Word count 4,715
DISCLAIMER: Although I’ve held these characters in my mind and heart for over 30 years, they are not legally mine. They belong to the copyright holders of the television western series Lancer. My story was written purely for entertainment purposes; no monetary payment is intended or received.
It shouldn’t have mattered. His father was right; the past was done and couldn’t be changed. And the truth of his mother’s departure from Lancer as told to him by his father’s ward, Teresa O’Brien, had killed any hatred for his father Johnny had harbored out of love for his mother. So, the here and now was all that should matter. Living for today was how Johnny Madrid Lancer had survived his whole life. So, it shouldn’t matter, he told himself over and over.
But, it did.
The clock chiming the hour broke into Johnny’s thoughts. He stared at it while it counted off the hour, before it resumed its soft ‘tick-tock.’ Usually, the measured cadence had a calming effect on him, but not tonight. It was her clock—Catherine Garrett Lancer, who was his father’s first wife, and mother of Johnny’s older brother, Scott. Most often, Johnny’s thoughts of Catherine Lancer were warm, because he was grateful for the gift of his brother. For some time now, though, he’d found himself angry at the mere thought of her. Johnny closed his eyes and willed himself to think of something else—anything else. But, it was no use. The clock was all he could hear. It seemed to be mocking him. When it chimed quarter past the hour, Johnny angrily arose from the sofa and went outside, leaving his family staring after him.
“He still hasn’t said anything to either of you?” Murdock Lancer asked his son and ward. Concern surrounded his words.
“No, sir. Not a word. I checked with Val. Johnny hasn’t spoken to him, either. Val checked around. As far as he was able to determine, there’s no trouble involving Johnny,” Scott replied. Val was the local sheriff and a good friend of Johnny’s. Johnny had a reputation as a gunfighter under the name of “Johnny Madrid,” so Val had checked to see if anyone was causing trouble for the young man because of his past, but nothing had turned up.
“What about Sam?” Murdock asked, with some dread, speaking of the local doctor, Sam Jenkins.
“He hasn’t seen Johnny professionally since Johnny recovered from those cracked ribs a couple of months ago. Sam said it’s a record,” Scott smiled wanly at his father.
But, Murdock was not in a joking mood. “There’s got to be something we’re missing!” Murdock exclaimed in exasperation. “But what? Any ideas?”
“Nothing beyond the obvious that we’ve already checked,” Scott replied.
“Something—or someone—has badly hurt him,” Teresa spoke up quietly. Her eyes locked with Murdock’s, then Scott eyed Murdock thoughtfully.
Murdock met their gazes with a steady one of his own. “I don’t blame you. Johnny and I have had our problems. I only wish it was that simple this time. The truth is, though, we’ve been doing much better together lately.”
Scott looked abashed. “I’m sorry, Murdock. I know you’ve been trying; Johnny, too. I guess we’re just grasping at straws.”
“I’m sorry, too, Murdock,” Teresa said. “It’s just that I’m so worried. Just now, for awhile, he looked so….lost….just before he got angry and left. Has he gotten any mail that may have upset him?”
Teresa knew Murdock saw all correspondence coming to the ranch before giving it to the recipient. Even when Scott or Johnny brought the mail from town, they never went through it. Instead, they waited until Murdock had sorted through it.
“He’s never received anything since he’s been here that I know of,” Murdock replied.
“What did Jelly have to say, or have you talked with him yet?” Scott asked.
Murdock harrumphed. “Jelly guards Johnny’s privacy more than Johnny does. All he would say is that Johnny had been madder than a wet hen and that he knew how to take a hint if no one else did. It seems the only one Johnny has had a kind word for lately is Maria—and Barranca. But, Maria told me he hasn’t said anything to her, either, even though she came right out and asked him what was wrong.”
“Maybe it would help if we could pinpoint when it seems to have started,” Scott suggested.
They were all silent for a bit while they thought back. Finally, Teresa said, “Thanksgiving, or about then.”
“I don’t know,” Murdock objected. “I thought it was closer to Christmas. Johnny was upset at Thanksgiving, but that was because he didn’t understand about the holiday. After Scott explained it to him, I thought he was okay with it and seemed to enjoy it.”
“Yes, so did I. But, Teresa is right. It was about that same time,” Scott said. “Johnny liked the idea of Thanksgiving. I remember him telling me he always had set aside at least one day a year to give thanks and it may as well be Thanksgiving this year. He didn’t like the idea of the fancy meal and getting dressed up, though. After I convinced him a few hours in a suit wasn’t going to kill him, he seemed happy enough. But, I remember now that he was very upset at dinner and afterward that day. The next day, though, he seemed fine.”
