Rated PG-13 for mild profanity and a rather “unpleasant medical procedure.”
DISCLAIMERS : The world of Lancer and its characters is not ours.The following is a work of fanfiction, not intended to infringe on any copyrights. The story is ours, (with a heartfelt tip of the hat to Louis L’Amour, Jack Schaefer, Orrin Wister, Stephen Hunter, Lyle Brandt, Buttercup, Lisa, Cathy, Cat, Di, Vicki, Sprite and especially J.M McClure’s Reflections) and written for fun, not profit.
SUMMARY: Johnny brings home a stray with unintended consequences
THANKS TO: Our betas Annie and Mac–they’re the best; Dr. Lisa who teamed with Karen to get the medical details right; EM for the loan of her wonderful character, Ma O’Grady; to Buttercup for her loan of the character Joe Reveles
NOTES ON TIMELINE: This story remains true to the same errors in weaponry and historical events/characters so often seen in the original Lancer episodes—although the series was set in the early 1870s, the weaponry used and many other references were more appropriate for the mid-1880s. We acknowledge the historical inaccuracies of references like Colt Peacemakers, Winchester model 1873, and Billy the Kid and claim creative license.
OUR CANON: The series never explicitly stated Johnny’s age. In Person Unknown, the wanted poster lists his age as 22. We see Johnny as slightly younger, based on his character in Chase a Wild Horse and the touches that James Stacy constantly employed to make Johnny appear boyish (sliding down banisters, walking the fences, jumping into the swimming hole, teasing a bull, etc.). In our view, Johnny is 20. We see Scott as nearer 5 years older than Johnny as opposed to only 3 years. This story is set after the events in Chase a Wild Horse, but moves forward Jelly’s arrival at the ranch as well as the events of Legacy. Events occurring in The Heart of Pony Alice, Warburton’s Edge, and Scarecrow at Hackett’s also play a small role. This story also refers heavily to the fanfic story, A Certain Kind of Fool, by nct.
We discovered the following poem during the May, 2003 Boston Lancerland “get together.” It was printed on the Durgin Park restaurant menu and we thought there were elements in this poem applicable to all three boys: Tommy, Scott, and The Boy, Johnny…
Just a Boy...
Got to understand the lad—
he's not eager to be bad;
If the right he always knew,
He would be as old as you.
Were he now exceeding wise,
He'd be just about your size;
When he does things that annoy,
Don't forget—he's just a boy.
Being just a boy he'll do
Much you will not want him to;
He'll be careless of his ways,
Have his disobedient days.
Willful, wild and headstrong, too,
He'll need guidance kind and true;
Things of value he'll destroy,
But reflect—he's just a boy.
Could he know and understand,
He would need no guiding hand;
But he's young and hasn't learned
How life's corners must be turned.
Doesn't know from day to day
There is more to life than play.
More to face than selfish joy,
Don't forget—he's just a boy.
Just a boy who needs a friend,
Patient, kindly to the end;
Needs a father who will show
Him the things he wants to know.
Take him with you when you walk,
Listen when he wants to talk,
His companionship enjoy,
Don't forget—he's just a boy.
**Chapters have been re-numbered and no longer match the chapter numbers
as posted to lists. No new material has been added…
Johnny and Murdoch…Murdoch and Johnny. Their relationship is a favorite topic among Johnny fans. While Murdoch and Scott seemed to find common ground and began forging a relationship almost immediately, Murdoch and his younger son seemed unable to communicate effectively. In the pilot, Murdoch reproaches Johnny, “I don’t know what to think of you.” Chase A Wild Horse portrays a rocky relationship between father and son. Yet it didn’t take long for the Lancer screenwriters to show us a Murdoch and Johnny who are much more at ease with each other, showing affection and acceptance. The series failed to explore the growth of that relationship. Change in any relationship doesn’t just happen, there is always a catalyst. What pivotal events drove the formation of the bond between Johnny and his father, helped them understand each other? How did they progress from the dysfunctional interactions of High Riders and Chase A Wild Horse to the relationship of mutual respect and genuine caring depicted in the later episodes? And what of the other Lancer characters? How did their interactions help or hinder Murdoch and Johnny’s fledgling relationship? Maybe it happened like this…
by Karen & Nancy
Johnny Lancer reined in his prancing palomino, stroking a hand down the arched neck and studying the mile long strip of turf running alongside the meandering tributary of the San Joaquin River on the road to Green River. Thick wisps of morning mist drifted lazily through the trees bordering the riverbank, hovering above the dew-laden sod. Except for the anxious snort and stamping hoofs of the impatient horse, the morning was peaceful and still. The thick grass danced enticingly in the soft breeze and Johnny couldn’t resist its invitation.
“Let’s go, Barranca!” His loud yell shattered the stillness as he leaned forward slightly, letting his eager mount have its head.
The golden horse sprang into motion as though propelled from a catapult, powering into a full-out gallop from a standing start. Barranca’s breathtaking acceleration never failed to thrill Johnny and this morning was no exception.
“Whooiiee!” He lay out along the palomino’s neck, encouraging him to run, reveling in the swift, powerful strides flowing so effortlessly beneath him.
Barranca thundered down the broad expanse of turf, nostrils flared blood red and wide as saucers, ears flicking back to listen to his dark-haired rider, ivory mane whipping in the wind. The corded muscles of his powerful hindquarters and shoulders rippled as the gelding glided across the firm turf, snorting with exuberance, tail flagged in excitement.
“Go, go, go,” Johnny hollered, thinking that nothing could possibly compare to the experience of the coppery sun warm in his face as he moved as one with his exceptional palomino in an exhibition of sheer speed. His horse ran for the pure joy of running and Johnny shared that love with him.
//Nothin’ like a fast horse on a fine fall mornin’…//
Although he was totally immersed in the exhilarating gallop, Johnny’s uncanny powers of observation noted the quick flash of movement among the trees and he reacted immediately. “Whoa!”
At his urgent command, Barranca sat down on his hocks, sliding to a cat-like halt that scored deep grooves in the turf while shaking his head in protest at having his run cut short. Johnny had already leaped clear of the palomino, gun in hand and ready to face whoever was skulking in the trees.
The former gunfighter was used to assessing any situation in a split second and to his amazement, Johnny discovered that the intruder was not some lurking pistolero, but a young boy—who was running in the opposite direction as fast as his feet could carry him. He holstered his six-gun and started after the child.
“Hey, kid! Slow down. I just wanna talk to you!” Johnny realized that the boy wasn’t about to stop and he remounted, urging Barranca after the child. He lost sight of his quarry as the boy plunged into a leafy thicket. Johnny jumped down and pushed his way through the heavy undergrowth.
“Hey there. My name’s Johnny. I just wanna talk to you. I ain’t gonna hurt you. C’mon, you can trust me.”
It was almost impossible to see inside the thicket as the brush and leaves blocked the sun. Johnny couldn’t catch sight of the boy, but he could hear him panting and followed the sound. Just as he discerned a small blond head, the boy broke from his cover like a jackrabbit. He ran like a jackrabbit, too, cutting abruptly left and right while leading Johnny a merry chase along the riverbank.
Johnny couldn’t believe how quick the kid was—he was darn near as agile as Barranca. Each time he thought he was about to get a hand on the boy, the kid scooted off left or right, always staying a jump ahead. This was going to require some extra effort. He continued the chase, jockeying for position until he was able to launch himself at the boy’s feet, taking him down in a flying tackle while making certain that he landed on the bottom to cushion the child’s fall.
“You all right?” Johnny sat up, spitting dirt, and pulled his captive upright, eyeballing him for any injuries. He had a brief second to notice that the boy was painfully thin, filthy, and obviously neglected and then the kid attacked him, scratching, biting, and screaming curses.
“Hey, settle down. C’mon, cut it out.” Johnny pinned the boy to the ground by his thin shoulders, keeping a wary eye on the raking hands and snapping teeth. “Owww!” He felt like he was wrassling an angry badger.
“Let me go, you big &#$**!,” the boy screamed as he bucked and struggled in Johnny’s firm grasp.
Johnny was amazed at the filth coming from the mouth of such a young boy—he couldn’t be much over seven or eight years old. He restrained the kid easily, but was fully aware of several smarting scratches and bruises on his face and arms. The boy had even taken a bite out of his arm. What a little brat!
“Hey, kid! You gonna settle down?…Hey!…C’mon, settle down.…NOW!”
The boy’s struggles increased as did the string of obscenities. Johnny shook his head. “Settle down right now or I’m gonna toss you into that river, cool you off good.” Johnny was relieved to see the boy stop struggling, but at the child’s next words, he regretted his threat.
“Please don’t throw me in the river, mister. I cain’t swim.” The boy’s soulful brown eyes betrayed a world of hurt hidden deep inside and he cringed away from Johnny.
Johnny watched him with dismay, feeling like a bully. He couldn’t bear that accusing, hurt look. “Okay, okay. I’ll make you a deal. I won’t throw you in the river and you stop fightin’ me. Deal?” He ruffled the dirty blond hair, giving the kid his most persuasive grin.
The boy sat up, resigned to his fate and looking for all the world as if Johnny had just sentenced him to a firing squad. “Guess I ain’t got no choice.”
“Nope. Now why don’t you tell me what you’re doin’ out here by yourself.”
His question was met with stony silence, the boy refused to look at him.
“How come you’re out here in the middle of nowhere? Where’s your folks?”
“My name’s Johnny. What do I call you, kid?”
The silence was deafening. Johnny was tempted to resurrect his threat to throw the boy in the river, but the memory of the child’s fear eliminated that option. He was getting nowhere fast in his attempts to learn who the boy was and why he was alone. The kid was obviously fending for himself, and judging by his condition, not doing a very good job of it. This area was empty and unsettled and Johnny was not about to leave him on his own. There was no other choice but to take him to Lancer.
“Guess you better come home with me then, huh?” Johnny stood up and whistled for Barranca, keeping a firm grip on the boy’s arm.
The boy began struggling again, “I ain’t goin’ nowheres with you. You leave me be.”
“Hey! I ain’t leavin’ you out here alone. So unless you wanna tell me where you belong, you’re comin’ home with me.”
The boy knew determination when he saw it and he saw it in Johnny’s blue eyes. With an obvious pout, he turned his back and pretended to ignore his captor. Johnny laughed to himself and tossed the kid up into the saddle, mounting behind him. At least in this position he was safe from another attack by the boy. He reined Barranca back toward Lancer.
The kid continued to ignore him, refusing to answer any questions, and Johnny chided himself silently as he noticed the expectant eyes scanning the countryside.
//You’re losin’ your touch, Johnny. Who or what are you looking for, kid?
Ai yi yi, the fixes I get into. The Old Man’s gonna have my head for this. He sent me to deliver papers in town and I show up back at the ranch with a small problem. A brown-eyed, blond-haired problem. And a simple errand that I didn’t get done. Oh boy, this ain’t gonna be pretty…//
The little bald-faced calf struggled in terror, bawling pitifully as Scott Lancer knelt beside it, gently untangling the young animal from the barbed wire strands wrapped around its legs and body.
“Take it easy, little guy,” he soothed, strong hands deftly snipping the wire and easing it away from the calf’s tender skin. The barbs snagged on the curly hide, leaving punctures and tears greatly exacerbated by the baldy’s thrashing. Its mother stomped the ground nearby, lowing anxiously and threatening Scott with her horns. Scott was hard pressed to control the frightened calf, extricate it from the wire, and keep a wary eye on the cow’s movements, all at the same time.
“It’s all right, Mama. I’m not going to hurt your baby. He’s all tangled up and I’m just going to get him loose before he really hurts himself.” Scott grunted softly as he managed to release the last of the wire, closely examining the calf’s injuries.
He held it gently, applying an ointment to the cuts left by the razor sharp barbs. Teresa insisted that everyone on the ranch carry some of her medicinal herb salve in their saddlebags—“works for man or beast to ward off infection.”
Scott finished doctoring the calf and smiled as it leaped quickly to its feet, running directly to its mother. “So much for the special salve,” he thought in amusement as the cow commenced licking the calf with her broad tongue. The calf seemed none the worse for wear, but Scott made a mental note to come back that evening and check on it.
He walked over to the loose strands of wire trailing from the post where the cattle had pushed through the fence, snipping them with his wire cutters and rolling the wire so none of the other cattle would suffer the same difficulties as the calf. As he studied the gaping hole left in the fence, Scott chuckled. His brother wasn’t going to be very happy with the new gap in “his” fence. Johnny had worked on every inch of that fence line, reaching the conclusion that he did not enjoy building barbwire fences. He hadn’t kept that fact to himself, either. There were sure to be several choice Spanish curses when Johnny saw this damage.
Scott was still smirking at the thought of Johnny’s indignation as he swung up onto his tall chestnut gelding. The laughter died on his lips when he saw the horse and rider in the distance. Barranca’s ivory mane and tail gave him away instantly and Scott felt a sense of foreboding. It was much too early for Johnny to be returning—not if he had ridden into Green River to deliver the papers as Murdoch instructed.
Scott peered at the approaching horseman anxiously, searching for any telltale signs of injury. The late afternoon sun shining directly in his eyes didn’t help as he could see little beyond a silhouette, but Barranca seemed fine and his rider was sitting up straight. They looked healthy enough. So why were they returning to the ranch so early? This meant trouble of some kind—Scott had quickly learned that trouble and Johnny seemed to go hand-in-hand. He looked harder at horse and rider, noticing something off kilter about the whole picture.
//Wait! What does Johnny have on the front of his saddle?//
Urging the big chestnut into an easy lope, Scott rode out to meet his brother, curious to find out what was going on. As he drew closer, he was able to make out the young boy and realization dawned on him—Johnny had brought home another stray. Scott shook his head in exasperation.
//How does he do it? That boy’s middle name really is “Trouble.” Wonder what the story is this time. He’s going to need my help…//
Scott reined Charlemagne alongside Barranca. “See you brought home some company, brother.”
“Hey, Scott. Boy, am I glad to see you. The Old Man home yet?” Johnny was relieved to see his brother. He hadn’t been able to get any further information out of the boy, but he was sure Scott would be able to help. He had quickly learned that Scott and good ideas seemed to go hand-in-hand and he was confident his brother would know just what to do in this situation.
Scott surreptitiously studied the sullen waif perched on the front of Johnny’s saddle. “You’re in luck, brother. He won’t be back until tomorrow morning.” He glanced at Johnny and did a double take as he noticed the scratches on Johnny’s face. “So you’ve got some time to sort out your little ‘problem.’”
Johnny started to reply, but found himself cut off by the boy who sat up as tall as he could and shouted at Scott, “I ain’t yer ‘little problem.’ I didn’t ask him to bring me here. Why doncha jest leave me go?”
“Hey! Don’t yell at him.” Johnny’s hand tightened on the child’s shoulder and the boy jerked away from him, his pouting lower lip quivering. Johnny rolled his eyes at his brother, slightly shrugging his shoulders to indicate that he was at a loss about what to do.
Scott was startled at this turn of events. Every kid in town usually followed his brother around, trying to walk like he did, but this boy obviously hadn’t fallen under Johnny’s spell. “Well, let’s get him home. We’ll figure it out there.” Scott urged Charlemagne into his ground-eating lope.
Johnny flashed Scott a grateful smile. Once again his brother had supported him without being asked. Knowing he could always count on Scott gave him a warm feeling inside, like a hot cup of coffee on a cold morning. Together, he and Scott would find out where this kid belonged and get him taken care of before the Old Man got home.
Scott glanced sideways at his brother as they rode under the arched gate toward the hacienda. He was deep in thought and Scott could almost see the wheels turning in Johnny’s head as he tried to decide how to help this latest stray. His little brother constantly gave his all to those in need, often getting himself into trouble in the process. Yet he could never admit that he was in need himself, or, heaven forbid, accept any help.
Such a strange combination of raw strength and brittle fragility. Johnny reminded him of the exquisite Meissen porcelain figurines his grandfather collected. Often a composite of several different sections fired together, they were deceptively strong and sturdy, but an unwitting tap in the wrong place could cause irreparable cracks, breaks, or outright shatter the piece. They required special treatment, but the enrichment they brought to your life was well worth the extra effort—just like his brother.
