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.
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.
Later that morning…
Sam Jenkins rested
his elbows on his desk as he watched Murdoch Lancer pace the floor of his
office. The agitated behavior had continued nonstop since the rancher arrived
ten minutes earlier, his face deeply etched with lines of worry. At his first
glimpse of Murdoch, Sam expected to hear that someone was badly injured.
After listening to the flustered description of the actual problem, he was
certain an injury would be far easier to deal with.
As Murdoch voiced
his concern about his younger son, Sam felt a growing sense of unease. He
liked Johnny immensely and believed he knew the young man well as a result
of the amount of time he’d spent doctoring him—or trying to. Johnny was fiercely
independent, reluctant to accept any help, and skilled at hiding injury or
illness. Sam’s exaggerated threats to make the boy obey his orders were a
good-natured game the two of them enjoyed and harkened back to his first encounter
with a badly wounded Johnny Madrid.
“Get out of that
bed again, young man, and I’ll have your father, brother, and whoever else
it takes, hogtie you to it. Is that clear?”
Johnny grinned shyly
at that and ducked his head, his voice full of respect “Yes, sir.”
Sam hadn’t expected
that, not from a notorious gunfighter, and he realized then that there was
more to this young man than met the eye. Johnny hid behind a cynical mask
of nerve and bravado, but Sam saw the mask slip at times as the boy doggedly
fought his way back to health.
“I don’t want them
fussin’ over me.” Johnny snapped at Sam after being reprimanded yet again
for refusing assistance from his family.
“Why? Afraid you
might get used to it?” Sam was joking, but Johnny turned away, mouth clenched
shut as though afraid of what his answer might betray. Sam knew then that
the boy was wary of letting his newfound family in or letting himself get
too close to them. He had hoped Murdoch would knock down those walls, but
his hope was in vain as Murdoch built walls of his own.
And now, Sam realized
with grave concern, the boy who had suffered at the hands of others and survived
alone and unloved, the boy who had finally come home, wasn’t able to forget
what it had cost him to get there. It was high time the young man received
some much-needed support from his father. He steeled himself to confront
this issue squarely. It had simmered beneath the surface for too long.
“Well, Sam? What
medication can you give Johnny?” Murdoch paused in front of the doctor.
Sam looked up at
him, vaguely perturbed that Murdoch seemed to think he could make the problem
go away with a pill. “I don’t believe it’s a question of medication, Murdoch.
We’ve both seen the scars. He’s carried some of them since childhood. The
ones on his back are the result of repeated thrashings with a belt or maybe
a stick. I’ve often asked him about them and he won’t say. But I can tell
you, that boy’s been beaten many times.
“He’s had quite a
few bullets dug out of him and there’s a serious knife wound to go along
with multiple broken bones. It’s quite a list, especially when you consider
his age. But that all falls under the label of physical injuries. Those scars
have something to do with the nightmares, but my guess is the dreams are caused
by something worse.
“I believe they are
the result of some deep emotional trauma rather than a physical cause—something
Johnny had to deal with alone. And that’s the root of the problem—he hasn’t
really dealt with it, he’s buried it. He thinks he’s hidden it where it can’t
hurt him anymore, but something has triggered the memories and they’ve resurfaced
“Johnny is strong
and brave so the fact that they are severe enough to make him physically
ill worries me. From what you’ve described, they’re taking a huge toll on
his health. They’re not going to just stop. In all probability, they will
continue to worsen until he faces the causes head on.
“During the nightmare,
Johnny relives whatever happened—and I do mean ‘relive.’ I’m sure it’s as
though he is once again in that place, that time, and struggling just as
he must have when the event occurred. In fact, the shock or terror may even
be heightened during the dreams. Just surviving that kind of experience is
traumatic, but to live through it again night after night…Murdoch, something
must be done immediately.”
Murdoch sank into
the nearest chair, knees buckling as the full extent of Johnny’s torment
finally dawned on him. He’d hoped that Sam could offer a simple solution
of a pill or a powder—a dose or two and the symptoms would just go away.
He hadn’t really understood what Scott had tried to tell him.
“My God…What can
I do, Sam? What do I do to help my son?” An unnerving fear gnawed at him.
Scott had tried to prepare him, warning him that some of the things Johnny
needed to talk about would be hard to hear. Was he strong enough to listen?
Could he help his son?
“Well I’m no expert,
but there has been some research. After the war, many soldiers suffered from
episodes where they relived the horrors they’d seen in battle. Dreaming about
those experiences actually made them physically ill. Doctors found that if
the men talked about what they’d seen, getting the experience out in the
open instead of hiding it away, they learned to accept and cope with the
“I believe this is
a similar situation. Johnny survived a different kind of war, but the horrors
are much the same.” Sam paused a moment, considering his next words carefully.
“Johnny needs to
talk about his nightmares in order to face them. And Murdoch, I think he
needs to talk about them with you. That boy has an unfortunate sense of worthlessness
and I’m willing to bet that it stems from the memories triggering these nightmares.
He is so afraid you’ll find out about his past and be ashamed or disappointed
in him. Until he can face those demons with you, the dreams will continue.”
Sam stared at his
friend. Murdoch was listening closely, obviously determined to help his son
in any way that he could. The man needed to understand just how difficult
that would be.
“It won’t be easy.
Johnny is going to resist discussing them. If I know Johnny, he’ll see this
as a weakness and be ashamed it is happening to him. He’ll be afraid that
you will see him as a coward, not a man. You must walk a line between brute
force and overt begging, be persistent without demanding or ordering. And
when he’s ready, you must be prepared to listen to his every word, no matter
what he tells you.
“Whatever the reasons,
you are going to have to face them with your son. He hasn’t been able to
cope with the memories by himself and he needs your help. Notice I said help,
not sympathy!” Sam tapped his fingers on the desk, thinking quickly.
“I’m going to give
you several sleeping draughts. I don’t want you to give any to Johnny just
yet. Let’s see what happens. The sooner he talks about this, the better,
but be careful of pushing too hard. Once he’s discussed what’s haunting him,
give him one of the sedatives. He’ll probably be drained emotionally and
physically. He may even collapse, but use the medication anyway. The goal
is to ensure he has a period of undisturbed sleep after the discussion.
“If you can get him
to that point, I expect the worst will be over and hopefully, the dreams
will diminish rapidly. Be aware that there are probably multiple events Johnny
needs to share with you. You must deal with each one in order to defuse its
ability to trigger a nightmare. Things won’t change overnight. The whole
process will take time, but I’m betting that talking with you will bring Johnny
some immediate relief.”
with heartfelt gratitude. “I understand. Thank you, Sam.”
“You’re the one he
really needs to talk to, Murdoch, but if you’re unable to convince him to
talk to you, he needs to open up to Scott or Jelly. One of you must help Johnny
work this out.
“If you can’t, then
bring him in to see me. He won’t want to talk to me, either, but if this
situation continues for more than a couple of days, Johnny is going to make
himself ill, and I can at least help with his symptoms.”
Sam’s face broke
into a sly grin. “I can even make the treatment so unpleasant that he reconsiders
talking about what’s bothering him.” The cunning smile grew. “You might just
tell him that!”
Murdoch snorted at
this sally. “You’re an old fox, Sam,” but his smile was wan and fleeting.
Sam stared across
the desk at his friend. Murdoch sat with eyes downcast, his broad shoulders
bent with this new burden. They had known each other for many years and Sam
held Murdoch in the highest regard. He was all too aware of the man’s faults,
but Murdoch was a fine man and a good friend.
The doctor had watched
the interaction between Murdoch and his sons since both boys arrived at Lancer.
Murdoch and Scott came to an immediate understanding. Unfortunately, Murdoch
and Johnny just couldn’t seem to communicate, constantly bumping heads. A
curious, hurtful dynamic lurked just below the surface of their relationship,
regularly contributing to misunderstandings and angry exchanges.
Sam didn’t believe
in telling other people how to run their lives, but he just couldn’t sit
back and remain silent any longer. Johnny needed his father. This was a medical
matter now, and besides, his old friend should be made aware of the destructive
approach he’d been taking when interacting with his younger son.
Sam took a deep breath
and began his homily. “Murdoch, we’ve been good friends for a long time now.
You’re not going to like what I’m about to say, but it’s because we’re friends
that I’m going to say it. And I hope you’ll give me the courtesy of letting
me finish my piece before you react.”
Murdoch met his friend’s
eyes and smiled wryly. “That bad, Sam?”
Sam raised his eyebrows
and shrugged. “I know what losing your boys put you through. I know how much
you care about them both. I saw you with Johnny when he was unconscious after
that bullet in the back. You never left him, not for one minute. I thought
I was going to have two patients on my hands.
“But when he regained
his senses, you pulled back, distanced yourself. And you’ve held Johnny at
arm’s length since that day. At times, you’ve even pushed him away. I think
it’s because you’re afraid he’ll do the same thing to you that his mother
did. You expect him to betray you so you give him every chance, every encouragement,
to do just that. You know what they say about self-fulfilling prophecies?
“But Johnny’s still
here, Murdoch, doing everything he can to be the kind of son he thinks you
want. He’s not going anywhere. He’s home. He knows it. Why don’t you?”
Sam paused to let
those words sink in. He could see the thunderclouds massing on Murdoch’s
face and girded himself for the storm he knew would break soon, especially
after he made his next point. “If Johnny had felt able to talk to you about
all of this sooner, maybe he wouldn’t be going through hell now.”
Murdoch’s anger erupted
at this final accusation. Sam’s words scalded, cut him deeply, and he raged
at the doctor, “How dare you…what the hell do you know about it?”
Sam met his friend’s
furious eyes with a direct stare of his own. “I’m sorry, Murdoch. I know
that hurt, but you know that what I said is true. You’ve got your son back,
but Johnny is still waiting for you to be his father.”
Murdoch opened his
mouth to blast Sam again, but his innate sense of honesty forced him to admit
that his friend was right. An appalling sense of failure poured over him,
extinguishing his rage, and he hung his head as he’d so often seen Johnny
do. That thought brought more despair. So many times, Johnny hung his head
because of something his father said to him. Sam had spoken the truth, just
as Scott had, and he found that truth almost too much to bear.
Scott’s words mocked
him. “Johnny adores you, sir.” The hostile, hate-filled young man who first
arrived at Lancer had suppressed those feelings and given his father a chance…and
another and another. Each time Murdoch turned his anger on the boy, reacted
with distrust, or showed disappointment; the blue eyes absorbed the blow,
looking down and away to hide the hurt.
But Johnny stayed
at Lancer, weathered his father’s aggression and accepted the cold shoulder
stoically, as if he deserved it. Johnny was like an eager puppy that loved
his master and bounded back, tail wagging, even when kicked away time and
again. Tears stung his eyes as Tommy’s words reverberated in his head, “Johnny
loves you.” Why? He didn’t know, but he did know he didn’t deserve it.
The memory of his
older son’s words burned like salt in an open wound. “He needs to know you’re
proud of him…” He rarely praised Johnny and when he did, the boy was embarrassed,
unable to look his father in the eye.
“…even when he’s
in trouble.” Johnny was in trouble now. He ought to be able to turn to his
father for help, support, and the unconditional love of a parent. But Johnny
had learned not to expect those things from his father.
the words he’d recently spoken to Pete Adams. “I must try to be the father
my sons think I am.” Did Johnny think he was cold, uncaring, and aloof? Why
should the boy believe anything else? Father…no, he didn’t deserve that title
and shame filled his soul. He dropped his head into his hands.
“You’re right, Sam.
About everything. I do care about Johnny, but he doesn’t know. I made sure
of that. I kept him at a distance, and yes, God forgive me, I even pushed
him away. And that’s something he does know. I’ve seen the hurt in his eyes.
I was so scared he would leave, turn his back on me and walk away just like
Maria did. But I’m the one who turned my back—on him.
“Eighteen years ago,
I lost him to a world that nearly destroyed him. I still can’t believe I
was blessed enough to find him again. But I’ve let him down. If I’d shown
him how much I do love him, proven it to him from that very first day he
came home to me. If he only knew, he would be able to tell me anything—even
what’s tearing him apart now.” Murdoch looked up and found the eyes of his
“Oh God, Sam, what
if it’s too late? What if I’ve pushed Johnny too far away?”
Sam came around the
desk and placed a hand on the broad shoulder. “It’s not too late, Murdoch.
But you’ve got your work cut out for you.” He walked over to his medicine
cabinet and prepared the promised sedatives, holding them out to his friend.
“Now, trot yourself
back to Lancer and be the father Johnny needs to help him through this. Forget
about your damned pride, about how hard it is for you to say what you feel.
Make that boy understand just how much you need him.”
Sam paused for a
moment, remembering Murdoch’s assertion that Johnny looked ill. If Johnny
wasn’t eating, there was surely something wrong. He really should examine
the boy. “I need to drop by the Rawley’s and look in on Jenny and the new
baby. I’ll stop by the ranch after that and see Johnny for myself.”
Murdoch pumped the
doctor’s hand. “Thanks, Sam. I think the sooner you see Johnny, the better.
Even Jelly said he’d feel better if you had a look at him.”
“Oh? Well, I’ll ride
back with you now—”
The door burst open
and Billy Jackson barged into the office. “Doc, Doc, ya gotta come right
now. There’s been a stampede and Jake’s hurt real bad. Couple of the hands
is stove up, too. Pa says Jake don’t look so good, says he’s tore up inside.
