A Time To Play (by Blueyes)

Summary: In this WHI story for ‘To Chase a Wild Horse’, Scott is twenty-two and Johnny is sixteen. This story contains several lines from the actual show but with my own twist.
Category:  Lancer
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count: 14,000


“Hey Johnny, your old man is coming,” Wes said as he laid the fence post down next to the hole the boy had just dug. Heading back to the wagon he grabbed up the canteen. Taking a long pull, he awaited the upcoming confrontation.

Johnny hammered the nail into the post and looped the wire around it before looking up to see his father coming down the road in the buckboard. He thought he had seen a smile on the man’s face and hoped he was right. He didn’t understand the reasoning behind the way he felt, but this man’s approval was important to him. It had been hard for him to fit into this family since coming home less than three months ago. The life he’d lead was not the kind he was proud of, but he was determined to prove himself worthy of the second chance he was getting. It was a big change being a rancher.

Nothing like the carefree lifestyle of a gunfighter. But he was trying…and he hoped Murdoch could see this. He held his breath as the buckboard pulled to a halt.

Murdoch reined in the team and stepped down. “Looks good,” he offered.

“Thank you,” Johnny said, pulling the wire tight.

“Come on, take a break.”

Walking over to the buckboard, Johnny climbed up on the seat and stretched his aching muscles, before taking a healthy drink of water and pouring a liberal amount over his face.

“Tired and sore, huh?” Murdoch questioned.

“Yeah, I ain’t ever worked this hard.”

“Well, it shows. You’re doing a good job, son.”

“Wes and me was hoping to get done early. Maybe head into town for awhile tonight,” Johnny stated, cutting his eyes over at his friend. He knew how his father felt about him going to the saloons and drinking. It had been one of the many things they had butted heads over. Johnny’s view had been that he’d been going to saloons and drinking since he was fourteen. This had not impressed Murdoch and he loudly voiced his opinion that he couldn’t change the past, but he could control what his sixteen-year-old son did now. And drinking in a saloon was out of the question, unless he was with himself or his brother, Scott.

“John,” Murdoch warned.

“What if Scott goes?”

Murdoch walked over and leaned his forearms against the seat of the buckboard. Looking into his son’s blue eyes, he sighed. “Son, you are not going to town tonight for several reasons. First of all, you have to meet Scott at the house at two and help him with the surveying. That report has to be in next week.” Seeing his boy’s crestfallen look, he continued. “Besides that, we have bookkeeping to do tonight. That means that Scott can’t go either. Maybe we can all go to town in a couple of days and grab a beer.”

Johnny looked down at his gloved hands, then to his father. “Two o’clock.”

“That’s right.”

Jumping down off the buckboard, Johnny asked. “And just how am I supposed to know when it’s two o’clock?”

Pulling out the watch that had been handed down through out the generations, Murdoch opened it. “Here — it’s old, but it’s still a good timepiece.” Closing it, he handed it to Johnny. “You keep it.”

Johnny looked at the gold disc in his hand. He knew it was old and wondered about its history. It didn’t matter whether it was made yesterday, or a hundred years ago. It was a gift from this man and that made it priceless. It was the second thing his father had given him since his homecoming. The first being his best friend, Barranca. Sensing the eyes on him, Johnny looked up into Murdoch’s light blue eyes. “What?”

He had so much he wanted to say to this boy, his son, but the words wouldn’t come. The look on Johnny’s face when he had handed him the watch had all but broken his heart. “Nothing.” Murdoch climbed back on the buckboard. “Just be at the house at two. Scott will be waiting on you.”

Johnny watched the buckboard pull away and looked down at the beautifully carved watch once more before placing it inside his belt and picking up the hammer.

Wes shook his head and walked over to where Johnny was taking his frustrations out on the fence. “Hey, don’t worry about it. Maybe we can go another time. Hell, ya can always sneak out.”

“I know I can, but that ain’t the point, Wes. I wanted to go tonight,” Johnny stated. Tossing the hammer down, he continued. “I don’t know if I can keep doing this. I ain’t never been good at takin’ orders and that old man sure loves tossin’ them around.”

“So…why ya stayin’ then? Hell, if ya that unhappy here, take off,” Wes stated. Smiling he added. “Come on, let’s get out of here. Be like old times.”

Sighing, Johnny shook his head. “Nah, Wes. I ain’t ready to give up yet. Let’s get back to work.”

“Work. Always work,” Wes said, interrupted by the sound of several horses. A smile came to his face as he spotted the beautiful black stallion. “Well, would ya look at that? Ain’t he somethin’.” Not getting a response from the boy, he patted him on the shoulder. “Come on Johnny, don’t tell me ya gonna let that pass….Man they really broke ya to the plow. Ya don’t owe ya life to work.”

Johnny watched as Wes mounted his horse and took off after the herd. With a smile and a ‘yahoo’, the boy vaulted onto Barranca and took off after the stallion, the fence line, the cattle and his father forgotten.

The rope slid easily around the muscular neck of the stallion. Johnny and Barranca worked together as one bringing the big horse under control. Looking over his shoulder, Johnny noticed that Wes had the rest of the herd grouped together, his smile matching that of the youngest Lancer. A sound caught his attention as he patted the neck of the wild horse. He turned to find three men riding up to where he stood.

“Howdy, name’s Stryker, Samuel Stryker. My boys. This is Eli and Davy.” The older man smiled.

“Howdy.”

“We sure are obliged to ya.”

“For what?” Johnny asked.

“Why for catchin’ our herd. That black, ya know he’s a real cagey animal. He’s more fox than horse. He’s been givin’ us the run around for the last two weeks. Well, we’ll just be takin’ them off ya hands now and sayin’ thank ya.”

Johnny looked up at the man, giving a slight smile. “Well these horses are mine.”

“Now I don’t think ya heard me correctly boy. We been chasin’ these animals for the last two weeks. Wild horses don’t belong to nobody. We was just fixin’ to drive ’em into a box canyon before you showed up. Now, I’ll just be figurin’ I didn’t hear ya correctly and be sayin’ thank ya again.”

“There ain’t nothin’ wrong with ya hearin’,” Johnny stated. Turning to face Eli who had moved his horse up beside him he continued. “You havin’ trouble holdin’ that horse still?”

“You know, you’re beginin’ to gripe me, son, so I’m gonna lay it on the barrelhead. I ain’t lookin’ for no trouble, but I want what’s mine.”

“They ain’t yours for three reasons. One, they’re on Lancer land. Two, I broke my back gettin’ them and three, you’re lyin’. Ya see, there aren’t any box canyons around here. I don’t know who ya are, but I got a pretty good idea…what ya are. So you just better ride.”

“Why, you insolent little pup. What you need is a good strappin’. Keep that smart mouth of yours goin’ and I’m just liable to be the one givin’ it to ya.”

Johnny cocked his head to the side and studied the man. “Mister, I wouldn’t advise tryin’ it. You can’t handle that kinda trouble.”

Eli pulled his pistol and pointed it toward Johnny. “Seems only one way to settle this”

The sound of a rifle being cocked brought all their attention to Wes who had ridden up to cover his friend. “Hello, Wes,” Johnny called with a wave. The older boy tipped his hat to his friend with a big smile.

Johnny dipped his head to hide the grin. “Well like I said before, ya better ride. Before ya have to bury the only thing around here that is yours.”

“You been real kind. We won’t forget it,” Stryker stated as he and his sons turned to leave.

“Think they gonna be trouble, Johnny?”

“Maybe. Let’s get these horses home.”

The sound of the clock was loud in the silent room. Scott could see his father’s anger rising with each and every tick and waited for the inevitable explosion to come. ‘Well little brother, I sure hope you have a good reason for being this late. You really are pushing Pa.’

The chime, signaling four o’clock ended the slow sizzling of the fuse and the powder keg blew. “What is keeping that boy?”

“Surveying is not that big of a job. I can do it by myself. Tell Johnny not to worry about it,” Scott calmly said, standing.

“Scott, stop covering for him. That boy has got to learn responsibility.”

“In all fairness, sir, we don’t know what could have happened to delay him,” Scott tried.

“You’re right, we don’t.” Murdoch said, leaning against the mantle. “But this is it, Scott. I’ve overlooked a lot of things the boy does because I know the adjustment has been hard on him, but it ends today. If he doesn’t have a very good reason for this…..I’m going to punish him.”

“Punish him? What are you talking about, sir?”

“Son, you know how I punish for disobedience.”

“I know you don’t mean to take your belt to him?”

Murdoch looked at his twenty-two-year-old son and shook his head. “It didn’t do any damage to you when you got out of line.”

