The young man quietly opened the doors, then stepped out onto the balcony. As the gray light of dawn spread over the ranch, he breathed deeply of the crisp morning air. Without realizing it, a gentle sigh escaped him as he reveled in the morning ritual, though normally it wasn’t held quite this early.
Looking over his shoulder, Johnny eyed the calendar he’d hung recently on his bedroom wall. Thinking back, he realized it had been several days since he’d overhead the conversation between Teresa and Murdoch. He’d come in early from working the fence line, and had stopped at the back door to clean up a bit before walking into the kitchen. Even now, he could recall the sound of Teresa’s happy voice as she noted the upcoming anniversary.
“Murdoch, do you realize it’s been almost one whole year since Scott and Johnny came to live here? It doesn’t seem that long ago, yet it’s like they’ve been with us forever. We have to celebrate the day with something special. . . a picnic, maybe?”
The answering laugh from Murdoch was one of wonder. He truly enjoyed the enthusiasm his ward brought into their lives, and Johnny was grateful for the times she brought out his father’s warm humor.
“Yes, yes, of course, Teresa. By all means, plan anything you like.”
“Alright, but don’t tell them. I want it to be a surprise.”
At that point, Johnny had stepped away from the small bench where he’d been cleaning up. Wiping his hands hurriedly on his pants, the dark-haired man had headed around the corner of the house, only to be met in mid-flight by Scott.
“Hold on there, brother. Where are you going in such a hurry?”
Unable to answer honestly without revealing Teresa and Murdoch’s secret, Johnny mumbled a lame excuse about forgetting something in the barn, and hurried away. Remembering the scene, Johnny laughed again at the confused look on Scott’s face, but he knew the little white lie would be nothing compared to the pleasure it would bring to Teresa.
Now, as the sun made its way over the hilltops, Johnny contemplated once more the new life that he’d been given. No longer living on his own, traveling from town to town with nothing but his reputation to rely on, Johnny was finally growing comfortable with the idea of having a family. Glancing about, he realized that even the simple fact that he had a room to call his own was a reminder of how much things had changed. The days of living out of his saddlebags, all his worldly possessions strapped across his horse’s back, were over. Another sigh escaped the dark-haired man as he stepped back into his room and closed the veranda doors behind him.
Picking up his hat and jacket, Johnny moved quietly into the hall and down the stairs. It was still early and the house was quiet, but he found himself somewhat relieved, the feeling stronger as he stepped into the kitchen and found the room deserted. It took only a few minutes to gather several biscuits and some slices of roast beef from the previous night’s dinner. Not his normal breakfast, but enough to satisfy his appetite. Then he left the house and hurried toward the barn, anxious to make his escape before the others were up.
Murdoch was already seated at the table when Scott walked into the kitchen. He looked up casually as his blond-haired son pulled out a chair.
“Where’s your brother?”
Scott began to fill his plate as Teresa joined them. “I don’t know. He wasn’t in his room, so I thought he might be down here. Maybe he’s already headed out.”
Murdoch’s look of surprise was not lost on anyone. It was no secret that Johnny could be a hard worker, but he was not usually the first one out the door. Glancing down the table, his questioning gaze received a simple shake of the head from Teresa. Returning to his meal, Murdoch shrugged off the feeling of concern that overcame him.
It was just Johnny wanting to be on his own. There was no sense in reading something more into it. Yet the father in him was anxious to finish breakfast so he could check his youngest son’s room. Of course, he’d use the utmost discretion; there was no need to alarm the rest of the family. But Murdoch found himself hoping that this wouldn’t be the time he had to face losing his son for good.
The sun was heading toward its zenith when Johnny stopped along the riverbank for a much needed break. Stepping down from the saddle, he dropped Barranca’s reins and settled himself under a nearby tree. Watching silently, he marveled at the beauty of the animal. The match had been a perfect one, and not a day went by that Johnny didn’t appreciate the friendship he shared with his partner. It was a special thing when horse and rider bonded, and Johnny knew that this was true of him and Barranca.
Taking another biscuit from his pocket, Johnny washed it down with a drink from his canteen. Leaning back against the tree trunk, he allowed himself a few minutes to doze, his body already tired from the morning’s work. He knew that Murdoch would be surprised with the job he’d done, but today wasn’t just about proving himself to his father; he also wanted to prove something to himself. He needed to show that he belonged, that he could contribute something to the ranch, and to his family.