Please come quick.”
“I’m on my way, Billy.
You run hitch up my buggy while I make sure I have what I’ll need.” Sam began
adding additional supplies to his bag, ensuring he was prepared for a long
afternoon of surgery. “Sorry, Murdoch. I’ll stop by Lancer when I’m finished
at the Jackson’s.”
“I understand, Sam.
Give my best to Byron and Anne. Let them know we’ll help any way we can.
I hope Jake will be all right.” Murdoch hurried outside. He didn’t want to
slow the doctor in any way.
He stopped to help
Billy harness Sam’s horse. The young man was frantic, his concern for his
brother plain to see. It reminded Murdoch of the feelings his own boys shared
for each other and he sent up a silent prayer that Jake would survive. He’d
seen the fearful injuries a stampede could inflict.
After helping Billy
and the doctor get on the road, the tall rancher mounted his sorrel and reined
him toward Lancer. He had an inexplicable urge to see Johnny, make certain
he was still there. Finding Johnny, bringing him home, had always seemed
to be a miracle. But today he had come to realize that the real miracle was
the fact that Johnny had stayed despite the way he’d treated his boy.
Another man’s fears
echoed through his mind. Was it only a few days ago? “What if Tommy don’t
want me? I ain’t been to easy to love lately, I ignored him, drove him into
running off, he might not want to be with me no more.” His fears mirrored
those Pete Adams had articulated and Murdoch asked himself again if it was
already too late, if he’d pushed Johnny too far away.
He flinched as he
recalled his own words to Pete. There is just something about the love a
boy has for his father…a son loves his Pa with a love that can withstand
a lot of stretching and bending…A man has to work awfully hard to kill his
I’ve tested Johnny’s love to its limits. How much is he willing to take? Can Johnny possibly love me in spite of all my mistakes?
Yes, Johnny had come
home, but the bond Murdoch explained to Pete, that special bond only a father
can offer a boy, was absent. He was the one who needed to take the first
step, extend his hand to Johnny, and he must do so immediately. What had he
told Pete? Apologize for your mistake and tell your son that you love him.
It was time to take
his own advice. He refused to lose the boy he had searched an eternity to
And that means swallowing my pride. My pride. For twenty-five years, I’ve defined myself by that pride. And what can I show for it? I’m old and lonely, and I’ve still got my pride. And that all ends right now. I do love you, son. And when I get home, I’m going tell you.
“Owww.” Johnny groaned,
holding his elbow in one hand and his stomach with the other. He pushed himself
to a sitting position, leaning back against the bed and feebly attempting
to kick free from the tangled sheets and blanket. The room tilted alarmingly
and he pushed his head against the mattress, closing his eyes to stave off
another bout of nausea.
Although the afternoon
was pleasantly warm, convulsive shivers rippled through him. He felt thick-headed
and sluggish, struggling to remember why he was in his room in the middle
of the afternoon. And what he was doing on the floor.
Tommy’s gone. Murdoch…I
was late and he told me to go to bed. Jelly brung me up and tucked me in.
Had another nightmare. Guess I fell out of bed. Cold. Wish Scott was here.
Where did he say? Oh yeah, Fresno…buy Herefords.
Ohh. Jelly’s ‘coction ain’t workin’ so good…
Johnny used the mattress
to pull himself to his knees and then push to his feet. He swayed for a moment,
holding tightly to the bedpost until his head stopped spinning. How could
he be sick to his stomach? There was nothing in it to throw up. He hadn’t
eaten in a couple of days.
Gotta get some sleep if I’m gonna talk to Murdoch at supper.
A cold sweat covered
his body, soaking his shirt. Johnny fumbled with the toggles, his trembling
hands hampering his efforts to unbutton them. He finally got the shirt open
and peeled it off, the damp cloth sticking to his back and shoulders. Johnny
used the towel from his washstand to briskly rub his hair, face, and chest
That nightmare was
a real humdinger. He’d dreamed about Billy and Tully trying to hang him.
Damn, it was so real—he struggled so violently that he’d fallen out of bed.
The bedclothes were in complete disarray, strewn across the floor and damp
with sweat, the pillows scattered around the room as well.
He wished he could
talk to Scott. Talking to Scott would help him get back to sleep. Then everything
would be all right. All he needed was some sleep. Just a little nap and he’d
The thought of his
brother perked him up and he crept to Scott’s room. He felt closer to his
brother here, safer, as though Scott were watching over him. The large room
exuded Scott’s presence. Johnny glanced at the picture of his brother with
General Sheridan and another photograph of Scott and a group of his friends
at their Harvard graduation.
He stood by the bookcase
crammed with the literature and poetry his brother enjoyed and ran a finger
along the pebbled spines of the handsomely bound volumes. Scott’s leather-bound
journal lay on the nightstand next to a small painting of Harlan Garrett.
Johnny made a face at the painting—Harlan was not his favorite person.
He crossed the elegant
Aubusson carpet to the carved chest at the foot of the bed. A blue shirt
lay atop the chest, folded neatly. Johnny picked it up, rubbing the soft
material gently between his finger and thumb. The simple act of touching Scott’s
belongings comforted him. The warm smells of leather, fine cigars, and the
subtly spicy shaving lotion that his brother favored permeated the air. If
he couldn’t talk to Scott, being here in his room was the next best thing.
Johnny crawled under the covers and curled up in his brother’s bed.
Gotta talk to Murdoch. Gotta tell him…don’t hate him. Don’t feel good. Hot and cold. Can’t stop shakin’. Gonna be sick again. Gotta sleep a little so…can talk…Murdoch. Pete said gotta tell him…Owww. Belly hurts…
Murdoch eased open
the door to Johnny’s room, eager to see his son. He’d grown concerned when
Maria informed him that the boy was actually in bed. That wasn’t a good sign—and
Maria made sure he knew that.
Lord, that woman has a tongue when she wants to!
It took a moment
for the impact of the scene in the room to register. Murdoch gasped as he
stared at the bedclothes strewn across the floor. The bedroom looked as though
it had been the scene of a fight. The realization that Johnny wasn’t in the
room struck him like a lightning bolt, flooding his insides with ice water.
pounded down the stairs, heart thudding painfully.
Jelly met Murdoch
at the front door. “What is it, Boss? You like to scared the pants offa me,
“Johnny! He’s not
in his room,” Murdoch panted.
“Just calm down.
Foller me and I’ll show ya where he is.” Jelly headed for the stairs, turning
to call over his shoulder, “Sure am glad yer home, Boss. Wish you’d brung
Doc with ya.”
“He’ll be here as
soon as he can. There was a stampede at Byron Jackson’s place and Sam had
injuries to tend to.” Murdoch followed Jelly back up the stairs. Jelly halted
at the door to Scott’s room and pointed at it with his thumb.
“He’s in there.”
Murdoch opened the
door softly and tiptoed to the bed. Johnny slept on his side, clutching one
of Scott’s shirts. The boy must have suffered through another nightmare and
sought solace in his brother’s room. Murdoch’s stomach twisted painfully
at this stark reminder of just how much Johnny relied on his brother. And
he’d sent Scott away….
Johnny’s head tossed
back and forth on the pillow and he murmured softly, the sound almost a whimper.
Jelly’s eyes met
Murdoch’s and he shook his head sorrowfully. “He misses that kid. Been in
bed all day. Boy ain’t feelin’ so good. I don’t like it.”
Murdoch bent down
and gently brushed the hair back from Johnny’s forehead. His hand froze when
he felt the heat on his son’s face. “I think he has a touch of fever, Jelly.”
Jelly stepped forward
and felt Johnny’s forehead. “Sure does. Didn’t have one earlier.” He straightened
and met Murdoch’s eyes. “I’ll purely feel better when Doc takes a look-see
at him. What’d Doc have to say?”
“He told me to talk
to Johnny about the nightmares. I plan to, if he feels up to it when he wakes
up.” He paused when Johnny moaned softly. “Jelly, is he holding his stomach?”
“Looks like he’s
protectin’ it. Been tryin’ to hide it, but his belly’s been botherin’ him.
I give him a ‘coction for it this mornin’, but reckon it ain’t done much
good. ‘Course, I ain’t sure he kept it down. He’s been airin’ out his paunch
off and on all day.”
“I’m going to sit
with him for a while, make sure he’s all right. Thanks, Jelly.” Murdoch seated
himself in Scott’s leather armchair.
Jelly headed for
the door and turned back to Murdoch. “Boss? You talkin’ with Johnny—that’s
a good thing. Been a while comin’. I…,” Jelly pulled off his cap and twisted
it in his hands. “Sure hope ya don’t take this the wrong way. When yer jawin’…well,
just be sure you taste yer words afore ya spit ‘em out.” He hurried through
the door without waiting for a reply.
muttering drew Murdoch’s attention back to his son. “I’m here, son. Everything’s
going to be all right.”
Murdoch sat beside
Johnny throughout the long afternoon. In restless sleep, his cheeks flushed
with fever, Johnny looked about Tommy’s age. Tommy, the wise little old man
in a child’s body. “Johnny says lotsa men don’t say what they oughta to each
other ‘cause they don’t wanna be vulbernal.”
Oh, son. It’s my turn to be the vulnerable one.
As the shadows began
to lengthen, Johnny grew quieter and ceased his restless tossing. His fever
didn’t rise, but it didn’t diminish, either. Murdoch hoped Sam would arrive
soon. He didn’t like Johnny’s flushed face, fever, and rapid pulse.
When Johnny showed
signs of waking up, Murdoch retreated downstairs. He didn’t think Johnny
would appreciate waking up to find his father watching him sleep in his brother’s
bed. If his son didn’t feel well enough to come down for supper, they could
talk in Johnny’s room. He’d put it off long enough. There were things he
had to say to his boy. And he had a nagging presentiment that the time for
talking to Johnny was rapidly running out.
Johnny leaned his
head against his bedroom window, letting the glass cool his fevered cheeks.
Outside, the shadows gobbled the fading afternoon light and small groups of
hands straggled in from the range, heading for the bunkhouse and their evening
meal. Evening meal. It would be suppertime soon, and Murdoch wanted to have
a “little talk.” Was the thought of talking to his father the cause of his
galloping heart rate?
Slept most of the afternoon. Feelin’ a mite better, but I still ain’t doin’ so good. Gonna have to see Sam. But gotta talk to Murdoch first. Why am I so cold when I got a fever?
Maria had straightened
his room sometime during the afternoon and his bed beckoned invitingly. Johnny
picked up the carefully folded quilt, draping it around his shoulders. His
fingers fiddled with the blanket’s piped trim. All he could think about was
the impending discussion with Murdoch, looming like a threatening storm cloud
on the horizon. He wanted to get it over with, yet dreaded it. He didn’t
do so good trying to talk to his father. And there was no Scott to fall back
on if things started to get out of hand. But he and Murdoch needed to talk,
no question about it.
Ain’t gonna be able to eat nuthin’. Don’t feel like goin’ downstairs. But I gotta talk to Murdoch. Hands are shakin’. Johnny Madrid, scared of his Old Man. Why do I react that way to him? He makes me feel about ten years old. Gotta keep a rein on my temper.
His stomach churned
and throbbed as he tried to think of a way to deflect Murdoch’s sudden concern
over his health. All he needed was the Old Man asking a lot of questions.
Murdoch would be disgusted if he knew his son was such a baby that a bad
dream could keep him awake, make him sick, and give him a bellyache. The
Old Man had probably never had a nightmare in his life!
He thought briefly
of just not going to supper, but he didn’t dare. Besides, might as well talk
to Murdoch at the table as anywhere else. He tried breathing deeply in order
to slow his racing heart, but anything other than shallow breaths reamed
his belly with molten agony. Johnny pressed his cheek against the cool windowpane
and struggled to control his trembling body.
Gotta git downstairs and talk to Murdoch.
Johnny leaned his
forearms on the supper table, uncomfortably aware of Murdoch’s anxious stare.
He made no pretense of trying to eat. It was all he could do to keep from
resting his pounding head in his plate. The trip downstairs had leached away
the strength he’d horded during the day. Murdoch’s voice cracked through
“I know you’re keeping
something from me, Johnny. I can tell when something is wrong with one of
my sons. Believe it or not, I know you pretty well. And right now, I know
that you’re ill. Please tell me what’s wrong.” Murdoch’s eyes were dark with
Johnny squirmed under
that worried gaze. He’d waited all day for this moment, and now that it was
here, he wanted to be any place except sitting at the table with his father’s
eyes locked on him. He swallowed and opened his mouth to start the discussion,
but instead of the words he intended to say, he was horrified to hear his
voice blurting out, “Look, Murdoch, I told you, I’m just a little tired.
his teeth. This latest lie was not a promising beginning to the discussion
he wanted to have with his son. Damn Johnny, anyway! What possessed him to
sit there telling a bald-faced lie? Murdoch was determined to put his foot
down firmly on that behavior.
“You are lying to
me, BOY, and you should know by now that lying is one thing I will not
“Damn it, Murdoch,
I ain’t a child!”
child, Johnny.” Murdoch took a deep breath and softened his tone. “I’m worried
about you, son. What’s the trouble?”
Johnny’s head shot
up in anger and his eyes sparked. “I ain’t in no trouble. But that would
be the first thing YOU would think of, Old Man.” He pushed away from the table
violently, knocking over his chair as he stomped out of the room.
Johnny slowed as
he neared the stairs. He didn’t know if he had the energy to climb them.
