Summary: Murdoch remembers . . .
Word Count: 8302
A fire burned in the hearth, while lamplight cast a cheery glow around the room. The sole occupant looked content, seated comfortably in his favorite armchair, glass of whisky in one hand an open book in the other, his brown eyes eagerly devouring its contents.
Johnny watched his father surreptitiously through the French windows, troubled by something the older man had said just minutes ago. The youngest Lancer had gotten as far as the barn before the words had fully registered. The sudden unease had proved impossible to shake off, and he had turned around and slowly made his way back towards the hacienda.
The brief conversation had replayed over and over in his head; the more he thought about it the more it weighed him down. He had tried telling himself he was being irrational, that he had read too much into it, but that hadn’t worked. All his reasoning had failed to soothe his concerns, and Johnny had had to acknowledge that tonight, albeit unconsciously, his father had given a little something away.
Murdoch had no idea of what he’d said of course. He would no doubt declare it just an unfortunate choice of words, insisting those words held no real significance. His younger son knew differently. They spoke of loneliness, of endless empty years. Johnny knew no one else would see through them, see the deeper meaning as he did, as his father would, if only he would drop his defenses.
So what was he to do now? He ached to talk to his father, share some of the older man’s pain. In the past year, he had come to love and respect this man but still there was so much that stood between them. Things they didn’t speak about, hurts they wouldn’t — couldn’t — share. No, that wasn’t quite true. Johnny had shared a lot with his father; he had opened up to him on many fronts. It had taken a while, but somewhere along the line, the stranger he’d met at Lancer and so scornfully addressed as `old man’, had earned his trust and had affectionately become his `Old Man’.
Murdoch was the only one holding back! He remained tight-lipped, guarded when it came to talking about himself. Oh he’d enthrall them all with stories of his youth; describe with great fondness the distant land he’d left behind. His father had had many an adventure since leaving Scotland and had been more than happy to share that aspect of his life with his sons. He had been happy, too, to reminisce a little about the two great loves in his life. But the private Scotsman had never once spoken about his grief or the anguish he had endured. That topic was carefully steered around, pushed aside, and all too hurriedly dismissed.
However, Johnny couldn’t dismiss it that easily. He wanted to know about that part of his father’s life too; he wanted to share the good and the bad. That’s why their earlier exchange was playing so heavily on his mind.
He had been all set to ride into Green River and join the other Saturday night revelers. Murdoch had eyed him approvingly earlier, as he had stepped suitably attired into the great room. The older man had made the usual paternal requests about taking care and not being too late. Johnny had replied with a respectful “Yes sir”. Half way out the door, he’d turned around and grinned in his father’s direction, unable to resist a little teasing. “You gonna be alright on your own? Scott ain’t likely to wake till morning, and there’s no Teresa to fuss over you?”
The older man had smiled back at him. “Don’t you worry, son. I’m sure I’ll survive; I’m quite used to my own company.”
That was it! A simple, innocently made statement, yet it had wiped the grin off the youngest Lancer’s face. Of course his father was used to being on his own; he had spent the better part of the last twenty-five years alone, but not through choice.
Murdoch had lost two wives and two sons, lost the intimacy of family. No matter how willing and how giving, friends just couldn’t fill that void. Paul O’Brien had tried; he’d provided companionship, and had proved a loyal and dependable friend. On his death, his daughter had become Murdoch’s ward, and the two had grown particularly close; her presence had been a blessing and Johnny knew the young woman had tried hard to make up for what was missing in her guardians life, but in all fairness it had been an impossible task. `You gonna stand out here all night?’ Johnny asked himself, wishing someone would come along and help point him in the right direction! Did he head into town or back into the great room?
Town held the promise of several cold beers not to mention some female company. The great room held no such delights; he was likely to find only a stone wall waiting for him in there!
Sighing resignedly, the young man headed for the front door.
“John?” Murdoch couldn’t hide his surprise; he wasn’t expecting his son to walk through the door again so soon. He’d believed Johnny was well on his way to a good time by now. “Did you forget something?”
The brunet shook his head and moved further into the room.
The young man looked decidedly ill at ease, and Murdoch wondered if that had anything to do with his injured brother, “If you’re worried about leaving Scott…”
“No.” Johnny hovered hesitantly by the couch, did he work his way up to it or get right to the point? “No I…I just changed my mind; I’m kinda beat.”
The rancher’s eyes narrowed a little as they studied the young man. “Well, you have been doing Scott’s share of the work; an early night will do you good.”
Glancing over at the grandfather clock, Johnny grinned, “Yeah, well, it’s a bit too early; I wouldn’t mind a nightcap first. Refill?”
