The old grandfather clock ticked away the minutes with its steady rhythm while the logs in the fireplace sparked in protest at the licking flames. Except for these unobtrusive sounds, the great room was silent. Silent but not empty.
Murdoch Lancer sat at his desk, staring intently at his youngest son. Johnny lay sleeping in front of the fire and as his father watched, he stirred, a deep sigh escaping from his mouth. The boy was exhausted. For the past three days he had been doing both his brother’s and his own work so that Scott could meet an old friend in San Francisco. The increased workload was starting to tell and Murdoch was worried that the boy was pushing himself too hard. At this time of the evening Johnny was usually heading off to town, not sleeping in front of the fire.
Murdoch smiled, remembering how Johnny had looked when he straggled home late, long after the other hands had called it a day, tired and hungry after a hard day of toil. The fact that he had put up only a token protest when Teresa insisted he wash up before sitting down to his supper betrayed just how worn out he really was. Johnny and Teresa enjoyed their spirited bantering over the differences in “cleaning up” habits between Johnny and his brother, Scott.
But tonight, Johnny had given in as soon as he saw the determined look on her face.After finishing his meal, Johnny moved to his favorite spot by the fire, easing his stiff and aching body to the floor. With a tentative glance and quick smile, he acknowledged his father, “Hey, Murdoch.” There had been no further conversation and ten minutes later, Johnny was sound asleep.
You don’t feel too easy in my company, do you son?
Standing up slowly, stretching his tight and protesting back muscles, Murdoch walked over to the big leather armchair next to the fireplace. In a pensive mood, he lowered himself into the comfortable cushions of the big chair and observed his youngest son. Black, silken hair framed the handsome face, the long, dark eyelashes fanning against the high cheekbones tanned by the sun.
“A bonny lad.” Murdoch thought, struck suddenly by an expression he had not heard for more than forty years.
Murdoch had been barely ten when his mother died, but he remembered her vividly, especially her intense blue eyes that always seemed to shine and sparkle. When she laughed, her eyes reflected her joy, warming everything and everyone around her. Johnny had inherited his grandmother’s eyes, both their startling blue color and their unforgettable effect on anyone privileged to gaze into their depths. He studied his son’s face, wishing he could meet Johnny’s eyes without causing the tension and flaring tempers that seemed to be the result any time the two of them tried to move beyond mundane conversation.
The first words he had spoken directly to his youngest son that first day when Scott and Johnny had come to the ranch were, “You have your mother’s temper.” They were simply the first words he could force himself to say, astonished at how like Maria the boy really was. Seeing him standing there in the great room had been like seeing Maria again and he was totally unprepared for the hurt that assailed him then. He masked it by turning abruptly to Scott, speaking of Catherine, but he had not failed to notice the hurt, searching look from those eyes so like those of his own mother. He pictured her in his mind’s eye, that welcoming, loving look on her face, her lilting voice calling him, “A bonny lad.” She called him that often.
And she would have said it about you, too, son.
Yes, the boy had his grandmother’s eyes, but almost everything else about Johnny reminded him of Maria. Johnny had inherited so many things from Maria, her beautiful, delicately chiselled face, her temper, so quick to flare, yet just as quick to subside, her unconquerable spirit, and her brilliant smile. Yes, Johnny had Maria’s infectious smile and it had that same heart stopping effect on Murdoch—it warmed his very soul.
He studied his sleeping son, searching for some part of himself in the boy. Stubbornness, determination, and pride seemed to be the only things he had passed on to Johnny, qualities he had inherited from his own father.
Can’t really call them qualities…
He remembered how his father had been so distant, unable to show any feelings or emotion. As a boy, Murdoch thought his father cold, carved from ice, in total contrast to his warm, gentle and loving mother. After his mother died, it seemed he could do nothing right in his father’s eyes, could never see acceptance and love in the man’s face. His father’s cold aloofness had driven Murdoch from his home as a young man. Without his mother’s warmth and love, there was nothing to keep him there, so he set off for a new country to build a new life. With a sudden flash of insight he wondered if Johnny sometimes felt the same way about him.
Murdoch blinked, slowly moving his gaze to stare into the fire, reluctant to turn away from his son, but unable to look at him any longer. Sometimes Johnny’s presence brought back memories he found hard to bear, memories of both Maria and his own father.