Scott grimaced slightly. “That is a matter of opinion.”

Murdoch chuckled. “You know what I mean, son. You had to learn and so does your brother.”

“Yes sir, he does. But I wasn’t abused as he was either.”

“I would never abuse Johnny and you know that, Scott. But I will take a strap to his backside if he needs it from now on. I’ve let him get away with too much so far.” Murdoch walked over and looked out the big window behind his desk. “I have a strong feeling that Wes is going to present problems where John is concerned. He’s too wild.”

Scott couldn’t deny his father’s statement. He had thought the same things about the young man and had wished Murdoch hadn’t hired him in the first place. “I agree, but I’m afraid that if you let him go, we’ll lose Johnny too.”

Murdoch turned to face his eldest. “Do you think he would run away?”

“Run away? No. Leave? Yes.”

“He’s underage, he can’t just leave.”

“I’m afraid you couldn’t stop him if he decided to, Pa. That boy can’t be found if he doesn’t want to be. Maybe I should have a little talk with Wes while you talk to Johnny.”

A knock at the door called their attention to one of the hands. “Mr. Lancer, I’m sorry to bother you but some cattle strayed through a hole in the fence down by the south gully.”

“How many?”

“Don’t know for sure, but about fifty got caught in the gully.”

“FIFTY? That’s where Johnny was working. Alright, pull the men off their jobs and get to pulling them out.”

Scott shook his head. “Now I know what you’re thinking but it shouldn’t take that long.”

“Try pulling nine hundred pounds of scared beef out of a sand gully. It’ll take days.”

“I’m sure there’s a good reason, sir.”

“Scott, maybe you should head on out to do that surveying.”

“Yes sir.” Turning to leave, Scott knew this was it for his little brother. There was no way the boy would talk his way out of this one. Not without a very good excuse.

*****

Murdoch stepped out onto the patio with his ward Theresa. He had taken guardianship of the seventeen-year-old just six months earlier when her father, his Segundo, Paul O’Brien was murdered by land pirate Day Pardee. She was the daughter he never had and sister to both his boys. “Do you need anything from town? Joe’s going in,” she asked him.

“No, dear. I don’t think…” Murdoch stopped as he watched Johnny and Wes leading a herd of wild horses into one of the corrals. “JOHNNY!” he called.

“Ouch, oh um boy, you’re gonna get it now,” Wes laughed. “He left you with a row of posthole and you show up with a bunch of wild horses.”

Grinning, Johnny slapped his friend in the stomach with his gloves. “I think he’ll understand.”

“Yeah? You’ll understand a little more with every lick of that belt of his,” Wes kidded.

“That ain’t likely to happen,” Johnny snorted as he walked away.

Johnny walked up to the patio where his father and ‘sister’ stood waiting. “Theresa,” he said handing the girl his hat and gloves. He was stopped on his way to the basin of water by his father’s voice.

“Where you been, Johnny?”

Walking back to his father’s side, Johnny said. “Look at that stallion, huh. I tell ya, he’s gonna outrun any horse on this ranch.”

Murdoch listened as his son splashed water on his face. “I ask you where you’d been,” he repeated himself.

“I been rounding them up. How long since you seen a horse like that?”

“What about the fence?”

“Yeah we’ll wrap it up tomorrow mornin’. I tell ya what,” Johnny said taking the watch from his pocket and opening it with a big smile. “When that little hand is on the six and the big hand is on the twelve. Bright and early.”

Turning to face his youngest, Murdoch bit back his anger. “That’s not good enough Johnny. You had a job of work to do here and you didn’t do it.”

“I told ya I do it tomorrow,” Johnny said, his eyes averted, the smile leaving his face.

“This is a cattle ranch, boy. We are not in the business of catching and breaking wild horses.”

“We could be,” Johnny stated, his own temper rising. “Now, I caught that horse and I wanna break him. Ya mind?”

“You can do that on your own time, young man.”

“When is my own time, old man?”

“WHEN YOU’VE DONE YOUR DAYS WORK SAME AS EVERYONE ELSE ON THIS RANCH,” Murdoch bellowed. “Just because you’re my son doesn’t mean you don’t pull your own weight around here. You will follow my orders the same as any other hand on this ranch and out of respect for me as your father.”

Looking at his father then around at the hands that had heard the heated exchange, Johnny attempted to push passed his father. Murdoch grabbed his arm, “I want you in your room this instant. You and I are going to have a long discussion on responsibility…and respect young man. Now get, before I embarrass you here in front of everyone.”

Theresa waited until Johnny had entered the house before speaking. “Well, you can’t blame him. He’s never had to run his life by a clock before. He probably didn’t even know he was late.”

“He knew what time it was.” Murdoch stated, stopping at the sound of horses entering the yard.

Johnny heard the horses too, and walked out onto the porch once he noticed it was the Strykers.

“Can I help you?” asked Murdoch.

“You Murdoch Lancer?”

“Yeah.”

“I’m Samuel Stryker.”

“What can I do for you?” Murdoch asked.

“You can give me what’s mine. One of your hired hands stole ’em from me.”

Murdoch glanced over his shoulder at his son and turned back to Stryker. “He’s my son. What do you want here and what is it you think my boy stole from you?”

“Give a man a fair hearin’.”

“Make it quick.”

“We been doggin’ those horses hard for the last two weeks. We was all set to trap ’em when your son showed up and took ’em. Now it’s like I told the boy. I don’t want no trouble just them horses.”

“Mr. Lancer, you want the men working on the bridge pulled off?” Frank asked his boss as he rode up.

“What?”

“To help pull out the cattle.”

“What’s it gonna be?” Stryker interrupted.

“There mine,” Johnny spoke up.

“Mr. Lancer?” Frank asked again.

“Well?” Stryker insisted.

Murdoch looked at Johnny. “Did you steal those horses away from this man?”

“No, I didn’t. Me and Wes caught them on our land,” Johnny stated not breaking eye contact with his father.

Turning to face Stryker, Murdoch sighed. “Alright, take them and get off my land.”

“Look, I caught them horses. They’re mine,” declared Johnny.

Seeing a cross of anger, confusion and hurt in his son’s eyes, Murdoch changed his mind. He wanted to teach the boy a lesson but didn’t want to create a bigger gap between the two of them. “Leave the stallion and take all the rest.”

“One more thing, Lancer. That boy of yours needs a lesson in respecting his elders. Nothing a good session with ya belt won’t solve.”

“Well, that would be my decision, not yours Stryker. Now get the horses and get off my land.”

Johnny watched as the men rode toward the corral. “Why did ya let ’em get away with that for?”

“There are more wild horses on this range than you can catch and break in a lifetime. Right now, we have more important things to think about. Don’t move from this spot,” Murdoch growled. Turning back to Frank, he said, “Pull the men from the bridge and take the men from the north line camp.”

“Right.”

Turning back to face his angry young son, Murdoch crossed his arms over his chest. “Now, young man. Would you care to tell me what you’re doing out here? As I remember, I sent you to your room to wait for me.”

Before Johnny could answer his father, he noticed Eli entering the corral and taking the rope holding the stallion from Wes. Running across the yard, he grabbed the boy and threw him into the fence. “I said no one’s takin’ that horse.”

Eli stood up and grabbed Johnny. Spinning him around, he threw a punch which Johnny ducked. A punch to the stomach and an uppercut found the Stryker boy on the ground again.

“You started it, boy, now finish it,” Samuel told his son.

Johnny saw the move before anyone else as Eli Stryker went for his gun. Faster than it started, it was over as Johnny’s bullet bit into the other boy’s upper chest. Samuel Stryker jumped from his horse and kneeled by his son.

“Let’s get ‘im to the house,” Johnny offered, kneeling down beside the man.

“Nobody touches him,” Samuel stated. Turning to his son, he asked. “Can ya make it to the horse?”

Murdoch and Johnny watched as the men mounted, the elder Stryker telling his boy, “Davy’s comin’ with the boys. You hang on, we’ll make ’em pay. It don’t end here, Lancer. You’ll see. Not yet.”

Johnny looked up at his father, quickly looking down. The stern expression on the elder man’s face told the boy more than he wanted to know. His father was disappointed in him…..again.

“In my study…now.”

*****

Johnny leaned against the table behind the couch, watching his father pacing from the corner of his eye. No one other than this man could make him feel like such a small boy. Wrapping his arms protectively around himself, he asked. “Well what ya keep lookin’ at me for? You saw what happened. He drew on me. What did ya expect me to do?”

Silence was all that greeted him.

“What’s a matter? That not good enough?”