Murdoch shook his head. “No thank you, son, I’ve had my quota for…” The patriarch’s voice trailed off as his glass was snatched from his hand.
“One more! You can’t let me drink on my own.” Johnny insisted, knowing liquor had a habit of loosening a man’s tongue and Murdoch’s was certainly in need of some oiling.
“As long as it is only one, young man,” the older man replied. “I’ve got to work on the ledgers tomorrow and I will need a clear head for that.”
`Better make it a large one then’ Johnny thought, pouring double the usual amount into Murdoch’s glass.
The patriarch stared hard at the glass as it was pressed into his hand then up at his son. Johnny immediately averted his gaze before turning away and moving to sit on the couch. Murdoch swallowed the protest that had been ready on his lips; instead, he silently observed the smaller man, a little troubled by what he saw. Johnny’s glass, in stark contrast to his own, held a miserly measure of alcohol; it nestled untouched in the young man’s right hand. The slender fingers
of his son’s left hand drummed restlessly against his thigh, his blue eyes were downcast, determinedly, it seemed, avoiding his gaze.
The boy had something on his mind, Murdoch was sure of that now, and sadly it seemed Johnny believed his father needed to be a little alcohol befuddled before he could safely broach whatever it was he needed to talk about.
Knowing his son was struggling with this, the rancher couldn’t help but feel a little hurt; he’d believed Johnny to be comfortable discussing anything with him now. What could he possible have to tell him that needed cushioning with a stiff drink?
There was one thing Murdoch dreaded hearing, of course, and no amount of liquor would soften that blow. The patriarch quickly dismissed the unsavory notion. Johnny was happy, settled at Lancer; it was his home now. No, Murdoch reassured himself, his boy wasn’t going anywhere.
Finally, the blue eyes met his, seemingly searching and even a little wary. Curiosity now soaring out of control, Murdoch snapped his book shut, leaned forward in his chair and voiced his concern, “What is it, Johnny? Something’s troubling you and…”
“You are,” came the softly spoken reply.
“Me?” Murdoch recoiled a little, not knowing what to make of his son’s remark.
“Yeah, well, it was something you said when I was leaving earlier.”
“Something I said?” The patriarch cringed; he had a terrible knack of saying the wrong thing, especially to Johnny. He had unintentionally hurt the boy many times with his thoughtless remarks. Had he done it again? “Son, I…what did I say?”
“That you were used to your own company.”
Murdoch shrugged “And?”
“That’s it!” Johnny squirmed under his father’s intense gaze, but he knew there was no going back now, so added, “That’s what you said and that’s what is troubling me.”
Completely at a loss, Murdoch shook his head. “John, I’m sorry. I don’t quite see why such a comment would worry you.”
Eyes locked on his father’s, Johnny continued, “It’s what lies behind the comment. The reasons you are so used to your own company.”
Enlightenment suddenly shone on the older man’s face; puzzlement turning swiftly to dismay. This was one conversation he was not prepared to have. It was all so irrelevant now; there really was no point in dredging up things that were best forgotten. Flipping open his book, he stared down at it, and without looking at his son, casually dismissed him. “It’s not too late for you to go into town. Good night, son”
Johnny couldn’t help but smile. He’d expected a stone wall and that was exactly what he’d got. It was reassuring in an odd kind of way; it proved he knew his father as well as he thought he did. His father knew him pretty well too. So surely it wouldn’t come as any great surprise to find him being equally as pigheaded. “Town ain’t going anywhere and neither am I.”
Determination rang in his son’s voice and Murdoch felt irritation surface. `Why was Johnny pushing this? What good would it do? Why couldn’t the boy just leave the bad times behind them, where they belonged?’ Taking a steadying gulp of whisky the patriarch eyed his son. “John, this won’t get us anywhere…”
“I think it will,” the younger man interrupted. “I want to know what it was like for you. I don’t want to open up old wounds, Murdoch… just maybe understand you a little better.”
The impassioned plea took the patriarch by surprise; Johnny was as reticent as he normally, but tonight the boy was reaching out to him. It was, he realized, another step forward in their relationship, one he couldn’t ignore. Murdoch remembered how he had reached out to his son in much the same way. As expected, his initial attempts had been met with hostility. But he’d weathered those storms, and as Johnny’s eyes had been opened to the truth about his father, Johnny had started to share the truth about himself.
Life had dealt Murdoch more than his fair share of hurt and heartache, but it had all paled into insignificance on hearing what his son had had to endure. He realized he barely knew the half of it and he wondered at times if he was strong enough to hear what Johnny had so far chosen to hold back. But for now, he needed a different kind of strength. His son was asking to share his pain, just as he had asked Johnny to do, and he balked at the thought of burdening the boy with further grief, but it was obviously very important to him.
