Word Count 5,605
The sky was leaden, a gray mass of clouds building slowly on the horizon. A few gentle flakes of snow fluttered gently to the ground, a forerunner of the storm to come. Three horses wound their way single-file up the steep, winding trail. Murdoch Lancer, astride his big gelding, rode in the lead carefully picking a trail for his sons to follow. He kept a wary eye on the storm clouds that towered overhead. He was well aware that they would break soon. It was early in the year for a winter storm, but it wasn’t uncommon to encounter severe weather in the high reaches at any time of the year. The Lancers were traveling through the upper passes of the Sierras on a pleasure trip. Murdoch had long ago established a small cabin in the mountains where he retreated occasionally to hunt and relax from the pressures of running a large ranch, and it was here they were heading now.
Johnny and Scott had eagerly accepted their father’s invitation to the cabin. A long stressful season of learning to run the Lancer operations had taken its toll on all of them, and they welcomed the release from their hard work. Johnny had grinned with excitement at the idea of a week’s idleness, and his ardor had infected them all. Now their enthusiasm was fading in the face of an impending blizzard.
Johnny urged his mount, a palomino he called Barranca, a bit closer to his father. “Hey, Murdoch,” he called. “How much farther to this cabin of yours? That storm’s gonna break any time now.”
Murdoch cast an experienced eye at the lowering sky. Glancing back at his sons, he smiled encouragingly. “Another two or three hours, Johnny. I’m hoping we can get to the cabin before it starts snowing too hard.”
Johnny nodded and glanced at his blonde haired brother, Scott, who rode silently behind the other two men. “You’re awfully quiet, Boston,” he said companionably. “Cat got your tongue?”
Scott smiled at his brother, the corners of his grey-blue eyes crinkling in response to his brother’s teasing. “Not much to talk about, brother,” he replied calmly. “I’m just enjoying the scenery.”
Johnny grinned back at the man he had so recently learned to call “brother.” In the past year he had grown to respect and admire the other man. In a quiet moment he would even admit to loving his newfound brother. “Isn’t it something? I’ll bet there’s not a prettier place in the whole world, not even Boston.”
Scott was amused. Johnny had a tendency to compare everything to Boston; a place he’d never seen or visited. It was his brother’s way of binding Scott to the family, of reminding him that he had a new place now. Scott occasionally tried to tell his brother not to worry; he had no plans to leave Lancer. But Johnny remembered all too well the visit from Harlan Garrett, and he knew that Scott had another life waiting for him if he wanted it. The fact that Scott had no interest in returning to his grandfather was irrelevant to Johnny. He worried all the same. Now Scott simply flashed his brother an understanding grin, as he responded, “No, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a prettier place, Johnny.”
The trail became more demanding forcing an end to the conversation. The time passed slowly, and the soft drift of snow flakes became appreciably heavier. The men turned up their collars and hunched deeper into their thick jackets. As the wind rose in strength, pellets of ice intermingled with the snow, blowing into their faces with increasing force. It was with a sense of relief that Murdoch spied the small cabin nestled among the towering pines. He lifted a hand, pointing out the welcome sight to his weary sons.
The trail-weary men dismounted in front of the little wooden structure. Murdoch had the cabin regularly maintained, so they carried a bare minimum of supplies. They quickly stabled the tired horses in the snug little stable attached to the cabin. Once they had settled the horses in for the night, Murdoch turned his attention to inventorying the available supplies in the cabin. Johnny and Scott set out to find enough wood for a fire. The housekeeping chores finished, they gathered in the little cabin, and built up a warm fire. By unspoken accord they pulled out the trail food that Jelly had obligingly packed in their saddlebags. No one was interested in hunting for game after the grueling trip.
As the wind howled with intensity, the Lancers sat in companionable silence in front of the warm fire, sipping coffee and eating from the pot of beans that Scott had heated. Johnny cocked his head and listened to the wind. “That’s some storm,” he drawled. “I don’t know how much hunting we’re gonna get done, Murdoch.”
