Word count: 6,735
A missing scene for The High Riders
My legs are numb and my back aches from the strain of sitting in this chair so long. Moving about to gain a better position, I realize immediately that I’m being watched from across the room. Teresa, my ward, has already dropped her needlework and is rising from her chair. I’m not sure if it was my raised hand or the dark look on my face that stopped her progress. No matter, she’s changed directions almost immediately; her effort so flawless that it may have looked to an outsider as if she’d meant to move towards the bed. She and I know different, but neither of us speaks. Instead, I watch closely as she gently adjusts the blankets covering my son.
My son. It’s a difficult concept to grasp. The fact that after so many years not only one, but both of my sons have returned to Lancer. I’m still having trouble believing it. How many days has it actually been since they walked through the doorway of the great room? It seems like only yesterday, yet so much has happened, it might as well have been a lifetime. And what of that conversation I had with Teresa? Could that have been a mere twenty-four hours ago? She’d assured me then, that my sons didn’t hate me; that they only wanted to love me. From a young girl, those words had seemed to ring true. For a tired, lonely father, they seemed to be nothing more than a pipe dream.
Once again I shift in my chair, biting back a groan. My effort does not go unnoticed.
“Murdoch, you really should rest for awhile. You’ve been in that chair for hours.”
“She’s right, sir. We’ll come and get you, if you’re needed.” Echoes Scott.
I stare at these young people, struggling to find the words to explain to them what I’m unable to explain to myself. For now, I can’t leave my son’s side, and though there’s no valid reason for it, my decision is final. In the end, my look must’ve been enough. They share a token nod, as Teresa rises from her chair. Quietly bending over the bed once more, she carefully tucks the stark white sheet around my youngest son. Stepping to my chair, she leans down to kiss me tenderly on the cheek.
“Call me if you need me. Please?” She begs softly.
“I will. I promise.” I answer warmly. “Good night, Teresa.”
“I love you.” She murmurs.
The door closes slowly behind her, as I turn my attention to my oldest son. Scott has been in and out of the room all day, his attention divided between his newly found brother and myself. I wish that he would leave too, yet I can’t find it in myself to make him go. For now, I accept his presence, as my mind focuses on recent events.
I won’t allow myself to return to the past, at least not yet. Instead, I find myself studying the young man asleep on the bed, wondering at the choices that he’s made in his lifetime; choices that his mother and I forced on him. There are so many things I want to ask, so many things I need to know, and more importantly, things I need to tell him.
Yet, when he walked into the great-room, I handled things all wrong. In my normal stubborn way, I put both of my sons on the defensive, especially Johnny. In my mind’s eye, I remember clearly the look of silent pleading on my boy’s face as he stood there. So much emotion seemed to be held in his gaze. There were so many things I could’ve said, but when I finally spoke, I didn’t welcome either of them, as a father should. Instead, I hid behind the gruff exterior I’d built up over the years.
It’s hard to explain why a man does the things he does. Then again, maybe it’s obvious. Maybe a man is only fooling himself when he pretends to be tough.
But the pretending is over now. I didn’t understand what Johnny was trying to do when he went into town and met with Day Pardee. And I refused to trust Johnny when he decided not to ride with Scott. How could I have doubted my boy so easily? The answer is obvious. I don’t know my son. Sons. They’ve both lived their lives away from me. Their lifetimes. Not mine, of course. My lifetime has been spent living with regrets. Not even this ranch that I love so much has been able to replace what I lost when first Scott and then Johnny were taken from me.
No longer able to sit still, I push my tired body from the chair. Standing over Johnny’s bed, I reach tenuously to touch his shoulder. The skin is warm beneath my touch, but not hot. I know that Scott is watching, but I do not acknowledge him. After several minutes, I hear him stand and step towards me.
“Nothing more that we can do tonight, Sir. Why don’t we both turn in?”
I don’t answer him, but I doubt he expects me to. Only a few minutes pass before he speaks again.
“I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Night, Scott.” I answer perfunctorily.
He pauses for only a moment before walking to the door, and I know that he’ll come back if I call him. But I’m not ready. And maybe there’s no need for Scott and I to clear the air, at least not in the same way I sense the need with Johnny. No, my oldest seems to understand me, and I him. I know there are things that should be said, and will be, but there’s no hurry. Time will heal what’s between us. I wonder if it will be the same with Johnny, then know instinctively that there will be more angry words spoken before the wounds are finally healed.
