Thanks to Liette and Jennifer for their support and critical eye.
They should be back from town any time now. In less than fifteen minutes, Maria will serve dinner and the Lancer brothers are well aware that their father expects the family seated at the table promptly.
She listens for the sound of the hacienda’s main door opening, her heart lifting in anticipation, and inwardly smiles at her own reaction. Even though she’s been his wife for just over two years, the feeling of joy tinged with relief when he returns home safely is as strong as it was in the early days of marriage.
She remembers the warnings that the strength of her feelings would fade with time, as the reality of day-to-day life as a married couple replaced the heady days of early love. But the truth is her love for him is even stronger and deeper now than it was back then.
Sitting across from her, Murdoch glances at his timepiece and frowns. His fingers begin to drum on the arm of the chair and she tries to hide her smile. She’s about to reassure him when her ears pick up the sound of horse’s hooves. She raises an eyebrow at him and he rewards her with a sheepish expression. He shouldn’t need her to remind him that it’s rare these days for either son to be late for dinner. They respect his traditions, even if they don’t always understand them.
Through the open window she expects to hear the loud voices and laughter that usually precede the arrival of the Lancer brothers… but not tonight. She frowns. The front door opens and as Scott enters the Great Room alone she stands, the welcoming smile fading from her lips. His expression is serious.
"Son," Murdoch greets. "Where's your brother?"
She watches her brother-in-law's eyes closely as he replies, in a clipped tone, "There was an incident in town."
She was born and raised in the West and is, of necessity, a sensible and practical woman. To panic or overreact when faced with bad news or a crisis is no help to anyone. Yet fear is an instinctive reaction, hard to deny. A stone forms in the pit of her stomach and an icy shiver of apprehension floods through her as her brain connects Scott's words with Johnny's absence and begins to conjure images of the worst-case scenario.
Scott glances her way. Immediately, his expression turns contrite and he strides across the room to her.
"Johnny's fine," he reassures her. "I'm sorry; I didn't mean to scare you. He needed some time alone, that's all.”
Relief leaves her a little light-headed. She's faced her fair share of danger and difficulty and little truly frightens her – except the possibility of losing him. She knows she would never recover from that, nor would want to live a life without him in it.
"Sit down, Scott," Murdoch urges. "Tell us what happened." He crosses to the liquor cabinet and pours himself and Scott a scotch. He walks across to Scott and offer him a glass. Scott accepts the drink, but instead of sitting down walks across to the mantelpiece and leans one arm on it. Murdoch gestures to the decanter of sherry on the small table beside the sofa and looks questioningly at her. She shakes her head. A drink isn’t what she needs right now.
She sinks down on the sofa opposite the fire and Murdoch settles beside her, laying a reassuring hand on her shoulder. They both look up at Scott questioningly.
"We'd just finished loading the lumber," Scott begins, "when a young man appeared from nowhere and…” he pauses, looks down at his drink, then raises his head and locks eyes with Murdoch. “He called Johnny out."
No. Please, not that.
It’s five years since Johnny came home to Lancer and he's worked so hard to change his life. These days, it's rare for someone to recognize him as Johnny Madrid. He’s Johnny Lancer, rancher. Maybe he does still wear his gun belt low on his hips, but with a few exceptions, local ranchers and townspeople alike have accepted him into their community. Folks no longer stare when he enters a saloon and greet him warmly rather than crossing the street as he strolls through town. She’s proud of the way he’s proved himself and knows that Murdoch and Scott are too.
And if he has found more than his fair share of trouble over the years, very little has been directly attributable to his gunfighting days.
No one ever speaks of it, but she knows that all of them have begun to hope that maybe Johnny has finally overcome his past.
Scott continues. "This kid was a stranger – I've never seen him before and I'm sure Johnny hasn't either. I talked to a few people afterwards and they said he'd been in town for a day or so, but no one recalls him asking about Johnny. But he knew; as soon as he spotted Johnny he walked straight up to him and said, "I'm calling you out, Madrid."
She sees Murdoch’s hand tighten around his glass and fears the tense grip might break the glass.
“What did Johnny do?” Murdoch asks.
Scott walks across to an armchair and perches on the edge of the seat. He leans forward, elbows on his knees, expression earnest. "He did everything he could to prevent a gunfight. He reasoned with the kid, told him he hasn't been a gunfighter for five years, that besting him wouldn't help the kid's reputation. But the kid wasn't listening. He said that in the border towns, people still talk of Madrid as the man to beat. He said…"
Scott H hesitates and she exchanges an anxious glance with Murdoch. "He said what?" she finally prompts.
Scott sighs. "He said that the name of Madrid has become almost legendary. Some are convinced he's dead, executed by that firing squad. But enough men claim to have seen him since that there’s a general belief he’s alive and will return one day."