There had been so many things he’d done wrong in those first months, and times he wanted to pack up and ride out. Those impulses were fading, yet Johnny still had a sense that his place here was temporary. He knew that Murdoch and Scott wanted him to stay, and of course Teresa was very firm about his remaining with the family. But there were times when he didn’t think he could cut it. The heavy workload, the dreariness of unending chores, the lack of privacy that went with belonging to a family. . .
Shaking his head as if to clear his thoughts, Johnny pulled himself off the ground and walked slowly to Barranca’s side. Wrapping one arm around the horse’s neck, he rubbed the animal’s chest, his mind filled with memories of the past year at Lancer. The reality was, it made him happy to be here. He was a part of this family, and for the first time in his life, felt like he truly belonged. With a twist of his dark head, Johnny laughed at himself and reached for the reins.
“No use wasting all this good daylight, Barranca. Let’s finish gathering these stragglers and surprise Murdoch.”
Stepping swiftly into the saddle, Johnny urged his horse forward, working deftly to round up several dozen steers that he’d found. Murdoch had been grumbling for over a week about the missing cattle, and how there wasn’t enough time or men available to go looking for them. Johnny hoped that his extra effort would help show his old man that he wanted to do his part. Maybe in a small way it would help make up for some of the stupid mistakes he’d made the past year. Regardless, the sun was getting hot, and it was time to move these cattle home.
Murdoch wasn’t the only one who checked out Johnny’s room that morning. Scott had excused himself shortly after his father, and it was only mere chance that kept the two from colliding in the doorway of the missing son’s room. But fate helped keep the men’s secret, and Murdoch had already moved down the hall and into his own room before Scott arrived at Johnny’s door.
Each of them felt relieved as they surveyed the missing man’s belongings; everything seemed to be in its usual place. Unaware that his father had done the same thing only minutes before, Scott gazed around the room, wondering at his brother’s scant possessions. There was so much about Johnny’s past that brought a feeling of pain to the family. It wasn’t the shame of what he’d done, as much as their sorrow that he’d be driven to it. Life hadn’t treated Johnny fairly, at least up until now. Turning away, Scott stepped out of the room, and closed the door softly behind him.
Searching his memory for something, anything, that might give him a clue, Scott thought back over the past few days. No, Johnny had been in a good mood, laughing and teasing Teresa last night at supper. There was no indication that anything had upset him. So, if Johnny hadn’t left them, then maybe he was simply out working on the ranch. But why wouldn’t he have told them where he was going?
Hurrying down the stairs and across the great room, Scott was surprised to find Teresa waiting for him by the front door.
“You’re going to look for him, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I thought I’d ride out and see what he’s working on. Maybe I can give him a hand.”
“Scott, do you think anything’s wrong?”
It wasn’t hard to recognize the look of concern that shone from Teresa’s eyes. Grasping her gently, but firmly, by the shoulders, Scott searched for the right answer before speaking. “No, I don’t think anything’s wrong. And you’ve got to stop doing this, Teresa. You can’t jump to conclusions every time Johnny takes off without leaving word. That’s just the way he is. He’s used to doing things on his own, and it’s been kind of hard for him to change that.”
“I know, Scott. But. . .”
“But you’re worried about him. I know, honey, but Johnny’s fine.”
Leaning down, Scott gave his ‘adopted’ sister a quick kiss before turning her loose. “You quit worrying about that wild brother of ours, and I’ll go see what he’s up to.”
Turning on his heels, Scott was out the door and headed to the barn, unaware that his father had been listening to the whole exchange from across the room. But the older man, who’d eavesdropped this far, couldn’t help smiling at Teresa’s parting comment before she followed the blond outside.
“Oh, yes, like you aren’t worrying, Scott Lancer.”
Johnny rode through the brush, the heat of the sun burning through his shirt. He absently swiped his forearm across his face, glad that the worst part of his day was over. As the sun grew warmer, the cattle were calmer; horse and rider having no problem keeping them aimed toward home, except that the pace had slowed considerably.
“At least you’re not trying to run off in the brush anymore!”
With a grin, the weary man patted his horse as they moved to the other side of the beeves.
