THE FENCE MENDER

He had been watching the house for weeks. He had the perfect vantage point, up on a slight rise, behind some large boulders – for protection, and among the tall grasses that grew there. If he laid flat on his belly he only needed to raise his head a few inches for a good look. When he first got to town, he went to the surveyor's office to look at the plat. The property was large, thousands of acres. Those first few days he stayed well behind the fence lines. He didn't want to end up in jail for trespassing but protecting himself from the business end of a sheriff's rifle would not accomplish what he came here to do.

One night, under the illumination of a full moon, he made his move. He had found a hiding place for his horse the day before so, tethering him there, he crept through the shadows and up to the rise. Lights still shown through the home's windows but he couldn't see inside from sheer distance. He could, however, sometimes see shadows moving behind the curtains but no details. Before long the lights went out and only the orange glow of the fire in the hearth spilled out onto the wide front porch.

Rolling over, he reasoned that he wouldn't glean any more information for the day and so crept back to where his horse stood, untied the bedroll and removed the saddle. Using his saddlebags for a pillow, he lay down on some thick prairie grass and pulled the blanket over his shoulder. Tucking his rifle in beside him and positioning his hat over his eyes, he slept.

Awakening to bright sunshine the next morning, he quickly saddled his horse, replaced the bedroll, and, leading the animal by the reins, made his way to the river which ran just over the next hill to water the animal and fill his canteen. He was hungry, not having eaten since breakfast the previous day, but had no provisions and no money with which to get any. He would keep an eye open and eventually find something. After all, he was used to fending for himself and quite talented at it too, having been in this position since he was ten years old.

Mounting his horse, he rode off toward the fence line. He had seen some men working a couple miles upstream yesterday. If his luck held, they would still be there. Maybe he could beg a meal or even a job. From a short distance away, he watched the ranch hands repairing fence for a few minutes. Carefully, he rode up making sure they saw him coming. Surprising them might well have ended up with him getting shot. He told them he was down on his luck and that their coffee sure smelled good. The men looked from one to another. Should they trust him? He sure wasn't from around here with his dark complexion and jet black hair. His waist-length jacket had embroidery running down the fronts and all the way around the bottom. His spurs were very plain, cheaply made and slightly rusty. One of the men finally agreed that he could have a cup of coffee and some leftover biscuits. With a nod toward one of his partners, the other man crossed to the fire, poured some liquid from the granite pot into a tin cup and grabbed two biscuits with his dirty hands. Handing them to this stranger, the man who spoke before told him he could eat his breakfast on that side of the fence as their side was private property and had permission from the "Big Boss" to shoot first and ask questions later.

Dismounting slowly and tying up his horse to a nearby tree, he reached across the barbed wire to accept the men's offering. Holding the cup by the rim, he took a deep swallow of coffee before biting into one of the slightly stale and very dry biscuits. He didn't care. At least it would fill his belly for a time. Finishing his meal, he wiped the back of one hand across his mouth and held his empty cup out to the man who had brought it to him. He was told to just toss it on the ground on their side of the fence and they would retrieve it later. Bending, he reached through the barbed wire and sat the cup on the grass. Standing straight, he looked directly into the eyes of the man who seemed to be the leader of the others.

"How does a man go about getting a job around here?" He asked.

Again the other man glanced at his partners before answering. Returning his attention to the mending at hand, he said, "You'll have to talk to the foreman but don't get your hopes up. There were plenty hands right now. I don't think the boss will hire a fellow like you."

"Where do I find this foreman?"

"He has an office in the bunkhouse. You can't miss it. It's right south of the big house," he answered.

"And I won't get shot at?" The stranger asked.

"Keep on the trail and you should be okay. Tell them Uriah sent you."

The stranger pulled his hat down low over his forehead and, playing dumb, asked just how to get to this "Big House". He was told to go downstream about two miles and then take the trail heading east. He couldn't miss it. Mounting up, he tipped his hat to the men who never looked up. Turning his horse south, he rode off at a leisurely pace until well out of sight of the others at which time he broke into a gallop. He had been waiting for this opportunity for a long, long time. He had his "in". Now he would just have to prove himself worthy of a job at the ranch. That would give him the opportunity to find out those things that he didn't already know.

