Word Count 3,773
Written for the Lancer Writers January 2023 Challenge ‘Betrayal’
Episode Tag for Chase A Wild Horse
Johnny leaned against the splintery wood wall until the splash of a horse taking a piss on the other side moved him to a different stall; as he crouched down the pungent smell swept over him. He waved his hand in front of his nose a few times before he settled back, arms on knees, and bowed his head. He’d just left Wes in the bar, drinking up the money Johnny traded for the pocket watch he’d had for less than a day.
Was he really going back to everything he’d wanted to leave behind: drifting, hiring his gun, losing more of his soul with every dark day? For a minute he’d had a taste of what he might have had if his father hadn’t thrown his mama and him out….
Johnny stopped that thought. He’d always tried to be honest with himself, and he had to admit maybe things weren’t like he’d been told. He knew from his own experience that Murdoch Lancer had been looking for him for at least three years, and he knew who was behind what saved him in Mexico.
“Your father wants to see you.”
Father? But Papa had been dead for many years.
“Lancer?” Johnny Madrid spoke the name for the first time. He knew he was addled from the heat and those miserable days in jail, but what did Lancer have to do with him? Why was this sweaty Pinkerton agent with a fat wallet buying his freedom?
“Willing to give you a thousand dollars for an hour of your time.”
A thousand dollars? That didn’t make sense. Nothing made sense until out of the corner of his eye Johnny saw the firing squad grinning and taking aim. He didn’t have to make sense of anything then. All he had to do was react. He bowled the gringo to the ground with his own body and rolled back, firing the gun he took from the guy’s holster without even knowing it. He shot his way out of there, hefted Chu into the Pink’s wagon, and galloped away on a rurale’s horse, promising to go to hell for a thousand dollars.
He knew he was being hired for his gun. The only reason for Lancer saving his ass and throwing that much money at him was that the man needed someone killed. As much as Johnny wanted out of the game, he couldn’t pass up that kind of money. So he headed to California, sure he would be taking the money and not so sure he wouldn’t be shooting Murdoch Lancer once he had it.
His legs had gone numb, so Johnny stood up, stretched, and paced around the barn a little. He’d been right about Lancer needing his gun, but discovering he had a half-brother and a sort-of sister drove thoughts of shooting his father right out of his mind. The ranch itself overwhelmed him with its size and its beauty. Naturally, Lancer denied throwing him and his mother out, but the suggestion he could earn a third of the ranch stunned him. That unforced offer tore the first shred of doubt in the story his mother told.
The next shred tore after the fight with Scott by the water hole. Johnny tried to hide it, but Teresa’s comment about a gambler struck him deep in his chest.
Mama had hated gamblers. She avoided gaming towns like the plague and forbade him and his stepfather from entering any business supporting any form of gambling. Johnny and his Papa had wondered why, had even joked about it when she wasn’t around.
But according to Teresa, his mother had left Lancer of her own free will, with a gambler. Why would a woman who hated gambling leave with a gambler?
Unless the hatred came later.
Why would a woman who hated blue eyes marry a gringo with blue eyes?
Unless the hatred came later.
Johnny picked up a saddle blanket, folded it, tossed it on the cold dirt, and sat on it. All this thinking was making him cloudy in the head. Like he’d said that first day, Murdoch’s telling of him and Mama leaving Lancer wasn’t the way he’d heard it.
But then again, his mama was not known for her truthfulness. She loved to tell stories—fantastical tales to entertain, to get attention, to encourage cantina patrons to buy another drink. Papa laughed with her and encouraged her to spin her yarns. He told her she should write books with her crazy stories in them. Those were happy times. Their little house was full of laughter and singing.
Johnny didn’t think back that far very often. It had been too painful, at first. Papa got sick and died, and then Mama drank too much and died, and it had taken everything Johnny had just to survive from day to day. By the time he’d established himself, he was long out of the habit of thinking about the past.
But he remembered Mama told stories. And as far as he could tell, even though Murdoch Lancer was a grim, humorless man who asked too much of Johnny, he hadn’t ever lied. Hell, even that offer of a third of the ranch was real. They’d already signed the partnership agreement.
The one Johnny had just walked out on, for a horse and twelve dollars.
He screwed his eyes closed and laid his head back against the wall. He didn’t like where his thoughts were going. If Murdoch Lancer was telling the truth, that made his mother a liar.
If his mother was a liar, and Lancer hadn’t thrown them out, then maybe Johnny could have had food in his belly and a roof over his head after she died. Maybe, if he was the son of a respected rancher instead of an orphaned half-breed, he wouldn’t have been beaten and cut and treated like he was less than shit. Maybe he could have gone to school or learned some other trade instead of the one he taught himself.
Maybe he would have learned to get along with his father, instead of blowing this chance and running away from home like a spoiled kid when he didn’t get his way.
