Promises Broken
by  Jo Butler


The breeze whispered through the trees, rustling the leaves and causing the aged limbs to creak and groan in protest.  Leaves tumbled across the hard, dust-stirred ground, a reminder that fall was in full swing, winter only weeks away.  Murdoch squatted in front of the fire, his hands wrapped around a tin cup as he tried to find some warmth in the flickering flames.  Two more days, two at the most, and he would be home.  It had been a long journey, and he was glad to see it drawing to a close.  He missed his family, missed them more and more the closer he got to the ranch.  But that feeling was now tempered by the knowledge that only two days ride separated him from his loved ones.  He tossed the cooling remains of his coffee in the fire, listened as the flames hissed and momentarily sputtered, then smiled to himself.  He pushed away from the fire and found his bedroll spread out behind him.  He stretched out, lay back against his saddle, his arms behind his head, and sighed contentedly.  

His loved ones.  A little more than four years ago, he never would have believed such thoughts would ever be possible again.  But he had been wrong.  In the aftermath of Catherine’s death and Scott’s abduction…there was no other way in which he could think of his son’s removal…he had known that he would never feel love again.  He had been so bereft, so lost, so heartbroken, he had promised himself he would never allow himself to be hurt like that again.  And for two long years, he had kept that promise to himself.  But then, in Matamoras two and a half years ago, he met her.  Dark, shining hair, like a black rippling waterfall cascading to her waist, eyes so brown they were almost black, snapping with life and merriment, a laugh that somehow began to chip away at the stone that had hardened around his heart.  In a matter of two months, that stone had come crumbling down, and she had cleared away the debris of his broken life.  Maria.  Small, delicate, oval-faced with a high widow’s peak, eyebrows that angled gently above her eyes, skin that was soft and smooth and a pale warm bronze.  She was exotic, beautiful and she had brought love back into his cold, dead heart. 

He had gone to Matamoras to look over some cattle with the hope of improving his own herd.  The last thing he had expected to happen was…Maria.  Fiery and full of life, she barely reached his breast bone.  But what she had lacked in physical stature, she more than made up for with her…zest, her eagerness to simply live.  Catherine had been quiet and sweet-natured, often surprising him with her humor and her understanding of the coarser side of life; an iron will concealed behind a soothing demeanor.  She was gentle and reserved on the outside, but that had only been a mask covering her passionate nature, a nature she had revealed only to him.  Maria, on the other hand, was open and vibrant and every breath she drew was fired by passion of some sort or the other.  Her laughter was free and easy and ready at the drop of a hat.  Just as her anger was.  And she brought him a happiness he thought was going to be forever denied him.  He knew he would miss Catherine till the day he died, but he loved Maria, loved her with all his heart, save that one little corner that would always hold the memory of his Catherine.

Murdoch reached over and pulled his blanket across his long, tired body and tried to fight off the chill that pricked at him.  As he lay there, staring up at the sky, watching as the last light of the day faded to an ever deepening blue, Murdoch thought back to those weeks in Matamoras.  They’d ridden down, he and Paul and Cipriano.  At the time, he’d had it in the back of his mind that somehow, the trip down would help heal the gulf that had opened up between them.  The loss of Catherine and Scott had left both men feeling responsible and guilty, especially the loss of Scott.  The guilt had weighed so heavily on Luis Delgado, his foreman back then, that the man had quit only two months after Catherine’s death.  Murdoch had tired to talk him into staying, but the man had felt he’d failed Murdoch and was therefore honor bound to give up his job.  Murdoch had hated to lose him, had seen past his own grief to what it had done to Luis, and at the end of the day, had found himself laying one more damning accusation at the feet of Harlan Garrett. 

When he’d returned to the ranch that awful September, each of the men had come to him and told him they were leaving, that if they hadn’t left Catherine alone, it never would have happened; they told him his son would be there with him on the ranch if they hadn’t allowed Garrett to send them away.  He’d managed to talk Paul and Cipriano into staying, but Luis could not be swayed.  He had been the foreman; Catherine’s life and the life of her unborn child had been entrusted to his care.  And he had failed to protect them.  No amount of reasoning or arguing had convinced Luis to stay.  Murdoch had sadly watched the man ride away, wondering if Paul and Cipriano would soon follow.  But they hadn’t.  Things had been strained between them, especially after Mercedes had given birth, but they had stayed. 

Murdoch sighed as he thought about Cipriano and Mercedes’s  first-born.  A boy, born only four weeks after Scott.  The pain and the anger over his loss had slammed into him again the day Carlos was born, and he hadn’t been able to go see the baby.  Murdoch had been ashamed of himself for that, but he just hadn’t been able to do it.  In the four years since, he and Mercedes had had very little to say to one another.  Murdoch had a feeling Mercedes held him responsible for Catherine’s death.  And the truth of it was, Murdoch did feel responsible.  Catherine hadn’t wanted to leave the ranch, and he had forced her.  Perhaps the result would have been no different if she had given birth at the ranch, but at least he would have been with her, and Harlan Garrett would never have been able to make off with his son.  And the persistent thought haunted him, even now, four years later, that if he hadn’t forced her to leave, if she hadn’t had to endure the journey on the trail, she would have survived the birth.   Murdoch sighed, and tried to push those thoughts away.  Catherine was dead, and Scott was in Boston.  There was nothing he could do about that.  Not at the moment, but it wouldn’t be too much longer.

A smile stretched across Murdoch’s face.  With the money he’d earned working as Joe Barker’s deputy, he would be able to put the ranch back in the black, plus put away a little more toward what he had saved to go after Scott.  Another year and he’d have his boy back where he belonged.  His family would be all together.  The smile on Murdoch’s face grew bigger as that thought filled him with hope and joy.

His family.  Maria at his side, Scott returned from Boston.  And Johnny.  A chuckle rumbled in his throat as he thought about his baby boy.  Just ten months after he and Maria had married, over the objections of her parents who thought her far too young and he far to gringo, Johnny had blessed their lives.  The day Johnny was born, Murdoch had felt such a storm of emotions.  Love and joy and fear.  And guilt and despair.  He’d held Johnny in his arms, beside himself with joy.  Holding his small squirming son against his chest, he had smiled so broadly, he’d thought sure his face would break.  As he’d stood there in the bedroom, listening to Maria’s even breathing, listening to Johnny’s soft mewing newborn sounds, he thought his heart would burst with happiness.  It had come on him so suddenly, so swiftly, that it had taken his breath away.  A stinging in his eyes, a catch in his throat, and he’d suddenly found himself clutching his newborn son to his breast, sobbing uncontrollably for his lost son.  He’d stood there at the window, crying against the blanket his infant was wrapped in, his heart breaking for the child he had never seen, and he’d suddenly felt a gentle hand on his shoulder.  He turned and found Maria standing next to him, her eyes filled with tears.  She’d known.  Known that amidst the complete and unbounded joy he felt at the birth of their son, he’d also felt unbearable grief at the loss of his first-born.  They’d stood there, holding each other, their son bundled between them, and Maria had soothed his heart.

“God, Maria.  I miss you so much,” Murdoch whispered to the night sky.  “You and John, I miss you both so much.”  In the distance, a coyote howled at the moon, its cry sounding as lonely and desolate as Murdoch felt.  “Just two more days, mi familia, just two more days.”

Murdoch glanced toward the fire, turned over on his side, made sure his pistol was within reach, then whispered a prayer for the safe-keeping of his family at home, and for his son across the country.  With a contented sigh, he closed his eyes and invited sleep to roll over him.


*   *   *                 


The shadows splayed across the far wall and down on the floorboards, casting the chicken coop in a gloomy gray light.  The sun was barely up, but her day had begun almost two hours ago.  Her son had awakened her early today, slipping into her bedroom and climbing up on the high poster bed next to her.  She had heard him come in, an easy smile playing across her lips as she listened to him scramble across the room.  She’d kept her eyes closed, waiting to see what he would do.  It had been no surprise to her that he had climbed up next to her. From the moment he had been able to walk, he’d found a way to get out of his crib.  Most mornings found him nestled in their bed between them.  It was not something she minded, nor did her husband.  Most mornings. 

Murdoch.  Her heart clutched in her chest, and her breath refused to leave her lungs for a moment.  Maria stood there, the sounds of hens softly clucking and feathers gently flapping as they settled themselves on their nests.  She forced herself to breathe, then slipped her slender hand under the nesting hen and withdrew two eggs.  She stared at them in her hand for a moment, then laid them in the basket hanging over her arm.  She moved down to the next hen, her hand gently dragging along the wooden frame, her mind in a whirl of emotion.  Tomorrow or the next day, Murdoch would be home. 

She had been so angry with him when he had decided to take that job as deputy sheriff five months ago.  The letter had come from that man, Barker.  He needed a deputy, he needed Murdoch’s help.  Maria had seen the letter; Murdoch had shown it to her.  He had met this sheriff a year ago on a cattle drive.  This man, Barker, had been chasing down banditos, and Murdoch being Murdoch had helped this gringo sheriff.  Murdoch had come home from that drive full of stories of how they had captured the bandits, how this sheriff had been so full of good words for Murdoch, had offered him a job, a job Murdoch had refused.  But that was before the drought, before so many of their cattle had died, before the money had run out.  It was only after Barker’s letter had come that Murdoch had told her he had written to the man. 

A sudden cackling and rustling of feathers reminded Maria of where she was.  She looked down at the hen staring up at her with a cocked head, and pulled her hand out from the nest.  Depositing two more eggs in the basket, she crossed over to the other side, wrinkling her nose as she checked the other nests.  No matter how often this coop was cleaned, it always smelled, and it was a smell she had grown to hate in the last two years.  They had kept chickens for their inn back in Matamoras, but gathering the eggs had been a chore she had handed off to her sister, Carmelita.  A year younger than Maria, the girl had been more than happy to trade chores, freeing herself from the task of washing the dishes after every meal.  It ruined her hands, the girl had claimed.  Maria glanced down at her own delicate hands, and wondered how it was that the chickens had never damaged her sister’s hands the way these fiends damaged hers.  There was more than one scar on her hands where one of these creatures had pecked away at her.  She hated this chore.  Washing dishes was much easier.  Standing in the kitchen of the inn, letting her mind wander, daydream about the things she would like to do, the places she would like to see.  The man she would marry.  A sigh escaped her, and she thought back to that day in Matamoras when Murdoch Lancer had shown up at their inn, looking for a room.  With his wavy brown hair and blue eyes, tanned strong face, she had thought he was the most handsome man she had ever seen. Certainly, the tallest man she had ever seen, with a forceful presence, and yet he’d had such a shy way about him.  That first evening, as he sat in the small courtyard of the inn, she had stood in the shadows and watched him.  She had seen right away that there was a sadness to him, something that hung on his heart.  It was in his eyes.  It was in his smile, the way it seemed to be almost guilty, as though he believed he didn’t have a right to that smile.  She had been drawn to him right away. 

A smile inched across her face as she remembered those two months in Matamoras, those two months when they had fallen in love, when Murdoch had fought his attraction to a girl so young, when she had fought to convince him her youth meant nothing because they were meant to be together.  Those two months when he had braved the displeasure of her parents, when she had defied them and followed her heart.  They had been so in love, and in the end the ten years that separated them had meant nothing.  The smile slipped from her face and she frowned, her thoughts returning to that letter.

The offer of the job was one that Murdoch had been unable to resist.  The ranch was not making any money; he had men to pay, a family to support, a child to retrieve.  That was the real reason, Maria told herself.  As hard as she tried, she could not help but feel a small amount of bitterness.  She knew Murdoch loved her, loved their son.  But the son in Boston.  Sometimes, she thought that was all he thought about.  Saving the money, going to that faraway place to get him.  She wanted him to have Scott, knew the boy belonged here, knew what the boy’s abuelo had done to both Scott and Murdoch was unforgivable.  And she wanted Juanito to grow up with his brother.  But sometimes, it just seemed…she didn’t know.  She told herself over and over that Murdoch loved her, but she knew he still loved his first wife.  It was hard for her, trying to understand and not be jealous.  Jealous of a dead woman, jealous of a child that neither she nor her husband had ever seen.  It was not fair.  It was not the way she had dreamed it would be.  It was so difficult, so confusing at times. 

Maria clenched her hand into a fist, and immediately felt the egg smash against the palm of her hand.  She stared down at it, watched as the yellow mess dripped from between her fingers.  She had been so angry at Murdoch when he had decided to accept that gringo’s offer.  They had fought so horribly the night before he left.  She had accused him of thinking of nothing but the child in Boston, not thinking of how this separation would affect the son waiting for him here on this ranch.  She had seen the anger flare in his eyes, then the hurt.  He had walked away from her and gone to their son, taken Juanito in his arms and held him.  Later, she had sought him out, apologized for her cruel words.  He had forgiven her, tried to explain why he had to go.  Again, the ranch, the men who depended on him, her and Johnny, Scott in Boston.  So much on his shoulders.  She had felt guilty for her angry words. 