And he didn’t want to anyway. He wanted to go back and apologize to his father.
What’s the matter with me? I want to talk to him. I know he didn’t mean that about trouble the way I took it. Why did I react that way? What--
Johnny felt a pair
of iron hands on his shoulders, jerking him to a sudden halt and spinning
him around. He sneaked a glance at Murdoch’s face, stunned to find no trace
of anger there. Instead, his father looked worried—about him.
“Not this time, John.
I won’t let you walk away. We’re going to talk—either now or later—but we’re
going to talk. Now, are you all right? Do you need to go to bed?” Murdoch
fought to keep any hint of challenge or command from his voice.
He didn’t let me go!
Johnny glanced up
at him briefly and dropped his eyes. “I…I’m all right. I wanna talk to you,
too. I, uh, I know you didn’t mean that about me bein’ in trouble. Sorry
I blew up that way.”
“It’s all right,
Johnny. Can you tell me why you got so angry?”
I wanna talk to you, but I ain’t sure I know how.”
“I want to talk to
you, too, son. And I don’t know how, either. We’ll figure it out. Right now,
I want to know about these nightmares that are putting you through hell.”
glared at Murdoch.
“Oh son, I know about
the nightmares, you don’t have to hide them. But I don’t know what’s causing
them. Please don’t be afraid to tell me. I’m proud of you, Johnny, so proud
to call you son. Nothing you tell me can change that. I swear it.”
Johnny’s head remained
bowed and he refused to meet his father’s eyes.
“Johnny, please talk
to me. Let me help you.”
Johnny wanted to
meet his father’s eyes, longed to see the love and acceptance he felt would
be there this time. But he couldn’t. His old companion, unworthiness, swept
over him, engulfing him in shame. He didn’t deserve this, these words, not
from this man. Not after hating him for so many years and planning how to
kill him. No, he had a black soul and if Murdoch ever knew how much he had
hated him, the things he’d done, his father wouldn’t say those words…wouldn’t
want to be his father. The flush of shame ignited a spark of irrational anger
and he jerked away from Murdoch’s hands.
“Proud of me?” Johnny
spat out the words with such venom that Murdoch held his breath.
Have I done exactly what Scott warned me not to do? Please calm down, son.
“If you really knew
me, what I’ve done…what I wanted to do…to you. Well, you wouldn’t be so proud.”
Johnny glared at his father. “I hated you. I wanted to kill you. You still
proud of me, Old Man?”
right.” Murdoch stared directly into his son’s desperate eyes. He wanted the
boy to know that it didn’t matter, none of it mattered—except the fact that
his son was home. But Johnny gave him no chance to speak, his anger at himself
erupting at his father.
“You proud to have
a killer as a son? I bet you don’t tell people that you fathered a killer.
Well, you did.” His voice rose in volume and pitch. “We all make mistakes
Murdoch, and I’M YOURS! That’s what I am Old Man, a killer, a nobody,” the
furious shout dropped to a broken whisper, “how can you be proud of nuthin’?”
free from Murdoch’s hands and turned his back so that his father couldn’t
look at his face. He hugged himself tightly. Part of him wanted his father
to understand what he really was, but another part was terrified of the anticipated
This ain’t the way I wanted to tell him. Why can’t I talk to him without blowin’ up?
He had no strength
to fight the anger. His stomach throbbed mercilessly and his knees were weak.
And he was so dizzy. What was wrong with him? His father finally said words
he’d waited a lifetime to hear and he jumped down the Old Man’s throat. He
swallowed a sob of frustration.
Johnny’s words devastated
Murdoch. He felt helpless in the face of such anguish and had no idea of
how to help his son.
“Johnny, come and
sit down. Please?” Murdoch spoke quietly. He knew he had to remain calm.
They were balanced on a razor’s edge—the wrong word or simply the wrong tone
of voice and Johnny would misunderstand, read things into the observation
and not listen to what his father was really trying to express. They had
played that game all too often and Murdoch was determined that his son would
not misinterpret him this time.
Johnny didn’t sit
down, but he didn’t run either. He stood, arms clasped tightly around himself
and head bowed. Murdoch moved slowly towards his son, knowing the boy would
bolt if he felt cornered. He slipped his arm around the trembling shoulders,
his grip tight enough to let Johnny know that he couldn’t break free. Murdoch
shepherded his son to the sofa in front of the fire.
Johnny let himself
be led, inwardly thankful for the steadying hands. He needed to sit down
before he fell down and sank gratefully into the soft cushions of the sofa.
He leaned his head back and was startled when Murdoch knelt in front of him
in order to be at eye level.
Murdoch rested one
hand on Johnny’s knee. “Son, everything we do, we do for a reason. I know
you hated me. I understand that you believed you had good reason. Right now,
all that matters is that you don’t hate me anymore.”
Johnny bowed his
head and Murdoch stared at the dark hair in sorrow. He wished he had Scott’s
gift of communicating with Johnny. Unconsciously he made a gesture he’d recently
used with Tommy, placing a finger under Johnny’s chin and forcing his son
to meet his eyes. The storm of emotion, the fear and shame in those eyes
overwhelmed him. He took a deep breath.
“I’ve made many mistakes
in my life, John, but you are not one of them. You are not a mistake, you
are not nothing, you are not nobody. I don’t ever want you to say
that again…and I certainly don’t want you believing it.” He forced Johnny
to meet his look for a long moment, trying to convince his son with the expression
in his eyes.
After several heartbeats,
he removed his finger from beneath Johnny’s chin and gripped his shoulders
gently again. The dark head dropped immediately, but he knew Johnny was listening
intently. “I know you’ve made your share of mistakes, but no more than any
Murdoch took a deep
breath and wondered what Pete Adams would say in this situation. And in the
next second, the right words flamed across his brain, words he knew his son
would understand. He shook Johnny gently.
“You listen and you
listen hard, John. I need you now and always. I once told you that I loved
this land more than anything God ever created. That was true when I said
it. It’s not true any longer. You, your brother, Teresa, Jelly—our family,
Johnny—that’s what matters most to me now. I love you, son.”
He felt the tremors
run through Johnny, heard the muffled half-sob, half-laugh. Murdoch remembered
a gesture he’d often seen Johnny use with people who needed his compassion.
He swept the boy into his arms and held him hard against his chest, refusing
to let go. One callused hand stroked the dark hair, keeping Johnny’s head
on his shoulder. He rested his cheek against the crown of Johnny’s head.
The boy stiffened for a moment and then melted against his father, hiding
his face in the broad shoulder. His body trembled like an aspen in a high
into the silky hair, “I haven’t done a very good job of showing you, but
please don’t ever doubt that I love you, Johnny.”
Murdoch didn’t say
anything else, he just held his boy until the shivers lessened, marveling
at how easy it had been to actually say the words. And at just how badly
his son had needed to hear them spoken aloud. He felt Johnny try to push away
and tightened his hold. “You okay, son?”
to get away. “No.”
“What’s the tr…wrong?”
“Gonna be sick.”
Murdoch quickly emptied
the kindling bucket, positioning it for his son to use as a basin. He supported
Johnny’s head while the young man retched, alarmed when the boy’s spasms
continued although he brought nothing up.
Something is very wrong. I hope Sam gets here soon. This would be funny if it weren’t so serious. I finally get the nerve to tell Johnny how I feel and he throws up.
At last, Johnny crumpled
against him in exhaustion and Murdoch pulled the Indian blanket from the
ottoman and spread it across his son. “Better?”
Johnny nodded and
mustered a weak smile. “S…sorry. I...it wasn’t what you said.”
“I know, son.” I
wish I’d said it to you sooner, boy. “I’ll get you some water.”
Johnny grasped his
sleeve. “No. Can’t keep it down.”
“Do you need to go
“No. Just wanna sit
here…with you for a while.” He relaxed against Murdoch, thankful for the
heavy blanket and his father’s strong arm around him. The gnawing in his
belly seemed less fierce and Murdoch’s words fueled an inner glow that chased
away his chills. He closed his eyes and basked in the sensation.
There was something
about Murdoch’s hand stroking his hair—it spoke to something deep inside
of him, leaving him feeling cared for and assuring him that he was loved.
He wanted to feel that hand again. He moved his head restlessly on his father’s
shoulder and was rewarded with the big hand on his hair. Johnny rolled his
head back and smiled up at his father. “Thanks.”
Murdoch smiled down
at him and Johnny was amazed at how much younger his father looked. The warmth
in the man’s face softened its usual stony lines, smoothing the deeply furrowed
The two men sat in
companionable silence for several minutes. Murdoch periodically, stroked
Johnny’s hair, letting his fingers linger on the high forehead. The fever
was still there, but it didn’t seem to be rising. He felt Johnny shift position
and found his son gazing up at him.
“What’re you thinkin’
The boy’s expression
reminded Murdoch of the same look Johnny gave him when he and Scott came
home. He’d said the wrong thing then. He didn’t want to make the same mistake
this time. Murdoch could almost feel Pete Adams hovering at his shoulder
and again the words leaped into his mind. “I was remembering the day you
were born. That I was the first person to see that smile of yours.”
He was rewarded with
that dazzling smile. Johnny’s entire body seemed to beam with pleasure. “Yeah?”
“That’s right.” He
heard Johnny’s breath catch in his throat and the boy buried his face in
Murdoch’s shoulder. “Johnny?”
“I…I hated you. I
wanted to kill you.”
“It’s all right.
I know that. And I know why. I understand, Johnny.” He gripped the tense
shoulder. “It doesn’t change the way I feel, son.”
shook and he turned his head, hiding his face in the back of the sofa. Murdoch
let him, saying nothing, but keeping his grip on Johnny’s shoulder steady.
When Johnny spoke
again, his voice quivered. “That fire’s kinda smoky, ain’t it? Gettin’ in
“I was thinking the
same thing, son. Here, lean against this pillow and I’ll take care of it.”
Murdoch settled Johnny against one of the sofa pillows and stirred the fire
with a poker. He picked up a handful of the spilled kindling before returning
to the sofa.
“That fire really
was giving off some smoke.” Murdoch resumed his place on the sofa, leaning
Johnny back against his shoulder. “Better?”
He felt the affirmative
nod. “Good. Now, I want to talk about your nightmares. You need to tell me
about them, Johnny.”
“It’s not easy…talking
about some things.”
“No, it isn’t. But
there are many things you need to tell me, son. I just want you to know that
I’m ready to listen. That hasn’t always been true, I know.”
“Pete said you…he
said you told him that…you couldn’t bear to look at me ‘cause I look so much
like Mama…it hurt you….” Johnny’s tongue tripped nervously over the words.
He didn’t want Johnny to misunderstand what he had said. “Johnny, wait. Let
“It’s okay, Murdoch.
I understand. Pete…he explained it.”
“He did, did he?
Well, I see where his son gets it from.”
Johnny smiled. “Yeah.
Scott calls Tommy ‘Little Big Mouth’. Guess the Adams family don’t believe
in secrets, huh?”
“No.” Murdoch rested
his hand on Johnny’s hair. “I loved your mother, son. And I’m sorry that
I let that hurt you.”
“It’s okay, Murdoch.
It just helps to know why…”
“I’m glad Pete told
“He said you told
him…well, a lot of things. He said you did it…for me.”
“I heard what you
said to Scott about growing up believing I didn’t want you…how that hurt
you more than anything else ever had. I knew you didn’t want Tommy to experience
that. You expected me to help Tommy and I wasn’t about to let you down. No
matter what, I wasn’t going to let you down again.”
Johnny grasped Murdoch’s
arm. “Thank you.”
Murdoch’s reply was
to pull Johnny into a tight embrace. Johnny thought his father was trying
to tell him with his arms how much he regretted all of times he’d let Johnny
down by not being there. But that wasn’t Murdoch’s fault. He needed to tell
Murdoch that. Johnny took a deep breath to prepare and nearly fainted from
the vicious bite of torment that swept through his belly. He bit back a moan
as the room spun sickeningly.
Johnny covered his
eyes with the back of his arm. “You wanna take a ride with me?”
“A ride?” Murdoch
stared at Johnny in confusion.
“Yeah. I think…I
think I need to see Sam.”
“Sam is coming here,
Johnny. He’d be here now, but he had to stop by the Jackson’s. There was
“Who got hurt?”
“Jake. It sounded
serious. But Sam will come here as soon as he can get away.” He felt Johnny’s
forehead. “You still have a fever. Do you need to get into bed?”
“No. Sure hope Jake’s
gonna be all right. Jelly ratted me out?”
“He didn’t have to.
That business I had in Spanish Wells this morning was with Sam. Like I said,
I can tell when you’re trying to hide something. Now, about those nightmares,
“You sure you wanna
“Break this in half
for me, please.” Murdoch handed the small bundle of kindling to Johnny. “Do
you remember the Deegans?”
to snap the kindling. “Deegans? Yeah, Harlan used them to try and force Scott
into going back to Boston.”
“That’s true. But
do you remember what you said to me when I told you about killing Lafe Deegan?
How it would have been easier sharing it with someone else?”
“Yeah.” Johnny strained
to snap the kindling.
“Well, son, you were
right. And sharing what happened to you will help you, too.”
He felt Johnny’s
body grow taut with tension. “If you were Tommy’s age, I would know how to
comfort you. But I don’t know what to say to help you now, Johnny. What I
do know is that whatever is causing these nightmares is making you ill. It
can’t go on any longer. I won’t let it.” He pulled the bundle of kindling
away from Johnny. “Can’t you break that?”