After dismounting in the courtyard, Johnny reached up to help his passenger. The boy slapped Johnny’s hands away with a torrent of expletives and leaped down on his own. Scott immediately hoisted the cursing child to sit on the low courtyard wall where he could look the boy directly in the eyes.
“We do not use language like that here, boy, and if I hear it again, I will wash your mouth out with soap.” Scott steeled himself to win the battle of wills, refusing to break eye contact first. Finally the boy looked away and hopped down from the wall.
Johnny shepherded him through the French windows and into the great room. “I’ll bet he’s hungry, Scott. I’ll get him some chow while you get him cleaned up.”
“I have a better idea, brother. You clean him up and I will see to the food.” Scott grinned at Johnny’s look of dismay.
“I don’t need no cleanin’ up. Had me a bath not more’n two weeks ago.” The boy piped up in his shrill voice.
Scott faced him, arms folded, and spoke in his best officer’s voice. “Young man, when we sit down to table in this house, we are clean. And that means that you are going to have a bath whether you think you need one or not.”
The boy stuck his tongue out at Scott, feinting off into one of his jackrabbit sprints. But Johnny was prepared for this gambit and grabbed the kid, slinging him up over one shoulder. “Let’s go, Big ‘un. I’ll let you pick between the horse trough and a bathtub. And you won’t have to swim.”
Scott laughed out loud as the kid battered Johnny’s head and back with his little fists, feet kicking madly. He noted that the boy had toned down his cursing—he must have tasted soap before! Turning toward the kitchen, Scott decided that he would ask Maria to put together a meal for the child and then take pity on his little brother and give him a hand. He expected that bathing the boy would prove to be a two man job.
Scott was right, of course. It inevitably took the combined strength, persuasiveness, and stubbornness of both brothers to get the boy clean and dry. The child now sat on the floor in front of the fire, swathed in a towel, while greedily spooning in heaping mouthfuls of stew. With the firelight casting a halo around his clean hair and scrubbed face, the youngster looked like an innocent cherub.
But there had been nothing angelic about his behavior or his language. The two young men watching him eat were sopping wet, tired, sore and hungry; living testaments to the boy’s ability to resist. In fact, he had resisted so successfully that a simple bath had required more than an hour, leaving Scott and Johnny to question who was actually in charge.
Scott spoke sardonically, “Well, little brother, I can’t wait to hear your brilliant plan.”
Johnny didn’t have a plan, brilliant or otherwise, but he wasn’t about to admit that to Scott. He tried to change the subject. “It don’t look like he’s been abused. You agree?”
He had actually been relieved to find no signs of violence or abuse on the boy. Johnny knew only too well what it was like to be a child who was often the target of an angry fist, belt, or boot.
“I agree. And there is certainly nothing wrong with his appetite. Now about that plan, little brother…”
“Well, I thought I’d lope up to Green River early tomorrow. See if Val knows anything about him and maybe get those papers delivered.” Johnny looked sideways at Scott.
“Nice try, Johnny. But I’ll ride to Green River tomorrow.”
“You leavin’ me alone with that little wildcat? Have a heart, Scott! He likes you, so I’ll go to Green River.” Johnny stripped off his soaking shirt and used it to dry his hair.
“No, little brother. I’m going to Green River tomorrow for two reasons. One, he’s your wolf cub, not mine. Two, you won’t be alone, Johnny. Murdoch will be back.” He had to bite his lip to keep from laughing at the ludicrous expression on Johnny’s face.
“Oh yeah, I forgot. He ain’t gonna be too happy with me. I didn’t even get them papers delivered.” A familiar feeling of failure swept over Johnny.
“He will understand, Johnny. You had a good reason.” Scott smiled slyly. “Besides, I just might deliver those papers for you while I’m in town—if you make it worth my while.”
“You’d do that for me?” Johnny could see the strings attached to Scott’s offer.
“Sure. If the price is right.” Scott pretended indifference.
“Yeah, yeah. It’s worth it, whatever the price,” Johnny groused. “I sure don’t wanna tell the Old Man I didn’t get them papers to Mr. Dagget, good reason or not.” He grinned at his big brother. “Thanks, Scott.”
“Just remember that thought when I decide what my little service is going to cost you,” Scott cautioned, but he spoke to empty air. Johnny had ducked into the kitchen, returning momentarily with another bowl of stew for their guest and a towel for his brother.
Scott accepted the towel gratefully, shedding his sopping shirt and moving to sit on the couch in front of the fireplace. Johnny joined him and they watched in amazement as the boy attacked the food voraciously, eating as if there was no tomorrow.
“Where do you suppose he’s putting it all?” Scott whispered.
Johnny didn’t seem to hear him, totally focused on the starving boy. He spoke dreamily, “You ever been that hungry, Scott? Where your stomach is so empty it wants to eat the rest of your insides and it’s like you got a big hole in your middle?”
Scott didn’t quite know how to answer that. He had been that hungry during the war, especially while in Libby prison. But he knew what Johnny meant and he had never been without food as a child, never wondered where his next meal was coming from while growing up, so he answered simply, “No, never.”
Johnny didn’t answer and Scott couldn’t recall ever seeing such a faraway look on his brother’s face. He felt hope rise within him. There had been so many times when Johnny started to say something, remembering some painful episode from his past, only to clam up, choosing to hide his pain from the ones who cared about him. Those old emotional wounds had festered too long, their pain a continuous reminder of past suffering and heartache.
Johnny’s life had been hard—no, hard was an understatement. Johnny had lived a nightmarish existence and Scott knew that the family was unaware of most of the hardships he had endured. The boy had seen things he wouldn’t talk about, done things he was deeply ashamed of, and Scott sensed that Johnny was terribly afraid that his family would reject him if they knew about those things.
His brother believed he didn’t deserve a family who loved him, or a home where he belonged; often acting as though his life was worth less than the lives of others around him. He couldn’t quite accept that his presence made the Lancer family and home complete.
Scott wanted to talk to him about it, offer support and acceptance to help Johnny come to grips with whatever he had done, but Johnny skillfully rebuffed every attempt to draw him out. His brother had spent a lifetime constructing his barriers and Scott was continually searching for chinks or weak spots, hoping to get through Johnny’s walls. He believed that his success was imperative—Johnny’s past was eating him alive and if he was unable exorcise those demons, the boy was going to go to an early grave, the result of recklessness born out of guilt.
As he studied the look on Johnny’s face, Scott thought he detected an opening in the wall and took a calculated risk. “I guess you know what it feels like to be that hungry.” He kept his tone light, more statement than question, not looking directly at his brother.
Johnny’s head was bowed and he nervously spun the rowel of his spur, seemingly engrossed in watching the light reflecting from the silver spokes. Scott had resigned himself to yet another failure when the soft voice spoke, so quietly he had to strain to hear it.
“Bein’ hungry like that, it does somethin’ to you inside, makes you more like an animal than a man. You’d eat anything, do anything just to get some food. It ain’t right for a kid to have to go through that.”
The noise of the spinning spur rowel grated on Scott’s nerves. He forced himself to ignore it. “No, it’s not right. It’s not fair at all, but sometimes it happens.” He paused, “It happened to you.”
When Johnny remained silent for several long minutes, Scott was certain he had said the wrong thing and spooked his brother. Traveling the trails of Johnny’s tormented past was like riding a skittish colt, you had to think one step ahead and remain vigilant—the most unlikely things could cause shying or balking. Just as he began to mentally kick himself for missing this opportunity, the quiet voice resumed, a bit shakier than before.
“Yeah. There was one real bad winter…. It was after Mama…well, I was on my own. There was a drought that summer, killed off most of the wild fruit and stuff and most of the small animals. It kept gettin’ harder and harder to live off the land. When winter came, I couldn’t find nothin’ to eat…no birds, no rabbits, no wild onions or carrots, nothin’. I tried chewin' on bark, but it just made me sick. It was gettin’ real cold at night and I just had the clothes on my back. I finally had to go down outta the hills and into a town.”
Scott forced himself to remain totally still and silent, although he longed to put his arms around his little brother and hold him safe, wishing he could somehow shield him against the memories. He was bursting with questions—What were you doing alone in the hills? Why did you wait so long to go into town? Wouldn’t anyone in town help a starving child? How old were you?—but sensed that this was not the time to interrupt. Johnny needed to tell this story at his own pace, in his own way. He glanced at his brother out of the corner of his eyes. Johnny stared pensively into the fire, lost in another place, another time.
“I was…I…I was…sc…scared to go into town. Border towns got a Mex side and a gringo side. Kid like me ain’t welcome either place. The men use you for target practice or beat on you. The women take a broom or a knife to you. The other kids, they gang up on you. The dogs get treated better than a half-breed kid in a border town.”
Scott put every ounce of energy into keeping his face open and neutral, masking the anger and sympathy he felt at hearing what his brother had been forced to live through. Johnny needed acceptance, not sympathy, but inside he raged at the state of society that allowed any child to be punished so viciously for an accident of birth.
“But it got so I didn’t have a choice, I had to head for town or die up in the hills…. Sometimes I think I shoulda stayed in the hills…”
Scott did react at that statement although he forcibly restrained himself, only reaching out to lightly touch his brother’s tense shoulder. “I’m thankful you didn’t stay there, Johnny.”
Oh how he wanted to do, to say more, but the skittish look was in his brother’s eyes and he didn’t dare. His patience was rewarded with a quick, shy smile of gratitude, then the dark head bowed again.
“At least in town I could keep warm at night. I hid in the hayloft of the livery. But I was still hungry. I swiped some bread and the storekeeper like to beat me to death. He said he would kill me next time he caught me and I believed him.” The rowel spun again, the sound grating on Scott’s nerves.
“I took to waitin’ out behind the cantina, diggin’ through the garbage. There was me and a whole passel of dogs and cats fightin’ over the scraps in that trash. I felt like an animal and I fought like one. There was times I looked at them dogs and cats and wondered what they’d taste like…”
Scott tightened his grip on Johnny’s shoulder, fighting not to reveal the horror his brother’s words evoked. Johnny, the animal lover, trying to decide how to kill a dog for food…
“One night I got there later than usual. There wasn’t nothin’ left in the trash, but none of the other critters was there, either. ‘Fore I could wonder about it much, the cook leaned out an scraped a plate. There was meat on it—several bites of beef and I jumped for it the second he was back inside. But there was somethin’ there before me.” He closed his eyes and a tremor ran through his tense body.
“It was a rat. Biggest dern rat you ever saw, with evil red eyes… He sat there on his haunches, holdin’ that scrap of meat in his paws. I can still see him with his teeth showin’, whiskers wigglin’, and skinny tail twitchin’… And the sound he made! It ain’t a growl and it ain’t a hiss, it’s somethin’ sharp and mean between ‘em, but you know you bought trouble if you don’t back off when you hear it.” He spun the rowel faster, almost desperately.
“That’s how come the dogs and cats weren’t around, they was scared of that big ole rat. I…I was sc…scared of it, too, so scared I wanted to slink off an hide. Then it took a bite of that meat and just sat there chewin’ it, like it was laughin’ at me. I was so hungry and so cold. I just couldn’t take no more. So I…I…” Johnny faltered, voice breaking and he dashed a trembling hand across his eyes.
Scott couldn’t help himself. “What did you do, Johnny?”
Johnny turned toward him, but couldn’t look him in the eye. “I killed it, Scott. I killed it, I skinned it, I skewered it on a stick and roasted it. Then I ate it. And it kept me alive.” He sat with shoulders hunched, obviously ashamed and waiting for his brother’s scorn and disgust. “It wasn’t the only rat I had to eat that winter…”
Scott couldn’t bear the downcast eyes any longer and pulled his brother close. He tread carefully, fully aware he had to get this right the first time. Never before had Johnny shared so much with him and how he reacted now would determine what he would hear from his brother in the future.
He took a deep breath and kept his voice carefully neutral, “Was it stringy, Johnny?”
“Huh?” Johnny lifted his head at that. What could Scott possibly mean by that question? The smoky eyes smiled at him quizzically.
“You know, tough, stringy? I had to eat a rat once out on patrol during the war. All I remember about it was that it was so stringy that it got caught in my teeth and I felt like I was picking it out for days.” He kept his voice matter-of-fact, showing no hint of the turmoil raging within, but Johnny’s wariness hurt.
//How can he believe I would think badly of him for doing whatever it took to survive? Will he ever trust me enough to know I won’t judge him?//
“You…you really ate a…a rat, Scott?” The awed tone of Johnny’s voice left no doubt that if Scott had done it, eating rats must be okay.
“Sure did. And I was glad to get it, too.” He paused. “But we could use bayonets to kill them, I didn’t have to fight them hand to hand. You were very brave, Johnny.”
Johnny blushed at the praise from his brother—he’d steeled himself to hear disappointment and the approval and acceptance was a welcome relief. “Naw, Scott. I was just starvin’.”
He looked up at his brother and grinned suddenly. “And yeah, now that you mention it, rats are pretty stringy. But maybe we just cooked ‘em wrong. They might be right tasty in a stew or somethin’.”
Scott was relieved to see the twinkle in the sapphire eyes. “Well, we can test your theory, little brother. I’m sure we could catch a few rats down in the barn. We’ll tell Teresa they’re squirrels and ask her to use them in a stew or a mulligan.”
That mischievous glint sparkled in Johnny’s eyes, “Yeah, and we’ll ask Murdoch his opinion on the taste…” he couldn’t finish his sentence, convulsing with laughter.
Scott slapped his brother on the back, joining Johnny in a chuckle at the thought of Murdoch Lancer sitting down at the head of the long table and dining on rat stew. Actually, the man probably had eaten rat, or something similar, in his time, but certainly not recently!
Even as he laughed, Scott sent up a silent prayer of thanks and relief, grateful that he had been able to react appropriately when Johnny finally confided some of his “darker” experiences, even coaxing a laugh from his brother.
A sharp cry brought their attention back to the boy. During Johnny’s narrative, the youngster had curled up in the big armchair and fallen asleep. Now he was obviously in the throes of some nightmare, tossing and murmuring. Johnny’s laughter died as he rushed to the child’s side and hugged him close, whispering softly and soothingly, smoothing the tousled hair. The boy responded, relaxing into quiet sleep in Johnny’s arms.
Scott watched in fascination. No doubt about it, his brother just had a way with children and horses and he never tired of watching that side of Johnny in action. Maybe kids related to Johnny so completely because he treated them the way he wished he’d been treated as a child. Whatever the reason, children adored Johnny and he never failed to take a child in need under his wing. It was as though he sought to repay his own good fortune by helping those unable to help themselves. This boy had held out longer than most, but it seemed he was susceptible to Johnny’s charm after all.
The boy was sleeping soundly now and Johnny looked up at Scott. “Guess we better get him to bed. He’s liable to bolt if we put him in a guestroom. I’ll bunk him in with me. I asked Maria to round up some duds for him to put on in the mornin’. Maybe you can buy him some new clothes while you’re in town.” Johnny bundled the sleeping boy into his arms and the two brothers climbed the stairs with their slumbering charge.
Scott waited as Johnny gently tucked the sleeping child into bed, then threw his arm over Johnny’s shoulders and spoke softly, “I meant it before, Johnny. I’m glad you didn’t stay in the hills and die. Thank you for telling me about it.”
“Thanks for listening, Scott. I know…well, I wish I…it’s just so hard to talk about…” Johnny’s voice faltered.
“I understand. Johnny, I’ll always be here to listen if you do want to talk. Okay?” Scott forced Johnny to meet his gaze.
Scott slapped his brother on the back and hurried into his own room. Closing the door softly he leaned against it, raising his shaking hands to his eyes, letting the tears fall. He staggered to the wash basin on its stand by the bed and was quietly sick, his mind reeling with the images of a black haired, blue eyed boy fighting a vicious rat in a dark alley for a table scrap…
The exhausted boy gave them no trouble during the night and actually slept late the next morning. He seemed subdued, dressing himself without much of an argument and following the brothers downstairs to the kitchen.
“He’s plotting something,” Scott whispered to Johnny, suspicious of this quiet, reserved behavior. From the little he’d seen yesterday, this was out of character for the small blond bundle of energy.
“Probably, but he’ll eat first.” Johnny used his eyes to indicate the boy’s face as the child perked up noticeably at the sight of Maria’s ham, eggs, bacon, flapjacks, and biscuits.