But then he was gone, and after the edge had gone from the loneliness, the anger had come back.  He had left her here to take care of herself and her Juanito. 

“Madre de Dios,” she swore, “I am only 20 years old.  I have a child and all these people looking to me.  And he expects me to deal with it alone.”

“And you’ve done a fine job of it, mi amor.”

Maria spun around and stared at the doorway.  The figure stood there, black against the halo of sunlight pouring through the door.  He moved forward, and she saw his face, his roguish grin.  She quickly glanced around the coop, a flash of panic running through her.

“Roberto, you should not be here now.  The men are about and the women…”

“The women are going about their business,” Robert said, advancing toward Maria.  “And I should be here.  You draw me here.  Even in this state,” he said, raising her hand and studying the gooey mess that still clung to her fingers.  “Did the egg offend you?”

“You should not be here,” Maria said, glancing around again.  She pulled her hand away and scrubbed it against her apron. 

“I love you, Maria,” Robert said, taking her in his arms and kissing her.

Maria struggled against him for a moment, then relaxed in his arms and returned his kiss, her heart pounding wildly in her chest.  She felt his arms tighten around her, and for one heady moment, she was lost in his embrace.  She suddenly came back to herself, and she jerked away from him.  “You must go.  You must go before someone sees you here.”

“I can’t.  I love you, Maria,” he said, pulling her back against his body.  “Tell me you love me, too.”

“Roberto, please.  You must…”

“Tell me,” he said, pressing his lips against her ear, breathing against her warm skin.

“Por favor, Roberto,” she said.

“Tell me,” he said, brushing his lips against hers, then taking her face between his hands and kissing her fully on her mouth.

“Roberto, we cannot…I cannot.  Murdoch comes back tomorrow.”

“Murdoch,” he said, the word coming out as a curse.  “He deserted you.  He has no right to claim you.  But I do.  I love you.  And you love me.  You gave yourself to me.  I know you love me.”

“Roberto, por favor.  Someone will see,” Maria pleaded.

“Maria,” he whispered, his lips lingering in her hair.  He held her for a moment, then stepped away.  “All right, mi amor.  I won’t get you into trouble with your women.  But promise me, promise me you’ll come to me tonight.  Promise me,” he said, his amber eyes glowing with passion.

“All right.  I promise,” Maria finally said, giving into this man once again.  “I will be there.  But Roberto, we must stop.  Murdoch…”

“Murdoch be damned.  If he wants you, he can fight me for you.”

“Roberto, please.”

“All right.  All right, Maria.  But I’m not giving you up.  I love you.  And you know he still loves his dead wife.  You’ve known that all along.  How many times have you told me that in the last four months?”

“Roberto, I spoke of things I should not have.  I…

“Are you telling me you don’t love me?” Robert asked, pain flashing though his eyes.

“No.  I am not saying this.  I…I do not know.”

“Yes you do, Maria.  You know you love me.  You come to me tonight.  You and Johnny meet me.  Promise me.”

Maria stared up at him, her heart aching for what she had allowed to happen.  This man fired her passion.  She knew she loved him.  But she loved Murdoch, this she also knew.  And she had a child with Murdoch.  What had she done?


“I promise, Roberto.  I promise.”

He leaned over her and kissed her gently, then pulled away and smiled at her.  He took her hands in his and squeezed them for a moment, until the coldness of her tiny hands left her.  His smile spread across his face, bringing the dimple in each cheek into play.  He took her hand and turned the palm up, kissing it gently.  Maria reached up and ran her hand through his curly brown hair, and knew she was lost.

“Tonight, my darling.  You promised.”

Robert walked back to the door, hesitated a moment, checking to make sure there was no one about, then he slipped out of the chicken coop.  Maria watched him disappear, her heart racing.  She tried to bring her breathing under control, all the while knowing that she was not only lost, but she was ruined.  Murdoch would never forgive her.  She would never be able to make him understand.  She would never be able to make this right. 

Maria walked over to the door, her heart calming, her breathing slowing.  She leaned against the doorframe, and fought the tears that stung her eyes.  She looked out across the yard, toward the hacienda.  She had to get herself under control.  Juanito would be awake from his nap soon.  She took a deep breath, and stepped out of the coop.  As she walked across the pen, her thoughts were in turmoil.  She didn’t know what to do.  She unlatched the gate and left the chicken pen, making her way toward the back of the hacienda.  As she approached the kitchen door, a shadow fell across her path.  She jerked to a stop and looked up from her thoughts.

Mercedes stood near the arbor, staring at her with an arched brow, a knowing look on her face.  The two women studied each other for several moments, then Mercedes moved past her, her back straight, her head high.  Maria watched her go.  From the moment Maria had arrived at the ranch, Mercedes had shown her dislike for her.  At first Maria had understood.  Murdoch had told her before they’d arrived how close Mercedes and Catherine had been.  Maria had given her time, had hoped to become friends with the woman, but it had not happened.  And now, Maria knew, it never would.


*     *     *


The morning was half gone, and Murdoch had to fight the urge to kick his horse to a gallop.  All he wanted to do now was get home.  That was what he wanted.  What he needed was to grab Maria up in his arms and swing her around until her laughter became breathless and giddy.  And then he would gather up his boy and hold him until he squirmed to get down.  The smile that erupted across Murdoch’s face was impossible to stop.  Another five hours and he would be home.  Two more hours on this trail, and then he would cut to the northwest for an hour, head across country until he reached the narrow rutted road that led to the dusty little settlement of Morro Coyo.  He would follow that road for a couple of miles and then angle due north.  From there, he would be only an hour or so from the boundary of his ranch.  In the last four years, the ranch had almost doubled in size…which was one of the reasons he’d found himself strapped for cash in the last year.  But as land had become available around the ranch, he’d bought it up.  He would have been a fool not to.  The ranch was his dream, and for two hopeless, endlessly painful years, the only dream he thought he had a chance of seeing come true.  For months after Catherine’s death and Scott’s loss, he hadn’t cared.  Nothing had mattered to him any more.  He had traveled thousands of miles, left behind the home and family he had loved all his life, in search of a home and family of his own to love the rest of his life.  He had found them, and then lost them.  All except the ranch. 

After months of drowning in his grief and anger, he had awoken one morning, looked out on the sunrise as it drifted across his fields, heard the ranch coming to life, the vaqueros calling to each other, the cattle lowing in the pastures, horses neighing and nickering in the corrals, and realized that although he had lost everything a man could lose that made life worth living, his life was not totally devoid of meaning and purpose.  He still had the ranch, and he still had his son.  In his heart, if not in his life.  The ranch would be his salvation.  That morning, he had promised himself that he would build the ranch into something to be proud of, something to be envied, something that couldn’t be denied.  Something he could offer to his son, something he could hand on to him.  Someday.  The ranch had saved his life, and Maria had saved his heart.

Murdoch gigged his horse to a brisk lope, inhaling deeply of the cool fall air.  The ground rose up before them, and Murdoch once again knew he’d made the right decision in leaving Scotland.  As much as he loved his homeland, nothing there could compare with what he had found here in this wild country.  There was a beauty about this land that was breathtaking.  It was a harsh land, a land primitive in many ways.  No one knew that better than he did.  It had cost him his first family.  But it had also brought to him his second family.  This land had broken his heart, and then it had restored it. 

As horse and rider climbed to the crest of the hill, Murdoch slowed the animal and let him catch his breath.  Once atop the hill, they stopped and Murdoch shifted in the saddle.  Spreading out below him was the small valley that eventually gave way to the larger San Joaquin, and once in the San Joaquin, he was finally home.  Home, where Maria and John waited for him.  A warmth spread through his chest as he thought about his wife and son at home at the ranch.  Easing his horse down the side of the hill, Murdoch thanked God that the last five months were finally behind him.  They had been long and lonely.  He and Maria had parted under a cloud of anger and hurt feelings, but that hadn’t kept him from missing her dreadfully.  And John.  His baby boy.  If Maria had saved his heart, John had saved his soul.  That small bundle of energy, his dark-haired, blue-eyed son, had given back to him hope.  Each morning when John toddled into their bedroom, each evening as he put John in his bed, hope soared in him.  Hope that his life would be happy after all; hope that grief would not scar him beyond the ability to see the joy in life; hope that both sons would be together at his side. 

In the two years between the loss of his first family and the gaining of his second, he had lost hope, had closed himself off from everything that brought joy and contentment to life.  Babies had been born on the ranch, but he had paid no attention to them beyond the short note and small baby blanket made for them on his behalf by the old woman who did his laundry and cooked his meals.  Social gatherings, as rare as they were around here, had been anathema to him.  He had stopped work on the hacienda, leaving it to stand empty until Maria, packed away all of Catherine’s things, stripped the old guard house of all reminders of her, and brooded in his solitary grief night after night.  He had taken the cradle he had crafted with so much love and hope for his son, and stored it away in the farthest reaches of the half-built hacienda.

A frown crept across Murdoch’s face as a memory assailed him.  That cradle had been the cause of his and Maria’s first really serious fight.  She’d found the cradle and wanted to use it for their baby.  But he’d refused.  In fact, he ashamedly remembered, he’d been furious with her for even suggesting it.  She had been hurt and angered by his refusal, accusing him of not wanting to use it because he believed their son wouldn’t be good enough to use it, that he had made it for Catherine’s son, and Catherine’s son was the only child he cared for.  Murdoch sighed and castigated himself for his behavior back then.  Maria had been all wrong about it, but he hadn’t been able to tell her his real reason.  He’d been afraid to use it.  In his mind, that cradle was cursed.  He had tempted Fate in making such a fine cradle, had assumed that all would be well.  And Fate had struck him and his arrogance down with a savage blow.  He had crafted that cradle with a deep love and pride, eagerly looked forward to filling it with all the children he and Catherine would be blessed with.  But in the end, the cradle had stood empty, cruelly mocking his hopes and dreams of the future.  No, he couldn’t place his second child in that cradle.  The cradle had become something dark and painful, and he couldn’t allow it to taint the joy Maria’s child would bring him.

The warm morning sun beat down on horse and rider as the distance disappeared behind them, and Murdoch’s thoughts turned once again to Johnny.  He remembered the day Maria had told him she was expecting.  The smile that lit up her face was one of the most beautiful sights he had ever seen.  He remembered taking her in his arms and holding her until she had laughingly begged him to release her.  They had smiled at each other, caught up in the awe of the moment, the mystery of life created, each captive to their own thoughts.  After a while, Maria had returned to the house to go about her chores while he had gone out to the barn to check on a new foal.  It was in the privacy of the barn, alone with his thoughts that the fears had gripped his heart.  He had lost one child; he didn’t think he could survive it if it should happen again. 

Falling in love with Maria and taking her as his wife had taken so much courage.  He’d been so deeply devastated by Catherine’s death, that the thought of marrying again had been more than he could contemplate.  But Maria had stolen his heart away, left him breathless.  They had warred inside him, the fear of being hurt again and the need to have this woman who had given life back to him.  He had finally swallowed his fear and asked her to marry him.  But the courage that had required was nothing compared to the courage it had taken to allow the thought of being a father again to enter his heart.  For weeks after she’d told him, he had been cool and disinterested in the pregnancy, refusing to allow that kind of hope to enter his heart again.  He had had one son ripped from his life and it had nearly crushed him.  He couldn’t let it happen again.  He hadn’t seen right away how that had hurt Maria.  But it had all come crashing down on him when they had fought over that cradle.  He’d seen how his seeming indifference to her pregnancy had wounded her, had seen how she could have so misunderstood his thinking.  And once again, he’d had to screw up his courage and finally explain his feelings to her.  God bless her, she had understood, had even forgiven him.  And then, for the first time in three years, he’d allowed himself to talk about Scott, about how hurt and angry he had been over the loss of his son, about how much he wanted to love that boy but had had the chance stolen away from him.  He’d ranted and raved at the injustice of what had happened, about the cruelty of it, had talked himself hoarse.  And when he was finished, she had taken his hand in hers, and told him that together, they would find a way to bring his son back, to bring their children up together.  Their children.  In that moment, he had loved her more than he thought possible.

The next four months, as he’d watched their child grow inside her, he’d allowed himself to hope and dream again.  And then that glorious April morning when John had been born and he’d held him in his arms, torn between despair over Scott and absolute joy over John, he had known they would be together. 