Johnny blushed. “Reckon
Murdoch handed him
a single stick of kindling. “Here, break this one.”
Johnny snapped the
stick easily and started to hand it back. He froze in mid-gesture and smirked
at his father. “Okay, I see your point.”
“That bundle is like
our family, Johnny. Any one of us alone can be broken. Together, we’re nearly
impossible to break. Now, about those nightmares, the answer is yes, I am
sure that I want to know.”
Johnny nodded and
let his eyes meet his father’s. “I don’t know where to start.”
Scott’s words. “Why don’t you start by telling me about Pablo, son?”
“Pablo.” Johnny hung
his head. He had told Scott a small part of Pablo’s story and now he had
to go through it all again with his father. He wasn’t sure if he could. His
stomach knotted, as it always did when he remembered Pablo’s murder, but his
already tender abdomen revolted at this latest outrage. Johnny doubled up
Murdoch wiped Johnny’s
face with a cool, damp cloth. His son lay limp with exhaustion after his
frightening bout with the cramping pain and nausea. Johnny shivered with
cold and Murdoch could tell that his fever was higher now. He wished fervently
for Sam to arrive.
“Come on son, you
need to take a drink for me.”
“No, please. Be sick
again.” Johnny breathed in shallow pants.
Murdoch sighed, wishing
he knew what to do. Getting Johnny upstairs and into bed wasn’t going to
change anything. The boy claimed he couldn’t sleep and that he wanted to
talk, try to take his mind off his stomach. Murdoch had tried to examine
him but Johnny refused to let him touch his abdomen.
Whatever was wrong,
it was something Murdoch had never seen before. This was something inside
Johnny, not an injury, and the fact that he didn’t understand its cause terrified
Murdoch. If it were a bullet wound or a broken bone, at least he’d know what
to do until Sam arrived. But in the face of this mysterious malady, he could
only wait. And Murdoch Lancer had never been partial to playing a waiting
game. He felt Johnny’s hand on his arm.
“I’ll be…‘kay. Don’t
“Try to relax, son.”
“All right.” Murdoch
seated himself on the sofa and rested Johnny’s head and shoulders against
his chest. “You okay?” When Johnny nodded faintly, he continued. “I have
something to tell you about Pablo.”
Johnny asked the
question with his eyes.
“I knew him. Well,
I knew of him and I met him when he visited Cipriano.”
“Yeah, Cipriano knew
him,” Johnny nodded.
“More than knew him—Pablo
was Cipriano’s cousin.”
“Cous…I didn’t know.”
“Their families lived
together when they were boys. Cipriano can tell you many stories about your
was so much more, Murdoch.”
“I know, son. Tommy
called him your ‘other Pa.’”
“I…I didn’t mean
nuthin’ by that—”
“It’s okay, Johnny.
It’s okay. Pablo was there when you needed a father, when I wasn’t there.
I’ll never forget the debt I owe him. Don’t be afraid to call him that on
my account.” He brushed the black bangs back from Johnny’s forehead. “Feel
like telling me about him?”
“How did you know,
Murdoch? That the Pablo Tommy told you about was the same Pablo as Cipriano’s
“I made the connection
when I saw you work that magic on Smoky. I talked to Cipriano and he told
me about Pablo’s ‘Little One’. That’s when I knew.”
a sob when Murdoch mentioned Pablo’s special endearment for him. He hadn’t
been called that since the night Pablo died.
Johnny’s shoulder. “How did you meet Pablo, son?”
Johnny bit his lip.
“I was at the mission. I hated it…and they hated me. One of the padres, he…”
Johnny closed his eyes and a different kind of shiver rolled through him.
Johnny’s sudden silence
and physical revulsion spoke volumes and Murdoch felt a surge of protectiveness.
Parental intuition ignited an ardent wish to conduct a face-to-face discussion
with this particular padre. He tightened his arms around Johnny.
“Well, he didn’t
want me there. But no matter how many times I ran away, he dragged me back.”
Johnny grinned shyly at his father. “Guess I’ve always been a handful, Old
Yes, his younger son had been a handful right up until the day Maria spirited
him away…and he still was to this day. He tousled the dark hair.
“Padre Ricardo, he
decided that I’d be better off livin’ and workin’ on a ranch. I thought he
was throwin’ me out, but he was lookin’ out for me. He brought me to Don
Esteban’s, asked him to give me a job. And Pablo, he didn’t think I was as
bad as the rest of the world thought I was.” Johnny grimaced as he remembered
the sullen, disobedient boy who arrived at Don Esteban’s rancho.
“That first day,
Pablo was trainin’ a cuttin’ horse. I’d never seen a finer horse, Murdoch.
And what he did with it…he and that colt danced together. And I forgot about
the mission and everything else except that I wanted to learn how to do that
with a horse.” Johnny’s left hand restlessly worried the fringe of the blanket.
“When he dismounted,
I ran over to him and asked him if he would teach me to do that.”
The look of wonder
that stole over Johnny’s face at the memory brought a painful lump to Murdoch’s
Johnny stared up
at his father, eyes wide with remembered awe. “When I thought about what
I’d done, I was ashamed. A snot-nosed kid demanding that Pablo show him how
to ride. I was scared he’d tell me to get out. But he…he looked me up and
down and handed me the reins. He trusted me from the get go. Right there,
on that fine horse, he gave me my first lesson, Murdoch!”
“Pablo had a reputation
as a judge of men as well as horses. He saw something in you, son.”
“He liked me. Me!
And he gave me a chance. He saw things in me that no one else did. He told
me about horses, taught me how to make friends, showed me that I had ‘the
gift’. Pablo made me feel…special….Guess he thought I was one of them precious
stones ‘fore it’s cut and polished. And he figured out how to polish me so
I’d shine…reflect the light.” Johnny began to pluck pieces of fringe from
“He believed in me.
And he wanted me when I didn’t think nobody did…and he loved me.” The fringe
fell faster and faster.
“I needed him…and
I…loved him.” Johnny looked up at Murdoch, desperately seeking his understanding.
The blanket lay fringeless on his chest.
“I know, son.” Murdoch
said with calm acceptance. He caressed the dark hair. “I’m thankful that
he was there when you needed him.” He tested the level of Johnny’s fever,
relieved that it didn’t seem any worse.
“You doing okay?”
“Do you want to tell
me about how he died?”
Johnny bit his lip
hard enough to draw blood. “I don’t…I don’t know if I can.”
“Son, I arrived at
Don Esteban’s rancho shortly after Pablo’s murder. I know how he died. And
I think you saw it. Am I right?”
Johnny closed his
eyes and nodded miserably.
“Have you ever told
anyone about it?”
Johnny shook his
“Do you dream about
“Son, if you’re up
to it, I want you to tell me. Sam says it’s important for you to talk about
it. That’s the only way to stop the nightmares.”
Johnny stared up
at Murdoch, searching his face, afraid to come face-to-face with the memory
of his battle with destiny.
his shoulder. “I’m right here, John. Remember the kindling? We’ll get through
it together. Please talk to me.”
Johnny took a last
look at his father’s face and squeezed his eyes shut. His breath caught in
his throat and he began to speak in the barest whisper. “It was because of
me. They killed him because of me….”
He may have lived
through a more difficult half-hour, but if so, Murdoch Lancer couldn’t recall
it. The events Johnny described were horrific in and of themselves. But the
physical toll on his son was unthinkable.
Johnny could barely
form the words, his body shaking so violently that Murdoch was afraid he
would fall off the sofa. And the retching continued, as though the boy sought
to turn himself inside out. Murdoch couldn’t tell if the nausea was the result
of the adrenaline generated by recalling the events, Johnny’s current illness,
or some combination of both. He watched Johnny’s suffering in helpless horror
and it required every bit of his self-control to refrain from reacting.
Murdoch wanted to
lash out in his rage, to kill the bastards who’d so cavalierly changed the
course of his son’s life. But Scott and Sam had been explicit—he couldn’t
let his own emotions show. The insides of his cheeks were bitten bloody and
his heart hammered frantically in his chest, but he sat silent, arms wrapped
securely around Johnny.
him like some animal. His insides…” Johnny hid his face in his father’s shoulder
and convulsed in anguish.
“I’m here, John.
I’ve got you.” Murdoch spoke with the same voice and tone that he would use
to calm a terrified horse, gently rubbing Johnny’s back as his son sobbed
in his arms.
Now he understood
what Scott had tried to describe. The boy in his arms was a child now, a
terrified child watching the brutal slaughter of the man he thought of as
a father. And his real father, the father who hadn’t been there then, could
do nothing now but hold him in impotent rage, struggling to offer comfort,
but helpless to do so.
At last, the anguished
sobs eased. Murdoch steeled himself for what he knew must be the next step.
The boy had to get it all out or he would never heal. He whispered in his
son’s ear, “What happened then?”
his blood…oh, God…Pablo’s blood…on my face. I can…still…taste it. They locked
me in…a dog cage…and…said they…they would come back…morning to…hang me. Mexican
hanging…oh Murdoch…” Johnny curled into a ball, retching painfully and gasping
Murdoch clasped his
son to his chest, his own cheeks wet, as Johnny relived the grief, anger,
hatred and despair of that harrowing event that had for so long twisted his
heart and soul, its barbarity forever haunting the child he’d been and the
man that child had become.
My God, son. How have you lived with this inside you all these years? No wonder you have nightmares.
Johnny lay heavily
in his father’s arms, limp with exhaustion. Murdoch rubbed his shoulders
gently, desperate to find some way to offer solace to his son. “Thank you
for telling me, son. I know that was hard.”
“It was me they wanted.
Why did he come back for me? He died for me.”
“No, son. You can’t
think that way. Pablo did what any father would do—he tried to protect his
son. He wouldn’t want you to carry any blame or guilt for that.” Murdoch
squeezed Johnny’s shoulder. “You have to forgive yourself, Johnny. No matter
what you did or what you believe you didn’t do, let it go. Don’t think about
what should have happened or regret what did. For once, admit that you’re
human and let it go.”
“Don’t you see, Murdoch?
He shouldn’t have died for me. I’m not worth Pablo’s life.”
Murdoch pulled Johnny
to a sitting position, gripping his chin and forcing his son to look him
in the eye. “Don’t you dare dishonor that man’s memory this way. Literally
thousands of men and boys would have given their right arms to be able to
work with Pablo Bandini. Pablo had his choice of candidates and from them
all, he chose you, Johnny. And not just to work with. He brought you into
his heart and his home, you became the son he never had. So don’t dishonor
his memory by believing he made a mistake in judgment. He didn’t. Pablo knew
exactly what he was doing.” He released Johnny’s chin.
Johnny stared at
Murdoch in shock. “I…I never thought of it that way.”
“Well, think of it
that way now,” Murdoch replied gruffly. He pulled Johnny’s head to his shoulder.
“Do you ever hear Pablo’s voice, Johnny? Late at night when it’s quiet? Out
on the range when you see a fox or an eagle? While you’re riding a pitching
horse or training that grulla colt? Because when you hear his voice, Pablo’s
still alive. Even though he’s gone, he’s still alive in your heart. And in
the night sky as your North Star.”
“Yeah. That’s how
I feel—like I can talk to him if I need to.”
Johnny shivered and
Murdoch quickly felt his forehead again. He couldn’t tell if the fever was
any higher, but he knew Johnny’s heart rate was too fast. And it wasn’t solely
because of the gut-wrenching ordeal he’d just endured.
“You all right, Johnny?”
“I’m okay, Murdoch.
Belly hurts is all.” Johnny rolled his head back and looked up at his father.
“Why were you at Don Esteban’s rancho?”
“To buy a stallion.
Cipriano, Paul, and I decided we needed a top cowhorse for breeding. We figured
we should get the best and that meant one trained by Pablo. Don Esteban owed
me a favor and I planned to collect by persuading him to sell me a horse.
I arrived a little more than a week after Pablo’s death. I didn’t know about
it until I got there. And I had no idea that the boy they were searching
for so frantically was you, son.”
Johnny laughed bitterly.
“You were there then? At the ranch?” He shook his head. “An old friend of
mine would say, ‘Ain’t that the devil?’” He sat quietly for a few moments.
“So which horse did
“The stallion. Did
you buy one?”
“Oh, yes. The finest
cowhorse I’ve ever seen. It was quite a feat, talking Esteban out of that
one—and I paid through the nose. But that horse was worth every cent. He
was a magnificent buckskin stallion, so beautifully trained he could work
without a bridle.”
Johnny gripped his
arm tightly. “Viento d’oro?”
“Yes. You must have
“I…he was the first
horse I trained by myself.”
“Well, that was one
hell of a training job, son. That stallion became famous throughout California.
We would still have him, but Pardee shot him.” He felt Johnny wilt against
him at this news. “You still have something of that stallion—he sired your
“Oro was Barranca’s
daddy? Reckon’ I shoulda known.” A smile played over Johnny’s lips. “Good
“Son, when I was
at the rancho, when everyone was searching for you…where
were you? Why didn’t you come back to the estancia?”
Johnny’s body stiffened
and he turned his face away. “I was at the far line shack—up in the mountains.
No one would think to look there.”
“But why, son? What
were you doing up there all alone?”
