The Boy

Part Four

by  Karen and Nancy



Murdoch and Pete return to Lancer the day after the near-tragedy in the barn…


The pre-dawn air lay chilly on the rocky canyon walls and flirted with the coattails of the two men riding along the canyon floor. The breaths of the men and their horses rose in smoke-like puffs and Murdoch Lancer hunched his shoulders so that the collar of his jacket covered his ears. He wished that he and Pete Adams had set out for the Lancer ranch at a decent hour—decent meaning after the sun was already up. But Pete was far too excited about seeing his son again to allow such a sensible action. No, the man had them on the trail at 4:00 AM. Well, at least they could have breakfast at Lancer.


“Tell me again what Tommy said when you asked him if he wanted to see me.” Pete turned in his saddle before Murdoch was able to mask his exasperation. “Sorry, Murdo. Guess I’m just nervous.”


Pete’s rueful smile struck a sympathetic chord in Murdoch, tempering his annoyance at the repeated question. “Your son said ‘Oh boy, do I.’ And that, from what I’ve seen of Master Tommy, is his highest endorsement. Your boy is anxious to see you and that, my friend, hasn’t changed since the last time I told you what he said. That was, oh, about five minutes ago.”


“Thanks. It helps to hear you say it out loud, even if it is for about the hundredth time.” The sheepish expression reminded Murdoch of Pete’s son.


Pete’s eagerness to see his boy was evident in his every expression, the nervous gestures to keep his hands occupied, and his incessant requests for reassurance that Tommy wanted to see him.


“Well, I hope you don’t need much more help. At this rate, I’ll be hoarse by the time we reach Lancer.”


“Sorry.” Pete rode in silence for several minutes, but the constant fidgeting of his hands signaled his need to talk.


Laughing soundlessly at the similarities in Pete’s and Tommy’s behaviors, Murdoch ignored his friend while wagering with himself on how long it would take Pete to break the silence. He lost the bet.


“You ever been nervous about talking to your sons, Murdo? Well, not nervous, just plain scared to death because you knew you owed them an apology?”


Murdoch shifted in his saddle and failed to meet Pete’s gaze. “I doubt there’s a father alive who can truthfully deny that.”


“You gonna clam up on me, Murdo? I was hoping you might give me some pointers. I never had to ask Tommy to forgive me before. I ain’t sure I know what to say.” The fingers of Pete’s right hand restlessly combed his horse’s flaxen mane.


“We talked about this, Pete. You tell him you made a mistake and that you’re sorry.”


“Yeah, you told me that a couple of times. Guess what I’m really askin’ for is an example. Tell me about a time when you apologized to Scott or Johnny. What did you say and how did they take it?”


A dull heat flushed up Murdoch’s neck and across his face. Giving Pete advice was easy, but now the man wanted examples? He’d rarely apologized to anyone, much less his sons!


“Well, Pete, uh…I…Oh, yes. Scott and I discussed his concerns about why I let Harlan raise him. I told him I made a mistake, gave him my reasons, admitted I was wrong, and said I was sorry.”


“Just like that? Said you was sorry?”


“It wasn’t easy for me to say that, but Scott needed to hear it. And I didn’t let my reasons be excuses or try to justify what I did. They were simply explanations.”


“I remember you told me a little bit about that talk with Scott before. So it worked, huh?”


“It cleared the air. We’ve grown closer since then.”


“But what about some other times? Like that first day when your boys came home.” Pete shot a sideways glance at his stoic friend. “You never talk about that, Murdoch. Bet you coulda cut the air with a knife the first time the three of you got together. What did you say to them that day?”


The tip of his tongue itched to spit harsh words at Pete, but Murdoch refrained. After all, the man was right; the air was leaden with tension that first day, a volatile mixture of anger, bitterness and raw fear. Each of them terrified of the others’ reactions, angry about the assumed wrongs they’d endured, determined to show no vulnerability. Hindsight made it easy to recognize the mistakes, but nothing about that day had been easy at the time.


Scott strode into great room first, his purposeful stride accenting his calm and poise. He paused to survey the room and evaluate the situation. Dressed in his tailored, stylish clothes, he might have been a nobleman inspecting his inheritance. His polish and confidence impressed Murdoch.


But Johnny seemed to hang back, looking so unsure and even lost for a brief moment. The first time those startling blue eyes met his, the naked need flickering in them astonished Murdoch. Yet the next instant, Johnny shuttered the window to his soul and those eyes blazed with mistrust and hate.


He strolled into the room, challenge radiating from every line of his body, reading his surroundings like the gunman he was. He dripped insolence and Murdoch reacted with provocation of his own, immediately going on the defensive. This boy’s mother had hurt him and the young man looked just like her. Johnny’s defiant attitude left no doubt of his feelings for the man who was his father.


I’ll be damned if I let him hurt me, too! That’s what I thought looking at him then. He hit every one of my sore spots and I wanted to shake the contempt out of him, slap that sneer off his face. I couldn’t keep a lid on my temper, but I threw Maria’s temper up to him. I never gave Johnny and me a chance.


The days following that first encounter brought no improvement. He doubted Johnny, distrusted him openly and Johnny reacted with increased defiance. The boy’s hostility hurt, but it was understandable. After all, Maria lied to their son and a lifetime of living with those lies refused to be erased just by hearing the truth.


Reaction on top of reaction, how the two of them flailed away at each other! Both too stubborn and proud to step back, take a breath, and try to forge some semblance of a relationship. If Scott weren’t such a skilled diplomat, he and Johnny would have ripped each other’s throats out long ago…


Lord, Pete, I envy you. You’re going to get your son back. Your son loves you, wants to see you. His heart isn’t hardened against his father.


But how to explain all of this to his friend? Tommy certainly inherited his curiosity and love of questions from Pete. “That is one day I wish I could live over again. I’d like to think I could handle it better the second time around.”


“Guess all three of you had your own axe to grind. How did you ever get past it?”


Just like his son! The questions never stop.


“I suppose fighting off Pardee brought us together by uniting us on the same side pitted against a common enemy. Scott and I think alike and work well together….” his thoughts turned to his younger son. He and Johnny had yet to get past it as Pete would say. Then again, he had never apologized to Johnny for anything, either.


Pete read the play of emotions on Murdoch’s face and the younger man could guess at the thoughts running through his friend’s mind. He faced forward and studied his saddlehorn. “I guess I’m afraid Tommy won’t understand the way I acted.”


“I think he will. Boys that age understand a lot more than we give them credit for. I think it’s easier to talk to a child about some things than it is to talk to an adult.”


“You talkin’ about Johnny now?” Pete turned a knowing eye on his friend.


“I suppose.”


“You two ain’t as close as you’d like.” It wasn’t a question.


Pete’s time with Murdoch opened his eyes to more than his own failings as a father. Murdoch was obviously struggling to create a relationship with his younger son and failing miserably. But Pete could see that Murdoch loved the boy and was just too afraid to show it.


“We’re not close at all.”


“Is that your boy’s fault?”


“No!” His angry defense of Johnny surprised Murdoch and he gave his friend an apologetic smile. “No, Pete. I felt his hate that first day so I pretended I didn’t care. I’ve treated him with indifference, returned his hostility in kind and the walls between us keep getting higher.”


“One of you has to knock them down, Murdo.”


“I don’t think Johnny wants that. And there’s no law that says how he has to feel about me. You’re lucky. Tommy loves you, he doesn’t have any hate bottled up inside of him and he doesn’t have to battle his way through lies and resentment to reach you. Johnny doesn’t remember the two years we were together. And God knows I can’t make up for the eighteen years he believed I didn’t want him. His hurt runs too deep.” The normally confident voice quavered.


Pete heard the frustration and regret in Murdoch’s voice.


How can I help him? Murdo shared a lot of things with me that I know he didn’t plan on. Made him awful uncomfortable. He don’t like to talk about himself and he sure don’t share his feelings with no one. But he did it to help me and Tommy. My turn now.


“You ever told that boy you love him, Murdo?”


Murdoch’s big bay leaped forward in response to the inadvertent tightening of the long legs around his sides. Pete hid his smile and spurred his sorrel forward, angling him to bring the bay to a halt. “I know you, Murdoch. You ain’t ever said it to him, have you?”


“Damn it, Pete! Get your horse out of my way.”


“Come on, it’s just us. Have you told him?” Pete reined his horse to the right.


“He knows.”


“Does he?”


“Of course he does. He’s my son. I’m his father.” The words were clipped, the harsh tone a warning.


“Which father? The father he grew up hatin’, the father he thought didn’t want him… or the father that never stopped lookin’ for him, the father that loved him all those years and loves him still?” The bay plunged forward again and Pete urged his mount alongside.


“See, Murdo, I ain’t so sure he does know how you feel. Sounds to me like the two of you spend all your time together arguin’ and fussin’.”


Murdoch clenched his jaw and remained silent.


“You know, I used to laugh at myself ‘cause I had to make myself tell Mim and Tommy that I loved ‘em. Felt like a sissy sayin’ it, but I did it every day.”


“Good for you.” The bay tossed its head, confused by the tight reins conflicting with the iron bands squeezing its sides.


“See, I remember my Pa when Ma died. Over and over he wished that he could tell her he loved her. He couldn’t remember sayin’ it to her and that just tore him up. Watchin’ that really hit me hard so I swore it wouldn’t happen to me.” He shook his head.


“At least when I lost Mim, I didn’t have to regret not sayin’ it—I had told her that mornin’. But I ain’t said it to Tommy since the funeral. Reckon it’s the first thing I need to tell him, even before I tell him I’m sorry.” He sneaked a look at Murdoch’s stern visage and bit his lip at the flush of anger on the weathered face. Pete took a deep breath and risked a display of Murdoch’s notorious temper.


“Seems like there’s a lot of things between you and Johnny and they’re keepin’ you apart. I can sure understand how talkin’ to him, even lookin’ at him, is awful hard ‘cause he looks like Maria. Onliest reason I could get back on track in my thinkin’ about Tommy is ‘cause you told me about that.” He blushed and shook his head.


“I don’t remember much about your boy, Murdo. I was mighty likkered up when he come to see me, but I do remember his sass. Boy sure has a mouth on him, don’t he? Betcha it’s got him into trouble before.” He glanced sideways at the granite line of Murdoch’s jaw.


“Reckon it ain’t been easy for you to listen to his lip. Yessir, I can just see the two of you buttin’ heads.”


Murdoch’s bay pranced and fretted, sensing its rider’s agitation.


“You keep bitin’ down that away, you gonna break a tooth, Murdo. I know I’m treadin’ on some corns, but you done the same to me and I figure I need to return the favor.”


Murdoch’s head swiveled to meet Pete’s gaze, eyes flashing. “I don’t need any favors, Pete. This is about you and Tommy, not about Johnny and me.”


“Way I see it, this is about a father and son talkin’ out some wrongs that’s been done. About them sayin’ what needs sayin’ to each other. From where I’m sittin’, that’s as true of you and Johnny as it is of me and Tommy.”


Pete wasn’t surprised at the stony silence. “Well, just answer one question for me and I’ll shut up.”


“Promise?” Murdoch barked.


“I promise.” He faced his friend. “Do you love Johnny? Not the boy you remember, but the son you have now.” The sadness and regret that chased across Murdoch’s face startled Pete. So much hurt and anger, but the love was there, plain to see and he nodded at the hoarse whisper.




Pete’s hand found Murdoch’s upper arm and gripped compassionately. “Then maybe it’s time you told him, Murdo.”



“I’ll have another biscuit, Maria. Thank you.” Scott forced down another bite. His full stomach protested the additional food, but it was a small price to pay if it gave his brother more time to pick at his eggs. He watched Johnny push his plate away.


No, Johnny! Not yet. You’ve barely touched your breakfast. Six more days—I promised to give you a week, but this is ridiculous. You aren’t eating enough to keep a bird alive. I need to get something more into you.


Scott casually poured Johnny another glass of milk from the brightly decorated earthenware pitcher. “Might as well have another glass, brother. We can’t leave until Tommy finishes that picture of Smoky.”


Johnny avoided his brother’s eyes and Tommy looked up and grinned. “Look at this one! Does it look like Smoky?” The boy turned his paper around so that Scott and Johnny could see his drawing.


“Lookee, Johnny. I can’t get the head right. How can I fix it? Hey Scott, if Johnny is havin’ more milk, I want more, too. Please?” He held out his empty glass and Scott filled it quickly.


Bless you, Tommy!


Johnny studied the drawing for a moment before picking up the pencil. “It’s the jaw and the length of the forehead, Big ‘un. What if you did this?” He sketched two decisive lines on the picture and Tommy bounced with delight.


“Golly, Johnny! How did you know what to do?”


“You gotta look for the shapes, Tommy. If you can draw the right shape, you can make your picture look right. Take a horse’s head. His jaw is shaped like a circle. See?” The pencil feathered the shape onto the paper.


“Now the rest of the head is a long, thin oval, like this.” Again the pencil sang across the page. “See what I mean?”


“I see it, Johnny,” Tommy nodded vigorously.


