[This story was written for Tigger, who begged me to write a "What If..." story. Thanks Tigger, it was fun. Sorry it's so short.]
Murdoch Lancer rose from his easy chair and stretched. Putting a hand to his back he groaned just a little. "Well, boys." he said. "I'm going to call it a night. I'm must be getting old. Today has just about worn me out."
Johnny looked up from his seat on the edge of the table where he'd been kicking his heels, and staring into the fire. "Aw, come on, Old Man. All we did was a little roping and branding. That should be all in a day's work for you."
Murdoch laughed. "Well, John, it used to be all in a day's work, but now I'm not so sure." He stretched again, and then gave a half wave. "Good night boys."
Scott looked up from his book and smiled. "Good night, Murdoch. Sleep well, and pleasant dreams."
Murdoch got himself ready for bed, and
crawled between the sheets with a sigh of pleasure. In spite of his joking
with Johnny, it really had been a long, hard day. Within minutes Murdoch
had slipped off to sleep. His last waking thoughts were of his sons, and
how much they had helped him today with the work on the ranch. How different
life might have been if he had raised his sons from infancy the way a father
should. How different......
"Pa, Johnny's run off again!" Ten year
old, Scott Lancer shrieked as he raced to his father's side.
Murdoch sighed heavily. "That rascal! Where's
he gone now, Scotty?" He crouched down to be at eye level with his oldest
"I don't know, Pa. He said he was going
to go see the wild horses, and he just took off. I tried to call him back
but he wouldn't listen to me, honest Pa." Scott's voice was shrill with
anxiety. He knew his father had a tendency to blame him when Johnny misbehaved.
Murdoch's frowned intensified. "Was he
on foot, Scott." he asked sternly. "Or did he take his pony?"
Scott's eyes were huge in his thin face.
"He took his pony, Pa. He rode off toward the North Pasture, where we saw
the wild herd last week." Tears began to leak from the grey blue orbs that
fixed themselves on Murdoch's face. "I'm sorry, Pa. I tried to stop him."
Murdoch gathered Scott into a fierce embrace.
"Hey, Scotty, don't cry, son. It's not your fault. I know Johnny doesn't
listen too well. You tried to help, son and I'm proud of you for trying
to take care of your little brother." He stood up, and taking Scott's little
hand in his, he led him towards the Lancer hacienda. "Run into the kitchen
and ask Maria to get you a nice glass of cool lemonade. It'll make you
Scott's eyes were trusting, the tears stopping
as suddenly as they had started. "Where are you going, Pa?"
"I'm going after that scamp. He knows better
than to ride off after that herd of ponies." Murdoch laughed a bit. "But
that brother of yours sure is crazy about horses, isn't he, Scotty?"
Scott nodded. He too loved horses, but
Johnny was passionate about them. Whenever the wild herd ran close to the
hacienda, Johnny got as close as he could. Scott sighed, he wished that
Johnny would just listen a little better. The blond haired boy ran off
to the kitchen to get his glass of lemonade, secure in the knowledge that
his father would soon bring his little dark-haired brother home.
Murdoch rode his tall chestnut horse at
a gallop towards the North Pasture. He kept his eyes in a constant surveillance
of the surrounding terrain in the hopes that he would spy his missing son.
It didn't take long for him to spot the chubby little pony trotting along
the northern trail, a stocky, dark-haired little boy riding astride it.
Murdoch rode up beside Johnny and reaching out a long arm, snagged the
reins from the boy's startled fingers. He suppressed a smile at the guilty
look that flooded the little boy's face.
"Pa." The single syllable came out more
as a gasp, than a word. Johnny's blue eyes were huge in his little face.
"Hello, John!" Murdoch said in his sternest
voice. "What do you think you're doing out here all by yourself?" He pulled
both horses to a stop, and towered over the smaller pair.
Johnny's eyes filled with tears, and he
swiped at them with a shaky hand. "I'm sorry, Pa." he said quietly. "I
Murdoch smiled a little at that. "You didn't
really forget did you son?" He looked steadily into Johnny's eyes, and
noticed that they shifted and turned downcast.
"N.No...I just wanted to see the horses.
I didn't really forget." Johnny's voice was barely audible, he knew he'd
been caught in an outright act of disobedience.
"Let's go home, son." Murdoch kept the
reins of Johnny's pony in his own strong hand, knowing that the boy would
hate being made to feel like a baby. As they rode he continued his questioning.
"Did Scott tell you not to leave the yard, Johnny?"
Johnny's cheeks grew red and he screwed
up his face in anger. "Yeah, he tried to tell me, but I get so tired of
Scott always telling me what to do, so I went anyway." Suddenly, the little
boy realized what he was saying and his jumble of words ceased abruptly.
