The Lady in Red
By Cadillac Red
Disclaimer: The characters belong to someone else. I make no money, and mean no harm in using them.
Setting: A little more than a year after Scott and Johnny arrived at Lancer.
Summary: Johnny falls ill with fever and both he and his father experience a strange visit.
Murdoch Lancer dipped a cloth into a bucket of cool water, wrung it out with strong hands then gently used it to wipe the face of his youngest son. Johnny had a high fever that did not seem to be responding to his ministrations. In fact, it seemed to get higher despite his efforts.
The young man moved restlessly in the bed, murmuring in a mixture of Spanish and English. Murdoch caught a word here or there but little of it made sense. Johnny had been fevered and mostly incoherent since Murdoch and Scott found him in the remote line shack last night. He'd been sent out this way four days earlier, to check fences and clear debris from the nearby stream. A day later, an early winter storm had blown through the valley. A sensible man would have headed home at the first sign of the weather change but Johnny had been angry when he left the hacienda following yet another argument with Murdoch. It had had been about something inconsequential in the big scheme of things but had been a flashpoint to the both of them four days ago.
The job he'd been sent to do should have taken two days at most. When the temperature had dropped and the storm ensued, Johnny did not come home and Murdoch had first assumed he was still working off his mad. But Scott sensed there was trouble, and finally, yesterday morning, informed Murdoch he was going looking for Johnny no matter what his father said.
Murdoch finally admitted that he too was worried and decided to accompany his elder son. They'd ridden out along the line that Johnny had been working and finally found him at nearly the furthest point of the Lancer spread.
It was clear Johnny had been out in the storm far too long-- his jacket and boots were still sodden when his father and brother arrived at the line shack to find him sleeping fitfully under a blanket on one of two beds in the shack. His horse, Barranca had been sheltered in the lean-to outside and they knew immediately the sick young man had made sure the palomino was watered and fed before seeking shelter for himself.
Once they saw Johnny's condition, Murdoch had insisted Scott wait for first light then ride for help. His older son had almost complied, leaving just before dawn on a trek that would require hours just to reach the nearest town. Then he'd have to track down the doctor, never an easy task in a small western town. The doctor could be anywhere within twenty miles, helping a sick or injured patient, or drunk in the local saloon, or just out until he returned. The one thing Murdoch knew for sure was that Scott would leave no stone unturned finding help for his little brother.
That thought brought a small smile to the older man's face as he adjusted the blankets around his youngest, trying to keep Johnny warm. He'd spent two decades dreaming of a time when his two boys would be together, hoping they'd have the kind of bond that was born of unconditional trust and the security of being family. When they arrived a year ago, two grown men, half-brothers who were so different their paths would never had crossed had they not been blood kin, he'd immediately discarded the last shred of that hope. Yet despite their outward differences, the two young men had quickly formed an attachment that came from something Murdoch could not name or describe if he'd had a gun to his head. It was a miracle, really, that they had become brothers in every meaning of the word.
"Mama, no entiendo, no entiendo lo que tu hiciste…. No entiendo por que….. Why? I don't understand… why you did it. Por que?" Johnny continued to babble as Murdoch tried to wipe newly-formed sweat from his face. His fever was higher now and the older man decided to go down to the stream for another pail of cool water so he could try to wipe down the boy's torso next.
Murdoch prayed silently as he drew the water. Please, God, let Scott find a doctor fast, let Johnny be okay. I—I shouldn't have let him leave thinking I was angry with him….Please give us another chance. There is so much I still haven't said to my child.
He completed his prayer, then rose and strode back to the line shack. It was late in the afternoon now, and the moon was beginning to rise in the quickly darkening sky. He knew if Scott did not arrive in the next hour, he was unlikely to make it before morning and offered yet another prayer that Johnny could hang on until help arrived.
After bathing the young man's chest and arms with cool water, he covered Johnny up again and laid down on the bed a few feet away. He just needed to close his eyes for a few minutes but sleep would not come. Despite his exhaustion, it could not overcome his worry and fear. He opened his eyes and saw something move silently across the room in the deepening shadow of twilight. He quietly reached for his gun, drew it, then sat up and pointed it at the figure standing over his son's bed.
"It is me, Murdoch," she said. "I am no threat to our son."
Murdoch blinked twice. "Maria," he said. Perhaps this was a dream – or a nightmare.