Murdoch smiled ruefully. “I think you may be right, son. This blizzard sounds like it’s going to last for a while.”
Scott looked up in concern. “How are we fixed for supplies? If this blizzard is going to last, we don’t want to run out of food or firewood.”
“We should be all right for a couple of days, Scott. I had the hands lay in a pretty good supply of wood, and we’ve got trail rations,” Murdoch replied thoughtfully. “If the storm lasts beyond that, our situation could get a little touchy.”
Johnny rose and moved to the bunk where he had stored his saddlebags. He pulled a bottle from the leather pouch and carried it triumphantly back to the fire. With a cocky grin he popped the cork and took an appreciative sip. With a satisfied sigh, he held the bottle out to the others, a jaunty smile on his lips. “Anyone care for a drink? We don’t have to worry about getting up early tomorrow?”
Scott laughed and eagerly reached for the bottle. “I probably won’t thank you for this in the morning, brother,” he said as he took a long swallow. “But it looks mighty good, right now.” He passed the bottle along to his father.
Murdoch also took a long swallow, and then grimaced as the fiery liquid burned its way to his stomach. “Oh, that hits the spot,” he gasped. “Why am I not surprised that you remembered to bring along the tequila, Johnny?”
Johnny chuckled wickedly, and reached for the bottle. “You can always count on me, Murdoch,” he agreed. “I learned early to be prepared for anything.”
Murdoch sobered as he reflected on Johnny’s words. He felt guilty for missing out on his sons’ childhoods, and he didn’t like to be reminded of it. “I’m sure you did,” he replied gruffly, as he stared morosely into the fire.
Johnny exchanged a glance with Scott. He passed the bottle back to his father, saying lightly, “Well, you know I’m always ready for action.”
His words failed to lighten Murdoch’s mood. The older man continued to brood, his thoughts turning back to those long, empty years without his sons. He thought of Scott growing up in that luxurious house in Boston under the care of his imperious grandfather. Scott’s childhood had been full of all the things that money could buy, with the exception of the love of a family. His grandfather was a businessman, who didn’t believe in showering the child with affection. The strict New England upbringing required a child to be well-fed, housed and cared for, not necessarily doted on.
Scott never spoke of his childhood, but Murdoch had gleaned enough to know that Scott had been raised by a series of nannies and housekeepers. Knowing Harlan Garrett as he did, Murdoch was sure that Scott hadn’t been very happy. He would never forgive himself for not taking Scott back with him after that aborted visit years earlier. The boy looked so happy at his birthday party, and Murdoch had convinced himself that it wouldn’t be in the boy’s best interests to drag him through a long court battle. The sigh was wrenched from Murdoch before he could stop it.
Again Johnny and Scott exchanged glances. “Hey, Old Man!” Johnny’s voice was lazy, but insistent. “You’re fallin’ behind on the drinking,” he said as he passed over the bottle again.
Murdoch reached for the bottle absent-mindedly. He didn’t notice the growing concern that his long silence was creating in his sons. His thoughts turned to his youngest son. Johnny had been such a lively, active toddler. It had broken Murdoch’s heart the day Maria had taken him away. Murdoch had spent time and money searching for the pair, with no success until the day the Pinkerton agent had found Johnny in front of the firing squad.
Murdoch cringed inwardly as he thought of the life that Johnny had lived. The gunslinger, Johnny Madrid, was a direct product of his unhappy childhood. There were details about Johnny’s life that Murdoch was afraid to know. As he felt the alcohol spreading a warm glow through his body, Murdoch relaxed a little, his thoughts slowing, relaxing their grip on his mind. Soon his head was nodding and he drifted into a dreamless sleep.
Scott watched his father’s head bow to his chest, and saw that the older man was sleeping. He rose and brought a blanket from Murdoch’s bunk, tucking it around him gently. Johnny grinned ruefully at his older brother. “What do you suppose got into the old man tonight?” he asked softly. “He was sure chewing on something.”
