Murdoch sat at his desk going through his ledgers and contracts. It was a tedious job that required a lot of fine reading and writing which, as he got older year after year became more difficult to accomplish without getting a headache for his effort. He dropped the latest contract held in his hands back onto the desk and reclined back in the leather chair pulling out the old weathered timepiece he kept in his pocket. Flipping open the ornate golden exterior he checked the time once again frowning in consternation, wondering for the umpteenth time where his sons were. It was three o’clock and by his calculations they should have been back at the very latest two hours ago, given that they may have stopped into the saloon for a cold beer before returning home and lost some track of time.
He looked up and smiled as he watched Teresa enter the Great Room arms heavily laden with a silver tray that held a pitcher of lemonade, glasses, luncheon plates, sandwiches and homemade oatmeal cookies, her ever present smile causing his heart to swell with pride every time her watched her.
Today her soft wavy brown hair was tied behind her neck with a blue ribbon. Her boots clicked loudly on the hard wooden surface of the floor in the areas where no rug muffled the sound of her graceful approach. He wondered at that, how his Teresa wearing jeans and a matching blue shirt to the ribbon could still seem so graceful while dressed much like any other typical cowhand that worked on his ranch. He knew she dressed that way for practical reasons but there were often times he wished that life was easier for her living on a ranch so that she might feel more comfortable dressing like he knew most women preferred.
At the tender age of sixteen she exuded and maintained a strength and dominance in the household that brooked for no opposition. All that lived within the Lancer home held her steady influence and constant care in high esteem. She was the glue that kept them all together. Wise and motherly beyond her years he often wondered how she managed to keep such a tight control in a house filled with men who more often than not caused more trouble than they were probably worth.
Seeing the love for him in her dark expressive eyes he figured that was it. Love, pure and simple. He knew then, at that very moment that he was the happiest man alive. His sons had returned home after years of searching and waiting. He had Teresa, a surrogate daughter that any man would be proud of and wonderful friends, extended family members if you will that completed the circle of his complicated life into a rich loving environment.
He only hoped these feelings of utter love and contentment stayed with him when he reproached his sons for their irresponsibility in following his orders concerning what time he expected them to return to the ranch. He had told them both when they had first arrived and agreed to take their shares of the ranch that the only stipulation was that he ‘called the tune’. They had both agreed, Scott nodding his head in acquiescence eagerly enough and Johnny while somewhat reserved in his response did not disagree but seemed inclined to accept the conditions under which Murdoch would sign over their one third each of the ranch.
Teresa set the tray down on a table near an overstuffed blue chair, “Well you’re smiling. I guess that’s a good sign. I just hope you remember to smile when Scott and Johnny get home.”
It was as if she had read his mind, he chuckled and stood up coming around the desk to take her in his arms and kiss the top of her head.
She hugged him back then took his arm in hers and led him to the chair next to the hearth and told him to sit down. Pouring a glass of cold lemonade she handed it to him and then poured one for herself taking a seat on the end of the large sofa that dominated the room.
“I thought you could use a break,” she said as she took a sip. “I know you didn’t have any lunch so make sure you eat one of those sandwiches. I told Jelly to come up to the house also after he washes up and join us. I can’t believe how busy today has been,” she chattered pointing for him to take a sandwich and eat it.
“Thank you Teresa. What would we all do if you weren’t here to take such good care of us?” he replied picking up a sandwich wedge filled with thinly sliced roast beef. “This looks and taste wonderful. I didn’t realize the time had slipped by so quickly or that I missed lunch.”
“Now Murdoch I know that’s a big fat lie!” she exclaimed choking on her drink and nearly dropping her glass. “I know for a fact that you have checked that watch of yours at least every ten minutes since the boys didn’t return home at noon. So you don’t fool me one bit. I just hope you can remember to control your temper when they get here. It’s too hot and stuffy for you men to be arguing or fighting.”
Murdoch stared at her wide-eyed and in total amazement at her insight. He sat his cup down and chewed another bite, then said with a hint of sarcasm, “You’re probably right dear. I’ll try and remember to tone it down. I’ll be sensitive and caring to all their excuses once they start telling me all the reasons for their blatant tardiness.”
“Oh you! Like you know how to tone it down. Just remember they’re your sons, not the ranch hands. And I think I would leave that tone completely out of it if you know what’s good for you.” She looked him squarely in the eyes over the brim of her glass letting him know she caught the sarcastic inflection of his tone.
Both their heads turned in the direction of the front door as Jelly came boisterously through it. He swiped the old cap he wore off his head and brushed a worn handkerchief over his balding head then stuffed it in his pocket stomping into the room and waving his hat back and forth in front of his whiskered face. “It’s got to be hotter than Hades out there today!” he exclaimed roughly plunking himself down into the empty chair across from the one Murdoch sat in.
Teresa nodded toward the tray on the table asking the gruff older man, “Lemonade Jelly?”
“Yeah don’t mind iffen I do. And I’ll have one them sandwiches too.” Jelly rubbed his hands together then wiped them down the front flaps of the tattered vest he was wearing. The grin on his face spread from ear to ear as she handed him a cold glass of lemonade and one of the larger sandwich halves on a small luncheon plate. “Thanks Teresa honey. You sure do know how to take the growl right out of a man servin’ up fixins like this.”
“Why thank you Jelly. I’m glad I can take the growl out of you men. Next thing you know your tummy will be purring like a kitten.” Her laughter tinkled through both the hearts of each man.
“Say boss, when are those boys of yours supposed to git home with them supplies? I ain’t got all day ya know to go lollygaggin’ around waitin’ on ‘em.” He took a big bite and followed it up with a slurp of his cold drink, his eyes rolling with satisfaction and a grateful nod toward Teresa. “Good Teresa,” he said, his mouth full and hardly swallowed before taking another bite.
Murdoch sipped his own drink and replied, “Soon Jelly. I don’t know what’s holding those two up. They were supposed to be here around noon today, maybe one at the latest if they stopped off for a drink.”
Jelly gulped his last bite at this piece of information. “Uh oh. Now don’t go getting’ yer dander up when they get home. It’s too danged hot and all of ya got short fuses. Sides that, them two boys are together and I know Scott, he ain’t about to be late lessen there’s a real good reason.
Murdoch laughed, “Is my temper that bad Jelly. Between you and Teresa I’m beginning to think you both think I’m some kind of ogre. She said pretty much the same thing just before you came in.”
Jelly sat up straight in his chair tilting his head to the right and left and clasped his hands to the edges of his vest, “Wal now I don’t rightly know what an ogre is but you can be pretty rough around the edges sometimes when it comes to taken them boys to task.”
Murdoch squinted thoughtfully at Jelly, “Is that right.” It was a statement. “And I suppose you could do better?” he asked mildly.
“Wal now I didn’t say that!” Jelly replied flustered at the question. “It’s just that things have been right peaceful the last couple of weeks and I’d hate to see it all end. Now is there anythin wrong with that?” he asked puffing his chest out and holding his chin a little higher in the air daring him to disagree.
Murdoch carefully set his glass down next to his chair a smile playing on his lips as he answered his friend’s challenge, “Take it easy Jelly. I was just teasing you, and you’re right, there isn’t anything wrong with wanting things to be peaceful around here. So I’ll do my best.”
Jelly relaxed but was still unsure and wary of this mild mannered Murdoch. What was it someone had told him once before, ‘the quiet before the storm’? He hoped there wouldn’t be one but his boss was acting mighty peculiar and he decided he wasn’t going to trust him to follow through on his ‘I’ll do my best’ remark. His boss was a hotheaded, impatient and stubborn man when it came to the responsibilities of running the ranch and while he was mostly patient and understanding when it came to his older son Scott, he was almost the exact opposite when it came to his youngest son Johnny.
Jelly knew better than to think for one moment that Murdoch would be able to control himself if he believed for even a second that his son’s didn’t have a reasonable excuse for coming home late. It wouldn’t matter that they were together, Johnny somehow always wound up being the target of Murdoch’s ire. Things did not bode well for either of them and Jelly could only sit back for now and wait, same as the others, for the boys to return. He just hoped that Scott would be willing once again to stand up for his brother if things got too heated and the fur began to fly.
Deciding to turn to other thoughts he faced Murdoch’s ward and said, “Teresa honey, that was a mighty fine lunch and that lemonade surely did hit the spot.”
“Thank you Jelly. There’s more if you like,” she indicated her head toward the rest of the sandwiches that still remained uneaten.
“Naw, none for me, but a body wouldn’t mind one or two of them thar fancy cookies.”
Teresa just shook her head and laughter twinkled once again throughout the room, “Jelly you’re so funny. Why these cookies aren’t fancy, they’re just plain ole oatmeal cookies.” She stood up and got him two, placing them on the empty plate he held out to her.
Murdoch took one also, grateful that everyone seemed content to let the issue of his son’s and his temper go by the wayside for the time being. The atmosphere was relaxed and they all resumed a safe topic of conversation ranging from what supplies they would need on the next cattle drive for Jelly’s chuck wagon to what was on the menu for supper that night.
Teresa however kept an ever-vigilant ear listening for the boys return while smiling and encouraging the conversation in as many different directions as she could. She loved Murdoch with all her heart, as much as she had her own father before his tragic death nearly two years ago. He had his faults and she was certainly well aware of them but since the return of his son’s she had become despondent about the way he continued to treat his youngest son as if he were irresponsible and untrustworthy, constantly coming down on him much harder that any other person she could remember on the ranch and most certainly harsher than she felt that he deserved.
