The Boy

Part Ten

by  Karen and Nancy



Mid-afternoon, 3 days later…


“One more, son.” Murdoch held a spoon of medicine to his son’s lips.


Johnny jerked his head away, wrinkling his nose and rolling his eyes.


“Open your mouth and swallow this.” Murdoch jiggled the spoon enticingly and frowned when Johnny kept his head averted. “Right now, young man.”


“C’mon, how much of that stuff do I have to drink? It’s awful.” Weary of the foul-tasting potions, Johnny sought an ally, turning to the watching doctor and beseeching him, “I don’t really need all this no more, do I, Sam?”


“I’m afraid that you do, Johnny—for at least another week.” Dr. Jenkins had to work to contain his mirth at the look of horror on Johnny’s face. “I’m sorry you don’t like the taste. Would you like another nasal tube?”


“Aw, Doc, how many more times are ya gonna threaten me with that tube? Don’t you know blackmail ain’t legal?” Johnny kept his head turned away from the spoon.


Sam folded his arms across his chest and fixed Johnny with a severe frown. “Blackmail? No, I’m simply pointing out your options, Johnny. That medicine is going inside of you one way or another. You decide.”


Johnny glanced from Sam’s stern face to Murdoch’s. When his father raised his eyebrows, Johnny sighed and opened his mouth, accepting his fate and swallowing the medication.


Murdoch patted his shoulder and handed him a glass of water. “Go ahead and take your nap, son. I’ll walk down with Sam.” He waited until Johnny drank his fill of the water, taking the glass from him and removing the pillows.


Johnny squirmed down into a reclining position and grinned up at his father. “You gonna come back later?”


“Count on it.”


“Good, ‘cause I’m gettin’ used to you tuckin’ me in. Reckon I might have a hard time gettin’ to sleep if ya didn’t.” Johnny winked at his father and rolled onto his side, waving at the doctor. “Adios, Sam. See you in a couple of days.”


Sam dropped his hand to Johnny’s shoulder. “Chin up, John. You really are doing well. Feeling tired is perfectly normal and the reason I insist that you take this afternoon nap every day. No more worries now, okay?”


“Yes, sir.”  Johnny’s eyes closed.


“Goodbye.” Sam started toward the door, halting when he realized that Murdoch wasn’t following him. He turned back and smiled at the sight of his friend bending over the bed to place Johnny’s arm beneath the quilt and smooth it across the boy’s side. The doctor’s breath caught in his throat at the radiance of the smile Johnny shared with his father at that moment.


Murdoch’s hand brushed the top of his son’s head before he joined Sam in the doorway. “You’re in luck, Sam. Maria baked one of her spice cakes just for your visit today.”



“So his medication stays the same? What about food? He’s asking for meat.” Teresa served Dr. Jenkins a cup of coffee and slice of cake from the tray she’d carried from the kitchen and seated herself on the arm of her guardian’s chair.


“The medication stays the same with one exception—increase the dosage on the iron tonic to 2 teaspoons. Is he resisting the chloral hydrate at night?”


Murdoch gave a short bark of laughter. “Of course he resists. That’s why I’m the one who gives Johnny his evening medication. He isn’t happy about it, but he swallows it.”


“Good. A sound, restful sleep during the night is critical to his recovery and the sedative ensures that he gets it. I’m going to continue it for the next few days.”


Sam looked at Teresa. “As for food, let’s begin introducing meat in small amounts. Start with chicken—add a few bites to his broth with tortilla strips or rice. If he tolerates that for a couple of days, let him have beef in a beef barley soup. Add each new food in small portions and monitor his reaction to it carefully. I want to avoid any digestive upsets. You know the drill, Teresa.”


“Unfortunately, I do.” Teresa nodded, brushing her hair back over her shoulder. “What about more milk—oh, and potatoes. He’s been asking for more milk and he loves potatoes.”


“I think additional milk is fine. Just increase it in small amounts. Hold off on the potatoes, but add an egg with his breakfast. I’m sure he’s tired of plain oatmeal in the morning.” Sam smiled at Teresa’s vigorous nod.


“Let him have a small glass of lemonade in the afternoon. And let’s not forget Johnny’s sweet tooth. He’s not ready for this delicious cake,” Sam pointed with his fork at the moist confection on his plate, “but continue with the applesauce and give him small amounts of egg custard or a baked apple as dessert in the evening.”


“I’ll see to it.” She glanced at Murdoch, recognizing by the slight frown on his face that he wanted to speak to the doctor privately. “If you’ll excuse me, I’ll let Maria know about Johnny’s new menu and pass along your compliments on the cake. We’ll treat Johnny with some chicken and tortilla strips in his broth for his supper.”


She rose gracefully, motioning the men to stay seated. “No, don’t stand up. I’ll see you in a couple of days, Sam. Thanks for stopping by.”


“My pleasure, Teresa.” Sam watched as the girl bustled from the room. “What a young lady she’s become. I still think of her in that blue dress with her hair in ribbons at her sixth birthday party. She pulled me aside and wanted to know if her freckles would ever go away.” He shook his head, smiling at the memory.


“Yes and you told her that each one was a magic beauty spot and that the more freckles she had, the more beautiful she’d be when she grew up.” Murdoch shifted his gaze from the empty doorway to Sam’s face. “From that day on, she counted them every day and never again complained about her freckles.”


“I must’ve been right about them being beauty spots—just look at her now. Paul would be so proud of her.”


“He would indeed.” Murdoch rubbed his hands together. “I know I’m proud of her. She’s grown into a lovely young lady, yet she has such a strong spirit and a kind heart. That girl can handle anything with grace and courage. I can’t imagine Lancer without her.”


Sam kept quiet and observed his friend, recognizing from the expressions playing across the weathered face that a burst of memories was cascading unchecked through the man’s mind. Murdoch remained lost in Teresa’s past for several minutes before shaking his head and facing the doctor again.


“Sorry, Sam. Your comments brought back a few memories for me.” He refilled Sam’s coffee and poured more for himself, his gaze lingering on the dark liquid before raising the cup to his lips.


“I know that look, old friend. What’s on your mind?” Sam sipped his coffee.


Murdoch appeared uncomfortable. “Sam, you told Johnny that he is doing well. Is that the truth?”


Sam slammed his coffee cup onto the side table, eyes flashing. “Do you really think that I would lie to a patient, Murdoch?”


Murdoch flinched in response to Sam’s ire, unable to meet the doctor’s accusing gaze. His eyes dropped to the cup in his hands and he stuttered, “No, no, Sam. I didn’t mean that you would LIE. I just meant that…well…that you might exaggerate how much better he’s doing…you know, to keep his spirits up…keep him from getting discouraged about how long his recovery is taking…and uh…well…uh”


“I see.” Sam’s anger cooled immediately at the regret on Murdoch’s face. “Yes, Johnny is discouraged because he isn’t recovering as quickly as he thinks he should.” He used his napkin to mop up the spilled coffee and glanced sideways at Murdoch. “And Johnny isn’t the only one worried about his rate of recovery…”


Murdoch sighed and nodded. “Sam, he tires so easily—has so little strength.” His fist pounded the arm of the chair. “Johnny recovered from that bullet wound quickly. I couldn’t believe how soon he was up and around. So it just seems as though he ought to be stronger by now.” He ran his hand through his hair. “He sleeps quite a bit. He’s worried about that and…well, I am, too.”


“I wonder why I even bother stopping by the Lancer ranch to practice medicine. After all, you have no shortage of doctors here,” Sam chuckled. “We have Doctor Lancer Senior,” he pointed at Murdoch, “Doctor Lancer Junior,” he gestured upwards toward Johnny’s room, “and let’s not forget Dr. Jellifer B. Hoskins.”


Murdoch snorted at this sally and looked a bit shamefaced. “Aren’t you forgetting Scott and Teresa?”


“Scott and Teresa do not attempt to play doctor. They leave that to the expert with the diploma—me.” Sam paused to let his point sink in.


“How many times do I have to tell you that Johnny’s convalescence from this illness and surgery is completely different than his recovery from a bullet wound?” The doctor leaned toward the concerned father. “You’re absolutely correct—that boy is weak—and it’s no wonder. Fighting off the effects of a ruptured appendix and the trauma of surgery took every ounce of reserve in his body. He can’t possibly recover from the consequences of this illness in a couple of weeks.”


Sam held his cup out to Murdoch, waiting until the man refilled it before continuing. “Right now, sleep is the best thing for Johnny. That’s his body’s way of healing itself. If he sleeps twenty hours a day, that’s fine. There’s nothing in that to worry you. Just be sure he stays awake long enough to eat and drink.”


His gaze narrowed as he studied Murdoch’s bowed head. “But I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.” His voice altered subtly, adding a tinge of reproof. “Of course, Teresa did mention that you’ve been allowing Johnny to sit in the armchair by the window and watch Scott ride that grulla colt every day.” Sam quirked his eyebrows and folded his arms.


Murdoch reddened under that reproaching gaze. “I know you haven’t said he could get out of bed yet, Sam, but…well, that colt is so important to Johnny. I didn’t think it would hurt him to sit up for a half hour or so and watch his brother ride. I stay with him to keep him quiet and make sure he doesn’t try to stand up.” The tone of his voice pleaded for Sam’s blessing.


“He shouldn’t be out of bed yet, precisely because he isn’t strong enough to cope with that kind of excitement. The effort leaves him exhausted.” Sam paused as Murdoch bowed his head and squeezed his hands together until the knuckles showed white.


The doctor’s voice changed again, now oozing understanding. “Of course, I believe that the patient’s mental outlook is an important piece of his recovery. Scott and Teresa explained the significance of that colt and I know Johnny needs to feel that he is part of what is happening. The benefits to his peace of mind balance out the drain to his energy.” He paused for a quick bite of cake.


“I think you chose a wise compromise, Murdoch. If we forced him to remain in bed, that boy would worry himself sick—and spend his time looking for ways around us. You’ve given him a sensible alternative that lets him participate in the colt’s training with a minimal impact to his physical well-being.”


Murdoch’s face brightened and he met Sam’s eyes. “Well, that’s a relief. I was afraid I’d really set back Johnny’s recovery.” He ran his hand through his hair. “Just those few minutes in the chair knock him out. And after I let him watch the first time, there was no way to stop it.”


“Let him keep watching—just realize that we’re asking his body for a bit more than it’s ready to give. That means Johnny will be tired, but it’s okay. You heard me increase the dosage on the iron tonic and that’s the reason. His frustration and impatience with his weakness will be the hardest to deal with. You’ve got to keep a positive outlook in order to keep him from becoming even more discouraged.”


Sam took a sip of coffee. “Johnny is doing fine, Murdoch, and so are you.” The cup came up in a toast. “The two of you seem to be communicating better.”


He phrased the comment delicately, but was secretly delighted at the closeness he’d observed between father and son. The image of Murdoch lingering over Johnny; covering his arm, smoothing the quilt, and caressing his son’s hair, popped into his mind. He couldn’t help but notice the difference in the man’s voice and the softer expression on his face when addressing the boy. Murdoch was finally relating to the young man as a father relates to his son—instead of how a rancher interacts with a hired hand. And Johnny appeared to revel in the sensation, content to relinquish some of his stubborn independence in exchange for being treated as a beloved son and brother. An easy acceptance now characterized the two men and Sam was proud of both of them. They’d come a long way.


“We’ve learned how to talk—and listen—to each other.” Murdoch stared down at his hands. “I owe you my thanks, Sam. You helped me see how I was throwing away my second chance with Johnny. Now I’ve been granted a third chance and I won’t squander this one.”


“I’ll put it on your bill, Murdoch.” Both men chuckled and Sam decided to probe a bit deeper. “Have the two of you talked about what might be causing his nightmares?”


“Yes. Oh, we still have many things to discuss. After all, you can’t cover eighteen years of a boy’s life in a couple of weeks.” Murdoch sighed in contentment. “But we’re able to listen and really hear each other now. I trust him not to hurt me and he realizes that I won’t reject him.”


Murdoch met Sam’s eyes. “I built Johnny’s past into such a barrier in my mind. The truth is that I was afraid of my own son; afraid of what he might have done, of what he had become, of how he might hurt me. Me, afraid.” He stared at his hands, shaking his head in shame. “I used the mystery of Johnny’s past life to cover my own fear—couldn’t even admit it to myself.


“That’s all over now. I can accept anything he’s done. I might not agree with it, but I can accept it because I finally understand the kind of man my son really is.” A spasm of grief contorted Murdoch’s face and he looked up at the doctor. “My God, Sam, you can’t imagine what that boy’s survived.”


He shook his head. “I’m so lucky he stayed alive to come home to me. I’m lucky that I have friends who care enough to force me to admit my mistakes in dealing with my son. I’m lucky that Johnny’s recovering from that ruptured appendix. I’ve used up far more than my share of luck. I’ll make damn certain that in the future I don’t have to rely on luck where Johnny is concerned.”


“I’m happy for you, Murdoch. I knew you had the grit to find a way to make things right between you.” He drained his coffee cup, keeping an eye on Murdoch’s face.


“Your acceptance of Johnny’s past—what he did, what was done to him, what he didn’t do—will go a long way toward resolving his nightmares. I told you before that Johnny knew he was home. Now, you both know it.”


“Yes, Johnny’s home where he belongs and I’ll keep a close eye on those nightmares.”


“By the way, congratulations on your new business venture. I’ve never seen Johnny so excited. He talked about it the entire time I was with him.” The doctor turned his head toward the clock as it chimed the hour.


Murdoch grinned. “He is excited about it, isn’t he? That boy is going to make a real success with the horse business.” He leaned forward, the expression on his face and animation in his voice reminding the doctor of Johnny. Murdoch used his big hands to emphasize his points. “He’s really thought it through, Sam, planned every detail. And just wait until you see him work a horse! It’s truly astounding—magic, Scott calls it.”


Sam glanced at the clock again and stood, stretching his neck and back. “I’m looking forward to watching one of Johnny’s training sessions. I hear they’re something to see, especially for someone who appreciates fine horses. But not until he’s much stronger, mind.” He waited for Murdoch’s agreement. “Now I’d better get on my way. I’ve got two more stops to make before I head home.”


“Thanks for everything, Sam.” Murdoch threw his arm around Sam’s shoulder and walked him to the door.


“I’ll stop back in a couple of days.” The doctor faced Murdoch and held out his hand. “Your boy is going to be fine, Murdoch.”


Murdoch pumped his friend’s hand, a proud smile hovering on his lips. “He’ll always be my boy, Sam, but my boy is one hell of a man.”





Later that afternoon…


Johnny studied his brother’s face, recognizing concern there, but unable to determine its cause. “Smoky looks great, Scott. You’re ridin’ him real good.”


“I don’t feel that I’m consistently getting through to him. He isn’t fighting me, but there’s something…I don’t know how to explain it. Maybe it’s because I’m still learning to use the hackamore reins correctly.” Scott fiddled with the rein of the jaquíma he held in his hands.


“When you showed me what you’re doin’ just now, ya used ‘em fine. I thought this mornin’s ride went better after we practiced usin’ the reins yesterday.” He paused, deep in thought.


“Here’s another way to think about it. You want Smoky to figure out that if he carries his head and nose in the right place, there’s no pressure on the bosal, and if he drops his head and moves forward, your leg relaxes. Right?” Johnny began illustrating the motions with his hands.


Scott nodded his agreement.


“Pablo called it boxin’. Think of ridin’ Smoky nice and easy so he stays right in the middle of a box made by your hands, reins, the bosal, and legs. Let him figure out that if he keeps from bumpin’ up against that box, life will be easier.” He scratched his cheek, trying to read Scott’s expression. “Does that make any sense?”


Scott thought about what he’d heard, visualizing himself riding Smoky in just such a way, asking the colt to respond within a well-defined set of parameters. He smiled at Johnny. “Actually, it does. I like the analogy to a box—that really helps me understand how to coordinate my hands and legs with Smoky’s responses.”


He ran his fingers over the flexible rawhide bosal. “I don’t use my weight as effectively as you do, though. Any tips for me on that?”


“Well, I know what Pablo did to make me understand how a rider shiftin’ his weight effects the horse.” He cocked his head and eyed his brother, a sly smile crawling up one side of his mouth. “Ain’t sure you’ll wanna do it, though.”


“Try me.” Scott had nothing but respect for Pablo’s methods and examples, but he didn’t trust that crafty look on Johnny’s face. The scamp was obviously scheming to enjoy a laugh at his older brother’s expense.


“Hot dang!” Johnny grinned and pushed himself up straighter. “Get down on the floor.”


“The floor?” Scott’s voice rang with incredulity.


“Down on your hands and knees.” Johnny pointed imperiously.


Scott gestured at the floor. “Down there?”




“This had better not be one of your tricks, little brother,” Scott warned.


“Course it ain’t a trick.” Johnny shot him an injured look. “Is that what you think of me.”


Scott knew better than to be fooled by that expression. “Yes it is—because I’ve been the brunt of too many of your little jokes.”


Johnny’s face radiated guilelessness, eyes wide and lips quivering.


Scott laid the jaquíma aside and dropped to his knees, eyes full of suspicion. “Now what?”


“Get all the way down. You gotta be on all fours.”


“All fours,” he spoke under his breath. “I swear, Johnny, if you’re trying to pull a prank…”


“Prank? Me?” Johnny was all injured innocence. “C’mon, Scott.” His face brightened and he started to climb out of bed. “Here, I’ll show you.”


Scott was on his feet and restrained his brother in a flash. “Hold it right there. You are not getting out of this bed.” He waited until he was sure Johnny would obey and then gingerly positioned himself on his hands and knees. “Okay, you got just what you wanted. Now what?”


Johnny kept his gloating to himself. “Well, you gotta understand what the horse feels when you’re ridin’ him—how his neck, back, and hindquarters all work together. You change somethin’ about one of those and you change how the horse moves and what he’s feelin’. Only way you’re gonna get an idea of what it’s like is by pretendin’ to be a horse.” He waved his arm. “So go ahead, pretend you’re Smoky.”


