Word Count 8,010
Murdoch Lancer stood near the smithy’s fire watching Jelly melt the metal he needed to form into a piping to replace the pump for one of the horse troughs. They were chatting amicably about ranch goings-on. Murdoch looked up to see his youngest son in the corral, breaking the new string of ponies they intended to sell to the army. His pride swelled as he watched Johnny work the horses with just the right mixture of strength and kindness. Johnny spent as much time talking to the horses as he did on their backs. Murdoch had seen many men try to break a horse and most of them didn’t have a clue how to treat these magnificent animals. Johnny did, it seemed to be naturally born to him.
Murdoch’s thoughts went back 20 years to when Johnny was a toddler. He had been in love with horses from the beginning, never afraid of the huge animals and they responded to him, even back then. He was brought out of his reverie by the voice of his eldest son. With a smile still playing on his lips he turned to ask Scott to repeat what he’d said. As he did, a huge spark lept from the anvil as Jelly struck the metal. The blast of soot, sparks and smoke flew into Murdoch’s face and he screamed as he turned to run from the pain.
Scott yelled out to him and ran after him. Johnny heard the commotion and lept the corral fence in a breakneck run to see what was wrong. Scott and Johnny reached their father at the same time. Trying to calm him, Scott told Johnny what had happened and the younger man took charge. He was firm with Murdoch. He knew the only way to get through the panic his father was feeling was to shock him out of it.
“Murdoch, dammit stop! Let me see your face!” he yelled as he pried his father’s hands away from the burns. He guided the older man to the pump and started flushing his face and eyes with the cooling water. Murdoch was fighting desperately to gain control of himself. He hated his son’s to see him so vulnerable. Johnny was giving orders to everyone who had gathered with concern for the patriarch. He sent a man into town for the doctor, he sent Jelly into the house to tell Teresa what had happened and to ready Murdoch’s bed. He turned to Scott and ordered him to help him take their father to his room.
“Johnny, I can’t see,” Murdoch whispered as his boys lead him upstairs.
“I know, Murdoch. Take it easy, we’ll take care of everything,” Johnny answered.
Murdoch could hear the worry dripping from his son’s voice. Teresa was waiting for them with water, salves and bandages. She allowed Johnny to take care of the administrations. He flushed his father’s face again liberally and chose the salve he thought would best soothe the burning and applied it then, with Scott holding Murdoch’s head, he wrapped his fathers eyes with the bandages and laid him down to rest.
The entire time he was caring for the older man, he was talking to him softly, soothingly, in the voice Scott had come to recognize as what he called “the calming tone”. Johnny started to stand from his father’s bedside and Murdoch reached out a hand and grabbed him, pulling him back down.
“Don’t go,” he said.
Johnny could hear the fear in his father’s voice and knew exactly what he was feeling. “I’m not goin anywhere, just cleaning up my mess,” he smiled though his father could not see this. Johnny put his hand on his father’s forehead and stroked him gently. “You need to try and sleep awhile before the doc gets here. We won’t leave you alone, I promise.”
Murdoch sighed and tried to relax for he knew Johnny’s promise was money in the bank. After a few minutes of watching the steady rise and fall of his father’s chest and the even breaths, Johnny knew his father was asleep. He gently got up so as not to disturb him and walked over to the window, leaning against the wall heavily.
Scott was immediately at his side. “You ok?” he asked.
“Yeah, just worried. I know what he’s going through,” Johnny answered with a hint of fear.
“I know you do,” Scott replied and put his arm around his younger brother. “By the way, little brother, you sure can be bossy when you want to be,” he grinned.
Johnny smiled and leaned closer to his brother.
The doctor made good time getting to the ranch, especially when he found out his patient wasn’t one of the boys but his long time friend. As he entered the bedroom, Johnny began to gently awaken his father. It wasn’t until Murdoch turned his head toward the voice that Johnny knew his father was awake. “The doc’s here, Murdoch. He needs to look at your burns.”
“Well, Murdoch, I was expecting to be tending to one of the boys again. What have you gotten yourself into?” Doc said trying to sound lighthearted.
Murdoch reached out and the doctor took his hand. “I can’t see, Sam,” was all he said.
“Alright, let’s see what we have here,” he said seriously as he began to remove the bandages. He looked up at Teresa standing at the foot of the bed and smiled. “Good job, young lady,” he commented.
“It wasn’t me. Johnny did it.”
“Oh? Well, I guess you have some experience in this area.”
“Yeah,” Johnny mumbled unhappily.
The doctor took his time examining his friend. He paid particular attention to the eyes. There was some damage to the corneas, but he thought this would heal. Murdoch must have moved quickly and shut his eyes against the soot to keep the fire from burning his eyes beyond hope.
“Did you flush his eyes right away?” he asked to anyone standing around.
“Johnny got it done. We had to chase Murdoch down but it was only a minute before Johnny got the water to him,” Scott explained, feeling impotent for his lack of knowing what to do for his father during the initial crisis.