Scott shrugged. “Maybe he was just worn out from the ride.”
Johnny frowned. “I don’t think that’s it, brother. He looked worried, almost.” Johnny’s expression lightened as he took another pull at the rapidly emptying bottle. “Oh well, if he wants to tell us, I don’t think he’ll be shy about it.”
Scott snorted in laughter, the alcohol creating a warm haze in his mind. “No, not our Murdoch. I don’t think shy is the word I’d use to describe him.”
Johnny stood slowly, stretched, and then threw another log on the fire. He watched as the sparks rose into the fireplace before settling himself back into his seat. Outside the wind rose in a long mournful howl, rattling against the walls of the little cabin. “Hey, brother?” Johnny’s voice was thoughtful. “What’s your happiest memory from when you were a kid?”
Scott looked at Johnny in bewilderment. “What makes you ask that?” he responded quietly. “It seems like a strange question to ask.”
Johnny glared a little. “Just answer the question,” he snapped. A sheepish look crossed his face, and he lowered his eyes. “I’m sorry, Boston, I didn’t mean to yell,” he apologized. “C’mon,” he begged. “Tell me your happiest memory.”
It was Scott’s turn to lower his eyes. He stared into the flames, watching blankly as the colors shifted and blurred. His happiest memory……
The snowball flew through the air in a huge arc and landed with deadly accuracy on its target, the back of Mrs. Winchester’s bonnet. The bonnet flew off the startled lady’s head, and she screamed shrilly. “Who did that?! Come out at once, I say!”
Two boys crouched behind the big snowdrift, hands over their mouths to stifle their giggles. One, a small boy of about nine, turned to his companion with his finger over his lips. He was fine-boned with large brown eyes, and a full head of curly brown hair, and at the moment those eyes were twinkling with mischief. The second boy was also fine-boned, but tall for his age. He had a shock of blond hair, and unusually serious grey-blue eyes. His eyes were gleaming with fun now, though, as he watched the stout patrician woman ranting with rage. The fun disappeared with startling alacrity when the old harridan marched toward their hiding place.
“She’s coming, Scott!” the first boy cried, his eyes widening in fear. “We’ve got to get out of here. Run!” He followed up his words with action, springing to his feet and pelting away as fast as he could.
Nine-year-old Scott Lancer watched the woman stomping toward him and saw with apprehension the anger on her face. Deciding that his friend had the right idea, he rose and turned to run. Scott would have made good his escape if he hadn’t tripped over a fallen log the boys had propped in the snow. Later, Scott would blame the events that followed on his desire to have a warm seat in the snowbank.
As the boy lay sprawled face down in the cold snow, the irate Mrs. Winchester caught up to him, her chest heaving with righteous indignation. “Why, Scott Lancer!” she shrilled at him, hauling him up by the elbow. “How dare you throw that snowball at me? We’ll see what your grandfather has to say about this.”
The old woman dragged her erstwhile attacker along the snowy sidewalk and up the steps to his grandfather’s mansion. She pounded on the imposing door of the house with the gold knob of her cherrywood cane, never once releasing her hold on the miscreant’s elbow. Scott squirmed frantically, the pounding of his heart matching the firm raps on the door. He stared at the tips of his boots as the door swung inward to reveal Harlan Garrett’s manservant, Johnson.
“I demand to see Mr. Garrett at once,” Mrs. Winchester proclaimed in her grandest manner, as she swept into the house, her captive firmly clutched in her hand.
Johnson’s eyes narrowed as he observed the pale, silent boy who now stood quietly in the hallway. “I’m afraid Mr. Garrett is not at home, Mrs. Winchester,” he said calmly. “Perhaps I can be of assistance?”
Mrs. Winchester sniffed in disdain. “You tell Mr. Garrett I will be calling on him soon to let him know what I think of his grandson attacking me with snowballs. I’ve never been so upset in my life!” She rounded on the boy, who stood impassively under her furious glare. “I hope you get a whipping for what you did today, boy! You haven’t heard the last of this.” With her final volley, the matron turned and sailed out the door, her skirts swaying with her agitation.
