Word Count 1,770
Short story about a father, a son, and the planting of a tree.
As Murdoch Lancer exited the French doors of his sprawling ranch house and limped outside to where the battle had occurred at dawn, his heart broke. What a waste, he sighed wearily.
He knew it would take a lot of time, and hard work on his remaining vaqueros, to bring his ranch, his home, his life, Lancer, back to the way it should be: Proud. Beautiful. The Best.
His remaining vaqueros, he mumbled under his breath, and a tear came to his tired blue eyes. He decided then and there that the families of those who had given their lives for Lancer on that spring morning would be taken care of. That they would have a place here for as long as they wanted. At least there were only a few of them, he sighed heavily. Still, his heart was saddened.
He made his way to the center of the courtyard, leaned on his cane, which had been his companion for the past five months, and watched his oldest son, Scott, and Cipriano, his Segundo after the death of Paul O’Brien, as they took charge, efficiently giving orders as to what needed to be done. He noticed it was the two of them that took over the unpleasant task of handling the bodies of the dead.
The undertaker and his wagon had made two trips to the ranch already, taking back to town the bodies of Lancer’s own. Now, Scott and Cipriano were removing the bodies of Pardee and his gang from where they were scattered. Murdoch was amazed at the gentleness the two of them handled the dead. They were the enemy in life, but in death, they were still human beings.
I’m so sorry, Scott. It wasn’t supposed to be this way, Murdoch said, in thought, to his son. If only I would’ve sent for you sooner, before Pardee. I never wanted to put you through this horrible task. And I want you to know I am grateful for what you’ve done, and what you’re doing now. I will try to make it up to you. Son.
As he stood there watching the dead being transported to the barn in wait for the undertaker, he thought it ironic that the caretaker of the dead had been to the ranch twice, removing the bodies, while the caretaker of the living had yet to arrive to care for the wounded. Including his youngest son. Johnny.
Murdoch knew he should help. After all, it was his problem to begin with. It was his ranch, his home being threatened. But he didn’t want to help. Hell, he was too tired. And he hurt. Sharp pains shot up his legs to his back, and he wondered if he would ever be able to walk without his cane again. And he realized that he and Johnny had something in common: both had been shot in the back by Day Pardee. But where Murdoch’s bullet was still in him, too risky to remove for fear of paralysis, the Lancer patriarch ensured his son’s bullet was removed as quickly as possible, despite the strain on the older man’s back and legs from the ‘surgery’ he performed on his son.
But he did so without thinking; his paternal instincts kicked in, knowing that when your child is in danger, their well-being becomes paramount above anything else.
He had sat by Johnny’s bedside for hours, his back growing stiffer, watching him. Wanting to touch him, to feel him, but not being able to bring himself to. He didn’t know why. It was not like Johnny would get up and walk away. He was so pale; his skin was grey, and his breathing shallow. And Murdoch cursed his doctor friend under his breath for not being here. He knew Sam Jenkins was more than likely busy with another patient and would come as soon as he could; but right now, in Murdoch Lancer’s eyes, the only patient on this earth was his son.
His vigil was finally rewarded, when Johnny’s eyes slowly opened, and they stared at the figure that was his father.
“It’s all right, Johnny,” Murdoch soothed. “You’re going to be fine.” A single tear rolled down Johnny’s face, and Murdoch finally placed his hand inside Johnny’s hand, and was rewarded with a weak squeeze from his son. Then the sapphire eyes closed, and Murdoch thought that maybe, Johnny felt safe here. At least he hoped so.
He was finally chased from the room by Teresa and Maria. “You have to eat, Murdoch,” Teresa gently scolded. “You won’t do any of us any good if you get sick yourself.”
He knew she was right. The girl so worried about him, especially after the murder of her father, also at the hands of Pardee. And Murdoch noticed the efficiency in which Maria overtook the care of Johnny, and knew his son was in good hands.
He enjoyed the light lunch Teresa had prepared for him; he was hungrier than he thought. It was then he stepped outside to the courtyard, and took in the devastation that had occurred just after dawn.
It seemed like a lifetime ago.