For a moment I remember the argument we had before Johnny left the ranch yesterday. So sure that Scott was right, and so uncertain of Johnny’s motives, I didn’t give the boy a chance. And then he was gone and I was left to wonder how I could bear to lose my son again.
The wait last night had been long as I sat in front of the fire, but not nearly as long as the hours spent in this room since Johnny was shot. I’d never expected him to come back, not even watching him race towards the ranch this morning convinced me that my son was really trying to help me.
Seeing him fall from the saddle had driven a final knife through my heart, and I knew then that I’d lost him forever. There was no hope left in me. Not until I saw him sit up and fire his gun in quick repetition, taking down several of Pardee’s gang in a shower of bullets, did I suspect that Johnny had been on my side all along.
How could I have been so wrong? What a fool. What a stubborn old fool. . . .
A hand on my arm interrupts the self-recriminations, and I turn to see Maria waiting patiently beside me.
“Yes?” I asked curtly.
“You must sleep now. I will watch for you, but you must rest. Your son will need you when he awakes.”
Words of dissent died on my lips, for the look of firm resolve on her face convinces me that this woman whom I trust, would brook no argument. And she is right. Reliving the past is an old habit I must learn to change. I believe I have shocked her when I finally nod in agreement.
“You’re right. But you will-”
“I will call you if he needs you.”
Stepping closer, I study my son’s features as he sleeps. He is relaxed and comfortable; the doctor’s laudanum is doing its job. From the time Scott carried Johnny into the house until Sam Jenkins removed the bullet from his back, I had lived in fear. Fear that I’d lost him, fear that there was no time left to make amends.
It was such a relief when the doctor finally stood back from the bed and predicted a full recovery. We’d been alarmed at Johnny’s lack of feeling in his arms, but the doctor was confident that the symptoms were only temporary. “A swelling around the nerves that would subside with time,” he’d said. I pray that he is right. I know enough about my son by now to know that he’s made a living with his gun. Right or wrong, whether I approve or not, that is a part of him.
As I watch, Johnny moves his head slightly. Dark lashes remain still on his cheeks, but his hand twists slowly in the blanket. His lips part as he whispers softly in his sleep.
I bend down again, anxious to comfort my son, but his eyes remain closed. He’s not delirious; there is no fever. It’s just the quiet dreams of a young man. Dreams that I can only guess at. Was he calling for me? Was he remembering things from the past? Softly brushing a wisp of hair off his forehead, I watch him sleep.
“Please, Mr. Lancer . . .”
“Yes, all right.” I nod my consent, and Maria finally steps away.
“Good night, son.” I whisper quietly.
Stepping into the hallway, I slowly close the door behind me, suddenly reminded that this has always been Johnny’s room. It’s been many years since I’ve told my son goodnight. Many seasons have passed since I watched the boy sleep.
Through the darkened hall I walk, away from my son and into my room, but I cannot walk away from the memories. They follow me, consuming my thoughts. Even as I finally turn my lamp down and relax into the familiar comfort of my featherbed, recollections of the past fill my mind. But there is nothing I can do to change what went before. I must focus on what I can do to make the future right. My sons are home.
I can feel the barest hint of a smile playing across my face when I finally close my eyes.
“Murdoch. Murdoch, wake up!”
Pushing myself onto one elbow, I rub my eyes with my right hand, struggling to make sense of the demand.
“Who . . .”
My bedroom door swings open in answer to my one word question, and in the opening I see a very worried young lady.
Sitting up, I strain to see the mantle clock above my fireplace. Through bleary eyes, I barely make out the time. Almost noon. Later than I intended to sleep, but not that long considering it was almost daybreak when I climbed beneath the covers.
“Teresa, what are you doing here? You know better than-”
“Please, Murdoch. It’s Johnny.”
“What happened? What’s wrong?”
Throwing my legs over the side of the bed, I’m already pulling on my trousers, ignoring the fact that my young ward is standing at the end of my bed. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I’m justifying my actions with the thought that she helped nurse me back to health only months before.
“Teresa, tell me!” I urge.
“Johnny’s running a fever.”
The frantic beating of my heart slows, and I stop trying to jam my foot into my boot, while I look at her evenly.
“The doctor told us that could happen.”
