Word Count 7,220
Murdoch Lancer rode toward home at a leisurely pace. His business in Modesto completed, he was quite pleased with the outcome as he knew his boys would be. He smiled as he thought of them. Things were good at home, better than ever in fact. Johnny was settled, he was sure of it and Scott was becoming quite the cattleman. He felt a measure of pride toward them both. Fine, strong young men with a wonderful future and, with a little luck, large families with plenty of grandchildren to spoil. He laughed aloud at the thought.
Scott was easy to picture married but Johnny was a whole other matter. He knew how much his son loved kids and knew he’d be a wonderful father. Getting him there was the hard part. He smiled again, thinking of Johnny’s determination to remain a bachelor. The bay became nervous suddenly, skittish and difficult to control. Murdoch looked around but could see nothing out of the ordinary. “What is it, boy?” he asked the horse.
The horse would not calm and Murdoch saw visions of himself flying through the air landing hard on the packed dirt of the ground. Â He spoke softly to the animal, making his voice smooth and singsong, trying to mimick Johnny’s approach to a nervous colt. It seemed to be working until the horse decided it wasn’t. He bucked hard and Murdoch had the sensation of flying for a second before he landed with a thump on the ground. He remembered nothing else as the darkness took him.
“Ned!” she called loudly as she climbed off the wagon. “Come help me!”
The handyman came loping out of the barn and approached the back of the wagon. Expecting to see supplies, his mouth fell open at the unconscious man. “Who’s that?”
“Now, how am I supposed to know? I found him lying in the road out cold. Help me get him inside. Seems he’s hurt his head.”
They struggled with the big man but managed to get him in the house and on a bed. By the time they were done, both were breathing heavily.
“Woulda been easier to leave him where he was,” the handyman huffed out.
“Now, how could I do that? A perfectly good man laying at my feet. And I’m supposed to pass him up? Stop being ridiculous. Now, get back to work,” she ordered.
“Want me to get a doctor?”
She turned and narrowed her eyes at him. “Did I tell you to get a doctor? Go back to work and just forget all about him!”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said humbly, ducking his head and leaving quickly.
She stared after him, exasperated at having to put up with the fool. But he was cheap and did what she told him. Wasn’t terribly scrupulous either. Which suited her just fine. Especially now.
She smiled and turned back, laying a gentle hand on Murdoch’s forehead. “Don’t you worry about a thing. I’ll take good care of you.”
He awoke with the feeling that a train was running through his head. His vision was blurred and it hurt to try and focus. He laid his hand over his eyes and moaned.
He felt a cool cloth being laid across his forehead and he smiled. ‘Teresa,’ he thought. He lowered his hand and saw the fuzzy image of a woman. Not Teresa, she was older, he could tell that much.
“Easy now, you had quite a fall,” she was saying.
“Where am I?” he asked.
“You’re at my house. I’m Martha Simpson. I found you on the road out cold and brought you here. I’m afraid there’s no doctor around here so I’ve been tending to you myself,” she explained.
“I see. Well, thank you for helping me. How long have I been out?” he asked, grimacing at the pounding in his brain.
“Two days. Like I said, you had quite a fall,” she answered.
Two days! Murdoch digested the information slowly. He was supposed to be home tomorrow. Well, he supposed that wasn’t going to happen.
“Think you could handle a little soup?” she was asking.
“Yes, I think so,” he said, raising up slowly. The room spun around a few times before stopping. He kept his eyes closed until it passed.
“You best stay right here. I’ll bring it to you,” she smiled.
Murdoch managed to eat the bowl of soup but he felt so tired. He sat the bowl on the table and laid back down. He was asleep immediately.
He awoke some time later and felt disoriented. Taking a moment, he remembered what had happened. Martha, wasn’t that her name? Nice lady.
He sat up slowly, remembering his last attempt and the dizziness was much improved. He sat on the side of the bed for a moment then slowly stood up. So far so good, he thought. He walked out into the next room.
“Oh, you’re awake! Are you hungry?” she asked.
“Yes, ma’am. I guess the soup wore off,” he smiled.
“I should say so. That was yesterday,” she replied calmly.
“Yesterday? I guess I hit my head harder than I thought,” he said with concern. “I don’t suppose you found my horse?”
“I’m afraid not. You never told me your name,” she said.
“I’m sorry, it’s Lancer, Murdoch Lancer.”
“Well, Murdoch Lancer, have a seat and I’ll fix you up some stew,” she smiled.
