Word Count 2,632
Disclaimer: The characters don’t belong to me, I just borrowed them.
Special thanks to Chris and Raz for their help and encouragement. Any errors are mine.
The scene had been played many times. A would-be gunhawk rode into town and wanting to make a name for himself, called out Johnny Madrid. Johnny tried to avoid the confrontation but in the end it came down to kill or be killed. As he turned towards his adversary, Johnny silently offered a quick prayer asking the Good Lord to get him home one more time.
Murdoch Lancer had been pacing the floor of the Great Room for forty minutes. He and Johnny were leaving in the morning to deliver a string of horses to a rancher located west of Lancer. The trip should take about four days. While Murdoch was looking forward to spending time with his younger boy, he was currently more concerned with the whereabouts of that son than with contemplating the opportunities the next few days would provide.
“Johnny and Jelly should have been back from Morro Coyo two hours ago,” he fumed to his son, Scott. “All they had to do was get the mail and pick up a few items at the mercantile. How long can it take?”
Looking up from the book he was attempting to read, Scott grinned at his father. “Well for most people, not very long. But then Johnny isn’t most people.”
Murdoch stopped his pacing long enough to glare at Scott. “It’s not funny. I told Johnny to come straight back so he can get a good’s night rest. I want to get an early start.”
In a more conciliatory tone, Scott replied “Relax Murdoch. Johnny probably stopped by the cantina for a few rounds of tequila. Jelly will hustle him home before it gets very late. He knows you plan to leave early tomorrow morning.”
“Johnny knows it too. He shouldn’t need Jelly clucking over him all the time like a blasted mother hen. He’s almost twenty-three. He’s not a child,” said Murdoch irritably.
Further conversation was halted by the sound of a wagon coming to a stop in the courtyard. Planning to reprimand his wayward son, Murdoch went outside only to have the words frozen on his lips at the sight of Johnny’s horse tied to the back of the wagon and Johnny nowhere in sight.
Fear tightened his heart and for a moment he was unable to move. Regaining his senses, he called to Scott and hurried to the wagon. By the time he got there, Jelly had already climbed into the wagon bed and was helping Johnny to sit. Johnny’s left arm was in a sling and he seemed pale but did not appear to suffering from any critical injuries.
“What happened?” Murdoch and Scott asked simultaneously.
Johnny sighed and gave his family a wan smile. “Some fool decided to try his luck against Johnny Madrid. See who was faster. He wasn’t as good as he thought.” Johnny’s smile turned bitter as he continued, “They’re buryin’ him tomorrow.”
“You were shot?”
“It’s just a flesh wound. I’ve had a lot worse.”
“What did Dr. Jenkins say?” Murdoch asked Jelly knowing the older man would give him a full report of the doctor’s prognosis.
Ignoring the scowl on Johnny’s face, Jelly replied, “Doc said the bullet didn’t do no real damage. He lost some blood. But after a couple o’ days in bed, he’ll be as right as rain.”
“It ain’t bad, Murdoch. I’ll be good as new by morning.” Johnny slid off the wagon bed and attempted to stand without swaying. “It won’t hold us up at all.”
The relief Murdoch had felt at finding out Johnny’s injuries weren’t very serious had given way to anger that Johnny’s past had caught up with him, again. “I’m not concerned about the trip. I’m concerned you can’t even go to town without getting into trouble,” snapped Murdoch.
Startled by the harshness of Murdoch’s voice, Johnny instinctively stepped back. At the sudden movement, his legs buckled beneath him. Scott caught Johnny before he landed in an undignified heap on the ground.
Scott interceded for Johnny. “Murdoch? I don’t think this is the time or place.”
Murdoch looked at his sons and realized Scott was right. Johnny was in no shape for a lecture. Forcing himself to calm down, Murdoch ordered Scott to help his brother to his room while he and Jelly unloaded the wagon.
Grabbing up an armload of items, Murdoch stomped off into the kitchen followed by an unusually quiet Jelly. The two men had finished the unloading and were busy putting the supplies away when Scott entered the kitchen followed by Teresa.
“He’s doing fine, Murdoch” Scott answered his
father silent inquiry.
Teresa added with a cheerful smile, “He kept insisting that he didn’t need to lie down but was sleeping like a baby by the time we left the room.”
Murdoch was comforted by their assurances but still felt some resentment towards the situation. “Every time we turn around, it’s the same old thing. Someone wants to prove he’s faster than Johnny Madrid. When is he going to completely walk away from his old life.”
