Word Count 3,237
A WHN for Measure of a Man.
No beta, no profit, no warnings.
After saying goodbye to Catha and the children Johnny ambled through the town in search of Murdoch and breakfast.
Murdoch’s horse, like its owner, was tall, big-boned and easy to spot. The big gentle horse stood at the hitching rail outside Conchita’s Cantina and Johnny rode up and dismounted beside it. The horses greeted each other cordially and Johnny smiled and gave them both a scratch and a softly spoken word or two.
Entering the cantina Johnny hoped he was in time to eat with his father and he looked forward to having some time to talk about the events of the last few days. He easily spotted Murdoch in the far corner of the small room and he held his hand up and headed over to his table.
He arrived at the table at the same time as the ample figure of Conchita herself.
“Hola Senor, are you wishing to eat?” Asked the lady, flashing a welcoming smile at the newcomer.
“Si Senora,” said Johnny looking hungrily at the plate that was placed in front of Murdoch. Pointing at the delicious food piled high he said, “una mas por favor,” favouring the woman with his own cheeky grin.
“Muy bien,” she said and bustled off to fetch the order.
A young girl, obviously the daughter of the owner, came over to the table bringing a mug which she filled with coffee and placed in front of Johnny.
“Gracias,” said the younger Lancer and smiled at the girl. She blushed furiously, then hurried off, feeling unnerved by the strikingly handsome young man’s attentions.
Murdoch chuckled at his son’s actions and the young girl’s response. “Do you do that purposely son?”
Johnny looked at his father and put on his most innocent expression. “Do what?”
He couldn’t maintain the ruse though and his lips started to curl up into a positively lascivious grin.
The Lancer patriarch slowly shook his head, gave his son ‘that look’ and started to attack his breakfast.
Johnny’s mouth started to water and his stomach felt as if his throat had been cut. Before he could starve to death the rosy-cheeked Conchita came out of the kitchen with another plate full of heavenly victuals. She also gave Johnny ‘the look’, wagged her finger at him and tsked, obviously chiding the young man for being the cause of the very flustered appearance of her daughter.
Johnny tried to look repentant but couldn’t really manage it. However, to smooth the feathers of the protective mother he took her hand and placed a light kiss on the back of it with a flourish.
The mother laughed good-naturedly and pretended to clip Johnny’s ear, which just made him chortle and turn the full force of his dimpled smile on the older woman.
This caused the woman to roll her eyes then ask Murdoch, “is this Casanova yours Senor?”
“I’m afraid so Senora,” said Murdoch with mock regret. The look of pure affection that the father directed towards his son made a lie of his words but seemed to tickle the motherly woman. She nodded then walked over to her next customer with a spring in her step.
Murdoch again shook his head and marvelled at his son’s audacious behaviour.
“What?” Asked Johnny, trying hard to look hurt but again not coming close.
Murdoch sighed then decided not to pursue the matter any further.
“So, how are things with Catha and Ben?”
“Oh OK. Ben should be fit enough to take classes again after the weekend and Catha can manage without my help now.”
Murdoch detected a slight wistfulness in his son’s tone. It occurred to him that maybe Johnny had enjoyed being needed for something other than his gun.
“Well, I’m sure they appreciated your help John and I for one am very proud of what you did.”
Johnny looked up from shovelling in his food with a surprised expression. “You are?” He asked.
“Yes son, and why should that surprise you?”
“Well, I don’t know. I was only doing what Catha told me to do. Doesn’t take any particular talent to do that. Plus, she would’ve managed perfectly well without me if she had to. She’s a strong woman. Ben disappearing like that just knocked the stuffing out of her, that’s all.”
Murdoch finished his breakfast then gave his son his full attention.
“First off my son I think you underestimate what it takes to control a room full of kids. Not just control them but get them to listen and think. Teaching isn’t just drilling facts into kids so they can repeat them parrot-fashion, it’s about giving them the tools to work things out for themselves. I watched you with those kids Johnny so I know how hard you tried with them.”
Johnny thought about that then answered, “yeah? I guess I wouldn’t know about that, having had next to no formal schooling. Life gave me all the tools I needed and I learned my lessons well.”
Murdoch smiled a rather sad smile and thought briefly of the hard lessons that his son had been taught during his short tough life.
“Hey, don’t give me that look Old Man. It is what it is. Nothing to be done about changing it now. I do OK.”
Murdoch smiled a happier smile. “Yes son, you do very OK. What say you to letting your old man pay the bill and then getting on the road to home.”
Johnny laughed, “suits me fine.”
Murdoch placed some coins on the table, including a generous tip, then stood up to leave. The younger Lancer picked up his hat then brought it across his waist and bowed over it dramatically while calling his thanks and goodbyes to the ladies. Both women laughed and waved goodbye to the Lancer men while appreciating the view as Johnny followed his father out of the cantina
. . .
Father and son took their time getting home. They had all day to themselves with no pressure and nothing urgent to hurry home for.
Johnny had been silent for some time and Murdoch felt that he was getting around to saying something important.
“Something on your mind son?”
