The Boy

Part Five

by  Karen and Nancy



Murdoch paused at the door of Tommy’s room. The muffled sobbing filtering into the hall confirmed that his instinct to talk to Tommy was correct. Johnny hadn’t disciplined Tommy before and the boy probably felt as though he’d lost his best friend. Murdoch thought the child might need a bit of comfort about now—as well as a reminder of the terms of their gentlemen’s agreement. He knocked on the door and entered without waiting for an invitation.


Tommy lay on his stomach, sobbing into his pillow. Murdoch seated himself on the edge of the bed and rubbed the boy’s back.


“Tommy, I want to talk to you, son.”


Tommy sobbed louder and Murdoch felt the small frame tremble beneath his hand. He lifted the boy into his arms, holding him tightly to his chest and rubbing his back as Tommy cried out his hurt. When the tears began to subside, Murdoch spoke softly.


“Do you want to tell me about it, Tommy?”


Tommy sat up and dragged his shirt sleeve across his nose, hiccupping as he tried to stop crying. Murdoch pulled out his handkerchief and gently wiped the tears from the boy’s red face.


“Oh, Uncle M. I was just tryin’ to keep Smoky from runnin’ off.” Tommy’s voice faltered and his breaths came in short, ragged gasps. “And…and J..Johnny…Johnny was m…mean…to me.” He sniffed loudly.


“Johnny was mean to you?”


“Yes, sir…real mean.”


Murdoch dabbed away a fresh crop of tears and waited until Tommy’s eyes met his.


“Tommy, did you jump in front of Smoky?”


The boy nodded.


“Did Scott tell you to move?”


“Uh huh. But Smoky was gettin’ away.”


“I understand that. But you ignored Scott’s orders, didn’t you?”




“Did Johnny tell you that what you did was very dangerous—that you could have been badly hurt, maybe even killed?”




“But you knew that already, didn’t you, Tommy?”


“Uh huh.”


“Did Johnny send you to your room and tell you to stay here until he said otherwise?”


Tommy nodded.


“So you did something you knew was dangerous, even though Scott told you not too, and Johnny punished you.”


Tommy hung his head and nodded, rubbing his eyes.


“Do you really think Johnny was just being mean to you, Tommy?”




Murdoch patted the boy’s shoulder. “No, I don’t think so either. He told you what you did wrong and sent you here to think about it. I believe Johnny was very fair. If I had been there, I would have done exactly what your Pa would do if you frightened him like that—paddle your backside until you had to eat your next several meals standing up. Am I right in thinking that’s what your father would do?”


Tommy nodded, keeping his eyes down.


“I thought we had a gentlemen’s agreement, Tommy. We talked about this. I told you how unhappy I’d be if you were hurt. You promised not to do anything dangerous. Is that right?”


Tear-filled eyes gazed up at Murdoch. “Yes, sir. I guess I forgot what I promised.” The boy hid his face in Murdoch’s chest. “Reckon I deserve a lickin’…”


“Yes, you certainly do, young man!” Murdoch put his finger under Tommy’s quivering chin and tilted the boy’s face upward. “But Johnny didn’t think so. He thought you needed some time alone to reflect on what you did. So, just like he told you, you will stay here in your room until you realize just how dangerous a ranch can be and learn to respect those dangers. Understand?”


“Yes, sir.” Tommy sat up straight. “Uncle M, is…is Johnny still mad at me? Does he hate me?”


Murdoch felt his heart melt as the soulful brown eyes gazed at him so anxiously. He placed his hands on Tommy’s shoulders. “Tommy, Johnny doesn’t hate you. Yes, he was angry. That’s because he was frightened for you. Seeing you in danger scared him badly. But his anger was at what you did, not at you, son. Johnny just doesn’t want to see you hurt, he loves you.”


A smile spread slowly across Tommy’s face and he threw his arms around Murdoch. “I love Johnny—and you and Scott, too, Uncle M.”


“I love you too, Tommy.” Murdoch hugged the boy and laid him back on the bed, tickling him and drawing gales of laughter from the child.


Murdoch pondered on those three simple words. The same words he always swore a man like him couldn’t say. But they had slipped out so easily. Why couldn’t he say them to his own son? Shouldn’t it be just as easy?


There was a time, so long ago that it seemed like a dream now, when he had told Johnny he loved him every day. His words flowed freely from a heart not yet shuttered and scarred by loss and pain.


He recalled the first time he held his newborn son, the memory vivid and alive…counting the tiny fingers, fascinated at their perfection, the way they curled around his long finger…the warm little bundle, light as Maria’s biscuits, so small in his huge hands…the red, wrinkled face crowned with thick, raven hair.


“Hello, son. I’m your father and I love you.” The infant’s grip tightened on his finger and the bright blue eyes branded Murdoch’s soul for all time. And he had been the very first to witness Johnny’s heart-stopping smile. He’d cried tears of pure joy.


As Maria lay in an exhausted sleep, he carried his tiny son around the hacienda, introducing the baby to every room. “This will be your room, John. Well, when you’re a wee bit older, of course. You need your Mama right now.”


Such heaven to hold his son, to show the boy his home. “And this room is for your big brother, Scott. I promise you, son, I’ll bring Scott home one day soon and you’ll be together.”


He hadn’t known then that it would take twenty years to fulfill that promise. But now his boys had each other. He knew how desperately Johnny needed his brother. In many ways, Scott fulfilled the roles Murdoch should play. If only Johnny loved and needed him….


He remembered carrying his sleepy son “up the wooden hill to Dreamfields,” counting each step of the big staircase together, kissing and hugging a child who loved back so openly…demanding that his Papa stay a bit longer and hug him again.


Holding Tommy so close made Murdoch yearn for those times. But they were gone forever…forgotten by the boy who had once loved him so much.


“You okay, Uncle M?”


Tommy’s voice reclaimed Murdoch’s attention and he stood. “Yes, Tommy. Well, I’ve got work to do. Johnny will be up later to see what you have to say for yourself.”


Murdoch ran his fingers through the mussed mop of blond hair and tapped his finger on Tommy’s nose. “Keep that handkerchief, it’s a lot softer on the nose than your sleeve.”


Tommy giggled. “You’re funny, Uncle M…just like Johnny.”


Murdoch smiled at the boy, but instead of the brown-eyed, blond child, he saw a black-haired, blue-eyed rascal with an infectious grin and mischief dancing in his eyes. Johnny had been such a happy child…


Closing Tommy’s door, Murdoch walked wearily down the stairs. That happy child was no more, but he still had his younger son.


I could say it to Tommy. I swear I’ll say it to Johnny.



Murdoch leaned against the rail of the small paddock where Smoky grazed, watching Cipriano from the corner of his eye. He smiled at the pride on the big segundo’s face, well aware of how Cipriano felt about Johnny.


“A fine caballo, eh, compadre?”


. I have seldom seen one finer. And Juanito with him…muy mustañero.” Cipriano shook his head in wonder.


“Johnny is training the colt the vaquero way. There aren’t many men with such skill.” Murdoch faced his old friend. “You speak of Johnny as a mustañero. Am I right in thinking that refers to a horse talker who also knows the vaquero’s training arts?” 




“It is a title given only by another mustañero to one he believes is worthy. Is that right?”


Es verdad.”


“And Pablo Bandini was the greatest mustañero of them all.”


Cipriano met Murdoch’s eyes and smiled—an oddly tender smile. “But no, Señor. Pablo himself would tell you that the most talented of them all was the young one who worked with him—a boy named…Johnny.”


Murdoch grasped the segundo’s steely upper arm. “Cipriano, are you…are you saying that he meant my Johnny?”


. I wish I had known at the time who this Juanito was, but I did not. I did not know until he came home. But our chico, Johnny, is the boy Pablo spoke of when he said he had never seen anyone so talented with a horse.” 


Murdoch nodded, his suspicions confirmed. Tommy had referred to Pablo and when Murdoch thought back on Johnny’s nearly mystical performance in gentling Smoky, he made the connection. Seeing Johnny training the colt in a jaquíma was the final piece of evidence.


Anyone who appreciated fine horses and lived or traveled across the Southwest and California knew of Pablo Bandini’s legendary skill as both a horse-talker and a trainer. Johnny had learned from a master.


He drew a deep breath. “Did Pablo…did he say anything else about…about Johnny?”


Cipriano’s weathered hand found Murdoch’s shoulder. His dark eyes were soft with understanding. “Johnny was the son Pablo never had. Pablo called him his little one, said there was greatness in him.”


“How long…”


“Not long. Perhaps two years.”


“Why? What happened?”


“Pablo was murdered and the boy vanished.”




Cipriano’s face turned to granite. “, tortured and butchered by los puercos…”


“Yes, I remember now. We decided the ranch needed a stallion—a top cow horse. You and Paul convinced me to bargain with Don Esteban for one trained by Pablo. I arrived at his rancho soon after Pablo’s death.


“I had forgotten he was murdered. I remember how frantic they were to find the boy, especially the segundo, Sam. But no one knew where he had gone. He sent word to the rancho that he wasn’t coming back and disappeared.” The implication staggered him. “And that boy was…”




Murdoch threw his head back and closed his eyes. “My God. I was so close…if I’d only known…”


“But how could you know, Señor? And finding Juanito when he wished to hide…”


Murdoch drew a deep breath. “You’re right. It just seems….” He let his head drop to his chest and rolled it, straining to loosen the knots of tension in his neck. So close. If only…the line from a poem he’d recently discussed with Scott flew through his mind and he whispered it, wondering what fateful irony had inspired the poet.


“For of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these ‘it might have been.’”


Cipriano’s hand tightened on his shoulder.


“Well, it’s past and gone, now. And the men who killed Pablo? What of them?”


Cipriano crossed himself. “El busco para venganza.


“A quest for vengeance…. Johnny?”




Is that Johnny’s deep, dark secret? What he is so afraid I’ll find out about? Can he possibly believe I would turn away from him because he exacted revenge on men who butchered a man he thought of as a father?


“Have you spoken of Pablo with Johnny?”


“It is not my place, Señor Murdoch. Johnny knows only that I knew of Pablo. He does not know Pablo was my cousin.”


Murdoch clapped the man heartily on both shoulders. “You talk to Johnny, compadre. No one has more of a right to do so. Johnny loved Pablo, Cipriano, as a friend and a father. He will welcome a chance to share his memories.”


Cipriano’s hands found Murdoch’s forearms and the dark eyes were bright with thanks and compassion. “Gracias. I will do this. And perhaps Johnny wishes to speak of his amigo with his padre, eh?”


Murdoch nodded, unable to speak past the lump in his throat.



“Now, Scott, Johnny told that tyke to stay in his room.” Jelly blocked the path from the dining table to the stairs.


“I know, Jelly, but where is Johnny? I refuse to believe that he meant for Tommy to go to bed without supper. All I want to do is bring the boy to the table to eat. Then he can go back to his room.”


“That ain’t what Johnny said.” Jelly jutted his chin belligerently.


“Jelly….” Scott glared at him and turned to father. “What do you think, Murdoch?”


“Why don’t you ask Tommy?”


“Tommy?” Scott and Jelly responded in unison.


“Yes. The boy is honest about what he does and doesn’t deserve as punishment. I think you’ll be surprised at what he tells you, Scott. So before you go up to speak with him, I suggest putting together a tray. He can have supper without leaving his room. I do agree that Johnny didn’t mean for Tommy to go to bed hungry.”


Ten minutes later, Scott knocked on Tommy’s door and poked his head in when the boy answered. Tommy sat by the window gazing out at the back pasture and his face brightened when he saw Scott.


“Hi, Scott.”


“Hey, Tommy, do you know that it’s supper time? Why don’t you come downstairs and have a bite to eat?”


Tommy stared at him incredulously and shook his head. “I can’t, Scott. Johnny said I was to stay in my room until he said diffrint.”


“Yes, but I don’t think he meant for you to miss supper.”


Tommy’s stomach growled and he giggled. “Guess I am hungry. Could I eat here in my room?”


Scott held up a finger. “Hold that thought.” He ducked back into the hall and returned with a supper tray, setting it on the dressing table. “Let’s see—here are pencils and paper so you can draw pictures—”


“Scott, did Johnny find Smoky?” Tommy interrupted.


“Yes, he did. You don’t have to worry about Smoky. Now, how about pot roast with roast potatoes and gravy?”


“Oh, boy! Thanks, Scott.” Tommy scurried to the table, stuffing the napkin into his collar.


“Nothing but the best for my little brother.”


The grin froze and dissolved. Two big tears spilled over and trickled down the desolate face. Tommy turned his back and Scott had to strain in order to hear him.


“I…I can’t be…your brother no more. I…I got to go…home.”


Scott reached out and gently turned Tommy to face him, wiping away the tears. He scooped the boy into his arms and settled on the edge of the bed. “Tommy, do you want to go home?”


“I miss Pa, so much. I really wanna go home. But…but…”


“But what, Tommy.” Scott tilted Tommy’s face upwards until their eyes met.


“I’ll miss Johnny…and you…and I…I can’t be your brother if I’m there and you’re here.” The boy buried his face in Scott’s chest.


“Oh, Tommy, you can visit us anytime you want and we will visit you. You know where we are if you need us or want us. We will always be here for you. Do you know where Johnny is right now?”


