Word count 14,600
Johnny slung his arm around his brother’s shoulders as he walked him outside. “Just remember to keep your eyes open at all times. Know who and what’s around you. And don’t go lettin any pretty girls turn your head. At least, not until the deal’s done.”
Scott looked to the heavens and sighed heavily and loudly then shrugged his brother’s arm away. “Cut it out, Johnny. It was only funny for the first thirty minutes.”
Both young men turned around when they heard the chuckling. Murdoch walked into the yard with a smile on his face. “I do agree with Johnny on the pretty girls part. Or anything else that might capture your interest. Did you get your heavy coat? It’s getting cold at night now.”
Scott came within an inch of swatting them both. “Yes, I have my coat. I am perfectly capable of delivering a contract and bank draft to Stockton, gentlemen. And, I’m sure the only pretty girl I’ll be noticing is the one who has invited me for Sunday supper already.”
Johnny grinned and poked his father lightly in the ribs. “He made a point of writing to Audra Barkley to let her know he’d be in town.” Looking back at Scott, he added, “Don’t let that cast on her arm bother ya none.”
Scott’s eyes widened. “What cast?”
“The one she must have from breaking her arm writing back so fast.”
Murdoch laughed openly at that one and laid a hand on his younger son’s shoulder. “Give Victoria my regards, son. Oh, and remember, Audra has three brothers and each is more protective than the last.”
Scott mounted up then looked down at them with a wry grin. “Don’t worry, Sir. They know the difference between Johnny and me. I won’t be in any danger. My brother, on the other hand, wouldn’t last a day at the Barkley ranch.”
Hands going to his hips and a look of indignation on his face, Johnny stared icily up at the older man. “Oh, is that right? Care to put a wager on that, brother?”
“Nope. I wouldn’t want to take your money. You’ll need it for your Saturday night poker games. Well, I’m off. I’ll see you both in a couple of weeks.”
Johnny shook his head as Scott rode off, his back a little straighter than usual, which was a feat, he was sure. “Smug …”
“Johnny,” Murdoch said, drawing out the name.
Smiling a little, Johnny shrugged. “Yeah, I know.”
Murdoch turned him around and led him back into the house.
Walking over to his desk, Murdoch picked up an envelope and stuck it in his jacket pocket. “I should be back by supper.”
“We’ll have that fence line finished by lunch. Thought I’d ride over and check the water levels in the east pasture. We need to move the herd over there soon.”
“Alright, son.” Murdoch watched his boy, head hanging, meandering around the room. “Johnny? Something wrong?”
Looking up, he smiled and shook his head. “Not a thing.”
Unconvinced, Murdoch walked over to him. “You know Scott was only joking with you about the Barkleys.”
“Oh, I know. That was nothing. I was just thinking it might be nice to have a night out.”
Biting his lip and his irritation, the rancher said nothing and waited.
“You know, we never really go to town together. Maybe Saturday you could join the poker game.”
Surprised was putting it mildly. “You want to go out with me?”
Johnny gave his father a sideways glance, a wry expression on his face. “Well, not like a date or anything.” The soft laugh came out with the sentence.
Smacking him lightly on the shoulder, Murdoch gave him a wary look. “I wouldn’t want to cramp your style, son.”
“What style? It’s just poker, Murdoch. It ain’t like we …” he stopped, realizing he was about to say too much, and cleared his throat. “It was just an idea. If you don’t want to…”
“I’d love to. I mean, um, it would do me good to get out and …” he paused, a gleam coming to his eye, “I could always use some extra spending cash.”
Johnny laughed at that then slapped his father on the arm. “Okay, we’ll do it, then. Guess I’d better get goin. See ya tonight.”
Murdoch stood still as the whirlwind that was his son left the house. His entire being filled with warmth that Johnny would even ask him such a thing. Of course, it was because Scott wouldn’t be available but, he’d take what he could get. With a light heart, he left the house to run his errands.
Murdoch took his time and enjoyed the warming sun. He liked the Fall with its cooler nights and milder days. The sometimes stifling heat of summer was now past and winter was closing in though, winters in California weren’t anything like Scotland with its frigid temperatures. The trees swayed lightly in the breeze, the cloudless sky an azure blue. A perfect day. A smile crossed his lips as he thought of his younger son’s teasing way. He’d observed it many times directed at Scott but seldom did Johnny tease with him.
As he rounded a curve in the road, his horse became skittish, balking and nickering as it sidestepped to the side of the road. Murdoch reached out and stroked the big neck, speaking in soft tones to calm the frightened animal. Suddenly, Nessie reared up on his hind legs. Squeezing his legs tightly to the horse’s sides, Murdoch fought to stay his seat and finally won as the animal settled some. Still, it was not responding to the pull of the reins and kept to the left side of the road.
Murdoch looked to the right through the trees, trying to see what had the animal so upset as it turned in circles a few times. It wasn’t like Nessie to behave this way. Not much spooked the seventeen-hand giant. Curious and more than tired of the animal’s antics, Murdoch allowed Nessie to move off into the pasture to the left then, he dismounted and ground-tied the chestnut. He watched the horse for a few seconds and shook his head as Nessie settled and started grazing on some green grass he’d found. With a sigh, he walked across the road and into the trees that had spooked his horse.
At first, he saw nothing out of the ordinary but as he was about to return to his horse, something caught his eye. Something that glinted off the rays of sun which penetrated the thick branches above. Murdoch walked over and pulled aside some brush to discover a mound of stones. With a frown, he thought they resembled an altar and, as he knelt in front of it, he discovered what had caught his attention. Picking it up, he brushed the dirt away and examined the odd-looking piece curiously.
It fit in his palm, was square and covered in turquoise and, what looked like rubies, or maybe coral. He stood and walked over to the sunlight to get a better look and realized the center resembled a skull with pointed teeth. The eyes were coral, he was sure of that now, and there were small inlaid stones in the shape of cacti surrounding its malevolent head. Small jewels encrusted the perimeter, and when he turned it over to look at the back, he saw it was crafted on a base of pure gold. Beautiful, if odd. He stared at it for several seconds, a feeling of dread overcoming him. Finally, he shook his head and told himself he was being ridiculous.
He wondered what the significance was. It was probably Mexican. Johnny might know something about its origin. He cleaned it off a little more then stuck it in his jacket pocket before starting to walk back to the pasture. As he turned his back on the altar, he felt an icy wind blow up his neck. He whirled around, certain he’d heard something but everything was quiet, as still as death. Even the breeze had died down. Goosebumps rose on his skin and he found he was frozen in place, unable to move a muscle. His eyes widened and his mouth fell open as he stared at the growing shadow on the altar.
Johnny entered the house that evening, whistling merrily. He’d had a good day, not too many problems and he was feeling fine. Saturday, he was going to town with his father. Just the two of them for a night at the poker table. He was anticipating the chance to get a read on the old man and how good his poker face was. He was already fairly certain Murdoch could run with the best of them at the card table. How he knew that was a mystery as were most things with his father but these past few months it seemed something had changed. Some wall had come down and they were easier with each other. Comfortable when it was just the two of them. Not like in the beginning. Then, he wouldn’t have stayed in the room with just Murdoch for longer than ten seconds. Johnny smiled at that as he removed his gun belt and hung it on a peg.
He stepped into the living room and saw his father where he usually was, at his desk. Must love that damned desk as much time as he spends at it. He smiled and walked over, sitting across from the man who had yet to look up. He did that a lot, too, when he was concentrating on something. Johnny said nothing, knew better than to interrupt, and just waited.
Murdoch raised his head and gave a slight start. “How long have you been there?”
Johnny shrugged. “Just a minute. Didn’t want to bother you. Looks important.” His eyes went to the papers on the desk.
Murdoch scowled and leaned back. “Of course it’s important! Everything about running this ranch is important.” He stood and walked to the sideboard.
Johnny’s mouth hung open for a few seconds, stunned at the foul mood. Then, he sighed and figured something had gone wrong today. Well, it wasn’t him, that much he knew. He stayed quiet, unwilling to get yelled at again for nothing.
Murdoch took a long drink of whiskey and, without turning around, asked, “did you finish the fenceline?”
“Yep, and I checked the water levels in the east pasture. They’re fine. We can move the herd whenever you’re ready.”
Turning abruptly, Murdoch glared at him. “Then get to it! Do I have to tell you when to do everything?”
Slowly, Johnny took to his feet and faced the man. He kept his voice low, lower than usual. “I don’t know what’s eatin at you, old man, but don’t take it out on me.”
Murdoch took one step only to be stopped by Teresa walking in to announce dinner. He turned on his heel and headed for the table.
