Word count: 4,760
The quiet suggestion of unexpressed concerns hung in the air.
Watching his eldest son Scott head for the stairs, Murdoch Lancer reluctantly responded “Good idea” to Scott’s announcement that he was turning in early. Murdoch laid aside his book, stood and stretched. He noticed his youngest son making no move to leave. The evening had been much too quiet. Neither son had said much of anything and on reflection Murdoch now realized Johnny hadn’t said anything at all. Murdoch asked, “Johnny? You coming? Early morning tomorrow.”
Johnny continued staring at the fire and only nodded.
“Something wrong, son? You seem a little down.”
Johnny glanced in his direction but, Murdoch noticed, made no attempt to smile. “Just not tired is all. I’ll be along later.”
“Are you sure, son? We’ve got an early morning tomorrow.”
“Yeah, I know. You said. Good night, Murdoch.” Dismissing his father, Johnny turned back to the fireplace. As Murdoch headed up the stairs, he looked back to see Johnny placing another log on the fire.
Once upstairs, Murdoch quietly called out to Scott as Scott was about to enter his room. “Son, I’m worried about Johnny.”
“He really wasn’t himself all evening. He seemed to be . . . almost melancholy. You don’t think . . .”
Scott held his finger to his lips to signal silence and opened the door to his room, ushering his father inside. He closed the door, sat on the bed, and indicated Murdoch should sit in the chair. But Murdoch, obviously worried, remained standing.
Scott did not smile. “If you’re thinking what I think you’re thinking, you’re on the wrong track.”
“I don’t know, Scott. I think he’s still upset about Josh Flaherty’s daughter turning him down at the dance last night. I’ve noticed women don’t usually say no on the few occasions he asks to dance with them.”
Scott stared into the distance as if trying to make a decision. “No, that’s not it.”
“He called her a ‘pretty little filly.’ Talked about her for days before the dance. It’s very possible his ego was hurt.”
Scott smiled a little. “No, I don’t think so, Murdoch. She told him she was engaged to a man in the army. Completely in love with him. She might have surprised Johnny but he wasn’t upset.”
“Well, what then? You don’t think he’s sick, do you?” Murdoch asked anxiously.
Scott turned serious. Indicating the chair once again, he said, “Sit down, Murdoch.” Sensing he was about to hear something important and probably unpleasant, Murdoch did as he was bid.
Scott sighed. “Not sick. Not like you’re thinking. More like . . .” He put his hand over his heart. “ . . . sick in here. We were talking this afternoon, and the conversation got a little . . . deeper . . . than idle discourse. Johnny really opened up to me, which is a pretty rare thing for him. Me too, I suppose. I really don’t know what precipitated it – maybe he actually was feeling a little forlorn after last night – but whatever it was, he spoke straight from the heart.”
“His life, Murdoch. His life.” Scott looked down. “I’m not so sure that Johnny would be amenable to our conversation going any further, but there are a couple things you really should be aware of. As our father. As his father, I mean.”
“Go on, son,” Murdoch urged gently.
“Well, there’s . . . “ Scott cleared his throat. “Now that I think of it, maybe this thing with Kitty Flaherty was more important than I thought. But not on a personal level. What I mean is – she rejected him.” Scott looked nervous. Murdoch figured he was asking more of Scott than he should. He did not want to cause his son any consternation, so he said, “That’s all right, son. You don’t have to . . . “ He stood to leave.
“No, wait, Murdoch,” Scott said anxiously. “There really are some things you should know. I hope Johnny can forgive me, but . . . you are our father after all . . . and Johnny’s had a hard life . . . but he’s very . . . private . . . about his past . . . and . . . Murdoch, he needs you.”
Murdoch was confused. “I’m here for him. I think he knows that.”
“Well, maybe not. Today we talked, and . . . there are some things that . . . well, that have never been said. Johnny worries . . . wonders . . . worries about things he doesn’t know . . . “
“Like what? Are there things in his past that he has been afraid to tell me? He doesn’t have to worry, I don’t care about the past. What’s past is past and what really matters to me is that he’s here now.”
Scott got even more nervous. “That’s just it! What matters to you! Not what matters to us . . . him. The past may be past, but it’s not over – for Johnny. He’s only been given sketchy details. And I think he wants his memories to be . . . accurate.”
“Oh,” said Murdoch in a small voice. He sat back down. “I see.”