Scott glared at him. “Pretend how?”


“Well, walk around a little.” Johnny made a shooing motion with his arm.


“You’re not serious.”


“You wanna do this or not?”


Scott sighed and crawled several steps.


I’m an idiot!


“Now arch your back,” Johnny ordered.


“Arch my…” Scott sucked in his stomach and arched his back.


“Did you feel what happened to your head, neck, and shoulder muscles when you did that? Do it again so you really feel it.”


Scott forgot his irritation as he analyzed the results. He could feel the relationship among the different muscle groups! “Okay, I see what you mean.”


“Yeah? Well how about in your butt? Feel what archin’ your back does to those muscles?”




“Now, take your knee and try to push it toward your arms. See how far forward you can make it go.” He watched critically. “No, no. While you got your back arched. Yeah. That’s right.”


Scott grunted as he complied, immediately feeling how much easier it was to move his rear leg forward.


“Okay. Now push the middle of your back toward the floor, like you’re a sway back. Yeah, good. Can you feel what that does to them muscles?”


“Whew. Yes, it’s a big difference.”


“Well, keep pushin’ your back down and try to move your knee forward again.”


Scott was totally engrossed in his body mechanics. “I see. I can’t get my leg nearly as far forward as before.”


“Yep.” Johnny bit his lip at his brother’s intense absorption. He spoke in that hypnotic, melodious voice he used with horses. “Good fella. Gooooood. Now whinny and toss your head.”


Preoccupied with his analysis and riveted by that mesmerizing voice, Scott very nearly carried out Johnny’s instructions. He caught himself just in time, fixing his brother with a wrathful glare. “Oh no you don’t!”


Johnny flashed his disgruntled brother his most audacious grin, nearly bouncing with enthusiasm. “See, when you got Smoky goin’ with his head in the right place and his back nice and round, he’s feelin’ like you did when you arched your back. And his hind legs are free to move way up underneath him.”


Johnny’s flying fingers traced the shape of an arch. “So think about how carryin’ a rider on your back would feel. What would happen to them muscles when his weight shifted?” He snapped his fingers. “Next time Tommy’s here, we’ll let him sit on you while you do this. Then you’ll really get the idea.”


Scott crawled in a circle beside Johnny’s bed, alternately arching his back and dipping it toward the floor. He focused every thought on imagining the impact a rider would have on his muscular sensations. An astonished voice snapped his concentration.


“What in tarnation ya doin’? Ya gone plumb loco?” Jelly stood just inside the doorway, rocking back and forth from toes to heels and snickering at Scott.


Scott scrambled to his feet, flushing bright red. “I wish you’d stop sneaking up on people, Jelly.”


Jelly hooked his thumbs into his suspenders and winked at Johnny. “Sneakin’? Why, I ain’t got no call to sneak up on ya when yer drunker’n a peach-orchard sow.”


“I am not intoxicated,” Scott sputtered.


“Coulda fooled me, crawlin’ round on the floor thataway. Ya gotta be soused—else the heat’s done addled yer think box.”


“Jelly…,” Scott growled.


“If’n ya ain’t been paintin’ yer tonsils with yer daddy’s good likker, what in thunder are ya doin’?” Jelly plopped into the armchair and dropped the sack he’d been holding. He shrugged, holding his arms out, palms up. “Well?”


Johnny took pity on his brother. “Scott here is pretendin’ to be a horse, Jelly.”


Jelly whooped with laughter. “Well I can see that, can’t I? What I wanna know is how come he’s pirootin’ ‘round like a locoed bed bug. Actin’ like a horse just ain’t natural.”


Scott sank into the other chair and glared at his brother. “Please, don’t help me anymore, Johnny.”


Johnny ignored him, continuing his conversation with Jelly. “I’m teachin’ him to be an amansadore.”


“A horse trainer?”


“Yep. He’s pretendin’ to be a horse so he can feel what he needs to do when he’s ridin’.” He pointed at Jelly’s sack. “Did you bring it?”


Jelly handed the sack to him. “Cipriano says this is what ya wanted.”


Scott and Jelly watched curiously as Johnny emptied the sack and rapidly sorted through its contents. Scott thought of the animated discussions Johnny and Cipriano had enjoyed all week. The rugged segundo had made a point of stopping by Johnny’s room after lunch every day and Scott knew Cipriano and Johnny discussed Pablo in addition to the new horse business. Johnny kept inviting his brother to join them and Scott planned to sit in on a conversation soon, but he wanted to be sure that Johnny and Cipriano had enough time together without distractions.


Scott examined the items scattered across the bed. “Rolled rawhide strips?”


Johnny’s smile glinted. “That’s right, brother. Us amansadores gotta have reindadore gear if we’re gonna train our colts proper. Long as I’m stuck in bed, I’m gonna get started braidin’ what we need—bosals, romals, reins, mecates, reatas.” Johnny chose several strips of rawhide and began plaiting them.


Scott watched his brother’s fingers flexing, stretching and contracting as they controlled the leather with practiced ease. Periodically, Johnny selected a lighter color strip and wove it into the braid to create a contrasting design. His fingers flew effortlessly, never hesitating while maintaining a uniform size and tension throughout the piece. He made the complex, intricate task look easy.


Johnny has such clever fingers.


Jelly fingered several packets of long hairs, tied into separate bundles based on their color. “What’s this, Johnny?”


“It’s mane hair. Gotta have it to braid the mecates. Cipriano got me some good colors, huh?”


“Sure did.” Jelly held a packet of silvery-white hairs to the lamp, appreciating the shine of the pale color.


Scott rolled a group of small wooden pegs back and forth beneath his index finger. “What are these, Johnny?”


“They’re called doll babies, Scott. I need ‘em to make horsehair ropes and mecates.”


“Ah.” Scott picked up several strands of rawhide burnished to a rich chocolate color. “These are lovely.” He rolled them between his fingers. “They seem softer, too. Have they been tanned using a different process?”


A frown marred Johnny’s excitement for a moment and he shot a dirty look at Jelly. “Yeah. Me and Cipriano cured and worked ‘em special to get that color and softness. It ain’t easy gettin’ that shade.” He tried to warn Jelly with his eyes. “Wonder how come he sent these with the other rawhide?”


Jelly missed the urgent signal. “Cip said ya had big plans fer them dark ones, Johnny. He said—”


Johnny interrupted him. “Hey, Scott, you gonna sit with Cipriano and me tomorrow?”


Jelly tried again. “Johnny, Cip said—”


 “What about it, brother?” Johnny cut Jelly off firmly.


“But, Johnny—” Jelly refused to give up.


Johnny rounded on him fiercely. “Dern, Jelly. You make more noise than a breedin’ jackass in a tin barn. Don’t you ever shut up?”


“But, Johnny—”


Johnny glowered at him and suddenly wilted back against his pillows.


Scott leaned toward him. “Are you okay, Johnny?”


“Yeah. Just felt a little dizzy there for a minute.” He closed his eyes. “I’m okay now.”


Scott and Jelly studied him closely, concern written on their faces. Johnny opened his eyes and looked at his brother.


“Is it suppertime yet? I’m feelin’ a mite peaked. Reckon some chow would fix me right up.”


“I’ll get your supper, Johnny.” Scott hastened out the door and down the stairs.


Jelly reached over and felt Johnny’s forehead. “This come on kinda sudden, didn’t it? Don’t feel like ya got a fever.”


“Ain’t nuthin’ wrong, so quit your fussin’.” Johnny smacked Jelly’s hand away. “I had to get Scott outta the room ‘fore you spilled the beans, that’s all. Just can’t keep a secret, can ya, Mr. Blabbermouth?”


“Aw, Johnny. I didn’t tell him nuthin’.” Jelly frowned as a thought occurred to him. “Couldn’t tell him nohow ‘cause all Cip told me was that ya wanted them special rawhide strips. He never said why.”


“That’s how come he didn’t tell you nuthin’.” Johnny shook his finger at Jelly. “You can’t blab what ya don’t know.”


Jelly’s chin came up. “Well, Mr. Smart Aleck, I may not know nuthin’ ‘bout what yer doin’ with that fancy rawhide, but I know yer gettin’ somethin’ special for supper.”


Johnny sat up straight and stared at Jelly with an expression of painful eagerness. “Somethin’ special? For me? Really?”


“I ain’t sayin’ no more.” Jelly shook his head and folded his arms. “Reckon you’ll just have ta wait ‘til Scott or yer Dad brings it up here.”


 “C’mon, Jelly. You know ya wanna tell me.” Johnny wore his most imploring look. “What did Sam say I could have for supper?” he cajoled.


Jelly couldn’t resist that coaxing gaze. “Yer gettin’ chicken and tortilla strips in yer broth and Maria made ya her special flan for dessert.”


The blue eyes sparkled. “Oh boy, I’m ready for real food again.”


“Well, yer gonna get some.” It was Jelly’s turn to entreat. “Now I told ya my secret, how ‘bout tellin’ me what ya want with them fancy rawhide strips?”


“I dunno, Jelly. If I tell ya, you’ll just let it slip to Scott.”


“Pleeaase,” Jelly wheedled. The salt and pepper whiskers quivered with his desire to learn Johnny’s secret. “You can tell me, Johnny. I ain’t gonna say nuthin’ to nobody.”


“You swear you won’t go blabbin’ it?”


Jelly held up his right hand as though taking an oath. “May lightnin’ strike me dead and roast my stinkin’ carcass if’n I let a word of it pass my lips.” He looked nervously out the window, relieved to see no storm clouds in the sky.


Johnny rolled his eyes. “Somethin’ tells me I’m gonna regret this…”


“Now, Johnny, ya know ya can trust me.”


Johnny shook his head, but motioned for Jelly to come closer. The silver head bent close to the dark head and Johnny whispered, “I’m fixin’ up a little surprise for my brother…”



*amansadore is the Californios’ word for a horse trainer

**reindadore gear is the rawhide horse equipment braided by the vaqueros (including reins, bosals, and reatas) and used by the amansadores in their training





Morning, 4 days later…


Scott leaned against a post on the new corral, testing its sturdiness with his weight. “This is good and solid, Cipriano. The men are doing a fine job.” He gestured at the just completed round corral and the framework for the barn. “This will be finished by the time the doctor says Johnny can start to work again.”


Cipriano’s teeth flashed white in his swarthy face. “. The men work hard and fast. They know what los caballos mean to Juanito. It will be finished when he is ready.”


“Great progress, Cipriano.” Murdoch strolled over to them, leading his and Scott’s horses. “Have you and Johnny decided which vaqueros will be working with the horses?”


, patron. Jose and Pepe will work with Johnny and Señor Scott.” His smile spread to cover his entire face. “And my Luis. Johnny thinks the niño has the hands and skill to become an amansadore.” The segundo’s pride in his grandson shone on his face.


“Yes, Johnny says Luis will be a big help to us.” Scott slapped Cipriano’s shoulder. “And he feels that teaching Luis is keeping Pablo’s wisdom in the family.” He took Charlemagne’s leading rein from Murdoch and checked the tightness of his cinch. “Who is the gentleman you brought in yesterday? He’s been upstairs with Johnny, braiding rawhide.”


“He is Ramon Ortega. He and his family are well-known reatores.” Cipriano noticed the question cross Scott’s face. “The Ortegas are master rawhide braiders. Ramon is old, but still the cleverness in his fingers is there. He is helping Johnny prepare the reindadore gear we will need for training the colts.”


“Ortega…Ortega…the San Jose Ortegas?” Murdoch climbed aboard his big sorrel.


. Pablo and I knew Ramon when we were boys. We learned how to braid rawhide and horsehair along with Ramon from his father and abuelo.”


“I thought I recognized the name.” Murdoch resettled his hat on his head. “Was this gear-braiding your idea, Cipriano?”




Gracias, amigo. It’s keeping Johnny occupied while he’s in bed. I’m afraid we’d have had to hogtie him to the bed posts if you hadn’t interested him in this braiding project.”


Scott swung up on Charlemagne. “That’s the truth, Cipriano. Johnny is so busy braiding reindadore gear that he’s forgotten he’s stuck in bed.”


“Pablo used to say that the trick to success with a spirited colt is to make the right thing an easy choice for him.” Cipriano stroked Charlemagne’s sleek neck. His face remained inscrutable, but the segundo knew that all of Johnny’s attention was focused on only one item. Ramon was crafting their basic reindadore equipment while Johnny worked on his surprise for Scott.


“Well, you certainly figured out how to do that for Johnny. Thank you.” Murdoch nodded to Cipriano and turned to Scott. “Let’s ride.”



The creaking of saddle leather dueled with the water chuckling its way through the boulders in the streambed. Scott sucked in a deep breath of the wildflower-scented air, enjoying the kiss of the sun on his shoulders and the gentle tickling of the breeze teasing through his hair.


Johnny always says there’s no sweeter smelling air than Lancer’s. He’s right.


He was so satisfied with his life at the ranch that he found it hard to believe he hadn’t been at Lancer for years. This time last year, he’d been Harlan Garrett’s heir, living the pampered life of a favorite son in Boston’s high society. His experiences in the war and prison camp had left him questioning his plans for his future—plans he’d always taken for granted. He found himself bored and restless, drifting as he sought something meaningful out of life, not knowing what that something might be.


The summons—he’d always think of it as a summons rather than an invitation—from Murdoch Lancer appealed to the part of him that cried out for excitement and challenge. Another part of him demanded answers and closure on the issue of the man who was his father in name and by biology, but not by deeds. So he’d traveled to California in a spirit of adventure, uncertain of what he might find, but totally unprepared to discover the riches awaiting him.


The greatest surprise was his brother—the man who was now his best friend. Scott couldn’t explain the bond they shared and had long given up trying. He simply gave thanks that he and Johnny had each other; unable to fathom that they’d been ignorant of one another’s existence for most of their lives. Johnny brought an exhilarating completeness to Scott’s life, leaving him feeling as though he could be satisfied anywhere as long as he and his brother were together.


Then there was the land and its people, an endless source of fascination and bounty. The sheer physicality of the work appealed to him, fulfilling him as office work in Boston never had. The undulating countryside beckoned incessantly with its cornucopia of riches that he never tired of exploring.


The golden California land offered him a brother and a home, but it also produced the father he’d never known. He and Murdoch still felt regrets and engaged in recriminations, but they shared an easy camaraderie now and Scott knew in his heart how much his father cared about him. The past didn’t die easily, but a sincere effort on both their parts had lulled it into a non-threatening hibernation. Back in Boston, if anyone had told him that he would actually like Murdoch Lancer, Scott would have laughed in their face.


And I would have been wrong, because I do like him as a man. And I love him as my father.


Scott turned his head to his father, reluctant to move his gaze from the verdant beauty of his…their land. “The hands are really pulling out all the stops to get the new corrals and barns finished for Johnny.”


“They’ll do it, too. By the time Sam says Johnny can ride again, they’ll have that barn and associated corrals and paddocks completed. It’ll be ready for the two of you to start working with the horses.” A slight smile curled the corners of Murdoch’s mouth as Scott shifted his weight in the saddle and sat deeper, altering his grip on the reins. His son had begun riding his chestnut in a jaquíma instead of a bridle, holding and using the reins in the same way he did when riding Smoky. Murdoch watched as Scott practiced the techniques Johnny had taught him.


Scott felt Murdoch’s eyes on him and glanced at his father. “How do you feel about that? Both of us spending more time working with the horses than with the cattle I mean.”


“Well, I’ve spent years wishing I could see my sons working side-by-side, working with me.” Murdoch resettled his hat on his head. “It’s true that I’m more comfortable with the cattle business, but between the two of you, you’ve convinced me that diversification is the sensible decision. You’re both excellent horsemen and I expect you’ll make Lancer’s horse business a raging success. I’m glad you’ll be working so closely together.”


Scott studied his father’s face, satisfied with what he saw there. “Thank you, sir.”


Murdoch rubbed his chin. “You know, three weeks ago my answer might have been…would have been different.” He looked down at his hand on the reins. “Life has a way of letting you know when you’ve got your priorities wrong. I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter what business we’re in. What really matters is that we have the chance to work together on our own land, build something as Johnny says.” He met his son’s eyes. “I know this is something Johnny wants to do, but what about you, Scott? You enjoy learning new things and facing different challenges, but how do you feel about training horses?”


“I’m looking forward to it.” Scott patted Charlemagne’s arched neck with a gloved hand. “I’ve always been a good rider, but I’ve learned more from Johnny about handling and training horses in the last few days…” A warm smile swept over his face. “Johnny thinks I have the ability to become an effective trainer and he’s willing to teach me what I need to know. I think he has the ability to make a shrewd businessman and I’m willing to show him what he needs to know. We’re both going to learn something.”


Murdoch nodded. “Did I hear you tell Johnny that Major Jackson is coming here next week to finalize our contract with the army?”


“Yes, he is. He wanted us to travel to San Pedro, but agreed to come to Lancer when I explained about Johnny’s illness. As Johnny said, they’re anxious to do business with us.”


“That’s good news. I saw Aggie in town yesterday. The word about Johnny training horses is already out and she wants to send him four colts.” Murdoch shifted his weight in the saddle. “I’m not going to tell him yet. When he’s up and around, I’ll ask Aggie to tell him herself.”


Scott raised his eyebrows. “News travels fast and Aggie’s interest is encouraging. It will mean a lot to Johnny to hear it from her.” Scott flexed his fingers on the reins and grinned when Charlemagne dropped his nose and rounded his body. “I agree that he shouldn’t know until Sam says he can ride again. He’s getting stronger, don’t you think?”


“Yes…yes he is.” Murdoch stared at his saddle horn, a slight frown on his face.


Scott watched his father, not understanding the frown. “Does that bother you, sir?”


“No, of course not. I want him to get well.” One long finger rubbed across his chin.