“Yeah. I just wanted to say thanks for watching my back while I was helping Catha with the kids. It felt good when you showed up just at the right moment and told those two guys to back off. Kind of a new feeling having someone who cares enough to look out for me.”
“Well, get used to it son. That’s what having a family is all about and I fully intend to take every possible opportunity to make up for the fact that I wasn’t there to watch your back for far too many years.”
Johnny looked into his father’s eyes and saw the truth there. A slow smile and a brief nod of the head signalled Johnny’s acceptance of that truth.
Murdoch sensed there was still something bothering Johnny so again he prompted his son to spit it out with a searching look and raised eyebrows.
“There’s something else. You may have heard, or you may get to hear some gossip from narrow-minded people with nothing better to think about,” said Johnny carefully.
“Concerning whom son?” Asked Murdoch, although he started to get an inkling of where this was going.
“Concerning me and Catha. I had to spend time sleeping on her couch and I had to spend time with her so that she could teach me the next day’s lessons. But that’s all we did Murdoch. There was nothing more going on, I swear it.”
Murdoch felt what he said next would be crucial.
“I believe you Johnny. I believe I know you well enough by now to know that you wouldn’t do anything to sully Catha’s good name. It’s not like you to listen to gossip and let it bother you.”
“It’s not about me Murdoch. I can deal with people who have their minds in the gutter, I’ve dealt with them all my life. It’s Catha I’m worried about. I think that she and Ben will still have a difficult time of it in that town trying to get everybody to accept that their kids have to go to school. The last thing she needs is people throwing accusations at her concerning her behaviour with me or whispering behind her back. What matters to me is that you know that nothing happened and for Catha’s sake I want you to nip any bad mouthing in the bud if you possibly can. If you get the chance to say that there was nothing improper going on, I want you to say it because you believe it. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
Johnny was generally a man of few words so Murdoch was keenly aware that this was quite a lengthy speech for him. Wanting to keep his son talking now that he’d started, the elder Lancer nodded and asked what was possibly a touchy question.
“What did Ben have to say about this?”
“He trusts Catha. Implicitly. They have a very special relationship and she is his rock. In his mind there was no doubt about his wife’s conduct. As simple as that,” said Johnny with absolute conviction.
“Well, that’s all that really matters, isn’t it?” Asked Murdoch.
“For her, yes I suppose so. For me personally all that really matters is that you know and believe that I would not dishonour a special woman like Catha in any way. Can you honestly say that?”
“Yes son, hand on heart I can honestly say that,” said Murdoch. And he meant it.
Johnny sighed with relief. Murdoch saw the tension drain from his son’s stiff shoulders and knew he had said the right thing. His own relief was palpable. They could hopefully enjoy the rest of the journey home now that the elephant in the room had been acknowledged and given its freedom.
. . .
The two Lancer men trotted into the yard and dismounted. Johnny took both sets of reins and said that he would take care of the horses.
“You can give everybody the lowdown on the trip Murdoch. Save me from doing any more yapping than I have to,” said the younger man with a wry grin.
“OK son. I hear you loud and clear.”
Murdoch took a couple of seconds to consider the enigma that was his younger son and felt that he understood him a little bit more than he had done before this last trip. He entered the hacienda with a light heart.
Walking into the great room the Lancer patriarch was greeted first by Teresa who gave him a big hug and then by Scott who shook his hand and welcomed him home.
“Where’s Johnny?” Was Scott’s first question, just as Murdoch predicted it would be.
“He’s just taking care of the horses; he’ll be in shortly.”
“And how did he enjoy the livestock event at the county seat?” Was the next question from Scott.
“Well son, as you know we called in to see Ben and Catha Cameron on the way there.”
“Yeeessss,” said Scott, feeling there was more to the visit to the teacher and his wife than had been anticipated.
“Well, they were having some problems and your brother had to return to help them after obtaining a judge’s order to make everything legal and above board. Because of that he didn’t get to see much of the livestock or anything else for that matter.”
“I see,” said Scott. “Is he OK?” He asked, almost dreading the answer.
“Oh yes. The problems didn’t involve gunplay or fisticuffs. Just some boneheaded parents and a classroom full of children running amok.” Said Murdoch, feeling rather pleased with his succinct summing up of the salient points.
“Children?” Queried Scott, intrigued by the possibilities that this conjured up.
“Yes Scott. Your brother ended up teaching class. And he did a mighty fine job of it too, I might add.”
Teresa whooped with delight, clapped her hands and shouted, “yes Johnny!”
Scott could see the immense pride in his father’s face and couldn’t have been more delighted for his brother.
“Oh Murdoch, I have to hear all the details of this. My brother, a man of many talents.” Scott had no doubt in his mind that Johnny had applied himself to this particular task with his usual determination and single-mindedness.
Murdoch chuckled. “Who else can you think of who could win the hearts and respect of a group of kids while threatening bodily harm to the bullies in the town who were hell bent on stopping those kids getting an education?”
Scott let out a full-throated laugh, “only Johnny,” he said with glee.
“Only Johnny what?” Asked a soft voice from the hall.