“I’m guessing that’s why Johnny is always so willing to fall in love. He falls in love, his heart is broken, he bounces right back and does it again. It’s a vicious cycle. He’s very willing to fall in love, even though he’s been hurt before. But I don’t really think he’s ever truly been in love. I think each love affair has just been another attempt to find something that is missing in his life. I made that observation to him today and I was surprised that he did not deny it. That’s all I said, though. I almost meant it as a jest. But he agreed and then he opened up to me about his life and how no one had ever loved him. No one! Murdoch, you’re his father. He needs you! And he needs to know about his early life here at Lancer, and about the relationship you had with his mother.”
“Yes,” Murdoch said slowly. “It was so long ago, I didn’t think it would matter. But of course it does.”
“Maybe I’ve said too much, but . . . I think it would help a lot, Murdoch. I mean – he’s endured so much. This afternoon he told me some of what he’s been through. It’s not an easy life, being a gunfighter. And he was so young!” Scott shivered. “My god, Murdoch! It’s like he had to fight his own private war all the time! His mother – Maria – left him alone so much. She didn’t seem to care. Johnny was right when he said she didn’t love him – no mother could love her child and do the things she did!”
Murdoch cleared his throat softly. “Do you want to tell me . . . ?”
“She treated him badly and then one day she abandoned him. Just like that, just like she left you. She must have threatened to leave without him many times before, though, because he said he did everything he could to keep her happy, to make her stay. But she was never happy. And, I think Johnny always blamed himself for that.”
“It was hardly his fault!”
“I know, but try telling a child that. And the child grows up to be a man, and he’s still thinking that he must have done something that kept his mother from loving him. And then she deserted him when he was still so young – Johnny was unsure if he was nine or ten years old – and on top of everything else, in addition to the self-recrimination, he had to find a way to stay alive! He was quiet, maybe shy, he’d been beaten a lot, by his mother as well as most of the men she had . . . When I think of this, my heart aches.” Murdoch understood. His heart had ached for Johnny for a very long time already.
“And then Johnny no longer had any guidance, however bad . . . so what was he to do? He said he sometimes slept at friends’ homes, or in the street, he ate whatever he could catch or steal. And the most important thing to him was that he stole a gun and learned how to use it, to use it very well. Over time it apparently represented freedom to him and he learned he could make a living with it.”
“So Johnny Madrid was born,” Murdoch said sadly. “He had to depend on himself very young. He never told me any of this.”
“No, I’m sure he didn’t. He didn’t tell me all of it today either. Much of it I surmised from what he did say. The gunfighter facade worked to give him the notoriety he’d never had. He finally ate regularly, did everything he could to make himself feel better. Many women found him attractive and that made him feel better about himself, too. But, in my opinion, there was never any love from anyone. None at all. And he’s never stopped looking . . . “ Scott looked down suddenly. “Everyone wants to feel loved.”
Murdoch detected a sad note in his son’s voice that hadn’t previously been there. He watched Scott closely. All he answered was, “So I was right to be worried about my son.”
“Yes. Everyone wants to be loved, loved by their parents especially. Can you imagine having to grow up with a lie? A lie that said your own father rejected you?! This should never have happened! Can you even imagine the consequences, the . . . the hurt that this belief caused us – him! – over the years?” Scott hung his head.
Murdoch studied his complex oldest son a moment, then chose his words carefully. ”What would you like me to do for Johnny?”
“He wonders why you never looked for him; he feels you abandoned him. He needs to fill in those empty blanks in his life – to feel like a whole person. Johnny’s sensitive, Murdoch. He wants to believe that you thought about him sometimes, that you cared about him. He wants to feel . . . loved, I guess.”
Murdoch nodded. “Anything else?”
Scott looked up and his father detected pleading in his eyes. “He knows now that his gran . . . mother lied to him, but he doesn’t understand why. He needs to know why.”
Scott looked completely miserable, and Murdoch, anticipating the undertaking before him, leaned back in his chair and sighed. He resisted the temptation to reach out to Scott. “I can see how this would be a mystery, a very sad mystery, and I understand now how much it has affected . . . my son.” He paused for a moment. “ I’m grateful Johnny chose to be so honest, son. I’ll speak to him right away, try to put his mind at ease.”
Scott again lowered his head and said softly, “Thank you.”