Johnny looked at Teresa and asked without a word. She shook her head and shrugged then went back to the kitchen.
Murdoch pushed his plate away and turned to his ward. “That was wonderful, sweetheart.”
“Thank you. Would you like dessert? I made an apple pie.”
He smiled and patted his belly. “Maybe later. I don’t think I have any room.”
She returned the smile then addressed Johnny. “Pie?”
“No, thanks, honey. It was real good. Too good. I ate too much.” He smiled and winked at her and she laughed then got up and gathered some plates, heading back to the kitchen. As soon as she left, the air in the room left with her.
Johnny stared at his water glass then picked it up. His hand was halfway to his mouth when Murdoch spoke.
“I don’t want you getting any ideas about Teresa. She’s too young.”
Shocked still, his hand tightened around the glass and he purposefully set it back down. “Something happen today to put you in this mood?”
“I’m not in any mood, Johnny. I’m just telling you.”
Locking eyes with his father, Johnny leaned forward a little. “I have never done or said anything to Teresa that was out of line and you know it. I respect her too much. Ever since I walked in tonight, you’ve been snipin at me. Now, what’s goin on?”
Murdoch stared at him for a long moment. “Just remember what I said.” Then, he got up and left the table.
Flummoxed, Johnny just sat there staring at nothing, his mind a blank. When Teresa came back in, he asked her. “Have I ever said or done anything to make you think I was bein forward?”
She stopped, plate in hand and looked wide-eyed at him. “What? Why in the world would you ask me that? Certainly not!”
Johnny sighed and shook his head. “What’s goin on with him? Out of the blue, he tells me not to get any ideas about you. He’s been all over me since I got home tonight.”
She sat down next to him, shoulders slumped. “I heard a little, earlier. I don’t understand it either. He’s fine with me.”
Laughing softly, Johnny said, “honey, you could blow his foot off and he’d be fine with you. I don’t get it. Things were good this morning. I even asked him to play poker Saturday night and he was all for it.”
“Something must have upset him. You know how he is sometimes, Johnny. He gets angry about something and it spills over to other people. It isn’t you he’s angry with, I’m sure. By tomorrow, it will all have blown over.”
“I hope so because I’m not takin this from him. Not after all the rough times we’ve gone through already.”
Johnny peeked around the corner into the kitchen the next morning and spied his father sitting at the table. With a wince, he geared himself up and stepped into the room.
“Good morning, son.”
Pausing briefly on his trek to the table, Johnny sighed to himself. As he took his seat, he replied, “mornin,” then looked over at Teresa who smiled and gave him an I-told-you-so look.
“I need you to take care of something that’s come up this morning, Johnny. It appears to have become quite a problem.”
He took in his father’s serious demeanor and gave the man his full attention. “Alright.”
Leaning back in his chair, Murdoch sipped his coffee, seemingly in deep thought. “Those run-offs from the mines at South Mesa are damming up and becoming a real threat to the water supply. I need you to get up there and take care of the clean-up.”
Johnny grimaced at the thought of that job. “I thought you wanted the herd moved today?”
“The boys can handle that but, I want you to check this problem out personally.”
He lowered his eyes and tried to think of a way out of the job. It was dirty, slimy work and he’d stink for days, he was sure.
“I don’t want to trust this to anyone else,” Murdoch added.
Well, that tears it, Johnny thought. He looked back up at his father and simply nodded. What else could he say after that?
Johnny cursed his father, the mines and anything else he could think of including his brother just for not being home. He rode toward the estancia as the sun began to set and wondered how he was going to get rid of the smell. He reeked and he knew it. Hell, Barranca hadn’t even wanted him around. He’d had a time getting the horse to stop stepping away from him just to get mounted. At least the wind was blowing in the right direction, he thought glumly.
He reined to a stop by the river and considered his options. Resigned, he dismounted and tied Barranca off soundly. He was sure the palomino would take off given the chance. Standing by the river, he took off his gunbelt and boots and simply walked into the cool water. He shivered as he went deeper and the water turned colder.
“Probably get pneumonia,” he said to himself. He sucked in a breath and dove under the water, coming up and shaking his head then wiping his face. He swam for a good fifteen minutes before he decided he could at least stand himself now. As he trudged onto the shore, his pants pulling from the weight of the water, he stopped cold.
Blinking, he looked all around himself, even across the water but, he saw nothing. He locked his jaw for a second before whistling and calling for his horse. Barranca was gone. Just gone.
Checking the limb where he’d secured the animal, he saw no sign Barranca had chewed through the reins. Someone had to have untied him. Was it supposed to be a joke? Because, it wasn’t a bit funny. Hands on hips, he sighed heavily. Now, he had to walk the mile home!
Taking hold of his anger, Johnny grabbed up his gunbelt and boots, surprised the joker didn’t take them as well. He reckoned they valued their life too much. Still, nothing said they’d have a life to value for takin his horse. All he knew was, Barranca had better be in top condition when he got home. Frowning as he worked the boots onto his wet feet, he wondered if he wasn’t assuming too much. Someone really could’ve stolen his horse. Even though he was on his own land, that didn’t mean squat. Still, there wasn’t a blessed thing he could do about it right now. Disgruntled, already tired and now, very hungry, Johnny started walking. The only good thing was, his anger was warming him up some.
When he walked into the yard, his eyes scanned the area and saw not a soul about. He headed straight for the barn, praying this really was someone’s idea of a prank and that his horse hadn’t been taken. If that was true, he was going after the palomino and right now. Still, he didn’t think that was the case and he stormed into the barn, his fury growing.
It was relief that lowered his tense shoulders when he saw Barranca chewing on his supper. He walked over to the horse, suddenly feeling drained of any energy. Stroking the silky mane, he smiled. “Enjoying yourself, are ya? Why’d you let them take you, anyway? I wasn’t stinkin as bad when I got out of the river, you know. You could’ve given me a fair chance, ya bag of bones.”
Barranca blew at him then dipped his head into the feed bag again.
“At least they fed you. Now, if you wouldn’t mind telling me who the funny man is, I’d be obliged.” He couldn’t fathom who would have done such a thing. The hands knew how protective he was of this animal and, he didn’t think any of them would make him walk home. Unless someone was really pissed at him and was hiding it really well, it made no sense.
His thoughts turned to his father and the strange way he’d been acting. But, that didn’t make any sense, either, and he quickly dismissed the idea as crazy. “Well, you seem to be enjoying your supper. Think I’ll go see if I can get some, too. That is, if Teresa will let me in the house. I was cleaner until I had to walk a mile. You know, I thought we were amigos, Barranca. Reckon you’re just a fair-weather friend.” He was still aggravated with the horse but he also knew it was just a horse. Smart he may be but, that didn’t mean he wouldn’t go off with someone he knew. That idea just led him right back to wondering who had done this and why.
Johnny turned aside then felt a nuzzle. Turning back, he smiled as Barranca pressed his face against Johnny’s head. He petted the strong neck and smiled. “Okay, okay. I know, boy. It wasn’t your fault. Lo siento, amigo.”
After closing the barn door, he rolled his sore shoulders then headed to the house. He could hear the men in the bunkhouse, just the usual noise. No, none of them would pull a stunt like this. If Scott were home and, maybe ticked off at him, he might – might – think his brother was the culprit. He hated not knowing who was behind this.
He stopped in the entryway and took off his rig, hanging it on a peg with his hat before stepping into the great room.
“Where the devil have you been?”
Johnny pulled up short and glared at his father who was sitting behind his desk, glaring right back. “Walking home.”
Murdoch’s frown deepened and his voice didn’t change. “What happened?”
The aggravation was back along with the anger. Johnny walked over to the sideboard and poured a short whiskey, downed it then turned back to his father. “I stopped at the river to try and wash some of the stink off from that mine run-off and, when I came out of the water, Barranca was gone. Someone let him loose.”
Murdoch gave him a sidelong look then shrugged. “Maybe, he just pulled free.”
“I might’ve thought that if I hadn’t made sure he was tied off good. He wasn’t real happy with the way I smelled in the first place. But, there’s no way he could’ve pulled free and the reins weren’t chewed. Besides, he’s in his stall, unsaddled with a feed bag. He didn’t do that himself.”
Murdoch stared at his desk top for a beat then sighed. “A joke?”
“It wasn’t funny,” Johnny replied in a cold tone.
The rancher looked up sharply. “The herd didn’t get moved today. There were some problems. You’ll need to get that done tomorrow.”
Grinding his jaw, Johnny started to ask why but, at this point, he didn’t even care. He nodded his head once. “I’m going to the kitchen,” he said in a softer voice.