“Now I’m not only talkin’ to my horse, I’m talkin’ to the cows, too.”
Still a considerable ways from the house, Johnny was already tired from the morning’s exertions. It wasn’t that he’d worked that much harder than any other day; maybe it was just the mental strain of wanting to get this job done alone and surprise his father. Then there were the last several nights with little sleep. Ever since he’d heard Teresa’s comments about him and Scott being at Lancer for a year, Johnny had been kept awake at night as he struggled with all the feelings her declaration had wrought.
Suddenly, the horse having tensed under him, started to move upward, causing Johnny to jerk back sharply on the reins. His mind having been focused on his family, the weary man had failed to watch the trail before him, a mistake that could prove fatal for a man alone. Although Johnny was an excellent rider, his quick response was not enough to keep his seat as the powerful horse reared beneath him.
From a distance, Johnny thought he heard the unique sound of rattles shaking, but there was no time to contemplate the possibilities. Instinct kicked in as he pulled his gun and fired several shots in rapid succession. But that action was his undoing. His downward spiral from Barranca’s back seemed to take forever, but in reality was over in seconds. As the cattle bolted, the frightened horse running with them, the dark-haired man lay still in the dust.
Scott pulled his horse to a stop, quietly surveying the end of the valley. He’d been riding alone for several hours, and still there was no trace or sign. Nor had there been any series of shots from the other searchers to indicate that they’d come across his missing brother.
He’d tried not to make too much of Johnny’s disappearance at first, but after checking with all the hands and riding out on his own with no luck, even Scott had decided that something was amiss. Only then had he voiced his concern to Murdoch. His father had sent them out immediately.
It was hard not to worry, especially when he thought about Murdoch. Scott had left his father standing in the front of the hacienda, the look of foreboding more than any son could stand. Murdoch was probably still at the house, waiting for his sons to return. Both of them.
Taking time for a quick drink from his canteen, Scott contemplated the other possible routes he might follow. Where was Johnny? And what was he doing that demanded such secrecy?
Picking up the reins, Scott put his horse into motion, turning east along the river. He rode for several miles before he spotted Johnny’s horse. Barranca was quietly grazing near a small bunch of cattle. But where was Johnny?
With a shout that echoed unanswered, Scott suddenly kicked his mount into a gallop. In a sliding stop worthy of the best cowpony, his horse came to a halt even as Scott was already off and running.
Kneeling next to the still form, he grabbed hold of a shoulder, turning his brother gently towards him. There was no response, no movement, no chiding for the anxious shouts. Instead, there was simply silence. The stillness of death.
Scott pulled Johnny into his arms, hunching over the silent figure, unprepared for the wet streaks tracking down his own cheeks. He ran practiced hands over his brother, looking for broken bones, bullet holes . . . something to explain what had happened. But he found nothing. And his visual search was rewarded only with the peaceful look on Johnny’s face, as if there’d been no trauma or torture. It was almost like his brother had merely laid down for an afternoon nap.
And then his fingers found it. A small lump above the hairline. No cut, no outward appearance, just a small rise beneath questing fingers. Looking around, Scott quickly discovered the object of devastation. A rock of no great size, its location must have been enough, the timing perfect. Johnny’s gun lay in the grass beside him and several feet ahead, in the ruts of the road, lay the remains of a rattlesnake. He must’ve shot it, his horse uncharacteristically spooked. Johnny Madrid Lancer, a rider from birth, must’ve fallen to his death. Caught in the arms of fate by the presence of a stone left there centuries before.
Scott drew a deep breath, searching for some semblance of control. He couldn’t blame anyone, and there would be no revenge to exact. Providence or destiny, it didn’t matter. Johnny was gone.
He wanted to stay there, to hold his brother close as if protecting him from further harm. But there were things to do. Murdoch was waiting.
It took some doing, but Scott finally managed to pull his brother’s motionless form from the ground, and get him up in the saddle. Mounted behind him, Scott started his horse in a slow walk toward home, confident that Barranca would follow. Someone else would have to come for the strays Johnny had been gathering. No one would ever know why the youngest Lancer had come out here on his own.