“Now, I put them shapes down there for you. You take ‘em and turn ‘em into Smoky.” Johnny absently raised his glass and drank several healthy swallows of milk.


“Okay.” Tommy turned the paper back to face himself and labored over the drawing, tongue dangling out of the side of his mouth as he concentrated on creating a horse’s head from the two shapes.


Scott squeezed Johnny’s forearm and nodded his approval. Johnny just grinned and licked the milk mustache from his upper lip. Suddenly he cocked his head.


“Riders comin’ in.”


“I’ll see who it is,” Tommy jumped up and ran to the kitchen door. “Johnny, Scott, your Pa’s home. He has someone with him—It’s my Pa! It’s my Pa!” Tommy’s excited cries lingered in the air after he disappeared through the door.


“Wait, Tommy,” Johnny jumped up to run after the boy, but Scott placed a restraining hand on his shoulder.


“Easy, Johnny.”


“All right!” Johnny shrugged his brother’s hand away and stalked quickly after Tommy.


The scene he walked into caught him completely unprepared. The sight of Tommy locked in Pete’s embrace, tears coursing down the cheeks of both, stung his own eyes. He drew a shaky breath and turned away, unable to watch the joyous reunion.


Why does it hurt so much? I want him to be with his Pa. Just can’t watch ‘em huggin’ each other. Makes me think of Tommy on Murdoch’s lap. And that hurts, too. What’s the matter with me?


A big hand gripped his shoulder gently. “Please come inside and let them talk, son.”


Johnny jerked away from his father and fled to the great room.


Tommy’s high-pitched voice diverted Murdoch’s attention and he watched the boy drag Pete toward the barn. Words poured out of Tommy like a stream running high with snow melt. So much for Pete’s worries! The boy was delighted to see his father and the two would be able to talk. That and time were all they needed to heal the rift between them.


I wish I could repair the rift between Johnny and me that easily. Rift? More like the Palo Duro Canyon.


Murdoch followed his younger son to the great room. Scott claimed Johnny needed time to accept that going home to his father was the best thing for Tommy. Well, he’d already had several days to get used to the idea and there wasn’t much more time to give him because if Pete could handle the next week on his own, Tommy would be returning home. But Murdoch had seen Johnny’s conflict written plainly on his face and he ached for his son.


I’ve got to talk to him, try to say something that will help him deal with this. Scott is right, letting Tommy go is going to be difficult for Johnny.


“Welcome home, sir. Nice to see you.” Scott acknowledged his father’s entrance with a nod.


“Hello, son. It’s good to be home.” Murdoch glanced from Scott to Johnny who paced in front of the windows.


Scott shot him a stare pregnant with meaning and motioned toward his brother with a tilt of his head before departing. Murdoch settled into the chair behind his desk and watched Johnny with bated breath. The jangling spurs revealed Johnny’s agitation as he continued to stride back and forth for several minutes.


Johnny abruptly halted in front of the big desk, hesitating a moment before lifting a paperweight and rolling it over and over in his hands. He jumped and dropped the object when the old clock chimed. Both men instinctively reached for the paperweight and their fingers touched briefly before Johnny snatched his hand away.


He pinned his father with worried eyes. “It’s too soon. I don’t think Tommy’s ready for this.”


Tommy isn’t or you aren’t, son?


Murdoch leaned back and considered how best to reason with this prickly son of his. “John, Pete is sober and full of regret and remorse. He made a mistake. He knows that and he’s sorry. He deserves a second chance—like you gave me.”


Johnny’s face flushed and he smiled shyly at his father. “That was different, Murdoch. You hadn’t done anything wrong.”


“That’s not what you thought when you first came home, is it, son?” Murdoch held his breath while Johnny searched for an answer. His son’s struggle to respond concerned him. Would the two of them ever be able to talk honestly with each other?


Unable to think of a suitable response, Johnny decided to ignore his father’s question. How could he ever admit to Murdoch just how much he had hated him?


“Okay, so Pete’s just talkin’, is that right? Nuthin’ else? Tommy ain’t goin’ back with him yet, is that right?” His tone laced concern with challenge.


“That’s right; Pete is only here to talk. We agreed that he’d spend a week on his own to prove to himself that he’s ready for Tommy to come home. That will give him some time alone as well as the opportunity to purchase some new stock.


“And Tommy is overjoyed to see his father, Johnny. Remember that. We aren’t forcing Tommy to do anything he doesn’t want to do.” But the look on his son’s face proclaimed that Johnny was simply not ready to relinquish the boy yet, no matter what anyone else believed.


Johnny nodded curtly and strode toward the kitchen.


Oh, Johnny, how can I help you understand that you have to let Tommy go and trust Pete to take back his son. You think Pete has a lot to prove, but you haven’t seen the Pete I know. I hope Scott has some ideas because I’m fresh out.






“This is Smoky, Pa. I watched Johnny gentle him and Johnny let me name him. Gosh, you shoulda seen what Johnny done. It was like magic. Ain’t Smoky purty?” Tommy grasped his father’s hand, chattering as quickly as he could get the words out of his mouth. If he quit talking, his Pa might disappear!


He drank in the sight of the freshly shaved face, clean clothes, clear eyes, and neatly trimmed hair. This was the father he remembered, not the stranger he’d last seen snoring on the dirty floor. He flung himself into the haven of those strong arms and relief overwhelmed him when his father swept him off the floor in a bear hug.


“Oh, Pa, I missed you so much. I’m sorry I ran away.” Tommy buried his head in Pete’s shoulder.


Pete sank down into the loose hay and settled Tommy onto his lap. “I love you, Tommy and I sure missed you, too. You got nuthin’ to be sorry for. I’m the one needs to apologize. I’m so sorry for the way I treated you. Can you forgive me, son?”


“It’s okay, Pa.” Tommy’s small hands clutched his father. “You were hurtin’ over losin’ Ma. I know you missed her real bad.”


“I did, Tommy, but I still had you and I let you down. I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you. It won’t ever happen again, I swear it.” Pete stroked the wispy bangs away from Tommy’s eyes.


“You feelin’ better now, Pa?” One small finger whisked away the tears on his father’s face.




“Johnny said you was sick, that you lost your way.”


That Lancer kid was really something. “Yes, I guess I was sick. And I certainly lost my way.” Pete searched for the right words to explain his grief to his son.


“Tommy, the way I treated you wasn’t right and I ain’t makin’ excuses, but I do want to tell you why I acted the way I did.” The brown eyes smiled up at him with such devotion and trust that Pete’s chin quivered as he fought to control his emotions.


“I loved your Ma so much. She was my best friend, my partner. She…she…when she died it was like part of me died with her and it hurt so much….”


“Johnny says it hurts like a big scraped place inside. Like when you fall and skin your knee, but a whole lot worse, huh, Pa?” Tommy patted Pete’s shoulder. “Johnny says you can’t quit cryin’ at first, but you gotta keep goin’. He says that scraped place will always hurt, but it gets easier to walk on it.”


Yep, that Johnny Lancer was really something. “Oh, Tommy, it does hurt a whole lot worse. And when it first happened, I guess I wasn’t able to go on right then. I drank to make myself forget how much it hurt.”


He rested his cheek against Tommy’s silky hair. “You like Johnny, don’t you?”


“Gosh, Pa, Johnny’s just the best. Him and Scott are my big brothers, they said so. They showed me how to use a rifle and rope a calf and how to swim--”


Pete sat the boy upright on his lap and stared at him in mock amazement. “Tommy Adams! Do you mean to tell me that Scott and Johnny got you in the water?  I ain’t been able to do that since you nearly drowned crossin’ the river.”


Tommy grinned and nodded. “I know, but I was just a kid then and I ain’t afraid with Scott and Johnny. Scott, he used to live in a place next to the ocean and he ain’t afraid of the water and Johnny ain’t neither. I can swim real good now. And Scott took me fishin. He showed me how he tells where the fish are and a new way to cast my line. I caught lotsa fish, Pa! I can’t wait ‘til you and me can go again.”


“We’ll have a great time, son. Sounds like Johnny and Scott are real fine brothers.”


“They sure are. Oh! Oh, guess what, Pa?” Tommy bounced excitedly. “Johnny used to be Johnny Madrid, the gunfighter. Golly, you oughta see how fast he is.”


“He showin’ off for you, boy?” Surely the man hadn’t tried to impress Tommy with his gun!


“Gosh, no. Johnny says havin’ a gun don’t make you a man. He says he wishes he grew up here with Uncle M. He don’t wanna be Johnny Madrid and he don’t want me to look up to him for that. He says it’s Johnny Lancer that’s my brother. Johnny says I gotta go to school and be like Scott.”


Pete relaxed slightly, relieved that his impressions of Johnny weren’t wrong. “Johnny’s been awful good to you, hasn’t he?”


“I reckon I’m lucky Johnny found me. I didn’t wanna go with him, but he brung me here and he talks to me. Johnny’s real easy to talk to. Johnny’s Ma hit her head and she died and he misses her like I miss Ma.


“Johnny’s Ma is a star now and he can talk to her any time. He says Ma is a star, too. And I know where Ma’s star is and I…I can talk….” He collapsed against his father’s chest and sobbed. “I miss Ma….”


“I know, boy, I know. Maybe you can show me her star and we can talk to her together.” Pete’s tears mingled with his son’s.


“I’ll show you tonight, Pa. I sure feel better after I talk to Ma, just like Johnny said. Ma’ll be real happy it’s both of us talkin’ to her.” Tommy clung to his father.


“Ma’s star is real purty, all gold and shiny like her. Scott says Ma’s star is called Maia after a lady with gold hair just like Ma’s.” The small hands fiddled with one of the buttons on Pete’s shirt.


“Scott’s real smart and he’s edicated. He knows lots about lotsa things—stories, stars, everythin’. Johnny says if he don’t know somethin’ he just asks Scott. Mr. Jelly says Scott is a walkin’ cyca…cycalpedia. That’s a big book fulla facts, ya know. Scott likes it when you ask him questions.”


“I bet he does!” Pete grinned. He knew firsthand about his son’s thirst for answers and Murdoch had related numerous examples of the boy’s merciless quizzing of everyone at Lancer. 


“But Johnny knows lotsa stuff, too. He can show ya the North Star. It’s real special. Johnny says as long as you know where the North Star is you’ll never lose your way.”


“I reckon the North Star and you are all I need to keep me headin’ in the right direction from now on, son.” Pete squeezed Tommy as tightly as he could.


“What do you say, Tommy, you and me—in a few days—how ‘bout comin’ home? Murdoch and the neighbors helped me get the place just like we had it. We even got the windows shinin’ like Ma liked ‘em. Remember how we’d tease her and say ‘Hey, you missed a spot,’ and she’d laugh and say—”


“Oh, no I didn’t!” Tommy finished his father’s sentence and they laughed together, finding much-needed comfort in sharing their memories of the woman they both adored.


“I wanna come home.” Tommy hugged his father and sighed in contentment when Pete’s arms tightened around him. “Pa, tell me the story about Grandpa chasing you off with a shotgun!”


Pete lay back in the deep hay and pulled his son close. Tommy snuggled against his father, resting his head on the broad chest. His right arm draped across Pete’s waist and his tiny fingers curled around his father’s thick belt. The familiar rise and fall of his Pa’s storytelling voice and the well-loved words of the story poured over him like old friends. He nestled as close as he could, giggling at his favorite parts and often interrupting to finish his Pa’s sentences. If he kept his eyes closed, he could imagine his Ma standing there beside them. He wished the story didn’t have to end. But it did.


“Your Ma used to get riled when I’d say that about changin’ my mind, remember, Tommy?”


“Yeah, but Ma loved you teasin her, didn’t she, Pa?”


Pete swallowed the lump in his throat and whispered “Yes, she did.”


“Pa, I…I miss Ma and I missed you, too.” Tommy’s small shoulders shook with grief and he buried his face in Pete’s chest.


Pete embraced his son and stroked the boy’s hair. “I missed you, boy, and I promise I’ll never let anything come between us again. I miss your Ma, but I’ve still got you. I love you, Tommy.”


“I love you too, Pa.” Tommy raised his head and kissed his father softly on the cheek. “And I love that story. You standin’ up to Grandpa that way makes me think of the stories Johnny tells me.”


“Johnny tells you stories?”


“Real excitin’ stories ‘bout ‘ventures and all. He tells me about the Prince who saves The Hope of the World.” Tommy raised his head proudly and pointed to himself. “And I’m the Hope of the World!”


Whoever or whatever Johnny Madrid Lancer had been, he was one heck of a kid now and Pete knew that he owed him. His arms tightened around his boy. “You sure are the hope of my world, Tommy.”



Murdoch slumped at his desk. He should follow Johnny into the kitchen, but only after the young man had time to calm down. His son needed encouragement and help to accept that Tommy would soon be leaving and Scott had made it plain that it was up to Murdoch to provide that reassurance. But he was at a loss as to how to reach Johnny without their conversation ending in yet another soul-destroying confrontation. Pete was right, Johnny did have a mouth on him and the boy used it as a weapon all too often.


And instead of letting him vent his anger and frustration, just allowing his rage to wash on over me, I retaliate in kind. I always have to have the last word. Now we’re both so wary of talking about anything.