“Good, good. Well, there is some damage to the corneas but I think they’ll heal without any permanent damage.”
“Then his sight will return?” Teresa asked what they all needed to hear.
“Unless there’s something that I just can’t see. If it doesn’t return, you’ll have to take him to a specialist. I know of some excellent ones and, if it comes to that, I’ll help you make arrangements,” the doctor explained.
“How long before we know for sure?” Johnny asked.
“Two weeks at the most,” Doc answered. They all heard the small gasp Murdoch had let escape.
Johnny was at his side in an instant. “It’s ok, Murdoch. I know it seems like a long time and it is, but we’re here and we’ll help you through it. Everything’s gonna be ok. We’ll do whatever it takes to get your sight back. I swear it,” Johnny talked softly to his father, trying to reassure him. It seemed to work as Murdoch relaxed back against the pillows and starting drifting off again.
Doc Jenkins had given him some laudanum for the pain and that was helping him sleep as well. “I’ve done all I can for now. I’ll be back in two days to check him again. In the meantime, change the bandages twice a day and use this salve on his eyes,” he whispered his instructions as they all stood in a corner of the room, not wanting to disturb the sleeping man.
Jelly had stayed downstairs throughout the whole ordeal and when Scott saw the doctor out, he asked after Murdoch. Scott explained everything the doctor had told him and Jelly was pale.
“It wasn’t your fault, Jelly. It was an accident,” Scott said reading the old man’s thoughts. Jelly nodded and hung his head as he walked back outside.
Murdoch stayed in bed the rest of the day and Johnny stayed with him, reassuring him whenever he would awaken. They ate supper together, the four of them, in the patriarch’s bedroom and tried hard to be jovial. It was all lost on Murdoch as he began to slip into depression. Johnny motioned Scott and Teresa out of the room. It was time to have a talk with his father.
“Murdoch, Scott and Teresa went back downstairs. You and I need to talk. I know what you’re feeling. I know how scared you are even if you don’t want to admit it and I understand that, too. I can’t tell you for absolute sure that you’ll get your sight back, but I can tell you that we will move heaven and earth to make it happen. It’s hard to feel so helpless, believe me, I know. But right now you have to trust us to take care of things and that includes you. Now, Scott and I will make sure the ranch is taken care of and Teresa will be here with you during the day when we’re gone. I don’t want any arguments from you about this because, for a change, you’ll lose. No worrying about the ranch or if things are being done to your liking. The place won’t collapse if your not at the helm for a couple of weeks. In the meantime, I’d like to tell you some things I experienced when I couldn’t see.”
Johnny went on to tell his father about how his other senses had sharpened keenly without his sight. He told him how he had come to appreciate the sounds and smells around him and how those senses had helped him when he was in danger. He explained how he had learned to move around in a strange place and how to feel first before walking around. Johnny talked for a straight hour without stopping. When he finally did stop, he felt hoarse. He thought Murdoch had fallen asleep on him at first but then he felt a hand grope over his own as he had rested it near his father.
“Thank you, Johnny. I feel better now,” Murdoch said softly.
“Do you?” Johnny asked, suspicious of whether he was being told the truth or if Murdoch was just trying to shut him up.
“Yes, son. I really do. I understand what you’ve been saying and I intend to stop wallowing in self-pity and just believe that things will work out,” he reassurred his son. Murdoch felt closer to Johnny than he ever had. What a thing to have in common! He thought. Still, Johnny had been there for him, helping him through the entire time. He knew how Murdoch was feeling, how frightened being in the total dark was, and he had shared some of his feelings with his father. He drifted off to sleep feeling strangely content.
Murdoch awoke disoriented. He raised his hand to his bandaged eyes and remembered. He felt something on the bed next to him and felt around to find the sleeping form cuddled close to him on the bed. He smiled as he realized from the breathing and the size that it was one of his sons. The smile left his face as he listened hard to figure out which one of them it was. Then he remembered what Johnny had said to him and he sniffed the air close to the young man and smiled. He could smell the scent of leather and knew it was his youngest.
He lay there for a long time, not wanting to move, not wanting to awaken the boy. It felt so good to have his son in bed with him again, after all these years. He remembered how Johnny would stumble into his parent’s room sometimes in the middle of the night and wake his father whimpering when he’d had a bad dream. Murdoch would always pick him up and nestle him in under the covers, holding him close until he drifted off to sleep again. How he wished Johnny could remember those times too! He felt his son moving and sadly realized he was waking up.
Johnny sat up and yawned and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. He looked around the room for a second before realizing where he was. He jerked his head around to check on his father. He couldn’t tell if Murdoch was awake.
“Good morning, son.”
Johnny smiled, “Good morning. Sorry, guess I fell asleep.”
“No need to apologize. No need at all,” Murdoch whispered with a smile on his lips.
