The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Buckskin

 

 

Through The Eyes Of An Angel

Usual disclaimers
A huge thanks to Cat for the beta
Rated R  Rowdy language
Any and all mistakes are mine

 

A dust-covered carriage made its way under the Lancer arch leaving a trail of billowing dirt in its wake. Dust settled back down to hard packed road as the wheels passed only to be kicked up again after the eight horse escort that followed. Swirling around the hooves of the magnificent Andalusian descendants, it hung thick in the air and threatened to choke away any life as easily as plugging a hole in a rain barrel. The occupants of the carriage, weary and exhausted, wound their way to the front door of the grand hacienda. A man of distinguished stature dismounted his horse and hurried to assist his Patrón from the carriage and lingered, making sure the old man stood on stable legs.

Don Alejandro Alvarez looked around but saw no one about to help, nothing other than a large white goose dozing in the shade. He continued his way slowly to the front door under the heavy cloud of fear and grief that covered him under the smothering weight. After knocking several times he waited, shoulders slumped as if in defeat.

<><><><> 

"Scott, look at these numbers! I….I can't believe them!" Murdoch Lancer, patriarch of the Lancer clan, scratched his head in disbelief. Scott, the eldest of the two Lancer sons, made his way to his father's side. "This is unbelievable! I never expected Johnny's horses to produce so much so fast! No wonder he insisted on keeping the books on his horse breeding when it was a major chore to get him interested in the ranch bookwork. I have to admit that I was skeptical at first but…. I guess I need to trust in him more!"

As Scott stared at the figures recorded in the book, he mirrored his father's shock, albeit a welcomed one. Teresa, Murdoch's ward since the death of her father a few years ago, beamed in delight. She’d known from the start that Johnny could make this work and was not surprised, she was proud of her ‘brother’ and was deeply moved when the rest of the family finally figured it out as well. Johnny was incredibly knowledgeable when it came to horses and she knew from the beginning that he would make this a successful endeavor.

The loud pounding on the front door broke the moment and both men started at the interruption. Scott made his way to the entrance and opened the heavy, carved wooden door to find a well dressed, although very dusty, Mexican gentleman with the look of despair in his deep set eyes. He seemed lost, definitely out of place in his travel worn formal attire.

"Please excuse my intrusion but I was told Johnny Madrid worked here and it is of great urgency that I speak with him, por favor. I am Don Alejandro Alvarez," the gentleman said.

Scott straightened, his spine stiffened of its own accord and coldness blazed out from his blue-gray stare. No! Not again!

"What do you want with Johnny?" The threat barely covered, Scott was instantly on high alert. How many times had this happened? How many more times would it continue? Why can't they leave him alone?

"Please, Señor, I mean him no harm. I am a friend from long ago and..."

"Scott, who is it? Invite them in!" Murdoch's tone was light but he had not yet seen the man at the door. As Murdoch rounded the corner he stopped in his tracks as he took stock of the situation.

"He's looking for Johnny... Madrid" Scott informed him.

Murdoch's face fell and the smile disappeared. "What do you want with him, if I may ask?" Murdoch’s suspicions began to boil over.

"It is a private matter, is Johnny here?" the old man persisted.
 
"And I will ask you again, what do you want with my son?" Murdoch questioned, his temper beginning to run.

The old man's eyes widened with shock. "Son? No, there has been a mistake. Johnny Madrid has no one. He told me that himself when he worked for me five years ago."

Murdoch's eyes went past the old man to the carriage and saw a small older woman dressed in black sitting in an exhausted slump. "I think you should come in and if that is your wife you need to get her out of the heat." With that Murdoch turned and went back into the cool of the hacienda.

<><><><> 

"I am sorry to have intruded. I only thought Johnny would be able to help..." With this last statement Señora Alvarez bowed her head and began to weep softly into a handkerchief. Don Alvarez reached his arm around her shoulders and pulled her into his embrace.

In the back of the house a door slammed.  "Hey Murdoch... Scott....T'resa, where is everybody? It's lunch time and I'm hungry!" With rowels scraping the tiled floor and easy sure footfalls, Johnny Lancer breezed into the room. The first thing he saw was suspicion and anger on the faces of his father and brother and only then did he see the Alvarezes seated in the great room.

Shock flooded his dark features and in a few long strides he was across the room pulling Elena Alvarez to her feet and enveloped her in a huge hug. Then it hit Johnny... Where was Ana? She wasn't here... something was wrong. With hands on Elena's shoulders Johnny set her away at arm's length.

"Where's Ana?" he whispered. "Tell me..." Red rimmed eyes told him what he needed to know. The grief was raw and bitter and Johnny had all he could do to hold himself together. His belly churned and dread tore through him and clawed at his heart.

"She is gone, Johnny," Elena gasped, now weeping uncontrollably.

 Johnny felt his blood drain to his feet, leaving him cold and empty. "Come sit over here." He assisted Elena into a chair. “Alejandro, talk to me. Did you come here to find me?"

“Sí, Johnny, but I did not know you had a family. I would never have come if I had known you were settled down. We will go now..."

"Alejandro, what happened? Tell me..." Johnny's quiet voice cut through the old man's fog and in Johnny's eyes Alejandro saw hard blue ice, intensity so fierce it almost took his breath away.

"They murdered Ana and her husband and stole the niña. Johnny, she is only five months old and they took her!" Alvarez could barely spit out the words.

Johnny felt as if his heart exploded in his chest. "Ana's baby....? Why? Why take the baby?"

Alejandro looked defeated. The life was melting out of his body leaving a shell of skin and bones of what had once been a strong and resilient man.

"The bandits want my land. They want me to bargain for Angela. They have been trying to get their hands on it for two years. Ana and her husband were on the road when the bandits stopped them and…" he could say no more. The ugliness of what had happened played out once again in his brain. His daughter, his only child, beautiful Ana dead, brutalized and murdered, her husband slaughtered and the niña taken. All because of greed. Because they wanted the land.