Over my dead body, she thinks. Yet this shouldn't come as a surprise. One of the things she loves about her husband is that there is nothing ordinary about him. People who meet Johnny Madrid Lancer don't forget him easily. And the fact is, he was the best and people have long memories. Too long.
"Go on, Scott," Murdoch says, his tone low and resigned, the slump of his shoulders an indication that he’s shaken by the sudden reemergence of his youngest son’s past.
Scott complies. "Well, after that, the kid says, ‘You can face me now, or later, Madrid. But either way, I’m going to take you down.’ I could see that he was determined on his course, and Johnny knew it too, because he just looked at me and shrugged and then… then he became Madrid.”
She understands what Scott means. She’s seen the transformation herself, when Johnny reaches deep within himself to find an inner calm and focus and then blocks out everything except one moment in time. She hates to see it because she knows how much it costs him. Yet at a time like this, it’s what he has to do to stay alive.
“I just stepped back and let it happen," Scott says. He shakes his head, huffs a breath. "I wanted to try to stop it, but I knew if I intervened I could get Johnny killed."
Murdoch nods. "You did the right thing, Son. When it comes to this kind of situation, we have to trust Johnny's judgment."
"I know, Sir,” Scott says bleakly. “But knowing it doesn’t make it any easier to step aside.” He pauses, takes a big swallow of his scotch. “Anyway, they faced off, and it was all over very quickly. The kid’s bullet went wide and Johnny’s hit him in the chest."
"So the lad's dead?" Murdoch queries at the same time as she asks, "You're sure Johnny wasn't hurt?"
"Johnny' s fine, I promise,” Scott assures her. “And yes, the kid's dead.”
"Any problem with the law?" Murdoch asks.
Scott shook his head. "There were plenty of eyewitnesses and Val himself saw what happened. He agreed that Johnny did his best to diffuse the situation and that the kid backed him into a corner. He let us leave, said he'd do the paperwork and make all the arrangements himself.”
She's relieved that this happened when Val was around. No man has been a better friend to Johnny and few understand him better. Val would have known that Johnny needed to get out of town quickly, away from the whispers and the stares.
They sit in silence until Maria rings the dinner bell.
Scott stands. “Johnny said not to wait on him.”
Murdoch nods. “I understand. But, will he be back tonight?”
Scott hesitates and glances at her. “I think so.”
He’ll be home soon. She knows he will.
The meal is a subdued affair. Murdoch and Scott make sparse conversation about work plans for the following day, but she takes little in. Her thoughts are with her husband and with the question she is afraid to ask.
After dinner, they return to the Great Room. Murdoch and Scott pick up books, but she notices after a while that neither of them is actually turning the pages. She takes up some darning but finds her needle stabbing the same square of material over and over until the shirt she holds is ruined.
Eventually, Scott announces that he's going to bed. She’s sure he’d rather wait for his brother's return, but he knows Johnny won't appreciate a concerned welcoming committee.
As he walks to the door, she screws up her courage and calls after him, "Scott?"
He pauses. "Yes?"
She swallows and somehow forces out the words. "How... how close was it?"
Johnny is still fast. He's never stopped practicing his draw and this has caused several heated arguments with Murdoch who doesn't fully understand his son's need to keep up his speed. But she thinks she understands. It's nothing to do with his reputation or pride in his ability. It's all about his need to ensure that he can protect his family. He has never lost the fear that one day his past will come back to bite him and harm his loved ones in the process.
Scott is silent for a long moment. Then he says tightly, "Too close.”
He's gone before she can question him further. It doesn't matter. Johnny will tell her the truth, when he’s ready.
It may be tomorrow, or next week. But he’ll tell her.
Their marriage isn’t perfect and they’ve had their share of disagreements. Both can be volatile. He hates it when she fusses over him and she hates it when he's annoyingly overprotective. But they have reached an understanding.
He tries hard these days to curb his natural inclination to protect her from anything unpleasant and she trusts him to tell her the truth, no matter how ugly it may be. He tries hard to understand her need to worry about him and care for him and in turn, she has learnt when to hold back and give him space. It hasn’t been easy; patience isn’t one of her virtues.
A few minutes later Murdoch announces that he too is going to bed. He kisses her goodnight. "It'll be all right," he says gruffly, hugging her tightly. "He'll soon put this behind him."
She smiles. "If he wants to talk, I'll tell him you’ll still be awake.” She knows Murdoch won't sleep until his youngest is home safely.
She can no longer bear to sit and wait so she heads for the kitchen and is busy reordering the shelves in the larder when she hears the front door open.
He's tossing his hat onto the stand when she walks into the room. He looks up, smiles faintly, crosses to her in quick strides and pulls her into his arms. She wraps her arms around his back and holds him tightly, fists knotted in his shirt. As she feels the tension begin to ebb from her body, she realizes how much she needed to see him and to hold him.