Tommy shook his head.


“I don’t know where he is, either, but I do know that wherever Johnny is, he’s still my brother and he always will be. It doesn’t matter how many miles stretch between us. Just because we don’t live in the same house or sit at the same table doesn’t mean that you won’t be our little brother, Tommy. We’ll still be under the same sky—so we can talk to the same stars. Do you understand?


“Yeah, Scott.” Tommy hugged him. “I’m glad you’re my brother…and Johnny.”


“Well, just don’t forget—“


“Who’s the oldest and wisest.” Tommy interrupted, completing Scott’s sentence and squealing in delight.


“That’s right!”


Tommy giggled and then his expression turned serious again. “I’m sorry, Scott. Uncle M told me how scared you and Johnny was when I jumped in front of Smoky. I didn’t mean to scare you.”


“Well, you scared years off of my life, buckaroo. I know you didn’t mean it, but I hope you’ve learned a lesson about thinking before you act.”


Tommy nodded. “I won’t do it again, Scott.”


Scott tousled the blond mop. “No, I don’t think you will.” He set Tommy on the floor and walked toward the door. “Enjoy your supper, Tommy.”


What a little toot. I’ll certainly miss that boy when he goes home. I only wish it were so easy to handle my other little brother.





Johnny’s spurs alerted Scott that his other little brother had finally decided to return. Scott looked up from his book and heaved a sigh of relief. He always worried when Johnny rode away from Lancer, chasing the wind for answers.


He watched Johnny hang up his hat and gun. Johnny glanced furtively into the great room and waved when he saw his brother. Scott returned the wave and snickered when Johnny scooted off toward the kitchen. He figured that Johnny knew his brother was lying in wait for him and Johnny wasn’t quite ready to talk. But he’d be back.


True to form, Johnny soon returned to the great room and headed toward Scott, a glass of buttermilk in each hand.


Johnny handed Scott one of the glasses and sank down onto the sofa. “Thought I might need a drink ‘fore I faced my big brother.” He held up his glass. “Buttermilk.”


He glanced sideways at Scott, then dropped his eyes to the fire. “Where’s Tommy?”


“In his room—where you told him to stay.” Scott casually sipped his buttermilk. “Of course, I’m sure he never imagined he wouldn’t be allowed to come down for supper.”


Johnny gaped at him. “You mean he didn’t get no supper?”


“That’s not what I said. Yes, Tommy ate. Up in his room…by himself.”


Johnny sighed. “I didn’t mean for him to stay up there and miss supper.”


“Johnny, you told him not to leave his room until you said it was all right. All of us took you seriously.”


“He okay?”


“Oh, he’s fine. A ‘don’t you ever do anything like that again or else young man’ lecture never did anyone any harm. Neither did eating supper in their room. The real question is how are you?” Scott’s eyes twinkled wickedly.


“You ain’t a comedian, Scott. I…I didn’t handle it very well, did I?”


Scott walked over to the sofa and sat down beside his brother, placing a hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “You handled it just fine, brother. Tommy scared the hell out of you and you hugged him, letting him know you loved him and that you were happy he was safe. Then you told him what he did wrong and punished him for doing it. He’ll think twice before he does anything like that again.”


“When I saw him standin’ there with Smoky bearin’ down on him…well, I…I wished I’d never found him that day…wished I never met him. I didn’t wanna lose him, Scott. I don’t wanna lose nobody else.”


Scott’s wrapped his arm around Johnny’s shoulders and squeezed. “Johnny, losing someone you love is one of the hardest things you’ll ever face. I guess I don’t have to tell you that. But have you ever thought about why? It’s because love is such a blessing. Like Pablo told you, it’s the one gift that lasts forever. And like anything worth having, it has a price. One of my favorite quotes about love goes like this:  ‘Sometimes love comes easy and other times it requires a man to fight. Love is never free or painless, for one day we all will pay its price.’”


“That’s real nice. Who said that?”


Scott grinned and blushed. “I did. I wrote it as part of an essay for a literature class.”


Johnny tousled Scott’s hair. “Them fancy poets ain’t got nuthin’ on you, Scott. You get an A for that?”


“Of course.” His face grew serious. “Don’t ever be afraid to love, Johnny. It may hurt at times, but it is the greatest healer, too.”


“I know.” Johnny met his brother’s gaze, telling him with his eyes how much Scott’s love had helped him to heal the raw and inflamed wounds that littered his soul. “I know, Scott.”


Scott decided to turn the conversation back to Tommy. Johnny’s fidgeting signaled his discomfort with the topic and Scott still had a point to make.


“Tommy really scared you, didn’t he?”


“Yeah. Kid took about ten years off my life. I never felt so helpless as when I saw him jump in front of that colt and realized there was no way I could get to him in time.” Johnny held both hands out, palms down. “Ain’t sure I’ve quit shakin’ yet.”


“It’s hard to sit by and watch when your little brother is careless with his life, isn’t it Johnny?”


“Oh boy, you can say that again.”


“It’s hard to sit by and watch when your little brother is careless with his life, isn’t it LITTLE BROTHER?”


Johnny cringed and shook his head. “I walked right into that one, huh?”


“I’d say so.”


Johnny stared down at his hands for a moment and then turned to face his brother. “Do I scare you like that sometimes, Scott?”


“Yes, Johnny, you do.”


“I…I’m sorry. I don’t mean to. Guess I never really thought about what it might do to you, watchin’ some of the stunts I pull. If you feel anything like how I felt seein’ Tommy in front of Smoky, well, it ain’t no fun for you.”


“You can say that again.” Scott rolled his eyes. “Johnny, you…well, you just don’t seem to value your own life. Yes, it scares me to watch some of your stunts. But it makes me angry that you think so little of yourself—and so little of your family.


“You’re part of this family and that means you have people who worry about you and pray for your safe return every time you walk out that door. It’s your life, but when you share it with a family, you’re no longer free to dare the devil. You told me you understand about responsibility and consequences. Well, one of your responsibilities to your family is to respect the love we have for you. And that means respecting your own life.”


Johnny kept his gaze on the flickering flames. It was still so hard to accept that other people worried over him. For so long he’d been alone, never needing to be concerned about how his actions might affect the people who cared about him.


I didn’t ask them to worry about me. Wish they wouldn’t. But I worry about them. And if what I do scares them, then it’s selfish of me to ignore their concerns. Last thing I wanna do is hurt ‘em.


“I never thought about it that way before, Scott. I…I’ll try to do better.”


Scott squeezed Johnny’s shoulder. “Tommy will be going home in a few more days. Are you ready for that?”


Johnny shook his head. “No…but I know it’s what you and the Old Man think is best for him.”


Scott nodded “Yes, we do, and deep down, you think so, too. You know, I spent some time with Pete while he was here. He’s a good man, Johnny. I truly believe that. He took a bad turn, but he’s back on the right road now. And he’s wonderful with Tommy. When you see them together, you’ll understand what I mean.”


“I know Tommy’s crazy about him. I just keep thinkin’ of what he looked like on that floor, how he told me he didn’t want Tommy.” Johnny paused for a swallow of buttermilk and smiled wryly at Scott.


“Murdoch says I’m rememberin’ what happened to me and lettin’ that cloud my thinkin’ about Tommy. Reckon’ he’s right.”


“Murdoch spoke with you about Tommy going home?”




Scott studied the bowed head and made a quick assessment—Johnny wasn’t ready to talk about that particular discussion with Murdoch. But he had obviously listened to their father.


“Well, I know I’ll miss that little boy. We all will. He’s made us see each other in a different light…managed to open up doors and reveal things that should never have been hidden. I’m grateful to him for that.”


“He’s a special kid, ain’t he? ‘Course he don’t know the meanin’ of the word secret.”


The brothers exchanged grins and Scott leaned close to Johnny.


“Speaking of secrets…isn’t it time you talked to Murdoch, Johnny?”


Johnny leaped to his feet, alarm on his face. “No, Scott! Look, I told you, I ain’t ready yet. I got to plan how to do it. He ain’t like you…he…I don’t think he can live with knowin’ the things I’ve done…what I was really like.”


“You still don’t give him very much credit, do you?”


Johnny stared at his brother, stung by his question. “He don’t give me no credit.”


“That’s not what I asked you, Johnny.”


“I…I want to, Scott. But he makes me feel…I want him to…I just…” Johnny sat back down, hanging his head. “I just don’t know how I feel about him.”


“Well, I know how he feels about you. I’ve seen the worry in his eyes when you’re late coming home and the fear when you pull some foolish stunt. I watched him dig Pardee’s bullet out of your back—that hurt him more than it hurt you.


“And the time Marks had you and Charlie Poe locked up? Well, Marks threatened to have you shot in a jailbreak. Murdoch looked him in the eye and warned him that if anything happened to you, there was no place Marks could hide. I doubt that even Johnny Madrid could’ve made a deadlier threat.”


Johnny stared at him. “I never knew that.”


“No, he wouldn’t say anything about it. Perhaps I should’ve told you before. Those are some of the reasons why I know how Murdoch feels about you. He searched eighteen years for you, never stopped looking--”


“He don’t know nuthin’ about me, Scott. If he did, he wouldn’t have bothered lookin’. Talkin’ to him ain’t gonna help. It’s liable to push us further apart.”


“You’re wrong, Johnny. That’s your fear talking. You’re so afraid that’s how he will feel that you’ve convinced yourself that’s how he does feel. It’s not fair to Murdoch…and it isn’t doing you any good, either.”


Johnny sighed and chewed his lower lip.


“When we first came to Lancer, I envied you, Johnny.” He smiled when Johnny’s head jerked up in surprise. “That’s right. I was jealous of what you had with Murdoch.”


“Of me?” Johnny squeaked. “What could you possibly think I had with the Old Man?”


“The kind of love that made him never stop looking for you. He didn’t know where you were, but he kept trying to find you. Yet that entire time, he knew I was in Boston and he left me there without a word.”


“But, Scott, that ain’t right. Murdoch tried to keep in touch with you, but Harlan…I’m sorry.”


“It’s okay. And you’re right. I know that—now. But when we first came home, I thought he’d ignored me my entire life, that he didn’t want me.”


“I didn’t know you felt that way. It’s kinda funny to think of you bein’ jealous of my relationship with the Old Man.”


“I got over being jealous. But I didn’t realize how angry I really was. I pushed it deep inside and it smoldered there. The day you rode out to talk with Pete, I saw Murdoch with Tommy. Seeing that little boy on Murdoch’s lap, watching the two of them laughing together—I can’t believe how hard it was.” He noticed Johnny’s nod.


“After seeing them together, I couldn’t deny the resentment anymore. I had it out with him, Johnny. I told him how angry I was and asked him for his side of the story.”


Johnny’s eyes were like saucers. “What’d he say?”


Scott grinned at him. “Well, you may find this hard to believe, but he shared his side of the story, gave me his reasons for leaving me in Boston. Then he actually told me he’d made the wrong decision and apologized.”


“Oh, c’mon. Murdoch Lancer apologize? What did he really say?”


“He really apologized. We talked, Johnny, about many things. We sat down man to man, eyeball to eyeball, and laid it on the line. It wasn’t easy for either of us, but we needed to hear and say those things to each other. If we hadn’t been able to talk about them, they’d still be keeping us apart and I’d be unsure of how Murdoch really felt about me.” Scott grasped Johnny’s forearm.


“Johnny, if you just give him a chance, take the risk and talk to him, you’ll see him differently. I know he shows you his hard side, but inside he’s just like you. Like father, like son…two velvet fists in iron gloves.”


Johnny met Scott’s eyes. “He really apologized, huh?”


“Like I said, you need to talk to him. When you do, you’ll find the real man and discover that he’s not the ogre you fear. He is responsible for the two of us—how bad can he be?” Scott grinned.


“That just proves he ain’t no saint,” Johnny joked weakly.


“Yes, well saint or no, you’d better decide to talk to him. The clock is ticking on you, brother. Your nightmares aren’t getting any better. If anything, they’re worse—happening in the middle of the day. I don’t like the way you look and it isn’t like you to just not eat. I haven’t seen you eat a meal in a couple of days. You gave me your word that you’d talk to Sam and I think we’ll go see him tomorrow.”


“C’mon, Scott. You said a week. That’s the deal we made. It’s only been a couple of days. ‘Sides, Jelly agreed to wait, too. He said there wasn’t nuthin’ bad wrong with me. And you know if there was, Jelly would know it.”


He peeped up at Scott from beneath his lashes and shook his head sorrowfully. “I never figured you for a man to go back on his word.”


Scott bit the inside of his cheek as he evaluated his brother. Johnny was right, he had promised. And Johnny knew darn well he couldn’t withstand that pleading look. The scamp was resorting to unfair tactics.


He leaned forward and felt Johnny’s forehead. “Well, you don’t have a fever.” He sighed. “I still don’t like this, Johnny.”


“Look, Scott, the nightmares leave me feelin’ sick. You know that. That’s the reason I ain’t been eatin’. But I’m gonna figure it out. Now, you gonna try and squidge outta our deal?”


“Something tells me that I’m going to regret this.” Scott took a deep breath, knowing full well he’d been suckered again. But if Johnny were really ill, surely Jelly would notice.


