“Gravedigger, when you dig my grave, could you make it shallow, so that I can feel the rain?” Dave Matthews
The sun beat down unmercifully on the men at the gravesite. Murdoch tried to ignore the sweat running down his back and the way his shirt clung to him like a second skin. He didn’t think he could recall a summer so hot. He glanced at Scott who was staring straight ahead, no expression on his handsome face. Sweat was beaded on his forehead and plastered his hair at his temples, making his blonde hair seem darker. Murdoch took a deep breath and returned his attention to the preacher. A final prayer and it was over, a promise kept to the son who could not be there.
The two-bit preacher talked briefly with the rag tag bunch of mourners and then moved off to his carriage. Murdoch touched Scott on the arm to get his attention and then walked over to the undertaker who sat by himself in his wagon, overseeing the bleak proceedings with an aloof demeanor. Taking the customary amount from his pocket, Murdoch offered payment to the man.
“I imagine I owe you something, don’t I, Cyrus?
Cyrus Jones waved him off. “Naw, it’s been taken care of, Mr. Lancer. I got to say I do appreciate you checking on it.” The undertaker shook his head sadly. “I guess the end was inevitable. It’s a shame though, ain’t it? That boy was a real young ‘n.”
Murdoch said, “In my way of thinking, the death of a gunfighter is always a shame. Makes you wonder what happened, causes you to think about the why of it. Of course, I’m probably just a little too close in this situation; it’s too personal for me to be objective. Why don’t you at least walk with Scott and me down to the saloon and let me buy you a beer?
Normally Jones was a friendly sort, quick to share stories and libations, so it seemed strange when he had to take a moment to give the idea some thought before finally taking Murdoch up on the offer. “I s’pose that’d be okay. Yep, I have to admit a beer sounds real good.”
The boy had shown up in Morro Coyo without a cent to his name. He’d spent everything he had on a fancy black cowboy hat decorated with a turquoise and silver hatband, engraved California spurs with silver jingle-bobs, and a ticket for the stagecoach to Morro Coyo. He was disarmingly handsome, and quickly won over the saloon girls and any other person who came upon him with a chore they needed done and a dime to spare. He said his name was Clay Jordan.
The Kid, as he soon was known in Morro Coyo, didn’t seem too eager to learn a trade or strike up any lasting relationships. No one really came to know him during his short stay, although many would feel as if they’d befriended the teenaged boy. He was a friendly sort and made no enemies, always grateful for a handout and quick to lend a hand if needed. Of course, that was before Johnny Lancer came back from Sacramento.
Johnny and his brother Scott returned home one blistering summer day on the same stage that had previously brought The Kid. Murdoch Lancer was at the stage depot, eager to hear their news and secretly overjoyed at seeing his sons again. Anyone who knew him at all, knew how much he missed his boys when they were away, although there would be little chance of him admitting it. They’d gone to the saloon, Scott following his father and Johnny trailing them both, stirring up dust as he two-stepped and bobbed with the joy of exiting the cramped stagecoach and regaining the freedom to move to his own particular rhythm.
The Kid watched from the shadows of the stable, quickly determining the one sometimes called Johnny Lancer was, in fact, Madrid. There really was no mistaking the gunfighter, after all. His attire was flashy and bold. The gun belt he wore was a resolute testimony to the profession, hanging so low one’s eyes were immediately drawn to it in fascination. His spurs rang to the beat of a man who heard music in his head, a peculiar cadence that told everyone he was near. His father must’ve heard it too, because he turned and reached one long arm for his son, ignoring the weave and the feint as he grabbed him around the neck.
The other son laughed as the big man pulled his youngest into a loose headlock and whispered something into his ear. It must’ve been considerably funny, because it elicited a spirited laugh and a clapping of hands from the young man. As he was released, the dancing stopped and all three men entered the saloon with much more decorum but considerably less grace.
Who would ever know why Clay Jordan made up his mind at that moment? What drives a young man quickly known for his easy smile and calm ways to suddenly make a decision that would have such a dire consequence? In the minutes afterward, people would speak of the charming teenager who had suddenly turned brash. They related the story with sadness, unable to comprehend the unrelenting motivation of fame. Pure foolishness was what the old timers called it. Foolishness colored with pride.
Unassuming and innocent in spite of his supposed killer status, Johnny Lancer had been lured to the street in front of the stable as he’d gone out to grab a breath of fresh air. No one was surprised Johnny responded when the boy stepped out of the shadows and called him over by his given name. Neither was anyone surprised when Lancer’s identity changed and the other took its place as the salutation became a challenge. Ultimately, no one had been surprised when Johnny Madrid’s bullet found its mark while The Kid’s aim proved a moment too slow and a centimeter too wide.