He stood there for a long time, unnoticed. He felt awkward; here he was, the Patron, and no one noticed him standing all alone as they went about with their tasks. He felt very tired, and hot, as the afternoon sun was at full strength. He needed shelter; he needed to sit down. He noticed he was closer to the tree than he was to the house. So he limped over and sat, rather unceremoniously, under the same tree that Scott had dragged Johnny to that morning.
It was cool under the shade of the tree, and it felt good. Murdoch closed his eyes and considered the irony that his oldest would drag his youngest to safety under this tree. The tree that, for 20 years, Murdoch secretly thought of as “Johnny’s tree.”
Twenty springs ago, a young Murdoch Lancer brought home a tiny tree that had been given to him by an old prospector. The old man had told Murdoch, “Plant it, tend to it, and it will grow big and strong, and beautiful, and provide shade from the sun. And it will bring much joy to the children who climb it, and the birds that nest in it.”
The tree was a twig; no higher than 12 inches, and boasted three leaves. When he brought it home and showed it to his young wife, Maria, she roared with laughter. He really didn’t expect it to live long; but he didn’t want to hurt the feelings of the kind old man who gave it to him.
But his 22-month old son, Johnny, sitting in his baby chair with his lunch covering him from head to toe, spied the little tree, and was delighted by it.
“Tee Papa! Tee Mama!” he squealed.
“That’s right, Johnny,” Murdoch had laughed. “And how many leaves does it have?” he asked the bright-eyed, dark-haired boy.
With the help of his mother, Johnny held up three fingers. “Three,” he squealed, and both parents laughed with delight. “Maria, we’ve got a smart one here,” Murdoch beamed.
He eyed his son and asked him, “Johnny, would you like to help me plant it? And take care of it?”
“Pant tee!” Johnny squeaked. “Si, Papa!”
“Not so loud, son,” Murdoch laughed.
Off they went, father and son, to plant Johnny’s tree. Maria looked out the window of the great room and watched her two men walk to the place they would plant the tree. And she smiled.
Father and son dug the hole and carefully placed the delicate roots in it. Murdoch gently covered the roots and patted the dirt around it, then took a string and a small stick, and braced the fragile trunk to it. Johnny was helping, but somewhere along the line, his attention was diverted with the lizard he was trying to capture.
Murdoch then took small pieces of wood and placed them around the tree, making a small fence. He laughed at the sight, and thought his efforts were for not. And he wondered who was having the better time planting the tree. Him or his son.
Throughout the spring and into the summer, father and son kept to their daily ritual of watering the little tree. And their efforts paid off, for by the time the cool winds of autumn came, it had doubled its height and boasted at least 30 tiny leaves. Murdoch remembered the day he and Johnny ate their lunch by the tree; it was still too small to sit under, but they were at least able to sit by it.
That was the last day the sapling enjoyed the attention of the young father and his little son. For the next morning, the little boy was gone. Taken by his mother. And the absence of Johnny Lancer in the life of Murdoch Lancer left a void that could never be filled. Even upon his return. For although Johnny Lancer finally found his way home, he was an adult. A man. Never again to be the little boy who had helped his father plant the tree.
Murdoch regained his senses, and realized he had dozed under the tree. He looked up and noticed Scott talking to someone. Probably the caretaker of the dead, he groaned. But he saw it was Dr. Jenkins, and found renewed energy as he got up and made his way to the doctor. And back to the house. To where Johnny lay.
As the doctor worked on Johnny, Murdoch waited. He looked out the window and admired the tree, now fully grown, and thought that it was just like Johnny. Young. Strong. And beautiful. Johnny beautiful? Yes, my son. You are beautiful. You and your brother are the most beautiful things in the world to me.
He was startled by the voice of Dr. Jenkins. “I think he’ll be all right, Murdoch. We’ll have to watch for infection and fever, but he’s strong. Now, go take care of your son. I know that’s what you’ve wanted to do for the past 20 years,” the good doctor said.
And he was right. Murdoch would take care of Johnny. Somebody had to. And he thought tonight would be the perfect time to tell his son a story. He always loved bedtime stories.
So Murdoch Lancer decided that on this night he would tell Johnny Lancer the story about a father and his young son. And the planting of a little tree. . . . . Johnny’s tree.
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