Murdoch loved Maria with an intensity he had not thought possible. Catherine’s death and the effective loss of the newborn son he had never seen had left him bereft, frozen. Maria had brought him warmth and laughter, melted the ice around his heart, and he still loved her, even though he couldn’t understand why she left him without a word, remained hidden from him forever.
Maria had loved him, Murdoch knew that, but she had not loved him enough. Her restless spirit could not be tamed and she was never still, never at peace, always wanting more, more than Murdoch could give. She was like some lovely untamed wild thing that could not survive captivity. He had tried, oh how he had tried, to gentle her, to understand her, but in the end her restless spirit prevailed and she ran away, taking their young son with her. How different things might have been if she had only left Johnny behind at Lancer…
Briefly closing his eyes, he pictured Johnny as a toddler, safe in his mother’s arms, waving bye-bye to his Papa. Murdoch had waved back on that fateful day, smiling at his son, but already turning his horse away, his mind on his cattle buying trip and never imagining that it would be eighteen years before he would see that little boy again.
Did you ever regret taking my son from his home, from my love, Maria?
Murdoch asked the question silently, knowing that he would never find the answer, no matter how many times he asked. And each time he asked, he felt the pain anew. Whenever he thought of her, he was driven into his own father’s stoic, cold mannerisms and he realized this caused Johnny to doubt that he had ever loved Maria. Yet Murdoch felt powerless to quell his son’s fears.
He must think I used her, or hurt her in some way.
The thought saddened him and he wondered if Maria had lied to Johnny, accused him of mistreating her. He wanted desperately to know, but pride and the pain of years of heartache, born of her sudden and unexpected departure from Lancer, prevented him from doing the one thing he so badly wanted to do—talk to his son.
If only Johnny knew how much I loved her then, how much I still love her, maybe he could forgive me for all those years he was hurting, scared, abused and so very alone, barely surviving his wretched life.
Anger swelled in Murdoch’s chest as he thought of the life Johnny had been forced to lead because his mother and father had been unable to stay together. The Pinkerton report had shocked and horrified him. He had actually broken down and cried while reading it, unable to accept that his son had experienced such cruelty, so much pain. No one deserved the life Johnny had been forced to live, let alone this boy, this gentle, compassionate, and so very loving boy.
Will you ever be able to love me, Johnny?
Murdoch’s heart was heavy with longing as he struggled with how to bridge the gap between himself and his youngest son. He had been unable to hide the turmoil he felt when he saw Maria in Johnny’s face, but he hadn’t been able to explain that to Johnny. When he thought back over Johnny’s time at the ranch, he was appalled at the way he had reacted, the words he had spoken, the anger and mistrust he had so often shown his youngest son. It was as though he had become his father, stoic, cold, and disapproving.
How can I make you understand, Johnny? How do I let you know how much you mean to me? All I seem to do is hurt you, but I don’t know what to do differently…
He felt a flush of shame as he recalled the time Johnny had arrived home late with a wild stallion in tow. The boy had been so excited, so proud, so eagerly seeking his father’s approval, but Murdoch had chosen to ignore the sparkle in Johnny’s eyes, instead turning his anger on him, making him feel inadequate. Murdoch remembered how hard Johnny had struggled to meet him half-way, to apologize for leaving his work undone while he chased the stallion. And he remembered his own words, words that mirrored those his own father had spoken to him, “That’s not good enough.” He had ignored the hurt in Johnny’s eyes, angry that the boy had been so irresponsible and chilled by the easy way he had shot down the man who tried to steal the stallion. He had turned on Johnny, letting him see the full force of his anger, feel his mistrust and the boy felt so inadequate, so unworthy, that he left Lancer.
He had driven his son away, just as his father had driven him to seek another life. He longed to go after him, to make the boy understand how much he really needed him, but the stubborn, proud streak wouldn’t let him and it was Scott who had gone after Johnny—and returned unsuccessfully.
I should have been the one to go after him. I was the one who drove him away. Scott told me that I don’t give an inch and he was right.
Miraculously, Johnny had come home, but his homecoming brought him more hurt. Stryker and his men were waiting for Johnny, waiting to kill him, and Murdoch had been frantic to make the boy ride out before they realized he was there. He’d spoken harshly, trying to force the boy to leave, to save his life. Yet he had to admit to himself that his previous anger and his own hurt that Johnny could leave him so easily had prompted him to choose words that should have remained forever unspoken.
