Word count 9,793
Originally appeared in the Great Room Bookshelves, Vol. II -2006
A bed! He was in a bed – just maybe the softest, most comfortable bed he’d ever felt in gentle hand stroked his forearm, and then touched his face. He wanted to reach out and hold her hand, but he couldn’t seem to move. He sighed again, as warmth suffused his body. He started to turn his head towards her, wondering if she was beautiful. Suddenly his instincts kicked in and he froze in place, hoping it wasn’t too late.
Just where was he exactly? He had no recollection of getting a room, or of finding anyone to share it with. He could still feel a presence, her female presence, close by. He tensed, listening intently, holding his breath, not daring to open his eyes even a fraction to try to determine if he recognized this place.
A door creaked open and he heard a deep male voice, gruff but not unkind, speaking quietly, obviously not used to using that sort of caution, “How is he?” A young woman answered, “No change. I thought he was coming around just a moment ago, but I was wrong. He’s so pale. I wish Sam would get here.”
Johnny found himself liking this voice. He could tell the girl was young, probably still in her teens, and he almost blushed as he remembered his recent reaction to her soothing touch. She sounded calm though, someone to rely on for all her youth, for all her distress. Was she upset about him?
“He’s on his way, Teresa. Be patient.” The male voice ended in a sigh, “I just wish he didn’t have to be in here.” Johnny could hear the man’s frown and felt a surge of anger – yet another prejudiced gringo, another who thought Johnny Madrid wasn’t good enough to be under his roof.
The young woman cut in quickly, “This is the best place. We can’t use Scott’s room – he’ll be here any day now. And it’s too soon to use Daddy’s,” the voice broke and Johnny felt a strong desire to comfort her.
To his surprise the male voice softened, “I’m sorry, Darling. You’re right. It – it’s good to see this room open again. If my son can’t be here . . .” and the voice trailed off, leaving Johnny feeling confused, his anger draining away. He felt a shadow of sorrow radiating from this man, and wondered if the room’s former occupant had died. He drifted off to sleep again, deciding he was safe and that getting answers could wait for a while.
Johnny lay awake, listening intently. He was aware of a cool, gentle breeze coming in the window, along with the sounds of horses passing by, and the farther off shouts of workers apparently wrapping up for the day. He was on the second floor he decided, judging from the distance of the noises coming from below. What he couldn’t hear was anyone breathing. This time he was alone, he was sure of it. He took the chance of opening his eyes, mere slits in the falling darkness.
It was still light enough that he could get a sense of the room. It was spacious and tidy, but with an unused look. There wasn’t a speck of dust where the soft light of sunset caressed the dresser top. He turned his head, and immediately wished he hadn’t. Sharp pain crashed down around him, making him feel nauseated and even more confused. As he took deep, slow breaths, trying to get both his unruly stomach and the pain under control, he felt the edge of panic nudging at him again.
What could have happened to him? Had he been shot – a head wound? He slowly – very slowly – raised a tentative hand to his head. Bandages! He struggled to remember anything that might clear up the mystery. Was he in enemy hands? He had heard there was a range war going on; that’s why he had decided to head north in the first place. A trigger happy guard might have decided to shoot first and ask questions later. As he lowered his hand, a cheery voice spoke from the open doorway, “You’re awake!”
It was her – Teresa, the man had called her. She bustled over to the bed and looked down into his face. He had a glimpse of kind brown eyes before she turned away to wet a cloth. He studied her more closely as she wiped his sweat soaked face, tutting over his increased pallor.
“Dr. Jenkins says you’re to lie still.” She gave him a concerned smile. He tried to smile back, but knew he hadn’t managed the usual charming grin that he liked to bestow on pretty girls. And she was indeed pretty, very much so, with her long brown hair, large eyes, and delicate features. And young, he reminded himself sharply, not more than fifteen or sixteen would be his guess, way too young for the likes of him.
“Dr. Jenkins?” He was surprised the words came out, though his voice sounded raspy to his own ears. Her smile brightened. She was clearly pleased that he could attempt to carry on a conversation, “Yes, Sam Jenkins. He was here earlier this evening. You were awake and talked to him briefly while he examined you and wrapped up your head. He says you have a concussion, and that you should rest in bed at least until he comes back to check on you tomorrow. He seemed quite sure you would be fine though.”
Johnny vaguely remembered them mentioning that Sam was on the way but he had no recollection of meeting the man. At his puzzled frown, Teresa guessed what the problem was, “Don’t worry if you don’t remember much about Sam’s visit. He said you’d be pretty foggy about things for the next day or so.”
“What happened?” He felt his voice going, so he ended quickly, “Shot?”
“No! One of the hands found you on his way back through the mountains. It looks as if your horse slipped, and you fell and hit your head on the rocks. You were lucky Cipriano found you. That trail isn’t very well traveled.”
Johnny mulled over the information, willing it to come back to him, but he couldn’t remember anything about a fall, anymore than he could remember Dr. Jenkins. He knew that would just be the concussion though – it’s not as if this was the first one he’d ever had. And at least he remembered the girl. He almost smiled as that crossed his mind.
A sudden thought came to him, and he frowned instead, “Horse?” The girl looked sad and he knew the answer before she spoke. “I’m sorry. Cipriano had to put him down.” Johnny pressed his lips tight together and turned his head away, not wanting this mere slip of a girl to know how attached he had been to his horse, his only real friend and companion for the last two years.
He sensed that she was about to offer him sympathy and he spoke quickly to head her off, “Where,” his voice abruptly left him, and he had to try again, “Where am I?”
Putting down the wet cloth, and sitting on the edge of the chair next to the bed, Teresa announced proudly, “You are at the most beautiful place in the whole wide world! Lancer!”