"Is Esteban here? I'll need to talk with him," Johnny said as he gathered his thoughts, already forming a plan.

"Johnny, what's going on here?" Murdoch thundered. "Johnny—" he shouted as the front door slammed, effectively cutting off any explanations or comments.

<><><><> 

Out in the courtyard the escorts were resting in the shade of the orange trees. They had been served refreshments and talked quietly amongst themselves as they waited for their beloved Patrón. Standing a bit apart from the others was the tall vaquero that had lent his strength to help Don Alvarez from the carriage.

“Esteban!" Johnny called to his friend.

Esteban stood erect upon hearing the familiar, smooth voice and turned to find Johnny Madrid Lancer approaching him with fast, angry strides. “Juanito! It's good we found you. Bad news we bring you..." Esteban’s eyes filled with emotion reflecting the ache that shown in Johnny's.

“Esteban, tell me what happened,... everything," Johnny gently urged.

“Rafael and I found the wrecked carriage. It had been run off the road. Under it were the bodies of.... Ana and Miguel. Miguel had a bullet in the head and Ana had been......used....by many and her throat cut..." his chin dropped to his chest and could only whisper "... Angela gone..." A tear rolled down the dusty face washing a tiny glazed path on the weathered skin as he recalled the horrific events that would forever scar his memory. He had watched Ana as a tiny girl as she played on the patio then watched as she grew into a lovely young woman and marry, have a beautiful niña and now she was gone, murdered. Johnny's hand was on his friend's shoulder lending him strength. "They loaded the bodies back into the carriage after they butcher them and pushed it off the road down into a ravine..."

“Esteban... do you know where they went? Any trail to follow or sign of any kind?" The question held an urgency, a demand that hung in the heavy air.
 
"They headed north to the San Benitos but we lost the trail after the third day. I am sorry, Johnny, I failed...."

"Esteban, you did what you could but we don't have time for this now. When did this happen?"

"It's been three weeks, now. The bandits are lead by Silva, Eduardo Silva. Have you heard of him?"

Johnny stood with eyes closed. Eduardo Silva was a violent and cruel bastard, killed at a whim with no regard for anyone or anything. He’d left a trail of death and destruction wherever he went and Johnny had personally seen the aftermath of the bandit’s destructive ways. Slaughters, rapes, the man took what he wanted and left a skeleton of the life that had once been. And now the viper was responsible for the horrific, vile death of a beautiful and kind young woman much before her time.

"Yeah, I have. An' with any luck I can send him to Hell." I'll need all the luck I can get for this. Ana, a little divine intervention would help... "Anything else you can tell me? How many men does he have? Has he made contact with Alejandro yet?"

“Sí, he has twenty, maybe twenty five mad dogs with him. Evil, all of them. One is worse than the next. He sent word to the Patrón a week after the niña was taken that they will wait only another two weeks, then they will kill her and come after the Patrón..."

"Doesn't leave me a whole lot of time to find that little one... Didn't even know Ana was married... Was her husband a good man? Was he good to Ana?" Johnny’s shattered heart filled with grief for her, she was gone, forever. Had Silva been in front of Johnny at that moment Johnny would have literally torn him apart, limb by limb and would have enjoyed doing so.

“Sí, Juanito, very good and he loved Ana and the niña more than life. She was happy, Johnny."

Johnny's eyes closed while he took a few seconds to absorb all he'd been told. It was impossible to think of Ana dead, she’d been so young, kind, good and so full of life. His heart was hammering in his chest and he desperately wanted, needed to find these murderers, the cold-hearted bastards that kill innocent people and take their babies to hold for bargaining and threaten to kill them, too.

"Johnny, be careful, por favor," Esteban asked of his friend. Worry wrapped his heart with tight icy fingers.

Then Johnny was moving again, around the back of the house and up the back stairs to his room. He would travel light. One clean shirt, socks and several boxes of shells for both Winchester and Colt, telescope and whatever food he could grab on the way out the back kitchen door.

<><><><> 

Once in his room, away from other eyes he put together a small bundle that he tucked into his saddle bags, slung the bags over his shoulder, grabbed his Winchester and shells for both Colt and rifle, and bedroll then headed down the front stairs. He could hear Murdoch’s voice hedging on anger although Johnny suspected there was fear there, too.

"What do you think Johnny can do? Why not go to the law?" Murdoch was close to exploding.

"Because there is no more law there than there is here, Señor. Again, I am sorry we came. We will go now. Elena...?" he held out his hand for his wife as she sat with the delicate handkerchief to her eyes as she dabbed at the tears wetting her grief stricken face.

"You'll stay here until I get back." Johnny's command, though spoken softly, seemed to echo in the room. "Murdoch?" he looked into his father's eyes and quietly requested for the Alvarez' to stay for a few days. "I need some time to track ‘em and I think it ain't all that far away. If I start now I can be there in a coupla days or so.”

Scott stood and started for the stairs. "I'll get my things and go with you. Take only a minute..."

"No, Scott. I'm goin' alone." He turned to Teresa and asked her to have Jelly saddle Barranca. She left quickly, wanting to be back to hear what was said.

"Wait just a minute, brother..." Scott insisted not wanting Johnny to go, much less alone.

"Both of you wait a minute... we need to talk…" Murdoch was losing control of the situation.

"No time, Murdoch! Those bastards are gonna kill that baby if I can't get there soon so there's no time to talk... about anything. I need to go, now,” his glacial stare dared a challenge.

Murdoch said nothing for a moment, torn at the devastating circumstances but not wanting his young son to risk his life; one man against…. how many? "Why, Johnny? Why you? Why can't they hire someone el..." Murdoch pleaded.

