started to live again, not so much with joy, but with determination. He would never, by choice, bring shame to his Catherine again.
“Murdoch … Murdoch…” He recognized Scott’s voice and he came back to it all with their eyes fixed on him.
“Are you all right?” asked Scott, his voice a whisper, shrouded in worry.
“I’m fine,” Murdoch said. “And again, Mr. Carlson, what brought you here?”
“Why a telegram, sir, as I just stated.” Carlson’s gaze lifted over Murdoch’s head, looking at something behind him. Then all eyes became focused on the kitchen door leading into the great room.
“You mean this telegram?” Johnny’s voice and Murdoch’s breath seemed to catch at the same time. Murdoch turned to see Johnny holding up a slip of paper. The booming of Murdoch’s heart was deafening in his ears.
“What telegram?” He managed to push out through his constricted throat, twisting himself around to see Johnny. When his son swayed, Murdoch sprang up from his chair and took hold of Johnny’s arm. He quickly noted Scott had remained seated with his head lowered.
What in blue blazes? he wondered to himself.
“What’s going on, Johnny?” Murdoch asked, still holding onto Johnny’s arm.
“Later, Murdoch,” Johnny said, his words terse, raw.
“Listen to Johnny, Murdoch,” Scott said quietly. “We’ll talk about it later.”
“Fine, fine,” Murdoch acquiesced for the moment. “Come, sit down, son. “ He guided Johnny into his seat, taking the crutches and leaning them against the bookshelf near Johnny’s chair. “Maria! Maria!”
When Maria appeared in the doorway, Murdoch said to her, “Johnny’s joined us for dinner.”
“Si, Patron, I will see to it,” said Maria, smiling.
“Gracias, Maria,” said Murdoch, keeping one eye on Johnny, now seated between Mattie and Teresa. Mattie seemed to be frozen in place while Nathan Carlson stared over at Johnny. Murdoch caught Sam’s eye, the man looking unnerved, turned his gaze away from him.
Murdoch sat down as Maria placed Johnny’s dish in front of him. He watched Maria while she poured out a glass of milk for Johnny and then touched his cheek lightly with a curled finger. Johnny glanced up at her with a soft smile. “Gracias, Maria,” Johnny said, Murdoch recognizing something sad and aching in the boy’s tone.
“When did you arrive in California, Mr. Carlson?” asked Murdoch, not to be deterred.
“Actually I traveled to California with Mattie and Doctor Poovy. I have family in San Francisco and thought it would be nice to have company on the trip.”
Murdoch watched Johnny place the telegram on the table, slender fingers sliding it across the tabletop to Carlson. “So then let’s say Sam here asked you to come by Lancer to what … have yourself some supper or you here for something else entirely?” Johnny asked, watching Carlson closely, studying him. Johnny’s manner made Murdoch tense and his stomach dropped, sensing trouble. His boy seemed to be holding on to his wits by a thread and close to coming to the end of it.
“No, it wasn’t Sam,” said Carlson, offering a confused look to Scott and then Murdoch, while he answered. He turned to look back at Johnny, “But we had planned to meet up soon to journey back together. That had been decided well before we started the trip west,” Carlson said, smiling. “In fact, I was looking forward to it.”
This time Murdoch saw Carlson trying to catch Mattie’s attention. When she looked at him, he smiled at her and she returned the smile, although a bit restrained.
“Well …then who was it sent you an invitation to our home?” Johnny asked, eyes searching first Carlson and then Scott.
Carlson puffed up his chest, inhaling deeply. “Listen John, I was invited and let’s leave it at that. I’m not a man who would impose himself. “
“No?” Johnny asked and then he gave that easy smile that made Murdoch flinch.
“Johnny,” Murdoch cautioned.
Johnny looked over at Murdoch. He’d never seen the boy’s eyes so cold and he knew at once he was looking at Johnny Madrid. Why? Murdoch wondered. Why?
“Well, what if I say I think you did impose, like you imposed yourself on Mattie all this time?” Johnny said, staring hard at Carlson.
Nathan Carlson looked at Johnny. “I’d say you don’t know me at all.” He looked at Mattie signing as he talked. “Isn’t that right Mattie?”
Mattie dropped her fork onto her plate, the ringing of it against the china splitting through Murdoch. She then lifted her hands to sign, her fingers tremulous. He watched closely and wondered if he should allow things to continue to unfold.
“Is there something going on here that I should know about?” asked Carlson.