Scott said “Murdoch, he tries. You know that.”
“Well maybe he isn’t trying hard enough,” retorted Murdoch, unwilling to let go of his anger.
“You ain’t got no call to be saying that, Murdoch. It weren’t his fault,” Jelly said throwing the last of the packages into the cabinet. “Some people ain’t got the good sense to appreciate what they got.” Jelly muttered as he slammed out of the kitchen.
Murdoch’s jaw fell open at Jelly’s words. While he knew Jelly was fond of Johnny and took up for his young friend, he had never heard him so vehemently defend him. From the first, Murdoch recognized a special bond existed between his son and Jelly. He had assumed it was because of their mutual propensity for picking up strays. Now, he wondered if the chord Johnny struck with the old man went much deeper. However, regardless of the reason, Murdoch didn’t appreciate being told he was wrong in his dealings with his own son. Flinging the kitchen door open, he went after Jelly prepared to vent his displeasure.
Jelly heard a perfunctory knock and glanced up to see Murdoch entering his small room. Jelly remained seated on the bed. In his hand was a small, framed picture. He felt Murdoch draw closer but made no effort to conceal the daguerreotype of a small dark-haired boy.
Without looking at Murdoch, Jelly started to speak. “Sorry, boss. It ain’t my place to tell ya how to deal with yer boys. I know ya missed out on a lot with not gitting to raise ’em. But sometimes I think ya don’t know how lucky ya are.”
“It’s my boy, Davy. It was taken when he was five. He’s been gone close to twenty-three years now and it still hurts like the devil.”
Taken by surprise, Murdoch blurted, “Jelly! You never mentioned you had a son.”
“It’s in the past, Murdoch. Ain’t important. No use in lookin’ back.”
“That’s not true, Jelly. If there’s one thing I’ve learned for sure since the boys came home, it is that the past is never over. You can never bury it completely and sometimes it’s best to not even try. But if you don’t want to talk about it, I understand and can respect your feelings.”
Jelly looked into the eyes of the man he considered a friend. He knew Murdoch’s story, losing two wives and his two boys. Of all the people he’d ever met, this man could probably best understand what he had been through. Making up his mind, he decided to lay bare his soul.
“We had a small farm in Missouri. Weren’t much. Just a few acres of land. But me and Mary liked it. Then when Davy came along, we were ready to bust wide open, we were so happy. Wish you coulda known him Murdoch. He was about the cutest rascal you ever did see. Dark hair, blue eyes like…” Jelly hesitated.
Embarrassed, Jelly gave Murdoch a wry smile. “Yeah, like Johnny. He was like Johnny in other ways too. Full of fun. Kept Mary and me both on our toes with his mischief. But he weren’t bad, just full of ginger. Had a good heart too.” With an audible sniff, Jelly looked back down at the picture.
“What happened to them?” Murdoch asked gently.
“Mary was helpin’ out some sick folks. My Mary was like that. Always wantin’ to help people. She got the fever herself and died. Iffen weren’t for Davy, him needin’ me so much, I guess I woulda died too. I surely did love that gal.” Jelly swiped the back of his hand across his face.
Murdoch asked, “And Davy?”
“He’s what kept me goin’. After I lost Mary, he was ’bout the only thing that made me happy. One time, we was in town and a photographer feller was thar. We didn’t have much money but I got his picture took anyhow. My sister, back then she lived on the farm next to ours, said it was a waste of good money. I didn’t care. I wish I coulda had one of Mary.”
Jelly got up and returned the picture to the dresser drawer. For a long while it appeared as if Jelly wasn’t going to continue his story. Finally, he sat back down and started speaking again.
“It was just ’bout a month after I had the picture done. Bob, that’s my sister’s husband, and me were out in the fields cutting alfalfa. We both saw the smoke at the same time and went running to the barn. I could hear Davy screamin’ but I couldn’t …” Jelly buried his face in his hands as sobs shook his body.
The bed shifted as Murdoch moved to Jelly’s side and put his arm around his friend’s shoulders. Although no words were spoken, Jelly could feel the compassion emanating from Murdoch. This comforted Jelly more than any platitudes could have ever done. Jelly had plenty of words spoken to him by his sister, by the preacher, and by others who tried to console him after Davy’s death. This was different. For the first time, Jelly had opened his heart to someone who could truly sympathize with the loss of a son.