Scott stood silently after her departure, nervously studying the tips of his toes. He looked up at the slight cough from Johnson. He was startled to see a pair of twinkling black eyes looking back at him. His fear dissipated, and he gamely returned the manservant’s smile. “You never learn, do you Mr. Scott?” Johnson said, as he struggled to suppress his grin. “Your grandfather isn’t going to be too happy about this.”
Scott’s smile dimmed, his grey-blue eyes were serious. “No, he’s not, is he?” He reached out and grabbed the servant’s hand, and the two walked back toward the kitchen. “Do you think he’ll be coming home tonight?”
The hope in the boy’s voice tore at Johnson’s heart. “He said he would try, Mr. Scott. Tonight’s the recital, isn’t it?”
The blond head nodded vigorously. Scott gave a skip of excitement. “Yes, it is, and I’ve been practicing for weeks. Grandfather said he would come and hear me tonight.”
Johnson smiled, although his eyes were shadowed with concern. “Mr. Scott?” He hesitated briefly, but continued with a small sigh. “You know that it’s hard for your grandfather to get away from his business affairs, don’t you?” The two had reached the kitchen, and Johnson busied himself preparing a steaming cup of hot chocolate for the boy.
Scott sat at the kitchen table, swinging his booted feet against the rungs of the chair. He nodded his head in agreement. “Yes, I know, Johnson. It’s very hard for Grandfather. He’s such an important man.” He took an eager sip of the hot chocolate, first blowing softly to dispel the rising steam. “But he promised. He’s missed all my other recitals, and he said he would be sure to come to this one.”
The look of confidence on the boy’s face brought a twinge of pity to the older man’s face. He turned to look out the window to hide it from the boy. “Mr. Scott…” he began, but couldn’t bring himself to continue. “I’m sure he’ll try,” he whispered, more to himself than to the small boy who was happily consuming his hot chocolate.
Later that night, a beaming Scott looked out at the packed house for the evening’s recital. All the children in school had a part to play, or a piece to perform. Scott loved to be on the stage, and he had practiced hard to perfect his piece. He wanted so much to please his grandfather. He could already picture the proud look on the old man’s face. The boy’s eyes roamed the audience, as he eagerly searched for a sight of the most important man in his life. His countenance fell as he failed to catch sight of the man he sought. During the entire evening’s performance, Scott paced back and forth to the curtain, checking vainly for the man who was raising him. His grandfather had promised. Of course, he had failed to show up at Scott’s previous performances, but this time he had promised.
At last it was Scott’s turn to mount the stage. He strode forward with confidence, but the sparkle had gone from his eyes. He looked sad and dispirited, his eyes still searching for the man who had promised to watch him perform. At the last moment before he began his speech, Scott’s eyes connected with the man who loved him enough to come to his recital. He felt tears of joy well in his eyes, and he hastily wiped them away, squaring his shoulders and launching into his part of the evening’s event. He threw his heart and soul into the words, and the audience responded with wild applause, but Scott only had eyes for one man. A brilliant smile lit his small face, and he waved once before he turned and exited from the stage.
The snap of a branch on the fire startled Scott from his reverie, and he pulled his eyes from the dancing flames, his voice trailing off. He realized he’d been talking for a long time. Johnny’s eyes were shadowed as he thought of the small boy growing up in such opulent splendor, so rich in all the material things that he could ever want. He moved to sit beside his older brother, throwing a gentle arm around Scott’s lean shoulders. “So he came after all. Your grandfather kept his promise and that’s why it’s your happiest memory.”
Scott laughed ruefully. “No, my grandfather wasn’t there. He sent a wire the next day telling me that he had been detained in Philadelphia and wouldn’t be home for another week. He never mentioned the recital.”
Johnny turned to look at Scott, a bewildered expression on his face. “But you said that he was in the audience. You said that he loved you enough to come see you perform.”