“What are you smiling about?” Johnny asked in a falsely suspicious tone.
“Just remembering,” Murdoch replied.
“Remembering what?” Johnny asked, now curious.
“When you were little and had a bad dream you would come in here and wake me up and I’d put you in bed with me,” Murdoch explained with the smile widening.
Johnny smiled too but there was a sadness there. A sadness that he could not remember the happy time when he lived here with both of his parents. Teresa came in with breakfast for them both, knowing Johnny would spend the night at his father’s side.
“Well, good morning, you two. I hope you’re hungry,” she sang.
“I am,” Murdoch said with a smile which pleased Teresa immensely. Johnny must have gotten through to him last night, she thought. They ate breakfast in silence, then Johnny stood up and stretched. Murdoch smiled as he heard and knew what his son was doing.
“Johnny, you were right. If I listen, I can hear what I can’t see.”
Johnny smiled, “Can you hear this?”
Murdoch cocked his head, “You’re smiling.”
Johnny laughed. “Good! Very good! Now, I have to get to work. I’ll come back at lunch and check on you, ok?”
“Ok,” Murdoch said with some trepidation.
Johnny walked over to his father’s side and took his hand in his own. “It’s alright. Teresa is here and she knows where I’ll be if you need me,” he whispered.
Murdoch smiled and relaxed. “Have a good day, son.”
The doctor returned the next day as promised. Murdoch had been up moving around, feeling his home. He was amazed at the things he hadn’t noticed before. There was a crack in the wall near the stairs and a stone was loose near the fireplace. He took mental note to examine the house closely when he got his sight back. ‘When’, not ‘If’, he thought with conviction.
Johnny and Scott stayed close to the house during these past days and when the doctor rode up, they dropped what they were doing and walked him into the house.
“Murdoch, how are you feeling?” he asked his patient.
“Pretty good, Sam. Just wandering around the house,” he smiled.
Dr. Jenkins was relieved to see his old friend in such good spirits. He sat Murdoch down on the sofa and removed the bandages. He examined the cursory burns around his eyes first then focused on the main injury. When he stood back up he was smiling.
“Murdoch, open your eyes slowly. Tell me if you can see any light or shadows.” Johnny and Scott moved closer, both praying hard. Murdoch did as he was told and slowly opened his eyes.
“I see light, it’s bright,” he said enthusiastically. Johnny purposely moved between his father and the window to block the light. Murdoch frowned. “Wait, it’s darker now,” he said disappointed.
“It’s alright, Murdoch, that’s good,” the doctor said.
“Good? How can it be good?” he said grumpily.
Johnny leaned over and rested his hand on his father’s shoulder. “Because, Murdoch, I made the shadow,” he explained.
Understanding filled Murdoch’s face and he smiled.
“Looks like you won’t be needing that specialist after all. But, Murdoch, it’s going to take time. I don’t want you straining your eyes. We need to keep the bandages on. I’ll come back every two days and check your sight,” the doctor chided.
Murdoch sighed but he was happy. Teresa had been standing beside him and she wrapped her arms around him in a tight hug. He was surprised but pleased and hugged her back.
“I think I might cry, I’m so happy,” she said. They laughed at her and she turned a bit red.
“That’s alright, Teresa, you cry all you want as long as they’re happy tears,” Scott said as he hugged his little sister.
“Well, I guess we had better get back to work. Don’t want the boss man to catch us slackin off,” Johnny said with a big grin.
“Wait. I want to go outside and sit for awhile. Johnny? Would you help me?”
“Sure, Murdoch,” he answered as he led his father out onto the veranda.
Teresa brought lemonade and cookies and sat with him while the boys went back to work, still staying close to the house.
Murdoch listened harder than he ever had. Assured that his sight would be returned to him, he wanted to take advantage of this opportunity to put some more of the things Johnny had told him to the test. He was amazed at what he heard. The smallest sounds seemed louder. The buzzing of a bee, the flapping of a butterflies wings and the ever present sounds of a working ranch that he had grown so used to, he didn’t even notice anymore. But he noticed now and he heard the footsteps of his sons. He could discern which was which from the sound. Johnny’s light, graceful steps, Scott’s heavier, more military-like stride, equally as graceful. He felt the warmth of the spring sun on his face and a fly land on his arm. He heard Jelly grumbling after dewdrop and laughed. Johnny was working in the hayloft, pulling the bales up from his brother below as they tugged on the pulley in sync. He kept glancing over to where his father sat smiling and knew what the old man was doing.
“Johnny, pay attention to what you’re doing or you’ll be Doc Jenkins next patient,” Scott cautioned.
Johnny smiled and nodded. Always has to play big brother, he thought.
The next time Doc Jenkins came to the house, Murdoch was getting antsy. Though he appreciated this new sense of his surroundings, he was anxious to get his sight back. As the bandages where removed and he slowly opened his eyes, he saw a blurred image in front of him. He tried to focus but didn’t get a much clearer picture. He smiled though and said, “Hi, Johnny.”
