Disclaimers: Like so many others, I don’t own the Lancer characters, I just love playing with them. Apologies for any medical stuff I may have misinterpreted (my medical degree was provided free at Internet University, and you get what you pay for…). There’s a little mild profanity. This is my first posted full-length fanfic, so feedback is definitely appreciated! Lastly, it’s been over 30 years since I saw the TV show, so excuse any boo-boos I made with Lancer-land reality.
Appreciation: Big “Thank Yous!” to Nancy and Karen, and Karen F. for their notes of encouragement. “Bitter Medicine” was already drafted when “The Boy” was posted, and these ladies were extremely supportive and urged me to complete my story and post. I’ve added one small bit of dialogue between Doc and Johnny just for Nancy and Karen. And Karen F. – “Tag, you’re it!”
Word count: 36,450
Johnny Madrid Lancer couldn’t stand it anymore. If he had to bend down one more time to yank another wayward patch of scrub out of the dry creek bed he was standing in, he swore to himself that he would scream. Now, Johnny Madrid Lancer was not known to go around screaming at worthless pieces of brush, but at this particular moment the irritated man was primed, just enough, to make an exception.
Murdoch Lancer’s younger son didn’t feel well. In fact, he hadn’t felt well for almost a week. Not one to grumble unless he really had something to complain about, Johnny had diligently tried to keep working. But today he was seriously losing the battle.
Johnny was having trouble keeping food down, so hadn’t eaten a decent meal in days. This alone would have been enough to make him bad-tempered, as Johnny was well known to be a hearty eater. But on top of that, his stomach hurt, and he was rudely reminded of this every time he bent over to grab another handful of brush.
The uncharacteristic urge to scream, however, was brought on by the fact that Johnny could no longer convince himself that his condition was getting any better. Actually, he knew it was getting worse. Scott Lancer’s brother had now developed not only a sharp pain in his side, but a fever – and that was annoying Johnny Lancer to no end. Being sick usually meant having to sit still, and if there was one thing Johnny absolutely hated it was being forced to sit still.
Giving up on the current grassy object of his attention, Johnny stood up straight, closed his eyes, and concentrated on evening out his breathing – and his temper. He knew he had two choices: continue to try and ignore the illness, or let Doc Jenkins have a look at him.
The latter choice would mean a trip to town. There was still enough daylight left to get there and back before dark, if he’d hurry up and make up his mind.
He could maybe get this sorted out today… if he’d hurry up and make up his mind.
The former choice meant he’d have to bend down to try and once again remove that maddening, stomach-turning, irritating, dirty, low-down, worthless piece of…
‘Make up your mind, Johnny!’
He was back to thinking about screaming again – and that’s what finally made up his mind. Johnny Madrid needed a trip to town – now – before he did something that was going to make him feel very stupid, and probably make him look pretty silly. It didn’t matter that there would only be a couple of dim-brained cows present to witness the display. Ex-gunfighters just did not stand around in ditches screaming at dead plants. It was bad for the image.
With slightly less than his usual agile movements, Johnny mounted his horse, Barranca, and headed off toward town. He knew there were other Lancer ranch hands scattered over the same area that afternoon, so he sought out a trio of men who were nearby mending a barbed wire fence.
Finding the work team, and with ulterior motive in mind, Johnny inquired, “How’s it comin’ over here?”
A tall and lanky cowboy named Charlie spoke up for the men. “Don’t think we’ll be at it too much longer. The wire’s been behavin’ itself for a change. Made the job go a whole lot quicker not havin’ tah worry ‘bout gettin’ bit!”
Johnny shared a laugh with the men, fully appreciating how they felt, having been “bit” by barbed wire himself a few times. “Well, I’m real glad to hear that, ‘cause I need to run into town. Can one of you go on over to that creek bed east of here and finish clearin’ it out for me? Shouldn’t take more ‘n an hours worth of work to get it done.”
“Sure Johnny, we’ll take care of it,” Charlie offered.
Turning Barranca toward town, Johnny threw his thanks back over his shoulder. “ ‘ppreciate it. See you boys later.”
Spurring his horse on, Johnny Madrid Lancer finally relaxed. He didn’t know if Doc would be able to help him, but at least he didn’t feel like screaming anymore.
Johnny was pleased to find that he couldn’t have timed his arrival to town any better. By late afternoon during midweek, things were usually fairly quiet. Most of the ranch owners had already finished conducting their business at the bank or mercantile, and it was still too early for ranch hands to be arriving to conduct their own business at the saloon or cantina. In his condition, Johnny much preferred things to be on the quiet side just now.
As co-owner of the vast Lancer spread, Johnny could be considered both rancher and ranch hand, and could come to town to conduct his own business in either capacity. But regardless of why he was there, subconsciously he always entered any town first and foremost as a gunfighter.
Johnny had only been back at the Lancer ranch less than a year. His mother had taken him away from his father when he had been only two, and disappeared. Until Murdoch had finally found his son nearly twenty years later and asked him to return, he’d spent much of his young life making a living as the gunslinger Johnny Madrid.
He didn’t hire out his gun anymore, but Johnny had built himself quite a reputation that still followed him, so he had to be mindful of anyone who might recognize or come looking for him. The careful habits he’d developed in his former profession had saved Johnny’s life on many an occasion, and he couldn’t afford to give them up just yet.
When Johnny entered a town he did so with all his senses alert, keeping himself ready for anything. Not that anyone would have noticed. Without bringing an ounce of attention to himself, Johnny could take in more with one glance than most people could if they’d stared for hours. Scott called Johnny’s finely honed ability “reading”, and that’s just what he did – he read his environment and the people in it, looking for anything that might just cause him trouble. Johnny didn’t like trouble, but it had a bad habit of finding him. And when it did, he always preferred tackling it on his own terms.
Right now Johnny’s “own terms” were less than optimal. He didn’t feel well, and Johnny knew that could affect his reactions if he needed to respond quickly to anything. Most people would consider it unfair, but to anyone looking to gain a reputation with a gun, finding a gun hawk who was ailing was a real good time to take advantage of the situation and offer up a challenge. So Johnny was bound and determined not to bring any attention to himself, and to continue to try and hide the fact that he was unwell.
Johnny’s determination included disguising his intention of heading to Doc Jenkins’ office to be examined. Talk about putting yourself in a disadvantaged position. All he needed was to have some yahoo come after him while he had his pants undone. He could picture the headline now:
Infamous Gunfighter Johnny Madrid, Killed With His Pants Down!
Yep. Definitely bad for the image. Just thinking about being gunned down under such circumstances made Johnny wonder if he should sit down and have himself a right good laugh at the idea, or turn around and head back to the ranch and forget the whole thing.
A sudden flair of that annoying pain in his side once again made up Johnny’s mind for him. He needed to get this over with today and find out just what the heck was the matter with him.
Despite his desire not to call attention to himself, Johnny had made the mistake of riding Barranca into town, a fact he realized during the trip in. Everyone within a good fifty miles knew the distinctive palomino belonged to Johnny, and that the horse allowed no one else to ride him. Johnny hadn’t planned on riding right up to Doc’s door, but he knew trying to hide the horse would be just as conspicuous. So he had come up with a plan.
Johnny reined Barranca up outside the saloon, then made his way inside. Happy to find only a couple of ranch hands at a table eating an early supper, he headed over to the bar.
“Afternoon, Johnny. What brings you to town? Beer or tequila?” the bartender inquired sociably.
“Neither just yet. Was supposed to meet Scott, but can’t remember where,” Johnny lied with a smile. “I got some other errands to run. Reckon I’ll go get ‘em done and hope to find him along the way.”
“Come on back for supper if you can. Steaks are fresh cut.”
Just the thought of food made Johnny’s stomach lurch. He hid his reaction by turning away and heading out as he noncommittally replied, “Sounds mighty fine. Tell Scott I’m around if you see him.”
Johnny hated using his brother as part of his lie, but he knew Scott was out working the Lancer herd today and so would be nowhere near town to catch him up in his fib. He was also pretty sure his brother would understand.
Johnny left Barranca tied in front of the saloon and made his way over to Doc Jenkins’ office, all the while taking quiet note of anyone who might see him go in. Secure that no one was watching, Johnny knocked and entered.
Closing the door behind him, Johnny quickly took in the surroundings. He noticed that the door leading to the exam room was open, and hoped that meant Doc wasn’t currently seeing another patient. Preparing to hail the physician, Johnny was beat to it.
“Be with you in a minute,” Sam Jenkins called out unseen from the next room.
“Take your time, Doc,” Johnny answered amiably.
Recognizing Johnny’s soft drawl, Doc Jenkins immediately stopped what he was doing. He hadn’t detected any urgency in Johnny’s few words or tone of voice, but Doc knew that Johnny Madrid Lancer would not be there unless he had a very good reason. He and Johnny were friends, good friends, but Johnny had never once just stopped by his office for a casual visit.
Sam knew all about Johnny’s past. He had also come to understand and appreciate how guarded the ex-gunfighter could be when it came to appearing vulnerable in any way. Although Johnny had required quite a bit of doctoring over his few years, Madrid and a doctor’s office were not usually a willing or voluntary combination.
Doc could be just about as intuitive at “reading” people as Johnny when it came to evaluating his patients. But the boy always presented a special challenge for him. He’d had to treat Johnny for both minor and serious injuries in the past, and had found this particular patient to be very good at masking what he was really thinking or feeling. If Johnny was sick, he knew he might just have his work cut out for him trying to get him to admit it.
But the younger Lancer son had come in on his own, and that told Doc two things: Johnny was willing to talk, which was good, and Johnny thought it was something serious, which made Sam worried. So one way or another, Doc was going to make sure the boy didn’t leave until he found out exactly why he’d come by.
Totally intrigued, and hoping all his assumptions would prove wrong, Sam Jenkins tried to appear unconcerned as he went to greet his “guest” and find out what he needed.
“Johnny. Good to see you,” Doc welcomed heartedly as he entered the waiting area.
“Good to see you too, Doc. I ain’t takin’ you away from anythin’, am I?”
“Not at all. Just getting a few things together for later. Nothing that can’t wait.”
Immediately wary of how soon and what exactly “later” might imply, Johnny took a step in retreat toward the door. “If you’re expectin’ somebody, I can maybe come back.”
Doc instantly suspected that Johnny was having second thoughts and had found an excuse to leave, so he worked to quickly reassure him. “No, Johnny. I’m not expecting anyone. In fact, it’s been pretty quiet today. Be glad to have some company… if you don’t have anything else you need to do.”
Johnny took a moment to reconsider. “No, I got some time,” he decided.
‘He’s too thin. Been losing weight I bet,’ Jenkins observed.
Concern growing, Sam took up the lead for their little dance around the subject, and further enticed Johnny to stay. “I have some coffee in the back. Would you like to come into the exam room?”
Johnny was just as quick on the uptake as Doc, and realized that the physician had already figured out why he had actually come by. It both relaxed and unnerved him to know that Doc understood him so well. Usually Johnny would be very uncomfortable with anyone who could so easily see through his careful planning. But in this case he was grateful that his need for caution wasn’t being offhandedly dismissed. Where others might be inclined to think that Johnny was just being overly paranoid, Sam Jenkins knew Johnny had his reasons – and he respected them.
Knowing Doc was playing along with him, Johnny offered up a genuine smile and accepted the double-edged invitation. “Thanks. I’d appreciate that.”
Jenkins returned the smile, and as Johnny passed him on his way into the exam room, he in turn moved to the front door as he casually asked, “You don’t mind if I lock the front door first, do you? Would hate to be disturbed while we’re talking.”
Johnny had to pause and hang his head for a moment, realizing how very, very well Doc had come to understand him. With appreciation showing in his eyes, Johnny looked up and replied, “No Doc. That would be fine.”
After securing the front door, Sam followed Johnny into his exam room and closed the interior door behind him. By now Doc had gotten a good enough look at Johnny to know that the boy had indeed come to his office, not to simply pay a social call, but for a professional visit because he wasn’t feeling well. So as soon as the door was shut he switched to a direct line of questioning for getting down to the bottom of things. “Okay, out with it. What’s bothering you? I can already tell you have a fever. What else?”
Johnny shook his head slightly, acknowledging the abrupt change in tactics. He couldn’t resist putting Doc off a little longer though, teasing him with, “Does this mean I ain’t gonna get a cup a’ coffee?”
Jenkins ignored Johnny’s attempt at humor. “Yep,” he answered simply, then turned totally serious. “Johnny, tell me what’s wrong.”
Johnny’s head again dropped, but this time when he looked back up there was worry in his eyes. With an audible sigh of resignation he answered Doc plainly. “My stomach hurts, and I got a pain in my side that just don’t seem to want to go away.”
“On your right side?” Doc asked.
Sam’s correct guess surprised Johnny. “Yeah. How’d you know?”
Doc offered up another smile of his own. “Educated guess. Come on, let’s get you up on the table so we can stop guessing and find out for sure what’s ailing you. You’re going to have to take your belt off Johnny.”
Watching closely, Sam thought he had once again made a correct guess, this time that the thought of removing his gun belt would make the ex-gunfighter hesitate.
But he was only partly right. Johnny actually had to pause in order to suppress a barely controllable laugh, as the image of a previously considered headline flashed through his thoughts.
Doc didn’t give Johnny a chance to dwell on the notion, whatever it was. He indicated the exam table and prompted, “Come on Johnny, unbutton your shirt and pants and hop up.”
As Johnny complied, Doc moved to get his stethoscope as he continued his questioning. “How long have you had the fever, and when did the pain start?”
“The pain got worse a few days ago, the fever come on last night. Started out feelin’ kind a’ like a stomachache, so at first I just figured I ate somethin’ disagreeable. But this is different, and it ain’t gettin’ any better. I may not go ‘round gripin’ ‘bout my ailments, but I do try to pay attention to ‘em – contrary to what Miss Teresa might think.”
The men shared a smile at this, knowing that Murdoch Lancer’s ward, Teresa O’Brien, had a tendency to berate any of the Lancer men for letting an illness get the better of them. Johnny‘s concern was once again apparent as he added, “This ain’t like nothin’ I ever felt before.”
Johnny was sitting up on the exam table now. “Go ahead and lay down, Johnny,” Sam requested as he returned to his side. As his patient made himself comfortable, Doc asked, “Have you been throwing up?”
“Sure have, Doc. Pretty near everythin’ I’ve tried to eat.”
Doc started the exam as Johnny lay quietly, taking his pulse and listening to his heart, lungs, and abdomen. Setting his stethoscope aside, Doc instructed, “Just relax Johnny. I need to feel around your stomach and side a bit. You be sure to yell out if I hit anything tender.”
As the physician moved his skilled hands over Johnny’s abdomen, it was obvious that his expert palpations were causing at least a small amount of discomfort. However, Jenkins finally pressed on one particular area that caused Johnny to practically jump off the table – although he didn’t utter more than a deep gasp.
At Johnny’s severe reaction, Doc realized that he had almost assuredly just confirmed the diagnosis he’d been suspecting. Acknowledging this patient’s remarkable ability to maintain control over pain and his response to it, Doc stopped his exam and smiled ironically down at the stunned man. “I’ll take that as a sign of you yelling out.”
Johnny had come to Sam Jenkins for the distinct purpose of ending his earlier uncharacteristic desire to scream. But as Doc’s hands had found the source of his illness, the hankering to do just that had come back to him all over again. Johnny was pleased that he hadn’t actually given into his urge, certain that he would have been heard all the way down to the mercantile had he gone ahead and let loose. Breathing rapidly, instead he simply looked up at the grinning physician and replied, “Whoowee Doc. Reckon you found the right spot, that’s for certain.”
The smile left Sam’s face as he stated, “Unfortunately, I have to be sure Johnny, so you better grab onto something. I need to feel around some more, and I’m going to have to push a little hard.”
Johnny moved his hands up beside his head and gripped the pillow he was laying on. Watching Johnny ready himself, Doc couldn’t help but silently wish that his young patient would have felt comfortable enough to have brought someone with him who could offer him some consolation right now, instead of having to deal with his pain on his own.
“Go ahead Doc,” Johnny said, interrupting his sympathetic thoughts.
“It’s going to be difficult, but I need you to try and stay still.”
Johnny simply nodded at Doc’s additional instruction, already having mentally prepared himself.
Jenkins proceeded with his painful exam as quickly but as thoroughly as he could. He knew he had to be confident in his diagnosis, but sincerely regretted having to make his young friend suffer.
With all Doc’s prodding, Johnny never uttered more than a soft moan and a few more gasps. But by the time the exam was finally finished, Johnny had broken out in a cold sweat, his eyes were tightly closed, and his knuckles had gone white from the strong grip he’d kept on the pillow. He’d also paled considerably and was looking a little green.
“I’m done now, Johnny,” Doc announced, immediately turning his attention to check on how his patient was faring. Instantly recognizing the warning signs, he moved to grab a basin.
By the time he’d turned back around Doc found Johnny already trying to sit up, holding his stomach. “Doc!” Johnny managed to cry out, as Jenkins hurried back to his side, arriving just in time to hold the basin for the sick man as he began to throw up.
Sam waited patiently for Johnny’s stomach to settle, then allowed him a chance to catch his breath as he moved to put the basin aside and grab a towel. Returning to Johnny’s side, he again found his patient lying down with his eyes shut. Doc gently wiped the beads of sweat off the sick man’s face, again regretting that Johnny hadn’t brought anyone with him for support.
Johnny’s breathing began to steady as his nausea abated, and finally he opened his eyes. “Thanks Doc,” he offered quietly.
Feeling Johnny’s forehead, Doc confirmed that he was feverish, but was relieved to find the temperature not very high yet. “I’m sorry you had to go through that Johnny. I know it was hard on you, but I’m finished now and you did just fine.”
With a relieved sigh, Johnny tried to make light of it. “To tell you the truth, Doc, it hurts a might more now that you been pokin’ at it. You sure you’re lookin’ out for my best interests?”
Jenkins had to smile at Johnny’s mild criticism. But then, with a bit of mystery, he answered, “As a matter of fact, yes, I am. To tell you the truth, there’s another exam I should perform to absolutely confirm my diagnosis, but I have too much respect for your reputation with a gun to ask you to submit to it.”
Reading the gleam in Doc’s eyes, Johnny developed a wry grin at the veiled comment. “I don’t know what exactly you’re talkin’ about, Doc, but I have a feelin’ I should just be grateful and say thank you.”
Doc closed the subject with a nod. “Believe me, you’re welcome.”
With another tired sigh, Johnny finally asked the big question. “So just what’s wrong with me, Doc?”
Jenkins gave it to him straight. “Johnny, you have appendicitis.”
Now it was Sam’s turn to be surprised. “You’ve never heard of appendicitis?”
“No,” Johnny replied simply, as if it were common for people not to know.
When his mother had run away from Lancer, Maria had ended up raising Johnny in a series of impoverished border towns where competent doctors were few and far between. Many people who became severely ill simply died, the cause going undiagnosed and untreated. Johnny might have known someone who’d had the illness, but more than likely it would have simply gone unnamed.
Doc realized he was going to have to be a little more thorough than normal explaining his diagnosis to this particular patient. “Well,” he began, “it’s an inflammation of your appendix, which before you ask is basically a worthless piece of tissue that you wouldn’t know you had until it decided to cause trouble. And that’s what yours is doing Johnny, becoming trouble. I’m sorry to say you’re going to need an operation, son.”
“How come?” Johnny asked with a grunt as Doc helped him to sit up.
“When an appendix starts showing signs like this it usually means its gotten infected, and it’s better to remove it right away. The pain will sometimes go away, but usually not, and even if it did it would surely come back sooner or later. If you let it go too long it could burst open from the infection and,” adding gently, “Johnny, if we let it get that far you could die.”
For the first time there was deep concern in Johnny’s eyes. Doc acted quickly to reassure his patient, giving Johnny’s arm a firm pat and saying, “So. It’s a good thing you trusted me to know what it was and came in and asked. You did the right thing.
“Go ahead and get dressed Johnny,” Sam directed as he moved to put his stethoscope away and toss the towel he had used on Johnny onto a counter.
Johnny lowered himself carefully off the exam table, and began buttoning his shirt as he voiced his thoughts. “I suppose I could make some time after we get the herd moved over to the south pasture next week. I promised Murdoch I’d finish breakin’ some horses this week so…”
“Whoa cowboy!” Doc quickly cut him off. “I don’t think you understand, Johnny. It’s a good thing you caught me when you did. I’m spending the night at the Fletcher ranch because I promised I’d be out to check on Matt’s leg. He cut it bad a couple of days ago, and I’m a little worried it might turn gangrenous. If it weren’t for that I’d haul you back to Lancer and take that appendix out tonight. As it is I’m sorry I have to send you back to wait at all. There’s no ‘making some time’ for this, Johnny. This can be very serious. I’ll be out to the ranch first thing in the morning to get this taken care of.”
Johnny was understandably astounded, and looked it. But Jenkins knew he had witnessed something more in the boy’s reaction. Returning to his side, with arms crossed he confronted his young patient. “You haven’t even told anyone that you’ve been feeling sick, isn’t that right?”