Scott returned Johnny’s gaze steadily. “You’re right, Johnny. I said that the man who loved me enough to see me perform was in the audience. But that man wasn’t my grandfather. It was Johnson. He knew how much it meant to me, and he came. I saw him sitting right in the middle of the front row, clapping so hard it must have hurt his hands. I’ll never forget that night, or what he did for me. He was such a good friend.”
Johnny’s eyes were bright with tears. Scott had lived a life that many people would have envied. But the person who came to see him on the most important night of his childhood hadn’t been his blood relative. It had been the household servant. In many ways, Scott’s childhood had been just as poor as his own. It was yet another link in the chain that was binding the two of them together now. Wordlessly, Johnny squeezed Scott’s arm. The look the brothers shared spoke volumes.
Scott sighed. “He died during the war. He volunteered as an adjutant to General Grant. He was killed early in the fighting. But I’ll never forget him. He was a hero to me, and I loved him.” Scott shook himself lightly, as if he was shaking off the memories. “Well brother, it’s your turn now. What’s your happiest memory?”
Johnny reached for the almost empty bottle of tequila, he swallowed deeply before handing it over to his brother. He felt the alcohol coursing through his veins, relaxing long held reserve and loosening his tongue. “What makes you think I have any happy memories, Boston?” he asked teasingly, a small smile on his lips.
Scott kicked back his chair as he propped his booted feet closer to the fire. He snorted with laughter again, his eyes twinkling at his younger brother. “Don’t try to pull that “poor little me” stuff, brother,” he chuckled. “I know you had it pretty rough, but everyone has some happy moments in their lives.”
Johnny searched his memories, sorting through good and bad, smiling over some and wishing he could forget others. What was his happiest memory? Letting the tequila talk for him, he sat back gazing intently at the fire. He found it easier to look at it rather than at his brother. There was that time….
The dog was thin and mangy looking, rough patches on its mottled coat. She was hungry and her ribs showed. Her physical appearance made it obvious she was the mother of a litter of puppies as she scavenged through the trash in the alleyway. The dog shied away from the trash as the boys skidded into the alley whooping with delight. Little puffs of dust swirled under their unshod feet, and they sighed in relief to get out of the hot sun into the cool shade of the alley.
“Hey, Johnny, I told you that dog would be back here. Let’s look for those puppies,” cried the older of the two boys. A tall sturdy fellow, he had black hair and snapping dark eyes.
“You think she’d hide ’em in this alley, Pablo?” the younger boy asked eagerly. He was shorter and stockier than his friend, and while he had the same tumble of dark hair, his eyes were a startling blue.
Pablo grinned in anticipation. “I’ve been watching her, amigo. She spends all day running in and out of this alley. If those puppies are anywhere, they’re here.” He began to pace the length of the alley poking behind boxes and barrels with a long stick.
Johnny ran along behind his friend unconsciously mimicking his actions. With a cry of joy he caught sight of a squirming mass of fur and eyes tucked behind one of the boxes. The puppies were in a nest of old rags and trash, four little bundles of motion with wagging tails and snapping teeth. The two boys hovered over their find. They giggled delightedly as the puppies nipped at their fingers and licked their hands.
Johnny’s eyes shone with delight as he scooped up one wriggling little dog and cradled it in his arms. The little fellow licked his cheek causing the youngster to laugh even harder. “Oh Pablo, isn’t he cute!” Johnny asked excitedly. “I’m gonna take it home with me.”
Pablo looked over at the pair, a frown on his lips and worry in his eyes. “Is that such a good idea, mi amigo?” he asked hesitantly. “What will your mother say?”
Johnny’s face clouded with uncertainty, a hint of fear crossing his chubby features. “Mama won’t mind,” he asserted stoutly. “But Billy…” his voice trailed off as he thought of his mother’s current lover, a man with a shady past and an uncertain temper.
At the mention of the man’s name, Pablo stiffened, glancing over his shoulder quickly. “Billy won’t like you bringing that pup home, Johnny. I think you should leave it here.”