“And I will be as ‘accurate’ as I can . . . but the answers aren’t easily . . . I may never really know why my son was kept from me. In spite of the attempts I made, repeatedly, to bring my son . . . to find my son and bring him home . . . in spite of all I did, I will probably never know the reasons my sons were . . . my son was kept from me.” Murdoch knew what he wanted to say, but emotion kept getting in the way. It was an effort to keep his thoughts on track and it unnerved him even more when he believed he detected a glistening in Scott’s eyes. This was just as much about Scott. Maybe more.
He knew there was no easy, pain-free way to say what had to be said, and yet the last thing he wanted to do was cause either of his sons pain. But Scott did not raise his head. He was waiting, hoping for the best. Murdoch wanted to be just about anywhere else, doing anything else – yet he also cherished this golden opportunity Scott was presenting him. He was Scott’s and Johnny’s father – and there would never be a better time to tell them how much it meant to him. And he thanked God that he was not too stubborn to realize it. He hoped he was up to the task.
The voice he used to answer his son was soft and soothing. To his surprise, the words flowed naturally. “No matter what happened, no matter who tried hard to separate this father from his son, in the end it didn’t matter because we were meant to be together. The agents I hired to keep track, the relatives I contacted to try to get information, the letters and gifts I sent that were always returned, the fruitless trips I made, my unanswered prayers for so many years, the heartbreak, none of this . . . none of this matters. One thing matters more than anything, and that is that we are together now, in the home prepared for this family, for this father and his sons. I can’t tell you, Scott, you or Johnny, why someone else acted selfishly, but I can tell you how happy I am that my son is . . . that my sons are finally home!”
Murdoch stood. He had been watching Scott carefully and was happy to see his son’s face soften and raise toward him. Scott nodded and whispered, “Thank you, Murdoch. So much.”
Murdoch smiled meaningfully. “My very great pleasure,” he said softly. “Now I think it’s high time I speak with my other son.”
They looked at each other contentedly for a moment. Murdoch nodded, then opened the door to leave. Just before stepping into the hall, he turned back and said, “I love you very much, Scott.” Wisely knowing to allow his son privacy, he quietly closed the door behind him.
It wasn’t an easy thing for the big man to say. He had had so little practice, and it was not in his nature to let his guard down. But he appreciated the fact that Scott had done just that. Murdoch leaned for a moment against the wall outside Scott’s room. He reflected on his own words. The truth of them – the strength of those words – stunned him.
After a moment spent gathering his own composure, Murdoch quietly descended the stairs. He saw Johnny had moved to the couch, with his legs pulled up and his head resting on his hands. Close to the fetal position. He was awake and Murdoch could see that he was still watching the fire. Dreaming, perhaps. Dreaming of what might have been.
A sad smile came to Murdoch Lancer’s lips as he lovingly watched his son from the bottom of the stairs. Johnny probably didn’t remember, but when he was very little, he used to lie the same way on the same couch. With one exception – his head used to rest on his father’s lap rather than his own hands. A symbol of how self-reliant he had become, Murdoch thought sadly. Scott was right – Johnny had to depend on himself most of his life. He was here at Lancer now, but . . . a roof over his head and regular meals were not the same as . . . feeling loved.
“Johnny . . .” Murdoch Lancer spoke softly to his son as he approached the couch.
Johnny was already aware of his presence. “Forget something?”
“Yes.” Murdoch intentionally sat on the part of the couch available because Johnny’s legs were pulled up. Surprised, Johnny raised his head to look but said nothing. He maneuvered so he could sit up a little, leaning on the arm of the couch, but made no move to relocate. This pleased Murdoch.
“I’d like to ask you something,” Murdoch ventured.
Johnny said, “What?” emotionlessly.
“Is there anything on your mind, son? You seem worried. I’d like to help if I can.”
After a hesitation, Johnny answered. “Yeah, I’m worried about Scott.”
Murdoch wondered if he was right about where this was going. “It’s Scott who concerns you?”
“Yeah.” Johnny kicked his legs out and stretched them, but he remained seated on the couch. “Yeah. Murdoch, he told me some things. Some things about how his grandfather brought him up. That big house they had in Boston, and all that money and servants and everything – it wasn’t all peaches and cream, he said. And . . . well . . . there was a lot missing from his life. Scott talked about it a little today, but not much. I’m worried about him. I mean, he’s my brother . . .”