Johnny sauntered in looking just a little bit pleased with himself. He put his hat and gun belt on the hat stand just inside the door and looked expectantly at his brother.
“Ah, here he is, the man of the moment,” said Scott as he walked over to pump his brother’s hand then put his arm around his shoulder and dragged him into the room.
Johnny briefly wondered who this grinning fool was who looked like his brother Scott. He also wondered whether the responsibility of running the ranch single-handed had maybe caused said brother to become a basket case in the few days that they had been gone.
With a wicked grin Johnny turned to his father and said, “did he fall on his head while we were away?”
“No son. I think the news of your latest accomplishments has made him a bit giddy.”
“So, what did the kids bring to their teacher? An apple?” Asked Scott, enjoying the opportunity to tease his brother just a little too much maybe.
“Noooo,” answered Johnny. “Let’s think, they brought a toad, which caused a small riot. Then they brought a fake paper snake, which I shot the guts out of. No apples though.”
Scott felt as if he was going to bust a rivet as he thought about how Johnny would deal with toads and paper snakes. This was the best entertainment he’d had in eons.
Calming down somewhat and not wanting to risk too much teasing he slapped Johnny on the back and said very seriously, “well done brother, I’m proud of you.”
“Thanks brother,” said Johnny feeling a bit euphoric. First his father and now his educated and accomplished brother had said they were proud of him. It felt so damn good.
“Well done Johnny,” said Teresa and she gave him a hug and a peck on the cheek.
“Thank you honey,” Johnny replied with a shy smile.
With perfect timing Maria chose that moment to announce that dinner was served and it was four happy members of the Lancer family who sat down to eat.
. . .
After dinner everybody retired to the great room for drinks.
Johnny picked up his glass and wandered outside to enjoy the warm evening air and look for shooting stars in the beautiful clear night sky. After a while he heard footsteps and knew that his brother was coming out to join him.
“Everything OK brother?” Asked Scott.
“Sure Boston. Just enjoying the peace and quiet after a few kinda hectic days.”
Scott nodded and took the hint. A few minutes of companionable silence followed.
“So how did it feel being a teacher for a couple of days Johnny?”
“Oh boy, I tell ya, to start with it was damn scary. Worrying that those smart kids would ask a question that I wouldn’t know the answer to. I felt more nervous than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs!”
“But Murdoch says you were able to get through to them. They minded you and they listened. Don’t underestimate what it takes to achieve that brother.”
“Yeah, he said much the same thing to me,” Johnny shrugged, “it felt good to do something that he could be proud of, rather than something he would be ashamed of. And you should’ve seen him Boston, backing me up, pulling a gun on the bad guys. Pulling the strings to get things sorted out all legal like. He sure swings a lot of weight and he’s a good man to have on your side.”
To hear both his brother and his father praising each other was so heart-warming to Scott after all the teething difficulties they had experienced at the start of their relationship. He felt secretly pleased that he had pushed for Johnny to be the one to accompany their father on the trip.
“Er Scott. Can I ask you something?”
“Well, this is kinda awkward but . . . well.”
“Come on Johnny. You know you can talk to me about any subject. Awkward or otherwise.”
“Yeah well. It’s like this. Do you believe that there can be friendship, even, well, love between a man and a woman, without anything physical being involved?” Asked Johnny, feeling he hadn’t expressed himself very well but needing to know his big brother’s opinion.
Scott inwardly sighed his relief. This question he could answer with honesty and with a bit of personal experience to back up his answer.
“Yes, I most surely do Johnny. It’s called a platonic relationship. Some people don’t believe it’s possible. They believe that a man and a woman can’t have a close, loving friendship without sex being involved.”
“And if one of the parties is married?” Asked Johnny.
“Ah. Then most likely people will see that as an extra reason to suspect the relationship cannot just be platonic. Or they believe that a married man or woman should not have or need a close friend of the opposite sex.”
“But you believe it’s possible?” Asked Johnny a little desperately.
“I not only believe it; I know it from personal experience. Are you asking me because you have experienced it?” Scott knew he would have to push his very private little brother to admit this but he felt it was necessary.
“Yes, I believe I have,” answered Johnny honestly.
Johnny’s bowed head came up in surprise. He looked into his brother’s eyes and found that he had to tell the truth.
“Yep,” he said simply, “I’ve never met a woman like her and I’m guessing she hasn’t run across too many gunfighters in her life. We made a good team though and I came to respect and care for her in a very short space of time. As a friend though, there was nothing more to it, no matter what the town busybodies thought.”
“You are a lucky man then Johnny. That sort of friendship is a rare and precious thing and something to be treasured.” Scott said sincerely.
Johnny nodded in agreement and felt vindicated. It didn’t matter what the small-town gossip mongers were saying. It didn’t matter what people thought. He and Catha, and the people that were most important to the both of them, knew the truth of it.
Pure was not a word that Johnny could use to describe anything in his life. Just about everything had been somehow tainted. But now he felt he could hold onto at least one thing that wasn’t.
“Hey Scott. D’you wanna see my gold star?”
“I thought you’d never ask brother.”
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