Word Count 12,450
The buggy rode into the yard of the estancia and Murdoch Lancer came out to greet it. Scott and Johnny stood at the corral fence and watched in trepidation.
“Esther, so good to see you,” Murdoch smiled as he helped the woman down.
“Murdoch, it is so good of you to do this for me. You are a life saver,” she said.
“Well, I don’t think it’s that much but we’re happy to help. You must be Daniel,” he said, turning his attention to the boy still sitting in the buggy.
“Daniel, answer Mr. Lancer,” his mother chastised.
“Yes, sir,” the boy mumbled.
Johnny and Scott approached the buggy after considerable discussion about the merits of this idea.
“Oh, Esther, I’d like you to meet my sons. This is Scott and Johnny,” Murdoch introduced.
Daniel had stepped out of the buggy and was retrieving his luggage from the back when he peeked around the side and saw brown pants with silver studs. His eyes trailed up to the gunbelt slung low on the hip and he smirked.
“Well, I should go if I’m to make my stage. Once again, I just don’t know how to thank you for this, Murdoch. Daniel, honey I’m leaving. Now, you mind the Lancers and please, son, behave yourself,” she said with some distress in her tone.
Daniel watched the road as his mother drove away. Then he turned toward the Lancer family and glared at them.
“Well, young man, let’s get your bags upstairs,” Murdoch said as he moved toward the luggage.
“I don’t need your help, old man!” Daniel declared.
Johnny strode over to the boy and stared him in the eyes. “Don’t ever talk to my father like that again. You don’t want any help? Fine. Your room is up the stairs at the end of the hall on the left. Have fun,” Johnny hissed. He turned his back and walked away.
“Don’t need no backtalk from the likes of you, neither, half-breed,” Daniel scowled.
Johnny stopped in his tracks next to Scott but he didn’t turn around. He looked at his brother. “Give me your gunbelt,” he said.
“What?” Scott asked incredulously.
“I said, give me your gunbelt,” Johnny annunciated each word.
Scott shrugged and unbuckled the belt, handing it to his brother. Johnny turned and walked back to the boy. He shoved the belt into Daniel’s chest.
“Put it on,” he ordered.
“What? No, I ….”
“Put it on! If you think you’re big enough to talk to me like that, let’s just see how much man you really are. Now, put it on,” Johnny said.
Daniel shook his head fervently.
“If you can’t back up that mouth, boy, keep it shut!” Johnny said in a low tone. He turned around and walked away again, handing Scott’s gunbelt back as he passed.
Daniel stormed into the house and slammed the door shut. Murdoch cringed at the noise and walked over to his boys.
“Do you really think that was necessary, Johnny? He’s a thirteen year old boy,” he asked.
“You said he was a problem for his mother, that he doesn’t show her any respect. Well, he’s gonna to learn respect here if I have to shove it down his throat,” Johnny explained.
“Still, that was pretty harsh for a first meeting,” Murdoch argued.
“Maybe, but I bet he don’t call me a half-breed anymore,” Johnny grinned. “Look, I’ll be the heavy, I don’t mind. You two just make sure you’re there to play nice and give him support. Oh, and keep him from shooting me.”
“It would have been nice if you told us about this little plan of yours first, brother,” Scott interjected.
“Yeah, but your reaction was priceless, Boston,” Johnny laughed.
“I’m afraid it’s going to take a lot more than a strict leash to help that boy. Ever since his father died, he’s been unmanageable,” Murdoch said.
“Everybody’s got problems. They don’t act like spoiled brats,” Johnny said gruffly.
“You’re being very hard on that boy, Johnny. Why?” Scott asked.
“Let’s just say I’ve seen the type before. He thinks the world revolves around him. I can’t stand self-pity,” Johnny replied.
Daniel stayed in his room the rest of the day. At suppertime, Murdoch went to retrieve him. He knocked on the door and waited but got no answer.
“Daniel, it’s time to eat,” he called through the door.
“Ain’t hungry,” came the reply.
Murdoch sighed. “Well, if you change your mind, come on downstairs,” he said then walked away.
“He said he isn’t hungry,” he reported as he took his place at the table.
“Well, he needs to eat,” Teresa said with concern.
“He’ll eat when he gets hungry enough, Teresa,” Johnny commented as he dug into his roasted beef.
“Johnny, how can you be so callous? I would think you could identify with that boy,” Teresa asked.
Johnny laid his fork down and turned to look at her. “Now, why would you think that?”
“Well, he’s lost and he’s hurting. He just lost his father and he feels abandoned by his mother. He’s all alone in a strange place full of strangers,” she explained.
“All the sudden I feel like I’m with strangers, too. Excuse me,” Johnny said and stalked off. Stopping momentarily, he half-turned and said, “By the way, my mother didn’t abandon me, Teresa.”
“Oh, I never meant for him to think that!” she said morosely.
Johnny stood on the veranda and watched the night sky. The brilliance of the stars never ceased to amaze him and, if he closed his eyes, he could see the ranch in all it’s glory.
He heard a noise at the side of the house and went to investigate. He watched with great humor as the boy shimmied down the lattice, tearing down Teresa’s ivy as he went.
Daniel jumped the few feet to the ground and wiped his hands on his pants. Pleased with himself, he turned to come face to face with Johnny. The smile immediately left his face.
“Goin somewhere?” Johnny drawled.
“Ain’t none of your business,” he said, pulling himself up straight.
“Reckon it is my business. Your mother left you in our care. Wouldn’t do to have her come back and you not be here,” Johnny said.
“She ain’t comin back!” Daniel spewed.
“Why would you think that?” Johnny asked.
“Don’t think it, know it,” the boy said insolently.
“Come over here and sit with me,” Johnny said, grabbing the boy’s shirt collar and leading the way.
“Now, what makes you think your mother isn’t coming back?” Johnny asked.
“Why would she? She hates me,” Daniel mumbled.
“She doesn’t hate you, Daniel. She just needed to take care of some business and you haven’t exactly been helping her lately. She was worried about you getting loose in Sacramento. It’s a big city,” Johnny explained.
“She didn’t have ta leave me here with you! I can take care of myself,” he replied with a definitive nod of the head.
“Well, I don’t doubt that, but mother’s are funny about their kids. They don’t like putting them in harm’s way and they hate to leave them behind. Your mother had a hard time with this decision, Daniel. It’s really eating her up inside,” Johnny said gently.
“How do you know all that?”
“Murdoch told me all about it. Besides, I saw it on her face when she left. I thought she was going to start crying any minute,” Johnny said.
“Yeah? Did ya really think she was gonna cry?” Daniel asked hopefully.
“I was sure of it. Why, I wouldn’t be surprised if she didn’t bawl all the way to town,” Johnny said. He frowned then and looked seriously at the boy, “You know, I just did a stupid thing.”
“I just walked off without finishing my supper. Want to come with me and see if Scott left anything?” Johnny smiled.
“Sure,” Daniel shrugged.
Murdoch and Scott watched as Johnny led the boy to the table and sat him next to Scott. Johnny then walked around to take his place, laying a hand on Teresa’s shoulder and squeezing lightly. She smiled brightly at him and all was forgiven.
Scott helped Daniel load up his plate and the boy dove in with enthusiasm. Looks were exchanged all around the table as they enjoyed the spectacle of the ravenous boy.
“So, Daniel, do you like horses?” Johnny asked.
“Sure, guess so,” he shrugged, never looking up from his plate.
“What else do you like?” Scott asked.
The boy once more shrugged his shoulders. “Fishin, huntin.”
“You handle a gun?” Murdoch asked.
“Naw, my ma won’t let me. Pa was supposed to teach me this summer …” he trailed off as his expression darkened.
“Any dessert, Teresa?” Johnny asked, trying to change the mood.
“Apple pie. Daniel, do you like apple pie?” she asked.
“Boy, do I!” Daniel replied, his eyes lighting up.
After supper they convinced the boy to join them in the living room. Scott set up the checker board and challenged Daniel to a game but the boy declined. He sat in front of the fire and stared at the flames.
“Daniel here is quite a climber,” Johnny said suddenly.
“Oh?” Murdoch asked.
“Oh yeah, you should have seen him shimmying down Teresa’s ivy earlier,” Johnny grinned.
“Snitch,” Daniel mumbled.
