(WHN for Cut the Wolf Loose)
The Lancer name and characters are the creation of others.
This story is written for entertainment purposes only; no infringement of
the creator’s copyright is intended.
shifted in his saddle and glanced down the quiet streets of town, but there was
no sign of Johnny. Where are you, Brother? You
heard Murdoch say we were leaving at six o’clock sharp Monday morning.
He frowned, knowing his brother was not accustomed to running his life by
I don’t understand why we have to start so early.
The blond had not gotten much sleep over the past two days, and dawn came
too soon this morning. Looking at the mounted cowhands gathered around his father,
Scott thought they all appeared the worse for having spent a weekend in the
stockyard town after the long cattle drive.
Move ‘em out,” Murdoch said in
a booming voice, and the ranch hands rode away, beginning the return trip to
chuck wagon rumbled forward with Jelly sitting on the tailgate.
The old man rubbed his feet, and Scott grinned at the memory of Jelly
dancing with every female who was willing.
were all my friends when I needed help resisting temptation,” Jelly
the wagon pull away, Scott peered one more time at the empty street before him.
He nudged his horse closer to Murdoch’s chestnut.
“You waiting for Johnny?”
a big boy,” Murdoch said. “He
doesn’t need anybody to wait up for him.
Not now anyway.”
blond studied his father’s expression. Something
seemed to be troubling the older man. Scott
puzzled over what the last few words implied.
“I just had the feeling that you—“
there’s a chance that Johnny may not be riding back with us this morning.”
riding back? Why?”
Scott’s heart beat faster. Now
maybe one of these days he’ll volunteer it.
But if he doesn’t, don’t ask.”
Murdoch wheeled his horse around and spurred the gelding forward.
hesitated for only a moment before following his father.
They rode together in silence, and the blond mulled over the events of
the past week. The cattle drive had
been his first, and was dirty, tiring work.
So, when they delivered the cattle to the stockyards, he was anticipating
a long, hot bath and a fine meal. Instead,
after the men were paid their wages, Murdoch announced that Scott and Johnny
would be buying the first round of drinks at the saloon.
That first round soon led to another and then someone mentioned the
carnival on the outskirts of town. The
call of the roulette wheel was strong for Scott, and most of his weekend was a
blur of one game of chance after another.
a shake of his head, Scott still could hear his father’s words.
“It’s not the cattle drive that separates the men from the boys.
It’s the town at the end.” A town that wanted to separate each cowhand from his wages.
The blond chuckled and recalled his winnings.
But not this Boston-raised cowboy.
I was a winner—not once, but twice. Scott paused at the recollection of Johnny grabbing the money
from his hand at one point during the night and saying, “I owe ya.”
had not seen much of his younger brother over the past two days.
The blond settled a little more comfortably in the saddle and gathered
his memories since arriving in town. Johnny
had laughed and seemed to be having a good time in the saloon, “cutting the
wolf loose,” as their father called it. The
brothers wagered on who could chug a beer faster.
The loser would have to wear Jelly’s cap for an hour.
Scott lost and Johnny whopped loudly when the cap was placed atop the
and the boys stayed at the bar, but Johnny, Scott and Jelly meandered over to
the carnival. Johnny was the first
one on the dance floor. He
was in good spirits and having a fine time.
The games of chance attracted Scott, despite Jelly’s suggestion that
they get dinner. Everything after
that became a blur of numbers and probabilities.
Hadn’t Johnny stopped by at some
time and said he wanted to talk? But
I was on a winning streak and wasn’t paying much attention to what he said.
Scott’s gloved hands tightened on the reins.
Was Johnny trying to tell me something important?
Did he need me? And I told him, “Not right now.”
groaned and Murdoch glanced over at him.
cleared his throat. “Yes, Sir.
I was just thinking about this weekend.”
raised an eyebrow. “I didn’t
see you after we paid the men. Did
you have fun?”
blond smiled and launched into the story of his success at the carnival.
“It’s all about probabilities, Murdoch.”
thunder of hoof beats interrupted Scott’s explanation.
