Summary: An answer, of sorts, to the Winter Challenge on Lancer Writers. Murdoch realizes coyotes are much more than wild dogs.
When I was young
and full of grace and spirited
When I was young and fever fell
My spirit, I will not tell
You're on your honor not to tell
It was a hot day, the worst that Murdoch could remember in a long time, years maybe. The sweat running from his forehead down his temple and into his eyes was aggravating. As he used his sleeve in a vain attempt to stop the burning course, he stole a glance at his son sitting beside him. They had just left Green River with a wagon full of building materials needed to work on a few new line shacks envisioned by both Scott and Murdoch. Those new shacks would be a welcome assistance in making the ranch more efficient. As Murdoch watched, Johnny scrunched down further into the seat he shared with his father and moved his hat even farther down on his face to fully cover his eyes.
Murdoch sighed. One thing he'd learned quickly about this son was that if you put him in enforced confinement his first inclination was to mentally remove himself from the situation. He'd feign sleep, or at least appear totally immersed in some daydream, but that was a faηade. Pity the man who would use that appearance to get a jump on Johnny Lancer, either for gain or for joke's sake. The roots of Madrid ran very deep and situations such as this apparently called for that aspect of his younger son to make a rather vivid appearance. Many men had discovered this during Johnny's relatively short tenure at the ranch, with the most frequent "victim" being his older brother. Scott was easily lured into attempts at practical jokes during long and boring wagon trips to town and Johnny was all too tempting as the supposedly unsuspecting brother.
Murdoch smiled in remembrance of some of Scott's miscalculations. At times, it even scared Murdoch a bit, making him worry about overreaction on Johnny's part. But the same instinct that let Johnny Madrid know danger was lurking seemed to unerringly inform him that it was his older brother who was up to no good. This was not to say that Scott never succeeded, because he certainly did and the results were awe-inspiring, to say the least. This had also caused some consternation for the father of these two, but Johnny seemed to think of Scott's victories as failures of some sort on his part and often laughed louder than the older brother at the result. Of course, there would be the softly drawled threats that were generally carried out in some expedient manner to put a mild damper on Scott's amusement. There were times that Murdoch could see that Scott halfway wished he'd been unsuccessful in some foolhardy scheme to put one over on his brother. Paybacks could be costly to a dignified reputation, and swift yet deadly accurate retribution was a trademark of Johnny Lancer.
The few times Johnny had actually fallen asleep on a long trip were explained by illness or injury. Murdoch recalled clearly the time he'd gone to meet the approaching wagon only to see Johnny's head leaning so far into Scott that he was practically in his lap. Murdoch's heart had skipped a beat as he walked faster to meet his boys. Scott's eyes had been dark with barely contained fear as he informed his father that Johnny had become sick on the way in, but insisted on returning home that evening. He had said it would be far better to be sick at home with Teresa and Murdoch hovering around than to be sick in town with Scott tormenting him. Besides, Johnny had complained to his brother, he hated being stuck in Green River with no way to get to the things he loved. Naturally, Scott had acquiesced, but had begun regretting his decision as soon as they moved further away from civilization and any medical intervention possibly needed. Johnny had been almost unresponsive at that point and was shivering so hard that even Scott's jacket laid carefully over his shaking body seemed to hold no additional warmth.
After quickly informing Murdoch of the situation, Johnny had been practically carried into the great room by a guilt-ridden and anxious Scott. The illness had merely been some sort of brief malady, but it was a long time before Scott forgave his brother for scaring him so completely. He'd spent hours by Johnny's side on the couch, ensconcing him in blankets and applying cool compresses to his forehead. Murdoch would come to check on his youngest only to find Scott talking softly to him as he pushed strands of lank dark hair off his little brother's brow. Murdoch had worried for both sons equally at that point and had been forced to have a talk with Scott over allowing Johnny his choices and not becoming ill himself over the consequences. He wasn't sure the talk was all that effective, however, and thankfully the fever lifted and the situation righted itself naturally. Johnny had the good grace to apologize to his exhausted brother and vowed he wouldn't put him through such an event again. Murdoch noticed that the bond the brothers shared seemed to strengthen over the episode and he was glad he'd left the two to sort it out. Secretly, he'd given thanks that things had turned out okay, knowing full well that a different outcome might have been devastating for all involved.