Johnny’s smile was dazzling and Murdoch mused that it was blinding. They were all smiling and laughing until the doctor settled them all down.
“Alright, just hold on now. Murdoch, tell me how your vision is right now.”
“Well, Sam, it’s pretty blurry but I can see enough to know whose standing in front of me,” he grinned.
“How many fingers am I holding up?” the doc asked.
Murdoch squinted, “Three?”
“Not bad but we’re still not out of the woods just yet.”
Johnny frowned, “But he is going to get his sight back, I mean completely, right?”
Dr. Jenkins looked at Johnny intensely. He knew what Johnny had gone through with his own blindness and could see the fear in the young man’s eyes for his father. “He should, but there may be some residual effects. He may not have perfect vision.” He turned to Murdoch. “You might need glasses, then again, your vision could return perfectly as it was before.”
Murdoch smiled at him. “I can live with needing glasses, Sam.”
By the end of the second week following the accident, Murdoch had regained his vision completely. Life began to return to normal on the Lancer ranch but Murdoch wasn’t happy about that. He didn’t want to lose the connection this accident had given him to his youngest. Johnny had been so attentive and concerned for his father’s wellbeing and Murdoch wanted to take advantage of that. He approached Scott one afternoon when he caught him alone. “Scott, I want to talk to you.”
“Uh oh, what did I do?” Scott teased.
Murdoch smiled back. “Nothing. I want you to do me a favor. I want you to go to Sacramento and take care of some business for me.”
“Sure Murdoch, when?”
“Tomorrow and Scott…I want you to take Teresa with you,” Murdoch added.
Scott looked at his father for a moment before he realized exactly what Murdoch was saying. After the accident he had purposely stood back as he saw the bond forming between his brother and father. He nodded his head in understanding.
“I guess Teresa could use a break. I’ll let her know and start packing. How long will we…should we be gone?” he asked conspiratorily.
“A week should do it,” Murdoch replied, sealing the conspiracy.
Johnny wasn’t happy. He wanted to go with his brother and sister but he knew someone needed to stay with Murdoch, just in case. Still, he couldn’t help but think this was all planned. Of course, when he had approached Scott with this theory, the older man had acted so innocent that Johnny knew he was right. But, he figured, maybe it was good to spend some time alone with his father now. He wasn’t as apprehensive anymore about that idea. He had known for some time now that things had been going along too calmly and it was time for some sort of confrontation between the two of them. They were both too hardheaded!, he thought. As the wagon drove out of view, Johnny turned to his father with a smile. “Ok, what’s up?” he asked.
“What do you mean? Nothing is up,” Murdoch replied.
“Uh huh. Ok, whatever you say. Well, I think I’ll go into town tonight,” Johnny said, watching for his father’s reaction from his peripheral vision and trying not to smile.
“Oh, uh I thought we could spend a quiet evening together, John,” Murdoch said somewhat in a panic.
Johnny couldn’t help but laugh. “See? I knew something was up.”
Murdoch gave him a stern look that didn’t last long and smiled back at his mischievous son.
That evening, as they sat in front of the fire together, Murdoch was thinking of just how to start up this conversation. Johnny wasn’t about to offer any help, he was more than a little concerned about the subject matter and didn’t know how much Murdoch would be willing to dig for. Murdoch sighed heavily and decided to just put it out there. He was a blunt man to say the least and he didn’t believe in pussy-footing around a subject. He also knew however, that he was going to have to be careful not to anger or hurt his son. “Johnny…I thought we might talk awhile,” he began.
Johnny stared at the fire and answered simply, “ok.”
He’s not going to make this easy, Murdoch thought. “I’d like to discuss a few things with you about your past, son.”
Here it comes, Johnny thought but repeated himself, “ok.”
Murdoch was already feeling the fire start in his gut, this one could be so exasperating! “The Pinkerton report. I thought we could start there. I know you’ve seen it.”
Johnny started at the revelation that his sneaking was found out and wondered how long his father had known. He smiled a little sheepishly.
“I was curious.”
“I can imagine,” Murdoch said.
“It’s not very accurate, you know,” Johnny stated.
Murdoch looked at him, his interest piqued. “Oh?”
“Look, why don’t you bring it over here and we can go through it,” Johnny suggested with a sigh of dread.
He didn’t have to ask twice, Murdoch bolted to his desk and pulled the file from the locked drawer that had been it’s home as it grew over the years.
Johnny had slid off the sofa and was sitting with his back against it, his legs stretched out in front of him. Murdoch sat on the floor next to him, a bit slow in his movements. He placed the folder between them and opened it for the first time in over a year. What he saw shocked him. There on the pages were fervently scribbled notes such as ‘crap’, ‘no way’, ‘where do they get this stuff’, in Johnny’s handwriting.
Johnny blushed a little. “Sorry, guess it made me mad,” he apologized.
