The Lion and the Lamb: WHN
“He didn’t even bother to show?”
Murdoch shook his head as walked across the grass, shielding his eyes for a moment against the late morning sun.
They were the last to leave the gravesite – a mound of freshly dug dirt now cheered with a single bouquet of flowers and a wooden cross. The name ‘Lucy’ stood out stark and new against the grain – but in time the seasons would weather the words until they were pale and faded. How long would they take to dull the pain and hurt he saw in his dark haired son?
Lucy’s parents had finally driven away, her mother inconsolable. Murdoch’s heart had gone out to her - she’d been their only child. Good God…what parent deserved that?
Scott, Teresa and Jelly had left in the buggy but Johnny had insisted on riding his horse out here and Murdoch had done the same. It wasn’t much, but he wanted Johnny to know that he wasn’t alone – even in a simple matter like that.
“How the hell could he not even turn up for the buryin’?” Johnny asked again, with a shake of his bare head as they reached their horses.
“Johnny, people handle grief...and guilt…in their own way. Gabe seems like a very private person. I’m sure he’ll say his goodbye in his own way.”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed for a moment then he swallowed, bowing his head, his hat clasped in his hands. “It was a real fine funeral, wasn’t it, Murdoch.”
“Yes, it was, son.”
They’d buried her on Lancer land. Not down in the sheltered valley where the sheep had been corralled but up on the grassy ridge with views to the mountains on one side and the river on the other and a bit further on, a solitary towering oak.
After a moment, Johnny lifted his head and looked across to the distant trees on the next rise. “It’s kinda hard gettin’ used to the idea she ain’t around…you know?”
“Yes, I know that feeling, Johnny.”
“I was just gettin’ used to having lost her to Gabe…an’ then I went an’ lost her all over again.”
This time it was a good while before he lifted his head.
Murdoch stood by quietly, eventually putting a hand to Johnny’s shoulder.
He’d seen the tears in his son’s eyes, heard the brokenness in his voice the evening they’d found Lucy, but Johnny had been stoically dry-eyed since then.
For the last few nights it seemed like every time he’d closed his eyes he’d seen Johnny kneeling next to her body again, so choked up he could hardly get his words out. Seeing Johnny like that upset him more than he thought possible.
Maybe that’s what being a father was all about…feeling your son’s pain almost as if it was your own.
Lucy could have been his daughter-in-law one day if it hadn’t been for…Well, it was better not to think that way. He was pretty sure Johnny was thinking enough of those thoughts for the both of them.
After some time, Johnny murmured, “I need to ask you somethin’.”
Murdoch gripped his shoulder that little bit tighter, hoping he could do something to soothe away the tension he could feel under his hand.
“Lucy’s folks,” Johnny began hesitantly, “I never told them about her and Gabe…I don’t think Lucy had a chance to say anything an’ I didn’t know how they’d take it.”
Murdoch pressed his lips together thoughtfully. He’d wondered if they’d known. “Well, Johnny, there’s probably no right or wrong in a situation like that.”
“They’re kinda fussy. Took’em a good while to get used to the idea a’ me courtin’ their daughter. I just wouldn’t want them to think bad of her…not now…not like this.”
Murdoch applied a little more pressure and gave him a gentle shake. “I think you should do what you feel most comfortable with, Johnny. As you say…it would be a tragedy if their last thoughts of her weren’t all they should be.”
Murdoch thought he felt a slight easing of the tension before Johnny mumbled, “Thing is, I feel like it’s kinda cheatin’ a bit.”
Murdoch frowned. “What d’you mean?”
“Well, they’re giving me the sympathy…thinkin’ she was my girl. Maybe I’m too much of a coward to tell ’em she ran off with a sheep herder.” He did his best to make light of the situation but Murdoch could see the hurt in his eyes.
“I think you’re doing the right thing by Lucy.”
“She loved him, Murdoch…enough to…” He glanced up at his father just the once then turned away, forcing Murdoch to let go of his shoulder as he grabbed Barranca’s reins
“She loved you, too, Johnny.”
Johnny shook his head decisively, his face only inches from Barranca’s creamy neck. “Nope - not enough. Not enough to keep her, anyways.”
After a moment’s hesitation, Murdoch said, “Well, I’ve been through that too…but I guess I was a little luckier - I have someone to remember her by,” he finished softly.
Johnny looked at Murdoch with a fleeting surprise that quickly turned to a look of gratitude before putting his foot in the stirrup and mounting up.
“You going straight home, son?” Murdoch asked, grabbing hold of Barranca’s bridle, worried at the thought of his son riding off like this. He hated this feeling of uselessness – give him a broken bone over a broken heart, any day!
Johnny was already restless in the saddle, eager to be gone, and Barranca tossed his head as if he sensed Johnny’s mood, trying to get free of Murdoch’s grip.
“Think I’ll go for a ride first. I’ll see you later, huh?”
Murdoch could only nod, reluctantly letting go, then watching as Johnny turned Barranca and headed down the hill at a canter, gaining in speed until he was galloping flat out as he reached the open pasture.
He wished it was that easy – that you could blow grief away with a fast horse and a cold, sharp wind in your face but it had never worked for him, either, no matter how fast he rode.
Murdoch turned away and looked down into the valley. No doubt about it – he could hear the distant bleating of the lambs. So Gabe had come to say his farewell after all.
Murdoch was just thinking about lighting some lamps when he heard the measured footsteps on the floor. He didn’t have to look up from his desk to know to whom they belonged.
“Johnny not back yet?”
Murdoch shook his head, closing the ledger book with an assured manner he was far from feeling. It was the jingle of spurs he’d been hoping to hear.
“That makes it one straight week, Murdoch.”
Murdoch swung his chair a little so that he could see out the huge window behind him.
“I know, Scott,” he answered patiently.
“Well…what are you going to do about it?”
Murdoch finally looked up to see his fair haired son standing before him, stripping off his gloves as he spoke, his eyes seeking Murdoch’s, everything in his stance crying out for action.
“He’s a grown man, Scott. He’s got to handle this his own way. You know that.”
“But this is one time you were hoping I’d come down on him hard and give him a talking to,” Murdoch smiled tiredly.
Scott grinned ruefully. “Well…kind of.”
Murdoch sighed. “You know I can’t do that.”
Scott raised his brows as if to say that answer didn’t help. “I’m worried about him.”
“You and me both,” Murdoch agreed as he stood and moved from behind his desk. “Come on, let’s go sit down at the table. No sense in everyone missing dinner.”
It was the noise that woke him – that faint, metallic jingle. Quickly he opened the book on his lap, a little surprised to see that the fire had died away as much as it had.
“It’s pretty late, son.”
Johnny’s head came up; he stopped tiptoeing and gave his father a half-hearted grin.
“Oh…hi ya, Murdoch.”
Murdoch put his book aside and added some wood to the fire, murmuring, “You couldn’t’ve got much done on that fence line out there in the dark.”
Johnny shrugged as he came into the light. “Oh, the moon came up early. It’s pretty bright out there,” he answered in his soft drawl.
“Maria kept some dinner for you.”
“Yeah?” he asked, looking around as if it was hidden somewhere in the darkened room.
Murdoch wasn’t fooled. “I suppose you’re going to tell me you ate a big lunch.”
Johnny grinned as he stood by the fire, warming his behind. “Boy, you should see it…T’resa’s been cramming my saddle bags with enough food to feed a whole tribe of Indians.”
Murdoch raised his brows. “I’ve seen some awfully fat crows around here lately.”
“I warned those birds I’d shoot ’em if they talked,” he joked, but Murdoch didn’t smile and apparently Johnny didn’t really want to either.
At least he had the grace to look a little ashamed. “Don’t tell Teresa, huh,” he begged, slumping down on the couch.
Murdoch considered him a little longer and eventually Johnny muttered into his chest, “I just haven’t been that hungry lately, that’s all.”
Murdoch expression softened. “I know how you’re feeling.”
“Yeah, I guess you do,” Johnny acknowledged tiredly as he sank further into the couch, leaning his head back and closing his eyes, his hands clasped loosely across his hips.
Murdoch’s eyes were troubled as he watched the flickering light from the flames play on his son’s face. How long could Johnny go on like this?
Just when he was sure Johnny had fallen asleep, his son said quietly, “You ever wish you could just go back an’ have a day all over again so that you could do things different?”
Murdoch didn’t rush his answer. After some thought he replied, “There’s probably not a man born who doesn’t wish that at sometime in their life.”
Johnny opened his eyes and looked across at him. “You know what I mean, though, don’tcha, Murdoch?” His eyes locked on Murdoch’s insistently, as if a great deal depended on his father agreeing.
“Yes…I know exactly what you mean. I’ve thought that way myself…many times.”
“I keep thinkin’ if I hadn’t made up that dumb game to win the hat full a’ money then my leg wouldn’t’ve cramped an’ I would never have owed my life to that sheep herder an’ then Lucy…” He choked a little on the last word like there was something stuck in his throat and he couldn’t get the words out any more.
“Johnny…I know it hurts…but did you ever think that maybe you and Lucy might…?”
Johnny sighed deeply before he’d even finished.
“Might not have made it, Murdoch…even if ol’ Gabe…hadn’t turned up? Yeah, I thought about it…but it sure doesn’t seem to help me none.”
Murdoch nodded as Johnny closed his eyes again. Well, it had been worth a try.
The fire crackled as the flames caught hold of the new wood. Murdoch had gone back to staring at the flames when a soft snort and a movement from Johnny made him look up.
He didn’t know where his son had found the energy, but Johnny had stood up and then started pacing, impatiently pushing at the stray lock of hair that hung near his eyes. “You know the thing that really sticks in my craw outta all this?”
Murdoch waited, quite sure that his son was going to tell him.
“I treated her right…with respect…I didn’t…” he stopped suddenly, tucking his hands into his belt behind his back as he ducked his head. “An’ I sure wanted to go further,” he admitted, almost inaudibly. “Just goes to show that I ‘do’ take notice when you give me that look,” he laughed uneasily and Murdoch’s heart nearly broke for him.
“Johnny,” he murmured, shaking his head at his son’s pain. He just didn’t have the words.
Darn, it was hard to find anything positive in all this that he could tell Johnny. Lucy was dead and Johnny didn’t even have the satisfaction of knowing that she’d loved him more than anyone else.
He’d been numb when the Pinkertons brought him the news that Maria was dead. She was his wife and he’d grieved, but he’d also felt cheated that he couldn’t grieve for her as he’d done with Catherine. How could he when she’d given her heart to someone else…slept with God knows how many other men?
Was this how Johnny felt? Maybe he was angry with Lucy…angry with Lucy for getting herself killed by being out there with Gabe...maybe angry with himself for having taken her out there in the first place?
Suddenly, Johnny threw himself back down on the couch. He rested his elbows on his knees then scrubbed at his face with his hands. “Damnit, Murdoch, I’m just so tired a’ thinking about it all,” he sighed with exasperation.
“Well, I know that feeling.”
“I saw Lucy’s pa in town today,” he went on, a little quieter.
“You went into town today?” Murdoch asked with surprise.
“I had a few things to do,” he answered evasively and Murdoch had no intention of pushing him so he simply nodded.
“They’re gonna sell the store and the ranch…move back to Sacramento. Said there’s too many bad memories here now.”