Johnny interrupted with stubborn determination. "Because they were my family before I knew that you really wanted me... us." He looked at Scott, then down at his boots. "Murdoch, I have to go." And with that Johnny went to Elena, wrapped his arms around her and held her tight for a moment. "Light a candle for me." He kissed her cheek and backed away. Looking first at his father then his brother and with a quick peck to Teresa's forehead he was in the kitchen stuffing a few provisions in a sack then out the door and to the barn. Johnny tied his belongings to the back of the saddle swung onto the golden horse, turned Barranca down the road like Satan himself was on their tail.

<><><><> 

Teresa was the first to move. "Señora, please, let me help you to your room. You need to rest." The young woman took charge as Elena Alvarez slowly mounted the stairs as Teresa put her arm lightly around the trembling shoulders. Quietly closing the door to the guest room she helped Elena to rinse the road dust away and rest on the bed.

As Teresa pulled a light cover over the frail woman she gently spoke. "Johnny will find her, Señora, I know he will. Please rest and I will bring you something cool to drink."

"Gracias, Teresa. Gracias." And tears fell from her eyes as Teresa left the room with a heavy heart.

<><><><> 

Murdoch hadn't moved. His mouth hung open as if words would come rolling off his tongue but none did. He had always been in control before, now it seemed as if any control had been ripped out of his hands and he felt helpless.

Scott, torn between the urge to throw the intruders out and the need to back up his brother, remained silent, giving Murdoch the right by authority to plunge ahead. Murdoch's gaze turned slowly to Alejandro Alvarez and gave him a hard stare. Johnny’s life was now at stake because of this man.

"Lo siento, Señor Lancer, I did not know any of this or I would not have made this journey. I only wanted to find Angela..." His voice trailed off into what Scott could only define as anguish.

Murdoch's face turned from hardened stone to one of sincere sympathy, suddenly feeling ashamed of his thoughts. "Señor Alvarez, I am truly sorry for all you have suffered and I hope you will accept my apology. Of, course, you will stay here and wait for Johnny. I know this will be very difficult on all of us but that is all we will be able to do... wait and have faith in Johnny."

<><><><> 

As Barranca's hooves quickly ate up the miles, Johnny was thinking of a plan of action. He knew he would have to summon Madrid if he were to be successful in finding Ana’s baby. Ana! Sweet Ana! And he felt his heart shatter. Hold it tagether, Madrid! But Madrid had known Ana and that was part of the problem.

Much would depend on where the bandits had their camp. He knew the San Benitos Mountains well but wasn't exactly sure where to start, as it was a very large area to cover. Waitin' for that intervention, Ana. The niña is needin' my help. The sun was setting as Johnny finally stopped for the night. Stripping the saddle from Barranca, he set up camp and soon had a small fire going. The beans and coffee weren't tasted and he ate only to keep up the strength he knew he would soon need.
 
Snippets of memories flooded through his brain. Ana riding horses with him, racing across the open desert and he would let her win, her laughter sounding like sweet music as her hair escaped the scarf that tried to hold the thick mass in place. Ana caring for a small child who had fallen and scraped a knee, picking her up with a cuddle and reassuring with calming words. Ana, sweet, kind Ana, always caring for other people, other things, now she was dead. He felt empty inside, empty and cold as icy tendrils wrapped around his heart and squeezed.  

At sunrise Johnny was up, having slept a bit and once again, galloped westward. Mid afternoon came and found Johnny and Barranca at the foot of the San Benitos Mountains. He knew he could waste a lot of time if he didn't make the right call. All he could do is go by gut feelings. Where would I hide? He thought. Help me, Ana. He scanned the mountains for smoke from a camp fire. With that many men in his camp it should be easy to find. Hell, I oughta be able to hear 'em. They'll be so sure no one's followin' and they'll be takin' chances they shouldn't be. Hope there's someone there that knows how ta take proper care 'o that baby. Hey, Silva...Madrid's comin' for you. Then he took off to the southwest.

<><><><> 

"Please, call me Murdoch. As long as we will be waiting here together it may as well be on friendly terms."

"Sí, and please call me Alejandro. Again, I want to apologize for barging in your home unexpected and uninvited. We tried to find my grand daughter on our own but we did not. My men are not trackers. They are the best at taking my orders and handling horses and cattle but tracking has never been as needed as it is now."

"Believe me, I know about the urgency, the complete frustration of having loved ones taken from you, failing to locate them and not being able to do anything about it, not be able to get to them."

Scott's head came up at this remark.

"My oldest son, Scott here, was a baby, a new born, and taken by his grand father after his mother died, thinking that this was no country for a widower to be raising a baby alone, so the old man took Scott and headed back east. I then met Johnny's mother and right after Johnny turned two, his mother took him and ran off in the middle of the night... with another man." After all the time that had past, Murdoch still could not say this without gritting his teeth and spitting out the words; some wounds never heal... But he had his sons back with him now and life was good... Well, he hoped it would still be good.

"Tell me, Alejandro, how is it that you met Johnny?" Murdoch inquired wanting to know more about this ‘family’ that Johnny had talked about, his family. And after the initial shock of that term pierced Murdoch’s heart, knowing that someone else had been his son’s family, Murdoch suddenly gave thanks that there had been love given to his lost son, a genuine love even if it had not been Murdoch himself. Murdoch had seen it in Johnny’s eyes. Love for these people… and now he had shared in their grief.

Alejandro smiled as he went back to that day, that hot miserable day when the horse took off with Ana clinging to its back with all the strength she possessed. He’d been terrified to hear her screams and not able to do a thing about it. He never knew what spooked her horse only that his precious little girl was now hanging on for her life and completely helpless. No sooner had she screamed than a rider came seemingly out of nowhere and gave chase for what seemed hours, but was in reality only about two minutes. The stranger gained on the horse and was able to grab the bridle to bring the frightened animal under control. Speaking calmly and softly, the stranger quieted the horse and had complete control of the situation.
 
