Time Step by Maureen

Thanks – to Linda B. for finagling a payback peek!  Ain’t birthdays wonderful…?  <g>

Word count: 8,625

“Well, I have to admit I had my doubts.  But hiring those musicians traveling through from Mexico for tonight’s dance seems to be working out just fine.”  As the oldest and longest serving town council member, Hank Eller considered himself to be always right, and felt personally insulted whenever his opinion was ignored.  He had not been able to see the logic behind having two sets of musicians play for one little town social.  So Mr. Eller’s assenting acclamation, though offered somewhat grudgingly, went a long way toward the evening being declared a total success.

“As long as Pete and his boys didn’t mind sharin’ the entertainment duties for the night, I couldn’t see what it would hurt.”  Ethan Browning also served on the town council, but being younger, his thinking tended to be a little more progressive in nature.  He hadn’t blinked at the idea of asking the roving band of mariachis to alternate with the motley collection of instrumentalists who usually gathered to provide music for the town’s dances.  “Variety is the spice of life, they say.  The town folk certainly seem to be appreciatin’ gettin’ a taste of somethin’ different.”

Although he had gotten the other council members to side with him, Ethan knew that, if it hadn’t worked out, he’d have been blamed for the failure.  He was relieved that everything was turning out for the best, and felt he could finally relax and enjoy the festivities himself.  “Speaking of taste, I’m ready to go fetch me a second helpin’ of some of that good food the ladies brought.  Want tah join me?”

Ethan had a bit too much enthusiasm as far as Hank was concerned, but he had to admit, he was yearning for another piece of blueberry pie.  “Think I’d like to do just that,” he agreed, then let the younger man lead the way through the crowded dance floor.

Winding along toward the food tables, the council members passed the mariachis as they concluded another lively song.  When they had arrived earlier in the week, looking for work, the most the musicians had hoped for was playing a few nights in the local cantina.  Venturing farther north than normal, they had been surprised to discover themselves not only welcome in Morro Coyo, but requested to play at the weekend social.  Honored by the unexpected engagement, they had donned their very best clothing and selected the most popular Spanish music to play for the event.

Throughout the week, word had spread quickly in the area that both traditional American and Mexican folk music would be played at the party.  The announcement had drawn more of the area’s Spanish heritage population than normal to the dance, which had now been going strong for well over three hours.

The Saturday social was certainly a lot livelier than usual due to the presence of the mariachis.  They were proving to be a welcome diversion from the regular band, which also found themselves appreciating the refreshing diversity of music being offered through sharing the bandstand with the visiting group.  The Mexican members of the community especially valued hearing more of their traditional music, and the other town folk enjoyed watching the lively folk dances being performed.

Johnny Lancer had danced more this night than he had during all the town socials he’d attended in Morro Coyo up to now.  Back at the Lancer estancia for a mere six months, he still felt uncomfortable at public gatherings, so usually limited himself to a dance or two with his father’s ward, Teresa, simply in order to be polite.  Too many people knew about his reputation as the gunfighter Johnny Madrid, so he was wary of any activity that might bring him undo attention – an often dangerous thing to let happen for anyone in his past profession.  Given the fact that Murdoch wouldn’t allow his son to wear his gun at these events, Johnny normally preferred to stick close to the horse he at least insisted on riding – and the saddlebags that concealed his weapon.  Old habits die hard.

But tonight – the music…  For the first time in forever, Johnny’s gun lay tucked away, blessedly forgotten.  Having been raised by his mother in various towns along the border, and being half Mexican, through the mariachi’s guitars Johnny felt himself being inexplicably carried back to other times, other places.  Not all the memories being conjured up were pleasant, but they were combining to make him feel unnaturally restless and alive – and compelled to keep moving.

Teresa had been raised at Lancer, amongst a mix of Anglo and Hispanic ranch hands.  So though the Spanish music might have been uncommon to many of the area’s residents, she was very familiar with not only the songs being played, but almost all the dances being performed.

And she found it absolutely delightful that Johnny would choose her as his sole dance partner.

She knew her guardian’s son always danced with her at least once during the town socials as nothing more than a courtesy as her “brother”.  But that just made her feel all the more flattered.  Johnny never asked any of the other young ladies to dance – although, given half the chance, many of the girls would fall over each other in order to be spun around the dance floor by the handsome – but elusive – younger Lancer son.  So Teresa was well aware that Johnny could have also refused to dance with her, “sister” or no. 

Johnny’s energy this night was incredibly intoxicating, and Teresa found herself feeling more and more lightheaded with each successive dance.  But she would have traded the experience for nothing.

The closest she had come to the sensation had been when Scott had favored her with a waltz during the first town social they had attended as a newly united family.  Although they had danced in the dirt under the stars, in her older “brother’s” Boston-bred arms, Teresa had absolutely known what it would be like to be whirled around a formal ballroom, dressed in the finest gown imported from Europe.  Scott had magically transported her to another world, and left her breathless when the music had ended.  The enchantment had been quite noticeable, and afterward Teresa’s girlfriends had made her recount what the experience had been like, spin by spin – and, in turn, each one of the young ladies had practically begged Scott to waltz with them during every town gathering that followed.