Murdoch looked at his young son before turning to face the big window behind his desk. He knew he was far too mad at the boy to have this talk at the moment. “Scott’s still waiting for you to help him with the surveying job. Maybe you had better go and join him. We will discuss this further tonight.”

“I ask you a question. If it’s about that fence, I told ya I’d finish it tomorrow mornin’, didn’t I? Look there’s only a small section left. If it’ll make ya happy, I’ll go finish it right now.”

Murdoch whirled around to face his son. “John, I wanted to wait until we had both cooled down a little to discuss this but if you insist on it being now, then now it’ll be. Now is too late for you to finish. About fifty head of cattle strayed through that little hole in that section you didn’t finish. What’s left of them is now at the bottom of the south gully. That’s what your time off cost.”

His shoulders slumping, Johnny quietly asked. “How was I to know that was gonna happen?”

“Maybe you never will know. Maybe it takes twenty years of living with this kinda land. That is why it’s so important that you listen to me and do as you’re told. You have a family now that has to depend on you the same as you depend on us. You are not running wild any longer, son.”

Standing, Johnny looked up at his father. “Look, alright. I’m sorry ’bout the cattle you lost.”

“We lost, Johnny, not you, we. And all the responsibilities that go along with it.”

“I’d do fine. I’d just do fine if you wouldn’t push so hard.”

“I wish I had the time to break you in easily, but I don’t.” Sighing, Murdoch walked over to stand in front of his youngest. “But believe me, son, after today you will not disobey my orders again. At least for a long time.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means that I’ve allowed you to do as you wish for far too long. This is not the first time you’ve slacked off on your assigned work. In the past, it hasn’t cost us anything and I let it slide, but today is a different story. It’ll take the men days to get those cattle pulled out of that gully, and that’s time we don’t have to waste. No, Johnny, this time you leave me with no choice other than to punish you.”

“What?” Johnny asked, his disbelief and confusion evident on his face.

“Young man, you are restricted to this ranch for the next two weeks. I will have a long list of chores for you to do, first of which is to see that the cattle are all pulled from the gully and that fence is finished. It’s your mess and you will help clean it up. Once that is done, I’ll tell you what is next. Now, I want you to go to your room and wait for me there. I’ll be up in a little while to give you the tanning you earned.”

Johnny’s head shot up, his eyes meeting his fathers. “You ain’t gonna hit me, old man.”

“No, I’m not, but I am going to take my belt to your backside. Now go on.”

“NO.”

“You will do as you’re told.”

“I ain’t gonna let nobody beat on me no more.”

“Son, you have to decide who you are and where you belong. If you are going to stay on this ranch, you will abide by my rules and do as I say.”

They both stopped as the French doors opened and Wes stepped in. “Johnny, just stopped by to say good-bye.”

“You’re leavin’ for town, huh?” Johnny asked his friend.

“No, I quit. I figure two months is long enough to be locked up anywhere. I’m just gonna go out and catch hold of somethin’ and go wherever it takes me. You know what I mean, Johnny? Just go out and ride free.”

His decision made, Johnny looked up at the older boy. “Wes, you do me a favor? Get my gear together and wait up for me outside. I’m goin’ with ya.”

“You bet.” Wes smiled as he left.

“Well, I guess ya heard.”

“You’ll need some money,” Murdoch simply stated as he walked to the desk and pulled out his ledger.

“Only what you figure I got comin’.”

“Haven’t drawn anything for two weeks. I make that to be twelve dollars.”

Initialing the book, he laid it down on the desk. “Better sign it. Receipt of wages.”

Johnny picked up his hat and walked over to the desk and signed the ledger as his father dropped the money in front of him. “Count it.”

Picking it up, the boy looked into his father’s eyes. The heartache and longing was almost more that Murdoch could take. “If you change your mind, you can always come back. But if you do, it’ll be under my rules, son, and you will have to take the punishment I just gave you.” The father watched as his baby boy walked out of the house. “Oh, Johnny.”

The indecision was more than evident as Scott watched the boy lean against the house. “Johnny, Wes tells me you’re leaving.”

“That’s right, brother. Guess ya own fifty percent of a ranch now.” Johnny attempted a smile.

“Don’t do it. This’ll all blow over in a couple of days. Just give it a chance. I’ll talk to Murdoch and square things.”

“No, forget that. Ain’t no way I’m gonna let that man take a belt to me, brother. And if I stay that’s what gonna happen. Besides, I’ve got a lot of places to go before they box me in. You belong here…”

Johnny was cut off by Theresa as she rushed into his arms. “Johnny, I don’t want you to go.”

“Theresa, ya gonna shed a tear for me?” Johnny smiled. “Hey go wipe ya nose,” he added, giving her a kiss to the top of her head. “Scott, I’ll see ya later,” he said, his head down.

Grabbing the boy’s arm, Scott tried once more. “Think about it.”

“I already have.” Pulling some money from his pocket, Johnny handed it to his brother. “Give this to the old man. It’s for the stallion’s halter, and don’t worry ’bout me. I’m gonna start livin’ again.”

*****

Samuel Stryker led his son Eli’s horse down the small embankment to meet up with Davy and his men. He knew the boy was bad off. Eli hadn’t made any noise for the last two miles. Reining to a stop, he looked up at his younger son when Davy spoke. “What happened?”

“Tell ya later. Let’s get ‘im down. You men help ‘im.”

“Ah, Pa, he needs a doctor,” Davy called out as he and two others eased the boy from his saddle.

“Nearest one’s two day. He’ll bleed to death ‘fore we’re gone a mile if we try to move ‘im like this. Take ‘im over there and let’s check that bullet wound.”

Laying his brother down, Davy heard one last low moan. “Pa…PA!”

Hearing the fear in his son’s voice, Samuel ran over and kneeled down next to them. “Eli.” Touching the boys chest he felt no movement. “ELI!”

“Pa, he’s dead.”

Silence.

“Alright, Pa. What happened? Who shot my brother?” Davy demanded.

“It was that Lancer kid.”

“The one what took that stallion?”

“Yes. Shot ya brother down like he was nothin’.”

“Well, we gonna take care of this, Pa?”

Turning to look at his remaining son, Samuel Stryker nodded. “I want that boy, but I want ‘im alive.”

“Alive? We ain’t gonna kill ‘im for this?”

“That kid’s gonna suffer first. Just like Eli did.”

***********

Wes looked over at the quiet boy that rode next to him. He wondered what had happened to push the boy into finally giving up. His old man, no doubt. He’d seen the way the old man treated his young friend and wondered again why it had taken the boy so long to take off. Seeing where they were, he pulled up. “Look over there, Johnny. What say we take a quick dip, get rid of some of this trail dust ‘fore we head to town.”

“Sure, why not.” Johnny said, sliding from Barranca’s back.

Sitting down to remove their boots, Wes asked, “So, wanna talk ’bout it?”

“What’s to talk ’bout?”

“Come on, Johnny. What made ya decide to take off? Was the old man that pissed at ya?”

“Yeah…yeah he was.”

Seeing the boy hesitate, Wes pushed. “Come on, spill it. Get it off ya chest so ya can loosen up and have some fun.”

“Cause I went after that stallion, fifty head of cattle ended up in the south gully. Gonna take days to pull ’em all out. Cost a lot of time.”

“And?”

Johnny sighed, not sure if he wanted to tell Wes what his father had said.

“He ah…well ya know how ya was teasin’ me when we got back? ‘Bout what he was gonna do to me?”

“Yeah…he threatened to take a belt to ya?” Wes asked, astonished that the man would even consider such a thing.

“Yeah he did. That along with two weeks restrictions and every dirty chore he could come up with during that time.”

“You really think he would have?”

“Oh yeah. If there’s one thing I’ve learned ’bout my old man, it’s that he does what he says he’s gonna do.”

“So you decided that you’d leave instead. Well, who knows maybe in a couple of weeks, when he’s cooled down…”

“No, no. He told me I could come back anytime I wanted to but that the punishment would hold. So, I’d just get it when I got back.”

Seeing the bowed head, Wes nudged the boy with his shoulder. “Come on, I bet ya can’t beat me to the swimmin’ hole.”

Smiling, Johnny said, “I bet ya I can.”

“Alright, how much?”

Laying his other boot beside the first and his gunbelt, Johnny asked the older boy. “How ’bout a dollar?”

“You’re on.”

Standing, Wes hollered, “GO.” as they raced to the edge of the pond. Johnny saw Wes go down just moments before he jumped into the cool, clear water.

*****

Scott closed the door to the greatroom behind him as he entered. He noticed Murdoch sitting at the desk staring off into space. “Well what do you plan to do?”