"In gratitude I offered him a job which was politely declined and with that he said good-bye after making sure my daughter was not injured, he rode away. My men found him two days later with a bullet in his shoulder and bleeding to death. They brought him to the hacienda where he stayed for the next three years helping, advising and lending whatever aid was needed.

"The horses that are raised today at the rancho are a result of Johnny's knowledge and expertise. He truly is a remarkable young man and my wife and I are very grateful for the time he stayed with us. He became very close, a member of our family. When he left it was as if part of the family left with him. My daughter and Johnny were very good friends. She looked on Johnny as the older brother she never had."

With this, Scott smiled and knew that Johnny actually did have family other than at Lancer. This was something that was special. To fit into another family that was, in fact, not family was extraordinary. It was... Johnny. It was so like Johnny to calmly save a little girl's life and walk away so casually as if it were an every day event. And Scott was proud to be a part of Johnny's life and to have Johnny a part of his. He only hoped now that Johnny would still be a part of his life. Why did he let Johnny leave without him? Damn stubborn Madrid!

<><><><> 

That damned stubborn Madrid was, at the moment, trying to decipher a few tracks he'd discovered on his way up the mountain side. Hell, I could be chasin' my tail for all I know. Mierda!  It’s gettin' cold, too. Glad I brought the heavy coat. Wonder if that baby has anything to keep her warm... Ana...help me... Johnny wondered if he’d taken on more than he would be able to handle.

Johnny, keep looking. You will find her. Keep looking. My faith is with you to bring her home. I will do all I can to help you...

A soft warm feeling washed over Johnny. Surprised, he pulled on Barranca's reins, bringing the stallion to a halt. Johnny looked around. It's getting cold out, why did he feel warm? Ana smiled. He made camp and tried to sleep, again, with not much success. Dawn came quickly and he continued to search for the daughter of his cherished friend.

<><><><> 

Murdoch sat behind the behemoth desk. This was his sanctuary. This is where he "called the tune". This is where many of the ranch decisions were made. The decisions that made this ranch run smoothly, or not. This is where Johnny sat, keeping the mysterious books on the horses that he so badly wanted to raise. And he, Murdoch, had originally scoffed at the idea. This was a working cattle ranch. 'We are raising beef here, not horses.'

Well, now they were raising horses and it was not only working but working well. Because of Johnny. And because of Johnny, here he was, worried sick. How did this happen? How did Johnny think he was going to sneak into a camp with twenty to twenty five armed men, vicious men and get away with a... baby? What did Johnny know about babies? He better not know anything about babies! Murdoch, get a hold of yourself... focus here! He needed to know things, things about Johnny. He needed confirmation that only someone who knew his son well could give him...Val.

Val Crawford was the sheriff in Green River and a close friend of Johnny's. Val and Johnny had ridden together for a few years while they both hired out to work range wars. Usually hired out together around the border towns, so Val knew Johnny better than Johnny's own family did. It often was a source of irritation for Murdoch to have to talk with Val to find out something about his own son. Irritation or... guilt? Murdoch did feel guilty about not finding Johnny for so long after Johnny's mother left with him. Well, what was done was done. Over. Gone. Under the bridge, or was it over the dam. Focus!!! Murdoch heaved his large frame out of the chair and left for the barn. Have to talk with Val.

<><><><> 

Val Crawford sat behind the worn, scuffed and battered desk. He leaned back in the equally beaten chair, feet propped on the pile of old wanted posters with mouth agape as his snores echoed off the walls. Murdoch slammed the door behind him causing Val to nearly slide off the chair, spilling his cup of cold coffee in the process.

"Damn, Mr. Lancer! Don't sneak up on me like that! My ol' heart's gonna give out one o' these days if you keep doin' that. Coffee?" he asked as he held up a dirty mug.

"No thanks, Val, but I do need to talk to you...that is, if you're not busy."

"’Course I'm busy. I'm always busy but I'll make time for..."

"It's about Johnny..."

"Uh oh, what's that boy gone an' done now?"

"He left two days ago, headed into the San Benitos Mountains..."

"Who's he after?"

"What makes you think he's after some one?"

"Ain't no one in his right mind gonna go inta them mountains if they don't hafta, so who's he after?"

"Well, he's after a baby."

"Baby! What baby? Whose baby? Why's Johnny after a baby? Murdoch... don't tell me that boy's gone an' disgraced some pretty young..."

"No, No! Nothing like that!" Murdoch's temper was beginning to fray. Val was not catching on. How did the man get to be sheriff? "No, Val, listen to me. Try to follow along here. A few days ago a Don Alejandro Alvarez..."

"Alvarez! Why didn't you say so! Have you met Elena? An' Ana? Now that's a sweet girl!"

"Val! Listen to me. Ana and her husband were murdered and their baby taken by bandits. Outlaws that want the Alvarez land. When Alejandro refused to leave it got ugly, Ana was killed and the baby kidnapped. They came here looking for Johnny Madrid to help them find Angela... and that's what Johnny's doing. He's after Eduardo Silva's gang of cutthroats.  I want your opinion... Can he do it on his own? Can Johnny pull this off?" Pleading eyes bored deep into Val's soul.

Val knew what it would take for his amigo to do the job and bring that baby home. If it could be done, Johnny Madrid would do it.

"Yes, he can, Mr. Lancer. Yes, he can."

Murdoch let out the breath he had no idea that he'd been holding.

Val pointed to the chair in front of the desk. Just as Murdoch was going to sit, Val jumped forward with a stained handkerchief and quickly wiped the seat before Murdoch settled into it.

"Oh, thanks, Val."

"No problem, Mr. Lancer."

"Alright, Val, tell me what I need to know about Johnny. Why do you think this is possible for Johnny to rescue a baby from twenty to twenty five desperados, single-handed?"

"Alright, Mr. Lancer, I'll tell you why. Because he's gonna to let Madrid take over. I've seen it happen, that cold, calm Madrid has pulled off some of the most impossible things I ever seen. All he's got to do is find that kid and she's as good as home." Val's eyes took on sadness as he thought of Ana. Sweet Ana. Johnny will bring that baby back, Val had no doubt.