Now Teresa would be hard pressed to choose which Lancer son she preferred to dance with.  Before tonight she would have surely named Scott.  Johnny normally would wait for a slow piece of music before asking Teresa to dance.  Although he was fluid enough in his movements, his demeanor was always reserved, his body kept at a proper distance for siblings, his posture typically slouched.  Teresa would never admit it, but usually when she finished dancing with Johnny Lancer, she was often embarrassed to find herself girlishly wishing that, just for once, it might be Johnny Madrid who would ask her to dance.

Johnny Lancer worked hard to hide the man he had been, only occasionally letting the mysterious gunfighter appear for short periods.  But Teresa had met that man when he’d first arrived at Lancer, and although he frightened her, he was also intriguing, having a kind of feral attraction that was irresistible.

She knew it was totally silly – that they were indeed the same man.  But Johnny Madrid seemed to exude so much more confidence and spirit than the charming but subdued Johnny Lancer.  Teresa also knew that such thoughts were totally improper – especially since she had come to love both Johnny and Scott as brothers – but she couldn’t help wondering what it would be like to be embraced by a man like Johnny Madrid.

Tonight however, Teresa at least found herself over and over in the arms of Johnny Lancer, and he was dancing like never before.  He was deferring each piece of slow music to Scott or one of the other gentlemen, claiming every one of the faster folk dances for himself.  Teresa could feel Johnny’s extraordinary unbridled enthusiasm building, and as the music once again stopped, she wasn’t surprised to find herself out of breath but grinning from ear to ear.

“Whoowee!  Thanks again for the dance, Teresa,” Johnny declared as they applauded the now popular band of mariachi musicians.

“You are quite welcome, sir,” Teresa offered back with a slight curtsy, taking the opportunity to look into Johnny’s always breathtakingly blue eyes as she did.  She was thrilled to see them sparkling back at her, filled with true happiness.

Like no one else’s, Johnny’s eyes could convey a depth of emotion so clearly it could stop your heart – and he knew it.  So more often than not the ex-gunfighter hid his emotions behind a veil of impassivity, letting his real feelings simmer below the surface.  Easiest to show through was anger, and Teresa pitied any man who had to face Johnny in a foul mood.  A few times she had witnessed the despair of his hard life briefly escape through his careful barriers, and those moments made her heart ache with sorrow for the pain she knew he carried but rarely shared.  Out and out signs of unabashed pleasure in Johnny were so unusual that she was proud for having played a part in making him feel joyful.

“Quit being so selfish, Johnny,” Scott lightly chided his brother as he wedged himself in between the winded couple.  “I believe the next dance with Teresa will be mine.”

“Don’t be so pushy, brother,” Johnny scolded back.  “All you got to do is ask – politely.”  Turning to the young lady being discussed he asked, “You ever seen anybody so rude before?”

Teresa giggled at the notion that the close siblings would feign to fight for her attention.  But she had no intention of interfering in their good-natured teasing.  “Don’t get me involved in your squabbling.  I’m sure you two are old enough to work out some kind of agreement.”

Ignoring the couples milling around them waiting for the music to once again begin, Scott locked his humor-filled eyes with his brother’s and struck first.  “Johnny, there are plenty of young ladies here you could dance with.  Why don’t you ask someone else for a change, and give poor Teresa’s feet a chance to recover from the weight of your boots.”

Scott was only half kidding with his humorous suggestion.  He couldn’t yet bring himself to ask his brother about it outright, but Scott actually worried that Johnny was letting his past reputation keep him from asking any of the other girls to step out with him.  He was getting a little annoyed at his young brother’s propensity for self flagellation, having come to know full well that he deserved better treatment at his own hands than he allowed.

“Now that wasn’t very nice of you to say,” Johnny rejoined with mock indignity.  “And here I was, doin’ you a favor.  Been stayin’ away from all them other girls ‘cause once they get the chance to take a turn with me, they’ll never want to dance with you ever again.  You should be grateful, brother, that I’ve been so thoughtful.”

“I’d be grateful if you would leave us alone,” Scott answered back comfortably as he extended his arm for Teresa to grab hold of.  “Why don’t you go get something to drink and sit back and watch how it should be done.  You might just learn something if you pay attention.”

“Oh, I’ll be payin’ attention all right,” Johnny assured them as he backed away from the smiling couple.  “Wouldn’t want to miss sendin’ Doc Jenkins over just as soon as he’s needed.”  With that barb thrown, Johnny disappeared into the crowd.

“You two!” was all Teresa could manage in comment about the brothers’ behavior, as she continued to chuckle.

Teresa knew Scott and Johnny hadn’t meant one word of anything they had just said, and her belief was confirmed as she turned her attention back to Scott and found him winking at her conspiratorially.  “Come with me, Miss O’Brien,” he encouraged as he led her toward the middle of the dance area.  “We need to get ready to show my little brother what dancing really is.”