The familiar flash of Barranca’s golden coat was a welcome sight to the
blond, and Scott felt a wave of relief settle over him as Johnny slowed the
horse to a walk and rode beside Murdoch. Concern
quickly replaced Scott’s relief, when he noticed Johnny was missing his hat
and more surprisingly, his gun belt. He
wanted to ask his brother what had happened in town, but he remembered his
father’s warning to let Johnny volunteer the information.
Johnny,” Murdoch said, letting his eyes meet his son’s.
He tried to gauge the boy’s disposition, but all he saw was the guarded
expression of someone who could have been a stranger to him.
nodded, but didn’t say a word. He
settled Barranca to a stride that matched the chestnut’s pace.
felt an odd mix of emotions toward his youngest son. He was glad Johnny was riding beside him; surprised, in fact.
Based on the strength of his son’s feelings for Reverend Thompson’s
daughter, Murdoch had not expected to see him this morning.
The girl Johnny started to tell me
about had to be Laura Thompson. She’s
running the only mission is town, and Johnny clearly said, “Mission.”
another quick glance at the remote look in his son’s eyes, Murdoch pressed his
horse into a lope. Best to leave that town, and whatever happened there, far behind.
rode three abreast for the better part of the morning without speaking.
Murdoch fought a battle of warring emotions.
He was not ready to lose Johnny to marriage, when the boy had only
recently come back into his life. Yet,
he wanted his son to be happy. The
image of the Reverend’s daughter and his youngest son—the former gunfighter,
Johnny Madrid—was a tough one to figure.
How could it work for them? Johnny
has such a dark, troubled past. Does
the girl see him as a lost soul who needs saving?
And Johnny just doesn’t seem like the type to marry a minister’s
daughter. But the look on his face
when he told me he had met someone special was so… so genuine.
Maybe she would be the best thing that ever happened to him.
Something must have gone wrong for him to be here now without her.
felt a pang of guilt. Going to bail
out Walt and the other hands Saturday night had seemed more urgent than talking
to his son about love and marriage. No,
not more urgent, just easier. Hell,
I couldn’t even answer Johnny directly about how long Maria and I courted
before we wed. It struck Murdoch as strange that the boy’s mother never
told him anything about the time she and Murdoch had spent together.
horse’s steady stride slowed as the road headed uphill, and Murdoch pulled the
aging chestnut back to a walk. Johnny
kept Barranca at a lope and surged forward.
Reining in his mount, Scott rode closer to his father.
Scott’s eyes searched for an answer.
with him, Son. I’ll be along.”
Murdoch watched his two boys race up the road.
Scott caught up with Johnny at the crest of the hill, and then both
disappeared over the ridge.
sighed and patted the chestnut’s neck. “Oh
to be young again.” His thoughts
returned to the unfinished conversation he and Johnny had shared in the hotel
room the other night. Murdoch was
proud his youngest had sought him out to talk. With a cringe, Murdoch realized he had turned down an earlier
offer to join Johnny for dinner. Indigestion
from spicy Mexican food had been his excuse, but that was all it was—an
could have told them to cut down on the chili peppers.
Was I afraid to eat with Johnny when he was in the mood for food that
reminded him of his past? An
unexpected shiver ran down his spine. Maybe I didn’t want to see him as Johnny Madrid.
pulled his hat forward and swayed with the horse’s motion.
The muscles in his back tightened, and he grunted at the discomfort.
“I’m getting too old to do these cattle drives.
Next year, Scott and Johnny can take this job on without me.
I don’t need to be there for everything.”
I wasn’t there when Johnny wanted to talk, father and son. I was over at the jail, bailing out Walt and the boys.
Damn! Why didn’t Johnny
stay put in the room like I told him to? Then
we could have talked when I got back. That
boy doesn’t follow directions.
thoughts softened as he reached the top of the hill and spotted Johnny and Scott
waiting for him at the bottom of the hill. What kind of father am
I? I had a pretty good idea where
Johnny was. I could have gone to
the Mission House to find him. Instead,
I went back to reading Homer. What
do I know about being a father? He
set the gelding to a slow trot and decided he would do better by both sons, but
especially Johnny, from now on.
squinted into the sun and ran a hand through his hair.
He regretted the theft of his hat, but the missing pistol made him
never bothered me that I wasn’t wearing a gun when I was with Laura.
the thought of the lovely woman he had left behind, the dull ache of loss
returned. Laura, Honey. The words had
slipped out so easy, like it was meant to be.
