Just a Quiet Talk
By Mary M.
Murdoch was quiet as he watched Johnny whisking around the kitchen. Gallant and efficient, a simple meal was soon put together. The hour was late, but both men were hungry after the long, exhausting journey. The stage from San Francisco had been delayed, and they returned to the estancia later than either wanted. Dinner was long over, and neither man wished to wake Maria or Theresa just to feed them.
An old hand in the kitchen, am embarrassing fact that Johnny had not been willing to divulge until now, he whistled lightly, unaware of doing so. Johnny had to admit, working in Murdochís well stocked kitchen was a far cry from a lonely campfire or some of the shacks he had grown up in, and soon a hearty meal of ham and eggs, a pan of biscuits browning in the oven, was underway.
Murdoch was quite impressed, yet was loath to say so, for fear of insulting the son he has yet to know. Sometimes talking to Johnny was an invitation to butt heads, something Murdoch was too tired to contemplate. There was so much he wanted to say to the young man, but for the life of him, the words would not come. Johnny clammed up so easily, unwilling to let any hint of his past life known. Most of what Murdoch learned, came from those dreaded Pinkerton reports locked in the bottom drawer of his desk.
A smile crinkling the corners of his mouth, Johnny strode to the table, two large plates in hand. With unbridled ease and a grace like no other, he easily swung his leg over the back of a chair and sat down, one plate placed in front of Murdoch, the other plunked down before him.
"Smells good, didnít know you were so adept in the kitchen," Murdoch nodded in thanks.
"Not bad, if I do say so myself. Have been known to keep myself from starving a time or two," Johnny said, a forkful of eggs shoveled into his mouth. His stomach felt as if it had caved in from hunger, and two bites of ham followed by half a biscuit quickly disappeared.
Murdochís heart soared, and he chuckled lightly. It hurt to know that his sonís words conveyed more truth than not, for there were times in Johnnyís life when the boy did have to scrimp and scratch to keep from starving. His son never should have suffered as such, and Murdoch was more than ready and willing to help Johnny make up for lost time.
He has waited his entire life to see his boy eat with such abandon, in the manner only one so young could do. Youngsters were known to eat a parent out of house and home, and Johnny was well beyond those youthful years, both in physical age and emotionally, yet at this moment, he looked very much like a gangly teenager that had not eaten in days. It did Murdochís heart good to see Johnny dig into the simple meal, quickly devouring half the food on his plate before slowing down and draining a cup of coffee.
"Man, I didnít know how hungry I was," Johnny said as he came up for air.
"You know, I think Iíve almost kept up with you," Murdoch suddenly realized, looking down at his own half empty plate. His tone was lighter than Johnny could remember hearing, putting the young man instantly at ease.
How Johnny yearned to know this stranger who called himself his father. Feelings that he had not been ready to admit to, surfaced early on in their stormy relationship. Only a fear of rejection and the reluctance to admit to his life being based on a lie, lies his mother had poisoned him with for years, kept Johnny from fully embracing a loving father and son relationship. Yet, the two were getting along better than either had ever expected, and neither was about to walk away. If they could only open up to one another.
Looking at the man sitting opposite him, it was hard to believe that he was the tyrant purported to have thrown both Johnny and his mother out all those years ago. Only two in age when his mother had taken him from the only home he had ever known, Johnny could not remember those early years. His fatherís voice startled him, yet the words were welcome.
"You used to love to steal the ham from my plate when you were younger," Murdoch chuckled, his eyes twinkling with the emergence of a fond memory.
"Oh no, I was that bad?" Johnny groaned. Eyes downcast, he tried to hide the blush that crept into his cheeks.
"You were and still are a handful," Murdoch said with great fondness. "I tell you, you hated that mush your mother insisted on giving you in the morning. Youíd fuss up a storm, pressing your lips together tighter than a drum, and batting at the spoon. Maria had a time cleaning mush from the walls and floor."
"What did you do?" Johnny asked, almost afraid of the answer.