These rather morose thoughts forced Murdoch into glancing at his son again. Partly out of boredom, but mostly out of unfounded worries, Murdoch sought to attempt a conversation.
"Son, you doing okay over there?" Murdoch decided a simple and direct question would make a good starting point.
Without moving a muscle, Johnny's muffled voice came from underneath his hat. "Yep. I'm good."
Stupid. Murdoch shook his head. He knew better than asking a yes or no kind of question. His next try was better planned.
"It's damned hot. How were the horses in the north pasture when you checked them yesterday?"
Johnny flinched a mite at this. Horses were a weakness with him and the drought had caused him some worry. "They seemed okay, Murdoch. I am nervous about the waterin' hole over there. It's gettin' pretty low and if we don't get some rain, we might be needin' to move near fifty head of horses."
Murdoch shared his son's concern. The heat wasn't the only enemy right now. The dry conditions were taking their toll on Lancer and all the surrounding ranches. There were a few clouds on the horizon, but it was hard to tell if they contained rain or were merely a result of the intense heat.
"I hear you, son. We'll move the horses, even if it means crowding the land over in the south pasture for a while. The water there can hold a bit more stock, but as you say, the lack of rain is enough to make any man nervous."
Although Johnny never sat up, Murdoch could tell his interest was piqued. "You'd move the horses in where you've got cattle? That's got to be a new one for ya, right Murdoch?"
Murdoch smiled in spite of himself. "I know how much those particular horses mean to you, my son. Problem is, if we don't get rain soon, we'll be in a world of hurt and I'll be selling off some of those cows anyway, just to keep them from dying of thirst."
For the first time, Johnny's hand came up and pushed his hat back to expose his face. "Shit, Murdoch, we can sell off some of them horses too. The army would take 'em. We'll have to get with Scott and see what kind of numbers we can manage."
"Yes, you're right. It will take some figuring to come up with a plan to pull us through the crisis. It won't be the first time drought hit the ranch and Lord knows, it won't be the last. It's a difficult time for everyone around here, so let's hope those clouds there hold a bit of rain for us, at least."
Johnny glanced over his shoulder and shrugged. "Hard to tell. The air around is so damned still, could be a storm's on the brew. I figure if there's rain in the clouds, these horses will start getting nervy on us before we'll know."
Murdoch gazed over the rumps of the slowly plodding horses. "Well, it seems almost impossible to imagine at this point, but you're right." He half-heartedly slapped the reins and the horses moved up the pace a fraction.
When the horses slowed down after only a few steps, Johnny laughed and pulled his hat back over his face. "They got the right idea, ol' man. They realize you're so hot and tired, you ain't gonna be workin' up more of a sweat tryin' to get them to lather up. They know you better 'n you think."
Murdoch shot a look at his son and smiled at the grin he could see just under the hat's brim. "I think you all are starting to become a little too smart for your own good. That's what I think." He smacked the reins a little more firmly this time and then laughed as his son blindly grabbed for the seat as the wagon lurched forward.
Murdoch was silent for a while, hoping his son would initiate something. He'd just about given up when he heard a soft sigh. Looking over, Murdoch watched as his son straightened in his seat and removed his hat. He was gazing off into the distance and slowly waving his hat back and forth, creating a small breeze for them both.
"You think the ranch will be okay, Murdoch? I mean, if we don't get some rain soon." Johnny's tone was apprehensive and Murdoch felt the need to soothe his son.
"I think it'll work out. It always does. I believe what you need will be provided, just not as soon as you might want."
Johnny stopped the waving motion of his hat and looked directly in Murdoch's eyes. "You really believe that?"
"Sure I do, Johnny. I've been around a while and I've seen it happen more than once. You saying you don't believe it?"
