A Missed Opportunity
(Another Life Before Lancer Story)
Murdoch Lancer entered the small, stuffy hotel room in Monterrey, Mexico, and sat down on the edge of the lumpy, uncomfortable bed, his large frame sinking the creaking mattress almost to the ground. He placed his elbows on his knees and held his head in his hands, looking dejectedly at the cockroaches that roamed the dirty, unsightly floor.
He had a decision to make, a difficult one regarding the search for his wife and young son. Murdoch had to decide whether to return to his growing ranch, Lancer, or continue the search for his family. This time he felt like he was really close to finding them. . . .and the unusual circumstances of this particular search made the decision that much more agonizing.
He had received the urgent telegram just a few weeks before, and within hours he was off to Abilene, Texas, to meet with the sender of the wire. Joe Barker and Murdoch had met in Abilene some 12 years earlier, when the rancher had been deputized and joined a posse that ended up in the Texas town, where the now Sheriff Barker was then the deputy. Though they had been together for only a short time, a deep friendship grew, and Barker had sent his deepest sympathy when he received word of the death of Murdoch’s young wife, Catherine.
The next time their paths crossed was a few years later, when Murdoch and his expectant Mexican bride, Maria, stopped in Abilene for a few days of rest before continuing to Lancer. Maria was not doing well and Murdoch feared for her health. But a few months later, the Sheriff received word that the couple had welcomed a healthy baby son into their family.
The two kept in touch, and Sheriff Barker was saddened when he learned that Maria had left Murdoch for another man, taking their two-year old son with her. Murdoch had written his sheriff friend and asked him to keep an eye out for them, and if he even thought he caught a glimpse of them, to let him know.
The telegram from Sheriff Barker that arrived that August day in 1856 stated there was a “possibility” that Maria and Johnny were in the Abilene area, and Murdoch was off to talk to his friend within hours of receipt of the wire.
From what the Sheriff had told Murdoch, a young Mexican woman whom he thought resembled Maria had been in and around Abilene for several days, with a man sticking to her like a leach. A small boy was also with the woman, and Barker could tell the child wanted nothing to do with the woman’s male companion.
When Murdoch questioned Barker about the welfare of both the woman and child, the sheriff’s head dropped and his voice became heavy. He told him the woman seemed unhappy and even fearful of the man with her. They were often seen at the cantina, and Barker knew for a fact they had a room on the upper floor of the less than stellar establishment.
Murdoch’s heart grew heavy when Barker told him the child, who was of mixed heritage, was small, thin, and poorly dressed, and was left on his own much of the time, often begging for food from the locals. He told his friend that his heart bled when the little boy tried to make friends with the other children, but they pushed him away, throwing stones at him and calling him “half-breed” and “mestizo.” At one point, Barker informed, he was able to get close enough to the child to give him a piece of candy, and it was then that the boy’s sapphire eyes sparkled and a grin appeared that, as Barker commented, ‘could light up the world.’
When the sheriff tried to initiate a conversation, such as ‘what is your name’ and ‘where is your mother,’ the boy became defensive, advising ‘he did not speak English,’ and quickly ran away. Barker said he knew for a fact the boy spoke perfect English, as well as fluent Spanish.
“I tried my best, Murdo. I tried to find a way to keep them here, but neither the woman or the man did anything illegal. I wired you as soon as I could, but the boy must have said something to the woman, for that was the last I saw of either of them, as well as the man. I’m sorry, maybe I shouldn’t of said anything at all, just kept my distance.”
“No Joe, you did the right thing, and I thank you. This is the most information I’ve had in years. It had to be them. At least I know they’re alive. If I find them and Maria doesn’t want to come back, well, that’s her business. But Johnny. . .he’s a child. He will return with me, or hell will freeze over.”
Sheriff Barker wished his friend luck, and asked to let him know how things turned out.