“Two more days, Johnny. Two.” He held up two fingers.


“How about the rest of the week you promised me?”


“Two days—or we can go see Sam tomorrow.”


“You drive a hard bargain, Scott.”


“Well, I’m grateful for the little brother Murdoch gave me. I don’t want anything to happen to you. You know, when I was a child, I wished for a brother. I spent a lot of time thinking about the things we’d do together, what it would be like. My wish came true.”


Johnny blushed and ducked his head. “I used to wish I had a brother, too. But you, Mr. I Got an A on my Essay, you gotta be more careful what you wish for.”


Scott’s hand tightened on his brother’s forearm like a vise. “Don’t ever say that again, Johnny. Even in jest. I got the little brother I wanted. Don’t you dare put him down.”


He relaxed his grip. “And speaking of little brothers…the littlest one has been waiting all afternoon and all evening to see his big brother. You know, the one with all the charm and good looks.”


“Aw, Scott, you ain’t still holdin’ that against me, are you? I reckon you ain’t all that bad lookin’.” Johnny flashed his brother an impudent grin.


“Don’t push it, little brother. Just remember what you told Tommy about respecting your elders.” Scott’s voice rang with mock authority.


“Yeah, and Tommy ain’t gonna let me forget that you’re the oldest and wisest brother.”


“Well, see that you don’t forget it.”


Although ‘wisest’ is seriously in doubt. I ought to have Sam examine my head for letting you sucker me this way. I really should take you to Sam, even if I have to tie you up to do it. But you’re a big boy, damn it, old enough to know when you need a doctor and when you don’t. And I know how you hate being coddled. I hope I’m making the right decision.


“C’mon, Scott. I do respect you…” Johnny stood and backed away from Scott, a wicked grin lighting his face as he moved out of range. “I just don’t think you’re as good lookin’ or charmin’ as me!” Johnny dashed for the stairs.


Scott leaped to his feet, but realized his brother had made a clean getaway. He grinned as Johnny’s mocking laugh echoed through the room. “I owe you one, Johnny.”


Johnny’s laughter died away as he approached Tommy’s room. No two ways about it, he was plenty nervous about talking to the kid. And the run up the stairs had brought back the cramping in his gut. He leaned against the door for a moment to catch his breath.


Maybe this pain didn’t have anything to do with the nightmares. It was unlike anything he’d experienced before—a constant dull ache in the middle of his belly. But today, there had been times like now, when the pain took his breath away, twisting and ripping like a hot knife inside him. Johnny bit his lip hard enough to draw blood, willing the pangs away, and they gradually subsided to a bearable throb.


If this don’t stop right quick, I do need to see Sam. Maybe I’ll feel better in the mornin’.


He twisted the doorknob, carefully easing the door open. The hinges groaned, but there was no sound in the room. Johnny peeked in and breathed a sigh of relief. Tommy was sound asleep.


Johnny crept to the bedside and stood watching the child’s peaceful slumber. Tommy’s eyes were swollen, the poor kid must’ve cried himself to sleep. The need to touch the boy was overwhelming and he ruffled the golden hair. The ache climbed from his belly to his heart. This room, the house, would feel so empty when Tommy was gone.


I want what’s best for you, Big ‘un. Just hope goin’ home with your Pa is the right thing. You cried too many tears already. Don’t wanna see you shed no more.


Tommy suddenly opened his eyes, a sweet smile spreading across his face when he saw who stood beside him. ”Johnny!”


“Shh. I didn’t mean to wake you. Go back to sleep.”


Tommy climbed to his knees and wrapped his arms around Johnny. “Is Smoky all right?”


Johnny winced as the boy’s body pressed against his tender stomach and he sat on the edge of the bed to relieve the pressure. “Yeah, not a scratch on him. You can see him tomorrow. We’ll go down to the barn together.”






“I’m sorry I scared you. Uncle M said you wasn’t really mad at me, just mad and scared at what I done. I just wanted to stop Smoky is all. I didn’t mean to scare you. I won’t do it again. I promise.”


Johnny stretched out on the bed beside Tommy and pulled him close. “I know you didn’t mean it. You just gotta remember that you got people who care about you and don’t wanna see you hurt. Keepin’ yourself safe is one way of respectin’ our feelings for you.”


Tommy snuggled close to his friend. “I love you, Johnny.”


Johnny hid his face in the boy’s soft hair. “And I love you, Big ‘un.” He held the child until Tommy’s rhythmic breathing signaled that he was sleeping soundly. Easing himself off the bed, Johnny groaned at the gnawing twinge in his stomach when he straightened up. 


This dern bellyache is gettin’ old mighty fast.





Early the next morning…


The first rays of the rising sun glinted off the glossy coat of the prancing blood bay pony. Pete Adams stared at the little mare appreciatively and admired her feminine head, long neck, and airy strides. “My Tommy’s gonna love you, little gal.”


The pony created a picture to gladden any child’s heart. Her bright russet coat shimmered with black dapples and reflected the morning light with hints of gold. The four perfectly matched socks were topped with the same black that tipped her ears and they complemented the white blaze on her intelligent face. Her dark eyes were large and kind. The thick raven mane and tail flowed in gleaming waves. She was the kind of mount that would turn heads with her flashy color and fancy gaits.


Pete beamed at the sight of the hand-tooled black saddle and matching bridle. The silver ornaments studding the rounded tapaderas matched those of the bridle’s fancy noseband and decorative attachment stretching from noseband to browband. The saddle skirt and reins boasted their own silver trimming. “Look like you’re all slicked up for a parade. Well, reckon I’m gonna parade you for my boy. You and that saddle sure cost me a pretty penny, but my boy’s worth it. He’s worth every cent.”


He could make out the vague outlines of the Lancer hacienda in the distance and assured the pony, “Murdo will understand me comin’ a couple days early for my boy. I just couldn’t wait no longer.” He had to fight off the desire to urge his mount to a gallop, each second apart from his son seeming to stretch into eternity.


Can’t wait to see my boy, take him home with me. ‘Sides, I owe the Lancer family. ‘Specially that Johnny. He don’t like me, but he’s got reason. Maybe there’s some way I can help bring him and Murdo together…. That would be a down payment on my debt to ‘em. Yep, gonna have me a little talk with both of ‘em.



Scott and Jelly skulked along the barn wall, creeping toward the open side door. Scott paused to listen for any sound from within and grunted when Jelly bumped into him. He whirled in exasperation, one finger on his lips, the other hand gesturing for Jelly to get back.


Jelly put his hands on his hips. “What in tarnation ya stoppin’ for?” he whispered.




“Don’t you shush me. How we gonna check up on Johnny if’n we don’t go into the barn?”


“Will you PLEASE be quiet? I want a look at him before he knows we’re here. Once he hears or sees us, we won’t be able to tell a thing.”


The sound of cheerful whistling carried through the open door before Jelly could reply.


Scott glared at the older man. “That tears it. He heard us.” He straightened and strode into the barn.


“Good mornin’.” Johnny didn’t look up as he curried Barranca.


“Good morning, brother.”


Johnny finished running the brush down Barranca’s legs and turned to face his brother. “You can come on in, Jelly. I know you’re out there.”


Jelly poked his head around the door and entered sheepishly, avoiding Scott’s eyes.


Johnny waited until Jelly moved closer and held his arms out away from his sides, turning around several times. “Y’all got a good enough look? Want me to spin around again?”


“Now, Johnny--’’


“Oh, c’mon, Jelly. I know dern well that the two of ya are out here to check me out. The two biggest mother hens in California.” He grinned at their expressions and tucked his hands into his armpits, flapping imaginary wings. “Bwack, bwack, bwack, bwaaaack.”


Scott turned to Jelly. “Boy sleeps through the night without a nightmare and wakes up mighty sassy.”


“T’weren’t the night’s sleep done it. Boy was born sassy.” Jelly walked close to Johnny and stared hard at him. “Ain’t lookin’ as peaked today. But ya ain’t had no breakfast, neither.”


Scott joined the two of them. “You do look better today, Johnny. Are you feeling all right? Please be honest.”


They really are worried. About me. They care what happens to me.


Johnny met Scott’s eyes. “I’m okay, Scott. Thought for sure I’d dream about Tommy jumpin’ in front of Smoky, but I slept fine. Like I told you, I just needed a good night’s sleep.”


It was true. He felt like a different person this morning. The stabbing pains from the previous evening were gone. Oh, the persistent ache in his belly was still there, but that was only because he hadn’t eaten. Still didn’t want any food, but a couple more good nights and he’d get that sorted out, too. Course his stomach was mighty tender down low—couldn’t even buckle his gunbelt across it. Well, must’ve pulled a muscle or something.


Jelly laid the back of his hand against Johnny’s cheek. “Ain’t got no fever. When was ya plannin’ to eat?”


Johnny patted his saddlebags. “Maria packed me an egg sandwich. I’ll eat it later.”


Scott and Jelly exchanged glances.


“All right, Johnny. You’ve still got your two days. But I’d feel better if you’d go see Sam today.” Scott’s expression telegraphed his concern.


“Don’t worry ‘bout me, Boston. I’m fine. I don’t need to see Sam. But I gave you my word, and if I need to see him in two days—or even if you think I do—I will.” He smiled at Scott and Jelly, that glinting, persuasive grin that never failed to get his way with those two. If it only worked on Murdoch….


Jelly rolled his eyes at Scott and hooked his thumbs into his suspenders. “There just ain’t no way to convince a rooster that he don’t know as much about singin’ as a mockingbird. If he says he ain’t seein’ Sam today, he ain’t.” He turned to face Johnny. “But when you ride up to move them heifers onto Hawk Meadow, I’m gonna be ridin’ herd on you.”


“Suit yourself.” Johnny’s eyes narrowed suddenly and he craned his neck for a better view through the main barn doors. “What the hell is he doin’ here?”


Scott strode to the open door and watched as Pete Adams rode beneath the arched gate. “He’s come to get his son.”



Jelly stared at the sight of Pete Adams riding up to the hacienda. “Come to git his son? Ain’t he kinda early?” he huffed.


Johnny muttered a Spanish curse and turned to Barranca, snatching the bridle off the peg by the stall door.


Scott marched back across the barn and grasped Johnny’s arm. “Oh no you don’t. You can’t avoid Pete forever. And Tommy needs to see that you’re happy for him. Now let’s go out and greet Tommy’s father. And keep a civil tongue in your head—for Tommy’s sake.”


Johnny sighed and hung his head for a moment. Scott was right. He needed to do this for Tommy. “Let’s go.”


“Pa! Pa!” Tommy’s excited cries reverberated through the barn.


Johnny and Scott stepped out into the sunlight to find Tommy held in Pete’s arms, his legs circling his father’s waist and his arms around Pete’s neck. The boy caught sight of them and jumped down. “Lookee Johnny, Scott. It’s my Pa!”


Murdoch stepped forward, relieved to see Johnny coming out to greet Pete. “What’s this, Tommy?” He pointed to the bay pony.


Tommy noticed the little mare for the first time. His eyes widened and his mouth rounded to a perfect ‘O’, one small hand stealing upward to touch his lips with his fingertips. The breath rushed out of him in a big sigh as he stared at the world’s most perfect pony.


Pete flushed with pleasure and unhooked the mare’s reins from his saddle horn, holding them out to his son. “Well, go on, boy. She’s yours.”


“Gosh, Pa. For me?” Tommy whispered.


Pete knelt beside the boy, closing Tommy’s fist around the reins. “For you, Tommy. I thought we might call her Maia, after Ma’s star. What do you think?”


“Oh, Pa, she’s the most beautiful horse I ever seen. Thanks.” Tommy threw himself into Pete’s arms.


Pete had to bite his lip hard to hold back his tears. “Well, boy, you gonna just hang on me all day or you gonna try out that pony?”


Tommy scurried to the pony’s side. He held out his open palm and giggled when the mare nuzzled it with her velvet nose. The boy crooned to her softly, just as he’d watched Johnny do with Smoky, scratching her chin and under her jaws, then patting the broad forehead. He bent his head and breathed softly into her nostrils. Maia blew her warm breath on his face and bumped Tommy’s shoulder. Friends.


“Johnny, come look.” Tommy walked around his pony, eyes sparkling as he exclaimed over the handsome saddle.


Johnny whistled as he walked forward. “That’s a fine mare, Tommy. Look at how her neck joins her shoulder and that short back and strong hip. She’s a beauty. And what about that saddle, huh?” His finger traced the silver conchos on the saddle skirt.


“Are you just going to look at her or do you want to try her paces?” Scott stepped forward.


“Guess he is the oldest and wisest, huh, Tommy? Let’s get you up on this pony.” Johnny boosted Tommy into the saddle and checked the length of the stirrups. “Here’s your reins, big ‘un. Let’s see what she’s got.” He stepped back as Tommy confidently backed the mare in a perfectly straight line, just as Scott had taught him.


Tommy trotted and loped the pony in big circles, his grin growing wider by the minute as Maia demonstrated her eye-catching movement and good manners. “Ain’t she somethin’?”


Murdoch slapped Pete on the back. “You’ve got a winner there. She’s a fine pony and that boy is crazy about her.”