Blinking slowly at him, Johnny scrunched back down in his seat and covered his face with his hat once again. He crossed his arms over his chest before answering. "Nope. Can't say I do. Don't have that experience in my life or at least the time needed to prove it was true was something beyond me and the folks I knew."
Murdoch swallowed hard. How could an innocent statement turn into such a revealing topic? He'd never meant to start this type of conversation, and wondered if Johnny had been the one in control, after all. With his youngest boy, you just never knew. He decided to give it a go and let his son take the reins.
"So what do you believe, John?"
"Don't know that it matters much, all in all."
Murdoch was not expecting that answer. Not in the least. "What do you mean, it doesn't matter what you believe in?"
Johnny edged his hat back and looked up at him with eyes that glistened a cold blue. "Now, old man, you asked me what I believed about getting what you need. Askin' what I believe "in" is a whole different kind of thing, don't ya think?"
"I'm not sure I follow you, son. Take pity on your old man and explain what you mean."
There was a long pause, enough of one to make Murdoch worry he'd lost the chance to get to know another aspect of his son, before Johnny finally sighed and began talking in his soft and silky drawl.
"I don't think we all get what we need. There's some that are left to die and others that suffer all their lives. You can't tell me they got what they needed. Unless your idea of what they needed is different than what you or I need."
Murdoch nodded his head, afraid to stop the flow of words coming from somewhere within his son that spoke of a past of which he knew too little. It was difficult listening to the underlying pain, but Murdoch was determined to allow this particular buried past a chance at the light of day.
"I knew too many people that died a sad kind of death. One they never deserved. Life in Mexico , and other places I'm sure, well, it doesn't allow for that whole idea of need."
Murdoch stared out over the horses, aware that they had once again slowed their pace. He felt no urge to move them on, but simply let them plod along as he waited for Johnny to continue his thoughts.
"But askin' me what I believe in, well, that's a different thing. I believe in lots of shit, Murdoch." Johnny sat very still after that, arms crossed and face hidden again under his hat.
Too curious to remain silent, Murdoch asked, "Then what are some of the things you believe in, John?"
Johnny huffed a small chuckle and lifted a finger on his right hand. "Only if you tell me some of yours, old man. And we don't have to do no explainin'. All that explainin' of things makes me tired."
"Okay, it's a deal. You first."
Johnny uncrossed his arms and pushed his hat back to hang by its stampede strap. He remained relaxed and slouched on the seat, but his gaze was on the far off horizon, toward Lancer.
"I believe in standing up for what's right. Even when it's not the easy thing to do."
Murdoch nodded. Although this was no surprise, it was good to hear his son voice it. "I'm in agreement with that one. Let's see I believe in loyalty."
There was no movement from Johnny, only silence. Then his quiet drawl slipped through the still air. "I believe in family. Blood bein' thicker than water."
Shooting a quick glance over to his son, Murdoch was met only with a slight shake of the head and that raised index finger. Right. No explanations.
"Here's one. I believe in hard work. I think it cures a multitude of evils."
Johnny snickered and Murdoch gave him a father's look.
His son turned serious. "I believe in ghosts. Not the type that yell and groan, but the kind that can come out of the past and haunt a man."
Murdoch answered, "I admit, I believe in them too, or at least the kind you describe. I'd have to say I believe in the afterlife. I like to think there's something else after here."
Johnny became very still, seeming to contemplate Murdoch's words. As he sat, he reached down and fingered the holster to his gun. Murdoch wondered if this action was so ingrained that he didn't even realize he was doing it.
Eventually, Johnny said, "I believe in practice. It might not make perfect, but it sure as hell can make livin' a bit more likely. And that afterlife you were talkin' about yeah, I believe in that too."
Murdoch was struck by the pairing of those particular ideas. It made him wonder how one thing had led to the other, but he ignored his own curiosity and quickly answered, "Okay that's good to hear, son. In keeping with that thought hmmm I believe in forgiving a man his transgressions."
It was Johnny's turn to give a quick look and Murdoch, belatedly realizing the impact of his words, purposely refused to meet his eyes. His son's gaze turned back to the horizon and his mouth became set in a thin line. The silence lingered.
