Word Count 4,724
Ranching; a man could do a full day’s work before he’d even sat for breakfast.
Johnny lounged against the pillar by the front door and watched the early morning ruckus. It had been a long while since he’d worked on a ranch…
Now he remembered why.
He’d heard the commotion outside most mornings but he’d never gone to his window to see what it was all about. Pardee’s bullet gave him plenty of excuses to hold back—until the doc told Murdoch he was ready for work. Ready to get his hands dirty. Ready to spill some more of his guts for a man he didn’t know. Maybe for two men he didn’t know.
Yup, he’d thought for a long time he must be loco. Why else would he have signed on to fight the rurales or take on Pardee and Coley?
Miguel ran from the bunkhouse towards the corral, shirt flapping loose and buttoning his pants. Catching sight of Johnny, he tugged at his pant pocket until it hung inside out, then shrugged like a man who’d had empty pockets more times than he could count—and still grin about it. “Maybe I have more luck tonight, Señor Johnny, eh?” There’d probably be another poker game in the bunkhouse after supper. Johnny sure hoped so.
He’d been a coward last night. And his, ‘“Think I might get me some fresh air,” probably hadn’t fooled anyone. But after sitting in the great room while Murdoch and Scott went on about some French feller…no, he was from some other place. Bis…someone? Bismark? And then they got talking about the War and reconstructing stuff and it was all Johnny could do to stop yawning. So, he’d moseyed on out to the bunkhouse.
He hadn’t had much to do with the ranch hands, what with being laid up an’all, but he could see a light through the window and even from outside he could hear they didn’t give two hoots about that Bismark feller either. Cussing never sounded so good.
So, he opened the door and stuck his head in. “You got room for one more?” His own pockets were none too flush when he came out but that was the price you paid for making friends.
Dust hung in the air as horses were rounded up, hooves checked and mounts saddled. Two wagons were loaded with fence posts and wire. Johnny grimaced. He hated fencing—unless it was pulling one down and he’d done plenty of that in his time.
But soon he’d be caught up in all this. Maybe tomorrow morning. Or the next. He jiggled his left shoulder. The twinge was still there.
Only one man out there didn’t hurry. Johnny’s eyes followed him as he strode across the yard. With legs as long as that he didn’t need to. El Patron. The boss. The king. His…his old man…
Johnny shifted his weight to his other leg.
It sure seemed like everyone at Lancer had a job to do from the time the sun came up until the sun went down, right down to the mutt scattering the chickens. He’d lay odds Murdoch made sure of that. Cowhands, horses, chickens, kids, womenfolk—they all passed in front of him, set on their business. Although it wasn’t their business really. It was Murdoch’s. It was Murdoch’s ranch and it was his voice that rang above the bustle and called the tune.
Now him and Scott were meant to believe a third of it was theirs, only he had a pretty good idea Scott felt as much an outsider as he did. It was a bit like waking up and being told the stranger in bed next to you was now your wife and you’d be tied to her for life. He started grinning; that’s how Shorty McCall ended up married.
“Johnny, breakfast is ready.” He turned his head a little. Teresa was standing there, an apron tied over her skirt and a smudge of flour on her cheek. “And what are you grinning about?”
His mouth dropped. “Nothin’.” It just came to him that it wasn’t nearly so funny when Johnny was the one waking up with strangers.
He ambled into the kitchen after her, then slid into a seat at the long table just as Scott and Murdoch came in. He almost stood again with Murdoch looking down at him like that. He had half an idea that that was what Scott would’ve done. His half-brother was real fond of dropping ‘sir’ all over the place and taking off his hat and pulling out chairs for a lady to sit.
“Morning, Johnny.” Murdoch sat down and looked right at him.
Johnny gave a bit of a nod. “Morning.”
Scott gave him a grin as he took his seat, looking awful clean for a man who’d been out in all that dust. “Good morning, brother.”
‘Brother.’ He could almost feel the skin on his scar tightening.
He gave Scott a nod as well then got busy putting food on his plate while Murdoch and Scott talked over their plans for the day. It all sounded an awful lot like gut-busting work.
Teresa came bustling over with a fresh plate of eggs and took a seat across the table from Johnny. It was only a few minutes before he could feel her looking at him. Sure enough, she looked at his plate, then Scott’s. “Johnny, you’ve got to build up your strength. Why a bird wouldn’t get through the morning on that itty bitty plate of food.”
Johnny wiped his mouth with his hand then pushed his plate away. “A bird’s smart enough to know there’s plenty of places on the trail to fill a belly.”
