Word Count 6,435
“I don’t believe it. And on Christmas Eve, too!” Slapping his napkin down on the table next to his plate of barely touched food, it was a foul tempered Mr. Lancer that headed for the front door, only to change directions. He stalked over to the safe behind the big oak desk, where he opened it and pulled out a large stack of cash.
Despite his ire, he was thankful there was a bull due to be delivered to the ranch the next week that had yet to be paid for, otherwise there wouldn’t have been hardly any cash on hand. He could only hope there was enough; most banks weren’t open for business during the late hours of the night, much less on Christmas Eve.
“You know there’s got to be some mistake,” Teresa interjected in her no-nonsense way that always worked with the Lancer men. Only tonight it merely kept a temper contained. Any other time it would have effectively diffused it and opened the door to more realistic and practical emotions.
Striding past her without so much as an acknowledging word, he snatched his coat off the hook by the door and stuffed the money into the inside pocket before slipping his arms into the sleeves. He slammed his hat back on his head and then furiously strapped his gun belt around his hips.
It hadn’t been too long ago, less than an hour in fact, since he had performed these very actions in reverse. Only then it had been relief and good cheer at being home after a long two days in the saddle that had driven his weary heart, not the churning blend of frustration, disbelief, and downright hostility that was now fueling his actions.
“We’ll try to be back by tomorrow,” he said without so much as a glance at the disheartened young woman whose eyes he could feel watching him mournfully from the warmer area of the great room. Yanking the door open, he stepped out into the frosty evening air, pulling the door closed behind him with a deafening bang.
It was barely dusk, and the sun was just disappearing over the distant horizon. He would have to make the trek in the cold darkness, the very thought of which sent an involuntary shiver up his spine. This, in turn, reminded him of the ache in his back; something he had hoped to soothe away with a few hours of hot compresses while relaxing by the roaring fire. If a certain danged cow hadn’t been so stubborn, he wouldn’t have strained those muscles in the first place, but he had, and now he was headed back into the saddle, something that was sure to aggravate the situation even further.
As he saddled the burly sorrel gelding, slapping leather against leather as he worked, he was careful to keep the flying straps away from the horse’s hide. Despite his efforts, though, by the time he led the animal from the barn he was stirred up and skittish. Oh, joy. What a way to make a hard ride even that much more of a displeasure.
*** *** *** ***
It was a little after eight o’clock when he finally rode into Flat Rock. He had managed to work himself up into an even fouler mood during the four-hour ride, as if that was actually possible. Hence, it was a very ill tempered man who finally entered the sheriff’s office.
The lawman, an older man with dark hair, was sitting behind a large wooden desk. He was eyeing him suspiciously, but that was to be expected. “Was just about to close up, mister. What can I do for you?”
“I’m here to bail out a couple of prisoners,” came the curt response.
“You must be Mr. Lancer?”
“Yeah, that’s me, now what’s the charges against them two, and how much is gonna take to get ’em out?”
“Just finished my official report,” the sheriff said with a yawn. “The charges are public intoxication, indecent exposure and resisting arrest. As for the bail, you’ll have to see the judge about that.”
“Drunkenness? Indecent exposure? Resisting arrest? I don’t believe it!”
Standing, the sheriff stared at him menacingly. “You better believe it, mister. The local schoolmarm was the victim, and I’ll take her word over anyone’s, even some high and mighty ranchers who just might think they’re above the law. As for bail, like I done said, you’re gonna have to go talk to the circuit judge.
“You’re in luck, though, ’cause he’s actually in town for Christmas. Course, since the victim was his favorite niece, it ain’t too likely he’s gonna be wantin’ to show much leniency, but you can try.” Jerking his head towards the closed door at the rear of the office, he asked. “Do you wanna see ’em first?”
Steeling himself, he nodded, not trusting his ability to keep his temper from erupting if he were to say anything at the moment. It was bad enough when he was fuming about being dragged halfway across the valley on Christmas Eve, his back hurting like the dickens, but now that he was aware of the nature of the charges against his dear family, he was even more irritated.
