A Show of Faith
Recently I read the script of The Lawman and was struck by Murdoch's feelings in a scene between Joe Barker and himself as they leave the jail after Johnny's been locked up. The scene was cut but it got me thinking about Murdoch's thoughts during that episode and this is the result. I've included the scene I mentioned in this piece.
A brief story synopsis: Joe Barker is a retiring sheriff and an old friend of Murdoch's, visiting Lancer on his way to Sacramento with 2 deputies and a prisoner, Al Evans. He hopes to claim his share of Lancer that Murdoch had offered to him in a letter a year before the boys had returned. Evans recognises Johnny and asks for his help, claiming that he was innocent and hadn’t killed anyone. Johnny’s response is to offer to accompany them to Sacramento to make sure he’s treated fairly.
When Murdoch regretfully explains to Joe that now the boys are back, the offer no longer stands, Joe foolishly agrees to help Evans escape in return for money which Joe desperately needs because he owes it to the town he works for.
During the escape attempt, one deputy is killed. Johnny, hearing shooting and seeing someone fleeing on horseback, rushes into the guardhouse. Barker is hiding behind the door and clubs him when he comes in. Deputy Thompkins arrives a few moments later to find Johnny struggling to his feet, gun in hand, beside the dead body of Gibbs, the other deputy.
Johnny is held for murder in the Lancer guardhouse, while a posse goes out to look for Evans. **This is the point at which my story is written.
Eventually, Barker confesses all to Murdoch and begs him to send Johnny off to Mexico with a bag full of money saying he’d be happier there anyway. Murdoch won’t listen to this suggestion for a moment. Evans, hidden up in the rocks, tries to shoot Murdoch but Barker sees him and kills Evans instead. In the final scene, Barker is led away by Thompkins, in handcuffs, to jail and Murdoch reflects on what happens to a man when he is alone and no one shows him any faith.
Murdoch’s Thoughts – The Lawman
It must have been the breeze catching it, making it sway. That’s how he noticed it. Although maybe it would have caught his eye anyway – that single touch of red standing out showily when everything else was leafy green. The flimsy thing looked coolly defiant up there all by itself – abandoned now that all the other lanterns had been taken down and stored away again…to wait for the next time. If there was a next time. Right now he didn’t feel too sure about anything. He hated the way worry gnawed at a man – sapped him of every happy thought, made everything look cheerless and unforgiving.
Murdoch reached up into the pepper tree and untied the solitary lantern from one of the branches – a long, leafy arm that reached out over the flagstones. They kept the branches trimmed nowadays. Over the years there’d been too much complaining from the women as they cleaned – said it dropped too many leaves – that he should plant something else. But you couldn’t beat the pepper tree for shade. That’s what he’d told them.
Teresa’s face had lit up last night when she’d stepped outside in her new dress and saw each candle so perfectly protected, burning brightly inside its lantern.
“Oh, Murdoch. It’s so beautiful.”
And the hacienda had looked beautiful last night - he’d caught a glimpse of a grand old lady getting out of her carriage once, decked out with blood-red rubies and diamonds that looked like stars to a small boy when caught in the lamplight. He’d stopped and stared and earned himself a cuff on the back of the head from his father for nearly being run down by a passing wagon.
“Scott and Johnny are going to be so surprised when they see this.”
He’d nodded, although privately doubting that either of his sons would get as much pleasure out of their decorations as she did. Still, it was nice to see her smile like this. It had been such a long time and there’d been no holding her excitement in check once he’d told her of his plans for a social – only the second since the boys had returned.
Yes, it had been too long – but the truth of the matter was that there’d been so little to celebrate, especially after Paul’s death and the whole Pardee business and then Johnny being ill and it looked for a while as though the bumpy road they’d been travelling was only going to get worse.
Spring had been unsettling and for a while there he’d worried that summer would never come. Wes had blown in with his indolent smile and easy manner, but he made Murdoch think of a snake charmer and it worried him sick to see the way he could beguile his otherwise self-sufficient younger son. The boy was having a hard enough time as it was – drilling his body to work from dawn to dusk, learning that not all of life’s problems could be solved with a fist or a gun, that the land had to be tamed and nurtured and disciplined and even then you couldn’t be sure of success if the elements decided to curse you.