She didn’t know why and she tried on several occasions to talk to him about it but with no success. Murdoch would only say that he needed to have a tight rein on the boy or else Johnny wouldn’t learn to be responsible or learn to respect him and his authority whenever he called the tune.
It bothered her and Scott that Murdoch couldn’t see the tender hearted soul that was Johnny Lancer. The boy tried so hard to gain his father’s approval at every opportunity, his need to feel wanted and loved driving him to work harder than anyone else, seemed at times to be a wasted effort on his part. One mistake, one slip, one forgotten chore and it was all over. Though she hated the thought of Johnny ever leaving them for good, she was often amazed that he doggedly carried on and tried that much harder once the bad feelings and hurt were dimmed to a small flicker.
It had taken what seemed like a lifetime though for Johnny to be able to reach that part of him that refused to give up and just walk away. He had walked away once, scaring her and Scott half out of their minds thinking he would not return. He did return but the price had been high. Johnny’s friend Wes died, Scott had been shot and father and son had found that their relationship was tentative at best. Both men tried but it was a difficult road they were both on and Teresa believed with all her heart that if it hadn’t been for Scott the two would probably have killed one another by now.
She watched as Murdoch took out the timepiece once more, checked the time then put the watch back in his pocket sighing heavily.
Jelly noticed too and decided that was his cue to get back to the barn. He still had a few things to keep him occupied while he waited for the boss’ sons to get home. “Time fer me to git back to work, now ya remember what ya promised and I’ll be in to get ya, soon as they show up.” With that said he left the room going back out the way he came in, muttering about the heat and all the work the boss gave to an old man who, in his mind, just about had one foot in the grave.
Teresa stood and picked up the tray next to Murdoch’s chair, kissing him lightly on the top of his head before departing back to the kitchen after gathering up his and Jelly’s dishes.
Murdoch stood and caught up to her before she left the room stopping her in her tracks, “Thank you Teresa. Lunch was wonderful as usual.” He put his hand on her shoulder and leaned down to kiss her on the forehead, much in the same manner as her father had done when he was alive. Apparently he was thinking the same thing, “Your father would be so proud of you if he could see you right now. I know I’m not your father but I love you just the same.”
This statement warmed her heart and made her glad she was part of this big wonderful new family. Someday she thought, maybe she would truly be a part of the family in a way that no one ever dreamed she would be. Teresa looked up into his eyes, glad that he was Johnny’s father and hoped he didn’t see the future as she saw it through her eyes. She loved Scott like no other sister could ever love a brother but her heart and soul belonged to Johnny.
“I love you too,” she said almost whispering the words. She was just about to turn and walk away when they both heard shouting through the door.
Murdoch hurried through the great room to stand at the window behind his desk. “Bout time!” he ground out between tight lips but not loud enough for Teresa to hear.
His hands went to his hips and he turned back toward Teresa who waited for him to tell her what he saw. “Looks like they’re back. Go on honey and put your things away, I’m sure you’ll want to come out and find out what’s going on.”
The young girl hesitated before leaving, “Murdoch?” Her eyes were troubled and Murdoch felt the pang of regret that this young innocent beauty was so terrified about how Murdoch was going to greet his sons.
He came around the desk striding up to her and took both of her shoulders in the palms of his hands, “Don’t worry, I won’t make a big fuss. I promise.”
Teresa visibly relaxed, “I’m going to hold you to it Murdoch. I’ll be out in a minute after I put this away and let Maria know that they’re home. She’s been worried all day about them two not eating…” her words trailed off as she turned the corner and entered the kitchen.
Murdoch opened the front door and stalked to the barn hoping he was going to be able to keep his promise to Teresa. For her sake he hoped that he would.
After awkwardly getting a date from Sadie, Scott watched the brother and sister as they turned the buggy around and headed for home then returned to the buckboard where a silent Johnny sat waiting for him. He climbed up taking the reins from his brother’s swollen and bruised fingers and released the break flicking the reins gently to get the horses moving in the direction of home.
He took a sly look at Johnny’s profile wincing at the purplish hue that continued to darken with each passing minute. He cleared his throat and asked, “You ok little brother?”
Johnny’s eyes closed briefly before answering with one word, “Yeah.”
Scott wondered if he was going to say anything else and when he didn’t he said, “I’m sorry about all that. It’s my fault you got hurt. Hope you’re not too angry at me.”
“Nope,” was all Johnny said.
Scott didn’t think he was telling the truth but decided to let it drop until his brother felt better. His shoulders sagged as if the weight of the world were on them hoping that with time Johnny would forgive him for his foolishness.
Although Johnny was hurting and didn’t speak much, it wasn’t for the reasons that Scott thought it was. It simply hurt to breathe let alone try and carry on a conversation. Every bump and jolt sent bolts of lightening through his body. He ached to lie down on his own bed at home, sinking into oblivion, surrounded by softly scented sheets and fluffy pillows, Teresa crooning softly in his ear, lulling him to sleep as she brushed his face tenderly with her soft dainty hands and a cool cloth.
He was jolted from his thoughts as the rocking motion of the wagon caused his insides to roll. He mentally fought back the urge to lean over the side of the seat and throw up. The only thing keeping him from doing so was the fact that he knew the pain would be even worse than it felt right now. He was grateful that his ribs weren’t broken, but having them bruised or possibly cracked wasn’t much better. It still hurt just as much.
Watching the pain cross his brother’s face tormented Scott. He knew the ride was hard on him and that his stubborn brother would never utter one word of protest or pain. He fought it just like he did everything else. Alone. He wondered, and not for the first time, when his brother was going to learn that it was ok to let the people who loved and cared about him know that he was hurting? He knew his brother had always taken care of himself in the past but now he had family and he was determined that Johnny would understand what that meant when it came to his own well being.
About a half hour into their ride back home a lone coyote darted in front of the horses causing them to pull violently on their harness and reins, jerking the wagon forward sharply. Scott got them under control just as quick but noticed that his brother’s face became ashen in color.
Johnny grabbed his brother’s right arm, “Scott you gotta stop right now!”
“Johnny!” Scott said in alarm as he brought the team to an abrupt halt. He pulled back on the brake and jumped down running around to his brother’s side.
As soon as the wagon had come to a stop Johnny started to get down. He was grateful that Scott was there to keep him from falling as he stumbled down off the wagon seat. “Gonna be sick,” he said miserably into Scott’s chest while holding onto his shoulders.
Scott grabbed him around the waist leading him to the side of the hard baked dirt road. Bending at the waist and holding his knees Johnny wretched onto the ground. When Scott thought he was done and nothing more would come up he guided him back toward the wagon and grabbed a canteen from under the seat. He uncorked it and tried passing it to his pale-faced brother who was bent over slightly, holding his knees again with white knuckled hands. Johnny started to wave it off but at Scott’s persistence finally took a drink, if nothing else than to wash the bile from his mouth and throat.
“Better?” Scott questioned as he took the canteen back and recorked it.
“Yeah, a little. Been fightin’ it since we took off.”
“Thought so, but I wasn’t sure. Come on…let me help you get back up. We’ll be home soon, get you to bed and you’ll feel much better than you do now.”
Scott helped Johnny up onto the wagon watching him carefully as he settled himself onto the seat. He climbed back up on his side placing the canteen between them in case his brother wanted to take another drink later. Once again he clicked the reins and started for home. His brother sitting beside him, arms crossed over his mid section, groaning a little as the wagon lurched into motion.
Half-hour later they were passing under the Lancer arch. Both men could hear shouting voices of welcome as they drove up to the main barn where the supplies were to be unloaded. Johnny lowered the brim of his hat before anyone could see what he looked like.
Jelly was the first to reach the side of the wagon where Scott sat. “Wal it’s about time! Didn’t think you two were gonna make it back today you’re so gall danged late! I was just thinkin’ we might have to send the men out to bring yer ornery hides home.”
Scott looked down into Jelly’s scraggly face. His words sounded like a reproach but the look in the older man’s eyes told him how worried he had been. “Sorry Jelly. We ah, had a little trouble in town just when we were about to leave.” He jumped down and held Jelly’s arm for a moment and squeezed it reassuringly.
Johnny was carefully making his way off the wagon when they heard Murdoch’s commanding voice as he approached his son’s.
“You’re late,” was all he said. He stood there like a mountain waiting for both his son’s to face him and offer explanations.
Scott was the first to hurry around the horses and stand before his father ready to explain why they were delayed. He noticed that his brother still clung to the side of the wagon, probably gathering the strength needed to face the tirade they both expected would come.
“Sir,” Scott said nodding his head at his father. “Sorry about getting back so late, it’s all my fault.”
Murdoch squinted and peered over Scott’s shoulder, concern etched into his face. “Johnny?”
The older patriarch ignored Scott’s statement and brushed past him to stand behind his youngest son who still hadn’t turned around.
His head was bowed, and the hat he wore shaded his face making it impossible for Murdoch to get a good look at him. Johnny turned toward his father without lifting his head. He tried to walk away but Murdoch grasped his left wrist in his hand and forced his son around to face him. They both stood there several seconds, neither uttering a word. Johnny’s head was bowed and his hat prevented Murdoch from seeing his face clearly.