“That was delicious. I wonder if I could borrow a horse. I’ll send it back,” he said as he finished his meal.
“I’m afraid all I have are two mules and a nag. She wouldn’t make it very far,” she replied.
“Is there a town nearby?” he asked.
“About thirty miles from here. Were you planning on trying to travel so soon?”
“I need to get home. My boys will start worrying about me,” he answered.
“I have two sons, Scott and Johnny,” he said.
“That’s nice. I’m sure they worry about you all the time,” she said with a distant voice.
“Yes, even when there’s no need,” Murdoch smiled, then he noticed the sadness in her eyes. “I’m sorry, did I say something to upset you?”
“What? Oh, no, not at all. I had a son but he died five years ago. He would have been 19 now,” she said.
“I’m sorry. I lost both my boys for twenty years but they’re home now,” he told her.
“Life is hard, Mr. Lancer. Sometimes I wonder how we manage to get through it,” she sighed.
“Murdoch, please,” he said.
She smiled pleasantly at him. “Well, Murdoch, I really think you should wait a day or two before trying to travel. Why don’t I send my handyman to town tomorrow and send your boys a telegram so they won’t worry?”
“That would be wonderful. Truthfully, I’m not up to sitting a saddle right now. Maybe you could have them come and get me. I hate to put you out like this,” he said.
“Oh, you aren’t putting me out. It’s nice to have someone to take care of again. Now, why don’t you lie back down for awhile. I’ll speak to Ned, my handyman,” she offered.
“Thank you, I believe I will,” Murdoch said, standing slowly. He felt dizzy again and put a hand to his forehead, rubbing gently.
Johnny stood and stared out the picture window behind his father’s desk. Murdoch was due back yesterday. He knew things could happen, simple things that could delay a trip. Still, he couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong.
“I’m sure he’s fine. He’ll be back tomorrow,” Scott said from behind him.
“I know,” Johnny murmured.
“Sure, that’s why you keep staring out the window,” Scott grinned.
Johnny turned and smiled at his brother. “You telling me you ain’t worried?”
“That’s what I’m telling you. He’s only a day late, Johnny.”
“I know but I just have this bad feeling. If he’s not back tomorrow, I’m going after him. That’s all I’m sayin,” Johnny stated.
“Alright, but I’ll bet you he comes riding in tomorrow afternoon at the latest,” Scott replied.
“I hope so, Boston.”
Murdoch awoke as the sun was filtering into the window. He looked out to see the dawn breaking. ‘Another whole day,” he sighed. His head did feel better and he wasn’t dizzy. He thought maybe he would just ride into town with the handyman and send the telegram himself. He’d taken up enough of this woman’s time.
He walked out into the kitchen to find Mrs. Simpson busy at the stove. “Good morning,” he said.
“Well, good morning. How are you feeling?”
“Much better, thank you. In fact, I thought I would just ride in with your handyman and rent a horse,” he replied.
“Oh, I see. Well, I’m afraid it’s going to be an hour or so. Ned has some things to take care of first,” she said.
Murdoch thought she seemed a bit nervous just then. Â “That’s alright, I can wait. I would like to pay you for all the trouble I’ve put you through.”
“There’s no need for that, Mr. … Murdoch. I was glad to help. It’s the neighbourly thing to do, after all,” she replied and her pleasant personality was back that quickly. “Now have your breakfast and I’ll speak with Ned,” she added and left the house.
Murdoch finished his breakfast and walked around the small rooms. It was a nice little house, comfortable. It was obvious she spent a lot of time making it cozy. He walked out onto the porch and looked over the land. Small farm, corral, a few cows, nice, he thought. He noticed her then, talking with the handyman, he assumed. She seemed to be having some difficulty with him but Murdoch decided it wasn’t his place to intervene in her affairs. He sat in the rocking chair and watched them.
She started back to the house looking quite exasperated when she saw him watching her. She smoothed her hair back and smiled. “I swear that man will be the end of me.”
“Is there a problem?” Murdoch asked.
“No, no, it’s fine now. He just gets cantankerous sometimes, but he eventually does what I tell him,” she said as she joined him on the porch.
“Sounds like someone I know,” Murdoch smiled. “You live out here all alone?”
“Yes, since my husband died two years ago. Pneumonia,” she explained.
“I’m sorry,” Murdoch said, feeling very sorry for this woman losing so much.