Only it wasn’t meant to be. He
deliberately tucked his thoughts about her into that part of his mind where he
locked away painful memories and hurts. In a quieter time when he was alone and nursing a bottle of
tequila, he would dredge up the image of her face and come to terms with his
shifted his focus back to the matter of needing a handgun.
Next town we come to, I’ll stop
and get a new one. Then there’ll
be hours of practice to get the feel of its balance.
Until then, I’ll keep my rifle handy.
watched Murdoch ride down the hill slowly and considered how his mother must
have found a younger version of the big man an impressive figure.
Questions about his parents’ marriage had flashed through his mind
shortly after he realized how he felt about Laura.
called it a whirlwind courtship.
Scott said tentatively, moving his horse closer. “I need to apologize for the other night.
You wanted to talk and I wasn’t paying attention.”
it.” Johnny lowered his chin to
his chest and rubbed his hand against the spot where the pistol normally hung at
you want to talk now?”
looked up and saw the questions in his brother’s eyes, questions Scott wanted
to ask but was too polite to pose. Johnny
chose to avoid the subject he knew Scott was most curious to discuss.
“Sure. Tell me about that
system of yours. It seemed to be
working on that wheel.”
beamed with pleasure. “It’s all
about probabilities, Brother. Statistically,
you can calculate the likelihood that a number will be a winner.”
The blond continued to explain how games of chance could be mastered with
listening, Johnny feigned interest. He
had seen too many marked cards, rigged wheels, and loaded dice to know Scott’s
system only worked if the dealer was on the up and up.
When the blond paused for breath, Johnny quietly added, “I’ll pay
back that money I took.”
need, Brother. I won even more the
second time around. But I’m
curious what you wanted it for.”
fidgeted with his reins. “Gave it
to someone who really needed it.”
that someone have a name?”
directly at Scott, Johnny heaved a sigh. He
was not ready to talk about Laura, so he only nodded and set off after the chuck
wagon, which was barely visible in the distance.
wheels of the chuck wagon creaked and bounced along the rutted road.
The motion set the pots and pans to clanking together, and Jelly listened
to the clatter. With a yawn, he stretched and then kneaded the tired muscles
along his legs. “Never knowed
dancin’ was such hard work.” He
rubbed his aching feet and muttered to himself, “Feet, ya done me proud, until
that clumsy she-devil stomped all over ya.”
hired hand studied the horizon from his position on the tailgate of the chuck
wagon and spotted the trio of riders approaching. Ol’ Murdoch got him a
mighty fine pair of boys there. He
watched the men draw near. When
they were within shouting range, Jelly called out, “Look who decided to join
us.” He shook a finger in the
direction of the youngest Lancer. “Tarnation,
Johnny! You led me to that dance
floor, and next thing I knowed, I’m dancing like a dang fool.
And you’re nowheres to be seen.”
Johnny smiled weakly and rode past the wagon.
frowned and craned his neck to regard the back of the rider he considered like a
son. He had not expected a
compliant response from the former gunfighter.
Turning back to Murdoch and Scott, he shrugged his shoulders.
“What’s gotten into him?”
Jelly,” Murdoch said. He held a
hand up to silence any further questions. Then,
Murdoch and Scott galloped after Johnny.
I’ll be! Don’t waste your
breath telling me what’s going on.” Jelly
crossed his arms over his chest and jutted out his whiskered chin.
“Nobody tells Jelly nothin’.”
He paused for a moment and realized Johnny had tried to talk to him over
the weekend. Even
though I was dancin’, I offered to listen, but Johnny walked away.
And he sure don’t want to talk now.
evening, in the campfire’s warm glow, Murdoch studied the faces of the men
swapping lighthearted stories about their adventures in town.
All but one of them laughed loudly as Scott teased Jelly about the fine
figure he cut on the dance floor. Removed
from the others, Johnny sat in the shadows, staring into the fire.
His distant expression worried Murdoch.
of a bear, she was. Near broke my
toes.” Jelly lifted his swollen
foot for examination.
seemed right taken with you, Jelly,” Scott said.
older man’s head shot forward. “She
sure weren’t no looker.”
