Words That Hurt

Sitting on the low patio wall, swinging his feet, Johnny shivered. The heat of the day had retreated leaving a slight chill in the air as the sun slipped away. The peaceful sounds of the evening symphony of the whispering leaves and the singing bugs rose above the slight breeze.

His calm outward appearance was exactly opposite of the internal storm raging in Johnny's conscience. He was feeling anything but peaceful at the moment. This had been one of the worst days the young man could ever remember. The only other time he could think of that might even come close was the day he had been forced to kill a man for the first time. He'd spent a great deal of that evening on his knees throwing up.

Losing Wes had been heartbreaking for him but Johnny always knew that the man had been living on borrowed time. Wes had been wild and reckless from the first moment Johnny met him. Men who lived by their guns couldn't really afford that type of slack behavior. Wes was the first man who had ever treated Johnny like an equal instead of a snot nosed kid, even though he was older in age than him.

Worse than losing Wes had been finding Scott shot. That had caused a new kind of pain to sear across his heart and rob him of breath. The potent mixture of fear and anger had totally consumed him. Just thinking of Scott being hurt because of him caused his stomach to churn; acid rising to burn the back of his throat.

Sitting there, Johnny thought about all the mistakes that had been made the last couple of days, the most severe and damaging being the lack of communication between him and his father. The weight of guilt descended on him; making his shoulders slump as he thought back over the events from the day before. He had handled it badly and now he worried for his future with his family. His heart was shredded from that fear and the terror he felt when he discovered Scott had been shot because of him.

Sighing with a despondent air, Johnny pinched the bridge of his nose; throwing his head back to stare at the darkening sky. Too much gun play over a horse. The Stryker boy was dead and even though he had drawn on Johnny first it didn't make it any easier to accept one more death at his hands. Wes was dead and the best thing that ever happened to Johnny, coming home, was probably now lost forever, all because of one wild stallion. The price for that horse had been way too high and it was too late to make it right. Besides Scott, one of the hands had been shot and wounded.

Dropping his head down, his chin resting on his chest, Johnny stared at the toes of his scuffed boots. He couldn't blame anyone but himself. His father had tried to teach him how to be responsible and take his part of owning the ranch seriously. It had been hard adjusting and that part of him that was independent boy couldn't help rebel against the teaching and training that his father had tried to instill in him. At times like this he couldn't help but harbor ill will towards his mother over finding out his life had been a lie thanks to her version of what had happened so long ago.

Biting his bottom lip to keep it from trembling, Johnny silently accepted what he needed to do with a slight nod of his head. As soon as Scott was up and able to resume his share of the work Johnny would pack up and move on. There just couldn't be a place on a working ranch for someone like him. He'd tried but it just hadn't been good enough. To save his father the unpleasant job of asking him to leave he would slip off, it was the least he could do for the old man who had given him a second chance at a good life.

LANCER*LANCER*LANCER*LANCER

Standing just inside the French doors; hidden by the red velvet drapes, Murdoch observed his son. He knew Johnny was hurting and a big part of it was his fault. He had handled the incident over the horse badly. He had said he wished he had time to bring the boy along slowly but didn't have time; now he realized what a lame excuse that had been. Well time was something he was going to make for his youngest from now on.

Teresa had informed him earlier about Wes. It broke his heart to know that Johnny was suffering inside but part of him couldn't help being a bit relieved that the older man's influence would no longer be an obstacle for Murdoch to reach this wild son of his.

The thing distressing him the most right now was remembering those hateful words he had spoken to Johnny. 'The only thing wrong around here has always been you.' How could he ever make the boy see it was the stupid, desperate act of a worried father trying to keep his child safe from further harm? He had reacted in fear and all reason had totally fled from his mind causing him to make a mistake that he hoped he would get the chance to rectify. His son had spent enough of his young life adrift and on his own; he desperately needed the stability of family and home. Murdoch wasn't fooling himself; he needed Johnny to stay for him as well as for the boy's own good. He needed to be the father that he had not been allowed to be.