Determined to avoid an argument while offering support, he walked to the kitchen and silently observed his younger son. Johnny leaned on his elbows, hunching over his cup of coffee. He seemed lost in a world of painful memories.


Murdoch watched Johnny chew his lower lip and began to realize the full impact of Tommy’s presence on his son. Tommy’s plight had captured Johnny’s heart. He placed Tommy’s needs, grief, and fears above all other matters, refusing to allow the boy to grow up under the circumstances he himself had endured. Helping Tommy forced Johnny to remember events that distressed him, yet he willingly paid that price in order to do right by the boy.


In return, Tommy lavished on his benefactor the kind of adoration only a child can offer. And now, Johnny had to relinquish him to his father. Johnny said that Tommy wasn’t ready, that he and Pete both needed more time to adjust and heal, but the truth was that Johnny was the unwilling one, unprepared to lose his young friend. He had lost so much in his life….


Murdoch picked up the silver coffee pot and laid his hand gently on Johnny’s arm. “Want another cup?”


Johnny started violently, gasping and flinching away. Relief washed over his face when he realized that it was Murdoch’s hand on his arm.


“It’s just me, son. I didn’t mean to startle you.” That was odd. He couldn’t remember ever surprising Johnny before.


Where had the boy’s memories taken him this time? Whose touch had filled him with so much fear and why? Murdoch wished Johnny would share his past with him. Ugliness and darkness lurked there and he sensed that his son needed help to come to grips with it. He wondered if Johnny would ever really trust him enough to open up, but regretfully admitted that trust was not something Johnny associated with his father.


“S…sorry. I was miles away.” Johnny’s wan smile touched only his lips and not his melancholy eyes.


“More coffee?”


“Thanks. Do you think…?” Johnny paused abruptly and shook his head as though he wanted an answer but was afraid to ask the question.


“Do I think what, John? Go on.” Murdoch reached his hand out again and squeezed Johnny’s arm.


“I don’t want Tommy going back to that man, Murdoch! What if he starts drinking again?” Johnny slumped in his chair and hung his head, embarrassed at his outburst.


“John, Pete is a good man. He loves Tommy. He’s turned himself around and is trying his very best. He’s earned the right to a second chance.”


Johnny nodded. “I know. I just….”


“You just don’t want Tommy hurt the way you were hurt.”


“No. He’s just a kid.”


“Like you were son—”


Johnny didn’t like this turn in the conversation. “This is not about me, Murdoch.” He stared down at the floor.


“Yes, Johnny, it is. This entire situation has everything to do with you, the way you were hurt, the way you were treated. You are…biased. You know what it’s like to be abandoned, abused, hurt in every possible way. You’re trying to protect Tommy from things he will never experience because he won’t be in the same situations you were.” Murdoch paused and laid his hand on Johnny’s tense forearm.


“I think you are frightened to let Tommy go, son. He needs you and loves you and that makes you feel whole, as though you’ve done something worthwhile. Knowing someone needs us gives us a sense of self worth, a reason to carry on when the world turns against us. Tommy will always need you as his friend, love you as a brother, but he has a father, John, and you can’t take Pete’s place.”


“I…I…don’t want to take his place.” Johnny’s troubled eyes met his father’s.


“I know that. You wanted to be something to Tommy that you once wanted so badly yourself. And you have, Johnny. You took a lost and frightened child into your heart, guided and nurtured him until his father was ready to take back that responsibility.” Murdoch felt the steely muscles contracting and flexing as Johnny battled with his emotions.


“And you did a wonderful job. I want you to know that. I know it’s been tough on you, but you never once let that little boy down.” He shook Johnny’s forearm.


“You have to be proud of yourself, son, know that you did the right thing. You made a difference in Tommy’s life. Now it’s time to take a deep breath and a step back. I understand that it isn’t easy. Sometimes it seems that life is all about loss. When someone dies we grieve and when someone leaves us we grieve, but in a different way. Both kinds of loss are two sides of the same coin and they both hurt.


“It’s hard to let someone we love walk away from us. But if it’s the right thing, the best thing for them, then we have to let them do just that, no matter the cost. Like Jelly did with his boys.


“Remember, you told him that those boys needed more than he could give? Jelly loved those children, but he loved them enough to let them go because it was the right thing for them. Tommy needs his father now, Johnny. It’s the right thing for him and you have to let his father take back his son.”


Johnny listened intently to Murdoch’s words. His father was actually talking to him instead of preaching and what he said made a lot of sense. But Johnny still couldn’t understand why the thought of Tommy and Pete together ripped him apart inside and the words grated on his raw nerves, leaving him unaccountably angry at himself.


“You’re right, as always. I don’t want Tommy hurt the way I was, treated the way I was, because he might just turn out like me—a nuthin’, nobody.”


For once, the words that were usually so difficult to find when talking to Johnny seemed to flow freely in Murdoch’s desperate need to ease the pain and bitterness he heard in his son’s voice.


“You’re right this time, son. Nobody could have made more of a difference to that little boy. Nobody helped a grieving child cope with the loss of his mother. Nobody made a lonely boy feel special. There is Nothing more that Nobody could have done. Tommy was a lucky young man to be found by Nobody.” He took a deep breath and carefully considered his next words.


“Johnny, you judge yourself far too harshly. You continually sell yourself short and I can only guess at your reasons for that. If you were a nothing, a nobody, you would have ignored Tommy’s situation that day, you wouldn’t have given that boy a second thought. But you went out of your way to bring him home where you did everything you could to help him.


“It’s not the first time and it won’t be the last. Why? Because you care about people, Johnny. You care about Tommy and that’s why it’s so hard for you to let him go now. But you have to, son.” He watched Johnny’s head come up, the sapphire eyes meeting his tentatively.


Murdoch gripped Johnny’s shoulder. “I hope you know that you don’t need Tommy’s love to feel a sense of self-worth. There are a lot of people who need and want you, Johnny. People who…who love you and are very proud of you.” He suddenly felt close to his son, closer than ever before. But Johnny bowed his head, breaking eye contact and that closeness evaporated.


“We’ll keep an eye on Tommy, but I have to say that I don’t see Pete letting that little boy down again. He was a good father, a good man. He’s still that same man.”


The unaccustomed compassion in his father’s voice and words left Johnny confused and uncomfortable. He sensed that Murdoch was trying to tell him something, but his father wasn’t being clear. Why couldn’t the man just say what was on his mind? Johnny was afraid to guess at what he really meant and that frustration spewed out as anger directed at Murdoch.


“Yeah? Well, I guess you expect me to just take your word for that!”


“Johnny! Look, son, I….” Murdoch wanted to shake Johnny. What was wrong with the boy anyway? What could he have possibly said to anger him? That insolent tone infuriated him—he didn’t deserve that. He bit down on his temper, determined not to rise to the bait.


Tommy’s joyous laughter drew the attention of both men and Johnny took advantage of the moment to slip out the side door, leaving Murdoch alone to welcome Pete and his son. Murdoch breathed a sigh of relief. At least he hadn’t started another row with Johnny. And keeping the boy away from Pete might be the best course of action for the moment.


Johnny saddled Barranca and loped toward the South Mesa. He planned to head straight to Spanish Wells after work and stay in town late. If he started for the range early in the morning, he wouldn’t have to see Pete at all. That was fine with him. Just the thought of the man made his blood boil.


His temper flared as he remembered the drunk sprawled across the filthy floor and his callous, slurred words. Murdoch had forgotten them too easily as far as he was concerned. Murdoch….


Why do I act that way around him? It’s like I’m dynamite and he’s a match. We get in the same room and Boom! I just explode. He was tryin’ to make me feel better. Even sayin’ he was proud of me. And he said there were lots of people who want and love me. Did he mean himself? But that’s not what he said.


And even if he did, he wouldn’t feel that way if he knew what I’ve done and how much I used to hate him. If he knew, I’d get that look down his nose and he’d say “I don’t know what to think of you” in that snotty voice. No, I ain’t good enough for him and I reckon I never will be. ‘Sides, Tommy’s safer with his father than with Johnny Madrid. Even if his father gets drunk, he ain’t likely to shoot the kid. Madre, my gut hurts.





The next afternoon after Pete returns home…


Murdoch scowled at the ledger, detesting this unwelcome, but necessary component of managing a ranch. Scott had performed his usual meticulous job of keeping the ranch’s accounts current in his father’s absence, but regardless of the neat and accurate rows of figures, Murdoch still needed to work his way through each entry in order to bring himself up to date on the books. The amount of time he’d spent with Pete Adams meant multiple entries to digest and he drew and puffed on his pipe in annoyance. The task was all the more difficult because of the child who watched him so intently.


Tommy had pleaded to return home with his father and Murdoch was proud of the way Pete handled the boy’s requests. He believed Pete needed some time alone—while sober—even at the expense of Tommy’s high spirits. Better a minor disappointment now than…no, he wouldn’t think that way. Pete and Tommy were going to be just fine. Tommy might be unhappy during the next couple of days, but he’d get over it quickly. A new pocket knife would go a long way to cheer him up. And when Pete returned in several days to take him home for good…well, Pete and Tommy would have their happy ending.


But Tommy’s mood wasn’t the problem and a simple present wouldn’t raise Johnny’s low spirits. His younger son had made himself scarce while Pete was at the ranch, but Murdoch had seen enough of him to realize that Johnny was still worried about Tommy’s impending departure. Johnny actually seemed despondent. His mercurial moods weren’t unusual, but this melancholy was something different. Life was dealing his son another loss. How could he help Johnny accept it?


Tommy’s voice interrupted his musing.


“Whatcha doin’, Uncle M?”


“Book work, Tommy.”


“You need that pipe to do them books? Scott don’t smoke a pipe when he does ‘em. How come you do?”


“Well…it helps me relax.”




“I…well, it…um…I’m not sure Tommy.”


“You mean ya don’t know why you do it?”


“I do it to help myself concentrate.”


“What’s con…concentrate?”


“It means to think hard about something.”


“Oh. Well, I don’t see how that pipe can help you think harder. And it smells awful. Ma said a pipe smelled like some poor critter was dead in the wall and rottin’.”


Murdoch choked back his laughter. “Your mother didn’t like the smell.”


“No, sir. She made Pa smoke outside, even if it was dark or rainin’.”


Murdoch remembered how Catherine had lectured him on his pipe’s vile smell with several well-chosen words, banishing him to the great outdoors to enjoy the meerschaum.


Tommy leaned closer, mesmerized by the wisps of smoke swirling lazily above the pipe’s bowl. “What’s it made of?”


“Wood.” Murdoch gritted his teeth as he lost his place in the ledger and had to total a particular column of figures for the third time.


Tommy giggled, “I mean that smelly stuff you put in it. What’s that made of.”


“Oh, tobacco.” Murdoch sighed and laid aside his quill in preparation for a long interrogation session.


“What’s tobacco?”


“Tobacco is the dried leaves of a plant—the tobacco plant.” Before you ask, young man.


“Can you use any plant?”


“I don’t know. But you are not old enough to be smoking, Tommy, and I don’t want to hear that you have been.” Murdoch gave the boy a stern look.


“No, sir, we got us a gentlemen’s agreement, ain’t we?”


“Yes, we do. And I’m very proud that you are keeping your word, son.” Murdoch leaned back in his chair, wondering how he could divert Tommy’s attention. He really needed to get these books finished. 


“Why don’t you go out to the barn and find Jelly, Tommy? He’s taking care of some cows that are going to calve soon, and Lady will be there. Johnny told me about the new tricks you’ve taught her. I’ll come out in a little while and you can show me.”


“Okay. Me and Lady’ll practice her tricks for you.” Tommy ran toward the veranda.


“Don’t leave the corral or barn, Tommy,” Murdoch called after him. He sighed in relief, at least he could get some work done now.



The next morning…


Tommy slumped at the kitchen table, scooping his scrambled eggs into a pile and listlessly stabbing it with his fork. His lower lip protruded and every so often he heaved a pitiful sigh.


Scott watched Tommy with concern. The boy missed his father already and his usual high spirits were noticeably absent. Had they made a mistake by keeping Tommy at Lancer for another week?


Even yesterday’s trip to town failed to cheer him—although Mr. Baldomero’s licorice sticks did succeed in coaxing a slight smile. “Eat up, Tommy. You need a good breakfast if you’re going to ride out to the herd with Johnny and me this morning.”


“Awwww.” Tommy whined.


“Eat your breakfast, young man.” Murdoch pointed at Tommy’s plate.


“Awwww. Do I have too?”


“Yes. Right now.”


Tommy pouted, but one look at Murdoch’s stern face convinced him to take a bite.


Scott hid his smile, enjoying this view of his father in action. Murdoch’s capable handling of Tommy intrigued him—the man really was a top hand at child herding. He tried to catch Johnny’s eye and share the moment, but his brother was engrossed in pushing his eggs around on his plate; an action that reminded Scott of what he’d just seen Tommy doing. Johnny seemed indifferent to what was going on around him. Surely Murdoch noticed this atypical behavior. But his father was focused on Tommy.