“But?” Scott prompted.


“No ‘buts’. He’s really improved over the last few days. I’m glad to see him growing stronger.”


Murdoch’s tone didn’t convince Scott. He puzzled over the possible reasons for his father’s wistful thoughts about Johnny’s recovery. The answer leaped out at him.


Murdoch is enjoying playing Papa!


“He’s growing noticeably stronger and isn’t so tired all the time.” Scott paused and glanced sideways at Murdoch. “I suppose that means he won’t let us coddle him much longer.”


“Hmmm.” Murdoch’s eyes never left his saddle horn.


Scott drew a deep breath, seeking the right words. “Johnny is so self-sufficient. Most of the time, he seems older than his years.” He paused, chuckling as he remembered the verbal sparring he’d engaged in with Johnny until they reached an understanding.


“It took me some time to learn how to talk to him. My first instinct was to act like a big brother. I thought he needed one and it was an opportunity for me to experience something I’d only dreamed about.” Scott shook his head in amusement. “Johnny didn’t want any part of that and he made it quite clear. We reached an understanding when I stopped treating him like a kid—or someone who needed my advice.”


“Johnny hasn’t thought of himself as a kid since he was eleven.”


Scott nodded. “Yes, and he’s been repeatedly forced to prove that he isn’t too young to be trusted. He expects to be treated like a man—not a baby brother. And he won’t take advice from someone he doesn’t trust and respect.” He let his smile stretch into a grin. “But there is a part of me that enjoys cosseting Johnny, playing the protective big brother. I can’t forget that he grew up without anyone to spoil him. I think he needs to experience a little protectiveness every so often.” He met Murdoch’s eyes. “So, sometimes I just go ahead and coddle him.”


“How does he react?” Murdoch’s expression signaled his genuine interest.


“Most of the time he resists it—vigorously.”


Murdoch sighed. “Yes, I know. Even now, when he needs our help, he has a hard time accepting it.”


“That’s true, but I’ve noticed that the more he trusts us, the more accepting he becomes. It’s a big step for him—it makes him vulnerable and that makes him uncomfortable. The trick is knowing when to back off and when to persevere.” Scott punched Murdoch playfully on the arm. “I believe there’s a part of Johnny that enjoys that kind of attention—maybe even wants it. Not often, but there are times when he needs a bit of pampering—just like any other human being. It’s something he missed growing up.” Scott chuckled. “Of course, he’ll never admit it.”


“No, I suppose he won’t.”


Scott bit back his smile as he pondered the simple truth—Murdoch Lancer relished coddling his younger son. He knew that feeling. “I’ve been thinking that we should be more aware of how we talk to Johnny.” His fingers tightened on the reins and Charlemagne pranced forward until Scott relaxed his hands. “There are times when we both speak to him as the youngest member of the family, as a boy. If we avoid that kind of condescension, he just might allow us to get by with cosseting him a bit.”


A smile crept across Murdoch’s face. “You just might be right.” He kicked his sorrel into a lope. “Come on, I want to be there when Sam stops by.”



“How is the barn coming along?” Teresa met Murdoch and Scott on the porch, eyes alight with mischief.


“It’ll be finished by the time Sam lets Johnny ride again.” Murdoch stared at the impish expression on her face.


Teresa ignored Murdoch and danced up to Scott, batting her eyelashes at him. “Oh, Scott, I was hoping you’d take me riding this afternoon.”


Scott stared at her in confusion. “Of course.” He couldn’t decipher her saucy smile or the strange request and he had the uncomfortable feeling that she was teasing him.


“I mean a real ride, Scott, the way you squired Julie. I’m going to wear the riding habit I bought in Sacramento and I want you,” she had to pause in order to control her giggles, “to wear your plaid riding pants.” Her efforts to keep a straight face ended in failure as the giggles spilled out as peals of laughter. Murdoch joined in the mirth.


My little brother, the big mouth, has been telling tales.


Scott sighed. “I won’t be wearing those pants again—as you very well know, Missy.”


Teresa grasped his arm and wiped her streaming eyes. “Oh, Scott, just the thought of Tommy toasting those plaid pants over the fire…” her words dissolved into hearty chortles as she thought of all the times Johnny and Jelly had exhorted Scott to burn the offending plaid pants.


“I suppose I’ll never hear the end of that.” Scott folded his arms and glared at Teresa and his father, both consumed with hilarity.


Murdoch tried unsuccessfully to control his chuckles, “Sorry, son, but it was funny.”


“Okay, I’ll admit it was humorous.” Scott shook his finger at his snickering family, “But I would’ve enjoyed the joke even more if he’d toasted someone else’s pants.” He turned his head as Sam Jenkins’ buggy pulled up to the hitch rail.


The doctor tipped his hat to Teresa. “Teresa, Murdoch, Scott…”


They crowded around the doctor, exchanging greetings and catching up on his news from town. Sam climbed down and hefted his bag, offering his arm to Teresa.


“How’s my patient this morning?”


“He’s a lot stronger and doesn’t seem to be so tired all the time. In fact, it’s getting harder to enforce his afternoon nap.”


Sam chuckled. “I’m surprised you haven’t had to use a rope to keep him in bed.”


“That’s thanks to Cipriano. He suggested that Johnny start braiding some of the gear he’ll be using to train the horses. The boy’s been sitting in bed braiding rawhide instead of fretting about getting up,” Murdoch explained.


“Well, you tell Cipriano that was an inspired suggestion.” He turned back to Teresa. “Has Johnny had any problems tolerating the meat or the iron tonic?”


She shook her head. “No problems, Sam. We’re taking things slow and he’s handling it just fine.”


“Excellent. It sounds as though he’s improving every day—exactly what we want to see.” Sam walked through the front door Scott held open. “Well, Murdoch, let’s go take a look at your boy.”






Early evening…


“Boy, oh boy, it’s sure gonna feel good to go downstairs again.” Johnny stood by the open window watching Smoky and Barranca cavorting in the corral. He whistled and laughed when both horses whirled toward the sound, ears pricked eagerly. Barranca tossed his head and nickered, the low breathy greeting he kept for Johnny alone.


“Good fella, Barranca,” Johnny hollered. “I’ll be down to see ya soon.”


“I guess you’ll be glad to get out of this room.” Scott chuckled.


“You ain’t kiddin’. I’m feelin’ kinda jammed in between these four walls.” He cocked his head and flashed an impish grin, knowing his brother would recognize those words.


Neither of them could forget the aftermath of Johnny and Wes’ wild horse round-up—that moment in the saloon when Scott had attempted to convince Johnny to change his mind and return to the ranch, forgiving Murdoch’s harsh words and leaving Wes to travel his own road. Each had pretended indifference, unwilling to show any hint of the turmoil raging within. They’d still been so unsure of each other, tentative in their respective roles as brothers.


That inept exchange had illustrated just how much work was required from each man if they were to grow closer. The price was hefty, but they’d paid it, slowly strengthening their tenuous bond until their friendship and brotherhood stood secure and steadfast. Now, oblique references to that awkward conversation served as shorthand for, “I’ve got something to say that’s important, but I don’t know how to say it. Read between the lines.”


Scott studied the chessboard, plotting his next move. He had a clever trap in mind and this was the perfect point in the game—and Johnny’s mental focus—to set it. He recognized Johnny’s use of the code, but just now he needed his attention on the intense game underway. He stalled for time. “I have to say that you’ve been behaving yourself—jammed in or not.”


Johnny sank down in the other chair and glanced at Scott’s face before dropping his gaze to the board. He smiled to himself—Scott’s poker face just wasn’t as unreadable as his brother thought it was. “Yeah? Well, I promised Sam I’d follow his orders.” He grinned at Scott’s ill-concealed snort of disbelief. “Aw, c’mon. I been tryin’.”


“Yes, you have.” Scott made his move nonchalantly and leaned back, folding his hands behind his head. His trap was set and baited, now he’d have to wait and see if Johnny would fall for it. “You’ve done as Sam told you and you’re much stronger—so much stronger that Teresa tells me Sam is leaving the decision of whether or not to take an afternoon nap up to you.”


“Yep,” Johnny grinned, clearly pleased at this important step on the road back to independence.


Scott decided to throw in his own code phrase. “I’ll be glad when you’re able to do your share of the work again.”


Johnny flushed, looking down at his hands. He understood Scott’s code and its unspoken message of caring. “Teresa said she’s plannin’ a fancy dinner for me Saturday evenin’—celebratin’ Sam lettin’ me go downstairs and eat at the table. She’s invitin’ Tommy and Pete, too.” 


He studied the board, realizing that his brother had laid a trap, but not yet seeing all of the possibilities. “Sam said Saturday. Seems like a long time to wait. You think Tommy and Pete might come tomorrow and stay over ‘til Saturday?”


“Oh, if I were a betting man, I’d have to say that odds are you’ll see Tommy some time tomorrow.” Scott pretended not to watch Johnny’s decision about his next move by examining the pile of completed reindadore gear.


He held up a headstall and admired the craftsmanship and the simple lines that rendered it indescribably ornate. “You and Ramon have finished quite a bit of equipment here.” Scott selected a set of hobbles, plaited from black rawhide, from the pile. “This is lovely work, Johnny.”


“Thank you.” Johnny grasped his knight and contemplated a move. “You did real good with Smoky today, Scott. You’re gettin’ more comfortable usin’ the reins on the jaquíma, huh?” He released the knight, opting to study the board some more before committing himself.


“I am. I’ve started riding Charlemagne in a jaquíma, practicing on him.” Scott stroked a horsehair mecate with his finger, pleased that Johnny had noticed and commented on the progress he’d made in using the jaquíma properly. Inwardly he lamented that Johnny had reconsidered the move with the knight.


“That’s great.” Johnny cocked his head at the board, biting back a smile as he figured out Scott’s trap. It was a clever one, all right, but he thought he saw a way to achieve checkmate. It was risky, but what was life without a few risks—especially when the end result was to beat the pants off of your brother. “I been thinkin’ that if you and me are gonna call ourselves amansadores, we gotta ride sweet-mouthed horses that’ll make folks sit up and take notice. That means we gotta make Barranca and Charlie straight-up bridle horses.”


“And that means…” Scott’s eyes followed Johnny’s fingers as they lingered on a pawn.


Johnny let his fingers drift toward a rook. “Well, we gotta get ‘em both goin’ in a spade bit. Once they’re taught to work in a spade, we can use any bit on em, but they need that foundation trainin’ first. That means ridin’ ‘em in a jaquíma until we got ‘em workin’ good—understandin’ pressure.” He stopped short of the rook and caressed his queen before glancing up at Scott. “I’ve already worked Barranca in a hackamore so he’ll be ready for double reinin’ before Charlie is.”


“Double reining? Do you mean using two reins like you would with a Pelham bit?”


“Nope. When ya first put the bit in a colt’s mouth, he’s gotta learn to carry it and the weight of the reins keeps the bit in the right position.” The nimble fingers moved to another pawn, drawing a faint smile from Scott. “While he’s learnin’ that, you don’t wanna use the reins attached to the bit ‘cause you’ll confuse him. So you keep the hackamore on him and you ride usin’ the hackamore reins. When you’re double reinin’, ya ride with a bit and a hackamore, but you only use the hackamore reins.”


Johnny’s hand hovered over the rook and Scott held his breath. “Once the colt learns to carry the bit, ya transition ‘em from the hackamore to the bit reins. I’ll help you with Charlie and it’ll make more sense when I can show ya instead of tryin’ to explain it.” The restless fingers fluttered as he thought through a series of moves. He glanced up at Scott and hid his smile when he found his brother’s eyes glued to the chess piece.


“It takes time, but doin’ it with Charlie’ll give you the chance to take a horse from hackamore to bit—and that’s the basis of our whole trainin’ business. Teachin’ a colt about pressure and then makin’ that transition to the bit, that’s the reason folks’ll pay top dollar for our trainin’ or for colts we’ve finished.” Johnny dropped his hand back into his lap, watching Scott from under his lashes.


Scott stifled a yawn and Johnny grinned. “Am I keepin’ you awake?”


“No, no. Just watching you think so hard over your next move is…exhausting me.” Scott’s mouth curled into a smile as he watched his brother snatch up the rook and move it. The smile melted into an expression of consternation. He had the uneasy feeling that Johnny had noticed something he didn’t see yet…Damn! The scamp had his king checked.


Johnny cocked an eyebrow at his brother, gesturing grandly at the board. “Uh, that would be check, brother,” he drawled, eyes dancing.


“Ummm,” Scott grunted as he evaluated the board, troubled by Johnny’s latest move. His brother played an aggressive, risky game that was anything but predictable. At times, the boy’s risk-taking crossed the razor-thin line between strategic brilliance and wanton recklessness—although Johnny seemed to calculate and weigh risk as naturally as he breathed. Scott couldn’t decide if this was one of the brilliant or reckless times. He computed rapidly, torn between the inscrutable smile on Johnny’s face and the dawning realization that his brother could attack with his queen when Scott countered to repel the threat from the rook. And there was something about the way Johnny had moved his pawns…no, he had to counter the rook and watch out for the queen. Scott thought he saw a way around the cunning plan and made his move, sitting back for what he thought would be a long wait.


“The trainin’ part of our business’ll take some time to get started. It’ll be more’n a year ‘fore we have finished bridle horses ready for sale. The money from the army contract will support us until we’ve got a cavvy of trained cowponies to sell.” Johnny casually moved a pawn that Scott had barely considered.


Scott sat up straight and glared at the board. He had a sinking feeling that Johnny had set a trap of his own—and he’d fallen for it. There was no choice now but to react to the threat posed by the pawn. If he ignored that damned pawn, it would become another queen. He studied the situation for several more moments and made his move.


“You’ll be helpin’ me by ridin’ and schoolin’ the horses in the jaquíma after I get ‘em started. We’ll work out how we’re gonna use Jose, Pepe, and Luis when I can start ridin’ again.” Johnny moved his queen, pretending he didn’t see his brother’s furrowed brow.


Scott glowered at the board, puzzling over how he could thwart this latest threat. Johnny was pressing the attack hard and Scott detested being in such a defensive position. He still had the feeling that his little brother saw some avenue of attack he’d overlooked—Johnny possessed an uncanny ability to envision and evaluate scenarios many moves in the future. He thought through his options again, saw a way to counter Johnny’s queen, and made the move. 


“Aw, Scott…,” Johnny sighed heavily, gazing at his brother with sorrowful eyes. “Ya know, I really hate this.”


“Hate what?” Scott’s eyes widened.


Johnny sighed again, enjoying the confusion on his brother’s face. “This!” His hand shot out quick as a rattler’s strike to move his rook.


Too late, Scott realized that this was not one of the reckless times.


“Checkmate...I won!” Johnny’s smile sparkled with pure deviltry.


Scott leaned forward and studied the board, fixing the moves of the game in his mind. This was getting to be a bad habit, losing at chess to his little brother. It rankled somewhat; after all, he had been the chess champion at Harvard. At least he consistently defeated Johnny at checkers. And there was some consolation in remembering that Johnny was an inspired strategist, adroit tactician, and fearless risk-taker. He had to hand it to him, those final moves had been masterful.


“You, Johnny Lancer, are getting too good at this game.”


“Yeah, well, I ain’t allowed to do much else,” Johnny complained, giving Scott his most pitiful look.


Scott rolled his eyes. “Don’t look at me like that. Sam said you could go downstairs for supper on Saturday and no amount of doleful looks will convince me to let you head downstairs one minute sooner.”


“Aw Scott, I didn’t know you were such a sore loser.” Johnny folded his arms and shook his head, his expression accusing.


“Well, you learn something new every day. I am.” Scott grinned, refusing to rise to the bait. “No, don’t set the pieces up again, I’m not playing another game now. Maybe after supper.” He ran his fingers over the cheekpiece of the headstall he’d admired earlier. “Is there anything I can do for you before I head downstairs? Ah, that would be downstairs as in downstairs to eat my supper at the table with the rest of the family.” He figured that little dig could serve as a token down payment on the payback his smart aleck brother had coming.


Johnny paid no heed to the barb as he glanced suspiciously around the room, eyes darting and probing into every crevice. He looked like a bank robber casing his next target and Scott observed his actions warily. The scamp was up to something.


“Well…” Johnny motioned his brother closer, his voice hushed.


Leaning forward until his head nearly touched Johnny’s, Scott waited for the punch line that just had to be coming.


“How ‘bout helpin’ me dig a tunnel? The warden will be here soon and I need to make my move now.” Johnny gave his brother the full effect of his soulful eyes.


Scott ignored that look, grinning at Johnny’s reference to their father. “You’ll just have to wait for your parole to come through. As for the warden, he’s watching too closely for you to pull an escape attempt.”


“Yeah, if I sneeze, he knows about it,” Johnny grimaced. “He acts like I’m an egg and he’s gotta hatch me.”


Scott laughed out loud at the picture Johnny’s words painted. Then he sobered. “He’s loving every minute of it, you know.”


Johnny smiled shyly. “Yeah, I know.” The emotions that thought evoked were still hard to conquer. He picked up a partially complete reata and began plaiting its rawhide strands. “You know, you were right about him and me. All we needed to do was talk…”


“Well, you’ve been doing a lot of that.”


“Yeah. Once we started, neither one of us could shut up,” Johnny laughed.


Scott wanted to hear Johnny’s thoughts about his new relationship with their father. He remembered Tommy’s successful tactics and took a deep breath. “You seem to be getting along, understanding one another.” He watched the color rise in Johnny’s cheeks and stayed silent, knowing the boy would respond in his own time.


It took a few minutes, but Johnny finally met his brother’s gaze. “I used to wonder what he was thinkin’ when he looked at me. Turns out he was wonderin’ the same thing ‘bout me. We couldn’t look each other in the eye…scared of what we might see. We were both scared to talk to each other…afraid of what we might admit to or accuse each other of.” He dropped his gaze back to the reata in his hands, fingers deftly manipulating the rawhide strands.


