Special thanks to Liette for her encouragement and help as a beta reader.
Johnny Madrid Lancer placed a large piece of log on the chopping block and swung the axe down with a ferocity born of frustration and anger. The wood split cleanly in two, the pieces bouncing right off the block from the strength of the blow.
Sometimes he thought he was beginning to get the hang of life on a prosperous cattle ranch. Then there were days, like today, when everything went wrong and he began to question his sanity in agreeing to give it a go.
To forestall the inevitable argument with his Old Man, he’d left the dinner table as quickly as he could and came outside to cool off. The physical task of chopping wood was just the outlet he needed to relieve his pent-up frustration and the time alone gave him space to fight back the compelling urge to saddle Barranca and ride out of this place forever.
So many rules.
“You leave your gun belt at the door or you don’t live under this roof.”
So many expectations.
“As a partner in this ranch you have to pull your weight and take your responsibilities seriously.”
Johnny lined up another piece of wood. Thwack! Two more pieces joined the growing pile on the ground beside him.
“That fence needs fixing today – not tomorrow or next week. Today!”
“We start work at dawn here, Johnny.”
“We eat supper as a family and I expect you to be here on time.”
“The bookkeeping is important, Son, it can’t wait until you feel like doing it.”
Don’t do the other.
“I want you to come to the town dance on Saturday night. It’s important that people around here have the chance to get to know you.”
“You were due back three hours ago. Where have you been?”
“You’re a Lancer now and there are certain social conventions that you need to keep in mind.”
“Watch your language at the table!”
Stay right where you are!
They wanted too much from him. Too much, too fast. He couldn’t do it. He’d end up disappointing them; he knew he already had.
He slammed the axe into another log.
Life had been so much simpler before he came to Lancer.
Back then, he’d been free.
Free from rules. Free from expectations.
Free to get up at dawn or at noon or not at all if the fancy struck him.
Free to visit a brothel without facing a disapproving frown the next day.
Free to saddle his horse and ride wherever the wind took him.
Free from anyone telling him what to do and how and when to do it.
Johnny paused, put down the axe and wiped sweat off his face with the back of his hand. He glanced back at the hacienda as the muted sound of voices drifted toward him. It was close to dusk and the lamps were already lit in the great room, spilling a warm inviting glow through the large windows.
He could picture the scene: Murdoch pouring a glass of whiskey for himself and Scott, commenting on his younger son’s absence; Scott telling his father to back off and leave his brother be, then settling down with a book; Teresa casting a concerned glance out of the window before picking up her sewing.
Sure, he’d been free before.
Free to live a life of distrust and wariness, always looking over his shoulder.
Free to bed whores but not to love a woman and be loved in return.
Free to take on a job and then move on… and on…, with no place to call his own.
Free to die young and bloody, with no one to mourn his passing.
He hefted the axe.
Tense muscles relaxed as anger abated. He brought the axe down with less vigour, split the last log then laid the axe back on the block. He stacked the wood on the pile, pulled on his shirt and wiped the sweat from his face with his sleeve.
Looking towards the hacienda again he smiled softly. Memories of the harsh reality of life before Lancer reminded him of what he knew deep down. He would never run, never return to the life he had before. Sure it could be tough at times, learning to fit into this new life. But the truth was, at Lancer he’d found a place to belong; a place where he could dare to imagine the future; a place where he could care and be cared for.
It was what he’d secretly dreamed of most of his life and despaired of ever having.
It was home.