Scott extended his hand to Pete. “Nice to see you again, sir. That’s a lovely pony and the saddle is the crowning touch.”


The three men looked at Johnny. He moved his gaze slowly from Tommy to Pete. “You pick out that mare?”


“Sure did.” Pete didn’t flinch at the challenging stare.


“Well, she’s a good ‘un.” Johnny gave Pete the barest nod and looked past him to the sight of Jelly leading three saddled horses.


I owe you one, Jelly.


Johnny stepped forward and accepted Barranca’s reins from Jelly. “Thanks for saddlin’ up. Reckon we oughta get started.”


“Ya look like a real cowboy, Tommy.” Jelly hollered to the boy. He turned to Pete. “That little mare’s as fine as a silk weskit. And that boy’s as proud as a roadrunner with a fresh caught rattler. You done real good, Mr. Adams.”


“Thanks, Jelly. And you call me Pete.”


“Okay, Pete.” Jelly mounted hastily when he saw Johnny swing up on Barranca and turn him toward the pasture. He urged his horse after Johnny. “Hey, Johnny, wait for me.”


Scott mounted his tall chestnut. “If you’ll excuse me, I’ll take Tommy for a ride on his new pony.”


“How about some breakfast, Pete?” Murdoch welcomed the opportunity to speak with Pete alone.


Pete’s gaze remained fixed on his son and the smile in his eyes matched the grin on his face as he watched Tommy riding proudly alongside Scott. Tommy turned and waved and Pete and Murdoch waved back.


“We won’t see those two for a while,” Murdoch laughed.



“Well you took outta there like somebody lit a shuck under yer tail.” Jelly sneaked a glance at his silent companion. His soft corner—the one he kept especially for Johnny—throbbed sympathetically at the boy’s stricken expression.


“We got lotsa work to get done. Figured we oughta get started.”


Jelly snorted. “How come you ain’t wearin’ yer gun?”


“In my saddlebags. You know I promised Scott.” It was a convenient excuse—he’d only promised Scott that he wouldn’t wear the gun around the house and barn. He wasn’t about to tell Jelly the real reason—he simply couldn’t tolerate the pressure across his belly.


“Reckon it won’t matter after today.”




“You okay with that?”


“Ain’t got much choice.”


“Well, yer wearin’ yer mule look—the one that reminds me of yer father’s sore foot look. Reckon that means ya want me to leave you be. And I will. For now.” He reached over to touch Johnny’s arm. “I’m right here when yer ready to talk.”


Johnny shot him a weak smile. “Thanks, Jelly.”


Yer lookin’ sadder’n a bloodhound’s eye, boy. Ain’t got me fooled a bit. You just ain’t ready to let that kid go. Wished I knowed what to say to you, but reckon there ain’t nuthin’. Be a might easier if’n you’d let me and yer brother help. But a hen’s got more chance of walkin’ away from a meetin’ of coyotes.


And don’t think I didn’t see ya pretend to eat that egg sandwich Maria fixed you. Acted like you ate it, but you throwed it out. You gonna eat yer lunch if’n I gotta stuff it down yer throat.





“Thank you, Ma’am.” Pete nodded to Maria as she placed a heaping plate in front of him. He turned to Murdoch. “I know I’m a couple of days early, Murdo. I’m sorry. Just couldn’t wait no more.”


“I understand. You think you’re ready?”


“Yeah, I’m ready.”


Murdoch nodded. “We’re sure going to miss Tommy. He’s a special boy.”


“He is, ain’t he. And I thank you again for what you done. If it weren’t for you and your boys….”


“It was our pleasure. We haven’t had this much excitement around Lancer since…well, since we fought Pardee. And that reminds me. You’d better put your pipe out of Tommy’s reach…”


Murdoch spent the next half-hour describing the details of Tommy’s latest escapades. The two men ate breakfast, drank their coffee, and laughed together at the boy’s pranks and observations. Murdoch concluded with the story of Tommy’s misadventure with Smoky.


“Well, I reckon a bawlin’ out from Johnny got through to Tommy even more than a lickin’ from me or you would’ve,” Pete said.


“I think you’re right.”


“Tommy thinks the world of Johnny. Your boy’s been mighty good to him.”


“He has. And Tommy has been good for Johnny. Johnny’s having a hard time letting your boy go.”


Pete sighed. “I know. He’s gonna need your help.”


“He doesn’t want my help.”


“You ain’t told that boy how you feel yet, have you, Murdo?” Pete’s eyes met Murdoch’s and saw the defeat there.


“I tried…,” Murdoch stared into his coffee, tensing at the memory.


“You didn’t try hard enough, then.”


“He shot off his mouth and walked away from me…like he always does.”


“Sounds to me like he’s scared to talk to you.”


“Scared? Of me?” Murdoch shook his head violently. “No, Pete, that boy’s not scared of anything in this world.”


“I ain’t so sure. I’m thinkin’ he’s scared of talkin’ to you. He’s like you, ain’t he, Murdo? Keeps everything locked up inside. And every now and again, his tongue lets fly with all that pent up emotion…all the wrong words spewin’ out in all the wrong directions.”


Murdoch nodded. “Yes, that’s Johnny. And I don’t react very well when he blows up.”


“The next time he spouts off, let him. Then ask him why he’s so angry. Tell him you want to know and make him believe it. If he heads for the door, stop him. Johnny needs to know you care—and lettin’ him skedaddle every time you bump heads just lets him think you don’t.” He poured Murdoch another cup of coffee, pleased that the man was listening to what he had to say.


“Johnny’s still just a kid, Murdo. He’s that age when he’s not a man yet, but he thinks he is, and it sounds to me like he needs his father’s hand to guide him.”


Murdoch’s head snapped up. “He’s young, but he’s old beyond his years. Pete. That boy raised himself and he’s worn a man’s boots and sat a man’s saddle for a long time. He’s not going to accept me taking over the role of father now. I’m years too late…and a lifetime overdue.”


“Our boys will never be too old to need their Pa.”


Murdoch sighed deeply and looked away from Pete. “Johnny turns to Scott, not me. He’s been running wild all these years and Scott…. Well, they’re so different, yet they’ve grown close…almost as though they’d been raised together. Johnny…trusts Scott—and he doesn’t trust or need me.”


“Scott’s a lot like you, too, but his soul is open and he’s not afraid to bare it. Johnny can’t walk away from that kind of trust, it draws him in.”


Murdoch slammed his fist on the table. “Are you telling me to open my soul to him? Like I laid it open to his mother? She stomped all over it and never looked back….”


“She did it. Not Johnny. And he’s not like her.” Pete spoke quietly, in stark contrast to Murdoch’s angry bellow.


“How do you know that?”


“He’s got your heart, your determination, and your courage. That boy wouldn’t be alive today if he didn’t bear your mark. Maria is something else you have in common…something that should bring you closer together.”




“Yes, she hurt you both. Left you…left him, deceived you…deceived him. She loved you both, but not enough to do right by either of you. Maria put herself first, but Johnny puts others first. Look at the way he helped my Tommy and me. No, he ain’t like her—he’s your boy, Murdo, and he just needs to hear you say that so’s he can let go of his past.”


“His past…. Johnny does need to let go of his past. We both do. It comes between us.”


“You’re the one has to put that right, Murdo.”


Murdoch hung his head. “I know, Pete…. I guess I’m,” he swallowed hard, “s…scared of talking to him, too. He looks at me and I don’t have a clue as to what he’s thinking. Scott is frank and open, but Johnny’s so secretive…No, that’s not fair. He’s…he’s…”


“Scared.” Pete finished Murdoch’s sentence. “Like I said, he’s still a kid—a kid who’s learned not to trust and not to expect much. Scott’s figured a way to open them doors Johnny hides behind. Now it’s your turn.”


“And if he won’t let me in?”


Pete leaned forward and gripped Murdoch’s shoulders with both hands. “If he bars the door, then kick it down, man! This is your boy. Use that stubbornness of yours and force your way in. Ain’t Johnny a cause worth fightin’ for?”


Murdoch’s faced flushed. “Yes, he is. But, well…you asked me how to apologize to Tommy. Now I’m the one that needs an example. How do I put things right and kick down the door? What do I say, Pete?”


Pete sat back in his chair and waited until Murdoch met his eyes. “It’s three little words, Murdoch. You know them as well as I do.”


“I…I don’t…”


“You either love that boy or you don’t. If you do, you’ll say it. If you don’t, it won’t matter. Stop tellin’ yourself how hard it is, how a man don’t say it. Instead, tell yourself you’re gonna say it.” He leaned forward. “Say it right now, to me. Say, ‘I love you, Johnny.’”




“What’s the matter, afraid? That’s not the Murdoch Lancer I know.”


“Damn it, Pete…”


Pete stood slowly and faced Murdoch. “I’m makin’ this my business ‘cause I have an obligation to that boy. He brung me and Tommy back together and I’ll never forget that. And he needs his father.”




“Are you gonna let your boy go on believin’ that you don’t want him simply ‘cause he looks like Maria? Or are you gonna behave like the good, strong man you are and let your son find out what it means to have a father? You decide, Murdoch.”


Murdoch blew out his breath in a huge sigh and glared at Pete. “You have a memory like an elephant.”


“About some things.”


“I guess you listened to what I said.”


Pete smiled as he sank back into his chair. “Reckon I remember ‘most every word. I trusted you, Murdo, and you didn’t let me down. Now, you can trust me. You got to tell your boy how you feel. And you got to practice until sayin’ it comes natural, so’s ya don’t hafta think about it.”


He leaned toward Murdoch again. “Here, say it with me now. I…” Pete waited patiently until Murdoch began mouthing the words with him. “love…Come on, say it out loud.” He paused and stared pointedly at his friend.


Murdoch licked his lips and opened his mouth. No sound came out. Pete gestured for him to try again. “…l…love,” Murdoch whispered.


Pete looked up at the ceiling and held out his arms as though anticipating rain. “You said it, Murdo. You said it aloud and the world didn’t end. Now let’s finish it. C’mon, say it…you, Johnny.”


“you, Johnny.” The words came easier now.


Pete clapped Murdoch on the back. “Now that wasn’t so bad, was it? Say it again.”


“I don’t think…”


“Just say the damn words, Murdo.”




“Either you do or you don’t.”


Murdoch glared at him. “I love you, Johnny.”


“Good. And that, my friend, is all you need to know.” Pete raised his coffee cup in a toast.

Murdoch smiled wryly as he touched his cup to Pete’s. “I’d forgotten just how wise you are, Pete Adams.”


“Not wise, just someone who sees through different eyes. You and your boy helped me make my mistake right and kept me from makin’ an even bigger one. Your Johnny is a lot like Tommy was—adrift from his father and needin’ that anchor in his life.”


“Like I said, Pete…I’d forgotten just how wise you are. I think it’s about time I rectified some of my mistakes.”





Late the same afternoon…


Pete watched as Johnny led his palomino into the barn. Despite the young man’s obvious avoidance and anger, Pete was determined to thank Johnny for everything he had done for Tommy. He was getting a second chance with his son because of this hostile boy. He had even reconnected with his friend, Murdoch. As uncomfortable, and perhaps even physically painful, as the discussion was likely to be, he meant to speak to Johnny—there were things he needed to say as well as things the young man needed to hear.


The interior of the big barn was cool and dim after the bright sun outside. Pete paused a moment to allow his eyes to adjust to the shadows. His heartbeat slowed a fraction when he saw that Johnny wasn’t wearing his gunbelt. He might have to take a punch in the nose, but at least he wouldn’t get shot. “Johnny, we need to talk.”


Johnny swung around to face him, eyes flashing. “I ain’t got nuthin’ more to say to you.” He had no desire to talk to Adams. If that meant riding out again, then that’s what he’d do. Johnny turned to Barranca and re-tightened the just loosened cinch. “Lo siento, compadre.”


“I’m sure there are many things you’d like to say to me, son.” Pete walked to Barranca’s stall.


Johnny whirled to face him. “I ain’t your son! Tommy is—or did you forget about him again?”




“Back off!” Johnny’s temper surged and he clenched his fists at his side.


Pete decided to risk being punched in the face by the irate young man. “Look, Johnny--”


“I said back off, or so help me, I’ll….”


“You’ll what? Hit me? Go ahead, if it’ll make you feel any better.”


Johnny stepped a pace closer. “Might make you feel better, ease some of your guilt. Tommy deserves better than you. He don’t need a drunk raisin’ him.”


“You’re right about Tommy deservin’ better. I’m gonna be the best father I can be to that boy. I may be a lot of things, but I ain’t a drunk, Johnny. And I want you to know that I love my son very much.”


“Love him? I found him alone, in the middle of nowhere, hungry and scared. Is that what you call lovin’ him?” Johnny raged.


“Johnny, I made a mistake and I’m sorry. That mistake is something I’ll have to live with for the rest of my life. I aim to make it up to Tommy.”


“Make it up to him? How you plannin’ to make up for lettin’ him down? For drivin’ him into runnin’ off?”


“By tellin’ my son I made a mistake and askin’ for his forgiveness. And then makin’ darn sure I never make that kinda mistake again.”


Johnny pinned him with a threatening glare. “I’m gonna be watchin’ you, Adams. You let Tommy down just once and you won’t know what hit you.”