“You said me and the Old Man were just alike—all pride and not an inch of give. That was sure as shootin’ true, so one of us had to swallow his pride and give a little…” A smile tugged at Johnny’s mouth and he glanced toward the door and then back at Scott. “He did—and I couldn’t let him outdo me now, could I?” The smile faded and Johnny sat back in his chair, blue eyes fixed on his brother’s.


“He knows what I did, understands and accepts the choices I made…just like you do…just like you told me he would.” He laid the reata aside and clasped his hands, staring intently at them. “I look at him now and see my father…not the man I hated for so long. He looks at me and sees his son…not a killer. Knowing that he sees me as his son when he looks at me is…well, it means…it means…,” Johnny shrugged, unable to find the right words.


“It means that you’re home, Johnny.” Scott leaned forward and gripped Johnny’s forearm.


Johnny touched his hand to Scott’s and relaxed in his chair. “Home. That’s a mighty fine word. Home…it’s good to be home, brother.” He paused, swallowing hard. “Scott, I…well, ah…just thanks.”


Scott realized that this was the thought Johnny had found difficult to voice earlier. He shook Johnny’s forearm. “Hey, what are brothers for?”


Johnny kept his eyes on that hand on his arm and gulped in a deep, steadying breath. “I ain’t much good at this kinda talkin’. I just…well, I reckon Lady Luck smiled on me real sweet when she dealt me you for a brother.” He stood slowly and retrieved a sack from the bureau, fingering the item inside through the cloth before thrusting it into Scott’s lap.


“What’s this?”


“It’s my way of sayin’ thanks for bein’ my brother, that’s all.” Johnny pointed at the sack. “Well, go on, open it.”


Scott loosened the strings securing the mouth of the sack and eased the contents onto his lap, sucking in his breath in sharp admiration when he saw Johnny’s gift—a hand-plaited rawhide bridle ornamented with silver and fancy braided buttons and sporting woven horsehair reins. “Johnny, it’s…it’s magnificent.”


He held the bridle to the light, marveling at the cunning braid work on the headstall and bosal and the superb artistry in the horsehair reins. The rich chocolate color was offset with lighter taupe and black accents and cleverly highlighted with a turquoise-colored rawhide strand. Finely wrought Mexican silver buckles and conchos adorned the headstall, elevating the entire piece to an elegant work of art. The horsehair reins attached to the hand-etched blued-steel snaffle bit with striking hand-tooled leather pieces. The reins were woven primarily from the flaxen mane hair of sorrel horses and accented with black and white. A jaunty horsehair tassel hung beneath the throatlatch. The effect was regal, sumptuous, and Scott stared from the bridle to Johnny’s face in wonder.


“I’ve never seen a more beautiful bridle. Thank you, Johnny.”


“You really like it?” Johnny flushed with pleasure at Scott’s sincere appreciation.


“It’s an incredible gift and I’ll cherish it all the more because I know you made it.”


“I just thought those colors would look good on ol’ Charlie’s head.” Johnny traced the pattern in the rug with his bare toe. “It ain’t enough, but I hope it tells ya how I feel better than I can say it. I been workin’ on it non-stop. Ramon helped a little and he worked on all the other gear while I tried to get this done.”


“It’s exquisite. And it will be beautiful on Charlemagne—the colors are perfect for him. I’ll have the finest bridle in California.” Scott slung his arm over Johnny’s shoulders. “Thank you.”


“Well, this ain’t all of it. I’m workin’ on a fancy set of romal reins to go with it and Cipriano ordered me a silver bit from the Garcia’s down in Chihauhau. Makin’ those reins is pretty complicated so it’ll take me awhile to get ‘em done. Figured I needed to go ahead and give you what I got finished, though. Jelly knows about it and he’ll never be able to keep the secret.” Johnny smiled at his brother. “I’m glad you like it.”


“I love it. In fact, I like it so much that I’m really happy you’re my brother—even if you do get lucky with your foolishly reckless chess game sometimes.” Scott sat back in his chair and admired his bridle, touched beyond words at his brother’s splendid offering. He marveled at the supple sleekness of the rawhide, the meticulous craftsmanship of the plaiting and design, the bold majesty of the silver accents, and the buttery softness of the leather. He wanted to say something else, but couldn’t speak around the sudden lump in his throat.


He made it with his own hands. For me. Because he wants me to know how lucky he feels to have me for a brother. I’m lucky, too, Johnny.


Johnny propped his feet on the table and crossed his legs at the ankle, leaning his head back against the cushions of the chair and letting his crooked smile crawl up the side of his mouth. He studied his brother’s face, delighted at Scott’s reaction to his gift. “No luck to it now, brother.”


Scott managed to tear his gaze from his new bridle and returned his brother’s smile. An unexpected insight stuck him and he studied Johnny more closely.


There’s something different about him. I can’t quite put my finger on it. Is it…maybe he’s happy? No, no happy isn’t the right word. He’s often happy, but happiness is fleeting. Maybe content is the word I’m looking for. For the first time, Johnny looks content. And comfortable—with who he is and where he is. He’s accepted Lancer as home. He’s finally found some peace.


Scott let his eyes meet Johnny’s, projecting all the warmth he could muster into that gaze. He added a touch of code for good measure. “I guess you’ve got a lot going for you from now on. Welcome home, brother.”





The next day, mid-afternoon…


“Pete!” Murdoch stood in the barn doorway shading his eyes against the strong afternoon sun. He recognized the man and boy dismounting in front of the hacienda.


Pete strode toward him, leading their horses and wearing a big smile. “How’s things, Murdo?”


“Good, real good.” Murdoch clasped Pete’s hand.


Both men turned as a whooping Tommy threw himself into Scott’s arms. Scott hugged the boy tightly, spinning in a circle. When he set the child back on his feet, Tommy danced and bounced with excitement, his arms and hands flying as he talked to his big brother. From their place by the corral, Murdoch and Pete couldn’t make out their sons’ conversation but both men knew it concerned one Johnny Lancer. They watched as their boys, now hand in hand, ran toward the hacienda, knowing their intended destination was Johnny’s room.


“Tommy just about drove me mad today. Johnny this…Johnny that…all the way here.” Pete grinned at Murdoch’s guffaws.


“Well, funny you should say that, because Johnny’s one topic of conversation this morning has been Tommy this…Tommy that…” Both men chuckled again.


The barn rafters echoed with their laughter and Lady’s excited barking as Pete shared Tommy’s latest escapade—an encounter with a none too friendly skunk—while he and Murdoch unsaddled the horses. Murdoch filled in Pete on Johnny’s battle of wills over the nasal tube as they measured corn into the mangers for each animal. Then the men seated themselves on hay bales as they exchanged bits of town news.


“I passed Sam Jenkins on the way over. He told me how well Johnny’s doin’.” Pete sipped water from the metal dipper in the barn bucket. “So how are you doin’, Murdo?”


“Me? I’m fine.” Murdoch ran his fingers through the collie’s silky coat.


“How’re things between you and Johnny?”


Murdoch sighed and looked Pete straight in the eye, his own eyes twinkling with amusement. “Are you checking up on me, Pete?”


“Yep,” Pete grinned.


“Well, you have every right,” Murdoch nodded. “You helped knock some sense into this stubborn old head of mine. And from what Johnny tells me, you put in a good word for me, too.” Lady rested her muzzle on his knee and Murdoch stroked her head, scratching around her ears and eliciting a sigh of utter bliss from the dog.


“You two still talkin’, then?” Both men knew Pete’s lighthearted teasing held a deeper meaning.


“Yes, we’re still talking.” Murdoch smiled; the lines of his face softening as he thought about his younger son. “I’ve learned so much about him…he’s slowly opening up to me.” He worked a wisp of hay free from the bale and began shredding it. “I know there’s a great deal more he needs to tell me—things he wants to talk to me about. He needs my support. He needs me—and that feels so damn good.”


Murdoch raised his gaze to Pete’s face. “Johnny trusts me, Pete. I’ve got my boy back. The boy I believed would never accept me wants me to be his father, to really be a father to him…and I swear I will be.” One hand fondled Lady’s ears.


Pete nodded. “I made that same promise. Tommy, he…well, he’s seen me at the lowest point possible…accepts that I made a mistake. And as big and unforgivable as that mistake was, Tommy’s forgiven me.” He ran his palms up and down his thighs. “Forgivin’ myself was a damn site harder. I got my boy back, too, and knowin’ just how much Tommy needs me gave me the strength to face my mistake.”


He laid his hand on Murdoch’s shoulder. “We both had to face our mistakes, Murdo, and we’re better men for it. We won’t let our boys down again.”


The two men sat silently for a time, lost in their own thoughts and staring absently at the dust motes suspended in the sunbeams streaming through the open door. The horses munched steadily on their corn and Lady’s plumed tail thumped against the floor. In the bunkhouse kitchen, Cooky serenaded the barn cats with a soft Spanish ballad.


Murdoch broke the silence. “You know, it’s the little things—those things he didn’t feel he could talk to me about before—like telling a joke, sharing a memory of his mother, talking about his time here before Maria took him away, divulging anecdotes about his experiences as a hired gun, asking about my life in Scotland and my…our family there, wanting to hear about how I built the ranch. All of those small pleasantries and confidences that other people take for granted—those are the things that bind you. It’s good to be able to share them with Johnny now.”


Pete nodded his understanding. “You showed him that letter, didn’t you?”


“How’d you know?”


“Johnny needed to hear the…well, the mushy, serious stuff before he could open up enough to share those little things that bind you together.” Pete slapped Murdoch’s knee. “You did good by that boy, Murdo.”


“It took me too long, Pete.” Murdoch shook his head. “That’s something I’ll always regret.”


“No. Regrets will come between you. Let them go. Like I said, forgivin’ yourself is the hardest part, but you have to do it. You need to heal, too.”


“You’re right, of course—Wisdom Adams!” Murdoch snorted.


“Yep, that’s my middle name.” Both men laughed again.


A serious note crept into Murdoch’s voice. “Johnny’s not the boy he would’ve been if he’d grown up here. He’s better. All the hardship and heartache he endured taught him to appreciate life and deal with its trials.”


He pulled more hay from the bale, shredding each stem. “So many times since he came home, I’ve thought of him when he was a toddler. I compared the man I thought he’d become with the boy I believed he would have been if he’d grown up here with me. I thought he was so different now than he used to be…than he would have been.” Murdoch ran his hand through his hair. “But I was wrong. Those traits I loved about my little boy are even stronger in the man he is today. I can see them now that I‘ve taken off my blinders.” He dropped a quick pat on Lady’s head.


“And you know something, Pete?” He met Pete’s searching gaze. “That boy I created in my imagination, the Johnny who grew up at Lancer—the son I thought I wanted? Well, I haven’t thought about that boy at all in the last three weeks. The halo I’d crowned him with broke when I pushed him off that pedestal I’d built for him. He’s not the boy I want anymore. I’ve got the son I really want right here with me.”


Saying those words aloud sent a rush of warmth through him, as though he’d unshouldered and set aside a heavy burden…a dead weight. What a long, winding road he’d traveled to reach this point. He felt as though he’d scaled a steep, forbidding peak and now stood atop the summit alongside his boys. His boys…his sons…men he’d finally accepted as the individuals they were. Strong, proud, brave, compassionate—he could go on extolling their virtues for hours. He realized with soul-cleansing relief that he liked the men his boys had grown to be. If he’d been able to raise them at the ranch, they might have turned out differently, but not better. He intended to see to it that he never forgot that lesson.


Murdoch climbed to his feet and held out his hand to help Pete. “Thanks for coming over, Pete. I know it’s a busy time for you, but having Tommy here for Johnny’s first meal downstairs since the operation, well, that means a lot to Johnny.” He rested his hands on his hips. “Besides, it’s just plain good to see you again.”


“I’m happy to be here, Murdo. I think it’s important for Tommy to keep in touch with his two ‘big brothers’. He thinks the world of both of them—and you and Jelly, too. There’ll be times as he grows older that he’ll need a brother rather than a father. I’m thankful he’s got Scott and Johnny to turn to now.” He gave Murdoch an affectionate backhand to the stomach. “And I want to spend a little time with you, too.”


Murdoch nodded, his thoughts settling on the relationship between his two sons. He was grateful that they had each other. Although it shamed him to admit it, there had been times when he’d been jealous of the bond between Scott and Johnny. Their rapport had represented a world he couldn’t enter, but he’d finally crossed the threshold of that world and embraced it.


Tommy’s arrival at Lancer had been the key needed to open those locked doors and secret rooms in Johnny’s head and heart. His younger son had been lost and hurt just like Tommy, but Johnny’s hurt had run so much deeper. It had taken a perceptive child to find those hidden keys and thankfully, Tommy had shared them. The little boy had even managed to discover forgotten passageways into the fortress around Murdoch’s heart.


I finally realized that my grown son needs his father just as desperately as that seven-year old boy needed his Pa. Both of those boys are home now. Those scraped and sore places inside of them are healing and they have brothers and fathers determined to prevent them from enduring that kind of hurt again. As for the Old Man…well, he needs his sons even more than they need their father. Father. I like the sound of that.


“Johnny and Scott will always be there for Tommy, just like they’ll always be there for each other.” Murdoch held out his hand. “Thank you, Pete, for helping me to find my son.”


Pete gripped Murdoch’s hand. “Just returnin’ the favor, old friend.”


Murdoch pointed toward the hacienda. “Well, it’s awfully quiet up there. We’d better go see what mischief is being hatched up in Johnny’s room.”


Pete stared at him in astonishment. “Mischief? Our boys? Never!”


The barn resounded with the satisfied laughter of the two fathers.



*The Ortegas of San Jose, CA (braided cowboy gear) and the Garcias of Chihauhau, Mexico (bits and spurs) are real families well known for the artistic appeal and practical excellence of their crafts. Ramon Ortega is a fictional character.

**Johnny is spending some time teaching Scott to handle the reins of the jaquíma. This is in no way a knock on Scott’s horsemanship or riding abilities. The proper use of the bosal reins is complex, not something readily apparent just by watching. If you’re interested in how complex this is, see the pictures posted to the Yahoo Lancer Group Lancer Writers  in the Photo files under Vaquero Training

***Pictures of Johnny’s gift to Scott are posted in the above Photo files under Johnny’s Gift. Today, a bridle of such detail and quality would command a price of several thousand dollars.





That evening…


Tommy snuggled close to Johnny, blond head resting on Johnny’s chest and arm thrown carefully across his friend’s tender stomach. Completely enthralled by the action and magic, he drank in the tantalizing voice that rose and fell so hypnotically, spellbound by the saga of heroism, might, dragons, and flying horses. His periodic gasps, giggles, squirming, and squeals left no doubt of his enjoyment of Johnny’s tale. Part of him ached to know the ending of this adventure, yet another part of him wanted to lie beside Johnny and listen to his mesmerizing voice weave words of derring-do far into the night. The story accelerated to its exciting conclusion and Tommy sighed regretfully, looking up at Johnny’s face.


“Golly, Johnny, you tell stories better’n anybody. Even my Pa don’t know stories like you do. How come you know them stories?” The expression on his face was one of blatant adoration.


Johnny felt his face and ears grow hot with embarrassment and he fidgeted against the mound of pillows propping him up. “Aw, Tommy, I learned how to tell stories lotsa places—from my Mama, from Pablo…that segundo of the ranch where we lived used to be a Texas Ranger and he really knew how to make ya listen to his yarns. And when you’re ridin’ with a trail herd, there’s always plenty of stories around the fire at night.”


He ran his finger idly through Tommy’s bangs. “But I reckon the first place I heard about magic and dragons and such was from a little lady named Ma O’Grady. Ma came from Ireland and she never ran out of stories about magic and knights and faeries and wizards and dragons and Princes and Princesses.”


He let his head rest against the pillows and rolled it to look directly at Tommy. “She even told us stories about little magic fellas called leprechauns. They dress all in green and bury their pots of gold at the end of the rainbow. Oh boy, she could go on all night.”


Tommy wriggled up to rest his head on Johnny’s shoulder. “You sure have known a lotta people, Johnny.”


“Yeah, a lotta nice people…”


Tommy could tell from Johnny’s wistful tone that he didn’t want to talk about the people he had known right now. The boy thought back to the adventure he’d just heard and grinned. “The Magician sure worked some big magic this time. Draco helped some, but that ol’ Magician wasn’t gonna let nuthin’ happen to the Prince, was he?”


“Nope. The Magician’s stubborn, Tommy, kinda like--”


“You!” Tommy giggled.


“Me?” Johnny tousled the boy’s hair. “I was gonna say Uncle M.”


“Scott says you’re just like your Pa, Johnny—stubborn!” Tommy giggled again.


“I’ll let you in on a little secret, Tommy. That big brother of ours is more stubborn than me or Uncle M. He’s the oldest, the wisest, and the most stubborn.” Johnny shifted positions and pulled Tommy closer, wincing at the strain the movement placed on his incision.


Tommy noticed the wince and sat up, eyes wide with concern. “You okay, Johnny? Should I get Uncle M?”


“No! No, Tommy, no need for that. I’m still a mite sore, but I’m fine, honest. If you call Uncle M, he’ll fuss and do…well, you know what Pas are like.” Johnny grinned reassurance at the boy.


Tommy’s small fingers traced the hollows beneath his brother’s collar bones, visible even through his nightshirt. “You didn’t tell Uncle M or Scott you was sick, did you Johnny?”


Johnny wanted to ignore the question, but the brown eyes never wavered from his face. “Well…I…ah, no I didn’t.”


“How come?”


“Well, I…I guess I thought it would go away.” Johnny squirmed under the unexpected interrogation.


Tommy frowned at Johnny, putting his small hands on his hips. “You was bein’ silly.”


Johnny sighed and hung his head, now it was Tommy’s turn to lecture him. “Yeah, I was.”