Johnny hid his face from Doc as he tucked in his shirt and buttoned his pants, but there was a hint of sheepishness in his reply. “Well… I didn’t see no need for anybody worryin’ over just a stupid stomachache.”
Sam issued a rather loud sigh of his own now, wondering just how far Johnny would go to protect his family from having to feel even a hint of concern for him. He could only shake his head in dismay.
“Well then,” he stated firmly, as he began to set forward a list of clear-cut instructions he was going to expect Johnny to follow. “After you break the news to everyone, I have some things I need you to do tonight. You tell Teresa and Maria that I’ll need a tall, firm surface to work on, so they need to serve breakfast early and get the kitchen table ready for me. Better not eat breakfast yourself, Johnny. You’ll be feeling sickly afterwards, and the less you have in your stomach the better.”
“I haven’t had much of an appetite past few days anyway,” Johnny offered as he moved to put on his gun belt.
Doc nodded in understanding. “I’m not surprised.”
He continued with his instructions in a tone of voice that left no room for debate. “I’m also going to have to sedate you for the surgery Johnny, so you get your mind wrapped around that tonight. I don’t want to hear any guff out of you in the morning about it, you hear me? I know you don’t like to take medicine, but I can’t do the surgery with you awake so you’re just going to have to get used to the idea. Do whatever you have to do to get prepared for it, but don’t you fight me about it tomorrow.
“And Johnny, I want someone to stay with you tonight while you sleep.”
Johnny knew Sam Jenkins meant business, and that everything he’d been asked to do was for his own good, so he had so far tried real hard not to oppose him. But now Johnny couldn’t help himself. “Doc, I haven’t needed anyone to hold my hand for a long time. I’ll…”
Doc wasted no time cutting his young patient’s protest short. “You’ll nothing! Johnny, I’m not at all comfortable sending you home by yourself with an inflamed appendix, so you have to promise me you’ll have someone watch over you tonight. If your fever or the pain gets any worse I want you to send a rider for me over at Fletcher’s, no matter what time it is. Promise me Johnny – you will not to be alone tonight.”
Grasping the seriousness behind Doc’s words of warning, Johnny immediately backed down. With total sincerity he answered, “Okay, Sam. I promise. I’ll have someone look after me.”
Jenkins was glad that he’d gotten his point across to Johnny and that the boy genuinely seemed to understand why he needed to follow his directions. He knew the Lancers could be a stubborn lot, so was grateful that he wasn’t going to have to fight him over the issue. Doc acknowledged Johnny’s submission with a firm nod.
Johnny was dressed and ready to leave, so Doc again offered him a reassuring pat on the arm and began to lead him out of his office. “Don’t worry, Johnny. We’ll get this taken care of tomorrow. An appendix is something you can live without, so you won’t even miss it after the surgery. I’m glad you thought to come to me before it got any worse.”
Reaching the front door, Jenkins issued one more order. “You go right home, Johnny. No stops.”
Johnny simply nodded. Doc noted that the ex-gunfighter had already once again masked his feelings and was trying to appear perfectly healthy.
Sam thought of one more subject of concern. Knowing Johnny wouldn’t bring it up himself, he asked, “Are you going to be alright riding? I can take you in my buggy if you’re not, so don’t you lie to me.”
In answer, Johnny offered up one of his notoriously disarming smiles. “I’ll be fine Doc. See you in the mornin’.”
Johnny went to leave, but abruptly stopped and turned back. “Thanks Doc. Thanks for everything.”
At that moment, seeing the look of sincere and deep gratitude in Johnny’s eyes, Sam could not have been more pleased that he was Johnny’s friend, first, and physician second. “You’re welcome, Johnny. Try to get some sleep tonight.”
With another nod and a careful glance out the door, Johnny was gone, quickly making his way back toward the saloon, his horse – and home.
By the time Johnny reached the Lancer hacienda just after dusk, he was more than exhausted. The past days of feeling unwell, added to a full day of work and worry, Doc’s painful exam, and the ride home, had combined to take their toll on the ill man. He was nauseous and lightheaded, and overall just felt downright miserable. Johnny wanted nothing more than to get Barranca bedded down and the talk with his family over with, so he could comply with Sam’s final request and try to get some sleep. He was so tired, he didn’t care if everyone on the ranch came and sat in his bedroom and watched.
It was full dark by the time Barranca had been cared for. Johnny left the barn and made his way wearily toward the French doors leading to the hacienda’s great room. Right at that moment, being able to lie back on a couch as he informed his family of his impending surgery sounded pretty inviting.
Before Johnny could even step up onto the veranda, however, the great room doors suddenly opened to reveal the imposing figure of Murdoch Lancer. Johnny quickly took in his father’s stern stance and facial expression. It didn’t take any great reading ability to know that the “old man” wasn’t pleased about something.
“Where have you been?” Murdoch asked, his voice commanding an answer.
“I was in town,” Johnny replied simply, knowing full well that Murdoch had most likely already heard about his trip from Charlie or one of the other hands.
Murdoch didn’t wait for any further explanation. Why should he? It never took much for Johnny’s father to get worked up over any seeming transgression his younger son might have made, so why would today be any different? He’d had plenty of time since the hands had reported in to convince himself that Johnny couldn’t possibly have had a good reason for a trip to town, alone, in the middle of the week.
Scott was still hard at work out on the range, leading the father to once again wonder why his younger son wasn’t more like his older one. Murdoch just could not understand Johnny’s need to continually assert his independence when they had a cattle ranch to run. Well, tonight, Murdoch was bound and determined that Johnny was going to catch another earful about responsibility.
“Why can’t you ever simply do what you’re asked? You may not think it’s very important to clear out a creek bed, but it is. And it’s not fair to have someone else finish your work just so you can go visit the saloon. What is it going to take for you to…”
Johnny did nothing to try and stop his father’s tirade. What would be the point? He’d heard it all before, and tonight he wasn’t physically up to a fight. On top of that, Murdoch obviously wasn’t interested in hearing the truth. As usual, the old man had just made his own assumptions about what Johnny had done, and wasn’t going to allow him a chance to give his side of the story – and that hurt Johnny more than anything. He was sick and in pain, and all his father could think about was his blasted ranch.
His “father” – more like his boss. Scott and Johnny were supposed to be equal owners of Lancer with their father, but Murdoch called the shots. Scott could make suggestions for things he’d like to see happen around the estate and the old man would listen. But Johnny’s opinions were never considered seriously, even though he’d had more experience with ranching than his eastern-raised brother. Talk about things not being “fair”.
Scott had been a part of Murdoch’s life no longer than Johnny. But over the past year their father had found it easy to develop trust in his Harvard-educated older son. His ex-gunfighter younger son, however, was asked to prove himself over and over. Sure they’d had a rocky start – it had been hard for Johnny to change his habits immediately. He’d been on his own for such a long time, he was used to never having to answer to anyone but himself. But lately Johnny had been trying real hard to do things his father’s way – the man just didn’t seem to notice.
Normally Johnny would be up to the challenge of arguing with his father, but not tonight. Thanks to Murdoch’s less than welcoming reception, Johnny was now hurting just as bad mentally as he was physically. The disappointment he felt because of his father’s lack of trust in him was just too great.
Johnny let his father rant on and on, never once attempting to interrupt. Finally Murdoch gave his son a chance to speak, demanding, “What do you have to say for yourself?”
Johnny was still standing in the shadows of the veranda, so Murdoch couldn’t see the hurt and disappointment clearly etched on his son’s fever flushed face. Johnny’s voice did not betray his true feelings as he quietly answered, “I’m sorry I’m such a bother to you. It won’t happen again. I’m gonna go wash up and get to bed.”
With those few words, Johnny turned and walked away from his father, disappearing into the night.
Johnny’s quiet demeanor and simple retreat only served to further infuriate Murdoch. He’d expected a now typical argument from his son, not easy acquiescence and a direct apology. Feeling strangely unsatisfied, Murdoch stomped back into the hacienda and roughly closed the doors behind him, as if to shut his son from his life along with the night.
Johnny felt like he was in a daze. Making his way around the hacienda toward the kitchen entrance, he once again became severely nauseated. Ducking quickly behind some bushes, he dry heaved violently. There was nothing left in his stomach to throw up, so it was as if the act were done to rid himself not only of his illness but the anguish he felt over his father’s actions.
Trying to regain control over his body and his emotions, Johnny leaned back against the smooth adobe wall of the hacienda as he tightly gripped his abdomen. He wanted to be anyplace else right now, anyplace far away from his father. But staring up at the distant stars would have to do. His legs felt shaky, days of not eating and his fever having left him increasingly weakened.
All of Doc’s instructions were forgotten. Johnny had been totally drained of any desire to take care of himself, let alone have someone else do it for him. The last thing he needed right now was sympathy. His brother Scott, his “sister” Teresa, his friend Jelly – he had become close to them all, but what he really wanted, what he really needed, was to be loved and understood by his father. Johnny didn’t need Murdoch to feel sorry for him, he needed him – just for once – to make him feel like he belonged at Lancer.
Instead, his father had just driven him away.
Johnny stayed where he was for a very long time, the soft breeze drifting through the night air and the evening quiet helping to soothe his aching spirit. Living on his own had often been lonely, but Johnny found being alone was still strangely a comfort to him in times of strife. He might have stayed where he was the entire night, but his fatigue once again took over. Johnny knew he had to at least get off his feet, and no one would have need to bother or worry over him if they knew he was safe in his room.
He made his way around the hacienda and washed up quickly. Listening at the kitchen door to make sure no one was there, Johnny entered and quietly closed the door behind him. He noticed that Teresa had thoughtfully left food out for he and Scott, but he had absolutely no appetite so left it untouched and instead made his way up the back stairs to his bedroom.
Trying to ignore his pain as he undressed, Johnny finally found the comfort of his bed. Sleep descended on him almost immediately, but it proved fleeting as he was unfortunately woken repeatedly by his discomfort during the night.
Johnny stayed in his room, alone, suffering and dozing fitfully. Each time he woke, through his pain and fever, Johnny tried to focus his feelings – and he came to a decision.
Up early the next morning, Johnny made his way to the barn. He managed to saddle Barranca and ride off without being seen, seeking to catch Sam Jenkins before he could reach the ranch.
Doc had been pleased with the condition of Matt Fletcher’s leg, and felt comfortable leaving the man in his wife’s care so he could move on to his next patient. As happy as he was with Matt’s progress, Jenkins was even more relieved to finally be on the road. It had bothered the physician all evening that he had let Johnny return home unaccompanied. Throughout the night Doc had felt anxious that Johnny’s condition might suddenly worsen, and he had found himself awake several times, listening for a rider who might be urgently coming to fetch him to Lancer.
Sam’s anxiety came back on him threefold as he caught sight of a rider coming toward him from the direction of the Lancer hacienda. Finally recognizing Barranca, Jenkins didn’t know whether he should be amazed, concerned, or annoyed that Johnny would be up and riding in his condition. He quickly determining that he was all three.
The instant Johnny reined up beside him, Doc let him have it. “What in tarnation are you doing up on the back of a horse this morning?”
“I want you to do the operation in your office, Doc. In town.” Johnny’s answer was firm and to the point.
Sam had seen that stubborn look on Johnny’s face before, so had a pretty good idea of who had put it there. “Why?” Jenkins replied back, equally as firm and to the point.
With Doc’s direct inquiry, Johnny seemed to lose some of his determination. He had been so focused on his decision that he hadn’t expected Sam to question him. Plus, he really didn’t have any business being up on a horse. He felt absolutely horrible, and just wanted to get the surgery over with.
“Why don’t matter. I just want it that way.” Johnny knew his argument was weak, but he also didn’t feel like getting into a debate over his reasoning. All he wanted was for Sam to do what he asked.
Jenkins did not cooperate. He got out of his buggy to press his own position, starting out with another direct question. “Who’s going to take care of you? Johnny, you’re going to be bed ridden for at least two or three days, and that’s only if your fever backs down right away. After that, you’ll be lucky if I let you go any further than the porch for another couple of weeks.
“Maybe I should have explained this to you a little more yesterday. This isn’t minor surgery, Johnny. I’m going to have to make an incision about this wide,” Doc explained as he indicated about four inches, “cut that appendix out, then sew it all back up, inside and out. You can’t put yourself in a position where you might tear those stitches! And if you’ve got a major infection, I’m going to have to deal with that, too.”
Sam’s voice finally lost some of its hard edge, and with true regret he added, “I’ve got other serious patients right now. Johnny, I can’t look after you.”
Johnny’s discomfort was obviously getting worse, but he stubbornly asked, “Can’t you just do the surgery in your office, then sneak me into the hotel? I can take care of myself there. Had to do it plenty of times before. It’ll be alright.”
Doc just could not believe what Johnny was asking him to do, and could only think of one reason for why the boy would make such a request. “It’s not alright. Now get down off that horse before you fall down, and tell me what Murdoch did.”
The look of surprise that Johnny let slip, before he quickly dropped his head to avoid Doc’s gaze, told Jenkins that he had guessed correctly, although he had really hoped he would have been wrong this time.
Quieter now, and with compassion, Doc repeated his request. “Come on, Johnny. Get down and let’s talk about this.”
Johnny continued to hang his head, refusing to meet Doc’s eyes. But knowing he really was ready to fall off Barranca’s back, he finally did what Sam asked and carefully lowered himself to the ground.
Doc was there to steady Johnny as he dismounted, then led him over to lean up against his buggy. His patient was so despondent that he continued to keep his head lowered, but the physician could still tell how much more flushed Johnny had become from his fever since the previous evening. He also noticed that he was now visibly guarding his right side from the pain.
As Doc felt Johnny’s forehead to determine just how high his temperature had risen, he queried, “Johnny, did you do anything I asked you to do last night?”
Johnny merely shook his head no, still refusing to look at Doc.
“So you spent the night alone, even though I warned you not to, didn’t you?”
This time Johnny couldn’t even bring himself to shake his head. Johnny respected Doc Jenkins a lot, and couldn’t stand the thought that he had disappointed him.
Sam didn’t like seeing Johnny Madrid Lancer with the fight taken out of him. It just wasn’t natural to see this boy’s vibrant spirit so badly broken that it appeared he could care less if he even lived. Doc wasn’t mad at Johnny, but he had a feeling he was about to get real angry with somebody.
In a less confrontational tone, Doc once again asked, “Johnny, what did Murdoch say to you when you got back to the ranch last night? And don’t tell me nothing. I know that man, and I’m sure he put his foot in his mouth somehow.”
Johnny still wouldn’t look at him, but with Doc’s intuitive statement, he actually had to smile. With a heavy sigh, however, Johnny’s frown quickly returned as he gave up and quietly answered. “He didn’t even let me get a word in. Murdoch found out I’d left the job I’d been workin’ and asked me where I’d been to.”
Trying to redeem himself, Johnny finally looked at Jenkins and added earnestly, “I was ready to tell him the truth Doc, honest. But all I had to say was I’d been to town and he lit into me. Just naturally figured I’d made the trip to get a drink or somethin’ stupid like that.”
Once again Johnny bowed his head and his voice filled with sadness. “I ain’t left work undone or made any unannounced trips to town for months, but he don’t ever forget. He can’t trust me as far as he can throw me and I’m tired of it.”
Doc could tell that Johnny was weary, in pain, and getting upset. But he wanted the whole story, so asked, “Why don’t you want to have the surgery at home?”
Johnny laughed bitterly. “What home. It’s Murdoch’s home, his property, and heaven take me if I should do anythin’ to slow things down. I wouldn’t want to inconvenience Mr. Lancer. I don’t need to feel obliged to that man any more than I already do, and I sure don’t want him feelin’ sorry for me. Only time he ever seems to care about me is when I’m flat on my back, and I don’t need him carin’ for me like that!”
The young Lancer son had seemed to regain some of his fight as he’d finally voiced his anger toward his father. But the effort had also worn the sick man out. Johnny made one last sad attempt to appeal to Doc. “Sam, please. Can’t you just do this in town? I’ll be okay on my own, I promise.”
Doc could not believe what Murdoch Lancer had done to his own son. But he wasn’t about to let this boy suffer for that man’s failings as a father. If Doc had to do Johnny’s fighting for him, so be it.
“Johnny, I understand how you feel, more than you could guess. But it’s not safe for you in town. You know that. You won’t be able to take care of yourself, and you shouldn’t have to. You are not going to go through this alone, Johnny, just because your father is a stupid and pigheaded man. You forget, Lancer is not just Murdoch now, it’s your brother too. And I guarantee there is no way Scott is going to allow you to undergo an operation and then recuperate in town by yourself. Teresa or Jelly either for that matter. All in all, I say your father is outnumbered, and if you don’t want to have to deal with him, I can take care of that too.
“Johnny, you are having surgery this morning, at Lancer, and that’s all there is to it. You leave everything to me.”
With that, Doc grabbed Barranca’s reins out of Johnny’s hands and went to tie him to the rear of the buggy as he ordered, “Now get in, and we’ll get you back to the ranch and well again.”
Johnny was silent during the entire ride to the Lancer hacienda, and that was just fine with Doc because inside he was seething. He liked Johnny a lot – everyone did, except, apparently, for his own father. Witnessing the devastating effect that man could have on his son had Sam Jenkins ready to boil.
Murdoch Lancer was a stubborn man, and couldn’t get past Johnny’s past life as a gunfighter and the independence he’d developed while living alone most of his life. All he seemed to do was fight and disagree with his younger son. Murdoch didn’t – or couldn’t – see what everyone else saw – a hard working young man with a lot of spirit, but who’d obviously suffered more in his few years than most people did in a long lifetime.
Being called back to Lancer had literally been lifesaving for Johnny. Facing a firing squad of Mexican rurales for being on the losing side of a war, the gunfighter had been saved at the last minute by a Pinkerton agent sent by his father. Johnny had taken the shot at redemption and run with it, doing everything he could to leave behind that unwanted life of violence and pain. Although he had found a brother who was helping to continually pull him away from that existence, his father, given that he’d put so much effort into finding the boy, surprisingly seemed to be doing everything he could to push him right back into it.
Doc knew better than perhaps anyone how really hard Johnny’s life had been. He’d seen firsthand and up close the many scars that marred the young man’s body – bullet and knife wounds, broken bones, and signs of whippings and beatings – and could only imagine the violent life he had had to live. Yet it never ceased to amaze Doc to witness how Johnny had survived with little bitterness over his lot and a joy for life that was infectious.
Johnny had a seemingly unending supply of thoughtfulness and compassion for everyone – everyone but himself. No one came down harder on Johnny than Johnny. He was self-effacing to a fault, and knew full well what people thought of his prior occupation. But he was obviously working hard at putting that all behind him. Obvious, that was, to everyone except Murdoch Lancer. And that was going to change. Today.
Doc would be seeing to it.
By the time Sam Jenkins pulled into the courtyard at Lancer, he had whipped himself into a severe state of determination. Turning to Johnny he ordered, “Let me do the talking.”
Bringing his buggy to a stop, Doc immediately got down and headed to Johnny’s side to give him a hand. “Scott!” Sam hailed the house loudly. “Scott Lancer, I need your help out here.”
It didn’t take more than a minute for Scott to throw open the doors leading from the great room and run out to see what was wrong, Murdoch and Teresa right behind him. Jelly was also making his way over from the corral, having already become concerned as he’d watched the physician’s buggy drive up with Barranca tied to the back.
The sight of Doc supporting Johnny against the side of the buggy was alarming to them all, but Murdoch spoke up first. “Sam what is this? What’s wrong with Johnny?”
Jenkins angrily barked his reply at the Lancer patriarch. “Murdoch, you didn’t care what was wrong with him last night, you don’t have my permission to ask about him now.”
Doc’s harsh words stunned everyone, stopping them in their tracks. Johnny didn’t have much fight left in him, but even he could not believe how the physician had addressed his father. “Doc, please…” he started to protest, but Jenkins cut him off.
“Stay quiet, Johnny. I told you I would handle this.”
All business now, Jenkins began issuing orders. “Scott, get over here and help your brother onto the couch. Make him comfortable and stay with him until I come and get you.”
Scott immediately came forward. As he took Sam’s place and moved to put his left arm around Johnny’s back to support him, he didn’t see any obvious wounds but could plainly see that his brother was flushed with fever and holding tightly to his right side. “Doc, what’s wrong with him? Please!”
The concern in Scott’s plea was unmistakable. Doc realized it was unfair of him to keep the others guessing just because he was angry with Murdoch. Knowing full well that Johnny’s father would overhear, but for the peace of mind and benefit of everyone else present, Doc answered. “He has appendicitis. I need to perform surgery to take out his appendix right away. You do as I told you while Teresa and I get things ready.”
As Scott immediately complied and carefully guided Johnny into the great room, their father tried to follow. “Murdoch, you stay where you are for a minute,” Doc called out to halt him. “I need to talk with you.”
Murdoch could not believe how his long-time friend had been addressing him, and was annoyed that Jenkins hadn’t allowed him to follow his sons. But he reasoned that perhaps Doc needed to discuss something about Johnny’s condition or care with him in private, so Murdoch complied with the request and stayed where he was on the veranda.