I had the two prettiest gals with me,” Pinkie boasted, jerking his thumb
toward his chest. “One on each
but I had Lady Luck with me,” Scott said and clapped the freckled ranch hand
on the back.
listened as the tales grew livelier and the exploits of the weekend grew more
exaggerated. Through it all, he
kept a wary eye on Johnny. His
dark-haired son remained quiet, seemingly part of the group, yet not joining in
the camaraderie. The former
gunfighter drummed his fingers against his thigh.
Murdoch wished he could pull his youngest boy aside and have a private
conversation with him.
Johnny,” Pinkie called. “Which
one of them ladies was the prettiest?”
looked across the campsite and flashed one of the partial smiles Murdoch knew
was a Madrid trademark. Murdoch
wanted to throttle Pinkie for disturbing Johnny.
Can’t he see Johnny’s not part
of the joking? My bet is the
Reverend’s daughter turned down his marriage proposal.
way I hear it,” Johnny replied softly. “Beauty
is in the eye of the beholder.”
said, Brother.” Scott gave Johnny
saw the exchange of looks between his sons and wondered whether Johnny had
confided in Scott about his feelings for Laura Thompson.
He hoped Johnny would share his thoughts with someone.
Even me! Talking might be
the best thing for him.
Boss,” Walt said in a deep baritone voice.
himself from his thoughts, Murdoch refilled his coffee cup and grunted.
and the boys wanted to thank you again for bailing us out of jail.”
problem, Walt. I’ll take the bail
money out of your wages for the next month.”
Murdoch grinned at the distressed look that crossed the foreman’s face.
roar of laughter filled the night air, and Johnny reflected on Laura’s gleeful
laughter when Jim, the Indian at the Mission House, turned his other cheek after
she slapped him.
She sure was pleased that he understood the lesson she tried to teach
‘em. Said, “The door has been
opened.” But for Johnny, the
door to happiness with this special woman had slammed right in his face.
He tried to make her see. Don’t
you know what they’ll do to you? They’ll
drain your life away.
had offered her more, a life at Lancer, as his wife and the mother of his
children. He had never wanted
children before, but she made him think of being settled and raising a family.
Not the kind of life Johnny Madrid had led or the bachelor existence of
Johnny Lancer. He told her about
Johnny Madrid and she did not turn away. But
she did turn away when he wanted her to leave the Mission House. Her
rejection hurt, causing a pain deeper than any bullet had ever inflicted.
The questions he asked her had almost stuck in his throat.
Is that all? Is
anger and pain drove him out of the Mission House and his feet took him to the
carnival. I was angry. Wanted
to take it out on someone. There
was that Injun with his head in the target, and the carnie selling three throws
for a nickel. I almost did it,
almost threw that damn ball at Bear Paw… But I wasn’t mad at him. Hell, I wasn’t mad at anyone, just hurt.
stared into the fire, remembering the last time he saw Laura, when he handed her
the money Scott had won. In his
heart, Johnny knew she was right. The
Mission is where Laura belongs. She
has that special spark. Gripping
his rifle, he rose silently and slipped into the darkness.
poked a stick at the burning embers. The
fire was failing and there was little reason to add more wood at this point.
The men had turned in for the night, and even Murdoch was asleep.
Johnny’s bedroll was empty, a lonely testament that something was
troubling his younger brother. Scott
considered searching for him, but knew the former gunfighter would be illusive
if he did not want to be found.
tossed the stick into the dying flames and removed his gun belt.
He rolled it into a coil and carefully set the weapon on his brother’s
bedroll. All afternoon, Scott had
noticed Johnny fingering the place where the Colt usually lay against his leg.
wearing a gun will calm your nerves, Brother, you can have mine.
It’s the least I can do to make up for ignoring you this weekend.
to his blanket, Scott lay down and wondered what was bothering his brother.
The steady sound of snoring and a lack of sleep over the weekend wore on
Scott, and his eyelids grew heavy. The
blond wanted to talk to Johnny, but his eyes refused to stay open.
With a sigh, Scott pulled the blanket over his shoulders and was asleep
over, Murdoch gazed at the stars spread across the black sky.
The more he thought about his desire for a weekend of solitude with a
classic book, the guiltier he felt. I
should have had dinner with Johnny and spent some time with Scott.
