The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Winj

 

About Horses

 

 

 

Johnny Lancer strode into his home and across the expanse of the living room where he summarily plopped down on the sofa and removed his boots with a sigh of relief. Leaning back against the soft cushions, he closed his eyes and reveled in the silence around him.

For the first time in a long time he was alone. It amused him that being alone had, in the past, not been a good thing. But now, in this sometimes turbulent family, being alone was a precious commodity. He raised his legs and rested his feet on the coffee table, thinking with a smile how Teresa would berate him for it. But she wasn't here, none of them were here and, though he missed them already, he was at peace. A whole week of this!

Part of him knew it would get old very quickly but for now he would bask in the welcome tranquility. He had been thinking all day of the things he would do while they were gone. The work he had wanted to get done for so long but was always interrupted by something "more important". But today had been an ordinary work day, his first day of solitude. Tomorrow would be a different story. He had it all planned. He had spoken with Jelly and Cipriano and they had their instructions. He was more than confident that the two men could manage the day to day running of the ranch while he attended to other matters. When Murdoch gets back, he's in for a real surprise.

" Chico , you are home already?" Maria asked as she entered the great room.

Taking a deep breath, Johnny grimaced at the interruption. "Yeah, just resting up for tomorrow, Maria."

"Dinner will be ready in an hour," she announced and returned to her kitchen.

Johnny got up and walked over to the fire, leaning his hand on the mantle and looking up at the 'L' above him. Smiling, he reached up and traced along it's bottom curves. He never would have thought he'd be here now, or ever. His only thoughts of his father had always been hate and anger. Now, now everything had changed.

In the nine months he'd been here, there had been very bad times and some good ones as well. He thought his old man was finally coming around. Proof could be seen by Murdoch leaving him here alone to run things. Although it was downright comical to watch the man fret over the situation, part of him was still a little hurt by his father's reluctance to leave him in charge. Of course, he couldn't really blame him. Hard to leave your 'baby' in someone else's hands. That's how he thought of Lancer, as Murdoch's baby.

*****

He was up and out early the next morning, anxious to start the day. He had a few final words with Jelly and Cipriano who were amused at his plans. Taking two of the best ranch hands with him, Johnny started toward Dell Canyon .

It took a good hour to get there and the sun was halfway to it's apex as they topped the ridge and peered down into the canyon. Johnny smiled brightly as he saw what he had hoped would be there. Down below, grazing lazily, was a herd of wild horses. Not just any horses, palominos. He looked at the two men and nodded his head. They took a side each, planning to drive the horses to the canyon wall on the far side, thus trapping them. Johnny raised his right arm and brought it down to his side in a quick motion, indicating they should go. All three started down the slope together.

The horses sensed the danger immediately and began to whinny and sidestep, then took off at a dead run. Each man held his position and drove the herd right to the wall. Johnny looped his lariat easily over one's head as the other men followed suit. It didn't take them long to round up most of the animals. They tied them off to a sturdy tree and went after the rest which had scattered and were trying desperately to escape.

Just as he had thought, they were too frightened to take hold of themselves and were prancing around wild-eyed. This would be the hard part, he thought. The leader was, of course, one of the ones still free and Johnny went after him with fervor. Chasing him full out along the canyon floor, he readied his lasso and, with one fluid movement, brought it down over the horse's neck.

He jumped off Barranca and pulled the loop tighter as he talked soothingly to the horse. Finally, the animal calmed a little, enough that Johnny could lay a gentle, if quick, hand on his neck. The palomino balked at the human touch and reared back on his hind legs. Sensing the move, Johnny was ready and easily side-stepped the potential thrashing of the hooves. He tied the horse off to Barranca's saddle and started back to the herd. The ranch hands had been watching him for some time with awe.

"Well, boys. I'd say we had a real good morning. Let's take these beauties back to the corral." He grinned, quite pleased with himself.

It took quite a bit longer to get back than it had to get there with a string of wild horses in tow. But once they put their new stock in the corral, Johnny sighed with relief. Now comes the really hard part, he thought with excitement.

" Whooee , thems some beauts , Johnny. Gonna be a pleasure to watch ya work ' em ."  

" Thanks, Jelly. They are somethin ."

"You really think the Boss is gonna be happy bout this?" Jelly asked with a raised brow.

"He will be as long as I can get ' em broke before he gets back. And as long as you keep up your part and make sure everything around here runs nice and smooth while I'm doin it." There was a tone of warning in his voice.

"I told ya I would. Ever know'd me ta go back on my word?" Jelly gruffed indignantly.

"Never, Jelly," Johnny laughed.

"Darn tootin ! Now, best get some lunch fore ya start on them ponies."

"Right behind you," Johnny said as he started toward the house. The sound of a rider coming stopped him and he squinted against the afternoon sun to see who it was. He didn't recognize the man and his hand automatically went to his side.

"Well, who's that?" Jelly inquired. He only got a shrug in return however as Johnny's eyes never left the stranger.

The man rode in on a pale golden horse. He was older, about Murdoch's age, Johnny guessed and he had an air to him that told the gunfighter he was no threat. Johnny relaxed and walked toward the dismounting man.

"Howdy," he smiled.

"Hello there, young fella . Is Mr. Lancer around?"

"I'm afraid not. Can I help you?"

"Oh, that's too bad. When do you expect him?"

"He's out of town," Johnny answered, unwilling to impart too much detail.

"Well, I'm sorry I missed him. That's what I get for deciding to drop in unannounced. I'm sorry, my name is Ben Cartwright."

"Johnny Lancer."

A smile lit the manâ€s face. "Johnny? Well, I'll be. I didn't know you were home. I haven't talked to your father in a couple of years."

"I take it you know him pretty well," Johnny fished.

"Yes, I'd say so. We've had a few business dealings but we're more friends. I was in Modesto and I thought since I was so close, I'd drop in. Well, I'm very sorry I missed him."

"We were just about to have lunch, Mr. Cartwright. Why don't you join us?"

"Well, I don't mind if I do. It's a long ride and I am tired," Ben smiled.

"Oh, uh, this is Jelly Hoskins," Johnny introduced.