Johnny watched the fire silently for a moment, clearly trying to decide something. Murdoch studied him closely instead of answering. How different they were from each other, his two sons. Scott’s speech was more erudite, Johnny’s earthier. And yet they both spoke from the heart. Where did they learn that? Was it natural? Either way, he owed his sons complete honesty. After his talk with Scott tonight, he realized he had often not been as forthcoming with them as he could have been.
Murdoch remained silent as he let Johnny work through his thoughts. He smiled a little as he watched his son. Memories, precious ones, came to the surface. Memories of Johnny as a very young boy. These were bittersweet since Murdoch had no memories of Scott as a child at Lancer. How he had wanted both his sons with him! Johnny had been delightful, a great source of pride to him. How perfect it would have been to have raised them both at home!
“I think you should help him, Murdoch.”
Murdoch had been deeply in thought and his reverie was broken by Johnny’s profound words. It took him a moment to gather his thoughts. As he did so, he felt that familiar wall beginning to build – the need to control the conversation, to steer it his way. His old stand-by when dealing with people. But these were his sons – this was Johnny. This was his son Johnny, who had been stolen, not just from his father, but from his own home, from the only safe life he’d ever known. And, according to Scott, raised with an uncaring mother. And yet Johnny was just as concerned now about Scott as Scott had been about him.
Murdoch knew that wall had to go! But how?
“I appreciate that you’re concerned about your brother, but . . . he seemed to have a fine life . . .”
“Not fine at all!”
“Johnny, tell me what concerns you.”
“You sure you want to hear?”
A challenge. Sarcasm. Typical Johnny. But for the first time, Murdoch felt he understood. The meaning of his son’s words, even the way he said them, did not reflect what he was really feeling. Murdoch didn’t care about the words. He cared about the feelings. And he understood that both Johnny and Scott had a need, for whatever reason, to show as little weakness as possible. Perhaps that was a trait they inherited from him. If so, he understood how strong that need could be. He had to work around it. He had to listen to the feelings, not the words. Murdoch hoped that would be easier with Johnny than it had been with Scott. He knew he’d have to choose his words carefully in this conversation as well.
“I want very much to hear . . . what you have to say.”
Johnny seemed surprised for a moment, but he recovered quickly. “Well, I don’t know, Murdoch. I mean, we were talking today and I think he told me some things that were private. Not sure Scott would want me to say anything.”
“Do you believe there’s anything I should know? For Scott’s own good?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I guess so.” Johnny shrugged and looked off in the distance. “Well . . . I mean, you being his father and all . . . and . . . I . . . I guess he just needs you, Murdoch.” Johnny avoided making eye contact and seemed to be working at holding his expression steady. The words didn’t seem to come easily for him.
Murdoch nodded silently to himself. He thought he knew now where this was going. “A boy needs his father,” he said quietly.
That struck a bitter note with Johnny. “That’s right! A boy needs his father! He didn’t need to be running around all over the border . . . I mean, all over that big house. He should have been right here! Right here at Lancer. Being raised by his father!” Johnny shook his head again. “That . . . that grandfather of his! Not much of a parent. Always thinking of her. . . himself first, taking care of other things besides Scott. Always! Leaving him alone all the time. Well, with servants, I mean. And, worst of all, not a speck of love there! You think Scott resented that? Hell, yes! Especially when he could have been raised by his father. Except his father didn’t want him, either! Murdoch, he needs you. He always did. Talk to him. Tell him why you didn’t want him when he was a boy. Tell him the truth. Murdoch! I need . . . he needs to know!”
That was it. Johnny’s outburst amounted to a much longer speech than usual. Murdoch was sure now that this was more about him than Scott. Johnny’s emotion was palpable, physical.
Never more so than at that moment, Murdoch truly wished he had raised his sons. They had turned out so well. They had spoken together privately, both discovering a similar angst, an angst that had never been unraveled for them. A strong emotion with an even stronger need to be dispelled. And a desire for an explanation behind those emotions. They were here with their father, but their worries were as strong as ever. Murdoch was proud of each of them expressing concern for the other. And he was proud of himself for recognizing it for what it was. No, he told himself, no time for pride. He had been able to reach Scott, which he knew from the sweet expression on his son’s face. And from the love he felt emanating from Scott as he had closed the door. Now he had to focus on Johnny.