In the moonlight, Murdoch could see the tousled blond hair and sleeping
form of his eldest son. He glanced
toward Johnny’s bedroll, still bound closed by the leather straps.
stiff joints, Murdoch rose and stretched. Then,
he noticed the bundle on top of Johnny’s bedroll.
He bent over and realized it was a pistol and gun belt.
Where did this come from? Johnny
never goes off without his gun. That
thought triggered some nagging anxiety deep within Murdoch.
Johnny wasn’t wearing a gun when
he rode up this morning! In the
dim light, Murdoch examined the coiled gun belt and recognized it as Scott’s.
Murdoch glanced at his oldest son again with admiration, proud that he
was watching out for his brother.
Slowly, Murdoch walked to the horses tethered beyond the chuck wagon.
the distance, the plaintive howl of a wolf disturbed the silence.
Johnny listened and turned toward the mountains to the east.
An answering chorus of howls filled the night air.
Barranca stamped a hoof and snorted.
The other horses in the remuda stirred restlessly.
compadre,” Johnny said in a soothing voice.
He ran his hand along the palomino’s neck. “They’re way off yonder.
Just stakin’ their claim. Probably
some lone wolf tryin’ to find a mate.”
words struck a nerve and he thought of Laura.
“You shoulda seen her, amigo. Prettiest
blonde hair. Eyes as blue as the
sky in the morning. They sparkle in
the light. And her skin—so soft,
like the softest…” He shook his
head. No. Ain’t no words to
describe her. “Well, you
shoulda seen her. I even told this
banged up cowboy she wasn’t the type that normally caught my eye. But I was wrong. So
wrong.” He tried to recall when
his feelings for her had changed.
wasn’t like all those old missionary ladies, tellin’ me that the devil would
take me ‘cause of all the bad things I done.”
He let his fingers trail along the gelding’s back.
“She was preachin’ some of the same lessons.
Turn the other cheek. God is
love. But she was different. She
sure was different.”
returned to grazing, and Johnny heard the steady grinding of the horse’s
teeth. He patted the golden rump
and moved to a tree a few yards away from the horses. Casually, he leaned against the tree trunk and gazed at the
half moon hanging in the sky.
branch overhead rustled, and an owl hooted, before spreading its winds and
flying away. Johnny watched the
dark shape disappear into the black night and wished he could join the bird.
A yelp from the lone wolf broke the silence, and then the air was still.
wrapped his arms around himself and brushed the toe of the worn boot against the
ground. The secondhand boots fit,
but were a little loose. Lost
my gun, my hat, and even my boots. He
smirked at the memory of the revenge he had extracted on the skunk who had
drugged his tequila and robbed him. I
gave him a little something extra. It’ll
be awhile before he drinks any cactus juice with that busted mouth.
his eyes, Johnny dropped his chin to his chest and his thoughts returned to
Laura. Guess I lost my heart too. Ain’t
the first time, but this one… Johnny
raised his head and looked into the dark sky.
“This one was ‘cause of you.”
He felt a flash of anger. “Don’t
you have enough people doin’ your work?”
a sigh, Johnny shoved his hands into his waistband. Laura had made her choice, and he would learn to live with
it. Johnny knew in his heart that
running the Mission House and tending to the less fortunate and needy was her
calling in life.
at the sound of heavy footsteps drawing near, Johnny listened carefully to the
crunch of soil and snapping of twigs. He
had hoped no one in camp would miss him.
A deep voice called tentatively in a quiet tone.
here, Murdoch.” Johnny turned in
the direction of camp and watched his father move past the horses.
you might like some company.”
bent and pulled a blade of grass from the ground. He twisted it between his fingers and thought about his
response. He did not really want to
talk to anyone right now, but he recognized the Old Man was doing his best to be
a concerned father.
tales were gettin’ mighty tall back there,” Johnny said, hoping Murdoch
would accept the explanation and not press further.
suppose they were.” Murdoch
stopped and stood beside his youngest son.
When Johnny failed to say anything else, Murdoch cleared his throat.