“Yes, but not like this. Maria says it’s too high, too fast. I’ve sent Scott for the doctor already.”
Teresa’s tone of voice convinces me that this is nothing to be ignored, and once again I find myself hurrying to dress.
“I’ll be right there.” I stammer, subconsciously urging Teresa to leave me alone.
The door closes behind her as she hurries away. I can make out the worried tones of the women as they move back and forth in the hallway, and I imagine the basins of water and damp cloths being taken to my son. With a strangled cry of frustration, I jam my left foot into its boot and rise from the bed, pulling my shirt on haphazardly. I’m halfway to Johnny’s room before I manage to properly button the thing, but for once I don’t care about the propriety of my appearance. No one notices anyway. The women are doing exactly as I’d imagined, moving in and out of the room as they work to bring relief to my feverish son.
Even from the doorway I can see the red flush across his cheeks. Teresa was right; this is serious. I watch as Maria removes a warm cloth from his brow and replaces it with a cool one. The expression on her face is not comforting, and I find myself propelled forward by some unseen force.
“I am sorry. It came so fast.” Maria apologizes.
Her concern is evident, but her apology unnecessary. I wonder what I can do to help, but can’t find my voice to ask. Instead, I force myself to sit on the edge of Johnny’s bed, and reach for another cool cloth. Clumsy in my efforts, I wipe the perspiration from his neck and chest, careful not to disturb the bandage that’s tied around him.
“The doctor will be here soon.” Teresa soothes, though her voice seems to quiver.
I can’t speak for the lump in my throat, and a nod of my head is the only response I can give. Suddenly, all those memories from the past, the years of wondering where my son was and what was happening, everything that I’ve pushed away for so long is now filling my mind with a din so loud I’m sure that everyone in the room can hear. My chin dips towards my chest, and my hand lies still upon my son’s arm, while the voices in my head scream on.
“Johnny.” I finally murmur. “Son. . . “
Hours have passed since I rose from my bed. The morning sunshine no longer brightens Johnny’s room, and even the afternoon light is fading into evening’s shadows. The doctor has been here again, his diagnosis much as I suspected. The dreaded infection is now threatening my son’s life. Though he left a small bottle of medicine, Sam could offer nothing more than instructions on how to periodically clean the wound and lower the boy’s temperature. Most of his suggestions have already been tried, along with a few remedies that only Maria is familiar with. Still the heat rages inside my son.
A bullet wound is a strange thing, and the consequences unpredictable. I’ve seen an old man recover from a serious gunshot wound, yet witnessed the death of a healthy young man suffering from a simple flesh wound. Only a doctor can estimate at how a man’s body will react, and even then it’s merely a guess unless they know their patient well. Neither the doctor nor myself have that kind of familiarity in Johnny’s case. A mere child when he was taken from the ranch, I have no knowledge of his illnesses or injuries since then.
Maybe there is some helpful information in the Pinkerton’s report, but I doubt it. That report now sits in my safe, locked away from prying eyes, but not from my memory. There’s much in there that even I haven’t read, and probably never will. Sections too horrible to imagine. Parts that I couldn’t or didn’t want to finish . . . things that no one should ever have to read about their son. And now that John is back at Lancer . . . home . . . I have no desire to open those pages again. If there’s anything that I should know, it will be up to him to tell me.
The only thing that Sam and I are sure of, regarding Johnny’s medical history, is that this young man has dealt with pain before. There is evidence of that in the scars we found beneath his clothes. Maybe someday I will ask my son about those scars, but again, I doubt it. I have too much guilt to bear as it is.
A low moan refocuses my attention, and I dip my cloth in the basin of cool water Scott brought in just minutes ago. It’s a wonder my eldest son isn’t still here, pacing behind my chair as he has been most of the day. But Teresa is evidently keeping him busy with a list of chores she needs help with. I think my ward is becoming quite an intuitive young woman. Somehow she senses that I need this time alone with my youngest son.
It must be the feel of the cool cloth on his face that brings a faint groan to Johnny’s lips. My hand freezes in place as I study his expression, but he makes no other sound, and his features relax again in sleep. So far there’s been no delirium, though he’s mumbled incoherently. Not the distressed cries of a delirious man, but more of a sleepy talk, like that of someone caught in a dream. Perhaps memories.