“Well, nothing to be done about it. Still, it does get lonely out here all alone. Ned doesn’t talk much, just does his work. I’m afraid he isn’t much company. Your sons must be quite a comfort to you.”
“Oh yes, very much so. They have given me more gray hairs though, especially Johnny. He’s the youngest,” Murdoch laughed.
“Oh? A handful?” she smiled.
“That is an understatement,” Murdoch avowed.
They sat quietly for a while before she spoke again. “How old is he? Johnny,” she asked.
“Oh, I thought he was younger the way you talked,” she said.
“In some ways, he is and in others, he’s too old,” Murdoch said with a sigh. He noticed the look of confusion on her face and, for some reason, he felt the need to explain. “Johnny grew up in Mexico and the border towns. He had a hard life. His mother died when he was young and he was on his own. He had to grow up pretty fast. I guess that’s why he still acts like a kid sometimes.”
“Why didn’t he come home? Didn’t he know about you?” she asked.
“He knew, but he was under the assumption I didn’t want him. He … his mother found it necessary to lie to him,” Murdoch said, the anger and hurt still a little raw.
“I’m sorry, that must have been hard for both of you. You seem to have made peace with him, from what you’ve said,” she commented.
“Yes, we have. It’s tenuous sometimes, he has a lot of anger in him. I can’t blame him for that. He is amazing, though. He has so much love in him, he would give you the shirt off his back if you needed it. He’s always ready to help anyone less fortunate than him and he’s fiercely loyal.”
“Sounds like you love him very much,” she said softly. “And the other one?” she asked.
“Scott. He grew up in Boston with his grandfather. He had a good life, his grandfather is quite wealthy. He went to Harvard, served in the union army during the war. He’s dependable, responsible. He has a good head on his shoulders. He’s not as …. passionate as Johnny unless it’s something he truly believes in. Then, boy watch out, he’s like a tiger,” Murdoch laughed.
“They sound quite different yet the same,” she observed.
“Yes, they are very close. I must admit I was worried. Neither of them knew about the other until they came home, but they have bonded very well. Two sides of the same coin,” Murdoch said.
“I’d say you are one very lucky man, Murdoch,” she said softly.
“I know and I thank God everyday for bringing my boys home to me. Do you think Ned is ready to go to town yet?” Murdoch asked, noticing the sun nearing its apex in the sky.
“Soon but I’d like to show you something first. Come with me,” she said as she rose and went inside.
Murdoch stood to follow and the world tilted. He grabbed hold of the wall until it passed then followed her in and through to the bedroom he’d been using. When he walked in she closed the door behind him. Turning, he saw the gun in her hand.
“Don’t make a fuss, just lie down on the bed,” she said.
“What is this?” Murdoch demanded.
“Just do as I say and you won’t get hurt. I don’t want to kill you but I will,” she shot.
Murdoch turned to the bed and saw the manacles at the head and foot boards. “Martha, what do you hope to accomplish with this?”
“I won’t tell you again, Murdoch. Lie down!”
He did as she told him and suddenly Ned appeared, seemingly from nowhere. He raised Murdoch’s hands and locked them in the restraints then repeated the procedure with his ankles. Once this was done, he left quickly.
“Now will you tell me what this is about?” Murdoch asked.
She relaxed once he was securely chained to the bed and dropped the gun to her side. “I’m sorry but it has to be this way. In time you’ll get used to it.”
“In time? What are you planning?” Murdoch asked.
She left the room, closing the door behind her.
Scott walked into the barn and found his brother saddling Barranca. “I thought we were going to give him today,” he said.
“Day’s half over and he ain’t back yet. I’m going after him, Scott. You’re welcome to join me,” Johnny said tightly.
“I just don’t think it’s necessary, Johnny. I still say he was delayed and he’ll be here,” Scott replied.
Johnny turned to face his brother. “And you might be right. But don’t you think he would have sent word if he was gonna be two days late?”
“Maybe he’s under the misguided assumption that his sons think he can take care of himself,” Scott said a bit sarcastically.
“We can all take care of ourselves, Scott. Don’t mean trouble can’t find us. Look, you’re probably right and he’s on his way home. Fine, I’ll meet up with him on the road and I’ll take the heat for going after him. I know you think I’m crazy but I can’t shake this feeling that something’s wrong. I’m goin and that’s that,” Johnny said determinedly.
“Okay, if you miss him somehow, I’ll tell him where you went,” Scott said, shrugging his shoulders.
