(With thanks to my beta, Terri Derr aka Doc.)
“So was it how you remembered?” Johnny sank into the chair opposite Murdoch and put his feet up on the footstool as his father poked life back into the fire. Teresa and Scott had gone to their beds early; father and son had the great room to themselves.
Johnny’s muscles ached. He and Scott had spent most of the afternoon cutting out heifers to breed with the new bulls Murdoch had bought in Mexico. The animals were being freighted up by train; they would arrive at the railhead by the end of the week. The task wouldn’t have been so tiring except that the brothers had not long got back from the border. They had ridden hard from the town of Blessing to beat Murdoch home.
Setting their horses to graze on the good feed of the south pasture gave the game away though; Murdoch knew they’d checked up on him. Johnny was sure of it. There had been no need as it turned out; the old man handled everything just fine without their help. Johnny was impressed.
The trip south had started him thinking. When Murdoch got back, he’d thought some more. And the more he thought, the less sleepy he felt, despite five hours in the saddle that day and ten the day before.
“Was what how I remembered?” Murdoch leaned back in his armchair and picked up the tumbler of whisky on the side table.
“The border towns. You said before you left you’d travelled through most of them, from El Paso to San Diego.”
“Sump holes, most of them; like you said. Some a little bigger than I recall. Others much the same. There were a few new ones. Why do you ask?”
“You didn’t say when you were last through that way.”
“It would be a while back now.”
“I know. You haven’t been down there since Scott and me came here. So when was the last time?”
Murdoch sipped his drink. A log crumbled in the grate, sending sparks up the chimney, and he stretched his legs out on the rug. For a moment, Johnny thought he wasn’t going to answer, but he did. “It must have been ’65, just before the war ended.”
“What took you down?”
“Same as this time mostly—bloodstock issues. I swapped one of the Lancer bulls for one of Juan Contanado’s.”
“It’s a long way to go for one bull.”
Murdoch was watching Johnny over the rim of his glass. Johnny pretended not to notice, keeping his voice casual as he stared into the depths of his own drink.
“There was no train then. It meant I could travel on my own.”
“Why did you want to do that?”
“I had some other business.”
“Were you looking for me?” Johnny hadn’t meant to ask outright, but an unusual wave of impatience swept over him. Murdoch hardly ever talked about the past, not the past that affected him or Scott. He was in the mood to give him a bit of a nudge.
“Not then. I had another visit to make before I came back.”
“Got a lady friend down there, Murdoch?” Johnny tried to make a joke of it, but bitterness slipped in. After all, who else was there to visit? Murdoch’s tight-lipped replies were a sure sign: whatever he wasn’t saying wouldn’t be to Johnny’s liking.
“In a manner of speaking,” Murdoch murmured and looked up. The blueness of his eyes, so like Johnny’s, was full, but not with any emotion Johnny had expected. Anger, disappointment, happiness, determination—he’d seen them all reflect back at him at one time or another. But never sadness, not like this, bone deep sadness; it was unmistakeable. “I went to San Andrés.”
“La Misión de San Andrés?” Johnny stared at his father. Teresa had told him how Murdoch felt, but he’d never totally believed it—until now.
“I…when did you find out?”
“Three years before, but I couldn’t go sooner. The flood. Then the drought. I was needed here. Besides they said you’d left San Andrés so there was no point.”
And there it was. Murdoch had stayed at Lancer and paid others to search, but he hadn’t given up on either of them. Johnny’s head and heart spun. “They?”
“The Pinkertons found your mother. Too late to do any good, but they found her.”
“Did they tell you how…?” Johnny couldn’t finish. It was so long ago, but he hadn’t been expecting to talk about her death. He hadn’t prepared for it.
“No. I didn’t find that out until later, but it wasn’t important then. She was gone, and you were lost.”
“I would have been in Arizona or Southern California then. Hiring out miles away by ‘65.”
“So I found out later.” Murdoch gulped at his whisky, and stood up to pour another. “Do you want a refill?”
Johnny handed him his glass.
“I talked with Padre Marcos and a few others. They remembered you, but they didn’t know where you were. Padre Marcos told me some things, enough to start the search when the war ended.” Murdoch gave Johnny his tequila and sat down again. He turned his whisky in his hands and took a mouthful. “The barkeeper gave me information that helped the Pinkertons find you too, but not until much later. At first no one realised it was important.”
“What did he say?”
“He told me how your mother died—
“She didn’t just die. That bastard Cole killed her.” Johnny was shocked by the venom in his voice. Hate had ambushed him. He began to shake; he nearly spilled his drink. Getting to his feet, he put the glass on the mantelpiece, and held firm to the adobe ledge. He breathed in and out, willing his heartbeat back into its normal rhythm. He didn’t understand what was happening; why he was feeling like this after so long. Don’t ask any questions, Murdoch—please.