“Well, if you wanted to go for a stroll, Daniel, the front door may have been easier,” Scott teased.
“Weren’t goin for no stroll,” he said nastily.
“Oh, well we have plenty of trees to climb as well,” Scott persisted.
“Ya know what I was doin!” Daniel said as he turned and glared at the blond.
“He was just jokin with you, Daniel. Take it easy,” Johnny said softly.
“Weren’t funny,” he mumbled.
“Well, I never claimed to be a comedian but I can usually get at least a chuckle from my brother,” Scott said.
Daniel ignored him and continued to stare at the flames.
Johnny watched the boy’s profile, trying to read the mixture of emotions that played across his face. He knew the kid was hurting and it would take time to heal. He also knew nothing they could do would fix it for him but maybe they could get him to have some fun once in a while.
He stood up and walked over to his father, bending down to whisper in Murdoch’s ear. After receiving a smile and a nod of approval, Johnny returned to his seat. He waited a few minutes before speaking.
“So, you like to fish. Any good at it?”
“Fair, I reckon,” Daniel replied.
“Care to show me, say tomorrow?” Johnny asked.
“Reckon I could show ya a thing or two,” the boy replied, holding himself on a tight rein.
“I’m sure Johnny could show you a thing or two about his special brand of fishing, too,” Scott grinned.
“Don’t pay him no mind, Daniel. I happen to be resourceful, is all,” Johnny snipped.
Johnny and Daniel headed out early the next morning for their fishing trip. Daniel looked suspiciously at Johnny when he saw all the gear he had packed.
As they rode along, curiosity got the better of the boy.
“Why’d ya bring so much stuff? Looks like enough for a week,” he asked.
“I hope so because that’s about how long we’ll be gone,” Johnny smiled.
“Hey, you never said nothin bout stayin out!” Daniel protested.
Johnny shrugged. “We can go back if you want.”
Daniel thought about this and decided he would probably do better with just one Lancer. “Nah, might as well, since you done packed and all.”
Johnny smiled again.
They reached the stream and Johnny set about unpacking the gear.
“Can you tend the horses?” he asked.
“Reckon I got enough sense for that,” Daniel smirked.
Johnny stood up and sighed as he watched the boy’s back retreating to the stand of trees nearby.
Daniel returned to the campsite just as Johnny got a fire going.
“You work fast,” he commented.
“Yeah, well I’ve had a lot of practice,” Johnny said as he blew on the flames.
“Been campin a lot?” Daniel asked.
“Camping? I guess you could call it that. I’ve spent a lot of time on my own,” Johnny answered.
“How come? I mean, don’t ya like spendin time with your brother and your pa?”
“Yes, I do, but I wasn’t always with them. I grew up with my mother in Mexico until she died, then I was on my own. I was a little younger than you then,” Johnny said.
“You been on your own all that time? How’d ya do it?” Daniel asked, clearly interested in this topic.
Johnny shook his head slowly. “It was hard, Daniel. It was lonely. Sometimes, I’d go days without eating, sometimes without even seeing another human being. I tell ya, I sure don’t miss those days.”
“But ya didn’t have ta answer to nobody. Ya could do whatever ya wanted,” he protested.
“Yeah, I used to think that was a good thing, too. Now, I’m glad to have a family to lean on. I tell ya, I was headed straight for nowhere fast,” Johnny said sadly.
Johnny brushed his hands together and stood up. “You ready to do some fishing?”
“Sure am,” Daniel smiled for the first time since arriving at Lancer.
“How long you been here, Johnny?” Daniel asked after a while.
“Two years,” Johnny replied.
“And before that, ya was on your own?”
“What did ya do?” Daniel asked.
“I was a gunfighter,” Johnny answered honestly.
“No foolin? Wow!” Daniel said, quite impressed. He frowned then. “Ain’t never heard of no gunfighter named Johnny Lancer.”
Johnny smiled slightly. “Ever heard of Johnny Madrid?”
“Sure, who ain’t. You mean that’s you?” Daniel asked, his eyes widening.
Johnny simply nodded his head once.
“How come you give it up? You was famous,” Daniel asked in awe.
“I gave it up to have a home and a family, Daniel. There’s no glory in being a gunfighter. Killing a man isn’t fun,” Johnny said.
Daniel chewed on this for a while. “Johnny, will you teach me how ta shoot?”
“Depends. Why do you want to learn?” Johnny asked.
“A man ought to know how ta defend hisself and his,” Daniel shrugged.
Johnny nodded. “That’s true but a gun isn’t a toy, Daniel. It’s a tool, just like a hammer. You have to respect it and take care of it.”
“My pa said somethin like that, too,” Daniel replied sadly.
“You miss him a lot, don’t you?” Johnny asked.
“Yeah,” Daniel sighed.
“It’s hard to lose a parent, I know. It can eat you up inside if you let it. Takes time to ease the hurt. Nobody can do it for you and nobody can say anything to make it better,” Johnny said softly.
“I know. How come they always try though? Folks are always sayin I’ll get over it in time. Sayin I got to be the man of the house now,” Daniel said, his anger beginning to rise again.
“People never know what to say. They feel bad for you and they think they’re helping but most of the time they only make it worse. You’re not the man of the house, Daniel. Your mother doesn’t expect you to be anything but what you are, her son,” Johnny said.
“She treats me like a little kid,” he snorted.
“Well, she’s a mother. They all do that, even when you’re thirty!” he laughed.
“Hey!” Daniel yelled as his line began to dip lower into the water.
“Okay, take it easy. Just bring ‘im on in,” Johnny urged softly.
Daniel pulled the huge trout from the water and watched in fascination as it flopped around on the ground. Johnny pulled his knife and made one quick stab into the fish’s head, decidedly putting a halt to the death dance.
“Whooee! Will ya look at that? I’d say that fish is big enough to feed us all week!” Johnny exclaimed.
Daniel gave him a sidelong look. “Aw come on, Johnny, quit funnin,” he blushed.
“Okay, maybe not a week but supper tonight for sure,” Johnny laughed.
Johnny and Daniel lay waste to the fish at supper that night and Daniel was elected by a vote of one to do the dishes. Of course, the vote of one was much bigger than he so he couldn’t object too strenuously.
Johnny stretched out in front of the fire and crossed his legs at the ankles. He cradled his head with his hands at the back and watched the boy finish up.
“Good day, huh?” Johnny smiled.
“Yeah,” Daniel returned the smile. “Ya want some more coffee?” he asked as he reached for the pot.
“Be careful, that’s ….” Johnny didn’t finish as Daniel gasped and threw the pot aside, grabbing hold of his hand.
Johnny was up and beside him in a flat second.
“Hot. Let me see,” he cooed.
Daniel tensed every muscle in his body and grimaced in pain as Johnny examined the palm of his hand.
“Well, it’s not too bad but it’s gonna be pretty sore. I’ll see if I can find something to put on it. Here, pour the water from this canteen over it and I’ll be right back,” Johnny instructed.
Johnny returned a minute later with a thick leaf.
“What’s that?” Daniel asked.
“It’s an aloe leaf. Hold your hand out, it’ll help the burning,” Johnny explained as he broke open the leaf and let the sap run out. He gingerly spread the thick liquid over the burn, then retrieved a bandage from his saddlebag. He wrapped the hand up and sat the boy back against a tree.
“How’s that feel?” Johnny asked.
“Better, the burnin stopped,” the boy answered in exhaustion.
“Good, try to get some sleep. Tomorrow, if your hand’s not too bad, we’ll do some huntin,” Johnny said as he pulled the blanket over Daniel.
Daniel awoke to the smell of bacon frying and smiled before he opened his eyes. He looked up to see Johnny cooking their breakfast and remembered where he was. Sitting up, he ran his hand over his face and looked down at the bandage covering his other hand.
“How’s it feeling?” Johnny asked.
“Okay, hurts a little and it’s stiff,” Daniel said, trying to make a fist.
“Don’t do that, boy. You’ll make it worse. I’ll change the bandage after breakfast,” Johnny warned.
He did just that after securing the breakfast dishes away and thought it looked pretty good considering how much worse it could have been.
“Well, think you’re up to some huntin? Tell me the truth,” Johnny asked.
“Yeah, I think so. Can’t use a rifle though,” Daniel answered honestly.