"What could I do?" Murdoch shrugged. Leaning forward, he caught Johnnyís gaze and held it.
"Now than I can get away with it, I can tell you that when neither your Mother or Maria was watching, Iíd slip you bits of egg and small pieces of ham. Boy, you gobbled them down! The women used to wonder how I ever managed to clean my plate so fast, and why my appetite had suddenly increased. While they would have their heads together planning out that dayís menu, Iíd feed you on the sly."
"I canít believe you did that," Johnny said, his laughter ringing throughout the kitchen.
Their guard down, both men slipped into an easy camaraderie that caught both by surprise and held them there, neither willing to break the spell. They were thirsting for a inkling of what made up the other, one desperate to remember happier times, the other desperately searching for a sliver of the life stolen from him.
Murdochís voice startled Johnny as he continued. "I would look into your eyes, seeing the laughter. I tell you, we were quite a pair."
"We were?" Johnny asked, his tone a bit quieter, yet he hung onto the words like a dying man clinging to a last ray of hope.
"Son, you always made me laugh," Murdoch admitted, his rugged face breaking out in a wide grin.
"I did?" Johnny managed to squeak out.
Looking at the young, dark haired gunhawk now, it was hard for Murdoch to believe that the man he called his son, the mischievous toddler that was bringing such joyous memories to a battered heart, could turn in an instant, a cold and deadly side emerging. The Johnny looking at him now, silently asking for more, was what drove Murdoch on.
"Son, you were so full of life and trouble, that you made my heart sing. Oh, I used to tan your bottom when needed, like the time you let the chickens out of the coop because there were no children to play with and you wanted to play tag, and the time you took boot polish to the horseís hooves because you thought it would make them look better, but I couldnít hit you hard. I just had to let you know that you had to answer to your actions, good or bad, right or wrong," Murdoch said with a smile.
"Please tell me I didnít do those things," Johnny groaned.
"Johnny my boy, you did that and more. Letís see, where does it start? You used to catch frogs and put them in the mixing bowls Maria kept on the shelf under the sink. Used to scare the dickens out of the poor woman," Murdoch related, both men lost in laughter. "You would run through this house like a tornado, plumb wore your mother out. I was about the only one who could keep up with you. Johnny, you were quite the scamp, fearless too. I canít tell you how many times I had to run into the corral to drag you out."
"Always did love horses," Johnny said, trying not to look too guilty.
"That you did, my boy. That you did, but did you always have to scare the living hell out of me?" Murdoch asked, quick to answer the questioning look spread across his sonís face.
"Johnny, from the time you could walk, you insisted you were big enough to help with the horses. Your mother would put you down for a nap, and the minute her back was turned, you were out the door and like a shot, across the yard, and climbing into the corral. Scared the life out of me more than once when Iíd see you in the middle of all those horses. Thought Iíd have to call Sam because you finally got yourself trampled. And you wanted to ride. When you could, you would climb onto the fence and jump onto the back of the biggest horse you could find," Murdoch said, the memories bright and rambling.
A simple meal brought the two men together. Father and son, they were strangers to one another, with both eager to learn more, yet too many confusing feelings stood in the way. Johnny has been on his own almost his entire life. Ten years of age when his mother was killed, the boy ran away from the orphanage after a lonely, sorrowful year. The priest and nuns that ran the home had tried their best to reach the confused child, but Johnny always felt the need to move on. He needed no one but himself, and the drive for vengeance fueled the desire to leave.
One dark and rainy night, he broke into a small town mercantile and stole a gun, bullets and rig. He was ashamed, he would have much rather worked for what he took, for what he needed so desperately, but there was no compassion for a mestizo in the border towns. He could have gone home to his father, but after a lifetime of listening to how the man had thrown them out of the house, ashamed of his relationship with a Mexican woman, Johnny was not about to seek Murdoch Lancer out. Not yet. One day when he was older, he would make the trip north and confront the man, but he was nowhere near ready. Johnny did not know what he would do when that day came, so with feelings too muddled to think through, the lost boy did the only thing he knew.