“Something must have happened just after, though,” Teresa insisted. “Because, by Christmas Johnny was already upset over something. Before then, he had told me he was looking forward to Christmas because he had never really celebrated it that much before, even though he remembered that his mother loved Christmas. But, then, his attitude changed. He tried to enjoy Christmas, but I could see something was wrong. When he was helping put ornaments and things away in the attic, he said he’d be happy if he never saw any of them again. I thought at first he was joking about how much of it there was, but when I looked at him, I could see he was serious.” It was plain Teresa was at a loss to understand what had transpired to upset Johnny so much.
“The last couple of days he’s been more than upset; he’s been downright angry,” Scott noted.
“Yes,” Murdock agreed. “Did anything happen to Johnny in the last couple of days that either of you know of?”
“You’d know that better than I would,” Scott responded. “You had him helping to translate that letter from Senor Garcia, remember?”
Murdock looked disappointed. He could think of nothing that should have upset Johnny about that. “Yes, I remember. That couldn’t be it, then.” He looked thoughtful for a moment. “Unless….” Murdock strode purposefully over to his desk. Bending over, he pulled at the bottom right drawer, but it didn’t open. He removed his watch from his pocket and separated a key from its fob, unlocking the drawer and sliding it open. The Pinkerton file on Johnny lay undisturbed as far as he could tell. “I thought maybe I’d left this unlocked and Johnny had seen the report.”
“Would that be so bad? After all, he has to suspect you have a report on him and that you’ve read it. You still sent for him and made him a partner, so why should what’s in the report matter to Johnny after all this time?” Scott asked.
“It shouldn’t,” Murdock agreed. “But, I don’t know. It’s one thing to know something exists, and another to have it in front of you in black-and-white. If he saw it…. I don’t know why I even keep it,” Murdock said, laying the file on the desktop.
“Me either,” Scott replied. “Why not burn it? It’s not like it’s a piece of jewelry or a picture or some such that you’d keep because it’s valuable, or for sentimental reasons,” Scott pointed out.
Murdock’s eyes widened and he said, “Picture! Of course! That’s got to be it!” Scott and Teresa watched in curiosity as Murdock pulled out the center drawer of the desk and rummaged through it. “It’s not here,” he finally said, pulling out a framed picture. “This is a picture of your mother, Scott,” Murdock offered the frame to his son. Scott and Teresa looked at the figure of a young Catherine Garrett Lancer, sitting poised and beautiful, a smile on her face. Scott handed the picture back to Murdock. “There was one of Maria, too. It’s gone. Johnny must have seen it and taken it.”
“I can see how the picture might have upset him, but why would he be angry because of it?” Scott asked, perplexed.
“I’m not sure, but I think it’s time I found out,” Murdock answered.
Teresa put a hand on Murdock’s arm, staying him as he moved from behind the desk to go in search of Johnny. “Murdock, remember. Johnny loves her very much.”
Murdock smiled at her reassuringly. “I know, sweetheart.”
Murdock paused outside the door to the stable to take a moment to prepare himself to have a conversation about Maria with their son. He had no doubt now that Maria was the reason Johnny was so upset. But, what about Maria had upset him? Murdock couldn’t know.
His Maria. Murdock always thought of her that way, even after she had betrayed him and left with another man, taking Johnny with her. He remembered the first time he had seen her. She had been dancing—her skirt held above her knees with one hand, with the other arm arched over her head as her fingers snapped time to the furious tempo of the music. Her black silky shiny hair was down, her eyes with their thick long lashes were flashing in challenge to the watchers, the heels of her shoes tapping in wild perfect time to the rhythm of the dance. She had large, slanting dark eyes and high cheekbones. Even though her smile was luminous, ageless, there was a defiant air about her, the wildness of which penetrated the hard shell Murdock had built around his heart following the death in childbirth of his beloved Catherine and the loss of his son to Catherine’s father in Boston.
Murdock had decided then and there he had to have the lovely creature. She had made it easy, letting him escort her home that evening and insisting he stay with her. He’d been unable to resist what she so freely offered. He’d stayed in Matamoros longer than his reason for being there required, and he’d stayed with the fiery little Mexican girl longer than he should have, too. He knew now that Maria had seen in him the chance to escape the hopeless life and poverty that would have been hers in Matamoros. On his second trip to Matamoros, when he’d gone there to let Maria know he was going to Boston to try to get Scott back, he found, instead, that Maria was pregnant. There was a very real danger then, and now, too, Murdoch sadly admitted, that Maria and his child would both be killed when it was discovered the child was that of a gringo. Instead of going to Boston, Murdoch had married Maria and he had brought her to California, back to Lancer. Theirs had never been a half-way relationship; it was all or nothing, with many fights between them. He had thought Johnny’s birth would have a settling affect on his young wife, but, sadly, that was not the case. In the end, he lost both Maria and Johnny. Now, he had Johnny back and was determined to not make the same mistakes over again.