Standing at the bar, Murdoch and Scott listened to Jones’ unhappy stories of death and burial. As the small town grew, business did as well, but Jones was not a man who relished such a change.
“It seems I’m a little too busy these days, Mr. Lancer. Now, mind you, some of my business comes from the fact that there’ll always be poor people who die from lack of care. There’s also them folks that society don’t treat right, the ones who grow old and die alone without a dime to their names. I suppose that kind of business always grows with a town.”
Murdoch pondered this a moment. “Well, that makes me think of something that I’ve been wondering, Cyrus. You said poor Clay already had his burial paid for and when I stop to consider it, I realize that lately several of your customers were people like him.”
Jones looked away as if the topic of conversation was uncomfortable. He finally responded, “Yeah, well, there is a benefactor that takes care of the burial needs of those poor souls. It’s true I couldn’t afford a proper plot and box for the orphans, strangers, and homeless without his help.”
Scott asked, “There are orphans buried out in the cemetery? I mean, someone would have to make a donation for that or otherwise they’d be in a pauper’s grave, right?
Again Jones appeared to be edgy. “That’s generally the procedure. It isn’t nice to think about, but a person that don’t have the funds for a decent burial usually ends up that way.”
“Clay Jordan was buried by this so-called benefactor, right?” Scott seemed to be intrigued by something. “There are one or two other gunfighters out there as well, I seem to recall.”
Murdoch began to follow Scott’s thoughts. “Same benefactor pay for them too?”
“I can’t deny it.” Jones looked like he wished he could.
“That seems like a rare kind of thing, doesn’t it? I mean some person who bothers to pay money for burials for people who have no family or who happened to be strangers in town sure wouldn’t be typical,” Scott observed and continued in a preoccupied tone, “Especially odd about the gunfighters. It doesn’t seem natural that those particular customers would get the benefit of a stranger’s kindness.”
Jones began to look slightly irritated, and this only encouraged the Lancers more. Murdoch said, “You know I’m starting to wonder who might have the funds and the inclination to do something like this in a town as small as Morro Coyo. I wonder if I might know the man. It seems like he’d have to be someone I’ve encountered.”
“Murdoch, I’m not at liberty to indulge the man’s identity. He made me promise months ago and he’s not one I’d enjoy disappointin’.”
Scott drained his beer and let his eyes meet his father’s as he set the empty mug back down on the bar. “I think I’ll go out and tend to the horses, sir. We probably ought to be heading home to look in on our boy soon.”
The father smiled appreciatively at the son, recognizing the desire to check on the one left behind. “Good plan.” he said, “I’ll be along shortly.”
Watching Scott leave the bar, Murdoch said, “Cyrus, I understand why you might be nervous to break your promise, so I’d never ask that of you.”
Jones seemed to relax a bit as he finished his beer.
“But you could answer me a simple question, right? The kind with a yes or no sort of answer?”
The sigh was audible, but Murdoch plowed along anyway. “This benefactor favors the orphans, the saloon girls, the occasional wayward young criminal, right? He’s told you to take care of them?”
Jones continued to look away. “Yes sir, that would be about right.”
Murdoch paused a moment, waiting for Jones to finally meet his eyes. “This boy’s funeral was paid for as soon as he died, wasn’t it?”
Jones eyes grew moist at the remembrance. “Mr. Lancer, I’ll tell you this, the person that paid for that funeral you just attended, well, he was in no shape to be in my establishment. He came over before much of a crowd had even gathered around the body. He acted like he was in a big hurry, but he insisted I take the fee so he could go on his way. And yeah, Clay Jordan’s body hadn’t even had a chance to grow cold before that person was on his horse and out of town.”
With a sharp nod of acknowledgment, Murdoch moved toward the saloon doors. Just as he pushed the door to exit, he heard a small cough, and looked up to see Jones take a hesitant step toward him.
“Mr. Lancer,” Jones said, “The young man that paid for that kid to have a proper burial was in his own kind of hell. I’d say he needs his family about now. He’s a good boy, though some might doubt it. Hell, he’s one of the best in this town in spite of what others might have once thought. His father, whoever he might be, should be very proud to call him son.”
Unable to find the proper words for thanks, the tremulous smile Murdoch gave the undertaker was genuine and he hoped it conveyed all the gratitude and appreciation he truly felt.