Murdoch watched as Mattie’s mouth gaped and she looked to Johnny, eyes pleading, and then over to Nathan Carlson. She began to sign rapidly and Murdoch saw Johnny’s face fall, understanding in that instant the hard truth hitting his son like a blow dealt to the tender belly of him. Carlson signed back to her, excluding Johnny from their conversation.
Scott looked at Murdoch, crestfallen. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but it had to be done.”
Before Murdoch was able to even think about what Scott had said to him, Johnny jumped up from his chair with his hands flat on the table, struggling for balance. “I want you to leave! Go! Get out now! I want you out of here,” he shouted at Carlson.
Murdoch stunned, began to rise, but Mattie stood up first, pulling on Johnny’s arms. Johnny turned to her and gripped her shoulders and said to her, “You, too, Mattie. Go! Get out of here now!”
Mattie mouthed silent words, fighting tears. Her fingers worked ferociously and Murdoch suspected one was the sign for love. But, Johnny pushed her away a little rougher than Murdoch liked and he stood to intervene.
Carlson and Sam stood up as well, moving toward Mattie who was crying. There Johnny remained, frozen in place, breathing heavily, his body visibly shaking. Murdoch took Johnny by the arm and moved him to the chair. “Sit,” he said into the boy’s ear. “Sit before you fall down.”
Johnny did as he was told, not looking at anyone. Scott and Teresa hadn’t moved from their chairs, Teresa bewildered and Scott stone-faced. Murdoch went over to Sam. Carlson had Mattie in his arms, comforting her.
“We’ll go, Murdoch,” said Sam. “It’s for the best.”
“Don’t you dare pin any of this on Johnny, Sam,” said Murdoch. “Something had to have happened. There’s no other explanation for it.” Murdoch looked over at Johnny who was still breathing hard as his body twitched – an aftereffect of his distress. My God! What have I done! Murdoch shouted inside his head. “Listen, Sam, go to The Green River Inn, have them bill your rooms to my account.”
“Thank you, Murdoch,” said Sam. “I’m sorry for everything… tell Johnny… tell him I don’t fault him.”
Murdoch nodded, not trusting himself to speak civilly to the man. He finally managed to say, “Go, Sam, I need to see to my son.”
Before Sam had left the room, Johnny called out to the doctor, but it didn’t reach him. Murdoch stopped up short and asked, “What is it, Johnny?”
Johnny lifted his head, his dark hair hanging down, hiding the right side of his face. His voice shook. “Tell Carlson, I want to see him.”
Murdoch knelt down beside Johnny’s chair. “What for Johnny? Just let them go.”
Johnny lifted his head and looked Murdoch in the eye. No longer did he see the cold-eyed gaze of Madrid, but that of his young son, heartbroken and lost. “Please, Murdoch.”
“All right, Johnny, all right,” he said while he stood, looking across the table at Scott. “Get Carlson for Johnny, Scott, would you?”
Scott seemed relieved to have a reason to leave the room. “Sure, Murdoch, I’ll get him.” He scrambled up from his chair and rushed out the door into the kitchen.
Murdoch kept his hand on Johnny’s shoulder, giving it a reassuring squeeze every so often. He saw a piece of paper gripped in Johnny’s quaking hand, aware the telegram still remained on the table.
“What’s that in your hand, Johnny?” When Johnny only looked at him, not answering, Murdoch felt a profound despair.
Murdoch looked over at Teresa who still sat at the table, watching Johnny closely. “Teresa, would you help Maria clear the table?” Murdoch asked, hoping to keep the girl busy with her mind on other matters.
“Yes, Murdoch, certainly,” she said. She stood and walked over to him and kissed his cheek and then bent down to kiss Johnny’s forehead.
“Teresa,” Johnny acknowledged in a quiet voice. When Teresa lifted her face, Murdoch saw tears welling up in her eyes.
Right then, Carlson appeared at the door just outside the room, waiting. Johnny’s head rose up as if being slowly pulled on a string. “Carlson,” he said.
Nathan Carlson entered the room with Scott following him. The young man was tall, good-looking and oddly enough, in good spirits, which gave Murdoch pause. A whisper of something came to him then, all of it falling into place for Murdoch.
“Thank you for what you did,” Carlson said when he came up beside Johnny’s chair. Carlson’s quick grasp of the situation was both an annoyance and a relief to Murdoch.
Johnny nodded and handed a tattered piece of paper to the man. “When the time is right, give this to her.”
“All right, John. I will,” said Carlson.
Johnny looked at Carlson, an intense scrutiny. “How’d you know?” Johnny asked.