The glacial eyes
that met his stood out huge and solemn in the gaunt face and the voice was
as cold as the grave. “Becoming a Bringer of Death…”
**The events Johnny refers to occurred in the story A Certain Kind of Fool
You heard right, Old Man. Your son is a stone
killer. You still love me?
his father’s face, searching for the slightest trace of the revulsion and
disgust he expected to find there. Murdoch Lancer might forgive his son for
hating him—that hatred had been fueled by lies. But Johnny’s upstanding,
demanding, law-abiding father would never condone the hate and bitterness
that had seared a sacred quest for vengeance into his son’s very soul.
So it came down to
this. It was time to divulge this sordid secret lurking in his past—the revelation
he’d always been afraid of revealing to his father. The dark part of his
son the man could never accept. Johnny prepared himself to lose the father
he’d only found this evening.
Murdoch’s face remained
impassive, curiosity the only readable expression. His eyes never left his
son’s. “Bringer of Death—that’s an interesting choice of words. What’s your
Johnny’s eyes widened
with shock. The Old Man never ceased to amaze him. At least Murdoch wasn’t
rejecting him from the get go.
Maybe he’ll listen to my side of the story, for once.
“You know about bullfights?”
He gritted his teeth against the caustic pang that rippled through his belly.
Madre de Dios. Please get here, Sam.
Murdoch thought about
his answer. “Well, I know that the bullfight is a ritual where the matador
brings the bull to a preordained death. I’ve heard it said that the true
meaning of the word matador is ‘bringer of death’.”
“That’s right.” Johnny
watched him warily.
“And you believed
you must bring Tully and the others to their deaths.” Murdoch’s voice was
matter-of-fact and Johnny couldn’t detect even a hint of condemnation.
“I swore a blood
oath to kill them.” Johnny looked into the fire, anywhere except at his father’s
“I remember the dust
in that stable. It hung in the air with Pablo’s blood for hours. And then
the next mornin’, when they tried to get a rope around my neck and around
my feet so they could pull me apart…I thought I would choke in that dust.
There was a taste about it…a smell like carrion. I never tasted dust that
way before or since and I ain’t forgot it. Sometimes, I still taste it.
“Those men…they tromped
Pablo like he was…nuthin’ more than an ant. I couldn’t do nuthin’ to stop
it. I knew death had come to take him…and I was powerless to do anything
about it.” Johnny dashed a trembling hand across his eyes, knuckles white.
“I swore I’d never
be powerless again. I didn’t wanna wait for death to come no more—I wanted
to bring it. And I wanted to bring it to Pablo’s killers.” He moaned and
sagged against Murdoch’s shoulder.
Murdoch slid his
hands under Johnny’s arms to support him. “I think we need to get you up
to bed, son.”
“No. Bed won’t make
no difference. But I gotta lie down.”
Murdoch helped Johnny
stretch out on the sofa, cradling his son’s head in his lap. Johnny lay still
for a moment, then turned on his side and brought his knees up toward his
chest. He moaned.
Murdoch rubbed Johnny’s
shoulders, watching him anxiously. “Don’t talk, John. Just try to rest.”
“No. Gotta…tell you
this.” Johnny twisted his head up to meet Murdoch’s eyes, silently pleading
with his father. He had the unsettling feeling that he might not have another
chance to make Murdoch understand what he’d done and why. And all of a sudden,
telling his father and making him understand was the most important thing
in the world.
This pain scared
him. It was unlike anything he’d felt before and there was no cause that
he could find. He’d believed it was related to the nightmares, but it was
more than that. It seemed as though something inside him was trying to gnaw
its way out. And it wanted out awful bad! A bullet, a broken bone, an injury—these
he could cope with. He’d experienced them and knew what to expect. But this
was some unknown agony. He had no control over it and that unnerved him.
Murdoch watched Johnny’s
face with increasing concern. His son was agitated, desperate to tell him
something and Murdoch thought that it might be easier on Johnny to just let
him talk than to fight him in an attempt to keep him quiet. “What do you
want to tell me, son?”
“You heard of El
Murdoch nodded. He’d
heard the stories of El Matador’s exploits. The man was a well-known folk
hero along the border. “Diego Moncada. He was quite a hero down along the
border—as a bullfighter and a gunman. He hunted down and killed the twenty
comancheros who murdered his brother.”
“That’s right. He…he’s
the man that kept Billy and Tully from killin’ me after they killed Pablo.
He figured out I was gonna hunt ‘em down. He showed me how to use a gun so
I could do the job proper and not get myself killed.” Johnny paused, remembering
that precious time with Diego.
“I never forgot what
he told me about revenge. He said, ‘There are some things upon which no price
can be set, except blood. Justice and law isn’t always the same thing. There
are times when a man has to choose between them in order to get the job done.
For justice in this matter, I rely on Judge Colt and the Jury of Six. Verdict
“Well, I wanted justice
for Pablo. So I rode up to that line shack and I practiced every day until
I was ready. With Judge Colt, I was judge, jury, and executioner. And every
time I drew a bead on a target, Tully’s face flashed in front of my eyes.
I blew his head off a hundred times a day. And when I was ready, Johnny Madrid
rode out to find him and his friends and take them down.”
“Did you know that
the greatest matadors in the world are madrileño—from
Madrid? If you’re gonna be a Bringer of Death, might as well be the best.
‘Sides, it was Mama’s abuela’s name, so it was mine.”
“I wondered where
that name came from.” Murdoch gazed into the fire, trying to reconcile the
image of a hate-filled, icy-eyed boy determined to become a manhunter with
the laughing, blue-eyed rascal he remembered. Goosebumps raised along his
arms at the thought. His fun-loving, sweet boy had convinced himself that
he was a killer. And mustañero spent years trying
to prove it to himself. “And when you were ready, you rode out to hunt down
“I hunted them down,
Murdoch, and I killed them. It was a fair fight, but they were dead men from
the minute I saw their horses tied out front. I rode a vengeance trail, swore
I’d take them down.”
Murdoch felt Johnny’s
body tighten like a tautly stretched guitar string. The boy was so rigid,
Murdoch was afraid he might shatter. Johnny’s hand gripped Murdoch’s knee,
squeezing tightly enough to send prickles of numbness running up and down
his leg from lack of circulation. He sponged the clammy sweat from Johnny’s
face. “Easy, Johnny. Try to relax, son.”
“I know you…think
revenge ain’t right, that it don’t solve nuthin’. But sometimes strikin’
back helps. It don’t make things right, but lotsa times there ain’t no ‘right’
to it and times like that, for me, gettin’ even has to be enough.” Johnny
kept his face turned toward the fire. He couldn’t look at his father just
His next words were
spoken in a challenging tone, but Murdoch understood they were really a cry
for absolution. “What would you have done?”
Murdoch rested a
hand on Johnny’s head. “Men react to situations in different ways. It’s so
easy to look at someone else’s circumstances and say what you would or wouldn’t
do. But the truth is that it’s best not to speculate on what you would do
or how you would do it until it actually happens to you. Because when it
happens to you, it’s personal—and the rules change.
“Son, I do understand
what its like to want to strike back. I know how it feels when striking back
becomes the most important thing in the world. Remember Judd Haney? If I’d
gotten my hands on Haney twenty-five years ago, I’d have killed him. I’d
have killed him to strike back for Catherine. And I knew killing him wouldn’t
make things right, but I swore I’d get even.”
Johnny twisted his
head to look up at his father again. “Yeah, but you said that you were wrong
to make stupid threats. You risked your life to tell Haney you made a mistake.”
“Yes, and twenty-five
years from now, I imagine you’ll think about things differently, too. That
doesn’t mean that what you felt then and what you feel now is wrong, it just
means that looking back at something across a period of years adds a certain
perspective, the situation doesn’t look the same.”
his son into his arms and spoke hoarsely. “And I’ll tell you something else,
Johnny. If Tully walked into this room right now, I’d kill him with my bare
hands for what he did to you.”
Johnny stared at
his father in astonishment. “You’d kill him? For me?”
Murdoch didn’t hesitate.
“Just as easily as I’d stomp an ant.” He pretended he didn’t notice the relief
and respect that brightened Johnny’s face, busying himself in settling his
son back on his side.
“So you hunted down
Tully and the others. Did getting even help?” Murdoch kept his tone casual,
Johnny thought of
the men he’d killed and how their deaths, rather than bring him the satisfaction
he’d expected, had only left a relentless corrosion inside him. Killing Tully
and the others had done nothing to quench the bitter cauldron of anger seething
in his soul.
He’d found out the
hard way that vengeance couldn’t bring back the dead and change the past.
Neither could praying. He’d lain awake for hours at night, praying that he
could go back and change things, make it all different, make it right. But
he’d learned that those were the foolish dreams of a small boy. No, vengeance
wasn’t the answer, but he wouldn’t change what he’d done.
“It was just somethin’
I had to do. But takin’ Tully down…well, it didn’t make me feel like I thought
it would. And it ain’t somethin’ Pablo woulda wanted me to do. He…he didn’t believe in hurtin’ others. He was kind and
gentle—he cared about people. ‘Til I met him, I thought all men were…well,
I figured they were all the same as the men who treated me like dirt. And
I’d have ended up just like them if Pablo hadn’t shown me there was another
way to live. I guess there’s two roads to eternity, but only one will get
Murdoch gazed down
at his son with pride. It just wasn’t in the boy to be happy about taking
a life. Even the lives of men who’d robbed him of everything he held dear.
No matter that his son had sorely lacked role models or anyone to offer him
guidance. Well, Pablo had done that, but Johnny hadn’t been with Pablo very
He wiped Johnny’s
forehead with the cloth. When he spoke, his voice was husky.
“Pablo would be so
proud of the man you’ve grown to be, John. As proud as I am. You’ve nothing
to be ashamed of. You’re a good man, son, a man who can find the good in
anyone and anything.” He gripped Johnny’s shoulder.
“Lots of folks are
suspicious of those good things. I was like that. I got used to bad things
and I trusted them. I was suspicious when things were good. That’s a difference
between us, son. When I search the sky, I’m looking for a storm, but you’re
enjoying the good weather. And being around you has helped me look for the
sunny side of things.”
Johnny blushed, unable
to hide the pleasure his father’s words painted across his face.
“I don’t think violence
is a good solution to any situation, Johnny. And when there is a presence
of law, I believe we should uphold it. It hurts to think of you as a young
boy, wanting to be a Bringer of Death. That’s an awfully heavy burden for
young shoulders. But I understand why you did. I’m not ashamed of the choices
you made, son.” His hand found Johnny’s and squeezed.
Johnny clung to the
big hand as though it were a lifeline. “I carried my whole life in my saddle
bags. I had no roots or friends. Didn’t think I ever would. I was just makin’
a livin’ with my gun. And I knew this place…it was dark and cold and wasn’t
no feelin’ there. It was the place in my head where I went when I had to
fight—my zone of darkness. It kept me alive. Guess it’s what a jaguar must
feel when he’s huntin’.” He turned painfully onto his back so that he could
more easily see Murdoch’s face.
“It’s like somethin’
I read in a book Scott gave me. This Indian god, Vishnu—well, not Indian.
Reckon Scott said he was a…a Hindu. Anyway, he was disguised as a chariot
driver called Krishna and givin’ advice about fightin’ to this Prince. He
said, ‘I am become Death and my present task Destruction.’ That’s how I was
in that place. And every time I went there, it was harder to come back.”
He traced the pattern
on the blanket with his finger. “I was afraid that one day I wouldn’t be
able to get back. That I’d die alone in that cold place.”
Johnny looked up
into Murdoch’s face. “Johnny Madrid thought life was a game—from the first
breath you draw ‘til the last breath wheezes outta ya. Just one big game
of life and death. But I didn’t want that to be all there was. I wanted somethin’
more.” His face colored and he looked back toward the fire.
“Then you brought
me here and showed me what that somethin’ more is. You showed me what it
means to build somethin’ instead of destroy what others have built.”
Johnny looked back
up at Murdoch and smiled. “Pablo is my North Star, but you and Scott are
my compass. Reckon Tommy told you that.”
“Yes, he said something
like that.” Murdoch brushed the dark hair from Johnny’s forehead. “What exactly
did you say to him?”
“I told Tommy that
Pablo was my North Star…that as long as I had him, I would never get lost.”
Johnny turned his face back to the fire and his voice became a whisper. “I
told him about my mother, too. I wanted him to have somethin’ to hold on
to. If Pete…didn’t want him, then at least he could still have a part of
“And you did give
him something to hold on to, son. I wish you could have heard him explaining
his Ma’s star to me—telling me how he can talk to her now. Just like you
Johnny covered his
eyes with the back of his arm, moaning as another paroxysm of cramping slashed
through his gut. He ground his teeth in agony, gripping Murdoch’s hand so
tightly that the man’s palm carried the marks of his fingernails for days.
He fought through
the spasm and finally relaxed slightly as the pain receded to a level that
he could cope with. He kept his death-grip on his father’s hand, grateful
for the support he found there as well as for the wet cloth blotting his
forehead. It was several minutes before he could speak again and he ignored
Murdoch’s attempt to silence him.
“I lied to Tommy
when I told him how I talk to Mama.” His voice broke and he had to clear
his throat. “I used to talk to her. But I ain’t spoke to her since I come
here. And I reckon I ain’t never gonna speak to her again.”
**The reference to the quote from the Hindu god, Vishnu, is from the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu scripture first translated into English in 1785. This particular passage was made famous in this country by Robert Oppenheimer who recalled it on witnessing the first successful test of the atomic bomb. Oppenheimer quoted the Gita as “I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds.”