“After the strays are taken care of, we go over to the East Mesa for the surveying. Then there’s the wooden foot bridge that washed out last winter.”

“You know what I mean. About Johnny? What do you plan to do about your son leaving?”

“He made is decision.”

“Oh, did he? From the way I heard, he had help. What possessed you to threaten to take your belt to the boy? Hasn’t his life been hard enough?”

“I wasn’t doing anything that any other father of a sixteen year old boy would do, if that boy had cost them what Johnny cost us today. He has to learn, Scott, and it’s my job to teach him.”

“There are other ways…sir.”

“I’m that boy’s father and I’ll decide how to handle him.”

“Is this what you call…handling him?”

“Anyway, the matter is closed. It’s not open for further discussion.”

“You don’t give at all, do you? All pride, and Johnny’s cut from the same mold. Not one inch of give.”

“You want me to go after him? Beg him to come back home?” Murdoch asked standing.

“Is that so bad?”

“Yes, Scott, it is. If he’s that willing to let go that easily. If nothing here’s gotten through to him. If he hasn’t learned anything. If what he’s running to out there is so important. Then let it happen. Let it happen now.”

“You’re willing to give up on him that easily? After searching so long just to even know he was alive?”

“I’m not giving up on him, Scott. I’m giving him the chance to decide what he wants. I told him he could come back anytime he was ready. But…he knows he’ll have to take the punishment I gave him when he does.”

“All of it?”

“Yes, Scott, all of it.”

“Well, I plan to go find my little brother tomorrow and try to convince him to come back home. But I’m telling you right now Murdoch that if the only thing keeping that boy from here is your belt, you will change that part of it. I won’t lose my brother after just finding him,” Scott stated as he turned to leave.

“I won’t change my mind, son. I’m doing this for Johnny.”

“For Johnny?” Scott asked, not believing what he was hearing.

“Yes, son. Johnny needs to learn the difference between discipline and abuse. Once he figures out that I would never treat him like Maria’s men did, maybe we can have a relationship,” Murdoch stated, sitting back down.

“You think that’s the problem between the two of you, sir?” Scott asked. He could see the worry on his father’s face and felt bad that maybe he had misjudged the man.

“I can see it in his eyes, Scott. He messes up just a little bit on something and he watches every move I make when I’m talking to him about it. It’s like he’s waiting for me to hit him. I want him to know that I would never, ever treat him like that, but I will warm his backside if he needs it.”

“I’m sorry, sir. I guess I didn’t understand.”

A little smile graced the big man’s face. “It’s alright son. Scott, if you find him tomorrow, try to talk him into coming home.”

“I will, sir. Good night.”

“Goodnight son.”

*****

The livery owner looked up as Johnny and Wes entered. “Evenin’.”

“Howdy.”

“Wanna bed ’em down?”

“Just for the night,” Johnny told the man.

“That’ll be four bits. Oh ah, ya goin’ to the saloon?”

“Sure.”

“Be in advance then,” he continued as Johnny dropped the coins into his hand.

“Fine looking piece of horse flesh ya got there. He wild?”

“That’s right.”

“Think of sellin’ ‘im?”

“Oh no, uh uh, he’s not for sale,” Johnny stated.

“Give ya fifty dollars.”

“Nope.”

“Wait a minute, Johnny. How much money ya got?” Wes asked his friend.

“Oh ’bout five, six dollars.”

“Well, I ain’t got more than three. We gonna need some cash.”

“I ain’t gonna sell ‘im, Wes.”

“What ’bout the watch?” Wes asked taking it from Johnny and handing it to the livery owner.

“Kinda old.” the old man said, looking it over.

Taking it back, Johnny told him. “That ain’t for sale either.”

“Give ya ten dollars.”

“No.”

“Alright fifteen. That’ as high as I’ll go.”

“Better sell it, Johnny. Ya can’t force ‘im up no higher.”

“I ain’t tryin’.”

“Ya mean ya really don’t wanna sell it?

“That’s right.”

“I swear sometimes ya don’t make no sense. When ya ever gonna need a watch? When’s it ever gonna be worth fifteen dollars to ya to know the time? Come on, Johnny, ya ain’t never gonna need it,” Wes pushed.

Johnny looked down at the watch his father had given him that morning. It seemed like a lifetime ago with all that had happened that day. He didn’t want to sell it but Wes was right. He didn’t need a watch and he did need money. “Fifteen, huh?”

“Yep, son, that’s what I said.”

Handing it to the old man, he watched as he checked the time and smiled at it before sticking it in his pocket.

Wes turned to leave and saw Johnny staring at the watch. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothin’.”

“Then come on. Let’s start havin’ some fun.”

The Red Dog saloon was smoky, crowed and loud. Everything Johnny used to enjoy, but tonight it held no appeal. He watched as another girl plopped herself down on Wes’s knee. Ol’ Wes was having the time of his life. “Three whiskeys. Make that four,” he called out. “Ya ever seen so many hot tamales in ya life, Johnny? They got more life in ’em then those jumpin’ beans. Just like old times, huh?”

“That’s right, Wes.”

“Hey Johnny, ya alright?” Wes asked seeing the pensive expression on the boy’s face.

“Yeah, hey listen, I tell ya, I’m gonna get some air. You be alright, huh?” Johnny asked, standing to leave.

“Sure Johnny. Ol’ Wes ain’t gonna be lonesome,” he told his friend. He watched the boy leave before hollering, “Where are those whiskeys barkeep?”

Johnny leaned on the post outside the saloon. The music played loudly as men made their way inside. ‘What the hell is wrong with me? This is what I wanted. I wanted to come to town tonight. But not this way,’ he thought to himself as he stepped off the boardwalk.

*****

Murdoch sat down heavily onto the couch, his thoughts on his youngest son. The look in the boy’s eyes had devastated him. ‘How did it get so out of control, son? How could I have let you just walk out that door…out of my life? I just hope I did the right thing by you, son. We’re never going to have a relationship if you stay so scared to be near me. God, I love you, John. Please come home to us…to me.’

*****

Opening the door to the barn, Johnny looked around to be sure it was empty. He needed a quiet place to think. Think about what his life held for him now. Sliding down to sit in the empty stall, Johnny pulled his knees up to his chest and dropped his head. ‘Why didn’t I just finish that damn fence? Why did those damn cows havta find that one little hole…why did I leave? Stop foolin’ yaself, Johnny, ya know why ya left. Ya scared. Johnny Madrid ain’t scared of nobody, but Johnny Lancer sure the hell is. There, I admitted it to myself; I’m scared of my old man. Dios, Murdoch, why did ya have to tell me ya was gonna take ya belt to me? I’d a went along with the rest of it, no questions. Oh I mighta whined a little about it, but I’d a done it. But, not that. I started respectin’ ya and if ya hit me like…well, then I wouldn’t had a choice but to leave. Oh Pa, how do I know I could trust you wouldn’t do that to me?’

“John…Johnny…Johnnnny…Wooohooo, Johnnnny…wooohoo,” Wes called out in his drunken state as he staggered through the doors of the barn.

“Well, look at you,” Johnny said, going over to keep the older boy from falling to the ground.

“Oh, oh good ol’ Wes, havin’ himself a time,” Wes stuttered, pushing past

Johnny he continued. “Oh, uh, um, yeah, ok, them nows as good a time as any.”

“For what?” Johnny asked holding Wes by the jacket.

“Gonna break ‘im,” Wes mumbled, heading for the black stallions stall.

“No, no, come on,” Johnny said, pulling him back and heading him into the empty stall.

“But I wanna break ‘im, Johnny. Wanna break ‘im.”

“Break ‘im in the mornin’, ok?”

“Ya gonna be here in the mornin’, Johnny?”

“I’ll be here, Wes. Now come on,” he answered, laying Wes in the clean straw.

“Alright, break ‘im in the mornin’,” Wes said as he passed out.

Johnny looked down at his pal for a moment before standing and leaning against the rail. ‘Yeah Wes, I’ll be here in the mornin’.”

*****

“Hey Walt, see that more wire and post get over to the East Mesa,” Murdoch told the young ranch hand as he took the reins to his horse.

“Yes sir.” Walt halted beside his boss as they watched Samuel and Davy Stryker and several other men ride up.

“Lancer. Seen one of ya boys headin’ into town. Where’s the other one?” the elder Stryker asked.

“Johnny?”

“The one that shot my son.”

“He’s not here. Why?”

“My son died. Now I want your boy and I want him fast.”

“He’s gone. He’s not comin’ back,” Murdoch said, hoping that Johnny wouldn’t pick this time to come to his senses and return home.

“Ya lyin’.”