“Teresa isn’t in there.”
Johnny stopped near the dining room table and slowly turned around. Sarcastically, he asked, “Does that mean there’s no food, either?”
Murdoch stood up, his eyes stony. “There’s food.”
“Then, I’m goin to the kitchen.” After a pause, he added, “If you don’t mind.” He didn’t wait for a response. He needed to get away from Murdoch before they had another row about Teresa. Why that would happen, he had no idea but he was getting awfully tired of the man’s attitude toward him lately.
Johnny sat at the table with a cup of coffee after finishing off his meal. He stared into the black brew as if it held any answers. He didn’t know why Murdoch was being so ornery toward him all the sudden. It seemed like it started after Scott left. No, he knew that’s when it had started because Murdoch had been just fine, even laughing when he teased his brother. And, he’d agreed to a poker game Saturday night. Right now, Johnny didn’t want to spend an evening in his father’s company.
He was dog tired and knew he should just go to bed, forget about this day and try again tomorrow for a better one. Still, Murdoch’s actions nagged at him. Was his father sick? He didn’t appear to be, looked like his same old self. But, he sure wasn’t acting like himself. Even in the beginning, when they circled around each other, he’d never been spiteful like this. It was as if he hated his own son.
He didn’t think it had to do with some other problem, either, like Teresa had suggested. If that was the case, it was a huge problem, he thought sardonically. Well, he should just head upstairs before Murdoch showed himself again. He didn’t like avoiding his father but unless he wanted to go around and around with the man, Murdoch hadn’t left him much choice.
Part of him thought he should have it out with his old man. The part that never backed down from anything, always stood ready and willing to face all comers; that brash part of him that was dying a little more every day wanted to take on this fight. Another part, the part that wanted peace in his life and all the good things he had here, just wanted to go to bed.
Johnny smiled a little and decided to let the peaceful part win out. He was just too tired for this nonsense. He pushed the chair back and took his cup to the sink, pumping the handle and rinsing it out. As he wiped his hands, he heard the footsteps and sighed. Well, so much for good intentions.
He saw Murdoch pause in the doorway before walking to the stove and grabbing the coffee pot. He thought to say something to the man but, he didn’t know what it would be. His father barely acknowledged his presence so, he tossed the towel on the counter and headed for the back stairs.
Once at the doorway, Johnny stopped and hung his head. He turned aside and called out softly, “Nite, Murdoch.” All he heard was a grunt in reply.
The next morning, Johnny walked into the kitchen, ready for battle. He hadn’t slept well despite being exhausted. So, when he found the table empty, some of the fight went out of him and he was a little disappointed. “Where’s Murdoch?”
Teresa sat a plate on the table and shrugged. “He said he had an early meeting. Did something else happen?”
Johnny plopped into his chair and grabbed the coffee pot. “Yeah, he made another remark about you and, he was just … nasty in general.”
She sat in Murdoch’s chair, a frown on her face as she crossed her arms on the table top. “I don’t understand. What could have gotten him so worked up out of nowhere?”
“I don’t know but I can’t take much more of it.”
She looked at him with sympathy. “Johnny, I know it’s hard to take but, I really think there’s something weighing heavy on his mind or there’s a problem he doesn’t feel he can talk about. It isn’t like Murdoch to be cruel for cruelty’s sake.”
He lowered his eyes. He had to acknowledge that as the truth though, the anger in him didn’t want to. “You’re right but if he won’t talk to me, how can I help? Even if I can’t help, he’s got no right or reason to take it out on me, Teresa. I’m not gonna stand for that.”
“You shouldn’t have to. Let me talk to him when he comes in today.”
Johnny leaned back and looked the girl over thoughtfully. “I don’t know if that’s a good idea. So far, he hasn’t said anything to you but that could change. I don’t want you hurt.”
She smiled warmly then stood up and walked behind him. Placing her small hands on his shoulders, she leaned over and kissed the top of his head. “He’d never hurt me and I can take a few angry words.”
Johnny laid a hand over one of hers and sighed. “He better not say one thing out of the way to you.”
“What are you doing?!”
Both young people started. Teresa whirled around and Johnny came out of his chair, pushing it away so he could move. He stepped in front of Teresa and faced the man. “Talkin about you, if you must know.”
Murdoch stood in the doorway, hands clenched at his sides, face red with ire. His eyes smoldered as he stared Johnny down. “I thought I told you to leave her …”
“Murdoch!” Teresa interrupted as she stepped around Johnny and stood at his side. “There is nothing improper going on here. Johnny is like a brother to me and you know it.”
His face softened slightly as he looked at the girl. “I know that’s how you feel, Teresa.”
Livid now, Johnny growled, “I don’t know what’s wrong with you the past couple of days but, you got no call accusing me of anything, old man. Teresa IS like a sister to me and I respect her more than anyone else in this house.”
Murdoch took two steps then stopped as Teresa moved in front of Johnny. “He’s right and you know it. Please, just tell us what’s wrong. Let us help. You aren’t yourself, Murdoch, and we’re both worried.” Teresa blinked, annoyed with herself for allowing the tears to well in her eyes.
Murdoch’s gaze shifted away to nothing in particular it seemed. Then, his mouth twitched and he sucked in an audible breath. “Don’t you have a herd to move?” Without awaiting a response, he turned and walked out of the room.
Teresa fairly melted, her shoulders sagging as she let out the held breath. She turned and gave Johnny a wary look.
Flummoxed, the young man could only shake his head but, the fire was growing in his eyes. He looked down at her and tried to smile.
“Don’t fight with him, Johnny. Just give me a chance. Once you’ve left, I’ll give him a little time then talk to him.”
He nodded then, a thought occurred to him. “I thought you said he had a meeting.”
“That’s what he told me but I don’t know where or who with.”
“That’s strange. Well, I guess I better get out of here before something really ugly happens.”
Teresa reached up and kissed his cheek. “I’ll make him tell me.”
That gave Johnny a chuckle. “You probably will, honey.”
As he rode under the arch in the early afternoon, Johnny’s eyes landed on his father blacksmithing. That wasn’t a very good sign. Murdoch usually only wanted to work the anvil in place of beating on someone. He could figure out pretty easily who that someone was, just not why. Well, it had been a good day. They’d moved the herd in record time, he imagined. Why he’d come home, he hadn’t a clue. Should’ve found myself a nice quiet spot to take a nap. He was tired from the restless night and yesterday had just been an all around bad day and that was before he’d seen Murdoch.
He dismounted and tied Barranca off, unsure he’d be staying if the old man started in on him again. He took his time, lingering with his horse and trying to decide if he should approach Murdoch. If he didn’t, his father might get mad because he’d been ignored. If he did, that might just spark him off anyway. He sighed, tired of second-guessing and tiptoeing around. Patting Barranca’s neck, he headed over to the man.
Before he could utter a greeting, Murdoch spoke.
“Did the herd get moved?”
Johnny figured talking business was better than getting yelled at or accused of something. He perched his foot on the side of the forge. “Yep, everything went really well for a change.”
“Don’t burn yourself,” Murdoch remarked, his eyes cutting to Johnny’s leg.
Looking down, Johnny knew his foot was fine but he moved it anyway. No arguments, he thought.
“Hold this for me. I need the other hammer.” Murdoch moved around so Johnny could take the tongs then, walked over to the tool box and selected a flat forging hammer.
Johnny raised his brows and wondered if Teresa had been able to talk to the old man. He wasn’t exactly smiling but he wasn’t being a bear, either. In fact, he seemed kind of … dull, like he was in a daze or something. He frowned at that thought and, as his father walked back to the forge, he studied the man’s face. Murdoch didn’t look at him, his eyes cast down at the forge. He was intent on figuring this out so, he didn’t pay any mind to what the man was doing until he saw the hammer swing downward.
Johnny’s eyes connected with his hand at the same time the hammer did. Shocked still, he stared at the hand for a split second as it slammed into the fire and ash before jerking it away and cradling it to his body. He staggered back, the pain not yet making itself known. All he could do was stare at his father who still appeared to be in some sort of fog.
Suddenly, Murdoch’s eyes snapped up and widened as he stared at his son’s face.
The pain erupted then and Johnny turned away, slowly letting himself look at his hand. There was a sudden rush of agony that seemed to fly up his arm and throughout his body and he groaned.
“Oh, God!” Murdoch blurted out then rushed to his side. “How is it? I’m sorry, I didn’t … I was aiming for the shoe.”