Who told you to come back? I don’t need you now or ever, now get off my land.
Murdoch knew that the impact of those careless, hateful words would haunt him forever, along with the memory of the hurt and pain in Johnny’s eyes as he stared at his father in hopeless disbelief, the way the boy had hung his head trying to hide his pain.
Thankfully, everything had turned out fine in the end, despite Scott taking a bullet in his shoulder. Thank the lord, Johnny had stayed, and Murdoch had managed to reach out to him in a small way, the two of them chasing off after some more wild horses. But it wasn’t enough.
Why couldn’t I apologize to him, explain why I said what I did, tell him straight out how much it meant that he came home?
Murdoch suddenly realised they had both shrugged off that confrontation with the events that followed. But he knew Johnny hadn’t forgotten, that those same words haunted him, kept him always wondering if his father really wanted him at Lancer.
I have to talk to him about it, make him understand that I want him. But there’s so much between us already, I just don’t know how. Yet, I have to make the effort. He’s my son, he’s been hurt enough, and I don’t want to be the one who hurts him now. I have to find a way to reach out to him.
Murdoch promised himself that he would find a way to talk with Johnny, no matter how difficult he found it. The actual doing would be the hard bit, but it couldn’t possibly be as hard as losing his son again. But he would have to act fast. They had lost so much time, and the time they had left was running out as far as Johnny was concerned. Murdoch prayed that God would grant them the time they needed to heal, to build a relationship, form a bond so strong that what ever mistakes he made—and Murdoch knew he was capable of making many as far as Johnny was concerned—could not break it.
Oh, how he wanted that bond! He admitted to himself that he would have to prove it, that strengthening it meant he would have to bend, to speak and act in ways uncomfortable to him. He would have to treat his son the way he wished his own father had treated him. He didn’t quite know how, but he was determined to find a way.
Murdoch yawned, the warmth from the fire draining his strength. He smiled down at his son and gave in to the lure of sleep, closing his eyes and dreaming of building a new relationship with this boy he needed so much.
Moaning softly as his senses returned, Johnny stretched, arms and legs sprawled in all directions.
Boy, nuthin’ like a quick siesta to perk ya up.
He sat up and started guiltily. What would the Old Man think of him sacking out in front of the fire? He certainly wouldn’t approve… Johnny suddenly noticed his father asleep in the chair and he was mesmerized by the sight. He had never seen his father asleep, not during the day anyway. The man always seemed to be busy with ranch work or paper work, his mind always ticking over about something. He was never still or restful.
Johnny’s heart lurched. Was Murdoch sick? He’d never seen him sick either and the thought scared him. He wanted to shake Murdoch, wake him up to ask, but common sense prevailed and Johnny realised how late it was, understanding that his father had simply given in to exhaustion like he had earlier. Johnny laughed out loud as a deafening snore resounded through the great room.
Well, Old Man, you sound like a bear with a sore head, dern near big as one too!
Watching his father’s normally granite-hewn features relaxed in sleep, Johnny thought back to how he had been taken aback by his father’s height at their first meeting. He had stood in this very great room, forced to look upward in order to lock eyes with the man he hated. He had no memory of his father, and throughout his early life his mind had created images of a cruel man, unloving and unfeeling. He had never thought of his father as loving—the man had to be mean and uncaring, how else could he have abandoned his son? Yet staring at the man that first day, prepared to despise him, Johnny had been unable to hate him. He had sensed something, but it was so fleeting, and he had covered his lapse with insolence.
“You’ve got your mother’s temper,” Murdoch commented after a jibe from Johnny.What a thing to say! But it was so true, his mother had a temper that would have you running for the hills, although her tirades ebbed as quickly as they began. Johnny had been astonished that his father could remember anything at all about his mother after all that time. He remembered thinking, ‘She must have made some tiny impression on you, then.’
Somehow he had managed to keep his own temper in check, forcing it to simmer beneath a nonchalant exterior as that day flew by, first the fire, then a meal and then to bed, the night passing far slower than the day. Despite what he had said to Scott the following morning, he had slept badly, his mind sifting through the events of one of the longest days of his life.