“We was all worried, ya know.”


“I’m sorry, Tommy.”


“Uncle M was cryin’.”


“Yeah, I know.” Johnny looked away, a lump forming in his throat.


“He was prayin’ that God wouldn’t take you to his special place. He didn’t wanna lose you.” Tommy cocked his head and studied Johnny’s gaunt face.


“Tommy…” Johnny didn’t want to hear this, but it seemed Tommy was determined to have his say, too. It wasn’t the first lecture he’d endured on this subject, but it was somehow harder to hear it from the mouth of a child.


“I knowed you wasn’t gonna die, ‘cause Uncle M promised me he wouldn’t let you. He said you deserved to be with people who loved you and we deserved to have you with us…’cause yer special to all of us.” Tommy reached up and wiped away the trickle of moisture from the corner of Johnny’s eye.


Johnny hugged the child close, fighting the sharp constriction in his throat as he remembered how Murdoch had refused to let him die, finding him in the storm and carrying him home. He realized now that the storm had actually been in his mind, but it still seemed so real and the part of him that spun tales of magic and dragons insisted that in his head or not, the events associated with the storm had really happened.


“I ain’t so special, Tommy,” Johnny whispered, arms tightening around the boy.


Tommy struggled free and gripped Johnny’s shoulder, shaking it. “Oh, yes you are Johnny. Yer special to me and Uncle M and Scott and…”


“Tommy!” Johnny interrupted, cringing at worshipful tone in the child’s voice. “Guess we’re all special to somebody. Like you’re special to me and Scott and to your Pa.”


A huge grin spread across Tommy’s face. “You ain’t ever gonna be silly thataway again, are you, Johnny?”


Johnny stared into Tommy’s eyes so full of love and felt his heart swell. He had been ‘silly’ as the boy had phrased it, yet so much had happened because of it. He was humbled and grateful for the love that surrounded him now…it had always been there, but he hadn’t been able to fully acknowledge it before, too afraid of his family’s rejection. Now that he knew they still cared, regardless of the things he’d done and the life he’d lived, he could allow himself the luxury of basking in their love.


“No, Tommy, I ain’t ever gonna be silly like that again.” Johnny knew how close he’d come to dying and how his illness had shaken his family to its core. He didn’t like to think about that and he was determined not to let his family down again.


“Promise?” the child persisted.


“Yes, I promise. I learned my lesson, you know.” He tweaked Tommy’s nose. “What about you Big ‘un? You gonna promise not to be silly like runnin’ off or jumpin’ in front of spooked horses?”


Tommy put his hands on his hips and frowned at Johnny. “Me and Uncle M got us a gentlemen’s agreement. Let’s you and me make us one, Johnny. I won’t be silly if you won’t.”


Johnny held out his hand and Tommy took it solemnly. “You got a deal.”


An impish grin broke out on Tommy’s face. “Doc Jenkins’ll sure be glad to know you ain’t gonna be silly no more.”


“Aw Tommy, Doc’d get bored and rusty if he didn’t have me to practice on.”


Tommy stuck out his tongue. “Doc Jenkins says you’re--”


“Headstrong,” Johnny interrupted. He liked that description because he knew Sam also used it to describe Murdoch.


“No,” Tommy corrected triumphantly. “He says you’re a walkin’ miracle.”


“A walkin…” Johnny snorted. “Well, seein’ as how he don’t let me walk hardly anywhere yet, I think that’s kinda stretchin’ it a bit, huh?”


“Doc Jenkins says you need tyin’ to the bed,” Tommy dissolved into helpless giggles.


Johnny chuckled at the child’s mirth. “You know, the Doc likes to give me a hard time, Tommy. He don’t really mean everything he says.”


Tommy’s expression revealed his opinion of that answer, as did his accompanying snicker. “Did Doc give you any of that yucky yeller stuff, Johnny?”


“Nope.” Johnny pulled a face and Tommy giggled harder. “Did he tell you he was gonna?” He heaved an exaggerated sigh of relief at Tommy’s head shake. “I bet he carries a bottle in his bag just for threatenin’ headstrong patients like me. Reckon I’d best behave.”


“How you gonna do that? Scott says yer middle name is ‘Trouble’.” Tommy covered his mouth with one hand in a futile effort to muffle his shouts of laughter when he saw the look on Johnny’s face.


“Wait a minute! My brother Scott told you I couldn’t behave because my middle name is ‘Trouble’?”


Tommy bounced in delight. “Uh huh.”


“Ain’t they got nuthin’ better to do than talk about me?” Johnny threw up his hands and put on his best pout, lacing his voice with indignation, much to Tommy’s delight. “My ears oughta be fried right off my head, the times my name’s been dropped in the conversations in this house.”


“Mr. Jelly says yer ears need a good blisterin’.”  Tommy spluttered and choked with laughter when Johnny rolled his eyes and rubbed his ears.


“Well, Tommy, I been told off so many times these last couple of weeks that my ears are smokin!” His laughter blended with Tommy’s.


Tommy wiped his streaming eyes and sat up cross-legged on the bed. “Don’t worry, Johnny. I ain’t gonna let Mr. Jelly fuss at you no more.”


 “Whew!” Johnny heaved an exaggerated sigh of relief. “Thanks, Tommy. That takes care of Jelly. Now who’s gonna protect me from the Doc?”


“Uncle M?”


“Dern, Tommy, he’s as bad as Doc for givin’ me a hard time. Can’t I count on you?”


Tommy shook his head. “Sorry, Johnny. I ain’t doin’ nothin’ to rile Doc Jenkins.”


Johnny cuffed him playfully on the back of the head. “Gee, thanks, little brother. Guess I gotta depend on my big brother, huh?”


Tommy’s lower lip poked out in a perfect pout. “Scott’s mean, Johnny.”




“I asked him to let me ride horsie like we did earlier, but he said no.” Tommy shook Johnny’s arm. “When he comes in again, make him let me, Johnny.” He snickered, “Scott sure looked stupid crawlin’ on the floor thataway.”


“Now Tommy, we ain’t gonna laugh at Scott for doin’ that.” He gripped Tommy’s knee. “He ain’t actin’ dumb, he’s learnin’ what it feels like for a horse to carry a rider so he can ride Smoky better.”


“But he sure looked dumb, crawlin’ round like a baby. Me and Mr. Jelly thought it was real funny. Mr. Jelly said Scott’s name oughta be…ah…Gully Bill.”


“You mean gullible?” The blue eyes fixed Tommy with a direct stare.


Tommy nodded and lowered his eyes, sensing Johnny’s disappointment in him.


Johnny squeezed Tommy’s knee. “You ‘member when you helped me and Scott round up them horses?” He waited for the boy’s nod. “What did I tell you about ridin’ with ‘soft’ eyes?”


“You said I gotta use soft eyes when I’m ridin’.”


“And that means…”


Tommy thought for a minute, remembering the lessons Johnny and Scott had taught him. “I gotta keep my eyes forward and look ahead and through where I’m ridin’ to, but at the same time, I gotta let myself see things outta the corners of my eyes.”


“That’s good, Tommy. That’s just what we talked about.”


“And I been practicin’, Johnny. Scott took me ridin’ this afternoon and he said I was gettin’ good at it.” Tommy bounced in excitement.


“Then you’re ready to learn something else Pablo taught me.”


“Oh, boy! Tell me.” Tommy waited expectantly, body quivering in anticipation. He loved it when Johnny shared the things he’d learned from Pablo.


“It’s called ‘kind’ eyes. With ‘soft’ eyes, you force yourself to see what’s happenin’ all around you. With ‘kind’ eyes, you make yourself see the good. You look for the good things about a horse—or a man—and then expect him to live up to them good thoughts. You savvy?”


Tommy considered this new concept. “I think so.”


“Pablo showed me how to find the good. It don’t always holler to get your attention so you gotta look for it. You find it by usin’ ‘kind’ eyes. Pablo always said that for every situation, there was lotsa ways to look at it. You gotta make a choice on how you focus. If you always see the worst, then you just create one disappointment after another; but if you can find the good, you can make yourself happy.”


The blond hair bounced at Tommy’s vigorous nod. “Ma used to say, ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. She said it meant that if you thought somethin’ was pretty, it was, and it didn’t matter what other folks thought. That’s usin’ ‘kind’ eyes, huh, Johnny?”


“That’s right. It’s a funny thing, but once ya start lookin’ for it, you can tell a lot about a fella by decidin’ if he’s got ‘kind’ eyes. There’s four types of men, Tommy.” He ticked them off on his fingers, much to Tommy’s delight. “Some men don’t have ‘em and don’t pretend that they do. That’s easy. The tricky hombres are the smooth ones who talk and act like they got ‘kind’ eyes, but it’s just a smoke screen. It ain’t always easy to figure out that they’re lyin’, but they’re the men ya gotta really watch out for.”


Tommy nodded, eyes huge in his face as he drank in every word.


“Then you got the fellas who talk and act like they ain’t kind a’tall, but they’re just hidin’ it.”


“Like Mr. Jelly?”


“Just like Jelly.” Johnny ruffled Tommy’s hair. “Finally, there’s fellas like Scott, who have ‘kind’ eyes and talk and act like it. Men like that are worth their weight in gold, Big ‘un, and ya won’t find many of ‘em in your lifetime.”


“Yeah, but Mr. Jelly says Scott trusts everbody so he’s a Gully Bill.”


Johnny pulled Tommy into his arms. “You and Jelly thought it was pretty funny when Scott asked you to sit on his back while he crawled around on the floor, huh?”


Tommy snickered and nodded enthusiastically.


“Do you figure that Scott knew you was gonna laugh at him?” He rolled his eyes at the glee on Tommy’s face. “Now why do you think he asked you to ride him around, knowin’ you and Jelly were gonna bust a gut makin’ fun of him?”


Tommy shrugged. “’Cause he’s a Gully Bill?”


Johnny sighed. “Nope. He did it ‘cause I told him that by doin’ that, he’d feel what a horse feels when it carries a rider. Scott wanted to know that so he could help Smoky. And he trusted me to teach him.” He placed his finger under Tommy’s chin and tilted the boy’s face up to meet his gaze. “Folks ain’t always trusted me, Tommy, but Scott always has. He taught me how to use ‘kind’ eyes to find things in people to trust.”


Johnny dropped his hand from Tommy’s chin and stared down at his fingers pleating the quilt. “Sometimes, Scott’s ‘kind’ eyes cause him to have faith in folks that might not deserve it. But our brother Scott, he’d rather give folks a chance to live up to his good opinion than think poorly of ‘em before they prove they deserve it. That’s the mark of a fine man.” He looked into Tommy’s eyes. “So I reckon I wish I had a little more of ol’ Gully Bill Scott in me, Tommy. You think about that, okay?”


Tommy stretched out and snuggled up close. “Golly, Johnny, I didn’t think of it like that before. I wanna be more like Scott, too. Gully Bill Tommy,” he giggled. “Think he’ll show me how to have ‘kind’ eyes?”


Johnny hugged the boy closer to him. “Sure he will, little brother. You just gotta ask him.” He dropped an affectionate swat on Tommy’s bottom. “Not that askin’ questions will be a chore for you.”


Tommy giggled and squirmed closer, draping his arm over Johnny’s stomach. “You got ‘kind’ eyes, Johnny. Sometimes ya show ‘em and sometimes ya hide ‘em, but you got ‘em.”


Johnny rested his cheek on Tommy’s head. “Can’t fool you for nuthin’, can I?”


“Nope, ‘cause yer special to me.” Tommy tightened his hold around Johnny’s stomach, relaxing it immediately when he felt Johnny wince. “Sorry.” He gave Johnny’s sore tummy a comforting pat. “I’m glad you ain’t gonna be silly no more. I love you.”


The brown eyes drifted shut and Johnny smiled tenderly. “You’re pretty special to me, Big ‘un. I love you, too.”



Johnny drowsed contentedly, holding Tommy in his arms as the boy slept. A light rap on the door roused him and he turned his head to see Pete peeking into the room.


“Hey, Pete. Come on in.”


Pete walked softly to the bed, smiling down at his sleeping son. “How you doin’, Johnny?”


“I’m okay,” Johnny glanced sideways at Pete. He’d been none too friendly to Tommy’s father during their last meeting and he regretted that now.


Pete sank into the chair beside Johnny’s bed and reached over to tousle Tommy’s hair. “Looks like he’s all storied out and ready for bed.” His eyes lifted to Johnny’s and he smiled.


“Yeah.” Johnny shifted uncomfortably under Pete’s gaze. He’d unleashed his anger on Pete and the man had calmly weathered his behavior, admitting his mistakes and leaving himself open to an attack. Then he had ignored the blatant hostility and proceeded to open Johnny’s eyes to his father’s love.


Yep, it was Pete who finally got through to me. He made me listen to how Murdoch really felt and why he couldn’t tell me himself. I owe him for that. And I owe him an apology. Need to give him the reasons why I acted that way—just like he gave me his reasons for sayin’ he didn’t want Tommy.


Pete sensed Johnny’s unease and stood. “I’ll get him off to bed.”


“Would you…ah…come back afterwards? I’d like to talk to you for a minute.”


Pete lifted Tommy into his arms and nodded. “Sure. Just let me get him settled.” He headed out the door.


Johnny made his way to one of the armchairs by the window. At least he could have this little discussion eyeball-to-eyeball instead of lying in the bed like a child, even if he was dressed in his nightshirt. He turned his head at the tap on the door, beckoning Pete to join him by the window.


Pete settled into the chair, aware of Johnny’s discomfort. “You’re sure lookin’ better than the last time I saw you. You had a lot of people worried about you, Johnny.”


Johnny felt the heat rush into his cheeks and stared down at his bare feet.


Please, not another lecture...


Pete watched the youngest Lancer with amusement. The boy was so like his father—able to face any adversity head on, but when it came to talking about himself, he battled hopelessly with his emotions, hiding his real feelings and thoughts. “Them feet of yours sure seem mighty interestin’ at times,” Pete teased gently.


Johnny managed a sheepish smile and looked up at Pete, searching long and hard for just the right words “Pete…I…you done good by Tommy. I’m sorry I gave you such a hard time.”


“You had every right--”


Johnny held up a restraining hand. “No…I was angry at you for the way you treated Tommy, but mostly because…well that don’t matter. You didn’t deserve most of the things I said.”


He hung his head and his voice grew soft. “My mother lied to me, said Murdoch didn’t want me…like you said you didn’t want Tommy. That’s why I was so mad at you. Reckon I took my anger at her…at him…out on you that day.” He took a deep breath and met Pete’s calm gaze again. “I wouldn’t give you the same kinda second chance I’d been granted. That ain’t right.”


Pete smiled encouragingly, knowing the boy needed help just as his father had in order to voice his thoughts. “Don’t worry about it. You did give me that second chance with my son.” He knew Johnny wasn’t expecting a direct question and would probably answer without giving it any thought. “So how’s things between you and your Pa?”


“Good…” Johnny responded just as Pete expected. But just as quickly, his face colored and he looked away, avoiding Pete’s searching eyes. “We talked…like you said,” Johnny struggled to find the words to continue.


“He ain’t so bad, is he?” Pete prompted, hoping to ease some of the boy’s tension.


Johnny looked up suddenly and grinned. “Reckon his bark’s worse than his bite.” He chuckled at himself and swallowed. “What you said that day…thanks. Me and Murdoch talked and we’re still talking…I…need him just like you said…just like Tommy needs you.”


Pete laid a hand on Johnny’s forearm. “You’ll always need him, Johnny, that’s how it is between fathers and sons. But one day, he ain’t gonna be here no more. You make the most of the time you got with him now—love him and let him love you. I know it ain’t easy for either one of you, but like you told Tommy, it gets easier when ya walk on it.”


Johnny nodded, but a shiver ran down his back at the thought of his father not always being there. He still had more to say so he took a deep breath and plunged ahead. “I know you…well, Scott said you helped Murdoch through this whole thing. I know it was…hard…for him. Thanks for bein’ there for him, Pete.” Johnny held out his hand to Pete who swiftly gripped it in his own.


“You’re welcome. And thank you, Johnny. You gave me back my son, granted me a second chance with Tommy. Reckon there ain’t no pain worse’n losin’ a child. You and your Pa helped spare me that. We helped each other, like friends do.”


Pete squeezed the young man’s hand. “I’d like to think we can count on each other the next time life gets a tad troublesome or smacks us upside the head.”


Johnny’s grin blazed across his face. “Yeah, I’d like that.”


He thought on all he’d gained in the weeks since he’d discovered Tommy by the river—a father, a sense of belonging, a deeper understanding of his brother, a closer bond with Jelly, a little brother…and something else he hadn’t thought about before. He now had a new friend in Pete.


Johnny leaned forward and swatted his friend an affectionate backhand to the stomach. “I’d like that a lot.”






Meanwhile out on the veranda…


Scott leaned against the scalloped courtyard wall and sipped brandy as he watched his father chasing fireflies. A satisfied grin kept tugging at the corners of his mouth and he couldn’t help but compare the lighthearted atmosphere of the present evening with the frantic sorrow of the last time he’d stood here observing his father pursue the flickering lights. Then, he’d feared for Murdoch’s sanity, even as he struggled to accept the awful truth that Johnny was dying. But tonight, a festive air enveloped the hacienda. He could almost see the energy crackling.


Johnny was improving rapidly and being allowed to journey downstairs and join his family for supper marked a major milestone on his road to recovery. His brother was as elated about the event as a child anticipating the arrival of Santa Claus and his enthusiasm delighted the family. Tommy and Pete’s arrival had animated the entire household and Teresa and Maria were happily planning the big meal—determined to offer Johnny a choice of his favorite treats while ensuring that nothing on the menu would set back his progress. Scott smiled at their occasional bursts of laughter and squeaks of excitement as they made their preparations in the kitchen.


They’re like two little girls planning a tea party. Then there’s my father who seems to be experiencing a second childhood. I have to say that he’s a top hand at wrangling fireflies.


