The Boy

Part Six

by  Karen and Nancy



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


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


“Not now, Jelly--”


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


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


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


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


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


“Yes, I’m aware of that, Jelly.”


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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




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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


“But, Murdoch…”


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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





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 as nightmares.


“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 trauma.


“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.”


Murdoch responded 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.


Murdoch remembered 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 friend.


“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 son’s love…


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 find.


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 dry.


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 feel better.


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.


“Jelly!” Murdoch 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, hollering thataway.”


“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.”


“Scott’s room?”




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. “Tommy…Tommy…”


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.




Johnny’s restless 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. 




Late afternoon…


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 his misery.


“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 concern.


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. That’s all.”


Murdoch clenched 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 tolerate.”


“Damn it, Murdoch, I ain’t a child!”


“You’re my 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 don’t…I…Murdoch, 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.”


“Nightmares?” Johnny 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?”


“Johnny…it’s all 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’?”


Johnny struggled 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 rejection.


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 other man.”


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 wind.


Murdoch whispered 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?”


Johnny struggled 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. 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 to bed?”


“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 brow.


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’ about?”


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.”


Johnny’s shoulders 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 my eyes.”


“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.


Murdoch cringed. He didn’t want Johnny to misunderstand what he had said. “Johnny, wait. Let me explain--”


“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 you, Johnny.”


“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 a stampede--”


“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, young man…”


“You sure you wanna know?”


“Break this in half for me, please.” Murdoch handed the small bundle of kindling to Johnny. “Do you remember the Deegans?”


Johnny struggled 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 not.”


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.”


Murdoch remembered 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 in agony.




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 worry.”


“Try to relax, son.”


“You…you talk…to me.”


“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 friend.”


Mi amigo…he 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 cousin?”


“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.”


Johnny strangled a sob when Murdoch mentioned Pablo’s special endearment for him. He hadn’t been called that since the night Pablo died.


Murdoch squeezed 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 Man.”


Murdoch laughed. 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 throat.


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 the blanket.


“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 head slowly.


“Do you dream about it?”




“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.


Murdoch squeezed 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.


“They b…bu…butchered 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?”


“They…they smeared 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 for breath.


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 you buy?”




“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 known him.”


“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 palomino.”


“Oro was Barranca’s daddy? Reckon’ I shoulda known.” A smile played over Johnny’s lips. “Good old Oro.”


“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? 


Johnny scrutinized 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 reference?”


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 face.


“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 Matador?”


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 guaranteed.’


“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.”


“Why Madrid?”


“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 Pablo’s killers.”


“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 now.


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.” 


Murdoch gathered 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, almost disinterested.


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 you there.”


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 long.


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 his mother.”


“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 do.”


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 there.


“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.”


La luciernaga….” 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 smile.


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, son.”


“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—”


Johnny interrupted 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 mother, huh?”


“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 next person.”


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 flooding back.


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 motion.


“She…she did love me.” The hoarse whisper was a plea for affirmation.


“I know she did, John.”


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 coyote, huh?”


“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 muscles.


“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 fire.


“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.”


Murdoch snorted. “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 Maria died?


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.”



Murdoch supported 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 physical condition.


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 his tone.


“Please put your arm around my neck, John.  I don’t want to throw my back out.”


Johnny acknowledged 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, Jelly.”


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 room.


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 birthday suit.


Murdoch tactfully 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, Johnny?”


“Everywhere.” Johnny 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 insisted.


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, too.


Murdoch tousled the dark hair as he started to rise, but Johnny grasped his sleeve tentatively. “Murdoch….”


“Yes, son?”


Johnny smiled shyly at him. “Will you…will you…stay with me?”


Murdoch flushed with pleasure. “Of course, son. I’m not going anywhere.”


Johnny’s request 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 rest.


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.


“G’night, Murdoch. 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?”


“Yes, son?”


“Love you.”


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 his father.


“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.


//Hurry, Sam.//


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 son’s rest.




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 recover.


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 teeth.


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.


“I don’t…feel…so good.” Johnny groaned.


“I know, son. Sam’s on his way.”


//Please be on your way, Sam.//


“Hurts…help me…”


“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. “Where’s Sam?”


“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 done.


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?”


“J…Jelly?” Johnny 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 it.


“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 gritted teeth.


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!”


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