Slowing his horse into a walk as he approached, he reined the animal to a halt just yards from the large stone-faced dwelling. He rested one forearm on his saddle horn and then rested his weight slightly forward on his arm. He gazed at the house for some time, memorizing every detail. No one seemed to be about although the front doors stood wide open as did most of the windows. Finally he turned his horse toward another large building, this one made of logs. Various pieces of tack were strewn across its porch and hitching posts ran the entire length of the structure. Jumping off his horse, he tied the animal up near the main door before attempting to brush some of the trail dust off his pants and jacket. Taking a deep breath, he opened the door and walked inside. The room was huge, a large stone fireplace in its center, tables and benches around it with dozens of bunk beds lined up against the opposite wall. He saw a separate small room off in the far corner and reasoned this was the foreman's office.

Crossing the plank floor, his boots echoed loudly in the empty space. He stopped in front of the open office door and removed his hat, holding it with both hands in front of himself. Without looking up from his paperwork, a large, burly man behind the desk asked, "Can I help you?"

Advancing a few steps, he stood just opposite the desk. "I need a job," he said flatly.

The foreman continued writing for a few seconds before looking up. When he did, his eyes narrowed to study the stranger's face. Leaning back in his chair, the foreman interlaced his fingers except for the two index ones which he held in a point just in front of his lips. "You do", was all he said.

"Yes, I do," the stranger answered.

The men studied each other for a minute before the foreman asked, "And just why should I give you one?"

The stranger never flinched; he held the other man's gaze but absentmindedly began turning his sweat stained hat in his hands. "Because I'm worthy of one," he stated arrogantly. "I'm a hard worker. A smart one too." He quickly added. "I watched your men mending fence for a while. I can do it better and faster. You're wasting time and money."

The foreman sat forward and rested his hands on his desk. "Prove it," he challenged.

"Give me a section of fence to mend. One that you think should take three or four days and I'll do it in half that time." The foreman raised his eyebrows while the stranger continued. "All I ask is meals, feed for my horse and a place to sleep. No wages. If the work isn't good, I'll be on my way, but if the work is good I want the wages I earned for the days I worked and the promise of a job." The stranger's gaze never left the foreman's eyes.

The other man paused for a moment. "Sounds like a good deal to me," he said. He turned in his chair and pulled out a large plat map which he spread across the desk. Pointing to a spot on the northeast quarter he ran his finger down the line a short distance. "Section fourteen," he said. "Right along here. This fence has been neglected for some time because we don't graze stock in this quarter any more. It's in bad shape. Still want the challenge?"

The stranger grinned tight-lipped. "Give me the supplies and let me get started."

"And how do I know you won't take off with them and sell them in town somewhere. Steal the wagon and the horses."

"You don't," replied the stranger never looking away.

The foreman rubbed his whisker-stubbled chin with one hand. "The Big Boss will have my hide if . . . "Looking back at the stranger, he extended his right hand and the men shook. "Do I have your word?" Asked the foreman.

"You have my word," the stranger replied. "Where are my supplies? We're wasting time and money just standing here."

The foreman pulled on his hat and led the other man toward another large building which held all kinds of supplies. He called out to one of the other men to hitch two horses and bring a wagon. Once it arrived, the foreman started grabbing bales of barbed wire but the stranger quickly stepped forward and took them from his hands. Tossing them into the back of the wagon he said, "I believe that's my job." As the foreman pointed to wooden posts, more wire and tools, the stranger silently loaded them into the wagon also. Finished, the foreman crooked his finger indicating the stranger should follow him to yet another building.

"Bring the wagon," he added. The stranger deftly leapt into the seat and reined the horses into a slow turn. Following a pace or so behind the other man, he was signaled to stop at the opposite end of the bunkhouse. "You won't be coming back here until the work is done," the foreman said. "Too far." He added. He motioned for the man working in the far corner peeling potatoes. As the man advanced, he wiped his hands on his apron. "This is the cook," the foreman explained. "He'll get you set up with supplies. When you're done here, bring the wagon to the barn and I'll have feed ready for you."