It was clear to the older man that his son had been in some kind of trouble. Bloodstains, dirt, a couple of tears on the front of his shirt and right sleeve confirmed his suspicions that there had indeed been some trouble in town. He was almost afraid to lift the brim of Johnny’s hat and take a look at his face but fate intervened in the form of a small whirlwind named Teresa.
She came running up behind Murdoch excited to have both the boys home. Teresa bounded up to Scott giving him a hug, then stood on tiptoe and kissed his cheek. “You boy’s are so late, but I’m glad you’re finally home.” Letting go of Scott she stepped quickly around him putting herself between Murdoch and Johnny who stood with his hands tucked slightly into the band of his pants and gun belt, his shoulders tense and drawn up. Teresa put her arm through one of his and turned him toward the house pulling him along with her before Murdoch could get a good look at him. All the way back to the house the men could hear her happily repeating how glad she was that they were home and that both of them were probably very hungry since they had missed lunch.
Scott and Murdoch watched them walk away, Teresa with her arm looped through Johnny’s, her dark brown head leaning onto his left shoulder. Scott had a moment to think that his little sister must be the smartest woman on earth. She had effectively taken Johnny away from Murdoch’s presence before any words could be said giving him time to get things smoothed over, and explained. He chuckled as he watched Murdoch’s profile and then his intimidating father turned to face him square on, an aggravated look on his granite face.
“Jelly, You and the men get this wagon unloaded,” he ordered. Then to Scott he said, “Son, I think you and I should talk.” With that said they both followed the other two across the yard to the front door.
Scott stopped his father just before they entered the front door with a hand on his arm. “I want to explain before we go inside, if that’s all right with you?”
Murdoch stared down into Scott’s gray blue eyes, “OK, let’s hear it. By the looks of things this had better be good.”
His father’s stern manner and judgmental tone didn’t make the explanations come spilling forth as quickly as he had hoped they would. He felt defensive and guilty all at the same time causing his words to sound childlike and grudging as he tried his best to explain. “Well first off, it’s not as bad as it looks,” he said lamely dropping his hand from his fathers arm. He dropped his head toward his chest in a manner very reminiscent of his brother, focusing on a bug that crawled slowly across the front patio.
Murdoch realized that Scott was stalling for time, probably trying to decide what he wanted to say first and not exactly knowing where to start.
“So what doesn’t look bad, the blood all over Johnny’s shirt, or how about the way he was holding his ribs with his arm as he walked away? Or maybe you’re talking about his torn shirt, or perhaps the fact that he couldn’t lift his head and look his ‘Old Man’ in the eye.” The silence stretched as Murdoch waited for an answer.
Scott sighed heavily, “Short version or long?”
Murdoch crossed his arms, “Short. I think.”
“I shoved Johnny, he landed on a girl, her packages got crushed, and the girl’s brother thought we attacked her. Johnny got punched in the face and when he came after me Johnny jumped him. Val broke them up, we went to Sam’s and another fight broke out. I doused them with water to stop the fight, then we got everyone into Doc’s and he bandaged everyone up and sent us all home,” Scott paused. “And I have a date for Saturday.” He smiled up at his father then nervously looked away when he realized that his humor was completely lost on the older man.
“That all?” Murdoch asked firmly watching Scott purse his lips and look anywhere but directly at him.
“Yes sir, most of it at least. One more thing, Doc told Johnny he needed to stay off his horse for at least a week. He said his ribs might be cracked and he’s worried that if he gets thrown from a horse he could break them, maybe puncture a lung or something.” Scott shuffled his feet, hedging closer to the door with the hopes of escaping any further questions until after he checked on his brother.
Just as he reached for the door handle Murdoch said, “I expect a more thorough report later. Understood?”
“Yes sir, I would expect nothing less.” Scott ducked his head again in embarrassment and grinned slightly. He looked back up at his father saying, “It really was all my fault Murdoch, so go easy on him all right. I…I…think he’s been worried that you would blame it all on him before finding out the whole story.” He eyed his father meaningfully and left him standing there as he entered the house without looking back.
The door closed quietly behind Scott. Murdoch stood there just a moment replaying the limited details in his mind curious to know the whole story but knowing at the same time that Scott wanted to check on Johnny. He decided to bide his time and wondered where his sudden reserve of patience was coming from. He had been prepared at the very least to lecture both boys as soon as they drove up. Instead he opted to hold his tongue for the time being when he saw the anxious look on Scott’s face.
Hadn’t his mother told him over and over when he was a young lad growing up in Scotland that ‘patience was a virtue’? He decided that in this case she was right and he made up his mind that he would play out his role exactly as he always said he would but never did when it came to his headstrong younger son. Smiling to himself he turned and strode back to the barn to check on the supplies that were being unloaded. He knew full well that everyone expected him to blow up at any time but this time he was going to fool them all.
The earlier discussion with Teresa and Jelly during their late lunch haunted him. Obviously they thought he was too hard on the boys, Johnny in particular. Well this time he would prove them wrong. He would be patient and understanding, listen to the entire story and then impart words of wisdom. Or at least that’s what he hoped he would do.
It was hard for him, this being a parent role. The closest he had come to any kind of parenting had been with Johnny during the first two years that he had been raised on the ranch before Maria had disappeared with him. That day seemed so long ago and in truth it was. He had hardly started being a parent before his little boy had been torn from his life in the most brutal act of betrayal a woman could do to a husband. She had run off with another man.
Murdoch shook those thoughts from his mind. It didn’t do him any good to hash over the past and in fact it made him so mad whenever he thought about Maria’s betrayal that he found himself getting angry whenever he looked at Johnny. He looked so much like her that there had been times that it took his breath away. He knew it was unfair to his youngest son but he couldn’t seem to help himself. The anger burned deep within his soul and constantly ate away at his ability to remain rational when dealing with his fiery young son. The way he talked, the way he moved, and even the way he smiled brought bitter memories to the surface each and every day. He was so much like her it scared him and he guessed that a part of him worried that he would just take off and leave just like she had.
He had confided in his friend Sam Jenkins one dark and lonely night after sitting for hours at a bedside vigil over Johnny during his recovery from the bullet his son had taken during the fight to save their ranch from Day Pardee and his band of cutthroat bandits. Sam had told him that his relationship with both of his sons would take time and that he couldn’t expect for everything to just suddenly fall into place perfectly as if he had never been out of their lives. There were emotional and physical wounds that would take a very long time to heal on everyone’s part, some more than others.
What he had the hardest time dealing with though was the fact that he felt totally the opposite toward Scott. He never had two minutes to raise his oldest son let alone two years. Sam had told him that it was probably because of the fact that in all the time that Scott hadn’t been with him, he at least knew where his son was and that his son was being taken care of properly. He never had to worry that Scott had a loving, guiding influence in his life or food to eat or a clean bed to sleep in. The exact opposite was what Sam felt troubled his old and dear friend. The not knowing, the exasperation and total loss of defeat at being unable to locate Johnny had consumed his world for so long that it was going to take time to let go of those feelings and turn them into more positive ones.
“Boss, you ok?” Jelly’s gruff voice broke into Murdoch’s turbulent thoughts. He hadn’t realized that he had walked all the way back to the wagon that now stood empty and ready to be pushed back into the large barn that housed the supplies, wagons and equipment needed to operate the running of the ranch.
Murdoch lifted his head off his arms that lay along the side of the wagon. “Yeah Jelly, I’m fine. Just thinking is all.”
“Well I hope it’s good thinkin’ cause them boy’s don’t look like they need another beatin’ to me.” Jelly stuffed his hands down into his pockets staring firmly at Murdoch hoping that his boss and friend understood what he was trying to say to him.
“No Jelly, they don’t,” Murdoch said almost mournfully.
Jelly pushed himself up on the toes of his boots a couple of times then turned back to the barn to get some help moving the wagon.
Murdoch stopped him before he got too far, “Jelly.”
Jelly turned around, “Yeah Boss.”
“Fer what?” he wanted to know, his eyebrows rising in suspicion.
Murdoch walked up to Jelly and placed his hands on his shoulders, “For being who you are, for being Johnny’s friend and for loving him and wanting to protect him.” He gave him a little shove for emphasis, “And for caring about all of us. So don’t worry, I’m not going to mess this up. OK?”
Jelly shrugged Murdoch’s hands off his shoulders and swiped at his eyes. “Dern dust and hay. Dang stuff gets in a man’s eyes and makes him plumb miserable. Now go on. I got work ta do and it don’t look like it’s gonna get done lessen I take the bull by the horns and run this place like it oughtta be run.” He left Murdoch standing there, afraid that if he heard anymore he was going to start blubbering like a big ole baby. He complained loudly with each step back to the barn, his voice trailing in the interior until he was out of sight.
Murdoch grinned after the old man he considered a part of his family, determination set in his stride as he returned to the house and to the story that waited for him behind the heavy doors of his home.
Teresa led Johnny through the front door of the house chattering the whole way. By the time the heavy doors closed behind them Johnny thought his temper was going to explode. He loved Teresa with all his heart but the constant talking was grating on his nerves and giving him a headache in the process. On top of that he felt guilty for having those feelings when all he had thought about on the way to Lancer was getting home so that she could make him feel better. Now that he was home all he wanted was to go to bed with the drapes closed and to be left alone.