Johnny was a lot like Maria. Murdock had immediately noticed the similarity in temperament, remarking to his son at their first meeting that he had his mother’s temper. The two of them had nearly come to blows on a couple of occasions, with Murdock and Scott having to manhandle Johnny on one occasion before they could calm him down. Murdoch had been unable to get Johnny to listen to reason then, and he had briefly lost his son. Johnny had ridden out angry and at odds with Murdock. The incident had given Murdock a brief glimpse of Johnny’s complex personality, though, and he’d been working hard to learn more. Maria had been like that, too—fiery and complex. He had hoped for a lifetime to get to know her, but it was not to be. He hoped for better luck with Johnny, but Johnny was suspicious of so much—still unable to trust Murdock, or anyone else, without reservation, a legacy from Maria’s lies. That suspicion had kept him alive as Johnny Madrid, and so Murdock was grateful, but also hopeful that one day that would change. Murdock was certain that Johnny wanted to stay here at Lancer, though. So, he was determined to find out the problem and work it out with his son, no matter what. Still feeling unprepared, but resolute in his determination, Murdock opened the stable door and stepped inside.
“Hey, Murdock,” Johnny called softly from Barranca’s stall, without looking up from where he was currying the golden steed. Being with Barranca had calmed Johnny, as it always did. A love of horses was another trait Johnny shared with his mother.
“Son,” Murdock responded, coming over to rest his arms on the stall door. “Your mother used to look for something to do with her hands, too, when she was upset or angry.”
Johnny’s shoulders tensed at the mention of his mother, his hands stopping their rhythmic motion. Barranca stamped a foot, irritated at the interruption of the soft strokes. Both men smiled at the antics of the horse, and Johnny resumed the light pull of the brush. “Yeah? Like what?” he asked without looking at his father.
“Usually throwing things—most of them at me!” Murdock laughed softly.
“Sounds like you didn’t mind too much,” Johnny ventured a look at his father. There was a smile on Murdock’s face.
“No, not usually,” Murdock replied softly, thinking of how his fights with Maria usually ended.
“Did you love her?” Johnny asked softly, stopping the brushing again, intent on the answer but still not looking at Murdoch.
Murdoch pushed open the stall door. “Johnny, come out here a moment.” It wasn’t quite an order, but Murdoch’s voice always carried an certain amount of authority in it. This time was no different. Johnny hesitated a moment, then put the brush on a sill in the stall and stepped outside the stall to join his father. He stuffed his hands inside the waistband of his pants and stood with head bowed, looking for all the world, to Murdoch, as though he expected to hear the worst.
“Johnny, look at me,” Murdoch said, again sounding as if he expected to be obeyed. When he wasn’t, he repeated, “Son, please look at me.” There was a note of pleading this time that Johnny responded to, lifting his head to meet Murdoch’s eyes. “I’m not sure what Maria told you. We’ve never discussed it. I guess that’s my fault. But, know this, son. I loved your mother—and you—very much. I searched for you both until it was too painful to continue, then, I searched again. I never gave up. Never. Because I loved the two of you. You have to believe that, Johnny,” Murdock stated.
Johnny stepped away from his father a few paces then swiftly turned back to face him again. “Then why isn’t there anything of hers in the house? There’s only a picture and it was stuck in a drawer out of sight,” Johnny demanded. He was deeply hurt. It was there in his eyes, as they bored into Murdock’s, demanding an explanation that not only would satisfy, but would ease the pain. “Everything is Catherine’s. The plates and silver we used at Thanksgiving and Christmas. The ornaments. Everything. That damned clock. All Catherine’s. Nothing of Mama’s. Why Murdock? Is that why Mama left, because of all the reminders of Catherine and how much you loved her?”
Murdock was stunned. He’d never dreamed Catherine’s things being in the house and used for special occasions was the reason for Johnny’s anger. And now, he wondered, was Catherine the reason Maria had left? He shook his head. “I can’t tell you what I don’t know, son. I was away, in Boston trying to get Scott from his grandfather, when your mother left with you. She didn’t leave a note, so I don’t know why. If I did, I’d tell you. But, I can’t tell what I don’t know, son.”