Something pulled at Murdoch’s chest when he heard the words. Surely Johnny wasn’t thinking…
“I tried to talk him out of it. Told him to give it time…that things’d heal. I figured that’s what you’d say,” he admitted with shy candour of a sudden. “Wasn’t as if I was actually feelin’ that way myself,” he added truthfully. “Sometimes it feels like it’ll never heal.”
“Maybe you need to take your own advice,” Murdoch smiled.
Johnny smiled faintly back then looked down at his hands, rubbing the palms together. “I told him the truth about Lucy and Gabe...that she loved him…was gonna leave with him. I figured it was better to hear it from me insteada hearing it from some old gossip with nothin’ better to do.”
He wasn’t all that surprised – just proud. “That must’ve been hard for you, Johnny, but I think you did the right thing. They loved Lucy. I don’t think that fact should change anything.”
“Murdoch, I learned a long time ago that there’s plenty of stuff in life you can’t change. It’s just that, sometimes, the acceptin’ of it’s real hard to do, that’s all.”
“Sounds like we both learned the same lessons,” Murdoch agreed, sadly. Hardly fair that his son had had to learn them from such a tender age, though.
Johnny frowned into the flames for a few minutes before struggling to his feet.
“Anyways, think I’ll head on up to bed. I’m just about dead on my feet,” he grinned at Murdoch and for a moment he looked tantalizingly like the Johnny of old – the one before Gabe had come to their valley. Murdoch stood as well, almost putting out a hand as his son seemed to stagger the smallest step - too bone weary to move with his customary grace.
“Johnny…you know if you ever want to talk about any of this…”
Johnny paused, standing almost in darkness now. When he spoke it was with a quiet sincerity.
“I know, Murdoch. Just knowin’ that…well, it makes a difference, you know.”
Murdoch nodded, letting his eyes speak his understanding, hoping Johnny saw his expression through the gloom.
“Well, ‘night, Murdoch.”
Another week went by and this time he had Teresa come to see him…
“Murdoch, don’t you think this is going on too long! He’s going to make himself sick.”
And then, Jelly…
“Boss, you gotta do somethin’ ‘bout that boy. He’s runnin’ himself ragged. An’ where’s he ridin’ off to every danged afternoon?”
Scott had shrugged his shoulders both times and said, “Well, don’t look at me. Johnny’ll hardly come near me and when he does he tells me everything’s fine,” looking pointedly in his father’s direction.
Murdoch couldn’t help but feel a little defensive – after all, it had been his call to let Johnny be…to give the boy time to work things out himself.
Well, maybe they were right. Maybe he’d let things go on too long.
At that moment, the front door banged open.
“Supper ready? Whoo, it’s gettin’ chilly out there. Looks like the cold ain’t finished with us yet…”
Johnny paused. “What?” he asked, as if he hadn’t spent the last two weeks barely eating and working from the crack of dawn until he was too tired to do more than drop into bed each night.
“Nothing, it’s just that it’s good to see you, brother,” Scott told him as a smile spread its way across his face.
Johnny looked a tad self conscious but he acknowledged his brother’s words by kicking at the rug and muttering into his chest, “Yeah, well, I’m feelin’ a bit better now.”
Murdoch moved over to him and threw an arm around his shoulders as they both walked towards the dinner table. “Well that will be bad news for your brother. He was just getting used to getting a second helping for a change before someone beat him to it.”
Murdoch was never one to say Grace but tonight he’d felt sorely tempted, such was his relief at having all his family sitting at the table again. Here was his youngest actually smiling as he snagged the last potato a second before his brother’s fork had reached for it.
“You’re gonna hafta be quicker than that, Scott.”
Scott held up a hand magnanimously. “I think you could use it more than me right now, brother.”
Like quicksilver the smile dropped from Johnny’s face and the easy mood at the table seemed to suddenly dissolve.
Darn, just when things were going so well. Scott looked ready to kick himself as an awkward tension settled over each of them.
“Johnny, I didn’t…” Scott began but his brother interrupted him.
“I’ve been meaning to tell you all something,” Johnny said softly, with a nervous glance towards his father.
Right then there was a loud crash from the kitchen as if Maria had dropped a pile of crockery, but not one head so much as turned in her direction.
Johnny’s eyes went to Murdoch’s. “Most afternoons, this past week…I’ve been headin’ into town.”
“So that’s were yer bin goin’,” Jelly muttered.
Murdoch shot him a look and Jelly quickly subsided.
“I got to thinkin’ about Lucy. Guess I was sort of mad at her,” Johnny admitted, lowering his eyes.
When no one said anything, he went on. “Well, you know how everyone loved her…wasn’t a person in the valley who had a bad word to say about her…”
“We all loved her, too, Johnny,” Teresa agreed, watching Johnny toy with the potato on his plate.
“That’s right – prettiest smile I ever did see,” Jelly said with a tinge of sadness.
“Well, it just didn’t seem right that Porter should get away with what he did. He was the one who talked the boys into headin’ out there that night…stirred ’em all up with his bad feelings toward Gabe…”
Johnny suddenly put his fork down and pushed his plate away.
“Go on, son,” Murdoch encouraged.
“Well, I been talkin’ to everyone in Green River and the other towns and everyone of ‘em has agreed to ban Porter from their stores…Zeek won’t even give him so much as a haircut.”
There was a moment of silence at the table - Maria could be heard in the kitchen muttering away to herself in Spanish – then, almost as one, the four faces regarding Johnny so seriously all relaxed. Teresa and Jelly both broke into a smile.
“Porter won’t be able to stay on here if he can’t buy local supplies,” Scott murmured, sounding pleased.
“That’s right, brother,” Johnny nodded. “Seems that Henry was always keen on buyin’ him out.”
“Henry tried to buy that ranch when it came on the market, but Porter bid higher,” Murdoch told the others.
“Well, this time there’s only one bid and it’s goin’ for a song,” Johnny told them with a hint of satisfaction.
“That’s great, Johnny,” Scott told him.
“It’s somethin’ leastways,” Johnny shrugged, suddenly looking a little uncomfortable with all the attention.
“Yah did real good, Johnny,” Jelly assured him.
Johnny shrugged again but this time his eyes went to his father.
“I’m proud of you, son,” Murdoch told him warmly.
Their eyes held for a moment, then Johnny stood up, pushing back his chair and putting his napkin on the table in the same movement. “Think I’ll head outside. I could do with some cool air.”
“You want some company?” Scott asked.
Johnny shook his head with a hesitant smile. “Nooo,” he drawled, “but I was thinkin’ tomorrow night bein’ Saturday…maybe we’d get spruced up an’ head into town.”
“I guess it’s about time you gave me the chance to win back that twenty dollars from last time we played.”
“Seventeen dollars an’ two bits,” Johnny corrected him jauntily, walking backwards towards the door. “But why don’t we round that down to an even fifteen?” he called over his shoulder as he turned around.
“I told you arithmetic wasn’t your strong point,” Scott called to him loudly as the door closed. He turned around to find the rest of the table grinning at him.
“Looks like things are finally getting back to normal,” he told them all.
Murdoch took his napkin and wiped his mouth with a thoughtful expression. “Maybe.”
Johnny threw back the covers and hauled himself out of bed the next morning, taking a moment to sit on the edge and take stock. No doubt about it – some of the heaviness that he’d carried around for the last couple of weeks was beginning to lift. Maybe he should feel guilty that he was feeling, well, not exactly happy, but he’d lost that ache in his throat that had gnawed at him since everything had happened…since the night they’d found her.
Johnny grabbed his pants from the floor and pulled them on, for the hundredth time wondering about Gabe: what he was thinking, where he was, how were the lambs doing? Leastways, that’s what he asked himself this morning. Most other times, when he’d thought of Gabe, he’d itched to work out his frustrations on the sheepherder’s jaw.
They’d worked together that night to save all the lambs; he’d even stopped Gabe from getting himself hung doing something stupid like killing Porter. He didn’t know why he’d helped the man who stole his girl, maybe even gotten her killed. But damn, he couldn’t let Porter win…and somehow he felt he’d be letting Lucy down if he didn’t do his best to keep Gabe safe.
But ever since, even the thought of sheep or Gabe or Lucy or any of it was just too damned painful - like touching the edges of a bullet wound when it was just starting to heal and all the skin was red and fiery and sore.
Johnny yanked back the curtains and stared outside as he shrugged his shirt on. The sun was thinking about heading up into the sky and the air would be crisp and crackle like a new banknote and that’s exactly what he needed right now. Taking the stairs two at a time he headed downstairs and then passed through the great room, cold and uninviting this time of morning without a fire to cheer a body, and then out the front door. Not bothering with his jacket, he stopped just long enough to snag his gunbelt on his way through.
Standing outside the front door, he went through the motions of jiggling the two longer parts of the belt into each other before he could do up the buckle on the narrow front strap. A growing ease was settling on him as he felt the weight about his hips and he knew, for once, it had nothing to do with wearing a gun.
He liked this time of morning…well, had learned to like it ever since he’d come to Lancer. Soon everyone would be up but right now, it seemed like he had a brand spanking new world all to himself.
The dew had come down and settled heavily on everything overnight. A sharp chill in the air nipped at him through his shirt but mostly it promised to be a fine, spring day.
Out of habit his feet made their way over to the barn. Almost as soon as he stepped off the patio onto the dirt the rooster started crowing as if it was trying to wake everyone up from here back to the border. Movement overhead caught his eye and he looked up to see a flock of geese flying across a sky still streaked with strokes of pink. The next thing he knew he had Dewdrop almost underneath his boots and he had to do some fancy footwork to avoid Jelly’s pest. The goose squawked and stretched its neck towards the sky as if it was watching the flight of the other birds.
“Well, I kinda know how you feel,” he murmured to the white bird. “Takes time to get used to havin’ your wings clipped, don’t it?”
The goose ran on ahead of him with its beak in the air as if Johnny was some peon expected to follow.
“Yeah, you go right ahead an’ keep me in my place.”
Once he reached the barn, Johnny pulled back the heavy wooden door and stepped into the stuffy gloom. The warm night smells of horse and manure and hay got up his nose as soon as he took a breath in there and for a second he was breathing it all in for the very first time – well, that’s what it felt like, anyway.
That’s when it hit him – just how little he’d been noticing things lately.
It was like coming out of some thick, choking fog that wouldn’t let him touch or feel or smell on the outside, but on the inside, he’d felt every thought and memory so powerfully it just about ripped him apart at times with the wanting to go back.
Johnny took a breath and stood still. A pair of cheeky mice scurried across the ground within inches of his boot only to disappear behind a bag of oats across the way.
Then Barranca was calling him over with a whinny, stretching his neck hopefully over the stall gate. Johnny grabbed a handful of oats then held them in front of the horse. Rubbing Barranca’s creamy coat with his right hand while the horse nuzzled at the other, he let his thoughts go wandering.
Lucy. That last ride they’d taken together; her hand in his across the gap between their horses. Who would’ve thought a simple hold like that could make a whole body ache to touch more, could make him feel like a kid who’d only ever dreamed of kissing a pretty gal.
She liked speed; wasn’t afraid to let her horse stretch out and feel all that power under her. Her cheeks would go all pink and she’d slap at his arm and laugh when she’d catch his eyes on her breasts as her breath came that little bit quicker. What other girl looked prettiest when the wind blew her hair about and mussed it all up? He’d told her that once…right before he’d kissed her. Dios, what he wouldn’t give to press his lips against hers right now…slip his arm about her waist…
Johnny dropped his hand and put his head down…waiting for the weight to fall on him and pin him under so hard that he could hardly think or breathe or eat.