He didn’t feel that he was up to answering the questions he knew would follow once he was out of sight of his father. His head hurt even more as he remembered the tone his father had used when he had approached the wagon. His stomach was turning over and his hands were clammy. Subconsciously he rubbed them up and down on the seat of his pants and tried to calm his racing heart.
Teresa removed his hat, her monologue having discontinued once they were no longer being watched. She hung it on the stand next to the door taking a step back to examine him from head to toe. He wasn’t really facing her full on so she stepped up to his side and gently put her hand under his chin and turned him to face her. He lifted his battered face and swallowed hard as he turned to her, pulled by the gentle force of her fingers.
No sound, just pooling tears gathering in the softest eyes he’d ever seen. His heart lurched forward in his chest knowing that he had made her cry over him. He swallowed again not knowing what to say, thinking that he might not be able to speak even if he wanted too.
She took the last step that brought her up close to his chest and reached up to cup his face in her hands. She gently pulled his face down to hers and kissed each eye and brushed his hair back from his face touching the blue and purple bruises with her fingertips. He closed his eyes and savored the feel of her hands, glad that she wasn’t going hysterical on him. He kicked himself mentally for being irritated at her only moments ago as he now realized why she had carried on so in front of his father and Scott. She had been protecting him in her own way. Getting him away from his father before any damage could be done and giving Scott time to explain what had happened in town.
Reaching up he clasped her wrists lightly and sighed, leaning his forehead against hers, neither one saying a word. They just stood there trying to gather their emotions.
Teresa was the first to speak, “You look awful,” she whispered.
He whispered back, “I know.”
They still held each other, eyes closed. She whispered again, “Did you win?”
The corners of his eyes crinkled and he smiled, “Naw. It was a draw.” He laughed and leaned back from her wincing at the pain in his chest. “He was a lot bigger than me.”
Now they both laughed and dropped their hands from each other. Johnny wrapped his arms around his chest and said, “Don’t make me laugh querida, it hurts.”
“Well Johnny Lancer I’m sure it does hurt but that other guy better look just as bad as you do or I’m gonna take my fist to him myself.” She stomped her foot on the tiled floor to express her opinion even further.
Johnny grabbed her arms and even though it pained him he pulled her to him and hugged her, wrapping his arms around her snuggly, waning her anger. “My little she cat. I sure hope I don’t ever get on your bad side.”
She pushed at him, “Well does he or doesn’t he?” she asked exasperated.
“He does,” he answered back solemnly.
“Good. He better, cause Lancer takes care of it’s own and he’ll have to contend with me if he ever lays another hand on you, or Scott. And don’t think for one minute that I didn’t see all that dirt on his clothes either. Now turn around and get upstairs. I’ll be up in a few minutes to check on you after I’ve made some willow bark tea. And don’t grimace at me like that. You know that stuff works. You’ll be glad you drank some once the soreness really starts to set in.”
Teresa grabbed his arm turning him in the direction of the stairs just off the kitchen, propelling him forward by pushing with both hands on his back. She could feel the bandages wrapped around his chest through his shirt and figured he must have seen Doc Jenkins before heading home.
She stood at the foot of the stairs and watched him climb up the long staircase slowly clutching the handrail to steady himself. He was hurting more than he let on but that was Johnny and she suspected as much. As he disappeared around the corner into the upper hallway she made her way back into the kitchen and set the teakettle on to boil.
Scott entered the kitchen, coughing into his hand to get Teresa’s attention. She turned at the sound her eyes filled with concern. The girl he thought of as a little sister ran the few steps up to him and threw her arms around his waist placing her head on his chest, “Oh Scott he looks so awful,” she cried.
He stroked her hair, “I know.” Scott held her away from him a little, cocking his head down toward her face and lifting her chin so that he could look into her eyes. He sighed at the tears that threatened to well up again, “Now don’t fall apart on me. It looks much worse than it is.”
She looked at him doubtfully. “Truly?” she asked in the most pitiful tone that tore at his heart.
He hugged her then. “Truly.”
She pulled away from him and smiled as she wiped away the unshed tears. Scott would never lie to her and so she knew in that instant that Johnny was going to be fine.
“Got any coffee brewing? I think I could use a cup right about now.” He sat down at the kitchen table and rubbed his eyes with tightly balled fists. “I’m tired, it’s been one heck of a long day.”
“Coming right up,” she replied. “How are you doing? You don’t look as bad as Johnny but I can tell you got mixed up in whatever happened.” She brought a cup of hot coffee to the table and sat it within easy reach of Scott, his elbows were on the table and he rested his head in the palms of his hands rubbing them up and down his face.
He acknowledged her question and her subtle hint to find out what had transpired while they were in town. “I’m fine Teresa. My little brother managed to come to my rescue before I had a chance to get the stuffing beat out of me by a man who I’d swear could leave Murdoch standing in his shadow,” he said derisively. He sighed then lowered his palms down on the table staring at the black brew between his hands. “I’m sure you want to hear the whole story honey, but if you don’t mind I think I’ll wait and tell it to you and Murdoch and I’m sure Jelly also, at the same time.”
Teresa placed a loving hand on the back of Scott’s head then sat in the chair next to him. “That long a story?” she asked as she watched him take a sip of the coffee.
He sat the cup back down and looked at her, his eyes twinkling with amusement, “Yeah, that long a story.”
She looked at him thoughtfully for a moment, “You’re smiling so there must be something good that happened or else you’d be all worked up about it.”
“You’re right on that one little sister. Something good did come out of all of it, but I’m not so sure that Johnny will think so.”
Her eyebrows perked up but there was concern written on her face, “It’s not something that will hurt him is it?”
“No, no, no.” He shook his head adamantly and grinned again only this time bigger than before. “I just don’t think he’ll be too happy is all. In fact he’ll probably think his older and wiser brother lost his mind.”
“Oh,” was all she could say at that remark. She didn’t know entirely what had happened yet but at least Scott had set her mind at ease concerning Johnny.
“Speaking of, did he go upstairs?”
“Yes. I watched him. It was slow going but I don’t think he had any trouble. I told him I’d bring up some tea as soon as it’s ready.” Her tone was filled with sorrow recalling the slow and uneasy steps Johnny took as he climbed the long staircase that led to the upper hallway and bedrooms.
Scott grimaced when she mentioned the tea. He had been the recipient of her medicinal tea on more than one occasion and the last that he recalled it hadn’t tasted any better than it had the first time she got him to drink some when he had been ailing.
She slapped at his arm as she got up from her chair and went back to the stove to check on its progress toward heating up. “I swear, one would only have to see the expressions on both your faces to realize that you’re brothers. What is it about my tea that makes the two of you look like that whenever I tell you that it’s what you’ll need and what you’ll get when you’re hurting?”
Scott turned in his chair a look of astonishment on his face. “Have you ever tried that stuff? It’s awful!”
Teresa was pouring some in a teapot when he asked the question. “No, I haven’t. But then again I don’t go around getting beat up or trampled on either.”
Scott stood up and joined her at the stove, “Then let me,” he poured some into the teacup that sat on the tray with the pot, “enlighten you.” He held it out to her, a smug look on his face.
She took the cup from him, “Oh for Heaven’s sake Scott Lancer, it can’t possibly be that bad,” she said with exasperation. She tasted the tea after blowing on it a few times to cool it off. As soon as the bitter tea touched her tongue and she swallowed, she grimaced in much the same manner as he had just seconds ago. She set the cup down with a loud clink back on the tray; her eyes straying to Scott’s now amused ones. “Ok, so it’s a little bitter.”
“A little bitter!” Scott exclaimed, “Try very bitter.” He placed his right hand on the countertop next to the stove and his left on his hip and stared at her as if she had lost her mind.
She cast her eyes down at the cup, tilting her head sideways she grinned at him, “I think I’ll just add a little honey to it before I take it up.”
“Is that all you have to say after all the times you have made the men of this house drink that stuff this past year?” He couldn’t resist the urge to push just a little longer on the subject now that he knew she had tasted it for herself and it was apparently just as bad tasting to her as it had been to them. He was making her fidget but he couldn’t help having a little fun at her expense.
Teresa knew what he was doing but she wasn’t going to let him get away with it, “You men are just big babies. It doesn’t taste that bad but I do admit that a little honey in it would help. Besides, if it tasted really good then it probably wouldn’t work as well as it does. At least that’s what I’ve heard Sam say.” She turned from him ignoring any further statements he cared to make on the subject and opened the pantry door to find the jar of honey stashed on the shelves. Grabbing one she brought it back to the tray and added several heaping spoonfuls into the pot and the cup, then as an afterthought put the honey jar and the spoon on the tray just in case she would need to add more later.
She picked up the tray and said to Scott, “I’m going to go check on Johnny, you should go get cleaned up. Maria has a pot roast cooking and supper should be ready soon.” She left him standing there as she made her way toward the staircase a sly grin on her face.
Teresa heard him grumbling as she made her way up the stairs. The tea was bad but if she ever let them know what she really thought about it they would probably never let her give it to them ever again and she wasn’t going to give Scott the satisfaction of knowing that he was right.