Doc turned to get his medical bag out of the buggy and noticed that Jelly had joined them. “Jelly. Good. I’m glad you’re here. Could you please grab that case out of the back and take it into the kitchen. Find Maria and tell her I’m going to need her to help me.”
Jelly was certainly eager to lend a hand, and grateful that Sam was putting him to work. “Sure Doc, anythin’ you need tah help Johnny. Gonna need some boilin’ water I expect. I’ll get thet started too.”
Doc knew Jelly was a good man to have around when things needed to get done. He also knew that the old ranch hand was very close to the younger Lancer son. “Yes, Jelly, thank you, and Scott will need some cold water to help cool Johnny’s fever a bit.”
“I’ll take care of it, you jest leave it tah me,” Jelly assured him, already moving off with Doc’s case.
Jenkins continued to ignore Murdoch as he turned his attention to addressing the man’s ward. “Teresa, I’m going to need the kitchen table prepared for Johnny’s operation. I know you and Maria know what to do,” he added confidently. Handing her his bag he instructed, “Go ahead and get my instruments ready. I’ll be along shortly.”
Teresa did indeed know what Doc would need. A working cattle ranch, especially one as large as the Lancer spread, posed all kinds of dangers for the hands that helped run it. Teresa had lived there all her life, so was well aware of a wide variety of medical procedures and what they entailed. So, having no immediate questions she simply took Doc’s bag from him and, with a nod, ran off to do as he had asked.
Sam watched Teresa leave and was comforted by the knowledge that she, Jelly, and Scott were reacting exactly as he had expected. Their behavior reassured Doc that he had done the right thing in bringing Johnny back to Lancer for his surgery. He knew Johnny had people who loved him here, and that he would be well cared for.
But now he was alone with Murdoch, and Jenkins could feel his indignation once again rising. Murdoch only made things worse by opening up his mouth and, with a tone of impatience, asking, “What do you need Sam? I’d like to get in there and check on my son.”
Doc came up to Murdoch’s level on the veranda and deliberately closed the great room doors. Only then did he face the man, and in a not exactly quiet voice replied, “No Murdoch, you’re going to stay away from Johnny just now. He’s got no desire to see you.”
Murdoch could not believe what Doc had just told him. “That’s crazy,” he scoffed. “Did he tell you that?”
“That, and a lot more. But most I figured out all by myself. Murdoch, I’ve had it with you, and can’t say I much want you around myself. Do you realize that boy came and met me on the road this morning, even though he had no business riding in his condition, to tell me that he wanted me to operate on him in town, then send him over to the hotel, alone, to recover.”
Murdoch was taken aback by Johnny’s actions and request. “Why in the world would he want that?”
“Johnny didn’t want to inconvenience you or make you obliged to feel sorry for him. Said you didn’t care to find out last night why he rode to town, just assumed as usual it was to do something stupid, like try to enjoy himself for a few minutes.” Doc’s voice had been steadily rising, and he was now ready to unleash his full temper on Johnny’s father. “Murdoch, it’s a good thing Johnny learned how to take care of himself, because you’re doing a really poor job of it!”
Murdoch started to interject, but Jenkins didn’t let him get a word in. “No, Murdoch, you’re going to listen to someone else for a change. How do you like being cut off before you can have your own say?
“Johnny thinks the only time you care about him is when he’s unwell. And you know what – I think he’s right. And do you also know that the way you treat that boy could have gotten him killed! Appendicitis can be fatal if left untreated for too long. If Johnny hadn’t had the good sense to follow his instincts and at least ask me about it, he may have waited until it was too late. And that’s why he was in town yesterday! He didn’t tell you where he was going beforehand because he didn’t want to worry any of you until he was sure there was something to worry about.
“Johnny needs your trust and understanding Murdoch, freely given and shown, not your sympathy. That boy would rather take his chances alone in a hotel room like he used to when he didn’t have a choice, than make you feel like you had to feel sorry for him, or owed him something… or like he was slowing down production on the ranch, of all things!
“Murdoch, when I told him he needed surgery, do you know what your son said? That he might be able to fit it into his schedule next week after he finished busting some horses and moved a herd of cattle for you! Johnny’s in so much pain he can barely sit a horse, but his first thoughts were not to do anything to cause you any trouble. And your first thought? That he’d just run off to do something selfish.
“He’s been here nearly a year, Murdoch, but you still have absolutely no idea of how that boy thinks. Johnny had never even heard of appendicitis before, but he’s smart enough to know something was wrong. Maybe if you’d shut up once in awhile you’d realize when things are wrong, too!
“Johnny’s hurting right now and doesn’t have the strength to tell you himself, so I’m doing it for him. You lost the privilege of seeing him through this last night when you turned him away. Your assistance is neither needed nor wanted Murdoch. Scott, Teresa and Jelly can help me.”
Murdoch again tried to get a word in, but Doc quickly cut him off.
“I don’t want to hear any excuses, Murdoch, and I’ll take no argument. Your son needs rest and quiet and comfort right now, and I’ll not have you upsetting him any further.”
With a final shout of, “Stay out of the way Murdoch!” Doc turned and entered the great room, closing the doors behind him.
Murdoch ironically found himself standing alone on the outside, just as he had left his son the evening before – only he was being bathed in the harsh light of day.
Inside the hacienda the others were going about their tasks and preparing for Johnny’s surgery. Scott had his brother’s boots, jacket, gun belt and belt removed and had him lying on the couch. Teresa bustled through with an armful of clean sheets. She handed a blanket off to Scott to put over Johnny, just as Jelly entered with a bowl of cool water and some washcloths.
No one in the hacienda – probably no one on the entire ranch – was missing Doc’s diatribe to Murdoch. As Jenkins’ voice rose explaining how Murdoch’s behavior could have gotten Johnny killed, the four in the great room paused, then shared a look, each in turn not believing Doc had the guts to talk to Murdoch in such a manner. But Scott, Teresa and Jelly were all secretly glad that someone was finally putting Murdoch Lancer in his place.
Johnny didn’t know what to think. He knew Sam meant well, but it was his responsibility to sort things out with his father, no one else’s. He wanted to get up and stop Doc, stop things before they went too far. But he was too tired, emotionally and physically, and his senses were reeling.
Finally, as Jenkins explained how Johnny had not wanted to worry anyone, it became too much for the sick man. All of his efforts had been for nothing. He knew with everything they were overhearing that they’d all be even more concerned about him now. Johnny had to close his eyes and look away.
The other three in the great room took notice. As much as each had tried, over the past year none of them had been able to convince Johnny that he was worth caring about. Every time they thought that headway had been made in breaking through Johnny’s carefully built emotional barriers, he’d close up again, as if it hurt more to let his feelings out than keep them buried within.
This time Scott was not going to let Johnny get away with it. “Johnny, look at us,” he demanded.
It took him a moment, but finally Johnny opened his eyes and turned to face them all. Scott firmly stated, “I think I’m speaking for us all by saying it’s okay to let us worry about you Johnny. It’s what families do. And there is no way you are going to stop us from helping you.”
Teresa laid a hand on his shoulder and added, “That’s right, Johnny. We’ll be here.”
Jelly had set the bowl of cool water down and was dipping a washcloth into it. Wringing out the cloth, he handed it off to Scott and stated, “That sure is right. We’re all gonna make sure you’ll be up ‘n ‘round in no time. Maria too!”
Johnny was overwhelmed by this show of support that was so much in contrast to how his father had treated him. He knew now that Doc had been right, that his “family” would not have allowed him to have stayed in town alone.
He wanted to tell them how very much their support meant to him, but Johnny didn’t know how. Words just wouldn’t do it right now. “Thanks,” was all he could manage. But his quiet voice and ever-expressive eyes were filled with a multitude of silent words of gratitude – and that was more than enough for the others.
Jelly and Teresa shot him smiles, then quickly hurried off to complete preparations for Doc. Scott applied the dampened cloth to Johnny’s forehead as he said, “Rest now Johnny. We’ll take care of you.”
Johnny simply sighed and once again closed his eyes. He wanted very badly to rest, but Doc’s reprimand of Murdoch just seemed to go on and on.
Scott knew his father fully deserved the dressing down Sam Jenkins was giving him. But he could tell how difficult and upsetting it was for Johnny to listen to his problems with Murdoch being declared so clearly and publicly to the entire ranch. Not that everyone wasn’t already aware of the struggles father and son had communicating with each other. It was hard not to miss the loud arguments the pair repeatedly got into.
But this was different. Doc was in effect leveling the playing field and changing the rules, forcing the Lancer patriarch to swallow a bitter pill of enlightenment. Murdoch was finding out that, not only was he not always right, but just how dangerously wrong he could be about things when it came to dealing with his younger son.
And Johnny… Johnny was going to have to pick up the gauntlet Doc was throwing down and once and for all come to some kind of agreement with his father. And no one had ever wanted to willingly contemplate what the alternative might be if such an agreement could not be reached.
Doc finally finished with Murdoch and, on entering the room, literally thought he was closing the door on the subject. Scott observed Jenkins as he paused to collect himself. As strong as Doc had sounded, the impassioned effort had obviously taxed the older man. Scott watched, as the energy seemed to drain out of the physician for a moment.
But Doc knew he had a patient waiting, so with a deep breath, he quickly composed himself. Looking up he met Scott’s watchful gaze, and was instantly strengthened by the slight smile the older Lancer son offered him as a show of support. With a nod indicating he was ready to move on, Doc joined Scott at Johnny’s side.
Jenkins was pleased, but not surprised, to find that Johnny had indeed been made comfortable. With a cheerful tone he addressed Scott, but actually hoped to get a smile out of Johnny. “Well, good to see at least someone follows my directions around here!”
Johnny didn’t take the bait and offered no reaction, causing Doc to frown. Johnny was obviously more than in pain – he was upset, forcing Doc to realize for the first time that choosing to confront Murdoch at this time had been a mistake. He’d been so intent on venting his own anger on the elder Lancer that he had failed to take into account what the consequences would be for Johnny.
‘First do no harm. Great job, Doctor Jenkins. What an excellent physician you are,’ Doc sarcastically congratulated himself. ‘You may be able to take out this boy’s appendix, but what are you going to do to fix the spirit you just helped damage?’
Doc knew he was going to have more to do today than just operate on Johnny, but first things needed to remain first. Focusing back on the task at hand he asked seriously, “Johnny, how are you doing?”
Johnny kept his eyes closed and his answer simple. “Fine Doc. Bein’ well cared for.”
Doc knew Johnny wouldn’t notice, but for Scott’s benefit he offered up a smile and complimented, “I have good helpers.”
Giving Johnny’s shoulder an encouraging squeeze, Doc said, “We’ll be ready for you shortly. You just lay quiet.”
Johnny did just that and maintained his chilly silence. Doc was disturbed by his patient’s unusually detached behavior, and his own part in having helped cause it. But he didn’t have time to try and set things right between them now.
With a frustration-laced sigh, Sam refocused his attention. “Stay with him, Scott,” Doc requested as he moved past and left the room to find the others.
Entering the kitchen, Doc found Jelly, Teresa, and the Lancer housekeeper and cook, Maria, busy getting things ready for Johnny’s surgery. “I knew you three would know what to do,” he announced. “You’re doing a wonderful job. All of you.”
As much as the trio appreciated Doc’s compliment, their concern was more apparent. Jelly gave voice to their mutual question. “Johnny’s gonna be okay, ain’t he Doc?”
‘Physically at least,’ Jenkins thought. But that was for him to consider, later and alone. For the others’ benefit, Doc confidently answered, “Of course he is. We’ll have him fixed up in no time. Now let’s see what we have left to do.”
It wasn’t long before Doc felt they were ready and sent Jelly to fetch his patient.
Scott and Jelly hovered close, but Johnny walked himself into the kitchen without support, the blanket draped around his shoulders and his hand on his side – looking just about as forlorn as any of them had ever seen. Johnny was once again keeping his head down, his eyes carefully hidden from view.
Doc knew Johnny wouldn’t want him to prolong getting things started. Johnny had had surgery before, sadly to repair bullet and knife wounds, and Doc had told him that morning pretty much everything he needed to expect from this operation. Just to be sure he asked, “Do you have any questions Johnny?”
He wouldn’t meet any of their concern-filled gazes, but lifting his head slightly, Johnny shook his head no.
“Alright then,” Doc continued, “go ahead and take your shirt off and lay down.”
Johnny let the blanket drop off his shoulders and handed it to Jelly, then unbuttoned his shirt. As he helped the sick man shirk himself out of the garment, the old man managed to finagle a small smile out of his young friend by giving Johnny’s arm a quick but reassuring squeeze.
As he wrapped a supportive arm around his brother and helped him up onto the table, Scott gave Jelly a quick wink, acknowledging the accomplishment of breaking through Johnny’s somber mood, if only for a moment.
Scott backed out of the way to stand at his brother’s shoulder, as Doc carried a small cloth covered tray over and took his place at Johnny’s side. Looking down at his patient he asked, “Are you comfortable?”
Johnny was still sullen, but a hint of his sense of humor slipped through in his simple but honest answer. “No,” he responded, with an appropriate roll of his eyes.
Doc shared a quick tension-breaking smile with the others, then told Johnny, “Well, you soon will be. For a while at least.” With that, he motioned Teresa over to hold the tray, then removed the cloth and lifted up an already filled syringe.
The scowl that appeared on Johnny’s face wasn’t surprising, but Doc quickly reminded him, “I warned you yesterday, Johnny. I’m almost out of ether, so it’s going to have to be a shot of morphine. Now give me your arm.”
Johnny did nothing for a moment but return Doc’s stubborn glare. Everyone else held their breath, certain that Johnny was going to refuse. It had become common knowledge at the hacienda that Johnny had to be fought to take any kind of medication. Even when badly wounded he had to be argued with to accept anything that would help relieve his pain. Johnny had never confided in anyone exactly why he didn’t like it, but Murdoch and Doc had supposed it had to do with his life as a gunfighter and not ever wanting to be put in a position where he couldn’t possibly defend himself.
Just when they thought there might be a stalemate, Johnny surprised them all when he simply faced the ceiling and held out his left arm.
Doc didn’t allow any further chance for delay, and simply took hold of Johnny’s arm. Searching for a vein, he said, “Don’t worry Johnny, we’re going to take good care of you. Hold still now.” Doc had found what he was looking for and, positioning the syringe, carefully inserted the hypodermic needle into Johnny’s arm and started the injection.
Despite his resolve, Johnny still tensed a little, and quite frankly so did everyone else. Doc noticed. “Just relax,” he said calmly.
Johnny honestly tried to comply. He kept up a running dialogue with himself, saying anything and everything to convince himself to just let go and allow the morphine to take effect.
‘This ain’t your normal visit to the doc, Madrid. Not here to just get a bullet pulled or a few stitches put in. No sirree. Sam’s gonna have to cut out a piece of good old Johnny himself this time, and darn right you’ll have to lay still for that! And it ain’t like you just been in a shootout or fight with someone. No one’s comin’ lookin’ for you right now to be worried about, so just close your eyes and go to sleep. That’s it, Madrid. Just go to sleep…’
Johnny was unusually quiet and still, but finally his eyes began to drift closed. Doc kept stealing glances at his patient as he proceeded slowly with the injection. He didn’t know what Johnny was thinking, but whatever it was, Sam was pleased that it seemed to be working.
Doc’s sense of relief came too soon. Something about the removal of the needle from Johnny’s arm startled him. As his eyes shot open, he quickly turned his head and saw Doc holding up the syringe. A gunfighter’s instincts took over, and Johnny pulled his arm away from Doc’s grip.
“I can’t do this,” Johnny announced groggily, the drug-induced haze making it seem like Doc was just starting to medicate him, instead of having just finished the injection.
Johnny’s level of anxiety rose rapidly, and his will to regain control over his lethargic body and mind became strong. Trying to sit up, he repeated, “I can’t do this.” Then anger leapt into his voice, as he demanded, “Don’t make me sleep!”
“Hold him down, Scott!” Doc ordered as he placed the now empty syringe back on the tray, still being held by a visibly upset Teresa.
Scott stood behind Johnny’s head, grabbed him by the shoulders and forced him back onto the table. Maintaining a firm grip, he immediately bent his head down beside his brother’s and began trying to calm him. “It’s alright Johnny. I’ll be here. I’ll watch your back. Just go to sleep. Everything’s fine…”
Johnny was breathing rapidly from his efforts, trying desperately to keep his eyes open and stay awake. But Scott’s voice had an almost instant calming effect, and his words seemed to reassure Johnny that everything would indeed be alright if he closed his eyes.
Finally Johnny stopped fighting the medication. However, before succumbing fully to its effects, he had one last plea. “Scott… stay.”
“I will Johnny. I will. I’ll be here,” Scott reassured his brother as his eyes finally closed.
Doc lifted Johnny’s eyelids one at a time and confirmed that his patient was finally totally unconscious. Satisfied, he let out a deep sigh of relief and uttered to himself, “Well, at least he tried.”
“What do you mean, Sam?” Scott asked for the now curious group.
“When Johnny met with me yesterday, I gave him a list of instructions for this morning,” Doc explained. “One thing I asked him to do was to find some way to accept being sedated. He at least tried not to fight me, I’ve got to give him that,” Doc said with an air of approval. But then his tone changed to one of annoyance. “And if Murdoch had let him get a word in edgewise yesterday, you would have all known he was sick last night and had things ready for me this morning!”
“Yes, we heard,” Scott said sadly, his right hand still resting on Johnny’s shoulder, as if he were afraid his brother would wake if he let go.
Scott went ahead and asked the question that had been bothering him all morning. “Doc, did Johnny really ask you to perform this operation on him in town, and then send him to the hotel – alone?”
One look at Scott and Sam could tell he was taking Johnny’s request personally. Gazing around the room he could see that the others had considered the same thing. Working quickly to dispel their misguided thoughts, Jenkins answered firmly. “Yes, he did. But don’t you worry, it had absolutely nothing to do with any of you.”
Directing his comments now at Scott, he added passionately, “It’s that father of yours! Scott, Johnny and Murdoch have got to get this worked out between them, and soon. The way things are going, your brother may not lose his life, but he will surely lose his spirit. And I for one would really hate to see that happen.”
Doc turned his attention back to the unconscious man on the table. “Now let’s see about getting him back on his feet again. Maria, I’ll want you to assist me. The rest of you need to leave, now.”
At Doc’s order Jelly and Teresa started to protest, but Sam cut them off short. “I don’t have time for this. The two of us can handle things, there’s no reason for you to stay.”
“There is for me, Doc,” Scott stated firmly. “You heard me promise Johnny. I’ll keep out of your way, and I won’t try to interfere, but I am not leaving.”
Jenkins gave Scott a hard look, but he could tell the younger man was serious and was not going to back down. ‘Yep. Those Lancers sure are a stubborn lot,’ Doc once again thought.
“Fine,” he yielded. “But the first time you open up your mouth you’ll have to leave.”
“I promise Doc, I won’t interfere,” Scott agreed. Looking down at his brother’s sleeping form he added, “I just need to be here for Johnny.”
Jenkins wasted no more time and, moving toward Jelly and Teresa, he began ushering them to the door. “Now you two – out. I’ll let you know as soon as we’re done. Go on now.”
The old man and young woman managed one more concerned glance back toward Johnny, then the door closed firmly behind them.
Since he insisted on being present, Scott was pressed into service helping Sam and Maria get Johnny prepared for his surgery. But he truly wasn’t interested in watching as the physician cut his brother open. So, once everything was in place, Scott set a chair behind Johnny’s head, sat down, and again put a supportive hand on his brother’s shoulder. Scott stayed that way throughout the surgery and, true to his word, never once tried to interfere.
Doc placed one last stitch to close Johnny’s incision, cut the thread, and then returned his instruments to a nearby tray. He carefully cleaned the surgical area and set a loose dressing over it, then finished by pulling a sheet that already partially covered his patient up higher over the still unconscious man.
“Thank you for your help, Maria. You can go ahead and start cleaning up now,” Doc instructed as he washed his hands.
“It is good that you take care of Juanito for us, Doctor Jenkins,” the woman offered in return as she efficiently began to gather things up into a large basin.
Scott looked up questioningly from where he sat, and Jenkins caught his gaze as he moved to Johnny’s side with his stethoscope. “Yes, Scott, I’m finished, but give me another moment.”
Silently, Scott stood and moved his chair out of the way, then waited patiently as Doc listened to his brother’s heart and lungs, and then took his pulse.
Finally Doc smiled broadly. “Johnny’s doing just fine. He’s still deeply asleep – I made sure he got a good dose of the morphine.” With a twinkle in his eyes he added, “Figured Johnny wouldn’t give me a second chance at it.
“Go ahead and put that blanket over him to keep him warm, and stay with him. Johnny can rest here for awhile while I let the others know how things went, then we’ll move him up to his room.”
“Thanks Doc,” Scott offered as he turned to get the blanket as the physician had instructed.
Exiting the kitchen, Doc didn’t have to go far to find Teresa and Jelly. They’d been hovering just outside the door for the last twenty minutes, anything else they could think to do having been done, and their nerves both fraying at about an equal pace.