“Could you before?” Johnny grinned.
“No,” Daniel laughed.
“Well, come on then,” Johnny slapped him on the back and grabbed his rifle.
They headed up the mountain, Daniel trying hard to step just where Johnny had as he followed. By the time they had reached the top of the mountain, it was nearly noon. Johnny stopped and sat down in the grass, cross-legged.
“Here,” he said, handing the canteen to the boy.
“Ain’t seen nothin all mornin,” Daniel complained.
“I know. Sometimes it’s like that. Just have to be patient,” Johnny said as he looked over the landscape. “Boy, it sure is pretty up here,” he commented.
“Look around you, kid. Look at this beautiful land. You better learn to appreciate it because it feeds you, clothes you and puts a roof over your head,” Johnny said, a bit exasperated.
“Never thought of it like that. Yeah, guess it is pretty,” Daniel said.
“No shame in admitting something’s pretty or beautiful, Daniel. It doesn’t make you less of a man. In fact, a man who can appreciate the wonders of nature is a rich man,” Johnny said.
“You must be awfully rich, Johnny,” Daniel said.
Johnny saw the hint of the smile and knew the kid was teasing him. It warmed his heart to see this side of the tenacious boy.
They stayed in silence for a while, each in his own thoughts as the breeze played lightly through their hair. Daniel looked over at Johnny, lying in the grass with his hat pulled over his eyes and thought he was asleep.
He moved quietly, slowly toward the man and just as he was about to tickle Johnny’s nose with a blade of grass, he felt a hand grab his wrist tightly.
“A man can’t always go by just what he sees. He needs to feel what’s around him, too. Be aware of every fly buzzin, every butterfly flapping it’s wings, every movement of the grass,” Johnny said as he slowly pulled his hat up and grinned at the boy, releasing his hold.
“You cheated,” Daniel said.
“No, I …. ” Johnny stopped and put up a hand to hush the boy. His head cocked to the side as he listened. Rising slowly from the ground, he stayed in a crouched position as his head came up and his eyes went to work.
â€œWhat is it?â€ Daniel whispered.
Johnny didnâ€™t answer, only put his hand up again to quiet the boy. He heard a twig snap in the soft dirt behind them, down the mountain trail. Johnny turned slowly, picking up his rifle as he moved.
The brown bear trudged out of the tree line about fifty feet from them and stopped. He noticed the two humans and seemed to be studying them for several minutes. Johnny kept perfectly still, controlling his breathing and his fear. He could only pray Daniel had some experience because he couldnâ€™t chance speaking.
Daniel moved slightly back on his hands and the bear eyed him. The grizzly roared loudly and stood on itâ€™s hind legs, enormous paws waving in front of him as he started for the boy.
Johnny pulled his rifle around and cocked it. Leveling it dead center of the beastâ€™s chest, he squeezed the trigger.
The bear bellowed, rearing his head back, then fell to the ground with a thunderous thud. For a second, the world seemed to have stopped, nothing moved, no one breathed.
Johnny stood and walked slowly toward the great animal, gently toeing itâ€™s side with his boot to make sure it was dead. Once he was convinced the threat was over, he turned and walked back to Daniel who had turned away from the sight.
â€œHeâ€™s dead, Daniel. No need to worry,â€ Johnny said softly.
Daniel did not reply and would not look at Johnny. He heard a sniffle come from the boy and put his hand on the slim shoulder.
â€œHey, you okay?â€ Johnny asked.
Daniel turned and buried his head in Johnnyâ€™s chest. â€œIâ€™m sorry, I didnâ€™t mean ta move. I couldnâ€™t help it. I knew better than ta move,â€ he wailed.
Johnny smiled as he stroked the soft dirty-brown hair. â€œItâ€™s okay, Daniel. Everythingâ€™s alright, now.â€
â€œYou wasnâ€™t even scared,â€ Daniel said as he pulled away and wiped his eyes on the back of his sleeve.
â€œWhy do you think that?â€
â€œI was watchin ya. You werenâ€™t scared atall,â€ Daniel explained.
â€œThereâ€™s a difference between being scared and showing that youâ€™re scared. I was scared, believe me. Iâ€™d be a fool not to be, now wouldnâ€™t I?â€ Johnny smiled.
â€œReckon so,â€ Daniel sniffed.
â€œCome on, letâ€™s get back to camp,â€ Johnny said, ruffling the boyâ€™s hair.
Johnny spent that week teaching Daniel how to hunt and track. The boy seemed to be enjoying himself but kept asking to learn to use a hand gun. Johnny had taught him how to use a rifle and how to take care of it but the kid wasnâ€™t satisfied.
â€œPlease, Johnny. Ya let me use the rifle,â€ Daniel begged.
â€œI donâ€™t know. Why is it so important to you?â€ Johnny asked.
â€œI told ya, ta protect myself,â€ Daniel replied.
â€œI know what you told me but thatâ€™s not all of it. Youâ€™re not being honest with me, Daniel, and until you are, I canâ€™t teach you to use a six shooter,â€ Johnny said firmly.
Daniel had come to recognize the tone of voice Johnny was using and he knew it was futile to argue. He couldnâ€™t tell his real reason for wanting to learn, so he gave up and decided he would teach himself as soon as he had the chance.
â€œAre you ready to head back to the house?â€ Johnny asked.
â€œHuh? Oh, sure, I guess so. I â€¦. I had fun,â€ Daniel said, bowing his head.
â€œSo did I, kid,â€ Johnny smiled.
The week had passed incredibly fast for both Johnny and Daniel. Even though he was anxious to get home, Johnny was already missing the camaraderie between them. He thought heâ€™d made some good progress with the kid and hoped he wouldnâ€™t revert to his obnoxious behavior when they returned to the ranch.
As they rode into the yard, Jelly greeted them.
â€œHey, Jelly! When did you get back?â€ Johnny asked.
â€œFew days ago,â€ Jelly answered.
â€œFine. Reckon this be the Daniel I heard tell of,â€ Jelly said, sizing the boy up.
â€œYep, Daniel, this is Jelly. Heâ€™s the glue that holds this place together,â€ Johnny said by way of introduction.
â€œAinâ€™t never heard ya tell more truth,â€ Jelly confirmed and shook hands with the boy.
â€œWell, welcome back. How was the fishing?â€ Murdoch asked as he approached.
â€œReal good. Daniel here caught a trout the size of your head,â€ Johnny said proudly.
â€œWhat happened to your hand, Daniel?â€ Murdoch asked, noticing the bandage.
â€œJust burned it a little. Itâ€™s better but Johnny made me wear this til we got back,â€ Daniel answered.
Murdoch took stock of the boy and noticed there was no hint of sarcasm in his voice, no disrespect, just an honest answer. He smiled at Johnny who winked conspiratorially.
â€œWell, I need a bath. Iâ€™ll catch up with you later,â€ Johnny said and headed for the house.
Daniel tensed immediately when Johnny walked away and started fidgeting. â€œReckon Iâ€™ll get cleaned up to,â€ he mumbled and took off in Johnnyâ€™s tracks.
â€œSeems the boyâ€™s takin a shine ta Johnny,â€ Jelly observed.
â€œYes, he certainly has. I just hope itâ€™s not to the exclusion of everything or everyone else,â€ Murdoch said, raising a concerned eyebrow.
Neither fisherman was seen again until supper when Johnny escorted his young charge to the table.
â€œWelcome back, you two. Murdoch tells me you caught the biggest fish in the stream, Daniel,â€ Scott grinned.
â€œWerenâ€™t all that much,â€ Daniel shrugged, a bit embarrassed with the attention.
â€œOh yes it was! We couldâ€™ve eaten off that thing all week but Daniel was havin none of it,â€ Johnny disagreed.
â€œWell, Iâ€™m just glad that burn wasnâ€™t any more serious,â€ Teresa interjected.
â€œNow, Teresa, you canâ€™t go on a camping trip and come back unscathed,â€ Johnny said.
â€œNo, YOU canâ€™t, but most people can,â€ Scott teased.
Johnny was about to make a retort when Daniel interrupted. â€œTell â€˜em about the bear, Johnny.â€
â€œOh, yeah, the bear. Well, there was this bear and he came up on us all grumpy and mean, so I shot him,â€ Johnny said.