Johnny took several deep breaths, trying to control his emotions, then nodded, knowing in his heart Murdock spoke the truth. “But that don’t explain why you don’t have nothing of Mama’s in the house,” he accused, unwilling to accept Murdoch’s declaration of love for Maria without some semblance of proof.
Murdoch decided some explanation was in order. “I met your mother in Matamoros. The first time I saw her she was dancing and I couldn’t keep my eyes off of her. I knew then that my heart hadn’t died with Catherine. Others were watching her, too, like moths to a flame. A couple of them tried to grab her after her dance, and I waded in to help her. We spent the rest of the evening together. What happened after was wrong, but I’ve never regretted it, or the consequences. I loved her, and couldn’t bear to think of her homeless and alone, carrying my child. We got married and came to California, back to Lancer, where our mixed marriage was more acceptable. I finally felt I had something to live and fight for again, so I went about building Lancer into an empire for my children, because I had every intention of fighting for Scott, then, too. I didn’t have much to offer your mother then; only my love and what there was of this ranch then. Your mother had even less; nothing, really, from her previous life. When she left, there was nothing to leave behind.” Murdock looked at his son, trying to gauge his reaction to what had transpired all those years ago.
Johnny was thoughtful for a few moments, then said, “So, you’re saying all the things of Catherine’s are things she brought with her from Boston and my mother had nothing?”
Murdock nodded. “Catherine’s parents sent most of it by ship after we settled here in the valley. There are other things of hers, too, packed away. Mostly clothes, though.” He smiled at Johnny, then said, “You’re wrong about your mother not having anything in the house, though, son.”
Johnny stared at Murdock, surprised. “You just said….”
Murdock held up a hand, and Johnny stopped. “Let me explain,” Murdock said. “When Catherine and I got here, we saw this valley and knew it was where we wanted to settle and raise our family. We located maps and staked claims. We still didn’t have full title to a lot of the claims when Catherine announced she was with child. So, we put off the plans for starting the herds until after the child would be born, concentrating instead on clearing and fencing pastures, building barns and other outbuildings, and making changes to this house. You know about the land wars that were going on then and what happened to Catherine.” It wasn’t a question, but Johnny nodded. “I didn’t start the herds until I came back here with your mother. By then, I had met Paul O’Brien and we got some drovers together and procured some cattle. But, we needed to register a brand. Your mother had a fine talent for drawing. I hope you know that.” Again, Johnny nodded, remembering his mother and how she’d taught him. “She’s the one who designed the Lancer brand. While I was away getting it registered, she had it cast. That’s it hanging on the wall in the Great Room.”
Johnny was silent, his mind seeing his mother drawing the brand. He had been drawn to it early in his return to Lancer. “She did that?” he finally asked, in awe.
“Yes, son, she did,” Murdock replied. Johnny drew his lower lip in, obviously needing to ask something else. “What is it, son?”
Johnny drew in a breath, letting it out slowly. “Why did you hide her picture in the drawer?”
“I don’t really expect you to understand, but I’ll try to explain,” Murdock said. “You saw Catherine’s picture there, too, didn’t you?” Johnny nodded. “Johnny, I’ve loved two women—both lost to me under different circumstances, but still gone. Sometimes I need to look at their pictures to remember what they looked like, but when I do, I hurt again at the reminder that they are gone from me forever. When your mother came here, I put Catherine’s picture away so as not to remind Maria of her. Then, when your mother left me, I put her picture away, too, because it hurt too much to look at it—because I loved her, Johnny. So, for many years now, the pictures have been in the drawer, where I could pull them out and look at them when I needed that—their birthdays, our anniversaries, yours and Scott’s birthdays, and other special days. Can you understand that, Johnny?”
Johnny nodded. “I guess so.”
“I haven’t felt the need to look at the pictures since the day you and Scott first came home. You both remind me so very much of your mothers,” Murdock said, his voice soft as he thought of his wives. Johnny looked away, remembering Murdock’s words that first day—“You’ve got your mother’s temper.” Murdock wondered what he had said that was wrong, then he, too, remembered his ill-spoken words that day. He touched Johnny’s arm, and Johnny looked back at his father. “That’s not a bad thing, Johnny. I’m sorry for my words that first day. It’s true that Maria had a temper, and you have it, too. But, believe it or not, it was one of the things I loved about her.”
“It’s just that you hardly ever mention her. And, when you do, you seem angry with her—and me. I thought maybe that’s why we’ve had such a hard time together—because I remind you of her too much and, maybe, deep down, you never loved her. Then, there’s nothing of hers in the house except her picture and it’s stuck in a drawer out of the way,” Johnny said.