“How’d he do, Doc?” Jelly asked, just barely ahead of Teresa’s concern-filled question of, “How’s Johnny?”
Jenkins couldn’t do anything but shake his head and laugh at the most unusual set of twins he’d ever laid eyes on. “He’s fine. Absolutely fine. We’ll be ready to move him soon.”
“That’s wonderful!” Teresa exclaimed, and then reported, “His room’s all ready, Doc.”
Sam nodded his approval. “Bring down a nightshirt for him, will you please, and an extra blanket,” he requested.
“Sure will,” the young woman affirmed.
Turning to the older man, Doc further asked, “Jelly, we’ll also need something to move him on, and a couple of hands to help carry him.”
“I’ll take care of it,” Jelly said with assurance, but then his eagerness seemed to falter. “Can we please go see him first?”
Doc looked into the two pairs of hopeful eyes and again had to laugh. “Of course. Scott’s still with him, and Maria’s cleaning things up. You go join them for a few minutes.”
“Thanks, Doc!” the twins exclaimed in unison, then immediately moved toward the kitchen.
“Hold on,” Jenkins stopped them. “Do you know where Murdoch is?”
Jelly and Teresa shared a look, each wondering what more words Doc might have for the senior Lancer. Finally Teresa answered. “He’s been at his desk.”
“Thanks. Go on you two, but don’t stay too long,” Doc instructed. “Johnny will sleep for a while yet, but I want to be sure we get him moved well before the morphine wears off. No use causing him any more pain than we need to.”
“Don’t worry Doc, we’ll be ready for yah,” Jelly offered, then immediately took charge. “Come on Miss T’resa, let’s git a move on!”
Sam made his way to the office, calling out for Murdoch as he knocked on the closed door. Receiving no answer, he went ahead and let himself in.
Murdoch was standing and staring out the window behind his desk. He didn’t bother turning to confirm who had entered. Doc knew Murdoch had been insulted by his verbal attack on his character and abilities as a father, so wasn’t surprised that his entrance hadn’t been acknowledged. But concern for the senior Lancer’s wounded pride wasn’t why Doc had tracked him down.
Forging ahead, Jenkins reported, “Murdoch, Johnny’s surgery went fine. There were no complications, thank goodness, so barring any infection that might develop he should be fully back on his feet in a couple of weeks.”
Again getting no response, Doc simply continued. “You need to know that Johnny did not ask me to speak on his behalf this morning. As a matter of fact, I think he’s rather upset with me for having done so. And you may feel I had no right to talk to you like I did. But Murdoch, if you had seen your son when he met me on the road this morning you’d understand why I had to speak up. To have had to watch him stand there, as sick as he was, and beg me to operate on him in town was the last straw, especially when he’s supposed to have a family here he should be able to depend on for support.”
Doc’s temper once again flared as he added heatedly, “Dammit, Murdoch, he shouldn’t have to suffer alone anymore! Hasn’t he endured enough on his own?”
Realizing that he’d once again lost control over his feelings, Sam took a deep breath and continued more evenly. “I know there have been problems between you and that boy, but you have got to find some way to talk this out and come to an understanding with him. Johnny’s a good kid, and he deserves better than you’ve been giving him. And if you continue to push him away, you need to realize that you’re probably going to lose Scott, too. He insisted on staying with his brother during the surgery because he promised him he would, even though Johnny was unconscious through it all and wouldn’t have known the difference.
“It’s obvious that those two men have managed to form a bond of friendship and respect for each other that is only going to be strengthened if you do anything that might threaten to break it. Don’t make Scott choose sides, Murdoch – you may just lose that battle. His brother has found a man he can like, now it’s your turn. Johnny is trying. You need to make an effort too. Before it’s too late.”
Having once again had his say but still receiving no response, Doc simply added, “We’ll be moving Johnny up to his room soon. I’ll be staying until he’s awake.”
Feeling he’d done all he could for the time being, Doc left Murdoch to his own thoughts.
Jelly was as good as his word, as usual, and had everything ready for moving Johnny up to his bedroom as soon as Doc said they could. As the small group carefully climbed the stairs, the men carrying the younger Lancer son kept up a quiet dialogue with each other, issuing instructions for how to accomplish the act safely.
Everyone was so intent on their task that no one noticed Murdoch standing in the doorway below, silently watching his unconscious son being carried up the stairs. Murdoch felt his heart unexpectedly clench as the group turned the corner and Johnny was taken out of his sight.
Feeling more alone than he’d ever experienced, Murdoch returned to his sanctuary and closed himself inside.
Once positioned comfortably on his bed, Doc Jenkins did a quick exam on Johnny to ensure that the move had not caused him any undue harm. His fever hadn’t begun to abate yet, but neither had it gotten any worse. Still deeply unconscious, Scott volunteered to keep an eye on his brother so Doc could take a much-needed break.
Johnny slept without moving for almost an hour, finally showing signs of waking as Teresa had come to check if Scott was ready for some lunch. Hurrying back to the kitchen, the excited young woman cut Doc’s enjoyment of a third cup of coffee short by delivering the news that his patient needed him.
Jenkins entered Johnny’s room to find Scott sitting on a chair that had been pulled up next to the bed. He had his hand on his brother’s chest and was speaking to him calmly, encouraging him to wake. Johnny’s head tossed back and forth slowly as he fought for awareness.
“He seems to be struggling a bit, Doc,” Scott explained. “Considering what happened when you put him to sleep I was worried he would be confused and try to sit up too fast and pull his stitches.”
“Good thinking, Scott,” Sam encouraged as he grabbed his stethoscope and came over to stand behind him. “Keep talking to him.”
Scott turned his full attention back to his brother. “Come on Johnny. Doc’s here now. Open your eyes, brother.”
Johnny felt muddy. ‘Yep, that’s a good word for it – muddy. Feel kind of thick… slow and, well… muddy! Yep, that’s how I feel all right,’ the semi-conscious man thought.
He heard someone talking to him – felt something light on his chest too. But, surprisingly, Johnny wasn’t frightened by either the voice or the… ‘touch. That’s it – someone’s got a hand on me. Now if only I could just figure out where the heck I am and who… brother. He said brother. So it had to be… Scott! That’s Scott. What the heck is Boston doin’… Dios mio!’
Johnny’s body shifted under the covers and he let out a hiss and grimaced. ‘Oh yeah… Doc had to do a little cuttin’ on you, Johnny boy. ‘Bout time you remembered. Now keep still and open your eyes like Scott’s been buggin’ you.’
Johnny forced himself not to move and opened his eyes. He blinked a few times, trying to draw things around him into focus. The ceiling finally stopped spinning, so he got daring and turned his head to the right. Sure enough he found Scott sitting beside his bed, grinning from ear to ear like he’d just raised a dead man.
“What ‘r you so pleas’d ‘bout?” Johnny inquired in a dreamy kind of voice that he was sure couldn’t be his own, but which matched his still sluggish thoughts.
“Getting you to open your eyes, sleepy head. You’d think I didn’t have anything better to do with my days,” Scott teased back.
“Doc’s fault,” Johnny stated with a grumpy certainty that had the edge taken off it as he tried to stifle a yawn. “Told him I didn’t like gettin’ that stuff. Makes me feel all… bogged down and foggy headed.” With that Johnny tried to reposition his body again, only to pull up fast with a groan as the movement tugged at his incision.
“I gotta rememb’r tah stop doin’ that,” Johnny chastised himself as he closed his eyes against the pain.
“Switch places with me, Scott,” Doc requested.
Scott immediately gave up his chair, whispering to Jenkins as they passed, “I can see now why he doesn’t care for ‘that stuff’. I don’t remember him acting like this before, Doc. Is that a normal reaction?” he inquired with concern.
Doc had given Johnny both laudanum and morphine in the past, but it had been to kill the pain when he had lain severely injured and had a high fever. Under those circumstances, a reaction like Johnny was now exhibiting would have been easily misinterpreted as just being part of his sickness.
Sam matched Scott quiet tone and answered, “It happens. He’ll be all right though. Don’t worry. It’ll just take him a little longer to recover than most folks.”
Scott could see how vulnerable his brother had become, and could imagine how terrifying it would be for Johnny in this condition if he had felt threatened in any way. His behavior earlier in the day suddenly made sense. Scott realized they would all have take Johnny’s protests about being medicated a little more seriously in the future, especially if he were truly in some kind of danger.
Seating himself, Doc moved the covers off his patient’s right arm and took his pulse. Johnny opened his eyes again, only to find that he was now looking at Doc Jenkins. “Thought I was talkin’ tah Scott?”
Sam couldn’t help but smile at Johnny’s somewhat amusing confusion. “You were. About me!” Doc added with mock outrage.
“Won’t deny it,” Johnny said with a shake of his head. “We’re gonna haff tah have a talk, Doc.”
“Yes, I imagine we will, Johnny,” Sam agreed indulgently. “But why don’t we wait for you to get your wits about you a little more so it can be a fair fight. Right now I need to look you over.”
Doc glanced over to the young woman who was hovering near the doorway, and requested, “Teresa, if you’ll excuse us a minute.”
“Sure Sam. I’ll go get Johnny something cool to drink, and let Jelly know he’s awake.” With that she exited and pulled the door closed behind her.
Doc turned his attention back to his patient and found that Johnny had managed to maneuver his other hand out from under the blankets and was now rubbing at his eyes, still struggling to regain control of his senses. Sam ignored Johnny’s actions, allowing the young man the freedom to work it out on his own, as he went about conducted his exam.
By the time Jenkins was finished checking to make sure his patient’s stitches were still holding, Johnny seemed to be finally cutting through the haze and was becoming more responsive and alert – perhaps just a little too responsive.
“Doc, would you stop proddin’ at them stitches! I’m awake now yah know, and it kind a’ hurts a might,” Johnny complained loudly.
Doc replaced the dressing back over Johnny’s incision, and then pulled his nightshirt down to cover him. Glancing over his shoulder, Sam shot Scott a conspiratorial wink. “I kind of liked it better when he was more ‘bogged down and foggy headed’, didn’t you?”
Scott had to laugh out loud at the glare Johnny gave Doc. “I have to agree with you there, Sam. Gotten pretty noisy in here. Was actually getting used to the peace and quiet.”
Johnny held onto his side with his right hand as he used his left to pull the blanket up higher on his chest. “Very funny you two. Seems to me it would be a lot more peaceful ‘round here if certain people would just leave me alone. Obviously I ain’t dyin’, so why don’t ya’ll go find somethin’ better to do.”
That got both Sam and Scott laughing. “Come on in,” Scott barely managed between chuckles in answer to the light knock he had heard on the door.
Teresa and Jelly entered and couldn’t help but smile, quickly caught up themselves in the joy of seeing Johnny awake and the lighthearted mood of the others.
“Just what I need,” Johnny griped, “someone else come to make fun a’ me.”
Teresa placed the pitcher of water she was carrying down on Johnny’s dresser, for a moment concerned that her “brother” might be truly upset. But Jelly didn’t miss a beat and jumped right into the merriment. “Why, most folks know you ain’t got no sense a’ humor, Johnny Lancer, so who would be bothered tah make fun a’ you?” he challenged.
“Just about everyone it seems,” Johnny sneered back. “But I reckon I know when I’m outnumbered,” he allowed with a sigh. “I surrender.”
With that, Johnny closed his eyes, as if he were conceding his defeat. But Doc knew if Johnny were feeling better he’d never give up so easily. The boy actually had a wonderful sense of humor, as he’d just demonstrated, and usually delighted in verbally sparring with Jelly to no end. Jenkins noticed that a bit of strain had started to show on Johnny’s face. Sam remembered how good this patient was at manipulating a situation, and realized that he was actually already starting to tire, but didn’t want to let on.
“Alright everyone,” Doc interceded on Johnny’s behalf, “enough of this frivolity. We have work to do. I need to let you all know – and that includes you, Johnny – what needs to be done to get this man back on his feet.”
Johnny opened his eyes and the others sobered as Doc outlined Johnny’s care. “You may not feel like having anything in your stomach right now, but I need you to drink as much as you can Johnny. For the rest of the day, keep to water, tea or broth, whichever you think you can handle. Tomorrow you can try some simple foods – Teresa and Maria know what they can offer you. I know you weren’t able to eat very well lately, and you lost some blood during the surgery. It’ll take a bit to get your strength back up, so drink today and eat tomorrow.
“It won’t help that you still have a fever. The rest of you will need to take shifts and stay with him until it breaks. And you’re not to set one foot out of this bed until it does,” Doc ordered. “I mean it, Johnny.”
Jenkins looked at the others and added, “You all have my permission to tie him down if he misbehaves.”
“I’ll have the rope all ready, Doc,” Jelly goaded Johnny with a wink.
Johnny parried his old friend’s teasing taunt simply. “Just you try it, Mr. Jellifer Hoskins.”
The others enjoyed the pair’s mischievous behavior, and Doc joined in briefly by suggesting, “Go ahead and gang up on him if you need to.”
Quickly back to business, he continued his instructions. “Your incision looks good Johnny, and I didn’t run into any trouble at all removing your appendix. So I don’t expect infection to develop. But you can never tell for sure, so I want you all to be watchful. If you think his temperature is taking a turn upwards, I want you to send for me right away. Otherwise, I’ll be back tomorrow afternoon.
“That about covers everything. Any questions?”
Doc saw Scott share a look with Teresa and Jelly, each searching the others’ eyes for any sign of confusion over the required care. Sam was once again reassured that he had made the right decision in bringing Johnny back to Lancer. He knew his patient’s caretakers were taking their roles seriously and he was leaving Johnny in the best of hands.
“I think we understand what needs to be done, Sam,” Scott assured Doc Jenkins for them all.
“Good,” Doc answered simply with a firm nod of his head. “Now, if you would all excuse us, I’d like to speak with Johnny alone for a minute.”
Scott knew what was coming. He’d witnessed how Johnny’s cool attitude toward Doc that morning had affected the older man. Scott had had a feeling that Sam wasn’t going to be able to leave the ranch without clearing the air between he and Johnny. Unfortunately, the pending conversation was going to be a harsh reminder to his brother that he was soon going to have to confront their father about everything Doc had said.
Johnny would no doubt forgive Sam, allowing the man to ride away with, if not a clear conscience, at least a lot less guilt than he was feeling now. That was his brother – quick to make things easier on everyone else while taking the heavier load himself. Scott would make sure he’d be there to help Johnny with his burden as much as he would be allowed, but he knew that, in the long run, his brother was going to have to stand alone in what could be the final showdown between father and son.
And Johnny Madrid’s reputation wasn’t going to help his brother this time. Johnny Lancer would have to face Murdoch Lancer, and either they’d come to an agreement or…
Scott Lancer wouldn’t think about that. He’d sit back, and keep an eye on Johnny, and pray, and hope against hope that his brother would be able to find some way to finally make their father understand him – and that Murdoch would come to see Johnny not only as a man to respect, but also as a cherished son.
When Doc had made his request, similar thoughts had instantly flashed through Teresa and Jelly’s mind as well. Like Scott, they knew why Doc needed to talk to Johnny – and one glance at the man on the bed told them that he knew too. Johnny suddenly looked very, very tired.
While all three wondered if it was wise to let Doc have his say at this time, Johnny made the decision for them. “Yeah, all a’ you go on. Sam and me need to do some talkin’.”
Scott leaned over to Johnny and gave him a light supportive bat on the leg. “I’ll be back in a bit, little brother,” he assured him, then headed for the door.
While Teresa poured a glass of water, Jelly came to the bottom of Johnny’s bed, and with encouragement told him, “I reckon you’ll be wantin’ tah try ‘n whip me at a game ‘r two of checkers later, so I best be gettin’ the rest of my work done now. See yah later, Johnny.”
‘Yep, see you later, Jelly,” Johnny echoed back.
As Jelly headed out, Teresa made her way to Johnny’s side and handed the glass of water to Doc. “I think he could probably use this right about now.”
“Young lady, you are absolutely right,” Doc agreed.
“Gracias Teresa,” Johnny said gratefully.
“You’re welcome, Johnny,” she replied. “I’ve already got some chicken stock simmering, so you let me know when you want to try some broth.” That offered, Teresa turned quickly and headed out herself.
“Yep. No doubt about it…” Doc started as he watched Teresa close the door behind her. Turning his attention to Johnny he added, “…I have very good helpers out here.”
“Yeah. Don’t guess I’m gonna be gettin’ away with much in the next few days,” Johnny agreed, and then sighed heavily as he fought to keep his eyes from closing.
Doc watched Johnny’s energy wane, and truly wished he could simply leave him now to quietly drift asleep. But he couldn’t. Not just yet.
“Let’s try and get some of this down you,” Doc suggested as he gestured with the glass of water.
Jenkins helped Johnny sit up, and braced his patient as he took the glass himself and slowly drank half the contents. Doc then took the glass and made sure Johnny lay back comfortably.
Doc placed the glass on Johnny’s bedside table, then slowly sat back in the chair and looked at his hands that were folded in his lap. Johnny stared at the ceiling.
Jenkins spoke, but he didn’t look up. “I have a feeling I just opened up the barn door and let all the horses loose on you, Johnny. I’m sorry.”
Already resigned to his fate, Johnny replied quietly, “The barn was burnin’ Doc. What else could you do.”
“I could have handled it better is what I could have done.” Doc’s explanation and show of remorse for what he had said to Johnny’s father came out fast now. “I was so angry with Murdoch for having forced you into a position where you thought you had to leave Lancer. I wanted him to see how stupid he was being. But all I managed to do was place you in an equally unfair position. I’ve made things hard on you Johnny, and that’s the last thing I wanted to do. I am so sorry.”
Johnny knew Doc meant his apology sincerely, and didn’t want his friend fretting over it any longer. He turned to face him finally and said, “Sam, it was bound to happen sooner or later, don’t feel bad ‘bout forcin’ it. Murdoch does have a knack for raisin’ the hackles up on a person’s back. Heck, he’s been doin’ it to me pretty regular for a year now. We’ve been headin’ for a face-off ever since I came back. It’ll be alright, I can handle it.”
“I could talk to Murdoch again if you think…” Doc started to offer, but Johnny cut him off fast and firm.
“No! Don’t let anyone talk to him for me. This needs to be between him and me, no one else. You may have started it, Sam, but I’m gonna be the one to finish it.”
With a foreboding sense of sad finality, Johnny added, “Soon as I’m back on my feet, I’ll finish it.”
Johnny had returned to looking at the ceiling. He’d obviously made up his mind, and Doc knew when young Lancer dug in his heels there was no moving him. He’d made his apology, and Johnny had forgiven him. He wouldn’t be forgiving himself any time soon, but it was time for him to let his patient rest.
“Alright Johnny. I’ll have a talk with the others, and we’ll leave Murdoch to you.”
As Doc stood and gathered up his things, he tried to be reassuring. “You’re going to do fine Johnny. Try to get a lot of rest, and follow my other instructions so you can get stronger. Be careful of your stitches. I’ll be back tomorrow, like I said.”
He had the door open now but took a look back at his patient. Johnny had turned his head away, so Doc couldn’t tell what mood he was leaving the boy in – but he could guess. “I’m sorry Johnny,” he offered one last time, then closed the door behind him.
Johnny was staring at the wall now, trying very hard to will himself to sleep, to unconsciousness, to peace. But he was suddenly wide-awake, his mind already racing with thoughts. He had a feeling he was going to be doing a whole lot of thinking over the next few days, and he was going to have to do it under the worst possible circumstances – flat on his back, trapped on his bed.
At that moment, if he’d still had his appendix, Johnny would have simply ripped it out himself. Image be damned, he’d give anything if he could just be back, standing in a ditch – screaming at dead plants.
The great room door was open when Doc came downstairs, so he entered, looking for Murdoch. Not finding him he moved on to the kitchen, where he found Scott and Jelly at the table, wrapped around a couple of cups of coffee, and Teresa and Maria bustling around the stove.
The ladies stopped what they were doing and, along with the men at the table, looked to Doc expectantly. “He’s fine,” Jenkins reported, reading their minds. “Tired, but fine. And he made a request. He’d like to be left alone to talk to Murdoch about what happened today. Until he’s able, Johnny would prefer that the rest of us not interfere.”
No one spoke, each mulling over the ramifications of Johnny’s request. It was only right, they knew, for Johnny to be able to handle this on his own. They also knew that the timing was not of his choosing, so it seemed unfair to allow him to go it alone. But they all realized that it had always been inevitable that Johnny would have to confront Murdoch one on one, and nothing anyone else could say would ever replace the healing that needed to take place between those two men.
Still no one spoke, but in their silence each agreed to try and honor Johnny’s wishes. But oh, was that going to be hard.
Jenkins could tell from the others’ faces that decisions had been reached, so he left the request hanging and moved on.
Setting his bag on the table, Doc pulled out a small bottle of laudanum and some packets of sleeping powder. “I meant to leave these in Johnny’s room. He needs his sleep. If he’s restless, see if you can get him to take a dose of either of these.”