Finding out about Scott had shaken him badly, but he knew Scott had been equally stunned. A Boston dandy and Johnny Madrid! Brothers! Well, that bit of information was going to shock a lot of people for a very long time to come. Frankly, he didn’t care who it shocked. After the initial surprise passed, he was astonished at how easily he accepted Scott into his life. It was as though Scott had always been there and Johnny couldn’t image being without him again.
Scott had reached out to Johnny emotionally, knowing instinctively how to handle his younger brother. They needed each other, found support and companionship that had grown, even in such a short space of time, into an unbreakable bond of trust, loyalty, friendship and love. Johnny trusted Scott with his life and there were very few people he could ever remember giving that kind of trust.
Johnny stared longingly at his father. He wanted that same kind of relationship with Murdoch. His father loved Scott, approved of him and relied on him, they got on so well. Oh, they had the odd disagreement, but they never argued the way Johnny and Murdoch did; stand-up, eyeball-to-eyeball shouting matches, and always about something so trivial. Scott just had the knack of handling the Old Man while Johnny always managed to say the wrong thing at the wrong time. And Murdoch was just as bad.
Their callus words cut each other deeply, but Johnny never meant any of his. They were spat out in his momentary fury and he regretted them as soon as they left his lips, but his pride prevented him from taking them back with an apology. It was a funny thing, but Murdoch was the only person Johnny ever tried to wound with words and he couldn’t understand what drove him to act that way towards his father.
Johnny wondered if his father really meant all of the things he said in the heat of a fracas. He was so afraid to find out, but he needed to know how his father felt about him. Did Murdoch care at all? Lancer didn’t need Johnny Madrid’s gun anymore, so did Murdoch Lancer want Johnny Lancer? He was terrified that the answer was “no.”
He remembered their last argument—was it only a couple of days ago? He’d stormed from the house, slamming the door savagely. Scott followed hard on his heels, grabbing his arm and forcing him to stop.
“Leave me be, Scott,” he shouted, pushing his brother away.
“Where are you going, Johnny? Come back inside. Running away won’t make it any easier, it will only put up another wall between the two of you. You need to talk about this.” Scott’s voice was soft with caring and so calm. Scott was always so logical, but Johnny didn’t feel like being logical right that minute.
“I ain’t runnin’ away, I’m leavin’ before I hit him,” Johnny snapped back, his voice edged with anger.
“Would you really hit him, Johnny?” Scott asked, his voice gentle and measured, his hand still firmly grasping Johnny’s shoulder.
“Yes!.… No!… I don’t know… Maybe. Scott, he gets me so riled that I just explode. I can’t talk to him, it’s so hard, he makes me feel so … so useless, he thinks so little of me,” Johnny looked away and hung his head, unable to meet his brother’s eyes. He didn’t want Scott to see his tears.
Scott placed both his hands on Johnny’s shoulders and pulled him close, “Johnny, that’s just not true. He loves you, I know he does. But he’s just like you—he’s scared to show you how he feels about you and he’s scared to find out how you feel about him. He thinks you hate him.”
“How could he think that?” Johnny’s voice echoed his disbelief.
“The same way you believe he thinks so little of you.” Scott smiled encouragingly.
Johnny sighed, a tear rolled down his cheek and he tried to pull away from Scott, his anger subsiding into despair.
Scott held on tight, refusing to let him break away. “No, Johnny, you need to talk this through with Murdoch. This can’t continue. You don’t hate him and he doesn’t hate you.”
“No, I don’t, not now. I know it wasn’t his fault, my mother leavin’. I know he looked for me, he did all he could. It took him years and it cost him so much—and not just in money. He never really gave up on me, did he, Scott?” Johnny’s voice faltered and he began to sob.
Scott pulled him into a hug, waiting for Johnny’s tears to stop, wanting to comfort his brother, but needing to stay strong enough to make him see what had to happen next. “No, he didn’t, Johnny, and you can’t give up on him, no matter how hard it is. You need him, Johnny, and he needs you. But you’ve both got to give, bend a little and push down that stubborn pride. It won’t be easy, but you have to try. You both have to reach out.”
“I know, we both want to be heard, get our own way and when we don’t, we lash out,” Johnny smiled sheepishly, realizing that he and Murdoch were much too alike, too stubborn, and too proud. He saw the approval in Scott’s eyes and smiled at his brother.