Once home, Murdoch and Scott hadn’t looked far to find the youngest Lancer. He was lying quietly on the great room couch, propped up by multiple pillows. Murdoch watched Scott practically tip toe over to check on his brother and then smile sadly down on him as he realized the boy was indeed asleep. He carefully moved the dark bangs back from the bandage over his brother’s temple.
“He looks a little better, sir. I’m glad he didn’t try to ride in for the funeral; that would have most likely set him back some. I was relieved he let us take his place.”
Murdoch said, “I’m surprised he relented. Shows how bad he’s feeling. I don’t think he’s moved much from where we left him.”
Murdoch walked over and studied the wan features of his youngest son. Johnny had dressed that morning and insisted on staying downstairs, but the sofa was as far as he’d gotten. The dark circles under Johnny’s eyes, as well as the lines of tension along his forehead, hinted at the pain he felt even as he slept.
“It’s a good thing there were a couple of witnesses to the fight. I’m still having difficulty accepting that he defended himself, shot a boy dead, and then rode back to Lancer without so much as a word to us.” Scott’s voice betrayed some of the annoyance he was apparently feeling toward his brother.
“I felt the same way until I talked to Jones. I think Johnny was suffering quite a bit and did what he felt he had to do.” Murdoch licked his suddenly dry lips. This aspect of his youngest son’s life always bothered him immensely and made the guilt wash over him in waves. “I don’t think he was hiding anything or trying to hurt us, son. I truly think he just couldn’t deal with anyone at the moment. Jones said that the man who came in right after the gunfight was going through hell. I can’t imagine that Johnny likes to share that particular hell with many people, especially those he loves.”
“God, Murdoch, he’s paying for those poor people’s burials. It has to be him. And then he insists on doing the same for that crazy boy that called him out.” Scott’s blue-gray eyes became darker with sorrow and he reached over again to gently card his fingers through his brother’s overly long bangs. “I hate it that he had to go through that, and it is doubly hard to think he had to do it alone.”
Murdoch replied, “I know exactly how you feel, son. But it is very important to him that he deals with this his way. You know that. He’ll open up to you in his time. He always does.”
Scott straightened and gave his father a small smile. “Yes, that’s true. I guess it’s the big brother unable to protect the younger one from that kind of pain that preys on me most.”
“It is the same for his father, I promise you.” Murdoch returned the smile. “He’ll be waking up soon. I have a feeling he may need to talk.”
“I’ve got some chores I wanted to do before it was too late, seeing as I’m working for two these days. Just let Johnny know I’m here for him, okay?”
“He knows, but I’ll tell him anyway.”
Scott gave Johnny’s shoulder a final squeeze and was on his way. Murdoch watched his son with pride, grateful that his oldest was so understanding and compassionate. His life could have easily led him in an entirely different direction.
Murdoch walked over to the liquor cabinet, poured a drink and then sat in one of the wing backed chairs where he could keep a close eye on his son. It wasn’t long before Johnny began to stir and eventually blinked and opened his eyes.
“Hey son, it’s about time you thought about waking up.” Murdoch kept his tone light.
Johnny looked over and gave his father a small grin and then began to slowly move to sit up. Murdoch let him take his time, allowing him to get his bearings before asking, “You doing okay, boy? That head wound cost you quite a bit of blood. Do you need a drink or something?”
“I don’t think you’d be allowing the kind of drink I need, so I guess I’m good for now, but thanks. It’s just my head feels like it could explode any minute. Other than that, I’m doing fine. Better than Clay Jordan, anyway.”
Murdoch was taken aback by the easy reference his son made to the dead boy. Murdoch asked, “You paid for the boy’s burial before you rode home, didn’t you?”
Johnny became very quiet and finally gave his father a sideways glance. “Yeah, it only seemed right. Jones said he was a stranger in town, but he seemed to be getting along okay. People liked him pretty much. Jones told me he even heard a rumor or two that there was a Little Madrid that came in on the stagecoach. Some who keep up with such things seemed to see a likeness.”
“Did you think that too, son? I know you only met him briefly, but did he remind you of a younger version of Madrid?”
“Shit, no. Murdoch, that’s all stupid talk from people who like stories about gunfighters and what not. Me and that boy weren’t much alike at all. I hired out my gun, sure enough, but I didn’t make any habit of calling out other professionals for the sport of it. Hell, several of ‘em rode with me and became my friends. You know that. That boy was after a name, pure and simple.”
A flicker of shame flashed across Murdoch’s face. “I’m sorry, son. I should’ve recognized the difference. You’re right, of course. Sometimes people get caught up in the tales and I was guilty of that myself just now.”