Not unexpectedly, eyebrows were instantly raised, but he cut off the protests. “I know he doesn’t like using them, but he has got to get some rest or he’ll just make himself sicker than he is now. Threaten him with the laudanum, and I suspect he’ll settle for a sleeping powder.”
With that Sam closed his medical bag and got ready to leave.
“I’ll go sit with him now,” Teresa offered and, picking up the medications, immediately headed up the back stairway to the bedrooms.
“I put yer case back in yer buggy, Doc,” Jelly reported. “It’s waitin’ out front fer yah.”
“I’ll see you out, Doc,” Scott said and led the way.
As they walked Doc asked, “Do you know where Murdoch is? I’d like to give him one more report on how Johnny’s doing before I leave. Even though I told him to stay away, I still think he has a right to know how his son is faring.”
“I can tell him,” Scott offered. Seeing Sam’s look of warning, he quickly clarified. “Don’t worry. I won’t try to fix things between he and Johnny. I know they have to work this out by themselves. But I can let him know how Johnny is. I’ll keep him informed.”
As they exited the front door Scott took Doc’s bag from him and put it on the floor of the buggy, as Sam got himself seated.
“Thanks for taking care of Johnny, Doc. We’ll take it from here.”
“He’s in good hands, I know,” Sam offered back. With concern and self-reproach both telling in his voice he added, “Make sure he gets some rest Scott. I’m afraid I may have made that near impossible for him by stirring up the water between him and Murdoch. He’s got a lot on his mind right now, and knowing your brother, he’s going to brood over it, hard. I’m really worried about how that’s going to affect his recovery.”
“I’ll be there for him, Sam. He’ll think he’s going it alone, but I’ll watch his back.”
The two men shared a smile. “You’re a good man, Scott Lancer. I’ll be back tomorrow afternoon. Come fetch me though if Johnny needs me.”
“We will. You take care.”
Scott backed away as Doc flicked the reins and headed out. He watched him ride off, then took a moment and just stared at the sky. It had been a whirlwind day, and he needed a minute to clear his head. He was going to have to stay sharp the next couple of days. Scott knew from past experience that if Johnny were going to ask for his advice or help, he’d have to be ready. The request could be subtle, hidden in idle chatter, or it could come out suddenly, with no warning. However or whenever Johnny asked, Scott wanted to be ready to respond.
Scott also knew he needed to be clear-headed for another reason – it was going to take every bit of his patience and self control to hold his tongue around his father.
Murdoch proved to be not much of a problem for anyone. The Lancer patriarch kept himself busy avoiding everybody during the day, thereby surprising them all when he actually showed up to join the group for dinner. The meal was a rather quiet affair, with discussion kept to ranch business and upcoming town events. Johnny’s empty chair was a silent but influential participant.
Murdoch’s appetite waned quickly. When he began merely picking at his food, Scott decided it was time to mention his brother.
Scott kept his manner casual and his report brief, conveying merely that Johnny still had a fever and was in a little pain, but otherwise seemed to be fine, just tired. The others held their breath waiting for a reaction.
Murdoch didn’t move. He had been looking down at his plate, and kept his eyes focused there. He didn’t speak. Finally he gave a small, almost infinitesimal nod of his head, then forked up a piece of food and placed it in his mouth. He chewed. He still did not speak. He didn’t lift his head.
Teresa broke the building tension, chattering away about something they might donate to an upcoming auction that was going to benefit the school.
So began a pattern that would be repeated at the Lancer dining table for the next two nights. They would eat. They would chat. Johnny’s condition would be reported. Murdoch would acknowledge the news in some small way, but he would not ask or speak about his younger son. Then they would chat some more and pick at the rest of their meal.
Then Murdoch would go his own separate way, continuing to avoid them all, and thinking about, exactly what, none of them could guess. He was like a stone – solid, dependable, and quiet. Too quiet. None of them had ever seen him so reserved, so non-confrontational. The uncharacteristic behavior actually had them concerned about Murdoch, but they feared for Johnny.
Murdoch couldn’t be read. They didn’t know if he was angry, upset, sad, happy, curious, murderous, contrite, or on and on and on. He was displaying his best poker face, so no one could figure out what was in stall for Johnny once he was finally well enough to confront his father.
Johnny was the one who was good at reading people – they only hoped he wouldn’t suddenly lose his touch.
After Doc Jenkins’ departure, Teresa had spent some time with Johnny, and then switched off with Jelly.
Johnny didn’t feel much like talking, due in part to his continued fever and fatigue, and the pain they knew he had but wouldn’t admit to. Jelly tried to get him interested in a game of checkers, but Johnny had begged off as being too tired, although he didn’t then sleep.
He drank some, but not as much as they wished. They tried not to fuss over him, knowing he hated that, and in return he mostly accepted their help as offered.
Keeping a cool cloth on Johnny’s brow seemed to help him at least sleep a little, but it came in fits and starts and didn’t prove to be enough to be particularly restful for the sick man. He never complained, but looked uncomfortable, worn and haggard, and that worried them.
And he never once mentioned Murdoch, and that worried them more.
Scott took the first night shift. Sitting next to a dimmed lamp, he tried reading a book. But mostly he watched Johnny sleep fitfully, until just after midnight when he finally figured he had seen enough.
Noticing that Johnny’s eyes were once again open, he closed his book, laid it in the chair, and walked to the dresser. He emptied one of the packets of sleeping powder Doc had provided into a glass, then filled it with water and stirred it up.
Scott approached his brother, and with resolve stated, “I want you to drink this.”
Johnny turned to look, his suspicions already raised by Scott’s tone of voice. “What is it?”
“Something to help you sleep.”
Frowning in annoyance, Johnny snapped, “That’s all I been doin’ all day is sleepin’.”
Knowing his brother was overstressed, Scott maintained his patience and answered evenly. “No, you’ve only been dozing, even though you’re obviously exhausted. You haven’t slept for more than a half hour at a time since this afternoon. You’re sick and in pain Johnny, and need complete rest or you’re going to get worse, not better. Now drink this.”
Johnny looked at the glass being held stubbornly before him, and tried to dig in his heels. He stared back at his brother and attempted to let Madrid back him down. “I don’t want it,” he stated clearly and, he hoped, menacingly.
His attempt at intimidation failed miserably. Flat on his back and in his weakened condition, Johnny just looked like a kid ready to throw a temper tantrum. Scott almost let loose a smile at the thought of how much they were acting like big and little brothers just now. But he fought the humor of the situation off and didn’t falter, remaining grim-faced and focused.
Scott remembered Doc’s suggestion and gave it a try, attempting to force a decision. “I’ll give you a dose of laudanum then. It’s your choice.”
He regretted the words as soon as they were out of his mouth. Just that morning Scott had been concerned with how Johnny had reacted to the morphine, and yet here he was threatening to pour laudanum down his throat. He’d just said something totally unfair to his brother, but he couldn’t take it back. Johnny would think he had won and wouldn’t take either medicine if he backed down now. His brother needed something to help him sleep, so Scott let the choices stand.
Johnny’s expression darkened with Scott’s challenge, and his stare intensified. He usually won such battles of will between them, but his older brother seemed mighty determined this time.
Despite feeling bad about what he’d done, Scott didn’t yield, kept the glass of medicine held before his brother, and never let it waver one bit.
“Fine. Give it here.”
Johnny had folded. It actually bothered Scott that his brother had given in so easily. ‘He must be feeling even worse than I thought,’ Scott guessed.
Scott didn’t let his added concern show, however. Instead he helped Johnny to sit up, and made sure he drank the entire glass of medicine.
He helped Johnny lay back, and then returned the glass to the dresser. Scott moistened a cloth and, returning to Johnny’s side, laid it gently on his brother’s forehead.
“When are you going to let go of that fever, boy?” he asked quietly, trying to break the uncharacteristic tension that had built up between them.
Johnny favored him with a small smile, agreeing to the cease in hostilities. “It’s not like I gave it any special invite to stick around, Boston.”
Scott returned Johnny’s smile, pleased that his brother didn’t seem to be harboring any resentment toward him over the laudanum threat. He returned to his chair, but simply kept his book on his lap.
The brothers shared a comfortable silence for a couple of minutes until, with despair evident in a soft voice, Johnny finally asked, “How do you talk to him, Scott?”
There it was – a straightforward request. Scott felt relieved that Johnny was finally opening up about what was troubling him and reaching out for his advice. “Murdoch,” Scott prompted.
“Yeah,” Johnny confirmed with a heavy sigh, continuing on in a frustration-filled rush. “I listen to the two of you talkin’, and it sounds normal, natural. He and I… Well, I don’t ever seem to be able to find the right words. Don’t matter what I say or how I say it, he never hears it the way I mean it.
“Maybe if I had more learnin’ I could…”
Scott didn’t like where this was headed and cut him off. “No Johnny, stop that. Just because I had a more formal education than you doesn’t mean that’s why Murdoch seems to understand me better. You have any problem discussing things with me?” he asked directly.
Johnny took a moment to think about it, finally answering, “No. I guess not.”
“And I guess not either. Your learning may not have come in a fancy school, Johnny, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t intelligent. You’re one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, brother, so don’t even start thinking that way.” If Johnny hadn’t been laying flat on a bed, Scott knew his self-effacing brother would probably hang his head, embarrassed by the compliment he’d just been paid.
Scott continued on, frustration now clear in his own voice. “Johnny, sometimes even I can’t figure out why Murdoch talks to you the way he does. There doesn’t seem to be any practical reason for it. I know it’s hurtful to you that you seem to just disagree all the time. I can’t say I’m pleased about it myself. It’s not fair, and it doesn’t make a lot of sense. I wish I had a reason for you, but I don’t. I’m sorry brother.”
Johnny had hoped that Scott might have been able to offer him some answers, but all he’d discovered was that his brother was as frustrated as him. Johnny tried to keep his eyes open so they could talk more, but he was finding it increasingly impossible to stay awake. The medicine Scott had given him to help him sleep was working very quickly.
Johnny felt himself fading fast. “I’m sorry too, brother,” he said dejectedly, and then closed his eyes.
Scott could tell Johnny had finally reached his limit, and would be asleep in seconds. But his young brother shared one last thought.
“Has to be Murdoch just don’t like me,” Johnny managed to drawl out slowly, and then he was unconscious.
Scott was up and out of his chair in an instant. Johnny’s comment had astounded him, and he didn’t want him falling asleep on such a desperate thought. They’d been trying to get Johnny to rest all day, but Scott found himself trying to encourage him to stay awake, at least for one more minute. But it was no use.
He didn’t think he could have gotten any angrier with his father, but he was now furious. Scott hated to admit it, but Johnny’s observation made sense. Maybe Murdoch simply didn’t like Johnny, and that’s why he pushed him away all the time. Despite all their differences, the brothers had grown so close so quickly that it had never occurred to Scott that anyone else would have any problem developing the same kind of relationship he had with Johnny. Teresa and Jelly certainly loved his brother just as much as he did.
Just what exactly was it about Johnny that set Murdoch off, Scott wondered. He could think of a few things, sure, but there was so much more to like about his brother that could offset anything disagreeable – that is, if one desired to look. Murdoch had been able to make compromises between Scott’s strengths and weaknesses, why couldn’t he do the same for Johnny?
Scott didn’t have any instant answers, only more intriguing questions. Looking down on his sleeping brother, Scott knew exactly why Johnny hadn’t been able to find any restful sleep. ‘He’s been dealing with these questions on his own for a year now,’ Scott thought sadly. ‘It’s a wonder he ever gets any sleep at all.’
Johnny was usually so confident and strong, it was easy to forget how young he was, and that’s exactly how he looked to Scott now, young and vulnerable.
“I can’t speak for Murdoch, but I love you, Johnny.” Scott knew his brother was asleep, but he hoped that somehow Johnny’s subconscious would hear his words and help take some of his pain and confusion away. He only wished he could have voiced the words while Johnny was awake.
To everyone’s delight, Johnny slept through the entire night, his restlessness finally tamed through a combination of sheer fatigue and the medicine Scott had managed to administer. Unfortunately however, although his fever had lessened, it continued to hang on with an annoying persistence.
The sick man woke to find an extremely pleased Teresa gazing back at him. “A very good morning to you, Mr. Lancer,” she offered cheerfully.
Johnny couldn’t help but smile, the good night’s rest and her unabashed happiness making it almost impossible for him not to share the mood. “Mornin’ back at cha, Sunshine,” he managed sleepily.
He wouldn’t have thought it possible, but the young woman before him actually beamed him an even brighter smile at his endearment.
‘Whoowee. What would it be like to wake up to that ev’ry mornin’?’ he considered, then immediately kicked himself mentally for having allowed himself to think about his “sister” in such a manner.
“How do you feel, Johnny?” Teresa inquired innocently.
Although grateful for the distraction from his inappropriate thoughts, Johnny immediately sobered at the reminder of why the young woman was actually there in his room in the first place. With a doleful sigh, he allowed the reality of his situation to return.
Noticing the mood change, Teresa apologized. “I’m sorry Johnny.”
“That’s alright, miel. Can’t stay dreamin’ ‘bout angels all day.” He made a special effort to complement his flattering statement with one of his most charming smiles, again both oddly pleased and ashamed when he managed to draw a blush from the young woman.
“Got some good sleep last night,” he added to reassure her. “Seems to have helped.” He then tried to adjust his position on the bed, but pulled up short with a wince.
Teresa immediately moved to help him, but he waved her off. “No. I’m all right. Just gotta take it a little slower than that is all.”
“Do your stitches feel okay?” she inquired.
“Yeah. Good and tight. Doc should take up quiltin’, he does such a nice job.”
“You still have a bit of fever,” Teresa mentioned with concern.
“Noticed that myself,” Johnny answered, frustration evident in his voice.
Again attempting to lighten the mood, Teresa offered, “Why don’t I go make you a pot of wild cherry tea. That’s helpful for fevers. What else would you like for breakfast, Johnny?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Still don’t feel like eatin’.”
“Well, I’m sure Maria will be able to fix something that will encourage your appetite. Why don’t I go find out what she might suggest. In the meantime I’ll send Jelly up to give you a hand. How’s that?”
“Jelly’d be a help, but don’t go to too much trouble over the food. I really don’t think I can eat much yet.”
“But you’ll try, won’t you?”
Johnny couldn’t miss the worry in her request, or resist the earnest innocence of the plea. “Sure. I’ll try.”
“Good,” she stated as she favored him with another brilliant smile. Turning toward the door Teresa added, “Don’t try to sit up before Jelly comes up. I’ll be back in a bit!”
With that, the little whirlwind was gone, leaving Johnny to contemplate what was surely going to be a very long day ahead of him.
Johnny was glad he had, for once in his life, heeded Teresa’s advice and waited for Jelly before he’d attempted to get up. Even though they took it slow he still became extremely dizzy as he tried to sit. The older man urged him to immediately lie back down, but Johnny insisted on fighting through the bout of lightheadedness.
Johnny braced his incision as he perched precariously on the edge of the bed, leaning to his left as he tried to support himself on an extended and unsteady arm. There he was frozen for what seemed like forever, staring at the floor, afraid to move, waiting for his vision to finally clear and everything around him to stop moving. Jelly stood before him, equally alarmed by Johnny’s sudden rush of extreme paleness and the cold sweat he had broken into.
Finally feeling like he could open his mouth to speak without throwing up, Johnny tried to lightly joke with his concerned friend. “Jelly, we need to start every mornin’ just like this, what do you think?” His attempt at humor totally lost its impact as he was obliged to wipe the beads of sweat off his brow with the back of his hand.
“Johnny Lancer, if you behaved any more like a mule I’d haff tah haul you out tah the barn, prop’r like, and use you fer the brainless animal you are!” the old man angrily replied, taking Johnny to task for having scared the pants off of him.
Recognizing how much he had frightened his friend, he offered an apology. “I’m sorry, Jelly. Just couldn’t see how puttin’ it off was gonna make it go any better.”
“It’d go better if you was on yer feed! A boy skinny as you can’t afford tah be missin’ meals like you been in the first place, let alone when yer ailin’! Don’t care if you feel like it or not, when T’resa gets back up here with yer food, you better darn sure eat ev’ry bit of it!”
Not up to arguing, Johnny simply nodded. The older man could tell that Johnny’s spell of dizziness had drained the ill man of whatever energy reserves he’d managed to build up, so he let his irritation go and worked quickly to help the young Lancer boy take care of his needs and clean up, then changed into a fresh nightshirt. Finally he helped him lay back down, comfortably propped up on a couple of pillows.
“I tell you what, Jelly,” Johnny said wearily, “havin’ a ‘pendix taken out is a might more botherin’ than gettin’ shot ever was.”
“I doubt that,” Jelly countered skeptically. “But it sure has knocked you one, thet’s fer sure,” he added with concern evident in his voice. “You feelin’ any better now?”
Johnny had closed his eyes, but managed to crack them open a little. “Yeah, Jelly, sure do. Thanks for your help.”
“Weren’t nothin’ I wouldn’t do agin, long as you promise not to be so all fired in a hurry tah fall on yer face.”
In response, Johnny offered up a tired smile, then promptly closed his eyes again and fell asleep.
Within minutes Teresa returned with Johnny’s breakfast tray, but she and Jelly both agreed it was better to just let him go ahead and sleep.
Sleep he did, for almost an hour. Upon waking, and under Jelly’s watchful eye, Johnny did make an earnest attempt to eat as much as he could of the simple yet tempting variety of food items Maria and Teresa had prepared for him. But despite his efforts he could manage only a taste of each, before his stomach threatened to rebel and Jelly heeded his pleas and allowed him to stop trying.
Once again left disturbingly spent by his efforts, but now unable to sleep, Johnny laid back and let the morning pass him by, grateful to Jelly for rambling on and on about anything and everything. Didn’t matter what he was talking about, all Johnny knew was that the old man’s litany was, for the most part, keeping his mind off trying to figure out what he was going to say to Murdoch once he was back up on his feet.
Johnny had tried to talk things out with the man in the past, and he didn’t think the pending forced dialogue was going to prove to be any more successful. His father just couldn’t seem to understand that he didn’t want much, just a little respect, and some small sign that would acknowledge that Johnny was welcomed in his father’s life, and home – and heart.
Johnny thought his father truly wanted him to stay at Lancer, but he was left constantly confused by the barrage of mixed signals Murdoch repeatedly sent him. For weeks things would be fine between them, then out of the blue he’d do something to anger the man and end up being treated like the lowliest of ranch hands. And more times than not Johnny wouldn’t have a clue what he had done. Seems all he had to do some days was walk into the same room with the man and he’d catch a glimpse of… could it really be hatred?
With that thought, Jelly’s animated dialogue faded into the background. Johnny was back to considering the fact that maybe his father simply just did not like him. Being of mixed heritage, Johnny was used to being looked at with disgust. Could it be that Murdoch was ashamed at having slept with a Mexican woman, and was unable to deal with the fact that he had a half-breed for a son? Maybe he could when Johnny had been a child, but maybe he couldn’t now that Johnny was an adult…
Boy, talk about being between a rock and hard place. What the heck could Johnny do about that? He couldn’t turn back time, and he certainly couldn’t change who he was on the outside. Since he’d been called back into his father’s life, he’d been having a hard enough time just trying to change who he was on the inside. Johnny knew Murdoch couldn’t stand the fact that he had become a gun for hire, so he had been doing everything he could to hide anything that might remind his father of the life he had lived. But was his father really capable of condemning his own son for the heritage he’d had no part in choosing?
‘Wouldn’t that just beat all,’ Johnny thought, ‘to spend all my life fightin’ to defend who and what I am, only to have my own father blame me for what was his own mistake.’
Sadly, as absurd as it was, the thought didn’t surprise Johnny in the least. ‘He blames me for everythin’ else that goes wrong ‘round here, why not blame me for simply bein’ born.’
If Jelly had been paying more attention, he would have noticed that Johnny had suddenly become ghostly pale again, but it had nothing to do with feeling dizzy. Johnny was just plain made ill and overwhelmed by the thought that there might not be a thing he could do to make his father love him.
He wasn’t white.
He wasn’t Scott.
He was Johnny Madrid – good at his trade. But in his father’s eyes, maybe not good for very much else.
Just before lunch Jelly finally came up for air and, taking a really good look at his one-man audience, realized that Johnny’s fever had finally broken and he was once again sound asleep.
“Well, can’t say it was all that polite, fallin’ asleep whilst I was tellin’ yah such interestin’ stories, but reckon I’ll forgive yah jest this once.” The older man pulled the blankets up onto Johnny’s chest, and then quietly left the room to go spread the good news.
He found Scott in the kitchen just getting ready to pour himself a cup of coffee, as Maria kneaded bread dough and Teresa stirred a wonderfully smelling concoction on the stove. “The boy’s fever has broke, and he’s sleepin’ agin,” Jelly relayed with a smile.
Teresa actually squealed in delight as Maria crossed herself as a sign of faithful thanks. “Jelly, that is absolutely the best news I’ve been given all week,” Scott said, patting the older man on the back. “How would you like a cup of coffee?”
“Black with lots of sugar!” Jelly answered happily.