“But you’re not on the trail anymore. You’re home now and…”
Murdoch stretched his newspaper taut with a snap. “Teresa, leave Johnny be. I’m sure he doesn’t need you to tell him how much food he should eat.”
She looked like she wanted to say more, but maybe finding everybody’s eyes on her made her think twice. Whatever the reason, she shut her mouth and put her nose back in her own plate. He’d have to remember she was just a kid—although right now the red staining her cheeks didn’t make that too hard.
He tilted his head, hoping to catch her eye. “Hey Teresa, I figure if I’m hungry I can buy me a big steak in town.”
She didn’t lookup. Just nodded her head.
Murdoch put his paper down, his eyes resting on the girl. “I thought I’d check if that material you wanted at Baldemero’s had come in.”
Her face shot up then. “Oh, would you, Murdoch? I’ve been hoping you’d say that.”
“Well, with things calming down around here, you should have time to not only make a new dress but wear it to a dance as well.”
She caught his hand as he stood, eyes bright with a teary mix of sunshine and storms.
Murdoch chucked her under the chin. “It’s been too long since I saw your eyes light up like that.”
“It’s been a long time since we both had something to smile about,” she said, squeezing his hand as she looked up into his eyes, like she was willing him to be happy, too.
“You’re right about that.” But he didn’t smile at her; Murdoch didn’t seem to see her at all, even though he was looking right down at her face.
She shook his hand a little, and it was like he came back from wherever he’d gone. Then he turned around and his eyes landed on Johnny. “You ready?”
Johnny scraped his chair back and got to his feet. “Sure thing, ol’ man.”
Murdoch started to frown but Teresa stood on tippy-toes so he leaned down to let her kiss his cheek. Johnny grabbed his hat from the stand near the front door then headed outside. He took a deep breath.
Just how hard could all this be?
He followed Murdoch out to the barn, scattering a passel of clucking chickens on the way, and doing his best not to look like he had to run to keep up with Murdoch’s long strides.
Murdoch frowned when he saw Johnny take hold of his saddle and tack.
“Walt can do that for you.”
The words made him check—but only for a second. “Murdoch, a man that can’t saddle his own mount, probably shouldn’t be riding.”
He didn’t look up to see how Murdoch took his words, just continued throwing the saddle and blankets on Barranca’s back. Murdoch didn’t say anything so he guessed that must mean he hadn’t been too serious in the first place. It wasn’t until he’d led Barranca out that he saw Walt standing by, like he was waiting for orders. Johnny grinned at Walt as he walked outside to where Murdoch was waiting.
“Not even a twinge, Murdoch. See.” He flexed his left shoulder to prove his point as he brought Barranca alongside.
Murdoch wasn’t big on small talk. Whatever his old man thought of his healing, he wasn’t telling Johnny. In fact, Johnny wasn’t sure Murdoch even heard what he said the way he was staring over Johnny’s left shoulder like that.
Scott came out just then. “Any last minute orders for me, Murdoch?” Scott had that ‘soldier’ look on his face as he tugged on his gloves. You would’ve thought he was about to head into battle instead of rounding up steers.
Murdoch blinked, like he had to make himself turn and listen. Johnny chewed on his stampede string while he tightened the girth. He’d heard one time that a crack on the head could batter a man’s brain. Maybe a bullet to his back had done the same thing to Murdoch.
“Good, now that you’re here, you and Walt can get going now.”
Scott threw a look at him as he watched Johnny mount up. Scott had already ridden to town once with Murdoch and he’d seemed to take it all in his stride. His only comment when Johnny asked him how it went was some fancy words like, ‘surprisingly in-form-ative’ or something.
Johnny leaned down towards Scott. “Keep a tally of how many steer you rope. I don’t trust these bandidos.”
Scott frowned. “Keep a tally? Murdoch didn’t say anything about that.”
Johnny checked that neither Murdoch nor Walt was listening, then leaned down further. “He wouldn’t. He probably doesn’t have any money riding on how many steer you rope your first week as a gen-u-ine cowpoke.”
For a second there he thought Scott was mad at him, but then he nodded. “What was your bet?”
Johnny bit his lip. “Two.” He shrugged. “It takes a while to get the hang of it.”
Scott hit him on the leg. “I’ll try not to let you down, then.”
“If,” Scott went on, “we go fifty-fifty in whatever your winnings are.”
Johnny’s eyes glinted. “Now, why would I do that?”
“Because you want to win. And seeing as I’m the goose you aim to use to get your golden egg, it’s only fair I make something out of this as well.” Scott held out a hand.