The object of their discussion climbed onto the chair Johnny pulled out, bouncing in excitement as Scott filled a plate for him. The brothers exchanged looks as the boy settled down, snatching the fork Scott held out and wolfing down the food as fast as he could shovel it into his mouth.
“Well, he still has his appetite.” Scott commented wryly as the 4th biscuit disappeared into the boy’s frantically chewing mouth.
“Sure looks that way, don’t it,” Johnny grinned at him. “If you’re goin’ to see the sheriff, Scott, you oughta get on the road.”
The boy stopped eating abruptly, his fork clattering onto the plate. “I ain’t done nothin’ wrong!” he piped up, voice sharp with fright.
Johnny knelt beside him and spoke softly, wanting to ease the boy’s fears. “Nobody thinks you have, but you won’t tell us anything and we need to find your folks. You can’t manage on your own.”
“You did, Johnny.” Scott thought bitterly.
He knew that was the reason this boy was sitting here now—his brother wouldn’t allow another child to experience the same deprivation and misery he had been forced to fight through in order to survive.
The boy bolted without warning, sending his chair and most of the dinnerware on the kitchen table flying. His sudden flight took the brothers by surprise, but they recovered quickly and were soon hot on the child’s heels.
“You go left, Scott, I’ll go right. Watch him. That kid has more turns than a cuttin’ horse.”
Scott pounded down the hall after the boy, amazed at the kid’s agility.
//He must be part jackrabbit.//
The boy scooted through the house, evading both brothers and finally heading out through the French doors. He was sneaking a peek over his shoulder to pinpoint his pursuers when his headlong flight ended abruptly as he smashed into a pair of legs like tree trunks.
“What the…” Murdoch Lancer barked in disbelief.
Groggy with fatigue, the result of riding most of the night, the rancher wasn’t prepared for the small whirlwind that erupted through the French doors and crashed into him. After escorting his ward, Teresa, to Sacramento for an extended stay with friends, he stopped over at an old friend’s to break the long journey home. Unfortunately, the man’s young grandchildren had chosen the same time to visit.
With his ears ringing from their boisterous play, Murdoch decided to cut short his sojourn, preferring to spend a night in the saddle over another evening listening to, and about, the children’s antics. Home at last, anticipating a peaceful house, warm bath, and soft bed, he had a sudden feeling of déjà vu when the boy cannoned into him. Who was this boy and what in the world was he doing at Lancer?
//Johnny… What now?//
The boy stared up at Murdoch, eyes wide. He had to bend his head back to look up into the big man’s face, he’d never seen anyone so tall. Was this man a giant? He had to get away, giants drank the blood of little boys!
“You stay away from me, you big lop-eared jackass!” The boy kicked the giant in the shin as hard as he could.
Murdoch groaned as the booted foot connected with its target. He saw the child get ready for another shot and reacted instantly. “Enough!” Murdoch roared, placing one hand on the boy’s collar and the other on the rope holding up his pants.
He hefted his prisoner, holding the kicking, squealing boy well out from his body. The child struggled madly, but was unable to lay a hand or foot on his captor or break free from the huge hands holding him so easily. His shrill cries knifed through Murdoch’s head.
Johnny and Scott pelted into the courtyard, nearly crashing headfirst into each other as they skidded to a halt and stood staring open-mouthed at the scene. Johnny noted the irritated look on Murdoch’s face with dismay before he was forced to step aside as his father marched past carrying the struggling boy. The brothers quickly followed as Murdoch wrestled the child into the great room, dumping him unceremoniously onto the couch.
“Just you stay put, young man.” He bellowed as the boy bounced up and prepared to bolt again.
The boy recognized the parental ring of authority in the deep voice and subsided into the pillows of the couch. This was a big man, but his own father had often carried him in the same way when he was acting up. The huge hands were firm, but not harsh. The angry look on the man’s face wasn’t for him; it seemed to be focused on the dark haired man. Maybe this wasn’t a giant after all.
Scott and Johnny stared in amazement; Murdoch had managed to control the boy with one simple sentence. The two brothers exchanged looks and then turned back to their father. He stood, hands on hips, eyes flashing, looking like a thundercloud about to rain on a fiesta. Johnny gulped as he realized that the ominous look was directed at him and not the child on the couch.
“Well?” thundered Murdoch, glaring from one son to the other.
Scott hesitated, waiting for Johnny to explain, but his brother seemed totally tongue-tied, hanging his head like a schoolboy and scuffing the floor with the toe of his boot. Scott had to bite his lip to stifle a smile that neither his father nor brother would appreciate.
“I am waiting for an explanation! What. Is. Going. On. Here?” The deep voice left no doubt that its owner expected an answer—and expected it immediately.
Johnny could feel Murdoch’s eyes boring into him and gazed beseechingly at his big brother. He didn’t think Murdoch would be satisfied with any explanation he could come up with…if he could come up with one…which he couldn’t at the moment…but Scott would know just what to say.
Scott took pity on his little brother, chiding himself for being so softhearted. He was simply unable to ignore that hangdog, pleading look of Johnny’s, the one with the huge, sad “puppy dog” eyes and slightly quivering lips. He’d never met anyone who could speak as eloquently with their eyes as his brother.
//I am such a sucker. And he knows it!//
“Ah, well, hello, Murdoch. Did you have a nice trip? Teresa having a nice time?” Scott smiled at his father, hoping to cool some of the obvious anger.
Murdoch turned his head slightly, acknowledging his older son. “Yes, thank you, Scott, I had a pleasant journey. Yes, Teresa is enjoying herself. Now,” his head turned back to his younger son, “is there something you want to tell me?”
Johnny had been challenged by many a desperado and pistolero—hard, dangerous men who packed death in their holsters and were eager to match themselves against the legend of Johnny Madrid. He faced them all; calmly, coolly, confidently, savoring the verbal banter, never at a loss for words. But when Murdoch Lancer braced him with that stern “what have you done now, young man” look, he felt like a twelve year old, or maybe a buck centered in the cross hairs of a rifle. He didn’t understand how his father could make him feel like a boy instead of a grown man—but the man did it constantly. Nothing he could say would be the right answer.
Scott correctly interpreted Johnny’s hesitation and came to the rescue. “Murdoch, while Johnny was delivering those papers, he discovered the boy along that empty stretch of trail by the river. The child was alone and Johnny didn’t find any signs of other people he might be associated with. Johnny really had no choice, he had to bring him here or abandon him.”
Murdoch swung his gaze back to Johnny, the question unspoken, but obvious.
Johnny nodded vigorously. “It was just like Scott said, Murdoch.”
Murdoch’s face relaxed noticeably and he nodded at Johnny, pride obvious in his eyes and voice. “You did the right thing, son.”
Johnny felt his cheeks flush as relief flooded through him. He wanted so badly to hear praise of any kind from his father, but when he did, he just didn’t know how to accept it.
Scott noted his embarrassment and moved the conversation along. “I’m on my way to Green River to talk with Val and see if I can find out anything about the boy’s folks.”
Murdoch approved, “That sounds like a good plan.”
“I’ll try the outlying homesteads, too.” Scott shot a warning look at Johnny, snatched up his hat and made good his escape.
“See you later, Scott.” Johnny called after him, suddenly feeling very alone.
“What’s his name?” Murdoch asked.
“Well, he… he ain’t sayin'.” Johnny stammered, staring at the boy rather than at his father.
“Then I suppose we will just have to give him one.” Murdoch squatted down to make himself eye level with the boy. He looked him over closely, pretending to consider what name might fit. “Let’s see… I think he looks like a Fred. What do you think, Johnny?”
“My name ain’t Fred.” The boy shouted.
“It isn’t? Well, you look like a Fred. What is your name if it isn’t Fred?” Murdoch asked gently.
“Tommy. Do I look like a Tommy?” The boy’s face was hopeful as he stared at Murdoch.
“Why, come to think of it, you do look like a Tommy. You must be about six now, aren’t you, Tommy?”
“No, I’m not! I’m seven years old.” The boy jumped to his feet, holding up seven fingers as if to prove his point.
Johnny was thunderstruck. His father had found out more about this boy in two minutes than he and Scott had been able to drag out of him since finding the kid the day before.
“So you are, son. You do look like a seven year old Tommy.” He stood up. “Say Tommy, have you had your breakfast yet?”
“No! I mean, I was eatin’, but then he,“ he pointed an accusing finger at Johnny, “said he was gonna take me to jail, and I ain’t done nothin’ wrong.” The boy sniffed, shooting a glowering look at Johnny and a pitiful one at Murdoch.
Murdoch’s lips twitched, but he said gravely, “Well, Tommy, he gets excited sometimes and says things he doesn’t mean. I believe that you haven’t done anything wrong. Don’t worry, I won’t let him take you to jail.”
Johnny watched in awe as Murdoch held out his huge hand and the boy took it trustingly in his tiny one, allowing himself to be led back quietly to the table. He stared at the small hand totally enveloped by his father’s large one and a long-repressed memory surfaced. He tried to push it away, but the whisper from his past and the associated feelings flooded his mind.
Suddenly he was a child again; alone, scared and so hungry that he stole a piece of bread from the store. Now he was hiding behind some crates in an alleyway, panting with exhaustion and fear. Without any water to wash it down, the quickly devoured bread lodged painfully in his chest. His heart thudded so loudly he was certain his pursuer could hear it. The heavy footsteps of the storekeeper pounded closer and closer to his hiding place, their echo a sinister sound, and his fear rose. Iron hands wrenched him violently to his feet and a cold, hateful voice screamed at him.
“Gotcha, ya dirty thief. Steal from me, will ya? I’ll learn ya a lesson ya won’t never fergit, ya filthy cur.”
A big hand slapped his face over and over. Then the heavy fist smashed into his stomach, doubling him over as the breath was driven from him. Relentless blows pounded his back and kidneys until he sank to his knees and finally to the ground, curling into a tight ball as the fists changed to savage kicks and he sought to protect his head and body from the ruthless pummeling. His entire body was a mass of throbbing agony before the man grew tired of punishing him.
The rough, ominous voice threatened, “Steal from me agin and I’ll kill ya, ya little bastard.”
The footsteps faded and he tried to stand, but his body ached too badly and he was trembling from the shock of the beating. Hot tears rolled down his stinging cheeks, despite his promise that no one would ever make him cry again. He willed himself to his knees, resting a moment on all fours, ears ringing and the taste of blood coppery in his mouth.
His stomach rebelled violently, but he doggedly fought the nausea; he’d paid too high a price to lose that piece of bread now. Slowly he won the battle with his queasy stomach, gritting his teeth, determined to get to his feet. If he could just stand up, he would be all right.
He struggled upright, fighting the dizziness that caused him to sway drunkenly. Waves of burning, stabbing torment battered him as his head and body shrieked in protest. Slowly and painfully he staggered toward the street, leaning against the buildings to stay on his feet.
He peered around the corner furtively, intent on avoiding the storekeeper. The sound of delighted laughter drew his gaze to a boy of about his age who stood at the store window, holding hands with his father. Father and son were both laughing as the boy pointed at something in the window. The grief that cascaded over him then was almost unbearable, more devastating than the physical pain of the beating. Johnny desperately wanted to be that boy, wanted to be loved. He longed for his father, yearned to feel his small hand held securely in his father’s large one.
But his mother had frequently told him that his father didn’t want him. “He doesn’t want me and he doesn’t want you. He never loved us and he sent us away.”
Those words hurt so very much. Why? What had he done wrong? Why didn’t his father want him or love him? Why?
Murdoch’s deep voice shook Johnny from his reverie. “Johnny? Come and join us, son.”
“Is he your son?” Tommy asked; pausing in his attack on the stack of flapjacks Murdoch had placed in front of him.
Murdoch pushed a mug forward, pouring coffee for Johnny. “Yes, Johnny and Scott are my sons. They are brothers. Do you have any brothers, Tommy?”
The boy shook his head sadly. “Wish I did.”
“You know, Tommy, I really worry about my boys when I don’t know where they are.”
Johnny stared at his father in disbelief. This admission was something of a shock and he wondered if Murdoch had simply said it for the boy’s sake.
“I’ll bet your father is worried about you, Tommy.”
The boy hung his head, unable to meet Murdoch’s eyes. “I ran away.” he whispered, lips quivering, and then he broke into sobs, tears streaming down his pale face.
Instantly, Murdoch lifted the child onto his lap, speaking reassuringly and soothingly, his arms a wall of comfort around the weeping boy. Tommy buried his head in the massive chest, twining his little arms around Murdoch. The big hands patted the boy’s back gently.
Johnny was mesmerized. He felt like an intruder, but he wanted to watch his father in action, see Murdoch act like a father and offer comfort to the boy. What he didn’t want, and what he wasn’t prepared for, was the pain. It hurt to think that he had never shared a similar experience with his father and Johnny shamefully admitted to himself that he was envious, jealous of Tommy.
Tommy’s tears ceased but he remained huddled on Murdoch’s lap, head still hidden in the man’s chest.
“Do you want to tell me why you ran away, Tommy?” Murdoch asked gently.
The boy shook his head.
“Well, you can tell me later.” Murdoch didn’t press or demand the information, but he left the door open for the boy to talk when he was ready. Murdoch’s insight and deft handling of the boy once again stunned Johnny.
“Yes, sir.” Tommy nodded.
Murdoch sat the boy upright. “We have a dog, Tommy. Why don’t you let Johnny show you where she is? Ask him to show you the tricks he taught her.”
“He don’t like me much. He was gonna to toss me in the river and I coulda drownded.” The boy pointed accusingly in Johnny’s direction.
Johnny squirmed, feeling about an inch tall. He had to fight an urge to reply with, ‘did not!’
“Well, Tommy, he is usually a pretty nice fellow and I promise he won’t toss you in the river.” Murdoch winked at Johnny, “And if he threatens you again, you just tell me and I’ll take a switch to him!”
Tommy smiled triumphantly at Johnny. “Okay!” The giant was obviously on his side. That would show that Johnny!
“Go with Johnny now and I’ll ask Maria if we can have some cake for lunch. You do like cake don’t you, Tommy?”
Tommy jumped down from Murdoch lap and smiled at him. “Oh boy, don’t I!”
“Let’s go, Tommy.” Johnny held out his hand and was more than surprised when the boy actually held it, skipping along beside him into the morning sun.
Murdoch watched the pair leave the hacienda, breathing a sigh of relief. The boy’s presence brought back painful memories, memories that were proving difficult to force back into their usual hiding place behind the walls he’d built around his heart.
He could still feel the warmth where the child had rested on his knees. How many times had he comforted his baby, Johnny, in exactly the same way? Hugging him tightly, bouncing him on his knee, patting his back, singing to him and tickling him until the tears turned to infectious giggles…
One of the greatest joys he had ever know was the interaction shared with his younger son before the boy’s mother took him away with her. How Johnny loved riding in front of his father on a horse, always begging, “Faster, faster,” and demanding to hold the reins. He rode around the house on his father’s broad shoulders, trying to touch the high ceilings and laughing delightedly. In those days, the hacienda always rang with the sound of Johnny’s laughter…
And as for his elder son, he had never held him. Never. Had never chased away Scott’s imaginary monsters, wiped away his tears, or soothed his bumps and bruises with a “get better” kiss. Had never even laid eyes on him until he was five years old. And even then, only for a few precious moments.
Now that beautiful little boy was a grown man and his father had not experienced any of his growing up. Scott was such a fine, sincere, intelligent man and Murdoch had contributed nothing to help mold him. Although he detested Harlan Garrett, he had to admit that the man had done a fine job of raising his grandson.
It had brought an almost physical pain when he glanced down and saw Tommy’s blond head snuggled against his chest—a sight Harlan had probably enjoyed many times, but one Murdoch had never experienced. It was an unwelcome, visceral reminder of the consequences of his decision to leave Scott in Harlan Garrett’s hands.
God had blessed him with two sons, but he had also taken them away. Would he have been such a bad father to them both? He was not a man given to hindsight and recriminations, but he couldn’t help wondering if he had made the wrong choices all those years ago—allowing Harlan to keep Scott in Boston after Catherine’s death, throwing himself into building the ranch, convincing himself that there was no way he could raise the boy alone…
Then came Maria—and Johnny. Their loss made him focus even more on his ranch and he spent every waking moment developing the land, building his cattle empire. That decision cost him his sons’ youth. Could he have done more to get the boys back? Should he have challenged Harlan? Murdoch headed toward the bathhouse, desperately trying to quell the bitter thoughts of “what might have been” that burned in his heart.