He took up the gun. Hours turned into days. Weeks melded into months, and before Johnny knew it, he was a seasoned gunslinger. At the age of fourteen, he tracked down the man that had stabbed his mother to death, a grisly murder witnessed first hand, and called the man out. Stringer Jones was as quick as a rattlesnake and just as deadly. Tall and lean, with greasy brown hair and teeth gone yellow, Stringer recognized the lanky, dark haired boy the minute Johnny walked into the saloon.
His eyes turned up at the low slung rig and he leaned back in the chair, his right hand patting the rig hanging on his hip. A surly smile curled the edges of his mouth and Stringer took a swig of warm beer, his eyes never leaving Johnnyís.
"Well, if it isnít the little mestizo bastard. Wait a minute, canít rightly call you a bastard, now can I? Well, if there is one thing I can say for that whore of a mother you had, itís at least she was married to the old man. Canít rightly blame him for throwing the two of you out, though. No man in his right mind would want to call a breed his son," the man said slowly, the unspoken challenge ripe in the air.
"Nameís Madrid. Johnny Madrid. You killed my mother Jones," Johnny said. "Reckon itís time you pay for what you did."
"And youíre gonna be the one, right Johnny boy?"
Chairs skidded across the floor as frightened patrons cleared out of the line of fire. Johnny pulled out a black glove and without another word, the cocky youth led the way through the batwing doors. He took a stance, a gangly silhouette with the sun at his back, as Stringer strode through the door. The older man had a secondís hesitation. Johnny might have been cocky, but there was something else.
There was a glint of steely hardness, a hard bitten determination set in the boyís eyes that had not been there before. In spite of his youth, Johnny exuded an air of arrogant confidence, yet was not boastful in his ways. Their eyes locked. Johnny stood stock still, shimmering eyes of deep blue never waving, fingers flexing slightly just once, then fell still. He saw the slight movement in Stringerís eyes a millisecond before the man reached for his gun. Before Jones could pull the revolver from the holster, he fell dead from a bullet to the chest. The last thing he saw was the satisfaction in Johnnyís eyes, then he fell, his last thought being that no one should be that fast. Stringer Jones never saw it coming, for the revolver was replaced before he even knew it had ever been drawn.
Johnny stood over the prone form, then walked away. People parted, letting the young boy who now had the reputation for being the fastest gun any of them had ever seen, pass through. Word soon spread. The legend of Johnny Madrid was born. Johnny rode away that hot summer morning, with no particular destination in mind.
He now sat straighter, tucking those lonely years in the corner of his heart as he faced the man he once vowed to kill. Johnny grew up hating Murdoch Lancer, thinking the man was the one responsible for all the anguish he had suffered, all the lonely years he had endured without family to turn to for comfort. Murdoch stared back, a deep, abiding love tinged with loss shining in his eyes. The man wanted nothing more than to wipe those years out, blot them from Johnnyís mind, but knew that was impossible. If he was to know more about his son, if they were to find a common ground, he had to listen and understand that period in Johnnyís life. He wanted to know more than what the Pinkerton reports revealed.
He wanted to know his son, the good and the bad, for the past had made Johnny the man he was today, a man Murdoch was proud to call his son. A man he loved beyond all reason. The previous year, their relationship had been rocky at best. Johnny had only been home a little over thirteen months, with his brother Scott the only person he truly opened up to. Yet there were things Johnny kept bottled up inside that would never be divulged, not even to his older brother.
"Too bad Scottís not here. Could be a kind of family reunion," Johnny stammered. Feelings he did not understand, yet needed to set straight, rose to the surface.
"Would be a damn sight better than the one we had," Murdoch said. His eyes never wavered, yet his heart crashed against his ribs.
"Murdoch, I . . ."
Holding up his hand, Murdoch faced his boy. "Johnny, that was a hard day for all of us. We were not only strangers to one another, neither of us knew what the other was feeling, what we expected from one another. You didnít know the truth, you didnít know that I had spent a lifetime looking for you, crying for you at night," the man said, unashamed of that admission.