*****

"Murdoch hasn't mentioned you but I guess he has a lot of friends I haven't met yet," Johnny commented as they finished their lunch.

"Well, as I said, we haven't been in contact for a couple of years. Running a ranch doesn't leave much time for socializing. Especially when you're so far away."

"Where's yer ranch at?" Jelly asked.

"In Nevada , near Virginia City . My sons and I have a spread."

"How many boys ya got?" Jelly pressed.

"Three but one of them doesn't live with me. He's traveling."

"Hmm. How big's yer place?"

"Jelly! I don't think Mr. Cartwright expected to be put on trial for his lunch," Johnny admonished.

"It's alright, Johnny. I don't mind. My ranch is about the size of this one. But we have other interests besides cattle. We have a logging company. The best ponderosa pines in the country. That's why I named the ranch The Ponderosa," Ben explained, amused at Jelly's interest.

"You own The Ponderosa? I heard of that place. Johnny, it's huge!" Jelly exclaimed.

"So, what else are you into, besides cattle?" Johnny asked, ignoring Jelly's enthusiasm.

"Horses mostly," Ben replied.

"Is that right? You sell to the army?" Johnny asked, leaning in with interest.

"Oh, yes. They're our best customers. Of course, there aren't enough horses in the world for the army. They're always wanting more than we can supply."

"You know, I've been trying to get Murdoch interested in horses. As a matter of fact, I just rounded up a herd this morning. Would you mind telling me a little more about the business end? I'd like to know what kind of profit we could expect so I can sell Murdoch on the idea." Johnny was quickly becoming a fan of Ben Cartwright.

"I'd be happy to, Johnny. I'd like to get a look at that herd, too if you don't mind."

"Sure, come on out to the corral. They're real beauties, palominos," Johnny bragged.

*****

Ben was impressed with the palominos and Johnny's knowledge. "Were you planning on working with them today? I'd love to see it."

"Yeah, I was but I don't want to ignore a guest."

Waving a hand, Ben smiled. "Oh, don't worry about me. I'll be right here watching."

Johnny shrugged and jumped the corral fence to talk with Ricardo.

Jelly sidled up next to Ben and grinned. "You're in for a real treat, Mr. Cartwright."

Johnny had Ricardo bring in the leader. A big animal, a good sixteen hands, with a gold and tan coat. He reminded Johnny a little of Barranca but he knew there was a distinct difference here. He walked around the horse slowly, speaking softly in Spanish, lulling the horse into a sense of safety. He began to work his magic for the next hour, never touching the animal, continuing to talk softly to him.

When he felt it was time, Johnny gently placed the saddle on his back then placed his foot in the stirrup and pressed down, then he lifted himself up and stayed there, aloft in the air for a few seconds before easing his leg over to the other stirrup. He stood in the saddle a bit longer before letting his weight settle onto the horse's back then sat completely still.

Ben Cartwright watched in fascination at the proceedings. Struck silent by the pure majesty of what he was witnessing. It was the same with all the hands who watched. It affected them the same each time they saw Johnny work his magic.

With the slightest movement, the most subtle shift of weight, the horse began to buck. Johnny held tight to the reins as he was tossed about like so much hay. After several minutes of this, the horse gave in and began to follow the commands of his rider. Johnny motioned for the gate to be opened and he took off like lightning across the meadow.

"That was the most amazing thing I've ever seen!" Ben declared.

"He's somethin alright," Jelly agreed.

"I need that boy at my ranch. How could Murdoch not see what he has here? That boy is a gold mine for breaking horses! I wonder if he could show one of my men how to do that," Ben said, almost to himself.

"Doubt it, Mr. Cartwright. What Johnny does cain't be taught. It's a born gift," Jelly answered.

Johnny came back into the corral and dismounted gracefully beside his guest. "Whew, he's gonna be a good one," he said breathlessly.

"I can't believe what I just saw, Johnny. That was incredible!" Ben said.

"Thank you," Johnny replied softly, hanging his head. "Why don't you stay the night? It's too late to start that long of a trip."

"I'd be happy to. Thank you. It will give me a chance to convince you to come to work for me. If Murdoch doesn't appreciate your talent, I certainly do!"

He didn't see the flash of pain that crossed Johnny's face. Knowing his father didn't believe in his abilities was hard for him, the trust just wasn't there. Sometimes he wondered if it ever would be. That was the whole point of this excursion, to get Murdoch to see he really knew what he was doing and was good at it.

*****

That evening, Johnny and Ben stayed up late discussing the horse business. Johnny learned a lot from the older man and was grateful he had come by. He tried to convince the rancher to stay a few days but Ben insisted he needed to get home. He'd been away from his boys too long and was missing them. Johnny wondered idly if Murdoch was missing him right now.  

"Well young man, I have to say I have enjoyed this. I wish I could stay longer," Ben said the next morning as he was leaving.

"Me too, Mr. Cartwright. I'll be sure Murdoch knows you were here." Johnny smiled and shook hands.

"Oh, he'll know as long as you give him this," Ben replied and handed Johnny a letter. "Tell him he'd better accept the invitation inside and bring you with him."

"I'll tell him and next time you'll get to meet Scott."

"I look forward to it, Johnny. Goodbye," Ben said as he mounted and rode off, waving once as he went.

Johnny watched him until he was out of sight, wondering what it was like for his sons to have grown up with him. He could tell they were a close family by the way Ben spoke about his boys. He hoped he would meet them soon. He sighed and stuck the letter in his pocket, then headed to the corral to start the day.

*****

As   predicted , he had grown tired of the once cherished solitude and was looking forward to his family's return today. A week of this was about all he could stand. He laughed at himself, thinking it wasn't so long ago that he was very used to being alone even if it did bother him then. He leaned against the corral fence and watched his newly acquired string of now-broken ponies milling about.

He'd brought them up from the pasture this morning to show off to his father. He had to admit, he was tired but it felt good to have accomplished his goal. The biggest plus was that nothing had gone wrong at the ranch all week and that was his hole card.

"Well, ya chompin at the bit?" Jelly asked, bemused.

"About what?"