“I’ll just bet you will, brother,” Johnny grinned as he led the palomino out of the barn.
Johnny mounted up and looked back down at Scott, his eyes dancing with amusement. “If you think about it, send a wire to Modesto if he comes back. Just so I don’t scour the entire countryside lookin for him.” With that he kneed Barranca and was gone.
Scott shook his head at his brother’s stubborness and went back in the house.
Murdoch struggled against the chains even though he knew it was no use. He couldn’t for the life of him figure what this woman wanted. Â There wasn’t much play in the chains around his wrists but the ankle chains had quite a bit of give. Not that it helped, he couldn’t reach them, nor would they reach up to him. He had tried everything he could think of and finally he had to admit he was trapped.
She walked in and smiled sweetly at him. “Supper is ready, dear. You should be able to sit up a bit in the bed.”
Murdoch scooted himself up until he was almost sitting straight. “You expect me to eat with my hands shackled?” he grumped.
“Of course not. I’m going to feed you,” she said and prepared to do just that.
He started to balk at the notion then quickly decided to allow her to feed him. Maybe he could find out what she was after.
She spooned the stew up and he accepted it. She smiled at this and started talking. “Once you accept it we can work on letting you out of those chains,” she said.
“Accept what?” he asked.
“That you’re staying here, dear. It’s so lonely here, Murdoch. Ned is an old crow. A woman needs companionship. Perhaps in time we could even grow to love each other. Oh, I know you’re thinking I’m being silly but you never know. Things change, people change.”
“What about my family, Martha? Don’t you think they’ll be looking for me?” Murdoch asked.
“Oh, I’m sure they will but they won’t find you. Maybe once we’ve become more comfortable with each other we can go back to your ranch together. That would be so nice, to have a family again,” she said whimsically.
Murdoch looked at her sideways, realizing just how delusional this woman was.
Johnny arrived in Modesto and headed to the bank. The banker told him Murdoch had left on schedule and he had even seen the man ride out of town. More convinced than ever that something was wrong, Johnny thanked the man and headed back toward Lancer.
Three days had laid waste to any chance of tracking his horse so Johnny rode slowly along the road looking for any signs of trouble. He tried to keep his anxiety down but he knew his father was in some kind of danger. He wished Scott had come with him just to have a voice of reason to listen to.
It was getting late and he knew he’d have to stop soon. He couldn’t take the chance of missing something in the growing shadows. He found a good place and stopped for the night. Setting up camp, he got that uneasy feeling he always got when he was in danger. Only now, it wasn’t him, it was Murdoch.
Johnny started out again at daybreak, scouring the roadside as he made his way slowly toward home. He stopped and dismounted, kneeling down to the ground. He could see the faint tracks in the dirt where a horse had obviously been frightened by something. He looked around and saw more marks, as if someone were being dragged. The marks stopped but he could see the wagon tracks.
He stood up and turned slowly 360 degrees. It was close, he could feel it on his skin, in his nerves. Everything in him told him he was right. Johnny mounted up and reined off the road to the right. It was a wide open field and he saw nothing that would help him. He rode over to the left side of the road where there was heavy growth and trees. He picked his way through a thick stand and came to a halt.
There, in a meadow munching on grass, was Murdoch’s horse. He slid off Barranca and approached the bay slowly, speaking softly to it. He took the lead rein and patted the horses neck, running his hand along it’s withers, down to it’s legs. He picked up each leg and examined the hooves. There was nothing wrong with the horse. Murdoch’s saddle bags, bedroll and rifle were all still in place.
He had a decision to make now. Keep looking or take the bay back to the ranch and get Scott. He stood there for a minute and let the breeze cool his skin and closed his eyes. Johnny opened his eyes and knew what he had to do. He tied the bay to Barranca’s saddle horn and mounted again.
Murdoch was beginning to lose the feeling in his arms. He tried to move them around, get the blood flowing again, but it wasn’t working.
“Time for breakfast, dear,” Martha said as she swished into the room.
“I can’t feel my arms anymore. Do you think you could let me lower them for just a few minutes?” he asked as nicely as he could manage.
“Well, I don’t know. Maybe later when Ned can be in here. Now, scoot up and let me feed you breakfast,” she smiled.
Murdoch sighed and glared at her. He wasn’t sure how to handle this situation. If he tried to be all friendly too soon, she would be suspicious. If he was too rough with her, she might just put a bullet between his eyes. He decided to try something in between and accepted the food without another word.