Images slammed into him. His son slinking back through the darkness, only the ringing of spurs letting him know the boy was there. The flash from the pistols and Sexton Joe laying dead.
Stryker's son attempting to take the stallion. The scuffle and the appearance of a pistol. His son's Colt flashing like lightning on a dry day. The roar of thunder and another man falling.
Holding his son, feeling him pant with exertion and anxiety. Hearing Isham moving in the darkness, violating Lancer, violating a friendship losing everything. His son moving away from him, away from his grasp. The ringing of spurs again, the fanning of a pistol. A man who was once called friend falling to the hard earth. A choice and a death. Why did sorrow and death so often accompany his son's trials? The things this boy endured surpassed his own tribulations and that determined survival made his father's heart proud. And afraid.
Murdoch turned his head quickly, realizing he'd temporarily drifted into a gray oblivion of memories. His sudden movement made Johnny react, and Murdoch watched his son's hand glide from across his chest to his side in search of that pistol. Then Johnny's eyes cleared and for a moment they stared at each other, each knowing the other was living some sort of past hell. As Murdoch watched Johnny Madrid's eyes go from glittering blue ice to hesitant pools of cerulean, he marveled at the transformation.
Coughing away his nervousness, Murdoch said, "I believe in forgiveness so that I might be forgiven."
Johnny closed his eyes briefly and then turned away, his whole demeanor distant as he looked out across the wild land before them. Murdoch watched the horses and realized that indeed they were reacting to the environment. He could feel a slight breeze on his back and the horses' ears were pricking forward as they shook their manes and jingled the harness. Maybe, just maybe, some relief for the land, as well as animal and man was in the near future.
Johnny's butter-soft voice startled him. "I believe in coyotes."
Murdoch blinked. He must have heard wrong. "What did you say, John?"
Murdoch could have sworn he heard a quiet laugh.
"I said I believe in coyotes."
"Okay, now, I'm not supposed to ask for an explanation for that. I must tell you, my son, I have no idea what you're talking about."
"I'll grant you this one, old man. I knew you wouldn't let it go. It's just somethin' I realized when I was thinkin' about them fuckin' transgressions you might be referrin' to."
It took some effort, but Murdoch bit his tongue and remained silent.
"Coyotes are the tricky hijos de putas in Indian legend, you know." Murdoch quickly nodded and Johnny continued. "But they have a job that they do, as bad as some might see it."
"I don't know, Johnny. What's their job?"
"Well, Murdoch, in those tales they do the dirty work so that the rest of the world can go about livin' nice and easy. They have to get rid of the evil bastardos and bring good to everyone else. That's what they are meant to do, but they fuck up some while they're doin' it. They spend a lot of time in hot water, if you know what I mean. Anyway, the Indians think they're sent to be kinda like a bridge between the predator and the prey. Coyotes only have their wits and their skills to keep 'em alive, but some men don't understand. They consider coyotes to be pure evil and hunt them for their efforts. Without the coyotes, though, the changes needed in the world might not happen. That's why a coyote takes his job so seriously, even if sometimes he plays the sneaky fool and takes a few risks to do it."
Murdoch's mouth grew dry and the heat became oppressive as he realized what his son was saying. He sat quietly for a long time, and off to his side, Johnny did likewise. Murdoch could see a slow trickle of sweat make its way from his son's forehead down his temple and to his cheek, making the father in him imagine tears. Without thinking, Murdoch switched the reins to his left hand and gently stroked his hand across the side of his son's face, reaching up to push the sweat-soaked hair back. Johnny never moved, but his eyes briefly closed and Murdoch gave a quiet thanks that he had apparently received the fleeting touch in the concerned father's way it was intended.
"You don't just believe in coyotes, do you, son? There were times you felt you were one, in a manner of speaking. Maybe even now you sometimes think it. Am I right?"
"Well, now, I done a good bit of explainin' old man. Here you go wantin' more than I think I have to offer. You got to learn to take what you get and be glad of it."