There was one time, early in the afternoon, when I was sure he’d cried “Papa.” My heart lurched at the plaintive sound, so much like a young boy’s cry . . . one that I remember from many years ago. I spoke softly to him then, just as I had when he was young, but there was no response. Just some mumbled pleas that I couldn’t make sense of. I gently pushed the sweaty locks of hair from his forehead, but he never woke. Hours later, I still feel the longing that one word brought to my heart. Papa. His first word; even before Mama.
What a wonderful time that had been for me, Johnny’s first few years of life. After all the sorrow of losing my first wife, and then our son to his grandfather back east. To finally have another son to raise, to teach, to be my heir . . . but it wasn’t meant to be. Even that simple pleasure was lost to me. Why didn’t I work harder to keep my young wife happy? Why couldn’t she see what I was trying to build here, not only for myself but for her and our son as well? So many mistakes . . . so many things to atone for. How did my life become such a twisted mess? And why is it that such large choices are made so quickly? Choices that could be regretted for a lifetime?
The cloth in my hand has warmed from the heat of Johnny’s skin, and I dip it once again in the porcelain basin. The cheery flowers painted inside the rim do nothing to raise my spirits as I ring out the excess water. Turning back to my son, I lay the cloth across his forehead and bend to adjust his pillows.
We discovered earlier that he rested easier in this position. Unable to lie flat because of the pressure on his wound, Teresa had suggested that he might do better propped up against something. Within minutes the women had gathered half the feather pillows in the house, and with Scott’s help, we’d moved Johnny into a half-sitting position. It helped, or at least we thought it did. I’m still waiting for the boy to open his eyes and recognize me; maybe then I can ask him.
Easing myself into the armchair beside his bed, I take a moment to look around. Funny that I had Teresa escort him to this particular room the day he arrived. Why had I done that? Why this one? It could’ve been Scott here instead. I still don’t know why I made that choice. Then again, maybe I do. After all, it is Johnny’s room. Always has been. Yes, some of the furniture is different now. The large comfortable bed in place of the small slatted crib. The toys were long ago packed away, the rocking chair removed. Still, in my mind’s eye, this has always been my little boy’s room.
I have only to close my eyes to remember that last night. I don’t mean to. It’s not something I purposely try to call before me. Yet, as I sit here next to the grownup John, I can still see the small form snuggled under the blankets. His large eyes watching me as I came through the doorway, his arms reaching upwards as I bent down to kiss him goodnight.
‘Stop this.’ I mutter softly to myself. Reliving old memories just makes it harder for me to deal with the uncertainties of today.
Taking a deep breath, I roll my shoulders, trying to relieve the tension gathered there. It has been a long afternoon, full of hard work and hours of worry. Each of us have taken turns working over Johnny, sponging his feverish skin, but in all that time my son has never opened his eyes long enough to recognize where he is or who we are. I turn to the window, longing for something, anything, to relieve my mind. Maybe looking out at this land I love, seeing the normal routine about the ranch, maybe that will give me the confidence I need to face the potential loss of my son. But as I pull back the thick drapery and look into the yard below, I instinctively know that not even Lancer can give me strength for this challenge. This is so different. In past years, I had to live without my sons, but the loss was already there. Here, today, I must face a loss again. Can I live through it a third time?
I recognize the rustle of her heavy skirts as Maria enters the room. I don’t have to look to know that Scott is with her. I can hear his footsteps, even on the thick carpet. For a moment, I almost expect to find that Teresa is with them, but a quick glance over my shoulder shows me that isn’t the case. Hopefully my young ward is in her room, taking the rest that I insisted upon hours ago. Somehow, though, I doubt it.
Movement below draws my attention back to the yard. Cippriano is busy moving some horses into the corral, while a crew finishes their work around the patio. I know that he has directed the men to keep busy, cleaning up the leavings of yesterday’s battle. It could look like any other day on the ranch, but it isn’t. Once again I’m reminded that everything in my life now seems to revolve around my sons . . . and the possibility of losing them again. This time it’s Johnny, but if he survives, what about the next time? Will I be able to live alongside these two young men, while keeping my secret intact?
“No lo intente!”
I turn quickly. Too quick for an old man with a bum leg, but nevertheless, I cross the room in two strides to stand next to the bed. Under the thin sheet, Johnny is turning fretfully, his hands clutching the white cotton. I notice that his forehead is covered once more with a thin sheen of perspiration, but most important, this time his eyes are open. Don’t try it? Who is he warning? Me? Someone here at Lancer? Or is he remembering something darker, from his past?