With arms encircling his brother, holding tight against gravity, Scott looked down to see Johnny’s dark head resting against his arm. Scott was dreading the moment he reached home, when he’d have to release him to the others. It wasn’t hard to imagine the look on Murdoch’s face when he realized his youngest was lost to him again, this time forever. And Teresa, full of excitement in planning her surprise party, would be devastated. Scott hadn’t even had a chance to tell Johnny about the conversation he’d overheard. His brother would’ve enjoyed the secret. A deep sigh escaped as Scott pulled his brother closer. What a way to celebrate their first year together. Would they ever be able to overcome this?
Miles went by, time slipping away as the brothers shared one last ride together. Scott was lulled by the steady beat of his horse’s hooves on the hard-packed dirt. His own back sagged with the agony of knowing what would come next. So at first he ignored the movement beneath his hands. Until it happened again.
There was no answer, yet an undeniable stirring made Scott pull his horse to a stop. His voice raised a notch, maybe two. “Johnny?”
Scott’s hand searched for and found the slow rise and fall of Johnny’s chest.
“Alive. You’re alive!”
He wanted to scream and shout, but Scott wasn’t sure. Maybe he’d dreamed it. The Lancer arch was only a short distance away, and as Scott urged his horse into a fast walk, he searched for his father, and found him. Silhouetted against the whitewashed walls, Murdoch Lancer was there, waiting for his sons. Scott hoped he was bringing good news, but he was almost afraid to hope. And then they were there. Murdoch, Teresa, Cippriano and others. They all stood together, waiting.
Unable to answer the question in his father’s voice, Scott merely stared down as hands reached up for his brother. Not until Murdoch nodded to Teresa, a look of relief on his face was Scott able to relax. Maybe this wasn’t their last homecoming after all.
Light shown behind the heavy curtains, making streaks of gold on the bedroom walls. Johnny watched as the sun’s rays moved across the space, wondering at the comforting feelings they evoked. He was safe. His family loved him. He was home.
So why had it been so hard to settle in this past year? Lancer was where he belonged. Where he’d always belonged. Why did he feel like he was playing with one of that new fangled return-wheel Scott gave him, first up then down, but all the time, dangling on a thin line between the two? Why hadn’t he been able to just accept this new life for what it was? Why did he always feel he had to prove himself to the old man?
Shaking himself from the melancholy of the moment, Johnny stretched lazily then carefully sat up.
It had only been a few days since he’d opened his eyes to find a worried group of people surrounding his bed. His memory of the incident had been hazy at first, but once Scott told him about the small band of cattle, Johnny remembered his desire to surprise Murdoch. What his brother failed to tell him was how he’d been presumed dead. That he’d learned from Cippriano. It was hard to imagine what Scott had gone through during that sad ride home, and it was clear that his older brother had no desire to discuss the situation. Murdoch, too, seemed unwilling to talk about Johnny’s close call. And so they’d let it lie.
Teresa, on the other hand, was more than happy to chat about her brother’s good luck, and heavenly blessings. Maybe it was her happy spirit that Johnny could thank for his quick recovery. Or maybe it was just his own bull-headedness. All Johnny knew was that he was ready to be up and around -- and back to work. That blasted headache had kept him in bed longer than he liked, but the enforced rest had given him plenty of time to reminisce about the past year, and to contemplate the coming one. ‘Course, he hadn’t shared his musings with the others, but he had a feeling that his conclusions wouldn’t be a surprise to any of them. He was home to stay. And Johnny Lancer was happy about it. He knew that there would still be rough patches ahead, but he’d deal with them.
Fighting off the slight dizziness he still struggled with, Johnny got up and dressed, padding quietly down the hall in his stocking feet. He wasn’t the first one at the table, but noting Scott’s empty seat, he wasn’t the last either. “Pass those biscuits, Teresa,” he greeted. “They sure smell good this morning.”
“Good morning to you, too.” She smiled.
“How are you feeling, Johnny?” Murdoch asked, the concern still evident in his voice.
“Good as new.”
A barely concealed giggle from Teresa caught his attention, but Johnny pretended not to notice. It suddenly occurred to him that her surprise picnic must still be on. Pretending to be focused on the breakfast now before him, Johnny didn’t look up until Scott joined them.
“Johnny. How are you feeling?”
The look on his face must’ve been answer enough for Scott, based on his brother’s quick laugh.
“Guess that mean’s you’re fine.”