Had it been like this when his mama died? He couldn’t remember much about that time – just bits here and there: a tall man in black with a cold, white hand pulling him away from her; his mama looking like she was lost in the kind of sleep she’d always wanted. He’d felt wrong about wanting her to open her eyes but he’d called to her anyway…over and over…not to leave him in that place all alone. Dios, he’d wanted her to wake up so bad…
Somewhere at the back of his mind he heard Barranca snort and then felt the nudge against his chest.
He looked up, working hard to cover how startled he’d been at his father’s words.
“You okay, son?”
Murdoch had that same troubled look he’d been wearing for some time now. Johnny knew he’d been missing plenty of things the last couple of weeks but that look in his father’s eyes wasn’t one of them.
“I’m gettin’ there, Murdoch. I’m gettin’ there.”
“Feel like some breakfast?”
Johnny thought about it for a moment then, feeling a little surprised said, “Yeah…I think I do.”
Murdoch draped an arm about his shoulder and together they walked towards the hacienda.
“Looks like being a fine day,” Murdoch murmured.
Johnny stretched his stride a little to match his father’s.
“Yeah…I think it is.”
Johnny hunkered down in the saddle, keeping a good grip on the heaving sides with his legs and a firm hold on the reins as he once more forced the Paint around the corral. It was strong-boned, had good balance and would make a perfect cowpony if it ever learned to submit without all the fussing. For a green-broke horse, it was still way too cantankerous about the bit in its mouth, the saddle on its back, and the rider telling it what to do.
“Come on, now, fella,” he encouraged softly as he nudged the animal forward again, urging it again and again until it picked up its pace and began a smooth, even lope. Gradually, Johnny made the circle wider and wider but just as before, as soon as the Paint got a glimpse of the wooden railing looming at its side, its eyes began to roll and it would jerk its head with enough force to almost tear the reins from his grasp.
“Oh, no ya don’t,” he said, as he felt the rhythm becoming more and more uneven and he forced the unwilling animal to hold the pace he’d set. “Now, see – that ole fence ain’t that scary,” he crooned softly as the horse finally began to show signs of settling down. “You want scary? Well, you oughtta see my old man when he first wakes up.”
He completed another couple of circuits then slowed to a walk, all the while keeping up a quiet murmur of encouragement in a mixture of Spanish and English. “You know, it helps to speak a bit o’ both, around here,” he told the horse as he brought it to a halt. It couldn’t just stop – it had to dance around a little, kicking up the dust.
“Whew, you’re a stubborn one,” he muttered as he pushed his hat back to wipe at the sweat on his forehead. The spring sun already carried a lot of heat.
Maybe he was tired…or maybe it was the memories that suddenly came crowding in on him when he heard the sound.
In a split second, he saw the tiny blur of white skittle under the corral rails, was vaguely aware of Jelly running from the barn and the next moment the saddle was no longer beneath him. Instead, his body was going one way while the horse went the other and he had that scary, kind of thrilling sensation of not being connected to anything at all.
Mierda. The ground was comin’ up fast and it looked awful…
Johnny lay right where he fell and didn’t move.
“Burke, grab that dang loco horse.”
Jelly’s voice and he sure sounded mad about something.
What was that other sound?
Well, he’d know that deep rumbling voice anywhere.
He moved his jaw and grit crunched between his teeth. The groan snuck out before he could stop it. Damn - he was hurting.
Then every feeling focussed on the weight of a hand on his back.
It would’ve been nice to just lie there a bit longer and let the sounds keep floating lazily over his head and sink into the comfort of the hand rubbing a circle on his back. He almost did - that sun made him feel awful drowsy - but the worry in Murdoch’s voice pulled him away from that other place.
Something sharp was digging into his cheek and the heaviness of his limbs made it feel like he was lying on a bed of rock, so he opened his eyes and put his hands on the dirt to push his way up. “I’m okay. Nothin’ broke.”
“Take it easy, now, Johnny. You came down pretty hard, there,” Murdoch told him, putting a restraining hand on the top of his shoulder to stop him from getting all the way up.
“Where’s my hat?” he asked groggily, with a mouth that didn’t seem to be working too well.
“Here it is.”
That was Scott. Good. He squinted up at him, making no move to take the hat Scott was holding out to him. “Help me up, brother.”
Scott shook his head. “Let Murdoch check you over first, Johnny.”
“Ain’t nothin’ broke. Just my pride,” he added with a grin at his father kneeling in the dust at his side.
He was beginning to feel that shakiness that comes with learning you’ve had a close shave but a sudden jarring noise made him turn his head and grab a handful of Murdoch’s shirt in his fist. “What the hell was that?”
“Just calm down, Johnny.”
Calm? He was a long way from feeling calm as he pushed off the hands that tried to keep him down as he struggled to his feet.
Jelly took a step backwards, in spite of himself. “Now, Johnny…it was just a li’l bitty accident.”
Johnny’s eyes bore into him without so much as a spark of humour.
“You wanna tell me what that thing is doin’ on our ranch?” Johnny demanded, his voice building up a head of steam with each word.
Murdoch quickly stood and Scott took a step in closer, murmuring, “Let’s talk about this.”
Jelly clutched at the tiny, bleating animal in his arms. “Well, the poor critter had nowhere ta go. There was somethin’ wrong with its leg an’ Gabe couldn’t take it with him so I couldn’t just leave the little thing ta die out there all alone now, could I?”
Johnny stared at the lamb huddled in Jelly’s arm.
“YOU’RE the one who told me you’d rather see me BLEED than…”
“Now, now…you know I never meant that,” Jelly interrupted hastily. “You tell him, that, Murdoch,” he rushed on, looking for guidance from his boss.
“You knew he was keeping that here?” Johnny turned on his father.
Murdoch stood to his full height and drew in a deep breath. “He was just…” he began in a voice of reason.
“T’ain’t Murdoch’s fault,” Jelly broke in. “He said from the first it wasn’t a good idea in light a what happened an’ all.”
“No one thought to ask ME what I felt?” Johnny ground out.
“Johnny, none of us wanted to drag this all up again,” Scott said quietly.
“Johnny, Matilda here didn’t mean no harm. Dewdrop hissed at her an’ she got all scared an’ ran outta the barn before I had a chance ta stop her.”
Johnny snatched his hat from Scott. “Matilda?” he ripped into Jelly with a voice thick with scorn.
“Well, she had ta have a name, didn’t she!” Jelly defended himself.
“Yeah, well, in six months, ‘Matilda’ is gonna be turned into lamb stew so you might wanna think twice before you go gettin’ all attached!”
“An’ if I so much as catch sight of Matilda’s tail any time before that, I’m gonna take my gun out an’ shoot ‘er!”
Johnny crammed his hat on his head and then grabbed his gunbelt from the fence but it was when he took the Paint’s reins from Burke that his father and brother began to get vocal.
“We can sort this out, Johnny,” Scott tried.
“Johnny, if you have to ride, take another horse,” Murdoch suggested resignedly.
Johnny ignored them both. Instead, he threw his gunbelt over one shoulder and mounted up.
Scott tried to stand his ground but he had to quickly step back when Johnny kicked the horse on.
Johnny had to grip hard and pull on the reins when the paint tossed its head and half reared in confusion and stubbornness, but once it saw it was heading out of the corral it stopped resisting and surged forward like a pack of hungry wolves was on its tail.
“I’m going after him,” Scott said at once, only to turn around when he felt the hand on his arm.
“No, Scott. Let him go,” Murdoch said tiredly, watching the trail of dust slowly settling along the road Johnny had taken.
“I don’t think he should be riding. Especially not that horse,” Scott insisted.
“Probably not but I don’t think you’d be helping him any, right now, if you followed him.”
A small bleat made them both turn around.
“You were a big help, Jelly,” Scott told him through clenched teeth.
“Scott…” Murdoch rebuked mildly. Jelly couldn’t look any more downcast than he already did.
“Boss, I’m real sorry. You were right – I shoulda let Gabe do whatever he woulda done with Matilda, steada bringin’ her back here.”
The lamb bleated pathetically again, trying to nuzzle into Jelly’s arm.
Murdoch stuck his hands in his pocket, still watching the last of the dust settle. “Well, that may be Jelly…but maybe this was all for the best.”
“In what way? Just last night we had Johnny being pretty much his old self and now he’s riding who knows where on a green broke horse that just threw him!” Scott pointed out, not sounding appeased in the least.
Murdoch put a hand out and rubbed the silky curls on the lamb’s head. “Johnny’s still got a lot to work through in all this, Scott. It’s not the sort of thing that’s going to blow over in a couple of weeks. He really cared for Lucy. I think, given time…”
He closed his mouth, pressing his lips together.
“He would have asked her to marry him?” Scott asked softly.
Murdoch nodded and the unfairness of life rolled in like a wave and broke on top of him.
“Just ain’t fair, Boss,” Jelly’s words echoed his thoughts. “After all Johnny’s been through - well, if ever a boy deserved ta be happy! An’ here’s me remindin’ him of everything that went sour.”
“He would have had to face this eventually, Jelly. Maybe it’s good for him to let some of his anger out.”
“Yep…maybe,” the older man agreed slowly but his words were still tinged with guilt. “Guess I’d better go tend to m’chores,” he muttered, turning back to the barn.
Murdoch and Scott watched him go.
“Are you going to let him keep the lamb after all this?” Scott asked, turning to stare steadfastly at his father.
Murdoch pursed his lips. The same question had been going through his own mind. “I think I ought to let Johnny decide that,” he said eventually.
“If Johnny’s not back by supper, I’m riding out to find him,” Scott stated purposefully.
Murdoch looked at his oldest son and a flicker of a smile crossed his face. “You won’t get a fight from me.”
Trees, ranch-hands who were his friends, cattle, fences he’d spent hours mending, the tall grass bending as the wind caught it - they all passed by in a blur as the paint thundered along the hard packed dirt.
His eyes saw them and his brain told him they were there but inside his head all he saw were sheep and blisters and cutting and hacking and fool hats made out of wool. Just thinking about that dumb hat the boys had made for him made him hot with embarrassment all over again - just as raw as it had been that day in town. The whole damned town had been laughing at him – even his old outfit. It must have been an even bigger joke when news got out that Johnny Madrid’s girl had left him for the sheep herder.
‘Best ramrod ever,’ they’d called him. Made a point of looking him up every time they came to town. He’d never been comfortable with all that ‘legend’ stuff. He’d laughed it off, even told them to shut up, but for a kid who grew up dirt poor and spat on, there was no denying that kind of talk was still a healer, even after all this time when he thought the need for it was long gone. Just goes to show ….
No, being laughed at didn’t sit easy with him. Not at all. Nobody laughed at Johnny Madrid.
Dammit all, where the hell was he digging up all this stuff from? How long had it been since he’d thought of himself as Madrid? Was that what it was all about – just his pride? That Lucy went and bedded another man – a man she’d known only a couple of days – when he’d been courting her proper? That maybe Johnny Madrid would never be respectable enough, never good enough? That maybe he couldn’t ever turn his back on the things he’d done? Was it some kind of punishment for all the killing and fighting and anger that had eaten at him all those years?
‘She might be your girl but she isn’t your woman.’
Maldiciones. His jaw was aching from being clamped shut so hard.