“That’s better,” Murdoch said. He watched the boy swallow several bites. “Scott picked up something in town for me yesterday. Something I want to give to you, Tommy.”


The pout disappeared, “For me? Really?”


“Yes, for you. But only if you finish your breakfast.”


“Oh, boy!” Tommy tucked into the contents on his plate with a purpose. The eggs disappeared in four huge bites and Tommy attacked his bacon.


Scott rolled his eyes at Murdoch, but Johnny roused himself and grabbed Tommy’s fork arm. “Easy, Big ‘un. You gotta breathe while you’re chewin’ or you’ll choke.”


“Okay, Johnny.” Tommy gulped three swallows of milk and turned his attention back to the bacon and biscuits. He made short work of these and climbed onto his knees, bouncing with eagerness. “All done, Uncle M. Now I’m ready for my surprise. Let me see it!”


“Is that the way to ask, young man?” Murdoch scolded.


“Will you show me what ya got for me, Uncle M? Please?” Tommy asked as if butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth.


“Much better. Yes, I think I have it right here.” Murdoch pulled a carved bone-handled pocket knife from his vest and handed it to the boy.


“Gosh,” Tommy breathed reverently. He rubbed his finger over the handle before opening the blade, his earlier woes forgotten in the face of this splendid new present. “Thanks, Uncle M. Lookee, Johnny, Scott. Ain’t it a beauty?”


“Sure is.” Johnny touched the carved handle with his forefinger. “Nice carvin’ on the handle. Betcha we can use this out at the herd this mornin’.”


Murdoch cleared his throat. “Ah, Johnny…about the herd—something’s come up. You help Jelly with that section of fence out by Hawk Meadow. I want it finished today, mind.”


The expression on Johnny’s face left no doubt about his opinion of Murdoch’s order. “Is that the way to ask, Old Man?” he muttered.


“What was that, son?”


“Uh…nuthin’, Murdoch, nuthin’. I didn’t say nuthin’.” Johnny shot Scott a murderous glare that dared him to make a comment.


“Well, you’d better get going. Jelly started up there with the wagon and supplies earlier.”


Johnny nodded and stalked out the door, leaving his uneaten breakfast. 


Murdoch turned to Tommy. “As for you, Tommy, I understand that you’re helping out by roping calves.”


“I sure am. Mr. Cipriano says I’m a top hand.” Tommy jumped up and grabbed Scott’s arm. “Let’s git goin’, Scott.” The boy carefully stowed his new pocket knife in this pocket.


“Okay, okay.” Scott pointed at Johnny’s plate and raised his eyebrows for Murdoch’s benefit before taking Tommy’s hand. The two hurried toward the courtyard, Tommy skipping in excitement.


Both boys turned and smiled at Murdoch as they left, Tommy waving with one hand while the other tugged at Scott’s sleeve. The gesture touched off warmth that spread through him, but Murdoch’s breath caught in his throat. He would miss Tommy when that little boy returned home.


His smile faded when he glanced at Johnny’s plate.


Barely touched. Things are serious when Johnny doesn’t eat. There has to be a way to put that carefree smile back on his face. I just can’t think of what it might be.





The man’s hands were huge and callused with coarse black hairs on the knuckles and joints. He had no memory of the man’s face, only those cruel hands. Before the man raised his hands to slap or punch or swing his belt, he laced his thick fingers together and popped the joints. The man cracked his knuckles now—a slow and sinister sound, the fingers quivering, seeking a target. The man’s bulk blocked the path to the door. There was no back door. Trapped.


Dodge right. Slip past him. Go under his arm. NO. He’s got me. Gotta get away.


The iron hands lifted him off the ground, shaking him until his vision blurred and the world spun crazily. The man grunted, slamming him against the wall. He crumpled, dazed, scrabbling sideways, and struggling to get away. But he couldn’t escape. The hands were fists now and they found him. His face, his back, his side, his stomach.


Run. Get away. Hurts. Hide. Can’t move. Hurts. Please. Don’t hit me again. Curl up. Cover head. Trapped.


No. Not the belt. No. No. Back off. No. Hurts. Don’t hit me. No. Twisting, fighting, burning. Help me, Mama.


What happened? Different man now…Who? Jeeter! How did he get here? Quick. Get the gun. Back off. Don’t make me kill you. Don’t make…NO. Why? Why didn’t you back off?


So much gunsmoke. Can’t see. Eyes burn. Thick like fog. Did I kill him? So much gunsmoke. Yeah, he’s dead. Wait. He—why is he so small? Not Jeeter. Who? Oh, God. Tommy. Noooooooo…


“Johnny! Johnny. Easy, boy. You’re all right. It’s just old Jelly. Shhhh.” Jelly struggled to hold Johnny’s trembling body. The boy’s head whipped violently from side to side and Jelly tried to keep Johnny from hurting himself.


“C’mon boy, wake up now. Jelly’s got ya. I ain’t gonna let nobody hurt you. Wake up, Johnny!”


Johnny fought the restraining hands, clawing and fighting to break free. “No. Not Tommy. No!”

Jelly bit his lip. Johnny wouldn’t wake up and he knew only one thing to do. He closed his eyes briefly and slapped the sweat-drenched face. Once. Twice.


Johnny’s eyelids twitched at the stinging blows and Jelly slapped him a third time. “Wake up, Johnny!” He shook Johnny’s shoulders and sighed in relief when the blue eyes snapped open. “Easy. You’re okay, Johnny. I got you, boy.”


Johnny panted in short, harsh gasps, staring up at Jelly in confusion. “Tommy! I killed him…” He grasped Jelly’s arms and tried to push himself upright.


Jelly held him down. “Shhh, Johnny. Tommy’s fine. You ain’t killed nobody.” He didn’t like the galloping heart rate, clammy skin, and bloodless face.


“Relax, boy.” He brushed Johnny’s dripping hair back from his forehead.




“Right here, Johnny. I’m right here. Nobody’s killed. Just hold still a minute.” Jelly soaked his bandana with water from his canteen and wiped it across Johnny’s face.


Johnny swallowed and glanced around, but made no further attempts to rise. He lay heavily in Jelly’s arms, as though he had no strength to support the weight of his head. “Thought I shot Tommy…”


“Well you didn’t. You hear me? Tommy’s just fine. Here, boy.” Jelly held the canteen to Johnny’s lips. “Take a swallow. Real easy.”


Johnny gulped the water greedily and Jelly had to pull the canteen away from him. “Not too fast.” He noticed the folded brown jacket—Johnny had used it as a pillow during their noon siesta—and draped it over the damp chest and shoulders.


One trembling hand pulled the jacket tightly under his chin and Johnny huddled beneath it, teeth chattering. “S…sorry, Jelly. Be okay…in a minute.”


“Ain’t no need to be sorry. Take another swig of this.” He held the canteen to Johnny’s lips.


Johnny took two sips before his body went rigid and he moaned, clutching his stomach. “Jelly…”


Jelly helped him fight his way to his feet, watching helplessly as Johnny pushed away the supporting hands and stumbled into a nearby grove of bushes. The muted sounds of the boy’s misery battered Jelly’s soft heart. Scott was right to be worried. This was more than a nightmare—Johnny had been trapped in his past, reliving whatever horror brought him such terror. That was bad enough. But dreaming he had killed Tommy….


I knowed you was gonna git yer spurs tangled up over this. Knowed it soon as Scott told me what happened. Never shoulda give Tommy that wood gun. But how did he git the drop on you? Lordy, Lordy, what we gonna do for you, boy?


Scared half the life outta me, hearin’ you holler like that. And you all curled up with your arms over your head and whimperin’. Just like you was a kid again and it was happenin’ right now. I seen Willie do this kinda thing when I first found him. Took a while for his dreams to go away. But Willie never got sick like this. You need help, Johnny.


The sounds of retching died away and Jelly heard a soft groan. “Johnny, you all right?”


Other sounds came from the thicket, but no reply to his question. “Johnny?” Jelly started for the bushes to check on him when Johnny finally answered.


“I’m okay. Just gimme…a minute.” Johnny’s voice was weak and shaky.


Of all the dern, hard-headed, stubborn…. Don’t never let nobody help you.


Jelly set his jaw and watched the boy sway as he pushed his way out of the thicket. “Johnny!”


Johnny staggered, reeling as he tried to walk to Jelly. His knees buckled and he sank to all fours.


Jelly leaped to Johnny’s side, hauling him to his feet and forcing the boy to lean on him. “Okay? I can see how okay you are. Feelin’ worse than a calf with slobbers, ain’t you? Just sit down here a minute.”


Johnny collapsed against the wagon wheel, thankful for its support. “Can I have some water, Jelly? Got a taste in my mouth like I had supper with a coyote.”


Jelly handed him a canteen. “Got yerself in a real picklement, ain’t you?”


Johnny stared at him, all round-eyed innocence. “I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about. Reckon lunch didn’t agree with me is all.”


Jelly snorted. “Well, that dog might hunt if’n I ain’t seen you feedin’ yer lunch to that little kit fox. You ain’t ate nuthin’ to disagree with you. So it’s gotta be that nightmare got ya airin’ out yer paunch.”


Johnny hung his head. “Look, Jelly, I—“


“Scott told me what happened with Tommy. And I’m sorry, boy. I wish I’d never give him that gun. But it’s done now. Onliest thing to do is talk on it and figure what to do next.”


“Aw, Jelly. It ain’t your fault, it wasn’t a secret. It’s just one of them things, is all. But it threw me.”


“I know. Now what we gonna do about it? You been off your feed since before I come home. Yer gettin’ so thin you gotta stand in the same place twice to cast a shadow. And Tommy woulda never got the drop on the Johnny I know. What’s wrong? Talk to old Jelly.”


“We ain’t got time for talkin’. If we don’t finish this fence, Murdoch’ll have our heads on a charger.” Johnny suddenly doubled over, clutching his belly. “Help me up…”


Jelly hoisted Johnny to his feet and half-carried him back to the bushes. He turned his back to give the boy some privacy, but pretended he didn’t hear Johnny’s demands for him to go on and leave him alone. “Reckon we need to head into town so’s you can see Doc.”


“No. No. We ain’t goin’ to see Doc. Nope. Forget it.” Johnny crawled out of the bushes and leaned against Jelly.


Covered in a cold sweat, yer whole body shakin’, sick as a dog drinkin’ alkali water, but you ain’t goin to see Doc. Yer as long-headed as a mule.


Jelly helped Johnny back to the wagon and leaned him against the wheel again. He busied himself with clearing a spot in the wagon bed, breaking open a bale of straw to serve as a mattress. The tarp would work just fine as a sun shade. “That was emptyin’ more than just yer belly.”


Johnny flushed. “Yeah.”


Jelly climbed out of the wagon and pulled Johnny to his feet. “Get up in here, now.” He boosted Johnny into the wagon and helped settle him into the straw.


“Put this jacket around you.” Jelly tucked the jacket around Johnny’s shoulders and shinnied up into the wagon, sitting beside him. “We gonna have us a little powwow, boy.”


Johnny glared at him and pointedly rolled to lie on his side, keeping his back to Jelly.


The older man shook his head and stood up, hooking his thumbs into his suspenders and gazing at the sky. “Reckon I’ll be harnessin’ the horses. If you ain’t gonna talk to me, we’ll just see what the Boss has to say.”


Johnny jerked upright and faced him. “Damn it, Jelly, that ain’t fair.”


“Ain’t meant to be fair. Way I see it, you got three choices. One, talk to me. Two, talk to Doc. Three, talk to the Boss. You already talked to Scott so that ain’t a option. Now you can just wipe that war paint off yer face ‘cause them’s the onliest choices you got.”


Johnny sighed. “Look, I don’t know why I been havin’ these nightmares. And they leave me feelin’ kinda sick—“


Jelly snorted.


“Like I told Scott, if you’ll just leave me alone I can figure it out. Just give me some time is all.”


“I ain’t leavin’ you alone. I know you been takin’ care of yerself for a long time now, that you think you gotta hide any weakness. But you got a family now, Johnny. And a family worries ‘bout each other.” Jelly sat down again. “You remember after we adopted my boys out?”


Johnny nodded.


“Well, I was about as happy as a woodpecker in a petrified forest. I moped around doin’ my chores for a couple of days. The Boss, Scott, and Teresa was all real nice to me. They backed right off when I said I didn’t wanna talk about them boys. Took me at my word. You remember?”


Johnny smiled wryly. He could see the punch line coming. “Yeah.”


“Everbody was real polite, kinda handlin’ me with kid gloves, except this one nosey feller. He waited a while and then he set me down and told me to spill it. Wouldn’t take no for an answer. Told me that loads got lighter when you shared ‘em. Said havin’ a family is about knowin’ there’s somebody to help with the load, even when it’s mighty heavy or not so pleasant. Got me to talk about them boys. Made me feel special.” Jelly locked eyes with his friend.


“I was cross as a snappin’ turtle whilst he was pesterin’ me to talk. But I sure felt better after I did. Recollect that feller’s name was Johnny Lancer.”