As Scott and Johnny waged their mock battle, a true argument had been building within the band of mariachis.  Miguel’s sister, Rosa, had performed during the evening doing a couple of solo dances that had delighted the crowd in their intricacy and energy.  As well as being a talented dancer, she was young and impetuous – and stubborn and tenacious when she wanted something.  And she had spotted something she wanted.

Rosa had been watching Johnny for some time, initially drawn to his good looks and easy manner.  But there was something else about the object of her attention that she couldn’t quite place, and she had made the mistake of asking her brother about him.

“He’s a pistolero.  You stay away from him,” Miguel implored, with more than a hint of warning in his voice.

“Why should I!” she spat back angrily, ignoring his demand.  Finding out that the man who had drawn her interest was a gunfighter only served to excite her further.

Once again turning her attention to watch Johnny as he began to move through the crowd, she added distractedly, “He’s not even wearing a gun.  And besides, I don’t want to shoot it out with him, I just want to dance with him.”

He knew he was talking to a stone, but as her guardian, Miguel was honor bound to at least attempt to dissuade her once again.  “You’ll have nothing to do with him.  I forbid it!”

“You forbid it,” she repeated back with a knowing smile and a small laugh.  “Hermano, you should know me better than that by now.  I get what I want, and I want…  him.”

Miguel watched her point to the man he knew to have been a renowned gun for hire around the border towns.  He was tired of his sister’s increasingly reckless behavior, and wished he could do more to control her.  However, resigned to the fact that there would be little he could do to deter her at this point, he merely told her, “You are asking for trouble, chica.”

Rosa could tell that, once again, she had won the battle of wills she so often played with her older brother.  Turning, she patted his arm reassuringly, and shot him the smile that always got her what she wanted.  “Don’t be silly,” she said encouragingly, then coyly added, “I’m only going to ask him to dance with me.”

With a heavy sigh, Miguel simply inquired back, “And what kind of dance would you do with a pistolero?”

“What kind do you think?” she answered brazenly, as she swished her skirts and sauntered off to find her quarry.

“You’ll be sorry,” Miguel called out meekly to his young sister’s retreating form.


Just as Scott and Teresa were nearing their preferred place on the dance floor, the music once again began – and Teresa pulled up short.  Scott noticed her hesitation, and with some concern asked, “Is something the matter?  I thought we were going to dance?”

“Yes, we will.  But not to this.  That sounds like the music for a Bolero.  I’ve only seen it once, so wouldn’t know how to do it myself.  And it’s usually only danced by one couple anyway.  Oh Scott, this should be exciting.”

Scott looked around him then, and saw that the dance floor was indeed being cleared.  He could already hear couples discussing which pair might be daring enough to show off their dancing skills by performing alone in front of such a large gathering.

As Teresa began to pull him off to the side, Scott mentioned, “I’ve heard of that dance, but have never seen it presented.  It’s very popular in Spain I believe.”  By the time they reached the edge of the dance area, Scott found himself just about as excited as Teresa, and prepared himself to be treated.

The couple spotted the Lancer patriarch standing with another rancher and his daughter, and headed over to stand with the small group amidst the crowd.  In the process of greeting his older son and young ward, Murdoch’s conversation was abruptly halted when, with a flourish, the music suddenly stopped.  Distracted by the unexpected quiet, Murdoch immediately looked over toward the musicians.  His change of focus caught both Scott and Teresa’s attention, and they followed his gaze.

Rosa, who everyone recognized as the young dancer who had delighted the crowd earlier, was leading Murdoch’s younger son to the now empty dance floor.  Most of the area’s residents also knew who Johnny was – and what he had been.

Johnny seemed to be following somewhat reluctantly, trying to remain polite but obviously not eager to dance with the enthusiastic young woman.  Johnny’s hesitation and quiet protestations almost bordered on being comical, and Scott heard snickers coming from some of the other young men standing nearby.

Overhearing the mildly lewd comment, “I wouldn’t refuse to dance with her!” Scott cringed.  This was not the kind of attention he knew Johnny needed, nor would probably want.  Scott didn’t dare dwell on what the reaction would be from the expectant crowd if his brother weren’t even capable of performing the unique dance.

Suddenly, another song was started – and Johnny came to a complete halt.  Rosa had actually been dragging him along by the hand, and was almost pulled off her feet by his unexpected stop.  This only served to induce more snickering from the men standing by Scott.

Rosa recognized the new music as one of the songs popular in cantinas along the border.  Although appropriate for dancing the Bolero, she knew her brother was purposely trying to shame her and the gunfighter by changing to that particular piece of music.

Though she supposed that most of the people watching did not know the significance of the song being played, Rosa thought for sure that Johnny had recognized the choice of music for what it was, and had stopped so abruptly because he was angry at the negative implication.  For the first time in her life, she doubted her impetuousness, and the decision to compel a pistolero of all people to dance with her.  She could only hope he wouldn’t just walk off and leave her standing there, embarrassed and alone.

Turning to face her partner, she instead saw a remarkable thing begin to happen.  Johnny’s whole demeanor slowly changed before her – and everyone else’s – eyes.  His head came up in a snap, and an ear cocked back toward the musicians.  As he intently listened to the new melody, Johnny’s carriage straightened, his focus sharpened, and his attitude grew dynamic.  As his hand tightened on Rosa’s, she became almost frightened by his increasing intensity.

