I always felt that the relationship between Murdoch
and Johnny could have been more deeply explored in this episode.
Here is my interpretation on What Happened Next…
Murdoch Lancer sat in the
dim light of the study – his eyes straining to take in the photograph of
his youngest son - Johnny. For the life of him he could not figure
out the young man and the current situation that had once again pitted
son against father.
A week ago his son had been Johnny Lancer out on a buying trip for the ranch. He returned as Johnny Madrid - the gunfighter that lived from one crusade to the next. The older man shook his head and sighed.
“Johnny” he whispered trying hard to forget the stricken look on his son’s face as he asked him to come home with him from Warburton’s camp. The response was obviously agonizing for the young man who found himself caught between his father and the Eastern opportunist.
With his head bowed and eyes cast down, he responded: “I can’t. I made promises...” His son was then joined by a young girl; Warburton’s daughter. Murdoch saw her as a distraction to his son’s true responsibilities. Murdoch knew his son and if Johnny had made a promise, he would keep it – no matter what. Without a look back, Murdoch rode off with the expectation of never seeing his youngest again.
Johnny hadn’t stayed at the Warburton Camp. He had found no joy in butting heads with his father. It tore him up to know that they were at odds, but in his heart he knew that Murdoch and the other ranchers were wrong. If only Driscolle had not taken that shot and fatally wounded the Easterner. Until that moment, Johnny had been confident that with Tallie Warburton’s help he would have been able to resolve the crisis without resorting to the now impending violence.
The young gunfighter had made a small camp near where the cattle were bedded for the night. He had given Warburton his word – he would get the cows to the train for sale – and if that meant that he had to watch guard over them alone – then so be it.
Staring at the fire, he realized that he had probably burned his last bridge with his father. For almost six months they had lived under the same roof in an uneasy alliance. It hadn’t been a trouble-free experience, but at least he could say that he had given it his all. A smile crossed his handsome face as he thought of his brother. Scott was the only one to try to make sense of the relationship between Johnny and Murdoch; he had made himself the peace maker. With Johnny gone, Scott would be free to be the son that Murdoch wanted and needed. Johnny figured he was too set in his ways to ever change enough to suit the old man.
He didn’t want to think about the future. Once the Warburton herd was safely on the way to market he was on his own again – as Johnny Madrid. Perhaps he and Isham would travel south to Mexico and find the next fight. The prospect of living from range war to range war no longer held the appeal it once had. But, he had been Johnny Madrid for the first 22 years of his life and had no problems living out the rest of his life as the infamous gunhawk. Johnny Lancer had been a figment of everyone’s desire to see him change. But he was beginning to think that like a tiger he could not change his stripes. He would die as Johnny Madrid and that was all the future he could see.
As he sat in reflection, he heard the sounds of someone trying to sneak up on him. Drawing his pistol he smiled to see Isham enter his camp. Isham had been a good friend. They had looked after each other in the Johnson County War and their friendship bonded.
“Thought that you’d be gone to home and hearth,” Isham said taking a seat across the fire from his friend.
“I made a commitment to Warburton. My old man and the others are wrong. I’ll be with you ‘till the cows are on the train and then I’m gone.”
“Spoken like Johnny Madrid.” Isham gave his friend an approving smile.
Johnny smiled wistfully before responding. “Truth between us – I don’t like buttin’ heads with my old man. It’s got me all tore up inside.”
“Well, that could be a problem.” Isham took a sip of the coffee he’d poured himself and looked hard at his friend for his next reaction. “Warburton has put Sexton Joe in charge. You know what that means.”
Johnny looked up in alarm. Sexton Joe believed that the best way to defeat an enemy was to kill off the leader. In this case it meant killing Murdoch Lancer. “Nobody’s gun’n my old man!” Johnny stood up. His loyalties on this were crystal clear. No matter what he may have thought about his father, he didn’t want to see him dead. As he passed by Isham he never saw the pistol that was used to knock him out.
Johnny awoke to find himself in Warburton’s tent. Tallie was there with her father trying to get him to rest. “Where’s Isham!” Johnny demanded trying to release the bonds that held him in place.
“He went with the preacher – why?” Tallie asked confused by the goings on in her father’s camp.
“They’re going to kill my father! Please you’ve got to let me go!”
Tallie looked to her father. “Tell me he’s wrong.”
“It’s what has to be done…” They dying man said trying to get his daughter to understand.
“What are you saying?” Tallie asked, her eyes open wide in disbelief.
“You father has set his dogs loose and they are going to kill my father unless you set me free.”
“All my money is tied up in those cows. They have to be sold – for you.”