That was three weeks ago. Murdoch headed south, and with Maria’s picture in hand, stopped everywhere and asked everyone he came in contact with if they had seen her. Every shack, every home, and every two-by-four town. From old men and women, to children, no one went unasked in his lonely quest. There were a few, the older people, who thought they saw someone who might have been the woman. When asked about a child, they responded a ‘half-breed’ had been with her. But the past week, there was nothing. Another dead end. Either they had disappeared, again, or people just weren’t talking.
Murdoch had stayed in contact with his ranch foreman, Paul O’Brien, but the last telegram he received was cause for concern. Anthrax was spreading across the valley; it hadn’t made it to Lancer yet, but the ranchers were becoming alarmed. As one of the officers of the newly formed Cattlemen’s Association, Murdoch’s presence was requested, and needed, by the other ranchers. So Paul asked if he could, please, come home.
And as Murdoch sat dejectedly on the bed in the run-down hotel room, looking at the cockroaches roam the floor, he made his decision. A heart-wrenching one, but nonetheless, a necessary one.
He decided to forego his search, at least for now, and return home to Lancer. After all, the ranch was all he had.
Murdoch wired Paul and informed him he was on his way home, then stopped at the cantina for dinner. Besides the fact that the food was awful, Murdoch’s broken heart made eating difficult, even if it had been a first-class meal.
He returned to the hotel room. It had been light when he left, but it was dark now, and he stumbled over to the desk and lit the lamp. At the first light, his friends, the cockroaches, scurried from the desk, and the table. . .and the bed. . .and back into hiding. Murdoch decided he would sleep in the chair, thank you very much. And he would leave the light on and remain fully clothed. He hated those pesky little demons with a passion.
It was then that he noticed the small tablet on the desk, and the sheets of paper crudely torn off of it. He perused the papers and smiled to himself. Drawn on the four or five sheets of paper were horses. He could tell it was a child who drew them, and he continued to smile as he looked at each drawing. Pretty darn good for a kid, he chuckled to himself. One drawing was of a horse grazing; another, the horse was in full gallop. And in another, the horse was rearing on his back legs, a look of fear on the animal. Kid had an imagination, Murdoch surmised.
After looking at the penciled drawings a few moments more, Murdoch tapped the papers on the desk, evening them out. He folded the papers in half, then in fourths, and gently dropped them in the waste basket that was next to the desk. He frowned when the roaches came out of their hiding in the waste basket, and invaded the drawings that had probably been the pride and joy of the child who drew them, and were probably left behind by accident.
It went through his mind that this room was certainly no place for a child, but the thought, and the drawings, forever left the mind of Murdoch Lancer. For there was no reason for him to remember them.
Or was there?
He pulled the chair from the desk over to the arm chair in the starkly furnished room, and used it as a foot rest. He sat down, placed his feet on the desk chair, and considered the events of the past few weeks.
He had never felt this close to finding them before, and it had taken an old friend of his to bring about the small bit of hope he now had. The agency he had employed for the past few years had done nothing, and Murdoch was seriously considering hiring the Pinkerton Agency to take over. It would be rough financially, but he decided then and there that when he returned home and the anthrax scare was over, he would contact the Pinkerton’s to discuss what kind of arrangements, if any, could be made to find his family.
As he left town the next morning and headed home, the feeling was still with him that he had been so close. And although Murdoch Lancer would never, ever, know it, he had been. For he had had his son, his child, right there in his hands..
And he, literally, threw him away. . . .
But how was he to know?
If only Murdoch had studied the drawings a little more closely. If only he had looked at the back of them, particularly the third sheet, the one in the middle of the stack. For the young artist had written his name on the back of his favorite drawing, the one of the horse rearing on his hind legs, and he wanted this drawing to bear his name.
If only Murdoch had looked, he would have figured out the name of the artist written in the careful handwriting of a child: j-o-h-n-n-y l-a-n-c-e-r. But he didn’t. And he would never know that his wife and son had been in that room, and had left, hurriedly, only an hour before he arrived.
Murdoch Lancer had missed the greatest opportunity he would ever have to find his wife. And more importantly, his son.
But he didn’t know. . . . .
How could he?