She continued to stare at their son. "He was a beautiful niño, si? He still looks almost the same when he is sleeping, have you noticed, Murdoch?"
Murdoch's blood ran cold as he realized what might have brought her. "You cannot take him, Maria," he said coldly. "Not again. Not without a fight this time."
Her eyes, the light brown he remembered, seemed to hold immense sadness. "I wronged you, Murdoch," she whispered. "I am sorry—"
"Never mind that, Maria," he cut her off. "You wronged him. You wronged our son!"
"Sí…. I was so young, so selfish."
His anger continued to rise. "Why?"
"I could not be what you wanted, Murdoch. I tried but… I could not be her," she whispered, so softly he had to strain to hear.
"Her? Who? I didn't expect you to be anyone else—
"You never said it, no. But I could see it in your eyes, and hear it in your voice. I did not know how to be the kind of wife you expected. I—I would not have known how to be a mother to your other son if he returned from Boston. And I grew so tired of trying… and failing--."
"So it's my fault, is that it, Maria? You bear no responsibility for taking our child, exposing him to a life he should never have seen, to people and places where he'd come to believe his only way out was with a gun?"
She backed up from his tirade, then sat on the edge of Johnny's bed. "I know you are angry still-"
"Hell, yes!" he bellowed. "You denied him a father for almost 20 years!"
"And you are denying him one now, Murdoch," she retorted angrily. "I hurt him but I have been trying to fix things, to bring him home. But you, Dios mio, you are pushing him away again!"
"What are you talking about? I- I searched for him for years. I sent the Pinkerton's men everywhere and finally, finally they found him. Almost too late. But I brought him home—"
"And have you been a father to him, Murdoch? Or a boss? You are the patrón, si? You call the tune, as you say!"
Murdoch was struck speechless, shocked at hearing his own words thrown back at him.
"You are the big tough boss. When do you start being a father to our son?" She laid a hand on Johnny's forehead and the fevered young man seemed to respond to it, turning his head in her direction but his eyes remained closed. "Te amo, mi hijo," Maria whispered to him. "Sleep now, cariño."
"I don't know what you mean," Murdoch finally sputtered. "I am his father—"
Maria rose and stepped in his direction, her brown eyes flashing in a way he recalled from so many arguments during their time together. "I know you are his father. But when will you show him, so he knows what it is like to have a father? To be loved just for being. Now, all he knows is that he keeps disappointing you. That he can never be like his big brother and that's what you really want…"
"That's not true! I—I love Johnny every bit as much as Scott. I didn't know it would be possible when I first met him last year but…" He struggled to put words to his feelings. It was not the big man's way. "I can see the little boy I loved in the young man he has become. He is a good man, but… reckless and impulsive sometimes. And with a rebellious streak. I just want him to have the life he should have had—and that means learning to live a new way, Maria. I want him to live to be an old man, and to see his children and grandchildren, and Scott's, born and raised on Lancer. As he and his brother should have been!"
Maria smiled. "Sí, Murdoch. But he—" she nodded toward the bed, "he does not know that."
Murdoch looked at the young man now. Johnny looked impossibly young in his sleep, when the tough and jaded persona with which he met the world slipped away, when all that remained was the sweet and vulnerable child he'd buried deep below the surface, long ago. Had he failed to tell Johnny how he felt? He thought he demonstrated it with actions but could the boy misunderstand his intentions? It had to be hard to unlearn a lifetime of thinking his father did not want him.
"Maria, why did you tell him I threw you both out? Why did let him believe I never wanted him?"
She dropped her eyes and a look of pain crossed her beautiful face. He realized she looked a little older than when he last saw her, but not old enough to be the mother of a twenty year old man.
"I am so sorry," she said. "That was the worst sin of all. After a little while, his memory of you seemed to fade. All he knew was what people said about him, that his eyes told everyone his father was a gringo. He did not yet know it was a bad thing in the border towns. So he would run up to every gringo and ask "Are you my Papa?" It—It caused problems, with the men who were… taking care of us. Or sometimes with the men he asked. I—I had to stop him and it seemed the only way was to make him believe his Papa was never coming, that he did not want him. If I could change anything, it would be that lie…."
Murdoch felt sick at the thought of his son, wanting him, waiting to no avail for him to come. "So you made him hate me."