Johnny turned his head sharply to look at her, and felt things going black – whether it was the knowledge he was in his father’s house, or the abrupt movement, he didn’t know, but he was sure he was about to be sick. Teresa realized it too and grabbed a basin, as Johnny wretched uncontrollably.
When he finally lay back against the pillows, his skin pallid and clammy, she helped him take a sip of water and then gently lectured him, “I warned you to lie still.” She again wiped his face with the damp cloth and watched him closely as his colour gradually returned to normal.
“Sorry,” Johnny whispered softly, and was rewarded with another gentle wipe of the cloth. “Tell me – tell me about Lancer.” He spoke so softly she almost didn’t hear.
Teresa had given him a great deal to think about before he had fallen asleep. He had tried hard to stay awake, to keep her talking, but she had been adamant. He couldn’t blame her really, not after he heard about the recent violent death of her father. When he woke, again checking his room through half closed eyes, he realized she was still there, watching over him. A small smile touched his lips as he considered how good it felt to have a friend.
It had been a long time since he had anyone he could truly put that label on, but he had come to feel this girl could well fit into that category. He smiled a little more as he thought of his last true friend – a young man about his own age, the son of a Southern California rancher who had hired his services during a range war several years back, when he was barely twenty. The rancher had not been pleased that his son had gravitated to the young gunman, but had not gone so far as to forbid the friendship between them. He certainly hadn’t understood how much the relationship had meant to Johnny. The two boys quickly became fast friends, while Johnny had been planning the protection of the ranch and its residents.
When the attack came, Johnny had been seriously wounded saving both father and son. He’d been asked to stay on, to be part of the family, but he knew he couldn’t do that. His smile faltered as he thought of why – the same reason that he could never think about having family and friends around him – it was just too dangerous, for them and for him. That’s why he had given his affection and trust only to his stallion, but now even his brave Fuego, with his coat as red as a fiery sunset, was gone.
He was startled by a concerned voice, as Teresa rose from her chair, “Are you alright? Is the pain worse?”
His smile returned as he realized she had been watching him that closely. “I’m fine,” he assured her. Her warm brown eyes studied him seriously, and after fixing his pillows, she settled back in her chair without further comment.
Johnny nestled back comfortably against the soft pillows, annoyed with himself for allowing his emotions to show on his face. As his thoughts continued to wander aimlessly, he tried to school his features, especially as he thought about Murdoch Lancer. On one hand he hoped to have a chance to meet the man, to form his own opinion, untouched by the hatred his mother seemed to feel for the man who had fathered him; on the other, he dreaded such a meeting, and hoped he could get away from the hacienda without ever having to see the man at all.
He knew Lancer had been shot in the same attack that had killed Teresa’s father, and inexplicably he felt fear for his father, even though Teresa had said he was slowly recovering. His mind in turmoil, Johnny knew he had to get away from there as soon as he was able to ride.
Johnny was dozing again when he heard a deep voice asking, “How is our patient tonight, Teresa?” He caught his breath, recognizing the same voice he had heard when he first had awakened in this strange place. His father! He chanced a peek between barely cracked eyelids, and saw a tall man, a generally strong one who was surely frustrated by his weakened physical state. A man of strong emotions too, Johnny was willing to bet. He’d seen enough of such granite features to have learned that volatile temperaments often lurked behind a tough façade. With a deep breath, he opened his eyes, to face his father.
A closer look showed Johnny that his father was perhaps somewhat younger than he had first thought. It was the lines of pain around his eyes that seemed to age him, that and his slightly stooped posture as he walked with a cane that appeared to be too short for his large frame. Though his hair was grey, he had plenty of it. All in all, Murdoch Lancer was a formidable presence.
Brilliant blue eyes met pale blue grey, and both held the appraising gaze of the other. Johnny was surprised to see a small smile appear on the weathered face. “It’s good to see you awake. I hope you’ve been comfortable here.”
The voice sounded a bit strained and Johnny remembered the earlier reluctance to have him in this room. Trying hard to mask his own confused thoughts, he attempted to focus on what seemed a harmless topic emotionally, but one that might teach him something about Murdoch Lancer.
“It’s a right nice room, one of the best I’ve ever been in. Too bad I haven’t felt well enough to enjoy it,” he tried a carefree grin, but knew he failed dismally. Thankfully his father did not realize the true cause.
Murdoch Lancer paused a moment, and to Johnny’s great surprise started to talk about him as a child, “This is, was my son’s room. I lost John when he was just a little boy.”
Johnny felt his anger rising. This old man sounded as emotionless as if he was talking about the weather. Johnny ruthlessly pushed his father, trying to get a reaction, “Your boy died?”
“No. His mother took him away from me. But one day he’ll be back in this room, one day.” Still the voice was cold, but just for a brief moment Johnny thought he saw a flash of pain in the alert eyes, which were still holding his.
Johnny knew he had to protect himself. He could not let this man see how affected he was by merely being in his presence. Murdoch pulled himself more erect, and Johnny felt a sense of relief that conversation would most likely be directed to safer topics.
His relief was short lived. “What’s your name, boy?” Lancer asked him gruffly. Then, as if realizing he was taking his own anger at the past out on the younger man, he moderated his tone, “Do you have family we should be contacting?”
Johnny narrowed his eyes, “Don’t have no family! None worth mentioning anyway.” He took a perverse pleasure in insulting the man in front of him, even though his father had no way of knowing what he was doing.
He decided to take a chance, and find out just how hard his father was looking for his missing son. “The name’s Madrid, Johnny Madrid. Maybe you’ve heard of me?” Johnny smiled mockingly, and then felt a certain shame at his behaviour, especially in front of the girl who had been so kind to him.
“I can’t say that I have,” Johnny could feel the disapproval radiating from the older man, “though I expect that means you are well known in some circles.” Lancer had undoubtedly noticed his gun, and obviously had little use for gunfighters. Well, maybe he’d feel differently if he kept getting shot at.