With his temper smoldering just below the surface, he followed the sheriff over to the door that separated the rest of the jail from the holding cells. Entering the cell area, he came to a halt before the door of the first jail cell. With his arms crossed over his chest, he stared sternly at the two occupants. “I can’t turn my back on you two for a minute, can I?”
“Johnny! It’s about time you got here.”
Pale fingers grasped at his father’s sleeve. “Murdoch, maybe you shouldn’t be so…loud. Not just yet, anyway,” Scott warned.
Through the bars, Johnny’s scowl faded into a sardonic smile. “He’s right, old man. Just ’cause I came don’t mean I havta get either one of you outta there, so maybe you better just think about bein’ a little nicer to me.”
In an eerie display that put a hollow feeling in the pit of Johnny’s stomach, Murdoch’s face paled, then turned a deep shade of red. “John Lancer! I expect you to get us bailed out of here. Now!” His thundering voice filled the tiny jail area.
Despite the locked door and solid steel bars separating them, Johnny still flinched at the threatening tone of his father’s voice, and even took a small step backwards. “Look, I didn’t come all this way for the enjoyment of the ride. I’ll do the best I can,” Johnny promised. “The sheriff says the circuit judge is in town for Christmas. Shouldn’t be hard to get some kinda bail set, providin’ he’s not too upset about you two traumatizin’ his niece.”
“We didn’t traumatize anyone,” Scott objected rather indignantly. “All this is the result of an unfortunate series of mishaps that-“
“That landed you both in jail on Christmas Eve,” Johnny interrupted sarcastically. “An’ I suppose if it was either of you on this side of them bars an’ me in there, you’d just be oozin’ understandin’ and forgiveness.”
“Johnny, this isn’t the time or place for this discussion. Now, how much cash did you bring?” Murdoch snapped. “The bank isn’t going to be open at this hour, you know.”
“Really?” Johnny retorted. “An’ here I was countin’ on ’em just fallin’ all over themselves to open up that there bank vault so’s I could take whatever I needed.”
“Murdoch, Johnny, there’s no need to argue,” Scott interjected. Looking at Johnny, he added, “Johnny, we didn’t plan this and we are grateful for your help. Now, can you see about talking to the judge and making arrangements to get us out of here?”
If there was one thing Johnny knew he would never be able to refuse, it was a sincere request from his brother. “Sure thing, Boston.” Glancing up at his father, he shot him a genuine smile this time. “I’ll be back before you know it.” Turning on his heel, he headed out to find this circuit judge.
*** *** *** ***
“If I was plannin’ on bustin’ ’em out, would I have tracked you down and asked you to let me in to see ’em?” Johnny’s voice sounded frustrated, as well as condescending, even through the outer door.
More out of nervous tension than necessity, Scott stood and moved closer to the cell door. “Sounds like Johnny’s back.”
“Doesn’t sound like he’s having much luck getting us out of here, though,” Murdoch added thoughtfully. Although he remained seated, he did move to the front edge of the bunk where he looked very tense as they both waited for Johnny to appear.
From his position by the door, Scott exhaled slowly, giving a silent thanks that Murdoch’s ire had cooled from its eruption upon Johnny’s arrival just over an hour before. While Johnny had been gone trying to arrange for their bail, he had even managed to get their stubborn father to admit to being a little less than gracious towards Johnny for his prompt response to their summons; an unexpected victory, which still had him a little off balance.
As relieved as he had been to see his brother, Scott hadn’t missed the dark circles under Johnny’s lackluster blue eyes, and evidently, neither had Murdoch. Otherwise he never would have given in so easily. Instead of the anticipated look of triumph when Johnny entered the cell area, he looked even more drained than he had before. He stood next to the wall, his head down, while the sheriff closed and locked the door.
“Johnny?” Murdoch queried with concern.