He hadn’t figured his old man to be one for small talk but he’d rambled on in that bear’s voice of his about this neighbour and that, telling Johnny which ranches bordered Lancer and who he had to watch out for and when the next Cattleman’s Association meeting would be and how he and Scott would need to sit in and acquaint themselves with how things ran in the valley. Johnny could feel his scar tightening again. Hell, it sounded about as much fun as drowning in a bucket of water.
“There’s plenty for you and Scott to learn, Johnny.”
Johnny shooed a fly away from his face. He figured Scott would probably say one of his ‘yes sirs’ about now. Only Johnny didn’t want to agree to any of it. So, he kept his mouth shut, even when he felt his old man staring across at him. He’d learned a long time ago not to say yes to anything he wasn’t aiming to do.
“Johnny?” Murdoch could have been one of those fancy soldier boys in Scott’s photo the way he could snap out a command.
“Sure, I hear you, Murdoch.”
“We’ll talk about all this later, of course, John. I’m not wanting to overload you when you’re still recovering.”
He kinda liked it when the old man called him that. It felt right. Like some link to who he’d been all those years ago when he’d been born here. Before his mother—.
Well, he wasn’t going to think about her. Not now. It just wasn’t worth tearing himself up inside all over again.
‘He loved her, Johnny.’ That’s what Theresa said, and she didn’t have any cause to lie. He snuck a look at Murdoch’s profile. It was hard to tell how much feeling a man like Murdoch would have inside him.
“You went out to the bunkhouse last night,” Murdoch said, like he knew Johnny was looking at him.
“So-what if I did, old man? You got a problem with that?” Darn, the hacienda was in darkness when he’d taken off his boots and tiptoed inside, but his skin had prickled with the feeling there was a pair of eyes watching somewhere in the night.
“They’re good men, Johnny. Plenty of them faced Pardee to save your ranch. No, I don’t have a problem. Just make sure you’re not an hour past their curfew next time,” he added with a raise of his brows. “No liquor, no late nights during the week. Come Saturday night, the time’s their own.”
He kept his face straight but Dios, it sounded like a prison sentence.
“Your horse is fresh.”
Murdoch was right about that. He wasn’t too keen on stepping out next to Murdoch’s mount. Johnny reached down and rubbed the creamy neck. “Yeah, but he’s a beauty. Best horse I ever owned. He’s no broom tail. Course he’s still green.”
Murdoch nodded. “I picked him out myself.” Johnny swung a look at Murdoch. “Scott’s been working with him while you were laid up.”
His old man had picked out this horse—just for him? Maybe that’s not what he meant. But he said he’d…
Murdoch was staring at him. “Yeah…yeah, he told me.” And that was why Johnny’s should only ache a little, instead of a lot.
“You did a fine job breaking him,” Murdoch was saying.
“You saw that?” He’d thought the old man was inside.
Murdoch smiled, like he was remembering. “He was a wild one. Have you done much bronc busting?”
Johnny grinned of a sudden. “Oh yeah, I’ve chewed gravel plenty of times.” Truth be told, it was grit that made him hold on. He wasn’t about to make an ass of himself in front of that pretty brother of his. “But not so much lately. Just here and there when…between jobs. You know.”
Dios, this is what he didn’t want. Murdoch was a clever one all right. He could trick a man into confessing all sorts of stuff. Well, not Johnny Madrid. Murdoch said it himself, ‘The past is the past.’ And that was fine with Johnny.
Only he couldn’t help wondering why Scott had grown up in Boston when Murdoch knew he was there all along. Teresa had come and sat with him for a time one night when he had the sweats. She’d prattled on about this and that, making his head pound till he was just about ready to throw her out of his room, until one thing she said made him forget about all that.
“Why, Murdoch had the Pinks looking for you for years, Johnny.”
He took his arm from across his eyes and looked at her. “He did?”
She wet the cloth in her hands and laid it on his forehead. “And every time the report came back negative he’d go into the blackest of moods and my daddy would try and cheer him up. He’d say, ‘At least you know where Scott is.’”
Johnny frowned up at her. “So how come he never brought Scott home?”
She shrugged. “I never knew why. I heard them talking one time. Something about Scott’s grandfather. Whenever I asked, Murdoch would just say that Scott was safe and that was all that mattered.”
He wondered if Scott felt the same way…
“Wait here, Johnny.”
Johnny looked up. Murdoch was already treading the steps up to the general store while he’d still been looping Barranca’s reins over the hitching post.