"Bout yer dad comin home today. Or maybe ya fergot ?"

"Oh, is that today?" Johnny laughed. "Yeah, I miss Scott and Teresa." He grinned devilishly.

"Shore, that's all. Jest them two," Jelly played along.

Johnny looked up and saw the puff of dust in the distance. Grinning, he stood on the rail of the fence and watched as the surrey came closer. Suddenly, he felt a lump forming in his stomach and he realized with some chagrin, it was his nerves. He chastised himself for being worried about anything Murdoch Lancer had to say but in his heart he knew his father's opinion meant everything to him.

As they drew into the courtyard, he could hear Teresa calling to him and he waved as he walked over.

"Johnny! I missed you so much!" She jumped down and hugged him tight.

"I missed you too, Teresa, but I can't breathe," he laughed.

"Well, did you miss me, too?” Scott grinned.

"Did you go somewhere, Boston ?" Johnny teased as he shook his brother's hand.

"Johnny, good to see you. How is everything?" Murdoch asked immediately.

"Welcome home, Murdoch. Everything's just fine here," Johnny smiled.

"Good! You can tell me all about it at supper."

"You had a visitor while you were gone. He left you this letter," Johnny explained as he handed over the missive.

"Who was it?"

"Ben Cartwright. He was real sorry to miss you. Nice man."

"Ben! I haven't seen him in years. Darn, I'm sorry I missed him, too. Did he have any of his boys with him?"

"Nope, just him. Listen, I want to show you something in the corral," Johnny said, eager to show off his accomplishment.

Murdoch pulled up short when he saw the corral. His jaw tightened in anger. "What's all this?"

"It's a surprise. I rounded up these horses and broke them while you were gone. Figured you might listen to me if you saw what I could to with them."

"You broke all these horses in a week? How, with all the other work to be done around here?" Murdoch asked incredulously.

"All the work was done, Murdoch. Nothing was left unattended. Jelly and Cipriano took care of the ranch and kept me up on everything that was going on every day. So you see, I can do more than mend fences and punch cows." He shrugged and watched his father closely.

"I thought we discussed this already." Murdoch said warily.

"No, you said no, we didn't discuss anything. I thought if I could show you what I meant, you'd listen."

"Johnny, it's a nice idea but I'm afraid it won't be profitable enough for us to put the effort into."

"That's not what Mr. Cartwright said," Johnny countered.

"I see. Well, I'll have to read that letter in a while. Right now, I need to sit down and relax for a while. I'll see you at supper," Murdoch said and walked off.

Johnny stood there and stared after him. 'Figures he'd leave it hanging in the air. Guess he hopes I'll forget about it but I won't. Won't let him forget it either.'

Supper was anything but quiet as Teresa went on about the shops in Stockton and the things she'd bought. Johnny was beginning to miss the peace again but her excitement was like a breath of fresh air.

Taking the opportunity while she got her breath, he asked Murdoch about the letter.

"Well it seems you made quite an impression on Ben. He wants to hire you away from here," Murdoch smiled.

Johnny laughed at this. "Why?"

"He said he's never seen anyone work horses like you and he wants to steal you. He invited us to visit after the next drive."

"Well, looks like you've got a fan, little brother," Scott teased.

Johnny looked seriously at his father. "Well, maybe he'll listen to me about the horse business. Might have to give that offer some thought."

Murdoch raised his eyebrows. "Is that a fact? And what if I said you couldn't leave?"

Johnny nearly choked on the coffee he was drinking. "I can't leave?   Gee, Murdoch, I don't remember anything in those papers I signed about bein a slave here."

"You should have read the fine print," Scott said wryly.

"You really are bent on doing this aren't you?" Murdoch asked.

"Yes, I am."

"Why is it so important to you?"

"It just is," Johnny mumbled.

"You'll have to do better than that, John. If you want to make your point, you have to be able to argue your case," Murdoch said.

"Alright, if you'll listen," Johnny threw down the gauntlet.

"I'll listen. Let's go in the living room."

*****

Johnny stood by the fireplace, his arm leaning on the mantle as he waited for his father and brother to settle.

"I'm good with horses. I broke that whole string in one week. Yes, I let Jelly and Cipriano take care of the ranch but who took care of it before we came here? You did. Now you have Scott to help. I'm not saying I want to spend all my time on this but I am saying it can be done. The army is always looking for horses. Mr. Cartwright told me they couldn't buy them fast enough. It is profitable and it can work. And I like working with them. It's something I can do on my own, something that's just mine."

Silence fell when he was done and he held his breath for the argument that was sure to come. Surprisingly, it didn't come from Murdoch.

"It makes sense, Johnny. But, what about branding season, calving time or the drives? We would need you then and there are other times when things could get rough and you'd be needed. If you do this you'll have to sign a contract with the army and if you don't deliver, there will be penalties charged. And I'm worried that you'll get tired of it," Scott said.

Johnny gave his brother a look of disbelief. He would have thought Scott would back him up. He chewed his lip for a minute. "I can see where that would be a concern. We always hire extra men during those peak times. Hiring one more to take my place wouldn't cost much and I'd be willing to pay for the extra hand myself. As for getting tired of it, I get tired of looking at cattle all day, but I don't quit," he answered, pleased with himself .

"Alright, but what about the ranch business? You're as much a part of the running of this place as we are. An extra hand would be helpful, but he wouldn't be able to make decisions or give orders and who's to say anyone we hire would have your experience," Murdoch argued.

"That's true but I know when we drive to market, when we brand and all the rest. The contracts could be made to allow for those times when we're busiest. The way Mr. Cartwright talked, the army would buy horses anytime of the year. And in the winter, when it's slow would be the perfect time to bump things up to make up for the rest of the year." Johnny replied.

Scott and Murdoch exchanged glances, both were quiet for a while.

"Well, you certainly make a good argument, Johnny. The only thing I would ask is that you investigate what the army is willing to contract for, just to make sure your facts are correct," Scott said.

"I can do that."

"I'm worried that you'll stretch yourself too thin, Johnny. I want you to be absolutely sure about this. Think about all the extra work involved. It isn't just breaking the animals, you have to find them and round them up as well. It's time consuming," Murdoch voiced.