“Sorry, Murdoch, I didn’t get to talk to the judge.” In total defeat, Johnny plopped down on the bench facing the cell. His head hung low for a moment, but then he looked up at them. “The judge got real sick earlier today. The doctor said it was pneumonia an’ wouldn’t let me in to see him. Said he was too weak to be conducting business, and then showed me the door.”
Sensing Johnny’s downtrodden spirits, Scott attempted to offer him some sense of comfort. “Johnny, I know you did the best you could. It’s not your fault the judge got sick.” Johnny looked anything but convinced, however.
His back was aching, but Johnny settled himself on the bench as best he could. “Well, since we ain’t goin’ no where, one of you two care to tell me how you got yourselves into this mess?”
Murdoch eyed Johnny speculatively. “What do you mean, son? Surely you don’t think the sheriff is going to let you stay here all night.”
Johnny gave him a tired smirk. “I ain’t thinkin‘ nothin’ of the sort. But if you’d been payin’ attention, you’d’a heard them doors bein’ locked behind me a few minutes ago. Unless one of you have suddenly become an expert at breakin’ jail, I know I’m gonna be stuck with your company all night.”
After a brief glance downward at Johnny’s waist, Murdoch looked him in the eye. “You let him take your gun?”
All Johnny could do was nod. He hadn’t particularly cared for that part of the deal, but he couldn’t really blame the sheriff, either.
“Why didn’t you just get a room at the hotel?” Scott asked.
“They’s full up. That’s the only reason the sheriff agreed to let me stay.” Johnny wasn’t about to tell them about his back muscles, and how they had been cramping for the last hour, or how he had almost ended up on his knees when the sheriff had tried to force him back out the door. He was okay as long as he didn’t have to make any real sudden movements, so he was more than a little grateful to be locked up for a few hours. It took the pressure off trying to hide his pain.
“So, you gonna answer my question?” He almost laughed when both men sighed heavily and looked expectantly at the other. “That good, huh?” Feeling a little mischievous, he grinned at Scott. “You know, Boston, I woulda never figured you for the nefarious type. Exposing yourself to the schoolmarm? Is that what they teach in them fancy schools back East?”
Standing, his hands on his hips, he glared down at Johnny through the bars. “I did not expose myself to the woman! My pants ripped when I bent over!” Scott shouted indignantly. “I must have torn them when I fell over a bale of hay. And for the record, where did you learn a word like ‘nefarious’?”
Despite the hardness of the bench, Johnny felt his back muscles begin to loosen just a little. The relief was pure heaven. This relief, on top of having a captive audience to torment, made him figure the day might not be a total waste after all. “Didn’t I mention the schoolmarm was the judge’s niece? Well, she was visitin’ when I tried to see the judge about settin’ bail. Seems you made a right outstandin’ impression with the lady. She had all sorts a words to say about you, but I thought that one sounded the most worthy of bein’ repeated.”
“You don’t even have any idea what it means,” Scott snorted.
“True, but I knew what most of the others meant, an’ I figure she wasn’t sayin’ them in one breath and then complimentin’ your elegant manners in the next. I got me a pretty fair idea of what it means.” Johnny kept right on grinning. “So your pants split wide open when you bent over, after you cut them fallin’ over a hay bale? I guess that musta been after you got drunk.”
“I was NOT drunk!” Scott’s usual pallor was now tinged with a deep flush. He turned to Murdoch, who was sitting behind him on the bunk, only to find the older man struggling to control his own laughter. “And you think this is funny?” he demanded.
Johnny snickered, and Murdoch followed suite. “Scott, you have to admit, looking back on it, it was kind of funny.”
“It was not,” Scott fumed. “I’ve never been more embarrassed in my life.”
This remark piqued Johnny’s interest. “Exactly how much did you expose, brother?” he asked, only to receive a death glare from the blond.
“Not that much, brother,” Scott snapped.
With his energy waning, Johnny decided it was time to grant Scott a reprieve. “That’s nice to know, older brother. I wouldn’t want you takin’ away my position as the family rogue.” Looking over at Murdoch, he asked more seriously. “I can’t believe you resisted arrest.”