She stopped suddenly and cocked her head to one side. Putting down the plate, she opened the bedside drawer and pulled out a bandana. She stuffed it in Murdoch’s mouth and put her fingers to her lips.
He heard it then; a horse approaching. His heart leapt when he saw her hide the gun in her skirts. He almost hoped it wasn’t one of his boys. He didn’t want them hurt.
Johnny rode up to the small farm and scanned the area quickly. He dismounted and saw the woman walk outside.
“Mornin, ma’am,” he smiled and tipped his hat.
“Good morning. May I help you?” she asked.
“I hope so. I’m looking for my father. He was due home three days ago and he never showed up. His name is Murdoch Lancer,” Johnny explained.
“I’m sorry, but no one has passed by here in a month of Sundays. I’m surprised you found the place. We’re pretty remote back here,” she smiled.
“Yes, ma’am. It’s just that I found his horse not far from here and I thought …. are you sure you haven’t seen anyone? Maybe your man?” Johnny asked, seeing Ned by the barn.
“My man? Oh, that’s my handyman and yes I’m quite sure neither of us has seen anyone. But if I do, I’ll be sure to tell him you were here. What is your name, young man?” she asked.
“Johnny Lancer. Well, thank you,” he said, frowning with thought.
‘Johnny,’ she thought. The passionate one. She smiled lovingly at him and he didn’t miss it.
“Well, guess I’ll be on my way. Do you mind if I water the horses first?” he asked.
“No, go right ahead,” she said, still looking at him strangely.
Johnny smiled and tipped his hat again then walked over to the horse trough. He watched her watching him from his peripheral vision. He got a very strange feeling from this woman and it made him uneasy. He was fairly certain she was lying to him.
He turned his back and made eye contact with the handyman who quickly averted his gaze. Johnny watched him as he kept looking back toward him. He got the feeling the man wanted to tell him something but she was still watching them both like a hawk.
He made a show of checking Barranca’s left front shoe hoping she would get tired and go back inside. She didn’t though and he decided he should go. He waved and mounted up, riding out with the bay in tow.
Murdoch could hear Johnny from the slightly open window. His heart was pounding as he listened to the exchange. He thought he heard a hint of suspicion in Johnny’s voice though. Maybe it was wishful thinking, maybe not. He heard his son ride out and thanked God for keeping him safe.
Martha came back in glowing and removed the bandana from his mouth. “Oh, Murdoch! He’s so handsome and so polite! What a sweet boy. It’s going to be wonderful getting to know him. He needs a mother to comfort him in times like these. Oh, I know I can’t do it yet but I am so looking forward to having a family to tend to again.”
“Martha, Johnny won’t stop looking for me. Do you really want to put that boy through this. He didn’t have me for the first twenty years of his life and now, just when we’ve gotten to know one another, I disappear. It’s going to be really rough on him and his brother,” Murdoch said gently.
She frowned at this and was silent for a while. “Well, I’ll make it up to him. Once you and I have come to an understanding and we can go home, Johnny will see that it was all for the best,” she smiled brightly and left the room.
“Lunatic,” Murdoch muttered once she’d left.
Johnny pulled the horses into a stand of trees and tied them off. He had ridden a half a mile before stopping and making sure he wasn’t followed. He started making his way back to the farm on foot.
It took him twenty minutes to get back, staying off the trail and hidden. He found a good vantage point and settled in. It was going to be a long day.
He watched the house for hours with no sign of Murdoch. He was beginning to wonder if he was losing the instincts that had kept him alive for so long. Maybe Murdoch wasn’t here. And if not, he was wasting valuable time.
He saw her then, coming out of the house with a basket of wash. She hung it up on the line meticulously. He held his breath when he saw the man’s shirt. She didn’t have a man, she had said that. Just the handyman and he couldn’t see her doing his wash. Johnny watched her closely as she went about her work. She sure seemed like she was on top of the world, smiling and humming to herself.
She went back inside and he took the time to really look at the shirt. He sighed as he recognized it as his father’s. What is going on here? Why is she hiding him? He didn’t understand but it didn’t matter. He was sure Murdoch was here, what he wasn’t sure of was what shape his father was in or how dangerous this woman was.
Johnny sat back and started planning. He had to get in that house unseen. Not an easy task considering how small the place was. He figured if it had two bedrooms it was lucky. What he needed to know was exactly where in the house Murdoch was and he knew just how to find out that information. He decided he would wait until dark to get his answers.