Johnny barely heard him. The blood rushed in his ears and drowned out most of the sound around him. Then, it all seemed to clear crisply and he heard every single thing around him, including his own moans as he struggled with the pain. “I think it’s broken.” The whispered words seemed to clarify everything for Johnny and he looked up at his father, sweat beading on his face and upper lip, his skin cooling too quickly. “You broke my hand. My right hand!”
Johnny backed away when Murdoch reached out to him. “Let me see, son.”
Shaking his head slowly, Johnny kept backing away from him, simply stunned and unable to truly wrap his head around anything. The only clear thoughts he had were to get away from Murdoch and to find Teresa. He needed help. He needed Sam and he wasn’t sure his father would help him. He felt like he was going to throw up from the pain, and maybe from the thought that this wasn’t an accident. He knew he had to get away from Murdoch so, he turned and walked quickly to the house.
He managed to open the front door and stumble in, shouting for Teresa as he made his way to the nearest chair. His legs gave way easily as he fell into the seat and he leaned forward, rocking gently.
“What?” Teresa called as she ran into the room. “Johnny, what’s wrong?” She walked over and knelt beside him as he continued to rock.
His throat was dry and felt sore but he managed to whisper. “He broke my hand. Teresa, he broke my right hand.”
She sat back, feeling a little dizzy then, pulled herself together. “I’ll send for Sam.”
Johnny could only nod and when she left him, he allowed himself to ease back in the chair. He closed his eyes and tried not to think about the pain but the pain was all there was in his world right now. The pain and raw fear. He never heard the door open or the footsteps. All the sudden, his father was kneeling beside him.
“Johnny, let me help you. I need to see what it looks like.”
“Get away from me!”
“It was an accident, son. For God’s sake, I’d never do something like that on purpose! Now, let me see, John.”
The stern voice and that name ‘John’ propelled him to look at his father. All Johnny saw was worry. He allowed himself a moment for the thought to work through his frazzled mind. Acceptance came then and he gently lowered his right arm with the left one holding it, offering his hand up for inspection but, he kept his eyes on his father.
Murdoch’s face relaxed and he looked at the injury, not touching it at first. He frowned deeply then gently moved a finger eliciting a hiss from his son. Johnny watched him glance up before going back to his probing. He moved the same finger again and Johnny tensed. Then, he tried another one but there was no pain that time, only soreness.
“It could be a very bad bruise, deep but, it may not be broken.”
“Don’t lie to me,” Johnny said in a cold voice.
Murdoch gave him a sharp look. “I’m not. I’m just not sure it’s broken. We need to stabilize it so it doesn’t move until Sam can take a look.”
Johnny shook his head and leaned forward then, pushed to his feet. “I’m going to lie down. I won’t move it, believe me. Just leave me be, Murdoch.”
“Johnny, you can’t really believe I’d do such a thing.”
He looked up at his father, his eyes afire. “After the way you’ve been treating me lately, I don’t know what to think.” He saw the frown and confusion come to Murdoch’s face but Johnny couldn’t think about that reaction too much at the moment. “I need to lie down. I just want some quiet.”
He lay on his back and stared at the ceiling, unable to look too closely at his hand. The throbbing hadn’t eased any. Teresa had come and wrapped it loosely with a towel soaked in cold well water. Then, he’d asked her to leave him alone. He couldn’t deal with her sympathy as much as he appreciated it. He couldn’t deal with the possible outcome of this injury but it wouldn’t leave his mind.
The idea had always played in his head. What if he lost the use of his gun hand? Lately, it seemed he hadn’t thought about it at all but he’d gotten so used to having the idea, maybe he just didn’t realize it was still there. Then again, maybe he’d had no reason to think about it. But, the way Murdoch was acting the past couple of days, he should worry about it.
A knock at his door interrupted the thoughts and he was grateful for it. He called out and watched, tensing at the idea it may be his father as the door opened. With a sigh of relief, he smiled wanly at the doctor.
“Johnny, Teresa says you may have broken your hand.”
He sat up slowly, scooting up to lean against the head board, a grimace forming on his face. “I didn’t but, yeah, it might be, Sam.”
The physician looked closely at him, hearing the tremble in his voice and knowing it for what it was. He smiled warmly. “Well, let me take a look, then.”
He was sweating by the time Sam finished or, he hoped the man was finished torturing him. He’d closed his eyes when the doctor began his examination and kept them closed the entire time.
“It’s not broken.”
Johnny’s entire body relaxed and he blew out a breath as he opened his eyes and looked at the man. “You sure?”
“It’s badly bruised, no doubt but, I don’t feel anything I shouldn’t. Now, there may be a small fracture I can’t feel but, even if there is, it will heal fine. You aren’t going to be able to use that hand for quite some time, though. A couple of weeks, at least.” Sam was surprised when all he saw on Johnny’s face was relief. “What? No argument?”
“No, Sir. I’m just glad it ain’t broke. I’ll do whatever you say, Sam, I swear.”
Sam snorted. “Can I get that in writing?”
A slow grin came to Johnny’s face. “Not right now.”
Sam rolled his eyes. “Well, I’ll have to wrap it up. You can’t use it at all, not even your fingers.”
As he tied off the bandage, Sam glanced at Johnny who was watching the process intently. “How did it happen?”
A sigh escaped the young man. “Murdoch did it.”
“I’m afraid you’re going to have to explain that one, Johnny.”
“I wish I could. He said it was an accident but, I don’t know, Sam. He’s been acting really strange ever since the day Scott left.”
Sam packed away his supplies then turned back and settled on the side of the bed a little. “What do you mean, strange?”
Johnny frowned as he leaned his head back. “Takin my head off over nothing, accusing me of having ideas about Teresa. He just seems to be in a bad mood whenever I’m around. He’s fine with Teresa. I swear it’s like he hates my guts.” He saw the look of doubt come to the doctor’s face. “Ask Teresa. She’s seen it, too, and she’s worried. She said she was gonna talk to him today. I didn’t get a chance to find out if she did. He’s not acting like himself, that’s all I know.”
Sam’s brow furrowed with all this information. He rubbed his chin as he thought it through. “Has something happened?”
“Not that I know of. He hasn’t told me a thing.” Johnny turned thoughtful then. “You know, it’s like he wants to find some reason to yell at me. I asked him if he wanted the herd moved and he yelled at me. Then, he accused me of looking at Teresa. And the day he wanted the herd moved, I just had to go out and clean up the run-off from the mines. That was a miserable job and when I stopped at the river to wash up, someone took Barranca. He was in the barn, all taken care of when I got home. Had to walk a mile and Murdoch yelled at me about that, too.”
Sam puckered his lips as he listened. “What happened to your hand?”
Johnny swallowed hard. “I was holding a shoe for him at the forge while he got a different hammer. He seemed kind of off, like his mind was somewhere else. I was watching him and not paying attention to what he was doing when the hammer came down on my hand.” He lowered his eyes. “He said it was an accident, seemed upset about it. I don’t know, Sam. I want to believe that but the way he’s been acting lately, I have a hard time.”
“Do you want me to talk to him?”
He looked at the doctor as he considered that. “If you want to try and find out what’s eating at him, yeah. But, if you want to talk to him about my hand then, no. I’d just as soon know what’s wrong with him first.”
Sam nodded. “And if you can figure that out, you’ll know if this was an accident?”
“Something like that.” Johnny yawned a little. “Didn’t sleep too well last night.”
Standing, Sam smiled down at him. “You’ll have plenty of time to catch up now. I’ll go find Murdoch and talk to him.”
“Thanks, Sam, for everything. Do me one more favor? Tell him to leave me be tonight.”
After twenty minutes of searching, Sam wound up in the kitchen. Frustrated, he found Teresa coming out of the pantry.
“How is he?” she asked immediately.
“It wasn’t broken, just badly bruised. It will heal in time. Have you seen Murdoch?”
Relief softened her face then, she shook her head. “Not since you got here.”
With a sigh, Sam put his hands on his hips. “I’ve looked all over the house and outside and I can’t find him anywhere. You would think he’d stick around to find out how Johnny is doing.” He was about to go on a rant when he saw tears welling in the young girl’s eyes. “What in the world?”
Teresa blinked, fighting not to cry as she walked over and sat at the table. “Something is wrong with him, Sam. He isn’t acting like himself. He’s so angry with Johnny and for no reason.”
The doctor took a seat beside her, laying a hand over hers. “Johnny said the same thing. I thought he might be exaggerating or, feeling put out.”
Shaking her head, Teresa leaned back in the chair, pulling her hands away from Sam’s comforting touch. “He isn’t. I’ve heard a little when I walk in a room and Murdoch doesn’t know I’m there. I just thought something was bothering him and he was taking it out on Johnny. You know how people will snap at you when they’re upset.” She looked over as the man nodded. “But, it’s been days and nothing has changed. I was going to talk to him today but, I never got the chance.”