â€œGreat story,â€ Scott said sarcastically.
â€œThat werenâ€™t all of it. We was sitting in the grass on top the mountain talkin and Johnny all the sudden goes quiet and shushes me. He heard something and was listenin real hard. I tried to hear it but I couldnâ€™t hear nothin. All the sudden, there it was; the biggest grizzly ya ever did see. Well, I moved a little. Didnâ€™t mean to, I know’d I wasnâ€™t suppose ta, but he stood up and started toward me andâ€¦.â€ Daniel stopped to take a breath which everyone was beginning to think heâ€™d forgotten how to do. â€œand Johnny, he turns real slow and quiet like and takes aim at that ole grizzly as he charges toward me and BLAM! That ole grizzly dropped dead in his tracks.â€ Daniel was smiling ear to ear when he finished his story.
â€œWell, thatâ€™s a great story, Daniel, and you told it well,â€ Scott said seriously, though he was biting the inside of his cheek not to laugh at the boyâ€™s enthusiasm.
â€œYes, it sounds like Johnny saved your life, Daniel,â€ Murdoch agreed.
â€œHe sure did!â€ Daniel affirmed.
â€œI think thatâ€™s enough fish stories for now,â€ Johnny said quietly.
â€œI wasnâ€™t talkin about the fish, Johnny,â€ Daniel frowned.
Murdoch cleared his throat, trying hard not to laugh. Scott bowed his head and covered his mouth with his napkin. Teresa smiled at the hero worshipping boy with understanding.
â€œOh Johnny, Scott and I will be leaving in the morning for Modesto to look at Â that bull Jason Harperâ€™s selling,â€ Murdoch said.
â€œOh, and Iâ€™m going to spend a few days with Amy. She needs a break with the baby. Poor girl is dead on her feet,â€ Teresa added.
â€œGreat! Whoâ€™s gonna cook?â€ Johnny asked.
â€œWell, Iâ€™m glad youâ€™re going to miss us so much, brother,â€ Scott said.
â€œLook, I can handle you being gone but, Teresa?â€ Johnny looked at the girl in mock horror.
â€œStop that, Johnny. Maria will take care of you and you know it. In fact, Iâ€™m quite sure youâ€™ll be spoiled rotten by the time I get back,â€ Teresa huffed.
â€œI hope so. Hey, Daniel, I got it in good with Maria. Weâ€™ll have some fine meals,â€ Johnny winked.
Daniel smiled, happy to be alone with Johnny again. He felt awkward with Scott and Murdoch and would have been content to spend his time on the mountain with Johnny.
â€œHow long to you think youâ€™ll be gone, Murdoch?â€ Johnny asked.
â€œOh, two days at the most. I donâ€™t expect it will take much dickering. Jason is ready to sell. Assuming, of course, that the bull is worth it,â€ Murdoch answered.
â€œTwo days, Daniel. That should be plenty of time to work on Maria,â€ Johnny smiled at the boy.
â€œHmmph! Like you need to work on her. All you have to do is give her a hug and sheâ€™ll give you whatever you want,â€ Teresa retorted.
The next morning, Johnny and Daniel waved the family off on their respective trips.
â€œWell, kid, Iâ€™ve got work to do. You want to come with me?â€ Johnny asked.
â€œCan I?â€ Daniel asked excitedly.
â€œBeats leaving you alone to burn the house down,â€ Johnny laughed and grabbed the boy around the shoulders.
They spent the morning repairing a downed fence, well Johnny did, Daniel tried to help but he was in the way mostly. Johnny was patient with him though and showed him how to mend the fence and why it was so important.
They had their lunch out on the range and headed to the south pasture to check on the herd. Johnny showed Daniel how to round up strays. The boy was good on a horse, turning it easily under his command.
They headed back to the house as the sun was setting, both tired and dirty from the days work.
â€œYou two look plumb tuckered out,â€ Jelly commented.
â€œWe are,â€ came the unified response.
â€œWell, Mariaâ€™s been cooking all day so ya best get cleaned up and in there in a hurry!â€ Jelly declared.
They sat down to a Mexican feast and Johnnyâ€™s smile could not have been wider as he flirted with the older woman unashamedly.
She slapped his hand more than once but her smile betrayed her. Johnny could do no wrong in her eyes.
â€œWhatâ€™s the matter?â€ Johnny asked Daniel as he noticed the boy wasnâ€™t eating much.
â€œAinâ€™t what Iâ€™m used to,â€ he replied.
â€œDoesnâ€™t mean you wonâ€™t like it. Give it a try,â€ Johnny encouraged.
â€œJohnny, I done good today, huh?â€
â€œYou did real good, Daniel,â€ Johnny smiled.
â€œLike a full grown man?â€
â€œIâ€™d say so.â€
â€œThen, will ya teach me ta use a pistol?â€ Daniel asked.
Johnny sighed as he chewed his food, studying the boy intensely. â€œNo.â€
â€œWhy not?!â€ Daniel yelled.
â€œDonâ€™t raise your voice to me, boy. I told you on the mountain. When youâ€™re ready to tell me the real reason, I’ll think about teaching you. Thatâ€™s all,â€ Johnny said with finality.
Daniel threw his napkin down and stomped upstairs, slamming the bedroom door loudly.
Johnny did not see Daniel the next morning and figured the boy was still fuming. He hung around the house a little later than usual, then gave up. He went to the barn and started saddling Barranca. Hanging his gunbelt on a post, Johnny applied the halter and turned to the stall across the way to retrieve the saddle. He stopped as he heard the movement behind him and smiled.
â€œHey, Johnny, look at this,â€ Daniel said.
Johnny turned and saw the boy cocking the hammer of his gun back, the weapon wavering as he struggled with the task.
The report exploded in the confines of the barn and Daniel was jerked back by the violent kick of the pistol. He steadied himself and stared in horror.
Johnny fell back into the hay in the stall, blood oozing at a steady stream from his chest. His eyes fluttered as he fought to stay conscious but it was a battle he lost as he gave in to the darkness.
Daniel dropped the gun and ran out of the barn.
“Well, I’m glad that trip didn’t take too long,” Scott said as he and Murdoch rode into the yard.
“So am I. I’m more glad that Jason was reasonable, this is a fine bull,” Murdoch replied as he dismounted and tied off the new acquisition.
Scott stopped and looked around. An overwhelming feeling of dread had just consumed him and he thought the quiet around the house was eerie.
“What’s wrong, son?” Murdoch asked, noticing the strained expression on the blond’s face.
“I don’t know. It’s too quiet. Something’s wrong, Murdoch,” Scott said with a hint of fear in his tone.
Murdoch looked around and noted that, yes it was unusually quiet, but could see nothing out of place.
Then they heard it. The sound of a horse in distress. The whinnying became more frantic with each passing second as they exchanged a worried look and headed for the barn.
Scott walked in first and scanned the interior, noting it was Barranca making all the noise. His heart froze as the reality sunk in. Why was Barranca here?
He walked over to the horse, who was wearing his halter and knew something was very wrong. Johnny would never leave his horse like that. He tried to calm the animal but Barranca was having none of it. He stomped his foreleg stubbornly, desperately trying to convey his message.
Murdoch walked over to the horse and happened to glance to his side. He gasped aloud as he saw Johnny lying on the ground, blood saturating his shirt.
“Scott!” he yelled as he rushed to Johnny’s side.
He knelt down and opened Johnny’s shirt to find a bullet wound in his upper left chest.
“What the hell happened?” Scott asked, knowing he would get no answer.
“Let’s get him inside. God only knows how long he’s been out here,” Murdoch said as he grabbed Johnny under the arms.
Scott took his feet and they lifted him up and headed for the door.
Jelly walked to the doorway just then and froze in his tracks. “What happened?”
“Someone shot him. Send for the doc, Jelly,” Murdoch ordered as he and Scott continued into the house.
They laid him on the bed and Murdoch ripped his shirt off, sending buttons flying in every direction. The shirt was stiff with dried blood and more fresh blood continued to ooze from the wound.
“I’ll get some water and bandages,” Scott said as he ran out the door. Returning seconds later, he wet a towel and handed it to his father.
Murdoch cleaned the wound and the surrounding skin to get a better look. What he saw made his heart clench. “This is bad and from the looks of it, he’s been out there for a while.”