“Johnny?” I question, as I try to smooth the sheet.
“ . . . usted no seria primero . . .”
Across from me, Scott tries to hold his brother, as I grab another towel.
“First one to do what?” Scott pleads, looking from me to his brother and back.
I can’t answer him. I don’t know.
“Maria, we’re going to need some of that ice.”
The woman is already out the door, more than likely intending to get the ice before I even mentioned it. I hope she understands . . . I didn’t mean to raise my voice. It’s just this strange fear that’s clutching at my heart again.
I glance up to see Teresa at the doorway, her eyes wide with fright. I know she’s been through a lot and proved her strength while dealing with her father’s death and my injury, but I can’t bear to put her through anything more.
“It’s okay, honey. You can go back downstairs.”
The look on her face changes immediately, as this girl proves herself to be a young woman once again.
“I’ll do no such thing. Johnny needs me, too.”
Instantly she is next to Scott. She stops to take a cloth from the basin, wringing it out with one hand as she gently strokes Johnny’s forearm with the other. For a few minutes, it seems as if he is responding to her touch, but then he becomes agitated again. His deep throated groan hurtful to hear:
As if slapped, Teresa steps back from the bed and into Scott’s arms. Her eyes fill with tears, but I know it’s not for herself.
“It’s not fair!” I hear her mumble as she turns and buries her face in Scott’s shirt. “He just came home, and now this. It’s not fair.”
“I know, sweetheart, I know.” Scott murmurs, as he pats her back comfortingly.
It is amazing, this bond that is already forming. No more than a few days have passed, yet my sons and my surrogate daughter interacts as if they have been close for years. I wonder at the strength of those bonds if allowed to grow. And how do I fit into the picture that they are already painting?
For my part, I resume my efforts to cool my son’s feverish skin.
“Lo advierto. Ahora, guarde su arma!”
His words bring visions of another world, another life, and I try to block their implications from my mind. I don’t know my son well, but even in the short time he’s been with us, I’ve come to feel that he would prefer to keep these memories to himself. But now, with the fever raging, Johnny seems to be reliving his past. It would hurt any father to hear these things. For me, with my own sense of guilt, it is torture.
“Pare alli imediatemente!”
Johnny’s body moves fitfully while his voice rises, as if he’s issuing an ultimatum. Who he’s talking to is a mystery, but the implications are not. He’s reliving a fight, or maybe an attempt to stop one. Then suddenly his tone changes, as if he’s pleading.
“No! No, ya basta!”
I change the cloth draped across Johnny’s forehead, my eyes momentarily meeting Scott’s across the sick bed. We both know what we won’t verbalize. He’s getting worse.
How could things spin so out of control in such a short period of time? The muscles in my back spasm, and I reach for the chair. Lurching backwards, I sit down, clasping my hands before me.
Scott’s query is met with my raised hand, and he silently goes back to his brother. I know his eyes return to watch me, but I keep my focus on the floor below my feet. Taking several deep breaths, I work through the pain until it’s nothing more than a memory, or at the least, a dull ache. Only then does my mind return to my question.
Control? Is there such a thing? Yet I thought I was gaining some control when I managed to lure my sons back to the ranch. The fact that they’d even come in the first place was a more than I dared hope. And then, once they were here, everything went to hell. Pardee fought hard, but his fighting didn’t win the war for him. Instead, his selfish intentions resulted in a blessing to me. He managed to prompt my sons return. Did I owe thanks to the man I’d cursed for so long?
With startling strength, Johnny suddenly moved beneath my hands. Before I could stop him, my son was sitting up, his breathing ragged, his hands clutching at some unseen vision before him. The movement evoked a cry of pain from him, a cry that seared my heart. For a moment, I wasn’t sure if it was the pain of his physical wound or the emotional pain. I just knew that I couldn’t bear to hear my son’s agony.
How many times had my child needed me when I couldn’t respond? Had he ever called my name out loud or pleaded for my help? Could those experiences be the reason he’d looked at me so longingly the first time we’d met only days before? I know I can’t let my thoughts linger on the what-ifs, whys or could-have-beens. My son is here now, his skin slick beneath my fingertips, his chest heaving from exertion, his shoulders shaking.