The happiness that John brought to his life made him impatient to bring Scott home.  And as the weeks and then months had dragged by, that impatience had turned to frustration.  It seemed every time he got a little money ahead, something happened and he would have to spend it.  But no matter how many steps backward he took to the steps he took forward, there was always John and Maria there urging him on.  Their love and their presence in his life gave him all the courage he needed to keep at it, to not give up.  Whenever he felt a hint of helplessness regarding Scott, whenever his hopes would plummet, there would be John, with his laughing blue eyes and insatiable energy and boundless innocent love and trust, and Murdoch would be buoyed up.  He loved John with a depth he’d never thought possible.  A laugh rumbled deep in his chest, and erupted in a smile across his face.  How was it that a tiny, rambunctious baby, not even two years old yet, could take such hold of his heart?  Loving John the way he did only served to make him that much more determined to bring Scott home, to get to know his first-born, grow to love him the way he loved John.  It was all possible now.  Maria had given him back his heart, had filled his life with love and joy and hope.  And she had given him John.  She…they…were a gift from God. 

Murdoch slowed his horse to a walk, giving the dependable creature a chance to cool down, and glanced around, realizing a good deal of time had slipped by while he’d been lost in his thoughts.  He looked off to his left and spotted the small stream that told him he was only ten miles from the San Joaquin proper.  He allowed his mount to walk to the stream, dismounted and led the horse to the water’s edge.  As his big chestnut stood there, its head dipped to the water’s surface, Murdoch knew he was a truly blessed man.  A wife he loved and who loved him in return, a son who was the light of his life, and a son who would someday join in that light.  Tears stung his eyes, and he glanced across the stream, in the direction of his ranch.  Just three more hours, and he would be home.  Home with his wife and son and his dreams of the future.


*     *     *    


“They have no future.  You know this.”  Her round face and wide nose, which bespoke of a not too distant Indian heritage, now bespoke of simmering anger.

“Mercedes, it is not our concern.  And we should not be talking about this,” Cipriano said, giving his dark-haired, strong-jawed wife a meaningful look.

“It is our concern, my husband.  She betrays the patron while he is away.  She shames the name he gave to her.  She shames the son who will share this land with his brother someday,” Mercedes said, angrily working the flour tortillas on the table.  She was six months gone with her fourth child, and she was tired and her feet hurt and her back ached and the two surviving children she had borne her husband had worked very hard this day to sour her happiness.  And she was not about to let the behavior of the Patron’s wife be dismissed with an “it is not our concern” from her husband.

“That is the cause of your anger, my wife, and we both know this to be true.  You have never given the Senora a chance to become the mistress of this ranch.  Mercedes, my wife, Senora Catherine is dead,” Cipriano said softly, gently stopping his wife’s near frenzied work at the table.  He stood behind her and placed his hands on her arms, pulling her back against his broad chest.

He felt a tremulous breath slip from her lungs, then felt her body relax against him.  The Senora’s death four years ago had been hard on Mercedes.  The two women had become as close as sisters in the few short months they had been together, and the news that Senora Catherine would never return to the ranch had caused his wife to shed many tears into her pillow.  And when her grief had settled into an ache in her heart, she had found herself unable to forgive the Patron for the Senora’s death.  No matter how often he told her she was wrong, Mercedes blamed Senor Murdoch for the Senora’s death.  It was he who sent his wife away, and for that Mercedes would always hold him responsible.  In those first few weeks after the tragedy, when Mercedes had made known to him her anger with the Patron, Cipriano had been unsure whether they would be able to stay here.  But his Mercedes was nothing if not sensible.  She knew this was the best ranch in the valley, knew that Murdoch Lancer was the best man her husband had ever worked for, knew that her anger would have to be set aside.  And she had done it.  He nuzzled the side of her head and wrapped his arms around her middle.

“Mercedes, you must find it in your heart to become a friend to Senora Maria.  She is young and she is alone without her family near by and…”

“Senora Catherine was young also.  And her family was all the way to the other side of the country.  And she was a good woman.”

“Mercedes,” Cipriano said, turning his wife around to face him, “Senora Maria is little more than a child.  If what you think you have noticed is true, she has made a mistake.  But it is not our place to judge her.”

“It is not what I think I have noticed.  It is what I did notice.  I saw him coming out of the chicken coop yesterday morning, my husband.  As bold as if he belonged here,” Mercedes said angrily, her black eyes flashing.  “You know I do not forgive the Patron for what happened to the Senora, nor do I forgive him for allowing another man to take the Senora’s son away from here.  But he does not deserve what Senora Maria is doing to him.”

“Mercedes, to break the marriage vows is a very serious thing.  But, we cannot know how it is with another man’s marriage.  We do not know…”

“You may not know.  But I know.  He foolishly married a child, and now he will pay for that foolishness with more pain and heartache.  For all the time since Senora Catherine died and when he brought this new one home, he never once spoke of his son.  Never did he say a word about the boy.  But since she has come, I will admit to this, he has said his son’s name, I have heard him talk of bringing the boy home to raise him with the younger brother.  For this, I am grateful to Senora Maria.  But I warn you, my husband.  When Senor Murdoch discovers what she has done to him, it will break his heart once again, and he will again shut out thought of Senora Catherine’s son.  You know how it was with him after her death.  You know how he turned his back to the world.  Not one child was born on this ranch that he was willing to look on.  His heart turned to stone, sparing no thought for his son.  He should have gone for Scott.  He should never have allowed that man to keep him,” Mercedes said, her anger building. “Instead of acting the fool over that woman-child, he should have gone after his son.”

“But if not for that woman-child as you call her, there would be no Juanito,” Cipriano said, knowing how his wife would respond.  He watched her as her face softened and a smile played across her features.  “Mercedes, you must forget what you have seen.  It is not our place.  You must remember that she is young, and the young make mistakes.  And there is one other thing you must do, my wife.  You must forgive her for not being Catherine.”


*     *     *


Maria held the skirt up to her waist and viewed herself in the looking glass.  Judging from the length, Catherine had been at least three inches taller than her.  The dark-haired woman pulled the waistband tight around her own waist and realized Catherine had also been more slender.  She turned sideways and frowned at her reflection.  With a quick release of her hands, the skirt fell to the floor in a heap at her feet.  She turned and reached inside the trunk and pulled out a length of ribbon, a rich blue softened by a hint of gray.  The color of her eyes?  She knew Catherine had been fair, blond hair and pale skin.  One of the ranch wives had told her that much.  More than she had been told by Murdoch.  Every time she had tried to question her husband about his first wife, he had refused to answer.  And then one day, she had changed tactics. 

Late in her pregnancy, she had engaged her husband in a conversation about what their child might be like, and gradually she had turned the conversation to what Murdoch’s oldest child might be like.  She could see how much it hurt him to think on such things, but her need to know was almost desperate.  He had thought about it for several minutes, and she had almost decided he would refuse to discuss it, but then he had told her.  Scott, Murdoch guessed, would be tall and thin, probably with light, maybe blond hair and blue eyes, maybe gray, a slender face with a strong chin and high cheekbones.  And Maria had known.  In describing how he imagined his son, she knew she had received a description of the mother. 

Maria had thought about that for weeks, but finally with her own time drawing near, she had refocused her thoughts on her child.  Johnny, like most babies, had been born with blue eyes.  She had watched his eyes carefully for those first few weeks, waiting to see which color they would become.  They remained blue, and one evening Murdoch had surprised her by telling her that his mother’s eyes and John’s eyes were the same color.  Maria had taken a great deal of satisfaction from that knowledge.  The Boston son might bear the mark of his finely bred mother, but the California son bore the mark of his father’s family. 

Maria sighed and let the length of satin ribbon glide through her fingers.  This was not a good thing to be doing, and she knew it.  She had found this trunk not long after Juanito’s birth, opened it and discovered some of Catherine’s things.  When Murdoch had come upon her going through the trunk, she had expected him to unleash his towering anger on her, but instead, he had simply taken the things she had spread out around her, placed them back in the trunk and closed it.  The next morning, the trunk had been moved, where to, she had not been told.  But she had recently found it again, for what else had she to do in the last five months but explore and search the hacienda?  A twinge of guilt suddenly assaulted her.  She had found something else to do, something that tore at her heart and conscience.

With another sigh, Maria stooped down and retrieved the skirt from the floor, carefully folded it, and put it back in the trunk.  She picked up the ribbon and laid it on the skirt, then closed and latched the trunk.  She shoved it back against the wall, then turned and surveyed the room.  When she had first entered this room almost two years ago as Murdoch’s new bride, there had been nothing here but a few crates and some worn furniture, nothing that had caught her interest, and she had not gone back into this room again.  Their life had become too busy for that.  Work had resumed on the hacienda, and then the realization that a baby was on the way, her attempts to settle in to ranch life, to make friends among the women.  She hadn’t given this room at the end of the long upstairs hallway a second thought.  She had been too busy giving her husband advice on just how she wanted things on the lower floor of the hacienda, much to his delight, to be concerned with the empty rooms on the second floor, rooms that Murdoch took pleasure in reminding her would one day be filled with their children. 

Maria walked over to the window and pulled back the tattered curtain.  She stared out at the back of the house, toward the low-lying wooded hills less than half a mile from the hacienda.  They loved to go walking through those woods.  Murdoch would take her hand and they would climb the hills, she struggling to keep pace with his long-legged stride, he gently laughing at the expression on her face when her hair would catch in a low-hanging branch.  They would climb deep into those woods, to a spot Murdoch had shown her not long after their arrival at the ranch.  Looking out on one side, they could see the hacienda in the distance, looking the other way, they could see the far pasture and the mountains beyond.  But they could not be seen.  Murdoch had assured her of that one beautiful, spring Sunday when the ranch was resting, and no one needed the Patron or his wife for those few hours.  They had gloried in their love, in each other, under the canopy of trees above them that wonderful afternoon.  Tears filled Maria’s eyes as she realized they would never spend another such afternoon in that beautiful spot. 

Murdoch would find out about Roberto.  There were too many vicious tongues on the ranch for it to remain a secret.  Oh, no one would come right out and tell him.  But women had a way of making things known without being so bold as to come right out and say it.  He would know that his wife had betrayed him, and there would never be another afternoon spent up in the hills.  She glanced back into the room, and realized that that was not all that would never happen.  These rooms would never be filled with children.  Not now.  Murdoch would not send her away, she was sure of that.  But he would also never touch her again.  He was a proud man, perhaps a man with more pride than she had ever seen in a man before.  The life that he had dreamed of, a dream he had shared with her, would never happen now.  They would not be happy, they would not be surrounded by children and grandchildren.  They would grow old together, but it would be a bitter old age.  It would destroy them. 

Maria walked over to the trunk and wearily sat down.  Why?  Why had she done it?  Because she was lonely?  She had been lonely before.  Because she was angry with Murdoch?  She had certainly been angry with him before.  Because she had felt betrayed and abandoned and unloved?  He had done nothing to betray her; she knew he was coming back, she knew he loved her.  So, why?  She leaned against the wall and in her mind’s eye, she saw him.  Robert Bastian.  Roberto.  She had met him only a month after Murdoch had left.  She had gone into Morro Coyo with Cipriano and one of the other hands to buy a few things that she needed for herself and for the hacienda.  And he had been there, in the store, buying a cake of soap and a bottle of bay rum.  He had turned to look at her when she had entered the store, his amber eyes taking her in, making her blush and feel like a young girl out on her first walk around the village square.  And then he had smiled at her, that wonderful smile of his that brought out the dimples in his cheeks.

Maria smiled at the memory.  He had taken her breath away.  And then he had spoken to her.  She remembered his words, the sound of his voice that first time she’d heard it, the way it made her heart flutter and her stomach tingle.  Just a simple, polite greeting.  “Buenos dias, Senorita.”  Senorita.  And her standing there in her plain blouse and skirt, a fourteen-month old baby on her hip.  She had blushed furiously.  But he had been so handsome.  Not as tall as Murdoch, but just as sturdily built.  A single lock of his cocoa colored curly hair dangling across his forehead.  His square face and strong jaw, sensuous, almost womanly, lips.  His eyes the color of the port wine her father kept for special occasions back at the inn.  A warmth spread through her body as she thought about him, and she suddenly felt restless and breathless. 

That very day in Morro Coyo, she had discovered that he was a gambler, living out of a room in the saloon.  He had been in town only a week, but already he was the talk of Morro Coyo, and the object of many feminine daydreams.  Maria had returned to the ranch that afternoon, her thoughts filled with the handsome stranger.  And her thoughts had stayed filled with him that whole week.  That Sunday, leaving the mission after Mass, she had seen him, just standing across the way under a shade tree.  He’d smiled at her, and she’d smiled back.  That had been the beginning.  And it had also been the end.  The end of what she had with Murdoch. 

Maria jerked herself up from the trunk and paced over to the window, her hands clasped together, squeezing.  She glanced out the window, abruptly turned away when she saw the hills, then paced back over to the door.  Why?  Why had she allowed it to happen?  She reached for the doorknob, started to pull the door open, then stopped, her breath catching in her throat.  She knew the answer to that, but it was an answer she couldn’t understand.  She loved Roberto.  It was that simple and that complicated.  She loved Roberto.  And she loved Murdoch.  She ducked her head and leaned it against the door.  How had she come to this?