“What’s her name?” Tommy asked, his hands gently patting the adoring collie.
"Lady. She’ll shake hands with you,” Johnny proudly demonstrated the trick he had taught the dog, pleased when Tommy laughed delightedly and tried it for himself.
The boy amused himself by cavorting with the collie for several minutes, shaking hands and playing chase. After a particularly energetic run around the corral, Tommy hopped back inside the barn and flopped down beside Johnny, leaning back against the stacked bales of hay and crossing his legs at the ankle in direct imitation of his dark haired companion. Lady followed, laying her head in his lap.
“She sure is a nice dog.”
“Yeah. She’s sweet and real smart. Even helps herd the cattle.” Johnny patted the collie’s head, then settled back against the hay bales, chewing a sprig of the sweet smelling alfalfa.
Tommy shot a sideways glance at Johnny and mirrored his actions, plucking a wisp of alfalfa from a bale and chewing on it. The two sat quietly for a few minutes. Then Tommy spoke out of the blue. “Your Pa sure is nice.”
Johnny was taken aback by the comment, nearly swallowing his alfalfa stem. “Yeah, I guess he can be.”
“He loves you.”
Johnny felt his face redden. “Uh…yeah, I guess he does.”
“You love your Pa, Johnny?” The brown eyes focused intensely on Johnny’s face.
Johnny lowered his gaze, this boy sure had the knack of putting him on the spot. “Well…uh…yeah, Tommy…I…sure I do.”
“Where’s your Ma?”
“Dead.” Johnny had not expected that question and his reply was abrupt and harsh. He realized how cold it sounded.
“My…my Ma’s d…dead, too.” The big, haunted eyes filled with tears and heartbreaking sobs shook Tommy’s little shoulders. This time it was Johnny who leapt to his side, held him tight and soothed him with the same words Murdoch had used earlier.
“What about your Pa?” Johnny whispered softly, hoping he had chosen the right time to ask.
“He don’t love me no more.” Tommy buried his head in Johnny’s chest, hugging him just the way he had held on to Murdoch.
Johnny stroked the blond hair tenderly. “Oh Tommy, that can’t be right. Your Pa loves you, I know he does.”
He wondered how any man could ignore or reject such a spirited, clever, appealing child. Just one look from those soulful eyes should melt the most frozen heart…
“No, he don’t, not since Ma died. He don’t talk to me no more. He’s always asleep or drinking.” Tommy’s voice quavered with anger and frustration. “He don’t want me around. So I left.”
Johnny caught his breath, knowing exactly how it felt to believe you weren’t wanted. “Everything’s going to be all right Tommy. I promise I will sort it out. I’ll find a place where you’re wanted.”
He meant every word, he only hoped his reading of the situation was correct. If he was wrong, he didn’t know how much help he could offer to the boy.
The brown eyes pleaded with him. “You promise?”
“I promise I’ll figure something out, Tommy. Okay?”
Tommy nodded and sniffed, standing up and wiping his eyes. “You know somethin’, Johnny?”
“Your Pa said you was a nice fella and he was right.”
“Well, that’s the thing about my Pa, Tommy. He‘s always right.” Johnny flowed to his feet and grinned at Tommy. “Come on, let’s go see if he’s ready for that cake yet.”
Johnny snickered at himself; he wasn’t used to referring to Murdoch as “Pa.” They walked toward the gleaming hacienda, Tommy totally absorbed in copying the fluid, cocky strides of his new found friend.
Johnny paused when he heard hoof beats, looking up to see Scott approaching. “You go on inside, Tommy. Tell Mur…my Pa to cut a piece of cake for me and Scott, too, huh?”
“Sure, Johnny,” Tommy darted into the kitchen.
Johnny walked out to the hitch rail as his brother pulled up. Scott made a point of exaggeratedly looking Johnny over before laughing, “Well, little brother, you’re still in one piece, I see.”
“Take more than a seven year old boy and an old man to whomp me, Boston! You got some news about him? You sure weren’t gone long.”
Scott nodded his head and glanced towards the hacienda. He didn’t want any tiny ears listening in on their conversation. Once he was sure that Tommy wasn’t within hearing range, he explained that Val thought the boy sounded like Pete Adams’ son.
Recently widowed, Adams owned a small farm about two hours outside of Green River. The talk around town speculated that the man wasn’t handling the loss of his wife very well. He and the boy hadn’t been seen at church since the funeral and the only supplies Adams seemed to purchase these days were whiskey and tequila.
Ten minutes later, Scott watched as Johnny swung up on Barranca, heading for the Adams’ homestead. He didn’t like the grim look on his brother’s face and placed a restraining hand on Johnny’s knee, speaking sternly.
“You watch that temper, boy.”
Scott followed the sound of his father’s booming laughter to the kitchen. He was eager to find out if Johnny’s description of Murdoch’s “child herding” abilities was factual. Wise to his little brother’s love of a good tease, he was inclined to believe that Johnny was exaggerating. Yet the expression on his face and the slightly awed tone the boy used in the discussion indicated that there was some truth in what he said. Scott was anxious to see for himself.
//This I have to see—Murdoch as a “top hand” in “child herding.”//
Murdoch and the boy—Tommy, his brother had informed him—were certainly getting along if his father’s laughter and the child’s shrieks of glee were any indication. He stopped in the doorway, staring at the image of Murdoch sitting at the kitchen table with Tommy on his knee. His father bounced the boy up and down as the two examined several slices of chocolate cake.
"Now, that piece is mine!” Murdoch pointed to the biggest piece.
“No, it’s mine!” The giggling boy promptly stuck his tiny finger smack dab in the middle of the biggest piece.
“Well, it is now!” Murdoch laughed as the boy licked the sticky icing and bits of cake from his finger.
“Mmm, Mmm.” Tommy smacked his lips.
Man and boy laughed together and the boy plunged his finger back into the cake, this time offering it to Murdoch. The man hesitated a moment and then—to Scott’s eternal amazement—snorted and growled like a monster, pretending to swallow the proffered finger whole while making chewing and smacking noises. The boy squealed with delight, reaching up to hug Murdoch who returned the embrace warmly. The two sat that way for a moment, foreheads touching.
Scott stood in the doorway, smiling at this totally unexpected view of his father. Johnny had been telling the truth! His grin widened when Murdoch poked his finger into a slice of cake and offered it to Tommy. Scott laughed out loud when Tommy imitated Murdoch’s previous behavior, snorting, growling and pretending to gobble up the long finger. He started to step forward, to speak, when the boy suddenly rested his head on Murdoch’s chest, the big man ruffling the blond hair affectionately.
The sight of the small blond head against his father’s chest froze Scott in his tracks. He stood stock still for a moment, stunned to realize that he was envious at seeing his father so at ease with this child. Emotions he had thought long buried assailed him swiftly and unexpectedly, ripping away his normal self-assurance. Suddenly he could no longer bear to watch Murdoch in the role of father to a youngster. All of his old anger and bitterness swept over him and he turned on his heel, striding quickly away with resentment and regret swirling in his mind.
Murdoch watched Scott stalk away at a military pace. He didn’t like how his son’s face had suddenly paled, turning so bleak. He eased Tommy onto the chair. “You keep my seat warm, Tommy, I’ll be back soon.” Trailing a hand over the boy’s hair, he followed Scott up the stairs.
Some deep parental instinct told Murdoch he was needed in Scott’s room, so he didn’t knock, he simply walked straight in. His son sat on the bed, bent forward, his head in his hands. The sudden entrance startled Scott and he lifted his head. Murdoch was stunned to see pain in his older son’s eyes. So much pain.
He hurried to the bed. “What is it, son? What’s wrong?”
Scott stared at him, mouth working as he struggled to control his emotions. His eyes were hot and angry as he lost the fight to subdue his feelings, the rage and resentment bursting forth like water through a breached dam. His words were harsh and clipped.
“You searched for Johnny for years. You didn’t know where he was, but you kept on looking. You never stopped.” Scott’s eyes flashed as he stood up face to face with his father, hands clenched tightly into fists at his side.
Murdoch was shocked by his son’s outburst. This type of emotional display was what he expected from Johnny, but not from his level headed, disciplined older son. He reached out to put a hand on Scott’s shoulder, but his son jerked away, anger intensifying. Murdoch couldn’t imagine what had precipitated this detonation.
Scott leaned forward, conspicuously invading his father’s space. “You knew exactly where to find me. You never once came to see me. You could have taken me with you, you could have raised me, but you didn’t. You searched for your other son and pretended I didn’t even exist.”
Scott shoved his father hard, pushing him violently into the wall. “You. Didn’t. Want. Me! Why? What did I do? Did you blame me for my mother’s death? Did you? Do you still?”
Part of him was appalled at the way he was acting, but Scott wanted answers and he wanted them now. He had waited too long to hear his father’s side of the story. Murdoch preferred to let the past die, burying it and focusing on the here and now. Scott had tried to leave it at that, stifling the questions and anger he’d felt while growing up, sacrificing his own peace of mind to nurture the tenuous bond growing between him and his father.
He’d secretly yearned for a relationship with the man for so long and he was willing to deny his uncertainties and questions in order to keep the peace. But watching his father’s interaction with the boy, Tommy, had cut him deeply. That little blond boy could have been him, should have been him—except he had never had that kind of contact with his father.
//Why? Why didn’t you want me, Murdoch? I need answers.//
Murdoch realized just how much hurt Scott had kept hidden; his son’s eyes betrayed the depths of his pain. “Oh, son,” he again reached out his hand to Scott.
“Don’t you touch me! You never wanted to before,” Scott spat out, his voice rough with fury.
Murdoch was desperate to break through the wall Scott had suddenly erected between them, yet he knew it would be difficult. He moved over to the bed, sinking down into the soft feather mattress, feeling Scott’s troubled, fierce eyes boring into him.
“Scott…Son…I know this is something you and I should have discussed before. You tried to talk to me about it when your grandfather visited. I know that.”
“You said the past would die if I let it! Well, it won’t!” Scott’s breathing was rapid and harsh, the tumultuous emotions raging in his eyes.
“I realize that, son. Please bear with me. This…this is hard for me, too. I’m not the kind of man who can express how I feel--”
Scott moved suddenly to stand directly in front of Murdoch. His voice cracked like a whip. “I don’t give a damn about how you feel. I asked you a simple question.”
A part of Murdoch’s mind filed away this picture of his son to examine later, at his leisure—tall and strong and handsome, born to lead with the special quality of command in his voice. Part of him fought to get angry, meet Scott’s fire with thunder of his own. And part of him, the part entrusted with the painful memories—the paternal part so recently surfaced by his interaction with the boy, Tommy—warned that this crisis needed to be resolved once and for all, using patience and understanding. He fumbled to find the right words, knowing just how difficult and uncomfortable this discussion was likely to be.
“Scott, I was…I was…well, I was wrong to ask you to let the past die.” There, he had finally said it!
“That was the easy way out. I wasn’t able to talk to you about it before because I was…ashamed to. I didn’t want to admit how I had failed you. I couldn’t admit it to myself and certainly not to you.” He stared at his son, the expression on his face asking for understanding.
Scott recognized the effort it took for his father to voice these thoughts, but he wanted to hear more. He watched Murdoch warily, through narrowed eyes. “Go on.”
“I wasn’t with your mother when she died, son. There had been several vicious raids against the ranch and I was afraid for your mother. She was pregnant and I asked Teresa’s father to escort her somewhere she could be safe. Your grandfather traveled to San Francisco to meet them. You were born during the journey and your grandfather took you to Boston with him.” He paused to study his son. Scott stood totally still, back ramrod straight, eyes still burning.
“Paul sent word that your mother was sick and I rode day and night to try and reach her. But I was too late. By the time I arrived, all that was left was a grave. You were on your way to Boston with your grandfather and I had nothing but a mound of dirt.” He closed his eyes briefly as the helpless fury of that time roared through him again.
“Please try to understand, son. I was numb inside, unable to think straight. By the time I could think again, there had been more raids on the ranch and I believed it wouldn’t be safe for you. I thought you would be much better off with your grandfather in Boston.” He paused, then reached over to the pitcher on the bedside table and poured a glass of water. Scott didn’t move a muscle, his eyes still searching those of his father.
“I did try to bring you home, Scott, but your grandfather made it so hard. He made all sorts of threats and he could have delivered on any one of them.” He paused a moment to take a sip of water, hoping it would help with his dry mouth and the lump in his throat.
“I traveled to Boston for your fifth birthday. I intended to bring you home with me, but your grandfather defeated me with reason. He had so much to offer you, more than I could ever dream of giving you. He told me that if I really loved you, I would understand that and leave you with him.” Murdoch sighed; he had done what he thought was best for his son. He had sacrificed his own happiness in the belief he was doing the right thing for Scott. And had second-guessed that decision nearly every day of his life since then.
“To answer your question, Yes. Yes, I wanted you, son. God, how much I wanted you with me! You were all I had, all I had left of Catherine. We’d both wanted you so much, had such dreams and plans for you.” He sipped more water.
“I didn’t blame you for your mother’s death—not then and not now. My oldest sister died in childbirth back in Scotland. That is something we have no control over, something we have to accept as nature’s way, part of God’s plan. Son, I never blamed you. I swear it.” Murdoch took a deep breath and thought he saw some kind of reaction in Scott’s eyes.
“Scott, I did search for Johnny. Not because I wanted him more than I wanted you, but because I just didn’t know what his circumstances were. I didn’t want him to grow up without a father or in need. You were safe and no matter what I thought of Harlan Garrett, I knew that he loved you and would always give you the best of everything.
“Part of me couldn’t accept that he could give you more than I could. It represented a failure, Scott, and a man like me doesn’t like to admit to failure.” He hesitated and steeled himself to continue. “I made choices, son, and they were the wrong choices. I know that now. If I could go back, I would do it differently. I know now just how much I missed without you in my life, and I know what I deprived you of.
“You never knew my love as a boy, but it was always there, and it’s here for you now. It always will be.” He stood slowly and rested his hands on Scott’s shoulders. This time the young man didn’t pull away. Murdoch forced himself to meet Scott’s eyes. “I…I’m sorry, Scott.”
Scott turned away, head bowed as anger faded into understanding. He had always known the truth, but needed to hear his father express that truth in his own words. And at last, the man had spoken exactly the words he longed to hear. Murdoch had opened his heart, shared his pain, doubts, and regrets with his son. Scott accepted that his father believed he had made the best choice he could under the circumstances—attempting to give his son the opportunity for a better life. And the man had actually admitted he was wrong. That had to be a first!
//So much for “You’ll get no apologies from me!” Guess I took that as a challenge. But I really did need to hear you say, “I’m sorry.”//
Murdoch turned Scott to face him and wrapped his arms around his son. “I lost both my sons, for a very long time. Please, Scott, I don’t want to lose you now. Not again.”
Scott felt his father’s love envelope him and he leaned into those strong arms. For the first time, he embraced his father without nagging questions, without resentment, with acceptance for the choices the man had made. And it felt so warm and peaceful, so right.
“I accept your apology, Murdoch. I needed to know your side of the story and it means a lot to hear it from you. Thank you.” He heard his father’s breath catch in his throat.
“And this is my home now, Pa.” Scott whispered, “I’m not going anywhere, I’m at Lancer to stay.” He felt Murdoch’s arms tighten around him and relished the sensation.
But not for long.
A shrill voice called, “Where’d everbody git off to?”
Scott and his father straightened and stepped away from each other, both slightly embarrassed at the sentiments they’d shared.
“Come on, son, let’s go see to our guest.” Murdoch led the way as the two men hurried down the hallway to take care of a little blond boy who just seemed to have a way of bringing their most hidden feelings out into the open.
The Adams homestead nestled snuggly in a grove of trees. It was a welcoming house, reminiscent of a pretty young girl who had wilted through time, hardship, and heartache—a once proud home that had fallen on hard times. Faded white paint peeled from the siding and the windows were caked with dirt and mud. The sagging porch was covered in layers of thick dust and the front door hung drunkenly off its hinges. There was no sign of life, nothing moved. Johnny observed the house for some time before walking Barranca to the grave he spotted beneath one of the largest trees.