Johnny tucked into his breakfast, anxious to escape the worried glances and constant scrutiny of his family. It wasn’t that he didn’t appreciate their concern. It was just a little overwhelming for someone use to a life alone.
By the time he’d finished the plateful of food Teresa had prepared, Scott and Murdoch were buckling on gun belts and donning hats.
“Well, Johnny, if you’re coming with us, then get a move on,” advised Murdoch.
Looking up at his father, Johnny didn’t see anything but pride and happiness on the old man’s face. It wasn’t the first time he’d felt accepted by his father, but for some reason, this time seemed to mean more. Maybe he didn’t need to prove himself anymore. Maybe . . finally, he could just relax and feel he really belonged.
With a smile wide enough to split his own face in two, Johnny almost jumped out of his chair. “Teresa, get my boots!”
Dinnertime had come and gone, but still Murdoch kept at it. Scott didn’t seem to mind, and Johnny wasn’t all that worried about the missed meal. He hadn’t really worked very hard this first morning back. In fact, for the past half hour, he’d been stacking fence posts under the branches of an old oak tree. It was the easy job, and Johnny knew it was no mistake that he was the one enjoying the shade. This was one time he decided he wouldn’t argue with his family’s logic. His pride might not like it, but his head would appreciate one more day on the easy side.
The sound of an approaching wagon caught their attention, and the three men dropped their tools as Teresa drove into sight.
“Well, Teresa, what have you got for us?” Murdoch greeted with a wink.
Her laugh was contagious. “I thought it would be a good day for a picnic. We have an anniversary to celebrate, in case your sons forgot,” Teresa informed them warmly. “We could go down by the river, maybe? Do you think you can take the afternoon off?”
“I think that can be arranged,” Murdoch agreed.
Scott, though, was busy shaking his head, while Johnny scratched his chin in mock irritation.
“No, I don’t think that’s a good idea, Teresa,” Scott declared.
“I agree with Scott. We have a lot of work to finish here, and there’s no use putting it off ‘til tomorrow.”
Johnny stopped to pick up another fencepost, pausing only to wink at his brother before placing it on the pile.
“What? But Murdoch said…”
“Oh, I know Murdoch would let us go, but it just wouldn’t be right. He’s counting on us to get this fence line finished right away.” This time Johnny managed a wink in Murdoch’s direction, letting him in on their spontaneous fun.
“Scott! Tell Johnny it’s not a problem…”
“No Teresa, Johnny’s right. We’d better get this job done. Our father’s done a good job of teaching us how to take care of a working ranch. We’d better show him how much we’ve learned.”
“Murdoch. Please tell them. . .” Her voice was raised in frustration, and it looked as if Teresa was about to stamp her foot, when suddenly she must’ve realized that the three faces turned toward her were smiling broadly. “Oh you! You know, don’t you?”
“Murdoch, did you…”
“Now Teresa, you know I wouldn’t have spoiled your surprise.”
”Don’t go scolding Murdoch. It wasn’t his fault,” Scott supplied.
“You two were eavesdropping again.”
Scott and Johnny broke into laughter, one hanging on the other as they enjoyed their own surprise, pleased that they’d managed to pull off their little trick.
“Should’ve seen your face, Teresa. You looked like you were going to spit nails,” said Johnny with a grin.
Murdoch stepped over to his ward, encircling her with one arm while gently poking Scott in the arm with his other.
“Don’t mind these two, Teresa. They won’t be laughing tomorrow, when I send them out to re-fence the north line.”
“But, Murdoch. . . “
Teresa’s giggle replaced the men’s laughter for only a moment. And then they were all gathering tools, and mounting their horses. Johnny paused for just a moment as the wagon moved off toward the river. It was a good thing, being with his family.
“Johnny? You coming?”
Scott had turned back, watching his brother closely. For a brief moment, Johnny had the feeling that his brother was reading his mind. Maybe he was. After all, this was new to him too. But then, it wasn’t really that new anymore. It had been a whole year already. A good year. A year worthy of an anniversary celebration.
Johnny finally had the home he’d never known he was looking for, and a family he didn’t know he needed. And it looked like Scott had found that too.
“Sure I’m coming,” Johnny finally answered. “Wouldn’t miss this picnic for anything!”