Maria pulled the door open and hurried down the hall.  The closer she got to the stairway, the faster she moved.  By the time she reached the top of the stairs, she was breathless.  She stopped and grabbed the handrail, took a moment to catch her breath.  She ran her hand down the front of her homespun skirt, clutching it in her clammy palm.  She reached up and smoothed her hair, then walked down the stairs. 

When she reached the bottom of the stairs, she turned to her right and moved down the short hallway toward the bedrooms at the back of the hall.  She stopped when she reached the first room, quietly pushed the slightly ajar door open, and stepped inside.  As she stood in the doorway, a smile spread across her face.

“Mama,” Johnny said, his chubby arms reaching up for his mother.

Maria crossed the room and held her hands out to her son.  He scrambled up from the bed, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.  She leaned forward and wrapped her arms around his little body as he wrapped his arms around her neck.

“Juanito, you had a good nap?” Maria asked, caressing the back of his head, smiling at the thick soft feel of his hair against her hand.  He might have his Grandmother Lancer’s eyes, but he had her hair and her coloring, and her smile, according to his father.

“Mama.  Papa home,” Johnny said.

“Soon, my son.  Soon.”

“Papa home now,” Johnny insisted.

“No, Juanito,” Maria laughed, stepping back from the bed.  “But soon.  Papa will be home soon.”

“Sooner than you think,” a deep voice called from the doorway.

Maria spun around and found herself face to face with her husband.  Her heart pounded furiously in her chest, her face flushed, then paled, then flushed again.  Johnny squirmed in her arms, demanding to be put down.  Once his wobbly feet hit the floor, he staggered toward his father, calling papa, papa across the room.  Murdoch squatted down and held his arms open.  Johnny’s body got ahead of his feet, and he fell into his father’s arms, giggling.  Murdoch wrapped the boy in his arms, pulled him tight against his chest, kissed the top of his head over and over. 

“Papa home,” Johnny said.

“Yes, my boy.  Papa’s home,” Murdoch said, his voice thick with emotion.  He stood up, lifting his son up in his arms.  He glanced across the room and looked at his wife.  Tears were streaming down her cheeks, and Murdoch felt his heart clench in his chest.  He was finally home.  Maria hesitated a moment, then ran across the room and threw herself in his arms.

“Maria, my God.  Maria,” he whispered above her head, gripping her against his body, Johnny pressed between them.  He shifted Johnny to his side and leaned down and kissed his wife.  “I’ve missed you so much,” Murdoch whispered, kissing her again.

“Murdoch,” she choked out, burying her face against his chest, sobs breaking free.  “Murdoch,” she managed to repeat.

“Maria, what’s wrong, darling?” he asked, looking down into his wife’s eyes.

“You are home, Murdoch, you are home,” she said, tears spilling down her face.

“Yes, my darling.  I’m home, and I’m never leaving you and Johnny again,” Murdoch promised. 


*     *     *

Murdoch sat at the worn old desk he’d bought from a rancher who’d decided to pull up stakes and return east, and glanced at the final entry in the ledger column.  When he’d returned home nearly four weeks ago, and after enjoying the company of his small family for those first two days, he’d gotten down to the business of running his ranch.  And one of the first things he’d had to do was catch up on the books.  He’d been pleasantly surprised to see that for the previous three months, the ranch had shown a small profit.  That profit, plus the money he’d earned as Barker’s deputy gave him enough to pay off the small debts he’d accrued during the hard times of last spring and summer, enough to pay three months ahead on the original loan he’d taken out to purchase the ranch, and most importantly of all, it gave him enough money to buy his passage to Boston next spring.  A feeling of apprehension mixed with anticipation surged through him.  Next spring, he would head for Boston to retrieve the son who had been stolen from him four years ago. 

It wasn’t going to be easy, but Murdoch was confident that he would be returning to California with Scott in tow.  He’d been corresponding with a lawyer in Sacramento, and the lawyer believed Murdoch had an excellent chance of regaining his son, despite the legal agreement he’d signed three years ago giving Harlan guardianship of Scott.  That had been a mere formality.  His son was three thousand miles away, and three years ago, Murdoch had known there was no way he would be able to bring Scott back to California, not in the immediate future.  Harlan had to be able to care for Scott without anyone questioning his right, legal or otherwise, to do so.  But Murdoch had signed it with the understanding that it was only a temporary agreement, that he would be coming for his son as soon as he was able.  And he had signed it believing that Harlan understood the temporary nature of the agreement.  A sudden weight settled in Murdoch’s stomach.  For two years now, his letters to Harlan had gone unanswered.  All he received from the East Coast was the twice yearly reports from Harlan’s lawyer and Scott’s doctor attesting to the fact that Scott was healthy and well cared for.  On more than one occasion, Murdoch had wondered just how difficult it was going to be to get Scott away from Harlan.  But he continually pushed those thoughts aside.  When the time came, as it was bound to when he arrived in Boston next year, he had to believe that Harlan would surrender Scott to him without a fight.  To believe otherwise was more than Murdoch was capable of doing.

Murdoch took one more look at the column of numbers, then closed the ledger.  He stood up, stretching his stiff back muscles, and walked away from the desk.  When he’d bought the desk, he’d sat it in the alcove that was just to the right of the area where he was currently building bookshelves, at the opposite end of the great room.  It wasn’t so much an alcove as it was an open area between the great room and the rear hall leading to the kitchen, but the space had been adequate to his needs, especially once the bookshelves were finished.  But Maria had complained about that location.  The desk, she argued, should be out in the great room proper, over by the large window on the opposite end of the room.  That way, she told him with a smile, he could look out and survey his domain.  The window could be grand someday, but right now it was a combination of heavy wooden shutters and leaded glass that was pretty hard to see through.  But it allowed enough light in that end of the room to work by.  Murdoch walked up to the window and looked out.  The afternoon had turned dark and cloudy, a heavy slate gray that back in Scotland would have heralded a coming snow storm.  Here in California, at the most, it meant rain, maybe a few snow flurries.  He loved this land in the spring and summer, in the fall.  But in winter, he truly missed his homeland, missed the snow and the cold stinging his cheeks, the ice glistening on the limbs of trees, hanging from the roofs of houses and cottages.  He sighed as he squinted and tried to look out the window.  He gave it up and walked over to the double door to the left of the desk.  He pulled the door open and stepped outside on the portico. 

There was a definite coldness in the air.  He strolled over to one of the supporting archways and glanced out over the grounds.  His eyes strayed to the old guardhouse, and he quickly looked away.  That was the past.  His future lay in the hacienda now.  He stepped out from under the portico and looked up at the sky.  It was leaden.  Up in the mountains, he knew there had been a couple of snowfalls.  Maybe they’d have a little snow for Christmas.  As he stood there, a few drops of icy rain spattered against his upturned face.  He stood another few moments, then headed back inside.  Walking straight over to the fireplace, he threw two more logs on the fire, setting it blazing higher and warmer.  He took the poker and rearranged the logs, sending sparks flying around the hearth, letting his mind wander back to his boyhood, coming in from the cold winter days, wrapped up in heavy woolen coats and scarves, warm knitted caps on their heads, pushing and joking their way toward the hearth, their mother calling them to the table for hot chocolate and warm buttered bread. 

He sighed and put the poker back, squatting in front of the fire and watching the flames.  The crackling of the wood soothed him, and he tilted his head to one side, just losing himself in the memories.  He didn’t know how long he’d been sitting there, but he was suddenly brought back by the sound of footsteps coming across the room.  He looked up and saw Maria walking toward him, Johnny cuddled in her arms, the boy obviously asleep.  Murdoch got up and grabbed a blanket from the back of the chair and spread it out in front of the fireplace.  Maria laid Johnny down and pulled one edge of the blanket over his slumbering body.  She knelt there next to her son, gently caressing the top of his head, brushing his hair to the side.  Murdoch knelt next to her, glancing between his wife and his son. 

Johnny slept peacefully there on the floor, oblivious to the tension between his parents.  His chest rose and fell with the slightly fast, gentle rhythm of a toddler.  Murdoch studied his boy’s face, saw how much he looked like Maria.  Murdoch stole a glance at his wife, trying to understand what was troubling her.  That first night he’d been back, it had seemed all was well.  Maria had been genuinely glad of his return, that had been evident.  And Johnny.  He’d worried that his boy wouldn’t recognize him, wouldn’t remember him.  But he needn’t have worried.  Johnny came to him immediately, followed him around the rest of that afternoon and evening, falling asleep in Murdoch’s arms that night.  And that night, in bed with Maria, it was as if nothing had changed, it was as if he hadn’t been away for all those months.  She had been just as eager, just as passionate as always. 

But it wasn’t long after that, Murdoch mused, that he had begun to sense something bothering her.  At first, he’d thought she was still angry with him over his decision to accept Joe Barker’s job offer.  He’d asked her about it a couple of times, but she’d denied it.  He just couldn’t figure it out.  One minute she was happy and content, the next, she was angry and restless.  The last time her moods had been this volatile…he paused in his ruminations and studied his wife.  The last time she had been pregnant.  Murdoch’s heart began to race and a feeling of joy started to flow through his body.  Could she be?  Did he dare ask?  The last time, when she had finally told him, he had known how frightened she’d been.  She was only 18 when she’d become pregnant with John, no family around to help her through it.  He remembered how she would swing from crying to singing, leaving him breathless trying to keep up with her changing moods.  But once she had felt the baby move inside her, he remembered, the crying had stopped.  A contentedness had settled on her, and she had eagerly awaited the birth.  Could she be carrying another child?  A rush of emotion swirled through him, as he contemplated that possibility.  Another child to fill their home, a brother or sister for John.  And for Scott once he was back where he belonged.  Murdoch smiled, then reached down and caressed the top of John’s head.  He watched his baby boy for a moment, then looked up to find Maria staring at him.

“What?” he asked, smiling at Maria.

“Nothing,” she answered, standing up and walking away from the fireplace.

Murdoch watched her walk across the room, and knew she was in one of her angry, restless moods.  Perhaps now would not be the best time to ask her if she were carrying again.  He kept his eyes on her as she came to a stop in front of the large window behind the desk, watched as she leaned against the window frame, laid her head against the woodwork, wondered about the large sigh he saw her release.  With another glance at his son, Murdoch got up and started to wander around the room, picking up and then setting down the small little knick-knacks with which Maria had decorated the room.  He tried to think back as he moved around the room.  He’d been home about four weeks now.  It was possible that she was expecting.  He couldn’t remember her time coming on her since he’d been back.  Granted, that wasn’t something they talked about, but she hadn’t refused him since he’d been back.  Still, if she were, it was awfully early for this moodiness to hit her.  She couldn’t be more than a month, and if he remembered right, she’d been further along with Johnny when it hit her the last time.  But maybe it was different with each baby, Murdoch decided.  But then again, maybe it was still the lingering anger over the deputy job.  If he’d learned one thing about his wife in the last two years, it was that she had a tendency to nurse her anger.  He sat down the carved figurine he’d been absent-mindedly rolling in his calloused hand, and walked over to Maria.

“Querida,” he softly whispered into her ear as he came up behind her and slipped his arms around her.  He felt her instantly stiffen in his embrace, then quickly relax back against his chest.  “Something’s troubling you, mi amor.  Tell me what it is?”

“I am not troubled,” Maria said, her voice flat and cold, so different from her usual sensuous, sing-song timbre.  She stiffened against him again, and tried to pull away. 

Murdoch held her tight, then slipped an arm up and wrapped it around her shoulders.  “Maria,” he said, “you’re not still angry with me because I took Joe’s offer of work, are you?” Murdoch asked.

“Have I not answered that same question over and over for you already?  You think I am that petty to hold the anger this long?” Maria demanded, spinning around in his arms and staring up at him with flashing eyes.  “That is done and finished, in the past.  It has nothing to do with us now.”

Maria pulled away from Murdoch and stomped across the room, coming to a stop in front of the far set of double doors.  Murdoch stared after her, confused by her reaction.  There was something wrong here, and he was determined to get to the bottom of it.  He crossed the room and tried to put his arm around her waist, but she shrugged him off.

“Maria, I know you didn’t want me to go, and I know you were angry about it.  And you’re right, I thought it was in the past, behind us.  But I can’t think of any other reason why you are acting so…”

“So what, Murdoch?”  Maria said, daring her husband to answer.  She glared up at him, her hands on her hips, her stance belligerent. 

“Maria, just tell me what’s wrong.  Is there something you need to tell me?” he asked.

“So now you think I keep secrets from you?  Is this what you think of me?”  Maria asked, the anger in her voice gaining heat.  “I stay at this ranch, alone, only old Rosalita and that harsh-tongued Mercedes for company.  Did you give any thought to how it would be for me here when you left?  No, you did not.  You thought only of the money you would earn, you…”

"Maria, you just said it was in the past.  And yet, it sounds anything but in the past,” Murdoch reasoned, his tone calm and soothing.  “You’re still angry, I can hear it in your voice, I can tell it from your words.  Maria, we talked about that before I left.  You know why I had to take that job.  We needed the money for the ranch, for…”

“You need this money so you can make your trip to the other side of this country.  You think only of your gringo son, you give no thought…”

“That’s a lie, and you know it, Maria.  Everything I do…everything…is for you and John and, yes, for Scott.  I thought you understood that,” Murdoch said, his anger beginning to match hers in its heat. 