“Is that how you want her to remember you?” Johnny pleaded. He then thought of the memoirs that the father and daughter had been working on. “Or, do you want her to remember you like a hero?” He kicked over the table sending the hand written pages to the floor. “Whatever you decide you better do it quick. They’re gonna kill my father – set me loose!”
Murdoch had finally put the picture of Johnny down on the desk. Shaking his head, he realized that he would never know the answer to the riddle that was his son. In his moment of refection, he sensed that he was no longer alone. Looking up, he saw one of the hired guns he had seen at the Warburton camp. “What are you doing here?” He demanded coming to his feet.
“Just what you think I am.” The man looked to his left as another man entered the room.
Murdoch recognized him at the preacher that Johnny had warned him about just the night before. As the men came closer, Murdoch realized that he was alone and that this might just be the end. The Preacher offered his bible, which Murdoch refused. Instead he looked at the Picture of Johnny that was now lying on his desk. “What I want is to see Johnny one last time. I want to solve the Riddle...”
“Riddle?” Isham asked.
“Yes – the riddle of Johnny himself.”
The Preacher spoke in a solemn tone. “We’re fallen angles, brought down to hell, the good book says – men beyond redemption.”
Isham considered the words and looked at his friend’s father. “For what it’s worth – Johnny was different. He never quite hit the bottom.”
Murdoch nodded. “I’d like to think that I had a small part in that – that my bringing him here may have saved him.” He picked up the picture and held it tight in his hands. “I’d like that Bible now.”
The two gun hawks let their pistols drop down as Sexton Joe reached into his jacket to take out his worn bible. As he was about to hand it to the condemned man, Murdoch smashed the lamp and dropped to the floor. In a flash the would be murderers were firing their guns. In a desperate attempt to get away, Murdoch kicked his rolling desk chair towards the grand window and in the next motion got to his feet and ran through the veranda doors. Guns that had been fired at the chair were now trained on him – bullets striking the glass doors as he cleared them. He made it to the end of the veranda where he tried to hide his large frame behind one of the stone pillars.
He could hear the gunfighters as they scrambled to follow him. Looking into the darkness for the next place to hide, he was surprised to see the form of a man coming towards the house and into the light. As the form took shape Murdoch could feel his heart stop. It was Johnny!
Johnny moved silently through the darkness to a point near his father. “Sexton Joe!” He called out. In a flash, the preacher came from his hiding spot and fired at the figure standing in the open.
Johnny held his ground as he felt hot lead sear into his left side. With deliberate speed, he fired one shot – cutting down the dark clothed preacher – just as the other man took his second shot. Johnny knew that he had to move fast now; Isham would be next. Quickly he turned to his left and was pulled to safety by the long arms of his father.
Murdoch wanted to hold on to his son. The son he thought he had lost; the son who had come back to save him. But, he knew that Johnny was far from done. As his son took a step back he realized that his hands were wet. Looking down, he saw they were red with blood. “Johnny…” He tried to whisper, but the words were lost on the young man who was now faced with trying to save his father without killing an old friend.
“Isham! It’s over!”
“I have a job to do and I’ll see it to the end!” A voice returned.
“Why? It’s useless, Warburton’s dead.” Johnny asked moving further away from his father. In the next moment, he heard something break along the veranda. Looking to his left he saw it was a decoy. With lightning speed he moved to his right and fired his gun once – cutting down his friend. Dropping his gun, he ran to the fallen man. With one look, Johnny could tell the wound was mortal. “Why?” Johnny repeated the question to Isham as he held him in his arms.
“Pride in my trade….” were Isham’s last words.
Johnny stared dumbly at his friend, tears coming to his eyes. Slowly he let his friend drop to the ground. He was aware that his father was coming closer and with his right hand wiped the threatening tears. “All I ever wanted to be was Johnny Madrid – good at my trade.” The words were said quietly and to no one in particular. “Tallie asked me once who I was more….” Johnny’s mouth seemed to stop working as he considered the loss of yet another friend.
Murdoch knelt beside his son, aware of the blood that was now streaming from a wound to Johnny’s left side. “Your answer?” He asked quietly.
Johnny leaned back on his heels. “I didn’t even have to think about it…” He turned to look at his father his eyes rolling back into his head. As he fell the strong arms that had sheltered him once that day now held him tight again.
“I know who you are,” Murdoch whispered to the unconscious man. “You’re Johnny Lancer.”
Scott and Jelly arrived a minute later. They had been out in the meadow beyond the fencing – returning from Moro Coyo - when they heard the first shots coming from the house. Their horses pounded the dirt tail to the front of the house where they were reigned in sharply. “What happened?” Scott asked dismounting in front of his father. Quickly he assessed the bloody condition of his brother. “Is he…?”