Pablo was very familiar with the stubborn clenching of Johnny’s jaw, and the ferocious glare in the glittering blue eyes. He had seen it often enough in the past few months of his friendship with the younger boy. “I’ll do what I want, amigo.” Johnny snapped. “I don’t care what Billy says. He ain’t my Pa.” He clutched the puppy to his chest and walked with determination out of the alley, Pablo trailing along behind him.
In spite of his bravado in the alley, Johnny quaked inwardly. His mother was involved with another new man, and she didn’t want Johnny around much these days. He slipped quietly into the little shanty Maria currently called home, although the two traveled so frequently the word had little meaning. The boy carried the puppy to the hearth and fixed a bed of soft rags for his new pet. Gathering some scraps from breakfast, Johnny giggled as the puppy licked his fingers with his rough tongue.
“I think I’ll call you, Chico. You sure are cute, little fella,” he crooned softly. Johnny curled up in front of the fireplace, the puppy cradled in his arms. The excitement of finding the puppy combined with the heat of the day to lull the small boy to sleep.
Johnny awoke with a start when the door of the little shack crashed back on its hinges. As the woman whirled into the room, she giggled drunkenly over something said by the man at her side. Johnny sat up quickly, he had to scramble to avoid the man’s booted feet as he stumbled into the small room. He watched with wide eyes as the two locked into a passionate clinch. When they parted long enough to notice they weren’t alone, Maria’s face flushed just a little.
“Johnny, go outside,” she ordered brusquely. “Billy and I want some privacy right now.”
The child hurried to obey his mother’s orders, he knew the penalty if he didn’t. He still gripped the puppy tightly in his arms. Billy Fernandez, Maria’s current lover, reached out a hand and snagged Johnny’s arm in a tight grip. “Hold on there, boy!” he snapped. “What have you got there?”
Johnny met the man’s gaze without flinching. “It’s a puppy,” he said quietly. “Mama, can I keep him?” His eyes rose hopefully to his mother’s face. “Please,” he whispered. “I’ll take good care of him.”
Maria wavered. She knew the life she was giving Johnny wasn’t what it should have been. In her more sober moments she felt the guilt her actions caused. Reaching out a gentle hand, she stroked the puppy’s soft head. “He’s very pretty, Johnny,” she said regretfully. “But I don’t see how you can take care of a puppy. You’re much too young.”
“You ain’t havin’ a dog, boy!” Billy’s voice was sharp. He moved to wrest the dog from the boy’s arms. “I won’t have a dog tripping me in the night. It’s bad enough that you’re always hanging around here.”
Johnny lurched backwards, breaking free from the man’s grip. “Don’t touch him,” he spat furiously. “He’s my dog, and I’m going to keep him. Please, Mama!” Johnny’s last words were spoken in desperation, as he turned toward his mother in supplication. He had little hope that she would intervene, Maria tended to side with her lovers against her son.
Billy stepped in between mother and son as he reached for the dog. “I’ll get rid of this pest for ya’, Maria honey,” he said with a sneer.
Johnny backed up frantically, hugging the dog to his chest. “No!” he cried. “No, don’t touch me!” Johnny no longer looked at his mother, he had already decided that she wasn’t going to help him. She would almost certainly side with Billy.
As Billy’s hands roughly closed on the boy’s small arm, Maria interposed herself between them. “Leave him alone, Billy,” she cooed seductively. “Don’t worry about something as silly as a dog. Let him keep the puppy. We’ve got better things to do.” She pressed herself against the irate man as she struggled to distract him from his intended victim.
Billy’s eyes lit with a lustful glow, and he wrapped his arms around Maria’s slim waist. “Whatever you say, honey. Tell that kid to get out of here now, though. I’ve got something I need to do.”