Johnny became very still, seemingly lost in his thoughts. Murdoch waited, giving him time to reflect. Finally Johnny asked, “Any townspeople go to the funeral, Murdoch?”
“Yes Johnny, a few. They seemed genuinely touched by the death of the boy. Most of them talked about it being a waste. Old Cyrus Jones even seemed bothered, as much as he’s seen of sadness and death.”
Murdoch paused for a beat, considering the best way to approach the subject of the other graves. He finally worked up the nerve and attacked it directly. “Son, while we were at the burial, I noticed several other graves, none of them very old, that were scattered about the cemetery. Funny thing about these particular sites was that they all belonged to people who didn’t have much of anyone to care for them in Morro Coyo. Scott and I recognized the marker for a girl that worked in the saloon a short time and a child from the orphanage. There were even a couple of graves of men with gunfighter reputations that made a bad end.”
Johnny refused to meet his father’s eyes, but seemed willing to talk. “Gunfighters? Well, they must’ve been some piss poor ones if that was where they took up residence. You saying you don’t think those folks should be in a cemetery under their own names, Murdoch? What’s got you bothered about that?”
Murdoch sighed and was relieved when Johnny finally turned to meet his eyes. “No, son. There’s not a thing wrong with it at all. Just seemed odd that the money was there to pay for those particular burials.”
“It isn’t odd. You know I can’t stand those poor souls not to have a decent grave site and marker. A ceremony’s not all that big of deal, but a person ought to have some kind of reminder that he existed. Every person ought to at least have that. Maybe if I offer that little kindness, it can help redeem me for some of the things I’ve done.”
The easy admission had Murdoch up and refilling his drink. He went to the sofa and sat by his son’s side, suddenly feeling compelled to be nearer to him. Johnny was watching him closely, as if trying to determine his father’s frame of mind. Murdoch reached over and gently rubbed his son’s neck, knowing the tension and headache had to be playing havoc on those muscles. Rather than quieting his son, the soothing action seemed to encourage him to talk.
“You know, it was Scott that got me thinking.”
Murdoch’s hand stilled its motion on Johnny’s neck. “How’s that, John?”
“He told me once that I would die young and not even leave a ripple; no one would ever know I existed. Now, don’t go lookin’ like that, Murdoch. He was just tryin’ to help me see the error of my ways. And yeah, he did get me thinking, all right. Now I know I have my family and they’re here for me. All in all, I’ve been damned lucky.” Johnny dropped his head and wrapped his arms around his body in a familiar posture. “Some people weren’t as lucky. There wasn’t a Murdoch Lancer that came ridin’ in at the last second for them. The least a person should have as he leaves the earth is some small acknowledgement that he existed.”
His emotions getting the better of him, Murdoch had to take a deep breath as his hand began to resume its gentle massage on Johnny’s neck. He realized that the physical contact was as much for the father as it was the son.
Murdoch said, “You’ve thought about this a lot.”
“That surprises you?” Johnny’s posture quickly changed and the confident air that spoke of Madrid’s roots flickered across his handsome features as he stared directly in Murdoch’s eyes. “I’ve had to make some hard choices, you know that. And don’t be getting that guilty look on your face, old man. I hate it when you do that. You do realize that half our ruckuses start when you take on that damned look.”
Taken aback, Murdoch dropped his hand to his side and had the good grace to stay silent.
Johnny continued, “Of course, the subject of death comes up pretty frequently. If you’re in a high risk profession you better learn to deal with it as a matter of fact. You can’t be running scared of it, that’s for sure, or it’ll be calling your name sooner than later.”
Murdoch broke eye contact with his son; he knew Johnny had to realize the subject made him uncomfortable. Hell, it made him downright depressed, but the ex-gunfighter seemed to be purging some demons, or at least the Madrid part of him was.
“Thing is, Murdoch, most men who play the game don’t live too long. Even those that put ex- in front of the vocation are at risk of an early demise. You know that as sure as I do.”
“No, Johnny. You can leave that past behind. We’ve had so many discussions about your future; I can’t believe you still think of it in such a way.” Murdoch’s voice was pleading in tone, unwilling to face that some things about his youngest son had changed very little.
Suddenly, Johnny was up on his feet. He took a few steps away from the sofa and turned to meet his father. Murdoch was secretly amazed at the grace and power that moved this son when he was absorbed in some passionate debate, and Johnny, wounded as he was, did not disappoint him.