“When I got back from bailing the hands out of jail, you were gone.”
the moonlight, he could barely see Johnny’s face, but Murdoch strained to read
his son’s reaction. Johnny did
not respond, so Murdoch continued. “I
wanted to finish our conversation. You
were going to tell me about someone you met in town.” Murdoch cringed. He
was not wording this right, and he felt awkward and uncertain.
there was no comment from his son. Damn
it, Johnny. Talk to me! Murdoch
decided to press harder, although he knew the boy’s fiery temper might kick
in. “Laura Thompson seems like a
fine young woman.”
saw Johnny jerk toward him and knew he was right in guessing the Reverend’s
daughter was the woman who had captured his son’s heart.
Still, Johnny remained silent, but Murdoch caught the puzzled expression
that briefly passed across his son’s face before he put on the Madrid mask to
hide his emotions.
mentioned the Mission, and there is only one in town. After I did our banking, I went to visit my old friend,
Reverend Thompson. But his daughter
told me he had died and she was continuing his work.
She’s as dedicated as her father.”
As soon as he said the words, Murdoch suspected he had the answer to the
question of what had happened and why Johnny seemed so distant.
Johnny said softly. “She knows
what she wants.”
the past few months, Murdoch had come to understand his son well enough to
realize Johnny might never tell him exactly what went on at the Mission House or
how Johnny came to meet Laura. The
elder Lancer waited, hoping his son would say more, but he did not.
you came to see me at the hotel, you were asking questions about your mother and
matter now,” Johnny said.
think maybe you should know anyway. When
you’re ready, let’s sit down and I’ll tell you everything I remember about
Matamoras and our wedding.”
like that, Murdoch. But not right
course, Son.” Murdoch gripped
Johnny’s shoulder and turned to leave.
Johnny paused and the whites of his eyes glimmered in the moonlight.
“You figure some folks have a more important purpose in life than
back toward his son, Murdoch wanted to ease the pain he heard in Johnny’s
voice, but was not sure how to do it. “Some
people have different callings, but one isn’t necessarily better or more
important than others. Some have a
rough path to follow, and others have an easy street, while a few forge brand
she…” Johnny’s voice faded.
doing the Lord’s work is a noble calling, but it’s not for everyone.”
looked up at the sky. “I asked
her to be my wife, to come to Lancer.”
she chose to stay at the Mission,” Murdoch added quietly.
Johnny lowered his head. “I
envy her. She’s stronger than me.
I don’t have what it takes to stay at the Mission and help her.”
draped his arm over Johnny’s shoulder. “Don’t
worry about Laura. She’ll have
the Lord to help her. But I think
you’re wrong. It takes a strong
person to let go of the one you love so she can follow her dreams.
You are strong, Son, and I’m proud of you.”
Johnny nodded. I’m not convinced you’re right, Old Man. If I was stronger, I wouldn’t feel so tore up inside. He swallowed hard. “Murdoch, why don’t you call it a night? I’ll be along in a few minutes.”
Son. But remember, any time you
want to talk, I’m available.”
watched his father head back toward camp. Then,
he glanced up at the stars. “Don’t
reckon you’re used to hearin’ from me. If you’re willin’ to listen to a request from someone
like me, I got a special thing I need you to do.
Forget what I said about havin’ enough missionary people.
You need to help Laura run that Mission House.
It sure means a lot to her.” Johnny
rubbed the side of his leg where the holster usually rested.
“I ain’t askin’ nothin’ for myself.
Just don’t let that special spark of hers ever go out.”
Johnny walked back to the camp site and slipped over to this bedroll.
He listened to the rattle of discordant snoring, glad no one was awake to
question him about his late night whereabouts.
He frowned at the coiled gun belt laying on his bedroll and recognized
the pistol as Scott’s. Johnny
gazed over at the sleeping blond, struck by this brother’s perception.
the former gunfighter settled down on his blanket, he whispered one more prayer.
“Thanks for bringin’ me into the sunlight, like I told Laura.
Shoulda thanked you sooner for havin’ the Old Man send for me and givin’
me a brother who understands me.”
drifted into a deep sleep with the gun belt clutched to his chest.
So, he missed the distant snarl of a lobo and the answering call of
another wolf that blended into a pair of matched howls.
Miles away, in a whitewashed Mission House, Laura added an extra request
to her nighttime prayers, asking the Lord to bestow happiness on Johnny Lancer.