Johnny had expected to feel a sense of victory that his old man hadn’t looked hard enough to find out his son was Johnny Madrid. Instead, he felt a profound sense of disappointment. He closed his eyes, wanting to close out the world.
To his surprise, the older man’s voice softened, “Try to get some rest, son.”
‘If only he meant that word,‘ Johnny thought, as he felt the unaccustomed prick of tears. He drifted off to sleep wondering what the man had done to win the staunch support of his ward. Surely he wasn’t as cold and unfeeling as he seemed! The softly spoken word son kept echoing in his mind.
“You are my SON,” the words penetrated his consciousness and he sat up with a gasp. As Teresa reached out to soothe him, Johnny flushed with embarrassment – just a stupid dream! For a moment, he’d thought that he’d been found out. It must have been brought on by his conversation with the old man.
“Did they wake you?” Teresa frowned, “I’ll have a word with Murdoch. They shouldn’t be shouting with an injured man in the house.”
Johnny was still disoriented, but also felt an urgent need to find out what he had really overheard. “Who was the old man yelling at?” he asked, his voice barely above a whisper.
“Scott,” she sighed. Johnny remembered hearing a mention when he had first awakened – how long ago was that anyway? – that Scott would soon arrive.
“Who’s Scott?” Johnny knew that somehow the answer was critical to his future, but he didn’t know why.
“Scott is Murdoch Lancer’s son,” she explained. Johnny fell back against his pillows, his face ashen. Oh, he’d known that this would be the answer, but to have it confirmed took his breath away.
Concerned, Teresa quickly poured him water, and pushed aside his unruly black hair to feel his forehead. Johnny tried to smile. He couldn’t let her see just why he was so upset.
“I’m just tired, Teresa. Don’t be worryin’ about me.”
As Teresa returned to her chair, Johnny decided to find out all he could about Scott Lancer – his brother! His breath caught in his throat again, but at Teresa’s sharp glance he quickly brought himself under control.
“I thought Lancer said his son had disappeared.” Johnny was pleased his voice was so steady.
“He was talking about his younger son, Johnny,” Teresa explained. “Scott is the son of his first wife, Catherine. He met her when he first came to America from Scotland, and she came west to California with him, against her father’s wishes. Unfortunately she died in childbirth and Scott was taken to Boston by his rich grandfather. As far as I know, Murdoch never saw Scott until today.”
Johnny frowned, “He just met his son today? Why was he shoutin’ at him? Ain’t he glad to have him here?” Johnny was finding Murdoch Lancer harder and harder to fathom. He stored away the part about Scotland though, wondering if he dared ask his father any questions about the country so far away. He had met a Scotsman once, but his accent was so strong that Johnny could barely make out a word the man was saying.
Of course, he had been a recent immigrant – and Murdoch had been away from his homeland for decades now. He smiled to himself as he thought of Jock MacPherson. He had been stunned to see the broad shouldered young man wearing a kilt, but had quickly come to admire the other man’s strength and bravery, as they had fought side by side to save MacPherson’s small property from an expansion minded neighbour. His smile broadened as he tried to picture old man Lancer in a kilt – but his imagination just wasn’t good enough for that.
Puzzled by Johnny’s sudden changes of mood, Teresa was worried that his head injury may have been more serious than Sam had first thought. She decided to keep a close eye on him, while she told him a bit about the newest Lancer to arrive at the ranch.
“Of course Murdoch is happy to have him here. For years he’s written and never heard a word back. He sent presents at Christmas and birthdays, but they were never acknowledged. Finally he hired the Pinkertons to get a message to Scott. To be honest, I wasn’t sure I’d like him much. I thought he would look down on us, because he’s so wealthy and well-educated. But he seems really nice. He’s handsome, and smart, and very polite. I’m sure he never received Murdoch’s letters – he would have written back if he had, at least once he was old enough to do as he pleased. I can’t wait to hear stories about his life in Boston. I bet he’s been to the theatre and fancy dances and seen lots of beautiful places.” She ended with a sigh.
Johnny felt a surge of jealousy – he was pretty darn sure she wouldn’t want to hear about his past life, scrabbling his way through the border towns as a penniless child, or fighting in every range war he came across, trying to build a reputation for himself.
Teresa frowned as she noted the dark look on Johnny’s face. She hoped he wasn’t like so many western men, who looked down on easterners. Scott seemed a confident and competent young man, well versed in the ways of war, if not in the ways of the west.
“Scott has a plan to trap the land pirates. He was in the cavalry during the Civil War. And he apparently studied about battle tactics at Harvard too. Murdoch thinks it’s too risky though. He doesn’t want to lose Scott as soon as he’s found him.” She looked at Johnny speculatively, “Maybe you could help them make it work.”
When Johnny next woke, he knew she wasn’t there, and almost sighed aloud, unsure if it was in relief or disappointment. He had come to count on her reassuring presence, but he had a lot of thinking to do. He owed the Lancers, and not because they were family, but he hated to sign on to a fight he knew so little about. He had to be sure Murdoch Lancer was in the right. From what Teresa had told him, it would seem so, but her opinion had to be coloured by the death of her father and by her affection for her guardian.
He suddenly realized that someone was in the room with him after all, and he was pretty sure it wasn’t his old man. The faint but crisp sound of the material in the man’s clothing, and a hint of cologne, told him this must be Scott. He turned his head and opened his eyes. Knowing blue eyes looked back at him. “I hope you weren’t playing possum on my account,” the visitor’s smile was genuine, and a hint of humour sparked in his eyes.