Scott’s head jerked up with a sudden thought. “Murdoch, where’s Daniel?”
Murdoch looked at his son in confusion. He had forgotten all about the boy.
“I sent for the doc. How is he?” Jelly asked as he entered the room.
“It’s not good, Jelly. Have you seen Daniel?” Murdoch asked.
“No, I been out at the east line shack all day. Left early this mornin’,” Jelly responded.
“Gather some of the men and get a search party going, then Jelly, you check the house and grounds,” Murdoch said.
“Right away, Boss,” Jelly said as he turned and hurried out.
“Scott, go down to the barn and look around. See if you can find anything,” Murdoch said.
“I’ll stay with Johnny. There’s nothing we can do until Sam gets here, son,” Murdoch explained.
Scott nodded and reluctantly left his brother.
Scott walked into the barn and went to Barranca first. Stroking the golden mane, he spoke quietly to the horse. “Thank you, boy. You got us in here to find Johnny. We’re taking good care of him. Doc will be here soon and fix him right up. Don’t you worry, your job is done.”
He removed the halter and hung it in it’s place. Then he began to search the area, starting with where they had found Johnny. Scott grimaced as he looked at the blood-soaked hay where his brother had lain for who knows how long. He stood up and walked out of the stall, then stopped cold.
Scott bent over and picked up the gun, sniffing the barrel. It had been fired today. Johnny cleaned his gun nightly, so Scott knew the scent of gunpowder was new. He noticed the belt hanging on a nearby post and picked it up as well.
Shuddering with the thought running through his mind, he tried to resist it. But no matter how hard he tried, he came to the same conclusion. For some reason, some inexplicable reason, Daniel had shot Johnny.
The boy was nowhere in sight. Why would he disappear if he had nothing to hide? He seemed to be devoted to Johnny. Scott couldn’t comprehend any reason for the boy to do such a thing.
“Find anything?” Jelly asked, breaking the reverie.
“Yes, Johnny’s gun was lying over there in the dirt and his belt was hanging over on that post. It looks like he was in the process of saddling Barranca when it happened. Jelly, do you think Daniel could have done this?” Scott asked, needing to voice his concern.
Jelly’s eyebrows went up. “He sure seemed close ta Johnny. I don’t know, Scott. Unless Johnny done somethin ta make him mad.”
“He does have a short fuse, still it’s hard to imagine,” Scott said. “Well, keep looking for him. I’m going back to Johnny.”
Sam Jenkins arrived and began to work on his patient. He cursed under his breath through most of the procedure. Johnny remained unconscious which worried Sam more than the injury itself. There was a lot of blood and from what he could get from the family, there was more in the barn.
He finally got the bullet out and stitched up the wound. He then began a thorough examination. Johnny’s heart rate and breathing were too fast for his liking, indications of blood loss.
“Sam?” Murdoch finally asked.
“He’s lost a lot of blood. It would help to know how long he was out there like this. I’ve stopped the bleeding but it’s going to take time. He’s very weak, Murdoch, very weak. He never budged through the whole surgery and I haven’t given him anything. He’s in a deep state of unconsciousness. I … I just don’t know,” Sam concluded.
Scott swallowed hard. “He’ll make it, he has to,” he said softly.
“Of course he’ll make it!” Murdoch groused.
Jelly had been standing in the doorway, unseen by any of them, listening to the doctor. “Don’t worry bout Johnny, he’s tough as rawhide. He ain’t gonna let a little bullet slow him down none. No sir!”
“Well, if we’re all finished with our positive statements, I sure could use a cup of coffee,” Sam said.
“Come on, sawbones, I’ll fix ya up,” Jelly said.
Sam stayed the night and the search for Daniel continued with no luck. The men had come and gone several times throughout the nighttime hours, refueling themselves before starting again. Johnny remained unconscious and Murdoch stayed by his side. Scott came and went, helping in the search to keep himself busy and his mind off the possibilities that lay ahead for his brother.
He entered the semi-dark room just before dawn to find his father sleeping uncomfortably in the chair beside Johnny’s bed. Creeping lightly to the other side, he placed a hand on Johnny’s forehead and was relieved to find it of normal temperature. He kneeled down beside the bed and leaned close to Johnny’s face.
“How much longer do you plan on playing possum, brother? I promise I won’t make you get up and do any work if you’ll just open your eyes. Johnny?” he whispered.
“Please wake up. I need to see you awake. I need to know you can hear me,” he tried again.
There was no response to his pleas. He sighed heavily and bowed his head, laying it on the mattress close to his brother’s.
“How’s the search going?’ Murdoch asked.
Scott’s head jerked up. He had just started to doze off when Murdoch’s voice reached him.
“No luck. I guess he’s pretty good at hiding out,” Scott replied.
“Why don’t you lie down for a while, son?”
“I was just about to suggest you do that very thing. I’ll sit with Johnny,” Scott smiled.
“No, you’ve been in the saddle half the night. I need you rested,” Murdoch countered.
Scott decided his father was probably right. “Well, for a couple of hours,” he acquiesced.
Scott awoke to a brightly lit room and sat up, rubbing his face vigorously with his hands. He got up and splashed cold water on his face, grabbing blindly at the nearby towel. He walked over to the window and noticed the sun was nearly straight up in the sky. Frustrated, he quickly dressed and went to his brother’s room.
Jelly was sitting with Johnny, talking nonstop about nothing and everything.
“Why didn’t someone wake me?” Scott demanded.
“Cause the Boss said he’d fire the first one that did,” Jelly retorted.
Scott sighed and dropped his shoulders. “How is he?”
“Not a peep,” Jelly said sadly.
“Okay, Jelly, I’m all rested up. I’ll sit with him,” Scott said.
“Alright. Sam’s supposed ta be out later today. I give ‘im a bath this mornin so he oughtta be feelin some better,” Jelly said as he stood and stretched.
“Johnny or Sam?” Scott asked with a grin.
“Smart aleck! Johnny!” Jelly huffed and strode purposefully from the room.
Scott took up residence in the chair and took Johnny’s hand in his own. “It’s so easy to rile him up,” he said with a laugh.
He reached over and felt Johnny’s forehead to reassure himself there was still no fever. “Brother, you sure got everybody worried. Murdoch sat up with you all night. Now, don’t you think you should reward us for our vigilance and open those eyes?”
Scott felt his frustration growing by quantum leaps.
“Look! I’m telling you as your older brother to open your eyes, Johnny!” he said harshly.
“Don’t think I won’t lay a belt to your behind, boy!”
Scott stood up and walked to the window, watching the hands go about their work as if nothing were wrong.
“You sure are loud.”
Scott swung around and was met by two half-open blue eyes. “Hey! It’s about time,” he smiled, returning to his brother’s side.
“Can’t get much rest with you carryin on,” Johnny mumbled.
“How do you feel?”
“Tired, hurts,” Johnny whispered. “How’s Daniel?” he added as he became more oriented.
“Well, I don’t really know. We can’t find him. What happened, Johnny?”
“He run off?” Johnny asked.
“Evidently,” Scott replied.
“It was an accident. He didn’t mean to do it,” Johnny defended the boy.
“I thought he was the one who shot you. How did it happen?” Scott asked.
“Turned around and he was cocking the hammer back. Reckon he wanted to show me he could handle a pistol. I think he squeezed the trigger at the same time. I don’t know, it all happened so fast,” Johnny sighed and closed his eyes.
“Find him, Scott. He probably thinks he killed me,” he whispered.
“We’re trying, Johnny, but we’ve looked all over,” Scott said.
Johnny opened his eyes again. “The mountain. He liked it there. That fishin stream we always go to, look there,” he said and Scott noticed his speech was slurring.
“Okay, Johnny. I’ll look there but you get some rest,” Scott said gently.
“Find him. Promise, okay?” Johnny muttered before slipping back into the velvet of sleep.
“I promise, brother,” Scott whispered and squeezed Johnnyâ€™s hand tightly.
Scott bounded down the stairs into the kitchen where his father was having his hundredth cup of coffee.
“Johnny woke up. He’s asleep again now but he told me where Daniel might be. I’m going there now,” Scott reported.
“How is he feeling?” Murdoch asked, his posture straightening as he heard the good news.
“Tired, hurts. Those were his exact words. He said it was an accident,” the blond replied.