Johnny blushed. “Dern, Jelly, a plain ole snappin’ turtle woulda been easy. Way I remember it, you gave me a look that would pucker a hog’s butt.”


“That’s what I done, most likely. Prob’ly looked about like the one on yer face right now. Point is, you didn’t quit. You just let me have my little bit of mad and kept on pushin’. Fore I knowed it, I was yammerin’ on ‘bout things I never told nobody else. By the time mornin’ showed its face, I was talked out and my petrified forest wasn’t fulla rocks no more.” Jelly grasped Johnny’s shoulder.


“That’s your gift, boy. You touch people here.” He tapped his chest. “Onliest problem is that you worry more ‘bout other folks than you do yerself.


“Now I’m the one ain’t takin no for an answer. Somethin’s eatin’ at you, Johnny, got you all catawampus. Near as I can figure, that little Tommy done stirred up a hornet’s nest in yer head. Now spill it.”


Johnny smiled wryly. Trust Jelly to box him in. Well, if he could talk with anybody, it was Jelly. “It started right after I found Tommy. I wanted to make things right for that kid, but even that first night I started rememberin’ things that…well, things I ain’t thought about in a long time. But now they flit through my head all the time. Least little thing sets ‘em off.”


“What things, Johnny?”


Jelly kept his mouth shut and let Johnny tell him about the dreams, the fragments of memories, the doubts and uncertainties, the anger and fears. Sometimes impassioned, other times halting and uncertain, the boy slowly worked through the firestorm of conflict that Tommy’s presence had ignited. It seemed to Jelly that seeing Murdoch with Tommy had somehow convinced Johnny that he didn’t deserve to be at Lancer.


Thank heaven I can git you to talk to me, boy. I thought you was mixed up when I first met you, but I ain’t never seen you so unsure of yerself. This ain’t like you a’tall.


“I feel like I’m on a runaway horse. I can’t stop it and I can’t get off. If I fall, I won’t be able to get up again. I’m happy Tommy can go home with his father, but when I see them together, I…well, I get mad. I…I don’t know anything anymore, Jelly.”


“You gonna miss him when he goes home.”


“Yeah. But I know he’s better off with his Pa. You and Scott and Murdoch all say I got no ‘cause to worry…that Adams is gonna do right by Tommy.”


“Tommy and Pete are gonna be just fine, but that don’t make it no easier for you to accept.” Jelly scowled at the downcast eyes.


“What yer feelin’ ain’t wrong, Johnny. Yer worried about that kid, yer gonna miss him, and that makes you feel kinda like a duck in the middle of a desert. But that will pass. It did for me—with yer help.” He laid his hand on Johnny’s knee.


“Reason it bothers you so much is ‘cause you feel things deeper’n most folks. Yer just chock full of feelin’ and that’s good and then again it ain’t so good. Most times, yer happier’n a spotted pup with a bowl of cream—and over little things most folks never notice. Don’t take much to make you smile. But when yer sad, well, yer just plumb infected with despair.” He pulled off his cap and ran a hand through his hair.


“You know, a body can pretend to care, but they can’t pretend to be there. Yer always there for everybody else, Johnny. Yer the…well, the ‘there-est’ person I ever knowed. It ain’t gonna be easy for you to say goodbye to Tommy, but you got family wants to be there for you. You just gotta let us.”


“You really think Tommy’s gonna be okay, huh?”


“That boy’s gonna be like a shoat in a mud waller thanks to you.”


Johnny sat twisting the beads he wore around his wrist for several minutes. He glanced up at Jelly and quickly looked back down at his hands. His voice was almost a whisper. “You seen Murdoch with Tommy?”


And that there’s the nub of the whole thing! This is all about you and the Boss. I seen it comin’ for a while now.


“The Boss got a real way with that young ‘un.” He gave Johnny a knowing look. “Makes you see just how much you missed out on, not growin’ up here, don’t it?”


“Yeah.” Johnny chewed his lower lip for a moment. He gazed at Jelly with haunted, pleading eyes.


“Why, Jelly? Why did she take me away from here? He…he woulda been a good father….”


Drat that woman! Why did she take you away? I wish I could tell you, boy.


“You know that coyote you had supper with?”


That drew a tiny smile. “Yeah.”


“Well that ole coyote and his clan been howlin’ at the moon for thousands a years. They still ain’t got no answer. But tonight, they’ll be howlin’ again.” He squeezed Johnny’s knee. “There just ain’t no answer to yer question in this world, Johnny.”


Jelly took a deep breath. “’Peers to me that them thoughts flittin’ through your head have everythin’ to do with you and yer father—and what you ain’t been able to say to each other. Yer back to feelin’ unsure of yer place here. And yer thinkin’ you don’t deserve a family. I thought we hogtied and branded them worries before, but yer runnin’ on that rope again. Why is that?”


Johnny worried the beads. “I can’t talk to him, Jelly. He…I…I can’t do nuthin’ right to his way of thinkin’. I don’t know what to say to him and he…well, he don’t care what I think.”


I’d like to light a shuck under that man’s tail!


“The Boss got his own way of doin’ things, that’s fer sure. And he don’t like no one questionin’ him. There’s two theories on arguin’ with your father, Johnny.”


“And they are…”


“It don’t matter, ‘cause neither one of ‘em works.” The chuckle this gambit coaxed from Johnny was all Jelly had hoped.


“I’m thinkin’ them nightmares is ‘cause you’re afraid of what the Boss would say if he knew about how you grew up, what you done.” He placed both hands on Johnny’s shoulders. “I thought you and him tippy-toed yer way ‘round that before. Leastways you seemed to be gettin’ on okay. But yer back to thinkin’ poorly about yerself and bein’ scared of what he might think of ya. Onliest way you gonna get the kinks outta yer thinkin’ is to talk to him.”


“Don’t you think I’ve tried? He…he don’t wanna talk to me—unless he’s givin’ me orders.”


“He don’t know how to talk to you no more’n you know how to talk to him. He…cares about you, Johnny. He’d be tore up bad if’n he lost you. But he don’t know how to tell you that. Sometimes, when a thing is near to yer heart, you got a chore to put it into words. And he’s scared you don’t care about him.”


“I ain’t so sure.”


“I’m sure, dadburn it. I ain’t never met a mule as stubborn as you or the Boss. I’d like to whup the both of ya. And if I hear you talkin’ about bein’ a nuthin’ or nobody again, I’m dern sure gonna whup you. You done made yerself sick and I want it stopped right quick. You listenin’ to me, boy?”


“I hear you.” Johnny didn’t meet Jelly’s eyes.


“Well, ‘course ya hear me. Yer sittin’ right next to me, ain’t you? What I asked is if’n yer listenin’.”


“I wanna talk to him, but every time I think about it, it’s like there’s a knife right here in my gut.” Johnny winced when he touched his stomach.


“I ain’t been able to do it. He looks at me and I feel like a little kid. Sometimes he looks at me and I swear there’s a passel of words bein’ spoke inside his head, but he won’t say ‘em out loud. And when he does talk to me, I…I…well, I get so mad that I could spit nails. It’s myself I’m mad at, but I turn it on him. And we end up lockin’ horns.”


“Johnny, there just ain’t no way around it. You got to talk to the Boss. You got to be willin’ to open up to him. You ain’t gonna have no peace ‘til you do.”


And if your dadblasted father would just tell you what you need to hear, we wouldn’t be in this picklement in the first place.


“You’re right. I know that. I just gotta work myself up to it. Plan it.”


“Well, you better plan it quick. I don’t like you feelin’ poorly like this—you need to see Doc.”


“C’mon, Jelly. Scott agreed to give me a week to deal with this in my own way. It’s my problem and I got a right to handle it. I promised Scott and I’ll promise you that if I can’t figure it out in a few days…well, then I’ll talk to Sam.”


Jelly leaned forward and felt Johnny’s forehead. “You ain’t got no fever and you got some color back in yer face. You need to visit the bushes again?”


“I’m tellin’ you I’m fine. It’s just after the dreams that I don’t feel so good.” And we won’t talk about that bellyache that don’t wanna go away.


“Huh. Well, I still think Doc oughta check you over.”


Johnny turned on the charm. “Now, Jelly, you know that if there was anything bad wrong with me, you’d see it. You know more about doctorin’ than Sam does. Ain’t that right?”


“Arguin’ with you is about as useless as settin’ a milk bucket under a bull. I ain’t got no more sense than Scott when it comes to you. Pair of us is plumb foolish where yer concerned.” He shook Johnny slightly.


“All right, I won’t say nuthin’ right now. But if I see you lookin’ as sick as you did earlier, I’m gittin’ you to Doc faster’n all git out. And don’t think I’m gonna forgit about it, neither. I’m gonna be after you to talk to the Boss like a duck on a June bug.”


“Thanks, Jelly. But you’re gonna see me lookin’ sick again sooner than you think.” He pointed to the sky. “That sun’s gonna be comin’ down in about an hour and we ain’t near finished with this fence. I ain’t lookin’ forward to tellin’ Murdoch.”


“You let me worry about that. We’re gonna put in some time right now and I’ll come back tonight with Cip. We’ll bring torches and get this fence done. The Boss won’t never know.”

He glared at Johnny. “And when we get back to the ranch, yer gonna go to bed and I’m gonna mix you a ‘coction—don’t you give me that look! Yer gonna drink it if’n I have to pour it down you. And don’t think yer brother won’t help me if I need him.”


“I don’t need--”


“You don’t no more know what you need and don’t need than a newborn wolf pup. It’ll help with that ache in your belly…and them other miseries you been havin’.”


Johnny heaved a big sigh and nodded, “Okay.” He grasped Jelly’s arm. “Thanks for listenin’, Jelly.”


Jelly swatted Johnny’s hand away and climbed out of the wagon. “Oh, pah! T’weren’t nuthin’. Just proves a theory of mine, is all.”


“What’s that?”


“You can lead a fool to talk, but you can’t make him think.” He rolled his eyes. “And I’d call ya a worthless varmit if’n I wasn’t so scared of what Tommy might do to me.”






The next morning…


Murdoch stretched his back, feeling the age that stiffened his joints and tightened muscles already aching from the piggy-back ride Tommy had insisted on the previous evening. He smiled at the thought of the child and savored the silence. You could hear a pin drop. There were no small feet running up and down at breakneck speed, no whooping and hollering, no inquisitive voice asking why? how? when? where? The boy had been with them only a short time, but his impact was enormous.


Scott had accepted the mantle of older brother to a child and tasted the experience of being a father. At first unsure of how to deal with the boy, he now masterfully held Tommy’s boisterous behavior in check. Scott had even been successful in curbing the child’s profanity.


Tommy’s presence afforded Johnny the opportunity to be a big brother for the first time, but mostly he was the boy’s much-needed friend. Both of his sons had left a lasting impression on Tommy, made a positive difference in his life. They were certainly men to be proud of.


Murdoch walked over to his desk and lit his pipe. He puffed with short, shallow breaths, waiting for the flame to take hold of the tobacco. What was taking it so long to light?


An acrid stench filled the air and an uncomfortable heat and taste swept through his mouth and nose. Murdoch began to cough and splutter as tears rolled down his cheeks and noxious fumes stung his eyes. His throat was on fire and his eyes began to itch maddeningly.


He tossed aside the pipe and dashed blindly to the kitchen. Bending over the sink, he gulped a glass of water to ease his burning throat and splashed handfuls of water into his swollen, irritated eyes. His nose ran freely, adding to his general discomfort.


Murdoch stumbled to the table and sank down into a chair. He gasped for breath, sneezing and shaking. Finally, he felt some relief.


What in the world? That tobacco was a birthday gift from Johnny. It’s always been enjoyable…TOMMY! He asked me if you could use a plant other than tobacco.


Ten minutes later, Murdoch felt well enough to walk back to the great room and examine his pipe. Sure enough, he found an unfamiliar residue in the bowl. Whatever it was, it wasn’t tobacco—it looked more like Jimson Weed. As he bent to study it more closely, Johnny and Tommy entered the great room through the French doors.


Johnny halted in the middle of the room and made a face, sniffing theatrically. “What’s that stink? You ain’t burned any more of Scott’s pants, have you, Tommy?” Johnny held his nose in mock disgust and winked at the boy.


But Tommy immediately saw Murdoch fiddling with the pipe and stopped dead in his tracks.


“Is there something you’d like to tell me, young man?’’ Murdoch shook the pipe at Tommy.


“No, sir,” Tommy mumbled as his eyes found the toes of his boots..


“I expect an explanation, Thomas. Right now!”


Tommy gulped. “I was just tryin’ to keep it from smellin’ so bad. I…I thought that leaves from the garden…would…would smell better’n tobacco. It was s’posed to be a surprise. Guess you didn’t like it….” He hung his head.


Johnny suddenly realized what had happened and burst into gales of laughter. “Hey, that’s pretty good, Tommy.” He back-handed the boy in the stomach.


Murdoch shot Johnny a withering glare that stilled his son’s mirth immediately. “This is not a laughing matter. I suggest you get back to work. NOW, young man. Or do I need to find something to keep you busy?!”


“Yes, sir!…uh, I mean no, sir. I was just leavin’.” Johnny abandoned Tommy to his fate, hightailing it out the door before his father thought of more work for him to do.