“Murdoch, you say how we’ve talked about my future. It’s you that talks about that so-called future and you’re right, sometimes I believe what you say. Dios, I want to believe it. But you and I know that sometimes the ghosts come and haunt us. And yeah, I mean us.” Johnny’s expression became almost defiant. “You hold me at a distance most times, Murdoch. It’s been that way from the beginning. You ever wonder about the reason you do that, or is it just an instinct? Is it you protecting yourself without realizing it?”
Murdoch’s first thought was to deny the accusation his son was throwing at him, but he quickly realized this was a very dangerous tact. He knew his face was showing the pain his son was causing him, and for the moment he let it speak for him.
Johnny’s reaction was quick and his aim was deadly, as usual. “I know you worry about outliving me and the consequences that’ll bring to you and the rest of Lancer. Mierda, just know I think about it too. For once, give me some credit for not being as big a pendejo you once thought I was.”
That statement loosened Murdoch’s tongue and he was up in his son’s face before he had a chance to think. “What is it you want from me, John? I’m not going to sit there and let you open that Pandora’s Box of personal demons without responding somehow. You want me to deny what you’re saying and then seem as cold and unloving a father as you first believed? The streets of the past go both ways, Johnny my boy.”
Johnny never wavered and a small smile began to grace his features. “That’s more like it, old man. I’m gettin’ back on familiar territory now. I don’t blame you for any of it anymore, Murdoch. That’s the thing you’ve got to finally accept. Things are just the way they are. You’ve given me more than any prodigal son has any right to expect. Someday, you’ll realize I know it.”
“Where are you going, Johnny? What is it you want to tell me, son?” Murdoch’s tone grew gentle and his eyes softened with the need to understand.
“I only want you to know that I understand how you’ve given me my life. I know I could have been in an unmarked grave without any of them ripples so many times it makes my head spin. But my life before coming to Lancer made me realistic. Murdoch, part of my survival has depended on that. What I need you to know is that I have had the best days of my life with you and Scott here at Lancer. I can’t change my past, can’t even say I’d want to if it leads me here.”
“But …” Murdoch prompted.
“I know shit happens. Things might end different than we both want. I’m trying to tell you, it won’t happen without a fight. Nobody is going to have to pay for my grave in some fuckin’ hole in the wall town.”
Murdoch noticed Johnny was beginning to sway on his feet a bit. The emotions and nervous energy were slowly winding down, making his son appear more vulnerable.
“I’ve got the chance to make amends for the bad things I did, like I do with that undertaker. For the first time in my life, I can make a difference with somethin’ other than my gun to people who don’t have anyone. I may not be able to control what Madrid brings to me, but Johnny Lancer won’t give up without fighting.”
Johnny’s stance slumped and he turned to find the sofa, his irritation with his weakness growing apparent. Murdoch took him by the elbow and helped him sit and then took a seat beside him.
“You know what, Murdoch?” Johnny’s eyes were not as bright as before and his energy level seemed to be diving as his introspection leapt to a new height.
“What’s that, son?”
“I want to tell you somethin’ but you have to promise not to start a fracas, okay?”
Murdoch nodded, unable to stop the smile that appeared at the request.
“Sometimes I get tired and this bullshit weighs on me. I have to go off and let Johnny Madrid live a while. I need you to know that when it happens, it ain’t because I gave up the fight. I’m still Lancer at the core. Just didn’t want you doubting me, old man. Madrid isn’t the same thing to me as he was to that kid I had to bury. I want you to try to understand.”
Murdoch stared at his hands, unable to meet his boy’s eyes. The emotions were running too high for either man to be comfortable.
“I can’t promise you I’ll always understand, Johnny, but I can tell you I’ll remember what you are saying. You’ve given me a lot to think about, and I’m sure I’ll be pondering it for a while.”
He moved to look at his son, and was amused to find Johnny smiling at him sleepily. The younger man stretched out his legs and rested his head against his father’s arm and finally succumbed to the pull of sleep. Murdoch stayed with his son for a long while, and as the shadows in the hacienda grew long, he reflected on the things Johnny had tried so hard to say. As the father sat in silent watch, he made a vow to the boy that slept against him. He would sincerely try to quit pushing this son away in fear and start enjoying the vibrant young man that had not only survived his many hardships, but retained a joyous love of life that eclipsed that of most men. Finally, Murdoch allowed his own eyes to close, comfortable in the realization that he was truly a fortunate man.
* This story was written in memory of my father and Le Roi Moore. Like JML, they moved to their own unique music and made lives better because of it. Cyrus Jones belongs to Dave Matthews, but is only recognizable by his name.