Right about then his brain started yelling at him and he finally took note of the heaving breaths of the Paint just as the horse stumbled, and then he was cursing his own stupidity and selfishness and easing back on the reins to bring the lathered animal to a slow walk.
The paint let out a long sigh and dropped its head – and so did Johnny, feeling as spent as the animal.
When he finally lifted his head, the first thing he saw was the wooden sign on the side of the road.
‘Green River 4 miles.’
He wasn’t sure how he ended up here but it’d do just fine. A couple of shots of Tequila and a table somewhere in a dark corner by himself was about the only place he wanted to be right now, other than on the back of a horse.
He put a hand to the paint’s neck and gave it a firm pat as they rode into town. “You did good. We just hafta take you somewhere quiet where you won’t get all fussed about hitching rails and wagons an’ buggies.”
“Look after him for me, will yah Joe,” Johnny called to a broad-shouldered, red haired man in a leather apron. He tossed him a coin, as soon as Joe looked up from a sturdy bay he was brushing down in the main area of the livery.
Joe caught it with a grin. “Sure thing, Johnny. You ain’t plannin’ on foolin’ with any bulls today, huh?”
Well, that was Joe – smart with animals, not so good with people.
It took some doing but Johnny managed to keep his smile mostly on his face.
“Nope, not today, Joe.”
“Sure was something’ to see you takin’ on that bull.”
“Yeah, I’ll just add it to the list of other fool things I’ve done, huh?”
Maybe Johnny hadn’t hidden his feelings as much as he thought he had, because next he heard Joe say real softly, “Sorry, Johnny. People tell me I got as much tact as that bull had.”
Johnny snorted, not sure he had the energy to deal with someone else’s woes when he felt like crap himself. “Sounds like a lotta bull to me,” he got out, mustering up another smile from somewhere. Not a great line but it’d have to do.
Well, old Joe seemed pleased. Johnny could still hear him guffawing even when he’d walked out the livery door into the sun and started ambling along the sidewalk.
It was late afternoon; the spring sun was still trying out its new strength and it hadn’t given up for the day by any means. Green River was quiet and kind of sleepy right now but it wouldn’t be long before all hell broke loose when the cowhands came to town. ‘Saturday night.’ Johnny grimaced. That’s what had been the start of all this mess.
It was usually a bit quieter this end of town, away from the saloons and the jail…well, mostly. The women folk liked to shop and chat in the street while their kids fooled around and made pictures in the dirt. Maybe he should drop in on Val on his way to the saloon? No. He doubted he was fit company for anyone just now – least of all Val and those beady eyes of his.
For an instant, his breath caught in his throat. Madre de Dios - Lucy.
He took another step forward and then she was gone – just like that.
Johnny stood stock still. It had just been a trick of the sunlight, catching Amanda behind her head as she closed the door of the shop – Lucy’s shop. Besides, Amanda’s hair was almost brown and Lucy would never wear that colour dress and her voice wasn’t quite the same but hell, for a minute there…
Unexpectedly, he felt a touch on his left cheek. He winced and drew his head back a little, surprised at the pain, but it served to bring him back faster to the here and now.
He saw a pair of wide brown eyes staring up at him. Damn, he wished people would stop looking at him like that.
“That’s gotta hurt,” she told him, running her eyes over him with that quick appraisal that women do, thinking they can tell your whole life story with a glance. “You been breaking horses again?” she wondered aloud.
In spite of himself, Johnny’s grin broke out at the irony of her conclusion. Tipping his hat, he said, “I guess that’s what you’d call it, ma’am.”
“Maybe they should call it ‘breaking cowboys’ instead,” she laughed, but it lost its sparkle half way through and ended up sounding forced. That first moment of ease had somehow slipped away and he knew she was thinking back, just like he was, to all the times he’d stood at this door and talked to Lucy, stolen a kiss, snuck an arm about her waist…
Unconsciously, he started to frown off into the distance.
“You’d better let me put something on that graze for you.”
Johnny brought his eyes back to her face. Freckles - funny, he’d never noticed them on her before - tiny ones scattered across her cheeks and the bridge of her nose. Teresa said once that Lucy’s skin was white and smooth like some sort of special china…
“Johnny.” She was more insistent this time.
“No, it’s fine,” he told her, putting a hand up to gingerly poke at the spot she’d touched. He was going to have a decent bruise there by the feel of it, but at least his hand came away dry. “Nothin’ there – you see,” he assured her, holding out his hand.
“Blood’s already dried,” she told him, taking out the key she’d just placed in her small, black drawstring bag and then putting it into the lock.
Johnny didn’t move but his whole body almost locked up on him when he saw what she’d planned. “No ma’am,” he ground out, his voice suddenly deadly serious.
Amanda bit down on her lip, her hand still on the knob. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking,” she blurted out.
He’d come to recognise sorrow – it had stared back at him every morning for the past two weeks. All the fire damped down in his body and he took his hat off and stared at the ground.
“You must be missin’ her too, huh?” he asked gently, adding as he looked up, “You both bein’ school friends an’ all. She told me lotsa times she couldn’t have run the store without your help.”
She nodded, looking miserable, and he hoped she wasn’t going to start bawling. Not now, not out here with the cowhands about to ride into town any minute and, mierda, that sun was sure hot beating down on his head.
“She was my best friend.”
“Yes’m.” He changed feet and threw a look in the saloon’s direction.
“Her folks are selling the store, did you know? Johnny?”
“Yeah, they told me,” he nodded, rubbing the back of his hand across his forehead. “Say, don’t you have a wedding comin’ up?”
There it was, that sad look again that seemed to hang about her eyes like unshed tears. “Drew and I put it off for a few weeks. I just couldn’t…not with everything that’s happened. It’s set for next month instead.”
Johnny swallowed something down that was catching in his throat. “Lucy woulda wanted it to go ahead. Look, I gotta get goin’,” he mumbled, as he dropped his hat back on his head.
“You take care, now, won’t you Johnny?”
“Oh, I always take care,” he smiled glibly, catching hold of one of her hands for a moment. “I’ll be seein’ yah.”
He turned around to head towards the saloon but he hesitated on his first step when the sidewalk started to move like a wave coming into the shore. Johnny looked away, opening his eyes wide then rubbing at them with his knuckles. When he looked again it was like seeing everything through a heat haze, even Amanda. This sure wasn’t good.
Before he could say a word, two small hands had grabbed hold of his arm and then pulled him through the doorway.
“You’d better sit down before you fall down,” Amanda told him forthrightly. “That must’ve been some spill you took. You’ve gone awful pale, Johnny.”
He let her drag him into the store, aware that half of him wanted it and the other half was telling him this was a real bad idea and then from out of nowhere, his legs began to buckle. He could feel himself going down and he broke out in a sweat as his breakfast started to make signals about showing itself again right there on the shop floor.
Amanda was quick. She pushed him onto a wooden chair, even managing to grab his hat as it started to fall from his head when he doubled over, trying to get his head as close to the floor as he could to make the dizziness go away.
Darn. Johnny bit back a groan. He couldn’t throw up in the shop…and definitely not in front of Lucy’s friend. Just the thought of it made him sweat even more.
Still, part of him knew it could be worse; if he was feeling really bad he’d be past caring who was witness to him being sick.
Funny, if it had been Lucy and not Amanda he wouldn’t have cared as much. The one time she’d seen him sick was the first time he hadn’t minded someone knowing - hadn’t felt that need to hide it. He’d even felt comfortable with her fussing over him and putting a hand to his head, tsking like a schoolmarm when she felt the heat and telling him he should be in bed. ‘Course, he’d told her he’d go to bed if she’d join him. Just teasing…not really meaning it…well, no, actually, he really did mean it…every word.
She didn’t even blush; just laughed - right in this room - as if it was bound to happen one day. Maybe even soon. Heck, he’d nearly pulled the blind down and taken her in his arms right then, knowing she wouldn’t resist if he made the move to make her fully his. Nearly - but he just couldn’t do it. Not to the girl he one day hoped to…
“You think you can drink this?”
Johnny squinted up to see Amanda holding out a glass of water. The rush of heat that had swamped him was beginning to fade and his breakfast seemed to have decided to stay right where it was, but he shook his head to be on the safe side.
“Gimme a minute, huh?”
He lifted his head enough to put his face in his hands with his elbows on his knees, murmuring, “Sorry ‘bout this.”
From behind his hands he heard the swish of her skirts and the click of her heels on the wooden floor. “I’ve got four brothers,” she called to him as she headed out back, as if that explained everything. He heard the rings slide along the bar as she pulled the curtain to the workroom aside and then she left him alone in the silence with just the muted sound of a wagon rumbling along the main street outside.
Roses…and that other clean, starchy kind of smell of new cloth.
Without really wanting to, he took his head out of his hands and looked around, taking in the familiar sights: the comfy chair by the counter, the bolts of ‘fabric,’ as she called them, stacked neatly on the shelves, the fancy bonnets on their stands looking stupid without a head and a face to make sense of them. All just like it was the last time he was in here but not the same. Not now. Not ever.
“Feeling a bit better? You’ve got some colour back in your face.”
Pushing his hair back from his eyes he reached for his hat where she’d left it on a small round table nearby. He had to get out of here - right now.
“Yep, I feel real good. I’d better get going,” he lied, watching as she put a blue painted wooden tray with a small china bowl and a white mug down on the counter.
“Not yet,” she said quickly. “You don’t look nearly well enough. I was thinkin’ I should call Doc Jenkins over.”
Johnny shook his head and cautiously got to his feet. “No need for that, ‘manda. I’ll be just fine.”
“Oh, but you’re not. You’re so clearly not fine and Lucy would never forgive me if I…”
Johnny cut her off quickly, doing his best to damp down that damned anger that was firing up inside him again, just like it had this morning with Jelly.
“Well you got that all wrong,” he told her bluntly but more and more started spilling out before he could stop it. “Didn’t she tell you all about her and Gabe?” he asked scathingly. He could just see the two of them with their heads together, talking about him, laughing at what a fool he’d been for trusting.
Amanda shook her head, staring at him with wide eyes.
Gabe’s words came back to him and so did that rush of fury that swamped him when he understood Gabe’s meaning.
“Lucy was only ever my girl…but she was Gabe’s woman.”
Amanda looked at him blankly but his mouth wouldn’t stay shut and hell, he wanted to hurt someone real bad right now.
“Didn’t she tell you that she stayed out there with him?” he ground out. “That all the while I was trusting them she was in his arms and…”
Amanda put a hand to her cheek, her lips framing a silent, ‘Oh.’
Maybe it was the look of shock on her face or the tears that filled her eyes or that look so like the one he’d seen in Murdoch’s eyes just this morning but he managed to clamp his jaw down tight and step back away from her.
Angry with himself now, he whacked his hat against his thigh then turned and headed to the door. Dios, where did all this come from?
Disgusted with himself, Johnny stopped when he got to the door. Dropping his head he drew in a deep breath, clutching his hat in his hands. “Sorry,” he muttered to the floor, wondering what the heck he was doing. He stood there silently, waiting for her to yell at him or kick him or tell him she never wanted to see him again – maybe all three. He’d had that happen a few times.
“Johnny. Come and sit down. Don’t go yet.”
Then she was standing close to him, her touch gentle on his cheek. “I got some water to bathe that for you. At least let me take the sting out of it and wash off the blood.”