“I’m not sure that’s such a good idea from what I’m hearing. Maybe, I should give it a try. Murdoch and I go way back, you know. If something really is wrong, he might not want to worry you with it.”
“That would probably be better. I’ll check with the hands. Maybe they’ve seen him.”
Sam watched her walk outside then he leaned over the table, resting his crossed arms on the surface as he mulled over what he knew which wasn’t much. Murdoch could be ill and not even know it. Of course, he needed to talk to the man, maybe examine him. Hopefully, it was something minor and easily fixed. The alternative wasn’t pleasant to consider. That Murdoch, for some unfathomable reason, was that angry with Johnny. He looked up as the back door opened, surprised Teresa had returned so quickly. The surprise quickly turned to dread when he saw her face. She was livid.
“He left! Frank said he saddled his horse and rode off without a word to anyone. How could he do that with Johnny hurt?”
After checking on Johnny and having supper with Teresa, Sam sat in the great room and waited for Murdoch to come home. He was more flummoxed than he could ever recall. Even if the man was that angry with his son, Sam knew Murdoch well enough to know he’d never leave before finding out the diagnosis. Except, he had and, no one had any idea where he was. That part alarmed his just as much. The rancher always let someone know at least when he’d be home if nothing else.
It occurred to him that Murdoch may be avoiding him though why, he couldn’t begin to guess. Now, as it grew near midnight, Sam was having a hard time staying awake especially as he’d turned the lamps out save the one nearest him. He was just about to head upstairs when he heard the front door open. Staying himself, he waited for Murdoch to appear.
Several seconds ticked by and still, the man hadn’t shown himself. Sam leaned forward and thought he heard someone whispering. Perplexed, he stood and walked toward the front door only to hear footfalls on the stairs. Setting his jaw, the doctor hurried his stride and reached the landing just as Murdoch turned the corner at the top of the stairs. Sam didn’t want to call out for fear of waking the house so, he climbed the stairs hurriedly. He rounded the corner just in time to see Murdoch’s bedroom door close. Oh, no you don’t, he thought as he strode to the door and knocked firmly.
There was no answer and Sam knocked again. He waited and still got no response. Did I really see him? he wondered. Maybe, I’m dreaming. He sighed and started to question his own eyes and ears until he heard a sound on the other side of the door. Angry now, he knocked louder. He was about to grab the knob when the door swung open. Murdoch, dressed in his nightclothes, stood there and scowled.
“Sam? Do you know what time it is? What are you doing here, man?”
Stunned, the physician simply gawked for a beat. “How did you get undressed so quickly?”
“Quickly? It’s the middle of the night. I’ve been in bed for hours where any sane person would be. Now, why are you here?”
Sam gave him a sidelong look then, openly assessed the man. “I thought you might like to know how your son is doing.”
Murdoch’s shoulders went up. “Scott? Did something happen to Scott?”
Angry again, Sam growled, “no! Not Scott, Johnny! What is wrong with you, Murdoch? Do you even remember crushing your son’s hand today?”
“What the devil are you going on about? Have you been drinking, Sam? Go to bed and let me get some sleep. It’s nearly morning.”
Sam stared, slackjawed, as Murdoch slammed the door in his face. He stood there in the silence of the night, his mind simply blank for long moments. Then, he raised his hand to knock again but thought better of it. Obviously, Murdoch didn’t recall the events of the day. He wasn’t so sure Murdoch recalled his son right now. He shivered, noticing the cooler night temperatures for the first time but, he didn’t think that was the source of this chill.
Johnny slowly became aware of the birds singing outside his window. He stretched then grimaced when he tried to move his right hand. Eyes coming open quickly, he remembered what had happened and sighed. He blinked then used his left hand to scrub at his face.
“It’s always a surprise first thing in the morning.”
His head jerked to the right at the sound of the voice. Seeing Sam sitting in the corner chair, he breathed heavily and gave his heart a few seconds to stop racing. “Damn, Sam! Don’t do that.” After a grumpy second, he asked, “what’s always a surprise?”
Sam was smiling at the grouch. “Remembering an injury because of the pain. How are you this morning?” He stood and walked to the bedside, plopping on the mattress.
“Sore, I guess.” Johnny sat up awkwardly then rolled his shoulders. “Why are you in here? I ain’t dyin.”
“No, you’re not dying. I couldn’t sleep.”
Finally awake, Johnny eyed the man. “What’s going on?”
Sam fidgeted then stood up. “Why don’t I let you get yourself together then, we’ll talk. Unless, you need some help dressing.” He nodded toward Johnny’s hand.
Scowling, the young man threw the covers back and shivered a little. “I think I can handle it. Damn, it’s cold this mornin.”
“Well, it is almost November,” Sam said offhandedly as he went to the door. “I’ll be back in a little while.”
Johnny grumbled as he slid out of bed. He pulled his right hand to his chest, holding it there with his left. Maybe, he wouldn’t be able to get dressed without a little help. He sure as hell couldn’t shave unless he wanted to cut his own throat. Aggravated, he went to the dresser and managed to wash a little then, he grabbed his pants and sat in the chair, struggling into them. Standing, he looked down at the buttons and cussed. Suddenly, an overwhelming feeling of melancholy enveloped him and he had to sit back down.
He stared at the floor trying to find some anger but, he wasn’t successful. All he felt was sadness and loss. He was pretty sure by the way Sam was acting, that he’d lost his father if he’d ever had him to begin with. Otherwise, Sam would’ve been talking to him, cheering him up, telling him it was all just a big misunderstanding. But, Sam hadn’t done that; hadn’t even mentioned Murdoch. A long sigh escaped his lips then, he realized he was cold. Grabbing a shirt, he eased his right arm in then the left and tried to button it but that wasn’t working too well. Finally, he fell back in the chair and just sat there.
Fifteen minutes later, Sam returned after getting himself cleaned up. Johnny scowled at him as he walked over and sat in the chair opposite. “Can’t you unwrap this a little so I can at least use my fingers?”
“No, you can’t use them. I’m sorry, Johnny. Let me help you with that.” Sam stood and waited expectantly for him to stand.
Johnny grunted as he came to his feet then suffered through the humiliation of having the doctor button his pants then his shirt. He looked over Sam’s head the entire time then, sat back down and stared at his feet. He heard a chuckle and glanced up, pulling a face. “It’s not funny.”
“I’m afraid it is a little for the one not suffering.” Sam tried to lose the smile as he reached over and patted Johnny’s knee.
“You said we’d talk when you got back.”
That statement did wipe the smile from the physician’s face. He leaned back, sadness and worry adorning his features now. “I don’t know what to think, Johnny. Murdoch left yesterday while I was taking care of your hand. I waited until nearly midnight for him to come home and, when he did, he headed straight to his room. I followed and knocked on the door. It took a while for him to answer and he was already undressed for the night. He acted like I’d woken him up and he was not happy. He slammed the door in my face. He didn’t seem to …”
Johnny had been staring at the floor but, he looked up when Sam stopped. “What?”
Sam took a deep breath. “He didn’t seem to be aware that you’d been hurt. He didn’t … I can’t really explain it. It’s like he wasn’t really there.”
Johhny sighed as he leaned his head back against the chair cushion. Eyes half-closed, he looked flatly at Sam. “Guess that’s my answer, then.”
“I’m not so sure it is, son. I’m going downstairs to talk to him now. Whatever is going on, this is not the Murdoch Lancer I know. I think, if you’d let yourself, you’d admit that, too.”
“Let myself? Hell, Sam, I’ve been trying to figure out what’s eating him for days! You think I want this? I hate it and, right now, I hate him!” Johnny leaned forward and locked eyes with Sam. “If you think I’m gonna put up with this shit from him, you’ve got another thing comin. I don’t care if he’s sick. Unless there’s something wrong inside his head, I’m done with him.”
Eyes wide at the onslaught, Sam took a moment to recover his decorum. He gave Johnny his firmest look. “That may very well be what we’re looking at here, Johnny. That there is something wrong inside his head. I understand your anger but don’t do anything out of that anger that you’ll regret later.”
“I don’t regret a thing. Are you kidding me? He almost broke my right hand!” Johnny jumped to his feet and began pacing his room. “A man doesn’t do that without a reason, Sam. Right now, every instinct I have is telling me to get out of this house before he kills me.”
“What? You can’t be serious?” Sam stood and stepped in front of him, stopping the pacing. “You said yourself he apologized for hurting you. That he told you he’d never do such a thing.”