"So you think he's got a chance, then?" Murdoch asked with a hopeful light in his eyes but finding himself a bit doubtful, even after hearing Crawford's validation.

"I'll stake my life on it. If it can be done, Johnny'll find the way to do it. An' because it's Ana's kid. Johnny sent for me after he got back on his feet at the Alvarez ranch. I seen the way him an' Ana got on together. No funny business between the two of 'em though, Ana was too young anyway, an' Johnny never got involved with the boss's daughter so everythin' was good that way. But they were good together, like a really special brother an' sister. He was always watchin' out for her and she worried over him somethin' fierce. He ain't changed much. He was always gettin' patched up back then, jus' like he is now. An' I seen Johnny come through when there was no chance of a good endin' but he made it a good endin'. So, yup, Mr. Lancer, if anyone can come through this, it’s Johnny Madrid... ah, Lancer."

<><><><> 

Johnny's search ended with the tracks fading out and now going with his gut he cut south into a deep valley covered in aspens and Ponderosa pines. Everywhere he looked there would be cover for an outlaw camp. There were too many places to look and not enough time. His eyes scanned above him to the tops of the dark mountains alert for any movement that may lead to Angela. He fervently hoped he would be able to care for the niña until they got back to Lancer. Hey, girls like me. It'll be alright...I hope...Ana, help me... Barranca easily picked his way down the mountain side with the ease of a shadow. Silva, I'm gettin' closer.

Night spread its wings early down in the mountain valleys. And it got colder. It seeped into the bones, the damp night air sucked away any warmth and set teeth to chatter. Johnny pulled the bedroll and saddle from Barranca's back and set up camp in the cold. It was going to be a long night, again. Dios, how can Ana be gone? Sweet Ana. Silva's as good as dead! That bastard ain't got no more rights in this world so he better be makin' some plans for when he gets to Hell even if I have to take him there myself.

He’d heard of Eduardo Silva for a long time and once again, thoughts of the atrocities he’d committed against innocent people crashed through Johnny's brain. The attacks on defenseless villages had left total destruction and annihilation. Yes, Silva had no right to be here, especially after what he’d done to Ana. But Johnny thought he'd better not waste any more time on how he would handle Silva and give more thought to getting in the camp to find Angela and get the hell out of there undiscovered.

Just how did he think he could handle a baby? Well, I'm good with animals. That's gotta count for somethin', doesn't it? Bet she's just like Ana. Pretty. Sweet. An' good. Silva, you're dead... Sleep was long in coming and Johnny could tell that he was wearing down. The cold sapped his strength and the last few nights out on the ground didn't promote any sweet dreams. Neither did the meager provisions he'd pilfered from the kitchen. There wasn't much time to plan. When Esteban told him the time frames he'd be dealing with, speed was all Johnny could think about. Get going. Son of a bitch, Silva, you're a walkin’ dead man... Johnny couldn't blink his eyes clear; they welled up of their own accord with no control over it. Son of a bitch! … Ana…

<><><><> 

Johnny stared into the flames remembering the good times with Ana. Despite the age difference, they’d been very close. He thought of the time they’d spent the night together in the barn waiting for one of the foals to be born and after the birth realizing that something had been wrong with the baby. They nursed it to health together, developing a deep attachment not only with the foal but strengthening the bond between themselves. The foal had lived only because of their determination that it would and Ana named it Bajito, Feisty. Johnny smiled at the memory.

Ana had a compassion that was unequalled. A compassion for everyone and everything and he had loved her for it. And now looking back, he realized that she had been responsible for bringing out the good in him. No one had ever done that for Johnny Madrid before. No one.

He remembered helping her pick oranges from a tree. The two laughed and teased and had a wonderful time as Johnny collected the oranges that were out of her reach. She needed many for all the children in the village so Johnny stopped to help her in her task, subsequently climbing the tree and gathering the fruits in the higher branches. He gently dropped them down to her and she caught them, he climbed higher and, of course, the inevitable slip and fall to the ground. He’d almost broken his shoulder, but found it only badly bruised, he’d been able to work the next day, under Elena’s watchful and determined supervision. And Johnny had seen the happy smiling faces of the children when Ana had given out the special treat and the look of pure and sweet satisfaction in Ana’s eyes. It had been worth the fall from the tree and it touched him in a way that surprised him.

And how many times had Ana sat with him after he’d been injured? He’d wake up and she’d be sitting there, next to his bed, watching over him and keeping him as comfortable as possible. And then it would come crashing down on him again, scattering these precious remembrances like thistle down as the cold ugly truth hit home. Ana was dead. No more would he see her, be able to watch that sweet face break into laughter with the sparkle of mischief in those black eyes. She was dead….. And his heart broke, again, and his head pounded. You bastard, Silva! ’M gonna fuckin’ kill you!

<><><><> 

Scott sat at the kitchen table, hands still wrapped around his cup of coffee, now cold, thinking about his brother. The sun was just lightening the eastern sky, staining it a glorious pink when Murdoch took a seat beside him and settled in his chair with a heavy sigh.

"Think he can do it, sir?" Scott's stint in the military was still present in the formal way he addressed his father.

"Val seems to think so. So, I guess that says something. He said Johnny has pulled off some pretty unbelievable things in the past... as Madrid," Murdoch said with mixed emotions. "I was hoping Madrid would be able to go away and not come back." And he now realized that Madrid would probably be around, forever.

"We've both seen it, and it's not pretty but when I think about a five month old baby in the hands of butchers, well, I hope Madrid comes out loud and clear because he'll be sending them all to their graves."

Murdoch shook his head. "I don't know, Scott. With a baby, he'd better slip in there get her and get out as soon as he can. Johnny can't take the time to worry about revenge with a little one in tow. How is he even going to deal with her coming back?"