“I will tell you what I understand, Murdoch,” she spat out, slamming her tiny hands against his middle and giving him a shove, “I understand that you place your gringo…”

“Stop it, Maria,” Murdoch said, taking a step toward her and grabbing her arm roughly.  “Don’t you dare talk about Scott that way.  He’s my son.  You’ve said all along he would be your son, too.”

“You see,” she hissed, jerking her arm free and moving toward the unfinished bookshelves, “That is the proof of what I say.  You care only for this child you have never seen, this child you let an old man take from you.  Tell me, Murdoch, how much did you really want this son?  I think not very much,” Maria accused.

“You have no idea how much I wanted him.  If you did, you could never say such a thing.  He’s my son, and I love him,” Murdoch choked out.

“You love him,” Maria sneered, “how can you love a child you have never even seen?  How can you love this boy you have never held more than the son I have given you, the child that should be all you care for?”

“Maria,” Murdoch said, his voice full of anger and exasperation.  He took a slow, deep breath, and tried to calm his temper.  Whatever was troubling her, it was making her unreasonable.  Almost senseless.  He stared at her as though she’d lost her mind.  “I love John with all my heart.  That is not in question.  I love you with all my heart.  And yes, I do love Scott.  Maybe I’ve never held him, never laid eyes on him, but I love him.  He’s my son, Cath…”  Murdoch suddenly stopped, but it was too late.  He saw it on her face, in her eyes.  “Maria,” he said, reaching out to her and trying to take her in his arms.

“No!” she shouted.  “You have never stopped loving your Catherine.  Nunca!”

Maria turned and ran past the bookshelves.  By the time she reached the alcove, Murdoch had caught up to her.  He grabbed her arm and jerked her to a stop.  She cried out, struggled against his grip, but Murdoch held her firm.  With her free arm, she swung at Murdoch, her hand connecting with his jaw, cuffing his ear in the process.  Murdoch pulled her close, pinned both arms at her sides and shook her once.

“Maria, calm down.  You’ll wake the baby,” Murdoch ordered.  “Calm down.  Maria, mi querida, please.  You know I love you.  You know that,” he said, staring hard into her eyes.  “I’ve loved you from the moment I laid eyes on you, you know that.  I love John, and not less than Scott.  How could I?  I held John as he took his first breath, gave him his first bath, caught him as he struggled to take his first step.  And yes, a part of me still loves Catherine.  A part of me always will.  She was my first love, Maria, but you my darling, you are my last love.  And my love for you will be there for the rest of our lives.  Maria, when Catherine died, I thought I died right along with her.  But you showed me how wrong I was.  You gave me back my life, you showed me that I could love again, and Maria, that was the most precious gift anyone ever gave me, save for my sons.  Darling, please, never doubt my love for you and for our son.”

“Murdoch.  Murdoch,” she said, tears beginning to stream down her cheeks.  She felt suddenly weak, and her knees started to buckle under her. 

Murdoch slipped an arm around her back, another under her legs, and carried her over to the sofa.  He gently sat her down, then sat next to her, reaching over and wiping her tears away. 

“Maria, you believe me, don’t you?”

“Yes, Murdoch,” she answered, her voice thick with tears.

“Maria, please tell me what’s been bothering you.  If it isn’t the work I took, then what is it?”

“It is nothing, Murdoch,” she answered, her voice gone wooden.  Weary and wooden.

“Maria,” he said, slipping a finger under her chin and tilting her head up.

She looked up at him, and he didn’t think he’d ever seen more misery in anyone’s eyes.  He pulled her into his arms and tried to comfort her.  They sat there on the sofa for several moments, listening to each other’s breathing, listening to the rain as it began to quicken and fall harder and faster.  Murdoch gently rubbed a hand up and down her back, felt her lean into him.  He ducked his head and placed his lips next to her ear.

“Maria,” he whispered, “are we to have another child?”

She jerked away from his embrace, stumbling to her feet and moving away from him.  She stared at him, her hands on either side of her head, her face growing pale.  The tears suddenly started again.

“Why would you ask this?  Why would you think it?” she demanded, her voice rising in pitch. 

“Maria,” Murdoch said, concerned by her reaction.  He took a step toward her, but she backed away.

“No,” she said, “no.  Leave me alone, Murdoch.  There is nothing bothering me except you.  Please, simply leave me alone,” Maria begged, turning on her heels and running from the room.

This time, Murdoch didn’t go after her.  He was completely confused by his wife’s behavior.  She said she was no longer angry over the trip he’d taken to take the deputy’s job, and yet her words of a few minutes ago made it clear to him that she definitely was still angry about it.  He sighed and shook his head.  What on earth was wrong with the woman?

He moved back over to the sofa and sat down, staring into the fire.  His gaze drifted down to his son, and in answer to an impulse, Murdoch got up and walked over to his sleeping son, kneeling down and gently picking the boy up in his arms.  He carried Johnny back to the sofa and sat down with him.  He stared down into his son’s face, seeing Maria there.  Maria when she was happy.  The last four weeks had been like the rolling deck of a ship.  Up and down, unsure when it would smooth out.  Murdoch leaned over and softly kissed his son’s forehead, watched as his boy squirmed in his arms, watched as his little face wrinkled up then settled back into peaceful slumber.  Murdoch sat there, gazing at his son for several moments, trying to conjure up in his mind’s eye what his other son might look like.  Try as he might, he just couldn’t do it.  All he could see when he tried was Catherine’s face smiling back at him, and even that was beginning to fade away.  Murdoch sighed and shifted his son up on his shoulder and settled back into the sofa. 

Whatever was wrong with Maria, he would find out what it was.  This couldn’t continue.  It was too distressing.  For him, for her, for John.  Murdoch suddenly lifted his head and stared off toward the doorway through which Maria had disappeared.  She hadn’t answered his question.  She hadn’t told him one way or the other if there was another child on the way.  Now why wouldn’t she answer that simple question?  Murdoch shook his head and gently rubbed his cheek against his son’s face.  He was almost at his wit’s end.  But he wasn’t about to give up.  Maria had endured so much while he was gone.  He knew the few women here on the ranch weren’t as friendly to her as he would have hoped they would be.  He knew she’d been lonely and left to deal with more than she was probably able to deal with.  So no, he wasn’t about to give up and let her work out whatever was troubling her on her own.  He’d get to the bottom of this, and if he had his way, it would be soon. 

Winter was full upon them now, and Christmas was only two weeks away.  He wanted this settled with Maria before then.  He wanted this Christmas to be special.  It would be the last Christmas the three of them would have to themselves.  Next year, there would be one more child in their home.  A tiny hope spread through his heart.  Perhaps there would be two more children in their home next Christmas.

Murdoch shifted his son once again on his shoulder and let out a sigh.  He would find out what was wrong with Maria, and then he would make it right for her.  He owed it to her.  And once it was made right, they could celebrate Christmas and the New Year together, happy the way they should be.  Murdoch relaxed against the sofa, and promised himself that before the holidays, all would be well with his small family.


*     *     *     


Maria carefully balanced the wooden box on her hip.  It was the last of the Christmas decorations, and she was determined to get them up to the attic today.  The house had been stripped of its Christmas finery a week ago, it had all been packed away in its boxes, but there was still this last one to store away.  Murdoch had found it sitting in the upstairs hall last night, and he’d complained to her about it still being out.  Maria frowned as she climbed the narrow stairway up into the attic.  Things were getting worse and worse for her and Murdoch.  Since that afternoon in the great room when he had all but begged her to tell him what was wrong, things had turned sour for them.  How could she tell him?  How could she tell him what she had done while he was gone?  He would never forgive her, she knew that.  A spark of anger flickered in her heart as she reached the top of the staircase.  She stood there for a moment, panting at the exertion, then took a deep breath and walked across the attic floor. 

Murdoch would never forgive her.  “Humph,” she snorted to herself.  He left me alone for five whole months, she told herself again.  Alone with no one to talk to, not one single friend on the ranch.  Left alone so he could make the money to retrieve his gringo son.  Oh, he had told her otherwise, but she was no fool.  She warmed his bed, but not his heart, she told herself.  A ghost with pale hair and skin and blue eyes guarded his heart, keeping her out.  Despite her anger, tears filled her eyes.  What she had done didn’t matter.  She knew, once his precious Scott was here at the ranch, she and Juanito would hold second place with Murdoch.  He would have his fair-haired son by his sweet Catherine, and she and Juanito would be nothing to him.  What did it matter that she had betrayed him?  One way or the other, the marriage was doomed.  By her hand, or by his. 

Maria sat the box down on the floor and gave it a firm kick to move it out of her way.  She turned and glanced around the attic, at the dirt and mess and scattered boxes and crates.  She didn’t even know what was in most of the crates.  Probably more of Catherine’s things, she bitterly thought.  Fresh tears sprang to her eyes, and she dropped herself on a nearby crate, wrapping her arms around her waist and giving in to the urge to cry. 

“Madre de Dios, what have I done?” she whispered, her anger momentarily deserting her.  She sat on the crate, rocking back and forth, her mind a swirl of contradictory emotions.  She was angry with Murdoch, but she knew that anger was unfair.  She blamed him for what had befallen her, but she knew that was an excuse.  More than anything, she knew that their marriage was destroyed. 

A sudden wave of nausea rolled over her, and she was panicked at the thought of being sick here in the attic.  She fought the urge to vomit, tried to breathe deeply to quell the rebellion in her stomach.  More tears gathered in her eyes, and she forced herself to relax, forced the breaths down into her lungs.  After several moments, the nausea passed.  She got up and walked over to the window on the far end of the attic.  She stood there and stared down into the back garden, all but bare now that it was winter.  She rested her head against the window, and unconsciously let her hand slip down to her belly.  She knew.  With a third missed female time, she knew.  She had prayed that it was Murdoch’s, but she knew better.  All of the signs told her this baby belonged to Roberto.  The morning sickness had come too soon for it to be Murdoch’s, and she had already missed one period when Murdoch had returned home.  She didn’t think she could keep it from him much longer.  She thought back to that afternoon in the great room, when he had asked her if she were pregnant.  Panic unlike anything she had ever experienced before had gripped her.  Panic and fear.  What would he do when he realized the baby was not his?  For he would realize it.  Murdoch was not a fool.  Already, she had caught him staring at her, studying her as though he were trying to unravel some mystery. 

She squeezed her eyes shut, and gently pounded her forehead against the window frame.  What was she to do?  The moment he realized the baby was not his, that would be the end of things.  He would hate her for the rest of his life.  Despair flooded her heart and leached out into her soul.  She still loved him.  She loved Roberto, but she still loved Murdoch.  She knew this to be true.  And she knew she could not stand to look into his eyes once he knew the truth, could not stand to see the pain and the hurt there.  Because this would hurt him, it would wound him deeper than anything had since…since Catherine.  It would wound his heart and soul and pride.  His stubborn Scottish pride.  Murdoch had come into her life, bringing hope and happiness and love.  She would go from his life, leaving anger, pain and hate. 

Maria lifted her head from the windowsill, her breath caught in her chest.  For the first time, she had actually given thought to what her instinct was telling her she had to do.  She had not allowed herself to think such a thing.  But it had been there, hovering around the edges of her mind.  Roberto had once again whispered the thought to her right before Christmas.  “Come away with me”, he’d said.  She had refused, unable to envision herself walking away from Murdoch, from his love.  But what choice did she have?  Their marriage would be broken, this child she carried inside her would stand between them for the rest of their lives, a reminder of her betrayal.  She could not do this to her child.  And what of Juanito?  Would Murdoch allow his hatred of her to shift and consume the child she had given him? 

She had never meant to hurt Murdoch…still, did not want to hurt him.  But she could not stay here.  Not with her belly growing heavy with another man’s child.  Life here would become intolerable.  Others would realize what Murdoch would realize.  Mercedes’s face suddenly flashed in front of Maria’s eyes.  That witch would try very hard to make her life more miserable.  And would not this prove to Mercedes everything she already thought about this marriage, about her?  That no one could replace the sainted Catherine, especially a…Maria suddenly stopped, unable to think the word that others would call her.  Why had she done it?  Why hadn’t they been more careful?  No one knew about Roberto; no one but Mercedes, and although Maria knew without doubt that Mercedes would use the knowledge to torture her for the rest of her life, the woman would never breath a word to Murdoch.  No, Roberto could have remained a secret taken to her grave.  But not now.  Not with his child a constant reminder of her fall. 