Suddenly Johnny’s head turned forward, toward the young woman, and his eyes briefly caught with hers.  The wrist of the hand that held hers powerfully pulled her toward him, skillfully making Rosa twirl stylishly under his arm before she found herself clasped tightly against his body.

Rosa let her left arm drift over to rest on top of Johnny’s, as he moved his right arm slowly to caress her back.  She couldn’t believe the energy that seemed to be flowing out of her chosen partner.  There was so much strength in this man, but it was being oh so carefully controlled.  Johnny’s other hand lifted hers from her side, as he deftly positioned her into the formal stance for beginning the dance.

Johnny’s movements instantly mesmerized the crowd.  Each motion exuded confidence and power, skillfully balanced with grace and fluidity.  His arm didn’t just change position, each part moved in precision from shoulder to elbow, from elbow to wrist, and then from wrist to fingertips.

As the couple stood, poised, ready to begin, Rosa and everyone present waited in keen anticipation, realizing that they were going to witness something amazing, a display rarely seen outside the courts of Spain, or the grand hacienda’s of Mexico City.

Time honored, the Bolero evolved from Spanish folk dances.  When done by amateurs, it was unfortunately often mistakenly performed as nothing more than an exhibition of overt sexuality.  That was the style of dance Rosa had anticipated from her gunfighter, and she had fully expected to have to lead him through the movements of the dance.

Although always sensual in nature, done with the skills of an expert, the dance became noble – powerful in its modesty and restraint.  With Johnny leading, that was the Bolero performed for the citizens of Morro Coyo.  With absolute mastery, Lancer’s meticulous movements brought to the dance the very slow, smooth, powerful, romantic look and feel it expected and deserved.

As the music progressed, Johnny guided his partner through the stylized movements of the dance.  Rosa was compelled to mimic Johnny’s proud posture, his customary easygoing slouch banished from his being.

The basic steps of the Bolero consisted of sharp turns and revolutions of the body, with short quick rushes of two or three steps, going to one side, then to the other.  At intervals, when there was a sudden pause in the tune, the dancers stopped rigid, striking a formal picturesque pose.

Johnny helped Rosa transform those basic steps into something exquisite.  Elegant sliding steps alternated with bursts of intense energy and intricately fluid movements.  You could have heard a pin drop in the audience during the dance’s brief moments of controlled stillness, during which Johnny held his partner in a posed embrace that was at once passionate and caring, gentle yet powerful in feeling.  These moments would end, and a collective sigh of disappointment would issue from the spectators, as the pair went forward with the dance.

The couple moved as one, their bodies rising, falling, and turning in rhythm, until the movements culminated in Johnny’s smoothly flowing dip of his partner, where Rosa seemed to hover in his embrace.  Johnny held her effortlessly as he accepted her full weight into the cradle of his arms, as if she were formed from delicate feathers, which he would hold for a moment, then let drift off on the breeze.

The pair danced, oblivious to the multitude around them, the proud history of the dance speaking to them, calling to their Spanish heritage, demanding respect.  Johnny did not disappoint.

But all too soon, the music crescendo’d.  The dance ended with a sigh, as one last time Johnny and Rosa came together in an embrace of strength and passion – and then were still, as the strings of the mariachis echoed into silence.

No one moved, not wanting to break the spell the dancers and the dance had created.  But finally the emotion grew too great, and one, then two, then every citizen of Morro Coyo was applauding the dancers for the pleasure, grace and honor they had shared.

Rosa was left dazed by the experience, never having imagined that the gunfighter she had sought as a partner would have been capable of creating with her such beauty.  Her brother had been right – she was sorry.  Because Rosa knew she would most likely never experience anything so dynamic and pure as the Bolero she had just danced with Johnny Madrid Lancer.

Johnny was more than dazed – he was bewildered.  For a moment lost as to where he was, what he had just done.

As the cries of acclaim rose around them, Johnny released Rosa from their closed embrace.  Their eyes met, and each recognized the significance of what they had shared.  Neither felt they could speak, but Rosa managed a quiet, deeply felt, “Gracias.”

Johnny had no words.  He merely lifted her hand, still clasped in his, to his lips, and gently kissed the back of her wrist.  He then turned her to face their admirers, released his grip – and disappeared as quickly as he could into the night.


Watching Johnny’s rapid retreat from the dance area, Scott seemed to be the only one who could find his voice.  “Where in the world is he going?”

His question not surprisingly going unanswered, Scott stepped forward to follow his brother.  But a large hand reached out to clasp his shoulder.

“No,” Murdoch said gently.  “I’ll go.”

Scott was just able to catch the look on Murdoch’s face before he moved off to find Johnny.  There had been a depth of sadness in his father’s eyes that he had never seen before.  More had just happened than a father witnessing his son dance.  He would give the men their privacy, but Scott hoped his father and brother would later be able to share with him whatever that dance had meant to them.  He sensed the significance of it was somehow important to them all.