Murdoch stared down
at his younger son, dismayed at the boy’s rigid mask of physical and emotional
pain. He wanted to get Johnny up to bed, but Maria’s ghost haunted them both
and he sensed that Johnny needed to talk about his mother. And Johnny wouldn’t
go upstairs without a fight—better to find a way to keep him resting quietly
on the sofa.
His son’s last words
distressed him. If he was interpreting them correctly, Johnny had simply
transferred the hate he’d carried for his father to his mother. Murdoch didn’t
want that. He understood a child’s need to love his mother and Johnny was
no exception. Not to mention that maintaining a hateful façade was difficult
for Johnny. He just wasn’t built that way. Johnny had to work hard to string
the fence posts of his heart with the barbed strands of hate.
“Let’s get you back
on your side. You seem to be more comfortable that way.” Murdoch gently hooked
his hands under Johnny’s arms and helped him turn on his left side.
Johnny groaned at
the movement, but seemed to rest easier when situated on his side. He pulled
his knees up toward his chest and let his cheek rest heavily on Murdoch’s
thigh. “Thanks. Feels better like this.”
Murdoch sponged his
son’s flushed face. “Good. Just try to relax.”
Damn it, Sam! Where the hell are you?
He let Johnny rest
for several minutes, keeping the cool cloth on his forehead. When his son’s
breathing evened out again, Murdoch spoke.
“You know, Pete said
something to me that I’ve been thinking about quite a bit.”
“P…Pete had lots
to say…to both of us, huh? Reckon he’s a savvy fella.”
“That he is, son.”
“Well, what’d he
say—that made you think?”
Murdoch took a deep
breath. “He said that your mother…well, that she should draw us together
instead of drive us apart.” He felt Johnny grow tense. “What do you think?”
Johnny’s hand regained
its grip on Murdoch’s knee. “Why…why do you think she left?”
“I wish I had an
answer for you, Johnny. If I had a penny for every time I’ve asked myself
that question, I’d be a very rich man.” He wrung out the cloth with cool
water and replaced it on Johnny’s forehead, smoothing back the dark bangs.
“What…what did she
tell you, son?” Murdoch had difficulty keeping his voice steady.
“Lies.” The soft
voice was so laden with bitterness that Murdoch barely recognized it. “All
she ever told me about leavin’ you was lies.”
What can I say to you, son? I’d like nothing
better than to wrap my hands around your mother’s lovely neck and squeeze.
But I don’t want you to hate her. You’ve had enough hate in your life.
“Tommy told me that
you described your mother as shining the brightest—someone who could light
up a room just by entering it.” His hand found Johnny’s dark head and rested
“I thought that was
such a wonderful description of Maria. You know, the first time I saw her,
it was evening. From the very first glimpse, she reminded me of a firefly—as
lovely and fleeting as a fairy creature in one of those myths Scott told
Tommy about. She was a beacon of light against the darkness.”
Johnny’s voice was softer now, dreamy with memories. “I loved to catch fireflies,
but she always let them go.”
Murdoch laughed softly.
“You were drawn to fireflies from the start. Every evening you’d order me
to catch several for you. I couldn’t catch them fast enough to suit you.
You carried that jar of fireflies with you until you went to sleep. Then
your mother would take it outside and set them free.”
“I ordered you around
and you did what I told you, huh?”
“Yes, it’s true,
believe it or not.” Murdoch studied Johnny’s profile, marveling again at
how like Maria he was—the same high cheekbones and pointed chin, the delicately
curved coral lips, the absurdly long eyelashes crowning the huge, wide-set
eyes, the sleekness of his luxuriant raven hair. And that teasing, glinting
Men would ride for
miles just to see Maria’s smile. And her son was so like her. There was something
about Johnny that always drew a grin of genuine liking from his fellow men.
He was young, handsome, and full of a deviltry they recognized at once—driven
by a mischievous obsession to find out just how far he could go without getting
his fingers burned.
Oh to be so young, in such good shape, and so good with fists and gun…. I suppose I was once that full of piss and vinegar. But it was a long time ago.
But Johnny had another
smile—a daring gauntlet of a smile that imbued men with a fierce desire to
fight. And Maria had the feminine equivalent of that challenging smirk. She’d
had no qualms about using it when her fiery temper flared.
His son was flashing
him the teasing smile just now—or trying to. It broke in the middle, turning
into a grimace and Murdoch realized how hard Johnny was fighting the physical
pain inside him.
I need to lay a foundation so that we can discuss Maria another time. And then get this boy into bed.
“Every morning you
demanded to know what happened to the fireflies. You’d be so mad that they
were gone and I’d promise to catch more that evening. And you never let me
forget to do it.” His hand found Johnny’s.
“You’ve seen what
happens to a firefly in a jar, son. At first, it glows brightly. But soon
its brilliance begins to fade. It doesn’t take very long for the firefly’s
light to grow dimmer and dimmer—until it doesn’t shine at all. A firefly
has to fly free, be seen, or it loses its radiance and dies. It can’t survive
in a jar.” He had to swallow against the tightness in his throat.
“Johnny, I think
that’s how your mother felt on the ranch. She was a winged thing in a jar
and her light just grew dimmer and dimmer. Until she felt she had to break
free and fly away.”
Johnny turned his
head to look up at his father. His expression was bemused, almost stunned.
“Yeah…. Reckon that’s how she might have felt.” He turned his face back to
the fire. “You…you sound like you understood her.”
“Not nearly enough,
“She didn’t mean
it, Murdoch. She was…she was so young. She lied to you about her age. Did
you know that?”
“I realized that
later. I figured out a lot of things too late. You see, son, I didn’t exactly
have a wide range of experience with women. Catherine was so level-headed,
so calm. Nothing seemed to faze her—”
him. “Like Scott, huh? Then there’s me and I got my mother’s temper.”
“Yes, you do. But
you also have a special wisdom, an understanding of life that your mother
didn’t have.” He paused and squeezed Johnny’s shoulder.
“When I said that
to you…well, I…. Anyway, your mother’s fire is one of the things I loved
most about her—temper included.” He felt Johnny sigh.
“You loved Scott’s
“Very much. She was
my first love. A classical beauty, but even more lovely on the inside. She
was open and caring—you would have liked her, son. There was little of Harlan
in her—don’t judge her by what you’ve seen of him.” Murdoch glanced down
at Johnny’s face and read the turmoil there. The boy was so insecure about
his mother. He needed some reassurance.
“I loved Catherine,
Johnny, but that doesn’t mean I loved your mother any less. They were very
different people. Catherine was chiseled from the finest marble by the hand
of a master sculptor. Her beauty always reminded me of an exquisite piece
of art. And I like to think that I can appreciate art just as well as the
Johnny tried to remove
his hand from Murdoch’s, but Murdoch didn’t let him. “Maria’s beauty was
that of nature—earthy, untamed, and hypnotic. You never tired of the view.
She just didn’t have a bad angle, but she was a wild thing and couldn’t be
caged. I didn’t understand that until it was too late.”
“A wild thing…. ‘The
life of a wild thing always ends in tragedy.’” Johnny’s words were muffled.
“Yes, quite true.
Is that a quote?”
“Just somethin’ I
heard Warburton say.”
“It fits your mother.”
Murdoch wrung out the cloth on Johnny’s forehead with cool water. “Will you
tell me what your life with her was like?”
Johnny stared into
the fire and tried to find the words within the flames. An eternity of anguish
leaked from boxes locked away long ago, bringing with it a torrent of memories.
It was such a risk for him to talk about his mother, especially to his father,
but he desperately wanted to open up, even if only a step at a time.
“She tried so hard.
But…well, she was always lookin’ for somebody to make her happy. I didn’t…I didn’t know how to make her understand that
nobody can make you happy. That’s somethin’ you gotta do for yourself. She
wanted me to be her ‘little man,’ to take care of her. More than anything,
she wanted someone to take care of her. But I was just a little kid. I tried…”
He sucked in his breath, staggering in the wake of the memories that were
Murdoch stroked Johnny’s
hair lightly. “Don’t, Johnny. You were a child and she was an adult. You
didn’t fail her, son.”
“But I did. She relied
on me and I…I couldn’t always make enough money. And when I couldn’t, she…that’s
when she…she…” He hid his face against Murdoch’s leg and his shoulders shook,
as though the memory had physically struck him.
You took him from his home and then you made him believe that what you did was his fault. Why, Maria? In God’s name, why? Did you hate me so much? How could you take that out on your own son? Did you ever think about anyone but yourself?
He squeezed the trembling
shoulders. “Johnny, listen to me. The only thing you didn’t do was make her
happy. And you said it yourself—each person is responsible for his own happiness.
It isn’t something someone else can give you. Don’t second-guess what happened.
No one ever won that game.”
Johnny was silent,
but Murdoch could feel the battle for control raging through his tightly
coiled body. It was as though the boy was realigning every muscle to accept
the situation. He rubbed his son’s back and shoulders in a soothing, circular
“She…she did love
me.” The hoarse whisper was a plea for affirmation.
“I know she did,
But she had a funny way of showing it. Oh Maria, when we meet in the hereafter, there are many things you will have to answer for…
“We did what we had
to do, Murdoch. When I look back, I guess we played these games, like nuthin’
was wrong. I learned real quick how to hide worry and pain. But part of me
knew it wasn’t right.”
His voice dropped
to a whisper. “We were always runnin’, always on the lookout and keepin’
our secrets. I can feel her strokin’ my hair, tellin’ me that you can’t trust
people, that they’d find out about us and you would come and take me away
from her.” His grip on Murdoch’s knee tightened painfully and his entire
body quivered. His father clasped his hand, holding it until he was able
to go on.
“I never understood
why she thought you’d take me away from her if you threw us out in the first
place…” Johnny’s voice broke and he caught his breath, fighting to control
the pain that lanced through him.
“I grew up askin’
myself why—a lot like Tommy always does. Hundreds of questions and they were
all really about why. Jelly…Jelly says it’s like the coyotes howlin’ at the
moon. They don’t get an answer, but they howl anyhow. Guess I’d be a good
“So would I, son.
I’ve spent many an hour howling at that same moon.” He kept rubbing Johnny’s
back, hoping to calm his son.
“I had this hole
inside me that nuthin’ could fill, so I tried to fill it with hate. I hated
you, Murdoch, but I loved you at the same time. I was so mixed up. I know
now that it wasn’t your fault. But back then, all I knew was that you weren’t
there when I needed you the most.”
Johnny suddenly slammed
his clenched fist against Murdoch’s leg. “You should have been there. I needed
you…Damn you…you should…you…” His voice trailed off and Johnny curled into
a ball of misery.
Murdoch knew he’d
carry that heart-wrenching accusation to his grave. He bent forward protectively,
gathering his son close to his chest and whispering, “I’m so sorry I wasn’t
there, Johnny. I know you needed me.”
Johnny hung there
in his father’s arms, taut and unyielding. Once again, Murdoch could feel
Johnny’s desperate battle for control. The boy persevered, slowly winning
the struggle. He felt Johnny’s hand grip his forearm—that grip the most eloquent
apology he’d ever heard. He put his hand over Johnny’s and returned the squeeze,
copying his son’s behavior and letting his hand speak for him.
At last, the rigid
lines of Johnny’s body softened and he slumped against Murdoch. His hands
weren’t quite steady, but Murdoch began to knead Johnny’s tight shoulder
“I…I don’t know why
she lied. Reckon I never will. I lost a lot of sleep lookin’ for answers.
And I know you lost a lot of sleep over me, too. Not knowin’ where I was
or even if I was alive. I never gave your feelings any thought. I was so
sure you didn’t give a damn. But you must have been out of your mind with
worry and you never stopped lookin’ for me.”
Murdoch kept rubbing
Johnny’s neck and shoulders, gently massaging muscles knotted with stress.
“Sometimes, I wonder
what it woulda been like—growin’ up here with you and Scott and havin’ a
home, a father, and a big brother to keep me from goin’ off the rails. You’d
have had your hands full with me, Murdoch. Bet you’d have kept my butt sore
and I’d have kept your arm wore out.” Johnny chanced a glance at Murdoch’s
face and felt some relief at his expression. The Old Man was actually smiling
at him. He returned it, a tiny wan effort, and turned his face back to the
“I was really wild…,’specially
after I lost Mama. I did just what I wanted. There were no walls to keep
me in, no rules to follow, no one to answer to. I told myself that’s the
way I wanted it—no one carin’ if I lived or died….”
“I know. I know that
ain’t true. You cared…but I didn’t know it then.” Johnny swallowed hard.
“Well, I got into
all sorta scrapes. Had one hell of a time gettin’ out of ‘em. I was always
in some kinda trouble and I paid for it, too…one way or another. I didn’t
want nobody tellin’ me what to do or how to do it. I fought authority every
step of the way, never gave it an inch.” He chuckled.
“Oh boy, most of
the time, authority won. But I didn’t quit. All I wanted was to burn the
breeze. Reckon that’s how come it’s hard for me to just do whatever you say,
why I fight you sometimes.”
“Only sometimes?” His hand caressed the back of Johnny’s neck, turning the
wisecrack into an endearment.
I’ll have to remember that. I can’t stand for anyone to question my orders. Johnny feels the same way about being told what to do. We must learn to meet in the middle.