The cook exchanged glances with the foreman before walking to a large cupboard on the far wall. He took down tins of coffee and beans, two rations of bacon, some flour and lard for making biscuits, a small bag of sugar and a burlap bag of venison jerky. He then grabbed a granite coffee pot, a cast iron skillet, a tin plate and cup and a knife, fork and spoon off a nearby shelf. Loading it all in a crate, he handed it up to the stranger who placed it on the floor next to his feet. The stranger remained silent, but tipped his hat to the man in thanks.

Pulling up to the barn, a large sack of feed, a couple blankets and a flat feather pillow were stacked just outside the gate. Next to them were two iron-banded wooden barrels marked "water". He loaded all the items into the bed of the wagon, crossed the dusty expanse to retrieve his horse and tied its reins to the back of the wagon. The foreman handed him a quickly drawn out sketch of the section he had been assigned.

"Do you know how to read a map?" The man asked.

The stranger folded the paper and stuffed it into his front pocket. He simply grinned at the man in reply and gently slapped the team with the reins. The wagon jerked forward and he drove it off in the direction of the northeast trail. When he knew he was out of sight of the main ranch, he pulled up the horses and retrieved the map from his pocket. He was too proud to admit he couldn't read and was none too good at deciphering maps either. Luckily, the foreman had drawn in most of the major landmarks. It was about noon and he was still hungry but he decided to wait until he stopped his journey for the day before making a meal. It was about noon, judging by the position of the sun. It took him the better part of the afternoon to reach his destination. He checked the drawing again. Large hickory tree to the left, three large boulders almost at its base, a slight rise with some rocky outcropping to the right. Looking up at a totally dilapidated section of fencing, he knew he was in the right place. Lifting his eyes to the sky, he reasoned the sun would be setting in an hour. No time to start his work today.

He unhitched the horses and removed the saddle from his own. Using the skillet, he filled it with water and held it in turn beneath each horse's nose to give them a drink. There was thick grass off a little way to the east so the animals could graze. He would wait to give them feed until the morning. Gathering some wood, he quickly built a fire. Filling the pot with coffee grounds and water, he sat it in the middle of the flames while using his pocket knife to open a tin of beans. He grabbed a fist full of venison, the spoon and the tin cup. Returning to the fire, he sat down cross-legged and began to wolf down the best dinner he had had in some time. He drank nearly the whole pot of coffee, leaving just enough to reheat for breakfast. It was dusk. He was tired. Spreading out the blankets near the fire and tossing the pillow toward one end, he surveyed the area around his camp, memorizing every detail, just in case he needed protection or a quick getaway during the night. Finally he settled himself down, tucked his rifle in the length between his arm and his body, arranged his hat over his eyes and was soon sound asleep.

He awoke with the sun, fed the horses, gave them water, reheated the coffee and tossed a large portion of bacon in the skillet. While it cooked, he folded the blankets and tossed them, along with the pillow, back into the wagon. He would be moving the wagon with him as he worked. The aroma of the bacon pulled him back to the fire where he burned his fingers removing it from the pan and tossing it on the tin plate. He didn't care, licking the tips. Good food two days in a row was a treat. Eating quickly, he gulped down most of the coffee before tossing the plate into the pan, dumping out the pot in order to extinguish the fire, and placing his empty cup along with the other dishes. He did not take the time just then to clean them. He reasoned he would do that before supper. The items clinked against each other as he tossed them back into the crate. He would wait to hitch up the team until it was time to move the wagon but re-saddled his horse so that he would be ready, just in case.

Pulling on thick leather gloves, he picked up a couple bales of wire, shoved several posts in the crook of the same arm and picked up the tools with his free hand. Dropping his load near the fence line, he stood for a few moments, hands on hips, and surveyed the utter mess before him. Deciding just how to begin, he soon found his pace and the work progressed quickly. The day was hot and the area in full sun. Around noon, he was ready to move the wagon so hitched up the horses, grabbed the reins of his own horse, and led them all east about half a mile. Stripping off his sweat-soaked shirt, he spread it over a nearby bush and got back to work. He smiled close-lipped to himself as he stretched the wire and set the posts. He had learned his technique from a ranch hand while working in Mexico. It was simple, quick, and made a good, tight fence. He made excellent progress that day. The old posts were so rotten they often broke off in his hand. He could easily dig out the remaining portion below ground which left a hole just slightly smaller than the new post which he easily set be simply twisting them back and force, using the sledge hammer to finish the job, and stomping the loose dirt tightly around the bottoms with his boot. This was the toughest part. Stringing the wire was the easiest due to his tried and true method.