Johnny took a quick inventory of his brother’s appearance. It was hard to tell since he was seated, but he looked to be tall, not as tall as their father, but he certainly had several inches on Johnny. Scott was very slim, but he had a wiry look about him, as if he was stronger than he appeared at first glance. It was the face Johnny came back to though, looking for something of his own appearance, and not finding it. Scott was blonde haired and very fair skinned, quite a contrast to his own dark looks. The light blue eyes were still regarding him, more seriously now, “Teresa suggested I talk to you, that you might be able to help us.”
Johnny liked the way his brother pronounced Teresa’s name, with a long “a” sound instead of an “e”. It reminded him of an old lady his mama had worked for when he was very young. That was the way she had pronounced her name too. Johnny had pleasant memories of a full tummy and a warm bed at Senora Teresa Mendoza’s house.
Johnny knew this was his opportunity to get the full story. He tried to sound disinterested, but he had the distinct feeling Scott wasn’t the least bit fooled, “Why don’t you tell me everything that’s goin’ on around here, and then I’ll decide if I can help you or not.”
Johnny had heard some of the story before, of course, in bits and pieces from Teresa. He wondered why they trusted him enough to tell him so much, things he could take to the enemy if he was the sort to deal in betrayal. He was brought back to the present with a start by something Scott had said. “Pardee? Day Pardee?”
“You know him?”
Johnny noted the slight hint of suspicion in Scott’s voice, but chose to ignore it.
“Oh, ya, I know him. He’s a gunfighter and he’s pretty good,” Johnny sighed and then quirked a sardonic half smile at his older brother, “Yeah, I’d say you have some kind a’ trouble.”
Johnny well knew what Day Pardee was capable of, and realized that the odds against Lancer were even higher than he had expected.
Scott was eyeing Johnny speculatively, “I take it that you are a gunfighter too?” There was no censure in his voice, just a mild curiosity.
Johnny grinned broadly, “Yep, I am – and I’m pretty good too.” Scott laughed at the arrogance, no, the supreme confidence of the man sitting up in the bed across from him. He immediately became serious and looked searchingly at the dark haired man. “Can I trust you?”
Johnny would have laughed at the naivety of the question, except that he had a feeling this intelligent man was assessing him and would indeed be able to measure his worth. He decided an honest and serious answer was the only option.
“There are good and bad in any profession – and that’s what being a gunfighter is, it’s a profession. Just because I’m a gunfighter don’t mean I’m the same sort of man as Day Pardee. Many of us try to live by a code that even more of us respect. We try to pick the side that we think is right in a fight, not just the one with the money, or the one we think’s most likely to win. I don’t pretend to be better than I am, Lancer – but I would never shoot a man in the back, like Pardee did to your old man. And if I sign on for a fight, I fight til we win, or til I die tryin’. I owe your family. They saved my life. If you want my help, you got it.”
Johnny didn’t usually say that much all at once, but he knew he had made the right choice, as Scott suddenly nodded and smiled grimly at him, “Let’s talk strategy.”
They were deep in discussions when they were interrupted by Murdoch coming in the door. He frowned as he overheard Scott telling the young gunman about their meager defenses and the fact that they only had eighteen men left, nineteen counting Scott. It had occurred to him that this stranger could already be allied to Pardee and he was having second thoughts about allowing Scott to talk to him at all, no matter how much confidence Teresa had in him, no matter how impressed he had been himself in his own brief talk with the boy.
Johnny met the older man’s eyes, and before his father could speak, he cut in angrily, “You got something to say, Old Man, say it.”
The coldness of the voice puzzled Scott, who looked up at his father in surprise, “Is there a problem?”
“Yeah, there’s a problem, Scott,” Johnny’s voice was still like ice, “Your old man don’t trust me.”
Scott knew he had to diffuse the situation quickly. They needed Johnny’s help, whether Murdoch believed it or not, and Scott did not want the stubborn old Scot to drive him away. Scott believed they could trust the young gunman, and his skills were an asset not to be wasted. Johnny also had a quick, analytical mind, and they had almost reached a consensus on the best plan to protect Lancer and end the threat from Pardee and his gang on a permanent basis.
“Murdoch, he wants to help us – and we can use all the help we can get! He knows this Pardee.” Scott paused to glare at Murdoch, silently daring him to interrupt. “We can use that type of inside information.”
Murdoch looked from one young man to the other, his eyes finally settling on Johnny, “I can pay you the going rate – though you may want your money up front, just in case.”
“I don’t want your money, Lancer.” Johnny’s voice was less harsh now, “I owe my life to Cipriano and Teresa. Besides, I never take my pay til after I win. If we don’t win, I die right along with the rest a’ ya.”
Scott rose abruptly, relieved that his father and Johnny were both on side, “No more defeatist thinking, Gentlemen. Together, all of us, we’ll beat those land pirates.”
Johnny grinned and nodded, “Now if Teresa will just let me get out of this bed, we got work to do.”
Johnny waited just outside Morro Coyo. He reviewed the plan in his mind. He had been surprised at how astute Scott Lancer was. The man may not have been raised in the West, but he sure understood how to make a battle plan. And he wasn’t long about it either – he could think on his feet. He would do well out here – provided they could save Lancer, of course.
Any doubts Johnny had had about the Easterner had faded away as they had tried to cover all the possible flaws in their plan. And Johnny felt sure that Scott had also come to respect him; he might not have a Harvard education but he was both a good judge of people and experienced in the rules, or lack of them, in western warfare. The only thing troubling Johnny was their inability to convince Teresa that she had to leave the ranch; she was determined to stay and help fight for the land that her father had died protecting, and even Murdoch could not sway her resolve.
Rumour had it that Pardee had twenty-five men, more than there were Lancer defenders, and they would all be hardened and ruthless. Strategy and skill were required. And luck, Johnny reminded himself as he nudged his borrowed horse forward, slowly riding the length of the rough main street.