Just as he turned to meet his son's eyes, a sudden wind blew and took the hat right off of Murdoch's head. Johnny laughed as his father quickly stopped the team, and his son lithely jumped from the wagon and ran a few steps behind it to capture the escaped item. He stood behind the wagon for a moment, staring intently at the horizon, then ran back to the side and swung lightly to his seat and laughed again as he a bit roughly pushed Murdoch's hat back on his head.
"Look off to the west, Murdoch. We've got us some rain comin', if it'll hold out for a while, anyway."
Murdoch followed his son's pointed finger, and saw the vertical lines descending from darkened clouds in the distance.
"Well now, we might just get some of what we need this time, you think?" Murdoch sent his son a gentle smile.
A slow rumble of thunder rolled across the land and Johnny grinned back. "Sounds like it. We might be tellin' these horses to step it up a bit. I think we can make that line shack right over by the closest fence."
The horses didn't need much urging and the wagon soon moved into a much quicker pace.
As the buckboard approached the line shack, the wind began to pick up, causing both Lancers to hold on to their hats. The horses fairly pranced in the traces, the relief from the heat so welcome and reviving. Watching how the team transformed from plodding jugheads to cavorting steeds made both Murdoch and his son laugh. In one fluid movement, Johnny fairly stood in the wagon.
"Hey Murdoch, stop here. I'm checking on some things. Head on over to the line shack and I'll meet you there."
Murdoch pulled up the team and shot his son a questioning glance. "What's up, John?"
"Don't know." Johnny practically leapt to the ground and quickly walked off toward the trees immediately to the east of the shack. His son's stride was purposeful, yet graceful, and for a moment Murdoch had a flash of foreboding. That particular grace was something Murdoch found fascinating, but its roots were not of this life. Shaking off his worries, he moved the wagon forward and on around to the front of the little shack.
Tying the team to a post, Murdoch stepped up on the small porch and opened the door. As soon as he swung the door back, a voice came from the shadows.
"Come on in and shut the door behind you. Don't make any sudden moves or you're a dead man."
Murdoch dropped his hands to his side and squinted through the gloom. A boy about the age of Johnny stood before him. His copper red hair was visible even in the dusky light of the cabin. He was dressed poorly; his jeans were old and threadbare. Something about the boy appeared desperate, perhaps even deadly.
"What do you need, son? I might be able to help you."
Of course, he would think later, that was the exact wrong thing to say.
"Don't you call me son, you asshole! Now move away from the door."
Realizing his chances of overpowering the boy were great if he allowed him to think he was cooperating, Murdoch moved to the center of the small room.
"First off, I want the money you're carryin', mister. All of it!"
Murdoch said, "No problem." He made as if to reach for his wallet, but let his hand stray toward his holster. A noise to his immediate left brought him up short. A barking laugh came from behind him.
"You do that, mister, and it'll be the last thing you ever do."
Hands roughly grabbed Murdoch and turned him about. "You think we're idiots? That all you gotta do is reach for your gun and get a fast one off? Damn, you're a stupid piece of shit. Ian, why can't we just put him out of his misery and make it easy on ourselves?"
The boy holding him was a couple of year's younger than the other one, by the looks of him, and the hard gaze coming from underneath the shock of black hair hanging into the startling blue eyes just about took Murdoch's breath away.
"Hold up, Gabe. What do ya want, a murder charge on top of robbery? You know that ain't what we're here for."
The boy called Gabe roughly shoved Murdoch away before he answered his partner. "I know why we're here as well as you do, Ian. Don't mean we gotta let this son of a bitch get the drop on us, or think he can. He needs to respect a man with a gun, right asshole?"
Murdoch solemnly nodded his head. "Believe me, I do. Where were we didn't you want my money?"
"You're damn straight. Hand it over to Ian, mister, and we'll think about leaving you in one piece."
As Murdoch gathered his money, he stole a glance at the other boy. He also was wearing clothes that were not much better than rags. His light blue eyes had a hungry look and the grim set to his mouth made Murdoch think this boy was a lot like his own son had been once. A pang of worry struck him and he sent a silent prayer that Johnny wouldn't startle these ruffians by suddenly entering the shack.