“I’ll go sit with him. Do you need anyone to go with you?” Murdoch asked.
“I’ll go. Ya might have some trouble convincin ‘im ta come back. I got more experience with boys than Scott,” Jelly interjected.
“I’ll take all the help I can get, Jelly,” Scott smiled.
As they set off to the barn, Murdoch took his coffee and headed up the stairs to see his son.
He walked in quietly and sat in the chair, watching Johnny sleep. There was definitely a difference. Johnny’s face was twitching from time to time, not looking as if it were made of stone like last night. He smiled as he saw the myriad of expressions that defined his youngest boy.
Scott and Jelly made quick time getting to the fishing stream that was a favorite of the Lancer brothers. How many times had he and Johnny snuck off for an afternoon of fishing and talking? Scott smiled, knowing their deception was hardly that. He somehow had always known that Murdoch was well aware of the times they played hooky from work.
They smelled the smoke of a campfire and decided to tie off the horses and walk up so as not to spook the boy. Scott could see him through the trees, sitting beside the fire looking as if he’d lost his best friend.
“You look like you could use some company,” he said as he emerged from the trees and walked into the camp.
Daniel bolted to his feet, looking very much like a trapped animal.
“Easy boy, no one wants to hurt you. We’ve been looking all over for you, Daniel,” Scott tried to pacify.
“You gonna take me ta jail?” Daniel asked.
Scott was taken aback by this question.
“Now, why would we do that?” Jelly asked from behind him.
Daniel whirled around to meet the gaze of the older man.
“I killed Johnny,” he said miserably.
“No, Daniel. Johnny isn’t dead. He’s hurt but he isn’t dead,” Scott said softly.
“You’re lyin! Youra tryin ta trick me!” Daniel cried out.
“Hush, boy. Let me tell you somethin. If’n Johnny was dead, you wouldn’t be standin there cause I’d a cut ya down soon as I laid eyes on ya. No questions asked!” Jelly said sternly.
“Jelly,” Scott said with consternation.
“What? I ain’t lied to ‘im yet. Don’t reckon I oughta start now. Johnny is alive, Daniel. He’s alive and he’s worried bout you. How’d you think we knew where ya was? Johnny told us ta look here,” Jelly reasoned with the boy.
“He made me promise to find you and bring you back, Daniel. He needs to see you in the flesh. He won’t believe you’re alright until he does,” Scott added.
“He’s worried bout me?” Daniel asked, amazed.
“Course he is! Ain’t ya learnt nothin about ‘im in all this time? He cares more bout other folks than he does hisself,” Jelly said.
“I didn’t mean it. I … I just wanted ta show ‘im I could handle a handgun. I just wanted ….” Daniel stopped as the tears fell freely down his cheeks.
Scott approached the boy and wrapped his arms around Daniel, hugging him tightly.
“He knows that, boy. He knows,” he cooed.
“Come on, now. Can’t keep an injured man waitin,” Jelly said, fighting to keep his own emotions at bay.
Johnny became aware that he wasn’t alone and his hand casually slid to his side.
“It’s not there,” Murdoch said.
Johnny smiled and opened his eyes to look at his father. “Forgot where I was for a second.”
“How do you feel, son?”
“Not bad, real tired though,” Johnny answered.
“You lost a lot of blood. We don’t know how long you were out there before Scott and I found you,” Murdoch explained.
“What time did you find me?”
“About two o’clock,” Murdoch replied.
Johnny’s brows went up at this. “Guess bout 7-8 hours then.”
Murdoch’s throat tightened at hearing this. It was a miracle he hadn’t bled to death. He suddenly felt a deep anger for Daniel.
“Scott back?” Johnny asked, not noticing the look on his father’s face.
“Not yet. Jelly went with him.”
“Good. Can I have some water?”
“I’m sorry, son. Of course,” Murdoch said, feeling even more guilty that he’d ignored his son’s most basic needs. He held the glass in one hand and supported Johnny’s neck with the other as the young man took a long drink.
“Thanks,” Johnny mumbled as he rested his head into the pillows.
Jelly took the horses as Scott and Daniel stood on the veranda. The boy was in no hurry to enter the estancia.
“Ready?” Scott asked.
“He really ain’t dead?” Daniel inquired once more.
Scott looked sympathetically at the boy. “Daniel, if my brother were dead, do you think I’d be this calm?”
Daniel considered this point and reckoned it made sense. Another thought occurred to him. “What about your pa? Is he gonna tan my hide?”
“Well, I can’t promise you anything about that. But if he does, wouldn’t you think you deserve it,” Scott asked, trying to suppress the grin.
“Reckon so,” the boy mumbled, hanging his head.
Scott put an arm around the small shoulders and guided Daniel into the house and up the stairs.
Daniel resisted once they were outside Johnny’s room and looked pitifully at Scott.
“When a man makes a mistake, Daniel, he owns up to it,” Scott said gently.
Daniel nodded his head, took a deep breath and entered the room.
Murdoch turned at the sound of the door opening and a flood of relief washed over him. He motioned Daniel to the bedside with a small smile.
“He’s asleep right now, but he’s very worried about you,” the rancher whispered.
“Worried bout me? Ya mean he don’t hate me?” Daniel asked in surprise.
“No, he doesn’t hate you,” the brunette said softly, then opened his eyes.
Daniel’s eyes filled with tears as he looked into Johnny’s comforting sapphire orbs. He dropped to his knees beside the bed and hung his head.
Johnny reached out and petted the boy’s hair reassuringly.
“Daniel, look at me,” he said.
“We’ll talk about all this when I feel a little better, but for now, no more running off,” Johnny said.
“Yes sir,” Daniel murmured.
“Looks to me like you could use a bath,” Johnny said, his eyes dancing.
“I’ll have to agree with that. Come on, Daniel, let’s get you looking respectable,” Scott smiled.
“Do I hafta?” Daniel protested.
“Yes,” came the choir of three.
Johnny’s recovery was slower than he would have liked. He cursed the feeling of weakness that consumed him with the least little effort. He could only manage to sit up in the bed for a few hours before succumbing to the exhaustion.
Sam had explained it, made him understand that it would take time, but that didn’t help when he was alone with his thoughts. When he could hear the daily routine of ranch life through the open window, going on without him.
He longed to be out there with his friends. At the very least, he wanted to look out the window. He sighed heavily at the thoughts. Â
“Son?” Murdoch asked from the door.
“Are you alright?”
“Yeah, just hate being cooped up,” Johnny smiled wanly.
“I know it’s hard but …”
“I know, I know, it takes time,” Johnny interrupted, waving his hand.
“Frustrated?” Murdoch smiled.
“Who me? I’m as happy as a kitten in a bowl of milk,” Johnny retorted sarcastically. “What’s that?”
“A telegram from Esther. She’s going to be delayed another two weeks,” Murdoch answered.
The anger that spread across Johnny’s face surprised Murdoch.
“She should be here. Daniel needs her,” he muttered.
“I know, son, but it can’t be helped,” Murdoch replied.
“Guess it’s time I had that talk with him,” Johnny said.
“I haven’t said much to him about it. I know you wanted to handle this, but if you don’t feel up to it, it can wait,” Murdoch said.
“No, it can’t. It’s waited long enough already. When’s Sam coming again?”
“Sometime today, why?”
“Nothin, just wondering,” Johnny sighed and looked toward the open window longingly.
Murdoch smiled as he watched his son. As far as he was concerned, Johnny had worked a minor miracle with that boy. Though it didn’t surprise him, he had seen how Johnny interacted with children. He had the patience of Job with young people. Murdoch reasoned it was because he could relate to them so well.
“Penny for ’em,” Johnny smiled.
Murdoch shook himself out of his reverie. “I was just thinking how good you are with Daniel. Well, think I’ll see if lunch is ready yet. Do you need anything?”
“No, I’m okay,” Johnny said softly.
Sam arrived that afternoon to check his patient, steeling himself for the complaints and the attempts to be charmed into letting Johnny out of bed. That boy could charm the rattler off a snake. He had found himself, on more than one occasion, almost giving in to that smile and those eyes. If he’d had a son, he could only hope the boy would turn out like Johnny Lancer.
“Well, how are you feeling?” he asked as he entered the room smiling.
“Caged,” Johnny snorted.