Carlson stood there for awhile, thinking. “Well, I have had my share of sleepless nights recently, coming to terms with Mattie’s visit here. You’re not the only one who loves her enough to let her go. You just beat me to the punch.” He extended his hand to Johnny and Johnny looked at it for a long moment. Murdoch understood Johnny’s hesitation, the boy knowing full well the finality of that handshake, a gentlemen’s agreement.
Johnny took the man’s offered hand and said, “Treat her right or I’ll come looking for you.”
Carlson nodded, “I will. You have my word.”
“Go on,” Johnny said, “before I change my mind.”
With that Carlson turned, tipping a hand to Murdoch and Scott and left the room.
“I’ll see them off,” Scott said to Murdoch. Murdoch nodded his agreement, but taken by surprise when Johnny came up beside them, his movements, fleet-footed and quiet as a wraith. A splinter of a thought ghosted across his mind, remembering the weight of Johnny’s words: “You’re my father.” He closed his eyes and sighed. Now’s the time to behave like one, he told himself.
“Johnny I need you to lie down. Scott, help your brother over to the sofa.”
There was a slight scuffle when Scott took hold of Johnny’s arm and Murdoch watched, startling him, as Johnny twisted away from his brother, landing a quick, neat punch squarely to Scott’s jaw. The delivery of the blow threw Johnny off his feet and onto the floor.
Murdoch moved to him, helping him up and deliberately propelled him to the large sofa. He pushed him onto it, grabbed his legs, stuck a pillow beneath the cast and without preamble, said, “Don’t move.”
He looked at Scott who was working his sore jaw. “What’s going on between the two of you?”
“Ask Scott who sent the telegram,” Johnny said with a flat tone.
Murdoch turned on Scott, heart thrumming, his face hot with disappointment. “Did you send it, Scott?”
Scott didn’t speak. He looked at Murdoch and then lowered his head, crossing his arms with a heavy sigh.
“Of course, he sent it,” said Johnny. “It fell out of that book he was reading to me.” A tremor ran through Johnny’s frame. “I didn’t want to believe it at first.”
“Johnny…” Scott began, but stopped, looking at Murdoch and lowering his head again.
“Why, Scott? Why? I don’t understand,” said Murdoch.
“To protect him, Murdoch, to protect Johnny,” Scott finally admitted. He moved to the sofa where Johnny was lying. “I told you I’d pay any price.”
Johnny rolled his head to study his brother, his eyes wet. “And I told you, you’d regret it.”
“You were right, Johnny, with some of it anyway. I regret hurting you and Mattie like this. I regret your anger towards me. But I don’t regret anything else.”
Johnny sighed and closed his eyes, turning away from Scott. He covered his head with his right arm and pressed his face into the back cushions of the sofa.
Murdoch watched Scott’s face crumple as he turned away from his brother and headed in a rush into the kitchen.
“Scott!” Murdoch called, chasing after him.
Murdoch caught up with him near the kitchen table, and a vision sprung up in his mind of his boys arm wrestling. He swallowed hard and said, “I understand, son, I do. I only hope the price isn’t too high for you to pay. What if it costs you your brother? What then? Is it worth that?”
Scott looked at him, exposed, gutted. He spoke only one word. “Yes,” he said, and then turned and left the room.
+ + +
It was clear to her, she had ruined it all, had done everything wrong to win him. Mattie now stood within the small cabin and remembered the touch of his fingertips on her face, light and gentle, significant and expressive, though he said few words.
Nathan, during the night, hidden in darkness, had told her it had all been a ruse, Johnny still loving her. He had handed her a note, but she had been blind to it in the dark as Johnny had been in this cabin. In her hands, in sunlight, she took it up and saw those words in her scrawl, black words, offering him a better life, but still breaking his heart. It read:
Becuz I luv you
And then beneath it –
Mattie touched a finger to his newly signed name. She pictured him doing so; black hair falling forward, blue eyes lit in concentration, perhaps, a misting of sorrow there, as well. She raised her hand to him, so clear in her mind’s eye, starting when she felt a fluttering inside like butterflies – a thing alive—the baby waking. Mattie shivered and brought the tattered paper to her lips and kissed it. His intent was plain and decent, without guile, offering her a better life, but still breaking her heart.
Mattie had learned Nathan had come to Lancer on Scott’s bidding and Nathan fully aware she had strong feelings for Johnny. Nathan had told her he was willing to let her go as Johnny had so nobly done, to release her if she desired it, but would be ever grateful to Johnny after she had told him about the baby. Although Mattie’s heart ached, she felt for the first time in weeks at some state of peace, having been of two minds, two hearts. She had wanted to come to the cabin before they traveled back East, despite Doc Sam’s disapproval. But Nathan had understood and had allowed her all she wanted, generous and kindhearted.