It occurred to him that Mama had betrayed Murdoch, yet Murdoch had found a way to live with it. Otherwise, he would never have invited Johnny home, would never have offered him his share of the ranch. If his father could move past Mama’s betrayal, Johnny could too. After all, he’d been hurt before and moved on…
“Johnny? Woo hoo…Johnny!” Shoot. It was Wes, of course, drunk as a skunk and coming in with plans to break that stallion right now. Smiling, Johnny talked him out of it, laid him down, and tucked him in. But even plastered, Wes must have picked up on something, because he asked Johnny if he’d be there in the morning. Why wouldn’t he be?
Johnny turned away and found himself nose to nose with the horse who started all this ruckus. With a deep sigh, Johnny leaned against the short stall wall; the stallion nuzzled the top of Johnny’s head.
Huh. So he’d at least been handled, maybe even started by someone. That wasn’t necessarily a good thing. If the horse had been trainable, they’d have kept him and gelded him. Instead, they turned him loose, so he was probably a rogue, and possibly dangerous. Wes would have a hard enough time with this one even once he was sober.
The next day found Johnny back in the bar, ignoring Wes drinking and groping the girls at the next table. Johnny was close to changing his mind, thinking maybe he should go back to Lancer and have it out with the old man once and for all. But then he looked out the clouded window and saw a familiar bay horse trotting in. The man sitting straight in the saddle was familiar, too, and for a second Johnny dared to hope Murdoch had sent his brother to ask him to come back.
But Scott had come of his own free will, and hearing that, Johnny’s mind made itself up. There was no way he’d show this man he barely knew any sign of indecision, no way would he share any of the thinking he’d been doing. Johnny stoppered up his thoughts of going back, stood his ground against his brother, and sent him on his way.
It took Wes dying to unstopper those thoughts again. Johnny saw clear as glass that if he didn’t change his mind about leaving Lancer, he’d deal with death daily. Going back to that way of life would kill him as dead as poor Wes. It was time to man up, to swallow his pride, talk to his father, and find a way to be Johnny Lancer, rancher: son of Murdoch Lancer and brother of Scott Lancer.
Wes was gone and there was nothing he could do about that. But he could break that rogue stallion to get his father’s watch back—turn it from a killer to just a horse. And he could do the same breaking to himself. He was no longer a killer; he was just a rancher. And Johnny finally could admit to himself that’s what he wanted. If he had to eat crow to be part of this family, well, he could do that too. He ran his fingers over the old timepiece, imagining its past, and finally looking forward to his future.
Johnny rode back to the ranch so deep in his thoughts he didn’t notice how closed off everything felt as he neared the house. A rifle shot jolted him to awareness. He couldn’t tell where it came from, so he detoured to the side door just in case.
That future he was starting to look forward to? Up in smoke. This time there was no doubt he was being thrown out, no doubt who was doing the tossing. Just before Murdoch growled, “…Now get out…” Johnny realized he hadn’t seen any hands outside. The air was so thick he could have cut it with a spoon— and Murdoch held a rifle. “Something’s wrong,” Johnny started, but Lancer cut him off. “The only thing wrong around here has always been you. Now get out while you still can…. get off my land.”
He stared at his father, stunned by the man’s words. He hadn’t expected to be welcomed with open arms, but damn it, he thought they’d be able to discuss the situation. Shattered, Johnny turned away to leave the home he’d been ready to grovel for.
He opened the door to his brother stumbling into the foyer, bleeding from his shoulder. The injury wasn’t bad, but it prompted Teresa to defy Murdoch and tell Johnny the Stryker boy had died, and men were outside, waiting.
Wasn’t Murdoch going to say anything to him about that? Johnny didn’t want to believe his father had tried to send him into an ambush without warning. Could the man be so angry he wanted Johnny dead?
Lancer’s hard words hurt deep, but there were men with guns outside. They’d shot Scott. This was familiar territory, finally. Johnny put his confusion aside to deal with the Strykers.
When he moved to go out Lancer grabbed his arm as if to stop him, but Johnny angrily pulled away. “It’s my responsibility,” he said to the man who had just thundered at him for being irresponsible, “and I have a right to handle it my own way.”
He mumbled his thanks to Teresa on his way out.
As he snuck closer to where Stryker and his men lined up with their rifles, one of them ran around to the back of the house. Johnny was nearly within firing distance when he was surprised to see Murdoch and Scott shooting from the adobe arches of the portico. Taking advantage of the unexpected covering fire, Johnny dashed across the corral. As he dove under the fence, he heard a shout behind him. He rolled, turned, and fired. It was the other Stryker son, the one called Davey, with Johnny’s bullet in his shoulder, crying for his daddy.