The soft voice snapped the older man out of his reverie and he found himself nodding his assent. That was the easy part. Now as to the telling, well, he didn’t know how to begin, and his first thought seemed a little unfair on Johnny, but hopefully he would understand. “How do you see me?”
Surprised by the question, Johnny could only stare back at his father. He’d thought his father’s nod of assent meant he was willing to talk; now he wasn’t so sure. Was the old man playing for time or maybe even trying to skirt around the issue? Irritably he muttered “What?”
“I want to know what you see when you look at me,” Murdoch stated quietly.
Johnny studied his father’s face before quietly voicing his initial thoughts. “I see a good man, an honest man.”
“A man I like and respect,” Johnny added a little awkwardly, unsure of what exactly his father expected him to say.
“A man you like and respect.” The older man nodded seemingly pondering the words a little before continuing “So the fact I’m your father doesn’t instantly come to mind?”
Johnny flinched, suddenly realizing just what his father had really been wanting to hear: a simply acknowledgement of their relationship. Had he hurt the Old Man by neglecting to mention that fact? Suddenly he was desperate to repair any damage done “It ain’t that I don’t think of you like that, Murdoch, `cause I do. It’s just that I’ve gotten use to seeing you that way now.”
“It took you a while to accept me?”
“Yeah, longer than it should I know but…”
“You don’t have to explain, son. The fact that you have accepted me in that role is all I need to know.”
“You didn’t know? Before tonight, I mean?”
“I’d hoped so, but was, I suppose, too scared to allow myself to believe. The thing ism Johnny, what I’m trying to say, albeit in a longwinded way, what hurts me most about the last twenty-five years is that I was a father in name only. I could grieve for Catherine. I could accept your mother had moved on. But where you and Scott were concerned, I was lost in some sort of limbo. I couldn’t grieve, and on the surface I suppose it seemed like I’d accepted the situation, but I hadn’t, I couldn’t!
“I’d see other men with their sons, and the ache that caused inside was a constant reminder of what was missing in my life. Coupled with that deep ache, there was also the guilt and the constant worry. Guilt over my failure to bring Scott home, and I didn’t know where you were, if you were safe or even if you were alive! It ate at me like some…some cancer…”
Just then a noise on the stairs silenced Murdoch and drove both he and Johnny to their feet, then hurrying towards the hallway to investigate.
Scott cringed when he heard the footsteps moving in his direction. He had hoped he could make it back to his bedroom without either man knowing he’d set foot downstairs. Unwittingly having heard a little of what Scott quickly realized was a very private conversation, he had turned around with the intention of not intruding upon it. But, unfortunately, he had not been able to leave the scene as quickly as he would have liked.
So very stiff and sore from the injuries, and with his left foot vehemently protesting his weight, he could do little more than hobble. In his haste to avoid discovery, he had stumbled on the first step, jarring his entire frame as his heavily bandaged torso impacted with the wooden stair rail. He had managed to save himself from falling onto the hard stairs with his one good hand, and somehow amidst the shockwave of pain and annoyance that flooded his being, he had turned around and eased himself down to sit on the second to bottom step. Scott could only hope it looked like that was as far as he had got on his sojourn.
Within seconds two sets of anxious eyes were looking at him but it was his brother who erupted first….
“What the hell are you doing out of bed?”
Scott wanted to laugh at his younger brother’s indignation. How many times had Johnny disobeyed the doctor’s orders? Too many was the answer. Maybe he should remind his sibling of that? No, better not; the last thing he wanted now was to distract the two men further.
“The four walls were beginning to close in on me so I thought I’d stretch my legs.” Scott smiled weakly, suddenly feeling a little intimidated by the two men who now stood side by side before him; both had their arms folded across their chest, and both their faces had taken on a look of disapproval. He felt like a child, a naughty one at that!
“Sam will wring your neck if he catches you, and anyway, you were asleep!” Johnny challenged.
“I was.” Scott nodded, although that wasn’t exactly true; he’d pretended to be asleep, knowing his brother had two minds about going into town. Johnny loved his Saturday night jaunts into Green River, and he’d more than earned himself a couple of cold beers this week. But he’d also been reluctant to leave his sibling behind. Scott had hoped that if he had seemed settled for the night, then the younger man would shrug off his irrational sense of guilt about leaving him behind, head for town and sink a few beers for him too.
He was convinced he’d heard Johnny leave, and believing his father to be all alone downstairs, he had decided to join him for an hour or so, as he really was going stir crazy confined to his room. The blond had been expecting a chastisement from his father, but knew the conversation that followed would center on politics or on some other topic they both enjoyed discussing. Too late he had realized there was already an important discussion taking place.