Murdoch smiled at him. “Ok, so tell me what really happened.”
They went through the reports one by one. Johnny skipped some parts explaining that they would come back to it later. He really just wanted to get what he considered the dry stuff out of the way. Murdoch didn’t consider it dry stuff, he was fascinated and anguished by the stories Johnny told him so nonchalantly about the men he had killed. He was pained that his son had led that life and fascinated as Johnny explained the reason behind each killing. He’s not a gunhawk at all, not the way you would think of anyway, he thought.
Each story Johnny told him always had a good reason behind it. Whether it was a range war or he was hired out, he always chose his jobs carefully. He never took a job for the money, there had to be a good reason and the reason had to make sense to him. Murdoch was staring at him in stunned amazement. Johnny stopped talking and looked into his father’s eyes. What he saw there surprised him. Compassion, was the best word he could come up with to describe the look.
“Johnny, I…I don’t know what to say.”
“Nothin to say, just the way things were,” he said with a shrug.
“No son, there must be something for me to say. Some way for me to tell you how proud I am of you,” he whispered.
Johnny stared at Murdoch with unabashed shock. “Proud? How could you be proud of this!?” he exclaimed as he jabbed his finger at the folder between them.
“Proud of you, son. And amazed that you came out of everything you’d been through with such compassion for others. Such genuine caring,” he explained as best he could.
Johnny shook his head in disbelief but said nothing. He didn’t know what to say. He stared up at the ceiling for a long moment, then stretched his tense muscles.
“Do you want to stop now?” Murdoch asked.
“Do you? Have you had enough of this walk down memory lane?” Johnny asked a little agitated.
“What’s wrong, son?” Murdoch asked with a concerned frown.
“Nothin! I’m just tired I guess,” Johnny clipped.
“I see. Alright, but…are you really alright? I know this is hard for you.”
“I’m alright, Murdoch. I just can’t talk about it anymore right now. Think I’ll go to bed, unless you need something.”
“No, I don’t need anything. Goodnight, Johnny.”
Johnny headed up to his room, knowing he would not sleep well tonight.
Dawn couldn’t break soon enough for Johnny. As he anticipated, he hadn’t slept well. The nightmares had been vivid. He stumbled downstairs and put on a pot of coffee. He mused that he already missed Teresa having the pot brewing for him. He searched around and found some day old biscuits and starting chewing on them when Maria came into the kitchen and silently began cooking breakfast. Johnny was glad for the silence, he wasn’t up to being cheerful and he knew the woman could sense that. He ate quickly and was gone before Murdoch came downstairs.
Murdoch was worried about his son. He thought things had gone alright the night before but evidently that was not the case for Johnny. He waited impatiently all day for his son’s return. He tried to do paperwork but found he couldn’t concentrate. He walked the perimeter of the house a few dozen times. He visited the corral and the barn. Nothing helped. He couldn’t stop thinking and worrying. Finally he heard Johnny ride up but knew he would have to wait a while longer as Johnny cared for his beloved horse. Barranca, where’d he come up with that?, Murdoch mused. Naming a horse ‘canyon’? He sighed as he realized once again how little he understood the enigma that was Johnny Madrid Lancer.
Johnny strode into the living room with a smile. Murdoch sighed silently in relief. “Hey, Murdoch. How was your day?”
“Long and boring,” Murdoch said grimly.
Johnny raised an eyebrow but decided not to pursue the subject. Murdoch seemed kinda grumpy and he didn’t think the old man was up to any teasing. “Supper ready? I’m starvin to death!” he overstated.
Murdoch smiled at his son. “Just about I think,” he replied.
They ate supper and Johnny brought Murdoch up to date on ranch business. They discussed some problems and worked out some plans. The usual supper time talk.
Johnny walked into the living room and saw the folder with his name embossed on the cover laying on Murdoch’s desk in plain sight. He had already known they would pick their talk back up tonight and had come to terms with it as he worked that day. Murdoch was standing behind him, watching. Johnny could feel his presence there and smiled.
“So, every time your injured and I take care of you, are we gonna have to do this?” he said laughing a little as he turned to face his father.
Murdoch chuckled too. “I hope not,” he said.
“Well, I guess we should get started,” Johnny said as he picked up the folder and walked over to sit on the sofa.
They started in again. They didn’t get far as they heard a rider approaching. They both walked out on the veranda to see Val Crawford riding up. The sheriff of Green River pulled up and jumped off his horse.
“Hi Johnny, Murdoch,” he said.
“Hey Val. What brings you out here?” Johnny said as he smiled at his friend.
“I need ta talk to ya, Johnny,” Val’s face had become serious and Murdoch didn’t like it. They went back inside and Johnny showed Val to the kitchen where he poured them both some coffee.
“What’s up?” Johnny asked.
“Somebody in town lookin for ya, Johnny.”
Johnny’s face turned hard. “Who?”