Johnny shivered with
chills, his teeth chattering. Murdoch tucked the blanket securely around
his shoulders, trying to determine if his fever was rising. He didn’t think
Johnny’s temperature was any higher, but he didn’t like the combination of
chills and fever. Yet before he put his son to bed, he wanted to deal with
one last vestige of Maria’s ghost—the relic he was sure caused Johnny as
many nightmares as the slaying of Pablo. What had really happened the night
The Madrid legend
held that Johnny had killed the man who murdered his mother. The Madrid legend.
Oh yes, Murdoch Lancer knew all about that legend—knew more than the most
worshipful schoolboy. Once the Pinkertons had proven that Johnny Madrid and
his son were actually the same person, he’d read everything that he could
get his hands on regarding Johnny Madrid. And there was no lack of material.
He’d even traveled
to Nogales, sitting in the cantinas, buying drinks, steering conversations,
and listening to the resulting talk. But Johnny hadn’t been in Nogales then,
one set of rumors claiming he was somewhere in Texas while others said Kansas.
Murdoch had returned to Lancer, pondering the conflicting images of the consummate,
steel-nerved gun-for-hire with the picture of a young man who tried to do
the right thing and had a soft corner for the underdog. They were two seemingly
different men, but in reality, the same man—Johnny Madrid and Johnny Lancer.
His rush of memories
came to an abrupt halt, and just that quickly, Murdoch Lancer solved the
riddle he’d spent many an hour contemplating—the riddle of Johnny himself.
They weren’t two different men, they never had been. His son had created
Johnny Madrid in order to cope with Pablo’s murder. As Johnny Madrid, the
boy commanded respect, gained control over what happened to him. Johnny Madrid
was powerful, not powerless. And Johnny Madrid had his own brand of honor.
“Johnny, he never quite hit the bottom.” Ishem’s
words. And I was so arrogant. What did I say? Oh yes—I’d like to think I
prevented that. But I didn’t have to prevent it. Johnny Madrid never
hit the bottom because my son isn’t a murderer. You’re an honorable, decent
man and you’ve always been that way. Johnny Madrid just helped Johnny Lancer
get over the rough spots on the trail.
I guess you are Johnny Madrid. I guess part of you always will be. But you kept him alive for me, didn’t you? Starting with the night his mother died.
“Will you tell me
about how she died, John?”
Johnny drew a shallow,
ragged breath. “I…yeah.”
Johnny’s head and shoulders as he retched over the kindling bucket. The story
of Maria’s death and Johnny’s desperate shooting of Jeeter had proven to
be every bit as difficult as Murdoch feared. But his son had been able to
force the story out and Murdoch prayed that talking about it would help Johnny
exorcise those ghosts.
His own stomach heaved
uncomfortably as he contemplated the crushing guilt his boy carried for defending
himself against Jeeter. But even more serious was Johnny’s belief that he
was responsible for his mother’s death. Murdoch realized that there were
many more conversations he and Johnny must have about this subject before
his son could come to terms with what he’d had to do. But they’d made a strong
start, taking Pete’s advice and using Maria to build a bridge between them
instead of a wall. Right now, he was more concerned about the boy’s deteriorating
As soon as Johnny’s
retching eased, Murdoch leaned him back against the sofa pillows and stood
up. He bent forward and pulled Johnny’s arm around his neck. “All right.
It’s time to get you up to bed.”
Johnny pulled his
arm back to his side and glared at his father. “I can make it.”
“Whether you can
or can’t isn’t the question. The point is that you don’t have to make it
on your own. Now put your arm around my neck, young man.”
Murdoch saw the defiance
flicker across Johnny’s face and chided himself for so quickly forgetting
what he’d learned about his son. He smiled and stripped the command from
“Please put your
arm around my neck, John. I don’t want to throw my
this change in approach by complying with the request. “Okay.”
“Thank you.” Murdoch
gathered Johnny against his chest and lifted him gently. Even though he was
as careful as possible, Johnny whimpered at the movement, resting his head
against Murdoch’s shoulder. The boy seemed determined not to cry out and
Murdoch could feel the muscles of Johnny’s jaw rippling with the effort.
“Where’s Sam, Murdoch?”
That’s a good question, son.
“I’ll send Walt to
find him just as soon as I get you into bed.” Murdoch adjusted his grip,
attempting to minimize the pressure on Johnny’s tender stomach. He started
toward the stairs, his concern rising by the minute. Johnny had asked for
the doctor twice now. That alone meant things were serious.
Johnny couldn’t stifle
the moans that tore from him as Murdoch climbed the stairs. Each step launched
a new wave of fire through his belly and he shredded his lower lip as he
fought to contain the agony. He’d never before realized just how many steps
it took to get upstairs. Derned if Lancer didn’t have more stairs than those
old pyramids in Mexico. He was relieved when Murdoch carried him through
the door of his room.
Murdoch lowered his
son gently onto the bed, lifting the boy’s legs onto the mattress and helping
him lie on his side. Johnny cried out at even this slight movement and Murdoch’s
heart rate accelerated.
“Just stay still,
John. I’ll be right back.”
Johnny clutched feebly
at Murdoch’s sleeve. “Don’t leave…”
“I’m not leaving
you, son. I’m going to send Walt to find Sam.” He loosed his sleeve from
Johnny’s grasp and smoothed the boy’s hair back from his forehead. “I promise
I’ll be right back.”
Johnny closed his
eyes, nodding slightly. He wasn’t about to move. Staying still seemed to
help—or at least it didn’t add to the torment.
Murdoch left him
reluctantly, hurrying into the courtyard and calling loudly for Jelly.
The handyman appeared
so quickly that Murdoch suspected he must have been waiting for the summons.
“What’s wrong, Boss?” Jelly stretched his suspenders up over his shoulders.
“We need Sam now,
Jelly. Get Walt and Luis. Send one to the Jackson’s and the other to town.
And tell them not to come back without the doctor. Whoever goes to town should
be sure that Sam didn’t go back home. Then he needs to send a telegram to
Scott. Tell Scott to start home now and don’t waste any time getting here.
Get a wire to Teresa and let her know that Cipriano and Raoul will be arriving
to escort her home. Tell her that Johnny is ill, but don’t alarm her. And
let Cipriano know what needs to be done. Give him whatever help he needs
to get on the road.”
“Whoa, Boss. You
gotta git aholt of the jerk line. Take a breath. I’ll take care of what needs
doin’, don’t you worry none. Johnny’s bad, huh?”
“I don’t know what
this is, Jelly, but I don’t like it. He’s got fever and chills. He keeps
trying to throw up, but there’s not even any liquid left in his stomach.
And he’s really hurting. He’s even asked to see Sam twice. What the hell
is keeping Sam?” Murdoch ran his hand through his thinning hair.
“You hustle yer haunches
back upstairs and sit with yer boy. I’ll ramrod things down here. You holler
if’n ya need me. I’ll stick close by.”
Murdoch had never
been more thankful for the presence of this gruff, but kindly, friend. “Thanks,
He ran back inside,
stopping briefly in the great room to retrieve the basin of cool water and
cloths. Then Murdoch Lancer pounded up the stairs to tend to his desperately
ill son until the overdue doctor arrived.
My son needs you, Sam. I don’t know what else
to do. Please hurry. I’m losing my boy.
**Jelly’s reference to “get aholt of the jerk line” means to get yourself under control. The jerk line is normally used on a freight wagon and is a single, continuous rein that is fastened to the brake on the wagon. It runs from the brake, through the hands of the driver, along the backs of the team (usually a six horse or mule hitch) to eventually attach to the left side of the bit of the lead horse, giving the driver an extra measure of control.
Murdoch stood at
the door to his son’s room and took several deep breaths in a vain attempt
to calm himself. He wanted to hide his agitation from Johnny. He’d seen the
fear in the blue eyes and didn’t want to cause his son any additional worry.
When he felt he was in control, Murdoch mustered his courage and entered the
Johnny lay exactly
where he’d left him, curled on his left side and breathing in shallow pants.
The boy’s face was flushed and his body trembled with chills.
Murdoch forced a
cheerful tone. “I’m back, John. Walt will fetch Sam. Now, let’s get you more
comfortable.” He smoothed a cool, damp cloth across his son’s forehead and
busied himself with undressing Johnny and getting him into a clean nightshirt.
The silver fastenings
running the length of each pant leg allowed him to remove Johnny’s pants
without touching the boy’s stomach—and Murdoch was grateful. He could see
that the slightest movement of his legs and upper body jolted his son with
raw agony. The simple removal of Johnny’s clothes proved to be a trying ordeal
for both father and son.
As did the pitched
battle over Johnny’s right to keep his under garments. His father ignored
both Johnny’s strident demands and his increasingly urgent protests. Instead,
Murdoch chattered calmly about his plans for changing the South Meadow in
order to make room for the horse operation Johnny had proposed. All the while,
he deftly removed items of clothing and finally slipped a nightshirt over
Johnny’s head. Murdoch sat up to check his handiwork and Johnny was indignant
when he realized that the only thing he wore beneath the nightshirt was his
ignored Johnny’s resentful glare, raising the boy’s head so that he could
plump the pillows and pull back a section of the quilt and sheets.
“Come on, son, under
the covers with you.” He helped Johnny crawl between the sheets and sat beside
him on the edge of the bed, laying one hand on Johnny’s shoulder to hold
him on his back.
“Easy, John. I’ll
help you turn on your side in a minute. First, I want a look at your stomach.”
Johnny rolled his
head violently on the pillow. “No.”
Murdoch didn’t waste
any more words arguing. Working quickly but gently, he bared Johnny’s abdomen,
one hand easily holding him in place in spite of his son’s feeble attempts
to move away from him.
“Be still!” Murdoch
stared down at Johnny’s stomach in amazement. He’d expected to see some sign
of whatever was causing the boy such pain—a bruise, a wound, some swelling
or redness—but there was no visible trace of anything wrong.
“Where does it hurt,
watched Murdoch nervously. He didn’t want his father to touch his stomach.
It was too tender for that.
“Is there one place
that hurts more?”
“Well, Johnny? Where?”
Murdoch’s voice left no doubt that he expected an answer.
Johnny pointed reluctantly
toward the lower right side of his belly.
Murdoch lightly touched
his fingers to the spot indicated. He only had a split second to realize
that the area felt hard, almost rigid, and then Johnny cried out, jackknifing
in agony. He grasped his father’s wrists frantically.
“It’s all right,
son. I’m all finished. Shhh.” Murdoch eased Johnny to his left side and wiped
his face, using his other hand to rub his son’s shoulders and upper back.
“God, Murdoch. It’s
like somethin’ inside me is tryin’ to get out.” He gave a pitiful attempt
at a smile. “You think this is like what women go through havin’ a baby?”
Murdoch shook his
head. “I doubt having a baby is as painful as what you’re experiencing, son.
After all, women are meant to have babies and they do it all the time. How
bad could it be?”
“Well, if it’s anywhere
near as bad as this, there wouldn’t be no more kids in the world,” Johnny
Murdoch sponged Johnny’s
face and forehead with the cool cloth, his other hand massaging the boy’s
tight neck and shoulders. After several minutes, Johnny seemed to grow more
comfortable and the corded tension in his limbs relaxed a fraction.
“That feels nice.”
He looked up at Murdoch and shared a crooked smile. “I guess I’m not used
to havin’ a father to worry about me.”
“Well, get used to
it, son,” Murdoch smiled back, remembering when he and Johnny had exchanged
the mirror image of those words.
The answering smile
was all he had hoped for; assuring him that Johnny remembered that occasion,
Murdoch tousled the
dark hair as he started to rise, but Johnny grasped his sleeve tentatively.
Johnny smiled shyly
at him. “Will you…will you…stay with me?”
Murdoch flushed with
pleasure. “Of course, son. I’m not going anywhere.”
thrilled Murdoch. His boy wanted him to stay! They’d come far this night.
He eased himself onto the bed and slipped his long arm around Johnny’s shoulders,
pillowing his son’s head on his own shoulder.
Johnny relaxed against
his father, wistfully recalling how he’d leaned against Pablo in exactly
the same way. His father’s long arm cradled him securely as the reassuring
sound of the slow, steady heartbeat echoed in his ear. A faint whiff of lime
aftershave, the sweet sharpness of horse, pungent pipe tobacco, and fragrant
brandy combined to create the unique smell that was Murdoch. Johnny inhaled
it and closed his eyes.
The torment in his
belly was constant now and he just didn’t feel well enough to resist being
treated like a child. Besides, it felt so good to lie in his father’s arms.
There was nothing to fear from him any longer—Scott was right, Murdoch wasn’t
the ogre Johnny had created in his mind. Johnny had a feeling that his father
wouldn’t let anything happen to him. Murdoch would stand guard so he could
Maybe it was okay
to be a kid again for one night. He draped his right arm across Murdoch’s
broad chest, letting Murdoch’s body support him and keep the pressure off
of his belly. The warmth from his father’s body helped fight his chills.
His father! The man
he’d once hated, the man he’d been unable to talk to, the man whose rejection
he’d so feared. His father wanted him as he was, despite what he had been
and what he had done. Nothing in the world could compare to the peace that
came with finally believing that his father loved him.
Maybe tomorrow evenin’…we can catch fireflies…” He felt himself floating
off into a soft billowy cloud. The lure of that black void was powerful,
promising oblivion and relief from the scalding pangs in his belly. But something
pulled him back from the brink—there was something he still needed to do
before he could rest. He tried to lift his head, but it was too heavy. He
settled for nestling his face deeper into his father’s shoulder. “Murdoch?”