“Uh huh. Well, let’s take a look,” Sam said as he approached the bed.
“Wait a minute, Sam. I want Daniel in here when you take the bandage off,” Johnny said.
Sam raised an eyebrow at the request. “It’s not a sight a young boy should see, Johnny.”
“It is if that young boy caused it,” Johnny replied.
“I see. You want him to see just what kind of damage he caused,” Sam nodded.
“No, I want him to see what kind of damage a bullet can cause,” Johnny explained. “It’s not to make him feel guilty, Sam. He needs to know.”
A few minutes later, Sam, Murdoch and Daniel entered the room.
“You wanted to see Daniel, son?” Murdoch asked.
“Yeah, come here kid. I want you to help Doc change my bandages,” Johnny said.
Murdoch shot him a wary look but Johnny ignored it.
“No, I can’t,” Daniel whispered.
“Yes, you can and you will,” Johnny said firmly. “Go ahead, Sam.”
Sam cut the bandages and gently removed them from Johnny’s chest. Daniel turned his head at the sight.
“Daniel, I’m not trying to hurt you. I want you to see what a bullet can do to a man’s body. It ain’t pretty, is it? Take a good look, son. You wanted to learn to use a gun so badly, well this is the result of using a gun. Think about that when you want to use that gun on another man. When you’re older, you might have to and it’ll be hard, but don’t ever think it’s a game. It’s easy to kill a man, but it’s impossible to bring him back to life.”
Daniel turned and looked at the wound, staring at the stitches across Johnny’s upper chest. He swallowed hard a couple of times and the tears welled in his eyes.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered.
“I know you are, Daniel and I accept your apology. This isn’t about that, this is about what’s real and true. Do you understand?” Johnny asked.
“Yes sir,” the boy mumbled.
“Go over there and sit down until Sam’s done. We’ll talk more in a minute,” Johnny said gently.
Sam finished redressing the wound and answering Johnny’s question about getting up. He allowed for an hour in the chair by his window every day but no more. Johnny accepted the sentence begrudgingly.
“Come down and have a cup of coffee with me, Sam,” Murdoch said once he was done. He gave his son another wary look but Johnny simply smiled at him.
“Come over here, Daniel,” Johnny said once they were alone.
Daniel came over and sat beside him on the bed. Johnny sat himself up and leaned against the headboard.
“Think I was too hard on you?”
“No sir,” the boy mumbled.
“Tell me what you think I was telling you,” Johnny probed.
Daniel looked at him for a second before dropping his eyes again. “You told me that shootin a man is bad unless I really have to. That a gun ain’t a toy and it’s real bad when ya use it wrong. That it hurts me ta use it against somebody. That once ya kill somebody, ya can’t take it back.”
Johnny smiled in relief. “That’s good, that’s exactly right. Now, tell me what you were thinking when you took my gun that day?”
“I just wanted ta show ya I could use it. I just wanted ya ta teach me,” Daniel said.
“And what did you end up showing me?” Johnny asked.
“That I’m too ignernt ta be trusted,” Daniel said miserably.
“No, Daniel. That’s not true. You showed me that you don’t think things through before you act. That you don’t consider the consequences of your actions. That your selfish,” Johnny said, eyeing the boy.
“That’s right. You didn’t think about why I wouldn’t teach you, only that you wanted to be taught. All you could think about was what you wanted, Daniel. That’s selfishness,” Johnny explained.
Daniel nodded thoughtfully at this explanation. “Reckon that’s true.”
“Now, you gonna tell me why you think it’s so important for you to learn to use a gun?” Johnny asked.
Daniel hung his head and didn’t answer.
“Don’t you think I deserve to know?” Johnny pressed.
“Yeah. It’s just that, well, Ma she has ta work so hard now. When Pa was alive things were a lot better. Now, she cries all the time and worries bout money. I figured if Johnny Madrid could teach me ta use a gun, I could help out. Make money so’s she wouldn’t have ta work,” he explained.
Johnny was stunned. Of all the reasons he’d come up with for Daniel’s insistence on learning, becoming a gunhawk wasn’t one of them. “Didn’t you hear anything I said to you about what my life was like? Do you really think you can be a gunslinger and still be with your mother? No, Daniel, it doesn’t work like that. You’re alone all the time, nobody to watch your back, nobody you can trust because they’d betray you for a few dollars. Your mother would never want that life for you and neither do I, Daniel. It’s no life at all,” he said vehemently.
“But you was the best, Johnny. Nobody could touch you,” Daniel argued.
“Do you think I’ve never been shot before? Do you have any idea how close I’ve come to dying more than once? Alone, no one to help me, holed up in some cave or abandoned shack with no one to count on but myself. It’s a living hell, Daniel. People are so afraid of you, they don’t want to get close and if they do, they end up leavin or dyin.” Johnny grabbed the boy’s shoulders and shook him, grimacing a little from the pain it caused his chest wound. “Do you understand?”
“Yes sir,” Daniel mumbled. Â
“Did Murdoch tell you about the telegram?” Johnny asked, relaxing again as he prayed he’d gotten through to the boy.
“Yeah, ma’s gonna be away longer,” he answered.
“How do you feel about that?”
“Honest? I’m mad at her,” he replied.
“Well, I can’t blame you for that but you know she hates it, too,” Johnny said.
“I know. I ‘member what ya said,” the boy smiled.
“You’re a smart boy, Daniel. Speaking of which, since you’re going to be here longer than we thought, I think you need some schooling,” Johnny said with a glint of humor in his eyes.
“Aw, come on, Johnny. I don’t need no school!” he protested.
“You don’t need no? I think that pretty much says it all. Yep, think I’ll talk to Scott about giving you some lessons,” Johnny grinned.
Scott had been eavesdropping on their conversation. He could hear the pain in his brother’s voice as he tried to explain the life he’d lead before coming home. Scott wasn’t entirely convinced his brother had gotten through to the boy. He slipped away quietly to wait for his chance.
He didn’t have to wait long as he saw Daniel going out to the barn some minutes later. Scott went after him and found him brushing Barranca.
“Hi,” he said casually.
“Hi, I um, thought I’d brush Johnny’s horse for him,” Daniel said, waiting to be chastised.
“I know Johnny will appreciate that. He cares a great deal for that horse,” Scott smiled.
Daniel relaxed and went back to his work.
Scott wandered toward him, standing outside the stall and glanced over to the spot he and Murdoch had found Johnny not so long ago. Jelly had cleaned out the hay but he could swear he still saw evidence of his brother’s blood there.
“You know, Daniel, Johnny hasn’t been living here that long,” he started.
“I know, he told me,” Daniel replied.
“Did he tell you who he was?”
“What do you think about that?” Scott asked.
“He’s the best, the fastest there is,” Daniel said with awe.
“Yes, he is very fast, but there’s always someone faster. Johnny told me that. You know what else he’s told me?” Scott asked, watching to see if the boy was listening.
Seeing he was, Scott continued.
“Johnny was very young when his mother died, younger than you. He was all alone in the world. What do you think life would be like for a ten or eleven year old boy in the border towns or any town for that matter? You know, he didn’t become Johnny Madrid overnight. There were a lot of years in between when he had to fend for himself. A lot of people who would take advantage of a kid all alone. Can you imagine anything like that Daniel?”
Daniel tried to imagine what that would be like, tried to put himself in the situation. The thoughts that ran through his head scared him and he shuddered.
Scott smiled a little as he watched the boy, knowing he was getting through. “Well, I grew up in a much more secure environment myself and the images I can come up with are nowhere near what it was really like for Johnny. You’re like me, you’ve always had a home and parents to love you. You still have your mother to take care of you. Daniel, you’re almost a man but not yet. You still have a lot of things to learn about the world and the kinds of people that fill that world. There are good people, like Johnny, and there are bad people, too. People who wouldn’t think twice about killing a kid if he had something they wanted.”
“Killin a kid?” Daniel asked wide-eyed.
“Yes, Daniel, killing a kid, just like you. Knowing how to use a gun won’t save you from all the pain in this world. Making a living with a gun will only cause you more pain,” Scott said sincerely.
Daniel chewed on this for a minute. “Scott? How come Johnny’s so nice then?”
Scott smiled at the question he’d asked himself a hundred times. How could his brother have survived all he had and still have a heart of gold?