Maria looked up, tears running down her face. "Sí. And later, when I was no longer there, he would not come here, or contact you. Because he was so angry. He needed a father so badly, someone to guide him. In time, he met up with a man who took Johnny under his wing for a while, a gringo. He was a pistolero."
Murdoch sat down on the other bed, his legs too weak to hold him. So this was how it happened, how his younger son had become a gunfighter. "The man was good at his trade, and fast, one of the best for many years. He let our son ride with him, and taught him things. But he was challenged one day in Sonora by someone who was a little faster. Johnny was there, Murdoch. He saw him gunned down. The next day Johnny challenged the other man and Johnny won. On that day Johnny Madrid was born."
Murdoch nodded. He'd always wanted to ask his son but had never been able to form the question when he was with the young man. In truth, he wasn't sure he'd wanted to know the answer.
"He was always looking for you. Or for his big brother."
Murdoch's eyes widened in surprise. "But you never told him about Scott—"
Maria smiled sadly. "No, I never told him he had a brother," she confessed. "But you did."
"What are you talking about?" Murdoch snapped. "You took him from me—"
"When he was just a little one, remember? You would take him up on your horse and ride around the ranch with him. And talk to him. He would tell me when I gave him his bath. 'Papa says my big brother will come home soon. Papa says he will play with me, and help me ride my pony. Papa says my big brother will always take care of me.' Always he tells me this, even after we left."
Murdoch felt gut-shot hearing his words repeated, things he'd told Johnny when he'd been little more than a baby.
"Even after he started to forget the estancia and you, he remembered his 'big brother' in a little part of his heart. Juanito would tell people that his big brother was coming to take care of him, or help him when he was in trouble. People thought it was just a pretend brother but I knew he was remembering the things you'd told him. Even after he stopped talking about his big brother, he was waiting, searching for someone to fill that hole in his life."
Murdoch looked up and saw her eyes were brimming with tears. "I always thought that you had Scott here with you," she whispered, nearly choking on the words. "I thought—I thought that if Johnny returned, you would not want him so long as you had your other son. I thought I was keeping him from being hurt…."
Murdoch's own eyes filled with tears. "How—how could you think that of me?"
She shook her head. "I—I knew you regretted marrying me. That it was only because of the child—"'
"No! No, that's not true, Maria! I- I may have thought that at first but… but we could have made it work if you'd only stayed—"
"It was so hard, Murdoch. I was a young, foolish girl. I met a big, handsome rancher, sí? I thought the estancia would be… like the ones I remembered from my girlhood. With servants and parties, and pretty dresses for the señora de la hacienda…."
She looked down at the shabby red dress she wore and smiled sadly. It was the one she had been wearing that last day, to work in the cantina. "I was so…. I did not understand this was a working ranch, and you were just building your dream. When someone came along and offered me a fancy life, I took it. Only—only it was a lie. And I knew you would not take me back after—after everything….."
Murdoch stared at the young man in the bed, unable to meet her eyes in the wake of her confession. "You're wrong, Maria," he finally whispered. "I would have taken you back—if only for our son's sake."
"I know," she responded sadly. "If I had only known then…."
A full minute passed before he could speak again. "What matters now is Johnny," he said. "He deserves the life he should have had, the family he was denied…."
"Sí, Murdoch," she answered. "But it is in your hands now. Please. Don't let my sins keep you from loving our child, from letting him know that you love him. He needs a father."
Murdoch shook his head. "You're wrong, Maria. Johnny had to grow up fast. He—he's been hardened by life. He says himself he doesn't take orders well—"
"No, not orders, Murdoch. This is what I am trying to tell you! He needs love, and guidance, and—perhaps a firm hand now and then. He needs you to be his Papa, not the patrón….."
Murdoch shook his head, not sure what to believe. He had recently learned that he'd failed to show his older son how he felt, and Scott was the easier of the two to deal with. He did not have Johnny's temper – or his youthful insecurity. The thought hit him suddenly, right between the eyes. Johnny seemed so independent and self-sufficient, toughened by years of making his way on his own. Could he have missed the needy boy beneath that mask?