“John. It’s all right son. You’re safe now. Your father is here. I’ll always be here for you. Trust me, son. Trust me.”
I couldn’t see his face from my position, but Johnny seems to relax, if only a little. At least he is no longer struggling against me. With little effort, I manage to ease him back onto the bed, my hands never losing contact with my boy.
“Where? Where is she?”
His faint plea tore again at my heart.
“Who, Johnny? Who are you looking for?”
“Mama. Is she here? I have to tell her . .”
A look of confusion fills his eyes. As if he knows that what he is asking is peculiar, but he needs to ask anyway. I don’t know how to answer. What should I say? How much do I explain to a man who’s already weak from pain and fever? But the words come unbidden from my lips.
“She’s not here right now, John. Rest easy, son. Close your eyes and just rest. Don’t worry about your mama right now.”
His head turns from side to side, his glance darting about the room.
“She’s gone. She’s gone.”
My heart aches, the pain spearing deep inside me. My eyes suddenly blurred with unshed tears, but I keep my voice soft and low, clamping down on my own emotions as I try to reassure my injured son.
“It’s okay, Johnny. You’re home now. Everything’s okay. Listen to your old man, now, and just rest.”
He doesn’t speak again, his eyes closing as if in sleep. Yet Johnny is anything but quiet. His body jerks restlessly in the bed as the fever tries to claim him. Time after time I soak the cloth in cool water, only to find it warm and dry within minutes. I am waging a war here, one I intend to win. My arms are tired, my back aches from the strain. Occasional bursts of white-hot pain send me to my feet, but I cannot leave Johnny’s side.
Across from me, Scott works diligently. Few words are spoken but he anticipates my need for fresh water or clean linen. I don’t know how many hours pass this way, I only know that I am fighting not only for my son’s life, but my own. We need this time, our chance to become a family. I feel the need so strong within me that it becomes a physical ache no man could deny.
I don’t even realize I’m speaking out loud until I notice Scott watching me. I’m telling John that I need him, that I’m sorry, that I’ve always cared. Things that I would normally find hard to utter, I’m now blurting out. Scott must sense my surprise and unease, as he suddenly reaches for the pitcher and hurries from the room. With only a slight pause, I continue my litany, telling my young son about his early years, my memories of his childhood and my need for him now. I know that my confessions are safe. If he survives, Johnny will never remember my words. Maybe that’s why I’m so compelled to talk to him now.
When my discourse is spent, I sit next to him on the bed, my hand resting on his arm. I’ve pled my case to him, now I can only plead with the man above. As I turn to silent prayers, Johnny continues to toss and turn on his bed.
Scott slips back into the room, settling into a chair on the other side of the bed. I can feel his eyes watching me and I cringe at the sudden realization. I’ve opened old wounds in front of my first born, but nothing I spoke of had to do with his past. Surely he must know that I feel the same for him as I do for Johnny. But I’m not a demonstrative man. The words I blurted earlier were words born of fear. I know I should explain, that I should share my thoughts, but I don’t have the same sense of anonymity now. Scott would be fully aware of my explanation and I’m not ready to risk what that might bring. Our relationship is too new, too vulnerable. Maybe later, sometime in the future when my son and I know each other better. Besides, we have more important duties now. Johnny’s fever seems to be higher, a condition I did not think possible. We have to keep focused on the help he needs.
Teresa is back, though I wasn’t aware of that fact until I feel her hands resting gently on my shoulders as she leans down to kiss my cheek.
“He’s going to make it Murdoch. Johnny wouldn’t leave you now.”
I lay my hand on top of hers, squeezing lightly, unable to answer past the lump in my throat. Then without warning, Johnny opens his eyes, wildly searching for something . . someone. His voice, filled with pleading is all we hear as he looks directly at me and begs: “help me, Papa.”
It has been an hour since he spoke. My eyes are bleary, my arms ache, my chest is tight with emotion. I wish that Teresa would go rest, but like Scott and myself, she will not relinquish Johnny’s care to anyone else.
As if from a long way off, I hear my name. It takes a moment but I suddenly realize that Scott is speaking to me.
“Murdoch. Don’t you see?”
I move closer, staring at Johnny, expecting the worst. But it’s not what I feared. Johnny is sleeping now, his skin warm but no longer hot, skin no longer beaded with sweat. His face, though lined with fatigue, is now relaxing into sleep.
Scott’s smile is contagious.