He stood there a few moments longer – until at last he looked to see her staring up at him, brown eyes brimming with tears and the guilt washed over him all over again. “Mandy, I had no right…”
“Hush. Just sit yourself down. You don’t have to talk,” she told him as she tugged at his arm a little until he was back on the chair again. “I made you coffee, even though you’d probably like something a mite stronger right now.” She smiled tentatively, offering him the mug filled almost to the brim with the rich dark, liquid.
Johnny hesitated, then reached out and took it without a word. He didn’t trust himself.
It looked as if she was going to stand there and watch him drink, like Murdoch sometimes did when he had to take medicine, but she turned away and he took a big gulp.
It was burning hot, scalding his mouth and throat as it went down and he figured that served him right.
Amanda came back with a wet hand towel. “This might hurt a bit,” she warned, as she started to dab.
“No more’n what I deserve, ma’am,” he confessed, throwing a swift look up at her.
Her hand paused a moment. “What you didn’t deserve, was what happened,” she said softly, before resuming her dabbing.
“Nope…nooo….” he drawled uneasily, not wanting to get into all that again.
She must have taken the hint because she stayed silent, except a quick “sorry” when she made him wince. “This is going to be a mighty fine bruise,” she murmured as the wet towel came away brown and bloody.
He didn’t bother to tell her about the other ones he was starting to feel. He was darn lucky that he didn’t have something broke.
“I ‘spect you’ve got a few more under your shirt,” she added mildly as she walked across to the counter to wring out the towel again.
He wasn’t sure where the smile came from but it found its way onto his face. “Yeah, just a few, maybe.”
Johnny nodded. “Four of ‘em,” he parroted soberly, reciting his lesson.
“You’re a hero to our Davy. The littlest one,” Amanda told him as she gently pressed the towel to the worst part of the graze. “He’s always runnin’ around, playin’ at being Johnny Madrid.” She laughed but he managed to snuff that out in two seconds flat as soon as she looked at him. “I’m sorry, Johnny. I know you’ve given all that up but the kids don’t forget. You know what boys are like.”
Johnny shifted uncomfortably. “No, ‘Manda, it ain’t just that.”
He looked down and saw her black boot peeping out from under her skirt.
“I’m pretty sure me sidin’ with a sheep man woulda changed all that.” Well, he’d lived on the outer most of his life – no reason why it should bother him now. After all, even his old outfit had turned on him. The only ones who hadn’t had been Scott and his old man – and Lucy.
“We’re farmers, Johnny. My pa doesn’t have a lot of love for cattlemen. He tried farming on three different ranges before we came here. He was run off every time.”
“I’m sorry ‘bout that.”
Amanda shrugged. “Things are good, here. We’re happy.”
“Except for this,” Johnny said, reaching out and fingering the stiff, black skirt she wore. “This for Lucy?” he asked, softly.
Amanda’s eyes suddenly filled with tears again. All she could do was nod.
“She wouldn’t thank you for it…you know that, don’tcha?” he added, gently.
“I know, darn it,” she sniffed with a stamp of her foot.
Johnny grinned. “She never did care much for what people thought, did she?”
His eyes followed her as she turned and put the towel back in the basin, sniffing a couple of times with her back to him. “I sometimes wondered if…”
She stopped all of a sudden, and he had the feeling her brain had just caught up to her mouth.
With a tilt of his head, he asked, “Wondered what?”
“Nothing. I was just thinking aloud,” she answered, way too quickly.
He took the last few gulps of his coffee then stood up and moved over to her, putting the mug down on the polished wood in front of her. He kept his fingers wrapped around the handle and she just stood there, staring down at his hand while he leaned on the counter.
“Thinkin’ what?” he drawled softly.
She looked down at him then and, for a moment, he thought he saw something like fear in her brown eyes, as if she held some secret she couldn’t tell.
Johnny straightened and let go of the mug. Putting his hands to her shoulders, he gently drew her around to look at him. “Mandy, I thought I knew Lucy. If you know somethin’ that I don’t that’d make sense of all this then…”
“Johnny, I don’t. Not really. It’s just something she said to me…just the once…a long time ago.”
Amanda wouldn’t look him in the eye. Instead, she shrugged off his hold and walked towards the storefront window.
Johnny considered her back. By the looks of it, her mind was made up. “Maybe, sometimes, you just can’t ask why,” he said softly, moving to pick up his hat.
“I don’t know if what I’m gonna say is going to help you or hurt you,” Amanda protested in almost a whisper.
Johnny shrugged, pushing the crown of his hat out of shape with a fist. “Well, I guess you’ve gotta let it out for us to know one way or the other, Mandy.”
He gave her a few more moments, deftly reworking his hat back into shape with the side of his hand.
“If you’re sure, Johnny.”
No, he wasn’t sure. Nothing like it.
“Sure, I’m sure,” he said, watching her intently now.
Her shoulders rose as she took a deep breath and then she turned to face him.
“Johnny, I know Lucy loved you. She was crazy ‘bout you. Had her eye on you the very first time she saw you ride into town with your pa and your brother.”
Johnny regarded her steadily, his hat held still in his hands now. After a moment the beginnings of a smile started to make its way across his face as he thought back a lifetime ago. “Yeah, she was the one who asked me to dance. She was the only one not scared of bein’ with Johnny Madrid that night.”
“’Course, Scott musta been makin’ up stories about me to keep all the pretty ones away,” he grinned.
“It didn’t work with Lucy, though.”
“Nope. Sure couldn’t fool her.”
“Took you a good while to get around to courtin’ her, though,” she pointed out, a slight teasing note in her voice.
“Well, I wasn’t exactly courtin’ material those early days at Lancer,” Johnny admitted lightly.
Amanda lowered her gaze, the smile slowly fading from her lips.
“Go on. You were sayin’?” Johnny encouraged. At least she’d relaxed a bit with his joking but now all she did was fiddle with the ribbons on one of the hats.
She didn’t look up; just kept winding the dark green ribbon around her finger. When she finally spoke, she still sounded reluctant.
“Did you ever get the feeling that sometimes life’s already got everything planned, like some stuff’s written in the stars or something…people…their feelings?”
Johnny went still.
“Lucy said to me one time that there was something waitin’ out there for her. That she didn’t know what it was but that when it came along she was gonna jump up and grab at it with both hands.”
Johnny didn’t want to hear this.
“I just figured that the sheepherder must’ve been that something she was waiting for. I mean, for her to just decide to up and leave like that…to even offer herself to…” She stopped suddenly, her cheeks becoming rosy red. “Well, it just didn’t seem like our Lucy…seemed more like it was someone else,” she finished sadly.
“So, you’re sayin’ you don’t think Lucy and me would ever have made it?” he asked, looking straight at her. It could have been someone else’s voice doing the asking. It didn’t seem to be coming from him.
Amanda slowly let her eyes meet his.
Amanda knew Lucy the best of all; they worked together, played dolls together growing up. Did all that secret girl stuff in her room. He used to catch them with their heads together, hatching some plan or other.
She didn’t have to nod her head. He saw it in her eyes.
“Well, best I know now, huh?”
“Johnny. I’m so sorry.”
Which was about as helpful as him apologising to a body lying dead in the street.
“I gotta go. The Paint I rode in on mighta kicked down the stall by now.”
He’d been more dead than alive a few times in his life and this felt awfully similar.
She stood there looking guilty as hell and something tugged at him. “Ain’t your fault, Mandy,” he told her as he dropped his hat on his head. “I’ll be seein’ ya.”
The paint hadn’t kicked down the stall.
For whatever reason, when he dragged the saddle back onto it with his aching arm and shoulder, it just stood there, turning its head to look at him with a bored expression, as if it had gone through this routine every day for the last year.
Well, at least something was finally going right.
“Gonna be dark soon, Johnny,” Joe told him amiably, lifting the glass to light the lantern hanging on a hook near the door.
“Yep, I’d best be headin’ home. This one give you any trouble, Joe?”
“Nope. Good as gold. That’s a fine animal.”
Johnny nodded, said his goodbyes and rode out. He didn’t want to talk, didn’t want to drink - didn’t really want to do anything just then…except ride.
Murdoch didn’t eat supper. He just didn’t have the heart for it - couldn’t even bring himself to sit at the table. Neither could Scott, apparently.
Maria had bustled about and scolded them both, telling them roundly in her thick accent, that it was dinner time – men should eat. As if to prove her point, she insisted on serving Teresa at the dining table – her solitary meal looking almost as unhappy as Teresa when it was thumped down in front of her.
Even Jelly hadn’t bothered to come inside and eat.
Murdoch walked out the front door and then stood on the patio, buttoning his jacket as the last of the sun’s rays sank below the edge of his world. Somehow, his heart had been keeping pace with it all afternoon. Here it was dusk, and still no sign of Johnny.
Movement near the barn made him look in that direction.
“Jelly,” he muttered under his breath, his expression softening as he saw the wrangler coming towards him in the half dark, leading two saddled horses.
Scott stepped outside just then. “You were one step ahead of me,” he smiled at his father with a look across to the readied mounts as he strapped on his gunbelt.
“No, I think Jelly, here, was a step ahead of both of us.”
Scott raised his brows, the smile sliding from his face as he looked at Jelly.
“Scott, he already feels bad enough,” Murdoch murmured after catching his son’s expression.
“If I find Johnny lying in a ditch somewhere he’ll be feeling even worse. I can promise you that,” ground out Scott.
“Scott.” It was a mild growl. Apparently Johnny’s absence hadn’t been any easier on Scott as the day wore on. They both knew that Johnny was more than capable of looking after himself, but there was no doubt about it - it had been a bad fall.
He’d been walking towards the corral when it happened, drawn to watching Johnny – maybe just to reassure himself - and then out of the blue, the horse had reared and twisted and he’d known Johnny was going to fall even before he’d left the saddle. Again, he’d been taken unawares by that sharp twinge that came out of nowhere and seemed to grind into his very core the split second he’d seen Johnny hit the ground and lie there so still. Being a parent could be darned uncomfortable at times.
Scott took a breath and frowned at the ground, waiting for Jelly to come up to them.
“Jelly!” Murdoch called heartily to him, feeling a need to make up for Scott’s obvious lack of enthusiasm. “Good thinking,” he told him as he stepped off the patio and took his reins. “Scott?” Murdoch encouraged, gently.
“Yes, thanks, Jelly,” Scott muttered, mustering up a half smile as he took his reins but turning away almost at once to check the girth.
Jelly, uncharacteristically quiet, watched him for a moment then turned to Murdoch. “Just let him know I’m real sorry, won’tcha, boss?”
Murdoch patted him once on the shoulder before mounting up.
Scott was the most energised Murdoch had seen him in days, speaking like he was organising a military battle as he pulled on his gloves and swung up onto his mount. “I’d say our best chances are Green River and Morro Coyo.”
“I’ll take Green River,” Murdoch agreed.
“Morro Coyo is closer to Lancer,” Scott pointed out, looking across at his father.
His eldest son should have been a diplomat.
“True, it is,” Murdoch agreed blithely. “Enjoy your ride.”
Scott threw him a look of frustration then, clearly giving in, turned his horse away from the house. He looked set to go but after a moment’s hesitation he looked down at Jelly and said, “You know Johnny; I’ll probably find him in town playing poker and he’ll accuse me of keeping him waiting.”
“Yeah, well if ya do, just give him a piece a’ my mind for not gettin’ back here an’ finishing off his chores,” Jelly blustered crankily.