Finally, Jelly got his emotions under control. He stood up, walked to the water basin and washed away the remnants of his tears. With a voice still trembling, he spoke again. “I’d give anything to have my Davy back. I know ya felt the same way about yer boys. I know ya scared of losing them. Ya don’t like Johnny Madrid ‘cuz ya afraid someday he’s gonna git yer Johnny killed. Maybe it will happen that way. I don’t know. I do know it was Johnny Madrid who kept him alive all that time. Iffen I were ya I’d be grateful to him instead hatin’ him so much.”
“It’s hard, Jelly.”
“Ya think I don’t know it? ‘Bout scared me to death when that yahoo called him out. Johnny did everything he could to keep from fightin’. Check the bullet wound. He was walkin’ away when the dirty varmint shot him. Johnny didn’t have a choice.”
“Walking away! Why…”
“He hates disappointing ya. He knows exactly how ya feel ’bout Johnny Madrid.” Jelly knew his words would hurt but he needed Murdoch to understand. Scott was right. Johnny was trying and it was about time Murdoch realized it. “Ya best go see to yer boy, Murdoch.”
Rising, Murdoch started towards the door. He had almost reached it when he turned back to his friend. “Jelly, will you be okay?”
Touched by Murdoch’s concern, Jelly managed a slight smile. “I’ll be fine. Truth is it felt kinda good gittin’ it off my chest like that.”
Giving Jelly’s shoulder a squeeze, Murdoch left the room. For a moment, Jelly stood still as he came to a decision. Murdoch was right. Sometimes it didn’t pay to bury the past completely. Moving to the dresser, Jelly opened the drawer and removed the picture. For the first time since he lost Davy, he was able to look at the picture without the over-whelming bitterness for what could have been. Wiping one last tear away, Jelly placed the picture on the top of the dresser.
Carefully opening the door in an effort not to wake the injured man, Murdoch entered Johnny’s room. The light from the full moon made a lamp unnecessary. He stared at his son’s face remembering the nights long ago when he would return from the range past Johnny’s bedtime. He would be drawn to this room and would stand in awe of the sleeping child. He remembered nights later on, when with a heavy heart, he would come in here and kneel by an empty bed.
So many lost years. “It’s in the past, Murdoch. Ain’t important.” Those were the very sentiments Murdoch had expressed to his sons less than a year ago. Hearing them from Jelly made him realized how foolish the words sounded.
When Catherine died, Murdoch felt like he had lost a part of himself. The situation became worse when Harlan took Scott away. Then he met and married Maria. Listening to Jelly tell about Davy brought back many memories of a little whirlwind who brought so much happiness into his life. When Maria left taking Johnny with her, he again felt overwhelmed by the loss of a wife and child.
It was little comfort but at least he always knew Scott was safe and could pray the same for Johnny. The thought of your child dying so horrendously in front of you was something Murdoch never imagined having to face. That changed the morning when Pardee’s men raided the Lancer ranch. Murdoch still had nightmares from witnessing Johnny being shot from the saddle.
Watching his boy sleep, he thought about Jelly’s words. “… Johnny Madrid who kept him alive all that time. Iffen I were ya I’d be grateful to him instead hatin’ him so much.”
Johnny began to stir as the events of the day invaded his dreams. Murdoch hurried to his side murmuring words of comfort. The soft words awakened the restless man. Their eyes met for a moment before Johnny looked away but not before Murdoch saw the hurt the young man tried to hide. Murdoch was ashamed for his part in causing some of that pain. Sitting on the edge of the bed, Murdoch softly spoke his son’s name.
Johnny turned back to his father and said quietly, “I’m sorry.”
Swallowing the lump in his throat, Murdoch gently stroked his son’s hair back from his forehead. “Don’t. You have nothing to be sorry for. You only did what you had to. I’m the one who should apologize. I over-reacted. The thought of losing you scares me. I’m just thankful you’re okay.”
“Easy son. Everything is going to be fine. You go on back to sleep.”
The scene was re-played many times during the night. At various intervals, a father, a brother and a sister slipped into Johnny’s room wanting to make sure he was resting peacefully. Towards dawn one last family member made an appearance to check on the boy forced into a decision of kill or be killed. As he looked at the young man he loved as a son, Jelly silently offered a quick prayer thanking the Good Lord for getting his boy home one more time.
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