Johnny was looking at him expectantly, longingly. Murdoch kept his temperament even. “As your father, what I owe you both is a safe and happy home. I’ve tried to provide that for you since you’ve returned, but I could not have when Scott was born. There are reasons Scott’s grandfather preferred raising him.” Murdoch again chose his words carefully. “Scott’s grandfather and I . . . well, we didn’t get along. He objected to my marriage to his daughter. This is really all I know for sure, Johnny. I expect his actions were based on his belief that he . . . well, that he would do a better job raising Scott.”
Johnny’s face fell. Murdoch sensed he was losing him.
“Did you think that?” Another gauntlet.
Murdoch hesitated. He took a breath before answering. “I did at first, yes.” When he saw Johnny turn his head in disgust, Murdoch quickly added, “As I said, I probably could not have provided Scott with a happy home while I mourned for his mother. And he would have deserved that and nothing less. Harlan made the decision. And to my discredit, I allowed it.”
Johnny looked back at Murdoch, his anger barely concealed. “That’s at first, Murdoch. Why didn’t you send for Scott later? He thinks you forgot about him. Did you ever even give him another thought?!”
Murdoch took a deep breath. Cautious Johnny – how could he be expected to know what his father was feeling? He and Scott were still working through their own torments; they should not be burdened with more. Murdoch stared out the window before answering. No, he would not cause more pain. He would try his damnedest to heal as much as he could. He turned back to Johnny. In a caring but steady voice he said, “The most important thing is – yes, I did think about Scott while he was growing up in Boston. Often. There wasn’t a day that went by that I did not rue the fact that I was unable to have him living with me here at Lancer. The reasons are difficult to explain, but legal hurdles were presented I simply was unable to overcome. All those years I wanted him – both of you – so desperately. My chance finally came with Scott when he turned twenty-one, and then I found out he was a soldier in the war. A . . . a prisoner of war.” Murdoch’s voice had weakened to a whisper.
Johnny’s face softened in understanding and acceptance, and Murdoch closed his eyes and turned away. “That must have been hard,” Johnny said very quietly.
“Yes.” Murdoch’s voice was barely audible. He shook his head. “The worst feeling in the world. Not knowing. Every minute of every day. And there was nothing I could do to help him. My son!”
A silent moment passed. When Murdoch spoke again, his voice was strained. “And I never knew where you were, Johnny. Never! That was even worse.” He hesitated, unable to continue.
Johnny stared out the window. Eventually he looked down. “I got by,” he whispered.
The emotion in the room was profound. Several moments went by. Murdoch managed to control his anguish. He waited, watching his beloved son’s face. He didn’t want to second-guess Johnny. He wanted the truth. Just like his sons did.
Finally Johnny looked up. Murdoch saw the face of his two-year-old son, the sweet boy full of energy and unanswered questions, living life to the fullest. Falling and crying until his father promised he’d make it better. And he always did make it better . . . until that fateful day . . .
“Murdoch . . . if . . . I mean . . . you said you thought about Scott a lot . . .” Johnny’s voice was close to breaking.
The opportunity Murdoch had been praying for. Johnny was opening up to him. Please, God, thought Murdoch, don’t let me fail him. Not now! Not ever again! Murdoch kept his voice strong for his son. “Yes, Johnny! There wasn’t a day that went by that I didn’t think of you as well! Having you and Scott here with me was a dream – a dream that didn’t come true until you were both grown . . . and I dreamed it every day.”
Halfway there, not enough. Johnny was still looking at him with the same pleading look on his face. Falling, crying . . . but it wasn’t better yet.
“Johnny,” Murdoch whispered, reaching his hand out. “I never stopped loving you.” The five most poignant words he’d ever said.
Johnny stared at his father for a few seconds, then he smiled a little and looked down. Murdoch saw tears in his eyes, so he cupped his son’s head in his hand and pulled him close. And Johnny reached his arm around his father and that was the best either of them had felt for many, many years.
Murdoch’s predicted “early morning” did indeed happen the next day, but it was very different from the way any of the three of them could have foreseen it.
The father and brothers undertook an unplanned journey together. They rode north, wherever the wind blew them, enjoying life in general. They visited museums for Scott, ate at cantinas for Johnny, hunted for Murdoch. Scott and Murdoch recited plots of their favorite novels for Johnny and Johnny regaled them with stories of his own life. Murdoch taught his sons some Scottish, Johnny taught his family some Spanish, and Scott made the others laugh with Boston slang. There was great joy in every moment they spent together. And prospects for a happy future together were secured.
And, as it turned out, Murdoch was absolutely right. The past no longer mattered.
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