"I know how much is involved in this, Murdoch. I am sure."

"Alright, but all this investigation and contract negotiation has to be on your own time," Murdoch warned.

"Fine," Johnny said determinedly.

"Well, find out what the army has to say and we'll discuss it further then," Murdoch said.

Johnny was quite pleased with himself but he tried not to show it. If they wanted him to act like a business man, so be it. He would speak to his brother about this betrayal later as well. "Well, I think I'll head up to bed now."

"Just a minute. We have to go over the books tonight," Murdoch said with a twitch of victory.

"Again? I just did them last night but if you want to check after me, fine," Johnny shrugged.

Murdoch frowned and went to his desk, pulling out the ledger. He perused the pages and all seemed in order. All the entries were neatly placed in the columns and everything seemed to add up correctly. "I'll go over this for you. Goodnight, son," he said in a faltering voice.

Johnny smiled charmingly and said his goodnights.

"Is it my imagination or did he grow up while we were gone?" Scott asked.

"I think he grew up right before our eyes and we didn't even see it," Murdoch said proudly.

*****

Scott snuggled under the covers and was just about to turn the lamp off when he heard a light knock on his door.

"Still awake?" Johnny asked as he peeked in.

"Just. Come on in," Scott answered.

"You enjoy your trip?" Johnny asked as he plopped down on the bed.

"Yes, it was interesting. I've never been to a cattle auction before," Scott answered, smiling.

"Must have lost your mind while you were there," Johnny commented.

"I'm sorry?"

"I would have thought I could count on you, Scott. I can't believe you didn't back me up tonight," Johnny said, his eyes showing his hurt.

"Johnny, I was only trying to get you to see all sides. I know you want to do this badly, I just wanted to make sure you knew what you were in for. It won't be easy."

"Do you think anything has ever been easy? Or maybe you just think I'm too stupid to think things through," Johnny erupted.

"Of course not! But I believe I had some valid concerns. This is my ranch too, Johnny. I have a right to make sure it runs smoothly. I have a right to question anything that affects the ranch and us," Scott shot back.

Johnny winced a little. "Yeah, you do. I guess I wouldn't expect you to have blind faith in me. After all, it is a gamble at that."

"I have all the faith in the world in you, brother. Tonight you really showed me what you're made of. I was proud of you for not backing down, you made your stand," Scott smiled.

"I did, didn't I? Ain't that somethin ? I guess if you want something bad enough, you have to be willing to fight for it. I just never fought with my mouth before," Johnny laughed.

Scott joined him in the laughter, then turned serious once more. "The army won't lay down and play dead for you. They will negotiate hard. You need to be ready for that. Depending on who you deal with, it can be pretty aggravating."

"Are you saying they're not all gentlemen like you?" Johnny grinned.

"I'm serious, Johnny. They like to save money. In fact, you could say they're cheap."

"Don't worry, brother. I won't let them cheat me. I got some very good advice from Mr. Cartwright."

"What kind of man is he?"

"I like him. He's real ... sophisticated. Yeah, that's the word, and real nice. He's got a big spread in Nevada and three sons."

"He seems to have made an impression on you," Scott observed.

"I guess he did at that. I sure would like to take him up on that offer to visit. Sounded like his place is real nice."

"Well, you never know. Murdoch might just decide to do that, especially if we remind him of it once the cattle drive is over," Scott said conspiratorially.

"In the mean time, I'm gonna have to figure out a way to contact the army 'on my own time'. Where's the nearest fort anyway?"

" Fort Wright is the closest I believe. It's in Covelo," Scott answered.

"Well, that's still a pretty good ride from here. Guess I'll just have to bide my time. Well, goodnight, Boston ." Johnny smiled at his brother and slipped out quickly.

*****

For the next month, Johnny could find no time for himself. With the cattle drive fast approaching, he knew he wouldn't get the chance to visit the army fort until they returned. He was sure Murdoch expected him to forget all about his idea but he steadfastly resolved to see it through. What Murdoch couldn't, or maybe wouldn't, understand was that once Johnny set his mind to something, he saw it all the way to the end.

The ranch had been a continuous pulse of activity in the past week as they rounded the herd, made arrangements, hired drovers and generally dreaded the upcoming event. An integral part of the ranching business it was, but cattle drives were long, hot, dusty and usually boring.

This would be their second drive since coming home and Scott had not been impressed with the first one. He had learned a great deal about ranching since that time, so he knew this was one of those most dreaded events of ranch life. He would be ready this time, however, a seasoned veteran at this point, he felt.

Murdoch was not looking forward to the drive either. His bones seemed to shout at him a little louder each year and each year it took him a little longer to recover from the trip. Not that he would ever let anyone know that, no he would not allow himself to grow old, not yet !.

The night before they were to start, the Lancers were sitting in the great room, each with his own thoughts. The only sound was the grandfather clock ticking and the occasional soft rustle of Teresa's yarn as she pulled at the skein.

"Everyone's so quiet tonight," she acknowledged.

"I guess we're all just resting up for tomorrow, sweetheart," Murdoch smiled.

"Dreading it is more like it," Scott mumbled.

Johnny smiled at his brother, knowing how Scott hated this. "Something wrong, Boston ? Don't you like driving herd? It's my favorite thing to do in the world, that and sticking my hand in a fire."

Scott laughed at his brother. "Given the choice, I'd take sticking my hand in a fire."

"It's got to be done, boys. Otherwise, there wouldn't be much point to raising cattle, now would there?" Murdoch admonished.

"Suppose not. By the way, have you thought anymore about Mr. Cartwright's invitation?" Johnny asked.

"Actually, I have. If everything goes well and we get to market on time, we might have a few days to ride up to Nevada ."

"Great! I really want to get a look at that ranch," Johnny said enthusiastically.

"Right, it's the ranch you want to see, not the horse business," Scott grinned.

"Well, there's that, too," Johnny grinned back.

Murdoch gave his eldest a disparaging look, not pleased by the subject being brought up again, but he held his tongue. He had forgotten about Johnny's quest to raise horses and now he'd put his foot in it. He couldn't back out of visiting The Ponderosa now.