He made camp that night, taking the time to mix biscuits and heat up a tin of beans. The horses had been fed, watered and settled in. He had cleaned up the dirty dishes and gotten things lined up for breakfast. The sun had set about an hour past. His back stung from the effects of the sun but he felt good. He had done an exceptional day's work and he knew it. He would easily finish before the deadline and get that promised job. The plans he had made over the last several months couldn't have been working out better.

By the end of the second day, he was almost finished. An hour or so in the morning and he could head back to the ranch. He rose with the sun, skipped breakfast and got right to work. When he finished, he stood back, rested his hands on his hips, and surveyed his work. It was good. He bent over the top line of barbed wire and looked down the length of the fence. It was straight as an arrow. He was proud. Tossing the tools and leftover supplies into the bed of the wagon, he hitched up the horses, saddled his and headed for the "Big House." He arrived about mid-afternoon. Pulling up, he saw the foreman standing by the barn talking to another hand. Hearing a wagon rumbling toward him, the man looked up in total surprise.

"What are you doing here? Problem?" He asked.

"No problem. I'm done." The stranger answered. The two men near the barn exchanged glances. The foreman had been only too happy to explain his deal with this man to all the other hands at supper the night before. The men laughed. There was no way he could do it, said the hands most familiar with the expanse. And yet here he was, looking about as proud as a peacock with its tail in full regalia.

Hopping down from the wagon he untied his horse, leading him over to the trough for a drink. A couple men unhitched the horses and led them into the barn. "Well, do I get a job," he called to the foreman.

"Not yet. Still needs to be okayed. That was the deal," the man answered.

The stranger broke into a wide grin. "Shame to send a man all the way out there to check. The fence is perfect," he said.

"We'll see. We'll see." Mumbled the foreman as he walked away. It was too late to send someone yet today but first thing tomorrow . . . And, to save his own skin, it had better be perfect too, thought the foreman. The Big Boss was due back in a couple weeks.

The repair work was proclaimed spot-on when the two men, one being the foreman himself, rode out to check it. When they returned, the foreman walked up to the stranger. Removing his hat, he scratched his head as he spoke, "I don't know how you did it, but you did it." Placing his hat back on his head, he extended his hand to the stranger. "You've got yourself a job," he said as they shook hands.

A touch of excitement mixed with apprehension boiled up inside the stranger but you would never have guessed it by outward appearances. His plan had worked.

"Come on in the office and I'll pay you your wages and put you on the payroll." The two men walked inside, where the stranger was handed several pieces of paper money.

"This is too much," he said.

The foreman tossed his hat aside and sat down behind the desk. "Four days' pay," he said.

"But I only worked two days," the stranger corrected.

"But it would have – should have – taken four days. Any other man would have earned four days' pay."

The stranger stared at the bills. He hadn't held this much money in his hand for months. Not since winning a big poker game in Nevada, and then he had to repay the man who staked him plus ten percent more. Slowly he peeled off a couple notes and tossed them on the foreman's desk. "I only accept what I earn," he said.

The foreman looked up, not believing his ears. Any of his other men would have taken the cash and run. Picking up a couple bills from the pile, he handed them back to the stranger. "Here, it took you a day to load and to ride way out there. Three days, agreed?"

Reluctantly the stranger accepted the money, folded it and tucked it into his shirt pocket. "Agreed," he stated.

"Now, give me your name so I can get you on the payroll."

"Madrid. Johnny Madrid."

As the foreman wrote the name in the large ledger before him, he suddenly paused. "Madrid? The gunfighter?"

Johnny didn't know if he should own up to his reputation or not. Would it cost him this job? "That's what they say." He answered, dropping his voice.