“And you just told me this ain’t the man you know. So which is it, Sam?”
Before the doctor could even try to answer that question, there was a knock on the door. He saw Johnny drop his right hand to his side then grimace. Sam sighed and walked over, opening the door and stepping aside.
Teresa stepped slowly through the doorway, apprehension all over her face. “I could hear you two down the hall. What’s wrong now?”
“Nothing, honey. We’re just talking about Murdoch.”
Her face wilted and she lowered her head. “He left early this morning and there’s a list of chores for you on the table. I didn’t even see him. Maria didn’t, either.”
Johnny’s mouth fell open. “A list of chores? What does he expect me to do with this?” He waved his hand in the air.
Sam stepped closer to him. “I told you he didn’t seem to remember you were hurt last night.”
“This is just crazy, Sam.”
Teresa came to his left side and wrapped an arm around his waist. “I have breakfast ready for you both. You didn’t have any supper, Johnny. Come on. It will make you feel better.”
He smiled at her and shook his head. Why did women think food healed everything?
As Johnny sat down at the table, he looked around the kitchen. “Where’s Maria?”
“She’s gone to her sister’s. They’re preparing for Dia de los Muertos.”
Johnny rolled his eyes. “I forgot about that. All Souls’ Day is in two days, right?”
Teresa sat a platter of eggs on the table. “That’s right. And the children are all excited about Halloween tonight.”
“Great! I’ll spend tomorrow treating tummy aches,” Sam said forlornly.
“I’ll trade ya,” Johnny shot sarcastically. That comment ended any conversation and they ate the meal in silence. Johnny stared into his coffee cup, nearly worn out from the chore of eating left-handed. He figured that was the easiest thing he could do so, he wasn’t looking forward to the next task, whatever that may be. His eyes skimmed the table and he saw the piece of paper, knowing immediately what it was. He reached over and pulled it to him, reading it with a smirk on his face. “Chop and stack wood, fix the corral fence, mend the barn roof.” He looked up at Sam. “When he comes home, I might be out of here.”
“Johnny, no,” Teresa said as she laid a hand on his arm. “Don’t let him drive you away.”
“It’s not like I can do much to protect myself, Teresa. I’m starting to think we should both get out of here until he either comes around or …” he didn’t know how to finish that sentence.
“Do you have any idea where he may have gone, Teresa?” Sam asked.
She shook her head. “No, but he’s been spending a lot of time away from the ranch. Or, at least, away from everyone else. He’s been going somewhere every day.”
“I didn’t know that,” Johnny said.
She shrugged. “I didn’t think anything of it at first but, when he disappeared yesterday, I realized he’d been doing it a lot.”
“Well, I have to check in at the office. I’ll try to get back this afternoon and catch him.” Sam stood and tossed his napkin on the table. “Thank you for breakfast, Teresa. Johnny, do not use that hand!”
Johnny just shot the doctor a look. He wanted to ask what Sam thought he could possibly use that hand for when he couldn’t even button his own shirt. He blew out a breath as Sam left and leaned back in his chair. “Wonder where he’s been going?”
Teresa started clearing the dishes. “I don’t know. He always seems to head east.”
He sat there a few more minutes before making his decision. Getting up, he walked over and kissed the top of the girl’s head as she washed dishes. “I’m going to take a buggy since it’s easier to handle with this bum hand and see if I can find out where he goes off to. Might be able to find out why he’s acting like a lunatic.”
Teresa turned and stared at him worriedly. “You can’t use a gun. What if you run across trouble?”
He smiled a little. “I’ll manage, honey. If he comes home and he’s acting … strange, I want you to stay away from him. So far, he’s been fine with you but that could change.”
She nodded her understanding. “I’m so worried about him but, at the same time, I’m so angry with him.”
Johnny went slowly in the surrey. He’d found Murdoch’s tracks fairly quickly once he got on the road but then they had simply disappeared. He pulled back on the reins and sighed as he looked all around him. Nothing. All he knew for sure was his hand throbbed and he was bone tired. He knew this was a bad idea as soon as he’d started out. Every jolt and bump sent pain from his hand up his arm and into his shoulder.
He leaned back in the seat to rest for a few minutes taking some comfort from the feel of the Colt in his waistband as it pressed against his spine. Then, he decided to just go home. He had no business out here. He didn’t know what he thought he could accomplish. Even if he had found his father, what could he say? Resignedly, he surveyed the road and found a nice, wide area to turn the surrey around one-handed.
A wry smile fleetingly crossed his face as he slapped the reins against Zanzibar’s backside. He reckoned the old man would be mad as hell about using his best surrey horse, too. And, he thought, maybe he had done it on purpose. Why, he couldn’t fathom. He sure didn’t need any help riling the old man. All it took was being alive, it seemed.
Johnny frowned at that thought. Having gotten himself turned around and set for home, he wondered about it all. It really didn’t make any sense. Murdoch had never treated him this way. Not even at first. Maybe, his father really was sick. Still … he shook his head, tired of going round and round about this inside his own mind. He needed to talk to Murdoch, if he could.
As he neared the house, a gust of wind blew up, swirling the dried leaves on the side of the road around like little dustdevils. Johnny shivered as the cooler wind engulfed him. He hated the winter coming on even though, it wasn’t as bad as what Scott told of Boston winters. He smiled then, recalling how Scott had scoffed at their so-called winters in California last year. But, it was all Johnny knew of the season and it was more than enough for him. He’d always tried to stay south of the border as much as he could during the winter months.
He pulled into the yard and glanced up at the already darkening sky then ducked his head as the wind was still whipping a good gust. As he stepped to the ground, Walt ran up and took the surrey for him. He nodded his appreciation then headed quickly for the safety of the house. The front door slammed behind him as the wind caught it and he cringed at the loud sound. As he removed his hat, his shoulders tensed at another loud sound.
“What’s all that blasted noise!”
Johnny touched his right hand with his left and quickly wondered if he was up to facing Murdoch just then. How the man had gotten home without Johnny seeing him, he didn’t know. The only explanation was that he didn’t really head east as Teresa had said or, he did then turned another direction. But, he’d seen the tracks. It made no sense but, nothing made much sense these days. As these thoughts ran through his head, he heard Murdoch shout his name. Taking a deep breath, he walked into the great room, stopping just past the doorway.
Murdoch was standing by the fireplace staring at him and, he had that mad look on his face. Johnny felt his heart start beating faster and he knew he should walk away. Just head upstairs or go back outside or something, Johnny boy. This ain’t gonna end well. Â
“Where have you been?”
He met the eyes of his father and saw something there he didn’t recognize at all. Something he had never seen in Murdoch’s eyes the whole time he’d been home. Hatred. Johnny felt chills erupt on his arms and a shiver ran down his spine. He braced himself and replied in a low, even tone. “I was looking for you. We need to talk about what’s going on with you.”
There was a brief look of perplexity on the rancher’s face before he spoke. “There is nothing going on with me, John.”
Johnny felt his patience dwindling quickly but he knew he needed to remain calm. He quickly wondered where Teresa was but, as long as she wasn’t in the room, he figured she was safe. “Yes, there is, Murdoch. You’ve been angry with me for days now. You yell at me for no reason, you don’t remember telling me things and then, there’s this.” He held his right hand out a little to show the bandage.
The frown on Murdoch’s forehead deepened as he took a step forward. “What happened to your hand?”
Johnny pulled his hand back to his chest as his eyes widened and his mouth fell open in shock. “You don’t remember?”
Finally, Johnny lost his temper. “You smashed my hand with a hammer yesterday afternoon, Murdoch! Right out there at the forge! How can you not remember that?” He watched the look of confusion grow on his father’s face and, suddenly, Johnny was very afraid for the man. “You looked at it, you said it was an accident then, you disappeared only to come home at midnight then take off again this morning.”
Murdoch had started shaking his head soon after Johnny began recounting the events. His eyes met his son’s but he didn’t speak.
“Where did you go, Murdoch?” Johnny demanded.
“Nowhere! I haven’t gone anywhere, I didn’t hit your hand, I don’t know what you’re talking about!” With that, he turned on his heel and strode behind his desk, staring out the window at the darkening landscape.
Johnny watched him, unsure if he was telling the truth as he saw it. Maybe, he really doesn’t remember. But, how can that be? How can a man lose a whole day? It made no sense to him. He took two tentative steps toward the man then stopped, recalling the look in his father’s eyes when he’d first walked into this room. Softly, he called out, “Murdoch?”