Mattie once again began to trace her fingertips along her face with eyes closed. Deep inside the hull of her lingered an unyielding emptiness, never to be filled, a loss, irrevocable, to catch her off-guard for all time, even in moments of her greatest joy. This Mattie knew as truth as she moved to the bedroom and walked over to the bed, her heart stuttering at the sight of her rag doll, seeing Johnny there, smile bright, holding the doll and then drifting asleep still clinging to it.
Tears sprung and rolled down her face. She began to sob. She felt a hand curl over her shoulder, strong, unwavering, accepting.
“Are you ready, Mattie?”
Mattie nodded, wiping a hand over her face, the dried salt of her tears, a glair on her cheeks, stiffening. She bent down and took the doll from the bed, holding it firmly to her. She smiled, remembering Johnny and then she tucked the tatty note into the doll’s dress pocket and set it back onto the bed.
“It’s time to go now, Mattie.”
Yes, she thought to herself, surely, she had held on too long. The thought weighed heavy upon her.
A breeze sprung up then, coming through a broken window pane, and she cocked her head a moment, listening, hearing Johnny’s laughter on the wind.
+ + +
Four days alone in his bedroom, and Murdoch stood at the door with a skeleton key, having knocked and pounded, wheedled and pleaded for his son to open it over the course of those days. In his dreaming, Murdoch thought he had heard the thump of crutches moving past his closed bedroom door in the late hours, but when he roused himself all he had heard were night sounds and the wind.
Each morning, Maria would leave food and drink on a tray by Johnny’s door and each evening she would take it away, coming to Murdoch with a satisfied smile that he had eaten, but by any stretch not nearly enough. Still, they had agreed, it was adequate to sustain the boy, until Murdoch could cajole him out of his room. Day five had been jointly agreed upon to take action by Teresa, Jelly and Maria; Scott, having made himself scarce the night of Mattie’s departure, had holed himself up at a line shack, to mull things over alone, waiting, no doubt, for his brother’s absolution. It had all been more than Murdoch could stand, but he found in some matters he held little power over these boys of his.
Although, that would be ending shortly, as he placed the key into the lock, and turned it, hearing the bolt retreat and feeling the doorknob responding to his will. He turned the metal knob and pushed open the door, amazed to see he hadn’t woken Johnny. The boy remained sound asleep on his bed, the room shadowed and gloomy, the air stale and close.
As Murdoch moved closer, he gave a long look at his son, and his heart leaped to see how very young he appeared in unguarded sleep. His black hair was darkened deeper by sweat and Murdoch recalled as a child how Johnny would wake up every morning with a damp head of hair. He had begun to leave a bedroom window open for a cooling breeze for the boy. Johnny was lying on his back and he wore pants and shirt with the shirt unbuttoned and loose. The leg in the cast seemed an anchor as the rest of Johnny’s body pointed away from it, maybe dreaming of an escape from the blasted thing.
Murdoch looked around the room, surprised by its neatness, as well as, finding the small cane chair still there. Murdoch, first, went around to several windows and opened them, and then he walked back to the small chair and sat, waiting. It was not quite five o’clock in the morning, but he couldn’t keep himself away any longer. He had a great number of things on his mind, a great number of things he needed his son to hear.
At that, he dug into his pants pocket and pulled out the Scottish knife, sgian-dubh. He moved a finger over the bog oak hilt, a Celtic knot carved into the black wood. “No beginning and no ending,” his father had said to him, “the continuity of love.” Murdoch remembered how he had wept in the darkness of the bowels of the ship, when loneliness and hunger and fear grabbed him in the haunting hours, pining for home while listening to the moans of the sick and the dying and only a week underway. He had thought himself cast into perdition, but as all suffering ends in time, he sprung from that wretched wilderness and was offered manna.
Johnny woke then and Murdoch watched him for a beat before he spoke to the boy. Johnny looked confused, but didn't seem to be upset to see Murdoch in his room.
"How?" he asked.
"Key," said Murdoch. "I want to talk to you about your brother. I believe he’s been punished long enough, don’t you?"
"Not what I was doing,” Johnny said, shifting himself on the bed, still in some degree of discomfort.
"Then what are you doing, Johnny?" asked Murdoch, struggling to understand.
"This isn't about Scott, Murdoch," said Johnny.
Murdoch nodded and moved the chair closer to the bed. He ran a hand over his hair, looking at the wall directly in front of him, thinking over how to proceed. He asked, “Do you remember what you said to me about your mother?”