Murdoch handed the money to Ian who counted it quickly. "There's enough here to get us out of the area. We'll tie him up and head out. Did you get the food you found stored in the cupboard and take it out to the saddlebags?"
Murdoch felt a moment of panic as Gabe replied, "Nah, I was just on my way out when we heard this fool come in. I'll go get 'em ready now."
Gabe turned and opened the door and was just about to step out when a hand as quick as a rattlesnake snared him and dragged him to one side. A drawl as smooth and soft as butter came from just around the corner.
"Well, well, well. What do we have here? Boys, I think maybe the four of us need to have a Sunday come to meeting just about now. That is if you both want to leave this line shack without some new holes added to your collection."
Ian made a move to grab Murdoch, but just as quickly as he'd been taken, Gabe appeared in the doorway with Johnny Madrid at his side. Johnny's Colt was pressed against Gabe's temple and his other hand held the younger boy firmly in place by the neck. Johnny's voice never rose and a small smile appeared, but his eyes were cold as death.
"I don't think you ought to be shovin' my ol' man about. That just ain't considered polite in these parts. I do know your buddy there wants to be polite, don't you think, boy?" Johnny shook the dark haired boy by the neck a bit.
"Ian, back off. You see the way this man wears his gun? He ain't just fuckin' with ya. I said back off!"
Ian took a quick look at Johnny's gun belt, briefly met the icy gaze of a gunslinger, and then wisely moved back. Murdoch reached over and took his gun.
"Okay, then. That's more like it." Johnny's smile began to reach his eyes, much to the surprise of his father. "We're all just gonna move real slow like over to the table and have a seat. I think there's a story here and I'm purty near ready to hear it. After we've had story time, then I can decide if I wanna shoot you or just kick your asses."
Johnny shoved Gabe on over to the table, pulled out a chair with his foot, and plopped him down in it. Johnny then moved a chair over and sat next to him, arms on his thighs and watching both boys closely. Murdoch followed his son's example and pushed Ian over to a chair before sitting down himself.
"I'm waiting." Johnny's smile was mocking and he tipped his chair back and closed his eyes briefly as if he was growing impatient with the boys' lack of cooperation.
Ian spoke up first. "Mister, we're just passing through here. We don't mean no harm other than we did aim to take some food and bedding we saw you had stored in here. We ain't ate in a while and it's gettin' kind of hard to sleep on the hard ground ever night."
Gabe snorted. "Shut the fuck up, Ian. Do you think these rich asses give a shit about our problems? All you're doin' is embarrassin' us both with your whinin'."
For the first time, Murdoch felt compelled to speak. "Have you boys been out on the trail long?"
"What's it to you?" Gabe practically spit out the question in his disdain.
Ian, however, seemed to sense an opening and met Murdoch's eyes. "We've been ridin' for months, mister. Me and Gabe here, well, we're foster brothers. Our foster parents were killed in a fire. We just barely escaped with our lives. It's been rough, but we're makin' it. I doubt you can understand, but we really were only tryin' to survive. We weren't tryin' to cause trouble."
The front legs of Johnny's chair slammed back down and his expression grew hard again. "How the hell would you begin to know what we can or can't understand? You think everyone but you has had a real easy life, don't you? Well, you're wrong. And self pity ain't no excuse for puttin' a man's life in danger. Especially if the man happens to be my father."
Johnny got up from the chair and moved to the front of the shack. His pacing was cat-like and the boys' eyes followed him in apparent fascination. Murdoch knew what they were experiencing. Johnny Madrid on the offense could be a fearsome sight. His son turned to face the boys and held his hands loosely at his sides while giving them his complete attention. No one moved for several seconds.
Outside, the storm began to gather strength as it moved closer. Murdoch couldn't help but wonder at the forces of nature at work inside the cabin as well. His son seemed lost in some distant memory, brought about by the ungainly planning of two wayward youths. It was obvious from their expressions that the boys were beginning to see the magnitude of the situation they'd gotten into. The man that was facing them was not someone to take lightly and they had threatened harm to that man's father. Murdoch was almost as taken aback as the boys at the barely restrained anger emitted by the glittering blue eyes of his son.