The smile faded, but Murdoch’s anger did not flare. Instead he simply explained the whole situation. “I didn’t, really. This is what really happened. Scott and I were on our way to the livery to gather our horses, when a wagon loaded with hay pulled out from an alley. We waited for it to pass, but neither one of us noticed a bale had fallen off until Scott tripped over it. The driver of the wagon came running back towards us,” Murdoch paused, “he was drunk as a skunk and should never have been at the reins. I was helping Scott up, when the old man tried to help, too.”
Scott snorted. “Help me get arrested is more like it.”
“He had a bottle of whiskey in his pocket and offered Scott a drink, pouring most of it down the front of your brother’s shirt in the process. He mumbled something about being late, and then took off back to the wagon. Scott bent over to pick up the bottle the old man dropped, and that’s when we heard his pants rip.”
Johnny chuckled, but the glare from Scott kept his comments in check.
“About then the schoolmarm was coming out of the store, and she saw…” Murdoch paused, his clenched jaw the only sign of his struggle not to laugh.
“She got a look at my dear brother in all his glory,” Johnny couldn’t resist.
“She only saw my drawers,” Scott huffed.
“Them must be some drawers, Boston. The way she was carryin’ on back at the judge’s place, I’d’a thought she seen you runnin’ nekked through the streets.”
“And you would have thought wrong, brother.”
Sensing Scott was actually rather upset by the incident, Johnny took the hint and let the subject drop. “Okay, so the sheriff comes along, an’ you’re standing there doused in booze, and this woman is carryin’ on about how nefarious you are, so he just assumes you’re drunk. So where’d the resistin’ arrest come in?
“Your father refused to go peaceably when the sheriff tried to take us to jail.”
Johnny’s left eyebrow raised high on his forehead. “Oh, so he’s my father when he’s done somethin’ wrong, is that it?”
“Exactly,” Scott confirmed.
Murdoch gave each of them an amused glance. “Don’t I have any say in this.”
“No,” came their reply, in unison, only to be answered by Murdoch’s slight chuckle.
“Scott over-simplified things just a little,” Murdoch explained. “The sheriff grabbed my arm to lead me away, and when I turned to retrieve my hat, I pulled my arm out of his grasp. I tried to explain that I was just going to pick up my hat, which had fallen behind the hay bale when I was helping Scott up. Only I didn’t realize Scott had already picked it up, so when the sheriff saw it in Scott’s hand, he concluded that I, too, might be drunk and was trying to slip away.”
“Didn’t you try to explain?”
“No, Johnny, we danced a jig all the way down main street over our good fortune at being able to spend Christmas Eve in jail,” Scott retorted.
“Scott,” Murdoch gently chided. “The sheriff was just doing his job. Given the condition of some of the other inmates, I’m sure the sheriff was just about at the end of his patience anyway.”
“Other inmates,” Johnny asked through a poorly stifled yawn.
“Oh, yes, dear brother, you should have been here soon. You missed the chance to make the acquaintance of some of Flat Rock’s more upstanding citizens.”
Johnny saw Murdoch trying to contain another laugh and realized there was a whole new story here. “Well, brother, why don’t you tell me about them.”
Scott snorted, but after a few moments a slight grin appeared. “Well, you would have loved Mr. Peabody and his chicken, Myrtle. He was already partaking of the sheriff’s hospitality when we arrived, and had the nerve to become indignant when I refused to let his bird kiss me on the cheek. Then there was Mr. Ferguson, who obviously was allergic to water, as he smelled like he hadn’t bathed in a couple of years. And we can’t forget the good Mrs. Cutler, who tried to stab her husband for getting biscuit crumbs in the butter. After missing lunch, Mr. Cutler decided to drop the charges. Seems he was more worried about not eating than being stabbed.”
“Now, Scott, don’t be unkind, after all, Mrs. Cutler provided the sewing supplies you needed to mend your trousers. And don’t forget poor old Mr. Weedlemyer,” Murdoch added.