He felt Murdoch’s
arms tighten around him and a light kiss brushed the top of his head. It
was okay to rest now. Johnny closed his eyes and surrendered to the beckoning
void, drifting into a fitful sleep.
Murdoch watched Johnny
for some time, listening to his shallow, labored breathing and studying the
flushed face. He remembered holding this boy eighteen years ago, the silky
black hair on his shoulder, the compact little body snuggled against him.
The body was bigger now, but the feeling was the same, the very same. How
he’d yearned to feel this sensation again—his boy in his arms.
He held his son a
little tighter and humbly prayed.
Lord, help me to be the father this boy needs and deserves. Grant me the knowledge and the grace to guide him and the time to love him…I have so much to make up for.
Johnny groaned and
stirred restlessly, “Murdoch…”
Murdoch stroked the
dark hair. “I’m here, son. Try to sleep.” He shifted slightly in order to
lower the lamp to a faint glow.
And Lord, please get Sam Jenkins here soon.
The soothing words
lulled Johnny back into the dark void of sleep. Murdoch brushed the hair
back from his boy’s face and made himself comfortable against the pillows,
letting the sturdy headboard support his back. He was exhausted and worried
out of his mind about Johnny, but an exhilarating sense of accomplishment
coursed through his veins.
Tonight he’d forged
a bond with his younger son. That bond needed strengthening and nurturing,
but they’d taken those first crucial steps toward a new relationship. And
he’d been able to tell his son how much he cared. They’d actually said the
words aloud to each other. Oh, they’d left plenty unsaid. After all, the
things men left unsaid were usually what counted the most. But hearing his
father speak the words seemed to bring Johnny a huge measure of peace. They
still had work to do, but together, they could get it done.
The pale lamplight
allowed him to clearly see Johnny’s face, so innocent and vulnerable in sleep.
His stomach flip-flopped as he considered the terrifying ordeals his boy
had survived. His son had experienced so much pain and sorrow in his short
life, but Johnny didn’t let his unfortunate circumstances cloud his outlook.
He’d learned to roll with the punches; find the good in every situation;
and appreciate the little things like the beauty of a sunrise, a hawk on
the wing, a mockingbird’s serenade, and the sleek lines of a fine horse.
He was an amazing young man, a man Murdoch was proud to call son.
He promised himself
that he would do everything in his power to see to it that Johnny never again
suffered as he’d done in his youth. His son was home now and Murdoch planned
to keep him safe. He had to concede that Scott was right, listening to those
stories was one of the hardest things he’d ever done.
Perhaps when Scott
returned, the two of them could discuss the terrible wrongs Johnny had endured.
He had to talk about it to someone. He needed to share his thoughts about
the outrage, the pure horror of what his son had been through, with someone
who could understand. He and Scott thought so much alike and Scott probably
felt the same way—frantic to share his reactions to Johnny’s experiences.
The picture of his
child in a cage, waiting to be hanged and face painted with the blood of
his murdered friend, assailed him and his hands tightened convulsively. Johnny
murmured in protest against the tighter grip even as he snuggled closer to
“Shhh.” The big hands
relaxed and pulled the covers higher, covering Johnny’s shoulders. The back
of one hand brushed Johnny’s cheek—the fever was climbing.
Murdoch bit down
on his fear and exchanged the cloth on Johnny’s forehead for one he’d been
soaking in the cool water. There was nothing more he could do until the doctor
arrived and at least the boy was asleep. He hoped Johnny wouldn’t awaken
before Sam showed up. It wasn’t easy to watch his son in such pain. Murdoch
was tempted to give him a small dose of laudanum, but doubted the boy could
keep it down.
He forced the worry
to the back of his mind. No sense thinking about things he couldn’t change.
He’d keep an eye on Johnny’s condition until the doctor arrived. In the meantime…well,
he deserved some self-congratulation for his part in building a bond with
Johnny. He allowed his mind to roam back over the events of the evening,
welcoming the exhilaration of a job well done.
He savored this closeness
with his son and drew comfort from the familiar sounds of the serene night
that drifted through the room. A hunting owl hooted in the pasture, a cow
lowed for her calf, several coyotes serenaded the moon. Murdoch wondered
briefly if they expected an answer. Peace blanketed the vast ranch and all
of Lancer slept. But Murdoch Lancer remained awake and watchful, holding
his boy in his arms, praying that Sam would arrive soon, and guarding his
The big man rolled
his head in a circular motion, attempting to loosen his over-strained muscles.
He pulled the old timepiece from his vest pocket with his free hand, the
dim light causing him to squint in order to make out the hour. Was it really
that late? No, actually early was the correct term. Lord, what a long day.
He wriggled his shoulders and buttocks, but was unable to find a comfortable
position for his weary body.
He flipped a portion
of the blanket across his legs to ward off the chill of the night air. At least the night was calm with no
wind. The serenity appealed to him as exhaustion weighed on him. The quietness
afforded him a welcome opportunity to clear his mind. This moment of peace
was his reward for a difficult and very long day and evening.
The rhythmic cadence
of the bay Morgan horse’s ground-eating trot coupled with the familiar rattle
of the buggy wheels threatened to lull him to sleep. Sam Jenkins shook his
head, forcing himself to stay awake. He told himself to concentrate and thought
back to the difficult surgery he’d performed earlier. He was thankful that
he’d managed to save Jake Jackson—an outcome that had appeared doubtful more
times than he cared to think about. But barring a nasty infection, Jake would
Sam admired the bay’s
swift, yet stylish, strides. It was the finest horse he’d ever owned. The
animal could trot faster than many horses could lope and maintain the speed
for long distances—a welcome ability in a doctor’s horse. Finding a Morgan
of this quality wasn’t easy, but the Lancer brothers had seen this one in
Nevada and bought him for their doctor. Scott and Johnny had picked a good
one for him.
Johnny. Sam acknowledged
that he’d thought about Johnny’s predicament several times during the day.
A sense of unease washed over him. The more he thought about it, the more
he was sure that Johnny was ill. That conviction kept him on the road to
Lancer instead of heading home for some much-needed sleep. Murdoch might
not be very happy about being rousted out of bed in the middle of the night,
but that sixth sense doctors often relied on was sending him unmistakable
signals. His intuition said he needed to see Johnny immediately.
The sound of galloping
hooves caused him to halt his horse. He squinted into the darkness and recognized
Walt as the cowboy reined his horse to a plunging halt.
“Thank heaven I found
you, Doc. You’re needed at Lancer, pronto. It’s Johnny. Jelly
says he’s real sick, pain in the gut…”
“I knew it. Let’s
go.” He slapped the reins on the bay’s back, encouraging the animal to its
fastest trot. The miles flew by beneath the Morgan’s hooves as Walt and his
tired horse dropped further and further behind.
Sam’s mind worked
overtime, re-energized by the rush of adrenaline that accompanied the thought
of an emergency. He reviewed everything he knew about Johnny’s symptoms—and
frowned at the vagueness. He really had only a sketchy description and any
number of diagnoses was possible. But one thing was certain—Murdoch Lancer
wouldn’t have sent Walt for him unless the problem was serious. He chirped
to the bay, urging it to greater speed and reflecting that Johnny’s ability
to pick a fast horse might play a key role in saving his life.
//This is Hell. Has to be. Where else would it
be so hot? Burning. Whole world’s on fire. My gut. On fire there, too. I’m
in Hell and them Greeks switched me with that fella Scott told me about.
Fella that got his liver eat out by that vulture every day. Damn bird’s peckin’
my guts out. Gotta get my gun, chase him off. God it hurts. Can’t stand it…//
Murdoch watched Johnny
in consternation. For the last two hours his son had slept in his arms while
Murdoch grieved for the boy’s lost youth. But now it was time to put that
behind them and make a new start—except Johnny’s condition was deteriorating
rapidly. He had grown steadily more restless, moaning in his sleep. And his
fever was rising.
“Shhh.” Murdoch exchanged
the cloth on Johnny’s forehead for a fresh one. He started as Johnny cried
out and began struggling against the arms that encircled him. His son appeared
to be in a panic and Murdoch feared he might be suffering from another nightmare.
He kept a firm grip and murmured soothing phrases to the boy.
But his soft words
failed to calm his son. “Murdoch, please…” Johnny groaned through clenched
Murdoch shifted his
weight toward his right side, moving his left hand to Johnny’s side to pull
his son closer. The pressure caused Johnny to writhe, drawing up his knees
and desperately gripping his father’s hands.
“Is it your stomach,
Johnny?” Murdoch eased his son onto the mattress and pulled himself up off
the bed. He turned up the lamp and immediately noticed that Johnny’s face
was more flushed now and still covered with sweat.
Johnny huddled on
his side, flinging his head back and forth in agony.
“Easy, son. Try to
stay still.” Murdoch sat on the edge of the bed and gently cradled Johnny’s
cheeks in his hands in an attempt to hold his head still. The heat he felt
there left him cold.
good.” Johnny groaned.
“I know, son. Sam’s
on his way.”
//Please be on your way, Sam.//
“I know it hurts.
I’m going to take care of that right now.” Murdoch stood up.
Johnny clutched his
father’s sleeve. “Don’t…leave me.”
The blue eyes swam
with tears of deadly pain and the fear in them stung Murdoch.
“I’m just going to
the door.” He gave Johnny’s hand a reassuring squeeze. Leaning his head out
into the hall, Murdoch shouted for Jelly.
He hurried back to
the bed where Johnny lay curled in a ball, his face contorted with pain and
dripping with sweat. One white-knuckled hand squeezed the edge of the quilt
while the other was clenched into a fist that slowly pounded the mattress.
Murdoch sat beside Johnny and took hold of the fisted hand. He felt the fist
relax and then enclose his hand in a death grip.
Murdoch sponged Johnny’s
face with a freshly dampened cloth. “It’ll be all right, son. Sam will sort
you out. He always does.”
Johnny gripped his
father’s hand tighter as another excruciating spasm ripped through his gut.
“He’s coming, Johnny.”
Murdoch heard feet pounding up the stairs and Jelly careened into the room.
“Ain’t no word from
Walt or Luis yet.” Jelly stared at Johnny and fear squeezed his heart and
bowels with icy hands. He almost didn’t recognize the boy on the bed, so
great were the changes since he’d seen him in the late afternoon. Johnny
huddled on his side, flushed and panting, with no trace of that air of watchful
awareness that was so much a part of him. He looked like a child—a desperately
ill child. It didn’t take a fancy doctor to see that Johnny was in real trouble.
And for once, Jellifer B. Hoskins didn’t have a clue as to what should be
He hurried to the
bed, handing the box of medical supplies to Murdoch and laying his hand on
Johnny’s shoulder. “You darned fool. Didn’t I tell ya to see Sam? How come
you don’t never listen to me?”
forced out the word between his shallow gasps for breath.
“’Course it’s me.
Who else would fig out in the middle of the night to coddle such a smart
aleck? Always causin’ trouble. Reckon I’m gonna go cut me that switch and
whup ya good.”
Jelly knew he was
breaking every rule of their game by starting with the direst threat in his
arsenal. Their unspoken agreement called for the threats to escalate gradually,
but Johnny’s appearance frightened him and he hoped to rouse the boy to a retort. His plan
failed. Johnny didn’t even acknowledge the threat, locked in a world of pain
and barely conscious.
“Hold his head up,
Jelly. We need to get this down him.” Murdoch had prepared a small dose of
laudanum mixed into several swallows of water.
Jelly pillowed Johnny’s
head and shoulders against his chest while Murdoch wiped Johnny’s face.
“John. Look at me.”
Murdoch forced Johnny’s glassy eyes to meet his.
“I want you to drink
this for me.” He held the glass close to Johnny’s face so the boy could see
“No…be sick.” Murdoch’s
voice seemed to come from far away and the glass in front of his eyes wavered
in and out of focus.
“You need to try
and keep it down, John. This will help the pain. Please try for me.”
Murdoch and Jelly
teamed together to trickle the laudanum mixture down Johnny’s throat. They
worked slowly, constantly encouraging him to hold it down. Each silently
prayed that Johnny could do it.
But Johnny couldn’t.
He’d barely swallowed the medicine when his outraged stomach retaliated by
trying to crawl up the back of his throat. The retching provoked by the liquid
nearly tore him in half. He heaved miserably, his entire world narrowed to
the relentless torment in his belly.
He wished the world
would stop spinning. The blaze in his gut was bad enough, but now the room
wouldn’t stay still. Johnny tried to take a deep breath to stop the dizziness,
but the effort cost him dearly. A fresh torrent of agony rolled over him.
He was drowning in a wave of fire and his body struggled against it. A pang
sharper than the others skewered his side, dragging a hoarse cry through his
He saw it then—a
dark figure lurking in the corner of the room. It unfurled immense black
wings, shaking them to precisely arrange each sinister feather. He’d ridden
many miles with that menacing apparition, had even thought of it as a friend
of sorts. But its presence here now was different. Tonight, he was not the
bringer, but the taken. He needed to move, to fight, to get away from its
deadly touch. But he had no strength and could only watch in helpless fury
as the ominous blackness swooped down and smothered him.
Murdoch stared in
horror as Johnny went limp beneath his hands. “Johnny!” His stunned eyes
met Jelly’s. “Dear God, no!”