Martha Simpson returned to the bedroom with Murdoch’s supper. She said nothing and simply began feeding him. He watched her closely, sensing there was a problem. Finally, he decided to ask.
“Is something wrong? You’re very quiet.”
“I’m just hoping I made the right decision, dear,” she replied.
“Right decision about what?” he asked.
“Well, I sent Ned out to track Johnny. I told him to make sure he took a round about path. I’m sure that boy could spot a tail easily. Anyway, he just returned from his job,” she sighed.
Murdoch felt his muscles tense. “What job?”
“I’m sorry dear, but at least you still have Scott. As long as he doesn’t come snooping around, too, that is,” she said flatly.
“What … what are you saying?” Murdoch barely whispered.
“Oh, don’t worry. Ned buried him proper. He was just too close and I wasn’t ready for him to know about us yet. I had to do it, Murdoch. You understand,” she said.
“You killed my son?” he gasped.
“It’s all for the best,” she sighed and left the room.
Murdoch sat there, stunned. Was she lying to him? He hadn’t heard any gunfire. Johnny was too smart to get caught by some two bit handyman, wasn’t he? But if he hadn’t been suspicious of her, he’d have no reason to be on guard. God, please don’t let it be true.
Murdoch felt an anger so deep and violent, he was sure he could bite his shackles in two. He pulled against the bindings with all his strength. Fighting with everything in him not to shout the obscenities flying through his mind.
For all his rage and attempts, the chains that bound him would not budge. Murdoch exhausted himself trying. In fact, he was soaking wet with perspiration from the effort. He relaxed against the mattress and sighed deeply. He thought about Johnny and refused to believe he was dead. Johnny was just too sharp to let some fix-it man take him down. No, he wouldn’t believe it. Yet, she was so calm in telling him she’d had his son murdered. He knew she was insane; completely insane.
A woman like that was capable of anything. He tried to work on a plan of escape but his mind kept going back to Johnny. How could this have happened? A simple business trip that may have cost his son his life. Oh, Johnny, I’m so sorry. We never got much of a chance did we? Things were getting so much better though. Johnny was much more at ease around him than when he first came home. They were even able to have civil conversations about things other than ranch work. And his son had come looking for him, obviously worried. Dear God, let him be alive.
Murdoch felt the tears well up in his eyes and he had no way of stopping them or wiping them away. He didn’t want that maniac to see him crying but he couldn’t help himself. He couldn’t not grieve for his son. He decided it didn’t matter anymore. Scott would be destroyed at losing his brother. Nothing would ever be the same again for any of them.
Murdoch stretched his neck and managed to wipe the tears away on one arm then repeated the process on the other. He was determined that crazy woman would not see him weak. He would save his grief for another time, a private time. He would find his son and take him home to Lancer where he could look out over the land he loved for all eternity. Johnny so loved the land, he had such an appreciation of nature.
He closed his eyes and pictured Johnny in his mind. That wonderful smile, those brilliant blue eyes that seem to always have a secret in them. His handsome, sweet boy. He swallowed hard at the lump in his throat but it wouldn’t go away. He thought he could almost hear Johnny calling to him just then.
Murdoch’s eyes flew open and his ears perked up. He did hear something! He laid perfectly still and listened. There! A tapping sound. He looked toward the window but the night was black velvet. Maybe I’m losing my mind as well.
Johnny approached the little shack behind the barn stealthily. He snuck a peek inside and saw the handyman sitting at the warped table, eating his supper. Deciding the direct approach was best, Johnny opened the door and walked in with gun drawn. He closed the door quickly behind him and leaned against it, relaxing.
“Evenin,” he drawled.
Ned stared at him, slack-jawed. “Whatcha want?”
“My old man,” Johnny replied lazily.
“Caint help ya,” he snipped.
“Wrong answer,” Johnny said, cocking the hammer back. “Now, which room is he in?”
“Mister, I caint…”
“Nope, that ain’t gonna do it. I’m not asking you. Now, let me explain how this works. You either tell me what I want to know or you start practicing saying howdy to God. Which room?”
When Johnny spoke, Ned was sure he could see the frosty air coming from his mouth. Â Nevermind it was the middle of summer. He swallowed hard.
“Front bedroom, winda faces the yard,” he whispered.
Johnny smiled brightly at him. “Got any rope?”