He must get awful tired of bein’ in the middle between me and the Old Man.
“You’re right, Scott. I … I’ll try and talk to him.”
When the boys returned to the house, Murdoch was nowhere to be seen, and Johnny breathed a sigh of relief. Scott was right, they needed to talk, but not tonight. He needed to prepare himself for that battle. No it would not be a battle, it should be a calm discussion. Then he laughed to himself. Actually, it would probably resemble a war. And he was not ready to face that yet. He just needed a little more time.
Despite his good intentions, neither Murdoch nor Johnny had mentioned the row and it had hung between them ever since…
Johnny stared into the fire, wondering if he would ever find the nerve to reach out to his father the way Scott wanted him too, the way he needed to. Murdoch’s sudden movement as he started awake startled Johnny. “You okay, Murdoch?” he asked, unable to hide his concern.
“Yes, son. What time is it?”
“‘Midnight,” Johnny glanced at the clock.
“The end of one day and the beginning of another.” Murdoch contemplated his son. Could this be the time to talk to Johnny? Putting it off yet again wasn’t going to make it any easier. Murdoch looked down at the boy and sat back in the chair, he needed to sit down for this.
“I want to… No. I need to talk to you, son. I think we need to clear the air between us, and we have to do it now, before it’s too late.”
Johnny’s face reddened, he wasn’t ready, but Murdoch was right. “Yes, sir. I think you’re right.”
Both men sat silently, wanting to connect, but not knowing what to do next. Murdoch finally decided that he had to be the one to make the first move. He had to reach out to Johnny.
“Johnny, about the other day, I owe you an apology. You were two days late getting home and you sent no word. I was worried about you, son. Not about the money you were bringing back, but about you, Johnny. I should have told you that, not made you feel that I didn’t trust you.”
“No, Murdoch, I was in the wrong. All you did was ask me where I’d been and I jumped down your throat,” Johnny answered, feeling guilty about the way he had spoken to his father at the time.
Silence hung heavy in the room for a long minute as both men pondered how their words and actions had been so misunderstood, caused such heartache.
“Look, son, I’m no good at saying what I feel. Whenever I try, it comes out all wrong,” Murdoch finally managed to force the words out, embarrassed at his own openness. It was so tempting to keep it all inside, to act as his own father had acted.
He took a deep breath and continued, “I don’t know how to talk to you, Johnny. I want to, but I’m afraid. I’m not good at this and you are so easy to hurt. I don’t want to hurt you, son, but I want us to talk. Will you help me?”
Johnny looked away, his turn to be embarrassed. Murdoch was right, he was easy to hurt, but that was the last thing he wanted to admit to his father. Gunfighters who were easy to hurt didn’t live long and he was uncomfortable accepting that his father had the power to wound him.
He stared at Murdoch again, trying to convince him that he was wrong, “No, that’s not true.” But he knew that Murdoch could see through his lie and he lowered his eyes, cheeks flaming in shame and frustration. He wanted to talk to his father so badly, why couldn’t he do anything except disagree and argue?
Murdoch felt his heart breaking for his boy who looked so young, so vulnerable. He had felt Johnny’s sense of worthlessness ever since the young man first arrived at Lancer and it cut him to the quick that his son thought so little of himself. But he didn’t have a clue about how to deal with it. Johnny’s feeling of unworthiness was evident now, the boy couldn’t look his father in the eye.
Murdoch sat forward in his chair and spoke from his heart, “John, you don’t have to be afraid of what I think of you. I’m your father. Whatever you say, whatever you do, I won’t think any less of you.”
The dark head remained bowed, the blue eyes hidden. Murdoch noticed that Johnny’s fists were clenched so tightly his knuckles were white. “Johnny, have I said the wrong thing again?”
Johnny didn’t answer, didn’t move and Murdoch let out a big sigh. He had hurt his boy again and he didn’t know how. He only knew that he had to make him understand. He tried again.
“Johnny, I’m proud of you, of the man you are. Despite the knocks life dealt you, you picked yourself up and found the courage to carry on. I’m proud that you’re my son.” Murdoch watched Johnny fiddle with the medallion hanging around his neck, his body as taut as a bowstring, still unable to meet his father’s eyes. He forced himself to continue, to try and reach out to his son.