“I’ll get the boys, Mr. Lancer,” Walt said turning to leave.

“Do it,” Stryker ordered Davy, whose pistol had already been drawn. Davy aimed and fired, hitting Walt in the shoulder.

Murdoch crouched down beside the wounded boy and propped his head on his knee. Looking at Stryker, he told the man. “I want you off my land, now. Johnny left yesterday. He’s not coming back home. He didn’t want to live by my rules.”

“I don’t believe you, Lancer. I told ya that kid needed a good strappin’ and I aim to see he gets it….before I put a bullet in ‘im. We’ll be waitin’ when ya boy gets back.” Stryker said as he motioned for the men to move into position.

*****

It had been a long sleepless night for Johnny and he sat alone in the saloon, sipping a beer. Looking out the window he spotted a familiar rider heading to the livery. Cutting his eyes over to Wes, who say playing poker at a nearby table, he smile slightly. He watched as Scott walked inside and spotted him. ‘This is the last thing I needed,’ he thought. “Came a long way for nothin’, brother.”

“Then you won’t mind if I sit down for awhile,” Scott stated and sat down in the chair his little brother pushed out for him.

“No, go right ahead.”

Scott looked around the interior of the Red Dog and nodded his head. “Yes sir. I see what you mean. This is really a great life.”

“This place does pretty good at night.”

“Oh, I bet it does,” Scott said, picking up the bottle of tequila.

“Did ya get those cattle back yet?”

“No, it’ll take a couple of days.”

“What did the old man do? Let ya off for good behavior?” Johnny joked, hoping his father had sent his brother to fetch him home.

“Oh, he didn’t send me,” Scott stated and watched as his brother bowed his head. ‘He should be here himself, kid. You need him whether you want to admit it or not.’

“Oh yeah, before I forget,” Johnny said, stopping for a minute to keep his voice even. “You know that small creek on the south side? You know where it narrows there?” Seeing Scott nod, he continued, “Well there’s undergrowth been piling up. It’s gonna dam up on ya if ya don’t clear it. Reckon it’ll take ya…oh, ‘bout a week.”

“Take us a lot less time if you were there to help us. Never mind, I know — forget it. You have everything you want right here.”

“No, Scott, I got other places.”

“You know, it’s a funny thing. I was just riding through town. I never expected to find you here. I mean with all that talk about freedom. It’s a funny thing to find you jammed between these four walls,” Scott said, hoping his brother would tell him he was having second thoughts. Just anything to let him know the boy was thinking of coming home.

“Wes and I, we’re gonna take off tonight,” Johnny stated, looking over to where Wes was sitting.

“Just taking off?”

“Yeah.”

“Got any plans? I said, have you…”

Clearing his throat, Johnny said, “Yeah I heard ya.” Just don’t wanna tell ya what they are, big brother. Don’t want you disappointed in me too. “Yeah…Ah, we’re gonna head south…..Range war brewing and… well…ah we heard they were hirin’ guns,” Johnny finished, making quick eye contact with his brother.

Damn it boy. I hoped you wouldn’t go back to being Madrid if you were so determined to leave, thought Scott. “Just gonna kill time…amongst other things?”

“That’s right.” Please let it go, Boston. Don’t look at me like that.

“You’ll be dead before you’re twenty.”

“That comes to us all, don’t it, brother?”

“But when you go, you won’t even leave a small ripple.”

“That it, brother? I mean the sermon’s over, ain’t it?”

“Little brother, tell me something. Why is it you’re willing to throw the only good thing that’s ever happened to you in your life away? All for nothing.”

“It ain’t for nothing, brother, and you know that,” Johnny said, looking at the table instead of Scott.

“Why then? Tell me. I have the right to know why my little brother is so hell bent on heading off to nowhere,” Scott demanded.

“I ain’t gonna stay there and let that old man beat on me, Boston,” Johnny looked up at his brother, his deep blue eyes begging the older boy to understand. “I can’t.”

“Johnny, Murdoch is not going to beat you.” Scott sipped his drink trying to decide how much to tell his brother about the talk he and his father had the night before. “He told me he thinks you’re scared of him. Is that right?”

“I ain’t scared of nobody.”

“I think you are, little brother, and I can’t say I blame you for feeling that way. Murdoch understands why you are. That’s why he’s doing this.”

“Cause he knew it’d push me into takin’ off?” Johnny asked, his anger coming to the surface.

“No. Johnny, he wants you to know the difference. He wants you to know he’s different. Come home, brother. Give him a chance to be a father to you.”

“Not if he ain’t gonna change his mind.”

Standing, Scott stuck his hand out to his brother, hoping that maybe his words would do some good. Only time would tell now. “It was nice to have met you, brother….Good luck,” he added as he shook the boy’s hand.

Johnny watched as Scott made his way through the doors and headed back to the livery to get his horse. Shaking his head, Wes walked over to the boy. “Don’t let ‘im bother ya, Johnny.”

“Wes would ya mind leavin’ me alone for a little while?”

“Sure, Johnny. I think I’ll go out and have me that fun we talked about.”

Damnit Scott, why did ya have to come here? I was okay with leavin’ til ya showed up. How do I know ya told me is right? Did the old man really say all that? The sound of a horse squealing and a man screaming jerked him from his thoughts as he watched Wes go down under the stallion’s hooves.

*****

Johnny raced from the saloon and hopped over the corral fence, grabbing the stallion’s rope. Quickly he tied the horse off before falling to his knees beside his friend. “Wes…Oh Wes.”

“Is he dead?” the stable owner asked as he knelt beside Johnny.

“Yeah, I think so,” Johnny whispered as he checked the older boy for any sign of life.

“Somebody go get the undertaker,” the owner called out. “We’ll keep his horse. It’ll help with the buryin’.”

The stunned crowd back away from the fence as Johnny pulled his Colt and aimed it at the horse’s head. He stared into the brown eyes and knew he couldn’t pull the trigger. The horse was being a horse. It was wild and scared. Just like me, ain’t ya, fella. I’m sorry…so sorry. Dropping the gun to his side, Johnny turned to the owner. “You still want the horse? You said you’d pay fifty dollars for ‘im.”

“That was a’fore he turned killer. Best put a bullet in ‘im. He’ll always be wild.”

“Not if he has a chance he won’t. He just needs to trust ya. Know ya ain’t gonna hurt ‘im.” Just like me. “What if I broke ‘im?”

“Might be worth somethin’, but not no fifty dollars.”

“I don’t want the money.”

“What ya want then?”

“My father’s watch back.”

The owner looked into the sad blue eyes and knew that he had been right. The watch had been important to the boy. “Ya sure? That horse’ll break ya back a’fore ya get a saddle on ‘im.”

“You let me worry ’bout that. Got a deal?”

“Yeah, son. We got a deal.”

Johnny mounted the horse, making sure he was seated good and the reins were firmly in his hands. Nodding to the men to open the chute, he prepared himself for the ride. The horse bucked for all he was worth, trying his best to unseat the weight on his back. Just when Johnny thought the horse was tiring of the game and relaxed slightly, the stallion got a second wind. Unprepared for this, Johnny felt himself hit the ground. The crowd watched as the boy caught the rope and remounted. Moments later he trotted the cooperative horse around the corral. Stopping by the fence in front of the owner he patted the sweating neck. “Now ya just another horse.”

“Yeah, but now he’s of some use,” the owner commented. He waited until Johnny had cleared the fences and stood beside him. Pulling the gold watch from his pocket, he handed it to the boy. “Here’s ya watch. It means almost as much to the son to get a watch like this as it does to the Pa that’s givin’ it. You remember that, boy. Don’t let nobody talk ya into gettin’ rid of it again.”

Johnny looked into the old man’s eyes and knew the words he spoke were true. “No sir. I won’t.” Looking at the watch, he made up his mind. There would be consequences to face when he got there, but he was going to take the leap of faith and trust Murdoch. He was going home.

*****

Davy aimed his rifle at Scott as he rode into the courtyard at Lancer. His father pulled his arm back and shook his head. “Let ‘im come in, just don’t let ‘im leave.”

“Yes sir. Ya think Lancer was tellin’ the truth? Reckon that kid ain’t comin’ back?”

“Oh, he’s comin’ back. Kid’s too young to be off on his own. Lancer’s just tryin’ to protect ‘im, but it ain’t gonna work.”

“Scott, Murdoch wants to talk to you,” Theresa called out as she ran outside to meet him.

Tying off his horse, Scott asked. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

“That man. The one Johnny shot. He died, Scott.”

Running inside, Scott and Theresa joined Murdoch in the greatroom. “She tell you?” the big man asked.