“You don’t have to worry about Tommy anymore, Johnny. I give you my word that I’ll take good care of him.”


“Your word?” Johnny snorted in contempt. “Like I said, Adams, I’ll be keepin’ an eye on you.”


“You don’t think much of me, do you?”


“You let your son down when he needed you the most. What sort of man does that?”


“A grief-stricken man. I ain’t makin’ excuses, I’m tellin’ you why I behaved like I done. I loved my wife, Johnny. We were together sixteen years. In all that time I never saw the sun rise or set without her by my side. We were so close that losin’ her was like losin’ my soul and I couldn’t cope.”


“You ain’t the first man to lose a wife, Adams. Other men don’t drown their pain in a bottle—case ya didn’t know it, sorrow and pain, they swim real good. And other men sure as hell don’t tell another man to take their kid because they…they don’t want him anymore. Your son misses his Ma as much as you do. He needed you. You should have put Tommy ahead of your own grief.”


“You’re right, but I couldn’t do it then. You see, Tommy is so like his Ma—he’s got her eyes, her smile, he even giggles like Mim does…did. It hurt so bad just to look at him, see her in him…well, I couldn’t bear to look at Tommy.


“You’ll love a woman that much one day, Johnny. Maybe then you’ll understand how hard it was for me to carry on. I know I shoulda found the strength for my son’s sake. I shoulda turned to Tommy and not away from him. I made a big mistake. I let my Tommy down and I’m truly sorry.”


“Well, sorry don’t cut it with me, Adams.”


“Johnny, I made a mistake and my son paid for it. He has every right to be angry with me. But I reckon there ain’t nuthin’ I can say to you when you’re on the prod like this.”


Johnny’s temper flared dangerously and he sprang on Adams, both hands gripping Pete’s shoulders as he slammed the larger man back into the barn wall. “What did you say?”


Pete calmly returned Johnny’s stare, refusing to break eye contact. “I’m sayin’ that you gettin’ your bristles up don’t change the fact that I love my son.”


Johnny released his hold on Pete and turned away. The blood pounded in his head and the ache in his belly warred with the ache to lay into Pete, pummel him until both hands throbbed and his knuckles were raw and stinging….


Pete risked a physical attack and grasped Johnny’s arm, gently turning him so they stood face to face. “Johnny, are you ready to listen to me now? Please?”


Johnny jerked his arm away. “Get your hand off me, you #~*~*!”


“You ever tasted soap, boy? I have and I wouldn’t recommend it.” Pete drew himself to his full height and returned stare for stare, refusing to be intimidated. When he felt he’d made his point, Pete looked away and relaxed his posture, hoping to defuse the situation. “I’m sorry. I wanted to get your attention so you’d listen to what I have to tell you.”


“Listen to what?”


“I want to tell you about your father, Johnny. There are things you need to know so the two of you can talk.”


Johnny was taken aback. He stared at Pete, struggling to sort out his conflicting emotions. He was furious with this man, wanted to smack him in the mouth for what he’d done and for what he said about not wanting Tommy. He remembered a filthy drunkard with slurred speech and a foul mouth, a whining, whimpering shell of a man. And to be honest, he resented Adams for wanting to take Tommy away.


Yet the tall, well-groomed man standing in front of him was completely different than the Pete Adams who had sprawled in a stupor. This man was sober, soft spoken and willing to apologize. He stood straight and calm, admitting his mistakes and ready to take a punch, if that’s what Johnny wanted to give him. Looking into Adam’s kindly brown eyes, Johnny could see the real man, the Pa that Tommy loved, the man that Scott said was wonderful with Tommy.


“All right, I’m listenin’.”


Pete pointed toward a hay bale and both men sat down on it.


“Johnny, I’ve known your father a long time. He’s been a good friend to me and Mim. I don’t think anyone else on this earth could have gotten through to me. Murdoch made me see what I was about to lose. He’s a private man, but he shared his grief over losin’ you and Scott, forced me to admit that I didn’t want to feel that same pain by lettin’ Tommy go.”


Johnny stared at his feet, but the taut lines of his body told Pete that the young man was listening.


“Murdoch’s a good man, but you already know that, don’t you?”


Johnny nodded, unable to look at Pete.


“But do you know that he loves you?”


Johnny sat motionless and silent, eyes still locked on his boots.


“You don’t believe that, do you?”


Johnny started to stand up, but Pete grasped his arm, holding him in place. “Johnny, you need to listen to this.”


Johnny yanked his arm away, but remained seated. He squirmed as he waited for Adams to continue. Tommy’s father seemed to read his every thought, asking him questions he couldn’t answer. This man was Tommy’s father, all right.


“Murdoch’s never told you that, has he, Johnny?”


That was it! Johnny headed for the door.


“He told me, Johnny.” Pete watched as Johnny stopped short, keeping his back turned to Pete. “Your father’s never been a man to show his feelings. He’s quiet and he’s deep, and you’re just like him. Have you told your Pa how you feel about him? Does he know?


“Now, get yourself back over here right now! I want to tell you something your father won’t tell you, but you deserve to know.”


Johnny turned on his heel and walked back to where Pete remained seated. The man had him hook, line, and sinker now, and he was powerless to walk away. He burned to know what Pete was so anxious to tell him. He sank down beside Pete, but didn’t look at him.


“You are the spittin’ image of your Ma. You’ve probably heard that before, but I doubt you realize just how true it is. It hit Murdoch like a train, lookin’ at you and seein’ the woman he loved and lost and still loves. When he looked at you, all them feelings he fought so hard to hide came roarin’ back. He wasn’t ready for that, Johnny. He couldn’t bear to look at you because it hurt so darn much. And because it made him mad, but he didn’t know why.” Pete laid his hand on Johnny’s shoulder and the young man didn’t pull away.


“But he loves you, Johnny. He never stopped lovin’ the boy he lost. He didn’t mean to hurt you, but he couldn’t control the way he felt and he couldn’t tell you why, either. He never will tell you, so I am. Your Pa’s scared of losin’ you again. I’m tellin’ you this so’s you can understand why he acts the way he does with you.


“Your Pa dredged up all them private thoughts just to get through to me. Why? Why would such a proud, private man bare his soul that way? Because of you, Johnny. Because you wanted to help Tommy. You didn’t want my boy to know the pain of being unwanted like you believed you were for so long. Yes, Murdoch told me about that, too. He’s carryin’ a lot of guilt over you—guilt he don’t rightly own.


“And that proud man shared all that hurt with me so’s I wouldn’t have to feel it myself. More important, he told me for you; he didn’t want to let you down.”


Pete waited for some reaction from Johnny, but the boy refused to look at him or acknowledge in any way what he’d just been told. Instead, his eyes remained locked on the floor, but Pete knew that Johnny was thinking about what he’d heard.


You’re more like your Pa than you’ll ever know, boy.


“Johnny, thank you for what you done for me and my son. I was wrong to say that I didn’t want Tommy. I love that boy and I want him more than anything. And I’m grateful to you for not lettin’ Tommy find out what I said. Murdoch told me you grew up believin’ he didn’t want you. You tried to protect Tommy from that and I’m beholden. I’d like to show you by tryin’ to help you like you helped my son and me.


“You may look like your Ma, but inside you’re Murdoch’s boy—stubborn and proud. He sees so much of your mother when he looks at you. He don’t see anything of himself under all that sass that you hide behind. But you can’t let that come between the two of you.


“You both been hurt and you’re both bound and determined you ain’t gonna be hurt again. The pair of you are buildin’ walls to protect yourselves and it ain’t bringin’ you an inch closer than you were before you come home. You hated your Pa for a long time, didn’t you? He abandoned you.”


“No!” Johnny whispered fiercely.


“He left you scared, hungry, and alone.”


“No! That ain’t true.”


“He let you down when you needed him the most. What sort of a man does that?”


Johnny leaped to his feet and began to pace. “Shut up! Just shut up!”


“You deserved better.”


“No! He deserves better…a better son than me.”


“No, Johnny, no.” Pete stepped in front of Johnny and gripped his shoulders with both hands. “Don’t you see? You both feel so undeservin’ of each other. You are what your father wants—his son. You may have hated him once, but I promise you that you didn’t hate him as much as he hated himself for not findin’ you, for not bein’ there when you needed him, for lettin’ you down. And you think you let him down by doin’ what you had to do to survive. You don’t believe any man could want you for a son—but Murdoch does.


“So there you are. Murdoch wants you and he loves you, but he ain’t been able to say it. And you need and love him, but you can’t say it either.


“There are a lot of things comin’ between you and your father and that’s where they’ll stay, between you, unless you talk to each other. Haven’t you been apart long enough? Don’t throw away what you have—build on it, fight to make it better. Your father does love you. Don’t give up on him.”


“Look at me, Johnny.” Pete spoke softly, but firmly and Johnny’s gaze finally met his. Pete wasn’t surprised to see the turmoil in the blue eyes. His heart cried out for this lost and troubled boy and for a moment he saw his own son standing before him. ‘There but for the grace of God.’ The old quote seared its way across his brain.


“You just need to be loved, Johnny, and you got a family and a father who loves you. You gotta let yourself believe that.” Pete paused for a moment, his face coloring in guilt.


“I feel a little guilty tellin’ you things your father told me, but you needed to know how he feels and I owe you that. I’m obliged to you for what you done for Tommy and for me. I won’t let my boy down again. Thank you, Johnny.” Pete dropped his hands and stepped back, pointing at Barranca. “Now go on, take your ride and think about what I told you.”


Johnny couldn’t speak past the lump in his throat, simply nodding at Pete and swinging up on Barranca. He galloped away from the barn, desperate to be alone, to think. His nerves were scraped raw from Pete’s words and his knotted muscles pleaded for relief. And still his tension mounted.


He wanted…no, he didn’t know what he wanted, didn’t know how he felt. He didn’t know anything anymore. Well, that wasn’t quite true. He did know that Adams was taking Tommy away and there wasn’t a damned thing Johnny could do about it.



Johnny let Barranca gallop for almost a mile before slowing him to an easy walk. Even Barranca’s liquid strides jarred his tender belly, threatening to resurrect the stabbing cramps from the previous evening. He slumped in the saddle and forced himself to think about Pete Adams.


I despised that man for the way he neglected Tommy…for sayin’ he didn’t want his own son. But he’s standin’ up and admittin’ he made a big mistake. Sounds like he aims to put it right. Can I ask or expect any more than that? I’ve made plenty of mistakes—hoped others would give me a second chance while I tried to put things right. My life today is all about a second chance. Can I offer Pete Adams any less? Hell, he risked a busted head to talk to me, gotta respect the man for that.


He tried to think of something else, but his mind refused to settle on anything except the tall, stern, infuriating man who was his father. Father. Murdoch. Pa. Pete had used those words earlier. They all referred to the man he had once hated. God, how he had hated his own father and Murdoch knew that.


Does he believe I still hate him? Ain’t give him much cause to think otherwise…startin’ with that first day when Scott and I came home. Started right in on him and the two of us ain’t let up since.


He’d been so bitter that day, but it didn’t take long to realize just how wrong he’d been about his father. The real surprise was that he actually wanted to be wrong. But he hadn’t been able to let Murdoch know.


Pardee’s bullet left him sick and weak and he hated being so dependent. It was easy to take that frustration out on Murdoch as the man tended him those first feverish days. He had cringed at Murdoch’s touch, shot off his mouth every chance he got, behaved as defiantly as he was able, and called Murdoch several things a son shouldn’t call his father. And it wasn’t due to the fever and Murdoch knew that too. He had pushed his father away deliberately, but he hadn’t really wanted to…still couldn’t understand why he’d done it.


He watched Murdoch closely from the day he arrived at the ranch, saw his love for Teresa. Murdoch wasn’t afraid to show that love and Johnny was surprised to find that he was envious of their relationship.


But even more disconcerting was the fierce jealousy he felt toward Scott. Murdoch and Scott seemed to get along so well right from the start. They rarely argued, instead, they discussed things. Boy, he’d never discussed anything with Murdoch. Seemed like all they did was argue, locking horns over every little thing. The Old Man looked at Scott like a father should look at a son—with pride and acceptance—but those things weren’t in his face when he looked at Johnny.


Murdoch saw him differently and that hurt. He didn’t want it to, told himself that he didn’t care. But deep down, it mattered. Pete said his father saw Maria when he looked at Johnny, felt the pain and grief associated with her every time he laid eyes on him. Johnny didn’t want to look like his mother, couldn’t help that his father thought he did. What he wanted was for his father to look at him with the same love and acceptance in his eyes as when he looked at Scott.


The conflicting emotions threatened to overwhelm him and Johnny fought back tears. Damned if he was going to cry over that man ever again. He’d shed enough tears over Murdoch Lancer while growing up. But those were tears of despair, emptiness and pain. The tears that threatened to fall now were tears of longing for his father’s love. Pete had said…Pete! All of a sudden Pete knew everything.


He brushed at his eyes angrily, determined not to let a single tear fall. His frustration reminded him of the way he felt during his struggle with the aftermath of Pardee’s bullet. He resisted Murdoch’s gentle ministrations as he drifted in and out of consciousness. He couldn’t explain why, but he fought everything his father tried to do for him, including refusing to take any nourishment.