Murdoch stared in consternation at his elder son. It was nothing unusual for his younger boy to disobey doctor’s orders, but Scott was usually a lot more compliant. The blond was pale, and beads of perspiration were glistening on his colorless face. He also had a disarmingly sheepish air about him, and so with a resigned sigh, the patriarch swallowed the words of reproach that were sitting ready on his tongue, offering instead a softly spoken, “Lets get you settled on the couch.”
“No!” Scott quickly replied, waving off the two men as they reached out to help him. “No, I’ll get myself back to bed…you two can get back to what you were doing.”
Getting to his feet, Scott realized his words had only served to make his father and brother a little suspicious of his behavior, as they were now looking at each other, and it appeared a silent understanding passed between them.
Silently cursing his verbal clumsiness, the blond started to turn around back towards the stair. Immediately, however, he felt his father grip his arm, gently but firmly halting his escape.
“I’d like you to join us, Scott. Please.”
Scott met his father’s, then his brother’s, steady gaze in turn, finding reassurance in both men’s eyes. Suddenly he not only wanted to be a part of the conversation he’d interrupted; he, like they, realized he should be a part of it.
Once again Johnny found himself observing his father. Only this time he wasn’t alone; his sibling sat beside him: Scott equally as eager to hear something of the older man’s past, wanting to share and understand the private hell Murdoch had lived through. Johnny couldn’t imagine such a conversation taking place without his brother, yet it very nearly had. But it seemed the merciful hand of providence had been determined to prevent another wrong befalling the Lancer family, and had ushered them all together, albeit a little clumsily.
An expectant silence had filled the great room, broken only by the determined ticking of the grandfather clock and the angry snapping of the log fire.
The patriarch sat opposite the brothers, a distant look in his eyes as his thoughts took him back in time to where it had all started. As he began to speak, his gaze moved to his sons.
“I left Inverness with little more than a pocketful of dreams. The Americas held such promise, and I was certain I would be both happy and prosperous here. I was a little wild back then, I suppose, but determined to make something of myself, and I saw coming here as both an adventure and a golden opportunity, one that just could not be missed.
“The plan was to work hard and save as much money as I possible could, then when a suitable business venture came along I would be ready and able to invest.
“I heard lots of tales about the west; surprisingly, they didn’t put me off. In fact, those stories only served to whet my appetite; it was almost as if this place called to me.
“In time, I decided ranching was something I could do and do well. I had no experience, mind you, but I was not going to let something like that deter me. I had enough confidence in myself to believe I could do anything.” Murdoch’s gaze settled on his elder son. “That confidence grew tenfold when I met your mother, Scott.”
“When you love someone, it’s a true blessing having them love you back. I couldn’t quite believe Catherine could actually love me, but she did, and I foolishly believed we were untouchable, that nothing could destroy the happiness we had found.”
Standing, Murdoch moved over to the hearth where he tossed a log onto the fire and stared into the hungry flames. He was unashamedly playing for time, trying to get his thoughts in some resemblance of order, slowly working up to revealing a little more of himself to his sons.
Johnny, for once, was not fidgeting, even though the need to do so pulled at him, but years of disciplining himself in the art of gun fighting had taught him of the need to be patient and still when the situation called for it. His instincts told him that his father might bolt at the slightest distraction. So he moved his hands under his legs, holding them in place, holding them still.
Scott too was finding it difficult to sit still, but his was for want of a more comfortable position. If it were not for the need to be here with his father and brother, he would be admitting about now to this ill-advised trip to the great room. However, seeing his brother move his hands quietly under his legs, Scott realized that Johnny was trying hard to keep his hands, his body motionless. He turned his eyes to Murdoch, noticing the tensed shoulders and big hand clutching at the fireplace mantle. He realized that his sibling had sensed his father’s struggle to share his personal feelings and any distraction could be an excuse for him not to continue. So he too remained, knowing that there really wasn’t a comfortable position for him anyway.
Their expectant eyes burned into his back, but the young men remained silent as the minutes continued to tick away. Finally, the tall rancher turned back to his sons, walked over and sat down across from them ready now to continue, and this time he went even further back into his past, “I had a very happy childhood; I was blessed with the most wonderful, loving, family growing up. It is one of my deepest regrets that you boys never got to meet my ma and da, your grandparents. There were four of us children: two older brothers, Robert and Jimmy, and a sister, Caitlin, who was the baby of the family. There were also many aunts, uncles and cousins, all living near us.