Johnnyís head snapped up, for he could not imagine the stalwart, mountain of a man, weeping for a son once lost. The fact was unsettling, yet warming at the same time. It meant that someone had cared. His father had wanted him, even if Johnny grew up never knowing that fact. How he wished he had. How he wished he had swallowed his pride and sought Murdoch years ago. Anger and confusion had fueled his early years. Maybe together, he and his father could have worked through those tumultuous feelings, but destiny had stretched out before him. Johnny Madrid leaned on no one, turned to no one to survive, and did what he had to do. And a loving father sat waiting, praying for the day his boy would be found and returned home.
"Yes, Johnny, I cried," Murdoch repeated, feeling the need to reveal his true self. "I was crushed, heart and soul. Johnny, you were my life. I loved you from the moment I held you in my hands. You were small, but you were strong. Boy, did you have a set of lungs," the man chuckled.
"Was pretty loud, huh?" Johnny asked, an unfamiliar warmth settling down upon him.
Someone had wanted him. All those lonely years dissolved a little more with that admission.
"Son, you woke the roosters," Murdoch laughed in remembrance. "But you were a good baby. I used to stand out on the veranda at night, holding you in my arms. Iíd talk to you, point out the constellations, holding you up to see the sky and Lancer spread out beneath. I wanted you to learn to feel the love of the land, the dream I was building for your future. . ."
"Murdoch. . ." Johnny stammered.
"No son, donít be ashamed," Murdoch gave a slight shake of his head.
"Iím not ashamed," came the shy, quiet answer. Hunched over slightly, Johnny stared into the half empty mug.
Murdoch felt a further need to reach out to his son. "Johnny, you were my hope, my future. You are my son. I loved you with everything I had in me, and still do. I just, well, I just wanted you to know that."
"Not used to it," Johnny said, his eyes dropping.
Murdoch leaned forward, a silent urging causing Johnny to look at him. "Son, the biggest injustice to both of us, was you being taken away from me. From this ranch. I tried looking for you for years, and one day, I just didnít know where to look or where to go, so I buried myself in Lancer. But the one thing I never did, was forget about you.
"I thought of you every day, imaging you by my side. How I wanted you with me as you grew, riding alongside me, working and learning the ways of this ranch, or laying on the riverbank on a lazy summer afternoon, just the two of us. Iíd teach you how to fish, imagined how I would do all the things I was robbed of. John, it broke me heart and soul when I lost you. You know, I not only lost the son I loved and adored beyond all realms of possibility, I lost my best friend."
"Your best friend?" Johnny asked, emotions gathering so suddenly, so strong and swift, he was robbed of breath. His fatherís love reached out through all the years of insecurities and hurt, enveloping the young man with a measure of comfort so sorely needed.
"Yes son, my best friend. We had two short years together until I lost you, and now, God willing, we have a lifetime spread before us," Murdoch said, eyes filled with hope gazing down at his boy.
"Yeah, I guess we do at that," Johnny said, his words warming Murdochís heart more than the older man could express.
His fear of Johnny leaving the ranch dissipated a bit more that night as they sat talking, plates now empty, cups of coffee drained as they talked. Murdoch had admitted to his feelings, yet he still knew very little of Johnny and the true life he had led. He did not need to know about Johnny Madrid, he knew all there was to know concerning that aspect of his boy. He wanted to know, he needed to know the man hidden behind the many layers of his persona. Johnny seemed more relaxed than he had been in a long time, a simple meal bringing the two men together. While they ate, talk came unbidden.
Murdoch was not in any hurry to have the time shared between them end, and nodded toward the pantry. "Think Theresa has any pie in there?"
"Hope so," Johnny said. He rose from the chair, yawning as he stretched. Like his father, Johnny was nowhere near ready for this special time to end.
"Didnít know you were so handy in the kitchen," Murdoch said to his son, who cut large wedges of pie and placed them onto plates. "And with very little mess," he also noted.