Both his sons had worked hard – and he’d been proud of the way they’d faced their challenges – but it had been clear to him from the outset that Johnny was struggling. That the life he’d led wasn’t willing to let go of him without a fight.
But for the first time these past few weeks, that all seemed to be in the past. Summer had come and with it a lazy contentment that seemed to drizzle over them with its sweetness. Johnny looked more and more settled and Scott and he were beginning to see something of the scamp Murdoch remembered from so long ago – thought once that he’d never see again.
He certainly delighted in teasing Teresa – and she leapt to the bait every time.
“Murdoch, make him help me!”
She was a bossy thing sometimes. He guessed Paul and he had over-indulged her, let her have her way too often – but she’d bitten off more than she could chew when she tried to boss either of his sons.
“No, no – every hand around here’s got to carry his own weight.”
Talk about your own words coming back to haunt you! Amazingly, there’d been nothing but good humour in the teasing tone and Murdoch hadn’t tried to hide a rueful smile when he’d told Johnny to help her. Thinking back though, he’d made some foolish mistakes with his sons when they were all still new to this business of being a family.
“Sir, Johnny’s been out there a long time. I’m not sure if he’s strong enough to handle a full day’s work yet. Perhaps I should…”
“Murdoch – you got Scott clearing that brush from the creek? A seasoned ranch hand’d take a whole day to get that done. Why don’t I just…?”
They’d looked out for each other, those two, right from the beginning, even when they didn’t really understand each other – they still had a long way to go - but it had warmed his heart, even when he didn’t show it – to either of them.
“Johnny’s as tough as they come. He won’t thank us if we try to baby him, Scott – and he knows that every hand around here has to carry his own weight. I’ve told him that.”
Scott hadn’t looked particularly satisfied. He hadn’t said anything more but Murdoch had an inkling that his firstborn would be riding out to find that new brother of his if Johnny didn’t make it back in time for supper.
But Johnny had – and surprisingly bright. With those spurs jingling, he’d headed straight for the table before doubling back with a self-conscious grin in his ‘old man’s’ direction and removing his gunbelt. But he’d only eaten half of what he’d piled on his plate and attacked with much gusto before he slowed almost to a halt, took a swallow of milk then, elbow on table, rested his head on his hand and just about fell asleep right there and then in the middle of supper.
“Johnny, Scott’s got a lot to learn out here but he’s disciplined. A few sore muscles won’t kill him.”
“Yeah, but how about scaring’im off? Maybe he’ll decide he ain’t got a taste for ranchin’ – an’ all because you were too hard on him an’ didn’t give him enough chance to get used to it all?”
He’d forgotten Johnny had said that. Johnny had come to him that late afternoon, still not in top form himself but all set to saddle a horse and ride out there again to see what was keeping Scott. They’d all seen Scott come home exhausted night after night. Teresa had wanted to have a hot tub waiting for him every evening, said that that was what he’d be used to – but Murdoch would have none of it and neither would Scott, thankfully. His older son didn’t want special treatment. Simply hid the blisters and spurned the suggestion of anything other than the customary weekly soak. From the outset, he just wanted to be one of the boys…and it was hard for him. The hands didn’t warm as quickly to Scott as they did to Johnny. The penalty of being different – of saying ‘procure’ instead of ‘got’; ‘isn’t’ instead of ‘ain’t.’ Still, it hadn’t taken long. He had his mother’s charm all right - thank heavens Harlan hadn’t managed to obliterate that in his son – a natural intuition of saying the right thing at the right time.
Pity he couldn’t say the same thing about himself. Maybe if he’d listened some more in those early days he would have heard more clearly.
But amazingly enough, they’d got through that time. Some days he wondered how they managed it but manage it they did.
And yesterday had started out so promisingly. Scott had been looking forward to the social. Johnny – well, he wasn’t quite so sure – but he’d promised Teresa a dance when she’d backed him into a corner one night over supper:
“Scott, you’ll dance with me, won’t you?”
