Worth a Thousand Words

By Cadillac Red ()

Murdoch Lancer poured himself a cup of coffee from the pot that was kept brewing on the kitchen stove all day. He'd left the hacienda early that morning to attend the monthly gathering of the cattleman's association but the meeting had been postponed when it turned out several members were hit by rustlers the night before. Their minds were on trying to recover their stock and so the meeting had been put off for a couple of days. Instead, Murdoch had lunch with the town doctor, an old friend, and then he returned to the ranch intending to spend the late afternoon hours on correspondence and the books. That would free up his evening to spend with his sons. It was a pleasure denied him for too many years.

He walked carefully, intent on not spilling his coffee, but he stopped at the archway when he caught sight of his younger son in the study. Johnny's assignment today was overseeing a crew fencing a nearby pasture so seeing him around the house during the day didn't surprise the older man too much. But the fact he was just standing in the empty room, staring at something in his hand, did. Murdoch had learned in the months since Johnny's return that about the only time his youngest boy was still was when he was asleep.

"Johnny?"

The young man started, and immediately put one hand behind his back, the one at which he'd been staring.

"Are you all right, son?" Murdoch's curiosity was outweighed only by his parental concern. A fleeting look of guilt crossed Johnny's face but there was something else at play, his father was certain. "What's got you home in the middle of the day? Not that I'm not glad for the company…."

"I thought there was a Cattlemen's meetin' today. It's the twelfth, right?" He kept his right hand behind his back as he spoke which further stoked his father's interest.

"Yes, it is," Murdoch replied. "Several of the members had cows rustled last night and their attention was on trying to find the culprits. Didn't seem like a good day to get much work done so we decided to reconvene on Thursday. I… I figured I'd try to get some work done here. But… if there's something you need, I have the time…."

"No! No, there's nuthin' I need. I just—I came back ta get a sandwich and…." He swallowed hard and blushed slightly under his naturally tan skin. "I was just—just lookin' around and, uh….."

Murdoch nodded, and then continued into the room. He placed his coffee cup on the desk and turned to his son. "This is your home, Johnny. You don't have to explain being here, son."

Johnny bit his lower lip, and looked down at the tips of his boots. "I know," he said softly. "I—It's just I was—well, I was just lookin' at this." He brought his right hand out from behind his back and held out a silver picture frame. "I don't have any pictures of her… and today is…."

It came to Murdoch in an instant as he realized what Johnny was holding. "It's the twelfth of May. Her birthday," he said, taking the picture of Johnny's mother into his own large hand. "I—I didn't realize it earlier. Too much on my mind lately, I guess…."

"I don't figger it's a big day for you, after… well, after everything. And to be honest, some years I didn't even remember it myself. For a long time, it didn't much matter to me what day it was, or what month. But this year, I heard ya say the meeting was on May twelfth and… and—"

"No need to explain, Johnny." He looked down at the photograph. "She was quite beautiful."

Johnny smiled sadly. "Yeah. She was."

"You favor her…." Murdoch said, laying a hand on his son's shoulder. He gave it a comforting squeeze.

"Ya mean in more ways than just my temper?"

"Yes," the father drawled, the corners of his mouth lifting slightly at the wistful, almost hopeful tone in Johnny's voice. "In many more ways, son."

They stood side by side for a long moment, gazing at the image of a woman who had once been central to both of their lives.

Johnny shifted nervously. "Murdoch? I—I know it ain't none of my business but….."

"Ask me anything, son. It—I know I've said the past should stay in the past but…. I was wrong. And anything about your mother is your business, one way or the other."

Johnny nodded, and lowered his gaze to the floor once more. He folded his arms around himself in a gesture that Murdoch had begun to be able to interpret. It meant his younger son was feeling uncertain or insecure, and it somehow reminded him of the small boy he had been when Maria took him from Lancer. Finally, Johnny swallowed hard and plowed ahead.

"Did you… ever love her?"

Murdoch was taken aback for a moment. He'd felt such anger toward Maria for so long, it was hard to reach past it, back to those early days. Something told him that, for the sake of this young man whom she had badly used but who still loved her any way, he had find the right words to explain and comfort.

"Oh, son," he sighed. "Yes. Yes, I loved her very much….." He nodded at a chair and waited for Johnny to sit down, then took a seat behind the desk himself. The younger man perched on the edge of his chair, obviously tense.

Murdoch looked at Johnny a moment, then his gaze traveled past him, toward the large window that looked out on his empire. "The ranch was just barely breaking even in those days, and we had frequent range wars. Land pirates and speculators came at us, and a couple of the larger, more established ranchers tried to keep the newer men from getting large enough spreads to compete with them. It was one of the reasons some of us started the Cattlemen's Association eventually, to drive home the point that we should all succeed together. This house was nothing more than three rooms and a kitchen with a roof that leaked when it rained. I was always trying to put aside some money to buy stock to build up the herd. That had to come first, before the hacienda. We had no hope of ever turning a profit without a decent herd. Some months I had trouble meeting the payroll for the couple of ranch hands we managed to keep on …." Murdoch smiled to himself. "But… they were the best days of my life until right now. Having your mother here, and then you…. Well, the only thing that kept it from being perfect to me was that that your brother wasn't here too…."

Johnny leaned back, and grinned. This time the smile lit his entire face and there was mischievous gleam in his eyes. This was more words at one time than Murdoch had spoken to him since he arrived, and he wanted to keep it going. "So… was I a good baby?"

Murdoch laughed. "Oh, now that's an entirely different story, my boy. If you get your work done today and make it home on time for supper, I think I could be convinced to share some of those memories with you tonight…."

THE END