"In many ways, he is still a boy, Murdoch," Maria said quietly, echoing his thoughts. "He missed many things because of my mistakes, most of all the chance to grow up with his father and big brother. He needs that chance now. Make him understand what it means to be part of a family. He fights it because he learned too young not to depend on others. That was my fault – but it will be your fault if he fails to learn that lesson now. Please, Murdoch. Give him back what I stole from our son—"
The sound of an approaching horse caught Murdoch's attention and he turned his head to listen more closely. One horse. Scott must not have found a doctor. He turned his head back but Maria was gone. He glanced quickly around the small cabin but a deep sigh from Johnny brought him to his feet, and across the room to sit on the edge of the other bed. He laid a palm on his son's forehead and was relieved to feel it was cool. The fever had broken.
"Thank God," he said aloud.
"M-Mama?" Johnny asked, opening his eyes. He was immediately embarrassed to have spoken aloud, out of his dream. It had been such a vivid dream. "Murdoch! What are you doing here?"
"I might ask you the same thing," he responded, a wry smile touching his lips. "Did it not occur to you to come home when that storm came up?"
Johnny lowered his eyes, dark lashes touching his pale face. "No. No, I figured I might not be welcome back so soon."
"Well, you figured wrong!" Murdoch cut him off. Behind him Scott entered through the cabin door but Murdoch didn't hear him. "Nothing on God's green earth is as important to me as you and your brother. There is no moment when either of you would not be welcome under my roof! And don't ever let me hear you say that again!"
Johnny's eyes opened wide, and his gaze flew to his father's face. His mouth opened once, then closed again without having uttered a sound.
Murdoch watched him struggle with a response, then think better of it, and he smiled inwardly at the confused look on his youngest's face. He turned to Scott. "No doctor, son?"
"N-no, sir," Scott answered quickly, looking as stunned as his younger brother by what he'd just heard. "He just up and left a few months ago, apparently. I-I brought medical supplies, and food….."
"Good. Your brother's feeling better but not up to traveling yet—"
Johnny's rebellious streak reared its head, and got the better of his common sense. He pushed the blanket off and started to rise.
"Get back in that bed, young man," Murdoch barked. "You're not traveling until you've had a good night's rest, without a fever."
"I'm okay to go--
"You'll be okay when I say you are," Murdoch told him firmly. "Now, get back in that bed!"
"Why?" Johnny spat. "Because you call the tune, old man?"
"No, because I'm your father and I said so!"
That seemed to stop Johnny's attempted rebellion in its tracks. "Oh. 'kay, then," the youngest Lancer muttered, almost to himself. He closed his eyes against the stern glare of his father. "I—I think I could use a little more rest before riding home."
Scott's face reflected his surprise and frank admiration for how well their father had quashed his younger brother's momentary revolt. "Well, look's like you've got this in hand, sir," he said, taking off his hat and running a hand through his thick blond hair. "I guess I'll unload the supplies, then ride back to the house to let everyone know he's okay—"
"You've been awake and riding for more than twenty-four hours, Scott," Murdoch responded immediately. "You'll stay here and get a good meal, and a night's sleep too. We all will."
"No buts about it. And if I have to repeat myself, you will regret it, son."
Scott's eyes widened with a combination of surprise and alarm. "I—I'll water the horses an then bring in the supplies," he said, backing toward the door, then turning on his heel and escaping outside as quickly as possible without actually breaking into a run.
Murdoch sat down heavily in the old wooden chair next to the window and closed his eyes. This fatherhood job was exhausting. He smiled to himself, his memory conjuring up the scent of orange blossoms.
"It hasn't taken you too long to get good at it," Catherine said, perching on the arm of the chair.
Murdoch's eyes opened immediately, and he drank in the sight of her. "I just hope I'm up to it," he said.
"You will be," she laughed. "And they will make you proud, Murdoch. They will give Lancer the sons and daughters you dreamed of, when we first arrived in this beautiful land. And you will enjoy being a grandfather too, my love."
Murdoch smiled at the thought. "Will I see you again?" he asked her suddenly.
"Not for a long time, dear," she answered, laying a hand on his chest. "But when the time comes, your sons will be here beside you. And I will be waiting. I promise."
Scott entered the cabin softly, not wanting to risk the wrath of Murdoch for disturbing Johnny's sleep. But Murdoch was asleep also, snoring lightly, his head tilted back in the chair and a peaceful look on his face. Johnny dozed quietly in the bed.
"Guess I'm on kitchen duty tonight," Scott murmured to himself as he carried in a sack of food and began unpacking things. Then he stopped and frowned in confusion. He could almost swear the old line shack smelled of orange blossoms.