The house was quiet and all
were in bed except for Murdoch Lancer who sat in the big cozy chair next to the
flickering flames in the fireplace. He
should be in bed and he wanted to be in bed, but hadn’t gone to bed because he
was waiting up for Johnny to come home.
He sighed then turned another page in his book while pushing the golden spectacles he sometimes wore, a little closer to eyes. The glasses weren’t something he liked to wear, but age was making it more and more difficult to read the small print, especially when trying to do so in the dim lighting of the great room so late at night.
Murdoch’s eyes weren’t really focused on his reading at any rate. The turning of each page was more of an unconscious thing to do as he waited somewhat patiently for his son to come home. Where was he and why wasn’t he home yet, Murdoch wondered idly, as he turned yet another page of his book and noted the very late hour? And why was it that he felt the need to wait up? Johnny wasn’t a child, nor was he ill for that matter or expected home at any particular time. And it wasn’t like Johnny wasn’t capable of taking care of himself, hadn’t he been doing that for the past ten years? The answer was yes, but Murdoch ignored it.
His mind was inundated with a persistent nagging compulsion that had him absurdly waiting up for no good reason, a similar feeling he thought, much like the one he felt when it had been Maria’s time to give birth. Johnny had taken his sweet time then to come into the world. A small thing he was, red and wrinkled, a bundle of wiggling tight fisted energy that made his presence known with his first lung full of air just past the midnight hour.
The sound of it Murdoch remembered had him smiling from ear to ear. A healthy sound that filled his heart with a different kind of love he hadn’t known existed until that very moment. His thick brawny arms quivered when Johnny was placed into his palms, more frightened than he had ever been in his life when his baby boy wriggled and squirmed with newborn innocence in the cup of his hands.
Murdoch remembered looking down at him, pleased and proud that he was a part of this new little human that he helped create. Fixated by the perfect features, the tiny hands and feet, the dark black hair that covered his soft perfect head. He didn’t think at that time, that there could be anything more wonderful than what he was experiencing, except for if he had been able to do the same with Scott, his fair haired child. Adding that experience would have made his life complete he thought in that one brief second of bliss mixed with longing regret.
But then the baby’s eyes opened for the first time, a sunrise it seemed to Murdoch, for the child’s eyes were the color of a deep blue sky, endlessly perfect and full of life as he stared up at Murdoch’s face for the first time. He sat down then, fearful that he would drop his newborn son if he didn’t find an anchor with which to settle his shaking bones. A downy soft blanket, specially made by Maria, was offered to him, a cocoon of warmth that was blessedly used to wrap his precious son in. So long ago Murdoch thought, but still as fresh in his mind today as if it had only happened yesterday.
Murdoch sighed, turning another page in his book. If only he could have seen the future in those perfectly round sapphire orbs, laced by long thick black lashes. I would have kept you near my heart, my soul, and my person for all time. I would never have let you go…not in a million years, he thought with a tinge of sorrow in his heart.
When had they decided on a name? He didn’t think it was until he saw those eyes. Maria hadn’t spoken to him about names all through her pregnancy, though he had tried to get her to. She had told him that they must wait and he remembered now that something was said about the name being special…spiritual even…one that could not be forced but would come to them when the baby introduced himself properly into their world. Then Murdoch would know, Maria had promised. And she had been right, for all the other names he had thought upon secretly, now seemed trivial and too tame…not nearly as good as the one that came to mind when he saw those perfect little eyes so much like his brother Ian’s.
God’s gracious gift, Murdoch remembered his mother crooning over his little brother Ian when he had been born with those same intense, dark blue eyes. And so, Murdoch named him John…Johnny he had whispered close to his son’s face, tracing a finger down the petal soft smoothness of his baby cheek, awed by the graciousness of such a gift from Heaven. Now he understood his mother, what she had meant at the time, and thought the words so appropriate a meaning for his son as well.
There it is at last, Murdoch sighed to no one. The faint clomp of hooves, the soft melodious tune drifting through the French doors. He’s singing…I can’t believe he’s singing, Murdoch thought, closing the book and setting it off to the side, as he strained his ears to hear more. The melody disappeared though as soon as he arched his neck to the side and concentrated on making out the words.
Murdoch missed it. He wanted to hear more. It was a side of his son he hadn’t as of yet seen or heard before, a happy Johnny, a singing Johnny. He is happy, isn’t he, Murdoch wondered? I hope so. I want him to be, Murdoch thought.