Dodging bullets, Johnny ran for the man and pulled him close to use as a shield. He held his gun to Davey’s jaw, yelling for Stryker to drop his guns and ride out. Then he dug the barrel of his Colt deeper.
Davey whimpered, “What are you gonna do?” and for an instant Johnny toyed with the idea of squeezing the trigger, to avenge Wes—except Johnny knew it wouldn’t.
Instead, he leaned in and spoke softly. “What am I gonna do? I’m gonna tell you who you’re fucking with. I’m Johnny Madrid.”
Davey Stryker pissed his pants. And then Murdoch Lancer strode up and said, “Johnny” in the same sour tone he’d used to kick him out of the house. Johnny glared at him before he pushed Davey Stryker back to his daddy.
Damn Murdoch Lancer. Fuck being a rancher.
This is what Johnny was good at. He had saved Lancer— again.
And Murdoch just stood there, frowning.
Once the rush wore off Johnny was too tired to ride. He hadn’t slept much the night before, in the livery. Besides, he felt sorrowful about Wes— not that he figured anybody else in this house cared. Murdoch Lancer didn’t say anything to him about leaving, and Teresa told them she’d bring some sandwiches into the great room, so Johnny settled in a corner there. No words were spoken as Scott and then Murdoch came in; everyone sat far away from everyone else. Johnny checked his brother out without seeming to; Scott looked a little pale but otherwise pretty good for man who’d just been shot. Soon Teresa brought them plates and food on a tray, and they ate a quick, quiet supper. Johnny kept his eyes down, trying to make sense of everything.
He’d grown up hating a nameless gringo for kicking out him and his momma. But it was Mama, who he loved, who had lied to him. It was the worst feeling in the world, to find out he’d been lied to by the person he’d trusted most.
And just when he’d made a sort of peace with Mama’s betrayal… this. Another betrayal. Murdoch Lancer might not have thrown him out when he was little, but he sure tried to do it now. Somehow, even though he didn’t love his father, it hurt almost as much.
Johnny rubbed his eyes and tried to remember why he’d come back here. He’d been prepared to eat crow, but he never expected to be trashed and tossed out by the old man. Right now he had no idea where he stood. Right now he didn’t even know what he wanted.
Murdoch pushed his food around without eating much. Finally, he set his plate on the side table and cleared his throat. “Johnny… I… it seems to me…”
“Are you kicking me out or not?” Even Johnny was surprised at the venom in his voice.
Murdoch answered over Scott’s shocked, “What?”
“No! Sam Stryker and his men showed up looking for you. I told them you weren’t here. Then when I saw you coming home… I suppose I panicked. I wanted to keep you safe. I thought if I made you angry enough you’d leave, and…”
Johnny stared hard at him. “What the hell? Even a rancher should know not to send a man outside when a bunch of angry hard cases with rifles are waiting for him. You can’t be that stupid.”
Scott sucked in a breath. Murdoch didn’t take the bait.
Scott looked to Johnny. “It appears I missed quite a bit.”
Johnny rolled his eyes at Scott’s understatement, and Scott almost smiled before he added, “So do we need to set a watch?”
“Naw. They won’t be back.”
“And you know that how…?”
Johnny looked past his brother to Murdoch in his leather armchair, waiting until he had his father’s eye. “Because I told ‘em who I am.”
Murdoch’s reply was quiet. “Who are you, John?”
“I’m Johnny fucking Madrid. And you should be damn glad, because it took me and a soldier to save your precious ranch from Pardee, and it took me to get rid of the problem you made when you gave the horses I busted my ass for to those chiselers.”
Scott made a choking sound but didn’t say anything as he got to his feet. He poured three glasses of whiskey and handed them out. Before he took his seat, he lifted his glass, looked at Johnny, and said, “To my brother, Johnny Madrid.”
Murdoch looked at each of them before raising his glass. “To both my sons.” Then he frowned at Johnny. “Johnny, you said you came back to talk to me. Is now the time?”
Tossing half his drink back without returning either toast, Johnny swallowed before shaking his head. “You told me I’d done all my talking when I left. You kicked me out. Now you want to talk?” Johnny’s voice rose with the heat in his veins.
“I’m trying to tell you my intentions…” Murdoch began, but Johnny cut across him.
“Intentions don’t matter. Whatever you thought you were doing, if I’d gone out there with no warning, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Unless maybe that’s what you wanted…”
“No!” Murdoch slammed his drink on the table. “Johnny, I made a mistake. I thought you could avoid those men…”
“Without knowing they were there? That would have been some trick.” Even as the words poured out, Johnny realized his father had just admitted he’d been wrong.
Maybe Lancer didn’t mean for him to get killed. Maybe he really was that dumb.