“Teresa, I wouldn’t dream of NOT dancing with you. I’ll be the envy of every man present.”
She’d spared time for a laugh before quickly turning to Johnny, apparently determined to snare him as well. “And you, Johnny?”
Johnny had looked up slowly from his plate, where he’d been eating with a single-minded purpose, as if a little surprised that Teresa had addressed him. He donned an easy smile but a wary look in his eyes made Murdoch wonder if he was deliberating his best route of escape. “Oh, you won’t want me trippin’ over your toes. Not if you’ve got ol’ Boston here doin’ all those fancy steps with ya,” he’d drawled, before putting his head down and forking another mound of mashed potatoes into his mouth.
Teresa pouted – and Murdoch knew that look.
“Well, I can’t dance with Scott all night!”
“Teresa, maybe Johnny doesn’t like dancing.”
He’d felt relief at Scott’s matter-of-fact words; maybe doesn’t like to or maybe doesn’t want to or maybe just doesn’t know how. You couldn’t always tell with Johnny.
“Well, Johnny? Do you?” Teresa had pressed.
Johnny looked like he was biting back a smile now – or maybe a memory - and one he didn’t think fit to share with the rest of the table by the looks of it. Oh, Murdoch would wager a hundred dollars that those two boys of his had plenty of stories that would have Teresa blushing as red as Johnny’s shirt if she got even a hint of some of the things they’d got up to. Well, he wasn’t that old that he’d forgotten what it was like to be young himself and to remember how hard and fast the blood pumped in your veins when you held a pretty girl in your arms.
“Sure, I don’t mind dancin’,” Johnny said eventually, reaching forward to grab a piece of cornbread.
Murdoch had met Scott’s eyes for a moment.
“Good. Then you’ll promise to dance with me?” Teresa had leant forward, almost daring him to say no.
“Teresa!” He’d had sixteen years of being beguiled into buying ponies and holding dances but he wasn’t quite so sure that Johnny was ready to be subjected to the same tactics.
Johnny held up his fork. “Noo, it’s okay, Murdoch.” Then stabbing a piece of beef he looked across at Teresa and grinned. “Sure. I’ll dance with ya.”
She never did get that dance.
He’d been watching for his boys to come down last night.
He still remembered the feeling the first time they’d ridden into Morro Coyo together - Scott riding by his side, Johnny a little behind. Oh, he knew most people envied him - the owner of the biggest and most successful ranch in the San Joaquin with an abundance of water and the richest grassland in the valley. But how many times over the years had he vowed he’d be ready to swap all that for land a quarter of the size and not half as beautiful if he could emulate Henry Dawes who rode to town with a strapping son either side of him. He’d even envied the thunder-faced expression on Henry’s face when he’d had to haul those same two lads off broken chairs and tables and out of the saloon to dunk their heads in the horse trough. Somehow, though, they always came up smiling – all three of them.
To this day, he still didn’t know why he’d said that nonsense about loving the land when he’d first met his sons together that day. Still made him cringe to think about how he’d acted…what they must have thought of him. No fool like an old fool.
Well, last night he’d been just like any other of the ranchers his age – standing by the punchbowl, watching one of his sons spin a pretty girl about the room. Just how long had he dreamed of all that? And how quickly did he feel it all slipping away from him? It just didn’t seem possible.
He’d ordered the hanging lanterns to be packed away at first light...as the posse left for the ride up into the hills.
Scott looked like he’d barely slept but he’d been first down – dressed and eager to be riding. Quietly determined.
His heart had lightened just a touch at that look on his son. Even after these few months, to catch a glimpse of either Catherine or Maria in his boys could still make him look twice.
He’d told Joe they’d always been family – “…only trouble was, we weren’t together.”
Well, they were together now – and they were going to get Johnny out of this mess.
His pacing carried him to the front of the hacienda – away from the shade of the pepper tree to the even cooler shade of the porch by the front door. The morning sun had a good sting in it but it hadn’t found its way to this part of the hacienda yet. At least the guard house would be cool. The Spaniards knew how to beat the heat.