As far as he could tell, Johnny hadn’t had a whole lot of happiness in his life. Even coming here wasn’t all that happy an experience…not for Johnny…not for Scott. This being part of the reason he was still up and waiting, he reasoned. If it were Scott out and about, alone in a world he was unaccustomed to, he’d be doing the same thing, he told his inner self. Damnit! Why couldn’t they have both been out at the same time? Surely that would have eased his worries just a little…wouldn’t it have, he questioned himself, unsure of the exact answer.
This was the first night since Johnny’s recovery, since his sons signing of the partnership that Johnny had gone off on his own. And Murdoch worried, just like the night of his birth, just like all those nights when his son was missing. He worried that Johnny would leave and not come back now that he was a man full-grown, their battle for the ranch over, the money paid and in his pocket. He worried that trouble would find his son or that his son would find trouble. Either way…the result could be the same…he might not come back.
Murdoch’s ears perked…there it was again, the singing. And it was getting closer. There were steps to be heard now. Slow and at times, uneven, accompanied by the jingle of silver spurs when the spiked rowels hit the ground. What was that, Murdoch wondered when he heard a musical twang and umphf? He stood up and walked to the front door. Murdoch opened it and peered out into the inky blackness.
Just beyond the front foyer, Johnny was getting up to his feet, dusting his hands off as he stumbled back a step, his balance thrown off by too much drink and something large attached to his back. A rifle Murdoch thought, stepping out of the doorway and onto the tiled entryway. He realized it wasn’t a rifle as soon as he approached his son and grabbed for his wrist, giving Johnny something steady so as to balance himself properly.
Johnny smiled at him, “Hi Murdoch,” he said, grinning wide. “Thanks.”
Murdoch let go of his wrist but not until he gave his son a little pull toward the front door. “You’re welcome…I think,” Murdoch said following a pace behind until Johnny was safely in the house.
A guitar! What in the world was he doing with a guitar? Could he play? Is that a stupid question or what, he thought? He must be able to play, why else would he have it? Why don’t I just ask him? Murdoch followed Johnny into the great room. His son didn’t seem any more steady on his feet now than he had outside, except in the house he had things to grab hold of as he made his way to the sofa and sat down on the edge of the seat.
Murdoch crossed the room and stood in front of his son, looking down at him from his towering height. Johnny looked up at him and again, there was that dazzling smile.
“You waitin’ up for me?” Johnny asked.
“I was,” Murdoch replied. “You feelin’ okay.”
Johnny nodded his head, swayed a little on the sofa and said, “Yep…feelin’ just fine.”
“Want me to help with that?” Murdoch asked, jutting his chin at the guitar on Johnny’s back.
Johnny shifted and turned his head this way and that, but didn’t have a clue what his father was talking about and he said so. “Help me with what?” he asked with a slight slurring of his voice.
“You have a guitar strapped to your back.”
Johnny’s brows furrowed, “I do.” Once again, he twisted this way and that, unable to see the object, but felt it now that he knew there was something there to feel. He took his hat off and sat it down on the sofa beside him, a puff of frustration hissing between his teeth. His hands found their way to his shoulders and try as he may he couldn’t get the guitar off his back for anything. In fact, all he managed to do for his effort was get more and more worked up.
Murdoch took pity on his predicament and helped him out. “Let me help you son.” He took the strap across Johnny’s chest and pulled up until he had it over Johnny’s head, handing him the instrument when he was done.
“I forgot about this,” Johnny said when it was in his lap.
“How did you get it?” Murdoch asked.
“Won it,” Johnny replied, strumming his thumbs across the strings.
“Poker?” Murdoch wondered aloud.
Johnny sighed, and leaned back against the sofa, his body relaxed, his boots shifting out and crossing at the ankles, “Yep.”
“Can you play it?” Murdoch asked him taking up the seat he had earlier in the big comfy chair by the fireplace.
“Yep,” Johnny said, strumming his thumb across the strings again, closing his eyes with another tired smile.
“I heard you singing.”
“Hmm,” was all Johnny said, his fingers moving slowly across the strings, picking them one or two at a time, while his left hand fingers moved to make chords. It was a lilting, sweet, but sad melody, played softly but in tune.
“Who taught you how to play?” Murdoch asked.
Johnny with his eyes still closed and strumming softly said, “No one.”
Now this made Murdoch’s brows arch impressionably. This can’t be, he thought. His son was still playing, the melody as beautiful as any music he had ever heard before. “What do you mean by ‘no one’, Johnny?” he asked.
The fingers stopped playing and Johnny opened his eyes. He looked across the room at his father and took a deep breath through his nose, “I mean…no one. I learned on my own.”
The strumming started again, this time a slightly different tune, just as sweet, just as melodious, but definitely different. “You must have had someone show you something. You play too well not to have.”