Murdoch closed the front door behind him and made his way toward the kitchen. He could hear his eldest son’s voice and Teresa’s in what seemed to be a heated conversation but what it was about eluded him since he was still too far away to hear their words clearly. By the time he walked through the kitchen doorway Teresa was nowhere to be seen and Scott was just sitting down at the table to finish his coffee.
“Everything all right in here?” he asked.
Scott turned his head in the direction of his father, “Yes, but I want you to know that the next time I’m not feeling well Teresa is forbidden to try and make me drink any of that so called herbal tea of hers unless it has something in it to make it taste better. She just called all of us babies because I told her that it tasted awful.”
Murdoch placed his hand over his mouth and rubbed his nose with his finger hiding the smile that wanted to creep up on him. He poured himself a cup of coffee and joined Scott at the table sighing with relief that the conversation between the two young people was nothing more than a heated discussion concerning the taste of Teresa’s herbal tea remedy.
Murdoch lifted his cup and over the brim asked, “So how is Johnny?”
This time it was Scott who sighed with relief. “Fine I guess. I haven’t gone up to check on him yet. Teresa said she sent him upstairs. She’s up there with him now.”
“I take it that’s where the tea part comes in.”
Scott laughed, “Yeah, she just made up a pot and took it up to him.”
“With something to sweeten it I hope?”
Scott sat his cup down after taking another drink, “Honey.”
Murdoch noticed his son didn’t elaborate any further. The one word seemed to say it all. He noticed that Scott looked tired so he said, “Why don’t you go get cleaned up son, you look exhausted. During dinner we can talk and hopefully make an early evening of it.”
“No argument here. I am tired but I think a long hot bath will do wonders.” He drained the last of his coffee. “I’ll just get a few things from my room first.” He backed away from the table and left his father sitting there alone. He hoped that Murdoch wouldn’t start anything with Johnny before he had a chance to get cleaned up and fed. Just before he started to climb the stairs he turned back and said, “Murdoch?”
The older man saw the concern on his son’s face, “Scott, don’t worry. I’m not going to do anything or say anything. I’ll wait for you to tell me what happened first. All right?”
Scott let out the breath he had been holding, “Yes sir. I would appreciate that.” He did leave him then and climbed the stairs following in Teresa’s wake. It was a load off his shoulders to know that his father was going to be patient and wait for him to explain before saying anything to Johnny. He didn’t know whom this Murdoch was, but he was eternally grateful to the forces above that things seemed to be going well so far.
Teresa knocked softly on Johnny’s door but when she didn’t receive an answer she turned the knob and entered his bedroom quietly, the tray she carried propped on her hip and held securely by her right hand.
He was lying on his side, his back to the door with a pillow tucked under his left arm hugging it in close to his body. She sat the tray down on the table next to his bed and glanced around. The drapes were still open, allowing the remaining evening light outside to filter with soft shadows throughout the room. She walked over and pulled them closed then lit an oil lamp that sat on top of his dresser. Walking back to the bed she noticed the only thing he had taken off was the ever-present gun belt and revolver. It hung on the bedpost within easy reach if he needed it.
Her heart somersaulted in her chest when she stepped to his side and saw the bruises that covered his face. She reached over him and touched the scraped knuckles on his hand that clutched the pillow and then ever so gently brushed the hair away from his eyes exposing insanely long crescent lashes feathering bruised cheekbones. She was a little unnerved by the fact that Johnny didn’t feel her touch on his brow. Normally he was a very light sleeper ready in an instant to grab his gun from the holster.
Biting her lip, Teresa backed away wondering if she should just let him sleep. His breathing seemed even enough and his face wasn’t scrunched in pain as she might have expected, instead he seemed to be sleeping peacefully, and if he was, then she didn’t want to be the one to wake him from a rest he sorely needed.
The decision was made when Scott stepped in through the open bedroom door to stand behind the indecisive young woman. He held her shoulders with long lean fingers and leaned in close to her ear and whispered, “How’s he doing?”
“Better than I expected. He seems to be deeply asleep,” she whispered back. “I don’t think he even heard me come in.” She sighed softly. “I’ve been trying to decide whether or not I should wake him up and make him drink some of my tea.”
Scott squeezed her shoulders gently, “Let him sleep. We’ll come up later and check on him.” He pulled her away from the bedside turning her in the direction of the bedroom door. Just as they were about to enter the hallway Teresa turned back around and rushed to the end of the bed as Scott watched bewildered by her action.
A knowing smile curved his mouth as he watched her pick up a folded blanket that sat on a chest at the foot of the bed. She unfolded it and carefully drew it up to Johnny’s shoulders, then stepped to where the oil lamp was sitting on the dresser and turned the wick down until there was only a small shimmering glow radiating from the glass chimney.
Scott softly closed the door behind them and together they walked to the landing of the staircase. “I’ll be down in a few minutes. Murdoch’s in the kitchen and I’m sure he’ll want to know how Johnny is doing so why don’t you go down and let him know.”
She looked up at him frowning, “But I don’t know how he’s doing Scott. He wasn’t even awake for me to find out. What am I supposed to say?”
Scott took a deep breath and let it out slowly his brows furrowing at her question, “Tell him Johnny is sleeping and that you’ll check up on him later.”
“Scott I don’t think that’s going to be enough for Murdoch. You know how he is. He’s got to know everything now, not later. He’ll wonder why I didn’t wake him up.”
“I know, but trust me on this one. Just tell him what I said and stick to it, Ok?”
Her eyes went big in her face and she blew out an exasperated breath. “Ok.”
He stepped up to her and gave her a reassuring kiss on the forehead as he held her shoulders in his hands.
“Don’t worry, everything’s going to be fine once I explain what happened,” he chuckled at her. “He’s actually taking all this quite well I have to admit, so just a little longer. I’m going to get cleaned up and I’ll tell all over supper.”
“Oh, all right. I just hope you’re right.” She started down the stairs preparing herself for the inevitable face off with her guardian.
Half way down the stairs Scott called down to her, “Teresa.”
She turned and looked up at him, his head was peeking around the corner, “What?”
“Make sure Jelly comes to supper too. I don’t want to explain twice. Ok?” He gave her a cheeky grin from the top of the staircase.
“I’ll make sure. Personally I don’t think it’s something we have to worry about. You know Jelly; he’s going to find out what happened even if that means he has to hogtie each and every one of us to a fence rail to do it. I swear he looked worried enough to be his mother.”
“That’s why I want him there too. Thanks sweetheart. I’ll be down soon.” He left her there and returned to his room to get the clean clothes he needed for his bath.
Fortunately for Teresa, Murdoch was no longer in the kitchen. She assumed he must have gone back to the barn or to his desk to finish up his accounting books now that the supplies had arrived and he knew where his son’s were and that to some degree all was well.
Maria had returned to the kitchen and was busily preparing the vegetables and potatoes needed for supper. The older woman stopped her preparations to speak to Teresa, “Senorita, I saw that Senor Scott and my Juanito returned home. Cipriano, he would not allow me to get close. I am wondering…” she could not finish her sentence. Tears welled up in her dark eyes and her hands were wringing a towel so tight Teresa thought she might just rip it in two pieces at the rate she was going.
The young girl walked up to the Mexican woman and placed a comforting arm around her waist and guided her to the table. “Podría ver mi Juanito, Senorita Teresa. Él estuvo lastimado. Deseé ir a él,” she cried into the towel.
“Sit down Maria, and stop crying. It’s hard enough to keep up with you speaking Spanish, let alone try and do it while you’re sobbing into a towel. Now say it a again but in English so I can understand you.” Teresa knew it had something to do with Johnny, but that was the only thing she understood with the older woman crying her heart out.
Maria lifted her tear-stained face to Teresa and said more calmly than she felt, “I could see my Juanito, Senorita Teresa. He was hurt. I wanted to go to him.” The tears once again filled the older woman’s eyes and she started to wring the towel with even greater emotion than before.
Teresa stopped her wringing by placing a gentle hand on top of Maria’s, “Oh Maria don’t cry, please don’t cry, Johnny’s all right. He’s upstairs right now taking a nap. He’s fine, really he is,” she told the woman with all the conviction of truth she could muster not really knowing what condition Johnny was in.
Everyone in the household knew about Maria’s attachment to Johnny. It was no secret that she doted on him hand and foot and gave him preferential treatment. His favorite foods were made more often than others while cookies, cakes and pies were always in abundance with special regard to Johnny’s ever increasing appetite and fondness for anything sweet. She never pestered him about his room if he left it untidy; she would straighten it and always made sure there was something clean for him to wear the following day. If he came home late she would chide him as only a mother would do and stuff his hands with a plate full of food saying that it was not good for one so young to go so long without nourishment. There were motherly touches and smiles whenever the two of them were together and Johnny ate it up like a starving young man never noticing the bemused looks on the other family member’s faces, especially in the beginning when the boys had first arrived.
Scott had asked Murdoch one evening about her unusual show of affection after his brother had gone up to bed early and the rest of them had stayed up. His father had replied that it was probably because of Johnny’s heritage and then surprised Scott and Teresa by telling them that Johnny was in fact related to Cipriano, and had told Johnny about his relationship to the foreman while recovering from the wound he received at the hands of Day Pardee and his band of cutthroat men.