Turning to Teresa, Scott was troubled to see a faraway look in her eyes, as she stood, unmoving, and continued to gaze as if in a trance toward the dance floor.  “Teresa,” he called to her quietly.

Pulled from her thoughts, she looked up and saw the mild concern on her brother’s face, and the probing question in his eyes.  Quickly regaining her senses, she smiled to reassure him and managed a demure response.  “My goodness.  I’ve never seen anything performed so perfectly before.  But I’m sure you must have, Scott…  in Boston.”

“No.  Nothing so amazing as that…  not even in Boston.  You’re right.  That was indeed very special.  I’m going to have to stop kidding my brother about being a poor dancer.  He’s been hiding his talents quite well.”

“Too well, if you ask me,” declared the delicate voice beside him.  Looking down, Scott saw the daughter of the rancher they had been standing with hovering by his side.

The young lady turned to address Teresa and, with more than just a little enthusiasm, stated, “You simply must encourage Johnny to dance with others more often.  I’m sure you wouldn’t mind letting someone else take a turn with your ‘brother’, would you Teresa?”

Neither Teresa nor Scott missed the young lady’s emphasis on the reference to “brother”.  Apparently Johnny’s common choice for dance partner had not gone unnoticed, and negative inferences were being made.  ‘Just one more thing Johnny doesn’t need,’ Scott thought wearily.

Continuing her entreaty, the young lady requested, “Please tell Johnny that I, for one, would be pleased if he would ask me to dance sometime this evening.”

Before Teresa could respond, the young lady’s father intervened.  “Elizabeth!  If a young man wants to dance with a young lady, he will do so of his own accord.  He need not be begged.  I believe you and I need to have a little talk.”

From the look that appeared on Elizabeth’s face, she was already sadly regretting having chosen to make her display of indiscretion so recklessly in front of her father.

“Scott.  Miss Teresa.  If you’ll excuse us,” the older man said in courtesy.

Scott and Teresa nodded their understanding, as the rancher once again turned to his daughter.  “Come along, Elizabeth,” he insisted.

Head bowed, the young lady managed a polite, “Goodnight,” before father and daughter moved off for their “discussion”.

Watching the couple leave, Teresa deduced, “I believe this means that you and Johnny have both made quite an impression with your dancing skills.  If I were you, I wouldn’t plan on sitting still at any future town socials.”

Scott turned and added regretfully, “That is, if we can ever get Johnny to attend one of these things again.  He didn’t seem very eager to stick around.”

Teresa could only sigh and nod in agreement, as they both subconsciously looked off toward where Johnny had disappeared.


Johnny’s trail led toward the horses, and Murdoch hoped to reach his son before he could ride off.  Surprised to find Barranca still in place, Murdoch peered deeper into the dark surroundings, searching for some sign of his younger son.  A few torches had been placed in the area to make it safer for the men to gather their mounts, but the light was much too dim to cut very far into the surrounding darkness.  He knew he’d never find Johnny if he had to search for him.

Standing beside Barranca, Murdoch merely listened.  It didn’t take him long to hear movement in the bushes not ten feet away.

“Johnny,” he called out, but received no reply.  “Johnny.  Is that you?  Answer me, son,” he implored.

In reply he heard the unmistakable sound of someone retching.  Growing concerned, Murdoch grabbed one of the torches, and moved off toward the brush.  There he indeed found Johnny, bent in half as he emptied the contents of his stomach into the shrubbery.

Trying to comfort him, Murdoch caringly placed a hand on his son’s back as he exclaimed, “What’s the matter with you?”  But Johnny just pushed him away and walked off a little, trying to get his stomach to settle.

Thinking his father had come to chastise him, he began apologizing between catches of breath.  “I’m sorry about that Murdoch.  I know that ain’t the kind of dance that might be respected ‘round here.  I just…  it was…”

Johnny couldn’t finish, as his stomach once again rebelled and he continued to throw up.

Murdoch waited patiently for Johnny to finish heaving, then, allowing for no dispute, grabbed him by the shoulders, pulled him back toward the horses, and sat him down on a large downed tree.  Replacing the torch where he had found it, he grabbed the canteen off Johnny’s saddle, pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket, wet it down, and moved back to hand it to his son.

Johnny held the damp cloth over his face for a moment, appreciating the coolness and the opportunity to catch his breath.  Finally he completely wiped his face, and set the cloth down on the log beside him.  “Thanks,” he murmured quietly, keeping his face carefully averted from his father’s concerned gaze.

Murdoch allowed his son another moment, handing him the canteen and telling him calmly, “Take a sip, son.  Just a small one now.”

Johnny accepted the canteen, took a mouthful of liquid and spat it out over the back of the log, then took another drink and swallowed it slowly.  As his younger son collected himself, Murdoch continued to wait with an uncharacteristic patience.  Figuring that he was going to be able to keep the water down, Johnny carefully allowed himself another small swallow before he handed the canteen back to his father with another quiet, “Thanks.”

With Johnny still reluctant to face him, Murdoch capped the canteen and lowered it by the strap to the ground at their feet.  He sat down on the log beside his son, determined to wait for an explanation.