The next morning before dawn, they finished their breakfast, the last decent one they would see for awhile, and started to head out. It took longer than they anticipated as Teresa was making every excuse to delay. She hated them being away from her so long. It was lonely after a while. The solitude was only appreciated for a short time before she got lonesome.

Finally, they were on their way in a colossal cloud of dust and noise and beef.

*****

They made it to Stockton and the train on time, in fact, precisely on time. Murdoch was most pleased as this was the first drive he could remember in a long time that had gone as planned. A luxury in the ranching business. Once the men were paid and sent out to blow their money, Murdoch went to the bank and the younger Lancers headed to the saloon.

Murdoch stopped by the telegraph office and sent a wire to Ben Cartwright, telling him they were in Stockton and would like to visit. He said he would wait there for a reply of whether it was a good time or not.

He then joined his sons at the saloon. "I sent Ben a wire. We'll wait to hear if it's a good time to visit."

"How long you think it'll be before he answers?" Johnny asked.

"Tomorrow probably, why?"

"Just wanted to know how long I had out of the saddle," Johnny grinned.

"Well, gentlemen, I believe I'm going to take the longest, hottest bath in history. Then I'm going to have the biggest supper in history. Can I interest anyone in joining me?" Scott interjected.

"Sure can, brother. I'll be right with you."

"Me too," Murdoch made it unanimous.

Scott nodded, took one last long drink of his beer and headed for the hotel.

"Before we go, I want you to know I haven't forgotten," Johnny said.

"Haven't forgotten what, son?"

"About the horses," Johnny said firmly. He stood and walked out to follow his brother.

Murdoch sighed and finished his beer before joining his sons.

*****

The next morning, they were finishing breakfast when a messenger brought Murdoch a wire. He read it and smiled.

"Ben says we had better make tracks and get up there," he reported.

"No time like the present," Johnny said, pleased he would get to spend more time with the man.

"Well, I suppose we should get going. How long do you think it will take to get there?" Scott added.

"Two, maybe three days. If we cut through the mountains, we'll make better time," Murdoch answered.

They gathered their gear and, after talking to his men and giving instructions, Murdoch, Scott and Johnny set off to the east for Virginia City .

Cutting through the mountains did reduce their traveling time but it still took all of three days to arrive at their destination. Entering Virginia City was a shock for Murdoch. The last time he'd been there it wasn't much more than a mining camp. Now, it was a full-fledged city.

It was late so they decided to stay at the hotel and head out to the ranch first thing in the morning. Murdoch had told them it was a twenty mile ride so neither son minded waiting.

Scott was ready for another hot bath and Johnny shook his head in amusement at his brother's hygiene practices. He could never understand why a man needed to bathe so much. It wasn't like they were going on a date. He decided he would check out the saloon, or one of them, and took his leave of his family.

*****

Johnny strolled into the saloon, stopping briefly to scan the interior before heading to the bar for a cold beer. He noticed a poker game in full swing and watched with some interest for a while. One of the men got up to leave, blaming his wife for his need to run along. Johnny sauntered up and asked if he could join them. Sitting down in the vacant seat, he took stock of the other players. Cowboys, all of them. Two were a little older than he and looked as if they were bored to tears. The third one was young, a good looking boy with brown hair, green eyes and a pleasant and easy smile.

There wasn't much talk at first and Johnny watched their body language, reading them like a book.

"You new in town, mister?" one of the older men asked.

"Just visiting. I live in California ."

"Just sort of passing through," the other older man remarked.

"Sort of," Johnny said, watching the man closely.

The man nodded his head, seemingly deep in thought. "So, you're not here on business?"

"Do you have a problem with me, mister?" Johnny asked coldly.

The younger man was watching this exchange with great interest, although he didn't know what his friend's problem was.

"No, no problem. Just asking what your business in Virginia City is," he shrugged.

"My own," Johnny replied flatly, staring hard at the man.

"Look, I'll lay it on the line. I know who you are and if there's gonna be trouble, I'd like to know about it in advance," the man stated.

"I don't have any plans for trouble, unless you do," Johnny said, his eyes growing dark and cold.

"Okay, maybe I'm the only one who doesn't know. Who are you?" the younger man asked.

*****

"This is Johnny Madrid, Joe," the man answered.

Joe's eyes grew wide as he took in the stranger again.

Johnny laid down his cards and sat back in his chair, relaxed and gazed at the young man. "Do you have a problem with that?"

"Not unless you do," Joe replied.

"I never have," Johnny replied, his face softening into a slight grin.

"Okay, are we gonna play cards or jaw all night?" Joe asked, smiling at Johnny.

"Not me, I'm callin it a night. If you know what's good for you, you'll do the same, Joe," the man said.

The other man joined him. "Me too, we should head back now, Joe."

"You two go ahead, I'm not ready to leave yet," Joe replied.

"I think you should come with us."

"They're afraid I'm gonna gun you down," Johnny said, his eyes dancing with amusement.

Joe smiled. "Can't think of a reason why you would and I don't need to be told when to go home. Phil, Bob, you go on. I'll be along later." This time it sounded more like an order. His eyes reinforced that it was indeed an order and the two older men left without another word.

"That was fun," Johnny remarked.

"Are you here on business?" Joe asked.

Johnny looked at him for a long time before answering. "I don't do that anymore. Those two work for you?"

"Yeah, they think I'm still a kid sometimes," Joe said and his annoyance was easy to hear.

Johnny laughed softly. "Yeah, I know what that's like."

"Truthfully, I should be heading home. Got a long day ahead of me."

"Well, it was nice to meet ya," Johnny said, extending his hand.

Joe accepted the handshake. "See ya," he said and walked out.

Johnny noticed the way he wore his gun low and that he was a lefty. He wondered why the boy would wear his pistol low on his hip. He sure wasn't a gunfighter. Shrugging it off, he decided he'd head back to the hotel himself.

*****

Johnny decided not to mention the events of the previous night. No sense getting the old man riled up. They headed out after breakfast for The Ponderosa.