"Well, you know Johnny, he is resourceful. One man alone just may get it done and when Johnny sets his mind to something, it's no easy task to change it for him. You know that. How are the Alvarez' holding up?" Scott asked.

Murdoch huffed out a breath. "As well as can be expected under the circumstances. Elena is exhausted from worry and grief, and Alejandro is trying to be strong for her but, Ana was their only child. Plus the trip from Santa Margarita was long by train."

"Yes, I can only imagine. Do I understand it correctly that men from their ranch went looking for Johnny and found out that he was here?"

Another huff escaped Murdoch as he related what Alejandro had told him yesterday. "After Ana was found and the bandits notified Alvarez with their demands, he sent out several search parties and one of them heard Johnny was here. Then all the men met and traveled here as Alejandro and Elena boarded a train for Green River. Then they came here..."

"That could have ended tragically if they had heard incorrectly. They could have made this trip for nothing on hearsay. I just wish Johnny wouldn't feel so... obligated when people ask for help. He's always coming to someone's rescue with no thought for himself. It's going to get him killed..." Scott's guilt at letting his brother leave without him was eating at his heart.  If only, if only, if only...

"Scott, you know Johnny wouldn't allow that. All we can do is hope and pray and have faith in Johnny... as Madrid."

<><><><> 

Madrid had no misgivings about what he had to do. How he was going to do it was a whole different question. Ana, talk to me. Tracks. There's more. They're getting careless now. Think nobody’s  behind ‘em. Think again, Silva, you son of a bitchin' bastard! You're dead. Johnny knew he had only one chance at this, one chance to get an innocent child from the hands of crazy insane butchers. If he failed Angela would die and that Johnny couldn't live with. He would get the baby out of there or die trying. He had promised Ana last night as he sat in his small camp. He would bring Angela home. Stop thinkin' 'bout Silva. Angela has priority...  But hoping Silva would be close enough for Johnny to take out without raising too much commotion. Just hope...

He almost missed it. A small broken branch told a big story and along with that broken branch was an empty bottle, cork gone but the inside of the bottle was still wet with whatever rotgut it had contained. He was getting closer. Hope…

And hope he did as he eased up a small rise and caught the faint scent of wood smoke. Reaching the top he slowly, ever so cautiously, paused and leaned out from behind his rock cover to look below, where he spied the camp. The bandits had chosen well. There was fresh water and a front and rear exit. High walls protected it from prying eyes but then again, the bandits were not expecting Johnny Madrid. Hey, you, fuckin' bastard, you better sleep with one eye open tonight. I'm here and you're goin' ta Hell... Johnny eased back down the slope moving silently, but filled anger and revenge. Get a handle on it, Madrid. Ana's kid comes first.... Now, he had only a few hours to plan.

Night would be here and time was running out. Out of his saddlebags Johnny pulled the telescope that Scott had given him. He'd never needed one before but Scott had insisted that it just may come in handy. Have ta remember ta thank him when I get back. Johnny scrambled back up to his hiding place and began his planning. At the far end of the small canyon was a larger structure, if you could call it a structure, ragged as it was, that looked like it housed the bandits. At the close end was a small shack and with any luck that's were the Niña was being held.

Just as Johnny was studying the layout of the camp, one of the bandits staggered to the small shack and bellowed to someone inside. The door opened and an old woman, dressed in rags, shuffled into view. Arguing broke out between the two of them. Their screeching and caterwauling loud enough to reach Johnny's ears and that's not all that reached out to Johnny. The cry of a baby was heard... by all of them.

Men started to come out of their drunken stupors and pleaded for quiet. The old woman turned and went back to the shack. Soon the crying was stopped and silence once again held the small canyon. Johnny's heart was pounding in his ears. His breath was coming in fast pants. Slow down there, Johnny, slow down, he thought to himself. No time for getting careless. Once again bandits in the camp settled back into liquor induced sleep.

Johnny scoped out the easiest way down. It was a bit steep but he thought he could manage. He'd have to tie the Niña in a sling around his chest for the climb back up the canyon wall. If she would be quiet they'd have a chance. If not, they would both be joining Ana. Ana, Johnny breathed.

The sun was setting fast. The small canyon would soon be enveloped in darkness. Then Johnny would make his move. He watched for any change in guards and was relieved when he saw none. Cocky bastards. Plan is get in, get the niña an' get out. That's it, Madrid, that's the best you can do?....Yup. So, as the sun set over the mountain, Johnny Madrid Lancer went about final preparations. He gathered up his bedroll that had been fashioned to fit around his chest and hold the baby. With his rope and extra shells for his pistol, Johnny started the descent into the camp of the bandits.

<><><><> 

Don Alejandro sat staring into the fire. It was getting late and he knew he should be there for comfort and support for Elena but here he was, alone in the great room, mesmerized by the flames.

"He's very good at these kinds of things, Val told me," Murdoch said as he stepped into the room.

The voice was soft but Alejandro was startled. “Sí, when Johnny and Val were together at our rancho they were very much, how do you say?... Invincible. They knew each other's thoughts as well as their own. We were all at a loss when they left our home. It was suddenly a very quiet place." A sad smile reached Alejandro's face.

"I can only imagine," came Murdoch's soft reply thinking about the rowdy behavior when the two of them got together now. "I know how you feel, Alejandro, about the bandits." Alvarez looked surprised by this statement.

"When the Pinkerton agents found my sons and they agreed to come here, they arrived to land pirates trying to steal this ranch. And with their arrival we were able to drive the thieves off and keep the land. But at a cost. Johnny was seriously wounded and we almost lost him. He is a fighter and eventually was back on his feet. He has beaten the odds many times since then. Scott just referred to him as resourceful. And Scott’s right. Johnny's very....resourceful. Would you care for a drink?"