“Every day while growing up, I was surrounded by people who loved me and that I in turn, loved. There were chores to do around the house and tending to the small gardens my mother planted. We all worked together to get the work finished, and then of course we would do our studies, but once done, we would rush to play our games. My brothers and I, along with my many cousins, would spend hours playing in the nearby meadows, running through the lush heather.” Noticing the look of slight confusion on his younger boys’ face, he hurriedly explained. “Heather is the thick flowering grass that grows in my homeland.
“The holidays were grand feasts, with everyone coming together — the men playing the games of our ancestors, such as the caber toss, which is a log stood on end and tossed as far as your strength will allow, or the hammer or weight toss and other games of strength. These games were passed down through the generations, and really derived from some of the skills needed by men in fighting our ancient wars.” Murdoch noticed that Johnny seemed to be a little perplexed at the idea of grown men playing these sorts of games, so decided it was perhaps necessary for him to provide further explanation of the whys of such behavior.
“Scotland, like Mexico, Johnny, is a country of traditions, and so while perhaps the skills were not needed with the more modern weapons available to defend our family and homeland, we made these ancient skills part of who we were — in our celebrations. So the men played these games, showing off their skill and strength, as a tradition and to honor their ancestors. And as each boy became older, they too would follow in their fathers’ footsteps. However…” Murdoch grinned as a particular memory took hold, “more often than not, until we reached our maturity, we would fall woefully short in that respect, often making fools of ourselves.
“Our family was fortunate in that life was not a hard and difficult struggle for us like it was for so many other families. But we still struggled now and then to make ends meet. My parents taught us all the value of watching your pennies, but still we had a comfortable home; there was money sufficient for food, clothing, and we children were able to go to school, even to Edinburgh University as my older two brothers did.
“My da and two of his brothers had a book publishing and printing business. It was a young struggling company but they worked hard to make it grow and become a respected and established firm – which is still operating quite successfully today. Both my brothers and the two sons of my one uncle run the business, and of course, their children work there. But while I love reading, the publishing and printing business was not for me. I had a desire to travel, see the world; I wanted to try something new and exciting.” Murdoch suddenly stopped speaking, seemingly hesitant about going on. He looked at both boys for several moments, and then a small smile appeared on his face, knowing that having ventured down this road there was no sense in stopping now.
“I too went to the university, but left after two years, and in fact, left Inverness shortly thereafter to come to this country. I was young, headstrong and determined to find my own way. As much as I loved my da and brothers, I wanted something new, something of my own and did not want to follow in their footsteps. I argued –- maybe for the first time ever, with my da – as, while he provided comfortably for us and gave us room to grow into who we were, he brokered no arguments with his children in his home. His word was law, no matter our age.” He smiled at his own two sons, the younger of which seemed to be biting back a retort of some sort.
“He was so against me leaving the university and then Scotland. He couldn’t understand why -– but finally in the end he bade me a fond farewell, knowing that I was of a mind to go and would do so with or without his blessing. My mother…” He paused — such a long time ago, but the memory still brought sadness to him, even after all these years. He started again. “My mother too bade me a heartfelt goodbye with good wishes for my success, although that parting was more tearful.
“My da paid my passage and gave me a little money, enough to pay for room and board for a week or two, but after that I would be on my own. And while he had faith in my abilities to succeed, the passage he paid included a return trip, should I have found America not to my liking. Fortunately, I found work on the docks immediately, and never once thought of returning to Inverness. However, while I left my home, my family who I missed…miss so very much, I took with me their love, and the strong sense of family that I grew up with.
“I wanted so very much, too, to some day have my own family, and to provide my own children with the same stable and loving upbringing.” Again Murdoch suddenly stopped, but this time when he continued, it was not accompanied by a smile, but rather sadness. “But I failed – I failed miserably.”
“Sir, I do not think that is fair to say about what happened!” Scott was taken aback by these final words – unprepared for them. “It was…” Before he could continue Scott was interrupted by his brother.
“Listen Murdoch, you can’t blame yourself for what my mama did or old man Garret. Ain’t like you had a say in it – thought we been through all this before.” Johnny didn’t want this to get bogged down in guilt; he had been so enthralled by his father’s story. The old man’s voice so soft and gentle-like, lulling him in to an almost dream-like state, so much so that he had been startled when Scott spoke, his father’s last words not fully registering with him until then.
“Settle down both of you. Particularly you, Scott; you need to be still.” Murdoch had noticed that his older son had started to move around some, and now was finding it difficult to get resettled. Rising, he walked over to the couch. “Johnny, why don’t you shift down some and, Scott, you move back here and lie down a little and take the pressure off your ribs and foot.”
“Yeah, good idea, Boston,” Johnny agreed as he helped his brother bring his injured foot up onto the couch, then taking the pillow that had been keeping his foot elevated, he gently placed it under his ankle again.