Cipriano was Maria’s uncle. He had been asked after the wedding, to come to California and work on the ranch, knowing that the transition for his new bride would be easier with family near. It was shortly after his arrival that Cipriano met and fell in love with Maria Pena, Murdoch’s newly hired housekeeper and cook. This explained a lot since Scott had often wondered why his brother called Cipriano ‘Tio’ and Maria ‘Tia’ whenever he addressed them. He had thought at first that it was a sign of respect like Mr. or Mrs. until Murdoch had explained what the words actually meant. It didn’t however explain why Johnny often referred to Maria as mamacita but he figured it was her motherly attentions that garnered her the endearment from his young brother.
Teresa finally got Maria to calm down and together they went back to preparing the rest of the meal. Maria hummed while she worked, her fears over Johnny put to rest but she made sure to put in a few extra spices to liven up the food knowing that her Johnny would like it that way.
Scott came down stairs glad to hear the soft melodies hummed by his two favorite ladies as he walked through the kitchen toward the bathhouse. He thought fondly that if the ladies of the house were happy then all would be well. He remembered a saying that Julie Davenport’s mother told him one day after her and her husband had gotten into an argument, ‘if mama’s not happy, then no one is happy’. He never forgot those words because he found that in most homes it was typically true.
Finished with his bath, he deposited his dirty clothes in a basket set next to the door for just such items and continued to towel off his blond hair as he crossed the aromatic kitchen, where Maria was preparing supper.
With towel still on his head he heard Maria say, “Sit down Senor Scott.” He felt her take his elbow and guide him to the table, making him sit in the chair closest to the stove. Taking the towel from his hands she rubbed the top of his head as if he were a child in need of help. Embarrassed but not wanting to offend Maria he let her finish drying his hair wondering at the attention he was getting that was usually reserved for his little brother. Magically she pulled out a comb from her skirt pocket and combed his hair as if she had done it a million times.
She walked around the table and stared at him smiling, her arms crossed beneath her bosom, “There, now you look like the Jefe’s son I have come to know and love. I am glad to see that you are not hurt hijo I do not think mi corazón could take it.” She cupped her hands and placed them over her heart then walked back around the table to where he sat and kissed the back of his head. “Shoo, you go be with el patrón he waits for you and la senorita at the table.”
Scott stood up and dumbfounded exited the kitchen. His face felt beet red and he wondered how in the world Johnny managed to seem so completely at ease with the woman he just left. That was the kind of attention his brother got on a daily basis from the kindly woman but it made him feel awkward and strange to have her fussing over him in the same manner. Did his brother feel this way or was it just him? He didn’t know, but he knew that as soon as his brother was well enough to have a few questions thrown his way he was going to ask him about it.
Teresa and Jelly were just coming inside as he passed the front door on his way to the dining table adjacent to the Great Room. All three took their respective seats at the table with Murdoch seated at the head. Scott sat to his right; Jelly next to him and at the opposite end of the table was Teresa. Johnny’s seat to Murdoch’s left was conspicuously empty.
Maria had the table set and most of the food was already there except for the main dish, the pot roast. She carried it in placing it in front of Murdoch and after surveying the table turned to leave. Scott cleared his throat and turned to Maria before she left the room. “Maria?”
She turned at the sound of her name. “Sí Senor?”
“I was wondering if you and Cipriano would join us for supper. I would like to explain what happened today and I thought it would be nice if you and Senor were here as well.”
The housekeeper spared a glance at Murdoch who nodded and smiled. “Yes, yes. Maria you and Cipriano should join us. Please it would be my, our pleasure.”
“Gracias Senor, I will go get mi esposo. Gracias, gracias.” She brought her hands together, tears welling in her eyes at the gracious invitation. She turned hurriedly toward the door and ran to get her husband excitement punctuating every step she took.
They both returned moments later, Cipriano coming through the door last, his hat held between his hands rotating it in a very nervous gesture. Normally the older man was not nervous but it wasn’t as if they were asked to have supper with the family on a nightly basis. He wasn’t sure what to expect and felt a bit uncomfortable with the invitation but at the look on Maria’s face he could not deny her this one bit of comfort knowing that she was going to find out why her beloved Johnny had gotten hurt. In fact he wanted to know what was going on as well and this seemed the perfect way to find out so he had agreed.
Murdoch stood up and motioned for the two of them to take the seats opposite Scott and Jelly. Cipriano took the seat next to Murdoch while Maria took the seat across the table from Jelly.
As they ate their supper Scott told them about his and Johnny’s day. He noticed with relief that Murdoch didn’t seem to be overly upset about the skirmish so much as he seemed genuinely concerned about the harm his boy’s took at the hands of a man who seemed as though he was more than a match for even his youngest hot headed son by Scott’s description.
Murdoch silently thanked God that it had been in Green River where Val was Sheriff. He knew that Johnny and Val were very close friends and that he would have taken care of any situation had it escalated to greater proportions than it had. He would have to remember the next time he went into town to stop by his office and thank him.
When Scott was done telling his story, Teresa asked him thoughtfully, “Scott, I thought you told me earlier that something good came out of all this and that maybe Johnny wouldn’t be too happy.”
Scott cringed. He had hoped that Teresa wouldn’t remember him saying that but obviously she had. “Well…that girl…Sadie…we ah…ah…”
“You what Scott Lancer!” Teresa said with irritation.
“We have a date, this Saturday.” He quickly stuffed his mouth full of mashed potatoes and eyeballed his plate.
“Well I’ll be horn swaggled,” Jelly said turning his head to face Scott. He rubbed the whiskers on his face and glared at him.
“I can’t believe this!” Teresa exclaimed from her end of the table. “That man beat up your brother and tried to manhandle you too and you’re going to take his sister out on a date? Scott Lancer I can’t believe you!”
“I wouldn’t exactly say he beat up on my brother. Milo looks just as bad. Besides, we all apologized before we left Val’s.”
“But Senor, he dared to touch your hermano with his fist. He called both of you names. He insulted the familia. You couldn’t possibly be with his hermana. It is not right. Juanito will not like this.” Maria crossed her chest in the sign of the cross and pulled rosary beads from the magic pocket that seemed to contain anything needed to use as a prop when she deemed it necessary.
Cipriano reached over and laid his big hand over Maria’s as she fiddled with the string of beads. “Maria, it is not our place to tell the Jefe’s son who he may spend time with. You are speaking out of your hurt and anger over Juanito’s injuries. Senor Scott knows what he is doing and would do nothing to bring harm to his hermano. This you must believe.” He squeezed her hand lovingly but at the same time it was a warning for her to be careful in voicing her opinions to el patrón’s oldest son.
“Perdóneme Senor Scott. I have spoken out of turn,” she told him apologetically.
“Well I’m not sorry, and Senora Maria you don’t need to be sorry either for saying what we’re all thinking. I can’t believe that you would do this Scott.” Teresa was so upset over the revelation that Scott was going to spend time with the girl who’s brother nearly killed Johnny that her anger rose to the surface and made her want to throw something at him. “That man nearly killed Johnny. I won’t accept it and you can’t make me. You may have forgiven them but I don’t.” With that said she roughly scooted her chair back from the table and ran past them tears streaming down her face. She ran to her room and slammed the door the sound reverberating through the house and causing everyone to jump in their seats.
“Well if this don’t just beat all. And here you are always telling him that you’re the oldest and the wisest. Well I’m with that little gal in thar cryin’ her eyes out. I don’t like it, no siree, not one bit. Excuse me but I think I just lost my appetite and it’s out at the bunkhouse with the smart fella’s.”
Murdoch spoke up, “Jelly sit down. Cipriano’s right. Scott is a grown man. He can see whomever he wants and if they’ve settled their disagreement I don’t see the problem.”
“Wal now that’s just it ain’t it? You not seein’ the problem just like always seems to be the way of things around here but I’m not gonna have no part in it. It ain’t right. Scott you oughtta be ashamed of yerself. I’m goin and if anybody cares to go with me you oughtta come now.” The old horse wrangler looked at Cipriano and Maria meaningfully.
The Mexican couple stood, “Gracias Senor Lancer for your kindness,” Cipriano said bowing his head in Murdoch’s direction and took his wife’s hand in his own. “ We will be home if you need us.” The Segundo nodded his head in Scott’s direction. “Buenos noches, Senor Scott y gracias.”
The elder couple left with Jelly close behind closing the heavy front door with a loud thud.
Scott looked at his father forlornly, “Well I certainly have a way with clearing out a room full of people.”
Murdoch patted his son on the hand that lay on the table next to his plate. “Well it seems that we have that in common son. Guess you’re more like your old man than you probably thought.”
Scott shook his head, “Not helping,” he said sarcastically.
“I know. Don’t worry about all this. I’ll talk to Teresa and we’ll get this all straightened out.”
“I don’t think it’s going to be as easy as you think sir. There’s more involved here than you think,” Scott said sadly.
Murdoch furrowed his brows, “What do you mean son?”
“Teresa,” he replied.
“What about her?” the older man asked.
Scott sighed heavily, “You know Murdoch, Jelly’s partly right.”
“Right about what?” he asked confused at the statement.
“About you not seeing things that are right under your nose.”
“And what’s that supposed to mean. What is it that I’m not seeing?” Irritation now laced his father’s tone.
“Teresa and Johnny. They love each other,” the younger man informed the older.
“Of course they love each other. We’re family.”
“Not that kind of love sir,” his son stated, slate blue eyes staring at him intently hoping his father now understood what he meant.