Eventually, he releases her and stands back. "Sorry I missed dinner. Was the Old Man mad?”
She shakes her head. “He understood that you needed some time alone. He isn’t completely insensitive, you know.”
“Could’a fooled me,” he says, but his lips quirk and belie his words.
“Are you hungry?” she asks. “I can warm you up some stew."
He shakes his head, smile fading. "I don't think I could eat. I just want to go to bed."
She considers insisting, knows she can persuade him if she tries. But he looks pale and tired so she just nods, takes his hand and leads him up the stairs.
They lay side by side in their large, comfortable bed. The curtains are partly open and the full moon shines into the room, illuminating the dresser and the rocking chair in the corner. She loves this room. Before, Johnny had kept it spartan, so different from Scott's room, which is crowded with mementos of his childhood. Johnny has no such knick-knacks except one photograph of his mother, which now stands on the dresser beside a photograph of the two of them on their wedding day.
She gazes fondly at the image of the smiling couple. Johnny looks so handsome in the formal suit and tie he wore to please her. It still gives her a thrill to know that she's Mrs. Johnny Lancer.
She shudders, thinking how close she came to losing him today and turns on her side to look at him. He lies on his back, one arm folded behind his head, wide-awake, staring into space. After a moment, he turns his eyes toward her and she hates the bleakness she sees in their depths. He reaches out and takes her hand, squeezing it tightly.
She waits patiently, sensing that he’s ready to talk.
Several minutes pass before he says, “I guess Scott told you what happened.”
“Yes, he did,” she says softly. “Johnny, I’m so sorry.”
He sighs heavily. "He was just a kid. Fourteen, maybe. Hard to tell. Could’a been younger."
About the same age as Johnny when he became a gunfighter.
"Scott told us how hard you tried to get him to back down."
He frowns. "It was a waste of time. I knew it right off. He wanted this; he was excited at the thought of killing the legendary Johnny Madrid." A roll of his eyes accompany his final words.
"Then there was nothing you could have done to stop it, except to let him shoot you," she says firmly.
"Yeah. Doesn’t make it any easier, though."
“I know.” She hesitates, then finds the courage to ask. She needs to know. "Scott said... he said it was close."
Johnny glances at her and then drops his eyes to their clasped hands. "He was faster than me," he tells her eventually, in a low voice that she only just catches. “He was faster, but he wasn't accurate enough. His bullet went way wide."
He'd told her once that it wasn't only about speed. Accuracy was just as important, probably even more so. It’s pointless having a fast draw if you can't hit your target. Speed and accuracy together are the hallmarks of the best.
Despite Scott’s earlier words, only now does it really sink in that she almost lost him today. She squeezes his hand fiercely, abruptly filled with a burning anger against this stranger who brought with him the power to take her husband’s life and in the process, destroy hers.
Johnny looks up and his eyes soften. He leans over and cups her cheek with his other hand. “I’m sorry, sweetheart. I didn’t mean to upset you. It’s over, and I’m fine.”
She turns her head, drops a soft kiss in the palm of his hand, and attempts a smile. Then she reins in her emotions and fights back the threatening tears, because this isn't about her. But, something is still bothering Johnny, something more than regrets at having to take a young life.
"There's something else, isn't there?" she probes gently. "What's really on your mind, honey?"
Johnny pulls back a little and drops his eyes again, one finger tracing the pattern on the colorful quilt. "He was a killer,” he said after a moment. “I could see it in his eyes. This wasn't just about his reputation. He was looking forward to the killin'. He wanted to kill; he enjoyed it, got his kicks from it.
“For most gunfighters, it’s a job. Don't get me wrong, they take pride in their reputation and they ain’t got no qualms about shootin’ a man, but mostly they do it for the money. But some of ‘em, they’re different. This kid, he was only a boy, but he had the look."
This is a lot of words all at one time for a man who usually doesn’t use ten words when two will do and then makes both of them count. It tells her that this is important; he's thought a lot about it and it’s weighing heavily on his mind. But she isn't sure why it upsets him to know that this kid was a born killer.
"If he was like that, isn't the world better off without him?" she suggests carefully, feeling her way.
He nods. "Yeah, you’re right. Kid like that, he’s gonna grow up bad and kill a lot of men.”
"Then you did the right thing. For us and for all those other men."
And he does, she can tell. He did what he had to do and he can live with that. Shooting the kid isn’t what this is about.
"Johnny, please tell me what’s really upsetting you.”
Johnny is silent for so long that she thinks he isn't going to answer. He picks at the pattern on the quilt for several minutes. When he finally speaks, his voice is so quiet she has to strain to hear the words. "I was just wonderin'. When I started out, when I was his age. I was wonderin', when people looked at me, did they see the same thing in my eyes?"