His older brother nodded his thanks, and then looked up at their father, “Thanks, Murdoch, but I’m fine now; please continue with your story, but without…..”
“No.” Murdoch paused then continued somberly. “That regret is something that will never go away.”
Suddenly feeling in need of some fortification, Murdoch gestured over to the tray of decanters. “Johnny, before you sit back down, why don’t you get the three of us a drink. But make it a small one for your brother; we are all probably in enough trouble with Sam — don’t need to add more.” Murdoch smiled wryly down at Scott, noticing the pallor of his son’s face – he was not sure it had been a good idea for the young man to be down here against doctor’s orders and he was pretty sure it was not a good idea for him to be here either. But there was no going back now.
Johnny returned with the three drinks and sat down gingerly on the other end of the couch, then looked expectantly towards his father who had also resumed his seat.
“You asked me earlier, Johnny, what it was like for me all those years and I couldn’t tell you what I felt before I’d explained a little about my love of family – rather why it is so important to me.” He paused a moment, taking a sip of the scotch whiskey, which had been sent to him by his brother Robert. He smiled thinking about his older sibling and then reminded himself that he owed him a letter. He took another sip and began speaking again, his voice gentle and quiet, a voice not often heard by the boys or anyone else for that matter.
“When I met your mother, Scott, I couldn’t believe that she would even like me, much less fall in love with me. But she did, and I her. She was so beautiful and I loved her so much. Catherine was my best friend in addition to my wife. We could talk about anything and everything for hours on end. She loved to read, as I did, and on the long boat trip here to California, we would spend hours sitting side-by-side on the deck, reading, and then equally long hours talking about what we had read. In the evenings, we would take a long stroll after dinner and talk about our plans for a ranch, children. I was a blessed man.
“Upon our arrival here, we found the ranch to be in terrible disrepair, the hacienda all but uninhabitable except for a small portion of the main living area. I felt so disheartened at first, but Catherine wouldn’t let me give up. As unaccustomed as she was to any form of physical labor, she rolled up her sleeves and started in, cleaning and trying to make a place for us in our new home. I spent all my time working and learning; well, in those first few years, it was mostly learning how to be a rancher.
“We didn’t have many cattle at first but by the third year –- the year she became pregnant with you Scott — we had acquired a decent size herd. We had worried some during the first couple of years when she didn’t get pregnant, afraid at first that something was wrong. So when she finally did, we were ecstatic that we were finally going to have a child. She was convinced you would be a boy and picked out your name immediately. I hadn’t thought before then that we could have been any happier, but somehow the pregnancy put us on cloud nine –- we didn’t think anything could happen to take that away from us.
“Catherine was fairly far along in her pregnancy when Haney’s raids started –- but not so far that she couldn’t travel. The raids kept getting closer and closer to the hacienda, and when finally they attacked us in the yard and a bullet came through the window near where she was, I decided it was too dangerous for her to remain at the ranch. So against her wishes, I made her leave Lancer. I thought it best, knowing I would never forgive myself if something happened to her and our child.”
He took a few moments and looked at this older son, knowing that this was the first time he had openly discussed that fateful decision. He was unprepared for the emotions he saw in his son’s face, and was hesitant to continue until the young man gave him a small smile of encouragement.
“I was devastated by her death and the loss of you, Scott. For a long time, it was all I could do to just get up in the morning and keep the ranch going. It was months before the ranch was running well enough that I could have left it to go back east to get you, but by that time, all the extra money I had saved with Catherine had been poured back in to keeping the ranch going – there just wasn’t enough available to fund a trip like that. And back then, it was impossible to go over land – only by boat. Taking months, and costing…well, costing a lot more than I could scrape together.
“And in all honesty, Scott, I had shut myself off after I lost your mother. Even if I had the money, I’m not sure that I was capable emotionally of being a father to you then, son.”
He had been looking at Scott as he related his feelings during that devastating period of his life, half expecting to be censured by him for his obvious turning of his back on his newborn son. But Murdoch only saw understanding and love in his face. He was so blessed, he knew; God had given him two very special sons.
“The next year we had a drought, followed by a disease that took out most of the herd; my finances were in a very sorry state.
“That is when I started working with Joe Barker – did it off and on for almost two years.
“I desperately needed the extra income, but perhaps more importantly I needed the distraction. I needed something other than loss to dwell on. I was still grieving for Catherine and for you, Scott, and so too for all the dreams that had been shattered. There had been one blow after another and I just couldn’t pick myself up.
Shrugging to emphasize the helplessness he had felt, Murdoch continued “I was in a dark place, and I made little effort to claw myself out; it was easier just to wallow there.