The Old Man didn’t put up with that for very long. Johnny found himself ‘bullied’ into swallowing the broth, having discovered the hard way that his father would force it down his throat if he didn’t cooperate.


“Come on, son. Drink this. It’s going down one way or another. Now will it be the easy way or the hard way?” Every time he opened his eyes, Murdoch was there by his bed and Johnny was secretly thrilled.


But he’d sworn that he’d never be hurt again and the walls that helped keep that promise caused him to curse his father. “I don’t need or want your help, Old Man. I got along just fine without you all these years.”


And so Murdoch stayed away. Johnny should have been gratified that the Old Man understood his message, but he was strangely bereft. If his father would push just a little, give him some sign that he cared. But Murdoch had built walls, too, and the pair of them always ended up circling and snarling at each other like a pair of wary wolves.


Why did I act that way? I wanted to tell him…tell him…well, I didn’t want him to think I hated him. And he does. How could he think anything else?


Scott was always saying he was just too much like their father, cut from the same mold of all pride and not an inch of give. He shrugged the comment off, but in his heart he liked being compared to Murdoch. Like father, like son. That comparison made him feel as though he belonged, as though there was truly a tie between them. And oh, how he wanted that tie!


Shucks, who are you trying to kid, Johnny? You love the Old Man. Didn’t want to, tried your darndest not too, but you do, damn it, you do.


Right now only one thing mattered.


Go ahead and say it, Johnny. Ask the damned question. Does your father love you?


The tears pricked behind his eyelids again and Johnny raged at Murdoch’s ability to bring him to this. Damn the man! Pete seemed so sure of what he was saying. His words slammed into Johnny and rocked him like a kick from a mule. “He loves you…he told me.” Johnny wanted to believe it, he needed to believe it.


Please, oh please, let it be true.


Barranca halted and stood patiently, but Johnny didn’t notice. His mind replayed pictures of Tommy laughing and hugging on Murdoch’s knee. The Old Man was so good with Tommy, comfortable with affection, at ease with discipline. Being a father seemed to come so naturally to him. Envy seared through Johnny.


How can I be jealous of a child? But Murdoch would have been a good father to me. He would have held me and loved me like that…


That acknowledgement brought a flood of grief. All those years alone when he should have been here at Lancer…all the horrible things he had witnessed, the hateful things done to him, the names men called him, the shame he carried, the men he shot down, the anger that gnawed at his soul. And the bitter hatred directed at one man, a man he had sworn to kill—his father.


What about those ugly black times when he would have given anything to pull the trigger and laugh while his father died in agony? How many times had he carefully plotted the moment, pictured himself standing over the bleeding body and sneering, “For my mother.” The violence of those memories jerked through him as savage shivers.


What devil had spawned him? What kind of man planned his own father’s death? What would Scott think of him? And what would his father think if he knew? Pete said that Murdoch had never stopped loving the boy he lost. His father had loved him all those years while he hated his father.


Pete said he needed to be loved. The man was right. It was the one thing he’d always yearned for—to be loved and wanted. Pablo had loved him and wanted him and that love steered him through life. The old mustañero wiped away his tears, doctored the sore spots, chased away his nightmares and held him tight, hugged him close and gave meaning to the word love. But Pablo had been ripped from him and then no one cared.


He’d locked his feelings away for so long, buried them deep. Then he came to Lancer and found a home. His brother’s love—and Teresa’s and Jelly’s—made Lancer home and now he wanted the love and affection of his father. He wanted to be able to talk to him, laugh with him, discuss or argue without the anger. He wanted his father to look at him and talk about him with pride. He wanted his father to trust him, to need him…


Like I need him, damn him, like I need him. Pete said Murdoch loves me. If he does, why can’t he tell me? No, that ain’t fair. I ain’t told him, either. Reckon we gotta talk.


He reined Barranca back toward the hacienda. Before he talked to Murdoch, he had something else he had to do. He had to say goodbye to Tommy.







Johnny and Tommy leaned back against the rocky outcrop at Johnny’s special place and watched the sunset. Tommy rested his head on Johnny’s shoulder, unhappily aware that this was the last time he and Johnny would do this together. His fingers fiddled with the toggles on Johnny’s shirt.


“Johnny, I wish…I just wish…”


“What, Tommy?”


“Well, I…I wanna go home with Pa. But…but…” Tommy’s voice broke in a big sob and he hid his head in Johnny’s chest.


Johnny held him tightly, smoothing the bangs from the boy’s face. “It’s okay, Tommy. Please don’t cry.”


“But I’ll miss you, Johnny.”


“I know, Big ‘un, I know.” Tommy’s body trembled in his arms and Johnny sat upright, pulling the boy up beside him.


“I just wish there was some way to be with Pa and be with you at the same time.”


“I know. But there ain’t. And you gotta go with your Pa.” He brushed Tommy’s tears away. “Hey, Big ‘un. It’s gonna be okay. Please don’t cry.”






“I won’t never forget you. Will you forget me?”


“No, Tommy. I won’t ever forget you.”


“On the true?”


“On the true. How could I forget the Hope of the World, huh?”


Tommy giggled. “Them was real ‘citin stories, Johnny. You tell better stories than anybody. Even them Greek fellers.”




“On the true. I’m glad you’re my brother, Johnny.”


“I…I’ll always be your brother, Big ‘un. And your friend. But you need your Pa now. You’ll always need him—and he needs you.”


Tommy gazed up into Johnny’s eyes, “Always? Do you still need your Pa, Johnny?”


Johnny bent his head forward, resting his forehead against Tommy’s. He swallowed hard. “Yeah.”


The two friends sat that way for long moments, remembering the magic of the time they’d shared. When he heard Tommy’s stomach growl, Johnny stood and pulled the boy to his feet. “Reckon we need to head back for supper. You ready?”


Tommy nodded and mounted his pony and the two boys loped back toward the hacienda.


Johnny pointed up at the stars, faintly visible in the dusky evening. “See your Ma up there? Whenever you look up at her, just remember that I’ll be lookin’ at my Mama and Pablo. We can be together that way—in our heads, you know?”


“Scott said kinda the same thing.”


“Well, that’s how come he’s the oldest and wisest.” Johnny reined in by the stone arch.


Tommy pulled up his pony and stared at Johnny in confusion. “How come we’re stoppin’ here?”


Johnny dismounted and laid his hand on Tommy’s knee. “Ah…look, Tommy. I ain’t so good at sayin’ goodbye. So, I’m gonna say it now and you won’t see me in the mornin’ when you leave.”


“Ain’t you comin’ to supper, Johnny?”


“Nope. You…you pull Scott aside and tell him…tell him I just need to be by myself tonight. Tell him not to worry about me. Okay?”


Tommy’s eyes filled with tears. “Okay,” he quavered.


“Hey, no more tears. You gonna go home with your Pa tomorrow mornin’, ridin’ this fine pony. Ain’t nuthin’ to cry about in that, is there?


Tommy sniffed and shook his head, wiping his eyes with his sleeve.


Johnny reached out and brushed away a tear the boy missed. “C’mon, give me a smile.”


Tommy smiled and impulsively leaned over and hugged Johnny. “Johnny?”


“Yeah?” Johnny closed his eyes and stroked the blond hair.


“I know you told me men don’t say it, but I love you.”


“I love you, too, Tommy.”



He sat on the hill overlooking the hacienda, knees drawn to his chest. The damp, grey dawn matched his mood. He stiffened when the two riders trotted through the arched gate and turned toward Green River. The blue eyes never left the smaller figure, although they closed briefly when the taller rider reached down to grasp the hand of the small rider. But after that brief lapse, he watched intently until the two horsemen disappeared over the horizon.


Johnny let his head fall forward onto his knees. Tommy was gone. Gone like so many others he’d loved and lost. A sense of loneliness crushed him and he shivered with a sudden chill, fighting a wave of nausea, although he’d eaten nothing. The queasiness passed slowly and he climbed shakily to his feet.


The pain blindsided him, sending white hot bolts of agony radiating through his stomach. He collapsed to his side and curled into a ball, clutching at his belly, unable to breath. When the sickening cramps finally eased, Johnny lay limp and trembling. A cold sweat coated his skin and the nausea returned with a vengeance. There was nothing in his stomach, but he retched miserably.


Time seemed to stop as he fought to control his rebellious stomach. Was it hours or mere minutes? He couldn’t be sure, but it took too long and he cursed his weakness. If only Scott or Jelly were here. They could help him deal with this thing, whatever it was. It was somehow related to Tommy and the nightmares. He could control it. He would control it. With Scott and Jelly’s help…but he was alone. And like all the times before, he’d handle this, whatever it was, alone.


A lingering throbbing was all that remained of the torment. He could almost believe he’d imagined the whole thing if not for the chills shuddering through him and the tenderness of his belly. Johnny stumbled to his feet and staggered to Barranca, resting his spinning head against golden neck.


Finally, he summoned up courage rather than strength, and managed to saddle and mount his horse. Once astride, he rested, forcing away the looming darkness with deep painful breaths. It took several minutes, but at last the world stopped whirling.


Johnny nudged Barranca into an easy walk. He’d go see Jelly. Yeah, that’s what he’d do. Jelly would fix him some of that licorice stuff to settle his stomach. He’d catch some sleep in Jelly’s room. And Jelly would cover for him with Murdoch and Scott. Sleep was all he needed. It had worked yesterday. His stomach felt fine then. So he’d just grab a few winks and when he woke up, he’d feel fine again.


Except that when he woke up, Tommy would still be gone.





Early morning soon after Pete and Tommy started home…


“Do you know where your brother is?” Murdoch scowled at his older son the moment Scott entered the kitchen. “His bed hasn’t been slept in. And he couldn’t be bothered to see our guests off this morning—after making himself scarce last night.”


Scott sat down and poured himself a cup of coffee. “Johnny said goodbye to Tommy yesterday evening. He spent the night off by himself somewhere. He’s asleep in Jelly’s room right now.”


“Asleep? He knows better than to think he can stay out all night and sleep it off the next morning.”


Scott’s head snapped up and he glared at his father. “It’s nice to see you so worried about Johnny.”


Murdoch had the grace to blush.


Scott relented. “Sir, it’s not like that. It wasn’t easy for Johnny to say goodbye to Tommy. I doubt he got any sleep at all last night. He sat outside somewhere brooding.” He couldn’t hide the worry in his voice.


“Is Johnny all right, Scott?” Murdoch didn’t like the concerned expression on Scott’s face.


“No, Murdoch. Johnny is not all right. He’s torn up inside over losing Tommy. It would be nice if you eased up on him for a couple of days.”


Scott’s words stung Murdoch and he bit back an angry retort. “I can do that.”


“Thank you, sir.” Scott added a few drops of cream to his coffee.


Murdoch resolved to check on Johnny for himself, but first he had business to discuss with Scott. “I had a wire from Randall Masters yesterday.”


“Did he get those Herefords?”


“Yes, and some Shorthorns as well. But we aren’t the only ranch interested. He has other potential buyers, so we need to move on this now. Randall will be in Fresno tomorrow and I want you to meet him there and negotiate for a package of Herefords and Shorthorns.”


Murdoch expected enthusiasm from his older son. Scott enjoyed the town of Fresno and demonstrated a real talent for negotiating over cattle. He was totally unprepared for the look of dismay that swept over Scott’s face.


“Tomorrow? That means you want me to leave right away.” Scott desperately sought an excuse that would appease his father without deceiving him. “Can’t it wait, Murdoch? Perhaps you should go.” Johnny needed help and he wasn’t comfortable leaving his brother at the moment.


“If we want our pick of the Herefords or any of the Shorthorns, we need to move immediately.” Murdoch sipped his coffee and eyed his eldest son with a puzzled glare. Scott was holding something back and he wanted to know what it was. “I’d like you to go, Scott. What aren’t you telling me?”


Scott sighed. It was no use, he just couldn’t lie about it. His brother needed him here at home. He must tell his father enough to convince him to postpone the trip without breaching Johnny’s confidence.


“Murdoch, I’m worried about Johnny. He has nightmares—when he first arrived at Lancer they were severe, but over the past few months they’ve almost disappeared. He started having them again after he found Tommy, and they’ve increased in intensity and frequency. It happens almost every night now, so he isn’t sleeping or eating properly. He’s passed out in Jelly’s room right now, exhausted.”


Murdoch nodded thoughtfully. “He has been looking tired, a bit pale, lately. He hasn’t said anything to me. Of course, I wouldn’t expect him to. Do you know what these dreams are about?”


Scott slapped his hand against the table, causing the plates and glasses to jump. “They are not dreams, Murdoch! They are nightmares—horrific nightmares and I don’t mean a childish bad dream about a monster. That boy relives some of the most harrowing experiences of his life in these nightmares. They are tearing him apart emotionally and physically. He wakes up physically sick, sir, nauseated and retching—they are that vivid.


“Have you looked at him lately? Can’t you see what this is doing to him? Looking pale? He looks ill, Murdoch! For God’s sake, open your eyes to that boy’s suffering. Johnny needs help, he needs you….” Scott sank back in his chair.


He hadn’t meant to say that much, but he had hit the nail squarely on the head—Johnny did need his father. He needed to know that Murdoch would accept what he had been forced to do and what he had chosen to do.