Maria sighed, resignation lying heavy on her heart.  She pushed away from the window and started to turn.  Just as she moved, something caught her sight, something out of the corner of her eye.  She turned back to the window and looked out across the fields at the rear of the hacienda, toward the old tumbled down remains of the chapel built by the Spaniards.  The chapel stood at the tree line where the hills rose up behind the hacienda. 

“No,” she whispered, grasping her throat.  “He would not.  Roberto, do you wish us both to be shot?”

Maria turned and rushed across the attic, pulling the door closed behind her as she started down the stairs.  She reached the upstairs hall and made her way toward the front stairway, wondering if Murdoch and Juanito were still out at the barn.  When she reached the bottom of the stairs, she quickly glanced into the great room, finding it empty.  She turned and hurried down the hallway toward their bedroom, stopped in there and grabbed her shawl, draping it over her head and wrapping it around her shoulders.  As she walked along the back hall, the house sounded empty.  She was grateful for this.  No old Rosalita, no merciless Mercedes to get in her way. 

She turned and started down the short hall that ran parallel to the kitchen, reached the back door and stepped out into the cold morning air.  With another glance around, she moved across the garden, the remains of vegetable vines and plants softly crunching under her feet.  She let out a breath, saw it catch and turn a grayish white in the chill of morning, then dissipate and disappear.  Around her, patches of snow dusted the ground, remnants of the snowfall they had awakened to this morning.  The first time she had seen snow last winter, she had been awed, delighted as a child.  But now it just meant cold.  And she had felt so cold for weeks now.  Cold in body, cold in spirit, cold in heart.  She wanted to feel warmth again.

As Maria made her way across the field, she suddenly realized she wanted to go home.  Home to Mexico.  She wanted her mother.  A mocking laugh started up her throat as she thought of that formidable woman.  Once she realized what her daughter had done, she would want nothing to do with her.  No, her mother would see it as just another step in her daughter’s fall from grace.  First, marriage to a gringo, a marriage they had steadfastly fought, even after Murdoch had revealed to them that he was of their faith.  Her parents had chosen not to believe him.  The priest, however, had not been so suspicious, at least not after questioning and testing Murdoch.  He had finally agreed to marry them, but still her parents had refused to accept, to them, the unacceptable.  And then a half gringo child.  She had written to her parents soon after Juanito’s birth, asking them to come.  But they had refused.  They had no need of a blue-eyed grandson.  So, there would be no going home to her parents.

Maria trained her eyes on the chapel, and knew that there was only one way out, one way to escape the destruction that was about to befall her.  Tears filled her eye, and fresh snowflakes stung her cheeks.  This was not what she wanted.  This was not how she had seen her life unfolding.  But there was nothing else to do now.  She had entrusted her future to Fate, and Fate was daring her to make the best of it.                   


*     *     *


Murdoch sat at the back of the barn, across the door of the empty stall.  He relaxed against the door frame, one long leg folded under him, the other cocked at the knee, his right arm dangling over it.  A smile lit up his face as he watched Johnny roll in the loose hay.  It was amazing to him just how much enjoyment he got out of watching his son play.  And if the truth were told, these moments with his boy, just the two of them, were the best moments of his day.  Lately, at least, he thought, then shoved that thought to the back of his mind.  Things were at a standstill with him and Maria at the moment, but he wasn’t going to let that intrude on this time with John.  He didn’t allow himself many things, but this one thing he did.  Watching his son play with a litter of pups was the best thing for his worried heart right now.

The pups were born six weeks ago, and he hadn’t told John about them at first.  They were far too small, and John was far too rambunctious to bring them together right away.  But the puppies were getting close to weaning, so this morning, he’d decided to show them to Johnny.  The squeal of delight when he’d laid eyes on them had been wonderful.  Johnny had squirmed in his arms, eager to get down.  Murdoch had laughed, then sat his boy on the floor.  Johnny had made a beeline for the puppies.  That had been 20 minutes ago, and in that time, Johnny had picked up each one of the five puppies, had his faced licked at least a dozen times, had his ears playfully nipped at, and laughed and giggled until his face was red.  As soon as the pups were weaned, he’d let Johnny pick one out for his own.  He knew the boy was still a bit young to take on the responsibility of a dog, but this way, they could grow up together.  And besides, Murdoch told himself, every boy should have a dog. 

His high spirits left him as his thoughts suddenly turned to Scott.  The boy was a little over four now.  Had Harlan allowed him to have a dog?  Probably not, Murdoch sighed.  Not that tight-fisted, hard-hearted bastard.  Anger as fresh as the day he’d arrived in San Francisco to discover Harlan had left California with his son assailed Murdoch.  His jaw clenched and the hand that dangled over his knee tightened into a fist, and he drifted back to the memory of that awful day, the day his already broken heart had been crushed into a thousand pieces.  His heart raced at the injustice of it.


Murdoch jerked back to the present and saw his son standing in front of him, his chubby hands wrapped around the middle of one of the puppies.

“Here, son,” Murdoch said, reaching out to his boy, “you don’t want to hurt her.  You have to hold her easy, not too tight.”

Murdoch pulled Johnny toward him, shifting his body around and settling the toddler on his folded leg.  He helped Johnny hold the puppy, bending forward so he could watch his son’s face.  Two of the other puppies ventured toward them while their mother watched from the corner of the stall.  The dog had shown up at the ranch about a year ago, and after determining that the dog wasn’t feral or diseased, Murdoch had paid it little attention.  He knew a couple of the hands had taken to feeding her, and that was fine with him.  What was a ranch without a dog or two?  She was a mixed breed of some sort, a yellowish coat of silky hair that hung fringed at her belly, a longish fringed tail that never seemed to stop wagging.  She was a good dog, friendly and gentle around Johnny and the other children on the ranch, but she didn’t take too well to strangers.  Not a bad dog to have around at all.  And she obviously understood more than one language, Murdoch laughed to himself.  She answered to “dog” and “perro” equally.  No one, for some reason, had come up with a better name for her. 

The puppy squirmed out of Johnny’s lap and tripped its way back to its mother.  Johnny leaned forward and made a grab for one of the other pups, only to see it evade his grasp.  Murdoch reached down and picked the pup up, depositing it in his son’s lap.

“Mine,” Johnny proclaimed.

“Yes, John.  One of them will be yours.  But not all of them,” Murdoch said.  “One for Johnny.  One for Carlos,” he said, having already promised one to Cipriano’s oldest boy.

“Car-os?” Johnny repeated.

“Yes, one for Carlos,” Murdoch continued, then stopped for a moment, staring over at the other pups.  “And one for Scott,” he said wistfully.

“One Stot,” Johnny said, looking up at his father.

“Yes, John, one for Scott.  One for your brother,” Murdoch said, his throat suddenly tightening on him.  “Later this year, Scott will come home, and we’ll give him his puppy.”

“Mine,” Johnny said, then squealed in protest as the puppy scrambled from his lap.  Johnny slipped from his father’s leg, and chased after the puppy.

Murdoch watched him for a moment, his thoughts…his heart…torn between his two sons.  He’d already been separated from Johnny and Maria for five months just this past year.  And now the trip to Boston would mean being separated again, this time more than likely for a whole year.  The thought of missing the next year of Johnny’s life tore at him, just as the thought of being separated from Maria that long worried him.  Although they had talked about this from the very beginning…it came as no surprise to her, his plans to retrieve his son…if the five months he’d been gone last year were any indication, then the planned trip to Boston was going to cause tremendous strain in their already strained marriage.  But Scott.  In all good conscience, he couldn’t leave his son in Boston.  Scott had a right to know his father, just as Murdoch had a right to raise his son.  He wanted Scott, wanted him here at home where he could get to know him, learn to love him the way he loved Johnny.  Not a reasoned love, springing from what his mind told him, but an intuitive love, springing from what his heart told him.  He couldn’t leave Scott in Boston, but he wasn’t sure he could leave Johnny and Maria alone for the whole of the coming year, especially if there were another baby on the way.  And that thought brought him back fresh to the worries that had been eating at him the last few weeks.  Why wouldn’t she tell him what was bothering her?  If it wasn’t a new baby, then it was something else.  She had to tell him.  They had to get this settled between them.  Again, the trip to Boston loomed before him, and it tore at his heart, at his conscience.  Scott was his son, and he had to bring him home, but Maria and Johnny were his family, and he couldn’t leave them for a year.  If he did, he wasn’t sure his marriage would survive it.  He couldn’t sacrifice Scott, and he couldn’t sacrifice his marriage.  Leaning against the doorframe, it came to him.  A simple thought, one he was surprised hadn’t come to him sooner.  They would all go to get Scott.  It was the only way.  It would be complicated; he would have to leave the ranch in the hands of Paul and Cipriano, but he couldn’t leave his eldest in Boston any longer, and he couldn’t leave his youngest for a whole year.  A frown crept over his face as he thought about Maria.  If she were indeed pregnant, then the trip would be out of the question for her, and he knew she would never let him take John with him.  She had to tell him what was wrong, she had to tell him if she were expecting.  Once they got things settled, they could make plans for the trip. 

He watched as Johnny stretched out on the floor of the stall, inviting the puppies to playfully attack him.  If he went after Scott this year, they would have to leave by March.  That would put them in Boston in time for Scott’s fifth birthday.  Barring a pregnancy, and Maria still had not answered his question concerning that, there would be no reason for her to refuse to go.  No reason except her stubbornness and whatever the hell it was that was so troubling her.  But, if she wasn’t pregnant, that gave him two months to get Maria used to the idea, two months to find out what was wrong, two months to gauge her reaction to this plan.  He rested his head against the stall door, and let out a weary sigh.  And if she reacted badly?  If she refused to go to Boston with him?  He’d just have to cross that bridge when he got to it.  And that, Murdoch admitted to himself, gave him two months to put off the final decision.         


*     *     *


Maria slipped through the back door, her heart heavy with the decision she had just made.  It was a terrible thing they were planning, but it was the only thing left to do.  She could not ask Murdoch to love her after what she had done to him, could not ask him to raise another man’s child, just as she could not take away from Roberto the right to raise his child.  She pulled her shawl tight against her body, shivering from the cold, from the decision, from the pain she knew was coming.  The pain she would be causing Murdoch, the pain she would be causing herself, the pain she would be causing Juanito.  She turned the corner of the hall and headed toward their bedroom.  A half dozen steps into the hall, and the door to Juanito’s room came open and Murdoch stepped into the hall.  They locked eyes for a moment, then Maria started past him.

“Where have you been?” Murdoch asked, grabbing her arm as she moved past him.  Her face was flushed, the hem of her skirt wet, her hair falling out of its braid.

“I have been outside.  Where have you been?” Maria snapped in return, her guilt turning defensive and resentful.

“You know very well where I was.  I was out in the barn with John,” Murdoch said, holding tight to her arm.

“So, you are the only one who is allowed to go outside this house?” she asked, attempting to twist her arm away, bristling at his tone, turning petulant.

“Maria,” Murdoch said, exasperation coloring his voice.  “This has got to stop.”

“What?  What must stop?” she asked.

“Please.  Tell me what is going on.  Tell me, darling, and we can fix it.”

Maria stared at him for a long moment, her anger hovering around the edges.  “There is nothing to fix,” she finally said, turning away from his eyes.

“Damnation,” Murdoch exploded, his temper finally at the end of its tether.  He grabbed her chin and jerked her head around.  She cried out in surprise and pain.  “I want to know what is going on with you, Maria, and I want to know now.  Tell me, damnit.”

“Take your hands off me.  Usted es justo un toro.  You understand me?  A bull.  Thinking you can demand things of me just because you are so big.  Well, you cannot,” she shouted, jerking away from Murdoch and stumbling back into the wall.  She yelped in pain and reached up to grab the back of her head.

“Maria,” Murdoch said, reaching out to steady her.  “Are you all…”

“Let go of me,” she shouted.  “I am not yours to command.  I am not yours to…”

“Maria, enough of this.  We have got to get things settled between us.  You know I’ll be leaving for Boston in a few weeks, and I want you and John to go…”

“Oh, then of course we must settle things.  I would not want to be the cause of you not going after your fine, well-born son,” she said with biting sarcasm, cutting him off in mid sentence. 

“Don’t start on that again, Maria.  I won’t listen to it!” Murdoch shouted.  “I don’t know what is wrong with you, I don’t know why all of the sudden you’re set against Scott coming home, but I’m not going to put up with it any more.  He’s my son, and he’s coming home.”

“You wish to know why I do not want this gringo child in my home…my home, Murdoch.  He will be placed above my Juanito.  By you, by the workers, by Mercedes and all the other women who have looked at me as though I did not belong,” Maria said, barely stopping to catch her breath as her guilt and jealousy and youth pushed her beyond reason and caution.  “Your child by your sweet, delicate Catherine.  Catherine who was rich and spoiled, who never suffered or had to take care of her needs.  Always a servant to take care of her.  Even here.  She…”

“Maria.  Stop.  Stop now.  I won’t listen to you talk about Catherine this way.  You don’t know anything about her, about Scott.”