Johnny was silent, his eyes giving away his confusion.
“It had been by the creek while we were waiting for Scott to return with the wagon to bring you home. Your fever was very high. I wondered what you would remember,” he said, trying to hide his disappointment, recalling the affection shared between them, the warm words spoken. He feared it may have all been lost.
“I’m sorry,” Johnny said, and Murdoch recognized the boy’s innate sensitivity. Johnny closed his eyes, seeming to Murdoch as if he wanted to hide away, simply vanish.
“It’s all right, Johnny,” Murdoch said, trying to bring him ease. He took a moment and then went on, “You said you couldn’t save your mother. I assumed you meant save her from herself and not some mortal harm. It struck me later that perhaps you hoped to make her life better so your life could be better.” Murdoch watched his son’s face, darkened first by denial and then guilt.
Murdoch was quick to react, explaining himself. “It doesn't make you a bad son, Johnny. It makes you a child who wanted to be loved and to feel safe. You had every right to want those things, to have those things. I have the idea it may be more about forgiving your mother than saving her.”
It was all too close, too cruel, and perhaps, too late for Murdoch to be dredging up the past and Johnny paying the price for it. Too many words were spoken, yet so little was conveyed. But still, Murdoch continued on while he watched his boy who was lying there, listening to everything Murdoch was saying, his breath barely audible, so still.
Murdoch began again, “You’ve never spoken ill of your mother, at least not to me. That certainly is not my desire. I loved your mother, Johnny, very much, but I couldn't seem to make her happy. I began to believe nothing could. I don't know why this was or what was in her that made her so restless, so lost much of the time. She would be so happy for weeks, for months, and then the gloom would set in, an impenetrable sadness, nothing could bring her out of it. She would leave Lancer, gone missing for days. During her absence, you would cry, inconsolable. I finally had to get a surrogate, a wet nurse. Before you say anything, Johnny, I had no choice. Your mother raged for weeks over it when she returned, but then she refused to nurse you. I wouldn't have allowed it in any case. She was drinking far too much and it would have harmed you.
“Things went on like this for some time and then finally there seemed to be a period of grace as if her faith had been restored in me and in herself. The days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months and then into a year. Two weeks before your second birthday, she had disappeared again. One morning, I had awoken to find she had taken you with her and no idea where she had gone. I thought I could save her from herself and she despised me for it, so much so she took you from me. For so long, I had wondered what I had done to deserve her malice, her ill will, and it finally struck me, my only mistake had been that I had loved her.”
Johnny was silent for a very long time. His eyes were closed and Murdoch again was at a loss as to what to say to his son. Murdoch had shared so much of himself, the hurt, the anger, his absolute soul, and he had nothing left to offer, to make things as they should be, but maybe there’d been too much pain already to even attempt to make amends.
“Did you forgive her, Murdoch?” Johnny asked. His voice was soft and small as a child’s.
Murdoch sighed, relieved. He gave himself a moment to gather his thoughts. “I've tried,” Murdoch said truthfully. “There’d been plenty of years in between to take away some of the sting.”
Johnny swiveled his head toward Murdoch, watching him for awhile. “Maybe, you’re right,” Johnny said, “maybe I haven’t really forgiven her after all.”
“We’ll work on it together, Johnny,” said Murdoch. “It’s much easier for me to forgive now, and to forget, with you and your brother here at Lancer. You told me not so long ago that sharing things makes it easier. But I know this hasn’t been easy for you to hear, and I’m sorry. One thing I want you to know, when your mother was lifted from her melancholy, she was a blessing, a joy… I need to ask… was she ever happy, Johnny? Was she happy away from Lancer, away from me?”
Murdoch cursed his weakness, his self-indulgence. He looked at Johnny who seemed lost in thought, walking in some other time, some other place. Did he dare ask what his boy was thinking? Did he really want to know?
Johnny again seemed distracted, beyond Murdoch’s reach, but then said, more to himself than to Murdoch, “So it was her then and not me … I had thought … all my life…oh, Madre de Dios. It’s been too long… too hard to breathe. Been strung up tight and ready to run…”
“No!” said Murdoch. “This is where you belong. This is your home. You’re my son and I want you to stay. I need you to stay.”
Then Johnny was back with absolute clarity, eyes bright, alert. “You think Scott does too, even, after everything?” Johnny asked, unguarded, his heart borne in cupped hands.
Murdoch laughed, low and warm. "Yes, Johnny, Scott most of all.”
Johnny slowly lifted himself up to sit, a struggle for him and Murdoch stood to help, placing a pillow behind his back. Johnny nodded and then studied his long fingers for a time. Murdoch saw there was something Johnny wanted to share so he returned to the small chair and waited.