‘Miriam Grace Adams
Beloved wife of Peter
Devoted mother of Thomas.’
Johnny read the inscription on the stone. “This must be the right place.”
He noticed that the grave was carefully tended, fresh flowers leaning against the headstone in odd contrast to the run-down state of the house.
He dropped down off Barranca and walked slowly towards the front door. There was no sound and his booted feet kicked up small puffs of dust from the porch floor. He knocked loudly, hesitating for several moments, then opened the broken door carefully and stepped inside.
The house was filthy. Food-encrusted plates were stacked high on the counter and table in the sunny kitchen and dirty clothes were strewn across every available piece of furniture, leaving no place to sit. Empty whiskey bottles littered the floor and every surface was liberally coated with a thick layer of dust. Dust motes drifted in the weak rays of sunlight strong enough to penetrate the grimed window. Johnny wrinkled his nose at the pungent odors of stale sweat, urine, rotten food, and unwashed bodies.
His sharp ears heard the sound, a cross between a snore and a moan, and he cat-footed toward the bedroom at the rear of the house. Peering through the half open door he noted that the bed was unmade, rumpled and soiled. A slight movement caught his eye and Johnny located the object of his search. Pete Adams lay on the floor in his own filth, passed out in a drunken stupor.
Johnny stared disgustedly at the shell of a man, his heart contracting at the thought of Tommy trying to live with this drunkard in the slovenly house. He knelt beside Adams, noticing the shock of thick, sandy hair so like Tommy’s.
“Hey, Adams! C’mon, Adams, wake up.” Johnny shook the man, finally slapping the flushed face, but all the response he got was a stream of foul oaths. He sat back and smiled wryly. “So that’s where Tommy picked it up.”
Johnny headed out the back door, returning several minutes later with two buckets of well water. He poured one slowly over the drunken man on the floor, concentrating a steady stream on Adams’ face.
The man spluttered and coughed, attempting to block the water with his hands. Obviously, whiskey-spun cobwebs still clung to his mind because his mumbled words made no sense to Johnny. “Mim, that you… Mim?”
Johnny aimed another stream of water at the man’s face. “No…No…Guess again, Adams. It ain’t Mim.”
Adams struggled to a sitting position, directing more profanity at Johnny and trying in vain to shield his head and face from the cold well water. “What the hell you doin’? Ya tryin’ to drown me? Cut it out ya #%&*#.”
Johnny struck like an angry rattler, grasping Adams by the collar under his chin. He yanked the man to his feet, driving him backwards into the wall in one fluid motion, speaking in a soft, deadly voice. “Mister, drunk or not, you best be smilin’ when you call me that.”
The red, bleary eyes fought to focus, finally fixing on Johnny in confusion. “You…you ain’t Mim. Where is she? You ain’t my angel.”
“Adams, you’re gonna think I’m the angel of death if you don’t quit cussin’ me.” He released the man’s collar and stepped back, watching as Adams slid down the wall. As the man slumped on the floor, Johnny upended the second bucket of water over his head.
Adams growled, fighting his way to his knees and swaying as he tried to balance upright. Johnny held him by the collar at the back of the neck this time, hoisting the man to his feet and supporting him until Adams stopped weaving and seemed to stand fairly steadily.
“C’mon. Outside.” Johnny marched the man through the house, pausing briefly to snatch the bar of soap he’d noticed earlier from the kitchen sink. Adams stumbled across the porch and down the steps, obedient to the pressure of Johnny’s hand in the small of his back.
“Where we goin’?”
“Just keep walkin’, Adams.” Johnny herded the man across the overgrown yard to the stream running behind the barn.
Adams stumbled to a halt on the bank, turning to face Johnny. “What the hell’s goin’ on?”
“I wanna talk to you, Adams. And right now you stink so bad, I can’t think. So, you’re gonna take a bath.” He bowed slightly, extending one arm toward the stream. “Go on, your tub’s ready. Git in.”
Adams looked slowly from Johnny to the stream. “Why you little &%*…”
As Adams opened his mouth wider to finish his curse, Johnny stuffed in the bar of soap while giving the man a swift push on the chest. Adams nearly swallowed the soap as he found himself flying backwards to land with a tremendous splash in the cold stream.
An hour later Johnny had a cheerful fire burning in both the fireplace and the kitchen stove. He’d cleared the table, found some clean clothes for Pete and even located some coffee, brewing it strong and forcing Adams to drink it despite the man’s whining protests. Johnny’s pressure was relentless and Adams swallowed cup after cup of the strong, bitter liquid. It scalded his mouth and insides, but eventually cleared many of the remaining cobwebs from his head.
Blood shot eyes glared at Johnny, “Just who the hell are you?”
“I’m a friend of your son. Do you know where he is, Pete?”
Pete glanced around vaguely, as though he expected to find his son sitting in the room watching them. “Tommy. Yeah, my son, Tommy. Tommy, where are ya, boy? You git in here, Tommy.”
Johnny leaped to his feet, snatching up his hat and swatting Adams with it. “He’s…” Swat…
“you useless piece of…” Johnny paused as Scott’s warning jangled loudly in his mind. He bit down on his anger, forcing himself to calm down and remain civil although his knuckles itched to bust the man in the face.
Lowering the hat, he seated himself again. “You don’t know where Tommy is, do you?”
Pete had covered his head and face with his arms to avoid the blows from Johnny’s hat. Now, he straightened, shaking his head and looking around the room again. “Reckon I don’t. He’s a mighty clever boy, my Tommy. He’ll be around somewheres.”
Johnny fixed him with a murderous stare. If Adams’ hadn’t been fighting a hangover, that look alone might have frightened him to death. “Just how long has it been since you seen him?”
Adams started to reply, but found he couldn’t remember. “Why, it was…I don’t…I don’t know…where… Is he all right?”
“As if you care. I found him yesterday. He was miles away from here, alone and hungry.”Johnny’s voice was deadly, dry as old leaves, and his fingers quivered. “Looks like he’s been gone for a while. You know, anything could have happened to that kid!”
Johnny jumped to his feet, gesturing angrily in the direction of the grave under the trees. “I could be burying your boy out next to your wife right now!”
Adams was still too drink-befuddled to realize just how close to death he was at that moment. The man rested his arms on the table and dropped his head onto them, breaking into huge sobs. “Oh God, what can I do? I can’t live without her. Mim. Please God, I need her. Oh Mim… Mim…” The man’s sobs lasted for some time and gave no hint of dissipating.
Johnny watched the wretched man, first with contempt and then he actually began to feel sorry for Adams. It was obvious that the man’s grief was soul deep. The talk Scott had heard in town was true—Adams hadn’t been able to come to grips with the death of his wife. The man was drowning his sorrows in a bottle, but he seemed to have forgotten that he had responsibilities to his son.
Johnny sat beside Adams, gripping one of the shaking shoulders. “Listen, Pete, I’m sorry about your wife. But she’s gone now and you have to take care of Tommy. Your boy needs you. Tommy needs you.” Johnny struggled to make the man acknowledge his son’s needs, but Adams ignored him, continuing to sob and cry out for his wife.
Johnny pushed away from the table and stood up again, pacing around the small room. He was frustrated and getting angry again, struggling to find a way to reach Adams. “What about Tommy, Adams? What about your son?”
Pete raised his head and glared at Johnny. “I can’t, don’t you see? I can’t. Not without Mim.” He rose shakily to his feet and reached for a half-empty bottle, taking a healthy swig of the tawny liquid within.
Johnny’s knuckles itched again and he ached to slam the man against the wall and slap him silly. To his chagrin, he could see and hear his brother cautioning loudly in his mind, “Temper, temper, watch your temper.”
Adams turned back to Johnny, his flushed face damp with tears. “Mister, I reckon you best keep that boy. He’s better off with you. I don’t want him now.”
Johnny turned on his heel and stalked out of the door, savagely throttling the fierce impulse to put a bullet between Adams’ eyes. If he stayed in the same room with the man any longer, he would hurt him. The words knifed through him again and again, “I don’t want him, I don’t want him…” and his heart ached for Tommy.
He knew, all too well, what it felt like to hear those words and was determined that Tommy would never know them. If there were no other relatives to welcome the child, Tommy could make a home at Lancer. Johnny refused to consider an orphanage.
He stood at Barranca’s head and absently stroked the golden neck, consumed by bitter memories of a past that refused to be ignored. The storekeeper in town had turned him over to the mission school and Johnny had hated it. He’d lived wild and free, taken care of himself, and living by the numerous, strict rules was so difficult. He felt caged, trapped.
He could still hear the voices of the padres, “We rise at six, Johnny. We do not waste the time our good Lord gave us.” “We eat at twelve, Johnny, if you are late, you do not eat.”
Johnny had never had to run his life by a clock or follow orders like those issued by the padres. The rigid routine, overt authority, and discipline sparked defiance and rebellion in him and Johnny was always late, always the one reprimanded. It seemed as though he could do nothing right in the eyes of the padres.
He was constantly in trouble, never quite good enough, silently enduring the harsh punishments meted out by Padre Miguel. He bitterly resented the mission, seizing every opportunity to run away. The other children teased him, called him names, and Johnny responded with his fists because it was all he knew how to do.
“We do not raise our hands against one another, Johnny.” He snorted to himself as Padre Miguel’s somber, hateful voice echoed in his memory.
//We don’t raise our hands, but we’ll sure raise our razor strop, huh Padre Miguel?//
No, he wouldn’t allow Tommy to be subjected to that kind of environment. He stood next to his horse, angry, frustrated, and sad; unsure of what to do next. Part of him screamed to go back inside and pummel Adams until the man saw reason. Another part of him acknowledged that physically attacking Adams wasn’t the answer, wasn’t the way Scott or Murdoch would handle the situation. No, his brother and his father would approach this problem differently, although he couldn’t imagine how. But they would talk him through it and together they would decide the best course of action for Tommy. He couldn’t think of anything else to do here, so he mounted up and headed home.
Home—it still sounded strange, but he suddenly realized that now, when he had a problem, he had somewhere to go and someone to go to. He had a home and a family. Even now, thinking about this second chance fate had dealt him left him bewildered and somehow breathless.
He still didn’t quite trust it—fate had played him false too many times. And there were still routines and orders, even Murdoch’s demonstrations of overt authority! But it was different because he belonged, because these people hadn’t simply taken him in out of charity, because they wanted him.
Home! He urged Barranca into a swift lope, anxious to be at Lancer with his family.
“Well, he’s asleep. Finally.” Scott slumped into a chair at the kitchen table next to his father, gratefully accepting the cup of coffee Murdoch passed him.
Murdoch smiled at his son. “He’s quite a boy, isn’t he? Full of mischief and energy.”
“I’ll say. It makes me feel old just trying to keep up with him.” Scott took several deep swallows, savoring the hot, flavorful brew. “Thank goodness for Lady!”
“Yes, little boys can have that effect on a man. And boys do love dogs.” Murdoch held up the coffeepot again, offering a refill. He sensed that Scott was bothered by something. “You’re doing a fine job with him, son.”
Scott held his cup out, but didn’t meet his father’s eyes. “I’m not so sure, sir.” He was silent for several moments, then shook his head and looked at his father.
“I had to punish him this afternoon, wash his mouth out with soap. I didn’t want to do that, but I warned him repeatedly not to use profanity and it seemed that he was testing me, pushing to see how much I’d let him get away with.”
Murdoch nodded, laughing. “Of course he did, Scott. He wouldn’t be a little boy if he didn’t try that tactic.” He noticed the defeated look on his son’s face. “Scott, did you hurt him?”
“Of course I didn’t!” Scott gaped at his father in shock. “Why would you even think--”
Murdoch shook his head and held up a restraining hand. “No, you’re misinterpreting what I meant.” He paused to be certain Scott understood.
“So what you’re telling me is that you made a simple, reasonable request of Tommy, gave him specific guidelines on how to behave. You were clear about the consequences of noncompliance. You gave the boy every opportunity to obey and when he didn’t, you acted exactly as you’d promised him you would.”
Scott was silent, intently studying the inside of his coffee cup.
“Well, son? Does that about sum it up?”
Scott swallowed hard, “Yes, sir. But I still wish I hadn’t had to do it.”
“Scott, I don’t think anyone enjoys having to discipline a child. But that is the only way children learn that their actions have consequences. Tommy is a fine boy, but he does have a tendency to use inappropriate language. I’m sure you were more than fair.”
“Tommy didn’t think so, Murdoch. He was angry with me.” Scott’s shoulders slumped in defeat.
Murdoch laughed. “There aren’t many children who will admit that they deserve to be punished. Tommy’s really angry at himself because he knows he was wrong—and because he got caught. If nothing else, he’ll respect the fact that you did what you promised to do.” He took a sip of coffee.
“But I’m willing to bet that Tommy will think things over and understand that you wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of correcting him if you didn’t care about him. He’ll get over it, son.”
“I hope so, sir. But…well, he acted defiantly and it…it made me angry.” Scott looked down at his hands. “I’m afraid I warned him that if we had to address the problem again, I’d warm the seat of pants.”
“I see. And what was Tommy’s reaction?”
“He assured me that I would be sorry.” Scott chuckled.
“Spoken like a spunky young man.” Murdoch met Scott’s eyes. “You realize that you might have to carry out your thr…er, promise?”
Scott dropped his eyes. “I know.”
Murdoch laughed heartily, slapping his son on the back. “So when am I going to have grandchildren, son?”
Scott joined in his father’s laughter. “The distant future, Murdoch, the very distant future!”
The two men sat in comfortable silence for a few minutes and then Scott voiced the thoughts worrying both of them. “I hope Johnny keeps his temper under control with Pete Adams.”
“I do too, son. Your brother becomes passionate about the causes he believes in and he’s pretty wrapped up with Tommy’s situation.”
“Yes, he is. I think Johnny--”
“Scott!” Murdoch cut him off suddenly, lifting his head and sniffing loudly. “Do you smell something burning?”
Both men leaped to their feet, racing into the great room. They skidded to a halt at the sight of Tommy who was frantically attempting to put out the flames shooting from a burning piece of cloth he had clearly been toasting over the open fire using one of the pokers. Murdoch couldn’t imagine what the child had been holding over the fire, but the boy obviously hadn’t expected it to ignite.
Tommy took one look at Murdoch and Scott and dropped the flaming poker, running toward the French doors and tossing over his shoulder, “I told you you’d be sorry. Your pants have a warm seat now, too.”
The men ran to the fireplace, working together to swiftly stamp out the flames. Scott gingerly picked up the smoldering cloth and stared in disbelief. “My plaid riding pants…”
Murdoch gave a strangled choke and followed Tommy out the door, leaving his older son to mourn the demise of his much-discussed plaid pants in solitude. He hurried outside, struggling not to give in to the laughter welling up within him as he recalled the vision of Tommy toasting the pants over the fire and informing Scott that his pants had a warm seat, too. What a little toot this child was!
He located the small, dejected form standing at the end of the veranda and quickly walked over to the boy. Tommy stood shamefaced, eyes locked on his feet, big tears rolling down his face. Murdoch knelt in front of the child, wondering how best to deal with this incident, and his heart melted when he saw the tears. The boy had reacted out of anger and was now sorry for what he had done. Or perhaps he was simply sorry for what he plainly thought was about to happen!
“You gonna give me a lickin’?” Tommy asked forlornly.
Murdoch pretended to consider, then inquired sternly, "Do you think you deserve one?”
Tommy hung his head. “I reckon.”
Murdoch hid his smile, keeping his face and voice firm. “I think we need to talk about this man to man, Tommy."
Tommy looked up through red and swollen eyes, “Yes, sir.”
Murdoch felt a lump in his throat and carried on quickly. "You do know that what you did was wrong and that you could have been hurt?"
Tommy nodded his head “I’m sorry.”
“I’m sure you are, son.” Murdoch wiped away the boy’s tears and rose slowly, ignoring his creaking knees. He led Tommy toward a chair.
"I would be very sorry if anything were to happen to you. I’m sure you know just how dangerous it is to play with fire." He sat in the chair and lifted Tommy onto his knee. “Do you know about fire? About how badly it can hurt you and get out of control?”
"Then you understand that fire is not a toy. And I expect you to treat fire with respect. Now, will you promise me never to do anything like that again? I want your word as a gentleman, Tommy."