Instantly his meaning registered on his face and then anger set in. “What are you telling me son? Because if it’s what I think you’re trying to say I’m not happy.”
“It’s not what you’re thinking. In fact I’m not even sure that either one of them are aware of it.”
“Johnny hasn’t done or said anything and neither has Teresa for that matter. It’s just something that I’ve noticed. They love each other and it continues to grow everyday. Think about it for a minute and look back at Teresa’s reaction to my going out with Sadie. It doesn’t have anything to do with her exactly, it’s just Teresa’s gut reaction because of her love and concern for Johnny,” he explained. “Much the same as Maria’s, because she loves him like a son.”
Murdoch couldn’t think of any response to his son’s enlightenment.
“If it helps, I don’t think it’s serious enough to give much thought to right now. Teresa is only sixteen years old and Johnny is well aware of that. I also don’t think it’s anything that he has thought about or her either for that matter. It’s just simply something that I can see developing as they get older unless someone else comes along in the meantime to turn their heads in another direction.”
Murdoch was thoughtful as he regarded his son. “You’re sure it’s nothing?”
“I’m positive, at least for now. But if you say anything or bring it to their attention you may make them aware of it, so I wouldn’t if I were you.”
“All right. I’ll let it go for now. But between you and me I want you to know that I have my eye on them.” Murdoch rubbed his face with his hands wondering why his day continued to be a barrage of problems.
“Guess we’re stuck with the dishes, care to help?” Scott asked his father.
“Let’s get it done. I don’t know about you but I could use a stiff drink about now.”
Scott nodded his head in agreement, “Me too.”
Murdoch and Scott finished the clean up in the kitchen and dining room. Wiping their hands on towels they both exited the kitchen heading for the Great Room and that drink they had talked about earlier.
Scott sat in the corner of the sofa, letting his father pour drinks for both of them. He crossed his left leg over his knee and laid his right arm along the back of the extra large sofa and waited patiently.
His father poured two snifters and walked around on Scott’s side handing him his drink. He sat in his usual place, a big overstuffed chair to the left of the fireplace. Tonight there was no fire to light the room but several oil lamps and candles had been lit casting the room in a soft glow.
Scott studied his father hoping that his observations about Johnny and Teresa weren’t going to cause a row between father and son. He decided to pry into his thoughts now that things had settled down, “You ok?” he asked.
Murdoch sipped his drink and answered, “Yes,” he sighed, “Yes I am.” He paused before continuing, “No worries.”
“Good, I thought maybe I had stirred up a hornet’s nest tonight. I probably shouldn’t have said anything you know. I could be totally wrong,” he said as he twirled the golden amber in his glass then sipped his drink. He relished the fiery feel of the liquor as it went down his throat and made his body feel relaxed.
“No, no, I think you’re right now that I look back on things. Teresa is getting older; she’ll be turning seventeen in a few weeks. Most of the women in these parts I know were already married and having their first child by that age. Johnny’s mother was that age when I married her.” He sat the snifter down on the table next to his chair and bent over propping his elbows on his knees and stared solemnly into the unlit fireplace.
“Does it bother you Sir?” Scott had to ask, he had to know what he was going to be up against if his observations were correct.
Murdoch didn’t look at him as he replied, “Yes…I mean, no. Oh hell Scott, I don’t know. I feel like I barely know Johnny even though we’ve lived under the same roof for almost a year now. We can’t even go a whole week without some kind of an argument. I don’t understand him and he doesn’t understand me.”
Scott raised his eyebrows and narrowed his blue gray eyes at his father, “Then maybe you should try harder. Today for example.”
His father turned to stare at him, “What are you getting at?”
“It’s just this sir, understanding Johnny means talking to him first. You were all set to start in on him when we pulled up. I could see it on your face as you approached us. Now I know what you’re going to say,” he held up his hand to ward off his father’s retort. “You have to learn to be more patient. Pick your moments. Try not getting too deep. Your need to know things may not be his need or desire to tell, especially about his past. And it would help if you wouldn’t be so critical of him whenever he does make a mistake. I notice you don’t do that to me so I’ve often wondered over the past year why you do it to him. There’s times sir, when frankly you treat him like he’s less than the lowliest of ranch hands and that he doesn’t deserve to be in your presence let alone be your son.” Scott stopped there. He didn’t want to push his father any harder and worried that he may have said more than he should have.
Murdoch lowered his head to study the big hands that were twined together between his knees. “Am I that bad son? Teresa and Jelly practically said the same thing earlier today when they realized I was getting anxious and kept taking out my watch to see what time it was.”
“Sometimes…not every time. But I do think you could lighten up a lot where Johnny is concerned. That’s why I think you two need to talk,” he coughed into his hand, “When the time is right.”
His father smiled at his knowing son, “Pick my moments huh?”
Scott smiled back raising his glass in salute, “Pick your moments.”
“Well I think one moment has arrived,” he said as he stood up.
“What moment is that sir?”
“I’m going to see how he’s doing. He’s been up there for a couple of hours now. I think I should wake him and make sure he’s all right. And as for that other situation we talked about, I’m not opposed to them falling in love, but I do think it’s too soon and that they are both too young. Teresa is at any rate in my mind, as for Johnny, well, he still has a lot of growing up to do and a past that needs time to heal. He needs to get used to having a family who loves and cares about him. He needs time to put Johnny Madrid behind him and find out who Johnny Lancer really is. And Scott, I do care even if it seems as though sometimes I don’t. You’re my sons and I love you both.”
Scott’s heart constricted in his chest, “I know Sir. I just want Johnny to know it too.” Their father had never told either one of them that he loved them and Scott hoped that the slight tremor in his voice didn’t give him away when he responded to the unexpected declaration. “Murdoch?”
The elder man turned around to answer his son, “Yes?”
“We love you too. We talk about it sometimes. At least when I think I can get Johnny to open up to me. He’s never actually said it but I know that he does by the things that he says. I know that he wants you to be his father and that it hurts him whenever he thinks about what his mother did, keeping him away from you. I think it’s hard for him. He grew up hating you and now he has to face the fact that his mother lied to him his whole life and he’s confused as to how he’s supposed to feel about both of you.”
Murdoch rubbed his face, his expression tired all the sudden, “Thanks Scott, I’ve often wondered. Guess I do have a lot of things we need to talk about and get resolved between us.”
Murdoch left his son sitting there, eager and apprehensive at the same time. Reaching the top of the stairs he turned in the direction of Johnny’s bedroom and walked heavily to stand before his door. He grasped the doorknob and listened but there was no sound. Cautiously he eased the door open hoping that he didn’t startle his son.
The light was low in the room making it hard to see his dark haired boy on the bed. He walked over to the lamp and turned the wick up. The room glowed a yellow orange color and made it possible to clearly see his son who still slept on his side with a blanket drawn up to his shoulders. He walked over to the edge of the bed and peered over him. He was fast asleep and hadn’t appeared to move since Teresa had put the blanket over him.
The older man took a moment to watch his sleeping son. He was always amazed at how much younger he looked asleep than when he was awake. At twenty Johnny still had that extremely lean muscular build that bespoke of hard work and the fast metabolism of a young man who found it very hard to sit still for even a few minutes at a time.
He sat on the bed behind Johnny’s back and brushed his hand across the side of his face and through the thick black hair. “Johnny,” he said just loud enough for his son to hear. There was no response so he tried again, “Johnny.”
Black inky lashes began to flutter open then closed. “Johnny, come on son, try and wake up for me.”
Johnny could hear his father calling to him from far away but he was so tired it made it hard for him to open his eyes and keep them open. He tried a second time but found he didn’t have any strength, sleep still beckoned him and he felt compelled to obey his body’s demand to sink back into the blissful darkness of slumber.
Murdoch shook his shoulder gently and rubbed his son’s head. “Johnny, I need you to wake up now. Listen to me son. I know you can hear me so I want you to try real hard this time. You don’t want to worry your old man now do you?”
Johnny did hear him but felt too groggy to answer. His father’s anxious tone scared him so he tried harder to wake up, wanting to tell him that he was all right and he shouldn’t worry.
Murdoch watched him struggle to open his eyes. When he knew for sure that Johnny was finally awake but unmoving he leaned over his shoulder carefully and spoke to him, “Johnny, can you hear me son?”
Sapphire eyes closed slowly then opened again, he nodded his head in answer and licked his dry lips and sighed heavily.
“How do you feel son?”
Closing his eyes, Johnny summoned up the strength he needed to answer. He drew in a deep breath through his mouth and said in a half whisper, “I hurt Pa,” there was a second of silence, “everywhere.”
The last word was said with such anguish it brought tears to the big man’s eyes. It wasn’t lost on the older man that Johnny had called him ‘Pa’. His heart constricted with raw emotions and guilt. Murdoch wondered how he could have ever thought his son didn’t need him.
“I know son.” He smoothed back the hair from his forehead and said, “Think I could help you sit up? Teresa brought some tea up here for you and it’s supposed to help with aches and pains.”
Murdoch watched as Johnny grimaced into his pillow and then heard him say in a smothered voice, “No.”
Murdoch chuckled and tugged at Johnny’s shoulder saying, “Son, I really think you should drink it.”
Again he heard the smothered ‘no’ only this time it lasted longer and sounded even more pitiful than before.