Maria smiled coyly and gestured for Johnny to leave the room. She pushed Billy toward the bed and waited until he was moving away from her son before she crouched down in front of the small, frightened boy. “Johnny,” she whispered. “You can keep the puppy. Just go outside now, and stay there. Don’t come back for a while, you hear?” She hugged him briefly, then turned him toward the door with a gentle pat on the bottom. “Go on.”
Johnny hurried out the door, his new puppy clutched tightly to his chest. He scampered away from the house into the small outbuilding that served as a stable. Sitting limply on a bale of hay, he gravely examined his new pet. His eyes were soft with remembrance as he realized what his mother had done. In the few short years that Johnny could remember, this was the first time Maria had defied one of her lovers for him. He stroked the dog gently, occasionally wiping away a damp spot caused by the tears that fell from his eyes. Eventually, he slept.
His story finished, Johnny stared mutely into the fire, his eyes bleak as the midwinter sky. Scott moved to kneel beside his brother, and he placed a gentle hand on Johnny’s knee. When he saw Johnny’s eyes focus on him, he smiled. “She stood up to him for you?”
Johnny nodded unable to speak. Scott continued, “That must have meant a lot to you. She loved you, Johnny.” Again Johnny nodded, but still the words wouldn’t come.
Scott tried to lighten the mood. “So how long did you and Chico have together? Did he travel around with you and your mother?”
Johnny’s eyes glistened with unshed tears, a result of the tequila and too many memories. “Naw, I only had him a couple of days. Billy found him one day when I was out playing, and he drowned him in the well.” Johnny’s face was tight and hard. “I hated that man.”
Scott threw his arm around Johnny’s shoulders in a rough embrace. “What a bastard!” he whispered, appalled at the man’s cruelty. “I’m sorry, Johnny.”
Johnny pulled away from Scott and looked at him, his blue eyes warm and gentle. “I had a couple of days, Scott. And she stood up for me. That’s what I remember most. She stood up for me that one time.”
The brothers sat in front of the flickering fire lost in memories, an empty tequila bottle sitting on the floor between them. The silence was a companionable one and they were content to let it remain that way. The sharing of their memories had brought them closer together. They had looked into each other’s past and it enhanced their future together.
Unbeknownst to either man, a third party listened to the stories shared that night. Murdoch had woken from his sleep soon after Scott had begun his story. Afraid of breaking the spell, he had stayed under his blanket, hardly daring to breathe. He was seeing pieces of his sons that he didn’t know existed, and he felt his heart breaking with every word. So many lost opportunities, so much wasted time. Always before Murdoch had thought of the lost time in terms of what he had missed. He had never stopped to think about the cost to his sons. Now he knew that they bore many scars, all because he hadn’t worked hard enough to bring them home. He bowed his head in grief.
A short time later, Murdoch sat up slowly and gazed with pride at his sons. They had each other now, and they would build new, happier memories together. Maybe that was enough. He hoped so. It would have to do.
Johnny and Scott looked up as Murdoch rose from his chair and stretched briefly. He walked across the room and knelt between them, a smile on his lips. Putting an arm around each of them, he said, “Did I ever tell you boys about the night Johnny was born? Or about how I felt when I got your grandfather’s letter telling me about your birth, Scott? Those are some of the happiest memories of my life and I’d like to share them with you sometime.”
Scott and Johnny exchanged glances, with answering smiles on their own faces. “No time like the present, Murdoch,” Johnny said cheerfully. He held up the empty bottle. “This one’s all gone, but I do believe I might be able to find another one, if you want something to wet your whistle. It sounds like you’ve got some talking to do.”
He rose, rummaged in his saddlebags again, and triumphantly held up the bottle of tequila he’d been searching for. Returning to his family, Johnny tossed another log on the fire. He had a feeling the Lancers wouldn’t be sleeping that night. Turning expectant eyes to his father he said, “Now, start with Scott, cause he’s the oldest.”
They talked long into the night, the storm raging unabated outside the little cabin. It was a time of healing for all of them, and the family was stronger for it. They couldn’t get back the lost time, but they could forge new memories and create happier times together. It would have to be enough.
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