“Oh, yes, poor old Mr. Weedlemyer,” Scott said with a roll of his eyes. “Too bad I was short on cash, brother, or I could have given you the best Christmas present ever.”
When Murdoch snorted, Johnny knew this was going to be good. “An’ what’d that be, brother?”
“For a three paltry thousand dollars, you could have become a two-thirds owner in a genuine tequila distillery.”
“A genuine one, huh?” Johnny laughed.
“Totally genuine,” Scott assured him with a chuckle.
Johnny let loose with a dramatic sigh. “I guess I’ll just stick to ranchin’ and drinkin’ tequila.”
“And don’t you forget it, boy.”
Both men laughed at their father’s insincerely stern comment. During his mirth, however, Johnny’s body decided it had had enough. Like water draining through a hole in a bucket, his energy began to quickly dissipate. With a loud yawn, he leaned back against the wall as his exhaustion hit home.
“Tired, brother?” Scott asked sympathetically.
“Yeah, an’ hungry, too. I was just sittin’ down to dinner when Tom brought the telegram out to the ranch.” He gave Murdoch a weary nod. “Good thinking puttin’ in the message to bring it right out to the ranch.”
“Johnny, why didn’t you get something to eat before you came back?”
“I tried, Boston. Ain’t no place open this time of night on Christmas Eve, except the saloon. The bartender told me he didn’t have nothing that didn’t come in a bottle.” The brunet’s head tilted backwards, until it came to rest against the wall behind him. His eyelids fluttered open once, then sank down, closing his eyes off from the world.
Scott was just about to turn and head back to the bunk, when something pressed against his shoulder. Looking over, he saw Murdoch standing next to him, a blanket and pillow in hand. Moving aside, he watched his father stuff the two items between the bars.
“Johnny,” Murdoch called out softly.
As if stuck by a whip, Johnny’s head jerked back up. He immediately began looking around, his eyes blinking rapidly, as if he had to figure out where he was again. “Sorry, Murdoch,” he mumbled, his voice still heavily laced with weariness.
Murdoch merely shook his head and then pushed the pillow and blanket towards Johnny. “Here, son, lie down and get some sleep. You’re dead on your feet.”
“But nothing. You’ve done all you can do. We’re stuck here for the night, and that’s that. I’m just glad the sheriff was willing to let you stay with us, considering the hotel is full up. Now, lay down and get some rest.”
“That an order, old man?” Despite the challenge of his words, there was nothing but pure devotion in his weary voice.
“Of course not,” Murdoch replied with the same deep timber of affection. “I’ve already been informed that you don’t take orders too well. Consider it a request, son.”
A sleepy but contented smile pushed up the corners of Johnny’s mouth. “Guess it wouldn’t hurt to lay down for a few minutes.” Accepting the offered item, he tossed the pillow down at the end of the bench. Without even bothering to removing his hat, Johnny laid down, although from where Scott and Murdoch stood it looked more like Johnny simply toppled over onto his side.
The brim of Johnny’s hat was pressed against the bench, tipping it off his head and sending it to the floor. A barely audible groan was the only indication Johnny even heard the impact of the hat against the floorboards. After pulling his legs up onto the bench, a pair of hands, moving more out of instinct than from any mental direction, adequately managed to cover his body with the warm blanket.
Basking in the afterglow of the Johnny and Murdoch’s unusual, but loving exchange, a deep sense of brotherly affection cheered Scott’s otherwise dampened spirits. In an awed silence, he watched Johnny finally lose the battle against his own exhaustion. Within minutes of his head hitting the pillow, Johnny was curled up under the blanket, sound asleep.
From outside, the almost-full moon’s path had finally brought its light in through the solitary window in the wall overhead. A silvery light softly illuminated the bench on which Johnny was lying, causing an almost halo effect around his brother’s still form. A slight movement from Johnny sent a stray lock of dark hair slipping down on his forehead. In the pale moonlight, he looked so much younger than his twenty years, and more innocent than his past would ever allow.