He still held the lantern in his hand and for a moment he dangled it by its string, holding it up in front of him. There was hardly any breeze to catch it now.
It had been Johnny’s shirt that had first caught his eye when he’d run across to the old guard house - Johnny sitting at the table, one hand on the back of his neck, still looking a little groggy - then the dark red stains on the floor, looking almost black in the lamplight. Some by the door, then near the table and in the cell itself. He remembered the stench of violent death. Maybe it was seeing Joe again after all these years. He’d always hated the way that sickly sweet smell got up your nose.
Johnny was quietly listening to the haranguing going on between Barker and Thompkins but he turned his head quickly when Murdoch walked in and even though it was pretty dark in there a father would have had to be blind not to see the uncertainty that flickered in his eyes.
He didn’t have to even think about his reaction. His hand went to Johnny’s shoulder and gripped it hard.
“Are you all right, son?”
“Sure. Got me a bit of a sore head, that’s all. I’ve been trying to tell Thompkins here what happened but he’s not listenin’ too well.”
That’s when he noticed Thompkins had his gun trained on Johnny.
“What’s the meaning of all this?”
“Your son killed Gibbs! That’s the meaning of all this.”
“I told him I ran in here an’ found the body. Someone must’ve been hiding in the cell because the next thing I knew I was wakin’ up with a sore head an’ Thompkins comes runnin’ in here and starts raving about me shooting the deputy.”
There was no doubt that Johnny had been hit. Murdoch could feel the knot under his fingers when he moved his hand into Johnny’s dark hair and probed his head at the base of his skull. Johnny had winced and pulled his head away.
“This is ridiculous, Thompkins. I can feel the lump myself. Of course my son’s telling the truth.”
“Yeah, he’s telling us he got hit over the head. That’s how it is with that sort – they fall out all the time. Evans probably figured he wanted to keep the money for himself.”
Thompkins was furious…vindictive even. Murdoch had seen it time and time again. He knew the thanklessness of being a lawman – lousy pay, lousy hours. Life was cheap out west – sold for the price of a bullet. But the innocent had to be protected. Only trouble was, a lawman’s life sold just as cheaply as an outlaw’s. No, Gibbs didn’t deserve this death and he understood Thompkins’ fury but it was directed at the wrong man.
Thompkins had insisted and finally Joe agreed; they’d moved Gibb’s body out of the cell and while he and Scott had watched with resentment, they’d moved Johnny in. Thompkins had restrained himself but Murdoch suspected he was aching for some excuse to vent his anger – something more than the shove as Johnny walked into the cell.
Murdoch had protested…loudly. “You’ve got no proof!”
Thompkins was good. He had to give him that. Thompkins had pulled the ‘facts’ together like he was weaving a basket tight enough to hold water.
Johnny didn’t say much – just listened in that intent way he had sometimes that made you wonder what thoughts were running through his head – what it was that he could see that you couldn’t.
“You’ll be out of here by tomorrow night, Johnny.”
That’s what he’d told Johnny; hoping that long look he gave Johnny through the damned bars told him everything his son needed to hear – that he was loved, trusted… believed in. All the things a man had trouble saying.
Well, he’d never been one for empty promises. He’d made a promise to his son. To Johnny. What the hell was he doing pacing on the patio, then, while Joe and Scott were out there searching?
Part of him had wanted to go and the other part had wanted to stay with Johnny. It ate at him all right - the thought of leaving his boy locked up in that cell all by himself…wondering…hoping…maybe trusting in his old man. The law wasn’t foolproof – wasn’t even something to be trusted half the time. Plenty of good men had swung at the end of a rope for a crime they’d never committed. But it wasn’t going to happen to Johnny – dear God, not his son; not when he’d finally got him back after all these years. Could life be so cruel? Damn it – he wasn’t going to think of the misery he’d seen since coming out west. Life was cruel out here; triumph one day – disaster the next. How many tales of tragedy had he heard for every good one? But still the people stayed - spurred on by some dream that could just as easily break their hearts and turn to nothing but dry dust in their mouths. Yes, he’d seen the bitterness. Had almost succumbed to it himself at one time.