“The fever broke!”
“Thank God, I answer. Thank you, God.”
Sunlight filters around the edges of the heavy drapes, leaving streaks of gold on the carpet. It’s the first thing I notice when my eyes open. It takes a moment for my brain to clearly understand why my body is sorely tangled in this uncomfortable chair and not my much-needed bed.
The haze of sleep slowly clears and the sound of gentle snoring reminds me. I turn my head to see Scott, his head resting on arms folded atop the end of Johnny’s bed. My oldest son is sound asleep. My gaze travels further to see my youngest boy, also sleeping. My heartbeat returns to normal as I remember that the fever broke earlier. Johnny is sleeping peacefully now, his skin dry, his color returning to normal.
Stretching carefully, I slowly move out of the chair, intent on making as little noise as possible. It’s been a long night for all of us, and I see no reason to interrupt Scott’s rest. Johnny, too, needs the healing power of sleep. No longer caught in the nightmarish dreams of fever, his chest is moving in the slow but natural motions of breathing.
As I wait for my joints to loosen with the first actions of the day, I stare unabashedly at my youngest son. The initial emotions of Johnny’s awakening are past and I can manage a more reasonable evaluation of the past day or two. It has been a whirlwind of events and emotions: my sons’ return, the fight with Pardee, my unfounded suspicions of Madrid’s betrayal, Pardee shooting Johnny, and finally, the hours spent by my son’s bedside. . It would be a lot for any father to understand, but for one who’s spent years alone, without the responsibilities or joys of fatherhood, the sensations are enormous. I’m not sure I can make sense of everything, my feelings or how to go on from here.
Turning away from Johnny’s bed, I walk slowly to the door before looking back at my boys. For that’s what they are to me. Yes, they’re men in their own right, with years of history I am not familiar with. But they are still my sons, my boys, the source of my longing for too many years. I stand here in the doorway, reluctant to leave, thankful for the gifts I never thought I’d receive.
There will be struggles in the days ahead. I know this without a doubt. Relationships not built over the span of a lifetime must be forged now. It won’t be easy, but I relish the challenge. We will all be the stronger for it.
I turn to the hall, but before I pull the door closed behind me, I hear a faint voice calling me back. It’s cadence is slow but steady.
“P . . . sir?”
“Thanks . . I . . thanks.”
I hope he can see the grin that spreads across my face since my voice has suddenly left me. But he seems to understand as he lies back against his pillows. There will time enough in the days to come, time for all that will need to be said. I’m grateful for the chance.
Weeks have passed since Pardee’s raid and the ranch has returned to its normal routine. Cippriano has worked diligently to remove all signs of the battle waged around our home, the only visible evidence are a few bullet holes in the Portico and even those will soon be filled. Johnny, too, has healed and other than an occasional shadow across his face, there is no trace of the pain once felt. We worried at first, that there would be permanent damage. It took awhile before the feeling returned to his hands, a fact that frightened my son, though he worked hard to conceal the fact.
Now, watching him across the lawyer’s office, I see the specter of Madrid in Johnny’s insolent stance. And still, a trace of a grin across Johnny’s face while he watches Scott sign the documents makes me wonder how much of my son is Madrid and how much is pure Lancer.
The fact that he is here today gives me hope. I know I’ve been given more than a second chance. My sons are here, alive and well, willing to give our reunion a opportunity to grow into something more. It won’t be easy. Already my Scot temper has come between us, but we’ll learn. It’s all new, this feeling of family, of give and take. I hope we can make it work. My fear is buried deep where no one can see, but I feel its sharp prodding. Will they stay? Will they leave? With Scott, the answer seems to be in the positive. With Johnny, the fear grows sharper. What if I lose him again? Not to a bullet, but by his choice.
My mind is drawn back by the lawyer’s voice addressing Johnny Lancer. I must speak now, allow the first opportunity for Johnny to make his choices, even if that choice results in my hurt. So I correct the mistake.
“Make that Madrid.” I force past the lump in my throat.
The feelings stand thick between us as the lawyer’s pen scratches across the paper. And then my boy claims his birthright with three simple words.
“Let it stand.”
I watch as my son scrawls the letters of his name on parchment. ‘John Lancer’ stands out clearly below his brother’s name.
They are truly home. My sons. And in a father’s eyes, there can be no more pleasing picture.
~ end ~
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