The foreman looked up, pencil in hand. "They say you're the fastest gun in the southwest."

Johnny self-consciously blushed. "I'm pretty good, I guess. When I need to be," he quickly added. The foreman just stared, mouth slightly agape. A legend, standing right in front of him. Johnny finally asked the man if he needed any other information and the foreman shook his head.

Johnny turned and walked out of the office and to his bunk in the farthest corner of the room. He had purposely chosen one well away from the other men. He had been a loner all his life and that suited him just fine. There was a small trunk at the foot end of the bottom bunk and Johnny busied himself unpacking a few items from his saddlebags. It was almost supper time, no more work for today. Using his arms, he hoisted himself up into the top bunk. Tossing the pillow aside, Johnny leaned back against the wall. There was a small window which looked out over the barn and he could see some of the other hands returning their horses and using their hats to swat some of the dust off their clothing. Soon there was a hubbub of voices filling the room. Tossing their hats on their bunks, they strolled to the other end of the room where large pitchers of water stood in big bowls with towels hanging nearby. They washed up a bit before taking their place at the table. It seemed each man had his own designated space.

Jumping down, Johnny sauntered over to join them. He waited until they had all been seated. All eyes seemed to be on him. They had heard of his work. Some pointed. Johnny looked around the table before walking over to stand behind an empty space on the bench. "Okay?" He asked.

"Help yourself!" One of the men from the far end of the table hollered, causing the others to laugh. Supper was served out of big cast iron kettles which the cook sat down the middle of the table. Tonight was stew, biscuits and pie. Johnny watched some of the men take their portions before dishing up his own. He didn't want to wear out his welcome by taking more than his fair share. The room fell silent except for the clinking of spoons against tin plates as the men eagerly ate. When they were done, they rose and most of them rubbed their bellies while agreeing that the grub was the best of any of the ranches they had worked. Johnny rose too. Chewing on a toothpick, he walked out the front door and stood with the door open behind him. A few men followed him onto the porch and sat down heavily in a couple rocking chairs. They nudged each other and looked in his direction.

"Is it true you're Johnny Madrid?" One man finally asked, almost in a whisper.

Johnny rolled the toothpick across his tongue and tucked it into the corner of his mouth. "Yup," he answered.

More men came out to join them. A low murmur passed amongst them before they moved back a few steps to give him ample breathing room. Johnny waited for more questions but none came which suited him just fine. He had decided to be as vague as possible when conversing with the others, giving no details of his life before coming here. He turned and went back inside and to his bunk where he again leaned against the wall and looked out the window. Soon other men began filling their bunks and before long snoring echoed off the walls. Johnny tugged off his boots, letting them fall to the floor in a thud. He stretched out on top of the blanket and taking the toothpick from his lips, tossed it aside. From this angle he could see the stars. Soon a deep and dreamless sleep came over him.

In the weeks that followed, Johnny was mostly given fence mending work in some of the areas where it was most needed. He continued to complete the work in record time and just as perfectly as before. On payday he would go into town and have a couple drinks, maybe get into a low-stakes poker game. He was excellent at playing cards but, as the newcomer, folded more hands than he showed even though he held the winning cards. It wouldn't be good to take the other men's money. Not yet anyhow. His reputation had become known in town too and everyone pretty much left him alone.

Through his conversations with the other men, and through his own personal observations, he either gathered the facts he had been missing or confirmed the ones he already suspected were true. But he wasn't ready to reveal the real reason he had wanted a job at the ranch, this ranch, so badly.

Unbeknownst to Johnny, the "Big Boss" had returned late the night before. He now sat in the foreman's office. After an absence, it was his custom to speak with the man and be updated about the work needed on the ranch, to look over and sign purchase orders for supplies, and to hear about any problems with the hands. As the foreman spoke, the "Big Boss" nodded, asking few questions. He was confident in his choice, almost ten years ago now, of this man to act in such a capacity. When the foreman finished and the purchase orders had been signed, the "Big Boss" stood, shook hands and turned to leave. Hesitating in the doorway, he turned. "What about the fence lines? Still working on them? When do you think they'll be done?"