The specter of his father’s reaction haunted Johnny. He craved his father’s understanding and longed for his father’s acceptance and forgiveness. But what Johnny needed above all else was his father’s love, and he just didn’t feel worthy of that. Scott wondered how he could explain this to Murdoch.


“Murdoch, Johnny needs to know that you love him. And I know that you do. But Johnny doesn’t. He won’t let himself believe it. Even worse, he doesn’t feel he deserves it. He’s watched you with Tommy, seen firsthand what he’s been denied all of his life—guidance, protection, trust, and especially your love—something he wants more than anything.


“You took Tommy into your heart, an innocent child who needed and deserved your love. But Johnny sees himself as a tainted, blackened soul. He just can’t believe that it is possible for you to love both the good of a boy like Tommy and the bad as he sees himself. In Johnny’s eyes the two just don’t go together. He doesn’t feel worthy of anyone’s love, especially yours. And the reason for that is what is causing the nightmares.”


Murdoch was stunned by the vehement outburst, but Scott’s concern was palpable and he knew how to read his brother. If Scott was worried, he had good reason. Murdoch wanted to help his younger son, but he didn’t know how. He did know that he needed more information.


“I know he feels worthless, Scott. I’ve tried to talk to him about it, but I haven’t been successful. Do you know what these dr…nightmares are about? Tell me.”


“We know very little about Johnny’s life. He hides what he lived through from us, from himself…buries it deep inside. Why? He hides it from himself because it’s so painful to remember. But he hides it from us because he is terrified that we will reject him if we find out what he’s done—and even what was done to him. I know some of it, but Johnny must be the one who tells you, sir.” He refilled his coffee cup and took a gulp.


“We can’t possibly imagine some of the trauma that boy survived. Johnny buried it, but it won’t stay dead. He can’t deal with it alone. Johnny needs our help. And most of all, he needs to know his father accepts what he did.”


“I don’t know what he’s done, Scott! He won’t talk to me about it—you know that.” Murdoch shook his head sadly. “A seven-year-old boy had to tell me about the way Johnny’s mother died, about a man who was like a father to him, a man he could talk to—Pablo.”


“Murdoch, Johnny told things to Tommy simply because Tommy asked him outright. He didn’t share any details, but he answered Tommy’s questions.” Scott gave his father an empathetic smile. “From what Tommy told me, I know they are things Johnny should have been able to talk about with me, but felt he couldn’t. Believe me, I know how that hurts. But there is a reason Johnny doesn’t tell us and it’s our fault.” He acknowledged the skeptical look on his father’s face.


“Please, hear me out, sir. You and I are both guilty of ignoring Johnny’s past, not because we want to, but because we felt it was the right thing to do for him. He won’t initiate that conversation and because he seems so uncomfortable discussing it, we believed if we pressured him into opening up about his past that we would hurt him or push him further away. Maybe even force him to run.


“But don’t you see what we’ve done? By not asking those awkward questions and demanding answers, we have convinced Johnny that we don’t want to know…that we are ashamed of his past and, therefore, ashamed of him. We meant to help Johnny, but all we accomplished was to add to his burden instead of easing his load.” He met Murdoch’s eyes, their expression mirroring his own troubled one.


“And by avoiding the topic of Johnny’s past, we’ve confirmed his negative feelings about himself, justified his thinking that he is ‘bad.’ Sir, whatever Johnny shared with Tommy, it was because Tommy wanted to know. He asked, he was willing to listen, and he was incapable of judging Johnny.” Scott paused and searched his father’s face, assessing Murdoch’s receptiveness. He was satisfied with what he saw.


“If you want to help, you’re going to have to persuade Johnny to talk to you. And it won’t be easy. He won’t approach you on his own. In fact, he’ll run as fast as he can in the opposite direction. But you have to find a way. I suggest you start by asking him about Pablo. You’ll find his death has a lot to do with the choices Johnny made.”


“Do you think talking to me will help Johnny deal with his nightmares?” Murdoch asked earnestly.


“I do, sir. I believe that deep down, Johnny wants to confide in you. I know that he needs to. The only reason he hasn’t spoken with you already is that he’s so afraid of how you’ll react.” Scott laid a hand on his father’s arm. “And, Murdoch, Johnny’s nightmares aside, the two of you need to talk.”


Murdoch sighed. “Yes, we do. I had this discussion with Pete and he gave me some suggestions on how to talk to Johnny. But what about you, Scott? Johnny has always seemed comfortable talking to you. You know just what to say to him and how to support him, while I always seem to make him mad. Want to share your secrets?”


Scott wasn’t quite sure where to start. He clasped both hands around his coffee cup and stared into it, as if the answers might be revealed there. “You’ll have to go carefully. Johnny’s hurting and he’s not going to want you to know that. Don’t rush him. And whatever you do, don’t judge him.”


“I won’t judge him, Scott. He’s my son.”


Scott frowned and met Murdoch’s eyes. His father wasn’t going to like what he had to say. “Sir, you have this tendency to judge him. I don’t think you realize it, but you do it constantly. And believe me, Johnny knows it.” Scott discerned the disbelief on his father’s face. He’d anticipated it and held up a restraining hand.


“Just think about it, Murdoch. Honestly review some of the conversations you’ve had with Johnny and you’ll see what I mean.


“I’ll give you an example. Remember when Johnny told you he didn’t believe Jeff Dane’s story? He spelled out his reasons and you informed Johnny that you would need more information than how a man looked before judging him. But how often have you leaped to a conclusion about Johnny without having all of the facts? I promise you, it’s more frequently than you realize.


“You explained that you were basing your reaction to Jeff’s story on faith. You even asked Johnny if it would have made a difference if someone had given him a little faith back in the border towns. Then you turned your back and marched out self-righteously, but I’m the one who had to see the hurt on Johnny’s face—he couldn’t understand why you would have faith in Jeff Dane and not in him.” Scott broke off suddenly, aware that he had said more than he meant to in the heat of the moment. Murdoch stared at him in shock, obviously having difficulty accepting Scott’s assessment. Scott took a deep breath and plowed ahead.


“I apologize, sir. I don’t mean to judge you. But you need to be aware that you treat Johnny differently than you do anyone else and if you expect him to talk to you, you must understand how your actions and attitudes affect him. He is so scared of your reaction, afraid that you will be disappointed in him, turn your back on him….” Scott trailed off at the look on Murdoch’s face.


“Scott…I…surely I don’t….” Murdoch struggled to find the right words.


He was stunned at Scott’s evaluation. In fact, if anyone other than his older son had spoken those words to him, he would have dismissed them as irrelevant and unjust. But Scott had a gift for observation and reading people and he wouldn’t mention it if he didn’t believe what he was saying. Did Scott really think his father had behaved like some sanctimonious, self-righteous prig? He read the unsettling answer in his son’s eyes.


Scott held his father’s gaze. “I’m sorry, sir, but you do.” He almost recoiled at the anguish on Murdoch’s face and searched for the right words to help his father understand.


“Do you remember the day Johnny gentled the grulla? That evening, your interaction with Johnny was wonderful. You let him talk and allowed him to explain what he wanted to do. You shared his excitement. When you disagreed with him, you asked questions instead of simply telling him he was wrong or that his ideas wouldn’t work. You really listened, sir, and you talked with Johnny instead of down to him. That behavior is what you’ll need to replicate if you expect to help Johnny—with one exception.” Scott took a deep breath.


“Do you realize that the ideas and plans for the horse business that Johnny shared with you that evening, the plans you are so enthusiastic about now, are the same as the earlier ones you rejected? The only difference this time is that Johnny proved his talent to you. Because of that, you interpreted what he said differently, positively.


“Sir, your challenge is to reach that point with Johnny without requiring him to prove anything.” He paused, offering his father the opportunity for rebuttal, but for once, Murdoch seemed incapable of speech.


“You must constantly be aware of what you are saying, how you are reacting. Remember how Smoky read Johnny’s every move, watched his eyes, knew exactly what he was thinking? Johnny will be just like that colt with you—wary and wild and ready to bolt at the slightest provocation. He’ll be attuned to your every facial expression, your posture, the words you use and the tone of your voice.” Scott took a moment to gather his thoughts and give his father time to consider his words.


“Keep in mind that Johnny is just as afraid of hurting you by what he tells you as he is of you shunning him. It distresses Johnny when we feel guilty about the times he needed us and we weren’t there. He just doesn’t need our regret weighing him down.


“So be ready to mask your emotions, Murdoch. What’s that old saying? ‘Be careful what you wish for?’ Sir, you’re going to hear things from Johnny you’d rather not know, but you are going to have to accept them. Some of them will be painful for you to hear, but you must listen.


“Listening to what Johnny suffered through will require as much emotional strength from you as it will for him to tell you his story. And once he starts to talk, it may go on for hours. You can show concern, but not pity or even sympathy.


“Johnny doesn’t need to handle your emotional reactions in addition to his own. Just remember that this is about helping him, not about you. And there’s something else.” He stared at his father, relieved to see that Murdoch was leaning forward, listening intently.


“I don’t quite know how to describe this. There are times when Johnny is talking about what happened that he…well, it’s as though he actually becomes the child he is describing. When that happens, you can treat him like a child. In fact, it seems to help him. But you have to be careful, because when he is ‘Johnny’ again, he won’t accept it.


“So you have to watch and you have to listen and you can’t let your own emotions interfere. This will be the most difficult task you’ve ever faced, Murdoch.” The look on Murdoch’s face told Scott that he was getting through to his stubborn, proud father. He decided it was time to add some encouragement to the lecture.


“Johnny adores you, sir. He sees you so differently now, like night and day from when he first came here. But it is such a risk for him to let us get close. Do you realize he’s lost everyone and everything he ever loved? He’s terrified of losing us, Murdoch, because he doesn’t think he deserves a family. Johnny needs to know that you’re proud of him and not just when he’s done something you like, but even when he is in trouble.


“And most of all, he wants what he has always wanted—a father who loves him regardless of what he’s done. You must make him believe that you do, sir. One hint of…well, then we will have lost that boy forever.”


“Scott, I’ll try. I’ll do my best…I just hope I can--” 


Scott’s hand snaked out and grasped his father’s forearm tightly. “NO, Murdoch! There is no try for this. Either you do it right or you don’t do it at all. And if you decide to do it, you’d better commit 100% and make it work. Your best has to be enough for this. The price of your failure may well be Johnny’s soul….” He paused, considering his next words carefully, and then looked Murdoch straight in the eye.


“Can you do this, Murdoch? Knowing the risk of failure, can you look me in the eye and swear to me that it’s safe for me to leave my brother in your hands?” The words were enunciated precisely and an unspoken threat hung ominously in the air.


Murdoch met that steady, searching gaze with determination. “You can trust me, Scott. I’m going to help Johnny. I’m not going to lose him now.” He kept telling himself that he truly believed what he was saying.


Scott’s eyes bored into Murdoch for several long moments, searching for the slightest sign of insincerity or insecurity. At last, he gave a curt nod of acceptance. “To quote Johnny, ‘you’d better be right about this.’” The epithet, ‘Old Man,’ lay heavily between father and son.


All right. You’ll get your chance, Murdoch. But only because the two of you need to talk. Maybe if I’m not here, you’ll finally get around to it. And God help you if you hurt my brother again, Old Man.


“I’m not happy about leaving Johnny. He needs some support if he’s going to deal with Tommy going home. If I’m not here, you’ll have to provide it. No cold feet at the last second.” He pushed back from the table and stood up.


“If you’re certain you can handle this…well, I’ll get myself over to Fresno and buy some Herefords and Shorthorns. Murdoch, you--”


“Scott, I will do whatever it takes.”  He lowered his eyes. “I love both of my sons….”


“It’s going to take quite a bit. So you talk to him, sir. About Tommy and about the nightmares.”


“I will talk to Johnny, son. I won’t let either of you down.”


Murdoch understood Scott’s concerns and shared them. He had never been able to talk to Johnny and knew he wouldn’t find it any easier now. He wasn’t happy with the tone or content of what amounted to Scott’s orders, but he was shocked and dismayed to discover that his son was absolutely right. When he thought about previous conversations with Johnny, he realized that he had come across as judgmental, leaping to conclusions. He’d always prided himself on being a fair man, but he’d failed dismally at being fair with his younger son.


It hurt when your older son unequivocally demonstrated what a failure you were as a father, no matter how diplomatic his presentation. Murdoch detested failing at anything, but even more galling was the tarnishing of his self-image. He associated traits such as fair, open-minded, honest, just, magnanimous, nurturing, and supportive with the man he tried to be. But when he remembered his interactions with Johnny, none of those words applied. Why hadn’t he been able to see it before?


Murdoch rose stiffly from the table and walked to the great room. He sat in his favorite chair behind his desk, lost in thought until Scott came back downstairs with his bedroll and a bag.


“Good luck, sir. I’ll be back as quickly as I can.” Scott gave his father a long, measuring look, then turned on his heel and walked out the door.


“Have a good trip, son.” Murdoch called after him.


He heard Scott exchange words with someone outside the hacienda, a lengthy conversation. Jelly’s voice, pregnant with disbelief, carried clearly across the great room. “But you can’t leave now!”