There were few people about, and those that were walking the boardwalk scuttled along like frightened mice. “Yep, Day and his boys must be in town,” Johnny thought, with a hidden grin. He dismounted in front of the saloon, and entered quietly. As the occupants noticed him, the chatter and the few lazy card games came to a halt. His eyes found the man he sought, just as Pardee noticed him.
“Day,” Johnny grinned and nodded at the smiling outlaw.
“Long time, Johnny Madrid. Care for a drink?” Johnny joined Pardee at a table in the back corner, and waited to begin his sales pitch. He didn’t have to wait long.
“Were you lookin’ for me?” Pardee asked. Johnny knew that carefree smile of Day’s hid a ruthless character.
“Yeah. I have some information ya might be interested in – if the price is right.”
“What price would that be, Johnny Boy?”
“A share of the profits – and I get the girl.” Johnny had added the last on the spur of the moment, as a possible way to protect Teresa, though he knew if Pardee got as far as the house, chances were good he and the Lancer men would already be dead.
“What girl would that be?” Pardee’s grin took on a feral aspect that Johnny, for all his experience with the man, found chilling.
Johnny returned the smile, “Lancer’s girl. She’s a right fine nurse. I could use her permanent like.”
Pardee laughed, “You do seem to attract your share of bullets, Madrid. So what can you do to help me?”
“We got a deal?” Johnny narrowed his eyes suspiciously.
“Sure,” Pardee nodded, “You help me get Lancer and you get the same cut as any of the boys – plus the girl.”
Johnny nodded in return, knowing full well Pardee could not be trusted – but then, neither could he, not this time. A part of him hated what he was doing. His word had always been his bond, and he did not want to damage his reputation. That could come back to haunt him when the time came for him to move on – and he would be moving on, he was pretty sure of that, no matter how much he wanted to get to know his family.
“I had a little accident, been stayin’ at the Lancer ranch. I heard a few things. They’re getting ready for you, Day. Got reinforcements coming in tonight, and then they plan to wipe you out. In the meantime, the men they got are setting up a perimeter to the south and west. That’s how they expect you to come in. We can take the house easy today, if we come in from the northeast. But we should start soon, before those reinforcements get too close.”
Pardee looked at him suspiciously, “And they just told you all this?”
Johnny grinned back. “A’ course not. But a man can learn a lot when folks think he’s unconscious. This mornin’ I thanked them nicely and insisted I had to be on my way, that I had a job waitin’ for me down south.”
Pardee eyed him closely for a moment, then grinned and stood up, “Mount up!”
Johnny smiled to himself – now he just had to lead Pardee and his men straight into Scott’s trap. He had no fears; he knew his brother would be there to back him up.
A bed! He was in a bed – just maybe the softest, most comfortable bed he’d ever felt in his entire life. What had he done to deserve such luxury? Even with the feeling that he had been here before nagging at the back of his mind, he sighed in contentment, and waited for a gentle hand to stroke his arm and touch his face.
He nearly gasped when the rough, work-worn hand brushed his forehead and a gruff voice whispered, “No fever, anyway.”
Then he heard Scott’s voice and relaxed, “I’ll sit with him for a while, Murdoch. You check on Teresa and get some rest.”
“Maybe I will, son.”
Johnny felt a pang of envy, knowing that the word son would never be said to him like that, not once Murdoch knew the truth. He remembered back to his first meeting with the man, and how Murdoch has said the word so easily to him then, when it really had meant nothing. Would an upstanding man like Murdoch Lancer want Johnny Madrid for a son? Johnny made an effort to smooth out his breathing. He did not want Scott to realize he was awake, not yet anyway. He desperately wanted the opportunity to get to know this man, his brother! His brother, who had no idea of that fact, but who treated him with such respect. When he had first awakened, he had thought maybe it had all been a dream, that Scott did not even exist. He was amazed at how glad he felt, knowing he really did have a big brother.
Johnny felt a flush of shame at his initial doubts of the Easterners abilities. Scott had more than held his own in planning and executing the battle to protect Lancer. But even more important, Scott did not look down his nose at Johnny or at the vaqueros, like the few Easterners Johnny had met in the past had done. Scott was a good man, but would he be able to forgive Johnny for his dishonesty?
Johnny knew he had to tell both his father and brother the truth, and the sooner the better. But he was afraid! He could admit that to himself, if to no one else. Afraid he would be rejected. It was one thing for them to like a gunman who was just an employee. But would they want one for a son and a brother?
And what about his Mexican heritage? What would his brother think of that? Sure it did not seem to matter when it was the ranch hands, but for a brother? And he still could not understand his father. If Lancer hadn’t wanted a half breed child, like Johnny’s mother had told him, why would he want a half breed adult for a son? Yet everything he had seen of Murdoch Lancer made what he had been told by his mother seem less and less likely. And there was Teresa’s unwavering belief in the man, that he was desperate to have his younger son back at Lancer.
Johnny’s head began to ache, from thinking in circles. He could not stifle a moan, and found Scott instantly at his side.
“Johnny? Can I get you anything?”
“No. I’m fine.”
Scott helped him to a sitting position and reached for a glass of water. “What happened to me this time?” Johnny sounded irritable.
Scott couldn’t help but grin. “Your back got in the way of a bullet, courtesy of your old friend, Pardee.”
“I guess Lancer must be safe, or I wouldn’t be back in this bed.”
“Safe and sound, Johnny. We sprang the trap just as planned, and Pardee’s men were overwhelmed in minutes. We have a few injuries, but no fatalities on our side. Everything went according to plan.”
“Well, not quite everythin’, Scott, or I wouldn’t be stuck here in this bed again.”
The two men looked at each other, and Scott burst out laughing. Johnny was sure he had Scott’s friendship – but could he win him over as a brother?