“I’ll do that, Jelly,” Scott grinned before urging his horse to get moving. With a wave of his hand, he was gone.
Murdoch and Jelly watched him head out at a fast pace, then Murdoch turned to Jelly and said, “Well, I’ll be seeing you.”
“Boss, wait up a minute.”
Without pausing to check if he had waited, Jelly headed back to the barn, Murdoch following leisurely on horseback.
“Here ya go, Murdoch,” Jelly called to him, coming out of the barn side door.
Murdoch nodded when he saw what Jelly had in his hand. “He left it in the barn before he started workin’ that horse. Reckon it’s gonna be a bit of a chilly night.”
Murdoch took Johnny’s jacket from him and tied it behind the saddle. Jelly had packed a couple of bedrolls as well and the saddlebags looked to be suspiciously heavy.
“I’m only riding into Green River,” he commented with raised brows.
“Always best ta be prepared,” Jelly retorted sagely.
Half way there and no still no sign of Johnny.
The thought crossed his mind that he might be in the saloon. He’d never known Johnny to use alcohol to solve his problems but he wasn’t so sure if he might not choose the other type of comfort to be found there. Although, as far as he knew, Johnny’s ‘girlfriends’ seemed to have been mostly in Morro Coyo.
Still, he could hardly barge into the saloon and start asking questions if his son was nowhere to be seen. He didn’t think for a moment that Johnny would be overly thrilled if his father was the first person he saw when he came downstairs.
He could always try Val. He and Johnny were thick as thieves.
Murdoch’s horse snorted and pulled a little on the reins as it cleared its nose, bringing Murdoch’s attention back to his surroundings. Thank God for a full moon that hadn’t wasted any time in rising. Already it sat low on the horizon, eerily orange in colour – so like its usual self but at the same time, so different.
Murdoch frowned. When were things ever going to get back to normal?
He noticed the pricking of his horse’s ears first of all, then a slight difference in its gait.
Beginning to hope, he stared ahead, kicking his horse on that little bit quicker. He was still on Lancer land but it was Saturday night. It could be one of the hands out in front of him.
No doubt about it, he could see a rider coming towards him and he could pick out the splashes of white on a Paint’s coat in the moonlight and what he hoped was the faint blur of Johnny’s blue and white shirt.
A few yards further on and he knew it had to be Johnny.
“Murdoch,” his son greeted him as soon as they were within talking distance. “You headin’ into town for a bit a’ Saturday night fun?”
Everything in Murdoch strained to catch the tone. He could hear the familiar teasing note but it was heavier, lacking the usual effortless humour.
“Not exactly,” he answered dryly, swinging his horse around to walk alongside the slightly smaller Paint and then heading back in the direction from which he’d come.
There was something wary, almost uneasy, in the glance Johnny threw at him before he pulled his hat a little lower over his eyes. “Guess I had you worried, huh?”
It certainly wasn’t the sun that was bothering Johnny. “Just a little,” Murdoch admitted. “You rode off in a temper on a green horse.” He let a hint of rebuke tinge his words – that would at least pay for some of the hours lost because his brain couldn’t tally the figures and his eyes kept drifting towards the window and the white Lancer arch.
Johnny hung his head. “Sorry ‘bout that.” Murdoch accepted it with a nod, feeling the tightness about his mouth relax. There was always something particularly heartfelt about an apology from Johnny. It was not a set of words he used lightly.
“Jelly upset with me?” Johnny added, as if he already knew the answer but hoped he wasn’t right.
Murdoch would have laughed aloud if he hadn’t been so concerned. “No, John. He’s not upset with you. Upset with himself, more likely.”
Johnny shook his head, slapping a hand to his thigh. “Nope, I shouldn’t a’ gone off half cocked at him like that. Don’t know what got into me.”
Johnny didn’t reply and Murdoch let a feeling of relief soothe him, content for the moment to listen to the steadying sound of hooves on the firm packed dirt with that strange orange moon becoming more yellow the higher it rose in the sky, happy to have his youngest in one piece and riding by his side.
Strange how a sliver of memory could sneak in like that; out of the blue he had a glimpse of a dawn covered with mist and two big old whiskered draft horses ponderously pulling their wagonload of cider barrels up the cobblestone hill. His mother used to make up a silly song to match the rhythm as each shoe hit the wet road with a metallic ring.
Suddenly the rhythm dissolved as the Paint shied at some imagined terror, but Johnny’s firm hand and a few soothing words held him to his path. Murdoch smiled to himself - maybe the Paint had seen those giants in Inverness too.
Murdoch raised his brows fractionally. He never let on how this side of Johnny never ceased to confound him. The boy never missed a trick.
“Just an old man’s memories,” he smiled back.
Murdoch’s ease slipped away as quickly as it had come. Something in the tone definitely wasn’t right. This wasn’t ‘his’ Johnny. For the first time since all this had happened he silently cursed both the sheepherder and Lucy. Jelly was right; his son didn’t deserve this – any of it.
In the palish light, Murdoch could make out a dark shadow across Johnny’s cheek. He quickly scanned the rest of his son. The boy looked to be sitting pretty straight in the saddle but he could almost hear the ache in Johnny’s voice when he spoke.
“Scott ridin’ into Morro Coyo?”
“We split up,” Murdoch admitted. Johnny had guessed as much already.
“Murdoch, I wanna get on with life. You don’t need to be watchin’ me no more,” Johnny announced in that soft drawl of his, looking across at Murdoch with the flicker of a self-conscious smile.
“There isn’t any hurry,” he suggested mildly.
“I know there ain’t. Still, never was any use in flogging a dead horse.”
Murdoch nodded, pondering the statement.
“Which particular dead horse would that be, Johnny?” he eventually asked, looking across at his son. No, something still wasn’t right. Call it a parent’s intuition maybe – sometimes he even surprised himself at how well he’d come to know this son of his.
At that moment, the Paint took exception to walking so close to the other horse. Baring his teeth to show his displeasure he then took a nip at Murdoch’s mount who promptly retaliated in kind, causing the newly broken pinto to do a sudden side step and twist his head away.
Murdoch thought little of it until he heard a string of words in Spanish – the ones Johnny never used in front of Teresa and not too often within hearing of his ‘old man’ – and a definite grunt of pain.
That was enough for Murdoch. He reached forward and grabbed the reins of the Paint near the bridle and brought it to a halt. Looking up he found a seething son.
“Now, what the hell did ya do that for?” Johnny ground out, as the Paint danced around on its hind legs, refusing to stand still even though Murdoch still held his grip.
“He’s got a mean streak in him, that one. He’ll never make a good cowpony,” Murdoch commented blandly instead.
“Yeah, well maybe a mean streak suits me just fine right now, Murdoch,” Johnny growled back.
Murdoch let go of the Paint’s reins and straightened in the saddle, calmly surveying his son. He hadn’t missed the lengthening of the drawl or the added huskiness in the voice. “Looks like a trip to town, if that’s where you went, did nothing to improve your disposition.”
Johnny snorted, the saddle creaking loudly as he leaned forward. “If that means what I think it means, then nooo, it didn’t,” he agreed forthrightly, before turning the uppity Paint in a tight circle until he faced his father again.
Murdoch continued to calmly study his son, long enough for Johnny to look at him then grumble, ‘Well, what’s wrong now?”
“Come on. The creek’s just over there. I’ve seen you fall off a horse already once today. I don’t intend to see a repeat performance.”
Without waiting to see Johnny’s reaction, Murdoch turned his horse and headed into the brush on their right, making a beeline for the small creek that flowed through this part of the ranch. The bushes caught on his stirrup as he rode through them, but he had no problem picking out a path in the moonlight.
He was taking a risk but he was pretty sure he knew his son…at least he hoped he did in this instance. He doubted very much that he’d get another chance to deal with what was bothering Johnny and his instincts told him to strike while the iron was hot.
Letting his horse pick its way around yet another prickly bush, Murdoch concentrated on listening instead.
Even when he heard no obvious sound of being followed, he still resisted the urge to look back.
Well, maybe he was wrong. Perhaps pushing Johnny…
“What’s got into you, Murdoch – not as if I go round fallin’ off a horse every minute of the damn day!”
“No, that’s true, Johnny,” Murdoch agreed soothingly, allowing himself a private smile of victory as he heard the Paint’s movements hot on his tail.
He just wished he knew exactly what he was going to do and say to this troubled son of his, once they got to the creek.
It didn’t take long for Murdoch to get out of Johnny that he hadn’t eaten since breakfast.
Wondering if the cold and hunger were as much a part of his son’s problem as anything else, he handed Johnny his jacket, then made him sit down while he fossicked in his saddle bags to see what Jelly had packed. Out of the corner of his eye he watched Johnny struggle to get the jacket on and the pain the action seemed to cause him. Just another thing for him to think on while he gathered up some twigs and dried brush.
Before long, he had a small fire blazing, and had then shoved a thick sandwich, chock full of ham, towards Johnny with the stern word, “Eat.”
Johnny, sitting silently with his back against a tree, looked at it, then flicked an upward glance at Murdoch before taking his hat off and balancing it on his drawn up knee. Only then did he reach out and take the sandwich with a mumbled, “Thanks.”
Murdoch didn’t wait to watch him take an actual bite – there was coffee to be made and after that he led the horses to the creek for a drink and a silent thanks to be made to a crusty wrangler back at Lancer.
It niggled at him, while the horses lowered their heads to lap at the water, that Scott would return from Morro Coyo and finding Murdoch not back, quite possibly head into Green River.
Well, there wasn’t much he could do about that, he decided philosophically as he led both horses the short distance back to their camp and tied them to the branch of a nearby tree.
He could feel Johnny’s gaze on him – he didn’t even have to look up to know for sure. The question was could Johnny sense his unease – know how unprepared he felt for all this; how little he knew about being a father?
In his own youth, it was his mother who’d always had the right words for him when he was growing up. She could take one look at him with those grey, kind of sad eyes of hers, and know exactly what was troubling him.
His father, meanwhile, would still be going through his routine of noisily clearing his throat, painstakingly filling his old briar pipe, although he’d somehow forget to actually light it, and putting another log on a fire that already burned bright; all this as a prelude to finally mumbling out his query in an uneasy, round about way that was sometimes barely intelligible. His face softened as he looked back. Well, he had sons, now, himself – maybe he had a bit more sympathy for his father these days than he had back then.
He sighed silently. Maybe the Lord above knew what he was doing when he’d ordained it took both a man *and* a woman to bring up a child. Right about now, he’d even forgive Maria her lies to his son if she was still alive and knew how to bring the smile back to Johnny’s eyes.
“See. I told you it wasn’t bad,” Johnny said with some exasperation after Murdoch declared his shoulder and back looked to be badly bruised but fortunately, nothing else.
Murdoch left Johnny sitting with his shirt and jacket half off his right shoulder while he squatted by the creek and wet a small towel Jelly had packed, thankful he didn’t have to go about popping any joints back into place.
The moon was high in the sky now, casting a silvery film across the river that shimmied every time a breeze blew. The night seemed a little friendlier now that the moon was back to its usual colour. A rustling sound in the bushes told him there were a few night creatures about – probably wary of the owl that hooted in the branches above their heads. No wonder it was such a mournful sound; how much evil did it witness on its nocturnal rounds? He’d come across plenty of men like Porter who used the darkness to cloak their miserable deeds. He threw a troubled look at his son as he stood. Good God, how many men like that had Johnny had dealings with?