Val sat for a minute sipping his coffee. Johnny waited impatiently for his friend to come out with it. “Jake Spalding,” he said simply.
Johnny tensed at the name and the memory it brought with it.
“Said he was gonna cut you in half,” Val said grimly.
Johnny said nothing, just stared into his coffee cup. Finally he sighed and got up.
“Now just where do ya think you’re goin?” Val asked.
“To town,” Johnny clipped.
“Oh no you’re not! No gunfights in my streets, Johnny,” Val warned.
“I know that Val. I’m just gonna talk to him. If he’s dead set on a fight, I’ll make sure we take it out of town.” Johnny walked back into the living room where his father was waiting. “Murdoch, I have to go into town with Val. I, uh, got some business to take care of,” Johnny explained, not meeting his father’s gaze.
“What’s this businesses name?” Murdoch asked. Johnny shook his head and headed for the door without answering. “Johnny, wait. Tell me what this is about, son.”
Johnny sighed and bowed his head. “The same thing it’s always about Murdoch! My past!” he spat.
“Don’t go. Just ignore him, whoever he is. Maybe he’ll just give up,” Murdoch pleaded.
Johnny shook his head again. “No, he won’t. He never has. I have to end it once and for all. He’s hounded me long enough,” Johnny said with growing anger.
Murdoch didn’t like this, if Johnny was getting mad he might not be on his game. “I’m going with you,” he said.
“No! This is my problem and I’ll take care of it! I don’t want you there!” he yelled.
“Johnny, I’m coming with you and that’s all there is to it!” Murdoch said firmly.
“Murdoch, please. I don’t want you there. I don’t want you to see…” his voice trailed off.
“See what? Johnny Madrid?” Murdoch asked with understanding. Johnny nodded. “I’ve seen him before,” Murdoch whispered.
Johnny looked pleadingly into his father’s eyes. “Not like this,” he whispered.
Murdoch felt a chill run down his spine. “Alright, Johnny. I won’t go with you.” Johnny’s shoulders visibly relaxed and he walked out to the barn. ‘I’ll just wait and follow you’ Murdoch thought.
Johnny rode up to the saloon and tied Barranca’s reins to the hitching post. Val was right behind him. He entered the saloon slowly, scanning the entire room in a second and found the man he sought. The saloon became deathly quiet as all eyes were on Johnny. He strolled casually over to the man sitting at a table in the back. He pushed his hat up off his forehead and smiled slightly. “Hello, Jake,” he said friendly enough.
Jake Spalding was once a handsome man, but that all changed with the years of hate, anger and revenge that had eaten away at him. Not to mention the ugly scar that ran down his left cheek, compliments of a bullet from Johnny Madrid. Jake smiled back at Johnny and the sight made Val ill as he stood at the bar ready to stop anything from happening.
“Hola, half-breed,” he said with a sneer.
Johnny never stopped smiling, he stood with his hands on his slender hips, relaxed, confident.
“I see you brought help with you this time. Losing your edge?” Jake continued to taunt.
Johnny didn’t look back, he didn’t have to. “The sheriff is here to make sure there’s no trouble in town. I plan on obliging him. How about you?” Johnny said with a soft and deadly voice.
“Sure, Johnny! Anything you say. Just as long as you know, I’m not leavin here til I’ve stood over your cold, dead body,” Jake sneered again as his voice grew harder with each word he spat.
Johnny allowed himself to smile wider and even chuckled softly. He turned the chair in front of him around and sat on it resting his arms on the back.
“Jake, don’t you think this has gone on long enough? Can’t you just forget about it?” Johnny said without a hint of emotion in his voice.
“Forget about it?! How can I forget about this!?” he growled as he pointed to his scarred cheek.
Johnny sighed. “Now, I’m real sorry about that, Jake. I told ya that before. It was nothin personal. Part of the profession, you know that,” Johnny tried to defuse the man. He didn’t notice Murdoch ease quietly into the room and neither did Jake as his entire focus was on Johnny and the sheriff.
“Well, I took it personal, Madrid, and you’re gonna pay for it, finally! Now half-breed!” he spat the venomous words at Johnny.
“No, Jake. Not know. I told you I promised the sheriff here there’d be no trouble in town. Now if you’re hell-bent on doin this, we’ll do it where nobody else can get hurt,” Johnny demanded.
“Name it!” he fumed.
Johnny thought for a minute. He didn’t want this to happen on Lancer land either. “There’s a creek about two miles south of town with a stand of trees near it and a clearing. I’ll meet you there tomorrow. You name the time.”
Jake thought about it for a minute. “Two o’clock, Madrid. If you ain’t there, I’ll be comin to find ya.”
“I’ll be there,” Johnny said softly and stood up.
Val turned so he could watch Jake closely as Johnny walked out of the saloon. He walked over to the man. “Mister, I can’t stop you from doin this cause it ain’t in my jurisdiction. But if your so all-fired ready to die, there’s a church up the street. Just in case you was thinkin about it,” Val Crawford grinned at the still fuming man and sauntered out of the saloon.