"Yes, sir. I won’t do it again. I promise."
"Tommy, part of growing up and becoming a man is taking responsibility for your actions. That means you have to put right your mistakes. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
"Yes, sir, I think so." Tommy whispered.
“You were angry at Scott, weren’t you, Tommy?”
“Do you think it was right to destroy something that belonged to Scott because you were mad at him?”
Tommy was silent and Murdoch grasped his chin, tilting the boy’s face upwards. “I’d like an answer, young man.”
Tommy dropped his eyes. “No, sir.”
“Hasn’t Scott asked you several times not to cuss?”
“Did he tell you why?”
“He…he said gentlemen don’t talk that way.”
“But you did it anyway. Why?”
“Well, I…I…I guess I forgot.”
“I can understand that, Tommy. But I’ll bet that the next time you start to curse, you’ll remember the taste of that soap. What do you think?”
“Yes, sir.” The boy looked up at Murdoch. “It sure tasted awful.”
“And just maybe, when you remember how bad it tasted, you’ll choose different words.”
Tommy hung his head and nodded.
“And let me be very clear, young man. If I hear you using that kind of language—or if I catch you doing something you know is wrong or dangerous—I’ll forget about our gentlemen’s agreement and you’ll think I was toasting the seat of your pants over that fire! Do we understand each other?”
Tommy head stayed down and he nodded again. “Yes, sir.”
“Good.” Murdoch patted the boy on the back. “So you’ve made a mistake and now you need to put it right. I expect you to apologize to Scott for destroying his property. And you’ll have to do some chores around the ranch to pay for the damage you caused. Does that sound fair to you, Tommy?”
The boy’s face brightened. "Yes, sir!" Tommy liked being treated like a man. "That sounds fair to me." He suddenly threw his arms around Murdoch and whispered, "I wish you were my Pa."
Murdoch felt tears fill his eyes, his throat tightened and he fought to control his emotions. "Well, I'd be a lucky man if I were your Pa, Tommy.”
He patted the boy on the back. “Now why don’t we go back inside? You can apologize to Scott. Then we’ll put you back in bed, young man. You’ll need to be awake bright and early to get started on those chores.”
Murdoch lifted the youngster to his feet and the big man and small boy walked back into the hacienda hand in hand.
Johnny slouched wearily through the front door, tired and despondent after his futile visit to Tommy’s father. He was exhausted from the combination of long hours in the saddle and the vexing question of what to do about Pete Adams and his son. The sight of his father and brother enjoying a game of checkers in front of the fire brought a smile to his weary face and he hurried to join them, eager to hear what they had to say about Adams’ attitude.
Murdoch looked up at the sound of the door opening, relieved to see Johnny home safely. He immediately noticed the defeated expression on the boy’s face. “How did it go, son?”
Johnny shook his head, not knowing where to start. He leaned against the mantle. “He says he doesn’t want the boy.” He paused and sniffed. “Hey, what’s that smell? Something catch on fire?”
The blue eyes fell on the charred remains of the ill-fated pants. “What’s this?”
Scott and Murdoch traded looks. Scott’s glare was deadly, a stare he’d obviously learned from a certain gunfighter. It dared his father to speak. Murdoch bit his trembling lip, hard. An expression of pure delight lit Johnny’s face and Scott gritted his teeth, knowing what was to come.
//Why did I leave those lying around for him to find? What was I thinking? I’ll never hear the end of this.//
Sure enough, Johnny snatched up the burned remnants of the plaid pants and sauntered over to his brother, gleefully examining the scorched material. “Boston, what the heck happened to your fancy pants? You finally decided to listen to me and take care of ‘em proper?”
Scott turned the baleful glare on his brother. “You think you’re quite a comedian, don’t you, little brother?”
“Funny, Johnny. You think you’re funny.”
“Don’t know about me, but this,” Johnny held up the ruined pants, shaking them, “sure is funny. How’d it happen?”
Realization suddenly dawned, prompting a shout of laughter. “Don’t tell me you can’t handle a seven year old, brother!”
“For your information, brother, your ‘wild child’ decided he didn’t like my promise to warm the seat of his pants if he continued cursing. So he decided to warm the seat of a pair of my pants.”
Johnny howled with laughter, collapsing onto the couch, holding his sides, and wiping his eyes theatrically. “And, brother, he sure picked the right pair. It’s about time somebody burned those pants. We oughta give that kid a medal.”
“Johnny…” Scott growled.
Murdoch decided it might be an appropriate time to intervene—Scott was wearing his “enough is enough” look. Besides, he wanted to hear about Johnny’s encounter with Adams. “What happened with Tommy’s father, Johnny?”
Johnny sobered instantly, his face suddenly regretful and sad. “He was drunk. The place is filthy. He’s grievin’ for his wife.”
His hands absently fiddled with the remains of Scott’s pants. “He didn’t even know the boy had run away. Told me to take Tommy, that he didn’t want him.” Johnny bowed his head. “I don’t think he knows what he’s saying.”
He was struck by the sudden thought that of all people, Murdoch would understand how Pete Adams was feeling. After all, the man had lost two wives and given up two sons. Maybe his father could get through to Tommy’s father.
Murdoch seemed to read Johnny’s mind. “Do you think it would do any good if I went out to see him, son?”
“Will you, Murdoch? He might listen to you. I sure didn’t have no luck with him.” Johnny shook his head ruefully. “I wanted to belt him in the face…” He looked at Scott, “but I didn’t.”
Scott and Murdoch nodded in unison; approval on their faces, and Johnny flushed, dropping his head again.
Murdoch slapped Johnny on the back. “I’ll ride over first thing in the morning,” he stood, stretching. “You must be hungry, son. I’ll ask Maria to warm your supper.” He headed for the kitchen.
“Thanks.” Johnny called after him, then slumped, staring into the fire and shivering slightly.
Scott moved over to sit beside him. “You all right, brother?”
“He told me to keep Tommy, said he didn’t want him!” Johnny clenched his fists. “I wanted to kill him for sayin’ that, Scott. I don’t want Tommy to ever know his Pa said that.”
He paused and when he continued his voice was low and raw. “My mother told me that Murdoch didn’t want me, and I believed her.”
Scott gripped his brother’s tense shoulder, feeling him shudder. Neither brother noticed that their father had returned to the great room, standing in the shadows.
Johnny’s voice was strained. “It hurt, believin’ he didn’t want me. But it helped me survive every other pain I ever felt.” He paused and Scott knew Johnny was remembering some of that pain. “Nuthin’…Scott, nuthin’ ever hurt as bad as thinkin’ my father didn’t want me.”
Scott squeezed Johnny’s shoulder hard. “I’m glad you’re here with us now.” He searched for a way to relieve the tension and wrested the scrap of burned, plaid material from Johnny unresisting fingers, shaking the trophy in his brother’s face. “Even if you don’t have the sense to appreciate good taste in clothing.”
Johnny looked up and grinned. “Well, Boston, least I got the good sense to ‘preciate the condition of these pants. I think they’re beyond even Teresa’s help. Want me to shoot ‘em, brother, put ‘em out of their misery?” He dissolved into laughter again.
Scott pounced on his brash younger sibling, catching him in a headlock and ruffling the dark hair. “I ought to make you wear them, Mr. Smart Mouth.”
Johnny struggled to escape Scott’s stranglehold, flipping both brothers off the couch and onto the hard floor. Checkers and the checkerboard flew in all directions and a chair teetered and then fell over sideways with a resounding crash.
The noise brought Murdoch swiftly to the fire. “Boys! Hold it down! You’re going to wake up Tommy.”
The brothers instantly stopped their tussling and Scott informed his brother in no uncertain terms, “If he wakes up again, he’s your responsibility.”
Murdoch watched as his sons helped each other to their feet, smiling as Scott ruefully tossed the remains of his prized pants into the fire.
Johnny crowed jubilantly. “Now if only Teresa was here to see them pants burn. She could celebrate with me.”
Scott rolled his eyes. “I’m sure you’ll enjoy telling her the story—ad infinitum.”
Johnny glanced at him in confusion. “Well, yeah, I’m sure as shootin’ gonna tell her about how you lost them fancy pants, but I ain’t plannin’ on tellin’ her nuthin’ bout any ‘fin items.’ That got somethin’ to do with a fish?”
Scott smiled and shook his head in exasperation. “Come on, little brother. Let’s go into the kitchen and check on your supper.”
Johnny leaned back in his chair at the kitchen table, downing his second glass of milk and listening appreciatively to Scott’s stories of Tommy’s antics. He felt relaxation seep through his bones for the first time since he’d found the boy.
Scott and Murdoch had discussed Adams’ behavior with him, just as he’d known they would, making suggestions and planning their next moves. The three men decided that Murdoch would ride over to speak with Pete, staying several days if necessary to get the man sober and capable of making a decision about his son. Johnny felt a flicker of hope at Murdoch’s belief that Adams would want the boy once his head was clearer.
Murdoch sighed in relief as he noticed some of the tension drain out of his son. Johnny had been like a too tightly wound watch since bringing Tommy to the ranch. The little boy had stirred the ashes of long-buried memories for all of them, but especially for Johnny, and Murdoch was concerned.
He recalled his son’s white face and strained voice when Johnny told Scott, “nuthin’ ever hurt as bad as thinkin’ my father didn’t want me.” He remembered the pain he’d experienced after holding Tommy on his lap, the agony and anger he’d seen in Scott’s eyes. If Tommy had prompted such strong emotions in himself and Scott, perhaps he had raised similar feelings in Johnny.
“Scott.” Murdoch caught his older son’s eye. “Why don’t you go check on Tommy, make sure he’s still asleep.”
Scott took the hint, heading for the stairs as Johnny stared at his father nervously.
“You know, son, having Tommy around makes me aware of just how much I missed by not raising you and Scott. And how much you boys missed as well.”
Johnny clasped his hands together on the table, hanging his head.
Murdoch leaned toward him, grasping his son’s forearm, feeling the muscles tense like corded bands of steel. “I’m glad you’re here at Lancer now. I want you here, son.”
Johnny nodded, head still bowed. “There ain’t no place I’d rather be than here.”
Murdoch squeezed the taut forearm and then put his arm around Johnny’s shoulders. “You’re home now, son. And you might be too big for me to bounce on my knee, but you’re not too big for this.”
He was rewarded with one of his son’s heart-stopping smiles. “Thanks, Murdoch.”
Tommy leaned back against the warm rock, cradling the .22 rifle to his chest reverently. He gazed worshipfully at the man beside him, tilting his own hat to match the angle of the hat on his hero’s head. He was happy and content, having spent the afternoon with Johnny learning how to use his new rifle.
On their way back to the hacienda, Johnny suggested they stop at his “special place” to watch the sunset. Tommy felt very grown up and excited. Johnny had given him the rifle—a boy’s rifle, but it made Tommy feel like a man—and his first lessons in gun safety and marksmanship, then revealed his secret place and Tommy felt he was on top of the world.
He glanced sideways at Johnny and plucked a blade of grass. He didn’t really like the taste of grass, but Johnny seemed to—he was always chewing on a piece, anyway—and Tommy wanted to be just like him. “The ranch sure looks purty from up here, Johnny.”
“I think so. I like to come up here, watch the sun go down. It’s so still and peaceful, let’s me think, you know?” Johnny was stretched comfortably on the ground, shoulders leaning against the big rock.
He surreptitiously observed the way the boy handled the small rifle; pleased to see that Tommy remembered the safety measures they’d discussed that afternoon.
Tommy nodded vigorously. “I like to watch the stars. You can sure see ‘em good from here. Do you like the stars, Johnny?” Tommy scooted over until his shoulder touched Johnny’s.
“Yep. My brother, he knows all about the stars—their names, what he calls constellations…”
“What’s a consa … consallation, Johnny?”
“It’s a group of stars that form a picture in the sky. A long time ago, these fellas called Greeks figured out the pictures and made up stories about ‘em. See, that one’s called the Big Dipper.” Johnny traced the outlines with his finger. “And that’s Leo, the Lion. And there’s the Dragon, Draco.”
Tommy traced the images with his finger, “Golly! Show me that dragon again, Johnny.”
The boy was whispering; his voice full of awe as his eyes followed the outlines of the constellations. He laid his forefinger and hand on top of Johnny’s, tracing the lines of Draco along with him. “Did Scott show you these star pictures, Johnny?”
“Yep. And I’ll bet if you ask him, Scott will tell you them stories the Greek fellas made up.”
“Scott’s real smart, ain’t he?”
“Oh boy, Tommy, Scott’s real smart, but he’s also what you call ‘educated.’ That means he’s got lots of schoolin’. Scott knows an awful lot about lotsa different things.”
“You sure are lucky to have a brother like Scott.” Tommy’s voice was wistful.
“I sure am.” Johnny agreed wholeheartedly, thinking just how inadequate those words were to express the splendid fortune that had dealt him Scott Lancer as a brother.
Lady Luck was in one heck of a good mood that day!
Tommy was silent for several moments, the two stargazers enjoying the coolness of the early evening and the spectacular view. Tommy broke the silence, turning his head to look at Johnny. “Johnny, how’d your Ma die?”
Johnny was so shocked by the question that he answered it immediately, “She, she f…f…fell and hit her head.”
He barely had time to reflect that he’d never shared that piece of information with another living soul when Tommy responded tearfully.
“That’s what happened to my Ma, too. The wheel on the buckboard broke and the horse spooked and run off. I got throwed off, but the wagon turned over on top of Ma. I tried to make her wake up, but she wouldn’t…she wouldn’t…” he began to sob and Johnny gathered him close, clasping him tightly.
He didn’t try to speak, knowing there were no words that could soothe this grief. Instead, he simply held Tommy, letting the boy cleanse himself with bitter tears.
Tommy’s sobs gradually tapered off and he sat up, cheeks flushed with emotion. “Johnny, does the hurtin’ ever stop?”
Johnny pushed himself more upright so that he could be face to face with the boy. “I wish I could tell you that you’d wake up one day and everythin’ would be okay, Tommy.” He paused, placing a gentle hand on the boy’s shoulder. “But it won’t. She’s gone, and knowin’ that, thinkin’ about it, is always gonna hurt.”
“Reverend Aimes said that I’d get over it in time. He said ‘time heals all wounds.’” Tommy’s voice was a forlorn mixture of doubt and hope.
“Well, Tommy, I ain’t disagreein’ with the Reverend.” Johnny cupped the boy’s face in his hands, trying to speak from his heart and at the same time overcome the anguish of talking about his own mother. “I can only tell you what it’s like for me. And when I think about my Mama, it still hurts. But what time did was change the way it hurts.
“You know what it’s like when you fall down and skin your knee?” He patted Tommy’s knee. “It hurts a lot at first, then a little less the next day, and even less the day after that. But even when it’s healed, it leaves a mark.”
Tommy's eyes were wide as he nodded. He had skinned his knee many times and knew exactly what Johnny meant.
“Well, losin’ Mama left this big scraped place inside me and when I think about her, that place is raw, like when you first skin your knee. But just like with a skinned knee, you gotta walk on it, keep on goin’.” He swallowed hard, fighting the lump rising in his throat.
“When I first lost Mama, the pain was different—whenever I thought about her, it was like I had rocks in my stomach, like somebody was stabbin’ me in the heart with a big knife. Sometimes it hurt so much it took my breath away and I couldn’t stop cryin’. It was really hard to keep goin’ then, but I did.” He cupped the back of the boy’s head. “And you gotta, too. That skinned place is always gonna be there, Tommy, but its gonna get easier to walk on it.”
Tommy’s fingers subconsciously rubbed his knee as he considered Johnny’s words. “I just wish I could talk to Ma.” He paused for a moment, then scrambled to lean back against Johnny’s shoulder, hugging his rifle. “Where do people go when they die, Johnny?”
Johnny wished fervently for his brother. Scott would know how to answer. “Well…I…ah…where do you think they go?”
“My Pa says Ma is an angel now, that she lives up in heaven. Where is heaven, Johnny?”
Johnny hesitated a moment and then pointed up at the evening sky. “Scott calls the night sky ‘the heavens.’ And I always thought that folks goin’ to heaven must turn into stars.”
“Is your Ma a star, Johnny?”