His old man looked to be in a hurry. “I’ll just see if that material for Teresa came in. I shouldn’t be long.” Murdoch threw the words over his shoulder as he disappeared into the darkness of Baldemero’s General Store. The store doorway would have been roomy for most people. Not so his old man.
Following Murdoch, Johnny took his time mounting the two steps then stopped and looked around when he got to the boardwalk.
Wait here for what? Morro Coyo was no different than a score of other poky little towns he’d seen. Same dust, same uneven planks in the boardwalk, even the same girl in the purple satin and straggly white feathers sticking her head over the saloon doors to catch a hint of breeze. Most of the timber buildings were bleached grey by the sun; not one of the buildings grand enough to warrant even a lick of whitewash.
He didn’t remember Morro Coyo looking this washed out when Pardee and his gang were holed up here. Of course, there’s nothing like a bit of danger to dress up a town. But now! Heck, he’d find more excitement in a can of beans.
It felt like a lifetime ago since he’d seen Scott come flying out the same door Murdoch had just walked in and then rolling on the dusty street. It hadn’t been easy watching him go at it with Pardee’s boys.
He leaned over and rested his forearms on one of the barrels outside the store and checked out the town from under his hat. Murdoch had told him, “For the most part, it’s a quiet town, Johnny. Not a lot happens here.”
Johnny dipped his head then flipped his hat forward into his waiting palm. “And that’s exactly what you want, Johnny-my-boy.”
Maybe not much happened around here, but the sun sure seemed to have plenty to say. He pressed his arm against his forehead before settling his hat back on his head, then pulled it low against the sun’s morning glare. It was so bright even the dirt glittered, like someone sprinkled gold dust right across the street. Fool’s gold more like it. He wrinkled his nose. Somehow the word ‘fool’ left a bad taste in his mouth right now. He was probably just hungry. Should have taken that second helping at breakfast Teresa tried to force on him—but it had been hard enough to down breakfast at all knowing he was about to spend the morning alone with his old man.
Johnny left his place by the barrel and moved across to lean against one of the porch uprights.
“Yep,” he muttered, crossing one leg in front of the other as he stared around, “sure is a quiet town.”
Twisting around he looked through the windows to see what was keeping Murdoch so long. All he could see were rows of shelves cluttered with almost any imaginable thing you’d need out here…the sort of store he used to love going into as a kid. He’d stare wide eyed at all the things he thought only rich folk could afford. A couple of times he remembered some kind old man or someone giving him a stick of liquorice…
Straightening up a little more, he could just make out Murdoch’s head and shoulders a little further back. It looked like he was talking with another man…looked like a rancher…and from the expression he could see on his old man’s face, it looked like this talk was going to last for a while.
Johnny sighed and went back to his barrel, this time hoisting his butt onto the warm, flat lid. A beer would go down real smooth about now. And maybe a bit of a walk to stretch his legs.
The girl hanging over the saloon doors had now been joined by two others. And they were all looking at him. They waved when they saw he’d noticed them, so he dipped his hat. “Ladies. Fine morning,” he called across to them.
“It sure is, honey,” the purple girl called back. “Say, are you the one they call, Johnny? Word is around town that Mr Lancer’s…”
He didn’t get to hear what the word around town was. A man in a shiny waistcoat and slick black hair shooed all three girls back inside. “You want to talk to my girls, you come in and buy a drink,” he yelled at Johnny.
Small towns. Just how many others knew about Murdoch Lancer’s sons?
A few more minutes passed.
Johnny tucked his hands under his thighs and swung one leg, tapping his spur against the tightly banded wood.
A fly buzzed around his head…past his ear…then past his other ear. By now it was so persistent he had to swat it away with his hand.
When there was still no sign of Murdoch after a few more minutes and the mouse that had been his only entertainment had scurried under the sidewalk, he stood up from the barrel and began pacing, nearly walking into an old woman with a walking stick and a carpetbag.
“Ain’t you got eyes, sonny,” she snapped. A quick step to the side meant he missed the jab from her stick.
“Sorry, ma’am, I didn’t see you there.” She must have come out of the store.
She humped at him and went on her way just as he heard the sound of squeaking wheels and pounding hooves from further down the main street.
The stage swept into sight. The same one he and Scott had taken. He could see the look on the faces of the passengers as they got down; two older women in fancy clothes glanced around like they’d got off in one of those foreign countries Scott and Murdoch had talked about and didn’t know where they were. But the men in their dust covered suits just got out and headed straight to the saloon. The girls were back at the saloon door, waving at them to take a break in there.
But it wasn’t more than a few minutes before the street was deserted again.
Finally, he adjusted his gun belt to sit just so, and then wandered into the store. A bell tinkled as the door opened and closed.