“I couldn’t have a better brother if I had been given the privilege of picking one out myself. He can be more than a handful at times, but for the most part he’s something very special.” Scott said in quiet awe.
“Yes, he is.”
That simply stated response was as filled with more emotion than any other words Scott had heard pass from Murdoch’s lips. However, it was the subsequent slight chuckle that caused him to turn an inquisitive eye towards his father. “What?” he whispered.
A somewhat sad, yet still lighthearted smile graced Murdoch’s lips. “With Johnny’s birthday being just two days before Christmas, I’ve always considered the next year to be his real ‘first’ Christmas. For his actual first Christmas he did nothing but sleep, but by the next year he was crawling all over the house with a speed and tenacity you can’t imagine.”
Scott snickered softly. “I’ll bet I can, sir,” he said with a grin. “Now if you had said he was a perfectly sedate baby, who never got into anything and sat quietly playing with his toys…that I would have found hard to imagine.”
Some of the sadness slipped from Murdoch’s expression, and his smile softened. “No, Johnny never was still, that’s for sure. What I remember most about that Christmas was the night before – Christmas Eve. Johnny’s mother had been cooking up a storm all day. Christmas dinner was to be a combination of both of Johnny’s heritages – some Mexican dishes, as well as some traditional Scottish fares she was attempting to make for the first time.” Murdoch laughed softly. “I spent the whole day worrying about how I was ever going to manage to make a proper showing with all those different foods.”
“Never offend the wife after she’s gone to so much trouble, is that it?” Scott teased.
“Never,” Murdoch agreed with a solemn nod. He raised his eyebrow and looked over at Scott with a knowing smile. “One day, son, you’ll find a woman to love and to share your life. Only then will you truly understand the wisdom of that little bit of advice.”
At this particular point in his life, however, Scott was unable to imagine himself married to anyone, but he nodded his agreement to the theory, anyway. “I’ll keep it in mind, sir. Now, you were saying?”
Murdoch’s gaze returned to where Johnny was soundly sleeping in total oblivion to the family revelations taking place in front of him. “I had been busy with the ranch work for most of the day. Which literally translated meant I was staying as far away from the kitchen as possible. Johnny’s mother absolutely hated having anyone underfoot in the kitchen when she was cooking, and with her temper, I wasn’t about to cross her path with so many knives around.”
On the bench outside the cell, Johnny shifted in his sleep. He groaned slightly as his right knee moved higher towards his chest, but he did not appear to awaken. A slight grimace shattered the previously relaxed expression on his face, but after a few seconds, his features softened again. With his left hand cradling his cheek against the pillow, and his right fist tucked up under his chin, he quickly settled back into a deeper sleep.
Murdoch had stopped speaking at the first hint of Johnny’s restlessness, while Scott kept his intended comment to himself, as well. Both men watched anxiously until they were sure Johnny was fully settled again. Next to him, Scott felt Murdoch relax, but when his father resumed his story, Scott had to strain to hear the barely whispered words.
“It was well after sundown that night, Christmas Eve. Maria and I were seated at the kitchen table, sharing a quiet moment over a cup of hot chocolate. She was tired, but feeling very proud of her accomplishments. All of a sudden, she sprang to her feet and began screaming Johnny’s name. It seems Johnny had been underfoot or into some kind of mischief all day, and it was only then, during a peaceful moment of solitude, that she realize it had been quite a while since she had scolded him.
“In a near panic, she ran for the great room, with me on her heels.” In the shadowy moonlight, a wistful smile took over Murdoch’s face. “She was on the verge of waking the entire ranch, when I grabbed her around the waist. Holding her trembling body against me, I pointed towards the tree. I’ll never forget the look of relief, love, and total joy on her face when she saw I was pointing at Johnny.”
“I take it he wasn’t climbing it?” Scott couldn’t resist.
“No, Scott, he wasn’t doing any such thing. He was curled up underneath it, sound asleep. He had somehow managed to wrap himself up in the tree skirt, and was resting his head on a stuffed bear Maria thought had been tucked too far back under the limbs for him to find.”