“Yes. I better go get help,” Scott said. He looked at his father, wanting to tell him about his talk with Johnny. The man had looked so worried when he’d left that morning that he didn’t know how to tell him that he had failed.

“Scott, did you find Johnny?” Murdoch asked as his son turned to leave.

“Yes. I found him,” was all Scott said as he walked from the room.

*****

Johnny ran his hand over the spool of wire that sat waiting to be put up along the gully. Reaching down, he picked up the sign and turned it around. ‘Lancer Ranch’ it said. “This is my home. It’s what I always wanted. I can’t believe I almost threw it all away, Barranca.” Sticking the marker into the ground, the boy turned to his horse. “Well boy. We better enjoy this ride, ‘cause it’s gonna be a few days before I’m able to ride ya again. Oh well, I know I deserve it. Just hope Scott was tellin’ me right and the old man is only gonna warm my britches for me, like Mama use to do. I can handle that. That’s the way it should be. I’m trustin’ ya, old man; don’t let me down.” Johnny mounted his horse. “Let’s go home, compadre.”

*****

His only thought was to get help and do away with the danger that lurked around his home as Scott Lancer mounted up and headed from the yard. He felt the powerful blow to his shoulder only moments before he hit the ground as Davy Stryker’s bullet knocked him from the saddle.

*****

The sound of the rifle report caught Murdoch by surprise. Grabbing his own rifle he headed for the side door. “Theresa, you stay right there.”

“Wait. It’s Johnny,” she called out.

Murdoch rushed over and looked out the window. He watched his young son as he rode into the side yard. NO Johnny. They’ll kill you, son. Please son forgive me for what I’m about to do, but I can’t let them hurt you. “We have to keep him away from here.” Turning around, Murdoch walked across the room.

Johnny barreled around the corner as he called out to his father. “Murdoch.” He stopped short as he almost collided with him.

“How did you get in here?” Murdoch growled.

Caught off guard by the gruff question, Johnny softly said. “I heard a shot. I came around the side.”

“Who told you to come back?”

“I wanted to talk to ya,” Johnny answered searching his father’s eyes.

“I thought you did all your talking when you left. Now get out of here.” Please son leave before they find you here.

“Where is everybody?” Johnny asked. He sensed something was wrong.

“Out making up for all the work you refused to do, I suppose.”

“Something’s wrong.”

“The only thing wrong around here has always been you. Now get out while you still can.”

“Theresa?” Johnny tried as he attempted to walk past his father. He was stopped by a jerk to his arm.

“I thought I made myself clear, but in case I didn’t, listen and listen hard. I don’t need you. Not now, not ever. Now get off my land.”

His heart breaking at the hateful words, Johnny pulled free of his father’s grip. “Alright.” Searching the eyes once more for anything, anything at all that would tell him the man hadn’t meant what he’d said and finding nothing, Johnny turned to leave. He fought the tears that threatened to fall as he turned the doorknob. The sight of his brother staggering toward him, blood coating his shoulder stopped him in his tracks. “Scott.” Leading the older boy to the couch, Johnny softly spoke to him. “Come on, sit down.”

“Theresa, get some hot water and bandages,” Murdoch told the girl that hovered next to his sons.

“I’m alright,” Scott assured them. “It’s about time you brought yourself home, brother. I was getting a little tired of doing your work too.”

“What happened?” Johnny asked, ignoring the teasing tone in his brother’s word. Scott hadn’t heard the exchange between he and his father just earlier.

“It’s no concern of yours,” Murdock snapped, still hopping he could get the boy free of any confrontation with Stryker.

“Look I have a right to know.”

Theresa stopped in her tracks, turning to face her family. The words she’d heard Murdoch say had shocked her to the very bone. She knew why he was saying them but she also knew Johnny didn’t. The boy was hurting; she could see it in his eyes. No more she decided. They would face this as a family. “Sam Stryker’s boy died.”

“Theresa,” Murdoch warned.

“He has a right to know what’s going on out there and in here. He needs to know why you said what you said to him. He and his men are out front just waiting for you to come back.”

Johnny looked up at his father stunned. “That why you said what ya said?”

Looking into the deep blue eyes Murdoch nodded. “Yes son. I was only trying to get you away from them. The last thing I want is to see you hurt. Can you forgive me for what I said to you?” he asked, placing his hand on the boy’s shoulder.

“Yeah,” Johnny softly told his father. A shy smile crept across his face as he dropped his head. “Guess we got some talkin’ to do, huh?”

Tilting the boy’s chin upwards, Murdoch returned the smile. “Yes we do, son, yes we do.”

“LANCER!” The sound of Stryker’s voice carried through the house. “Listen, we know the kids in there. Send ‘im out here to me and none of ya will get hurt. I want that boy, Lancer, and I’ll get ‘im one way or the other.”

Johnny looked around the room at his family and knew that there was no way he would allow Stryker and his men to harm them any further. He felt his father’s hand on his arm as he made to walk by him. “Johnny.”

“Look, it’s my responsibility. I have a right to take care of it my own way.”

“We’ll cover you, son. Be careful,” Murdoch said as he released the boy.

Johnny peered out from the side of the barn. He could see Stryker and his men, their attention focused on the house. Easing around he dropped down behind as wagon and quickly made his way behind the water trough. He could see Murdoch and Scott when they came out, rifles firing and ran to the corral as they distracted the enemy fire.

“There he is,” Samuel Stryker growled as he caught sight of Johnny.

Wanting revenge for his brother, Davy quickly diverted his father’s aim. “No

Pa, let me take him.”

“Are you outta ya mind, boy?”

“Not as long as you’re there with that rifle, I ain’t,” Davy stated as he ran for the barn.

“DAVY!”

Johnny ran across the corral toward another water trough, just making it as he heard his name. “LANCER.” He turned in time to see Davy taking aim. Madrid stepped in, his aim fast and true as the bullet struck the other boy in the shoulder.

“PA…PA…GET ‘EM, PA!” Davy yelled as Johnny rushed to where he lay, dodging bullets as he went.

Grabbing the boy up in front of him and placing the cold hard steel next to his temple, Johnny called out. “STRYKER! Ya lost one boy, ya wanna try for another?” Seeing he had the man where he wanted him, he continued, “Tell ya men to drop their guns.”

Sam Stryker looked at his injured son and at the boy he hated so desperately. “Drop ’em.”

“Now get on ya horses and get out.” Waiting until they were all mounted,

Johnny pushed the gun harder against Davy’s head.

“What are ya gonna do?” the scared man squeaked out.

“Johnny.” The warning in that one word was all it took. Johnny looked over at his father, their eyes locking before he slowly lowered the gun and pushed the boy away from him.

Murdoch walked over to where his son stood, slumped against the side of the barn. Tilting the bowed head up to look into his eyes he asked. “Are you alright? You’re not hit are you?”

“No sir, I’m fine.” Looking over to the patio, Johnny pushed off the wall. “But ol’ Boston don’t look so good.” The blood on his brother’s shirt had more than tripled in the gunfight. “Best get him inside and get that shoulder looked at.”

Placing his arm around his young son’s shoulders, Murdoch led him toward the house. “You said you wanted to talk to me when you first got here. Does that mean you’re back to stay son?”

“Yes sir…I guess we got some settlin’ up to do, don’t we?”

Murdoch watched the boy as he looked down, playing with the conchs on his pant’s leg. Reaching out to the boy, he pulled him to his chest, his strong arms circling the boy. “Come on son, let’s get your brother taken care of and have dinner, then we’ll talk. We’ll get through this, I promise.”

Johnny looked up at his father, astonished by the display of affection. For the first time he could remember, he could see the love for him in the man’s eyes. “Yes sir. I believe we will,” he whispered.

*****

Scott watched as Johnny pushed the food around his plate. The boy had told him earlier that he and Murdoch were going to as he put it ‘settle the score’ after dinner that night. He could tell the boy was nervous all afternoon. The one thing that gave it away more than anything was his not eating. The boy was always hungry, eating more than most men twice his size. To see him take no more than a couple of bites was breaking Scott’s heart. He almost wished Murdoch had put an end to this earlier so the boy could have put it behind him. But then again, he knew why his father was waiting. Murdoch had no plans of confining Johnny to his room but guessed the boy wouldn’t want to be around anyone for awhile. He would be embarrassed and more than a little uncomfortable and by waiting until night, Johnny could go on to bed if he chose to. Glancing over to Murdoch’s plate, he could see that Johnny wasn’t the only one picking at his food. “Hey little brother, you better be eating some of that food on your plate. I believe Maria made peach pie for desert.”