Murdoch stepped over to the liquor cabinet and poured them both a generous glass. Lord, I have to stop this. Worrying about that boy is going to be the death of me. He handed Alvarez a glass which was gratefully accepted. The two men drank in silence each with their own thoughts about the same young man, each silently thanking God for bringing Johnny into their lives and both praying to God for Johnny's safe return... with Angela. Finishing their drink, Don Alvarez stood and bid Murdoch a good night.

After Alvarez left the room, Murdoch suddenly felt tired. Tired and old. God, please be with my son! Get him through this... please! He wanted to fall to his knees but doubted his ability to get back on his feet. He went to the front door and opened it. He peered down the road and tried to make out the Lancer arch. All he saw was darkness, darkness and a shooting star. Ana, are you watching out for my boy, too?

<><><><> 

Johnny secured the rope around a sturdy tree, satisfied it would hold he eased himself over the canyon rim. It was slow going to keep quiet not wanting to announce his presence. He stopped half way down the steep canyon wall. He took slow sure steps to prevent any stones from tumbling down and limit any noise. Snores could be heard around the camp. Some were so drunk that they slept where they had fallen on the cold damp ground.

After making to the canyon floor, Johnny stopped at the back of the small shack. No light and no noise came from inside. Staying close to the wall he quietly eased his way to the door and gently pushed it open. A soft snore came from his left. Shit, it's dark in here. Then came a whimper and a short cry. Johnny froze. The snore stopped and a slight stirring could be heard as the old woman grumbled something about hushing the niña so those assholes can sleep off their drunks and don't beat me no more! She lit a lamp as Johnny stepped silently behind her.

The old woman stumbled her way to a tiny box fashioned into a cradle of sorts and checked on the child. As silently as he came into the shack Johnny stepped forward and with the butt of his Colt he tapped the old woman on the back of her head just hard enough to knock her out. He caught her as she slumped to the floor. As he was about to gather up Angela he heard a grumbling just outside of the door. He had time enough to step back into shadows before a man slithered into the cabin. The stench that accompanied him was overwhelming and Johnny had to fight to keep the gag that threatened in check lest he expose his cover; then Angela would have no need of rescue and Johnny would be dead.

The man stopped suddenly when he discovered the old woman on the floor and stepped in closer to check. At that moment Johnny realized standing right before him was the devil Eduardo Silva himself. Was it luck or fate, Johnny did not know nor did he care. What he did care about was the opportunity presented itself and he would take it and be glad for it as it would never come again.

Knowing he didn’t have the time to drag out the death that he knew Silva deserved and so desperately wanted to deliver, he did the only thing he could. At least the bastard would be dead. In one lightning quick movement Johnny grabbed a handful of murderer's hair and savagely yanked Silva's head back to expose the filthy whisker covered throat. He swung Silva away from the niña and slit his throat as slowly as he could but fast enough to prevent Silva’s cry for help.

"This is for Ana, you bastard! You'll be in Hell before you hit the floor!" Johnny spat into his ear. He felt the thrust of blood as it shot out in a hot and pulsing gush to violently paint the inside of the shack, it pumped in spurts as Silva gurgled his last. Now time was of the essence. Ana, por favor, I need you now. Help me! Johnny's silent plea went up and was rewarded when he gently scooped up his precious burden and she uttered not a sound, not a peep and snuggled into Johnny's arms. He tenderly tucked Angela into the sling he’d fashioned from his bedroll and grabbed a cloth bag that, he hoped, contained some clothing changes for the niña. On the way out the door he found a scrap of food that had been left on the table. Now, they had to go.

He struggled as quietly as he could with the sleeping baby tucked as safely as he could make her and he climbed the rope up the steep canyon wall. Only twice did he slip sending pebbles cascading down to the ground. Johnny reached the top, breathing heavily through his mouth, and quickly made his way to Barranca as the horse patiently waited. Swinging into the saddle, he adjusted the sling as Angela slept snugly not making a sound. Then trusting in Barranca to find sure footing, they lit out for Lancer.

It was getting colder. The night was dark and the wind kicked up sand and leaf litter stinging any exposed skin and grating on the eyes but onward they trudged. After an hour Johnny pulled Barranca to a halt. He reached around behind him and untied his heavy coat, pulled it over his shoulders and buttoned it up as best he could. With the baby covered, warmed with Johnny’s body heat, and protected from the cold and wind, he felt her snuggle into him. Though she had not moved, little Angela shivered a bit but settled and with the coat now around them both Johnny was sure it would be enough to keep them comfortable. It was going to be another long, cold night. O.k., Ana, now I've got her, what do I do with her? Don't have much food an' I don't know what's in that bag, don't know if there's any diapers an' I really don't wanna use my shirt!  

There were no sounds behind them that Johnny could hear but, regardless, he would have to stay vigilant. Once the bandits started to sober up and found Silva with his throat slit they would come after him. All he had to do was stay ahead of them and get back to Lancer. As long as he had Barranca under him, he felt they could outrun any horse the bandits were on but he hoped he would be able to keep going and the bandits would lose the trail. Johnny didn't want to think about having to fight with an armful of baby.

Oh, Johnny, you have my Angela! You did it! I knew you could... and I knew you would, too! I will help as much as I am able. She is such a good baby, I am sure she will not give you any trouble.

For a second Johnny could have sworn he felt a slight rush of warm air. Where did that come from? It's freezing out here! Keep goin' Barranca, gotta make time now. Gettin' colder an' ain't got much for baby clothes... Barranca kept going and Johnny pulled Angela closer. What am I gonna feed her...?

On through the night they went, Barranca carefully picking his way over the rough terrain. Johnny kept alert in the saddle and Angela was asleep in the arms of her rescuer, safe and warm, protected and oblivious to the danger around her. The sky began to lighten and Johnny felt immense relief that they had come down out of the mountains and were now making their way east, closer to Lancer. There had been so much lost time with no trail to follow to find Angela. It had been sheer luck that Johnny had picked up the scent of wood smoke that led him to the camp. And more luck getting the niña out of there. Luck or... Ana? Johnny pondered on this. Could it be that Ana had heard his pleas after all?

