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
“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
“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
“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?”
“Did Johnny send
you to your room and tell you to stay here until he said otherwise?”
“So you did something
you knew was dangerous, even though Scott told you not too, and Johnny punished
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
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.
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
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
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
“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
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?”
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.”
“Not long. Perhaps
“Why? What happened?”
“Pablo was murdered
and the boy vanished.”
Cipriano’s face turned
to granite. “Sí, tortured and butchered by los
“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
“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?”
himself. “El busco para venganza.”
“A quest for vengeance….
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
“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.”
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?” 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.
“Hey, Tommy, do you
know that it’s supper time? Why don’t you come downstairs and have a bite
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
“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
“Who’s the oldest
and wisest.” Tommy interrupted, completing Scott’s sentence and squealing
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
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
“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
“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
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
“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
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
“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
“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
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
“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
“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?”
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
“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
“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.”
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
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
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
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
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
“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.”
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
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
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
“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?”
“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,
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,
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
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’
Johnny patted his
saddlebags. “Maria packed me an egg sandwich. I’ll eat it later.”
Scott and Jelly exchanged
“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.”
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
Johnny sighed and
hung his head for a moment. Scott was right. He needed to do this for Tommy.
“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?”
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
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
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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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.”
“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
“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
“Either you do or
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
“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
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’
“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?”
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
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
“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.
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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
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
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…
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
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
“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
“But I’ll miss you,
“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?”
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
“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,
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,
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
“Asleep? He knows
better than to think he can stay out all night and sleep it off the next
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
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.
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
“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
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
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.
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
“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.”
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
“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
“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.
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,
“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
“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,
“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
“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.”
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
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!”
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--”
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
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
“You know about Johnny’s
nightmares?” Murdoch cringed inwardly. Was he the only one unaware of his
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
“Yes, I’m aware of
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
“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.
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
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.”
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.”
“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.
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
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
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.