Johnny secured Ned to his chair and slipped out quietly. He approached the house using whatever was in his path as cover. The lights were all out, save a soft glow from his target. He hoped Murdoch was alone. He had already decided this woman must be off her rocker.
He tapped three times on the window and waited. He thought he heard something but he couldn’t be sure so he tapped again. He could see the window was cracked open slightly. He could also see it was old and would probably squeak like crazy when he opened it. He got no answer and he decided the old fella was telling him the truth. He’d scared him bad enough, he reckoned. He slid his fingers under the window and pushed up gently.
The window was being stubborn, however, so he used more force. As he imagined, it was noisy as a firecracker. At least it seemed so in the stillness of the night. He stopped and waited for any sign he’d been detected. Hearing none, he kept pushing until the window was open wide enough for him to fit through.
Murdoch watched in fascination as the window worked its way open. He was convinced he was delusional at this point. Suddenly, he saw a leg come through the opening. A leg in black studded jeans. He grinned so hard, his jaw popped as he watched Johnny coming in the opening.
Johnny looked in and smiled. “You’re a hard man to find,” he whispered. Stepping through, he frowned when he saw the shape his father was in. “What the hell?”
“Shhh, she’s crazy but she isn’t deaf,” Murdoch said.
Johnny went to stand by the door and listened for any movement. Satisfied, he went to his father’s side. He examined the shackles and shook his head.
“Can you get them off?” Murdoch asked.
“Sure, got a hacksaw?” Johnny grinned. The look he got told him his father did not find the situation amusing. “Hang on a minute,” he said more seriously. Johnny reached into his boot and retrieved his knife.
“That’s not going to work. There’s no way you can cut through these chains with a knife!” Murdoch groused.
“Are you starting already? Or did you want to stay here?” Johnny clipped. “Just …. lay there,” he added with some exasperation.
Johnny worked on the lock for several minutes, cursing a few times under his breath. He finally heard the distinctive click and smiled. “Okay, just three more to go,” he said victoriously.
“Great,” Murdoch said sardonically.
Johnny shot him a look and proceeded with his lock picking.
“Where did you learn to do that?” Murdoch asked.
Johnny grinned charmingly at him. “Don’t ask,” he laughed softly.
Twenty minutes later, Murdoch was free. As quietly as possible, Johnny removed the chains from his father.
“Does she check on you at night?” he asked.
“No, she hasn’t been,” Murdoch replied.
“Good, let’s get out of here,” Johnny said, heading for the window.
“Why don’t we go out the front door, son?”
“Because she might hear us, Murdoch, and I really don’t want to get into a fight with an old lady,” Johnny replied.
“She’s not that old,” Murdoch mumbled and followed Johnny out the window.
When Murdoch slipped out, rather clumsily, he turned to make a remark to his son about respect for his elders. When he rounded he found himself staring down the business end of a shotgun.
“Going somewhere, dear?” Martha asked.
“Dear?” Johnny looked curiously at his father, his hands in the air.
“Really, Murdoch, is this any way to treat a lady?” she asked.
“Only if she chains you up and lies to you,” Murdoch quipped.
“Inside, both of you,” she said, jabbing the shotgun toward them.
“Sit,” she commanded as they walked inside.
Johnny and Murdoch sat down at the table.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do with you, Murdoch. And this one,” she sighed. “What did you do to Ned?”
“Ned? Oh, the old guy. He’s a little tied up right now,” Johnny smarted off.
“I’ve changed my mind about you, young man. You’re nothing but trouble,” she clipped.
“Didn’t he tell you that already?” Johnny retorted.
“No, he told me you were a wonderful son. Polite and sweet. Another lie,” she shot back.
Johnny gave his father an amused look that Murdoch couldn’t quite read.
“Well, I just don’t know what I’m going to do with you now. If you had only given us a chance, I could have made you happy. I could have made you all happy. All I wanted was a family again,” she said, distressed.
“Martha, you can’t push your way into someone else’s family. It isn’t something you can just take,” Murdoch explained.
“Oh, hush! You lied to me,” she said raising her voice.
“And you lied to me. You told me Johnny was dead!” he yelled back.
“Murdoch, you’re not helping,” Johnny murmured.
“That wasn’t a lie, Murdoch. Let’s just call it a premonition,” she smiled. She was standing behind Murdoch at this point and she raised the shotgun, leveling it at Johnny’s chest.