Cutting his eyes up, Johnny looked at his brother through his bangs. Looking back down at his plate, he laid the fork down. “If ya don’t mind, think I’ll go out and check on Barranca.”

“Sure son, go ahead,” Murdoch said, laying his fork down also. “Ah…I’ll call you in shortly.”

Scott waited until he heard the door close. “Sir?”

“Don’t, Scott. This is hard enough on Johnny and me as it is. Don’t make it any worse.” Murdoch looked over at his eldest and noticed that he was staring at the table. Laying a hand over the boys, he waited until Scott looked up. “I’m sorry, son. I didn’t mean to snap at you, but I’m dreading this almost as much as your brother is.”

“I understand sir, but can I give you a suggestion?”

“Sure, son, go ahead.”

“Go on and get it over with. That boy didn’t touch his dinner and he looks about ready to bolt.”

“He’s not going anywhere,” Murdoch said, wiping his mouth with his napkin. “But you are right. We need to put this behind us and it’s not fair to keep him waiting any longer.”

Seeing his father rise, Scott stood. “Sir, would you mind if I talked to him first. I’ll send him in.”

“You should be resting, son.”

“I’ll rest after I talk to Johnny. I need to do this, sir.”

“Fine, but don’t take long. You don’t need to be in that barn with that wound.”

“Yes sir.”

*****

Scott opened the barn door and stepped inside. He couldn’t see his brother but he could hear him softly talking. Barranca stood as still as a statue in his stall and it only took a moment for Scott to realize it was due to the arms that encircled his neck. The picture of a dark little boy with big blue eyes and raven black hair came to mind, as Scott thought of that little boy holding on tight to a teddy bear. His brother was so many different things all rolled up into one package. He was cold, hard and dangerous when facing down another gun, yet he was kind, gentle and compassionate when dealing with someone or something that had been hurt or was in need of help. But at the same time, he was just a kid when he would slide down the banister, or jump on the furniture, or pull pranks on them all. Right now? He asked himself. Right now he was that kid and a very scared one at that. He needed his big brother to step in and try to make it right in his world, whether he knew it or not.

“Ya gonna just stand there an’ daydream all night, Boston?”

Snapping out of his thoughts, Scott smiled at the boy that was peeking over his horse’s back.

“No, just didn’t want to startle you. You have a habit of letting me check to see if your barrel is clean enough or not, if I do,” Scott chuckled.

“So?”

“So…what?”

“So, why ya out here? Ain’t ya supposed to be resting?” Johnny asked as he brushed the golden stallion.

“Oh, I will later. I kinda wanted to talk to you for a minute first.”

“Bout what?”

Scott looked at the boy closely and could see that his normally steady hands shook slightly. “Are you going to be alright with this?”

“Yeah, guess so.” Johnny stopped brushing the horse and turned to his brother. “Scott?”

“Yeah?”

“Do you…do you trust Murdoch?”

“Yes I do. He’s never proved to be anything but a man of his word…..Do you trust him?”

“See, that’s just it, Scott. I don’t trust easy and I’m putting all my trust on him tonight.”

Reality sank in for Scott Lancer as he stared at the boy in front of him. “You’re not scared of the physical part of this are you? You’re scared Murdoch’s going to let you down. Aren’t you?”

“Yeah, guess I am. Don’t get me wrong, ’cause I sure ain’t lookin’ forward to havin’ this little discussion with ‘im, but if he’s lyin’ to me Scott… Well, then I ain’t got nothin’ here. Not with him anyway.”

Scott put his good arm around his brother and pulled the boy close to his side. “I don’t think you have a thing to worry about on that count, little brother. Do you trust me?”

Looking up at the big brother he had always dreamed of having, Johnny nodded. “Yeah, with my life.”

“Then trust me on this. Our father is dreading this as much as you are.”

“We can always forget ’bout it. Won’t hurt my feelin’s none.”

“I’m afraid that won’t happen, boy,” Scott said ruffling his hair. “Well, are you ready to get this over with, so you both can move on?”

“I ain’t ever gonna be ready for it, but might as well let ‘er buck.”

*****

The walk across the courtyard to the house took longer than Johnny ever remembered it taking. Scott’s arm around his shoulder was the source of strength he needed to keep him going. Taking a deep breath and blowing it out slowly, he turned the knob and opened the door.

Murdoch looked up from his desk and watched his boys enter the house. He wasn’t sure, but Johnny looked to be a little more relaxed now than he was when he’d left for the barn. Standing, he walked over and joined them.

Scott gave one final squeeze to Johnny’s arm before releasing him. “I think I’ll just stay down here and have a drink, maybe pick out a book to read.”

“Come on, son, let’s go to your room,” Murdoch said placing his hand on the boy’s back and guiding him to the stairs.

Scott watched them disappear before turning to find Theresa standing by the fireplace. He took her hand and led her to the couch. “I thought you’d be in bed by now.”

“Oh Scott, I wish Murdoch wouldn’t do this.”

“It’ll be alright. They’ll get through this.”

“But…”

“Theresa, you remember last week when Tad Wilkes’s father dragged him from the saloon?”

“Yes.” Theresa giggled remembering how mad her friend’s father was that day.

“What did Tad tell you after church the next day?”

“That his father had tanned him.”

Seeing the understanding in her eyes, he smiled. “He’s what, seventeen?”

“Yes he is, but Scott he hasn’t had the kind of life Johnny has.”

“No he hasn’t. He’s had a normal life, which is what we want for Johnny from now on, isn’t it?”

Theresa nodded. “I see. I just hope Johnny will accept it.”

*****

Murdoch closed the door of Johnny’s room and watched as the boy walked over by the window. Taking a deep breath, he steeled himself for what was to come. “John, please sit down,” he requested, motioning to the bed.

Johnny sat down and stared at the rug. Get it over with, will ya, old man. He chanced a look at his father and watched as the man pulled the chair from his desk over to sit in front of him. Might as well go for it. “Can I say somethin’?”

“Sure, son.”

“Ah, I’m sorry for takin’ off like I did after that stallion. I know I shoulda kept on workin’. I cost the ranch alot of time and I wanted ya to know it won’t happen again. I’ll finish my jobs from now on.”

“I’m glad you understand what you did was wrong. Well, should I say the wrong time to do it. John, I know it’s been hard on you. This life is so opposite of what you’re use to and I don’t expect you to be perfect. You’re young and you’re going to make mistakes. But I want you to understand that as your father, it’s my job to point those mistakes out to you. So that you don’t do them again…or at least not as often.”

“Yes sir.”

“Do you understand why I’m punishing you, son?”

“Cause I messed up.”

Murdoch fought a smile. “Well, yes, you did mess up, but do you know the reason I’m doing this and not just looking the other way?”

Johnny shrugged his shoulders.

“That’s not an answer, young man.”

Johnny looked up at the stern words. “Ah no, not really.”

“Ok, answer me this. If I had let you get away with what happened, do you think you would do it again?”

Johnny thought on what his father had just said before nodding his head. “Yeah, guess so.”

“I have to be able to depend on you to do what I tell you to do son. If not, it could be something a whole lot worse the next time. Not just fifty head of cattle in a sand gully. Now do you understand?”

“Yeah, guess I do.”

“John, I want to ask you something and I would like an honest answer.” Receiving a nod, he continued. “Are you scared of me, son?”

Johnny dropped his head, not meeting his father’s eyes. Shaking his head and knowing the answer, Murdoch reached out and tilted the boys chin up. “Please answer me, John.”

“Kinda.”

“Why?”

“Look, Murdoch, I really don’t wanna talk ’bout all that right now,” Johnny said, easing out of his father’s grasp.

“Alright, but will you promise me something?”

“What?”

“That when you’re ready, you will talk to me or Scott about it?”

“Yes sir, promise.”

“Do you have any questions for me before we finish this?”

“Just one.” Johnny bit his lower lip, then cocked his head to the side and looked at his father. “Just what ya gonna do to me?”

“Well, as you remember I told you that you would be restricted to the ranch for the next two weeks and you’ll have a long list of chores to do along with your normal ones. I’m also going to tan you, son.” Murdoch said and watched for the boy’s reaction. He could see the boy was fighting for all he was worth not to bolt from the room. Laying his hand on his son’s knee, he was startled when Johnny jerked his leg away. “Son, are you alright?”

“Yeah.”

“Johnny, look at me.” When the boy’s eyes met his, Murdoch’s heart shattered at the fear and hurt in them. “Listen to me, I know from reading the Pinkerton reports some of the things that happened to you and I want you to understand that never will I ever hurt you like that, son. If I tell you I’m going to tan you, that’s all I’ll do. The only place my belt will ever touch you is across you’re backside.”