"I haven't seen the ranch in quite a while. I'm sure Ben's made some changes but it's always been a beautiful place," Murdoch commented on the ride.

"It's pretty country up here," Scott said.

"You're awfully quiet, Johnny. Something wrong?" Murdoch noted.

"No, I'm fine. Just admiring the view," Johnny smiled. Truthfully, last night did bother him. How far north did he have to go to get away from his past?

They rode into the yard of the log home and were met immediately by the owner.

"Murdoch Lancer, you old bear! How are you?" Ben exclaimed.

"Ben, good to see you," Murdoch said, shaking hands with his old friend.

"Johnny, good to see you. This must be Scott," Ben said, offering his hand to each of them.

"Good to see you, Mr. Cartwright," Johnny replied.

"Very nice to meet you, sir," Scott said.

"Well, let's go in the house. My sons should be back soon. They just needed to make a quick ride to check on something and I told them not to take long," Ben explained as he ushered them in the house.

It was a beautiful home. Not as big as Lancer, but warm and comfortable. The fireplace was inviting even though it wouldn't be needed until after sunset. Ben put them all at ease readily.

"The house looks great, Ben," Murdoch commented.

"Well, Lancer is beautiful, Murdoch. And your son is a most gracious host."

"He is?" Scott teased. He received a slap to the gut for his efforts.

"Well, come in and rest for awhile. I thought we could take a ride a little later. I'd like to show you all around," Ben said.

"I look forward to it. I want to see what changes you've made," Murdoch said.

"You might be surprised. My youngest has developed quite a logging set up. It's really impressive," Ben bragged.

"How are your boys? Do you hear from Adam?" Murdoch asked.

"Oh, they're fine and yes, Adam writes regularly. I'm afraid my oldest son has inherited my love of the sea," Ben said in way of explanation.

*****

As they finished their coffee and met Hop Sing, they heard riders entering the yard.

"That should be my boys," Ben said as he rose and went to open the front door.

Laughter could be heard along with a rather formidable growl. Scott and Johnny looked at each other, both thinking a bear was about to walk in the house.

They were close. Hoss and Joe Cartwright walked into the living room. Joe stopped short when he saw Johnny.

"What are you doing here?" he asked.

"Joseph! What kind of welcome is that? This is Murdoch Lancer and his sons, Scott and Johnny," Ben said, disgruntled with his son's bad manners.

"It's alright, Mr. Cartwright. Joe and I met last night at the saloon. I didn't know who he was then," Johnny explained.

"Pleasure," Hoss said, shaking hands with each man. Joe followed suit still a little stunned to have an infamous gunfighter in his home. He wondered if his father knew who this man really was.

"Well, why don't we all take that ride now?" Ben suggested.

"Sounds good to me," Murdoch replied.

*****

They rode the Ponderosa and met some of the hands, two who were familiar to Johnny and just as surprised as Joe to see him there. They reached the logging camp and were all in awe of the complex mechanism at work.

"You did this, Joe?" Murdoch asked.

"Sure did."

"It's impressive," Scott said.

"Sure is, where are the horses?' Johnny asked.

"This way," Ben laughed.

The corral was set off by itself and a man was being bucked wildly in the air as they arrived. Johnny dismounted quickly and went to the fence to watch. 'He's pretty good,' he thought.

Murdoch and Scott joined him, Murdoch with some chagrin. Joe took the opportunity to pull his father and brother aside and explain who their house guest was. Ben raised an eyebrow and Hoss was clearly concerned.

"Now just a minute, both of you. Murdoch is a good friend of mine. He wouldn't bring Johnny here if he thought there would be trouble. Besides, I spent an entire day and night with that boy and he was nothing but polite."

"Still, pa, I don't think I like it," Joe voiced.

"Me neither, pa. I ain't gonna turn my back on ' im ," Hoss agreed.

"You're both being ridiculous," Ben said, shaking his head.

"Something wrong, Ben?" Murdoch asked, diverting Scott and Johnny's attention from the corral.

*****

When Johnny saw the three men huddled together, he knew Joe had told them. He steeled himself for the inevitable accusations.

"No, not at all, Murdoch," Ben answered.

"I think it's me that's the problem," Johnny drawled. "Joe here knows me by a different name. Ain't that right, Joe?"

"I think my family has a right to know there's a gunfighter in the house," Joe said defiantly.

Murdoch sighed loudly and Johnny bristled. Scott was stunned and didn't know what to say.

"Okay, yes, I was Johnny Madrid. I don't keep it a secret but I'm Johnny Lancer now. If that's a problem for you, Mr. Cartwright, just say the word and I'll leave. No hard feelings," Johnny said plainly.

Ben looked at him for a long moment. "The young man who invited me into his home is the Johnny I know. I have no problem with you being here, son."

"What about them?" Johnny asked, indicating the brothers.

"They won't have a problem with it either," Ben ordered as he looked at his boys.

Johnny dropped his eyes and nodded. Looking back up at Joe and Hoss , he knew it was very much a problem.

*****

Supper was tense and Hop Sing looked at them all like they were crazy. "What wrong with all of you. You no like Hop Sing's cooking?"

"It's very good, Hop Sing. I think we're all just a little tired," Ben replied and gave him a scornful look.

Hop Sing hmmphed and fled to his kitchen.

Johnny had had enough. He excused himself and went outside for some fresh air. Murdoch followed him immediately.

"Will it ever end?" Johnny asked softly.

"I don't know, son. All I know is , they don't know you at all."

"No difference than with anybody else. Look, I'm gonna head home tomorrow. You and Scott stay and enjoy yourselves," he said with a sigh.

"No, Johnny. You don't have to run away."

"I'm not runnin . I'm just making it easier for everybody. I don't think I'd like it too much if you invited someone to stay with us that I didn't care for."

"I would hope you would have a better reason for not liking them than their past," Murdoch retorted.

"It's not the past as far as they're concerned, Murdoch, that's the problem. And don't say I should show them. I ain't obliged to!" Johnny raised his voice.

"Johnny, listen to me. You came here with a purpose. Are you going to abandon that because Ben's sons are taking you at face value?"

"I'm sure it would make you happy if I did," Johnny mumbled.