Murdoch couldn’t hear Scott’s reply, but when he looked up, he was annoyed to see Jelly enter the room and turn toward him. He didn’t have the energy to cope with Jelly just now. He needed some time alone to think and come to terms with the distressing truths Scott had forced him to recognize. He needed time to work out how to best help Johnny and prepare himself for that ordeal. He’d assured Scott that he was up to the challenge and if he couldn’t deliver on that promise, he might well lose both of his sons. He had few options and failure was not one of them.





Murdoch sighed when Jelly closed the door behind him and hurried toward the desk. He knew that determined expression. Jelly was like a dog with a bone—once he got something in his teeth, he wouldn’t let it go.


Jelly stopped in front of the massive desk, sweeping off his cap and twisting it in his hands. “Boss, we need to talk.”


“Not now, Jelly--”


Now, Boss,” Jelly drew himself up to his full height, his demeanor reminding Murdoch of a mother grizzly. “You know where Johnny is?”


Murdoch sighed. Jelly wasn’t about to wait for another time. “As I understand it, he’s asleep in your room.”


Jelly nodded curtly. “He is. Come in this mornin’ limp as a neck-wrung rooster. Been outside all night mopin’ ‘round like a motherless calf. He’s chilled to the bone and plumb grievin’ over Tommy. Boy’s worn to a frazzle. He ain’t been eatin’ enough to keep a bird alive—gettin’ as thin as a Montana cow in April. And them nightmares is back. I’m right worried ‘bout him, Boss. He just don’t look right.”


“You know about Johnny’s nightmares?” Murdoch cringed inwardly. Was he the only one unaware of his son’s nightmares?


Jelly nodded vigorously. “Boy’s always had ‘em. But Scott says he has ‘em near ever night now and they’re real bad ‘uns, give him the awful miseries. Seen one myself that left him shiverin’ like a short-haired dog in a blue norther. That ain’t good, Boss.”


“Yes, I’m aware of that, Jelly.”


Jelly’s eyes opened wide and he took a slight step back. “Ya know? Well, what in tarnation are you doin’ about it?”


Murdoch had heard enough about his failures as a father for one day and reacted to Jelly’s well intentioned meddling with anger. “What?! You mind your--”


Jelly clenched his fists and brandished them like a prize fighter, interrupting Murdoch. “Ahh! Now, the way I figure it, Johnny is my business. Chuckle-headed as a prairie dog, that boy, and he ain’t about to admit he needs any help. But he’s hurtin’, Boss.


“Now, I ain’t hornin’ in by tellin’ you that yer his father and if’n there’s a body more stubborn than him, it’s you. Fer all his talk ‘bout not takin’ orders so good, when you say jump, Johnny says how high. He’ll listen to you, I know he will. But ya gotta be willin’ to try.”


Murdoch’s anger evaporated. He knew how much Johnny meant to Jelly and it was only natural for the protective man to stand up for the boy. “Jelly, you’re wrong. That boy--”


“That boy looks up to you and he needs to know that whatever is causin’ them nightmares ain’t gonna make you ashamed of him. Yer his father…now what you goin’ to do to help him?”


“I just don’t know, Jelly. He may listen, but I doubt he’ll talk.” Murdoch paused in deep thought, fully aware that Jelly’s intense gaze never wavered from his face.


Jelly snorted theatrically. “Some things just don’t need all the thought some people gives ‘em.”


Murdoch ignored that comment and reached a decision. He pushed away from the desk and walked toward the hat rack. “I’m going to town to talk to Doctor Jenkins about these nightmares, find out what he recommends.” Murdoch pointed in the direction of Jelly’s room. “Will you stick close by and be sure Johnny’s all right? Let him sleep and see that he eats something. And don’t worry, Jelly. Johnny is going to get the help he needs—I’ll make sure of that.”


“I’ll sure be easier in my mind if’n ya talk to the Doc. That boy just don’t look right. Shame his brother ain’t gonna be here to help him.”


Before Murdoch could reply, a sound outside caught his attention. Both men turned and watched in amusement as Johnny stealthily backed through the French doors. He checked his back trail, peeking around the door to make sure he hadn’t been seen. He’d even removed his spurs in order to move silently, carrying them by the rowels to prevent any telltale jingle. Satisfied that he’d crossed the courtyard unseen, Johnny silently eased the doors closed.


Murdoch folded his arms and cleared his throat. When he heard that sound, Johnny jumped about a foot. He whirled, flattening himself against the glass. The blue eyes widened as they traveled slowly upwards from his father’s boots to the stern face. Johnny stared up at his father and gulped.




Murdoch had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing aloud at the ludicrous expression on Johnny’s face—the picture of the proverbial boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar. But his urge to laugh disappeared as he surveyed his son. There was nothing funny in the gaunt, distressed figure standing before him. Johnny needed help.


Jelly opened his mouth, but Murdoch caught his eye, motioning with his eyes and head for Jelly to leave him alone with Johnny.


“Reckon I’ll go check on them new calves,” Jelly groused as he hurried out, slamming the front door behind him.


“S…sorry, Murdoch. Guess I overslept,” Johnny stammered, eyes downcast. He hadn’t expected to find his father in the house. The Old Man should be off working somewhere by this time. Now he was late and Murdoch was going to have his head—the man was a stickler for being on time.


Johnny chewed his lip, waiting for the dressing down he knew was coming. He was tired and cold, his stomach hurt, his head pounded, and he just didn’t feel like listening to one of his father’s tirades. And now Scott was gone off to Fresno and that somehow made things worse. He was rapidly losing control of the situation. The damn nightmares tormented him every night, keeping him from sleep and fueling that persistent ache in his gut.


He didn’t know what he needed to do in order to deal with the nightmares. For so long, he’d been able to rely on the mental techniques Pablo had taught him, locking the memories and associated pain away in boxes in his mind. Yet for some unknown reason, the demons that lived in his dreams were suddenly able to smash the locks and burst through the doors he’d so carefully sealed.


They struck without warning, thrusting him back in time, hurling him onto the sharp rocks of the places and moments that he wanted to forever forget. They flooded him with emotions—terror, anguish, hate—leaving him limp with exhaustion and shivering uncontrollably, churning and tearing at his stomach until he could no longer fight back the nausea. The nightmares had plagued him for years, but never so frequently or with such graphic intensity. He shuffled to the long table and melted into a chair.


Murdoch studied his son’s face, noting the dark circles ringing eyes that usually sparkled with life and mischief, but were now dull and bloodshot. He hadn’t noticed before how pale Johnny was beneath his tan, the dark shadows under the melancholy blue eyes, how much weight the boy had lost. He hadn’t realized just how ill Johnny looked.


But others had seen, had been willing to face his wrath to tell him. Scott and Jelly had both said the same thing—Johnny needed his father. And just look at the boy now! He sat fidgeting, head hanging, no doubt expecting an earful because he was late.


Why hadn’t he known? Why had it taken something like this to open his eyes? How in the world had he ever let things get to this point? His son needed him desperately, but that need was outweighed by his fear of Murdoch’s anger and condemnation. The boy would rather suffer God knows what torment night after night, simply because he so feared his father’s rejection. An awful sense of failure and shame swept over him and he could understand how it was possible for Johnny to feel so unworthy. He made himself a solemn promise.


Tonight, Murdoch Lancer, you will sit YOUR SON down and you will do whatever you have to do to make him understand that he can trust you. You will tell him how much he means to you. You will tell him you…love him. You will be a father to that boy.


Murdoch watched as Johnny picked half-heartedly at the plate Maria set before him, playing with the food without ever taking a bite. “Johnny, are you feeling all right? You look ill. No, don’t deny it! I know something is wrong. Why won’t you tell me, son?”


Johnny looked into Murdoch’s granite-hewn face and saw unexpected warmth there. That concern sparked a sudden desire to confide in his father, but he’d kept his secrets for so long. How could he reveal them now? What if Murdoch turned away from him in disgust and scorn?


Scott knew what he had done, what he’d been, and his brother understood. Scott said that Murdoch would understand and accept, too, but how could he trust this man? How often had his father assumed the worst, jumped to the wrong conclusion about his motives or actions? There was just no way to predict how Murdoch might react and he couldn’t bear to see condemnation in his father’s eyes. Pete said Murdoch loved him. But would his father still feel that way if he knew the truth? No, he wasn’t ready to trust his father yet.


Johnny hung his head and lied, realizing that Murdoch would know he was lying. “I’m fine, Murdoch. It’s nuthin’. I just didn’t sleep well is all.”


Johnny listlessly pushed his food around and Murdoch rose from the table, watching his son with troubled eyes. “You haven’t been sleeping well for a while, son. And you aren’t eating, either. If Teresa were home, she’d be brewing tonics and dosing you with castor oil.”


He smiled to himself at the sudden alarm on Johnny’s face. “I don’t want you out on the range today, Johnny. You stay around the barn and help Jelly with those calves that were born last night.”


“But, Murdoch…”


“No, son. You’re to help Jelly in the barn today and that’s final.” Murdoch studied Johnny intently, drumming his fingers on the table. He was tempted to talk with Johnny now, waiting wouldn’t make it any easier. But Jelly was right, Johnny was hiding something—he looked ill. So before he sat down with his son, he needed to speak with Sam Jenkins.


“I know you didn’t get much sleep last night, John. Why don’t you go on up to bed? Jelly will call if he needs any help.


“I have business in Spanish Wells, so I can’t talk to you now, but I’ll be home for supper and you and I are going to have a little discussion then. I expect you to be at the table on time. Don’t you go avoiding me tonight, young man!”


Murdoch could see the anxiety on Johnny’s face at the thought of having a ‘little discussion’ with his father. Well, the boy would have the day to think about and prepare himself for it. He let his hand trail gently over Johnny’s dark head as he walked toward the front door.


Johnny stared after his father in dismay, surprised at the way Murdoch had spoken to him and the unaccustomed gesture of affection, but alarmed at the upcoming ‘talk’. It riled him when Murdoch spoke to him like he was a little kid, but he had to admit that part of him relished it in a peculiar sort of way.


He thought of the only other man who had spoken to him in a ‘fatherly’ tone. Johnny remembered Pablo’s quiet voice and gentle manner, his wise words drawn from years of life’s experiences, and his subtle guidance and gentle touch. Pablo reached into his soul and he felt safe, wanted, and loved. The time with Pablo stood in stark contrast to his time at the mission.


The padres despaired of ever taming his defiance and grew weary of the number of times Johnny ran away. Padre Miguel looked at him with disgust and taunted him with cruel words that hurt even more than the frequent, savage beatings the man administered. Johnny’s mouth twisted into a sneer as he thought of the padre lecturing him pompously about the evils of raising his hands to others and then strapping him until he could barely walk.


He could handle the welts and bruises, even being thrown into the tiny dark closet and going without food or water. But Padre Miguel’s vicious words slashed to the bone—child of the devil, black soul, wicked half-breed. Pablo understood his shame without being told and tried to heal the hurt. And because of Pablo, he was able to leave the mission behind.


Pablo was free with his affection and showed his caring through his touch. When Pablo first reached out to ruffle his hair, drape an arm around his shoulders, or hug him; Johnny flinched, expecting to be hurt again. But Pablo quietly persevered as though Johnny was a frightened colt and eventually Johnny let himself be held and hugged and returned that love in kind. It felt good, having a hand to praise him, a hug to comfort him. But that was gone now, gone like Pablo.


Except that Scott was much the same—not afraid to show his feelings, often hugging his brother, tousling his hair, or draping an arm across his shoulders. But Murdoch…he was so different, well at least with him. Murdoch seemed so at ease with Teresa, his love for her displayed for all to see. And Murdoch often touched Scott affectionately.


The last time Murdoch touched him, until this morning, was when he’d worked the cow with Smoky. His father slung his arm around Johnny’s shoulders and Johnny felt…well, it felt good. It warmed him deep inside and he liked that feeling. Pablo had blanketed his soul with that same gentle warmth and Johnny longed for the same thing from his father. Like the way Murdoch touched his hair on his way out of the hacienda moments ago.


Maybe the reason watching Murdoch hug Tommy was so darn painful was because he wanted to be in Tommy’s place—as a child and yes, even now as a grown man. Maybe that was why part of him secretly enjoyed it when Murdoch talked to him like he was a kid. Pablo had used that exact ‘Now just you listen to me, young man’ tone. Even then, it made him mad, but it also made him feel secure and loved at the same time—as though there was nothing he could do to shake Pablo’s faith in him and no matter the trouble he got himself into, Pablo would guide him out of it. No one else had ever made him feel like that, not even his mother.


And speaking of women, boy, was he glad Teresa wasn’t home! The last thing he wanted was castor oil. In fact, he’d have to be careful around his devoted babysitter. Jelly would just love an excuse to whip up some foul smelling, disgusting ‘coction. The last one was awful and sure as shootin’, Jelly was gonna come up with another one that smelled and tasted like dirty socks.


Yep, here he comes now. Holdin’ a glass of somethin’ mean lookin’and wearin’ his mother hen look. Guess he’s gonna make me drink that witch’s brew and go to bed. ‘Course if it helps this bellyache, it’ll be worth it. Hope I can make it up the stairs.



Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine
Part Ten
Submission Guidelines