If anybody thought that a little bit of food and a normal temperature would make Johnny feel like he was on the road to recovery, they were sorely mistaken. No one could guess the absolute turmoil his thoughts were in, and being more clearheaded only made it more agonizing. His mind was a mess of long forgotten images, remembrances of moments in his life he had begged to forget. Yet he had to open himself up and search through it all, delving for some answer, some way to get through to his father.
Johnny had a foreboding sense he couldn’t shake that this was it – the last chance he would have to become a welcome part of his father’s life. He didn’t know why that had become so important to him, but it had. He’d lived a long time thinking his father had actually kicked he and his mother out of his life. But Teresa, and to a certain extent Murdoch himself, had convinced him that wasn’t how it had been. Once persuaded, it had taken Johnny some time to admit that he actually wanted to remain at Lancer. And in his heart and soul, he knew he needed to remain at Lancer.
The question was, was he really wanted here? And one answer lay in how hard he was willing to fight to stay.
Scott offered to take his brother’s lunch tray to him, but found Johnny curled up on his side, still sound asleep. He stood by the window and waited for a few minutes, hoping his brother would wake so they might continue their talk from the early morning.
A light cool breeze drifted in from the partially open window. It flicked at a strand of Johnny’s hair, tousled over his pillow. Scott had to resist the urge to smooth the unruly mane back down over his young brother’s forehead.
Taking the opportunity to study Johnny’s features in the light of day, Scott was troubled at how pallid his normally healthy dark complexion had become. With the flush from the fever gone his condition made the dark circles under his brother’s eyes stand out all the more. Johnny’s increasing loss of weight was also telling, and made his sickly appearance even more disturbing.
As much as Johnny hated being ill, Scott thought he hated watching his young brother struggle with poor health even more. Johnny usually had a vibrancy about him that was invigorating to be around. Seeing him quiet and confined to a bed like this was unnatural, and unnerving.
Scott started to mentally fault himself for having missed signs that his brother had been ailing. It saddened him that, for almost a week, not one person close to Johnny had noticed and intervened. But he quickly stopped himself. It was no excuse, but they had all been busy the past few days, pulled in different directions by the needs of the large ranch. Added to that was the fact that Johnny could be maddeningly deceptive about needing help for himself.
Johnny was a conundrum of contradictory behaviors. He had an independence streak a mile wide when it came to asking for assistance on his own behalf. But with absolutely no hesitation he always stepped forward to lend a hand to anyone else who needed help. Big job, small job, child, vaquero, elder, stranger – didn’t matter, Johnny would be there.
Johnny brooked no fools and had a temper he could fire off just about as fast as his handgun. Once Scott’s young brother made up his mind about something that was usually the end of the conversation. But while Johnny could be incredibly impetuous, on the other hand he showed a depth of patience that was amazing.
Scott had done a good job keeping it hidden, but when he’d first arrived at the ranch a year ago the greenhorn from the east had held no illusions about how very little he knew about living in the west. His experience in the cavalry during the war had honed his skills at riding, shooting, and commanding men, but that was only a small part of what he needed to know as a new co-owner of one of the largest cattle ranches in California. In an act of self-preservation he had adapted his outward appearance fairly quickly. But putting on new cloths did nothing to calm his personal fears about still looking totally foolish around the seasoned ranch hands – and his father.
It also hadn’t helped to find out that his newly discovered brother was the renowned Johnny Madrid. To anyone who knew the name, Johnny was practically a legend. Scott was sure the gunfighter with the celebrated reputation would have a field day pointing out every little mistake his brother “Boston” was bound to make.
Instead, Johnny had unassumingly taken him under his wing and gone about quietly teaching him how to survive not only living in the west but also being a rancher. The first thing he had done was readily admitted to his own ignorance whenever he wasn’t an expert himself. Johnny would then go about learning what needed to be done in a manner that helped them both keep their dignities intact in front of the hands. When Johnny made mistakes – and he had made some big ones – he took responsibility for them and never once tried to hide behind his own inexperience. That example had helped Scott save face on many an occasion.
His young brother had shared everything else he knew about ranching so naturally with Scott that he never once felt like he was being patronized, allowing him to feel at ease a lot sooner than he had thought possible. Even when Johnny was teasing him about some inefficiency, at the same time he would make him feel like it was no big deal because he knew Scott was fully capable of mastering the skill, regardless of any lack of confidence Scott was feeling himself.
That was what had Scott feeling so bad now. He had no way of making things any easier between his father and brother. The one time Johnny needed his help he had none to offer. Questions had been posed, but he’d provided no answers, his own skills at insight coming up lacking. He’d tried to act as intermediary in the past, but had now been requested to step aside.
Johnny was pushing him away, but he wasn’t ready to surrender his brother to the fates just yet. He liked having a brother. He liked having this brother, and he didn’t know what he would do if their father did anything to try and separate them again. He hadn’t known he had a brother for nearly twenty-two years, and there was no way he could ever forget that now. Whether his young sibling liked it or not, Johnny was in his life to stay, one way or another.
Deciding that his brother was being well served by the deep sleep he was finally enjoying, Scott left Johnny’s food on his bed stand and quietly retreated from the room.
Johnny waited a full minute after he’d heard the door close to open his eyes. He had been awake the whole time Scott had been with him, but he couldn’t bring himself to face his brother. He knew what he wanted, to do some more talking. But Johnny had already accepted the fact that Scott didn’t have any answers for him, and he didn’t fault him for it one bit.
Whatever was happening between he and his father had nothing really to do with his brother, or Teresa, or the ranch. In their twenty years of separation something had come between father and son that had driven a wedge into their relationship. Only Johnny and Murdoch would be able to figure out what exactly was breaking them apart, and either they’d find a way to fix the problem, or go ahead and let it split them up for good.
He couldn’t deal with Scott, or Teresa, or Jelly right now. It was taking all his energy to just concentrate on his father. Johnny knew they all wanted to help, but he could only hope that in their hearts they would understand why he needed to go it alone, one more time.
When Sam Jenkins entered Johnny’s bedroom with Teresa two hours later, they found him sleeping – truly sleeping this time. Teresa lifted the cloth covering the sick man’s lunch and informed Doc that he hadn’t touched a bite. Telling Teresa that he’d wait for Johnny to wake, Doc sent her from the room with the now cold food.
Sam Jenkins was more worried about his young friend now than he had been when he’d left the day before. Although encouraged that his fever had finally broken, it didn’t sound like his patient was making much progress regaining his appetite. Jelly had already filled the physician in on his morning experience with Johnny, including his earnest but ineffective attempt to eat and the scary bout of dizziness. And while he was sleeping peacefully now, Scott’s report about having to give his brother a dose of sleeping powder during the night was also disheartening – especially since Johnny had willingly accepted the normally dreaded medicine.
Once again Sam chastised himself for his part in complicating Johnny’s recuperation. He had no doubt that thoughts of having to deal with his father were negatively impacting Johnny’s health. Doc had promised himself he wasn’t going to interfere any further – after all, hadn’t he done enough damage for one week? But he couldn’t shake his feeling of responsibility, or his frustration at having to stand aside while Johnny cleaned up his mess for him. He’d encourage and guide Johnny the best he could, but he knew the boy was going to do things his own way and on his own, no matter what. Johnny’s strong determination, however, did nothing to make Doc feel like he had done the boy any favors lately.
As if he could sense someone in the room with him, Johnny began to stir. Doc watched his movements closely, pleased when he didn’t observe any sign that his patient was experiencing any serious pain. Still lying on his side, Johnny managed to get himself propped up on one elbow as he rubbed at his eyes, then glanced back over his shoulder.
“Hey Doc,” Johnny welcomed simply before he turned carefully onto his back.
“Good afternoon, Johnny. Did you have a good sleep?”
“Yeah. Couple hours worth at least.”
“I’m glad. Sleep is good for you right now. But you missed lunch, young man,” Doc chided lightly.
Johnny gave Sam a look of exasperation at the paradox he was posed. “If I’m sleepin’, I can’t be eatin’ Doc.”
‘This boy certainly has a annoying way of putting things in perspective,’ Jenkins thought, but aloud agreed, “You have a point there. You definitely have a point. Question is, do you feel like eating now that you’re awake?”
Johnny considered the question seriously, finally stating somewhat enthusiastically, “Feel thirsty for sure.”
Doc saw right through Johnny’s attempt to conceal his sustained lack of appetite by substituting a willingness to have something to drink. “Johnny, you must think I just stepped off the stage if you figure I’d let you get away with that. I’m going to have a good look at you, and if I don’t find any physical reason for your not eating we’re going to have ourselves a little talk.”
Thus threatened, and having no clear rebuttal that he thought would make any difference, Johnny resigned himself to the inevitable and allowed Doc to examine him. Sam made sure he did a good job of it, too, ensuring that he’d have plenty of ammunition to fire back at Johnny during the fight that was sure to ensue.
Exam completed, Jenkins reported to his patient, “You’re doing well Johnny. There’s a little redness around your incision, but no fever tells me its probably just some irritation from the stitches. What concerns me is your lack of appetite. I didn’t find any physical reason for it. I know you’ll do things your own way, but if you don’t start eating and continue to get your rest, you’re going to draw out your recovery, and I don’t think you want that.”
“Can I get out of bed now, Doc?” Johnny asked optimistically.
The physician immediately shattered his enthusiasm. “Can you sit up without passing out?”
“Jelly’s a blabbermouth,” Johnny sulked.
“Jelly’s your friend, Johnny,” Doc admonished his young patient. “I don’t want you trying to move around alone until you get your strength up. I’m warning you, if you do anything to pull those stitches out I’m going to sew you to the bed when I repair them!”
Johnny couldn’t hold back his frustration any longer. “I can’t just lay here, Doc! I can’t think like this. I gotta get out of here.”
“Where are you going to go, Johnny?” Doc appreciated his friend’s frustration, but he needed his patient to be realistic as well. “You won’t be able to sit a horse for at least a week, and I’d prefer two. In a couple of days you might be up to handling the stairs if Scott or Jelly are with you. But you’re not ready for that yet, Johnny.
“I know how tedious this is for you, but you have got to be careful – and patient. Johnny, it’s only been one day since your surgery and your fever just broke this morning. I don’t think you want any more setbacks to getting well. You can sit up all you want today and even do a little moving around your room tomorrow. But until you feel more steady, I’m going to warn the others that you are not to leave your room.”
“Then I at least need to be left alone Doc,” Johnny pleaded. “I know they’re all tryin’ to be helpful, and I ‘ppreciate it, I really do. But I need time on my own. I can’t have ‘em fussin’ ‘round me no more.”
Doc knew how hard it was for Johnny to be trapped in a sickroom, and understood his desperate need to be alone with his thoughts. Feeling this was one way he could help the boy, Sam offered, “I’ll talk to everyone Johnny. We’ll try to give you some breathing room, but you have got to promise not to do anything rash and to take care of yourself. You want to be stubborn and go it alone, fine. But there may be consequences that aren’t just going to affect you. You understand me Johnny?”
“I don’t wanna make things hard on anyone else, Doc, I just… I can’t…”
Sam took pity on Johnny. “It’s okay. I understand.” Johnny had been sitting up, and now had his head deeply bowed. Doc suddenly realized why the boy wouldn’t face him anymore. This was a very serious situation for Johnny, and he needed to have control over it. But the limits his illness, his physician, and his family were putting on him were making that difficult.
“Johnny, look at me.”
Johnny sighed heavily, then brought his eyes up and faced Doc. They were the eyes of a boy who was being weighed down with a set of worries that no one deserved to be burdened with. But two things Sam had learned about the younger Lancer son were that you couldn’t make Johnny do anything he didn’t want to do, and he never backed down from a fight. As much as he hated to do it, Doc had to agree that the best medicine for Johnny right now was to simply get out of his way.
“I’ll talk to Scott, Teresa and Jelly for you. They’ll understand, don’t worry. You do what you have to do, but always remember each of them want to help. You take it when you need it, promise me that Johnny.”
Once again Johnny had to appreciate how very, very well Doc had come to understand him. “I promise Sam,” Johnny affirmed, but his thoughts seemed to be elsewhere, like he was weighing something in his mind.
Doc let a moment pass, then prompted, “What is it Johnny?”
Johnny pulled himself out of his reflections and gave Sam an intense, questioning look, as if he were considering how far he could trust his physician… his friend.
Sam recognized the hesitation for what it was. “What is it Johnny?” he repeated with every bit of sensitivity he could muster.
It took him a moment to respond, and he couldn’t look at Doc when he did. “I just don’t get it is all. I ain’t… I ain’t never had no one carin’ ‘bout me like this before. Can’t imagine why anyone would bother. I ain’t nothin’ special.”
Looking down on the bowed head of the young man before him, Sam once again thought with a mixture of anger and sadness, ‘No one comes down harder on Johnny than Johnny.’
“Johnny, that’s exactly why. You are special. And just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Don’t sell your family short. Not all of them are blind. You’re not alone anymore, Johnny, and the sooner you make yourself believe and accept that fact, the sooner things are going to get easier for you. Don’t put any more roadblocks in your way than you already have. Stop worrying about Scott and Teresa and Jelly. They know, and they understand. You go ahead and do whatever it takes to open your father’s eyes. The rest of us will still be here when you’re done.”
Johnny’s response was so quiet Doc almost didn’t hear it. “Thanks Sam,” drifted out on a whisper.
Jenkins finally reached out and laid his hand on the back of Johnny’s head, then let it settle on his shoulder for a moment. “Get some rest, Johnny. I’ll be back in a couple of days, unless you need me sooner. I’ll come as quick as I can if you do, so you just let me know.”
The bowed head bobbed a little, acknowledging that Doc’s words had been heard, but Johnny still wouldn’t look up. Sam gave his shoulder a supportive squeeze, and then quickly left the room, hoping that he’d convinced Johnny that, although they may leave him alone, they were not leaving him on his own ever again.
Doc’s announcement that Johnny needed time alone didn’t come as a surprise to anyone. They had all expected the request – the hard part would be honoring it.
Visits to Johnny’s room were kept to a minimum from that point onward. Scott, Teresa, Jelly and Maria all rotated making what few interruptions they felt were absolutely necessary. That had been Scott’s suggestion, in the hopes that his brother might feel more comfortable talking to one of them over the others. But unfortunately they all found him pretty much the same, polite and obviously grateful, but withdrawn and quiet.
Johnny seemed most open when offered momentary distractions through discussions of basic ranch business. He chatted briefly with Scott about the needs of moving the herd during the next week. Johnny reminded his brother of some fences that still needed repairing beforehand, and made some suggestions for which ranch hands would be better suited to a particular task over another. Scott actually managed a smile from his brother when he stated he’d be sure to tell the hands assigned to the most dreaded tasks that it had been by Johnny’s suggestion.
Jelly kept the young Lancer boy’s interest for a few minutes talking about the horses some of the other hands were trying to break in Johnny’s absence. The old hand was both saddened and encouraged when Johnny asked that a pair of the horses be saved for him to tame. Jelly knew exactly which two the boy wanted to get his hands on, and agreed wholeheartedly that they’d be best served by Johnny’s particular methods for gentling a horse. He promised his young friend that he’d cull them from the group for him.
Maria came closest to breaking through Johnny’s pensive mood. The Lancer housekeeper had taken it upon herself to watch devotedly after both Scott and Johnny when they’d come to live at the ranch. But she had developed a special kind of affection for the younger Lancer son, and surprisingly the usually reserved ex-gunfighter had come to accept her mothering manner as a routine and comforting part of his new life.
Johnny was used to being gently admonished by the Mexican cook when she even suspected that he had been misbehaving. So it came as no surprise to Johnny when she set his dinner before him, then immediately cradled his head in her hands as she addressed him in her typical no nonsense manner, scolding him in rapid-fire Spanish for “appearing as a ghost to her and disappearing before her eyes”.
Even though she knew his fever had broken she still felt his forehead maternally, then made a big show of trying to neaten his unruly hair. Before he knew what hit him, while chattering on and on about simple matters, she had managed to force-feed him half of his meal. He finally got a word in edgewise and insisted he could manage no more.
Fully aware of what she’d accomplished, Maria once again took Johnny’s head in her hands, then planted a gentle kiss on his forehead. She didn’t belabor the moment, letting the simple gesture speak for her. She moved the meal tray to Johnny’s bedside table, and implored him to eat the rest of it later as she quickly exited the room.
Thus Johnny was left for the remainder of the evening, ensured that his family was observing his wishes and that there seemed to be no hard feelings over his request for privacy. Scott paid one more visit on his way to bed to see if Johnny needed help with anything. Assured he would be fine, brother left brother alone, to the quiet and stillness of the night.
The minute Teresa entered Johnny’s room the next day with his breakfast, she knew the cheerfulness they had shared the morning before would not be repeated. Quietly asked to come in after her soft knock, she found Johnny only lightly covered by a thin blanket, sitting in a chair that had been pulled up next to his open window.
Teresa bit off a reproving comment that he might catch cold sitting there that way. Instead she greeted him simply, with as much exuberance as she dared. “Good morning, Johnny.”
“Mornin’,” he returned abruptly, without shifting his gaze away from the view outside his window.
Noticing the brevity of his response, she pressed for a little more interaction to gauge his mood. “I have your breakfast here.”
“Thanks. Just put it on the table,” came another distracted reply.
Teresa silently did as requested, then tried again. “Would you like me to change your bed linen now, or…”
“Just leave it, Teresa!”
Even Johnny’s ears registered how rude he sounded, and he immediately tried to make amends. He still wouldn’t face her but, “I’m sorry, querida,” came out quietly but quickly, as his head bowed in obvious contrition.
Teresa was glad Johnny didn’t want to look at her. As hard as she was trying to hold her tongue, she was now trying even harder not to cry. Teresa’s own patience was failing though a mixture of anger and helplessness over the entire tension-filled situation trapped within the walls of the hacienda. But she knew it wouldn’t be fair to add to Johnny’s burden right now by making him feel sorry for her. She realized that her own concerns paled in comparison to what he was facing.
All she wanted to do now was reassure him she was okay, and then leave him alone once again. “It’s alright Johnny. Really. I was pushing you and that was unfair.” Backing her way to the door she added, “Someone will be up with your lunch later.”
Johnny heard the door close, then Teresa’s footsteps quicken as she obviously ran away from his room. Hearing a door hastily open and close further down the hallway, he knew without a doubt that Teresa had retreated to her own bedroom in tears.
“Dammit,” Johnny cursed to himself. He was truly sorry he’d snapped at Teresa, knowing she hadn’t deserved the treatment he’d just given her. But the long night hadn’t passed well for him, and he’d been too distracted by his own runaway train of thoughts to realize that he was trampling over the young woman, until it had been too late.
He hated this. Absolutely hated it. For a brief moment he thought of how much better off he had seemed to be before he’d had the feelings of a “family” to worry about. The one advantage to being a loner was that the only person who ever got hurt by his actions had been himself. Now everything he did had ramifications not only for him, but also for his brother, Teresa, Jelly, the ranch, and even Murdoch. His father.
Damn the man. His father had dangled something before Johnny Madrid that the hardened gunfighter had dreamed of having during his most melancholy moments, but had never really believed would ever come true. Feeling sorry for himself was something that Johnny had rarely allowed, but when he did the things he thought he missed most were a family and the chance for a normal, uneventful life. And that’s what Murdoch was constantly keeping just out of his reach. Johnny didn’t know who he hated more – his father for teasing him, or himself for falling for the trap.
That’s exactly how he felt – trapped. Trapped in his room. Trapped between sickness and health. Trapped between his needs and his wants. Trapped between his past and his future. Trapped between a desire to keep up a relationship with his newfound brother and the possibility of severing all ties with his father.
He hated it that his decisions now affected others so much. He could tell how tense everyone was getting, how things were threatening to explode. He felt like he’d just gotten himself into the middle of another range war – one between he and his father. And he hated it that Scott, Teresa, and Jelly were being forced to choose up sides.
Since he was not allowed to ride, being forced to stay in his room for another day had turned out to be just fine with Johnny. Murdoch had apparently listened to Doc and was refusing to approach his son, and Johnny didn’t really want to run into his father until he was ready. But Johnny sensed that time was slipping away from him and he needed to get this over with before someone else felt they needed to get in the middle.
‘What can I say to the man that I haven’t already tried to say before?’ Johnny thought – over and over and over again…
Murdoch’s thoughts were also starting to repeat themselves. His mind was circling around past and recent events, and words that had either been said or gone unspoken. But he was finding no easy answers or a simple way to resolve the situation he now found himself in with his younger son.
How had he let things get so out of control? Murdoch prided himself on always having a command of any situation. But right now he had no doubt that somewhere along the line he had lost perspective on what having Johnny back in his life actually meant to him. His actions had all been reactionary in nature for almost a year now, and it had taken someone from outside the family to finally pull the brake on his runaway wagon.
The stop had been abrupt and jarring. He and Johnny had gotten into a pattern of behavior that, although destructive in nature, hadn’t been life threatening – until now. The Lancer patriarch couldn’t stop thinking about the other night, when Johnny had come home late from his trip to town to see Doc. Murdoch kept seeing and hearing himself over and over, standing on the veranda, berating his son like he had so many times before. And he couldn’t stop remembering how he’d expected to get his argument thrown back in his face by Johnny, as he had done just as often as well.