“Nothing could be farther from the truth, Johnny,” Murdock said, his voice reassuring. “I did love her. If I appear angry, it’s because of what happened to you after she left me. You paid the price for all that went wrong between us. Still, I loved her, I would have taken her back, and I certainly would have welcomed you back if she had sent you to me. Tell me you believe that, son!”
Johnny looked up at his father. “Yeah, I guess I do.” He decided to explain to Murdock what had happened. “It started at Thanksgiving when you and Teresa pointed out to Scott the stuff that had been Catherine’s. You didn’t say anything about Mama, but then Thanksgiving ain’t a Mexican holiday, so I forgot about it; figured it didn’t much matter. Then, the closer we got to Christmas, the more and more of Catherine’s stuff there was and still nothing of Mama’s. Mama loved Christmas, even though we hardly ever got to celebrate it. I figured there had to be something of hers here, things she didn’t take with her when she left. But there was still nothing. Then, the other day, I saw the picture. I’d been looking for a piece of paper, translating that letter for you, and saw it.” It was important to Johnny that Murdock realize he hadn’t been snooping, and Murdock nodded his head, clearly understanding how the discovery had taken place. “I felt like I’d been gut-shot again.” Murdock flinched, remembering the ugly scar on his son’s abdomen, and the Pinkerton’s matter-of-fact report on the shooting. Johnny Madrid had disappeared for six months following that incident. “You know, you and Scott have got to stop doing that,” Johnny said softly, not missing his father’s flinch and knowing what had caused it.
“Doing what?” Murdock asked.
“Getting upset or feeling sorry for me every time I mention something from my past,” Johnny pointed out. “Don’t change it, and it don’t help, either. It only makes you feel bad, and you shouldn’t.”
“You can’t mean that, Johnny!” Murdock exclaimed. “I’ve read the Pinkerton reports, and figure I know only half of what happened to you. How can you say those things shouldn’t matter to me?”
“Look, Murdock, I don’t live in my past. If I did, maybe I’d feel as bad—or worse—than you and Scott do when it comes up. I decided a long time ago I didn’t want to live feeling sorry for myself. I’ve made some decisions I’d like to take back, and I’ve had some decisions made for me—good and bad. But, I’ve taken responsibility for each one of them and lived with the consequences one day at a time. That’s all any of us can do. So, quit beating yourself—and Mama—up over what happened. It’s done,” Johnny answered. “Anyway, the picture was the only thing of hers in the house as far as I could see, and it was stuck in a drawer out of sight. Well, you know what I thought.”
“Yes, and I can see why. I’m sorry, Johnny. I…. Well, I guess none of us thought about it,” Murdock said.
“No reason you should have. I should have spoke up sooner, I guess. That clock has been after me for awhile now. But, it wasn’t until I saw the picture…. Well, I’m sorry, is all,” Johnny said.
“I’m sorry, too, son. It seemed natural at the holidays to let Scott know those things were his mother’s and that they were used and important to me. I didn’t stop and think about how it might make you feel. I hope you can forgive me,” Murdock asked.
Johnny nodded. Leaving his head down, he said, “I was never really angry with you, Murdock. I was upset with Mama, because I figured that her leaving you and taking me had caused you to get rid of anything that reminded you of her. But, when I found the picture, I was pleased you had kept it. It’s in my room. I’ll return it.”
“Keep it, if you like. I have something much more precious to me than that and it reminds me of her every day,” Murdock said.
Johnny’s head came up and he met his father’s eyes with an unfathomable expression before his eyes began to dance with mischief. “I bet there are days you wish I didn’t remind you of her so much though, huh?”
“I have to admit there are times when I wish you hadn’t mixed her temper with my stubbornness,” Murdock said, laughing softly to rob the words of offense.
“Yeah? Good thing for you there aren’t many of them days then,” Johnny said, laughing.
“Yes, I guess so,” Murdock laughed back. He clapped Johnny on the shoulder. “Ready to turn in, son?”
“You go ahead. I’ll settle Barranca down first then come in,” Johnny replied.
Murdock knew Johnny needed some time to go over what they had discussed. He nodded. “Don’t be too long, son.”
“I’ll only be a few minutes,” Johnny answered.
The house was quiet when Johnny finally came in from the stable. The only light was from the lowering embers in the fireplace, but it was enough to make out the Lancer seal on the wall. Johnny stood staring at it, feeling a burst of pride that his mother had designed it. There was something here of hers after all. He smiled at the thought, then headed for the staircase. The soft, soothing, rhythmic ‘tick-tock’ of Catherine Lancer’s clock accompanied him as Johnny made his way up to his room.
Archived August 2021
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