Murdoch waited awhile and left too. He was relieved to see Johnny standing outside the sheriff’s office talking to Val. He would be able to beat his son home. He didn’t want Johnny to know he had broken his promise.
“Johnny, don’t do this,” Val said.
“I have to. I’m not gonna run!” he yelled.
“I ain’t askin ya to run! I’m askin ya to figure out another way.”
“Come on Val, you saw him. There is no other way,” Johnny said defeatedly.
Johnny took his time getting home. He was in no hurry to face Murdoch. He smiled as he remembered the relieved look on Murdoch’s face as he’d entered the saloon thinking he had pulled one over on his astute son. Johnny had seen him come in, his reflection caught in the bar mirror by Johnny’s periphery. He rode into the yard and allowed a ranchhand to take Barranca. The hand looked at him as if he’d lost his mind. Johnny never let anyone care for his palomino. He walked into the house feeling suddenly very heavy. Murdoch was waiting for him as he knew he would be.
“How did it go?” Murdoch asked trying to sound nonchalant.
Johnny smiled at him. “You tell me. How’d I do?”
Murdoch looked down, away from his son’s soul-piercing stare. “I had to go,” he said softly.
“I know,” Johnny replied just as softly. “I guess you heard.”
“I heard and I don’t like it.”
“I don’t like it either, Murdoch. But I have to do it,” he said raising his voice a bit.
Murdoch sighed. “Why does that man hate you so much?” he asked.
Johnny stared at him for a minute. “We rode together for a while. He was quick-tempered then too. We signed up in a range war, but Jake decided the other side paid better and he left. He tried to get me to go with him. I guess he didn’t really want us on opposite sides anymore than I did. We were friends,” Johnny said sadly and hung his head.
“Some friend!” Murdoch exclaimed. “So you shot him in the face and he blames you because you wouldn’t side with him. Is that it?” he asked.
“Pretty much, except I didn’t mean to shoot him at all. I couldn’t see him. There were two of them crouching behind a boulder and I was out in the open. A bullet hit the boulder and bounced off right in his face. I can still hear the scream,” Johnny shuddered a little.
“Would it have been better if you did know he was there? Would he have spared your life?” Murdoch asked, honestly curious about the type of relationships Johnny once considered friendships.
“I don’t know, I’d like to think so,” his lip curved upward ever so slightly. “Well, I guess I’d better get some sleep,” Johnny said as he headed toward the stairs.
Murdoch wanted to say something, anything to help his son but he was at a loss as he so often was where Johnny was concerned.
Johnny spent the first part of the next day working as usual. At one o’clock he stopped his chores and rode back to the house. He cleaned up outside and headed in to tell Murdoch he was going. “I’m coming with you, Johnny. I want to talk to this man,” he said as he buckled his gunbelt.
“No, Murdoch. There’s nothing you could say to change his mind,” Johnny said a little frustrated that his father insisted on sticking his nose in this.
“Maybe, maybe not. Would ten thousand dollars change his mind?” he asked.
Johnny stared slack-jawed at his father. When he regained his composure he replied. “It might, but it doesn’t matter because you’re not going so you can’t offer it to him. How dare you try to buy my life…again!”
Murdoch stared at Johnny, he didn’t understand why Johnny was so angry with him. “Johnny, I’m just trying to help.”
“Don’t, Murdoch. Just stop trying to help me. You can’t save my soul! I don’t have one!” he decried as he turned and stormed out of the house leaving his father stunned and speechless.
Johnny arrived at the designated place a little early, but not earlier than Jake. He was waiting in the shade of the trees when Johnny rode up. “Glad you could make it, half-breed,” he sneered.
Johnny sighed and shook his head as he dismounted. “Jake, why do you have to do this. We were friends once. You know if I had known it was you I wouldn’t have fired.”
“No, I don’t know that. And why wouldn’t you, Johnny? Because we were friends?” he used the last word as a weapon. It was the first time he had called Johnny by his first name. Johnny thought it might be a little bit of an opening so he went on.
“Yes, Jake. Because we were friends. I wish we still were,” he said genuinely.
Jake fidgeted, he seemed undecided. He turned and looked into the stream and saw his reflection. What he saw made his blood boil once again for the man standing before him. “This is why we can’t be friends, Madrid,” he spat, pointing once again to the scar on his face. He saw something he measured as pain flit across Johnny’s face.
Johnny walked over to his one-time friend. He stood in front of him not a foot separating them and looked at the scar closely. It was ugly and jagged from the bullet and the rock that had hit. Johnny stood there a long time looking at it, then he looked into the eyes of his friend and saw the pain hidden there, just beneath the surface. Johnny’s eyes reflected that pain and Jake wanted to look away but he couldn’t.