Johnny was delighted to be downstairs again. The bullet Pardee had put in his back had left him bedridden longer than he could tolerate, especially so soon after his last injury. The Lancers had held a celebration dinner for him, to acknowledge his first trip down to the great room. Johnny felt a sense of contentment that he had never experienced before. He felt as if he belonged here, with his family.
Johnny pulled his thoughts to a sudden stop. He could not allow himself to go down that road. These people might be his family, but they did not know that. Still, they treated him with respect, and even with a fondness that shocked him. He felt that he was more genuinely welcomed in their midst than he had ever been by any other client.
He sat on the couch nursing a glass of tequila, resting next to his brother, who was telling a story about a recent event he had attended in Boston. Johnny drank in the detail, trying to imagine walking with a pretty girl through snow covered streets, on his way to attend a sleigh ride.
Murdoch’s voice broke the spell that Scott was weaving. “Johnny, you shouldn’t get too tired. I can help you back to bed when you’re ready.”
“I can make it by myself.” Johnny’s voice sounded harsher than he had intended, but he wondered if Murdoch was trying to get rid of him, so he could spend some time alone with Scott and Teresa.
As if reading his thoughts, Murdoch smiled, “I know you can. But you don’t have to. And I know you can decide for yourself when you need to rest. I just wanted to remind you to be careful. Besides, Teresa here was about to send you straight off to bed, so I thought I’d better get in there first.”
Murdoch smiled at his ward, who blushed, “Sam said Johnny shouldn’t get overtired, and he’s been up for hours,” she defended herself.
Johnny again felt a flush of warmth and belonging. It was a novel experience to feel so cared for. Not since his mother died had he mattered to anyone. He turned his smile on the girl he had come to admire so much, “Don’t worry, Querida, I won’t stay up too much longer. I just want to finish my drink and then I’ll head upstairs.”
“Okay then. I think I’ll tidy up the kitchen and go to bed myself,” she turned to Murdoch, “Good night. See you in the morning, Scott.” She smiled at her “big brother”.
As they watched her leave, Murdoch said, “Scott and I did want to talk to you, Johnny, if you feel up to a business discussion.”
Johnny tensed and his smile hardened, “You think you need a gunfighter on the payroll full time?”
“That isn’t what we had in mind, Johnny. We do hope you’ll stay though.” Murdoch slowly got up from his chair behind the desk, and crossed the room to stand by the fireplace, his back to the room. He took a deep breath, and as he turned around Johnny was surprised at the look of despair on the older man’s face.
It quickly disappeared, to be replaced by a stern resolve, “Scott and I have talked about this. We would like to make you a partner in Lancer.”
Johnny couldn’t keep the look of shock off of his face, so Scott plunged in quickly, ready to head off some of Johnny’s expected objections. “Murdoch offered me a share, because I was willing to fight for what was ours. Well, you fought for it too, Johnny, and there was nothing in it for you. You didn’t even want us to pay you. We, Murdoch and I, talked about how well you seemed to fit in here. Johnny, it’s as if you belong here. Maybe if you stay, you can help me to fit in too. We would all three be equal partners.”
“Only I’d call the tune,” Murdoch inserted firmly.
Johnny was having trouble grasping what these men were offering him – but he was also confused and angry that they would offer what was rightfully his, Johnny Lancer’s, to a gunhawk just passing through. Then the answer came to him, and he turned to Murdoch, his eyes again icy cold, “You want me to replace your son.” It wasn’t a question. “And if he comes back, it’ll be time for me to hit the road.”
Murdoch was surprised at the heated reaction, but decided he had better be honest with the young man he had come to treasure like family. He took a step towards the couch, and spoke calmly, “No, Johnny. No one can replace my son. But John will never be coming back to Lancer. I heard from the Pinkerton Agency. My son died several months ago, in front of a firing squad in Mexico.”
As Murdoch found he could not go on, Scott rose from his place next to Johnny to offer his father support. Johnny was glad neither of them saw him shiver, as he thought of how close to the truth this really had been. Murdoch took another deep breath, and another step closer to Johnny, Scott by his side this time. “No one can replace my son,” he repeated. “But you said yourself that you have no family. I would like you to become part of this family – just as Teresa has.”
They meant it! Johnny tried to rally his conflicted thoughts, “You know that having a gunfighter living here could cause problems. Johnny Madrid can’t just retire. People will come lookin’ for me, will still be lookin’ to challenge me. I’d have to keep in practice.”
“I understand that.” Murdoch said quietly. “It could be dangerous, for all of you.”
“We understand the risk,” Scott assured him.
“I ain’t used to working on a schedule, and I don’t take orders too good,” Johnny tried.
“I can teach you some tricks I learned in the cavalry,” said Scott with a smile.
“What if the Pinkertons are wrong? What if your Johnny is still alive?”
A swift flash of pain crossed Murdoch’s face, and Johnny felt a stab of guilt – but he had to know that he was wanted at Lancer, both as Johnny Madrid and as Johnny Lancer.
He was surprised at how steady his father’s voice was, “We will add a clause to the contract stating that if my son Johnny ever returns to Lancer, the ranch will be shared four ways.” Murdoch looked over at his older son, and was relieved by Scott’s nod.
Johnny said softly, “I’m not worried about losin’ a share of the ranch. I need to know you’ll always want me here.”
Murdoch searched the brilliant blue eyes, so much like those of his own little boy so many years ago, and saw the fears that the young man tried so hard to hide. There was much he did not know about this boy, but he felt sure it had been a very long time since Johnny had felt safe and loved. Murdoch planned to change all that. He knew part of the reason was because he had been unable to protect his own boy, but he also felt inexplicably drawn to this young man, more than the circumstances warranted, and he could not ignore his instincts. He knew in his heart he could trust Johnny Madrid.
“Johnny, Lancer is your home for as long as you want it to be. Ranching is a hard life, as I’m sure you already know. But I hope you’ll want to stay.”