When they had discovered that Scott had been wounded it was very obvious that Johnny had been affected the most. The bond between his boys had grown almost instantly after the demise of Pardee. Murdoch suspected that for the first time, Johnny had allowed someone to get close to his heart, someone he could put his trust in. He wanted to get that close as well but first he had to find a way to stop pushing his son away and begin to reach out by bridging the gap in their mutual trust. He vowed tonight would be the beginning.

Watching his son's body language, Murdoch suspected that Johnny was blaming himself for the whole Stryker fiasco. He needed to set that record straight immediately. Murdoch knew he and he alone was the cause of all that had gone wrong. If he had supported Johnny more and been more understanding then the trouble with the loathsome family might not have escalated to the degree that it did.

Rubbing his eyes against the sting of tears that threatened to spill; he recalled the horrible things he had said to Johnny. His only excuse being a desperate act from a desperate father to try and save his child. 'I don't need you now or ever.' Those caustic words still hung in the air polluting the atmosphere and it was time to clear it away. Murdoch knew he was the only one who could repair the damage that those destructive words had inflicted.

Swallowing hard to clear the emotion that was threatening to crack his voice Murdoch made his way towards Johnny, as he approached he saw the boy stiffen. He shoved his hands in his pockets knowing that his son would most likely not appreciate any physical contact from him just yet, if ever. All the older man wanted to do was wrap his arms around his son and make the hurts go away like he did when Johnny was just a baby. This time it wouldn't be so easy. This wasn't a toddler he was dealing with but a grown man, who had not been a child in a very long time, in fact had never had much of an opportunity to be one at all.

Johnny heard his father coming towards him but he refused to turn around. He didn't think he could stand the look of contempt that he was sure his father was wearing for him at the moment. He continued to sit quietly; wishing he had the courage to just tell Murdoch that as soon as Scott was on his feet he would be gone and they wouldn't have to worry about him messing up any more.

Chewing the inside of his cheek, he silently confessed to himself that he didn't want to go. Less than twenty four hours away from home was all it took for him to realize how much he missed his family, his home and most of all having someone who cared enough about him to kick his butt when he needed it.

"Nice night," Murdoch commented as he shoved his hands further down into his pockets. The urge to reach out and touch Johnny was strong and Murdoch didn't want to scare him off before he had a chance to plead his case.

"Yeah, kinda chilly though," Johnny replied and wrapped his arms around his torso, unintentionally making himself look smaller and shivered but not from the cool evening air. He figured Murdoch was having a hard time saying what was on his mind; it was just one more thing for Johnny to regret. In spite of all the arguing and head butting they had done, he had grown very fond of his father and though he would never admit it to anyone, he knew in his heart that he loved the older man very much and leaving this place would mean leaving his father as well.

"Teresa told me about Wes, Johnny. I'm sorry for the loss of your friend," Murdoch stated. It was a start but the words sounded so inadequate. He waited a moment to give Johnny time to respond if he wanted to but the boy continued to sit quietly, his head bowing so low all Murdoch could see was the silky black crown of his head.

His father's words had come as a surprise to Johnny and he remained silent, afraid of his emotions betraying him. His father's opinion of him was most likely not very high at the moment and he didn't want to show any weakness. He had always stood on his own two feet and he didn't intend to stop now.

Murdoch plunged ahead not wanting to let any more time go by before he set things straight with his son. "Johnny, I want to talk with you about what happened today and the things that were said."

Keeping his head down, Johnny interrupted not wanting to put his father through the task of telling him to leave. It was his fault that things had gotten so out of control and he would take the responsibility of it without his father having to ask him to leave. He wouldn't put Murdoch through that again.

"Look, Murdoch, don't worry about it. I know what happened is my fault and I'm takin' full responsibility for it. Teresa said you didn't mean those things you said but it doesn't mean they ain't true. As soon as Scott is back to carryin' his weight I'll be movin' on." His body trembled and he felt empty and cold.

"No!" Murdoch declared as he reached for his son, not caring if Johnny rejected him or not. This was not going to happen. Not again. He placed his large hands on the slender shoulders, holding the boy in place.

"You will not leave this ranch again. Running away is not the answer to our problems. I was wrong in not giving you time. I gave Scott time and it was unfair to expect you to buck up right from the beginning. It's a mistake I will not let go on any longer." Murdoch shifted and tightened his grip on Johnny's shoulder with his left hand and used his right to force the young man's chin up. He almost wanted to laugh at the confusion that was written all over his son's face. "I was wrong, Johnny. I should never have told you to make a decision like that."