It was cool inside after the heat out there. He stood in the doorway for a moment as his eyes blinked and got used to the dark inside. It smelled like all general stores; a homely mix of waxed wood and cotton and spices and candy and everything else a kid would want to buy.
His eyes skimmed over a table of hats across to the back of the store where he could clearly see Murdoch.
Their eyes met and Johnny stood still. He couldn’t read the look on his old man’s face. Had Johnny done something wrong by coming inside? Maybe his old man didn’t want him to hear what he was saying? Well, if he didn’t want Johnny in here, it was fine, just fine with him. Those saloon girls were looking pretty good right now. He’d be damned if he’d stand around like a pesky kid…
But then Murdoch stretched out his arm. And he smiled. Real wide.
“Johnny, come on over here. I’d like you to meet Travis McGuire, one of the ranchers in our Cattleman’s Association.” Murdoch nodded towards the man beside him, a grey-haired rancher with a gut straining the buttons on a brown vest that had seen better days.
Travis McGuire had prickly grey eyebrows. They puckered as he peered at Johnny like he was giving a horse the once over before he’d buy it. “So, this is Johnny, eh? Maria’s boy?”
Johnny wiped a sweaty hand on the seat of his pants before holding it out. “Mr. Maguire.”
McGuire shook his hand in a tight grip, still peering. “Johnny, eh,” he said again.
“That’s right.” He looked up at Murdoch. “Looks like you two are havin’ some sorta powwow or something. I didn’t mean to interrupt.”
“We’ve got a meeting coming up next week. The one I told you and Scott about,” Murdoch said.
Johnny nodded. “Well, it looks like you’ve both got a way to go before you spit out what’s been eating at you.”
A sudden wheeze made Johnny stare at McGuire but it turned out the old guy was chuckling in a choked kind of way.
“Your boy doesn’t miss much, does he, Murdoch?”
Murdoch was smiling, but he had his head to one side and he sort of half talked to himself, “No, I don’t think he does.”
Johnny started backing away. “Look, if you two wanna keep talking I can go and amuse myself for awhile. Maybe find me a cold beer an’a pretty lady,” he added. Only maybe that wasn’t the right thing to say in front of his old man.
“I think maybe a pretty beer and a cold lady might be safer this time of day.” Travis Maguire winked at Johnny and gave Murdoch a jab in the ribs with his elbow.
“Well…yes, sir…maybe.” Johnny took a quick look at Murdoch. His old man seemed to be finding things funny even if he wasn’t busting a gut laughing so he guessed that was a good sign.
“Johnny, I shouldn’t be too long. I have to go across to the bank when I’m finished up here. How about we meet at the saloon for a beer?”
“Sounds good to me, Murdoch.”
“Well, I’ll see you later then, Johnny,” Maguire held out his hand again. “Nice to meet you, my boy.”
With a nod at both of them, Johnny ambled towards the door, turning back the once to find his father watching him go. He threw Murdoch a quick smile. He wasn’t sure why he’d looked back. Maybe to check that his old man hadn’t changed his mind. Maybe to let it sink in a bit further that he really was here in Morro Coyo…with his damned father of all people.
“So that’s Johnny Madrid!”
Johnny stopped where he was and picked up one of the hats from the table, turning it over in his hands without even seeing it.
“No, Travis, that’s Johnny Lancer.”
Maguire chuckled. “Lancer, Madrid, tell you the truth I don’t care much either way, though I won’t deny there are some who will. But I don’t care what anyone says long as he ain’t aimin’ that gun of his at me. He seems like a good boy, Murdoch. I like him. Yes siree…you must be mighty proud.”
Johnny stared at the hat, suddenly still. He stopped breathing. The silence was pounding his ears. Nothing. Murdoch said nothing. Well, what did he expect Murdoch to—.
And then he heard what sounded like Murdoch clearing his throat. “You’ve no idea, Travis. After all these years…you’ve no idea.”
Johnny swallowed—and he could breathe again.
“You like the hat, Senor?”
Johnny looked around to find an old, white haired man in an apron smiling at him. Baldomero, he guessed. His eyes went back to the hat he’d picked up.
“Um…no.” Johnny started laughing. He flicked the feather on the band with his finger. “But I’ve got me a brother who might.”
Baldomero smiled at him, but the look on his face said he couldn’t see what the joke was all about.
Johnny handed the hat back with a grin, then sauntered out into the boring, quiet town where mostly nothing ever happened.
It turned out Scott, that new brother of his, was right; the visit to town had been—surprisingly in-form-ative.
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