Johnny turned his eyes away from him as he started to talk. “About Mattie...here's the thing...Carlson...well, it was for the best. Maybe not like you or Scott was thinking, but what was best for her. It could have been good, you know, it could have been real fine...for us. That's a bitter pill...not knowing how it would have played out. It was the right thing to do...I know that now...the baby cinched it and watching them together... Scott knows me...knew I needed to see things for myself. What do they say...love is blind? With Mattie I'd been blind to a lot of things... I think Scott would call that ironic, which is one way of saying I’m a darn fool.”
“No, Johnny, not the fool, never the fool. I never saw two people more in love. Carlson saw it, too, and was ready to let her go. Mattie is a fortunate girl.”
“I wanted her to be mine, not Carlson’s. Mattie should have been…she should have been mine a long time ago.” Johnny rubbed his hands over his face and then dropped them in his lap. “I did the right thing...didn't I, Murdoch? You think she'll be happy? I know the other side of Mattie...she was real strong, feisty...the way she stood up to those desperadoes, and me, too blind to help...one of them wanted to....well, blind or not I wasn't about to let that happen to her. We got him, together we got him. Too bad, though…”
“What's too bad, Johnny?” Murdoch asked.
“Oh, nothing, really, just wishing out loud is all...but, never did believe in fairy tales or happy ever after...” His words trailed off and Johnny gave a halfhearted smile.
“Well, I do,” said Murdoch with conviction. “After everything that’s happened, after all the loss, the betrayal, and heartache, I still believe.”
Johnny looked at him with curiosity. “Why's that, Murdoch?
“Because of you boys...you and your brother...” Murdoch smiled at Johnny.
“Yeah, I’d say that's some happy ending there.” Johnny laughed and said, "Tallie would love that... I can hear her now...and the young prince finds his rightful place by his father's side."
“Always, Johnny, always,” Murdoch said quietly.
“It was you…” Johnny whispered. His face showed surprise and delight.
Murdoch smiled wide to see it, even though he was not sure what pleased Johnny so much. “What was that?” he asked.
“Nothing...” Johnny ducked his head, not ready to share. Murdoch didn’t mind as much as he would have in those earlier days, desperate to know his son. He understood his boy now and Murdoch reveled in the intimate acquaintance of his young son’s heart.
“Do you remember the poem I recited to you, Johnny?” Murdoch asked.
“Yeah...I do,” said Johnny. “Why?”
Murdoch brought his thumb to his lips, deep in thought. He said, “Well, just that there's a little more to it.”
Johnny frowned, thinking. “That poem's been in my head a lot. I reckon Mattie and me kept holding on too long to the joy, not wanting to let it go, let each other go, and it all went to ruin like that poem said...destroyed. Do you think...can things...can it ever come back right? It hurts bad to think...to lose it all...” Johnny looked to him for answers, a father’s wisdom. He would do his best.
“Oh, Johnny, I don't know if it can ever go back to what it was, but I do know you haven't lost her or her love and that's the important thing.” He watched Johnny, hoping his words gave some comfort.
“Kind of feels like I have...lost everything, I mean.”
“For awhile it will. The loss...it takes time. But, one thing your old man does know, there is a girl meant for you out there. She’s waiting now, dreaming and wishing for you to come find her, and you will find her, Johnny. You have my word.” Murdoch smiled. "Now let me tell you about this knife."
Murdoch took the blade from his pocket and removed it from the ornate scabbard.
Johnny lurched forward, his hand outstretched. "Hey, my knife! You found it!"
"Yes, I found it. It’s gone missing nearly twenty years now… as was my son."
“It belongs to you?” Johnny asked, his face at first registered surprise, but soon there was understanding, all making sense. His eyes moved over the knife in Murdoch’s hand.
“Did your mother give this to you? Had she mentioned me?”Murdoch asked.
A mask immediately shrouded Johnny’s face, but his boy returned back to him quickly to Murdoch’s relief. Johnny struggled a moment, wanting to share something, Murdoch knowing it was a hard thing for his son. He didn’t push, merely waiting in silence, holding an unyielding patience new to him.