The foreman looked up and smiled. "They're almost done as we speak!" The man boasted. "The last section along the southeast border will be finished today."

"What?" Exclaimed the "Big Boss". "So soon? How's that possible? What kind of a sloppy job have the hands been doing to finish so much ahead of schedule?"

The foreman swallowed. Although he was authorized to hire in the "Big Bosses'" absence, he never quite felt comfortable doing so. "Hired a new man," he said. "A real one of them there experts, you'd say. Works hard, works fast, does a whiz-bang job too." The foreman waited for a reply.

"Is that right!" The "Big Boss" said flatly. "Is he the one working on the southeast quarter today?" The foreman nodded and the "Big Boss" walked away.

It was an exceptionally hot afternoon as Johnny mended the fence on the southeast border. A large man rode up behind him but Johnny didn't hear him approach as he was struggling to pound in an especially stubborn post. Stopping only a few feet away, the man spoke.

"Hello son," he said. Johnny, startled, frozen in mid-swing, his heart skipping a beat. He swallowed hard before turning around. "You must be the new man. I've heard a lot about you; wanted to see for myself." Johnny wiped the sweat from his forehead with his bandana. Although he was not at all shy about meeting the man's gaze head-on, he refrained from speaking. The man sat a little taller in his saddle, looking up and down the section of fence. "Do you know who I am?" He finally asked, meeting Johnny's gaze.

"The Big Boss," Johnny replied. The man chuckled.

"Yes, that's what they call me but my name is Murdoch . . . Murdoch Lancer. I own this land." He puffed out his chest in pride. Johnny never batted an eyelash. His silence along with his steadfast gaze made Mr. Lancer uncomfortable and after a moment he turned his horse around. Looking back over his shoulder he told Johnny to keep up the good work.

After he rode away, Johnny exhaled and relaxed back against a nearby tree. Taking a deep swallow from his canteen, he closed his eyes for a few minutes and then immediately went back to work. His mind was racing. He decided not to return to the bunkhouse for supper. He needed some time to think; to figure out his next move. Johnny didn't sleep that night, rather pacing in front of the campfire, chewing on a piece of long grass. With his work complete and going back to the ranch was inevitable, he had come up with a pretty good plan. Johnny was careful to keep to his routine with the other men, eating, sitting on the porch for a little while, than retiring to his bunk. He still went into town on payday and had his couple drinks but tended to stay away from the card game unless the pot was pretty high, in which case he would sit in on a hand or two, walking away more often than not with the majority of the tables' stakes.

Johnny and another man were sitting on some bales of hay by the barn one day repairing tack when a young man on an extraordinarily handsome mount rode past them, stopping just in front of the house. As he alit and tied up the animal, Murdoch threw wide the front door and spread out his arms. He walked up to the younger man and enveloped him in a lengthy embrace. Finally releasing him, Murdoch placed one hand on the man's shoulder as they entered the house, closing the doors behind them.

"Who's that?" Johnny asked.

"The "Big Bosses" son, Scott." The other man answered. "Goes to some fancy school out east. Must be home for a visit." Johnny quickly processed this information and filed it away in his head for later use. In the following days, Scott could be seen riding his horse around the acres closest to the house. He wore perfectly tailored riding garb and a white shirt with ruffles down the front and around the wrists. All the men except Johnny made fun of him. Whenever he had the opportunity, Johnny merely studied him through narrowed eyes.

As most of the fence repair had been completed, Johnny was assigned chores closer to the main house. Today he was working in the barn mucking out stables, feeding and watering the horses, bringing down clean hay from the loft. The barn was stifling, especially the loft, and Johnny had just paused to wipe his brow and take a drink of water when the foreman came across the yard in a hurried trot and right up to him.

"Mr. Lancer wants to see you. Now. In the big house.

"Why?" Johnny asked.

"Don't know. Just said "tell the new man to come see me"". Johnny's heart began to pound. This was not part of his plan; he wasn't ready yet. Besides he couldn't very well go up to the house sweaty, bare-chested and covered with dirt and loose hay. He would need to go to the bunkhouse and clean up first. As he left the barn and starting walking that way, however, the front door of the house opened and Mr. Lancer called out, waving him to come that way. Johnny's step faltered. Using the shirt he carried in his hand, he brushed off what he could. With each step up the front walk, his heart beat faster and faster.