“You promise?” Johnny softly asked.

“Promise. You do trust me, don’t you?”

“Yeah. You always keep ya promises.”

Smiling, Murdoch touch the boy’s cheek with his palm. “That’s right, son. I always keep my promises.” With a deep sigh, Murdoch stood. “Are you ready to put this behind us, son?”

Johnny stood. “Yeah, guess so.”

Pulling the belt from the loops of his trousers and folding it double, Murdoch looked around the room. “Just place your hands on the top of your dresser son and please hold still ’til I tell you, you can move.”

Johnny walked over to the dresser and leaned forward, his hands firmly on the smooth wooden top. Closing his eyes, he braced himself for the first lick. He felt Murdoch move closer to him and lay his left hand on his back. Moments later, he was shocked as the first stinging swat landed hard across his bottom. Before he could recover, the belt connected three more times. It didn’t take long for it to become difficult to hold still. Dios, old man, that hurts.

Murdoch felt the boy shift slightly after several swats. “John, hold still, son.” Raising the belt, he brought it down and felt the boy shift once more. Stepping closer to his son, Murdoch wrapped his arm around the boy pulling him closer to him to hold him in place. The last thing he wanted was for the boy to move at just the wrong time causing him to miss. He heard a soft whimper as the belt connected for the twelfth time.

“Please…stop.” Johnny softly told his father.

“We’re not done yet, son. I want to be sure you understand that your behavior was unacceptable,” Murdoch said, swatting him again.

“I’m sorry… I won’t do it again… please stop,” Johnny said, as he fought the tears that were building.

Murdoch could hear the quiver to the soft plea and blinked away his own tears. Bringing the belt down three more times, he stopped and tossed it onto the bed. He looked at Johnny, who hadn’t moved and remembered that he’d told the boy to stay in position until he told him it was alright. Pulling the boy up, he gathered him to his chest. “Are you ok?”

Johnny nodded his head against his father’s chest, not trusting his voice just yet. The strong arms felt so safe. This was the second time that day the man had hugged him. He kept his promise. He didn’t beat me. I can trust him. Murdoch held his son tight, his cheek resting against the dark head. It wasn’t long before he felt the boys arms tighten around his waist. “You kept your promise.”

“I always do, son. I love you and I will do everything in my power to make sure nothing ever hurts you again.”

“I love ya too….Pa.”

*****

Scott had sent Theresa on off to bed after making sure she was alright. Sitting on the couch, he tried hard to concentrate on the book he’d chosen. It was so quiet in the house that it was almost deafening. After reading the same passage for the third time, Scott slammed the book closed and stood to replace it on the shelf. He kept glancing at the stairs wondering if he should head on off to bed, or should he wait for his father to return…or his little brother to storm out. No, Johnny would see this through, if for no other reason than to prove to himself that he could trust Murdoch. That he was finally home, where he should have been his whole life. Where they both should have been, Scott reminded himself. He wondered what was going on his little brother’s room. Were they still talking, had Johnny persuaded the older man to let it slide this time? The sound that cut through the room was Scott’s answer and he cringed as he heard the same sound repeated. Mentally, he counted each and every lick he heard and knew Johnny was going be feeling this for days to come. Twenty. He had counted the sound twenty times, now…silence, again.

*****

Murdoch pulled Johnny back, still holding onto his arms. “John…come on son, look at me.” When the boy looked up, Murdoch smiled, “Are you alright, now?”

A crooked smile caused the boy to duck his head. “Well, most of me is anyways.”

Chuckling, Murdoch hugged the boy again before turning him loose. “I’m not confining you to your room tonight, but you can stay up here if you’d like.”

“Think I will. I am kinda tired, probably just head on to bed.”

“Ok son, I’ll see you in the morning. Good night.”

“Night….Oh hey Murdoch, could ya tell Boston I’ll see ‘im in the mornin’.”

“What makes you think your brother isn’t already in bed?”

“Cause I know my big brother. He’s waitin’ downstairs to make sure ya alright, or that I don’t go runnin’ off.”

“You’re right, son, he most likely is. I’ll tell him.”

Johnny watched the door close. Taking a deep breath, he walked over to the dresser and splashed some cool water on his face. He smiled a little, thinking about his father. That’s who the man was, who he’d proven himself to be. And it felt good, real good, he thought to himself as he walked over to his bed. Unbuttoning his shirt, he let it slide off his shoulders and laid it across the chair that still sat where Murdoch had placed it. A yawn escaped him as he stretched. Yes, bed sounded real good. Plopping down on the bed to remove his boots, he quickly remembered why that chair had been there in the first place. “OUCH!” he yelled as he quickly stood, rubbing his backside. ‘Madre de Dios, that man can sure light a fire on ya. Gotta remember not to do that again.’ Slowly he toed off one boot and pulled the other off still standing. Slipping out of his pants, Johnny crawled face down beneath the sheets and within minutes was sound asleep.

Murdoch smiled as he heard Johnny call out just moments after hearing the bed springs creak. ‘Got to remember not to do that too soon, son.’ Walking down the stairs, he shook his head. Johnny had been right. Scott was sitting on the couch starring into the fire. “I see you’re still up.”

Scott looked over his shoulder at his father and tried to judge the man’s expression. He looked…happy? “Yes sir, wasn’t sure if you’d want to talk…or if Johnny would.”

“Johnny said to tell you he see you in the morning.”

“He alright?”

“Yes son, he’s just fine.”

“And you?”

“I’m fine too. He trusts me now. Everything is going to be just fine with this family now.”

“That’s wonderful, sir.”

“But?” Murdoch asked, seeing there was more on the boys mind.

“But…weren’t you a little hard on him. I mean I couldn’t help but hearing that all the way down here.”

“No I wasn’t. Oh, Johnny’s going to be a mite sore for a few days, but he’ll survive it.”

“I guess I have a hard time understanding the reasoning behind it.”

“This is a hard country, Scott, and knowing right from wrong can mean your life. It’s a father’s job to teach that. Do you know Jimmy Carlson?”

“Yes sir, he’s Fred Carlson’s son, isn’t he?”

“That’s right. Fred found out the boy had been practicing his fast draw, trying to build a reputation around town. He had a session in the barn with Fred’s razor strap when his Pa found out, and that young man let go of that notion real quick. That could have gotten him killed,” Murdoch explained and waited for the question he knew would come.

Scott shook his head thinking about what his father had said. That was dangerous and he understood why the man had punished his son. Then it hit him. “Wait a minute, isn’t Jimmy my age?”

Murdoch laid his hand on Scott’s shoulder and fought to hide his grin at the look on the boys face. “That’s right, he is. In fact, he’s about eight months older than you.”

“But…”

“Goodnight, Scott,” Murdoch said, as he walked from the greatroom, leaving his son standing open mouthed.

As was usual, Scott was the second one up. He heard his father in the next room, shaving he guessed. An evil grin lit his face as he quietly opened Johnny’s bedroom door. He could see only his brother’s dark head sticking from under the covers. Checking to make sure the boy was still on his stomach, Scott eased the book Johnny was reading from the nightstand. Raising it up, he quickly popped his little brother on his sore backside.

“OWW, Boston, I’m gonna kill ya for that!” Johnny yelled rubbing his bottom, as Scott collapsed into a fit of a laughter in the chair.

In the room across the hall, Murdoch Lancer smiled. Boys. Thank God for them.

TWO WEEKS LATER

Murdoch rode out the east pasture to find his youngest son. Things were going so much better between them now. The boy hadn’t shown up at home with the rest of the crew and he knew it was because he still felt guilty about leaving his job undone that day. Spotting Johnny hard at it, he rode up and dismounted. “Hey, missed you when the rest of the crew came in.”

“Yeah, well I figured I skip chow. Get a jump on the job.”

“Nice day.”

“Yeah.”

“I saw a stand of wild horses out by the Black Mesa this morning. How much longer you think you’re gonna be working here?”

“I’m just gonna lay out a string line. Keep the crew busy ‘til dark.”

“Good thinking. You know a man’s life can be laid out like a row of postholes. Sometimes maybe that’s not all good. Maybe there’s a time a man has to listen to a far away train whistle. Kinda break the pattern. Maybe sometimes the most important thing is to go out after a wild horse.”

“Out by Black Mesa?” Johnny asked.

“’Bout forty, nears I can figure. No telling how long they’ll be there. You know how a wild horse can move on.”

“Yeah a wild horse can really move fast when he’s got a mind too.”

Murdoch smiled at his baby boy and was rewarded with one back. Leaping onto their horses, father and son set off to chase a wild horse.

***The End***

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