“She’d gone...the day she left...this was what I found… this knife, an old pistol, and a wedding picture. I was scared, just a kid alone... why would she do that? Leave me like that? I could only think it was something I did wrong. Maybe I wasn't a good enough son. It had to have been something. She showed me the knife before, said its roots were in Scotland, like your papa's, she said, like yours. I'd look at that knife and that picture every day and wonder what bad thing I done to lose you both like that...not one of you wanting me. I got so I could make myself believe it didn't matter. And every day...I took that old pistol, fashioned me a rig, and I'd practice with it, and all the hate, all the hurt, all the disappointment, spurred me on, made me fast, made me deadly. Johnny Madrid got born that year. I was just shy of twelve and had a full head of hate. But that knife, that knife...it made me feel different...it gave me hope...kept me remembering I was Johnny Lancer inside and maybe one day my pa would want me and would come and bring me home...and you did...just like I'd hoped...” Johnny said. The blue of his eyes was stunning, wide and vibrant, and filled with marked gratitude.
“No matter how long it took your pa to find you?” Murdoch asked, needing that reassurance, that release, as well, to gain his boy’s forgiveness, no matter what he had asserted on that first day.
Johnny smiled. "No matter..."
Murdoch lowered his head and cleared his throat, overwhelmed for a time. When he looked up, he saw Johnny watching him closely. He patted Johnny’s leg, a deep affection in the act, looking at Johnny for a quiet moment. “Well, now,” he said, lifting the knife and running a finger over it. “See that hilt? It's made from bog oak and that carving is the Celtic knot. It signifies the continuity of love. My father gave me this knife before I journeyed to America. It was given to your grandfather by his father and so on, and I am giving it to you,” Murdoch said, handing the knife to Johnny.
"No, Murdoch, Scott should have it,” Johnny said, voicing a strong objection.
“Scott said the same thing, though he had said that you should have it. And I agreed. This is your knife, Johnny. It's been your knife for twenty years.” Once more, Murdoch handed Johnny the knife, this time expecting no protest.
Johnny took it, grinning over at Murdoch, but at once sobering. “About Scott...I'm not sore any more, never was really, but he shouldn't have gone behind my back like that...he was right, but how he went about it wasn't. A man's got to find his own way on certain matters. You know that, don't you, Murdoch? That's why you didn't call the tune on this, ain’t that right?” Johnny asked.
Murdoch nodded. “Yes, Johnny, you needed to find your own way on this one. But I won't lie to you that I wasn't grateful to Scott. He wanted to protect you, Johnny, no matter what it cost him. No matter if it meant losing you as his brother,” Murdoch said.
Johnny shrugged and lowered his head. He said, “Well, it don't need to be so dire now does it?
“No?” asked Murdoch, trying not to get his hopes up hastily.
“No,” Johnny said,” Where's Scott now, Murdoch?
“Cipriano knows where he is … I was told he was at one of the line shacks. He’s been gone over five days now.”
Johnny shifted on the bed, trying to find a more comfortable position. He looked at Murdoch and asked, “Could you do something for me?”
“Yes, I certainly can. What is it?” Murdoch asked, his heart tripping in his chest with anticipation.
“Could you tell Scott to come home? Tell him his brother wants him to come home.” Johnny rested back against the pillow, his features relaxed as if a weight had been lifted.
Murdoch smiled. “I can do that for you, son. But first let me finish telling you about your knife...”
Murdoch watched Johnny as his boy listened to his story, eyes cast towards the open window. As Murdoch spoke, there suddenly lit a small brown bird on the window's sill, eyes like shot, watching Johnny. When the wren gave song, Murdoch stood and moved toward it. But in that moment, the small bird tilted its tiny brown head and nodded to them, as if to say goodbye, and then flew away.
+ + +
Scott and Johnny sat together on the circular bench beneath a small tree in the courtyard, watching stray clouds scuttle across the early autumn sky and enjoying the quiet of each other’s company.
Johnny lowered his gaze and looked at his brother. “Why do you think Murdoch’s willing to go?” Johnny asked.
Scott sat up straight, appearing to give Johnny’s question some careful consideration. “Let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth, as they say,” said Scott.
“Gotta,” said Johnny, a slow grin forming.
“What?” Scott asked, curious.
“I gotta look a gift horse in the mouth. Remember what happened the last time I didn’t? Gotta look ‘em in the mouth and everywhere else,” Johnny said. He wore a full-blown grin now, watching his brother.
Scott frowned and said, “Oh, yeah, I do remember. You ended up returning a horse and coming home with a little girl. You’re right, bad example. Let me put it another way. Far be it for me to question our father’s generous spirit. If Murdoch wants us to take a little vacation, then so be it.”
“That’s right,” Johnny said, grinning. “So be it.”
“You ready for Sacramento?” asked Scott.
“Yeah, more than ready,” said Johnny. “You ready for Katherine Flaherty?”