Murdoch promptly leapt on the opening that
had been presented to him. "So, what you're saying is that, not only did
your older brother tell you not to leave the yard, but you did it in outright
defiance of both him and me."
Johnny knew when he'd been beaten, and
he refused to answer, stubbornly turning his head away from his father's
face. They continued the ride back to the Lancer hacienda in silence. When
they finally arrived back at the ranch house, Johnny jumped off his little
pony and began the trek into the barn, knowing Murdoch's insistence that
the animals be cared for first. He was surprised when his father put out
a hand to stop him, and instead tossed the reins of both animals to a waiting
"Let's go into the house, Johnny." was
all Murdoch said, but Johnny began to tremble as he realized the depth
of his father's anger.
Scott was waiting for them when they entered
the house, and he flung his arms around the younger boy. "Johnny, I thought
you'd gotten lost!" he cried happily. Seeing the look on Murdoch's face,
Scott quickly let go of his brother. He stood, a stricken look on his face,
knowing that Johnny was in deep trouble.
Johnny shot Scott a look of pure anger.
"Thanks for being such a rat!" the little boy said defiantly, as he stomped
past his older brother.
Scott's face crumpled and his arms dropped
to his sides. He watched as Murdoch gently guided the little boy to his
room, knowing what was waiting for the younger boy. He felt a surge of
guilt at having been the one to betray his little brother, but he knew
that what Johnny had done was wrong. Scott turned and ran for the barn,
his eyes glistening with tears.
Upstairs in Johnny's room, another small
boy sobbed. His bottom stung from the spanking he had just received, and
he flung himself on his bed, his anger quickly turning into remorse. Murdoch
sat patiently by the bed waiting for the storm to pass. When the boy's
sobs slowed, and then finally stopped altogether, he said quietly. "Next
time Johnny, think before you do something. It'll save you some heartache,
and your rear end." Seeing that the boy was sinking into an exhausted sleep,
Murdoch rose and left the room.
"Scott!" he called when he reached the
great room. "Scott, where are you?" When he didn't get an answer, Murdoch
called for Maria, the cook-housekeeper, who ran the hacienda. She had been
in charge of the household operations since the departure of Johnny's mother
five years earlier.
It had taken Murdoch a long time to recover
from his wife's betrayal, but the comforting presence of his two sons had
helped ease his pain. Everyone on the ranch knew how much Murdoch loved
those boys, and both were quite popular with the men. Scott was tall for
his age, and lean, while Johnny was a stocky little bundle of energy. Scott's
quieter, more serious disposition made him his father's natural helper
and ally, while Johnny's raw emotion could be counted on to keep them all
laughing, or yelling, depending on his mood.
Now striding towards the barn in response
to Maria's pointing finger, Murdoch thought about his son's differing dispositions.
They each had a lot of their own mother in them, that was for sure. He
found Scott face down on a bale of hay, his face streaked with tears, sleeping
in a troubled doze. Murdoch's heart melted at the sight and he stooped
swiftly and gently woke the boy. He sometimes forgot that Scott was only
ten, the boy acted so much older than that.
Scott looked up through swollen eyes into
his father's sympathetic blue ones. He threw himself into Murdoch's arms,
and whispered. "Will Johnny hate me forever, Pa?"
Murdoch smiled over the top of the boy's fair hair, taking care not to let him see the expression.
"Oh, Johnny never stays angry for too long,
son. You know that. By tomorrow morning he'll have forgotten all about
today's little incident." And he'll probably be running off to see the
wild herd again, he added silently. Holding his hand out to Scott, the
two Lancer men walked back toward the house.
Murdoch was smiling as he gently swung
Scott's hand. Yes, tomorrow Johnny would probably be over his fit of temper,
and would be hip deep in another bout of mischief. His boys sure kept things
lively on the ranch, but Murdoch wouldn't trade his life for anything.
The sun was peeking in the large window,
flooding Murdoch's bedroom with light. The sounds of the day beginning
were starting to intrude on his consciousness. With a quick flutter of
his eyelids, he was awake and ready to start his day. Murdoch rubbed his
hand over his eyes, and thought back to his dreams of last night.
Johnny and Scott, growing up on the ranch.
How much they had all missed. He sighed with deep regret and felt the moisture
in his eyes. Scrubbing a rough hand over them, he carefully wiped away
all signs of his grief. The boys were here now, and he was getting to know
them the way a father should. No use yearning for something that couldn't
be. Murdoch sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed. Time for
another day, another memory to add to his growing treasure house. His sons
were home, that was all that mattered.