He glanced inside through the French doors and chuckled at the sight of Pete and Jelly absorbed in a hotly contested checker game in front of the fire. The two men had grown close, united by their efforts to support the Lancer family during the crisis of Johnny’s illness. Now, they happily swapped insults and tall tales over the checkerboard.


Jelly doesn’t open up to just anybody. It’s nice to see him with a new friend.


Thank goodness Pete had brought Tommy to Lancer today. Johnny was ready to explode with excitement in anticipation of dressing and joining the family for supper downstairs. Scott didn’t even want to think about how difficult it would be to keep his brother’s feet on the ground this evening if Tommy wasn’t there to divert him.


Johnny’s strength was a precious commodity at present and his restless ebullience toward tomorrow’s supper concerned Scott. His brother was in danger of exhausting himself before the meal even started. Spending time with Tommy was just the ticket to managing Johnny’s fragile store of energy.


On the pretext of expending some of Tommy’s manic enthusiasm, Scott had taken the child for a ride, using the time to enlist his ‘little brother’s’ help in keeping Johnny in bed until the big event. The perceptive boy understood the need to conserve Johnny’s energy and Scott smiled, knowing how capably Tommy would play the role of guardian. Tommy could convince Johnny to take it easy whereas the rest of them would (and already had, he admitted ruefully) fail miserably. He acknowledged once again just what a special child Tommy was.


Johnny and Tommy need this time together. The last time they saw each other, Johnny could barely keep his eyes open. He was so sick and weak. It scared Tommy to death, even though Dr. Jenkins assured him that Johnny was going to get well. They’re as close as brothers and deserve to enjoy each other now. The Lancer family owes that little boy a debt we can never repay.


Scott drank in the smoky, fruity scent of the brandy, swirling it in the crystal snifter to release more aroma. A leisurely mouthful and his taste buds joined in the appreciation, signaling their approval of the fire and toasty flavor of the aged liquor. He felt utterly relaxed, content down to his bones. For the first time, they were thinking and behaving like a real family, supporting one another and actually communicating. The Pied Piper could put away his flute and relax now. For the moment, all was right with the world.


He grinned as Murdoch walked toward him, cradling his jar of fireflies. “Surprise for Tommy?”


Murdoch flushed. “Well, actually, these are for Johnny.”


Scott studied the iridescent play of color where the lamplight struck the swirling brandy, biting back a laugh. He realized that the fireflies now functioned as a code for Johnny and Murdoch, allowing them to express their feelings without actually stating them. No doubt Tommy would end up with the jar of insects, but Johnny would understand and appreciate Murdoch’s efforts in capturing them in the first place. As his brother grew stronger, Scott fully expected to witness Johnny and Murdoch chasing the bugs together. It was exactly the kind of carefree activity that his brother, the scamp, enjoyed.


He’ll entreat me to join them, too…and I will. I’ll even enjoy it. Grandfather would be appalled. But so what? Like Johnny always says, this is California, not Boston.


He handed his father the glass of brandy he’d brought outside for him. “This bottle is excellent, sir. It’s from that shipment you brought back from San Francisco.”


“Thank you, son. Glad to hear I can still pick a good bottle.” Murdoch set the jar on the wall and clinked his glass against Scott’s, sipping appreciatively. “Mmmm. This is good.”


The two men leaned against the wall, shoulders touching as they enjoyed the brandy and gazed out over their land. Scott’s curiosity burned and he peeked sideways at Murdoch, determined to define what was so different about him. The answer came to him abruptly—it was the absence of the harsh tenseness that had been so much a part of the man since he and Johnny had come home. Murdoch’s upright rigidity often goaded Johnny to mutter that it looked like the man had a broomstick up his butt. That air of inflexibility was relaxed now and Scott perceived the same contentment in their father that he’d noticed in Johnny.


We’re going to be able to do this family thing after all, the three of us with Teresa and Jelly. We’re going to be all right.


“I guess this is the calm before the storm. This time tomorrow, we’ll be trying to decide how to get Johnny back upstairs and into bed—without appearing overly solicitous.” Murdoch leaned on his elbows and held his glass with both hands.


“Oh, I imagine that if you meet him halfway, he’ll do what you ask him to.”


Murdoch smiled. “He will, won’t he? Thank you for making me understand that, Scott.” He turned to face his older son, still leaning on one elbow. “I know Johnny and I didn’t make it easy for you. No government diplomat ever demonstrated better negotiation skills than the ones you had to use to keep us from each other’s throats.”


Scott flushed with elation at the words of praise from his father. “I had some wonderful teachers, sir.”


“I’m sure you did, son, but that ability to listen and understand the viewpoint of both sides, to discover common ground; that came from your mother. Catherine was the greatest peacemaker I’ve ever known, a true mediator.” He paused as a memory brought a chuckle. “She kept your grandfather and me from coming to blows.” The chuckle faded when he saw Scott stiffen. He cleared his throat and continued.


“Your mother was a remarkable woman, Scott. I see so much of her in you, but especially your compassion, gentleness, and desire to do the right thing.” He set his glass aside and straightened, gripping Scott’s slim shoulder. “Your courage, too. She gave up everything she knew to follow me to the wilds of California—just as you did. And like your mother, you’ve approached the challenges of life out here with grace and style.” He had to swallow and take a breath before voicing his next thoughts. “It means a lot to have you home at Lancer.”


Scott stood in stunned silence as his father’s words registered. He cherished every scrap of information about the mother he’d never known and the idea that Murdoch could see Catherine in him left him giddy with satisfaction.


He’s proud of me—not just because I have the traits he admired in my mother, but because of who and what I am. He’s never acknowledged what I left behind in Boston before. Who is this man and what has he done with my father?


He felt Murdoch squeeze his shoulder and forced himself to look at his father through misty eyes.


“Your brother and I both owe you a debt of gratitude for keeping the peace, but even more for forcing us to face our fears and helping us learn how to talk.” Murdoch released his grip on Scott’s shoulder, running his hand through his hair. “Johnny and I didn’t know how to disagree without hurting each other. I thought he’d reject me, he thought I’d already rejected him. We struggled to find topics that were “safe” while keeping our distance from the things we really needed to discuss. When we did try to confront an important issue, we’d both lose our tempers—I’d blow up and Johnny usually walked out.”


Scott nodded, a curiously tender smile hovering on his lips. “He bolted like a skittish colt out on the trail.”


Murdoch laughed at that analogy, turning back to face the corral. He glanced sideways at the jar of fireflies. “He does know how to grab the bit in his teeth.” He reclaimed his glass and took a quick sip. “Have you ever noticed the different sound his spurs make when he stomps off mad?”


“They do, don’t they?” Scott faced forward, mirroring Murdoch’s posture. “You know,

I’ve spent many hours pondering why he walks away.” He peered sideways at the fireflies.


“Your conclusions?”


“It gives him a way to release his anger for one thing. When he walks away, he doesn’t just sit and think like you or I would do. No, Johnny does something physical to burn off his rage and channel that energy. He does his thinking after he’s calmed down.” He paused to relish the expression on Murdoch’s face—his father was listening and agreeing with his theories about what made Johnny tick; but the deference, the appreciation of the ideas themselves, was immensely gratifying to Scott. “Johnny’s carried around a heavy load of anger for many years. I think he’s clever to have found a method of dealing with it that works for him.”


Murdoch turned his head toward Scott, raising an eyebrow. “He is—and that’s a pretty clever observation, son.”


Scott knew his ears were red from the pleasure that hearing those words brought him, but he plunged ahead. “Have you noticed that when Johnny walks out, the trigger has something to do with his past and his fear that we’ll hold his past against him?”


Murdoch thought about that and his eyes widened with comprehension. “That’s true—now that you mention it.”


“Johnny didn’t have anyone to teach him how to have a discussion instead of a confrontation. My grandfather taught me.” He couldn’t resist the small barb—he wanted Murdoch to know that he treasured the multitude of life’s lessons Harlan had bestowed upon him.


Murdoch understood the words—and the unspoken message behind them. He hung his head. “Harlan and I have never seen eye-to-eye, son. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate what a fine job he did of raising you. He taught you well.”


Instead of replying to that concession, Scott copied a gesture he’d seen Johnny use, playfully bumping Murdoch with his shoulder and letting a quick glance from under his lashes and the upturned corner of his mouth acknowledge the admission. “Johnny learned to run from his anger somewhere. I’ll bet his mother ran away from hers, too.”


Murdoch’s body stiffened with the shock of recognition and he gasped, closing his eyes. When he spoke, his voice was a mere whisper, “That’s exactly what she did. She ran right off this ranch.”


Scott squeezed Murdoch’s shoulder, hating to dredge up such painful memories. “Sir, Johnny grew up believing that he’d done something to cause you to send him and his mother away.” He could feel the tactile sensations from the heartache those words evoked. It dismayed him, but if he could make his father understand, Murdoch would become even more effective in his interactions with Johnny.


He soldiered on. “I’m sorry, I know that you didn’t send them away, but that erroneous belief is one of the pillars that molded Johnny into the man he is today. He grew up thinking that he was ‘bad’, not good enough—not his actions, Murdoch, but his very existence as an individual. Johnny grew up questioning his right to be alive.”


A low moan tore through Murdoch’s throat. “Don’t you think I know that?”


“I’m not blaming you, sir. I know you’d give anything to change what Johnny had to survive.” Scott squeezed the tense shoulder harder. “You’ve asked me before for tips on how to talk to him. I think you’re doing fine on your own, but understanding how his view of himself affects Johnny made all the difference for me in being the kind of brother he needs.”


Murdoch swallowed hard and reached up to pat the hand Scott still rested on his shoulder. “Please continue.”


“Johnny coped with those questions of worthiness through Johnny Madrid. As Madrid, he could convince himself that they didn’t matter. Madrid made Johnny powerful, gave him control and respect.”


Murdoch gazed at Scott with awe and pride, impressed by such prescient reasoning. Yet the words only emphasized the devastating impact his own treatment of Johnny must have had on his younger son. He hung his head again, voice rough with self-loathing. “When he first came home, instead of affirming his value to me as my son, I made Johnny believe that I questioned his worth as an individual.” His shoulders shook. “God, Scott, I made so many mistakes with that boy.”


Scott didn’t speak, but he kept his grip on his father’s shoulder firm, allowing the man the space and time to work through his thoughts and reach his own conclusions.


Murdoch wrestled with his memories for several long minutes. At length, his eyes met Scott’s. “I think this whole,” he paused, trying to find the right word to describe the experience of the past few weeks, finally giving up and using an inadequate one, “episode has helped us show Johnny just how much we value him as a son and brother—that he means the world to us regardless of what he’s done. What do you think?”


“I agree with you, sir, and I don’t think we’ll see Johnny bolting so often now.” A thought occurred to him and he looked up at Murdoch and grinned. “We may be sorry. Johnny is quite a persuasive negotiator when he isn’t diverted by worries about not deserving a family that loves him.”


Both men enjoyed a chuckle at the truth of those words. Scott released Murdoch’s shoulder and cupped his brandy snifter with both hands, warming the amber liquid. Murdoch followed suit with his own glass, turning his head and letting his admiration for the young man beside him show on his face.


“Jelly said that Johnny doesn’t know how to let us love him, but I didn’t know how to show my son that I love him. You got us past that, Scott.”


“You and Johnny did the hard work.” Scott fortified himself with a gulp of liquid courage. “I have to hand it to you, sir. When I left for Fresno, I wasn’t sure that you’d actually talk to Johnny. I can only imagine how difficult that must have been, but you persisted.”


Murdoch interrupted, his disappointment in himself echoing through his words. “I was only doing something I should have done from the first day you boys came home—be a father.”


“I believe that there is a right time and a wrong time to ignore the past, let it die. This is one of the right times.” Scott smiled. “As Pete would say, no more ‘if only’ or ‘should’ve’.”


Murdoch swelled with love and pride for the young man standing so sincerely—and with such forgiveness—before him. He swallowed the lump in his throat along with another sip of brandy. “So like your mother.”


“That’s good to hear, sir. I’d like to think that I inherited some fine qualities from my father, too—like forging ahead in the face of adversity or finding the strength to admit when I need help.” He focused intently on the brandy swirling in his glass. “Even admit when I’m wrong. I said some things to you when we thought Johnny…well, my behavior wasn’t at all diplomatic and I’m sorry.”


“No apologies necessary, son. That’s another example of a right time to forget the past.” Murdoch slipped one long arm around his older son.


Scott leaned against the tower of strength, enjoying this simple contact with his father. “There’s a part of that immediate past that I’ll never forget. When Sam had given up, you brought Johnny home, Murdoch. You. Somehow, you got through to him and he didn’t leave us. You promised Tommy that you wouldn’t let Johnny die and you kept that promise.” He looked up, meeting Murdoch’s gaze. “Thanks to you, Johnny’s found that peace you wished for him.”


Murdoch bit his lip and tightened his hold on his son. “Your brother is going to be just fine and we’ve all played a role in that. I won’t ever forget that you are the reason Johnny stayed at Lancer after we defeated Pardee. We’re still learning how to be a family, but with you to keep us pointed in the right direction, I know we’ll make it. I’m proud of you, Scott.”


“It was my pleasure, sir. Thank you for telling me that.”


Murdoch darted a quick glance over his shoulder at Pete and Jelly arguing amiably over their checker game. “This old dog has been learning some new tricks lately. I plan on telling you that more often, son.”


Their glasses clinked together with a satisfying chime as the two men exchanged smiles before turning back to contemplate the view of their land and the fireflies winking in the fragrant evening air.





Early evening the next day…


Scott stood next to Johnny’s window toying with the braided tie-backs on the curtains and forcing himself not to watch as his brother dressed for the trip downstairs. The young man’s movements were slower than usual and Scott’s every instinct shrieked to offer his assistance, but he recognized Johnny’s need to do this for himself. His brother had accepted the family’s aid and mothering with good grace, but the boy was ready to reclaim his independence and Scott reluctantly admitted that they needed to let him.


He remained by the window, but conceded to the urge to observe. Johnny’s nimble fingers fumbled slightly over the toggles and he pulled the material out away from his chest in order to finish fastening them. Seeing the shirt hanging so loosely on Johnny’s body brought a rush of dismay that tested Scott’s resolve. His brother was still so drawn and gaunt, the lost weight a painful reminder of just how ill he’d been. Scott bit down on his impulse to help and gazed out at Barranca lazing in the corral.


“Oh boy, somethin’ sure smells good. What’s Maria cookin’, Scott? She wouldn’t tell me—said it was a surprise.” Johnny stood and began tucking his shirt into his pants. When he finished he straightened to his full height, delighted to be fully clothed for the first time in weeks. He grinned at Scott, eyes sparkling like an excited child.


Scott couldn’t resist that grin. He knew how much Johnny was looking forward to this major step in his recovery. Sam had declared him fit to make the trek downstairs for dinner, but cautioned the rest of the family to see that he didn’t overdo it. Scott was determined to carry out Sam’s orders without making Johnny feel babied.


“I don’t know what we’re having for dinner. Maria refuses to tell me, too. Tommy and Teresa are the only ones allowed in the kitchen. And would you believe that Tommy isn’t talking?”


Tommy ain’t talkin’?”


“He says he’s locked his lips and thrown away the key.” Scott strode over to Johnny’s bed, sinking down onto the mattress and relaxing back against the pile of pillows.


“Make yourself at home.” Johnny laughed as he bent down to reach for his boots. His still weak body betrayed him with a rush of dizziness and he stumbled and swayed as he fought to stay upright. Scott sprang to his feet and steadied his younger brother.


“Are you all right?” He chided himself for asking, but he was concerned at how pale Johnny had grown. Scott guided his brother to sit on the edge of the bed and perched beside him. “Johnny?”


“I can make it. Just…just a little shaky.” He turned his face to his brother, pleading eyes at odd variance with the steely determination in his voice. “I’m still goin’ down for dinner. Don’t you say nuthin’ to Murdoch, Scott!”


Scott slapped Johnny’s shoulder and grinned. Johnny was well aware of just how closely he was being watched by their father. He knew full well that if Murdoch thought for one minute he wasn’t up to making a trip downstairs, then he wouldn’t. As the Old Man would say, it’s not open for discussion.


“Don’t tell me what?” Murdoch’s quiet question startled both brothers. Two pairs of eyes watched him enter the room and cross the floor to stand directly in front of his younger son.


“Well, John?” Murdoch asked quietly.


Johnny stood slowly and looked up at his father. “I’m a little light-headed is all. It ain’t nuthin’ Sam didn’t warn me about.” He gathered himself to his full height, his head not reaching above Murdoch’s shoulder, and declared defiantly, “I’m still goin’ downstairs, Murdoch.”


Scott smirked at that recalcitrant tone and Murdoch suppressed a laugh. The past three weeks had taught Johnny the futility of arguing with Murdoch regarding anything to do with his health. His father’s word represented unyielding law in that area. But tonight he was showing some rebellion and Murdoch had to admit he welcomed the return of his younger son’s infamous sass.


“Did I say you couldn’t, son?” Murdoch allowed a grin to creep across his face.


Johnny bowed his head as color rushed to his cheeks. “No…I just thought…” He noticed Scott’s struggle to stifle his laughter and chanced a glance up at his father’s face. The smile reassured him and he grinned back at Murdoch.


“Well, you thought wrong.” Murdoch squeezed Johnny’s shoulder and winked at Scott. “Do you need my help here?”


“No, sir, I’ve got him under control,” Scott assured his father in the tone Johnny thought of as “I’m the oldest and wisest and don’t you forget it.”


Johnny heaved a mournful sigh. He didn’t stand a chance. The whole household had banded together to take care of him, his every move observed and controlled as they patiently nursed him back to health. It surprised him how easily he had accepted their cloying concern. Part of him actually enjoyed the attention and fuss he’d never experienced before. Maybe because he knew how much it meant to them to be able to do it for him and just maybe because of the emotions their caring stirred within him. But he was ready for some independence now; it was time for them to ease up on him.