Murdoch wanted to grin at the alacrity of his younger son’s exit. But that would spoil the effect. He turned back to Tommy. “Come here, Tommy.”


Tommy stared at him wide-eyed and slowly walked toward Murdoch. “I’m sorry.”


Murdoch put his arm around Tommy’s shoulder and led him to the nearby blue armchair. He settled himself and lifted the boy to sit on his lap. “Tommy, do you remember what I said to you before—that all actions have consequences and you should think about them before you act?”


Tommy nodded.


“When you think ahead, you often decide your idea isn’t so smart. It may be dangerous, or unkind, or cruel, or just silly. The consequences might be to you or to someone else. And when you think about them, you may decide not to act on the idea after all. So did you stop to think before you replaced my tobacco?”


“No, sir.”


“And what did I tell you when you asked me if a plant other than tobacco would work?” 


“You said you wasn’t sure.”

“That’s right. Now, I know you think you had the best of reasons, young man, but what you did caused me quite a bit of discomfort for several minutes. Your idea had unpleasant consequences to me. Do you understand?”


“Yes, Uncle M. I’m real sorry. I won’t do it again.” Tommy hung his head. He knew Uncle M was unhappy with him, but it was worth a telling off to see Johnny laugh like that. He didn’t like having anyone cross with him though, and decided to change the subject.


“Uncle M, do you know anything about astronomy?” He gazed up at Murdoch with an ‘I know something you don’t know’ look.


Oh, no you don’t, young man. There is no way that I will admit to knowing the first thing about astronomy. I’ll just turn the tables in this question and answer game.


“Astronomy…astronomy. No, Tommy, I don’t know anything about that. Do you?”


Tommy nodded in triumph. “Scott and Johnny told me about it.”


“Maybe you can teach me.” Murdoch smiled when the boy’s face erupted into a huge grin.


Tommy felt important—he was going to teach Uncle M something! “Sure, I’ll tell you. See, astronomy is about stars. Do you know that stars make pictures in the sky? Them star pictures is called consallations and some Greek fellers found ‘em and made up stories about ‘em.”


“What kind of pictures?”


“Oh, animals and stuff. But them Greek fellers made up stories called myths. Do you know about Herclez?”


“No.” Murdoch stifled a grin. He was going to learn about Hercules whether he wanted to or not.


“Herclez was this man that was stronger than you. Stronger than Johnny even. He had to do twelve job things so that he could live forever.”


“Do you mean twelve labors?”


Tommy looked at him suspiciously. “You sure you don’t know this story?”


“Oh, no.” Murdoch returned the look innocently. “I just thought that you might mean labors instead of job things.”


“Well, that’s right. That’s what Scott said.”


“Scott told you, did he? Scott is well-educated.”


“He sure is. Mr. Jelly says he’s a walkin’ cycalpedia. But even Scott don’t know everything.”


“He doesn’t?” Murdoch bit his lip. Scott would be devastated at this news.


“No. I had to tell him about the North Star and the Evenin’ Star. Scott didn’t know about them.”


Murdoch swallowed a snort of laughter. Apparently his elder son was growing wise to Tommy. “Scott didn’t know about those stars?”


“Well, he knows their names and where they are, but he didn’t know they was Johnny’s special stars. You know, his Ma and his other Pa, Pablo.” Tommy halted his excited chatter, alarmed at the look that froze Uncle M’s face. Even at his young age, he recognized that his words had somehow hurt his friend.


“You okay, Uncle M? I’m sorry….” The boy reached up to trace the frown on Murdoch’s lips.


“There’s no need to be sorry, Tommy. You haven’t done anything wrong.”


Johnny’s other Pa!? Special stars? Well, if Tommy knows, he’ll tell me.


“You’re not mad at me?”


“No, son. I’m just surprised that Johnny told you about his stars.” Murdoch stroked Tommy’s hair. “Johnny didn’t grow up here. It’s only recently that he came home…to me.”


“You glad he did?” Tommy’s big eyes seemed to bore directly into Murdoch’s soul.


“Yes, I’m very glad to have Johnny home. He’s my son and…well--”


“You love him.” Tommy nodded wisely.


Murdoch just stared, his gaze unfocused and thoughts far away.


“Well, do you?” Tommy shook Murdoch’s shoulder. “Love Johnny?”


“Yes, Tommy. I…I love Johnny, just like your father loves you.”


Tommy grinned at him and whispered conspiratorially, “Johnny loves you just like I love my Pa. He told me.” He was relieved to see Murdoch’s face light up, tracing the smile with his finger.


“Johnny says most men don’t talk about things like love. He says that fathers and sons and even brothers have a hard time tellin’ each other how they feel. But my Pa tells me he loves me all the time and I tell him. Johnny says it ain’t the same when you’re a kid. He says you can say it then. How come bein’ a kid is dif…diffrint?”


“Ah…um…what does Johnny say?”


“He says it just is. I ain’t sure what that means, though. Johnny says men don’t show how they feel ‘cause if you admit you love somebody, then that person can hurt you. And that means you ain’t in control. Scott says it means men don’t wanna be vul..vulber—“




“That’s it! Johnny says lotsa men don’t say what they oughta to each other ‘cause they don’t wanna be vulbernal. I think that’s kinda silly. If you love somebody, how come ya can’t just tell ‘em?”


How come, indeed? God forbid that we should make ourselves vulnerable. Johnny’s as scared as I am.


“I’m glad that you and your father can say it to each other, Tommy. That’s all that matters.” He took a deep breath and forced himself to ask the question that blazed across his brain.


“What did Johnny tell you about Pablo?” Murdoch didn’t like questioning the child, but he needed to know and Johnny wasn’t likely to tell him.


“Pablo was Johnny’s other Pa. He looked after Johnny when he was an orphan…you know, before you loved him.”


“Before you loved him.” Those four words, spoken in all innocence, shattered Murdoch’s heart into tiny, razor-edged shards.


But I always loved Johnny. I never stopped. Never.


A staggering rockslide of jealousy pounded over him at the thought that another man had taken his place. Another man had been a father to his son, had loved his boy. But how could he possibly be jealous? A sudden rush of shame humbled him. If this Pablo had been there for Johnny when there was no one else, then he should be down on his knees right now, thanking God.


How many times had he begged God to protect his son; keep him safe, happy, and above all, loved? Johnny had barely survived his wretched childhood and maybe Pablo was the reason that he had. Maybe it was Pablo to whom Murdoch owed a colossal debt that could never be repaid. The need to know more about this man overwhelmed him.


He tousled Tommy’s hair and pulled him closer, wanting the contact with the child, even if it was a painful reminder of a lost and distant time. “What else did Johnny tell you about Pablo?”


“Pablo is Johnny’s North Star ‘cause if you know where the North Star is, you can’t lose your way. Johnny says there was times when he was so lost he didn’t think he could get back, but Pablo guided him. Johnny says that now you and Scott are his compass. You keep him pointed in the right direction. Like when you taught him that havin’ a gun don’t make you a man. Johnny wishes he grew up here with you instead of bein’ Johnny Madrid.”


Murdoch’s spirit soared at Tommy’s words and for the first time he felt that he might have actually done something positive for his son. But the implication of the last comment brought him back to earth. “Johnny told you about Johnny Madrid?”


“No, Mr. Jelly did. Here, I’ll show you.” Tommy pulled his wooden gun from his pocket. “Mr. Jelly carved this for me. Ain’t it a beauty?”


Murdoch examined the toy. “It’s a beautiful piece of work. You showed it to Johnny?”


Tommy put the gun back into his pocket. “Yeah, but it made Johnny sad. I don’t like to see him like that. When he’s sad that way, he says he don’t deserve no brothers like Scott and me. Scott and Johnny are my brothers now. Johnny says Scott got the brains, but he got the looks and charm.” He grinned at Murdoch when he heard the deep bark of the man’s laugher.


“Anyways, I promised Scott I’d help him make Johnny believe he’s deservin’. Hey, Uncle M, you could help us, too.”


Murdoch hugged Tommy close so the boy wouldn’t see the flush covering his face. “I’d like to help you do that. What did Scott tell you to do?”


“Gosh, we just don’t let Johnny be sad, is all. We don’t let him say bad things about himself. And we tell him we love him. Scott says we gotta tell him that enough so’s he believes it. And when we see him do something right, we gotta pat him on the back. Scott says Johnny judges himself real hard and we can’t let him do that. So will you help us?”


“I…yes, I’ll help you do that for Johnny.”


“That’s great.” Tommy sat up. “Hey, Uncle M, do you know about Johnny’s mother?”


Out of the mouths of babes…


Murdoch didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Yes, he knew, all too well, about Johnny’s mother. At least he thought he did. He struggled to find an appropriate answer to Tommy’s question. There was so much he could say, but not to a child. “I know Johnny loved his mother very much.”


“She died. She fell and hit her head just like my Ma and he misses her real bad. Johnny has this big scraped place inside that won’t go away and it stings when he thinks about her. But his Ma’s a star now and he can talk to her. Johnny says she’s the Evenin’ Star ‘cause she shines the brightest. He says his Ma could light up a room just by bein’ there.”


“Yes, Tommy. Johnny’s mother was a special lady and she did shine like the Evening Star.” Murdoch ached to his very soul at the thought of how desperately Johnny clung to his memories of his mother and his other…Pablo. The boy had nothing left of them but what he held in his heart and two stars in the eternal night sky.


“Johnny says my Ma is a star now, too. I found her in the sky and now I can talk to my Ma just like Johnny talks to his. He said it helps ease the hurt and he’s right. I showed Ma’s star to Pa and him and me talked to her together. He felt better, too. I miss Ma, but I still got my Pa. And Johnny, he’s still got you.”


“Yes, he’s still got me…,” Murdoch whispered through a throat tight with longing.


Does Johnny know that? Does he want me to be a father to him? Maybe I haven’t earned that right. I haven’t trusted him not to hurt me, so why should he trust me? I’ll bet he is as afraid to make himself vulber…er, vulnerable as I am.


It’s past time for Johnny and me to have a talk. It won’t be easy, but it has to be done. But when? I’ve hardly seen that boy since I’ve been home. He comes in late and leaves early. Is he avoiding me? Trying to hide something? Or does he still see himself as a prodigal son that I don’t want?


I must find a way to communicate with Johnny. Maybe I need to ask Pete for some examples of how to do it….





The next afternoon…


“C’mon, Uncle M. Sit up here on the op’ra house so’s you don’t miss nuthin’.”  Tommy patted the spot on the fence beside him.


Murdoch climbed to the top rail, joining Tommy, Scott and Jelly. He glanced around, surprised at the number of hands who were abandoning their chores and congregating at the corral. Someone had even left two bales of hay hanging from the big hook at the door of the hayloft—sloppy and potentially unsafe, especially with a child around the place. He would speak to Walt about it.


“What are we watching?”


“Johnny’s gonna try Smoky with a cow today.” Tommy scooted over and leaned against Murdoch.


“A cow? Isn’t it a bit soon to be working cattle with the colt? He’s hardly saddle broke.”


“If it were any other horse, I’d agree with you. But this colt has an amazing mind, Murdoch. You won’t believe how quickly he’s coming along. When you see him go, you’ll think he’s been in training for some time. And Johnny won’t push him. He just wants to get an idea of how Smoky will react to a cow.” Scott grinned.


“Boss, you shoulda seen Johnny pickin’ out just the right cow. He knew what he wanted—one slower’n a snail climbin’ a greased log and gentle to boot. He musta tested every critter on the ranch fore he found her. Cipriano and Barranca ain’t caught their breath yet.” Jelly shared a laugh with Scott and Murdoch.


“Lookee. There’s Johnny and Smoky.” Tommy bounced, pointing at Johnny leading Smoky from the barn. “Ain’t Smoky somethin’, Uncle M?”


“He’s certainly a magnificent animal.”


“And as clever as he is handsome. Wait until you see him work, sir. He’s consistently performing flying lead changes in both directions. I’ve never seen a horse learn so rapidly. Johnny’s doing a marvelous job with him.” Scott watched as Johnny mounted and walked the colt forward slowly.


“When it comes to horses, that Johnny’s got more smoke than a wet wood fire. Got that colt goin’ real good.” Jelly echoed Scott.


“Shh,” Tommy admonished the three men. “I wanna watch.”


Smoky swung along with quick, cocky strides. His eyes shown with excitement and his black tipped ears swiveled constantly as he listened to the man on his back. He was alert, but relaxed.


Johnny let him warm up gradually, keeping Smoky in the ground-eating walk while tuning the colt’s response to his legs and the reins. He changed directions often, halting and backing the colt when he did so. Each time he halted, Johnny turned Smoky’s head toward the toe of his boots, first one side and then the other. As they walked in circles, he asked for the same flexing motion, hands light on the reins, patiently teaching Smoky to yield to the pressure of his legs and heels and respond to the rein.