Noticing Johnny about to ease his shirt and jacket back up his arm, he called to him, “Wait a minute.”
Johnny’s eyes were on him as he walked over to the tree and their small fire. “Let’s get this cold cloth on it. Might help with the bruising.”
Johnny gave in without a word and submitted to the doctoring, flinching just the once when the cold hit his skin or maybe Murdoch hadn’t been gentle enough.
Gently taking hold of Johnny’s chin, he turned his son’s face a little so that the moonlight fell full on it. “This has been doctored. You see Sam?” he asked, suddenly suspicious that Johnny hadn’t told him everything.
Johnny pulled his head away. “’Manda did it,” he answered shortly.
Johnny picked up a twig then began scratching at the dirt with it. “Yeah.”
“What’s she doing about her wedding? I heard she was putting it off.”
“Just for a few weeks,” Johnny told him, throwing the twig into the bushes with an impatient gesture.
“Must be hard for her.”
Johnny closed his eyes and put his head back, not commenting. Eventually he murmured sleepily, “Thanks, Murdoch.”
Murdoch studied his face and saw a lot to frown about. Maybe Scott was right – perhaps he’d let this go on too long. He sighed loudly. Johnny wasn’t a kid and he, of all people, would always handle something like this in his own way.
A wry smile crossed Murdoch’s face. The boy must be a mind reader.
“There’s nothing to be sorry for, Johnny.”
Johnny opened one eye and squinted up at him. “I’ve got you worryin’. Keepin’ you up at night…” He grinned knowingly. “Pretendin’ to read.”
“No worse than you pretending to eat,” Murdoch returned easily.
“Guess we’re a bit alike.” It cheered Murdoch to see that slow, easy smile spread its way across Johnny’s face; he’d left the words ‘old man’ unsaid but no doubt he’d said them in his head.
“Yeah, I guess we are,” Murdoch agreed softly, taking the towel off Johnny’s shoulder so that he could wet it again. No matter what Johnny told him, his son was in pain and it ate at him that a wet towel was never going to ease it.
“You don’t hafta do that again,” Johnny told him, eyeing his father as he prepared to stand.
“We’ll give it one more shot, I think. See if we can make you a bit more comfortable for the rest of the ride home,” Murdoch told him, touching him lightly on his good shoulder before getting to his feet. At least this way he felt like he was doing something for his son.
“You think you can make my head ‘comfortable’ too, while you’re about it?”
Murdoch looked down at him, taken aback by the request. The tone was whimsical, but there was nothing funny about what played underneath. It took him back that this self sufficient son who always handled everything his own way, was actually asking for some help. So rarely did either of the boys need to come to him for advice – unless it was something to do with ranching and even that less and less lately.
He frowned as he considered what to say. Those wise patriarchal words that flowed so perfectly in his head with all the Wisdom of Solomon seemed to be nowhere around when they were really needed. It troubled him that, when it came down to it, all he had to offer his son was honesty.
He shook his head with a great deal of regret. “I’m not sure I can, Johnny.”
“Well, worth a try,” Johnny shrugged lightly but the despondency in his tone made Murdoch try again.
“Maybe it would help if you tell me what you’re feeling,” he suggested, feeling like he was walking on spongy ground.
“Try, ‘mad at the world,’” Johnny confessed without looking up, tugging at a clump of grass.
“I busted my guts doin’ all that hackin’ and hammering, building those dumb pens; had the whole valley on my back all the while I did it. Then I take Lucy out to see the lambs and she’s real taken with’em and starts spendin’ her days out there…an’ all the time I’m wonderin’, you know?”
Murdoch didn’t wet the towel again. Instead he sat down on a log close to the fire, opposite Johnny.
“You ever get a real bad feeling about something and you don’t go and check it out because you figure the knowin’ might be worse than the wondering?”
Murdoch bowed his head. He’d lost this boy in front of him to that very same mistake.
Johnny’s hand stilled; a small sprinkling of torn grass scattered the dirt by his knee.
“I gotta tell tell yah, Murdoch - when I saw Lucy come out of Gabe’s tent, I wanted to choke the life out of ’im. Maybe I would’ve a few years back,” he added, letting out a slow, uneven breath that seemed to catch in his throat.
“No, Johnny. I doubt it.”
“You didn’t know me back then.”
“I know you now. A man can’t change what’s deep inside him.”
“For a lotta years…all I had was hate and killin’ deep inside me,” he admitted quietly, pulling his shirt and jacket back up before putting his head low on his chest.
“Johhnnnny,” Murdoch remonstrated, a world of regret and concern in the drawn out syllables. “That’s all past now.” What more could he say without bringing his own guilt into the mix?
Johnny looked at him and he was sure he saw a slight softening in his son’s eyes before he put his head down again.
“Amanda said somethin’ in town today,” he murmured into his chest, “about maybe me an’ Lucy not being right for each other. That…uh…maybe even if Gabe hadn’t come along, it might not have worked out between us.”
“Did it help?”
A wry smile tugged at his mouth. “Nope. Just made me see that the person I’m really mad at is me,” he stated flatly, tugging at a new patch of grass.
“Why be mad at yourself? None of what happened was your doing.”
Johnny looked up at his father. “Murdoch, I could take it that Lucy and me weren’t right for each other. It’d hurt – but these things happen. I know that. You can’t change a person’s heart. But I let her down. If I hadn’t been so mad with her, I would’ve been out there, checking that things were okay. An’ if I hadn’t got all angry with the boys, they woulda told me what Porter was up to.”
“Johnny, that’s not anger - that’s guilt.”
“Same thing,” he stated irrevocably.
“Johnny, you can’t hold yourself responsible for what happened out there.”
Johnny looked straight at Murdoch. “I’ve never shirked somethin’ like that,” he said, decisively. Murdoch felt cold - like he always did when he got a glimpse into Johnny’s past.
“Murdoch,” Johnny appealed, shaking his head,” I knew what Porter was like. You told me yourself ‘bout the type of man he was.”
Murdoch tossed the dregs of his coffee out. “If Porter knew you were out there, he would have sent guns to stop you, not a bunch of drunken cowboys - and then maybe it would be me who’d be grieving.” Murdoch’s voice dropped a level as he stared into the empty cup. “I’m selfish enough to say that I’m thankful that’s not the case.”
Johnny put his head down, watching the grass scatter a little with the wind as he picked it up and then let it drop from his fingers. “Can’t say I’m not glad you feel that way,” he admitted softly, adding with a long sigh, “but it don’t help me none.”
Murdoch nodded. Well, who was he to think he could break through a code of beliefs that had been forged under the most trying of circumstances - the very reason he was wary of offering Johnny any kind of advice. He’d made mistakes with Johnny since he’d come home – Stryker…Warburton. He hadn’t handled Johnny well either time - could very well have lost him.
“You want some more coffee first?” he asked, stubbornly reluctant for the moment to end. Johnny wouldn’t come to him for help again on the matter. He’d lock it all away, declare himself done with brooding and get on with roping and fence building and branding and trips to town with Scott and teasing Jelly. But every time he ducked his head and that spark faded in his eyes Murdoch would be wondering what it was that set him off…made him sad. Just like it was when he first came back.
Johnny stuck a finger into the tin mug by his side. “I let mine get cold,” he admitted, tossing the contents into the bushes with a slight wince as the movement tugged at his shoulder. Murdoch watched it spray across the leaves then promptly drip steadily to the ground like black tears. He watched them bleakly for a moment, not really thinking a thing, until unexpectedly he began to be aware of something taking shape in the nothingness of his thoughts.
In that instant, he knew what he had to tell his son. He just wasn’t quite sure how. How do you tell your son you’ve been a fool – not once, but many times?
The unease that came with the thought spurred him into action. He stood and then moved across to take Johnny’s cup from his unresisting fingers. Johnny didn’t look up – he looked about as lost as Murdoch had felt a few moments ago – so he cleared his throat as a prelude. “Son, I made a few mistakes when Catherine died and then…when your mother left and took you with her.”
He knew he had Johnny’s attention now. His eyes followed Murdoch - the rest of him was completely still.
“Johnny, have you ever seen a woman go through grief?”
The question seemed to surprise Johnny but when he answered it was with a soft certainty. “Sure. Mostly she cries a bucket load a’ tears. Then when she’s all cried out, she sorta gets on with livin’.”
Murdoch nodded, almost distracted from his aim. He had to pretend to concentrate on pouring the coffee so that Johnny couldn’t see how much he wondered if it was Maria’s grief he’d seen and over whom? “That mostly seems to be the way of it,” he managed to agree quietly, passing Johnny back his cup.
Johnny stared into it but he didn’t take a sip.
“It’s there for drinking,” Murdoch urged gently, looking down at him.
“Only if you sit down again,” he told his father with the grin of old. “You’re givin’ me a crick in my neck.”
“You were sayin’?” Johnny prompted, as he watched his father settle his frame again on the ground by his side.
“Johnny, I don’t know what it is about us men, but we seem to find it easier to get mad than…”
“To let the feelings in,” Murdoch confessed quietly. “I remember how much it hurt to remember…things. It didn’t hurt nearly as much to be angry. In fact, it felt pretty good most times.”
Johnny swallowed something down in his throat. “Who were you angry with after…um…after my mother left?”
“Her…myself…some days, both of us together.”
Johnny nodded. “I know what that feels like.”
“I don’t know if what I’m saying makes much sense but women seem to be able to go back and think about the past and face it and have their cry.”
“Maybe they’re a bit braver than us, huh, Murdoch?”
“Yeah. I guess they are.”
“It’s hard rememberin’,” Johnny confessed.
Murdoch reached over and tapped him on the leg. “I know, son. I know.”
He didn’t know how long they sat there in silence, both staring into the flames, but after a good while, Murdoch could feel the cold seeping into his bones, stiffening his joints.
It wasn’t easy to break the silence but eventually he forced himself to say, “I think I’m ready to go back,” as he got stiffly to his feet. “How about you?”
Johnny continued to stare into the flames. “No, I think I’ll stay out here a bit longer,” he said, but there was something in the gentle drawl that gave Murdoch hope this time.
“Well, we’ve got a couple of bedrolls here and plenty of coffee…”
Johnny looked up at his father and Murdoch held up his hand in defeat. “Okay…but promise me you’ll sleep and have some more to eat,” was his only proviso.
Johnny looked at him with affection. “I don’t know how you filled in your days before you had Scott an’ me to fuss over.”
Murdoch shook his head, with a wry grin. “Johnny-my-boy,” he said warmly, “I can’t say I know how, either.”
Murdoch was up at dawn the following morning and feeling strangely refreshed, all things considered, as he stood on the patio and took in the crisp air. It had to be his favourite time of day. Once it had been his loneliest but now, since the boys had come home, he rather liked the odd times he was up before the others. He’d discovered there was a great difference in solitude when you knew it was only fleeting. At times like this the peace of early dawn was something to be enjoyed, especially as his thoughts no longer echoed hollowly back at him like they used to.
Scott had been waiting for him when he got back the night before, clearly disappointed when he saw no sign of his brother.
“You didn’t find him?” he asked abruptly, coming from inside the house apparently as soon as he’d heard the sound of a horse. He still wore his jacket and his horse stood ready by the hitching post, still saddled.
“Oh, I found him all right,” Murdoch told him as he handed his reins over to Jelly, who’d appeared out of the darkness as soon as he’d ridden in.