“The barkeeper said she hit her head. He and the priest both said it was probably an accident.”
“Accident!” Johnny swung around. “He was kicking her. He laid into me when I tried to stop him. She was pulling him off me…he hit her. He killed her. It was no accident. He killed her.” Johnny stood with fists clenched, glaring at Murdoch; knowing it wasn’t his father’s fault, but having to take his fury out on someone. “I heard her head hit the hearth…I heard it.” There had been so much blood. His blood. Mama’s blood: from her head and running out from under her skirt—a great pool of it at her feet, soaking into the dirt floor of the cabaña. Oh, God. Cole was kicking her in the belly—Johnny buckled like he’d been punched. He hadn’t realised, but that was why. It had to be.
“Oh, God.” Johnny fell to his knees on the great room rug, gasping.
Murdoch went down next to him, and put out a steadying hand. “What is it, son? Talk to me.”
Trembling, Johnny clutched at his father’s sleeve. “Murdoch, I think…” He almost said it. He almost stuck the knife in Murdoch. He almost told him that Mamá was…to that bastard Cole— but he stopped himself. “It was my fault. If she hadn’t tried to protect me, she would still be alive.”
“Stop it, Johnny. You knew it wasn’t your fault at the time. Don’t blame yourself now.”
Johnny swallowed, and grasped his father’s arm. “What makes you think that?” Because he had blamed himself at first; he had. When he lay on the narrow cot in the mission, as the padres tended the cuts from the belt buckle, and the bruises from Cole’s boot, guilt had outrun his grief. The gambler was a big man; not as big as Murdoch, but a lot bigger than Johnny, even now. He had thrown Johnny against the wall: picked him up as if he weighed nothing at all and smashed him against the adobe. Johnny had felt like he was nothing then. He was twelve years old, and he blamed himself for his mother’s death. He blamed himself until his hate for the gambler took over, and blame found its proper place. “One day I’ll kill you. I’ll kill you for what you did to Mamá.” He’d been standing next to her grave when he’d finally said those words. His hate for Thurstan Cole had consumed him for the next three years.
Hate had sent Johnny to an underworld, but Murdoch had pulled him out. The good man in his mother’s life now anchored him. Murdoch was the reason Johnny called Lancer ‘home’. Their eyes met. Johnny saw the sadness—and the guilt—as his father answered. “The barkeeper also told me how the gambler was killed.”
Johnny shut his eyes. Darkness was soothing. He didn’t know how long they knelt there, silently holding onto each other, but when he found the strength to stand up the fire was dying in the grate.
“I saw the cairn.” Murdoch followed him to his feet.
“Yeah?” Johnny turned away to the mantelpiece and retrieved his glass.
“I fixed a few stones back in place.”
“Thanks.” Johnny couldn’t meet Murdoch’s eyes. He took a swig of tequila and kept looking down. It had taken over an hour to gather the stones needed for the cairn. The small wooden tablet with its painting of the Madonna had come from a market, in a town he’d ridden through on his way south from Santa Fe. He made a kind of shelf and rested the picture inside. Then he told Mamá what he’d done and said good bye. He’d never been back.
“Your mother would have liked it.”
“She’d have probably preferred a big fancy stone, but I couldn’t afford one at the time. I meant to send money later, but...”
“I left money for a stone. Perhaps, one day we could go back together and see what was done with it.”
“I’d like that.” Johnny shut his eyes for a moment. He’d found out more than he bargained on. He could keep asking questions, and Murdoch would probably answer them, but they’d talked long enough for one evening. He was tuckered out, bone-weary. “It’s time I went to bed.”
“Good night, son.”
“Good night, Murdoch.” Johnny raised his eyes, but looked away again when he saw the concern in his father’s face. Forcing a smile, he clapped Murdoch on the arm as he passed. “I’m all right. See you in the morning.”
He climbed the stairs to his room slowly. When he was in bed and the lamp was out, he lay in the darkness, picturing his mother’s face—and his father’s. Trying to remember them together. Trying to recall what it had been like. The puzzle pieces refused to fit, but he kept trying until his mind cried out for sleep. He was so tired, but he couldn’t—not yet—not until he heard his father’s tread on the stair. Along the hallway, Murdoch’s bedroom door creaked and clicked shut. Johnny closed his eyes, and at that moment, his subconscious gave up a secret.
Not an image but the sense of one: a feeling of being here in this house, safe and loved; and of his parents standing together by his bedside.
In the arms of his memory, Johnny fell asleep.
1. This story links to Devil’s Blessing, Series 1, Episode 26.
2. This story links to my previous stories: The Beginning, 2013, and From Highlands to Homecoming, 2014.