“The Pinkerton report, it… it shocked me, when I found out what you endured… Please forgive me, son. If I could wipe all the hurt from your life, I would. I know I’m responsible for every…” Murdoch stopped abruptly as Johnny jumped to his feet, his eyes flashing with anger.
“No!” He shouted. “No, it wasn’t your fault. I know that now. My mother took me away from my home, from you… I hate her, she…” Johnny halted his anguish-filled outburst, shocked at what he had said. He stood, shaking, only inches from his father.
Murdoch rose slowly from the chair and Johnny backed away. The nearness of his father made him uneasy, he wasn’t going to be able to do this. He turned, wanting to get away, all of his instincts demanding that he run, and headed for the door.
Murdoch lunged forward, taking hold of Johnny’s shoulders firmly, yet gently. “No. You’re not running from me now. Not this time, son. You don’t have to be afraid of me, of what I might think. What do you think I’m going to do? Take a belt to you for answering me back, beat you senseless for being in the same room as me? I know how Maria’s men treated you. I know exactly why you hate her, and I also know how much you loved her.”
Murdoch felt Johnny’s body tremble with tension, then suddenly the bowstring snapped and his son’s knees buckled. Murdoch supported Johnny’s weight, gently lowering him to the floor, taking him in his arms and holding him while the tears fell and the pain flowed out in heartbreaking sobs. He pressed the dark head to his chest, stroking the silky hair and simply offered his son love and support as the boy cried tears too long held inside. Slowly Johnny’s breathing eased, the shaking abated, and he fell into exhausted sleep.
Murdoch shifted gingerly, not wanting to wake his son, but needing to ease his aching leg. He listened to the measured ticking of the big clock, the soft hiss of the dying fire. Hours had passed since Johnny had finally given in to the exhaustion exacerbated by his seething emotions. Thank goodness, the boy had finally fallen asleep. As he cradled his son in his arms, Murdoch replayed their conversation, time and again, in his mind.
He had come so far, in so short a time. Earlier in the evening he hadn’t known how to speak to his son, had been afraid to try, unsure of how to reach out, ashamed to be the first to bend. But he had found the will to do it, letting the abuse Johnny had suffered at the hands of Maria’s men fuel his determination to break the impasse with his son.
Maria’s men – men who had wanted her, but not her son. Each time he thought about it, Murdoch was appalled. People had known about Johnny’s situation, but had turned a blind eye, including, so it seemed his own mother. When she died he had been forced to fend for himself, to steal in order to eat. How many times had the boy been thrown into a jail cell for simply trying to survive, how many more beatings had he endured? As he grew older, Johnny had found another way to survive—he had become a gunhawk, he had become Johnny Madrid.
Murdoch was amazed at how easy it was to accept those words now. Yesterday, he would have felt the familiar unease, the embarrassment of admitting that any son of his could be a killer-for-hire. Now, he was filled with pride for the way his boy had used his wits and his talents to carve out a life in the midst of despair. Somehow, he would find a way to make Johnny believe that.
Gently stroking his son’s silky hair, he wondered if he had pushed Johnny too far, too fast. The boy had collapsed into his arms, all his pent up anger, bitterness, resentment and hate finally finding a release. For the first time, Johnny had allowed himself to be vulnerable in front of his father and he was bound to have second thoughts about it. Had he done the right thing? Would Johnny thank him or resent him for it?
Johnny awakened slowly, opening his eyes to find his father’s eyes upon him, his father’s arms around him. The memory of the night’s events returned suddenly and he was overcome with shame. What must Murdoch think of him, acting like such a baby? He tried to pull away, but Murdoch held tight, and Johnny began to struggle.
“Let me go,” he pleaded. He needed to get away, to hide from the disapproval he knew he would see in his father’s eyes.
Murdoch’s voice was soft and firm, his big hands gentle, but insistent. “No, son, not now, not when you need me. I wasn’t there for you before, when you were hurting and alone. I couldn’t help you then, but I’m here now. I want to help you now.” He took a deep breath and said the unfamiliar words, “Please, let me help.”
Murdoch heard Johnny’s sudden intake of breath, felt the fight drain out of him as the tense body relaxed. His hand stroked the dark head, guiding it back to his shoulder. “When you were a little boy, if you were ever scared or upset, you always came and sat on my knee, and there you would stay, until you fell asleep.”