He held out his hands as though waiting for a pair of handcuffs. “Okay, okay. I’m under control, on parole. And if I step out of line, then I’m back in jail. Right, Murdoch?”


“Right, Johnny—and the sentence will be longer than before.” Murdoch put his hands on his hips, his face a mask of determination.


Johnny dropped his hands and sighed. They weren’t even going to meet him half way. He was the lone chick in a house full of mother hens. It was a miracle that Scott hadn’t tried to dress him.


Murdoch bit back a laugh at the lugubrious expression on Johnny’s face. He patted his son’s shoulder and headed toward the door. “Don’t be much longer now, boys. Tommy is about to burst.”


Scott couldn’t resist a further tease. “I think we’d better leave his boots up here, don’t you, sir? Just in case he’s tempted to head for the barn when no one’s looking.” He snickered as Murdoch’s guffaw drifted back through the open door.


Johnny punched his brother on the arm. “Oh, real funny, Scott. You tryin’ to be one of them comedians? Like I could get away with it with all your beady little eyes watchin’ every move I make.”


“I know you—given half a chance, you’d be in the barn in a heartbeat. And it’s only a short step from the barn to Barranca’s back. No boots.” Scott declared firmly.


“Now look, Scott,” Johnny pointed vehemently at his boots, unable to believe Scott’s latest order, “I’m wearing those…” His words trailed off as he saw the twinkle of humor in his brother’s eyes and his voice softened. “You think you know me, huh?”


“I know I do,” Scott chuckled.


Johnny’s grin faded as he stared into his brothers eyes. “Yeah, reckon you do.” For a moment his emotions threatened to overwhelm him and he bit his lip. He felt Scott’s hand on his shoulder, support readily given and now so easy to accept.


Johnny sat down on the bed again and flashed his brother his most persuasive smile. “Help me with my boots, Scott?”



Tommy whooped when Johnny and Scott strolled through the door and everyone in the room laughed at the boy’s eagerness as they rose to welcome the Lancer sons.


“About dern time,” Jelly huffed. “About as slow as a cow in a bog-hole, the pair of ya. Thought we was gonna celebrate Christmas afore ya got yerselves down here.”


“Aw Jelly, give us a break. Scott had to get himself all pretty for this here shindig. Older you get, the longer it takes, ya know.” Johnny winced at the brotherly cuff Scott dispensed for that remark.


Tommy scampered to Johnny’s side and tugged his sleeve. “Come on, Johnny! Uncle M said I could sit by you.” He led Johnny to his chair on Murdoch’s right and climbed up on the chair next to him, bouncing impatiently as the others took their seats. When he could stand it no longer, he nudged Johnny for attention.


Johnny turned to him and rolled his eyes. “Calm down, Big ‘Un.”


Tommy pointed to his glass. “Scott went down into the wine cellar for the good stuff, but I can’t have no wine and Uncle M said you can’t neither.” The whole table tittered at Johnny’s deflated expression.


“You boys are having something better.” Murdoch lifted a gaily decorated pottery pitcher and poured cold milk into Johnny and Tommy’s glasses.


He raised his own glass of wine to Johnny who clinked his milk against it. “Good health, son…and that’s an order.”


The table erupted with laughter before everyone hoisted their glasses and repeated the toast, including the order. Johnny caught each person’s eye in turn, delighted to be with them once again and touched beyond words at their sincere joy for him.


“Before we dig in to this fine meal, I’d like take a moment to give thanks for the blessings we have at this table.” Murdoch glanced meaningfully at his younger son before bowing his head.



Tommy grabbed Johnny’s hand as soon as Murdoch’s “Amen” died away. “Hey, Johnny, betcha can’t guess what‘s for dinner.”


“Well, I don’t rightly care what it is. I’m hungrier’n a woodpecker with a headache,” Jelly nodded his head for emphasis. “Was afraid I might starve waitin’ on two certain smart alecks to jingle their spurs and get here so’s we could eat.”


Johnny grinned his appreciation of Jelly’s comments, but focused on Tommy. “Well, let me see…” He inhaled deeply. “Rabbit?”


“Nope!” Tommy tittered. “Guess again.”


Johnny shot a look at Jelly from beneath his lashes and theatrically sniffed the air. “No, not rabbit…Dewdrop!”


Tommy squealed with delight as Jelly spluttered indignantly.


“Yer sassy bone done went and got well, ain’t it? Still got more lip than a muley cow,” the old man groused.


Johnny gave him a thumbs-up gesture and turned toward Tommy. “I know. It’s worm soup and rattler pie.”


Tommy dissolved into helpless giggles and everyone at the table chuckled at the child’s antics. Johnny winked at Pete.


“Your Pa told me that worm soup was your favorite,” Johnny teased Tommy. “Brother Scott dug them worms special for you.”


“Yech!” Tommy pulled a tortured face and the laughter bubbled around the table again. “Think I’d rather have Dr. Jenkins’ yucky yeller stuff. But just wait, Johnny. Teresa fixed ya a special treat with somethin’ I shot with my rifle this mornin’.”


Johnny’s ears pricked up at that. “Yeah? You shot supper for us?”


“Yep! All by myself, Johnny. Pa went with me ‘cause you said I wasn’t to go off shootin’ alone, but I found ‘em and shot ‘em myself. Sure are fast little critters.” The boy’s face glowed with pride and he stood on his chair as Teresa carried in a tureen containing the surprise dish he was so excited about.


“Thanks to Tommy, we have an extra delicacy to start our special meal,” Teresa explained as she ladled stew into the bowls.


Johnny noticed that Teresa left her own bowl empty. “Ain’t you havin’ any, T’resa?”


She blushed and looked away. “No, Johnny. I just couldn’t eat…ah, I mean I’m saving room for dessert.”


Johnny puzzled over her reply as he studied the meager portion of stew she’d served him. A sudden thought crossed his mind and he looked across the table at his brother to find Scott grinning at him. Scott glanced down at the bowl in front of him and then back at Johnny, giving him a languid, conspiratorial wink.


“What is this, Tommy?” Johnny asked suspiciously.


“They got four legs and a long tail.” Tommy chortled as Johnny’s eyes widened. “You gotta guess.”


Johnny watched his father take a substantial bite, savoring the flavor before nodding his approval. “Excellent. Thank you for providing this, Thomas.”


Scott spooned in a mouthful of stew and chewed it with every evidence of enjoyment as Johnny stared from the chunks of meat in his bowl to his brother’s face. He thought back to the day he’d found Tommy and the conversation about hunger he’d had with Scott later that same evening. Surely Scott hadn’t…and Teresa wouldn’t…and Murdoch wouldn’t really eat it, would he?


“Murdoch, do you know what you’re eatin’?”


Tommy interrupted, “Don’t tell him, Uncle M! Johnny’s gotta guess.”


Johnny stared around the table and his gaze rested on Jelly who was sopping up the remainder of his stew with a hunk of bread. He caught Scott’s eye and winked.


“Why, I reckon it’s rat stew.” Johnny burst out laughing as Jelly froze, the stew-soaked bread poised just short of his mouth and a pained expression on his face. Whiskers trembled as Jelly carefully laid the bread in his bowl and took a gulp of wine.


“I have to hand it to Maria, she cooks a mean rat.” Scott joined in the joke and he and Johnny roared with laughter.


Tommy looked from one brother to the other and put his hands on his hips. “It ain’t rats. It’s squirrels. I shot ‘em myself this mornin’,” he insisted.


His pronouncement only caused Scott and Johnny to laugh harder. Tommy didn’t understand what was so funny, but his brothers obviously knew something, so he joined in the mirth, adding his high-pitched giggles to the hubbub.


Murdoch stared at his grown sons in surprise, unable to fathom why they were acting so strangely. It was downright odd. What could possibly be so funny about squirrel stew? He raised his eyebrows at Pete and shook his head in amusement at this inexplicable behavior.


Pete grinned and shrugged. “Boys…”



Johnny reached out to clasp Maria’s hand, thanking her for the meal and especially his favorite tortilla soup and the sweet flan for dessert. Although the dishes weren’t as hot or spicy as he usually enjoyed, he knew she and Teresa had prepared each item lovingly, their way of welcoming him back from the land of invalids and letting him know how much they cared. In her usual fashion, Maria hugged his head to her bosom and scolded him in Spanish, then whisked herself off to the kitchen so he wouldn’t see the tears in her eyes.


He turned to Teresa and managed to thank her as well before she escaped on the pretext of helping clear the table. She wasn’t as practiced at hiding her tears as Maria and Johnny regretted causing both of them such concern. Yet their obvious feelings for him warmed him to his toes.


Jelly and Pete escorted Tommy over to sit by the fire and Johnny sighed. He figured he was about to be ‘sent to bed’. Sensing his brother and father’s eyes on him, he pushed away from the table and held up his hands in mock surrender. “Okay, I’ll go quietly.”


Murdoch studied his son closely, attempting to assess just how much the evening had taken out of him. “What do you think, Scott? A little more time off for good behavior?”


Scott crossed his arms over his chest and looked Johnny up and down skeptically. “Well, I don’t know about the good behavior, sir. He did get a bit sassy over dessert. Fancy him asking for more,” He had to struggle to keep a straight face.


“But he did eat all of his greens.”


“Under protest,” Scott countered.


Johnny grinned at his tormentors. “Reckon I’m gonna die of old age while you two decide on whether to grant me a reprieve.”


Much to Scott’s chagrin, Murdoch relented and put a halt to the teasing. “Reprieve is granted. Come on over to the couch. Tommy’s waiting for you there.”



Scott poured the men a brandy and Johnny wasn’t surprised when Teresa handed him a glass of apple juice. He consoled himself with the thought that he didn’t really like brandy, anyway. Tommy bounced beside him on the couch and Johnny was hard pressed to keep from spilling his juice.


Murdoch stood in front of the fireplace beneath the Lancer L, smiling at Tommy’s excitement. The boy curled up next to Johnny, determined to keep some part of his body in contact with his friend. Pete sat in the leather chair by the fireplace, attempting unsuccessfully to curb his son’s high-spirited behavior. Jelly watched indulgently from his seat on the small settee on the other side of the fireplace. Maria sat beside him, her discomfort visible in the clasped hands on her lap. Murdoch had specifically requested that she join the rest of the family, taking her hand and leading her to the fire. Teresa finished pouring coffee and perched on the arm of the sofa next to Scott, resting her arm lightly on his shoulder.


Murdoch cleared his throat and the room fell silent. “First, I’d like to thank Maria and Teresa for a wonderful meal…”


“And me…” Tommy jumped up, pointing at his chest with his thumb.


“Goodness, Murdoch, don’t forget Tommy,” Teresa admonished.


Murdoch inclined his head. “My apologies, young man.” He bowed slightly and gestured toward the boy, “Thank you, Thomas.”


Tommy giggled and his father motioned for him to be quiet.


Johnny pulled the boy down onto his lap, tickling him until Tommy begged for mercy.


“You gonna settle down?”


“I promise.” Tommy gasped for breath and settled himself on Johnny’s lap. He looked up at Murdoch. “Go ahead, Uncle M.”


“Thank you, Thomas. I want to thank each and every one of you for the help and support you’ve given to me, Scott, and of course Johnny…and that includes the effort required to keep him, as Scott would say, ‘under control’ these last couple of weeks.”


Johnny flushed and hung his head as every eye turned to stare at him. Tommy gave him a brotherly smack on the upper arm.


“Sure ain’t been easy, I’m here to tell ya. Kinda like tyin’ down a bobcat with a piece of string.” Jelly jutted his chin forward for emphasis, pleased by the glare he provoked from Johnny.


Murdoch ignored this byplay. “He gave us quite a scare, but I can assure you all that he’s learned his lesson.” He stared at Johnny. “Haven’t you, son?”

Johnny nodded meekly, cheeks flaming at Scott’s ill concealed snicker. He was never going to be allowed to forget it. He began to wish he’d gone back to bed. He looked up to find his father smiling at him and found himself grinning back. He had to admit he enjoyed the affectionate teasing, but he’d certainly received more than his fair share of it recently.


“Dr. Jenkins says he’s headstrong!” Tommy squealed, prompting more laughter.


Johnny clapped his hand firmly over his young friend’s mouth. “Whose side you on, brother?”


The pride on Murdoch’s face was unmistakable. “Yes, Tommy, he is certainly headstrong…but then, he does take after me.”


Johnny relaxed against the soft cushions of the big sofa, exhaustion suddenly blurring the edges of his vision. His eyelids sank lower as his body demanded sleep in exchange for the unaccustomed activity and excitement of the evening. He was warm and comfortable, pleasantly full, surrounded by his family and friends, and his father’s deep voice droned on soothingly, leading him to peaceful sleep.


Murdoch continued speaking, addressing each person in the room, until Tommy waved to attract his attention. He turned to the boy.


“Shhh,” Tommy whispered as he pointed at Johnny. “You’re gonna wake up Johnny.”


Jelly rushed to the sofa, clicking his tongue against his teeth. “Boy plumb wore hisself out. His tail’s sure draggin’ now.”


Murdoch stood over his son and shook his head, angry at himself. He was afraid he’d allowed Johnny to do too much. Sam had instructed them to let the boy make the trip downstairs, have a light meal, and then send him straight back to bed. But Johnny had been so excited and Murdoch didn’t see any harm in letting him spend a few minutes on the sofa, surrounded by his friends and family. Now his son was exhausted. He sighed, regretting his decision.


Scott thought he knew exactly what was running through Murdoch’s mind. He stood and touched his father’s shoulder. “He’ll be fine with a little rest, sir. He’s just not used to doing this much.”


Murdoch bent over Johnny, fully intending to carry him up to his bed. Even as he prepared to encircle his son’s shoulders and lift him, he froze, remembering a previous conversation with Scott. Slowly, deliberately, he dropped his hand to gently shake Johnny’s shoulder. “Hey, son. Wake up.”


Johnny murmured and brushed the annoying hand away.


“Johnny.” A bit louder.


“Huh?” Johnny’s eyes snapped open.


“I thought you might be more comfortable up in your room.” He pitched his voice for Johnny’s ears alone. “You were sound asleep, son.”


Johnny’s face reddened. “Yeah, reckon reprieve’s over. I better head back upstairs.” He climbed to his feet, grasping Murdoch’s arm for support at the slight dizziness that still plagued him whenever he stood too quickly. Waiting until the vertigo passed, he let go of the steadying arm and stood on his own, facing the people gathered in the room.


“Ah…look, I ain’t a hand at speech makin’ like my brother and father so I’ll keep it short. Thanks for bein’ here tonight—and for your help while I was sick. You all been real good to me. I’m obliged.” He flashed them one of his patented heart-stopping smiles, “Good night,” and headed for the stairs.


Scott squeezed Murdoch’s arm in approval, acknowledging the man’s wisdom in allowing Johnny to return to his room under his own power. His father was still feeling his way, but he had to admit that the man learned quickly. He nodded at him and followed his brother up the stairs.






Scott paused outside Johnny’s room as the sound of his brother’s voice drifted into the hall. He wondered who Johnny was speaking to and peered inside, drawing back at the sight of the boy staring out the window into the night sky. He realized that his brother needed some time with Pablo and headed back downstairs. Johnny could take care of himself for the moment.


Johnny leaned his elbows on the window sill, gazing up at the North Star. His heart thumped warmly with the wishes and encouragement of his family and friends, but part of him ached with the need to talk to his old amigo. His restless fingers plaited several strands of rawhide as he spoke to Pablo.


“So Murdoch is gonna let me take a run at the horse business. Not just roundin’ up the wild ones, but breedin’ and trainin’, too. And I’m gonna teach Luis—he’s Cipriano’s grandson so all that wisdom you shared with me is gonna stay in the family. Reckon I’m gonna finally use all them things you taught me, gonna be a mustañero.


“I know, Viejo, I know, ya been wonderin’ how come I didn’t do that from the get go. Didn’t have to pick up a gun, did I? Or I coulda laid it aside after takin’ down Tully and them others. Diego, he begged me to come to his rancho. He’s got some fine horses and wanted me to train ‘em. He woulda treated me like a brother. I sure think a heap of ol’ Diego. I wanted to go to him, but I couldn’t.” Johnny set the rawhide pieces aside and crossed his arms over his chest, hugging himself.


“I couldn’t, Pablo. I had this—this rage…burnin’ in me. My whole mind and body was just on fire with hate and bitterness. I couldn’t be an amansadore…couldn’t touch a horse feelin’ that way. A horse don’t understand them feelins, just scares ‘em. Hatin’ like I did, I wasn’t worthy of bein’ called a mustañero.”


He dropped his arms, taking a deep breath and leaning his elbows on the windowsill. “Maybe I was wrong, but I had to work that fire outta me and I done it the only way I knew how. Took me some time to figure out that killin’ a man didn’t let none of that mad out.


“I ain’t that boy you knew and loved no more, Pablo. The night you…they…well, that night, I used what you showed me and I locked that boy away.” His knuckles gleamed white as he twined his fingers and clenched his hands together. “Thought he was gone forever. Funny thing, but I reckon he broke that lock along with some of them other things been comin’ back to me lately. Parts of him keep showin’ up and now…well, now I’m thinkin’ he’s come home, too.


“You know, you always been up there in the sky for me. Wouldn’t be alive right now if I hadn’t had you to turn to all those lonely years. You guided me when I didn’t have nobody else.”


The restive fingers snatched up the rawhide pieces again, plaiting them rapidly. “You told me once that I needed to find my Pa one day, that I should make up my own mind about him and not just accept what I’d been told.”


“You never said nuthin’ against my Mama, but I know you figured she lied to me. You were right, Pablo.” He discarded the rawhide and leaned out to pluck several bougainvillea blooms from the trellis beside the window.