“And so do I, Johnny,” Scott’s voice said warmly, “I think we make a great team.”
Johnny flashed his unsuspecting brother a quick grin, and then sobered as he said with conviction, “So do I, Boston, so do I.” Johnny rose from the couch, “I think I better go lie down. I need some time to think.”
“Take all the time you need, Johnny. I know it’s not a decision to be made lightly, just as it wasn’t easy for Scott,” Murdoch acknowledged his older son with a nod and a smile.
As Johnny turned towards the stairs, Scott added with a smile, “And tomorrow, if you’re up to it, we should take a walk out to the corral so that you can meet that palomino stallion I’ve seen you eying from your bedroom window for the past week.”
Johnny knew he had to tell the truth and tell it soon. Murdoch Lancer might receive a follow up Pinkerton report any day, one that would tell him that Johnny Lancer and Johnny Madrid were one and the same. Johnny wanted his father to hear that from him, or how could there ever be any trust between them again?
This man had offered him a level of trust he had never experienced before, and had done so knowing only that even though Johnny Madrid was a gunfighter, he did try to live by a strong code of ethics, a code that Murdoch Lancer could relate to, one not unlike his own. Maybe this surprised the older man, but it had obviously impressed him too, or he would not have been willing to entrust one third of his beloved ranch to a stranger just because that stranger had helped to save that ranch for him.
Johnny paused briefly outside the door, and then walked hesitantly into the great room, without his usual confident stride. He saw the look of concern in the older man’s eyes, “Is your back bothering you, John?”
Johnny rather liked it when his father called him John. He had seldom heard it in the past, though he had been called Juan as a child. He remembered with a chill that Day Pardee was one of the few to refer to him as John, but he resolutely pushed that thought aside. Maybe it was less the name than the warmth of Murdoch’s voice anyway.
“No. I just need to talk to you for a minute, you and Scott.” Johnny acknowledged the other man who was seated on the sofa reading.
The book cover caught Johnny’s eye, ‘Charles Dickens? That book looks long. Scott’s smilin’ though, so it must be good. I liked the one he read to me when I was stuck in bed. I must ask him about this one – if I get the chance,’ he thought, grimacing slightly. As both men looked at him curiously, and with growing concern, he realized they were afraid he had decided to leave them after all. They didn’t realize that decision would now rest with them.
Johnny cleared his throat, “It’s about your son. Johnny Lancer isn’t dead.” The words came out barely above a whisper. Murdoch rose from his chair at the desk and glared in disbelief at the young man, who had his head down, not meeting the irate old man’s eyes.
“Are you saying you knew my son?” His voice was hard, and his anger at being lied to by the young man he had trusted was clearly evident on his face.
Johnny slowly raised his head and met his father’s blazing eyes, “I’m sayin’,” he paused and licked his lips, “I’m sayin’ I am your son.”
Johnny sat on the corral fence watching his much loved palomino – Barranca, he had named him Barranca.
He remembered back to that day in the great room over a month ago. He remembered his fear as he watched the anger on his father’s face finally give way to shock. He had felt a momentary relief – maybe the old man wouldn’t yell at him after all.
He had a healthy respect for his father’s vocal cords – and with a brief smile he thought back to the day he had heard Murdoch Lancer shouting at Scott, “You are my SON.”
Then he sighed to himself. As grateful as he was to have escaped some of the wrath that he knew was well deserved, he was still waiting for his father to direct that word, son, to him. Murdoch had slowly approached him, the stunned look still on his face, and had reached out tentatively to touch his cheek.
“Johnny,” he mouthed the word, no sound coming out. Scott had watched them, fascinated, wanting to go to his brother, but realizing how much this moment meant to his father.
“I should have known, I should have been able to recognize my own boy,” the guilt in Murdoch’s voice was palpable.
Johnny managed a tentative smile, “I reckon I’ve changed some.”
Murdoch hesitated and then smiled in return, “Just a bit,” and his smile broadened, “You still remind me of your mother though.”
Murdoch turned away abruptly, and headed for his desk. He hesitated for a moment, then opened a drawer, and took out two small silver frames. He stood, one picture held in each hand, not really looking at either of them, but instead contemplating the past.
Finally Murdoch held one of the tiny frames out to Scott, who stepped forward hesitantly to take it from the outstretched hand.
“I expect your grandfather has many finer pictures of your mother, but I always loved this one of Catherine. We had it taken soon after we arrived in California. I thought you might like it for your room. You are so like her, son. Not just in looks – though you have got your mother’s eyes – but in temperament and your direct, common sense approach to life. I know I should have said it sooner – I’m glad you’re here, son, and even happier that you plan to stay.”
Scott had no chance to reply, if he had been able, as Murdoch turned immediately to his younger son. He held out the other picture, “This one of Maria was taken soon after you were born, John. Maybe you’d like to have it.”
Murdoch did not seem to notice that Johnny had practically snatched the small picture from his hand and was staring at it through tears that he tried hard to blink away. He had never seen a picture of his mother, and other than in his dreams he found it hard to remember exactly what she looked like. This picture represented everything he wanted to remember about her. She looked down lovingly at an infant, at him, just the way he could remember her looking at him when he was sick or hurt, ready to soothe away any pain and protect him from the outside world.
“You are so like your mother as well, John. I should have seen it before. You’ve got your mother’s temper.”
Before Johnny had a chance to be offended, Murdoch surprised him with a nostalgic chuckle, “Maria and I used to shout a lot – but she kept me on my toes. I expect you will too. She made me feel alive again, Johnny. I’ll always be grateful to her for that, and for giving me you.”
Johnny unconsciously clutched the picture tightly to his chest, secure at last in the belief that his father had loved his mother after all, had loved and wanted both of them.