“And what do you know about Scott?  She was not woman enough to survive his birth, and you were not man enough to hold him here,” Maria said, glaring up at Murdoch.  Each word that came out of her mouth was like poison pooling at their feet, working its way up toward their hearts.  “How could you know anything about this child?  You turned your back on him, let him be taken away.  You were not man enough to keep him.”

“How dare you,” Murdoch shouted, grabbing Maria’s arms and shoving her against the wall.  “He was stolen from me.  Harlan Garrett took him away before I could reach them.  I…”

“So you say,” Maria said, struggling to break his grip.

“You think I would have let that man make off with my boy if I could have prevented it?” Murdoch asked, his face dangerously red.

“You left Juanito for five months without thinking how this would be for him, a son you had held in your arms, a son you say you love.  Do I think you could turn away from a child you have never even seen?  How do you answer that question, Murdoch?  The way you left your own son to be raised by another man, the way you left Juanito and me alone for so long.  What kind of man are you Murdoch?  What kind of man could do these things,” she screamed, her fragile emotions finally breaking.  She shoved her hands against Murdoch’s chest, tried to break free of him.  

They struggled in the hallway, a violent, intimate dance.  Maria jerked an arm free, but Murdoch grabbed it again.  She pushed against him, shouting at him, unintelligible rantings.  Murdoch shoved her against the wall again, shoved her hard.  She cried out, and Murdoch cursed.  The poison had worked its way into their hearts and caused their love to wither.  Their heated words echoed up and down the hallway.  And then a single word cut them where they stood.

“Papa,” the plaintive, frightened voice cried from behind them.

Murdoch spun around, releasing Maria as he did so.  She scooted past him, rushing across the hall to her son.  Johnny sat on the floor, his face puckering up, ready to sob.  By the time Maria kneeled next to him, sweeping him up in her arms, the tears had started.  She turned to Murdoch, shooting a deadly glare his direction.  She stood up and started back into Johnny’s bedroom, calmly, quietly whispering to him, gently rubbing his back.  Murdoch stared after them for a moment, then followed Maria into Johnny’s bedroom.  She sat on the edge of Johnny’s bed, her son wrapped in her arms, rocking him until he began to quiet.  She looked up at Murdoch once again, saw the stricken look on his face, and felt a stab of guilt plunge through the anger that animated her heart.  She quickly shoved that guilt away and held onto the anger.

“See what you have done?” she accused, giving Murdoch no chance to come to them.

“Maria,” Murdoch began, reaching out to caress Johnny’s hair.  He knelt down in front of them, trying to sooth his boy.  He saw the fear in his son’s eyes, the anger on his wife’s face, and he knew he would never be able to talk her into going to Boston with him.  And he knew he would never be able to leave them for a year.  The guilt surged through him, whispering in his mind, one son for the other.  With slumped and sagging shoulders, Murdoch admitted defeat.  “All right, Maria.  I won’t go to Boston.  I’ll stay here and we’ll work this out.  You and me and Johnny.  We’ll make things right for all of us,” he said, feeling his heart break with the decision.  He reached out and wiped the tears from Johnny’s face, his love for this child overwhelming his desire for his other child.  “It’s all right, Johnny.  It all right,” he said.

Maria stared at her husband, and knew what he did not.  It was not all right.  And it would never be all right again.


*     *     *


The clouds overhead were as pristinely white as a fresh snow bank, and the sky held that particularly brilliant blue that one only saw in the spring.  Even the air, the breeze, hinted at the approach of spring.  In the distance, a coyote called to its mate, and the trees were alive with birdsong.  But none of this penetrated the heart and soul of Murdoch.  He kept his horse to a steady walk, and his eyes on the approaching hill top.

For two months now, he had kept himself locked away in the dark, airless prison that was his now moribund heart, a prison created from his own aching emotions, his own blazing anger.  She had left him.  In the middle of the night, with John an innocent victim of her betrayal.  She’d left nothing behind but a few of her clothes and a few of her belongings.  And the note meant to explain the unexplainable.  Murdoch reached inside his jacket pocket and pulled the wrinkled, sweat stained piece of paper out and read it once again.  “Murdoch, I can no longer stay here.  I did not mean for this to happen, but I love him…”  Murdoch clenched his hand around the paper, swallowed hard and refused to believe what his eyes told him.  “I love him”.  Maria loved another man.  While he had been away, she had fallen in love with someone else.  The anger blazed again, and he beat it back.  With a deep breath, he laid the note on his thigh and spread it out with his left hand.  He focused again, letting his sight adjust to the rocking movement of his horse.  “I did not mean for this to happen, but I love him, and he loves me.  We want to be together.  I know you will never forgive me for this, so I shall not even ask it of you.  Just as I know you will never forgive me for taking John.  But I could not leave him behind, Murdoch.  I thought I could, I meant to.  The least I could do for what I have done to you.  But he is my son, and I cannot leave him, Murdoch.  He is a baby, and he needs his mother.  And I need him.  I promise you, Roberto will be a good father to him, will love him as you do.  I am so sorry Murdoch, but I can do no other.  Please, do not let your hate blind you to life.  Maria.”

Murdoch looked up, tears clouding his vision.  Once again, he clenched his fist around the note, reaching up and wiping his eyes with the back of his hand.  The terror of that morning came hurtling back at him, and took his breath away.  He’d gotten up before sunrise that terrible morning, just as he did every morning.  When he’d awakened, he’d glanced to his left, finding that side of the bed empty.  At first, he hadn’t been concerned.  That side of the bed had felt empty for weeks, empty and cold.  Still, it wasn’t unusual for Maria to beat him out of bed.  He’d gotten up, dressed and crossed the hall and looked in on Johnny’s room.  His son’s bed was empty.  He remembered the clenching in his stomach as he’d stood there in the doorway and looked around the room.  He remembered the vague feeling of panic that had risen in his chest, but he’d chided himself for ridiculous notions, notions he wouldn’t even allow to fully form.  He’d left John’s room, headed down the back hall toward the kitchen where he found Rosalita stirring the fire, making ready to cook breakfast.  The panic had surged back over him.  Without a word to Rosalita, he’d turned on his heels and headed back toward the bedrooms.  First to Johnny’s room, he’d walked in and quickly glanced around.  Nothing had seemed out of place until he had walked over to the box where Johnny’s toys were kept.  Some were still there, but some were gone.  He’d spun around and marched over to John’s dresser and yanked open the top drawer.  Clothes were missing.  From the top drawer, and the next and the next.  Breathing hard, Murdoch had rushed back to his own bedroom and wildly pulled open the drawers of their chest of drawers, only to find her things missing.  He remembered the pain in his chest, the way his heart raced, the way his mind had seemed to shut down, unable to handle all the terrible thoughts that had charged through it.  He’d spun around in the room, looking for something.  Again and again, he’d turned, his eyes taking in what seemed to be just another normal morning, his clothes from the day before piled in the basket in the corner, his good boots standing between the wardrobe and the door.  He glanced over at the dresser, and the air went out of his lungs.  His legs felt leaden, he recalled, as he’d walked over.  Her hair brush was gone, her earrings, the bright ribbons with which she always tied back her hair, the crucifix she always wore around her throat.  He’d stood in the middle of their room, the room where they’d made love, where they’d conceived their child, where he’d begun to hope another child had been conceived.  And then the thought had hit him like a hot blast of desert wind.  Another man, another man’s child.  He’d violently shoved that thought from his consciousness, and it was as though his blood had turned to ice in his veins. 

He remembered walking back into the kitchen and just staring.  Rosalita had turned and raised her eyebrows in question.  He’d stared at her a moment, and then asked, in a voice that had seemed hollow and distant, “Have you seen Senora Lancer?  Have you seen John?”  The woman had stared at him curiously for a moment, then shrugged her shoulders and said, “No, Senor, I have not seen them this morning.”  Rosalita had turned away from him and gone back to preparing breakfast.  Murdoch remembered standing there in the kitchen, his feet stuck solid to the floor, and then he’d spun around and walked into the great room.  Looking all around, hoping to find her sitting on the sofa, John in her lap, a book in her hands, reading softly to their boy, Johnny chattering away in that tongue of his, part baby gibberish, part random words.  But the room had been empty.  He could still feel the way his heart had thumped against his chest, could still feel the icy clamminess of his hands, could still hear the ragged breathing as he’d walked over to the desk.  That was when he’d found it.  The note.  Neatly folded on the desk, his name written across it in Maria’s wild flourish.  In his mind’s eye, he could still see the way his hands had trembled as he’d unfolded the note.

A breath caught in Murdoch’s throat, and he blinked hard, pulling himself back into the present.  He was near the crest of the hill and he urged the horse on.  When Catherine had died, when he’d reached San Francisco and realized that Harlan had left with Scott, Murdoch had believed that nothing could ever hurt him like that again.  He’d promised himself he would never let anything hurt him like that again.  Well, the last two months had put the lie to that promise.  This hurt every bit as much as the loss of Catherine and Scott.  Maybe more.  Catherine had died in childbirth, something no couple consciously thought about, but something every couple kept hidden in the back of their minds.  Her loss had hurt; it had hurt worse than anything Murdoch had ever experienced.  Until that morning when he’d found Maria gone.  He loved her deeply, had trusted her without question, had longed for her, missed her, had allowed her to draw him back into living, had banished his fear of loving again.  And she had betrayed him, betrayed it all.  And she had taken his son.  The son whom he loved with a depth that had shocked him, frightened him, and left him humbly grateful.  He’d never had a chance to see Scott, to hold him, to feel his tiny newborn nuzzle against his neck.  Even so, he’d convinced himself that he loved the son he’d never held, but it was a strange love, a disconnected love.  A love disconnected from his heart, routed through his mind.  He had a son, therefore he loved him.  It wasn’t until John was born and he held his tiny squirming body in his arms that he knew what it actually felt like to love his child, felt it in his heart, not knew it in his mind.  The guilt of that realization had haunted him for weeks, until he’d understood that once Scott was home, it would all change.  Once he had the chance to be a true father to his first-born, he would love him just as deeply, just as freely as he loved Johnny. 

His heart clenched in his chest and tears stung his eyes.  He had been ready to sacrifice one son for the other; he’d been ready to throw away his chance to regain Scott if it meant restoring his marriage to its former happiness.  That guilt, he knew, would never leave him.  And for that, more than anything else she had done, Murdoch would never forgive Maria.  She had forced him to choose between his sons, and he would hate her for that for the rest of his life.  He lifted his head and realized he’d reached the top of the hill.  He sat there astride his horse for a few seconds, staring down the hill and out toward the meadow.  A mile away, in the northwest corner of the meadow, surrounded by a stand of willow trees, was his destination.  It had been two long months since he’d been here.  The last place he’d come that day before leaving to track down Maria and Johnny. 

Once the truth of what had happened had settled in his mind that morning, he’d sprung into action.  He’d stuffed a few essential things into his saddle bags, told Rosalita to pack a week’s supply of trail food, then sought out Cipriano and Paul, told them what had happened and hurriedly given them orders for the ranch.  Not three hours after finding the note, he’d been on his horse and on his way. 

The first thing he’d had to do was find out who the hell “Roberto” was.  It had only taken a moment to figure out that it wasn’t anyone on the ranch.  No Robertos, no Roberts, no Bobs.  So after the one stop at the meadow, he’d ridden into Morro Coyo and asked around.  He remembered the humiliation he’d felt at that, sure that everyone he’d asked knew why he was asking.  His wife had left him for another man, and he was begging for information.  How pathetic he must have seemed, he bitterly thought.  He’d stopped at the livery, the boarding house, the café.  But no one could tell him anything.  He’d even gone to the mission at the outskirts of the town, hoping that if Maria had changed her mind, she would have sought out the priest for advice.  But he’d found the church empty.  He’d gone back into town and headed for the saloon.  That was where he’d found out about a gambler who’d been in Morro Coyo for the last four months.  A gambler named Robert Bastian.  Oh, the bartender had told him all about this Bastian fellow.  How he’d gambled his way through every willing card player in the area.  He’d been a likable fellow, an easy smile and a quick laugh, always a funny story on the tip of his tongue.  And he’d turned more than a few heads in town.  The bartender hadn’t expected the man to be around much longer than a couple of weeks, but he’d stayed around for four whole months, even after he’d run out of men willing to risk their week’s wages on a hand of poker.  And then, that very morning, he’d up and disappeared. 