Thankfully the crowds had gone home by the time they’d left the jailhouse last night. He’d had to walk away - leaving Johnny in there. Funny how he hadn’t noticed the dirt and the cobwebs and the cracks that let the cold night air in when Evans had been the one incarcerated. It was a hell of a friendless place to spend a night.
But Johnny had known it – even before he’d been locked in there himself. It had worried at him – Evans’ situation. What was it he’d said? That it was hard to forget a man who was about to hang and then begs for your help. And what could he say to that? As much as he distrusted Evans himself, he had to admire his son’s determination to ensure that Evans was given a fair deal. Had to admit that Johnny continually surprised him - that a young man who’d seen the very worst that people could do still held to beliefs that belonged in a far more perfect world.
He’d looked towards the house as they walked back out into the night, Joe and him. The lanterns were still burning – little flickers of soft red light in the dark that were slowly burning down further and further until they’d eventually splutter and go out.
“Strange how you want to take their afflictions on yourself…”
That’s what he’d told Joe. Hadn’t even meant to at first but somehow the feeling that went with the thought was so strong that it just had to be voiced. Demanded that someone understood…that maybe someone could share this pain he was almost embarrassed to feel.
Joe didn’t have any sons. Didn’t even have any family. But he seemed to understand. He nodded at any rate.
He could hear the footsteps coming up behind him; knew the long, confident stride that went with them. Sometimes, his sons had a way of making him feel old.
“…I wish it was me in that cell.” Did his words sound as heavy as his heart felt right then? Murdoch didn’t know how else to explain what he felt right then and for a moment he was lost in the confusion of it all until he felt a hand on his arm and looked around to see Scott.
He was good at hiding his emotion, this son – was well trained in the art of Boston reserve – but Murdoch was learning with him as well. Knew to look for the tightness in his voice, the steely look in the blue-grey eyes - those eyes he’d known so well a lifetime ago.
“Let’s try to get some sleep.” Scott’s words.
He nodded – but both of them knew that ‘try’ would be the optimum word.
Joe still trod by his side … his steps heavy …his head bowed. It pained him to see Joe blaming himself but he had to admit, he wished right now that his old friend had never come to visit and the guilt of that thought made him feel awkward as they all slowed when they got nearer the house.
“I’m counting on you tomorrow…to find Evans for us.”
Joe just shook his head like he didn’t know what else to say – as if he too couldn’t believe how a simple visit had turned so tragically wrong.
“Good night, Joe.”
“Good night, Murdoch.”
It was a sombre way to end the night – what was left of it.
No, he hadn’t been able to sleep. Ended up staring into the fire for pretty much the remainder of the night, instead.
Teresa tried to keep him company. She’d busied herself organising the clean-up after the social while they’d been over at the guard house. He wouldn’t let her come across. Instead, he sent Frank back to tell her what had happened and to assure her that Johnny was all right…other than an aching head.
She’d rushed out as soon as she’d seen Murdoch heading towards the house but Scott had headed her off. His older son’s words had come to him through the darkness.
“Give him a moment, Teresa. This hasn’t been easy.”
“Oh, Scott, Frank told me that Thompkins thinks that Johnny killed the other deputy!”
“Well, he didn’t.” He wasn’t sure he’d ever heard a more emphatic statement from Scott.
“Well, of course he didn’t! But didn’t Johnny tell him that…and Mr. Barker? Why don’t they believe him?”
Murdoch sighed. Why not, indeed? Because he wore his gun low…because he looked Mexican…because he knew the suspect…or simply because he had ‘the look?’ Murdoch had seen it often enough. All lawmen looked for it. Damn it – no way could Johnny have spent the last five years roaming through every hell hole on the border and not come away unscathed. The miracle was that he came out of it at all but there was no denying he bore the mark of that time. No, all Thompkins saw when he looked at Johnny was ‘trouble’ and he didn’t even know about Madrid! And how long would it be before that came out? Would even Joe be turning his back on Johnny if he knew who his son was…the type of life he’d led…the people he knew? They *had* to find Evans. They just had to! Johnny’s chances of fighting this thing were almost nought without Evans back in custody.