Oh, Johnny. She understands now why he’s so troubled. This incident has woken the ugly spectre of his past and stirred up all the bad memories, untempered by the good.
She has no illusions about her husband’s past. Before they married, he laid it all out for her – the desperate things he’d done simply to survive, the good people he’d helped because they needed him. He’d also told her about the less noble jobs he’d taken on without a qualm and things he was deeply ashamed of and would go back and change if he could.
Through it all, she’d begun to put together a picture of a boy whose circumstances had pushed him into a life that was dangerous, violent, lonely and very nearly soul-destroying. But somehow, that boy had grown into a man who was hard, tough and cynical, and yet also gentle, caring and compassionate. And she knows that this man could never have been the kind of cold-blooded killer he’d just described.
Her verbal response is immediate, vehement, confident. "No! No, Johnny. You were never like that."
He ducks his head again. "How can you be sure? I was so angry, so full of hate back then. I wanted to kill the man who murdered my mother. I wanted to kill Murdoch for throwing us out."
She is silent for a moment, choosing her words carefully. "When you killed your first man, how did it feel?"
He frowns, seriously considers the question. "I guess I was glad he was dead and I was still alive; that I'd been fast enough to beat him, because this was gonna help build my reputation."
"But how did it feel?"
"I felt sick," he says softly. "When it was over, I found a quiet alley and threw up.”
"And the next time? And the time after that?"
He sighs. "It always made me sick..." He trailed off as the significance of his own words hit home. "I know what you're sayin'. It was never easy, seein’ the life drain out of a man. I never enjoyed it. But that didn’t stop me selling my gun.”
“You did what you did to survive,” she said firmly.
“Maybe. But I still made a choice.”
“Johnny, please look at me.”
After a moment, he complies and she sees the longing for reassurance in his eyes. "You are not a cold-blooded killer,” she says firmly. “Killers don't get sick when they kill a man; they celebrate."
"But I've taken so many lives."
"I know. But Johnny," she pulls him closer, running a hand through his hair, fingers coming to rest on his cheek, "I know you. And the man I know doesn't have a killer's eyes."
"But maybe Madrid did."
"Honey, you've said yourself often enough that Johnny Madrid and Johnny Lancer are the same man. So, if Johnny Lancer isn't a cold-blooded killer now, Johnny Madrid couldn't have been back then, right?"
He looks at her for a long moment, then his troubled expression lightens a little and he smiles, leans in and kisses her softly. "How come someone like me got lucky enough to marry such a smart woman?"
"Because you were smart enough to recognize a good thing when you saw it!" she teases. "Now, try and get some sleep. I'm pretty sure I heard Murdoch and Scott planning some really delightful jobs for you tomorrow."
It takes a while longer, but exhaustion wins out and he falls asleep. This isn't over – he’ll continue to worry at it for a while longer, as is his way, but she's satisfied that she's planted the seeds that will set his thoughts on the right course. And she’ll be ready to steer him right when he needs it.
She falls into a fitful slumber herself. Sometime later, she’s woken by Johnny, thrashing violently, legs tangled in the bedclothes, crying out in Spanish. These days, the bad dreams are infrequent, yet she had expected this. The worst nightmares always strike when something stirs the murky waters of the past.
She waits for a moment, unsure whether to attempt to wake him. She remembers with chagrin the first time she woke to one of his nightmares. She’d put a hand on his shoulder and almost lost it. It had taken Johnny weeks to forgive himself for almost hurting his own wife.
She’s saved a decision when he suddenly shoots upright, abruptly and fully awake, sweating and trembling.
He shifts to sit on the edge of the bed, elbows braced on his knees, head bowed and resting on fists clenched white, shoulders heaving as he tries to control his rapid breathing. She asks no questions, just sits down beside him, running a hand comfortingly through his hair, murmuring reassurances until his breathing is a little more under control.
She gets up, crosses the room and soaks a cloth in water from the bowl on the table. She sits back down beside him and tenderly wipes the sweat from his body and face. Then she wraps her arms around him and holds him close until the tremors coursing through his body cease and his heartbeat slows to normal. They sit a while longer before she coaxes him to lie back down. She snuggles up beside him, wraps an arm around his waist and draws the blankets up around them.
After a moment, he pulls her in closer, molding their bodies together. He buries his face in her hair and whispers softly, "I love you, Querida."
Eventually Johnny’s breathing evens out into sleep, but rest eludes her. She continues to hold him close, one hand resting firmly on his chest so she can feel the reassuring, steady thump of his heart beating beneath her fingers. A line from their wedding vows pops into her mind. From this day forward until death do us part. Today, death came close to parting them. She isn't sorry that the kid died. He made his choice and he died for it. It was him or Johnny.
Johnny’s alive… and it’s all that matters.