"No, it wouldn't. You told me you wouldn't give up on this idea of yours. But at the first sign of a problem, you're ready to hightail it. Make up your mind, son," Murdoch said firmly but gently.

Johnny turned to face him and Murdoch was sure he was about to hear a mouthful. But Johnny was smiling at him. "Okay, you're right."

Murdoch was stunned but smiled back and put his arm around Johnny's shoulder.

*****

There was an awkward silence at the supper table when Johnny and Murdoch left. Scott was at first flabbergasted but that soon turned to anger.

"Mr. Cartwright, I hope you'll forgive a guest for what I'm about to say but I feel I need to set your sons straight on a few things. My brother is no longer a gunfighter. He's a rancher and a very good one at that. He's worked hard to turn his life around, to change. It hasn't been easy. Life has never been easy for Johnny. He isn't bitter about that, though I wouldn't blame him if he were. He grew up alone, no parents, no family and he survived anyway he could.

â€I realize that's a difficult concept for those of us who were lucky enough to have someone who loved us to raise us, but Johnny didn't have that luxury. If you expect some kind of apology from him, you won't get it and you don't deserve it. He's done nothing to hurt you." Scott finished his diatribe and glared at them both, daring them with his eyes to argue.  

"Look, it's just a shock to have a famous gunhawk in your living room. We don't know him. How do we know he's not gonna kill us all in our sleep?" Joe said.

"Well, unless someone has paid him to do that, you have no worries. Gunfighter's don't kill for free," Scott shot sarcastically.

Ben Cartwright chuckled at this.

Joe dropped his eyes. "I have to worry about my family, Scott," he mumbled.

"Yes, you do and you have every right. But you don't have anything to fear from Johnny. You don't know him, he's a good man, he's ...." Scott faltered a bit. Defending his brother got him frustrated and emotional.

"Stop it, Scott," Johnny said from behind.

They all turned to see him standing with his father. "You don't have to defend me to anybody. If you're gonna lose sleep by my being here, Joe, I'll leave. This is your home. You have a say in who stays in it. But I have business with your father and I intend to carry that business out. We have some horses to talk about."

"Yes, yes we do. Johnny, let's go in the living room and talk about horses," Ben said as he rose, giving his sons a look that said to keep quiet.

*****

The next day all the Cartwright's were alive and well. Ben wanted his boys to see Johnny in action so they all returned to the corral where a certain cowboy was having little to no luck breaking a particularly stubborn animal.

"Mr. Cartwright, it's useless. I've been working with that skillet head for a week. He's just too stubborn!"

"Alright. This is my foreman, Candy. Murdoch, Scott and Johnny Lancer," Ben introduced, laughing at Candy's exasperation. "Well, Johnny, what do you think?"

"Let me get a look at him," Johnny said as he stepped into the corral.

"Hey, be careful. He's a mean cuss. What's he doin ?" Candy asked.

"Just watch," Ben replied.

Johnny approached the big stallion slowly, taking him in from all sides. He was a magnificent animal, muscles rippling under the shiny black coat. He backed up a ways and turned his head to the side. "How long have you had him?"

"A week," Candy answered.

Johnny nodded and approached the animal again. He stood directly in front of the horse and locked eyes with him for several minutes. Finally, he began....

Two hours later, a very dusty and roughened Johnny trotted the stallion around the corral, then indicated he wanted the gate opened. Candy and Joe looked at each other warily, but they opened the gate nonetheless.

The opportunity for freedom was not lost on the horse and he bolted. Johnny reined him in quickly and kept him at a slow trot for a minute, then kneed him into a gallop. They disappeared over the rise and Murdoch's nerves reached their limit.

"Did you see that? That was the most amazing thing I've ever seen?" Ben exclaimed.

"Yes, I saw it," Murdoch said distractedly, keeping his eyes glued to the rise.

"Two hours! I've been working with that hardhead for a week and he breaks him in two hours! What was he doin in there anyway?" Candy asked, put out.

"It's nothing I can explain. I've seen him do it many times and I still can't explain it," Scott marveled.

*****

"Scott, why didn't you tell me about this?" Murdoch asked, turning to his eldest.

"I did tell you, Murdoch."

"You told me he was good with horses. I already knew that but this, this is something altogether different. This is a gift," Murdoch said, awestruck by what he had witnessed.

"Haven't you ever watched him work horses?" Ben asked his friend.

"No, I haven't. I never had the time."

"Well, now you know, my friend. That boy has a quality that's hard to miss," Ben jabbed gently. He knew Murdoch Lancer and how stubborn he could be, especially when it came to his own point of view about anything or anyone.

Johnny came tearing over the rise then and reined the stallion into the corral. He pulled one leg over the saddle and slid to the ground softly. "Whew, he's fast!"

"So are you!" Candy exclaimed. "Where did you learn to do that?"

Johnny, never able to take a compliment, hung his head and shrugged. "Don't know, picked it up."

"You didn't just pick that up, son. Why didn't you tell me you had the gift?" Murdoch asked.

"Gift?" Johnny asked.

"You know exactly what I'm talking about," Murdoch said.

Johnny smiled at his father and simply shrugged again. "Mr. Cartwright, you need to give that animal plenty of room to run. He's not completely broke but he never will be. It's gonna take a really good rider to control him. Some horses never lose their wild spirit," he advised, shooting a look at his father with the last sentence.

"Johnny, when a man does what you just did, he deserves to be the one to handle the animal. He's yours," Ben said simply.

Johnny stared at him for a long moment. "I couldn't..."

"Yes, you could and you will. You wouldn't insult your host would you?" Ben asked with raised brows.

Johnny smiled at him and shook his head.

*****

Back at the Ponderosa, Murdoch still couldn't get over the magic he had witnessed that day. Johnny never ceased to amaze him and, if he could break a horse that quickly, maybe this business venture wasn't such a bad idea after all.

Johnny and Scott had gone on another tour of the ranch with Hoss and Joe while the two patriarchs returned to the house. Looking over a ridge at the magnificence below, Johnny suddenly got homesick.

Scott smiled at his brother. "Me too," he said and Johnny turned to him with a grin.