Johnny leaned forward to rest his forearms on his knees, deep in thought, not understanding why Murdoch simply didn’t just lay into him like he usually did when his son did something wrong – real or imagined.  Finally acknowledging that his father was not just going to go away, he once again offered an apology.  “I’m sorry, Murdoch.  I don’t know what come over me to do that.”

Murdoch considered his reply carefully, then asked back evenly, “Do what – dance, or throw up?”

That unanticipated response finally drew a reaction out of Johnny.  Cocking his head sideways, he found his father mimicking his posture, an amused smile on his face.  Johnny in turn found himself smiling back at the half-joking question hanging between them.  With a shrug of his shoulders and a shake of his head he answered, “I don’t know…  to either.”

Murdoch didn’t know whether to let it lay or not, realizing he’d be sailing into uncharted territory by pursuing an answer.  And he wouldn’t be able to let Johnny take that voyage of discovery on his own.  Murdoch’s own closely guarded privacy was at stake – but, looking at his son, it was so incredibly obvious how very deeply Johnny had been affected by the events of the night.  Murdoch knew his son was not the kind of man who would normally become physically sick over a mere dance.  Not unless…

Making the decision to take the first step, consequences be damned, Murdoch looked at his son directly and stated emphatically, “Well I do know.  Your mother taught you that dance, didn’t she John.”

Surprisingly, Johnny didn’t avert his gaze, but he wasn’t sure he could say the single word that would confirm Murdoch’s supposition.  Father and son so rarely spoke about Maria – there was just too much pain in that subject, for both men.  Johnny couldn’t help but be suspicious of his father’s motive for broaching the subject, and was concerned about the reaction he’d likely get if he told the truth.

“Yes,” Johnny finally managed to confess, but then had to look away before he could ask, “How did you know?”

Murdoch took a deep breath, and then answered simply.  “Because she taught it to me, too.”

Stunned by the admission, Johnny once again sought his father’s eyes, but he didn’t find the anger or hatred he expected.  Instead he saw love – and loss.

Now it was Murdoch who had to turn away.  Grateful for the safety and comfort offered through the low flickering light of the torches, he told his story to the night.

“Maria and I had already stepped out several times together, when there was a fiesta in Matamoras.  Like tonight, several groups of musicians took turns to keep the festivities going long into the night.  It grew late, and I was totally exhausted, but Maria…  she just wanted to keep moving.  She finally dragged me over to a side street.  We could still hear the music, but we were alone.”

Murdoch paused for a moment, a small smile playing on his lips, his thoughts lost in time, his heart once again beating at the tempo of a young man in love.

Johnny’s eyes had never left his father.  Murdoch never, ever talked about his mother.  To hear him now confessing private moments they had shared, to watch him recalling those memories with obvious affection, was too precious for Johnny to want to miss one word of the tale, one facial expression, one inflection, one nuance to any gesture, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant.  Everything his father said and did at this moment in time was important, and Johnny was secreting all those treasured details away deep inside him.

“She said she wanted to teach me a dance,” Murdoch continued.  “A ‘special’ dance.”  Finally turning to his son, Murdoch added with a huge smile and an embarrassed laugh, “I told her, she’d be sorry!”

Johnny smiled back at his father in support, enjoying the lightness and honesty of the confession.

Murdoch’s own smile became winsome as he continued his tale.  “I never had any notion that I was in any way a graceful man, but that didn’t stop her.  Your mother…”

‘He called her ‘my mother’ and didn’t make it sound like a curse!’ Johnny thought wildly and happily.

“Your mother taught me the Bolero in an alley…  and I loved every minute of it.  I was horrible, but she was so patient with me.  I couldn’t help but want to please her.

“Finally she thought I was ready, and dragged me to the dance floor.”  Murdoch reached over and patted his son’s arm.  “She asked the musicians to play the same music that you danced to tonight.

“There weren’t too many people still around by that late hour, and what few there were laughed at us… or should I say, laughed at me.  But I didn’t care – and neither did Maria.  We were falling in love, and that’s all that mattered.”

As Murdoch once again stared pensively into the night, Johnny was moved by what he had heard revealed in his father’s voice – a sense of definite yearning for something that had been tragically lost.

A quiet moment lingered between father and son, as they both considered what had just been shared.  Finally deciding that maybe the timing was right for him to do a little confessing of his own, Johnny offered a connection, and hoped his father wouldn’t mind continuing this rare opportunity to talk.  “Everyone laughed a lot when I used to dance with her, too.”

“When did Maria teach you the Bolero Johnny?” Murdoch asked, confirming that he also wanted the conversation to keep going and was, for once, ready to listen to his son speak about his mother – his own estranged and now dead wife.

Like his father, Johnny told his tale quietly to the night, only occasionally looking to Murdoch for the moral support to continue.