“Alive.” Murdoch affirmed quickly. “Help us up.”
The two Lancers quickly carried Johnny into the house and up to his room. The bullet had gone clean through the young man’s side. Quickly they cut off the shirt and applied bandages to the latest wound to the former gunfighter. “What happened?” Scott asked as Jelly moved them aside to tend to the youngest Lancer.
“He came back – for me.” Murdoch shook his head. How many times would he lose faith in this young man only to have him come back and shatter his conclusions? When would he truly solve the riddle that was Johnny Lancer? “How is he Jelly?”
“It’s a clean shot; looks like it mighta’ hit muscle only. He’s lost a lot of blood though – we’ll need the Doc ta stitch ‘em up.”
“I’ll have Frank go and get the doctor.” Scott volunteered running from the room.
“He came back,” Jelly commented with some measure of satisfaction. “I always figured he would – he’s a man of principle….”
Murdoch raised an eyebrow thinking back to the words that he had thrown at his son just a few hours earlier. They had been in Warburton’s tent. Murdoch had tried to reason with the dying man to no avail. In his anger at the man and his son he had offered: “Look at him close Johnny. A man without principles dies without any.” It didn’t escape him that he was looking at his own son now laying wounded – maybe dying. “Jelly, what principle was important enough for him to risk death tonight?”
“You – you dang’d fool!” Jelly snorted and tended to his patient. “Just shows you what you don’t know about your own son,” the old timer muttered under his breath. “You may not always get along, but he loves you.”
A moan escaped Johnny’s lips as his eyes fluttered open. His eyes darted around the room – first fixating on Jelly and then on the fact that he was in his own room at Lancer. “I’ve got to go…” He attempted to rise out of the bed when the pain in his side caused his entire body to shake. Closing his eyes he fell back to his pillow.
“You’re not going anywhere with that hole in your side.” Jelly grabbed another bandage and pressed it against the wound that had started to bleed again.
“You don’t understand. Murdoch doesn’t….”
“I don’t want what?” Came the strong voice of his father.
Johnny closed his eyes, his hand tightening on the blankets. “I’ll be out of here as soon as I’m able.” He ground out through clenched teeth.
Jelly looked at his boss in alarm. Obviously the son thought that his father no longer wanted him. “Easy there Johnny,” he soothed placing a cool cloth on his friend’s fevered brow. “Tell ‘em – boss.” Jelly pleaded to the elder Lancer.
“Tell him what? Is he awake?” Scott had returned and went to the other side of his brother’s bed. “You still with us boy?” He took his brother’s hand and held it firm.
Johnny swallowed hard. This was a cruel joke. He needed to be out of there – Murdoch had not forgiven him – he had no home. “Let me up…” He again tried to rise again only to have his brother place a restraining hand on his chest.
“What’s going on here?” Scott demanded of his father and Jelly.
Murdoch Lancer had been standing at the foot of his son’s bed and was taking in the entire situation. He had disowned this son less than 6 hours ago. He looked at the boy, so obviously in physical and emotional pain. Johnny had told him once that he had better get used to being looked after by his son’s. For the second time during his stay at Lancer, Johnny had laid his life on the line for his father. What more was there for a father to ask of a son? Was that the principle that Johnny lived by?
Moving Scott aside, Murdoch took Johnny’s hand. “Johnny?” He flinched as blue eyes opened and his son tried to take his hand away.
“I’ll be leaving…” The wounded man moaned from the effort of trying to take his hand from his father’s grasp.
“No, Johnny.” Murdoch continued holding his son’s hand tight. “You’re not going anywhere. You’re home.”
“Listen to me. You were right.” Murdoch admitted looking at the stunned faces of Scott and Jelly. “Driscolle was the hot head who shot Warburton. You asked me to keep him in line and I failed. I put you in this position.”
“I made a promise to Warburton.” Johnny’s temperature was going up and his eyes now reflected fevered pain in addition to the mental turmoil. “I told him I would get the cows to market – for Tallie…”
“We’ll take care of it – won’t we Scott?”
Scott was now standing behind his father looking down at his brother. “You can count on it, Brother. Now rest easy. The doctor will be here soon.”
Johnny nodded and closed his eyes. Jelly gently wiped the sweat from Johnny’s brow as his breaths began to come slow and even. “You did good, boss.”
“I guess that it will never be easy where Johnny is concerned.” Murdoch continued to hold his son’s hand hoping that his presence would bring the young man some measure of peace. “At least I’m beginning to understand the riddle. He has always been Johnny Lancer. It’s Johnny Madrid who’s the fiction. I can only hope that one day he’ll be able to put him to rest for good.”