“She did lie. She lied and I’ll never know why.” He began methodically stripping each flower of its petals, watching as each bright fragment fluttered to the ground. “I ain’t sure how I feel about her no more, but I made up my own mind about my father, just like you told me.


“He does care, Pablo. He wants me, even though I done some things he don’t hold with. I got a home now, Viejo. I’m gonna be that mustañero you always told me I am. And I’m gonna be a son and brother, too. I got a real shot at a new beginnin’ and I ain’t gonna miss. Reckon you know that I hit what I aim at.” The windowsill was strewn with scarlet petals.


“Anyhow, just wanted you to know that you ain’t the only one guidin’ me no more. I got Murdoch and Scott and Jelly. Maybe between the four of ya, you can keep me in line, huh? So I guess you get some slack in your rope. You deserve a rest, let them others carry the load awhile. Don’t worry, I’ll holler when I need ya.” A gentle breeze teased the fallen petals, creating a glorious display of color.


“Just needed to say gracias one more time, amigo. That’s from Juanito—Madrid and Lancer. You kept both our heads on straight for lotsa years and we won’t ever forget. Don’t think I don’t need ya no more, ‘cause that ain’t true. Just got ya a little help, that’s all.


“Well, I’m awful tired and Scott and Tommy will be comin’ in. Gotta tell Tommy a story. He loves it as much as I did when ya told me stories. Gonna sack in now. Buenas noches, Viejo. You’re shinin’ real fine up there.”



“Sure is quiet up here,” Pete whispered as he and Murdoch halted outside the door to Johnny’s room. Scott and Tommy had joined Johnny upstairs more than an hour ago while Pete and Murdoch stayed by the fire enjoying more brandy and cigars with Jelly.


Murdoch placed his ear to the door. “I don’t hear a sound. This isn’t like those three. I wonder what they’re up to.”  He eased the door open a crack and peeked inside.


Pete watched as a huge grin covered Murdoch’s face. The older man carefully pushed the door open and beckoned for Pete to join him. When he stepped forward and peered into the room, Pete’s grin matched Murdoch’s.


Tommy lay on his side cuddled next to Johnny, head resting on his shoulder and one arm slung across his chest; the jar of fireflies nestled on the quilt between their legs. The boy’s blond hair gleamed in the lamplight, looking for all the world like a halo encircling his cherubic face. Johnny lolled across his pillows, one arm holding the child in a tender embrace, his cheek resting on the silky crown of Tommy’s head. His dark lashes fanned out against his high cheekbones and he breathed softly through slightly parted lips. His dark hair fell forward over his forehead. The muted lamplight blurred the planes of his face, softening them so that he looked not much older than Tommy.


Scott had scooted the armchair next to the bed so that he sat nearly parallel to Johnny. He sprawled in the chair, stockinged feet resting on the mattress and crossed at the ankles, head thrown back against the cushions and hair askew. His tie hung limply down his chest and the top three buttons of his shirt were undone. One arm draped over the padded side of the chair above his discarded boots while the other hand rested on Johnny’s shoulder. His finely chiseled mouth hung partially open, a faint snore periodically issuing between his thin lips. His new bridle lay in his lap. He didn’t appear much older than Tommy and Johnny.


Murdoch crossed silently to the bed and brushed Johnny’s hair back from his forehead before gently lifting Scott’s dangling arm and resting it on his son’s chest. He tiptoed back to the door and slapped his friend’s shoulder. A glinting smile, one that reminded Pete of Johnny, creased his face. He shook his head and whispered in a voice of utter satisfaction, “Boys…”



*A “muley cow” is a hornless cow. As she is handicapped in defending herself from other cattle, she beds down at night on the outside edge of the herd away from the other horned stuff. This brings her to the night riders’ personal observation as they circle the herd. Muley cows have a bad reputation with cowboys as troublemakers, requiring more patience to handle than other cattle. This is the basis for Jelly’s insult to Johnny as having “more lip than a muley cow.” 

**When used as Johnny addressed Pablo, the word Viejo means “Old One” and is a title of great respect





Evening, 4 days later…


Johnny leaned against the boulders in his special place, resting his chin on knees drawn up to his chest. He absentmindedly tickled Barranca’s muzzle while the golden horse cropped the thick grass beside him. The crisp evening air, fanned by a gentle breeze, whispered pleasantly against his face and the serene sounds of the night coupled with the woodsy scents of the Lancer hills soothed him.


He plucked a blade of grass and chewed it as he gazed up at the velvet indigo blanket speckled with glittering stars. So beautiful, so silent, so far away…


Johnny sighed deeply, hugging his knees closer to his chest and wincing as the movement put pressure on his still-healing incision. His eyes found that special, resplendent point of light—the one he’d come here to see…the one he hadn’t wanted to look at since coming to Lancer and hearing the truth about his mother’s abrupt departure from the ranch.


Don’t wanna do this, but I gotta. C’mon Johnny, deep breath and focus. Spit it out.


“Hey, Mama. It’s been a while. Reckon I ignored you lately, but I ain’t forgot you. I ain’t spoke with you since I come home.” He twisted the toggle on the cuff of his shirt. “That’s where I am now…Lancer…home. Took a long time on some real hard and tricky roads, but I made it. You weren’t happy here, but I am—reckon it’s ‘cause I belong here now.


“I got me a brother. I always wanted a brother and I got a real fine one. You’d like Scott, Mama—hombre muy bueno, you’d say. He ain’t never judged me, accepts me for what I am, what I done, and he’s always there for me when I need him…. I been needin’ him a lot lately.”


He balled his hand into a fist and let it fall against the boulder. “What I’m wonderin’ is how come you never told me about Scott. I wish you had. Did you know about him, Mama?”


He plucked another blade of grass and shredded it to ribbons. “Jelly says askin’ questions that ain’t got no answers is like coyotes howlin’ at the moon. Reckon I’m a real fine coyote. You’d like Jelly, too. He’s been a good friend to me and in lotsa ways a father. There’s some things I can’t talk to nobody else about, but just seems okay to powwow on ‘em with ol’ Jelly. He helps me rein in my thinkin’. Likes to pretend he’s hard as nails, but he’s really an old softy.”


Johnny had to stretch his legs out and lie back against the rock for a moment. His head swam unpleasantly and his incision throbbed an insistent reminder that his recovery was barely beyond the bed-ridden stage. He was so tired, might not be able to get himself mounted again. Maybe riding so far his first time back on a horse wasn’t such a good idea after all. Come to think of it, he wasn’t even supposed to be going out to the barn yet, much less riding a horse!


Ai yi yi, Murdoch and Scott ain’t gonna be happy with me. Murdoch’ll get all puffed up and play Papa, blisterin’ my ears and fussin’ and actin’ like he wants to carry me up to bed. Scott will have that “I trusted you and look what you did” look on his face. He was right about me and my boots. Reckon he’ll hide ‘em from me now. Jelly will threaten to cut a switch and Teresa will shut ‘em all up and save me from their lecturin’. Then later, when she has me back in bed, she’ll give me one of her little sermons. And then Maria will come in and she’ll have a few things to say, too.


But I had to come. There’s things I gotta get said and this is the place I gotta be to say ‘em.


He tore his thoughts from his family and focused on the task at hand—getting said what he’d come here to say. The blue eyes found the Evening Star and Johnny took a fortifying breath. “Reason I ain’t spoke with you is ‘cause I was mad, Mama. Lookin’ back, it sounds childish, but I was all mixed up, didn’t know what to say to you.”


His restless fingers absently plucked a blade of grass and methodically shredded it. “Scott, he helped me understand. He says you do the best you can, but sometimes your best just ain’t good enough and it disappoints the ones you love most. Times like that, you gotta forgive yourself and soldier on.


“Guess you had your reasons for…for not tellin’ me the truth about Murdoch. I reckon you done what you thought you had to.” He clasped his arms around himself in that old familiar action that had so often helped shut out the world.


“What you done…it hurt, Mama…bad. I grew up thinkin’ my father didn’t want me, that I done somethin’ to make him feel that way.” The melodious voice quavered and Johnny swallowed hard. “Never crossed my mind that comin’ to Lancer was an option. Woulda rode a different trail if I’d known that. So when I think of all them years of driftin’ and killin’…well, I been real mad at you.


“But Scott helped me see that I can be angry at what you done and still love you.” Johnny dropped his arms and fiddled with the fastenings on his pants leg. “And Murdoch and Jelly, they made me see that I don’t hafta choose ‘tween you and Murdoch, that carin’ for one of you don’t mean I’m betrayin’ the other.” He gulped and forced out his next words, “So, I’m sorry I quit speakin’ with you ‘cause I was mad.”


A strangled sob escaped and Johnny wrapped his arms around his shaking body as he struggled to contain his emotions. Tearing his eyes away from the night sky, he bowed his head. He couldn’t look at the Evening Star, not while he voiced what was ripping him up inside.


Sensing the emotional tumult raging within his friend, Barranca lipped Johnny’s cheek, his mole-soft muzzle moving delicately over the still-pale skin. The palomino’s warm breath tickled the back of Johnny’s neck and his deep, breathy whicker seemed to say, “I’m here, compadre. You aren’t alone.” 


Johnny leaned his dark head against the gelding’s golden one, drawing comfort from his horse. He stayed that way for some time, fighting to regain control of his emotions so that he could say what he needed to say to his mother. The palomino stood patiently, allowing Johnny to rest against him. Finally, he was ready, but his hands never left Barranca’s head as he drew strength from his four-legged friend.


“You lied to me, Mama! Why? You told me that my father didn’t want me, but he did…he did and I hated him all those years when he was…lovin’ me…wantin’ me.” His fingers tangled and twisted through Barranca’s lush forelock.


“I wanted to kill him for hurtin’ you, for not…lovin’ me. I grew up hatin’. Still ain’t quite worked all the bitterness outta me. Reckon I made some bad choices, too, Mama.” His knuckles stood out white with tension in the dusky evening. “Guess I disappointed you and Pablo and Murdoch and Scott…But I know now that you can be disappointed in my choices and still love me.”


Long minutes passed as Johnny’s body heaved in uncontrollable spasms of misery. A tear tracked its way down his cheek, releasing more of the buried pain and sorrow that he had learned to hide and tried for so many years to forget. But it wasn’t the same solitary agony of the past. There was less pain and sorrow because he had shared the terrible burden with his brother and father. He didn’t have to carry it alone anymore—they were eager to help him bear the load. Somehow, that made all the difference. They knew what he had been, what he had done, and loved him in spite of it. Nothing in the world could match the peace that came with understanding and accepting that simple fact.


Regaining control, Johnny lifted his eyes to rest once again on his mother’s star. “Murdoch, he’s a good man, Mama. I know that now. He loved you…maybe you didn’t know how much, maybe he didn’t know how to tell you or show you, or maybe you just didn’t wanna know.” He sighed and plucked another blade of grass.


“Anyhow, it don’t matter no more. He looked for us for a long time. You see, he did want you and he did want…me. And in spite of everythin’ I done and everythin’ I am; he still wants…me.” The crooked, dazzling smile Maria had bequeathed to her son crawled up the side of Johnny’s mouth. “So I’m home now and I’m here to stay.


“I’m gonna be workin’ with horses again, Mama—like Pablo taught me. Reckon I don’t hafta tell you how much that means to me. You always said I must be part horse. And I’m gonna be buildin’ somethin’ that’s mine. Somethin’ that’ll be a real legacy—not just some stories and songs ‘bout how fast I can draw a gun.”


He scratched Barranca in that special spot underneath his jaw, causing the horse to whiffle with pleasure. “I’ll be workin’ side-by-side with my brother and father to build our dream, improve our land. You used to tell me that nuthin’ was as important as buildin’ somethin’ you can call your own. Reckon you learned that from Murdoch.”


The smile widened to a grin. “That Murdoch, he’s really somethin’, ain’t he, Mama? I call him the Old Man. Started doin’ it ‘cause it pissed him off, but now, guess it’s a kinda code for how much I like havin’ him for a father. He does the same thing to me, talkin’ to me like I’m a kid and all when he’s really just enjoyin’ me as his son.”


The grin faded. “He woulda been a good father, Mama. I wish…I wish he coulda raised me. Lotsa things woulda been different if he had. Course there’s a lotta good people I’d never have met if I’d grown up at Lancer. It’s one of them things I can’t change, so I’m just gonna focus on bein’ his son now.


“You know, it ain’t always easy. Lotsa times me and the Old Man don’t see eye-to-eye…Scott says we’re too much alike, two peas in a pod.” Johnny shivered in the cool evening air and drew his coat tightly around his chest.


“We had us some real humdingers. Oh boy, he’s stubborn, just like me. And he noticed first thing that I got your temper. But well, you know,” his left hand stretched up to scratch his right shoulder, “we’re learnin’ how to talk to each other and I reckon we both know how we feel now.


“That little Tommy, he sure helped us understand one another. ‘Little Big Mouth’ Scott calls him.” The smile crept up the side of Johnny’s mouth again, his teeth flashing whitely in the darkness. “But I’m glad he is ‘cause he made all of us talk about things that needed sayin’ an airin’.


“I wanted to tell you that…I love you, Mama. Always have and I always will. Wish I’d said it more often when I had you with me.”


Johnny sat in silence for several long minutes, remembering his mother’s lilting laughter, her rich voice, that special crooked smile, the way her brilliant eyes danced, the comforting sensation of her hands in his hair and squeezing his thin shoulders, the loving touch of her long, delicate fingers wiping away his tears, and the sweet fragrance of the gardenias she adored and wore whenever possible. If he gazed at that brightest of stars while thinking of her, he could almost see her vivid face glowing from it.


Barranca butted his shoulder, blowing softly through his nostrils and Johnny patted the golden forehead.


Reckon you’re right, amigo. Time we was gettin’ home ‘fore Murdoch and Scott send search parties out after us.


He tried to stand, but couldn’t do it on his own. His legs were rubbery and he was still frustratingly weak, arms limp with exhaustion. By grabbing a stirrup, he was able to pull himself upright. His family was right, as usual. He wasn’t ready to be walking around, much less riding a horse. He’d used all his strength to saddle Barranca and ride up here. But he hadn’t been able to put off setting things straight with his mother any longer. It would be all right. He’d make it all right.


“Reckon I’d best be headin’ on home. Teresa’s makin’ me a chocolate cake. She thinks I need cheerin’ up and fatten’ up.” He leaned against Barranca’s solid shoulder, letting the dizziness pass and trying to absorb strength from his palomino.


“I been real sick, Mama. Guess I like to died. This is the first time they’ve let me out of the house. I snuck out to the barn, got Barranca, and rode off—ain’t supposed to be ridin’ yet, but I needed to talk to you and seemed like this was the right place to do it.


“Reckon Murdoch, Scott, Jelly, Teresa, and Maria will all have a few things to say to me when I get home.” A rueful smile glinted and he rubbed his left ear. “Well, more than a few things. My ears are burnin’ already just thinkin’ about it. Reckon I ain’t gonna get that cake after all.”


He began plaiting the saddle strings on the back of his saddle. “They—my family—been awful protective of me since I been sick. Feels like they’re smotherin’ me…but it ain’t really so bad. I’m gettin’ kinda used to it.


“I’m gonna have to charm ‘em outta bein’ mad at me. They’ll let me ‘cause they know how sick I been and that I been sad, missin’ havin’ Tommy around. They go outta their way to make me feel better.”


Oh, he was in for it, no question. They’d all give him a piece of their mind. But in the end, they’d forgive him and he’d end up snuggled comfortably in his bed. ‘Course they’d make him swallow some nasty medicine and maybe even cut him back to broth-soaked bread for a day or so. Then they’d tell Sam and the doctor would give him an earful, too. And he wouldn’t be gettin’ that cake tonight. But Teresa would make him another one in a day or so.


He stroked Barranca’s arched neck and smiled at the Evening Star. “It’s sure feels good knowin’ people care about me…about what happens to me. They love me, Mama. And I love them. It’s grand—lovin’ somebody and knowin’ that they love you…no matter what…. I ain’t always sure how to let ‘em love me, but I’m learnin’. And they’re tryin’ real hard to show me how much they care without spookin’ me.”


He had to blink to keep the brilliant star in focus and his voice came out strangely husky. “’Night, Mama. I love you and I won’t leave it so long next time.”


He struggled up onto his faithful palomino, slumping there for a sliver of eternity, eyes fixed longingly on that unreachable special star. Then his gaze swung from the heavens back to earth, finding the shimmering hacienda in the distance.


The evening breeze whispered cool and refreshing, the stars and moon offering enough visibility to appreciate the rich majesty of the Lancer land. Johnny sucked in his breath at the sight and his eyes drank in the incredible view for several moments. Such an amazing place, this land. His land. His home. Shared with his family.


You said it, Jelly. Lancer’s heart beats in time with my own.


The blue eyes focused on the stately white hacienda, its festoon of bright lights beckoning him seductively. The need to be home with his family overwhelmed him. He studied the road before him—a ribbon of moonlight standing out invitingly against the rolling hills and greenery.


There was plenty of light to allow Barranca to travel safely at a gallop and the temptation—the physical ache—to feel the wind in his hair and his horse in flight beneath him, beguiled him. Johnny resisted for a split second before surrendering and flinging the fidgeting palomino into a gallop.


“Let’s go, Barranca!”


The gelding exploded into a breathtaking sprint, mane and tail whipping wildly, nostrils flared blood red, snorting in exuberance. Johnny grabbed the saddle horn and lay out along the straining golden neck, encouraging his horse to run.


“Whooiiee!” Horse and rider thundered down the road, dust swirling from the pounding hooves, hearts beating as one in time with the cat-quick strides, lost in the sheer joy of racing a hole in the wind together.


And the Evening Star flared incandescent, sparkling and shimmering, shining more brightly than any other star in the heavens as she carefully lighted the road home for the boy and his flying golden horse.



The End

Karen & Nancy @2003

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine



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