The rancher’s shoulders tensed but he didn’t turn around. Johnny started to say something but a knock at the door interrupted him. With a sigh, he went to answer, hoping Sam had returned. Opening the door turned into a chore as the wind had picked up strength. With only his left hand functional, Johnny used his shoulder to help keep the door from slamming closed. But when he peered out, no one was there. He stepped onto the threshold and looked all around and still, he saw no one. Frustrated beyond belief, he closed the door as gently as he could then walked back into the great room to find Murdoch was now sitting at his desk with his head bowed.
Johnny walked over and sat in a chair opposite the man, tensed and ready to move at a second’s notice. “If you didn’t go anywhere today, tell me what you did do.”
Slowly, the gray head raised and the pale blue eyes focused on him. The hatred was gone but, in its place was something far darker, far more … evil.
As soon as he saw it, Johnny leaned back then slowly got to his feet.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
The voice he heard was not his father’s. It was … cold, unearthly and he shivered despite himself. Without conscious thought, Johnny made the sign of the cross only to hear a low growl emit from Murdoch’s throat as the man came to his feet and stalked around the desk.
Backing away toward the door, Johnny found his throat closed so tight, he could barely breathe let alone speak. He reached behind him with his left hand and touched the butt of the Colt in his waistband but he couldn’t pull it out. He couldn’t pull a gun on his father.
As Murdoch moved closer, he spoke in a mocking tone. “That won’t do you any good, John.”
Johnny shook his head slowly then back-stepped across the room, past the dining room table and into the foyer. He grabbed the front door knob and jerked on it only to find it locked. He glanced down to find the lock in the correct position to garner him his freedom so he pulled again but with the same result. He heard the low laugh and turned around as a chill flooded his spine. Murdoch was less than a foot from him now and Johnny stumbled back against the unyielding door.
His eyes scanned the immediate area for an escape route and he settled them on the stairs. As he darted to one side, Murdoch stepped in front of him, placed a hand on the wall to block his way then leaned in. Johnny licked his lips and pressed his spine against the door, a cold sweat forming on his brow. His breathing was fast and he could see steam as he exhaled. He swallowed dryly, his voice thin when he spoke. “What’s happened to you, Murdoch?”
The laugh came again, softer now but still as menacing. “Nothing has happened to me. You should be asking what’s going to happen to you.” Murdoch jabbed his finger into Johnny’s chest and leaned in even more.
The stench of his breath assaulted Johnny’s senses and he lurched to the right in an attempt to free himself. He felt the hand grasp his bicep and pull him back, slamming him against the door. His eyes closed as he hit then he felt intense pain as Murdoch grabbed his right hand and squeezed. “Agh! Let go, let go!”
“Oh, does that hurt?” Murdoch asked then, like lightning, he reached behind Johnny with his free hand and pulled the pistol from his waistband, tossing it across the great room.
Johnny was vaguely aware he’d been disarmed. His main focus was the excruciating pain in his right hand and the possibility his father would finally break the damned thing. Forcing himself to ignore the pain momentarily, he grabbed hold of Murdoch’s left wrist and used all his strength to bend it backward until the man released him.
Murdoch let go to grab his own wrist, a look of surprise on his face. Johnny saw his opportunity and bolted into the great room, heading for his gun. Ten feet from his destination, he felt the weight hit him and he tumbled to the floor. The air whooshed from his lungs with the full impact. Murdoch moved off him but before Johnny could make another move, he found himself being tossed onto his back like a rag doll. He looked into his father’s eyes but didn’t recognize the man. There was something else there, something malevolent and fear like he’d never known clutched at his heart.
Murdoch straddled him and had hold of both his wrists, pinning him down. Johnny bucked but he couldn’t dislodge the heavier man. His heart was thundering in his chest and he knew he was going to lose this battle and his life if he didn’t find his grit. His jaws clamped together as he silenced his own mind and slowed his breathing. It was then he saw the piece of leather around Murdoch’s neck with some odd looking medallion swinging gently beneath his shirt. He looked back into his father’s eyes.
Murdoch grinned at his prey, knowing he had total control of the man. Then, without warning, he saw Johnny’s eyes change. Gone was the fear and panic. Only icy calm could be seen now and, in fascination, he watched a crooked smile come to the younger man’s face.
Johnny would have laughed in relief as he found his center if not for the dire situation he was in. He allowed himself a smile though and saw how it puzzled the man, this stranger, holding him down. Without so much as a blink, Johnny pulled his right leg up fast and hard, his knee finding a target in the small of Murdoch’s back in the exact spot Pardee’s bullet had once struck. The man arched in pain and released his wrists. Johnny pulled himself from under Murdoch, using his elbows. Like quicksilver, he scrambled to his Colt and picked it up with his left hand, cocking the hammer. “Back off, old man!”
Murdoch was on his feet, a low growling laugh coming from him. “Go ahead. Pull the trigger, boy. Do you think it will matter to me?”
Johnny tilted his head to the side, confused momentarily. Then, he realized this wasn’t his father. This … monster. Yeah, that’s what it was – a monster. Why would it care if he killedd his own father. It would probably get a kick out of that. His eyes dipped and he saw the medallion laying against Murdoch’s chest. “Dios!”
“Shut your filthy mouth!”
Johnny’s eyes snapped up and he saw the rage inside this creature. The Colt felt heavy in his hand now and he knew, no matter what, he could never squeeze that trigger. Feeling defeated, his left hand dropped to his side. Murdoch took a step toward him. Without thinking, he matched it with a step back only to find himself trapped, his back against the wall.
Another guttural laugh emanated from Murdoch as he moved closer.
Johnny swallowed hard, his mind numb. He began to speak without truly realizing what he was saying. “Padre nuestro que estás en los cielos; Santificado sea tu Nombre…”
Murdoch took a step then faltered as he heard the words.
“…Venga tu reino, Hágase tu voluntad…”
The older man groaned then pitched sideways before regaining his equilibrium.
Johnny pressed his back to the wall. “…En la tierra como en el cielo; Danos hoy el pan de este día; y perdona nuestras deudas; como nosotros perdonamos nuestros deudores…”
“Shut up! Shut up!” Murdoch took another step to stand directly in front of Johnny.
“…. y no nos dejes caer en al tentación, sino que líbranos del malo. Amen.” Johnny closed his eyes in fear as the hand wrapped around his throat. He grabbed at Murdoch’s hand, trying to wrench free as the pressure increased. Forcing himself to look at the man, Johnny thought he saw something of his father in those eyes for just a second before his face darkened again. Panicked, he pleaded with the man. “Murdoch, fight this. You can do it, I know you can!” He saw a smile begin to form on Murdoch’s face as the man squeezed his throat harder and desperation took over. He fought to push out the air he needed to speak. “Please … Father, I need you!”
Murdoch stopped, a look of confusion painting his face followed by that pain again. An internal struggle was being fought and he drew strength from those words – ‘Father, I need you’. He looked at Johnny and saw his own agony reflected in the blue eyes. Pure heartbreak was staring back at him and Murdoch felt as if he couldn’t move at all.
Johnny watched with some hope, saw his father try to win out. He sucked in a breath and locked his gaze onto the talisman knowing somehow it was the source of this evil. Reaching out he jerked it off Murdoch’s neck and threw it across the room.
Murdoch shouted so loud, the rafters shook then he staggered away from Johnny and dropped to his knees before rolling onto his side. He lay still as death and Johnny was sure his own heart stopped beating in that moment. He took one step toward his father when the French doors banged open and a gale-force wind blew through the great room. Johnny squinted against the impact as he tried to watch the door but, he had to duck his head as the dust and debris blew in.
Johnny put his arm up to shield his face as he looked at the doors again. His eyes burned and tears welled from the dirt but he caught his breath when he saw something move. It was a black shadow but, it seemed to have some almost human form as it lingered just inside the doorway. When it floated across the room and stopped, Johnny realized it was hovering over the talisman. It lowered to the floor, the blackness enveloping the large area rug where the talisman had landed. Suddenly, it rose nearly to the ceiling then flew back out the doors into the blackness of night as the clock struck the midnight hour. The wind died down as it left and the French doors shut resoundedly.
Johnny felt very heavy as the doors closed. He swayed to the side before catching himself. Leaning forward, he took in some deep breaths then remembered Murdoch. His head snapped up and he rushed to his father’s side, dropping to his knees. Murdoch looked relaxed, as if he was alseep. Hesitantly, he pressed his hand to the man’s chest then, his shoulders sagged with the rise and fall. He sat back for a moment, just to get his bearing then ran his hand across his face. Johnny froze as he stared at the bandaged hand he’d just wiped his face with. Slowly, he curled the fingers, stunned when he felt no pain. He looked down at his father and watched the steady breathing, the peaceful face for a moment then, he set about removing the bandage.