Johnny spoke softly, barely above a whisper. “I’m so sorry, Jake. I wish things had been different. I’d do anything to help you, if you’ll let me.” It was what Scott called the ‘calming tone’. It usually worked.
He kept looking into the eyes of the man who had been his friend, who was only a year older than Johnny but looked ten years older. Jake stared back, unsure of the feelings surging up in him for this young man. He suddenly remembered Johnny Madrid, his good friend, who had saved his hide a time or two. He felt a quick surge of guilt for the hate he had carried for so long. His eyes rimmed with tears and still he could not look away from that gaze that locked into his very soul.
Murdoch Lancer moved through the brush on the other side of the small stream. He saw his son standing very close to the man who wanted to kill him. He knew Johnny was talking but he couldn’t hear what was said. Then they were just standing there looking at each other and Murdoch could swear the other man was crying.
“Johnny,” Jake whispered. “What can you do to help me?”
The pain in his friend’s voice and eyes broke Johnny’s heart. He reached out to the other man and embraced him as Jake sagged, his knees buckling. They sat down on the ground, Johnny still holding onto Jake with everything he had. He rocked him back and forth and talked to him. He told him they could talk, he could help him find work and rebuild his life. Johnny told him he could start over because Johnny had done it. He told him all the things the man needed to hear from a true friend. They sat there a long time quietly.
Jake finally looked at his friend. “Johnny, I’m sorry I called you a half-breed,” he said sheepishly.
Johnny laughed and pushed playfully at his friend’s shoulder. “It’s ok, Jake. It only hurt my feelings a little bit,” he said with a wry grin. “Come on,” Johnny said as he got up.
“Where?” Jake asked.
“My place. I want you to meet my father,” Johnny said.
“Your what?!” Jake gasped.
Johnny smiled. “It’s a long story but I’ll tell you a shorter version on the way,” he said as they mounted up and headed for Lancer.
Murdoch had long since left his hiding place. Once he saw that Johnny had broken through to his friend, he felt comfortable leaving them alone together. He waited for Johnny to return. Something he had said when he left had cut Murdoch like a knife. “I don’t have one”, talking about his soul. How could Johnny think such a thing! Especially after what Murdoch had seen today, he knew his son’s soul was as loving and giving as his heart was. He intended to make sure Johnny understood that! He heard two riders coming in and it didn’t surprise him that Johnny had brought home yet another stray.
Jake walked in the house behind Johnny with his mouth hanging open. Johnny looked into Murdoch’s eyes and smiled, relieved his father wasn’t furious with him. “Murdoch, I’d like you to meet an old friend of mine. Jake Spalding. Jake this is my father, Murdoch Lancer.”
Jake shook hands with the man, still looking awe-struck at his surroundings.
“It’s nice to meet you, Jake,” Murdoch said, purposely not staring at the hideous scar on the young man’s cheek.
“Jake needs a job. He’s not sure how long he’s gonna stay, but I told him there was work for him here for as long as he wanted,” Johnny explained.
“Of course. Jake, we’re glad to have you. Why don’t you join us for supper?”
Jake nodded and smiled easily at Murdoch. Something he had in common with Johnny, an easy smile, Murdoch thought.
Over the next few days, Johnny filled Jake in on his life and his family. Jake was overwhelmed by Johnny’s good fortune and he was thankful for his friend’s luck. When Dr. Jenkins came out to check on Murdoch one last time, Johnny asked him to take a look at Jake’s scar. The doctor informed him that whoever had stitched him up had done a piss-poor job and he might be able to improve the appearance somewhat.
Jake thanked him and said he’d think about it. Murdoch liked Jake Spalding. He couldn’t believe this was the same man who had spat that filth at his son in the saloon. When Scott and Teresa returned from Sacramento, they were caught up on the events of the past week. Scott and Jake got along from the beginning and this pleased Johnny immensely.
Jake came to Johnny two weeks later. “I been thinkin bout what that doc said, Johnny. I think I’m gonna give him a shot at it. Can’t make it no worse,” he shrugged.
Johnny’s eyes lit up and he smiled at his friend.
The surgery went well and Jake recovered in the big house. Once the bandages were removed and some of the swelling had gone down, Jake could see a definite improvement. Dr. Jenkins assured him it would only get better with time. Jake stayed at Lancer two more months, then he told Johnny he was leaving. Seeing the disappointment on his friend’s face, Jake smiled. “Johnny, you’ve given me another chance at life and shown me that I can change my life, too. But I need to do it on my own. You understand, don’t you?”
“Yes, but I’m still gonna miss you,” Johnny said and smiled at his friend. He said goodbye to the Lancers and they waved as he rode off.
Murdoch wrapped his arm around Johnny and squeezed tight. “Don’t you ever tell me you don’t have a soul again. Your soul touched that young man just as it touches me everyday.” Johnny leaned into his father’s grasp as tears filled his eyes. Another wall had come down between father and son.
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