His father stood up and put his hands on his hips staring down at his obstinate son.
“Johnny, quit being stubborn and lets get you up,” he reached down and grasped him under the arms the best he could with Johnny laying on his side.
Johnny let out a heavy sigh realizing his father wasn’t going to let him lay there and go back to sleep when he felt large hands begin to pull him up. Giving in, he grabbed at Murdoch’s hard forearms and said irritably “Let go, I can do it. Just give me a minute.”
Murdoch released him and let Johnny right himself to a sitting position. Now that his son was fully awake there was an aggravated tone in his voice so he cautioned himself against being offended. This is where the two of them generally got into an argument and he had promised himself that this time he wouldn’t allow that to happen.
“Better?” he questioned.
Johnny put the palm of his right hand to his temple and rubbed as he leaned his head to the side and closed his eyes.
“No. Better was when I was lying down.” His tone was belligerent in response to his father’s worried inquiry. As soon as he heard himself he regretted it and said miserably, “I’m sorry.”
“It’s ok son, you’re hurting and tired so I’ll let it pass,” then said as an afterthought, “This time.”
Johnny opened his eyes and warily looked up at his father. There were no hard features, only concern written on his face. He relaxed and dropped his eyes back down to the battered hands in his lap. He was fully awake now and having his father stand there over him made him feel uncomfortable. The nervousness got to him and he started drumming his fingers on the blanket that covered his legs afraid to look back up in case his father’s demeanor toward him had changed from concern to disappointment.
Murdoch realized that his son was getting jittery and reached over to the bedside table to pour a cup of the tepid tea. He nudged Johnny’s arm with the cup and said, “Here drink this.”
Johnny took the cup from his large hand and held it between his own. He watched as Murdoch walked over to a wooden chair that sat in the corner of the room and brought it back to his side and took a seat.
“Go on, you’re not going to finish it by looking at it.” His words brooked for no argument so Johnny obediently lifted the cup to his mouth and took a sip.
He was surprised that it didn’t taste as bad as it had in the past and drank some more before Murdoch could have a chance to tell him to.
“Teresa put honey in it in case you were wondering,” his father told him.
Knitting his brows together Johnny drained the last of it. “I thought it tasted better,” he said back.
Murdoch started to laugh, “Well you can thank your brother. Let’s just say that he made Teresa see the error of her ways.”
“Oh,” was all he could think of to say.
The silence stretched between them. Murdoch finally broke it by saying, “He also told me what happened today in town.”
Johnny leaned his head back against the headboard and closed his eyes, the empty cup in his hands tipping away from his nervous fingers, ‘So this is it’ he thought, ‘now the old man is gonna rip into me.’ He waited, his eyes still closed. When his father didn’t say anything he opened them a crack and shifted his head sideways to look at him.
Murdoch sat there silently watching Johnny’s hands clench and unclench in his lap as the silent tension increased, “Get it said Old Man. I’m sure your just dyin’ to tell me how disappointed you are in me.” Johnny thought his guts were going to catch the blankets on fire as he waited for the usual angry reprimand from his father. He leaned his chin in toward his chest and his breathing increased rapidly, his eyelids fighting back the tears that threatened to well up. He couldn’t look at his father, not now; if he did he would instantly start to mentally fall apart. He was tired and he didn’t feel good and his father’s continued silence ate at his heart and soul.
Murdoch noticed all these reactions and felt remorse for all the times he had been overly hard and unrelenting in his behavior and attitude toward Johnny. He felt that he understood a little better, the reactions of his family and staff after watching Johnny so closely for the past several minutes and witnessed the dramatic changes in personality from one minute to the next.
His heart sank as he realized that Johnny fully expected him to be angry and was waiting for the proverbial axe to drop, and yet his injured son never offered to explain or stand up for his own actions, probably thinking that it wouldn’t do any good anyhow based on previous experience.
The older man leaned over and placed a big comforting hold over Johnny’s restless hands surprising the young man. “I’m proud of you John.”
Johnny’s head reeled. This was not what he had expected the old man to say and now he thought he was going to swallow his own tongue. ‘This has to be a trick,’ he thought in a panic. He glared at Murdoch and then down at the hand that covered his. He tried to swallow again and couldn’t. His throat was so constricted and breathing through his nose was next to impossible. He was going to pass out if he couldn’t take in a breath but he couldn’t make his body work for him because of the anxiety he felt. This was not the Murdoch that he knew and it unnerved him. Beads of sweat started to roll down his forehead.
Murdoch eyes narrowed as he watched his son. It only took a few seconds to notice that Johnny seemed to be having trouble breathing. He stood and swept the hair back from his son’s forehead saying in a commanding tone, “Breathe Johnny!”
That seemed to do the trick, whatever state of mind Johnny had gotten himself into seemed to evaporate as he watched his son draw in deep lungs full of air and clutched the tops of his thighs in a tight grip.
Johnny opened and shut his brilliant blue eyes several times trying to clear his head. He was exhausted and lay back against the pillows with his eyes closed wanting only to go back to sleep.
Murdoch wouldn’t let him though. He heard him walk away from the bed and wondered if his father was leaving. Opening his eyes he caught sight of the tall figure in front of his dresser and watched him take out a nightshirt and bring it back to the bedside.
His father then took the cup from his lap and placed it back on the bedside table and then removed the blanket that covered his body.
“Let’s get you into something comfortable for tonight John. You still have your clothes and boots on.”
Johnny stopped him before he went any further, “Murdoch?”
Murdoch answered with a soft paternal tone, “What John?”
Again the dark head bent toward the chest and his words were mumbled, “I…I…don’t understand.”
Murdoch regarded him thoughtfully, “What don’t you understand son?”
Johnny looked up at him perplexed, “Why are ya proud of me and not mad?”
Sitting on the bed next to Johnny, Murdoch rolled up the nightshirt as he pondered on what to say. “You were sticking up for your brother, protecting him. It’s about family taking care of family. It’s about love Johnny, pure and simple. I’d say that’s something to be really proud of. Of course I don’t want either one of you getting into fights if you don’t have to, but when something like this happens, well…” he cleared his throat, “It’s nice to know we are family and that we love each other enough to be there for one another.”
Johnny smiled at his father. He hadn’t thought along those lines consciously or said them out loud but he was very glad that his father had. Deep in his heart he felt that way too but it was hard to express those kinds of feelings having never been in a traditional family before he came to Lancer. He had told his mother he loved her and even a few pretty girls along the way, but saying it to his new family was hard. He was afraid to let them know how deeply attached he was getting to all of them and even more afraid to admit that he loved them. Somewhere in his mind he had reasoned with himself that if he ever told them that he loved them he would find that it had all been a dream or that God would find some way to take them away from him. He knew it was childish and fearful thinking but everything that he had ever loved in his life had been brutally ripped from him and he didn’t want that to happen to any of these people. ‘Maybe it’s time to take a chance,’ he thought.
Murdoch had hoped that Johnny would respond with his own feelings but didn’t press him when none came. He helped him get his boots and clothes off, slipping the nightshirt over his quiet son’s head being mindful of his injuries as he carefully helped him to guide his arms into the sleeves without pulling on his bruised ribcage.
Johnny stood up on shaky legs, holding his aching bruised ribs as his father pulled the covers down and rearranged the pillows making sure they were fluffed and ready. He climbed back into bed and snuggled down into the mattress while Murdoch pulled the covers up to his chest, wincing at the pain that coursed through his body with each movement.
Murdoch turned the lamp down to a soft glow and checked on his son one last time before leaving. “I’ll check on you in a little while Johnny. No getting up early. Scott says that Sam told you to take it easy for a while and to stay off your horse. Do you understand?”
“Don’t have ta tell me twice,” Johnny said sleepily. He yawned, “This time I’m not gonna fight ya on it. I’m too sore,” he yawned again and sleepy eyes fluttered toward his cheeks. “Course that could change in a day or two.” His chest rumbled slightly with laughter knowing that he caused his father to pause and turn back to him. “Just kiddin’. I’ll listen and do what I’m told.”
“I hope you do son. Remember, I call the tune and in this case Sam is calling the tune but I expect you to follow his orders.” His voice was stern but filled with warmth.
Nestling his head even further into his pillow Johnny answered with a contrite, “Yes sir.”
Murdoch was just about to turn the knob and leave the room when Johnny’s voice drowsily called to him, “Pa?”
The one word was so quiet and soft he wasn’t sure that he had heard him say it for the second time in one evening. He walked back over to the side of the bed near Johnny’s head. He crouched down next to him and fingered the hair across his brow. “What son?” he whispered.
Johnny had a hard time keeping his eyes open but he managed to successfully when he saw the sympathetic face close to his “I love you too ya know, Scott…Teresa…Jelly…Tio y Tia…” he trailed off and his eyes closed having lost the battle to keep them open as sleep claimed him.
Tears unshed before now spilled down the cheeks of the aging patriarch. Brushing them away with a swift swipe of his backhand Murdoch leaned over and did the unthinkable. He kissed his son’s brow knowing that such a display of affection would not be tolerated if he were awake. They had come a long way but they were nowhere near to that kind of relationship if his son was feeling better. Opportunity knocked and so the elder man answered taking advantage of the situation knowing it might be a while before he would ever get the opportunity again.
He whispered close to his ear, “I love you too Johnny, we all do.”
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