How sorry was it that the best Johnny could hope for was that his old man was stupid? Johnny downed the rest of his drink and sat quiet for a minute, reining in his runaway thoughts, calming his breathing. Scott watched him like a hawk but was smart enough to stay quiet. Murdoch just sat there, grimly staring straight ahead.
More in control now, Johnny took the bull by the horns. “Listen, Murdoch. I decided I was being pigheaded when I left. I came back to try to straighten it all out with you. But those words you threw at me…they hurt.”
“I meant them to, at the time. And I’m sorry.”
“That doesn’t mean much.” Johnny sighed. He turned his head away from his father and stared at the empty fireplace. “I’ve been thinking a lot… those words… there must have been some truth in there, you know? That’s the hard part.”
Murdoch scrubbed his hand across his face, still focused on nothing. “What can I say, Johnny? If there was any truth in my words, I disavow them now.”
“Yeah, well, talk is cheap, they say.”
They sat in silence. Teresa reappeared, this time bearing coffee and pie. Her face was pinched, her eyes red; she didn’t look at any of them. She set the tray on Murdoch’s desk before gathering up the plates from their supper and heading for the kitchen. Suddenly she stopped, clattered the plates down on the dining room table, and stalked back into the great room to stare at Johnny and Murdoch.
“I can’t believe you two. Either of you. Murdoch, you know you love your sons, but whatever it was you were trying to do when the Strykers were here was wrong-headed and hurtful. And Johnny, you came back, didn’t you? So you must have figured out you wanted to be here, even if you and Murdoch disagree about things. You are both going to have to put aside your pride and hurt feelings and get back to being a family.” Her eyes filled with tears, and her voice quavered when she said, “I’d give anything to be with my father.” She picked up the dishes and disappeared through the doorway.
Scott jumped to his feet. “Those are the wisest words I’ve heard today. You’d both do well to heed them.” He followed Teresa into the kitchen.
Johnny listened to their quiet voices in the kitchen. He couldn’t make out the words, but it was clear Scott was comforting a weeping Teresa. The silence between him and Murdoch stretched longer and longer until Johnny had to speak.
“You know, before I came back here, I decided I was Johnny Lancer, rancher. I was willing to put aside my old life and do my damnedest to fit in here. That’s what I was coming back to tell you.”
Johnny got out of his chair and walked to the picture window. He felt his father turn in his chair and knew they were looking at the same view.
“It’s beautiful here, Murdoch. I can see how this land gets to you. Growing up I never knew… I never owned anything bigger than I could carry. The work here is the hardest I’ve ever done. I don’t mind it, much. But I’m gonna make mistakes, and we’re gonna butt heads, and I gotta know you aren’t going to toss me to the street. I don’t think it’s too much to ask.”
He heard his father rise stiffly from his chair, and limp over to stand beside him. “No, son, it’s not too much to ask.” Side by side they gazed at the land that was named after them— all of them. “I was wrong to ask you to choose yesterday, and I was wrong to say those things this afternoon. If you can forgive your old man…”
Johnny sighed. Damn, this family stuff was complicated. But after everything, this was what he wanted. He knew that now, again. He’d get past the hurts; he always had.
“Might take a while.” Johnny turned his head to look his father full in the face. “But yeah, I think I can.”
Murdoch smiled, and Johnny smiled back.
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14 thoughts on “A Question of Betrayal by Doc”
Terri, you’ve done it to me again! This is the second time I’ve read this story, and again was so moved by your words and how you strung them together in this incredible story. And the same line sent chills through me- ‘I’m Johnny F*****g Madrid!’ so masterfully crafted expressing Johnny’s mad and frustrations with his father! Yup, another story that is on my ‘To Read Again’ list. Thank you for sharing!
And thank you for such enthusiastic support. I’m thrilled you liked it enough to read it again.
Teresa is a wise girl ! Thank you for this story.
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You’re welcome, and thank you for commenting.
This was really good. I’m glad Johnny called Murdoch on his words. I always hated that part of the episode as it makes no sense to me. Thanks for the extra scenes.
We all agree that Murdoch made no sense. Poor writing, or poor editing, who knows? But AD was such a solid actor he made the scene work, somehow. Now we writers get to fix it however we want. Glad you liked my stab at it!
Another great story. Thanks.
Thank you, Helen!
Thank you for adding the scenes and for sharing this great episode tag. AD was the perfect actor to portray Murdoch Lancer.
Thank you for commenting, Debra. I appreciate it.
Thankyou for clearing up Murdoch’s stupid remarks to Johnny. It was certainly the writers error. Didn’t make sense. Beautifully written. Thankyou again.
Thanks for your kind words! One advantage of the show’s poor writing is the chance it gives us to try to make sense of it
A much better ending to the episode than what was shown. Murdoch and Johnny needed to talk.
Thank you, Tina. Glad you liked it!