He could actually still feel how disappointed he had been when Johnny hadn’t fought back. How unsatisfying it had been to hear his son simply reply, “I’m sorry I’m such a bother to you.” At the time Murdoch had thought the words were merely a flippant remark being tossed at him by his sarcastic son. But now he knew that this was Johnny’s very real feeling about how he thought his father viewed him. And not wanting to be a bother to Murdoch might have cost Johnny his life.
Murdoch remembered watching Johnny approach the hacienda from the barn that night, and how he couldn’t wait for his son to get near enough so that he could literally pounce on him and start reprimanding him for that trip to town. ‘When in heaven’s name did I begin looking forward to arguing with my son?’ Murdoch thought incredulously.
He knew now that if he hadn’t been so preoccupied with his blind anger that he might have been able to recognize the signs that his son had been ailing that night. As he thought back on Johnny’s movements, Murdoch could clearly remember how slowly his son had been moving – how Johnny had actually stopped once and bent over slightly, holding his side in obvious discomfort. But instead of raising any concern, his son’s slow pace had only registered to Murdoch as being an annoying delay to his ability to once again vent his disappointment and displeasure to his son.
Doc had said that it was “a good thing Johnny learned how to take care of himself, because you’re doing a really poor job of it!” Murdoch could do nothing but agree with that. ‘Johnny needed me that night, and all I did was push him away. God, what if his appendix had burst during the night? How could I possibly live with myself if my actions caused one of my sons to be hurt? Or killed?’
It would be easy to blame the seriousness of Johnny’s illness on the boy himself. Hadn’t he known that he was sick? Why hadn’t he said anything to anyone? But Sam Jenkins had denied Murdoch the use of that convenient excuse for his behavior as well. Doc had explained that Johnny hadn’t known what appendicitis was, so the boy hadn’t known how really sick he had been until he’d taken that trip into town. And Johnny hadn’t wanted sympathy or to have anyone worrying about him. He hadn’t wanted to be a “bother”. He hadn’t even confided in Scott, and Johnny seemed able to tell his brother lots of things he couldn’t tell his father.
That annoyed Murdoch as well – his sons’ close relationship with each other, their ability to share so much that they couldn’t or wouldn’t share with him. At times Murdoch actually found himself feeling jealous about the bond his sons had so easily formed – a bond so strong that Doc had warned him that he might lose Scott if he couldn’t find some way to hold on to Johnny.
But holding on to Johnny seemed easier said than done. The boy had such a damned annoying independence streak! Murdoch couldn’t make him do anything. But wasn’t Scott just as independently minded as Johnny? What was it about his younger son’s attitude that grated on Murdoch’s nerves so much? And why did he feel it necessary to make Johnny do what he wanted? To bend the boy to his will. To break him?
Murdoch had been doing a lot of thinking over the past three days, and could remember moments when both his son’s had separately brought him similar suggestions for things that might affect the ranch. It stunned him to now realize how calmly and attentively he had listened to Scott, but how he had basically dismissed Johnny the minute he had opened his mouth. What in the world was he thinking at moments like that?
He wasn’t thinking. That was just it. He was feeling. Murdoch realized that he was responding to Johnny on a different level than Scott. It was unfair he knew to compare the two men, but when he looked at his older son he saw a fine upstanding young man, with manners and intelligence he could respect and admire. And he felt at ease. When he looked at Johnny he saw… what?
In all honesty, what Murdoch saw in his younger son was a gunman, who was suspicious and reserved in nature, a man not to be trusted but… feared? There had been few men in Murdoch’s life that he had actually been afraid of, but that’s exactly what he felt whenever he looked at his younger son! But what exactly frightened him about Johnny? The obvious, the man he had become, or something deeper?
It angered him how strong willed the boy was. It reminded him so much of… Maria. He knew that was part of the problem. That woman had taken Johnny away from him, forced him into a hard life, turned him into Johnny Madrid. Murdoch hated his estranged wife for what she had done to him, but hated her more for what she had done to his son. But was he taking out his anger on Johnny? God, could he really be that cruel?
The other day, as Murdoch had watched Johnny laying unconscious and being carried up the stairs and out of his sight, it had been like someone was taking his son away from him, all over again. And it had hurt just as much. So why couldn’t he have such strong feelings like that for Johnny when he was well?
It wasn’t pride and stubbornness that was preventing Murdoch from marching up to Johnny’s bedroom and seeing his son despite the boy’s wishes. He was scared of losing him, and truly penitent for how he’d been behaving. But he had absolutely no idea of what to say to Johnny. Doc had been right about so much, but Murdoch didn’t know how to fix it.
He didn’t feel he had a right to go to Johnny. He’d have to wait for his son to either summon, or come to, him.
Johnny spent the day moving between his bed and the chair by the window. He might have appeared inactive, but whether he was lying down, sitting or standing, always his thoughts were shifting, taking him to places he’d already been, and places he feared to go.
Once again finding himself sitting before his window, Johnny’s thoughts continued to wander, and he drifted off to sleep.
He was still in his bedroom, now lying on his bed, but he felt young. Really young. His eyes were closed, and a sense of peacefulness surrounded him. He felt the mattress move, and beside him a presence. He felt large and strong, but at the same time gentle hands, smoothing the hair over his forehead. He was enveloped with a calm that he never thought possible here on earth.
Then suddenly there were different hands on him, on his shoulders, and he was pulled roughly off the bed and thrown. He was older now, but still young. He landed on his hands and knees, scraping them on hard packed earth, in a heat that was almost unbearable. He tried to sit up, but another hand was there, smacking him hard across the face, immediately raising a welt. He lifted a hand to his cheek to quell the sting, but there was now a boot in his back, pushing him forward violently so that he sprawled completely in the dirt. There was no time to try to get away from the torment, as another pair of hands were already grasping his small arms and hauling him cruelly to his feet. The hands were shaking him, shaking him so hard he thought his head would fall from his shoulders. Finally different hands were grabbing his arms, and he was lifted and thrown once again.
He landed face down, back on his bed, but he was older. So very much older. There was a burning pain in his back, but it wasn’t from the kick. The pain was deeper, sharper. There was still heat, but it was rolling off of him in waves, a fever. He still felt the scrapes on his hands and knees from being thrown onto the dirt, and he felt the burn of the slap, seared into the skin on his cheek. His shoulders and arms ached from being grabbed and shaken.
He heard himself moan as he tried to rise up off the bed, struggling to escape from the agony. He felt the mattress move, and beside him there was a familiar presence. Once again he felt those large, strong, and gentle hands smoothing the hair over his forehead. They were more calloused than before, but he could tell they were the same hands, and they were working their magic, enveloping him with a calm that he had forgotten was possible here on earth.
The ache in his arms and shoulders, faded… the sting of the slap, faded… the pain of his scraped hands and knees, faded… the heat from his fever, faded… and finally, the burning in his back… faded…
All the physical torment he had ever experienced faded with the touch of those hands, and for the first time in forever he once again felt at peace.
But the more the hands moved over him, the greater an emptiness in his heart grew. He felt uneasy, unbalanced. Something was missing from the touch. The hands were going through the motions, but the calming effect was… fading.
Johnny woke to the daze common to those who have vividly dreamed, but the emptiness that remained in his heart was unmistakably real. He drew in a sharp breath, somehow hoping to fill the void he felt in chest. But there was no effect and the hollow feeling remained.
He sat there, confused, unsure exactly what the visions had meant, but knowing they had everything to do with his relationship with his father. Johnny was left with an unsettling feeling that whatever he and Murdoch once shared was vanishing, and if he didn’t act quickly, there would be no way they would ever reclaim it again.
Johnny had never backed out of a fight before, and he was bound and determined to come at this one straight on and finish it – today.
Johnny waited until after supper, knowing that Murdoch would most likely retreat to his desk for the evening. But he knew he couldn’t put it off any longer. He needed to get things said, receive some answers, and then let everyone else at Lancer get back to living a normal life – with or without him.
He wanted to meet his father like a man and get dressed, but the best he could manage because of his stitches and the remaining bandaging was to leave his shirt un-tucked to cover his incompletely buttoned pants. He took one look at his boots and immediately realized that it would be a waste of his time and energy to try and get them on safely. So he left his room barefoot, but determined.
Descending the stairs slowly, Johnny was very glad when he finally reached the bottom without having passed out. He allowed himself a short rest to gather his strength, all the while wishing his recovery had gone smoother. He really wasn’t ready for this physically, but he wasn’t about to let another night go by without talking with his father. He couldn’t let another night go by.
His head about as clear as it was going to get, Johnny took the remaining few steps to the door separating him from his father, and with one last deep breath, he raised his hand and knocked.
For the past few nights Scott and Teresa had allowed him the indulgence of being left alone at his desk during the evening. Lost in thought, Murdoch was startled by the unexpected knock on the door. He quickly regained himself and bid the person enter, only to find himself once again surprised to find that it was Johnny requesting entry.
His son had come to him.
Johnny’s appearance shocked him. Scott had been keeping him informed of his younger son’s condition, so he knew he had fought off a fever and was having trouble eating and sleeping. Although the reports had been worrisome, they had come nowhere near to properly preparing him for the sight of the man before him.
Looking past Johnny’s bare feet and disheveled dress, Murdoch could see the dark circles under his boy’s normally vibrant blue eyes. Stockier than Scott in build, Johnny had still always maintained a trim physique. Now he looked downright emaciated, his handsome face left gaunt and pale by his illness.
Murdoch silently cursed himself for his pride, for having stayed away from his son’s sickbed over the prior three days. ‘Johnny’s wishes be damned, I should have been there for him,’ he thought.
‘But you had other chances to be there for him, and you weren’t,’ he reminded himself.
Murdoch had no more time to reflect on choices that could have been better made, as Johnny was already addressing him. “Murdoch, I’d really like to talk to you. But if you feel I ain’t got the right, I’ll understand. If you want me to leave, I will.”
Johnny had remained hovering in the doorway. ‘At least his voice sounds strong,’ Murdoch thought, then realized that Johnny was actually there to confront him about their relationship. He had known this moment was going to have to come sooner or later, he only wished Johnny had waited until he was in better shape.
But Murdoch had already made up his mind that whenever his younger son chose to approach him, he was going to let Johnny take the reins. He deserved that right for what Murdoch had put him through. Doc had been right about so many things, most of all when he had told him that if he “…shut up once in awhile you’d realize when things are wrong, too!” So that’s what he had promised himself he would do, shut up and listen for once, and try to salvage what he could of his son’s love.
“Johnny, come in. You’re welcome.”
Johnny entered the room completely and closed the door. He made no attempt to come closer or to sit, and he wasted no more time getting started. “I been doin’ a lot of thinkin’ these past couple a’ days, and I reckon you have too. I’m sorry Doc talked to you the way he did. I didn’t expect him to do my fightin’ for me, but I wasn’t exactly feelin’ up to gettin’ him to back down.”
Mostly to himself he added, “Kinda surprised me how feisty he can get when he wants to.”
He continued, instantly back on track. “Anyway… He said some things that I guess needed sayin’, and now that I’m feelin’ better I want to get ‘em said myself.”
‘You may think you’re feeling better, son, but you look like hell.’ The father didn’t voice his concerns, however, knowing that Johnny would hate it if Murdoch thought he was weak in any way right now. His son had spent his life trying to appear strong in hard times, and even though it pained him to watch him do it now, he was bound and determined to let Johnny play out this hand however he felt he needed.
“Go on, Johnny,” Murdoch consented.
Johnny continued in a determined tone. “Doc told you I thought you could only show you cared anythin’ ‘bout me when I wasn’t up to fightin’ you back. I not only think that’s true, now that I been able to think on it, I reckon I know why.
“I think most a’ the time it’s hard for you to get past the fact that I remind you of my mama. I know you’re still pretty angry at what she did to us both, and lookin’ at me just makes you think of how mad you are at her and you take it out on me.
“Well, you were right when you said I got my mother’s temper, and I gotta tell you right now, I’m gonna keep fightin’ you right back. But that don’t mean I like it any, and it ain’t gettin’ us anywhere. If that’s really how you feel and you can’t start seein’ me instead of her, then I guess there ain’t much of a chance for us.”
Johnny paused to give his father a chance to interrupt. Surprised when he doesn’t say anything, he immediately forges ahead. “This is gonna sound pretty strange, but I think I know another reason why you seem to only care ‘bout me when I’m ailing. It come to me being laid up in bed like I been.
“Murdoch, before I came back to the ranch, the last time you saw me I was only two. The Johnny Lancer you knew I bet couldn’t do a whole lot for himself. I think when I ain’t up to fightin’ you back, I don’t remind you of Maria anymore, I remind you of that two year old little kid who needed you to do things for him.”
Johnny’s voice now took on a hint of desperation. “But I’m not a kid anymore, Murdoch. And I was only Johnny Lancer for two years – two years I was too young to remember.” Regret now mixing with his sadness. “I wish to god I could remember those times, Murdoch, but I can’t. I spent more time first being just Maria’s boy, then Maria’s half-breed. I lived like that for ten years, Murdoch. Then I became Johnny Madrid for ten more years.
“I’m sure you must have had all kinds of hopes and dreams already picked out for that little kid that I haven’t exactly lived up to. I’m sorry, Murdoch, but I don’t know who Johnny Lancer was! And I’ve been trying to figure out who he’s supposed to be now, but he probably won’t be anythin’ like what you’ve spent twenty years dreamin’ he’d be.
“I know you can’t accept me for who I am, but right now, I don’t know who else to be. I wish you could stop seeing Maria, or a young Johnny Lancer, and just see me.”
Johnny tries hard, but looking at his father he can’t tell what he’s thinking. After another pause goes unanswered, he again continues on. “I don’t even know if any of this is makin’ any sense. I do know I’m a disappointment to you. But I’m trying Murdoch. You just don’t seem to be able to see it though, and that makes a man kinda tired to keep at it.
“If you can’t wait for me to figure out who the new Johnny Lancer is gonna turn out to be, then we might as well just call it quits right now.”
Johnny does actually sound tired at this point, which finally causes Murdoch to respond as he remembers that Johnny’s surgery was only two days before, and yet he’s allowed his son to remain standing.
“Sit down, Johnny,” he offers. Seeing Johnny’s hesitation, he restrains himself from making it sound like an order but repeats, “Sit down, Johnny. Please.”
Johnny is actually glad Murdoch asked him to sit, as he was getting a little dizzy and uncomfortable. Despite his best attempts to hide it, his discomfort shows as he takes a seat.
Watching his son stubbornly struggle to conceal his ill health, it takes everything Murdoch has not to express any concern, even though he desperately wants to.
A silence rests between father and son for a few moments, lasting a little longer than Johnny might have wanted. He was used to shouting and yelling and overlapping dialogue filled with anger. All this polite waiting for the other person to finish was a little unsettling.
For his part, Murdoch was carefully considering everything his son had just said to him. He hadn’t yet figured out on his own what to say to Johnny, so was grateful for the boy’s insights. And he had to admit that his younger son’s perception was very good. Murdoch had already reflected on how much Johnny reminded him of Maria, so he wasn’t surprised that his son had discerned that barrier between them. But his son’s thoughts about shattered hopes and dreams and missed youth were new considerations for Murdoch, which had definitely touched a nerve within him.
Finally Murdoch speaks, choosing his words carefully. “I appreciate your honesty, Johnny. You’re right. I have been doing a lot of thinking.
“First, I owe you an apology. I didn’t give you a chance to speak up the other night, and that wasn’t fair to you, or me either for that matter. I never thought I’d be capable of doing anything that would endanger the health of my children, but that’s exactly what I did. I’m sorry for that, Johnny. I never meant to hurt you.”
Johnny is encouraged that he might have actually said something right when Murdoch continues to share his own thoughts about what he’s said to his father so far. “I do harbor a lot of resentment toward your mother. I guess every father has dreams for his children, and Maria stole mine when she took my child from me. None of my hopes seem to have come true. Although I will admit that Scott has come nearer to the vision of what I would have expected for you both.”
Realizing how his pensive thoughts have probably affected his younger son, he acts quickly to clarify himself. “I’m sorry Johnny. I know that sounds awful. It’s unfair for me to compare the two of you with each other.
“I only mean… well… I did have an idea of who I hoped you would be when you grew up, and you’re so very different from what I remember of my child! I know Scott had people around him to help lead him, and you were forced to grow up without a lot of guidance. But it’s still been hard for me to understand the choices you’ve made in your life.
“Maybe that’s part of the answer for what comes between us. I can’t bring myself to trust your judgment, Johnny, because I don’t agree with or approve of where it’s managed to lead you so far.”
With disappointment evident in his voice, Murdoch added, “I would have hoped you capable of more than just choosing to live your life by the gun.”
Another moment of silence arises between them – Murdoch’s turn to wait while Johnny gathers his thoughts and forms a response.
Johnny was amazed – his father was not only talking with him, but listening. He knew he had to give his father an honest answer. The trouble was, after three days of thinking on it, he still wasn’t quite sure how to explain it to Murdoch.
He was trying very hard to hold his temper, to not get offended by anything his father was saying but, ‘Dios, why is the man so all-fired stuck on me having become a gunfighter! I been tryin’ to walk away from that. Why can’t he see that and just accept me for who I am?’
Johnny had been reluctant to reveal too many details about his past, but that’s where the answer to his father’s questions and concerns lay. Just how much should he tell to get his point across? And just what does he tell him? He had chosen the life of a gunfighter, but he’d had a lot of reasons for following that path. Twenty years worth of reasons. But what events during that time were the most important? And how can he string them together to make sense? If he simply talked about how poorly he and his mother had lived, he’d just get pity. But it had taken so much more than that to pick up a gun!
Johnny knew he might never get an opportunity to explain himself to his father again. But his mind was a swirl of painful moments, each of them coming together to make him who and what he was today. Which incident started it all?
‘Make up your mind, Johnny!’
Finally, he remembered something he said to Doc in his office, and his afternoon dream, and the way to explain himself to Murdoch became clear. A way that could even give Johnny an answer to the question of whether Murdoch thought it had been worthwhile for him to have even been born.
Johnny began with a seemingly casual line of questioning. “Murdoch, before you met Maria and had me, before you did any searching for me after we disappeared, you visited the border towns didn’t you?”
“Yes,” Murdoch answered simply.
“Do you remember the kids in those towns? What they looked like? How they acted?”
Although it was another unusual question, Murdoch took a moment to seriously consider his answer, sensing that for some reason it was important to his son. Finally he responds, “I know they all looked like they could use a bath and a good meal.”
“They all pretty much looked alike, right?” Johnny clarified.
Receiving a nod from Murdoch in confirmation, Johnny added, “But I bet you didn’t spend a lot of time lookin’ at em, ‘cause if you showed ‘em too much attention they’d probably all start beggin’ for money, right?”
Murdoch again nods in agreement as his expression reflects that he is guilty as charged, his remorse obvious for having ignored the poor children many times so he wouldn’t be pestered for a handout.
“Don’t feel sorry about it, Murdoch,” Johnny excused his father. “We all learned how to be real bothers when we needed to be.” Johnny’s implied inclusion of himself in that description was not missed by Murdoch. And his son’s current condition and ragged appearance sadly made it easy for him to imagine his boy as having been part of such a needy band of street urchins.
“That’s how everyone sees the border town kids,” Johnny continued. “They see ‘em, but they don’t see ‘em at the same time. Actually safer to ignore ‘em if you can.
“Except for the ones with blue eyes.”
With that, Johnny’s casual attitude was gone, and a hardness came into his eyes and voice.
The unusual series questions had allowed Johnny to mentally pull Murdoch from his comfortable desk at Lancer, and bring him right into what had been his son’s actual life. Murdoch’s sense memory had kicked in, and he could instantly feel what it was like to be back in one of the border towns. And he knew Johnny was going to take him even farther and make him feel what it was like to be a little blue-eyed boy in one of those places.
Murdoch was suddenly very afraid of what he was going to hear next. Johnny had always resisted talking about his childhood, but Murdoch had forced him into it. And he wasn’t going to be traveling down memory lane alone. Johnny was going to drag his father along with him, and Murdoch knew it wasn’t going to be a pleasant trip.
He let his story unfold in a straightforward, nonchalant manner, but Johnny’s incredibly affecting blue eyes locked on his father’s with an intensity Murdoch was never going to forget.
“Everyone notices a dark-skinned kid with blue eyes in the border towns,” he began, “and that kid means pretty much the same thing to a gringo or a Mex. As bad off as they may be, or the other kids may be, ain’t nothin’ worse than a half-breed kid on the border. Everyone hates to look at ‘em, but they can’t help themselves because it makes ‘em feel better about themselves, not worse. And they take all their anger and hurt out on that kid.
“When I was real little, I remember being scared whenever mama would say we was goin’ somewhere and would have to walk down the street in the daylight. ‘Cause eventually someone would notice my blue eyes and I’d end up gettin’ smacked in the head, or tripped, or just plain knocked down. I didn’t really know at the time why it was happenin’, I just knew I was gonna get hurt sooner or later. Mama would try to pull me outta the way, but she never seemed to be fast enough.