Murdoch saw the look on his son’s face and in one quick move, he bucked his chair backwards, hitting her mid abdomen.
The shotgun flew up, discharging into the ceiling. Johnny was on his feet and moving forward in a flash. She had stumbled back but was still on her feet as she saw him coming at her. She brought the gun to bear and pulled the trigger.
Johnny wasn’t moving directly toward her though. He was headed for Murdoch and he moved to the right as the gun exploded. He fell to the floor, taking his father with him.
Murdoch heard the second shot and rolled quickly, grabbing her by the feet and pulling her to the ground. He grabbed the shotgun and threw it, then his hand went for Johnny’s pistol that she had placed in her waistband. She was reaching for it at the same time and they struggled for possession.
The gun fired and they both stopped fighting, staring into each other’s eyes. One in horror, one in pain. For one seemingly eternal moment, they stayed there, neither moving, barely breathing.
Murdoch moved away and looked down at the crimson stain spreading across the cotton. He pulled the gun from her hand and tossed it aside.
“I….I guess I won’t be …. getting that …. family after all,” she sighed out the last breath and closed her eyes.
Murdoch stared at her, unable to move until he heard a moan on his other side. He turned to see his son lying next to him.
“Johnny!” he yelled and turned him over. He saw the blood on his son’s side and his stomach churned. “Easy boy, let me see,” he said softly.
“It’s not bad,” Johnny said through clinched teeth.
“It never is according to you,” Murdoch clipped. He pulled Johnny’s shirttail out and examined the wound. He was thankful the young man was right this time as the wounds were superficial. They were bleeding pretty good though.
“Alright, let’s get you in a bed,” he said as he started to lift Johnny.
“No chains, okay?” Johnny grinned tightly.
“Will you hush? Pass out or something. This is going to be hard enough without listening to your smart mouth,” Murdoch teased.
“Fine way to thank someone for saving your hide,” Johnny quipped.
Murdoch laid him on the bed that had been his prison then returned to the kitchen to search for medical supplies. By the time he got back, Johnny’s eyes were closed and his breathing was even.
He laid his hand gently on Johnny’s shoulder. “Hey, you awake?”
“Yeah, just resting my eyes,” he smiled.
Murdoch returned the smile and they held a look. “I just about went crazy when she told me you were dead,” he said quietly.
“Yes. What made you come looking for me anyway?” Murdoch asked.
“Had a bad feeling. Scott didn’t agree with me so I headed out on my own. Glad I did,” Johnny explained.
“A bad feeling? That’s it?”
“It’s enough for me. My instincts were shouting louder than you can,” Johnny teased.
“Well, I’m grateful for those instincts once again. Alright, let’s get you fixed up. This might sting.”
Johnny held still through his father’s ministrations, grateful the shot had only grazed his side. When Murdoch was finished and he was all bandaged up, he gave a sigh of relief.
“You okay?” Murdoch asked.
“Yeah, just didn’t realize I was holding my breath,” Johnny laughed.
“Well, if you’re up to it, we’ll ride out in the morning,” Murdoch said.
“I’ll be up to it. Oh, you might want to go untie the handyman,” Johnny grinned mischievously.
Murdoch untied Ned who apologized profusely to him, saying he was too afraid of Mrs. Simpson to challenge her word. Evidently, she had killed her husband because he dared to disagree with her. She did have a son but he wasn’t dead, he ran off when he was thirteen to escape his mother’s madness.
Ned helped Murdoch bury the woman next to her spouse, though Murdoch doubted he would have appreciated the gesture. He instructed the man to go to town in the morning and report what had happened to the sheriff. He gave him information on how to contact him if the sheriff needed he or Johnny.
Once these tasks were finished, Murdoch returned to his son’s side. Johnny was asleep this time and he sat next to him all night.
In the morning, Ned had retrieved Johnny and Murdoch’s horses and had them ready and waiting for the men. He headed off for the sheriff after apologizing once more.
“Well, are you up to this ride?” Murdoch asked.
“Sure, I’m ready. Besides, I can’t wait to get home and tell Scott he was wrong for once,” Johnny laughed.
Murdoch smiled, then took Johnny’s arm, turning him to face his father.
“Somethin wrong?” Johnny asked.
“No, I um, well, I just wanted to tell you …. thanks for coming after me,” Murdoch fumbled.
Johnny smiled knowingly at his father. “Me too,” he whispered, then mounted up.
The two Lancers headed toward home and hearth.
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