“I don’t remember anything about you, nothin’, not even that,” Johnny felt tears filling his eyes again, finding it hard to speak past the lump in his throat. Murdoch made a soothing sound, his hands pulling Johnny closer, and suddenly, it was all right. There was no disapproval in Murdoch’s voice or touch, only comfort and acceptance. He stole a look at his father, letting his tears fall, no longer ashamed to let Murdoch see his pain, no longer afraid of his father’s reaction. His father’s eyes were bright with unshed tears, and full of love.
Murdoch smiled as he released his son, letting him sit upright beside him. Johnny moved closer, needing the closeness with his father to continue. Murdoch put an arm around the boy’s shoulders, secretly pleased that Johnny was allowing him this contact.
“My mother told me you didn’t want me. She said you thought I was a mistake, that I wasn’t your son, but the result of a drunken man’s lust. She said you told her you never wanted to marry her.” Johnny had carried that crushing burden long enough and it felt good to share the load with his father.
“How could she say such callus and cruel things?” Murdoch was astounded. “I married your mother because I loved her. You were conceived in love, I did want you, son. I loved you the very first minute I laid eyes on you. The first time I held you, I cried. Your mother laughed at me then, a big man like me crying over something so small. But you weren’t small to me, Johnny, you were my whole world.”
Murdoch’s voice trembled with emotion. Why had Maria said such cruel things to a child, their child, a child he had witnessed being born, who for two years he had raised, loved, worried over, prayed over. The child she had taken from him. Why? There were still no answers. He was aware of Johnny studying his face.
“I think she thought that if I hated you enough, I would never want to find you, never find out the truth about you.” Johnny’s voice was barely audible and again, tears slipped down his cheeks. He couldn’t believe his father had ever cried over him, and that Murdoch would actually tell him about it overwhelmed him. How could he tell Murdoch he had hated him? Would he drive his father away when he said it? He drew a deep, shaky breath and felt his father take hold of his hand, squeezing it tightly, offering his support. He forced himself to speak.
“I did hate you, Murdoch. For a long time I wanted to put a bullet in your brain. I even dreamed about how I’d do it one day.” Johnny shivered at his confession.
“Is that how you feel now?” Murdoch held his son’s gaze, refusing to let him look away.
“No. … No, sir.” There was a pause, “I stopped hating you the day I met you. You weren’t the man I’d imagined. I knew I had to give you a chance.” Johnny wanted to say more, but his throat was tight with fear and longing. Could he say it? What would this strong, silent man who was his father say to him if he did? It didn’t matter, it needed to be said.
Johnny took a deep breath and whispered in a faltering voice, “Murdoch, I… I love you.” He felt his father’s arm tighten around his shoulders.
“And I love you, Johnny, more than you will ever know.” Murdoch drew his son towards him, holding him close, just as he had done all those years ago. He marvelled at how easy it had been to say those words to his son. How could he have been so afraid of three simple words? “I swear I will never give you cause to doubt that again, son. Ever.”
He felt Johnny relax, leaning trustingly against him and looked down to see his son smiling up at him through tears. He returned that smile, tousling the dark hair in a gesture of affection he hadn’t used for twenty years.
Ah, my bonny, blue-eyed laddie.
Murdoch settled himself comfortably against the hearth as his son’s heavy eyelids closed and he drifted into a peaceful sleep. They should both be getting upstairs to bed, but Murdoch was in no hurry to move. The sense of closeness, of understanding and acceptance, was strong in the room and he wanted to savor it for a while. It had been a long, hard road to get to this point, but together, they’d done it. He wished for a moment that he had been able to bring himself to speak this way to his own father, all those years ago. Would it have made a difference? No matter, that was the past, and now, at last, he had a future with both of his sons.
The fire had long since burnt itself out, but the big clock still ticked away, marking time as it had done for years. The old clock had born witness to countless dramas and emotions: birth, death, tears, laughter, fear, courage, anger, happiness, regret, bitterness, sorrow, and hope. And it would observe many future dramas. But tonight, it had marked the release of Johnny’s pain and witnessed his acceptance of his father’s love. There would be plenty of time for them now. Time was theirs to share—the fruit of a fateful decision to reach out.