Johnny spent an equal amount of time bending toward the inside of the circle and to the outside. He wanted the colt to curve his neck and body in a supple arc, moving away from the pressure of his legs. The athletic colt performed the maneuvers, both to the left and the right, with a minimum of fuss. Then Johnny asked the colt to move forward and sideways at the same time, legs crossing over one another both in the front and the back. Again Smoky responded almost as if he’d been doing it all of his life.


After several minutes, Johnny signaled the colt to trot. He worked Smoky for some time at this gait, asking him to first lengthen his stride and then drop back to a slow jog. Finally, he asked the colt to lope.


Murdoch whistled at the sight. “That colt is one of the nicest movers I’ve ever seen.” He pointed to the thick bosal and turned to Scott. “Johnny is using vaquero techniques to train him. He’s brought him along beautifully. As you said, the colt works like he’s been in training for months.”


Hold on to your hat, Murdoch. As Jelly would say—and probably will—you ain’t seen nothing yet.


Johnny patiently drilled Smoky at the lope, varying the speed and size of the circles. He wanted the colt to show the same nimble responses to leg pressure and shifts of his body in the saddle at this gait. The softest touch on the reins kept the long neck arched and the powerful hindquarters engaged. When he felt the colt maintain his balanced frame at both slow and fast speeds, Johnny began to work him in a figure eight.


Tommy grasped Murdoch’s hand. “Watch this, Uncle M.”


As the colt approached the intersection of the circles, Murdoch held his breath, clapping when Smoky made a wonderfully smooth flying change of lead as well as direction. The colt maintained his floating strides without increasing or slowing his pace, his hindquarters not swinging out at all as he began the second circle, tracking true. He made it look easy and repeated his performance in the other direction.


Murdoch swelled with pride as he watched his son school the young horse. The colt skimmed over the ground, striding forward with great freedom and balance. Murdoch thought that if he were to measure Smoky’s hoof prints, he’d find each figure eight exactly overlaid the previous one.


He had to watch closely in order to spot Johnny’s cues to the horse. The boy sat the colt as softly as a feather, moving gently with the grulla’s strides. His body stayed centered just behind the withers, his center of balance matching that of the colt, where it was the easiest for Smoky to carry it. There was a calm air of sureness and authority about him, as though he belonged on the back of a horse.


My God, look at my boy ride!


Scott smiled when he noticed his father’s intent admiration. Murdoch was paying close attention to Johnny’s performance with the colt and it was plain to see the pride on the long face. He was torn between watching his father watch Johnny and observing Johnny and Smoky for himself. Murdoch wouldn’t be able to find any fault with Johnny’s handling of the horse. And it would give him something positive to speak about with Johnny. His brother’s shrill whistle reclaimed his attention.


Horse and rider stood in the center of the corral, facing the hacienda. Johnny turned in the saddle to watch Cipriano herd a single cow through the outer gate. The bald-faced heifer trotted to the fence and halted. Johnny turned Smoky around and showed him the cow. The colt’s ears pricked toward the heifer like daggers and he gave a snort, scraping the ground with one forefoot. Johnny signaled him to walk toward her and the colt plunged forward.


Every muscle in Smoky’s sleek body strained toward the cow. He fought Johnny’s restraining hands, dropping his nose toward his chest, arching his neck, and jogging sideways. The colt pranced and tossed his head with impatience, eager to chase the cow. But the man on his back didn’t allow him to rush toward her. Smoky flung up his head, his forelegs leaving the ground in his excitement. Let me at her!


Johnny patiently turned Smoky away from the cow and backed him for several steps. When he had the colt’s complete attention, he let him face the cow again. The grulla’s ears pricked forward, tips nearly touching, but this time he walked calmly to the heifer. The gentle cow gazed at horse and rider and began walking placidly along the fence. Johnny directed the colt to move parallel to her. When the cow walked, he and the grulla walked, and when she trotted, they trotted with her. Whenever the heifer stopped, Johnny halted the colt, asking him to stand and keep his eyes on the cow. Smoky quickly got the message—‘cow moves, I move too.’


Johnny was delighted when the colt mirrored the heifer’s every turn with no prompting from his rider. Smoky clearly wanted to control the heifer, but Johnny was careful not to let the colt try to drive or rush at her. He spent nearly twenty minutes letting the grulla follow the cow, then turned the colt away from her and rode him back toward the center of the corral.


A small herd of cattle in the pasture drifted close to the corral’s outer gate and the heifer bawled, bolting toward them. Smoky’s head jerked up, eyes tracking her, and Johnny couldn’t hold him.


The colt sprinted after the heifer, bringing himself alongside within five swift strides. He veered toward her, black tipped ears flattened against his head and eyes warning the cow to respect him. She faltered, giving way to the colt, and bounced to a stop facing him. Smoky stopped with her, sitting down on his haunches and quivering with anticipation. He squatted on his hindquarters, daring her to move, and when the heifer bolted to the right, Smoky whirled with her and cut off her escape path.


Smoky’s eyes were fixed on the cow as though he sought to read her mind. She tried to flee in the other direction, but the colt was there, pivoting smoothly on his hindquarters to match her move for move and block her way. Smoky shook his head and snorted furiously when Johnny reined him away from the cow. But he had learned to listen to the man on his back and so reluctantly walked to the center of the pen. The colt blew a huge, congratulatory snort through his nostrils and tossed his head.


Johnny motioned for one of the hands to let the heifer rejoin the herd in the pasture and patted the sweating neck. As usual, he asked the colt to stand for several seconds before riding him toward the cheering audience. Johnny halted Smoky at the fence and leaned back, patting the colt’s wet flank. When he dismounted and slapped the arched neck, the smile on his face was dazzling.


“Good fella. Yeah, you’re a good fella.” Smoky bumped him with his nose and Johnny scratched the wide forehead. He turned to Scott.


“Did you see that? I never seen a horse work a cow like that the first time. This boy is fulla cow. Did you see how he just knew? How he just squatted there and dared her to move? I wasn’t tellin’ him what to do. He just knew. Whooie! This boy’s gonna make one hell of a cowpony.”


Scott grinned at him. “I saw, brother. I saw.”


“That was fine as pearl buttons. Reckon that colt’ll make a real whittler.” Jelly added his opinion.


“Gosh, Johnny. Smoky and you was great,” Tommy bounced.


Johnny basked in their shared enthusiasm for Smoky’s accomplishment. He turned to his father, but Murdoch remained silent, sliding down into the corral and moving to the colt’s head. Murdoch scratched the grulla behind the ear and ran his hand down the sleek neck, slapping the colt several times on the chest. Then his eyes found Johnny’s.


“Son, that was incredible. You’ve done a splendid job of bringing this colt along. I’ve never seen anyone with a hand on a horse like yours.” He reached over and gripped his son’s shoulder. “I’d love to hear about the methods you’re using to train him. The finest cow horse I ever owned was schooled the vaquero way.”


Johnny met his eyes for a moment. “Thank you. I’d like to tell you about what I’m doin’ with him. How about at supper?”


He searched Murdoch’s face. He had the feeling that his father was speaking words inside his head again. Words he wouldn’t say aloud—like the time Murdoch gave him the watch. His father said words inside his head that day, too—words Johnny thought he wanted to hear. But they never passed the man’s lips. His eyes widened when Murdoch smiled at him and he returned the smile.


Smoky broke up the moment, thrusting his head between them and rubbing it hard against Johnny’s chest, demanding his share of the attention. Johnny turned to the colt and began unsaddling him.


“We’ll talk at supper. Well, I’d better get back to the books. Nice work, son.” Murdoch walked toward the hacienda.


Jelly kept his seat on the top rail, but Scott jumped down inside the corral and lifted Tommy down. “Can I lead Smoky around to cool him off?” Tommy tugged Johnny’s sleeve.


“Sure, Tommy. Just remember he’s a horse and he ain’t been around people all that long. You watch him and if he jumps or jerks on the rein, you drop it, okay.” He handed the mecate to the boy and stepped back.


“C’mon, Smoky, ole son.” Tommy handled the colt confidently and Smoky walked beside him, ears flicking at boy’s affectionate chatter.


Scott threw his arm across Johnny’s shoulder. “Well done, Johnny. Smoky is progressing beautifully and you certainly put on a show for Murdoch. I know your attention was on the horse, but our father was bouncing up and down on that fence as though he were Tommy’s age.”


And that’s the smile I wanted to see, little brother—the one that could illuminate every building in Green River.




“Oh, yes.”


Johnny laughed, “Wish I’d seen it.”


“It was quite a sight, but I imagine the view from your perspective was exciting.”


The blue eyes danced with enthusiasm. “Sure was. There’s nuthin’ like sittin’ on a cowpony when he’s workin’ a cow…when he reads her mind like Smoky did and you just know there ain’t no way he’s gonna let that cow git by him. Those ears are flickin’ like crazy and you can almost see him thinkin’. And when you get one that can sit on his hind end that way—he’s real special.


“That colt has all that power behind and he just knows to sit down and keep his shoulders up. When he holds himself like that, he can pivot on a dime. You can’t really teach a horse that. Oh, you can help him out, make him better, but the great ones just do it natural. And did you see him run after her? Oh boy, he can run.” Johnny backhanded Scott in the stomach.


He turned to watch Tommy walk Smoky in large circles, admiring the colt’s grace and power. “I don’t get tired of lookin’ at that colt, Scott.”


“Neither do I.”


“When you gonna breed him to them mares Scott brought from Frisco?” Jelly climbed off the fence.


“We’re watching them now. Just as soon as each mare is ready, she’ll be bred.” Scott answered for his brother.


Johnny whistled. “Hey, Tommy. That’s enough, just slip the hackamore off and let him go roll.”


“Okay, Johnny.” Tommy released the colt and turned back to Johnny and Scott as Smoky trotted toward his favorite rolling spot near the barn.


A gust of wind rocked the outer gate, drawing Johnny’s attention.


“Hey, the gate ain’t shut good.” He jogged across the corral, intent on securing the gate before Smoky realized that it was open.


Scott turned to Jelly. “Wind is picking up.” He pointed toward the two hay bales, swaying in the wind. “Walt and Luis need to get those bales inside—“


The words barely left his lips when the strain of the swinging bales snapped the rope. They fell with a resounding crash, exploding into a cloud of dust and flying clumps of hay almost exactly in front of Smoky’s nose.


The colt was in mid-roll, rubbing his head and neck in the deep sand and grunting with pleasure when the world exploded around him. Instincts bequeathed by eons of equine ancestors screamed Run. Smoky shrieked in fear, legs flailing as he desperately rolled upright, thrusting his front legs out in order to stand. The grulla bolted as soon as he lurched to his feet, determined to outrun the unknown threat. He spotted the open gate and raced directly toward it.


Johnny judged the distance between the horse and the gate. There was no way he could reach the gate before the colt.


“Tommy! No. Come back here. NOW!”


Scott’s words snapped Johnny’s head around and he stared in helpless, bone-melting horror as Tommy leaped squarely into Smoky’s path.


“Whoa, Smoky, Whoa.” The boy held up both hands, calmly facing the terrified horse.


Time seemed to slow to a crawl and Johnny was painfully aware that he would never forget the sight of the boy standing in the horse’s path. Every detail stood out sharply, the sun glinting on Smoky’s hide, the dust swirling from his deadly hoofs, the whites of his terrified eyes, the cattle bawling in the pasture, Tommy’s new green shirt, Scott running toward Tommy, screaming at the boy to move.


But Scott wouldn’t reach Tommy in time. And the awful certainty that he couldn’t get to the boy either strangled Johnny with icy hands, robbing him of the power to move or speak. He stood rooted to the ground, unable to tear his eyes from the certain disaster.


Don’t wanna watch. Can’t see someone else I love—Oh God, Smoky, NO. Not Tommy.


Smoky thundered straight at the boy, looming dangerously above him. At the last possible second the colt side-stepped, avoiding the child by the narrowest of margins, but continuing toward the gate. Tommy immediately ran after the colt.


Johnny’s powers of movement and speech returned with a rush as time resumed its normal pace. “Tommy! Tommy!” he hollered through a mouth packed with cotton. The sharpness of his words seemed to slash the inside of his dusty throat as he sprinted toward the boy.


Tommy stopped in his tracks at Johnny’s cry. “Smoky’s gettin’ away, Johnny.”


Johnny slid to a halt in front of Tommy, collapsing to his knees. He pulled the child into a savage embrace, squeezing the breath from him. “Tommy. Tommy.”


Tommy tried to wriggle free. “Let me go, Johnny! Smoky’s gettin’ away.”


“He ain’t gonna go far. Look at me. You all right? Did he hit you?” Johnny’s hands felt up and down Tommy’s arms and legs, searching for any injury. He brushed the boy’s thick bangs away from the wide eyes. “Tommy?”


“I’m okay, Johnny. Smoky wouldn’t hurt me. What’s wrong?”


Scott pounded up to them, his grim look mirroring Johnny’s. He opened his mouth to reprimand Tommy, but shut it after one look at his brother’s face.


Johnny stood abruptly, gripping Tommy firmly by his shoulders. He shook the boy hard. “What’s the matter with you? Don’t you know better than to jump in front of a runnin’ horse? What did you think you were doin’?” He shook Tommy again. “What kinda fool stunt was that? You’re lucky that colt didn’t kill you.”