Once inside Scott had poured a whisky for both of them - pressing it into Murdoch’s hand - but somehow most of it stayed in the bottom of their glasses – as if both felt it a guilty pleasure when Johnny was out there with none.
“We’ll get this situation straightened out, Murdoch.”
More promises. It seemed that the Lancers were good at making them.
His son’s footsteps had died away before Murdoch realised he’d gone. The bright amber flames in the fireplace were mesmerizing…numbing even…or maybe he was simply too tired to think.
Teresa’s head nodding caught his eye and she half smiled self-consciously.
“You need to go to bed.” He was gentle with her. He knew she wanted to help.
“I suppose so.” She sounded reluctant.
“There’s nothing much that we can do for Johnny right now.”
She wrapped her old brown shawl about herself a little tighter. “I guess not,” but even as she spoke, the gleam of an idea sparked in her eyes. “I know what I can do. I’ll make Johnny the best breakfast he’s ever had! You know, like they served in that hotel in San Francisco that time!”
“That sounds like a fine idea, darling.”
All renewed energy, she stood to her feet. “I’d better get to bed then. You think it will be okay if I take it out to him? I mean, that would be okay with Mr. Barker and Mr. Thompkins, wouldn’t it?”
“I’ll square it with them.”
Another promise – although that one had been a little easier to keep.
Once Teresa had kissed him on the cheek and gone up to bed, he noticed how quiet the house was and how loud the memories could be…like painting on a clean canvas.
Finally, he stood up and walked outside. The night air was pinpricks of chills on his face after the heat of the fire that had made his cheeks burn.
He looked up at the sky. No sign of dawn yet but it couldn’t be far away. It was a dark night – at least he could be thankful for that. Evans would have trouble travelling far over hopefully, unknown territory.
The guard house door squeaked when he opened it. Frank was up in a flash – gun at the ready, standing there in the half dark.
“It’s just me, Frank.” He whispered the words as he looked towards the barred door. There was no sound coming from the cell itself.
Frank caught his look. “He hasn’t been asleep too long, Mr. Lancer.”
Murdoch nodded and walked across. It was even gloomier inside the cell itself but he could just make out Johnny lying on his side, wrapped up tightly in a couple of blankets, his head resting on one arm. Darn it – he didn’t even have a pillow. Just a lousy metal cot. At least he’d talked Thompkins out of using the cuffs.
He stared at Johnny for a long time…until he remembered Frank standing there behind him.
“Miguel should be here soon…to relieve you,” he told him, feeling awkward – probably sounding awkward.
Frank just nodded. “I don’t mind bein’ here, Mr. Lancer. We got a couple of the boys watchin’ outside as well…just in case.”
Murdoch raised his eyebrows.
“Lawmen get pretty upset when one of their own is killed. I’ve seen things.” Frank shrugged. “That Thompkins sure didn’t sound too happy. Scott said we should take a few precautions.”
There didn’t seem anything else to say. Frank was standing guard. It had been a long time since Johnny had needed someone to keep the night monsters away.
Murdoch paused at the door and looked back.
“Well, Mr. Lancer … none of us think Johnny would do a thing like killing the deputy. There ain’t a hand here that ain’t behind him.”
“Thank you, Frank. I appreciate that more than you know – and I’m sure Johnny would as well.”//
Murdoch paced some more.
Had he sounded warm enough? Did Frank really understand just how much that meant to him? The last part he’d added to be polite – the kind of thing you say to round off the sentence – but thinking back on it, he decided that Johnny would be grateful. Wasn’t that what ‘home’ was all about? The place where you were trusted, wanted…watered like a new plant until the green shoots started to grow? Where you knew you’d always find people who had faith in you?
Murdoch tossed the lantern onto one of the chairs. He didn’t know why he was even still holding it.
You could see a long way from the patio by the front door. See the first hint of a rider when he was nothing but a hoped for blur on the horizon.
No sign of Scott or Joe or the posse. No sign of the wretched Evans.
Joe could do it. He had faith in the man. If anyone could save Johnny – Joe Barker could.