Johnny smiled when Scott ducked his head and grinned. “Yeah, I’m ready,” Scott said.
Johnny looked up and saw Teresa walking from the front portico to the courtyard and then standing for a time to watch them, grinning. She had an envelope in her hand. When she reached them, Teresa said, “Here’s mail for you, Johnny. I think it might be from Mattie.”
“Mattie?” asked Johnny, his voice faltering.
“It was with Murdoch’s letter from Doctor Poovy,” She said and handed it to Johnny, her eyes reflecting her concern. With a kiss to his cheek, Teresa turned away and headed back inside the house.
Johnny held the letter in his hands and locked eyes with Scott.
“You want some privacy, brother?” Scott asked, worry apparent in his tone.
“No,” Johnny said. “No, stay.”
Johnny’s hands shook slightly and he had a difficult time ripping open the envelope. Finally, he pulled loose a note card, not very large. Johnny read it, then looked up at Scott, and began to read it aloud: “My Sweet Johnny, Thank you for loving me enough to let go. With all my heart, I hope one day to see you again. Yours always, Mattie Cable Carlson.”
“Would you want to?” Scott asked, his voice soft, troubled.
“What?” Johnny looked at his brother.
“Would you want to see her again?” Scott asked, repeating the question.
As Johnny gave thought to it, a burst of wind blew up around him and almost tore the note from his hand. Taking no chances, he folded it and placed it into the waistband of his pants. Finally, he said, “Maybe, one day, when it doesn’t hurt so much.”
The air suddenly turned heavy with gloom, a quiet despair hanging over them. They sat together, silent, brooding.
But then the silence was shattered.
“Scott! Johnny! Hurry it up! I don’t want to miss the stage,” shouted Murdoch. “Where are you boys? When did things go to hell in a hand basket around here? Best not forget who calls the tune. Johnny! Scott!”
Johnny jerked up his head and looked at Scott with a wide grin. They began to laugh, eager and raucous. To Johnny’s ears, it sounded of need and forgiveness. Scott stood and tossed his long arm across Johnny’s shoulders while Johnny slowly gained his footing, the right one only just that morning freed from the cast.
Johnny wobbled a little, but Scott held him firmly. “I got you, brother,” Scott said, and Johnny believing in those words, more than he’d ever believed in anything in his life – more than an inebriated pledge of a mother’s love or the warm, solid press of his gun against his hip.
While thinking this, he shouldered up to his brother and then, together, they hurried on to the hacienda in search of their father. In an unpracticed, yet precise harmony, they loudly shouted:
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who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity's sun rise.
* * * * * * * * * *
**A heartfelt thank you to all those who had personally contacted me to continue reading my story. It has meant the world to me. All those who have written to me over the course of this story, I thank you. Your comments have brought me great joy and, also, gave me food for thought as I wrote. This is my gift to you, Fans of Lancer and especially, Fans of Johnny Madrid Lancer. I hope it is worthy.
Kimberly (KBJ) 1/4/12
**I want to take this time to acknowledge and thank the Lancer Series’ Writers for their wonderfully crafted storylines and words. I have woven episode canon/plot/characters into my story, To See You Again, whether it was merely a mention of a scene, a character, or actual use or reference to dialog. See below:
1:01 The Highriders
Story: Samuel A. Peeples
Teleplay: Dean Reisiner
1:03 Chase A Wild Horse
Writer: Paul Pladon
1:05 The Lawman
Writer: Laurence Heath
Writer: Paul Playdon
Writer: Jack Turley
1:11 The Heart of Pony Alice
Writer: Jack Turley
1:12 The Escape
Writer: Anthony Spinner
1:17 Warburton’s Edge
Story: K.C. Alison, Jack Turley
Teleplay: Jack Turley
2:17 The Lion & The Lamb
Writer: Andy White
2:01 Blind Man’s Bluff
Writer: Carey Wilber
2:03 The Kid
Writer: Cary Wilber
2:05 The Gifts
Writer: Andy White
2:06 Cut The Wolves Loose
Writer: Ken Trevey
Writer: Jack Turley
2:13 Shadow Of A Dead Man
Writer: Jack Turley
2:16 The Lorelei
Writer: Samuel Roeca
2:18 The Experiment
Writer: Herbert Purdom
2:21 The Buscaderos
Story: Jim Byrnes
Teleplay: Ken Trevey
2:23 Goodbye Lizzie
Writer: Kathleen Hite
2:09 A Person Unknown
Writer: Andy White
2:11 A Scarecrow at Hacket’s
Writer: Samuel Roeca
*Screencapped at Yankton TV
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