Johnny’s voice wasn’t quite steady and his body trembled with the shock of the barely averted disaster. The dread clamping his heart left him cold. It had been so close. If the colt hadn’t turned…. He wanted to shake Tommy so hard that the boy’s head rattled, shake some sense into him so that he’d never pull a stunt like that again. His hands tightened painfully on the child’s shoulders.


I oughta whomp that kid!


Tommy stared up at Johnny in confusion and dismay. Johnny had never yelled at him before. Ever. And he’d never seen such a blaze of anger in the blue eyes—anger directed squarely at him. That sizzling gaze seared Tommy, torching his face white-hot. Johnny was really mad at him and Tommy didn’t like it one bit. His bottom lip trembled and he looked at his feet.


Johnny shook him again. “You look me in the eye when I’m talkin’ to you, boy!”


Tommy’s head shot up and big tears tracked a course through the dirt on his face. Johnny’s harsh raised voice scared him and the hands on his shoulders were uncomfortably tight. “I’m s…sorry, Johnny. I just didn’t want Smoky to get away.”


Fear, disbelief, and relief warred inside Johnny, twisting his guts into painful knots. A bolt of agony knifed through his stomach and Johnny gritted his teeth. “You ever do a fool thing like that again and I’ll make sure you can’t sit down for a week. You ain’t allowed out here again until I say so. And that won’t be until I can trust you to act responsibly. Is that clear? Is it?”


“Yes, sir.” Tommy’s voice quavered.


But not even the boy’s tears and quivering bottom lip could sway Johnny’s fear-induced wrath. He gripped Tommy by the upper arm and marched him across the corral toward the house, his tongue-lashing never faltering. Tommy stumbled and had to run to keep pace with Johnny’s angry strides.


“You think hard on what you did and how close that horse come to trompin’ you…and you think again on everything we’ve told you about keepin’ safe on a ranch. It’s a dangerous place, Tommy.”


He halted by the water trough and glared down at the quaking boy. “Now you git to your room and you stay there until I say different.” Johnny gestured toward the house. “Go on.”


Tommy stared up at the angry man he’d thought was his friend. “Johnny—“


“Git!” Johnny pointed at the hacienda again and landed a stinging swat on the seat of Tommy’s pants to enforce his order.


Tommy got the message and ran for home, followed quickly by Scott who was aware that the child could barely see for the tears streaming from his eyes.


Johnny stared after Tommy until the boy reached the safety of the hacienda. He took a deep breath, fighting to stop the shaking in his hands and defy his queasy stomach.


“Was you tryin’ to blister the ears offa that boy?”


Johnny whirled to meet Jelly’s twinkling eyes. “Well, go on, say it--”


“Don’t you be turnin’ yer tongue on me, boy. I ain’t the one poked a stick into yer cage.” Jelly huffed off after Tommy and Scott.


Johnny bit back the sudden urge to retaliate. Jelly was right. He settled for an angry glare and stalked over to Barranca. But when he tried to raise his toe to the stirrup, a sudden weakness seized him and he had to lean against the saddle for support. His heart thudded uncomfortably and he had the peculiar and uncomfortable sensation of being hot and cold at the same time.


The fierce cramping in his stomach erupted in a paroxysm of agony and it took every ounce of will to remain on his feet. Just as Johnny thought he’d lost the battle, the pain subsided to a dull ache. He moaned thankfully, but when he tried to take a deep breath, it stabbed him again.


He leaned against Barranca, breathing with short pants as the fire in his belly threatened to overwhelm him. Johnny bit his lip and fought through the torment, battling for control of his rebelling body. The pain ebbed more slowly this time, but at last he could stand without Barranca’s support.


Johnny wiped the cold sweat from his face, confused at his body’s unusual response to seeing Tommy in danger. Determined not to give in to any weakness, Johnny pushed thoughts of the painful spasms aside and brooded about Tommy. The boy had looked at him in fear. He hadn’t seen it at the time, but now, he clearly recalled the fright and sorrow in the brimming brown eyes.


I scared that little boy. Promised myself I’d never do that…never treat a kid like others treated me. But I hollered at him and threatened to whomp him. I scared that kid to death. What the hell was I thinkin’?


He swung up on Barranca and loped out across the pasture, letting the breeze cool his skin and his emotions. The simple act of following Smoky’s tracks helped calm him and the solid feel of Barranca’s smooth gait soothed his tension. He reined the palomino to a halt when he caught sight of Smoky quietly cropping the lush grass.


“Smo—kee.” He whistled and the colt lifted his head, looking at Johnny. “C’mon fella.”


Smoky trotted toward him, ears pricked. Johnny dismounted and held his hand out, grasping a handful of the colt’s mane when he drew near. The grulla seemed to have forgotten his earlier fright, nuzzling Johnny’s chest with his nose.


“Easy, son,” Johnny crooned as he used his rope to fashion a halter over Smoky’s ears and nose.


The grulla didn’t resist and Johnny pulled his ear and slapped him on the neck. He ran his hands down each of the colt’s legs, sensitive fingers searching for heat, swelling, or tenderness. Leading the colt forward a few steps, Johnny turned him in both directions while he watched anxiously for any soreness. But Smoky seemed unhurt. Johnny sighed in relief and remounted, leading the colt.


As he walked back toward the hacienda, Johnny’s thoughts returned to Tommy and the boy’s tearful reaction.


Did I handle it all right? Sure did upset him. I’ve seen Murdoch and Scott bawl him out like that. Kid resented them, too. But I ain’t seen him afraid of ‘em. Tommy probably hates me now….


‘Course he don’t hate Murdoch or Scott, so maybe he’ll forgive me, too. After all, the kid asked for it, didn’t he? What kinda fool jumps in front of a spooked colt?


Yeah, he deserved every word. Woulda deserved it if I’d whomped him good. I did okay.


I got to quit doubtin’ myself like this. Don’t know what’s wrong with me. If I’d been this unsure ‘bout my gun, I’d be rottin’ in hell now. Reckon I’ll take Smoky back to the ranch and then go for a ride—give myself time to settle down ‘fore I face Tommy again.



The sound of small feet running through the house vibrated up Murdoch’s backbone and settled in his teeth—he hated being disturbed while working on the books. But the echoes of Tommy’s sobs galvanized him to action. He was on his way to the stairs when Scott came through the door.


“Is Tommy all right? What in the world happened?”


“It’s okay, Murdoch. Tommy’s fine. His buddy, Johnny, got really angry with him for the first time and the boy’s just a bit upset. He isn’t hurt.”


“What did Johnny do?”


“Just about burned the ears offa that boy. Didn’t know Johnny had it in him to bawl out a kid thataway.” Jelly walked into the middle of the conversation.


“Do we need to check on the boy?”


“Not just yet. Johnny sent him to his room and Tommy needs some time alone to think about why.” Scott tried to steer his father toward the kitchen.


Murdoch refused to budge. “Why is Johnny so angry at Tommy?”


“Let’s go sit in the kitchen. I could use some coffee and it’s probably better if you hear this sitting down.” Scott ushered him into the kitchen.


Jelly bustled about, setting out cups and carrying the coffee pot to the table. His eyes met Scott’s and the two of them burst into laughter.


Murdoch slapped his hand on the table. “Will one of you please tell me what is going on? The two of you are cackling away, Tommy is upstairs in tears, and Johnny is nowhere to be seen, but you claim he is in a temper. That probably means he’s running the legs off of that palomino. I don’t see any humor in this situation.”


Scott wiped his streaming eyes. “Sorry, sir. It’s just that thinking of Johnny—Johnny!—reprimanding Tommy, asking him ‘what kind of a fool stunt was that?’ …” Scott started snickering again and couldn’t finish his sentence.


Jelly grasped Scott’s shoulders and shook him, imitating Johnny’s voice. “What’s the matter with you? What were you thinkin’?” He met Scott’s eyes and the ludicrous image of Johnny sternly lecturing the child drew hoots of hilarity. Jelly collapsed onto a chair and held his sides.


Murdoch glared at the pair of them. “You have yet to answer my question! What did Tommy do to anger Johnny?”


Scott took a deep breath and reined in his mirth. After all, the situation wasn’t really funny—but what rich irony to see Johnny…Murdoch’s pointedly cleared throat reminded him of the task at hand. “Tommy was walking Smoky around to cool him off. About the time Tommy slipped the hackamore off, Johnny noticed the outer gate wasn’t actually fastened and started over to close it.


“Remember those two bales of hay hanging by the doors to the loft? Well, the rope holding them broke and they fell almost on top of Smoky. It spooked him and he started running toward the open gate. Tommy tried to stop him. Jumped in front of him and waved his arms—No, no, Murdoch, it’s okay. Tommy wasn’t touched.”


He had to pause and place a hand on his father’s arm to hold him in his chair. “Really, you don’t have to worry.”


Murdoch relaxed back into his seat and took a gulp of coffee.


“Tommy didn’t listen when I told him to move and neither Johnny nor I were in a position to reach the boy in time. Thank heaven, Smoky veered off at the last second.”


Murdoch’s face flushed as he thought about Scott’s story. “Jumped in front of a spooked horse? Nearly trampled? And he promised me he wouldn’t do anything dangerous! I have a few words I want to say to that young man.” Murdoch pushed back from the table.


“Now, just sit yerself down, Boss. That young ‘un ain’t ready for no more fussin’ just yet. He needs to think on what Johnny told him. And ain’t nuthin’ you can say to him that Johnny ain’t said already.” A picture of Johnny swatting Tommy and pointing grimly toward the hacienda flashed through Jelly’s mind and he chortled again.


“Would one of you please tell me what is so funny about Tommy nearly getting run down by a horse?” Murdoch roared.


Scott looked at his irate father and threw up his hands, unable to stifle his mirth.


“The funny part ain’t Tommy nearly gettin’ tromped—It’s Johnny. Tommy’s own Pa couldn’t a pinned that boy’s ears back any tighter. You ain’t never seen Johnny like this, Boss. All puffed up and spittin’ flames like one of them fire and brimstone preachers…just like he ain’t never done somethin’ like that hisself. He was sure readin’ the Scriptures to Tommy. He—”


Scott interrupted, “Oh, Murdoch, you’d be laughing, too, if you’d seen Johnny. He was the picture of outraged dignity, berating that child like an irate tutor. My little brother, the daredevil…” He choked back his laughter.


Jelly drew himself up and stuck out his chin. “Here! Are you tellin’ this story or am I?”


“Oh, go ahead, you tell it. But if you’re going to tell it, get it right.” 


“I am gittin’ it right. If’n it was up to you, you’d be colorin’ up this story redder’n a Navajo blanket with them highfalutin’ words. I—“


Murdoch held up his hands. “I don’t care which one of you does the talking. But one of you please tell me what happened after Smoky barely missed Tommy.”


“What happened is Johnny got hisself a little taste of what it’s like to be the one watchin’ instead of the one actin’ like a darn fool. And what did he do? Why, he preached the Gospel accordin’ to Johnny Lancer—do what I say, not what I do.” Jelly emphasized his point with a sharp nod of his head.


The humor in the situation began to dawn on Murdoch. The thought of his impetuous, hot-headed younger son rebuking Tommy for acting exactly as Johnny would in the same situation brought a smile. He wished he’d seen it—he had few opportunities to witness Johnny’s mature side. “What did Johnny say to him?”


Scott took command, motioning for Jelly to be quiet. “First, he hugged him and made sure Tommy wasn’t hurt. Then he shook him and fired off several questions.” Scott ticked off each question on his fingers. “What’s the matter with you? What were you thinking? What kind of a fool stunt was that? You know—everything you’ve always wanted to say to Johnny when he does something similar.” He shared a belly laugh with Jelly and Murdoch as they nodded in avid agreement.


“Johnny told Tommy he wouldn’t be able to sit down for a week if he ever did anything like that again that. He forbade the boy to go back to the corral or barn until he told him it was all right—and that will be when Johnny can trust him to be responsible. Then he sent Tommy to his room.”


“Wait a minute. Johnny asked Tommy ‘what kind of a fool stunt was that’?”


“Word for word.”


“Reckon the next time Johnny cuts a shine thataway, we can just threaten him with a whuppin’ and send him to his room.” Jelly mimicked Johnny’s gesture to Tommy, pointing dramatically toward the upstairs bedrooms. “Git!”


The three men chuckled at the thought of Johnny’s reaction to such a threat.


Scott straightened, wiping the smile from his face and turning a stern look on Murdoch and Jelly. “Right. Now we’ve all had our little laugh. When Johnny returns, I expect you two to make yourselves scarce. I need to talk to him alone and he doesn’t need any teasing about this. If I know Johnny, he’s probably beating himself up for dressing Tommy down. Agreed?”


“Now, son—“


“Murdoch, trust me on this. Please?”


“All right.”


“Jelly—please let this one go.


Jelly rolled his eyes. “I reckon you could talk a cow out of her calf. Never seen nobody with such a frolicsome tongue. I’ll leave it go.”


But only because Johnny’s lookin’ as sick as a stomped on horned toad lately….



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