Murdoch made a move toward Johnny, hoping to bring his son back to the present. Sure enough, Johnny looked over to him and shook his head, and as he looked at his father, his face seemed to relax and the small smile once again played upon his lips.
"If I know my homeless boys like I think I do, you guys are probably starving. Could you eat something?" The question spoken in Johnny's typical soft drawl was out of place with the actions of mere seconds before, but his tone was sincere and the tension in the shack immediately lessened.
Ian looked solemnly at his foster brother, who simply shrugged as he replied, "We could eat."
Murdoch took the cue from his son. "That settles it then. I'll go out and get some of the things we bought in town. Good thing Maria always has a list for us, or all you'd had to eat was some jerky and hardtack."
Murdoch passed Johnny on his way out the door and gave his son's shoulder a gentle pat. Once outside, he noticed it was sprinkling and the rain would soon begin in earnest, so Murdoch took the opportunity to unhitch the horses and move them to the small pole barn. He then gathered the needed supplies quickly, not wanting to leave his son alone with the newly contrite boys too long. Things were calm now, but any of the three was quite capable of exploding at a moment's notice and this was something Murdoch knew all too well.
When he came back in the shack he was surprised to see the three young men sitting together, deep in conversation. They remained that way as Murdoch cooked a meal of ham, biscuits, and pan fried potatoes. When he set the plates in front of them, Ian and Gabe ate as if they hadn't had a decent thing to eat in weeks. Murdoch re-wrapped the remaining ham and put it in a cloth sack along with the rest of the biscuits and some of the raw potatoes. Perhaps they'd get another meal or two out of them as they continued on their journey.
As they finished their meal, Murdoch listened with interest as Johnny explained how he had known they were in the cabin, or at least suspected it. He had gone investigating until he'd spied the little paint and buckskin ponies tied under the cover of the trees. He related that he had experiences that came in handy and those included knowing when something was out of the ordinary in his immediate surroundings. The boys listened with rapt attention and Murdoch couldn't help smile as the explanations soon moved into a sharing of stories from life on the trail. He added a few of his own and was surprised and grateful that the boys were responding positively to the camaraderie of the evening.
Finally Murdoch informed the little group he was going to turn in as it had grown late. As he lay on the little cot on the far side of the shack he listened to the thrum of voices and the melody of laughter of the young men at the table and realized he was a very lucky man. The persistent drum of the rain and the far off rumbles of thunder were relaxing and before long he was lulled into a deep sleep.
Before dawn, Murdoch awoke and quickly scanned his surroundings. Gabe and Ian had bedded down on two more of the small beds on the other side of the cabin. Johnny was still sitting at the table, but his head was pillowed on his crossed arms, giving the impression he was fast asleep. Murdoch knew better. Any flinch from the others would open those watchful eyes and a move would be certain to bring up his head and his hand to his side. Murdoch lay still, hoping to grant his son what rest he could get under the conditions. Johnny would be allowed to sleep as long as he wanted once they reached the hacienda, Murdoch would guarantee it. Feeling as if he was fiercely protected, Murdoch allowed himself to drift back to sleep, knowing his son was all the guard he could possibly need.
All the boys were up as soon as the sun began streaming through the small window of the line shack. Murdoch brewed a pot of strong coffee, more for Johnny's benefit than anyone else. He then made up another batch of biscuits and brought out the fresh jam purchased while in Green River. Everyone ate heartily, including himself, and when they had eaten their fill, Murdoch once more packed up the remaining food for the boys.
Morning had brought about a complete change of demeanor in the young men. Even Gabe had lost the hard look in his eyes and followed Johnny outside to see to the team and their own mounts, chattering away about the redeeming qualities of paint horses. Knowing his son had a particular fondness for a certain pinto from his past, Murdoch couldn't help smile as he listened to the pair chuckle over stories of their escapades with the spotted ponies. He glanced over at Ian who watched as his foster brother scrambled outside to keep up with Johnny.