“I like to think so, Tommy. See that one? Right up there?” He pointed at a brilliant point of light low on the horizon. “That’s her. That’s my Mama Maria. She’s the Evening Star.”
He turned his head to look at the boy. “And lots of times I sit out under the stars and I talk to her.”
“How come you think she’s that star, Johnny?”
Johnny swung his gaze upward to the glittering canopy. He was silent for so long Tommy thought he might not answer. When he finally spoke, his voice was very soft and the boy knew that Johnny was feeling the pain in that scraped place inside him.
“’Cause that’s the first star to shine every evenin’. All the other stars follow that one. And when they’re all shinin’, none of ‘em burn any brighter than that star.”
He took a deep breath. “My Mama was like that, Tommy. Everybody followed her and she always shone the brightest. When my Mama was in the room, you didn’t want to look at or listen to nobody else. She could light up a room with just her smile.” His breath caught in his throat and he was thankful that it was dark enough to keep the boy from seeing the suspicious wetness in his eyes.
Tommy was silent a moment, then he pressed his little hand into Johnny’s. “Your Ma sounds real nice, Johnny. Bet her and my Ma woulda got along real good.” He looked at the star again and turned back to his friend. “You got any other special stars, Johnny?”
This kid just never ran out of questions! Johnny cleared his throat. “Yeah. See that one? That one’s a special friend, a man who was like a father to me when I wasn’t much older than you.”
“But didn’t you already have a Pa?” Tommy was clearly puzzled.
“I didn’t grow up at Lancer, Tommy. When Ma was killed, I thought I was an orphan. I didn’t know about Mur…my Pa.”
Tommy considered this carefully. “Oh. So, this friend, he was like a Pa?”
“What was his name?”
“So how come you think that star is Pablo, Johnny?”
“That’s the North Star, Tommy. The North Star is very special ‘cause if you know where the North Star is, you can always find your way, even in unfamiliar territory. Pablo, he taught me a lot of things, things that helped me find my way when I was so lost I thought I’d never get back. Pablo, well… he’s my North Star, Tommy, and so there ain’t no other star in the sky that he could be.”
“Gosh.” The boy relaxed, pillowing his head on Johnny’s shoulder and clasping his rifle tightly. He studied the twinkling tableau for some time and finally pointed out a sparkling star that appeared to be haloed in gold. “That’s my Ma, Johnny.”
“It’s all golden and warm lookin’ and purty like my Ma, so it must be her.”
“Well, Tommy, now you know where she is and you can talk to her whenever you need to.” Johnny smoothed Tommy’s bangs away from the boy’s eyes.
“Do I gotta say it out loud or can I just think it?”
“Oh, stars don’t need you to speak out, just think about what you want to say. She’ll know.”
Tommy lay quietly for a while, his sniffles breaking the silence at intervals. Johnny’s shoulder was wet, but he didn’t speak, merely kept his arm around his young friend.
Finally, Tommy spoke in a quavering voice. “She heard me.”
Johnny nodded gravely. “I know she did, Tommy.”
The boy suddenly turned his head and hugged Johnny tightly. “Thanks, Johnny.”
Johnny ruffled the sandy hair. “Talkin’ to the stars, that helps, you know? But it’s good to talk to a friend, too.” He smiled at the boy.
“Yeah.” Tommy nodded and then stared hard at Johnny. “You know, you’re like what you said about your Ma, Johnny.”
“What do you mean?”
“Like you said about her lightin’ up a room with her smile. You do that.”
“Aww, Tommy…” Johnny felt his cheeks grow hot with embarrassment.
“No, I mean it. You did it just now.”
Johnny jumped up and held out a hand to the boy, determined to ignore this observation. “Well, we oughta be gettin’ back to the house. Scott will be worried about us.”
He backhanded Tommy affectionately in the stomach after hoisting the boy to his feet and pointed at the rifle. “He’s liable to think I shot you for askin’ so dern many questions.”
Tommy giggled as he fitted his new rifle into its scabbard. He let Johnny toss him up onto the sturdy black and white pony and reined his mount alongside Johnny’s palomino. “You think your Pa’ll be back tonight, Johnny?”
“Naw, Tommy. We won’t see him for a day or so.” The boy knew Murdoch was away, but they hadn’t told him where. “Now let’s git on home before Scott eats up all that chocolate cake Maria was gonna bake this afternoon.”
The two friends loped towards the glowing, brightly-lit hacienda, both pairs of eyes fixed on their special stars shimmering in the night sky.
The pale shaft of moonlight peeking through the half-open draperies illuminated the tossing, murmuring boy on the bed. His head turned restlessly on the pillow, hands clenching on the covers, knuckles white. The nightmarish memories replayed in his mind, as they had countless times before, and his body responded to the agonizing images; cold sweat drenching his face and chest, soaking his thick hair, heart racing, and breath rasping in panting gasps. He wanted, needed, to wake up, but he couldn’t. He could only relive the horrible event again and again; hoping for a different ending that never came.
“No! Mama, wake up…please wake up.” The memories finally wrenched the hoarse cry from him, but it brought the dreamer no peace. His body continued to writhe across the bed, the damp black hair plastered to his forehead as he relived the events conjured up by his discussion with Tommy earlier that evening.
“How’d your Ma die, Johnny?”
“She fell and hit her head.”
Hit her head… Hit her head…
But it was so much more than that. She’d been protecting him from Jeeter. Jeeter, the man with money enough to keep them in a small house, keep Maria from having to work in the cantina. The man who wanted Maria, but resented her son. The harsh man Johnny knew he had to hide from because whenever Jeeter got a hand on him, there would be a painful session with his fists or belt. But usually, Johnny could stay out of his way. Until that night.
He heard Jeeter ordering Maria to go away with him, leave her “half-breed bastard” behind. He listened as his mother refused to abandon him, flinching at the sound of a hard fist on flesh. After Jeeter stormed out, he saw the bruises on his mother’s tear-streaked face, her split lip and puffy eye. She held him tightly and he knew what he had to do. He was afraid of the big, violent man, but he would have to be brave and force him to leave them alone. He would have to be the man his mother depended on.
Jeeter wore two guns. He’d been cleaning one of his pistols and left it lying on the table. His big Sharps buffalo rifle leaned in the corner. When the man returned, Johnny met him at the door with the rifle. He was small for his age and the rifle was taller than he was. And so heavy he could barely hold it straight.
Jeeter took one look and laughed. “That rifle’s bigger’n you, kid.” His face turned dark and angry. “Ain’t I tole yuh ta never touch them guns? Yuh allus do things the hard way, doncha, boy? Reckon I need ta whup some sense into yuh.”
Jeeter moved so quickly that Johnny couldn’t follow him with the rifle barrel. Suddenly the man was towering over him, grasping the weapon, raising it…Johnny refused to release his grip on the stock, hanging on tightly as Jeeter shook the big Sharps, lifting Johnny’s feet off of the ground and finally wielding the rifle like a club, slamming him into the wall.
He slumped dazedly on the floor, trying to scramble backwards as the huge man stalked towards him, slowly drawing the wide belt through its loops. His mother cried out, stepping between them as the man raised the belt. She faced Jeeter angrily, refusing to let him strike Johnny, buying her son time to get away.
He saw it, then and forever, as a series of single frames, frozen hideously in his mind. Jeeter’s huge fist struck Maria square on the side of the face, smashing her head back and throwing her sideways off her feet. She screamed as she fell, glorious hair streaming around her, arms windmilling as she sought to keep her balance.
He would never forget the sickening crunch as her head impacted with the iron fireplace grate. Her body bounced when it hit the floor and then lay limp and still. He stared at her face, her lovely, animated face with its exquisite, fiery eyes—a face now slack, the dark eyes blank and lifeless.
“Mama! Mama, wake up. Please wake up.” He knelt beside her, begging her to be all right, knowing that she never would be again.
Jeeter stared down at Maria in shock, then rounded on Johnny. “It’s your fault, yuh little brat. I never meant ta hurt her. Look what yuh made me do! Yuh made me kill her.” He started toward Johnny with fists clenched, murder on his face.
Johnny ducked under the man’s first punch, darting to the table and lifting the heavy revolver, whirling to face Jeeter. The man came at him with a roar. “Don’t point that thing at me unless yuh intend to use it, boy!”
“Back off!” Johnny cocked the gun, holding it with both trembling hands, heart slamming against his ribs, mouth dry. There was something red and hot in Jeeter’s eyes and Johnny instinctively knew that look meant one of them would not leave the room alive. The man kept coming, reaching for him with the same hand that had punched his mother and he saw her blood on the big knuckles.
He pulled the trigger. The thundering crack of gunfire made his ears ring as the big pistol bucked in his hands, pushing him backwards. When the smoke cleared, Jeeter was sprawled on his back, a gory red hole gaping in the middle of his chest.
Johnny crept to Jeeter’s side in horror, staring down at the man he’d hated, the man who had killed his mother, the man he’d shot down. Jeeter sneered up at him, voice weak and raspy. “Reckon I’ll see yuh in hell, boy. Yuh done killed a white man. They’ll hang yuh fer sure.”
“You killed my mother.”
“Yeah, but she weren’t nothin’ but a Mexican whore. I got friends. They’ll see yuh hang. Yuh mark my words, boy, you’re a killer and yuh’ll h…” Jeeter’s head rolled to the side as he died, those hateful words on his lips.
The gun fell from Johnny’s shaking hands and he bit his lip to choke back a sob. He didn’t want to hang—he had to get away from this place, had to run. There was only time to kneel briefly beside his mother’s lifeless body, closing her once dancing eyes.
Then he fled like a thief in the night into the teeth of a wind that moaned like a tortured soul.And he could almost hear his mother calling out to him, begging him not to leave her there alone…
Scott tossed and turned, unable to get to sleep as his agile mind sought a solution to Tommy’s problems. The boy had certainly made his presence felt at Lancer, having a noticeable impact on all of them. But he had made a profound impression on Johnny.
Scott realized that interacting with Tommy, as well as watching Murdoch with the child, catapulted many of Johnny’s traumatic childhood memories to the forefront. He worried about the effect on his younger brother. Johnny was working so hard to overcome his past and build a new life, yet whenever he tried to help Tommy, he resurrected painful relics of long forgotten or suppressed events. Scott ached as he watched his brother grapple with the detritus inadvertently washed ashore by the child.
Folding his pillow in half and punching it several times didn’t bring the relaxation he required for sleep. Scott sighed in frustration, knowing he needed the rest in order to meet the hard day ahead of him. He finally decided to go downstairs for a glass of brandy. Maybe a nightcap would relax him enough to get to sleep.
Full glass in hand, he was returning to his room, padding softly down the dark hallway. A sharp cry of distress from Johnny’s bedroom startled him and Scott wrenched open the door, almost falling inside in his haste to reach his brother. He quickly lit a lamp and stood transfixed at the bedside.
Johnny thrashed wildly, his body soaked in sweat, the bed covers tangled. His face was chalk white, the expression one of pure horror. The white knuckled fists clenched and unclenched on the sheets as he murmured and whimpered. He was obviously trapped in the throes of some terrible nightmare and Scott knew he needed to awaken him immediately.
“No! Mama! Mama, please…. Please wake up…. Why won’t you wake up?” The sudden cry startled Scott and the anguish in the desperate voice broke his heart. His breath caught in his throat as he realized that Johnny was dreaming about his mother’s death.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, he grasped his brother’s shoulders and shook him gently. “Johnny! Johnny! Wake up, little brother. It’s a dream, just a bad dream. Come on, boy, wake up.”
But Johnny fought him, struggling violently and striking at Scott, succeeding in twisting from his grasp. “Let me go! YOU killed her… Why? No…No… You back off! I’ll kill you if you come any closer… Nooo…”
Scott frantically wrestled with his brother, fighting to control the frenzied movements. He could feel Johnny’s heart racing and the cold and clammy skin, slick with perspiration, worried him.
He pulled his brother into his arms, using every ounce of strength to curb Johnny’s wild flailing, speaking softly and calmly into his ear. “Hush, Johnny. It’s all right. It’s Scott…. I’ve got you…You’re safe, Johnny. You can trust me. Come on, little brother.” He continued to murmur soothingly while doggedly restraining Johnny until he felt the agitated struggles begin to lessen.
After what seemed an eternity, he finally found himself staring into his brother’s dazed blue eyes.
“Scott? What…?” Johnny gasped for breath, disoriented and confused.
“Easy, Johnny. You’re all right.” Scott felt Johnny slump against him, as though he had no strength to sit up on his own. He supported the dead weight, pulling the discarded quilt up around his brother’s trembling shoulders. “You had a bad dream, Johnny. You just needed to wake up.” Johnny’s skin was ice cold to the touch and Scott began chaffing his upper arms in an attempt to warm him.
Johnny lay against him limply, breathing as hard as if he had just run for miles. His damp forehead rested heavily on Scott’s shoulder. “Scott… He…he killed her…. He killed her and I k…killed him…”
“You had a nightmare, Johnny. It was just a bad dream.”
“NO, Scott! I killed him. I shot him…then I ran away.” Tremors racked his body and his breathing was harsh and ragged.
Scott suddenly realized exactly what Johnny was admitting and it chilled him to the bone. His brother had killed the man who murdered his mother and was punishing himself because of it. Well, rats tended to travel in packs and this was obviously another rat—albeit a two-legged one—skulking in Johnny’s past, ever ready to attack, slashing and gnawing with razor sharp teeth.
“Okay. It’s okay. You did what you had to do. Come on…” he helped Johnny sit up against the headboard, tucking the quilt snuggly around him.
Johnny leaned his head back, eyes shut tightly. He was shaking so hard his teeth chattered.
Scott held the glass of brandy to his lips. “Take a sip of this, Johnny. Easy…”
Scott skillfully coaxed the entire contents of the glass down Johnny’s throat. He stripped the towel from the wash stand with his other hand, using it to wipe Johnny’s dripping forehead and face. The blue eyes were still clenched tightly shut, but at least his breathing seemed easier and his teeth no longer chattered. Scott pulled a brightly colored Indian blanket from a nearby chair, adding its heavy bulk to the quilt covering his brother.
“Scott…I didn’t even say… goodbye…. I just ran. I…I don’t…even know where she’s b…buried…” Johnny’s voice faltered and his breathing quickened again, becoming shallow. His eyes remained closed as his head swiveled restlessly from side to side as though he sought escape from some harrowing vision.
Scott closed his eyes briefly. He was relieved that Tommy had been persuaded to move to a guestroom—after Murdoch explained that it was a grown-up thing to do. At least he wouldn’t be forced to contend with Tommy’s reaction to Johnny’s anguish. He had no idea of what to say to his brother, how to react, and for a moment he wished desperately for Murdoch. But Murdoch was with Tommy’s father and that meant Scott had to sustain Johnny through this crisis on his own.
Here I go again, riding the trails of Johnny’s past on that skittish colt…
He took a deep breath, determined that no matter how difficult or disturbing, he would do whatever was required in order to support his brother. Johnny needed him now. He concentrated on the task at hand—convincing the boy to talk about what had occurred. “It’s all right, Johnny. Tell me what happened. Why did you run?”
“I…I killed…” Johnny’s eyes flew open and he gazed at Scott in horror, as though he had just realized what he was saying.
He gasped and desperately fought his way free of the blankets wrapped around him, half-leaping and half-falling out of bed. Trembling fingers fumbled with the buttons on his pants as he dressed quickly, refusing to meet Scott’s eyes or even look at him.
Scott sighed, standing slowly and preparing to do battle.
Time to kill another rat. I’m beginning to feel like the Pied Piper.
But he’d been wrong about the first task. Before he could talk to Johnny he had to keep him from running. The signs were clear—the skittish colt was preparing to bolt off of the trail. He walked over to the door, cutting off that escape route.
Johnny was there immediately. “Get out of my way, Scott.” His unbuttoned shirt was plastered to his back and he carried his boots and gunbelt in his left hand.
“No.” Scott refused to budge. He would not allow Johnny to flee; they would confront this rat together.
“Scott… MOVE.” Johnny’s voice and eyes pleaded with his brother, desperation and despair etched in every tense muscle. His overwrought body betrayed him and he nearly sank to his knees.
Scott gripped Johnny’s arm to halt his attempt at escape, but the support helped his brother stay on his feet. “No, Johnny. Not until we discuss why you’re so upset.”