“Some people are born under a special star, Daniel. No matter what happens to them in their life, they still have the ability to love and care about others. Maybe because of the things they’ve had to endure, they know how special and rare true caring is. I believe Johnny was born for a very special reason and everything he’s been through in his life has been to prepare him for that purpose. I don’t know what it is but maybe he’s already doing it. He cares and worries about people, not just his family, but anyone who needs help. Johnny is always there for people who are in need.”
“Yeah, Jelly said he cared more bout other folks than hisself,” Daniel nodded.
Scott smiled, yes that was what Jelly had said. He realized for the first time that he had answered his own question about his enigmatic brother.
A week later, Johnny was out of bed permanently. He was not allowed further than the house and immediate grounds, but he accepted the restrictions fairly well. He watched and listened while Scott taught Daniel grammar and proper English. He even learned a few things himself. It helped him understand why his brother talked so funny sometimes.
He was more interested in the history lessons Scott taught and more often than not, the blond found himself with two students. Scott was most pleased with Johnny’s interest and figured he would continue the lessons in a less formalized arena once Daniel went home.
By the time Daniel’s mother was due to arrive, Johnny was back at work. He could see the tension in the boy as the day drew near and wondered about it.
The evening before her arrival, he took Daniel outside after supper.
“What’s eating at you, kid?”
“Nothin,” Daniel shrugged.
“Don’t give me that. You’re wound up tight. Talk to me,” Johnny urged.
“I don’t wanna leave,” he confessed.
Johnny smiled at him. “You belong with your mother.”
“She ain’t that much older than you, Johnny. She’s real nice and pretty,” Daniel said quickly.
“Whoa there! Don’t you go gettin any crazy ideas, boy. Look, I don’t want you to leave either, but you have to. You need each other, Daniel. You need your mother,” Johnny said.
“I’m gonna miss you, Johnny,” he said.
“I’ll miss you, too. But we can write to each other, maybe visit sometimes. You’re always welcome here, Daniel.”
Murdoch drove the buggy into the yard late the next morning and Esther didn’t wait for a hand down as she jumped and ran to her son.
“Daniel, oh I’ve missed you so much!” she exclaimed as she hugged him tightly.
“Ma, I can’t breath,” Daniel managed to squeak out.
She laughed and pulled away, holding him at arms length. “Let me get a look at you. Why you’ve grown an inch, I’m sure!”
“Aw, ma,” Daniel blushed.
She looked up at Johnny and Scott. “Has he been behaving himself?”
“Oh, yes ma’am. He’s been an angel,” Johnny replied.
“A true young gentleman,” Scott offered. Â
She looked skeptically at them both then at her son. “Is that true?”
“No, ma’am. I was pretty hateful at first, but I’ve been behavin myself now,” he answered honestly.
She was amazed at the truthful answer and quite impressed. “Well, I must say, I never expected that answer.”
“Let’s go in the house and relax. Maybe Daniel has some things to tell you,” Murdoch said.
She sat in stunned silence as her son relayed all he had done in the past month. She looked at Johnny in amazement.
“I’m not sure what to say. Johnny, I’m so sorry…”
“Daniel and I have worked everything out, ma’am. He understands what he did was wrong. He’s a good boy,” Johnny smiled.
“Well, I’m not sure anyone else would be so understanding,” she said.
“Johnny isn’t anyone else, ma’am. He has a way with children,” Scott interjected.
Johnny’s head dropped at the compliment.
“Oh?” she asked, looking at him.
“My brother seems to think I do pretty good with kids. Guess it’s because I’m a big kid myself,” Johnny answered with a smile.
“Now, that’s true,” Murdoch said with a laugh.
“Well, I’m just thankful you’re alright,” she said with a disapproving look for her son.
Daniel sat in his room the next morning, staring into space. Johnny knocked once and walked in.
“Hey, you’re not even packed yet. You’re leaving in an hour, Daniel,” he said.
“I know,” he muttered.
Johnny sat on the bed next to him. “I know you don’t want to leave but look at it this way, you’re going to a new town, all kinds of new things to explore, new friends to make. It’ll be fun.”
“No, it won’t! I don’t wanna go. Please don’t make me!” Daniel cried and threw himself into Johnny’s arms.
Esther stood at the door and listened to her son’s misery. She fought back the tears and wondered how this young man had cast such a spell on her child.
“We’ve been over this, Daniel. You need to be with your mother,” Johnny said softly as he rubbed the boy’s back.
“Why can’t we live here?”
“Oh, Daniel. I know it’s scary starting over in a new place. Believe me, I know. But before you know it, you’ll be fitting right in. Why, in a month’s time, you’ll have forgotten all about us,” Johnny soothed.
“No, I won’t ever forget you, Johnny. Not ever! I love you,” he cried.
Johnny swallowed hard as he fought his own tears. This boy was under his skin and he knew it was going to be hard letting him go. He also knew the boy couldn’t stay. “I love you, too,” he whispered.
“I wish …. I wish you was my pa,” Daniel said.
That did it and Johnny was sure he couldn’t stand anymore of this. His heart felt like a tightened fist in his chest and he found it hard to breathe.
Esther had heard enough and she walked to the bed opposite Johnny. She laid her hand on Daniel’s back and took him in her arms when he looked up at her.
“Hush, child. I know it’s hard saying goodbye, but you’ll see Johnny again, I promise.”
Johnny stood up and left quietly, keeping his head down to hide his own pain. He ran headlong into his father in the hallway.
“Easy, son. What’s wrong?” Murdoch asked, seeing the pure torment on his son’s face.
“Daniel, he doesn’t want to leave. He …. he said he wished I was his pa,” Johnny said barely above a whisper.
Murdoch smiled understandingly. “And you wish that too?”
Johnny looked at him and Murdoch thought he might cry himself. He took Johnny in his arms and squeezed him close.
“I know, son. Someday, you’ll have a passel of children of your own. I know that doesn’t help right now but you should be very proud of yourself. You reached that boy and helped him so much. He’s going to be a fine man and that’s because of you, John.”
They waved to each other until the buggy was out of sight. Johnny stood there for long minutes afterward, staring down the road. Inwardly hoping they would turn back and come home.
Scott watched his brother and knew he was hurting. He put an arm around Johnny’s shoulders.
“You’re going to be the best father in the world someday,” he said softly.
Johnny hung his head and turned away.
“Johnny? Please talk to me,” Scott pleaded.
“I’m okay, Boston,” he murmured.
“You do want to be a father, don’t you?”
Johnny sighed heavily. “Yeah, but I doubt it’ll happen.”
“Why do you say that?”
“I don’t know. Just don’t seem to be in the cards,” Johnny said mysteriously.
“I’m afraid you’ll have to explain that one,” Scott said, perplexed.
“Nothin. Just forget it. I got work to do,” Johnny said and headed to the barn.
Scott thought about forgetting it, for about a second, and followed his brother.
“You can’t say something like that and just walk away. What did you mean?” he asked.
Johnny leaned against Barranca’s stall and hung his head. “I was almost a father once.”
“Tell me,” Scott said calmly.
“We … were gonna get married …. but I had a job to do first. When I got back …. she’d gotten sick, some kind of fever. She died and the baby with her,” Johnny said, his voice laden with emotion.
“God, I’m so sorry, Johnny. That had to be hard. But it doesn’t mean you won’t get another chance,” Scott said.
“When Daniel said he wished I was his pa, I started thinking about that, her and the baby. He would have been about four now,” Johnny said.
Scott walked over and wrapped his arm around Johnny’s shoulder, pulling him close. “If Murdoch had thought that way, there would be no Johnny and I can’t imagine my life without my brother,” he said gently.
Johnny smiled and laid his head against Scott’s chest. “Yeah, you would have been in a heap of trouble without me, Boston.”
“Tell me about it!” Scott laughed. Turning serious, he pulled back so he could see his brother’s face. “Someday, this ranch is going to be overrun with little blond and brunette cherubs. We’ll think back on that little declaration of yours then and think how wrong you were.”
“I’d like to be wrong, about that anyway,” Johnny smiled. “You know what I feel like doing?”
Scott smiled knowingly. “Riding the wind.”
A few minutes later, the brothers were racing across the meadow, laughing and enjoying the freedom of their youth.
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