"Come on in," Mr. Murdoch said, stepping to the side.

"I . . . I was just going to clean up . . . I can't come into your fine house like this." Johnny protested, stalling for time.

"Nonsense! This is a working ranch and working men get dirty and sweaty. I would be more concerned if you didn't look this way." Johnny turned sideways to slide past Murdoch. He stopped immediately on the other side of the door. His curiosity was killing him and he wanted to look around the grand entrance with its curving staircase leading to the second story but instead kept his eyes straight ahead. "Come." Mr. Lancer said, walking a few steps ahead of the younger man. "Come into my office. I want to talk to you." Murdoch held the door as Johnny entered.

The room was enormous, its walls lined by dark paneling, its carpet thick, and its chairs and couches tufted in fine leather. In the center stood a huge mahogany desk and behind it hung an oil portrait. Murdoch followed Johnny gaze. "That was my father," he explained. "I inherited the ranch from him." Johnny could see a strong resemblance. "Sit down, please. Would you like a drink? I think it's late enough in the day for one. It's almost sundown. No more work for today."

Johnny looked at the chair opposite the desk. "I . . . I don't want to ruin . . ." he began.

Mr. Lancer smiled, "Son, like I said before, this is a ranch. You won't do any harm." Johnny winced on the inside when Murdoch called him son. Reluctantly taking a seat, sitting on the very edge of the chair, Johnny was careful not to lean back. Murdoch had poured him a drink and stood holding the glass at arm's length. Johnny shook his head so Murdoch sat the glass down on the desk in front of himself.

The room fell quiet except for the ticking of the grandfather's clock in the corner as the two simply sat holding each other's gaze. It was almost like a game to see who would look away first and Johnny was not about to lose. Eventually, Mr. Lancer cleared his throat and took a deep swallow of bourbon. Sitting forward, resting his arms on the desk with his hands clasped in front of him, he began to speak. "I hear your work continues to be mighty fine. Mighty fine." Murdoch paused expecting a thank you but received none. He took another swallow from his glass, leaned back in the chair and narrowed his eyes. "Do I know you from somewhere?"

His question took Johnny by surprise. "Nope," he stated, still holding the man's gaze.

"I could swear . . . there's something so familiar about you. Could a brother of yours have ever worked for me?"

"Nope."

"Hmm," Mr. Lancer muttered. "There's something . . . I just can't put my finger on it." Murdoch continued to study Johnny closely. "There's just something . . ."

"Are we done here?" Asked Johnny. His blood pounded in his ears and his fingers clasped his thighs tightly to keep his hands from shaking. It took a moment for Murdoch to answer.

"Yes. Yes I guess so . . . for now."

Johnny rose as Mr. Lancer stood. Draining his glass before placing it on the desk, Murdoch said, "I'll see you out."

"I think I can find my way," Johnny retorted, but Mr. Lancer had already crossed to the door and held it open wide. Johnny clutched his shirt tightly in one fist. He now wished he would have accepted that drink. Turning, and for the first time since he entered, Johnny avoided the other's man gaze. His boots echoed on the wood floor of the hallway. He knew that Mr. Lancer was only a step behind. Johnny pulled open the heavy door and, without closing it behind him, leapt down the front steps. Murdoch followed him outside and now stood on the top step.

"Just a minute, son." Mr. Lancer called out. Johnny halted in mid-stride about half-way down the front walk. He didn't turn but cocked his head to one side to indicate to Mr. Lancer that he was listening. "My men call me Sir, Boss or Mr. Lancer. You would do well to remember that."

Johnny righted his head, swallowed hard and turned around. His eyes narrowed, he surveyed the giant of a man standing tall, feet spread wide, hands on hips, nose a little too high in the air. He took a couple steps forward. "I tend not to give a man my respect unless he's earned it. Maybe I should just call you Pa."

The

Fence

Mender

Both the concept and text of this story are copyrighted by the author

Cynthia Curtis Wright – December 2012