“By the time I was about six, I finally worked it out on my own why people were hittin’ on me more than the other kids, and I began to get pretty good at figurin’ out who was gonna take a smack at me. But mama was still makin’ me hold her hand, so a lotta the time I’d see it comin’ but still couldn’t get outta the way fast enough.
“I finally told her I didn’t want to hold her hand anymore. I remember she looked kinda sad, so I lied and told her it was just ‘cause I was gettin’ too big to be holdin’ her hand, that the other kids were laughin’ at me for actin’ like a baby. That made her feel good, made her think her little niño was just finally growin’ up. I never did tell her that it was really ‘cause she was slowin’ me down and causin’ me to get hurt.
“Without mama holdin’ me back I got pretty fast and was able to get outta the way a’ mosta the fists or feet that were bein’ aimed in my direction. It weren’t so bad to go out in the daylight anymore. I was actually proud of somethin’ for the first time in my life. I was takin’ care a’ myself, and that made me feel good. For a while at least.
“Then when I was about eleven, I got knifed for the first time.”
Johnny’s continual matter of fact tone had lulled Murdoch into a strange sense of disquieting amazement, but now he looked at his son aghast. How could Johnny be so casual about being stabbed at the age of eleven?
Murdoch finally realized just how really ugly Johnny’s life had been, and how horrible having to listen to it being related was going to get.
Johnny had noticed his father’s reaction. As if to say, “you asked for this old man”, Johnny paused, but continued his unflinching gaze into his father’s eyes.
Murdoch knew Johnny was giving him the chance to stop him, to keep the past in the past, asking permission to continue. “Go on Johnny,” he quietly consented.
“Stakes were gettin’ raised,” Johnny continued, his tone as before, “and I realized I had to get even faster. ‘Cause I guess I was gettin’ old enough so they weren’t gonna be satisfied just knockin’ the little half-breed down, now they might just want to kill me. So I got even better and faster at readin’ people.
“Then mama died, and I knew I had to find a way to defend myself even better. Needed to find some way to be even faster.”
Eyes turning suddenly to a piercingly cold steely stare, Johnny leaned forward and made his ultimate confession, and Murdoch found out just what it was like to look into the eyes of a hired killer. “That’s when I picked up a gun and found out just how fast I could be. I became Johnny Madrid, and finally people stopped lookin’ at my dark Mexican skin and my gringo blue eyes. All they looked at was my gun.
“Madrid made people think twice ‘bout comin’ after me. I finally felt like I was a person, not just some nothing, some nobody put on this earth to be kicked around ‘til I couldn’t stand anymore and let myself die. If I was gonna lose my life, at least I was gonna go out on my own two feet, fightin’ back.”
The deadly glare was gone, as swiftly as it had appeared, leaving behind a depth of sadness Murdoch had never witnessed before. Johnny’s voice was now tinged with true regret. “I wish you had been with me Murdoch, teachin’ me judgment, givin’ me guidance and leadin’ me toward your dreams. But you weren’t there, and for the most part, mama wasn’t either.
“You said you didn’t understand the choices I’ve made in my life. Well, maybe now you got a better idea of why I made ‘em. I was just tryin’ to survive, Murdoch. I know you don’t like to think about it, but I was all I had, and I did the best I could with what I had. And what I had was your blue eyes and mama’s dark skin – and those were choices I didn’t make for myself.”
It was now time for Johnny to lay out exactly what he wanted from Murdoch, and to find out just where he now stood in his father’s life and heart.
“I’ve tried not to blame anyone for the cards I was dealt, and I ain’t tryin’ to do that now, you gotta believe that. But I’m not gonna apologize for the way I played that hand, either. I may regret a lot of what I did, but I can’t go back and change any of it now and neither can you.
“This is who I am Murdoch, and if all this means is that you just can’t live with me havin’ turned your two year old little boy into Johnny Madrid, then there ain’t no reason for me to stay here. I was Madrid a lot longer than Lancer, and I’m a lot more comfortable bein’ him. I can’t make Johnny Madrid disappear any more than I can change the color of my skin or eyes. And I can’t just sit here and let you make me feel like I’m not worth anything again. You may not be doin’ it with a fist or a foot or a gun, but that’s what you’re doin’ Murdoch, makin’ me feel worthless.
“You may not be able to admit it, you may not even know what it is, but you’re mad at somethin’. Whatever it is, I can’t let you take out your anger and hurt on me any longer! I’ve fought too long and too hard convincing myself that I deserve the right to draw breath to let you knock me down like everyone else used to, just so you can feel better about yourself.”
More contemplative now, Johnny’s head hangs a little as he quietly continues. “It’s somethin’ I never thought ‘bout before, but Doc was right ‘bout another thing, too. You’re gonna get me killed. I don’t like to think ‘bout it any more than you do, but Madrid made a few enemies, and they may just show up lookin’ for me sometime. If Johnny Lancer is the one who has to face ‘em, he’s gonna be worried thinkin’ ‘bout what you would want him to do, and he’s gonna hesitate – and that hesitation is gonna get him killed.”
Eyes fully back on his father now, with no apology Johnny adds, “I may not want to, but I have to hang on to at least a piece of Johnny Madrid, ‘cause Johnny Lancer can’t defend himself against Madrid’s past, not if he has to please you, too, and do things your way.
“You can’t be holdin’ my hand, Murdoch, ‘cause like mama you’re gonna slow me down and cause me to get hurt.”
Johnny was glad he was almost through having his say, because his fatigue was once again catching up with him. Fighting off a bout of lightheadedness, he addressed his father directly.
“So, it all comes back to that. If you just can’t swallow Madrid hangin’ ‘round, then I might as well leave now. All I can say is I’ve been tryin’ to be mostly Johnny Lancer. But I need to know from you if it’s worth it for me keep on tryin’, or if you want me to go.
“I not only got my mama’s temper, I got your stubbornness, too. So I can’t guarantee we ain’t never gonna fight again. But if we’re gonna argue I want you arguin’ with me – not my mother, and not Johnny Madrid. And if you want me to stay, it has to be me that stays, not some little boy who don’t exist no more.
“I’ve had my say, and I thank you for listenin’. I still don’t know if I’ve been makin’ any sense. I’d like to know what you think, but if you feel like I don’t deserve an answer, well then, I don’t know what else to do.”
There is a long pause, and Murdoch seems to be thinking, but he isn’t saying anything. Still feeling slightly faint, Johnny is unable to think clearly any longer, and can’t read his father at all. Finally he decides that Murdoch’s continued silence is his answer, and that all his words have meant nothing. He was allowed to say his peace, however, so figures he’s done what he came there for and that it is time to leave. Leave Lancer.
Johnny rose carefully from his seat and gave himself a moment for his vision to steady. Too tired now to make any effort to hide it, he staggers a little as he begins to walk out.
He took only a couple of steps before Murdoch called his name. Johnny turned to once again face his father, but he was done talking and remained silent.
Murdoch stood formally, cleared his throat, and with a telling huskiness in his voice finally addressed his son. “You certainly did learn how to read people very well, Johnny. You’re right. You’re right about everything, and it does all make sense.
“I am angry, and I have been taking it out on you. But my anger isn’t about you and it’s been totally unfair of me to treat you like I have.
“I don’t like Madrid, but he saved my son’s life, and I’ve never acknowledged that. I’d appreciate it very much if he would continue to protect my son.
“I did have dreams for a young boy, but that doesn’t mean they can’t now be dreams for a young man.
“And I know you’ve been trying, you’ve been trying very hard. And I know now that I have got to try harder myself.
“I don’t want you to go, John. Please – stay here at Lancer. Please.”
Father and son stood before each other, each having had their say, but now unable to speak further. There had been so many angry words between them over the past year that it took each man a moment to grasp the fact that, through honest quiet dialogue, an accord had been reached. They had found common ground, a way to accept each other and move forward as a family.
Johnny had never spoken so many words at one time in his entire life, and felt like he had none left. He had to respond to his father, but it seemed like the time for talking had passed. In the end, the young man could only nod his head. And Murdoch could only nod back.
Anyone watching this scene without knowing these two men might have expected Murdoch to make some effort to acknowledge how painful it had been for Johnny to make his confessions, to show a little more affection for Johnny at this point, to physically demonstrate the love he knew he had for his son. But Murdoch’s response didn’t bother Johnny. That’s not what he wanted. He was looking for respect from his father. For now, the words and acknowledgement were enough.
Certainly, deep down, Johnny thought that maybe someday Murdoch might be able to offer him more, and he might actually be able to accept some outward sign of affection from the man. But Johnny had what he had come for, what he had needed, what he had longed for for a very, very long time – the understanding and love of his father.
“I’m a bit tired right now,” Johnny stated truthfully, his weakened condition forcing him to break the still comfortable silence between them. “Been a long day. You don’t mind if I head off to bed, do you?”
Murdoch was just as reluctant to end the quiet moment they had been able to share. But he was mindful of his own growing concern over his son’s paling features. “No, Johnny, get some rest. Be well.”
Johnny offered up another nod of his head before he turned and headed out, closing the door behind him.
During Murdoch and Johnny’s entire talk, Scott had been listening guiltily outside the window. He had drifted onto the veranda with a drink after the mostly silent dinner that had once again been missing his brother’s presence. And that’s what had compelled the usually well-mannered gentleman to eavesdrop – worry that the conversation between his brother and father might just lead to Johnny going missing permanently from his life. That his father would finally admit he didn’t want Johnny at Lancer, and send him away.
That was Scott’s biggest fear – that his brother and father wouldn’t work this out, and he’d be forced to choose between them.
Scott sighed heavily with relief when Murdoch finally asked Johnny to stay at Lancer. Throughout his brother’s mostly one-sided conversation, Scott had been furious over Murdoch’s seeming inattention and lack of verbal response. But, in the end, his father’s reply demonstrated that Murdoch had thankfully heard every word his brother had said.
Even though Johnny’s confessions had been painful for him to overhear and he felt guilty about listening in, he was very glad he had. Without forewarning, if Johnny had ever decided to open up to him like he just had and shared with him what his life had been like, Scott knew the only way he would have reacted was with a show of sympathy, and that’s exactly what Johnny would have hated. Johnny didn’t want sympathy, ever, just understanding. Now Scott figured he’d have time to prepare himself to react differently if Johnny ever did confide in him.
But if Johnny chose never to share a thing with him, Scott knew that from now on he’d never be able to look at his brother in the same light ever again. He’d always respected Johnny, but now he had a deeper understanding of just how incredible a person his young brother really was.
As much as Murdoch may have wished, he couldn’t have helped Johnny up to his room if he had tried. His legs were like water, barely able to support his large frame. By the time Johnny had finished speaking, he hadn’t been able to reply right away for the same reason. Murdoch had become too numb from everything Johnny had shared with him. He knew his son’s life had to have been difficult, but he had selfishly never once allowed himself to really think about how truly severe it might have been.
And Murdoch had never once allowed himself to admit how cruelly he had been treating his own son.
He had wanted so badly to cross to Johnny and grab hold of him, to hug him tightly and never let him go, to try and make up for all their lost years and the hardship his son had endured in that time. But like Scott, he also realized that that was not why Johnny opened up to him. Doc was right – Johnny didn’t want sympathy, he wanted trust and understanding – and maybe love. That was it. Simple really. But so hard for Murdoch to give – until now.
Murdoch knew he had his work cut out for him. He needed to continue to see Johnny for the man he was now, or he’d lose him forever. His son had made the effort, now it was his turn.
And what kind of man was Johnny now? Murdoch had totally misjudged his younger son. Johnny was different from what Murdoch remembered him to be as a child because his boy had had his innocence stolen from him. Johnny had every right to his independence, to be rebellious and suspicious. His son’s choices in life had led him to become the kind of man who could look into another man’s soul and see what really lie there. He had certainly peered into Murdoch’s heart and uncovered all his secrets. Luckily Johnny had found enough love hidden there behind the anger to be able to recognize that his father had just lost his way for a while.
Remembering how effortlessly Johnny had revealed Johnny Madrid to him today, Murdoch realized just how very hard his son must have been working over the last year to remain tolerant of his father’s behavior. Murdoch thought he had known exactly who Madrid was – but he’d never really met the man until this evening. As angry and upset as he had made his son over the last year, Johnny had never once looked at him with the cold and threatening eyes he had revealed to him tonight. Not even that first day, when Johnny was still under the impression that Murdoch had kicked he and his mother out of his life.
And Murdoch thought he couldn’t trust Johnny’s judgment. He realized that his young son had indeed been “tryin’ to be mostly Johnny Lancer” since the first moment he had returned to the ranch. Johnny Lancer’s control over Madrid was astounding. If it hadn’t been, Murdoch recognized that the man his son had been forced to become was more than capable of shooting his father dead for the fool he was, probably without even blinking an eye. He was very lucky he had a son who had been able to instill himself with such self-control and compassion for others. Murdoch felt himself very, very lucky indeed.
Thoughts of why Johnny had become Madrid made Murdoch remember his son’s account of his childhood and the mental and physical pain he’d endured and overcome. Of all the dreams he’d had for his younger son, he never pictured his boy at six – ‘Only six!’ – letting go of Maria’s hand for the last time so he could literally dodge what life was throwing at him. All because of he and Maria’s tragically misguided passion.
They hadn’t thought what it would mean for a child to be born of mixed race. At least if they had made a greater effort to stay together their son might have had help dealing with the obstacles they had forced him to face, merely through the act of being born. Johnny shouldn’t have had to face that challenge on his own. Always on his own.
His son had become Johnny Madrid as much from Murdoch’s own failings as Maria’s. But it was Johnny Lancer who had paid the price. And Murdoch had done nothing over the past year but added to what it cost his son to try and live a decent life.
Johnny was right, and it shamed him. Murdoch had spent twenty years searching for his son, only to use him as a scapegoat once found for every mistake he’d ever made in his own life. Seeing his so very different sons standing before him a year ago, together side-by-side for the first time, Murdoch had subconsciously allowed himself to make a monumental mistake. He had immediately begun to see Scott as a mirror of his own successes and dreams that had come true, and Johnny as a reflection of all his own failures and every hope that he’d ever had shattered.
He hadn’t been afraid of Johnny over the last year – he had feared the moment when his son would finally figure out that he was being used as a whipping boy. And what did that make Murdoch? It made him no better than the human border town trash that Johnny had fought so long and so hard to successfully rise above.
The realization hit him like a bolt of lightning – he’d blamed Maria for Johnny’s difficult existence, and for what he’d become. But Murdoch, himself, had been equally at fault for his son’s entire painful life. And he’d continued to inflict torment on his son since he’d returned to the ranch.
No wonder Johnny was so offended only being comforted by his father when he was ill, and why he was constantly rebelling against him. Murdoch had been trying to physically hold Johnny like a child with one hand, while he had been simultaneously mentally beating his adult son with the other.
It was too much for Murdoch. He put his head in his hands – and quietly wept. For the first time in many years, he wept, for the boy he’d never have again – the boy who’d been forced to grow up too young and too… fast.
Back in his bedroom, Johnny couldn’t believe how exhausted he again felt. He was totally drained, mentally and physically, but there was no way he could sleep. He had been left unexpectedly stunned, too totally amazed that, from the confusion of thoughts that had been in his mind, he had somehow drawn together the right moments of his life and found just the right words that he could share with his father to finally get through to him. And, as harsh and ugly as it had been, his father had allowed him to bare his soul and let it all out. No interruptions, no denials, no excuses.
He was relieved that his concerns about his father hating him had been unfounded. Murdoch had simply been too caught up in more than twenty years of missed opportunities and failed dreams to see the reality before him. He had his son back – both his sons back – and although they’d grown into men without him, they were still men he could respect. Men he could admire. Men he could finally love.
Had it really happened? Could it be true?
Johnny sat in the dark, still dressed, up against his bed’s headboard, on top of the tangled covers. It seemed to be the only way he could continue to convince himself that the conversation with his father had actually taken place. That it hadn’t been a dream or a hallucination of a sick man.
Without warning Johnny had become inexplicably afraid that if he allowed himself to sleep, he’d wake up in the morning to find that nothing would be changed. He’d spent the last year of his life trying to make this evening happen, and now that it had, he couldn’t believe it. His mind couldn’t accept that Murdoch Lancer was capable of admitting he was wrong. That father and son could talk without raising their voices in anger and frustration, and finally reach an agreement.
Johnny was in shock. He’d gotten what he’d always wanted – what he’d spent twenty years in living hell trying to survive in order to achieve. Yet he couldn’t convince himself it was real. It just couldn’t be real…
It was late when Murdoch finally made his own way upstairs. He couldn’t help but pause outside Johnny’s door. Not being able to visit Johnny’s sick bed over the past three days had been unbearable for him. He remembered how gingerly Johnny had left his study earlier, and made the decision to look in on his son and make sure he’d gotten to bed all right.
Leaving the door cracked open to allow the dim light from the hallway to seep in, he entered the darkened room and gave himself a moment for his eyes to adjust to the low light. Finally he could see the outline of his son on the bed, but something was wrong. He didn’t find Johnny asleep as he had expected, but propped up against his headboard, and he was… ‘My god, he’s sobbing!’
Murdoch moved quickly to his son’s side and sat carefully on the edge of the bed. He touched Johnny’s leg as he quietly called his name.
Johnny pulled his hands away from his eyes with a start and jerked away from unexpected touch, the quick movement causing him to involuntarily wince in pain.
Murdoch was instantly both concerned and contrite. “I’m sorry Johnny. I didn’t mean to startle you. I only wanted to make sure you were okay.”
Johnny’s breath hitched several times as he tried desperately to regain control over his emotions. But the harder he tried the worse it got. He didn’t want anyone, especially his father, to see him like this. But he had worked himself into such a state that trying to suppress his feelings was now impossible. Johnny’s body was actually rebelling against him, forcing him to finally release all the tension and pain and misery that he had learned to keep carefully controlled for nearly twenty years.
The senior Lancer could certainly understand Johnny’s tears, having just shed a few of his own. But he grew more and more concerned as he watched his son struggle. “Johnny, please. What’s wrong?”
In disturbing contrast to how direct his son had addressed him earlier, now Johnny wouldn’t even look at him. “Ihhmm… s-s-sorry… I… what I s-s-said… I… h-had no r-right… I…”
Murdoch couldn’t stand it anymore and pulled Johnny into his arms, into that tight hug he’d wanted so badly to share with his son earlier.
As Johnny continued to sob into his chest, Murdoch tried to erase a lifetime worth of suffering. “Oh my god. John. Johnny, listen to me. You didn’t do anything wrong. Nothing is wrong now Johnny. You had every right. I needed to hear every word you said, not just to help you, but for Scott too. I’ve been behaving horribly to you, and I know that’s made it hard on your brother as well. It’ll be better now, Johnny, you’ll see. We’ll make it better.
“I’m sorry our talk triggered this. Those memories had to be upsetting for you, but I’m glad you shared them. And I want you to keep sharing them. You need to stop keeping everything all bottled up inside you, son. You’ve got anger of your own to let loose. Let it go, Johnny, let it all go. Scott will help you, and I will too. We’ll be here for you, just like I know you’ll be here for us.”
With Murdoch’s soothing words, Johnny was finally able to regain some control of himself. And through his father’s touch, he felt a sense of peacefulness and calm descend on him that he had feared would be forever lost.
His son’s head still buried on his chest, Murdoch could feel Johnny’s breath continue to hitch a little, but it was nothing like the heart wrenching sobs that had been issuing from his boy moments earlier. Johnny had also loosened the death grip he’d had on the front of his shirt, and now had his hands flattened against his chest.
They’d never allowed themselves such physical contact before, but it felt good to Murdoch. For the first time since Johnny and Scott had returned to his life, he truly felt like he was being a father to his sons. Although he’d been able to hold and comfort Johnny as a child, he’d never been given that opportunity with Scott at all. An important part of the experience of fatherhood had been stolen from him, but Murdoch vowed to himself that he’d never let that happen again. He wouldn’t be holding Johnny’s hand anytime soon, but was going to be darned sure he was there any time either of his son’s needed a pat on the back – or a chest to bury their sorrows in.
Although he’d obviously calmed some, Murdoch was still concerned about his son. “Johnny, how are you feeling?”
Habits hard to break, from the comforting place on his father’s chest Johnny supplied his customary answer to all such questions. “I’m fine.”
Hearing those two words, Murdoch’s guise of the worried father was broken and he emitted a startlingly hearty laugh. Johnny looked up and, given the circumstances, raised a questioning eyebrow at his father’s curious and seemingly callous response.
Murdoch could only shake his head at his son’s immense capacity to bounce back from adversity. “You’re always fine, aren’t you Johnny.” It wasn’t a question.
The statement and his father’s demeanor filled Johnny with the reassurance he needed to finally pull himself together, relax, and think straight. He found he could once again smile, and so offered his father one of his especially contagious ones that couldn’t help but make a person smile in return. “I try to be,” he answered frankly.
Murdoch caught the infection, and smiling back assured his son, “Yes, Johnny, you are fine. And we’re going to be just fine, too.”
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