“It was only about ten days before…  before she died,” he started in a whisper tinged with sadness.  “When things got really tight, or…”  Johnny let that thought hang, figuring too much detail about how he and Maria had lived might spoil what he and his father were finally sharing.  “…well…  she’d go dance in the cantinas for money.  Sometimes when she was in a good mood, she’d take me along to listen to the musicians, and teach me a dance step or two.  That was one of the few things we could do for fun that didn’t cost nothin’.

“Most of the time the barkeep would let us go ahead.  The vaqueros didn’t much mind.  They thought it was pretty entertainin’ watchin’ that mamacita teachin’ her kid how to dance.  Made me learn quick, havin’ them there, tellin’ me every time I stepped on her toes – like I didn’t know that for myself when it happened!  I was used to bein’ called names and such by then, so all their yellin’ and laughin’ didn’t bother me, ‘cause at least we was havin’ a good time.

“They’d let us keep at it…  ‘til they got drunk.  Then they’d start cuttin’ in, grabbin’ at mama, tellin’ me it was their turn for a dance lesson.”

Murdoch couldn’t mistake the hurt evident in his son’s voice.  He was dismayed that Maria would not only behave in such a manner so regularly, but drag her child – his child – along with her to witness the indecent activities.  And Johnny’s matter-of-fact attitude made it sound like every kid in the world had a mother whose idea of fun was to teach her child to dance in a saloon.  ‘What kind of life did you think you were giving our son, Maria?’ Murdoch’s heart asked.

It was hard, but Murdoch kept his judgment in check as he carefully questioned, “The way they handled your mother.  That made you angry, didn’t it son?”

With a telling sigh, Johnny answered.  “Yah.  But I learned early on that it wouldn’t do neither of us no good to say anythin’ back.  She might lose her pay, and me…  well…”  Murdoch watched a deeper pain cloud his son’s face as even darker memories were silently recalled.  “I just learned not to say nothin’.  We’d at least had a little time together.

“Once I’d get tossed out the front door, I’d go off somewhere to practice before I’d forget what she taught me.  And most times it’d take at least two trips to the cantina to learn one dance, cause we’d get stopped before she could finish.

“But that last time…”  Johnny’s voice now took on a tone of awed excitement.  “I don’t know what those cowboys was seein’, but they let her teach me the whole thing.  Even let us dance it once, from start to finish.   No stops.  She finished showin’ me, then called out to those musicians to play.  And yah, the song she asked for was the same music she danced with you.

“I swear, Murdoch, tonight I could actually feel what it was like to be dancin’ again with mama!”  Johnny seemed to plead with his father to believe him.  The emotion had been so strong, so real, he needed someone to understand what the experience had been for him.  “I just couldn’t stop.  I hadn’t even thought about that dance since she died.  Didn’t even think I remembered the steps.  But it all just kind of come back to me when that music started playin’.”

Turning so he could face his father more directly, Johnny repeated his father’s earlier words.   “She said it was her special dance, and she didn’t teach it to just anyone.  Reckon now I know why.”

Murdoch could indeed comprehend what tonight’s experience had meant to his son, for he had deeply shared the emotion of the moment as well, watching from the crowd.  “Yes Johnny.  She took something important to her, and gave it to me,” Murdoch gladly confirmed.  Then he added somewhat poignantly, “It’s good to know that there were some things we shared together that she could look back on with happiness.  And then she took that special moment from our lives and gave it to you.  I’m glad she did, Johnny.  I’m very glad.

“And you did an outstanding job learning that dance.  I have to admit I was mostly two left feet when she taught me.  But you…  No one was laughing at the Lancer’s tonight.

“I’m not just saying this Johnny – watching you tonight, I could actually see Maria out there dancing with you as well.  That was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever felt before.  It was honestly like she was there with you.

“I know it seemed like she and I rarely agreed on anything, but I know this for a fact – Maria would be so proud of you.  You made us both proud tonight, son, really and truly.”

Johnny once again found himself in a whirl of confounded feelings.  Not only did Murdoch never talk about Maria, but he rarely offered Johnny much praise.  For him to compliment his son on behalf of both his “parents” was unthinkable.  In the world of Murdoch Lancer that Johnny Madrid Lancer had come to know, that just couldn’t happen.  But through the steps of a dance, it had.

“Thanks Murdoch,” Johnny uttered quietly, then his head bowed quickly to conceal his now irrepressible emotions.

Murdoch was reluctant to let this extraordinary moment end.  But he sensed that he and his son had accomplished more than enough for the evening.  Their relationship had just changed – maybe not by leaps and bounds, but it would be forever different.  Maria had seen to that.  Through her actions over the years, that woman had done so much to cause a huge rift to develop between father and son.  So it was remarkable that, for once, she had left the men something to help bond them.

Standing up, Murdoch suggested, “Why don’t you come back to the dance, son.”  He then added lightly, “I have a feeling your company would be greatly appreciated by the young ladies present.”

A soft laugh drifted out from the bowed head, but Johnny couldn’t look up.  “If you don’t mind, Murdoch, I’d rather just head back.  I ain’t much in the mood for more partyin’.”

“All right, son,” Murdoch acquiesced, and considered leaving things at that.  But something made him want to make sure.  “Johnny.  Are you all right?”