"Been around a kitchen a time or two. Well, not a kitchen such as this. But if there was one thing I could say about Mama, was that at least the shacks we lived in didnít have dirt floors," Johnny cringed, the words spilling from his mouth before he had the chance to stop them.
Murdoch fought against the urge to console his boy, but remained silent, nodding thanks for the pie offered.
"My life is no secret, you know Mama and I didnít have much, and it sickens me to know all Iíve been cheated out of, but itís not the money, you know?" Johnny said, eyes downcast.
"I know it wasnít son," Murdoch replied.
"I know that I came here solely for the money, but I didnít know the truth then," he said, pleading eyes turned toward his father. "Murdoch, I spent so damn many years hating you, wondering why you didnít want me."
"You do know now that I never felt that way, donít you?" Murdoch had to ask.
"I know that and more," Johnny said. "Murdoch, I did what I had to do. I became what I had to, in order to survive. A mestizo . . ."
"Johnny, I hate that word," Murdoch said with slight vehemence.
"I know you do, and I know you never thought of me that way, but the world did. Thatís the sad truth," Johnny said, surprising his father that he did not bolt, choosing instead to let some of the hurt accumulated over the years, out.
"I grew up taking care of myself," Johnny continued, with Murdoch listening intently. "I learned to cook by the time I was seven. When we had food in the house, I was the one to prepare it. The meals were simple, mostly beans and tortillas, but I was the one to prepare them. Sometimes we would have eggs. If Mama had a few extra pesos, she would buy eggs and other staples, but we didnít have much. I learned to make do with what we had. If I wanted to eat, I had to cook. Mama loved me, Murdoch. She meant well, but she didnít always take care of me. Stringer . . ." Johnny choked on the word.
"Johnny, you donít have to say his name. I know," Murdoch laid a comforting hand on that of his son.
"Anyway, I took care of myself. I learned to cook, and I learned to clean up after myself. Had to. If I left the smallest mess, Iíd get a beating," Johnny said, not missing the rage in his fatherís eyes. "Sometimes we lived in a town where people didnít really bother with me, and I was able to get by on a few odd jobs, other times, I had to do what was needed to get by," Johnny said, actions taken to survive unspoken, yet his father knew.
"When a man isnít given a chance, he has no other choice. Especially if that man is a young boy," Murdoch said.
"Well, my life was hard, but I sure learned my way around a kitchen, even though when I was older and Mama was gone, that kitchen was a campfire," Johnny said.
Sadness pooled in his eyes, and he grew silent. Murdoch knew that nothing more would be offered that night. His boy had opened up a little, revealing a bit of what was once his young self, and that was enough for now. Perhaps one day, when the two could grab the chance for some quiet time alone, Johnny would once again open up and speak to his father. How the older man yearned to hear more, even though it would prove hard listening to the suffering his boy had endured, and had endured needlessly. Johnny was cheated out of the life he was meant to live. Both men were cheated out of a lifetime.
The moment over and fatigue setting in, Johnny pushed the empty plate aside, drained the little coffee left in the mug and sat back. A smile broke out as eyes of deep set blue locked with those of his father.
"Felt good," Johnny said, his meaning clear.
"It felt more than good," Murdoch replied with a nod of the head. "Johnny, I cannot tell you how much tonight meant to me. For that matter, this entire week. Iím glad you came to San Francisco with me. It felt good to have a bit of time between us, just the two of us. Things tend to get crazy here, we donít always get the chance."
"Iím glad we did," Johnny said, almost afraid to admit to such a feeling. "Hell, Iím glad we did."
"So am I son, so am I. What do you say we salvage a bit of the night and try to catch a few hours of sleep?" Murdoch said as they rose.
"I think I can do that with no problem," Johnny said as he followed his father to the stairs.
Murdoch led the way and halfway up, turned toward his boy. "Oh, and Johnny, sleep in tomorrow. Itís been a long trip."
"I think I can do that," Johnny said, a smile breaking out as father and son ascended the stairs.