He flexed his fingers again then made a fist. Shaking his head slowly, Johnny couldn’t believe what he was feeling. Nothing. No pain. The bruise was even gone. His mind wouldn’t quite accept what was happening but he heard a soft moan and his hand was forgotten as he leaned over his father. Please, God, let him be okay.
Murdoch’s eyes opened slowly then he blinked and raised his head, looking around then focusing on his son. “What happened?”
Johnny helped him sit up but he didn’t know how to answer the question. “Come on, let’s get you to the sofa.” He stood and offered a hand but Murdoch brushed it aside as he came to his feet. He swayed a little and Johnny grabbed hold of his arm, guiding him to a seat.
Murdoch fell back against the sofa cushion and rubbed his cheek. Looking around the room, he asked, “What happened in here?”
“I’m not real sure. What do you remember?”
Shaking his head, Murdoch looked at his son for a beat. “Well, I, um, I …” he gave a sharp, short laugh. “I guess I’m not too sure, either.”
Johnny managed a smile then stood and walked to the sideboard and poured a glass of water for his father. He looked at his right hand as he set the pitcher down then shook his head slightly. “Something strange happened to you, I think.”
Murdoch took the glass when his son returned and nodded. “I feel a little … befuddled, I suppose is the word. I mean, I feel fine I just don’t remember things very clearly.”
Johnny sat on the coffee table in front of his father and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “Just tell me the last thing you do remember.”
After downing the water, Murdoch sighed heavily and set the glass down. “I suppose talking to you about playing poker. Then, I left to go to town and … that’s it.”
Johnny just stared at him for a long time, flummoxed that his father had lost days, not hours of time. Then, he realized that was probably a good thing. Maybe, he should just let this drop. Of course, Murdoch would ask questions and how could he explain the loss of time to his father when he couldn’t explain it to himself? No, that wasn’t true. He could explain it, he just didn’t want to and didn’t think he’d be believed anyway. He sure as hell wouldn’t believe this craziness if he hadn’t lived it. He looked down at his right hand again and made a fist.
Murdoch watched the myriad expressions fly across his son’s face. Pain, anger, maybe even a little fear? His heart thumped as he waited for Johnny to say something. Then he realized the young man had no intention of speaking. “Son? What’s happened?”
Slowly, Johnny looked up at his father and sighed lightly. “You won’t believe me, Murdoch. If you told me, even I wouldn’t believe it.”
Johnny knew that tone. The old man wasn’t going to let this alone. He dropped his head then lurched to his feet pacing over to the French doors and peering out to ensure himself there were no more demons lurking. He glanced at the clock and saw the midnight hour had passed them by. Relief flooded his entire being. It was over. All Saints Day was at hand and he felt … safe. He snorted softly then turned back to find Murdoch watching him closely and waiting for an answer.
Johnny slowly opened his eyes and frowned. Momentarily confused, he quickly remembered why he’d fallen asleep in the chair. He looked over to find Murdoch still sleeping on the sofa. He sat up and rubbed his face vigorously. Last night had been exhausting and he wasn’t sure if it was what had happened or the telling of it that had worn him down so. Either way, he felt sore and stiff so he leaned forward and stretched his back.
Murdoch watched him through half-open eyes. Last night, his initial reaction had been denial but he also knew Johnny would never make up such a story. He was sick at the thought that he’d treated his son so shamefully but the worst had been what he’d done to Johnny’s hand and trying to kill his own son. What had possessed him so strongly? In his dreams, he had struggled with something, trying to free himself of some nightmare. Had it been a dream? Or was he remembering the fight? Johnny had said there were a couple of times when he’d seemed to be battling against whatever had hold of him. He hoped that was true. Hoped he wasn’t so weak a person he couldn’t at least fight against something so … wicked and vile. His stomach turned with the very idea that evil like that really existed in its purest form.
Murdoch blinked then realized Johnny was watching him with concern in those blue eyes. He tried to smile but he knew it wasn’t very sincere so he rose from the sofa and ran a hand through his hair. He couldn’t quite meet his son’s eyes and he walked to the sideboard.
Johnny’s lips quirked as he watched his father avoid him. He walked over and stood beside the man who was downing a glass of water in one gulp. Once Murdoch was finished, he spoke, “You okay?”
“Fine.” Murdoch winced at his own brusque reply then sighed as he turned to face Johnny. “That’s not true. I hate what I heard last night. It’s hard to believe I could do those things to you and I have to say, I feel guilty as hell.”
“Murdoch, don’t. It wasn’t you.”
“You didn’t know that.”
Johnny dipped his eyes briefly. “Not at first, no. But, I knew something was wrong. And, yeah, I was pretty mad at you. Sam said you could be sick but, I didn’t want to hear that. Teresa said something must be weighing on you heavy and I didn’t want to hear that, either.”
Murdoch watched him closely, a frown on his own face. “What did you want to hear?”
Johnny bowed his head and turned aside. Wrapping his arms around himself, he shrugged. “I’m not really sure.”
Murdoch pursed his lips then laid a hand on Johnny’s tense shoulder. “I’m so sorry, son.”
“It wasn’t your fault.”
“I’m still sorry. Maybe, if I’d fought harder … I don’t know.” Johnny turned back, the look in his eyes reminding Murdoch of that first day he and Scott had arrived. The need there was exactly the same. “I would never purposely hurt you like that. I wish I could have been stronger or, even realized what was happening.”
Johnny nodded. “I can’t say what all it did to you or how it even happened. But, deep down, maybe I wasn’t so sure it wasn’t you. Maybe, I …” he shrugged, unsure what he really meant.
“Maybe, you thought that was how I really felt about you? No, Johnny. No, I could never hate you; never even come close. In fact, it’s just the opposite.”
A smile spread across Johnny’s face before he managed to rein himself in. With a shrug of one shoulder, he canted his head. “Yeah? Me, too, old man. Now, how about some breakfast? Maybe you can explain all this to Teresa.”
Murdoch’s eyes widened and he let out a soft groan. “I forgot all about Teresa. How in the world did she not hear all that last night?”
“I have a feeling no one but us would have heard it. Just seemed like the world went away.” A frown came to Johnny’s face with that statement. “Maybe, it’s best not to think too hard on it. I’ll go see about Teresa.”
Murdoch nodded then sighed lightly as Johnny headed to the kitchen. He couldn’t stop thinking about how he’d handled any of this. He knew he would have fought tooth and nail against anything that would force him to inflict such heinous acts, especially against his own son. Dear God, what would have happened if Johnny hadn’t torn that thing from around his neck? He shuddered to think of it. And the look in his boy’s eyes a few moments ago so reminiscent of that first day he’d come back home. Such need, such … what? There’d been anger, of course and he’d matched it with his own. Fool! Could he have done any worse with either of them?
He paced the room, stopping when he reached the area rug Johnny had pointed out last night. It looked darker now. Maybe it was just his imagination. Maybe. He thought to reach down and touch it but the idea sickened him and he moved quickly away.
His thoughts went back to Johnny. Had he made his feelings known? Why did he have so much trouble telling them how he felt? Men didn’t discuss such things. That’s just how it was. He shook his head then looked away as Johnny walked back in.
“Teresa says she slept all night. She wanted to know how my hand healed so fast but I told her I’d explain it later. Not sure how.” He stopped talking as he saw Murdoch’s bowed head. Closing in on his father, he dipped his own head to see his old man’s face. “What’s wrong?”
Murdoch looked at him and smiled a little. “I was just thinking about when you came home.”
Johnny raised his brows. “What made you think of that with everything we’ve been through in the past few days?”
“Because of the way you looked at me a moment ago. It was exactly the same look you had that first day. It made me think of how I handled things then and that now, maybe this … evil has actually shifted things; given me a second chance to set things right between us.” His heart thundered in his chest as he waited for his son’s reaction.
Johnny was stunned. He didn’t know what Murdoch was talking about. What look? With clarity, he realized it didn’t matter. His father was holding out his hand, offering to set things right between them once and for all. Johnny’s decision took no further thought. “Yeah, I’d like that, old man.”
Footnote: This is the Lord’s Prayer in Spanish.
Padre nuestro que estás en los cielos
Santificado sea tu Nombre
Venga tu reino
Hágase tu voluntad
En la tierra como en el cielo
Danos hoy el pan de este día
y perdona nuestras deudas
como nosotros perdonamos nuestros deudores
y no nos dejes caer en al tentación
sino que líbranos del malo.
Comments: We don’t have this author’s current email address. If you leave a comment below, if she reconnects with the fandom, then she will see how much her work is appreciated.