As the bartender had told his story, Murdoch had known.  Somehow, Maria had met this Bastian, maybe on a trip into town, maybe at church.  And having met him, she had fallen in love with him.  Not yet three years since she had stood before the priest and promised to love him until death parted them.  An embittered curse escaped his lips, and then he sighed, a worn-out, world weary sigh.  He was 30 years old, and he’d lost one wife in childbirth and now, another wife to another man.  He’d lost his first-born to the boy’s grandfather, and his second-born to his mother’s faithlessness.  Tears welled in his eyes, and his body sagged forward in the saddle.  So much loss, so much grief.  For 20 years, his life had been nothing but a series of losses separated by cruelly tantalizing moments of unbridled happiness.  His youngest sisters and his youngest brother, lost to a sudden and vicious illness.  Both his parents within a space of five years.  Leaving Scotland to make a new life for himself, bidding farewell to all that he’d known, all that he’d loved.  That had been his choice, and for a time, it had seemed the right choice.  But now he wasn’t so sure.  He’d come six thousand miles, left behind everything that was dear to him, fought and struggled and suffered to build a new life, and now all he had was this ranch.  He didn’t think it was enough.  Not for all that he had suffered. 

Murdoch looked up, roughly wiped his eyes, and felt the slow, sure hardening of his heart and his soul.  A sudden breeze stirred, and a shiver ran down his spine.  Out of nowhere, he heard his mother’s voice.  It seemed to be carried on the breeze.  He shook off the unexpected sensation, then kneed his horse forward, and down the hill.  As he crossed the meadow, the breeze picked up and swirled around him, and his mother’s voice trailed along after him, the words long forgotten, but now suddenly surrounding him.  He tried to ignore them, as he had all those years ago, but they wouldn’t leave him alone.  From the depths of his memory, he heard her again, explaining to her ten-year old son, suffering through a heart-wrenching grief the deaths of his brother and sisters, how God always had a reason, but he didn’t always share that reason with us.  Sometimes, it took years to see the reason.

“Aye, my laddie, the Lord God ha given ya so much, but we can’na know when and why it might be taken from us.  But e’en when He takes somethin’ from ya, he gives somethin’ in return.  It’s yer reward for ne’er losin’ yer faith.”

The words repeated over and over in his mind.  She’d meant to comfort him with her words, but they were only words to her.  He knew now, had learned years ago, that she hadn’t believed her own words.  She’d grieved herself into an early grave.  Well, he wasn’t going to grieve himself to death the way his mother had, the way his father had.  He wasn’t going to sit around and wait for God to give him some sign, some explanation, some reason.  God could keep his reasons, and his explanations.  He didn’t need anything from God.  Everything God had given him, He’d taken away.  Well, no more of God’s giving and taking away.  Murdoch had had enough.  And if that doomed him to hell, well, so be it.  Hell held no fear for him.  Hell could never be worse than what he’d been through the last five years. 

A harsh, stony expression settled on Murdoch’s face as he reached the far edge of the meadow.  He reined his horse to a stop, then dismounted and walked up the gentle knoll.  When he reached the top of the knoll, he glanced around at the gently sloping ground, at the willows softly swaying in the breeze.  And then he spotted her.  His first thought was to turn around and walk back to his horse, but he didn’t.  He watched as she finished tidying the small grave, then stood up and walked toward him.

“Senor,” Mercedes quietly said.  “You have come home.”

“Mercedes, I’m sorry.  I didn’t realize you were here.  I’ll come back…”

“No, Senor.  I have finished,” she said, staring up into Murdoch’s face.  The sadness in his eyes told her he had returned alone.  She glanced away, unable to look at that unbearable pain in his eyes.  The breeze caught her skirt and rustled it across the still damp grass, gathering a strand of dark hair and sending it fluttering across her face.  She turned back to Murdoch and tried to smile but failed.  “I come once a week to see to Manuela’s grave,” she said instead.

“I know,” Murdoch said, having realized a year ago that Mercedes tended to her infant daughter’s grave as lovingly as she tended to her living children’s needs.  He also knew she tended to the other two graves in the small graveyard.  And he was grateful to her for that, although he’d never told her so.

She studied his face, and was alarmed by what she saw.  The hardness had returned.  The hardness that had settled on his face after Senora Catherine’s death, after his son had been lost to him.  Silently, she cursed Maria Lancer for bringing this heartache back to him.  She feared what it would do to him, what it would mean for the sons.  She reached out and laid a hand on his arm.  “Senor, come back to the hacienda and…”

“I’ll be along after a while, Mercedes,” Murdoch said, cutting her off.  They stared at each other for several moments, so much unspoken between them.  She had been Catherine’s best friend here on the ranch, and his silent accuser when he’d surrendered Scott to Harlan.  So much, good and bad, between them. 

After watching his face for a time, Mercedes sighed and said, “Si, Senor.  I will tell Rosalita you have returned.  She will have a meal ready for you.”

Mercedes turned and walked past Murdoch, leaving the grieving man alone.  Murdoch watched her for a moment, then unable to stop himself, he called out to her.  “You knew, didn’t you?”

Mercedes stopped and stared ahead for a moment, then slowly turned and studied the suffering man.  He was not a man who would appreciate being lied to.  She simply nodded her head yes, held his gaze for a further moment, then turned and continued on her way. 

Murdoch stared after her as she made her way down the gentle knoll, wondering how many others had seen what he had been blind to, wondering why others had been able to see when he had not.  Because he was a fool.  A fool to love her, a fool to trust her, a fool to long for her.  Because he knew he still longed for her, knew he would for the rest of his life.  The only thing that exceeded his hate for her now was his love for her.  A fool.  A weak, stupid fool.  Murdoch cursed himself and watched as Mercedes turned to her left and disappeared through the willow trees.  Once she was out of sight, Murdoch turned and walked to the center of the small graveyard.  He stood there, staring down at the granite headstone.  How had his life turned so…empty?  He knelt down and blinked away the tears.  He reached out and pulled a handful of weeds from the grave, saw that Mercedes had left a small bouquet of spring flowers next to the headstone.  Two and a half years ago, just before leaving for Matamoras, the headstone had arrived from San Francisco, and he’d had it set.  He laid his hand on the top of the headstone, then slowly let it travel down the front of the cold granite.  His fingers lingered on the lettering, and tears filled his eyes once again.  He read what he’d had carved on the granite, Catherine Elizabeth Lancer, 21 June 1825-12 September 1846, Beloved wife and mother. Three months after her death, he had returned to Carterville and had her body brought back to the ranch.  He couldn’t bare the thought of his beloved Catherine laying in a strange town, surrounded by strangers, alone, her grave untended.  It had haunted his waking moments, and his sleeping moments as well. 

He looked at the wording on the headstone again, and sighed.  That she was a beloved wife, there was no question.  That she was a beloved mother, it had been his plan to raise their son to know her as best he could, to fill his son with a love for his mother that she would have received had she lived.  He had been thwarted in that plan, but he hoped Harlan at least would see to it that Scott knew about and loved his mother.  At least until he could retrieve his boy.  Both his boys.  A sudden stab of pain, so fiery, so cutting, it stole his breath away.

“Johnny,” he whispered, bowing his head and giving in to the sob of grief that tore through his chest.  His baby boy, taken from him.  He had searched for two months, heart-sore and frantic, but he’d found no trace of them.  Not after they’d crossed the border.

“Damn you, Maria, damn you to hell,” Murdoch said, his voice raw with hatred.  He clenched his eyes closed as tears streamed down his face, tears for Johnny, tears for Scott.  Tears for himself.

He’d tried so hard to make a good life for her.  Had loved her, cared for her, and this was how she’d repaid him.  Stealing away in the middle of the night, taking his son with her.  He opened his eyes and stared at the headstone.  Barely a month after returning to the ranch with his new bride, he’d come to Catherine’s grave, to explain things to her.  It had been his habit to visit her grave once a week, but he realized with a new wife, that would not be possible.  He’d wanted Catherine to understand.  She was gone, and he was alive, and his life was going forward.  He knew she’d understand that he couldn’t come as often as he had.  And those first few months with Maria, he’d only come to the grave two or three times.  But even that had proved too often for Maria when she’d discovered the graveyard.  She’d cried, accused him of still loving his dead wife.  So, he’d given in to her tears and stopped his visits.  Was that the first warning?  Should he have known then that she was not secure in his love?  Could he have done anything differently? 

The same questions had been haunting him for two months now.  And just as when they had first swirled in his mind, he still had no answers.  He knelt there until the knees of his trousers were soaked with dew, then he reached up and rested his hand on the top of the headstone again. 

“She left me, Catherine.  She left me and took Johnny with her.  I don’t know what to do,” he whispered, his voice choked with tears.  “I’ve searched everywhere I could think of, and they’re just gone.  I’m so alone, my darling,” Murdoch cried.  “I’m so lost.  I don’t know what to do anymore.”

His eyes clouded with tears again as he gave in to his grief.  He was so tired, so confused and heartbroken.  Again.  Maria’s love had promised him a release from his heartbreak, and she had taken that love away, leaving in its place the painfully familiar ache in his heart and soul.  And he didn’t know what to do. 

Murdoch lifted his head and swiped his hand across his face.  He took in a deep, ragged breath, and when he let it go, his eyes landed on the headstone again.  On one word on the headstone.  Mother.  Catherine had given him a son.  A son held in Boston by Catherine’s father.  His son, living three thousand miles away from him, when he should be here at the ranch.  The son he had nearly sacrificed to Maria’s infidelity.  Murdoch’s breath quickened, and he dragged himself to his feet.  Suddenly, he knew what to do, remembered what he’d planned to do all along.  He had to go to Boston.  He had to bring Scott home.  The boy was his son, and he had a right to him.  He glanced down at Catherine’s grave again, then turned and walked down the knoll toward his horse. 

Murdoch reached up and grabbed the saddle, ready to mount, when he stopped and leaned his head against the cool leather.  But what of John?  How could he go to Boston, be gone for the better part of a year, and hope to find his baby boy when he got back?  The anguished question tore at his heart.  Scott would be five this year, and he couldn’t allow Harlan to keep him any longer, but if he left for Boston, Maria’s trail would be so cold by the time he got back, there would be no way he could ever find them. 

Hatred again raged in his chest, and he clenched his hand into a fist and wanted desperately to hit something.  He backed away from his horse and walked a few paces along the willow trees.  This was too much.  God was expecting too much of him.  He couldn’t sacrifice one son for the other.  Leave Scott in Boston and continue his search for Johnny and Maria, or go after Scott and lose any chance he had of finding them.  There had to be a way.  What kind of a God would expect a man to do this? 

Murdoch stared off into the distance, his mind in turmoil, and then it came to him.  When he’d left two months ago to search, Cipriano and Paul had both volunteered to go with him, but he’d refused their offer.  Perhaps…could he ask it of them now?  Could he ask them to continue the search while he traveled to Boston?  Would that be fair to them? 

With no clear answer, Murdoch turned around and walked back over to his horse, then mounted and eased the big chestnut toward the trail.  There had to be a way to do both.  There just had to be.  He couldn’t leave Scott another year in Boston.  And he couldn’t abandon the search for John.  John was just a baby, and he needed his father.  With a growing resolve stiffening his spine, he kicked his horse to a lope, and headed for the hacienda.  He would talk to Cipriano and Paul, and together, they would find a way to do this.  The search had to go on.  He couldn’t leave John to Fate.


*     *     *


In a dusty, ramshackle room in a run-down cantina, in a village passed over by life, a small dark-haired boy with startling blue eyes played with a wooden toy horse.  His clothes, like his face and chubby hands, were soiled.  But, as with all children his age, he didn’t notice.  Nor did he notice the noise coming from the cantina downstairs.  He sat in the middle of the floor, his horse in his hands, talking to himself in that tongue of his, part baby gibberish, part random words.  His mama was asleep on the bed, and the man was not there.  He leaned forward and laid his hands on the dirty floor, pushed off and stood up, his legs wobbly under him.  He bent over and picked up his horse and toddled across the room, hoping his mama would see him.  On the other side of the door, a deep, booming voice suddenly called out, and he stopped on his trek toward the bed.

“Papa,” he said, staring at the door.  “Papa,” he repeated. 

The voice moved away, and the boy stood there watching the door, a face appearing from his memory.  A straight jaw, sharp chin, his hands reaching up and laying on each side of that face.  Blue eyes that looked at him, wavy hair the color of his toy horse.

“Papa,” he whispered again as the image began to fade. 

He continued to the bed, the memory settling back into the recesses of his young mind.  The memory would come again, but less frequently as time and distance removed him from the source of that memory.  And each time it came back, it would be less defined, less real.  And then it would become separated from the word, from Papa.  And once that separation occurred, the memory would be set adrift, lost in the mists of unreachable baby memories.  And for years to come, the image would be buried deep in his mind, forgotten by him except in those rare, fleeting moments when it would find its way to the surface of his existence as he dreamed, haunting him on waking with its unexplainable familiarity, the image fading too quickly to grasp, until finally, the image would be gone, leaving without his notice, without farewell.  Simply gone.

The boy climbed up on the bed and nestled against his mother’s slumbering body.  Sleep crept up on him, and his body melted into his mother’s side.  As he drifted off to sleep, the image hovered, and he whispered the word, Papa.                                   



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