The simple question once again astounded Johnny.  He continued to be amazed that his father would show so much uncharacteristic concern for him this evening.  Rather than dwell on it, he instead looked up, and with a weary smile answered, “Yah, I’m fine.  I just…”

“I know, Johnny.  I know,” Murdoch completed Johnny’s thought for him.  And Johnny understood that his father really did indeed know how he felt.

“Be careful going home then.  We’ll probably be not too far behind you.”

“See you in the mornin’ Murdoch.”

“Yes.  We’ll see you in the morning.”

With that, the men parted for the night, Murdoch back to the dance, and Johnny to the road leading to Lancer.


Returning to the town social, Murdoch was surrounded by friends asking where Johnny had disappeared to, and offering their compliments on his son’s performance.  The elder Lancer was polite to all the well-wishers, but all he really wanted to do was find his older son and ward, and see if they were ready to leave.  He suddenly felt very, very tired.

Finding his family, both Scott and Teresa looked to him with concern.  “Johnny?” Scott asked, the question needing no further articulation.

“He’s fine,” Murdoch replied, “and left to go home.  Which I’d like to do myself, if you both don’t mind.”

“Of course Murdoch,” Teresa agreed.

“Certainly, sir,” Scott concurred.

The three made their way slowly to their carriage, saying their goodbyes and accepting further acclamations on Johnny’s behalf along the way.

Finally on the road themselves, Teresa found she just couldn’t let her question go unasked.  “Murdoch, why did Johnny leave so quickly?”

Murdoch knew the question would eventually be asked by either his ward or Scott, and had been considering just how much information to divulge when he finally answered.  After a short pause he replied.  “His mother taught him that dance, dear…  just before she died.  Needless to say, it brought back quite a few memories for him.  He’ll be fine though,” Murdoch added with a reassuring pat to his ward’s arm.  “It’s nothing for you to worry about.”

‘Let me be the one to worry about him,’ Murdoch added to himself.  He and Johnny had made a connection tonight that he was unsure he could strengthen, for that path went through Maria – and that route most often proved too rocky a course for both men.  But Murdoch had been surprised not only by his own admissions of the night, but that Johnny had opened up to him in return.  Maybe if he could continue to remember only the good things he and Maria had shared, their son could reveal more about the life he had shared with his mother.  ‘Johnny’s ‘mother’…  Oh god, Maria, what did we do to our boy, that he can’t even find pleasure in a dance?’


Scott sat in the front of the carriage, guiding their way home, and briefly considered his father’s response.  Finding out that Johnny’s mother was involved, he knew from past experience that the story had to go much deeper.

But Scott’s thoughts concentrated on how incredibly different his brother had behaved over the course of the evening.  Gone had been the cautiousness bred from too many years of living just to survive.  For the first time since they’d met, Johnny had actually seemed carefree, his troubled past forgotten, as least for a few moments.  And then he had danced the Bolero, and another Johnny had appeared – the John Lancer who could have been, had his parents not erred in their relationship and continued to raise him in the loving environment he’d deserved.  A man who could captivate a crowd with his nobleness and grace, instead of his prowess with a gun.  The son who could have grown up being proud, standing tall – a true California cattle baron’s son, deserving of respect.  Not the cynical, self effacing, half-breed ex-gunslinger, who had had to fight every day of his life just to be considered human.

‘Johnny, if you could have watched yourself tonight, what a man you would have seen,’ Scott thought sadly – then made a promise to find some way to make his brother discover and believe in that man he had within him.


Teresa was grateful for the darkness.  The night hid the glow of her embarrassment and the tears that threatened to fall.  She couldn’t stop herself.  She was jealous – outright, green-eyed jealous.  Johnny Madrid Lancer had shared what she had dreamed of with another…  with someone else.

She was ashamed of her totally inappropriate thoughts, but she couldn’t control them.  Wise beyond her years in so many ways, Teresa so often forgot that she was still a young woman, inexperienced when it came to matters of the heart.  During this wretched moment, she had no way of grasping that she was still too emotionally immature to be able to cope with the new feelings welling up inside of her.

And who could she possibly turn to in order to discuss them?  ‘I’d simply die if anyone found out,’ Teresa thought with youthful desperation.  She felt alone.  Totally alone.  But more than that, she felt lonely – and she had no idea what to make of that…


Johnny rode on ahead, oblivious to his family’s individual concerns about his well-being, deeply mired in his own thoughts of times past and what could have been.  Of what it would have been like to have watched Murdoch and Maria stepping out at town socials, twirling around joyfully, enjoying being married – being together – being his parents.

Riding there alone in the dark, lost in time, wondering what might have been, no one witnessed Johnny’s despair as it escaped through his careful barriers, and dimmed the sparkle of his breathtakingly blue eyes.




Thank you for reading! The authors listed on this site spend many hours writing stories for your enjoyment, and their only reward is the feedback you leave. So please take a moment to leave a comment.  Even the simplest ‘I liked this!” can make all the difference to an author and encourage them to keep writing and posting their stories here.  You can comment in the ‘reply’ box below or email Maureen directly.


One thought on “Time Step by Maureen

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