“Just let it be, Scott. What he needs now is a little time to himself.”
Scott’s expression softened. “So you talked to him?”
“An’ he hadn’t broken his fool neck?” Jelly added.
“No Jelly, from what I could see, Johnny’s neck was in one piece.”
“Well, he still oughtta had more sense than to go off like that,” Jelly muttered as he led Murdoch’s and Scott’s horses away.
“You must be tired. Come on in and I’ll pour you a drink,” Scott told his father as they walked into the dimly lit house.
“That sounds pretty good about now,” Murdoch sighed wearily, following his son.
Murdoch, enjoying the comfort of the sofa, took a few good gulps of whisky before he let himself face his son who was standing in front of the fire, not doing a very good job of hiding his curiosity.
“Out with it, Scott.”
Scott looked up from his glass with a rueful smile. “I admit I’m curious, sir, but I’m not asking for any confidences other than knowing that Johnny’s all right.”
Murdoch considered his answer. “Maybe not yet…but I’m thinking he will be.”
Scott nodded. Staring into his glass he said, “You know Johnny, he seems to fall in and out of love pretty quickly…but with Lucy, I know it was different.”
“Yes, it was different,” Murdoch agreed heavily.
“Still, I’m glad it was you who caught up with him,” Scott said, looking across at his father.
Murdoch raised his brows, not quite sure what to make of that comment.
Scott shrugged. “Johnny respects you and he knows you’ve had experience with what he’s going through. I think if he was going to turn to anyone in all this, it’d be you.” Scott smiled a little self consciously. “We’ve both noticed that you’ve got a pretty good head on your shoulders.”
Murdoch shook his head, somewhat bemused but certainly moved. “That’s high praise indeed, son, especially when I haven’t been long at handing out fatherly advice.”
“Well, you’ve probably got Johnny to thank. He gets into enough trouble to make up for lost time.”
“You don’t do so badly yourself,” Murdoch reminded him.
“Well, I like to do my part,” Scott admitted with a grin.
There’d been no sign of Johnny when he’d finally taken himself off to bed. He’d told Scott not to wait up for his brother and Scott promptly told him he should follow his own advice.
The old mahogany bed with its deep burgundy quilt and plumped-up pillows looked fit for a king when he wearily trudged into his room.
He was touched to find a lamp burning by the bed – Teresa’s hand no doubt.
He’d thought of Johnny, as he’d climbed into bed, sitting out there by the fire, alone with his memories…no, not alone, not ever alone now, he amended quickly. He was pretty sure that Johnny knew that, too.
The pillow felt incredibly soft when he put his head on it – and the next thing he knew, it was morning.
So it was, some time around mid-morning, that Murdoch saw his youngest ride in at a gallop on a surprisingly docile Paint that stopped when told and stood patiently to be unsaddled outside the hacienda.
“He’s looking good,” Murdoch commented, waving Burke over to come and get the horse, but his eyes rested solely on his son.
Johnny took off his hat and then wiped his forehead with the back of his arm. “Yep, I’d say he’s got ridda that mean streak. He’s as gentle as a …”
“Lamb?” Murdoch tested, tongue in cheek.
Johnny looked at him for a beat before he ducked his head; Murdoch held his breath but he could see the smirk spreading across Johnny’s face before he’d even looked up. “Actually, I was gonna say ‘kitten,’” he told Murdoch, meeting his father’s gaze without the least hesitation.
“Kitten it is then,” Murdoch agreed, as they walked toward the door. Murdoch opened it and then herded his son into the house.
The tension that had been eating at Murdoch the last few weeks finally gave up as he watched Johnny walk inside, spurs jingling, with that certain confidence in his saunter that was unmistakably him.
From the looks of it Johnny was obviously sore of body and still probably sore at heart but there was no doubt now that he was healing – and Murdoch was more than content to let it run its course.
“You can’t leave him stewing for too long about this, Johnny. It’s been a few days, now.”
Johnny looked around from the pillar he was lounging against to see Murdoch coming out the front door. Once he would’ve felt an urge to stand up straighter as his father came and stood beside him, but instead he simply threw him a casual grin as he continued to rotate his sore arm, his left hand kneading the top of his right shoulder.
“Yeah, I was just thinkin’ that,” he agreed, looking across to Jelly.
Jelly was sitting on a wooden stool under a tree a little way from the house. In front of him was a crate filled with broken tack. Even from here he could hear Jelly muttering away to himself as he examined each piece and set it aside to be mended or thrown away.
“No time like the present,” Johnny decided aloud.
“Just remember how badly he feels about it all,” Murdoch cautioned as Johnny stepped off the patio, pulling his hat lower over his eyes as he got out in the sun.
Johnny threw his father a backward wave as he walked away. He knew exactly what he was going to say to Jelly.
“Well, hi ya, Johnny,” Jelly greeted him as soon as he was close enough.
Johnny put on a frown – the one he used when the sum was too hard or he simply pretended the sum was too hard because he wanted Murdoch to finish the bookwork for him.
“Jelly, I’ve got a problem,” he announced thoughtfully, scrunching up his face.
“Well, it’s when you can’t work something out…”
Jelly’s harrumphed. “Okay Mr smarty boots – I mean, what’s the problem you got! I know what a dang problem is!”
Johnny didn’t beat around the bush. “Well, it seems that our Maria has never cooked lamb.”
Jelly looked puzzled first of all and then he looked suspicious. “Aw, come on, Johnny. You’re havin’ me on – surely she’s cooked mutton.”
Johnny shrugged. “I don’t know Jelly but she’s tellin’ me she ain’t!” he asserted again, putting his hands to his hips as he stared at the other man, helplessly.
Jelly took a big breath and then swallowed hard like there was a pine cone stuck in his throat. “Well, I reckon I could ask next time I’m in town. The Widow Hargis is a real fine cook. Why I’m sure she could just about cook up anything, an’ make it taste real fine, too. I bet I could get a recipe off a’ her for Maria.”
Johnny stared at him with wide-eyed surprise. “Would ya do that for me Jelly? Now why didn’t I think a’ that!” he added, clapping his hands together.
Jelly nodded and gave him a sickly grin. He looked as excited as a man going to his own hanging.
Johnny saw the look and slapped Jelly on the back enthusiastically. “Yes sirree, why, Jelly – that’d be real…” Suddenly the words died on his lips and he stopped mid sentence – a serious grimace replacing the smile.
“Well what is it?” Jelly asked him, jumping to his feet, looking worried. “You jar yer shoulder with all that clappin’ or somethin’?”
Johnny shook his head, frowning at the ground, as he stomped one foot forward. “No, it ain’t that, it’s just that…” He stopped again, squinting up at the sky as if the answer was up there somewhere and then he regretfully looked down again, shaking his head. “Noooo, maybe it won’t work. You know what the widow’s like. I heard tell she just about keeps a lock on her recipe book she’s so serious about those prize winnin’ entries a’ hers in the Sacramento Fair.”
“Well, it would take me some time,” Jelly admitted. “She’s not an easy woman ta convince.”
Johnny looked at him as if he was seeing him for the very first time. “Jelly!” he rapped out in a tone of admiration, “Would you do this for me knowin’ that the widow’s tried to shackle you any number of times these last eight months or so?”
Jelly puffed out his chest. “Well, this feller’s been dodgin’ women fer a mighty long time now. There ain’t a trick I don’t know when it comes ta dodgin’ a female.”
“Still, it might take a good while for you to get the recipe,” Johnny said thoughtfully, rubbing the back of his neck with his hand as he considered the problem.
“Well what’s the problem with that, Johnny? We got a few months up our sleeve – no need to cook up Matilda just yet. Don’t see what the darned rush is all about.”
“Well, I guess,” Johnny agreed, putting his hand back by his side and looking a bit happier about things. “Thing is,” he stopped and turned to look back at Murdoch who was watching from the shade of the patio, then he stepped a pace closer to Jelly, lowering his voice to a conspiratorial whisper, “we hafta do it when Murdoch ain’t around.”
“Well, why…” Jelly began loudly, breaking off as soon as Johnny frantically shushed him. “Well, why the hell do we hafta do that?” he repeated, in a whisper that was almost as loud as his voice had been.
“Jelly,” Johnny said with a tilt of his head, as if the older man should have known better than to ask, “Murdoch’s the President of the Cattlemen’s Association. He can’t be seen eating Ma…mutton,” he quickly amended at the last minute.
“T’ain’t mutton – it’s lamb,” Jelly grumped. “Didn’t they teach you anythin’? ‘Sides, Murdoch visits Aggie Conway once a week. We could eat her…I mean ’it’…that night, when he’s out.”
Johnny scratched at his cheek, carefully considering his options. “We…ell, I guess that’d work,” he drawled finally.
Jelly’s face dropped but he said gamely, “Good…sounds real fine…now get outta here an’ let me do my work.”
Johnny slapped him on the back, all smiles. “Yep, that sounds like a fine idea Jelly,” he agreed before turning to walk back to the house.
Jelly watched him go with a hangdog look.
Half way to the house, Johnny turned and called back loudly as if he’d just thought of something, “Nope. It ain’t gonna work.”
Jelly had only just sat down again and now he looked up, clearly annoyed. “Well what’s eatin’ ya, now?”
Johnny walked back to him, lifting his hat to let the air flow through his hair before dropping it back on his head. “It’s T’resa. Thing is, she took this notion into her head that she wants to knit Murdoch a scarf next year.”
Johnny almost pouted, digging his heel into the dirt. “An’ Scott hates lamb. Says ole Harlan used to make him eat it all the time when he was a kid and now he can’t stand the stuff.”
“Yeah – that’d put a feller off anythin’,” Jelly agreed.
“Yeah, I guess it would,” Johnny muttered, drumming his fingers on his thigh while he considered the ground.
Jelly held his breath.
Johnny sighed and shook his head.
“Well spit it out. I ain’t got all day ya know,” Jelly finally remonstrated.
The old man closed his eyes for minute.
“We…ell,” Johnny began, putting his hands on his waist and arching his back to stretch his shoulder out a little. “I guess…I guess we’ll just hafta keep her,” he finally decided in a rush of words.
Jelly spluttered. “Well any dang fool coulda worked that out. Took you long enough ta think of it.”
“’Sides,” Johnny added with a grin, “I never could eat an animal that had a name.”
For a very small moment, Jelly was speechless as he stared at Johnny, taking in the smirk on his face, and then he quickly found his growl. “Why you good for nothin’, low down…If you weren’t Murdoch’s son, I’d…”
Johnny slapped him on the back, grinning widely now and then steered him towards the barn with an arm around his shoulder as Jelly continued to bluster.
“Come on, Jelly, I wasted so much of your time, I’ll help ya with your chores.”
“I should make ya do’em all!” Jelly growled back at him.
“Yeah, I’d do that for you Jelly, but, boy, my shoulder’s still real sore…”
“What’s that all about?” Scott asked as he came out of the house, his eyes following Jelly and his brother as they walked away.
Murdoch hadn’t heard all of Johnny’s conversation but he’d certainly got the gist of it. That youngest son of his was incorrigible, no doubt about it.
He stuck his hands in his pockets and looked out at his ranch, past the dusty corrals, and the pastures and the bawling cattle and the fences to the hills that rose from the valley and then along the ridge that he knew held the grave and the simple wooden cross. It looked like the seasons were already doing their weathering.
“Oh, just things returning to normal around here,” he told his oldest son with a smile.