Johnny jerked away from him. “I ain’t upset, Scott. Now, move.”
Scott stepped away from the door to stand toe-to-toe with his brother, looking directly into his eyes and forcing the smaller man to take a step backwards. Johnny couldn’t meet that look and hung his head.
Scott placed his hands on Johnny’s shoulders. “Not upset? Look at yourself, little brother. You’re making yourself sick. And you’re going to tell me why.”
“Scott… I don’t think I…”
“Johnny, you’ve kept this thing locked inside you for too long. You have to tell someone. So tell me.” He turned Johnny back toward the bed, keeping his hands firmly on his brother’s shoulders.
Johnny let himself be steered gently to his bed where he sat and stared morosely at the floor. He wrapped his arms around himself tightly, shuddering at the memories.
Scott sat beside him silently and waited, watching Johnny relive the incident in his mind. He wished he had more brandy when he saw his brother begin shaking again, violent tremors rippling throughout his entire body.
Johnny was suddenly sick, retching painfully for several long minutes as Scott supported him while he leaned over the washbasin. When Johnny was finally still, Scott helped him lie down on the bed, covering him with both the quilt and the Indian blanket.
Johnny’s face was chalky again and fear for his brother sharpened Scott’s wits. He remembered that Johnny always carried a pint of “medicinal” whiskey in his saddlebags and rummaged through them until he retrieved the bottle, losing no time in getting several sips down the trembling boy’s throat.
He was tempted to fortify himself by downing the rest of the bottle. Instead, he sat down, leaning back against the headboard, lifting his legs onto the bed, and putting his arm around his brother.
Johnny resisted, but when Scott’s grip tightened, pulling him closer, he allowed himself to be held as though continuing to struggle was too much of an effort.
Scott spoke softly, but the cavalry officer’s hint of command was evident. “You said you killed someone and then ran. What happened?” He felt Johnny brace himself, as though expecting a blow and there were several minutes of silence.
“Johnny? I asked you a question.” Johnny moved slightly and Scott looked down to find the dark head buried in his shoulder.
“His name was Jeeter and he killed my mother. Then I killed him.” Johnny’s voice was muffled through Scott’s shirt.
“Go on.” The ring of command was clear.
Johnny lifted his head in sudden anger. “Why do you want to hear this? You want proof I’m a killer? Well, that’s what I am, Scott, a killer. And Jeeter was just the first man I ever killed. The first in a long line.”
Scott looked him straight in the eyes. “Yes, Johnny, you’re a killer. And if killing someone makes a man a killer, then I’m a killer. And so is Murdoch. And so is Val.”
Johnny looked away, shaking his head violently. “No Scott, it ain’t the same. You and Murdoch and Val, you ain’t killers like me. You don’t know…” he broke off abruptly and bent double as his stomach cramped painfully.
“Are you going to be sick again?”
“I…maybe…” Johnny fought valiantly, finally winning the battle with his stomach. “No, I don’t think so.”
“Good. Now, I don’t understand how you killing someone should be evaluated with a different set of criteria. Please explain to me what makes your killing different from mine or Murdoch’s or Val’s.” He paused a moment, then continued before Johnny could reply. “I know… I know… we didn’t hire our guns out for money. I’ll grant you that.”
He pulled Johnny’s body back to rest against his shoulder again and the tone of his voice changed from commanding officer to concerned brother. “Johnny, I know there are things you’ve done that you don’t want to talk about—and that’s okay. But not if you won’t talk about them because you’re afraid of what I might think. I only hope that someday you’ll trust me enough to talk to me.”
Johnny’s face was hidden in Scott’s shoulder again and he gave a strangled sound, somewhere between a moan and a whimper. “I can’t, Scott.”
Scott’s frustration refused to remain silent any longer. He tightened his grip on Johnny’s shoulder painfully, shaking him. “Damn it, Johnny, I wish you’d have some faith in me. I won’t judge you—I haven’t done it yet and I’m not going to start now.”
He felt Johnny stiffen, sensing the hurt behind the harsh, angry words. Then his brother sat up, wrapping his arms around himself again, keeping his back to Scott. Johnny spoke in the barest whisper, low and fast as though he had to tell the story quickly before he ran out of breath—or nerve.
“Jeeter lived with us. He wanted my mother, but he didn’t want me. He whomped on me every chance he got. Mama tried to protect me from him…” He paused as though gathering strength to continue his story.
“That…that night, she was tryin’ to protect me…give me time to get away. He…he took his belt off…he was gonna use it and Mama… she s…stepped between us. He…he…” Johnny had to stop for a moment, biting his lower lip.
He began to rock himself slowly, struggling to get the words out. “Oh God, Scott… He hit her! Punched her so hard that…that she didn’t get up…I begged her to wake up…but she…”
His voice faltered again and Scott longed to put his arms around the desolate figure, try to comfort him. But Johnny still had more he needed to tell. The skittish colt needed a firm, supporting hand on the reins, not a soothing pat, so he steeled himself to remain silent and absolutely still. Only his clenched fists, knuckles as white as Johnny’s, betrayed his own turmoil.
Johnny took a deep, fortifying breath. “Mama hit her head when she fell… I reckon she broke her neck. He said it was my fault. Then he…he came after me…” He paused again and began rocking faster and faster.
“He was gonna kill me. I…his gun was layin’ on the table and I…I…” His voice rose sharply in both volume and pitch, bewildered and angry, a lost soul seeking elusive answers. “Why did he keep comin’ at me? I just wanted him to go away. But he kept comin’, so…I…I…I shot him… I killed…” His voice broke on a strangled sob.
Scott could no longer remain still. He hugged his brother close, knowing that for this brief moment, he was holding not the tough young man who had made himself a legend, but a frightened child. A child who had witnessed his mother’s brutal murder and then been forced to defend himself violently against the same fate. A child who had judged and condemned himself for a necessary act of self-defense. A child who had just lost the only person in the world who cared about him. A child who was shivering so badly that Scott was afraid of dropping him. He held on to that child for dear life, rocking his brother, alarmed by the fact that Johnny actually let him do it.
“I can still hear him…what he said as he lay there dyin’ he said he’d see me in Hell… that I’d h…hang. He said I was a killer…” Johnny was panting again, breathing like a lathered horse that had been run off its legs.
“Well, he was right about…about seein’ me in Hell…. That…that’s where I’m headed…my mother died because of me…the only father I ever knew died because of me…and I…I been k…killin’ ever since!”
Johnny’s body heaved again and Scott barely got the basin to him in time. He supported his brother quietly as the adrenaline and raw emotion wreaked its physical toll on the young man, wondering how Johnny had managed to keep such intense feelings buried for so long. Just watching his brother in such distress was acutely painful.
When Johnny finally collapsed against him, spent and trembling, he pulled the quilt around him and offered more whiskey. Then he sat for long minutes, silently holding his brother in his arms, making sure Johnny knew he wasn’t alone.
Scott listened to the uneven breathing and occasional hiccuping sob as Johnny battled for control. He could feel the struggle being waged inside the tense figure, marveling as Johnny visibly mastered his rebelling body and regained command. Slowly Johnny’s breathing returned to normal and a hint of color chased the chalkiness from his face. The tremors receded, but he made no move to pull away from Scott’s sheltering arms.
When Scott felt that the child was gone, that Johnny was back with him, he spoke softly. “Johnny, you defended yourself. You did what you had to do. I would have done the same thing. Murdoch…”
He didn’t get the chance to finish the sentence. Johnny jerked upright, grasping Scott’s upper arms urgently. “Don’t you tell Murdoch. Don’t tell him Scott. I don’t…he can’t know what… what I did.” Johnny was distraught, almost panicked, eyes wide and pleading.
“I won’t tell him. I won’t. I promise.” Scott waited until Johnny calmed a bit, then gently removed his arms from his brother’s death grip, leaning him back against the headboard. He forced Johnny to maintain eye contact.
“Johnny, you don’t have to be afraid of what Murdoch will think. I know he would understand that you were protecting yourself. If he were here right now, he’d tell you that himself. He would be thankful that you had the wits and the guts to survive—just as I am.”
“Don’t you see, Scott? I know he’s happy I survived. He just wishes I’d done it different. He… he don’t approve of the choices I made, of the things I done. He don’t like havin’ a killer for a son.” Johnny caught sight of the whiskey bottle on the nightstand and snatched it up, taking a large swig.
Scott watched closely, assessing the situation, reading the signs. The nervous colt was back on the trail, still poised to bolt at the slightest provocation, but at least moving forward instead of sideways. Johnny’s fears about Murdoch’s disapproval would have to wait for another day—one rat at time. The issue at hand was the boy’s traumatic experience with Jeeter. Johnny was composed enough to listen now so it was time to make his point.
He held out his hand for the bottle, taking his own deep swallow of whiskey when Johnny handed to him. “Scoot over.”
When his brother obligingly moved, Scott leaned back against the headboard again. “Johnny, do you remember that picture of me in uniform?”
“The one you keep in your room? With that General Sheridan?”
Scott nodded. “That’s the one.”
Johnny managed a slight smile, little more than a twitch at the corners of his mouth, but it was a start. “You think a heap of him, don’t you, Scott?”
“Yes, Johnny. I admire Phil Sheridan as a leader and as a man. I’m lucky I had the opportunity to serve with him.” He paused, thinking through exactly what he wanted to say.
“Johnny, that war was hell on earth. There aren’t words to describe it, the screams of the dying and wounded, the smell of decay, burning, and death. And the bodies…so many bodies… I had to lead men into battle knowing that many of them wouldn’t be alive when it was over.” Scott paused for a quick sip of the whiskey, grateful for the warmth it trailed down his throat.
“At Trevilian Station, I was ordered to lead a group of fifteen men in a flanking maneuver. Our situation was desperate and we had little chance of success, but no other options.” He could feel Johnny’s eyes fixed on him keenly.
“I watched twelve of those men fall, brother. Four of us got through the lines, but at such a terrible cost.” He took a gulp of the whiskey and turned his head to his brother. Johnny’s whole being was focused on him and Scott had the odd sensation of being cradled and comforted by the compassion—and love—in those sapphire eyes.
“After that battle, I couldn’t live with myself. I didn’t want to be responsible for the death of any more young men. Johnny, when I watched one of my men go down, I felt as though I had killed him myself. Intellectually, I knew that wasn’t true, but emotionally, it felt just the same. It nearly tore me apart.”
He paused again when he felt Johnny’s hand lightly touch his forearm, the same way he would trail his hand over Barranca’s hindquarters to let the horse know he was there. The hand rested there softly, Johnny’s way of maintaining contact, letting Scott know he was listening.
“One evening in camp, General Sheridan talked with me about it, explained how he had faced the same doubts and uncertainties and how he coped with them. I’ve never forgotten what he said.” Scott turned his head and locked eyes with his brother.
“He told me that all a man can do is his best. You make the best choices you can and soldier on. He said the hardest lesson a man has to learn is that his best will sometimes disappoint the people he cares about and that there are times when his best just isn’t good enough. And it’s never easy to accept that, but the true measure of a man is how he reacts to that lesson.”
Johnny was quiet for several long minutes, deep in thought, and Scott could almost see him thinking through those words, turning them over and examining each one as he would a tracking sign on a trail. He studied the display of expressions racing across the animated face—a breadth of emotions ranging from puzzlement and uncertainty to doubt to comprehension and understanding. Finally, Johnny looked up and smiled at Scott.
“You’re sayin’ a man has to play the cards he’s been dealt the best way he knows how and then be satisfied with the results. Even if he don’t win the pot.”
Scott returned the smile, hope growing inside of him. Maybe, just maybe he was getting through to his little brother. “I like that. You play the cards you’re dealt. Yes, that’s what it means, Johnny.”
Johnny put his arm across his brother’s shoulders. “That Sheridan is a savvy fella, Scott. I’m glad you had him to talk to. You don’t talk much about the war, but I reckon you saw some awful dark times.”
“Yes, Johnny, I did. There were many occasions during that war when my best wasn’t good enough… Those were the darkest hours. It took a long time for me to accept that.” He glanced sideways at his brother, preparing to drive his point home. “Are you disappointed in me?”
Johnny gaped at him incredulously. “Disappointed? In you? Hell, no, Scott. You always give it your best shot. You ain’t got it in ya to disappoint me…,” his voice trailed off as he perceived exactly where Scott was leading him.
“Thanks, brother. I think the same about you, you know.” Scott practiced his poker face as he watched Johnny finally figure out that his older brother absolutely refused to apply a more rigorous set of standards to Johnny’s behavior than to anyone else’s.
The young man sat upright, clenching his hands in his lap and looking from them to Scott’s face and back again. Finally, Johnny gave him a short nod and wry smile, his way of acknowledging that he understood Scott’s point.
Scott wasn’t quite finished. He leaned toward his brother. “Johnny, you made the best choices you could given the circumstances. Do you agree?”
Johnny stared down at his hands and nodded.
Scott touched Johnny’s forearm, mirroring the gesture his brother had made to him earlier. “Then you have to stop second-guessing yourself and accept what happened. I know it isn’t easy for you, Johnny, but if you keep tormenting yourself this way, torturing yourself over choices you made years ago, you’re going to make yourself sick.” He let those words sink in and then reached out suddenly to tousle the dark hair. “And frankly, little brother, I don’t want to be stuck doing your work while you lay around in bed all day.”
The blue eyes that swiftly rose to meet his sparkled with mischief. “You know, Boston, you’re just plain lazy.”
“I’m lazy? Because I don’t want to do your share of the work?”
“Yep.” Johnny flashed a big grin at his brother, then suddenly hung his head again. “I don’t know why you put up with me, Scott.”
Scott gripped Johnny’s forearm, hard. “Because I happen to like the man who is Johnny Lancer. I like that man even if his best sometimes isn’t good enough. I like that man even if he made choices he’s ashamed of. I’m not ashamed of him—or the choices he made. I’m proud to call that man ‘brother.’ If General Sheridan knew you, Johnny, he’d say you’re the kind of man he’d want to ride into battle with. That was his highest compliment.” Scott shook the tense forearm. “Look at me.”
He waited until Johnny met his eyes. “Johnny, I’d be proud to ride into battle with you.”
Johnny looked back down at his hands and took a deep, shuddering breath, pondering Scott’s words for a moment. Scott watched anxiously, imagining he could actually see the pain and tension flowing out of his brother.
“Thanks, Scott,” Johnny whispered. He glanced sideways at Scott and suddenly leaped off the bed and began rummaging through the drawers in the chest, moving on to rifle through the wardrobe, and finally making quite a show of looking under the bed.
Scott stared at him in utter confusion for several moments before realizing that they were now playing a Johnny-game. The rat was gone and his little brother, the scamp, was back. He knew the rules and dutifully responded to his cue. “What are you doing?”
“Lookin’ for a bugle.”
Johnny cocked his head and grinned at Scott. “And you a cavalry man, Boston… Just how are we supposed to go ridin’ off into battle without a bugle?”
Scott relaxed back against the headboard and laughed with heartfelt, bone-melting relief. “If you don’t mind, I’d rather not ride off to battle on an empty stomach, bugle or not. Look outside. It’ll be dawn soon. What do you say we head for the kitchen and get a jump on breakfast? Maybe we can even enjoy a relaxed cup of coffee before our energetic, inquisitive little houseguest wakes up.”
Johnny nodded his head. “I get so proud of you sometimes, Scott. Now that’s a good idea. We’ll grab a cup of coffee and go sit in the garden, watch the sun come up, and listen to the birds sing. Come on.” He retrieved his boots and gunbelt and headed out the door, walking with those familiar, cocky strides.
Scott stood slowly, limp with relief and exhaustion. What he really wanted to do was crawl into bed and sleep for days. But that wasn’t in the cards he’d been dealt so he’d just have to soldier on.
Together he and Johnny had survived the mental gunfight with the rat, Jeeter. He smiled at the sudden vivid image of his brother, expertly spinning his revolver around his finger before holstering the weapon. He could visualize himself making that same gesture with a wooden flute. The rat slayer awarded himself a psychological pat on the back.
Nice work, Mr. Pied Piper. Now holster that magic flute and put it away for another day… another rat…
Grinning, he followed Johnny toward the first rays of light that heralded a bright new day.