Johnny studied his father's face. This was not what he had expected to hear coming from his old man's mouth. In fact he was almost scared by the firmness by which his father was holding on to him. It was as if the older man was afraid he would take off running.

"You're not gonna' ask me to leave?" Johnny questioned, his face set for disappointment but his eyes shining with hope.

"No, Son, I'm not asking you to leave. In fact, I'm forbidding you to leave again. From now on when you need to be reprimanded we will approach it in a different manner. You are not leaving this ranch again. This is your home. I need you here with me and the rest of the family needs you as well." Murdoch continued to hold on to his son afraid he would bolt. "More importantly, I want you here." Suddenly he felt Johnny's shoulders relax under his grip and only then did he dare remove his hands from the boy's shoulders.

Johnny turned to stare out at the darkness beyond the patio. His mind was in a whirl. This wasn't the reaction he had been expecting and now he was scared. What if the old man didn't mean it? He had to know for sure.

"I guess I'd been expectin' you to say those things to me and when you did I figured it was just like all the other times in my life when things didn't work out. I really couldn't blame you and if you really want me to I can move on." Johnny didn't turn around to face Murdoch afraid of what he might really see in the older man's face; he was scared the truth would show in his father's eyes.

"I was desperate to get you away from here. All I could think to do was to make you ride out before the Strykers found out you were here. I said awful things that hurt me to the core but I would do it again son if I thought it would save your life." Murdoch was determined to make his son understand how deeply it hurt him to say such horrible things to him. He needed Johnny to understand how much he wanted and needed him to stay.

A shadow of doubt still darkened his young face so Johnny once again questioned his father. "But you said I had to make a choice. What if I can't be the son you want or need?"

The hurt and the despair in Johnny's voice was almost Murdoch's undoing. The cutting words he had spat earlier rang like a death bell in his head. 'You got to make up your mind who you are and where you belong.' He took a step closer and once again took a hold of Johnny's shoulders, still fighting the urge to wrap the boy in his strong embrace. "I was wrong son, so very wrong. You belong here and the only choice you need to make from now on is if you chase that wild horse or continue with your chore. If it's the wrong choice there will be no running from it. We'll deal with it as a father and son should."

Johnny turned and looked at his father suspiciously not sure if really wanted to know how dealing with a problem should be done between a father and a son. He did however like the fact that his father was determined to keep him close. Subconsciously, he moved a bit closer to his father, his chilly soul soothed by the warmth emanating from him.

This was his home and he didn't want to leave. For the first time in his young life he felt like he really belonged. He liked having a brother and a sister to squabble with and tease. Most of all, he liked having a father who was willing to do something desperate to keep him safe. It was a feeling he could never get enough of. The tension leeched from Johnny's body as he gave into his heartfelt yearning.

Sensing the change in Johnny's demeanor, Murdoch vowed, "Let's put the past behind us and start fresh right now. I promise, Son, that from now on I will always make time for you. I will try to understand your needs and desires. I won't be a perfect father but I will be the best father I can for you and for Scott." Murdoch watched closely as Johnny contemplated the offer. The slow smile that transformed the young face made the older man's heart sing.

Johnny reached out with the intentions of shaking hands on his decision to stay. "Sure. I ain't the best kid you could ever have but I'll try harder in the future."

Murdoch readily took the boy's hand and engulfed the smaller one in his, and then he pulled his son to him in a hug. To his surprise, Johnny reciprocated the gesture by wrapping his arms around his father.

"You're the best kid a father could ever have. You and Scott are more than any father could hope for in his sons." Murdoch rested his chin on top of Johnny's head, relishing the close contact, until Johnny wiggled free.

For a moment after they had parted they stood and just enjoyed the night air and the calm that came with it. Finally, Murdoch turned and with a fatherly push he maneuvered Johnny towards the door. "Time for bed, young man. Morning…"

Interrupting his father, Johnny finished the familiar phrase, "Comes awful early around here."

Together Murdoch and Johnny went inside. It was the end of a very long day but the beginning of a new understanding between a father and a son.