“I hadn’t really wanted to take the job, but somehow Joe persuaded me and suddenly I found myself wearing a badge.
“And that job proved to be a lifeline in more ways than one. I covered a lot of miles, met a lot of people, good and bad, and slowly I realized how closed off I’d become.
“The world hadn’t stopped spinning just because I was hurting; the sun still shone and the birds still sang. I had to acknowledge that the world was still a beautiful place even if Catherine was no longer in it.
“So I began to live rather than simply exist. I found renewed purpose: two aims in life — one…get my son back and two… provide him with a loving and nurturing home. I knew my only hope of achieving such was to get back on my feet financially, I knew, too, that it would not happen overnight but I was prepared to work day and night to achieve that goal.
“My luck seemed to change then; things started to go right. The law paid fairly well for a job well done and I plowed everything I earned into the ranch. I managed to get some quality stock at a more than favorable price, and from them I built up a fine herd.
“Joe would wire me when he needed me, and that last wire of his found me at a very busy time. I nearly turned the job down but something told me to go, and I will always thank God I did because…well…” Murdoch’s gaze settled on his younger son.
“The men we were after made it across the border, and although we had no jurisdiction there, we headed into Mexico after them. We never did catch up with them but we did happen across a place called Matamoros.”
The sudden mention of the small Mexican city made Johnny start, then shift uneasily in his chair, knowing his father was now about to share memories of his second wife.
Murdoch had spoken so lovingly about Catherine — he had obviously adored her and they as a couple had been very happy together. He wanted to hear the same kind of devotion spoken of where his mother was concerned, but was suddenly terrified that it wouldn’t be forthcoming.
He stared back at the older man who was now looking at him questioningly, Johnny knew Murdoch had seen his reaction and had been thrown a little by it. He wanted to urge him on, assuring him that nothing he could say would hurt him but that was not the case. His father’s memories had the power to hurt him badly.
He silently cursed himself for being so weak. He’d pushed his father into this and his old man was baring his soul; the telling of the past couldn’t be easy for him but he was doing so with a quiet dignity. The least Johnny could do was listen with the same kind of strength.
After taking a steadying breath, Johnny nodded reassuringly at the older man, the signal needed for him to continue.
“Matamoros proved to be a hive of activity, frequented by traders from both sides of the border. Folk came from far and wide to buy, sell and to just socialize. We just wanted a hot meal and a clean bed and so set about finding both.
“We were soon eating our fill in a small and friendly cantina — it overlooked a bustling street — and to cut a long story short, we sat, talked, and absently watched the world go hurrying by.
“The great, the good, and the not so good traveled up and down that street but I barely took notice until…” A distant look appeared in the patriarch’s eye before he continued on in a hushed tone. “…well, she stood out in the crowd, you see.”
“My mother?” Johnny whispered awed by the emotion in his father’s voice.
“Yes, your mother.” Smiling now as the memory engulfed him, Murdoch continued softly, “There was just something about her — the way she moved, she carried herself with such grace.
“I hadn’t realized I’d been staring so hard until Joe prodded me none so gently in the shoulder, asking me what I found so interesting outside. The spell broken, I garbled some excuse and made my way out into the afternoon sunshine, and on that busy city street, I fell in love.
“Maria was beautiful, vivacious…so very full of life, and that’s an infectious quality. She made me feel like anything was possible, and for the first time since Catherine died, I was truly happy.
“We were married within the month; Maria fell pregnant immediately, and when you were born, John, I thought my heart would burst because it was so full of love and joy.” Heaving a sigh, Murdoch turned his attention to his older son. “Still, I hadn’t forgotten Catherine or you, Scott. I cherished your mother’s memory, and I was even more determined to bring you home, to watch you grow up along side your brother.
“I don’t know where the time went; those two years passed so quickly and then….then she too was gone and my little boy along with her.”
Murdoch fell silent at the memory, dropping his gaze to the floor before saying, “To this day, I don’t know why and, to be honest, I stopped asking myself that question a long time ago, I didn’t like the answers I came up with.”
Forcing his eyes to meet Johnny’s steady gaze, he continued in a voice that was barely more than a whisper. “My world fell apart that day. But like I told you earlier, son, I couldn’t grieve for your mother. I wanted to hate her but I couldn’t do that either, so I took the least painful option and accepted her leaving.”
Murdoch’s voice rose as he vehemently declared, “But I couldn’t accept losing you or being separated from Scott. Now I had two sons out of my reach and I hated myself for letting it happen again. Over time, I hardened myself against the loss instead of succumbing to it. I had to; otherwise, I would have just curled up in a corner somewhere and…well, that would not get you back! And I was determined to get you both back.