Taking a long look at Johnny curled up in peaceful slumber just a few feet away, Scott could easily picture in his mind the baby Johnny nestled the decorated tree as if he, too, were a Christmas present. “I wish I could have been there to see that,” Scott breathed wistfully. To his surprise, Murdoch’s arm slipped around his shoulders and gave him a gentle squeeze.
“I wish you had been there, too, son. I wish so many things could have been different for you, and for Johnny, but all we can do is make the best of the second chance we’ve been blessed with.”
The regret in Murdoch’s voice pieced Scott’s heart, and had him wishing he hadn’t opened the door to such dreary thoughts. Desperate to regain the pleasant and warm feelings of just moments ago, he asked, “What happened next?”
Murdoch sighed in contentment. “For the entire night his mother and I sat on the sofa, cuddled together, just watching him sleeping under the tree. It was so peaceful and…” Murdoch paused, and Scott could sense the battle to contain overpowering emotions taking place next to him. When Murdoch spoke again, his voice was full of the same awe Scott felt in his own heart. “Johnny looked like a little angel, all curled up on a fluffy while cloud, his dark hair shining in the light from the fireplace. He had the sweetest smile on his tiny face, one that could have melted the coldest of hearts with just one look.”
Feeling a battle with his own emotions beginning to start, Scott nodded. “That’s a vision I don’t have any difficulty imagining. Johnny still has that smile.”
“Yes, he does,” Murdoch agreed, his voice still choked with emotion. “We don’t see it nearly as enough, but when you stop and consider all he’s been through, it’s an absolute miracle he can still have such tender feelings and an optimistic outlook. I hate to admit it, but when I first read the Pinkerton report, which revealed that my little boy had grown up to be Johnny Madrid, and that this notorious gunfighter would be coming to Lancer in answer to my invitation, I didn’t know what to expect. I just couldn’t imagine my sensitive little boy ever becoming…”
The hand gripping Scott’s shoulder tightened painfully. That action alone spoke more of his father’s anguish than any words ever could. “He didn’t, Murdoch. Johnny survived, but he didn’t become a killer. He’s too compassionate, too caring, and just too humane to ever be classified in that category. Yes, he was forced to do things most of us can’t even begin to imagine, but those things are a burden he bears with much sorrow, not a badge he wears proudly to flaunt in anyone’s face.”
“It’s a burden I wish more than anything I could take from him.”
Scott nodded in sad agreement. “You and me both, but Johnny’s not about to let either one of us get that close to what he feels is his darkest side. He just can’t seem to grasp the concept that we won’t judge him, that we won’t find him lacking if we were to become exposed to all he was, but shouldn’t have been.”
A heavy sigh resounded through the small room. “Another legacy of his past. I sometimes wonder if Maria knew what her leaving would do to our little boy’s life, if she would have still left Lancer?”
Scott opened his mouth to voice his growing questions, but couldn’t. Instead he closed his mouth, and tried to shove those queries aside. There was nothing that knowledge would do to ease his mind, and they really weren’t any of his business.
“What is it, son?” Murdoch asked softly.
“I…no it’s nothing.”
“Scott?” Murdoch pressed.
“It’s just that I hate how things changed, how hard Johnny’s life became after…” Scott could bring himself to say the words. Not now. “I was just wondering if, in looking back, you ever figured out…” again Scott’s desire to know more about his brother ran headlong into his refusal to hurt his father.
“No, Scott, I never figured out why she left,” Murdoch said after a long silence. “I’ve racked my brain for years, trying to discover what I missed, but I’ve never found it. I still can’t believe she was so unhappy that she felt her only escape was to run off with another man, and that I didn’t have the slightest clue she was feeling that way. Sure, we had our quarrels, same as any married couple, but nothing to warrant such a drastic reaction…or at least I didn’t think so at the time. Even with the clarity of hindsight, I still can’t look back and see what I couldn’t see then. Sometimes its hard to even look at Johnny without wondering what I could have done differently to keep his life from becoming so harsh.”