" Somethin wrong?" Hoss asked.

"No, we were just thinking about home," Scott replied.

"Sure would like to see your place. Pa says it's really something," Joe said.

"Anytime, Joe," Johnny smiled.

"Look, I'm sorry about earlier. It's just that..." Joe started.

Johnny held up a hand. "I understand, believe me. I'd do anything to protect Lancer," he smiled.

Joe extended a hand that Johnny readily accepted, then in turn, shook hands with Hoss .

"Well, now that we're all best friends, how about we head back. I'm hungry," Scott laughed.

*****

Sitting on the porch with Ben, Murdoch thought again about what he'd seen Johnny do.

"Penny for them," Ben smiled.

"I was just thinking about Johnny," Murdoch smiled back.

"That boy has a unique gift. I'm surprised you didn't know that," Ben gently jibed.

"You know how it is running a ranch, Ben. It's a full time job. Besides, there's a lot I don't know about Johnny," Murdoch said a bit defensively.

"Yes, fatherhood is a full time job, too. How long has he been home?"

"Ten months," Murdoch sighed.

"Murdoch, I hope you won't take this the wrong way and forgive me for interfering, but I just can't help wondering what you've been doing in those ten months," Ben said.

"Butting heads with my son for the most part. Ben, I swear that boy is more stubborn than anyone I've ever met," Murdoch said with exasperation.

Ben chuckled at this statement. "Now who do you suppose he takes that after? Have you ever tried just sitting down and talking to him?"

*****

"He won't talk to me. Every time I try, he bucks," Murdoch sighed.

"What is it you try to talk to him about?"

"I just want to know about his life. What he did before coming home and why."

"That's what you want to know? Why, Murdoch?"

"Why? How else am I supposed to know him?"

"Murdoch, Johnny isn't his past. He isn't what he did. He's a person, a young man who's very independent. Maybe he feels youâ€re attacking him, accusing him with your questions. Instead of grilling him on his former life, you might try asking his opinion about things. Ask how he feels about a certain issue that's come up. The best way to get to know a man is to find out how he thinks and feels now, not what caused him to be that way.

"I suppose you think I'm sticking my nose where it doesn't belong, but we're friends. I'd hate to see you make a mistake that might cost you dearly. All I'm saying is, that with a past like Johnny's, it isn't surprising he doesn't open up about it. Maybe he's afraid you'll think badly of him. Maybe he thinks badly of himself. I've seen how he ducks his head. That should tell you something right there. But, there are other things I've seen as well. I've seen a gifted young man with an indomitable spirit, a young man who wants to learn and needs your acceptance."

"I never thought he needed anything from me," Murdoch said in a low voice.

"He needs your love and understanding. He needs to know you won't turn away from him. He needs to know you trust him," Ben said frankly.

*****

The four boys rode into the yard laughing. Murdoch and Ben were sitting on the porch, relief on both their faces.

"I see Johnny has managed to win my boys over."

"Yes, he manages to win most people over when they give him half a chance," Murdoch praised.

"Something you already know about him," Ben said with a raised brow. Smiling, he turned his attention to the young men. "Have a good ride?"

"Mr. Cartwright, you have a beautiful ranch," Johnny grinned.

"Yes, it is magnificent," Scott concurred.

"I'm glad you like it. Now, I think you boys have just enough time to wash up before supper."

Not needing to be told more than once, they headed inside and up the stairs.

When they returned, Hop Sing had already starting putting the food on the table.

"Does he always cook so much food?" Scott asked.

"Only when Hoss is home," Joe laughed.

"Well, I gotta eat, Little Joe," Hoss grumped.

"Little Joe?" Johnny asked with raised brows.

"It's a nickname, is all. Cause Hoss is so big," Joe explained with some annoyance.

"We'll be heading home tomorrow Ben, but I want you to come visit us again and bring these boys with you next time," Murdoch said.

"So soon? You just got here," Ben argued.

"Well, we have a ranch to run too, my friend," Murdoch reminded him.

"Yeah, Scott and Johnny are gettin homesick," Joe teased.

"Is that right?" Murdoch asked.

*****

The next morning, the Lancers said their goodbyes and left with a promise that the Cartwrights would visit as soon as they could. They rode out with the stallion in tow.

"Well, looks like this was a profitable trip for you, little brother," Scott said as they rode along.

"I still don't feel right about takin this horse. It's worth a lot of money."

"Ben wouldn't have offered if he didn't want you to have it, son. Besides, I'd say you earned it," Murdoch commented.

"I guess so," Johnny mumbled. "Reckon he'll make some pretty foals," he smiled wickedly.

"That's you brother, always looking ahead," Scott laughed.

"Speaking of horses, I still want to know where you learned to do that," Murdoch said.

"Why?"

"Well, I'd like to know who taught you, son."

"Nobody taught me. I watched and learned," Johnny shrugged.

"You just watched. Watched whom?" Scott asked.

Johnny sighed and looked at his brother. "Man named Luca Cortez. He was a mustenero in Mexico City . Spent some time there when I was a kid. He worked on the ranch where my mother worked so I hung out there a lot. I watched him work the horses from sun up to sun down. He was really something."

"He's very famous," Murdoch said.

"Yeah, one of the best. He didn't take much to kids though, so I stayed in the background and watched his every move. You can learn a lot from just watchin and listenin ," Johnny smiled.

*****

Murdoch rode along, a pensive look on his face. "Well, I think we should make a stop on our way home."

"Where?" Scott asked.

"Covelo. Fort Wright ," Murdoch said simply.

Johnny smiled full out. "Yeah?"

"Yes. I think we just got ourselves in the horse business. Just remember, Johnny, this is your baby. We'll ride to Covelo with you but you'll have to do the bargaining," Murdoch said sternly.

"No problem," Johnny replied confidently.

"And remember what I told you about the army, brother. They'll be looking for a deal and they don't like to be stared down," Scott said, a hint of playfulness in his voice.

"Stared down? I don't know what you're talking about, Scott," Johnny feigned ignorance.

The Lancers rode on, laughing and talking about horses.

 

 

~end~
2003

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