Murdoch sighed, “I know it’s all past, past and gone, but I hope one day we’ll be comfortable enough together that we can sit down and really talk about those early days. I want you both to understand what it was like here then, and to know how much your mothers, both of them,” he looked at each son in turn, first Scott, then Johnny, “contributed to the dream that has become Lancer.”
The month since then had been one of ups and downs for all of them. Scott had proven to be just the big brother that Johnny had always wanted, but he could not help feeling a flash of resentment at the way he was expected to follow his brother’s advice, just because he was younger.
But then he remembered the numerous times that Scott had intervened to turn away their father’s anger at Johnny’s tardiness or his insolence, often with the result that Scott was the one on the receiving end of Murdoch’s sharp tongue. And then there was the way Scott called him “little brother” or “boy”, with no hint of condescension, in just the right tone to give Johnny a sense of belonging and family.
Things were good with Scott. Oh, they still had a lot to learn about each other, but both of them were more than ready to invest the time. It was his relationship with Murdoch that concerned him. Since that evening in the great room, Murdoch had held him at arm’s length, as if trying to make up his mind to let Johnny in.
And Johnny knew he was treating Murdoch the same way. They were both afraid to make the first move – at least he was, and he hoped that was all it was with his father, not that Murdoch had come to regret asking the gunfighter to stay and be part of the Lancer family.
There had been one hint of progress – Barranca. The day after Murdoch had learned the truth about his son, he had joined Johnny at the corral fence. Murdoch nodded at the handsome stallion, “Scott tells me you’ve been making friends with this one.”
Johnny nodded, his eyes following the palomino as it moved restlessly around the corral.
“If you can break him, he’s yours. Just no riding until Sam says it’s alright.”
Johnny had smiled in delight – and had made the most of the intervening time. He and Barranca were sworn partners now, and although he had hidden his pleasure, he had been thrilled at his father’s obvious pride in his success with the magnificent animal.
Johnny pushed away from the fence, heading for Barranca. He was determined that he would ride today, regardless of what Sam Jenkins had said. Another week! He was tired of putting his life on hold. Barranca was ready to go. Johnny had been saddling the restive stallion regularly for some days now, and leading him on runs around the corral.
Sure, he was aware he still tired easily, but he also knew that the best way to beat that was to do what he loved most – ride! And no horse would do but Barranca. He tightened the cinch, over Barranca’s snort of protest, and raised his foot to the stirrup.
Just as he settled his foot firmly and prepared to mount, he heard an angry shout, “Johnny, what do you think you’re doing?”
Johnny’s own temper flared, “What does it look like, Ol’ Man? I’m going to ride Barranca, finally.” He turned to face his father defiantly.
“No, Johnny, Sam said another week,” Murdoch moderated his tone, having already discovered that shouting matches with this son got him nowhere. Not that he ever had shouting matches with Scott, not really – somehow they actually discussed things, and the next thing Murdoch knew they were going ahead with whatever his very convincing older son had suggested.
“I don’t care what Sam said. I’m ridin’ Barranca today.” Johnny’s belligerent tone brought Murdoch back to the here and now. Johnny turned his back squarely on his irate father and made as if to mount, but was startled by a firm hand on his shoulder spinning him back to face the senior Lancer. He was not too angry himself to see that concern was warring with irritation on his father’s features.
“John, you are my SON, and you-” Murdoch stopped speaking abruptly at the unexpected smile that spread across Johnny’s face. At first he thought his son was making fun of him, but he quickly realized that the pleasure shining on Johnny’s features was genuine.
“Johnny, son, what-” Murdoch stopped again, as to his amazement the smile grew broader, until Johnny suddenly flushed and dropped his eyes.
“I never thought you would call me that.” The whispered words took a moment to penetrate Murdoch’s puzzled mind.
Then it was his turn to blush. He had never called Johnny son before! Oh, he had thought it countless times, but never said it out loud. He had been afraid of the reaction of this independently minded son. Not that Scott wasn’t independent, too, but he would have been used to similar terms of endearment from his grandfather, or at least Murdoch hoped that he was. But Johnny had been on his own for so long, Murdoch had expected him to resent anything that would indicate that his father felt he had some degree of authority over him.
Murdoch rested his hands on Johnny’s shoulders and waited until the younger man raised his head and met his eyes. Then he smiled and squeezed lightly, “You are a man any father would be proud to call son, John. I’m very glad to have you for my son, and thankful to have you here at Lancer. Always remember that.”
At Johnny’s nod, Murdoch released him and decided to take advantage of the lull in verbal warfare, which he was sure would only be temporary, “Now let’s get that saddle off of Barranca and go see what’s for dinner.”
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16 thoughts on “Sons: A Homecoming by Joan M.”
Carol just commented on Dreams (A Foley Episode Addition) By Joan Miller.
Great story of what happened next. Thanks for sharing
I always like a story that tells how the Lancers met. Well done.
Thank you for reading my story. I’m glad you enjoyed it. The early days at Lancer have always been among my favourite stories too.
Great i love it. Thank for writing it.
Thank you, Rita. Glad you liked it.
Great story. Part 2, please!
Thank you! Glad you enjoyed my story.
This was a great story. I like the way you show how Johnny trusts Scott so quickly.
Thank you, Caterina. I appreciate you taking the time to read my story and to comment. Glad you liked it.
I always really like alternative homecoming stories. This is very beautiful emotional and well written.
Thanks, Silvia. I’m so glad you liked it.
Loved it. Thank you. Are there more stories on the way please?
Thank you, Helen. I appreciate your kind words.
Thank you very much, Helen. I appreciate your kind words.
I love this AU/AR story. The Lancers lost so much being apart but a new beginning offers a second chance. I hope you write more stories!
Thank you, Debra. I’m so glad that you enjoyed my version of the Homecoming.