Scott thought long and hard on those words. He knew there was an emotional chasm, a rift between Johnny and Murdoch that had not yet been fully bridged. They both loved each other deeply, but there was a painful need present, too. He had sensed it many times from Johnny, and wondered for the first time if it was there for Murdoch, as well. Maybe he could not see it in Murdoch because he couldn’t read his father as well as he could his brother.
“Then it’s time to just let it go,” he ventured cautiously. “It’s time to let go of those questions once and for all, and…and just get on with our second chance together, free of the second-guessing about what happened to destroy our first chance. Johnny’s mother…well, she’s gone, Murdoch, and if you haven’t been able to unravel the mystery of why she left after all these years, it’s time to just file it away and get on with the task at hand – ensuring that Johnny’s life is much better from now on.”
A rattling at the door startled them, putting an end to their conversation a mere second or two before the door burst open.
*** *** *** ***
“Got some good news,” the sheriff began, only to stop cold when he was urgently shushed by both prisoners. Turning to his left, he spied the third Mr. Lancer sleeping on the bench next to the wall.
Opening the cell door, the sheriff entered and sat down on the bunk next to Murdoch. “Like I said, got some good news for you fellas,” the sheriff whispered. “Seems like your son there got a message through to the judge after all. He sent for me an’ told me he’d talked things over with his niece. Once she got a chance to calm down, she said she didn’t want to press no charges, so you’re free to go.”
In muted fascination, the sheriff watched the two men shake their heads. The blond one actually looked like he regretted hearing what most would have considered good news, while the older man continued looking at him with a determined frown. Usually he had to stand outta the way when he released his prisoners, either that, or get run down.
“Sheriff, it’s almost midnight and the hotel is full. Would it be possible for us to stay here for the rest of the night? The gray-haired head nodded towards the young man still sleeping outside the cell, “My son is exhausted, and I’d be most appreciative if we didn’t have to disturb him.”
Scratching his head, the sheriff looked from father to son to son and then back to the father again. “Tomorrow’s Christmas,” he unnecessarily informed them. When the old man nodded, but did not look like he was even considering rescinding his request, the sheriff nodded. “Well, seein’ how you two ain’t under arrest no more, I guess there ain’t no reason I can’t let you just sit here in the cell. I’ll have to lock up the front door, though, but I’ll leave the key on my desk. You can let yourselves out any time, just be sure and slide the key back under the door after you locked up.”
“Thank you, sheriff.” Although addressing the lawman, Murdoch’s gaze remained fixed on his sleeping son.
Feeling a little awkward, the sheriff stood to go. He wasn’t used to having ‘guests’ in his jail. “Well, I’m gonna head back home. The missis don’t like it too much when my job interrupts Christmas and all, but it can’t be helped.”
After the sheriff departed, Scott gathered the other blanket and draped it over both of them. Grabbing the remaining pillow, he handed it to Murdoch.
“What about you, son?”
With a contented sigh, Scott rested his head on Murdoch’s shoulder. “I’ve already got my pillow.” Overhead he heard Murdoch’s light chuckle.
After a few minutes of silence, they heard the church bells begin ringing. A few anxious moments were endured, but their fears eased when Johnny showed no signs of being disturbed by the celebratory noises, which were only partially muffled by the glass-covered window.
“Merry Christmas, Scott.”
“Merry Christmas, Mur…Father.” Scott chuckled softly. “You’re probably going to think I’ve lost my mind, considering we spent the evening in a dingy jail, were accused of things we would condemn from any civilized man, and have more than likely ruined our first Christmas together, but…” he paused as his eyes took in the sight of his only brother, still curled up in a blissful sleep.
“But what, son?” Curiosity practically dripped off Murdoch’s words.
“But I can’t honestly think of any other place I’d rather be at this moment. This has definitely been the best worst Christmas Eve I’ve ever spent.
Merry Christmas to all my wonderful new friends in Lancerland.
Here’s wishing you a holiday season full of family, friends and
lots of good cheer.
Stay safe, stay happy,
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