"It's good to see him laughing. He ain't done it much since Ma and Pa died." Ian's coppery brown eyes were sad for a moment, then brightened. He reached inside his pocket and handed Murdoch the money they'd stolen the afternoon before. "I'm gonna make sure we get us some jobs at a ranch nearby. That way he can maybe see your son from time to time, if you don't mind, mister."
Murdoch grinned broadly. "Of course I don't mind. Johnny can take care of himself pretty well, and I have a feeling he may find he has made a lifelong friend out of your brother there."
Ian chuckled. "Well, if it's possible, sir, I'd like to think we could be your friends someday too. I know we got off on the wrong foot and all, but I do believe Johnny there helped us see the error of our ways."
"He does have that special gift of helping people see the light, doesn't he?" Murdoch knew his eyes reflected both humor and immense pride in his son. "As far as being my friends, I don't think there will be any doubt of it, as long as you both use your heads and try to do what's right. I'd be glad to call either of you friend."
Once Gabe and Ian had packed up their saddlebags with the food from the line shack and the sack Murdoch had given them, they made ready to leave. Murdoch could tell they were a bit emotional and he could also see the meeting had impacted his son as well. He wasn't surprised when Johnny offered a final piece of advice.
"Okay, boys, you look ready to go. You might think about headin' over to the Tompkins place between here and Green River. That's a nice ranch and I happen to be on pretty good terms with the foreman. Tell him Johnny and Murdoch Lancer sent you. Charlie's been lookin' for some good men, and I have a feelin' he'd be glad to set you up."
Ian looked grateful and Gabe gave Johnny a mischievous grin. "Plus, you happen to know a certain sheriff that can keep an eye out for us too, right? I was listenin' to those stories better 'n you think."
Johnny shook his head and laughed. "Hell, yeah. Ol' Val will be more 'n happy to keep you in his sights. That, I can guarantee."
The boys mounted their horses and with a couple of nods of the head, were on their way. Gabe gave a war hoop as they rode out of sight, spurring his paint horse on ahead of his brother in a show of youthful exuberance. Murdoch chuckled.
"I don't know why exactly, but that boy reminds me of somebody."
Johnny smiled as he watched the young men gallop toward their new futures. "Don't know who you might be talkin' about. He seems pretty near to bein' a no account rascal to me."
Murdoch reached over and gave his son's shoulder a brief squeeze as he chuckled. "Well, if there's one thing I do finally realize, that is to not always go with your first impressions. You just never can tell the true heart that's inside a man."
The two Lancers moved to the porch of the shack and stood in companionable silence for a while, looking out over the newly revived land.
Suddenly, Murdoch had to know. "Did those boys ever figure out who you are, son?"
Johnny looked down as he scuffed the toe of his boot in the dust of the little porch. "Hell, yeah, they figured out who I am. I talked with 'em all night long. They were bound to know somethin' after all that, Murdoch."
Unable to keep the worried look from his face, Murdoch sighed and looked out at the rain soaked hills and the clearing skies.
He glanced back at his son and raised his eyebrows when he saw Johnny was looking at him with eyes that were sparkling with mischief. "They know about Johnny Lancer, the best horse wrangler around, and his tougher 'n nails father, Murdoch Lancer. They know about the biggest, most beautiful ranch in these parts and about that other son, the one that went to school in Boston and has to be the smartest man this side of the California border. Is that what you're talkin' about, old man?"
Murdoch met those glittering blue eyes and laughed. "You know what son? After pondering it a bit, I realize I believe in coyotes, too."
Johnny's smile was as bright as the morning sun.
I believe in
coyotes and time as an abstract
Explain the change, the difference between
What you want and what you need
There's the key, your adventure for today
What do you do between the horns of the day?
~ Michael Stipe
Additional Acknowledgments: song lyrics are to "I Believe" and belong to REM, but make me think of JML. Some information about the legend of the trickster can be read here: http://www.pantheon.org/articles/c/coyote.html
And here: http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/h/hyde-trickster.html
~Trinidad de Guerreros~