“I knew it would take time but I never imagined it would take so very long, that you would be grown men when you…when you finally came home.”
His voice faltering, Murdoch tried to hold onto his suddenly crumbling composure; but try as he might to control them, his emotions surged to the fore. “I’m sorry it took so long. I tried, I tried so hard but…”
As their father fell silent, now visibly distressed, both Johnny and Scott froze in place; neither one had seen the giant of a man so openly emotional before. As heartbreaking as it was to witness, it had also proved strangely mesmerizing.
Scott was the first to break the silence with a shakily spoken “Sir?” It was enough of a jolt to propel Johnny to his feet, but he was immediately stopped from approaching his father by the older man raising his hand, waving his younger son away. “I’m alright. I just need a minute.”
Glancing back at his brother, Johnny reluctantly resumed his seat, his heart beating frantically in his chest. His sibling looked as shaken as he, and he suddenly felt a pang of guilt for stirring up such anguish for his family.
An uneasy silence followed as Murdoch battled to contain what had so long been suppressed, but closing the flood gates once opened was proving a difficult task.
There was so much more he wanted to say, needed to say, if only he could without losing control. He could not let his boys see him like that again!
When Murdoch did finally speak, his countenance had hardened, his voice having become low and even.
“The years, they passed slowly; they seemed endless, and even though I kept myself busy and had the support and companionship of friends, my life was empty without the two of you.
“All I’d ever wanted was gone; this hacienda just an empty shell no longer the home I’d envisioned making all those years ago.”
“I thought about you each and every day and prayed for you both every night…” Pausing briefly to conquer another wave of emotion, Murdoch determinedly pushed on. “I marked each birthday with a toast. I formed pictures of you in my head, imagined how you might look as adulthood approached.
“In time, I had to acknowledge that my lost boys were no longer children, but I told myself that, though they might no longer need me, they would still want me in their lives…well, I hoped and prayed that was so.
“It was all so very hard, but the worst part, what I had trouble dealing with the most, was knowing that I might lose you both without you ever knowing how very much I’d wanted you…how very much I loved you, and without ever getting to know you.”
Murdoch shuddered involuntary at his next thought. “I was terrified the war would claim my first born son, and that some gun hawk’s bullet would take my younger son’s life”.
“Then the land pirates hit; Paul was killed and the world turned into that ugly place again.
“I was close to losing everything I’d worked for, everything I’d hoped to one day give to both of you.
“Then, just as I thought all was lost, word came from the Pinkerton’s and this time the news was positive!” His countenance brightening at the memory. Murdoch added quickly, “You were coming home! Both of you!
“What had seemed like the end turned into the beginning…a new beginning for Lancer.
“You asked me, Johnny, what it had been like for me all those years; well, if I’m honest with myself…it was the worst kind of nightmare. One I finally awoke from the day the two of you first walked into this room.
“That day, I told myself those empty years were over, that they were finally in the past and I believed I could just leave them there, that they would fade into insignificance… ”
“I’m sorry.” The apology erupted from Johnny’s mouth, instantly silencing his father and drawing both his and his brother’s full attention. He was now full of remorse for the pain he had caused his father by reliving the past; that hurt had clearly been etched on the older man’s face at times and he had been the cause. “I was wrong to…”
“No, Johnny!” Murdoch countered vehemently, “I was wrong to try and bury it. To hide it was like pretending it never happened and those years are responsible for making me what and who I am today. You said you wanted to understand me a little better and I think…hope you do now.
A faint smile appeared on the youngest Lancer’s face as he nodded.
“There’s a lot more I still need to tell you, I know, but…” Murdoch got stiffly to his feet and eyed his older son with a concerned eye. “I think that’s enough for tonight.” Stepping purposefully towards his sons, he squeezed Johnny’s shoulder affectionately then turned to Scott. “Let’s get you to bed, son; you look exhausted…”
“I’m fine, Murdoch…” the blond began to protest; the past half hour had been cathartic for them all, especially so for their father and he would not let his physical condition interfere in the process.
“No you are not!” Murdoch insisted, grasping Scott’s arm firmly but gently, in readiness to help him to his feet. “We’ll continue on with this another time…” Murdoch’s gaze moved between his sons, and finding it impossible to ignore the expectancy in their eyes, he heard himself promising, “Tomorrow…we’ll talk again tomorrow.”
His sons suitably assured, Murdoch gestured towards the stairs, and as he and Johnny helped ease Scott to his feet, he smiled, silently acknowledging the joy and contentment he had found in the year since their return, the smile broadening as he contemplated the years that lay ahead. They promised more of the same.