Johnny stopped playing and splayed his hand across all six of the strings and the hollow spot just under them. He laughed, flexing the toe of his right boot and stared at his father, the light of the fire flickering in his eyes, when he said, “Guess I’ll take that as a compliment.”
Murdoch eased forward and said, “You’re serious…no one has taught you?”
Johnny laughed again and told his father, “That’s what I said. The only learnin’ I ever got was hearin’ some old Mexican in a run down cantina playing one night. He got drunk, passed out at the table and I picked up his guitar and started playin’ it.” He shifted on the sofa and his hand brushed along the strings, making a jumbled rumbling string noise that was a far cry from the music those hands could make when he wanted to.
“But how can that be? It takes time to learn and I’ve never met anyone who could just do it.”
Johnny seemed to think on this and then said, “The bartender said I had an ear for music. Guess that means I can just hear it and figure it out.” Johnny set the guitar off to the side, resting the neck of it against the back cushions of the sofa. “Murdoch?” he said.
“Yes,” Murdoch replied.
“I’m tired,” Johnny, told him closing his eyes and lacing his fingers together over the buckle of his belt. “I want to go upstairs, but my head is spinnin’.”
Apparently the conversation about the guitar and his playing was over. Murdoch noticed his son sinking just a little deeper into the sofa, his body maneuvering to a more laid back comfortable sprawl than an easy recline and decided it was best to get him upstairs before he fell asleep.
“Johnny?” Murdoch said.
“Hmm?” Johnny mumbled sleepily, pushing a hand through the wayward strands of dark hair that fell carelessly over his closed eyes.
“Why don’t you go on up to bed son.”
Johnny opened his drowsy eyelids. “Don’t know if I can now that I’m down.”
“How about I help you?”
“Mmm…that’d be okay.”
Murdoch smiled and got up. He crossed the small distance between them and knelt down at Johnny’s feet. He tugged and pulled off his boots, setting them off to the side. He heard Johnny sigh and watched him wriggle on the sofa, ready it seemed to snuggle in for the night right where he was.
“Mmm?” Johnny mumbled drowsily, leaning more and more to his right.
Murdoch reached up a hand, keeping his son from falling over, wincing just a little at the tightness the stretch gave his back. I better hurry or I’ll find myself having to carry him up, Murdoch thought.
“You have to help me son. Sit up straight and let’s get your gun belt off.”
Johnny opened his eyes more alert it seemed when Murdoch mentioned his gun. “Don’t want it off down here,” he said, not stopping his father from unfastening the big buckle at his waist, though a part of him wanted to for some reason he couldn’t remember why.
“Let’s just get it off son. There’s no one here but us and you can take it upstairs with you.” The buckle gave and Murdoch had it to where the gun belt could slide off with ease. “Sit up Johnny.”
Johnny did as his father asked with great effort and Murdoch pulled the gun belt from around his waist and re-buckled it.
“Murdoch?” Johnny said with his eyes closed, swaying it seemed to Murdoch.
“Yes son,” his father answered humorously.
“I want to go to bed.”
“I know you do son,” Murdoch said, “That’s what we’re working on.”
Murdoch pulled the looped gun belt over his shoulder and stood up. With two hands, he reached down and pulled Johnny up to his feet. “Come on son,” he said, pulling one arm up and over his shoulder, clasping Johnny’s hand with his left while wrapping his other arm around Johnny’s waist.
They managed the stairs, barely, making it to the second level of the house with as much grace as a man dancing with two left feet. Murdoch opened the door to Johnny’s room, grateful there was enough light from the hallway lanterns to see what he was doing. His son slipped from his shoulder onto the bed, instantly curling up when his body hit the mattress, all pretense of wakefulness completely gone now that his head was on a pillow.
Murdoch walked to the end of the bed and pulled a blanket from the chest. He draped it over his sleeping son and then hung his gun belt on the headboard post. He looked down at Johnny and thought back wistfully on the night he was born and all the moments in Johnny’s life he had missed. He wished, but would never tell anyone, that he could turn back the clock and start all over again. From the beginning, for he knew now, in hindsight, he would have done things much differently.
He would have gone for Scott; he would have brought him home, no matter the cost, the time or the effort involved. And Johnny…he would have never let Maria take him in the first place. He would have been more aware, more caring of the things he had done wrong in his life that had made her take off with their son in the first place.
He grimaced and pushed the bangs off his sleeping son’s forehead. All the wasted time, he thought. Years I could have had all this and so much more. He knew then, as coarse as he had been to both his sons, as standoffish and impatient as he had been, as private and closed off as he had been, that it would never happen again. His sons were home, where they belonged and he would fight to keep them here. For he missed it much, those years gone by.