"Gotta stop and get this little one something to eat." The baby began to stir inside his coat. Johnny unbuttoned the wrap and was rewarded with the most god-awful stench coming from inside. Oh, Dios mio! This can't be happening! How can something so sweet and tiny do that?? The morning air was beginning to warm and Johnny found a shallow pool of water that had collected at the base of a bluff. It had been warmed in the sun and it was a place where he could wash the infant safely. From his saddlebags he retrieved a bar of soap and a piece of cloth that he had used as a towel. He dismounted with the bag of what he hoped were baby clothes and settled by the pool and Johnny found a few items that he assumed were under things. He spread the sling out on the ground and laid the niña on it as she opened her groggy eyes. Johnny looked into the black gaze that was now fixed on him and gasped sharply. The face staring back at him was that of a young Ana. Ana! She gurgled and drooled and cooed, delighted with her savior.
 
"Madre de Dios! You're the image of you're mama! Yer stinky, too! How did something as pretty as you make such an awful mess? Huh?" He talked as he worked at this odious task, his silken tones calming and soothing, having the same effect on this precious bundle as it did the wild horses that Johnny tamed. He washed her little body, letting her splash a bit in the pool while holding onto a chubby arm to keep her upright. He used his towel to pat her dry and attempted to fashion a diaper, of sorts, he then dressed her, satisfied he'd done his best and picked her up as she squealed her delight. The more Johnny talked, the more she giggled and cooed, completely winning Johnny's heart.

He began to dig for the food he had grabbed at the shack. Not much. A large crust of bread and a few shreds of jerky. Not much for a baby, though. He finally let her chew on the largest piece of bread. Too big for her to swallow but he felt she'd be alright if he kept his eyes on her. The bed roll sling was too warm for use in the day as it was already heating up so he did sacrifice a shirt; tying the shirt tails together, he buttoned it half way up. Then he tucked the infant inside and tied the arms around his neck. The baby was shaded from the hot sun and still cool enough to be comfortable. Once again, he mounted Barranca and started for home.

Delighted with her new position, Angela chewed the bread while taking in all the scenery. Listening to Johnny talk she burbled and gnawed on her little fist.

Johnny saw a darkening on the horizon. "Looks like we might be in for some weather, querida. Hope it ain't too bad up ahead." Johnny had to admit it didn't look very promising but they kept on moving.

Stopping for water at a stream Johnny dismounted and filled the canteen. It was early afternoon and he felt they were making decent time albeit not as good as he would have traveling alone. The main thing was the baby, getting her back to Alejandro and Elena safely. When he got back to Lancer he thought he would sleep for the next three days. He was exhausted and the thought of his own bed lured him on like a moth to a flame. He was so very tired…

Barranca's ears perked up and he danced sideways. Johnny looked up and saw that the horse's attention was riveted back the way they had come. Though he strained his eyes to see what was there, nothing moved. But Barranca sure was focused on something. Son-of-a-bitch! There it was, a flash of sun off metal, others quickly materialized on the ridge above them. The bandits had found them...

Johnny quickly tucked Angela back into the sling and he mounted the horse. Just as he swung into the saddle the first bullets ricocheted off to the left. Needing no urging, Barranca leapt forward and broke into a dead run. The deadly bullets rained around them attacking with fatal consequences, an invitation designed to extinguish life. However, Johnny had other ideas and was not quite ready to relinquish the hold he’d come to cherish with his life and family at Lancer. With Angela in his care, there was only one choice for him to make.

They were almost out of range when a bullet slammed into Johnny's back and ripped a gaping hole as it tore through his body and out under his ribs. Searing hot pain quickly went numb... for a while. Hoping that the bullet had missed the child Johnny chanced a look down into the sling and found Angela’s black eyes on him but she was not crying.

Another white hot explosion nearly toppled him from the saddle as a second bullet slammed into his back and lodged against his left shoulder blade. His left arm went numb. He could not hold the niña any tighter but neither could he let loose. Johnny’s vision grayed around the edges and he fought to stay conscious as the black dots danced in front of his eyes. Stay in the saddle, stay in the saddle. Don’t let Barranca stumble! And on they raced.

The skies darkened as if the end of the world was near; the rolling, boiling clouds grew angry and the winds unleashed their fury on the horse, rider and baby with grating billows of sand blowing thick and making it impossible to see. They continued to run racing for their lives. Barranca needed no further encouragement. His hooves barely touched the ground as he stretched his muscular body and carried his burden further and further away from danger. And then it began to rain. It beat the ground into mud in minutes and the air began to get cold.

Johnny shivered as the rain soaked his clothes. He risked a glance downward at the niña. Thank God she was alright... for the moment but he needed to get to shelter. He at least needed to get his coat back on. No more gunfire from the bandits, Barranca had outrun the their horses. Johnny pulled the stallion to a stop and reached behind him as he fumbled for the strings that held his heavy coat in place.

He turned in the saddle and lightning hot shards of pain tore through his body causing him to gasp. As he looked down he could see the bleeding through his shirt in an ever growing stain. Johnny knew he needed to stem the blood flow if he wanted to get back to Lancer. There was nothing he could do about the wound in his back but he could pack the exit hole in his side.

The bag of baby clothes hung from the saddle horn and he reached in to grab the first item he found. He let the bag fall to dangle by the strings and stuffed the wadded material into the large wound causing him to hiss in pain. His eyes watered and haze enveloped his brain as he swayed in the saddle. His shoulder felt like it was on fire, searing from the inside, radiating outward. He could feel the bullet as it grated against his shoulder blade. He pulled the coat painfully around both himself and Angela as best he could with only the use of one hand, then nudged his horse and once again they were on their way toward Lancer.

<><><><> 

Scott stood and stared out the window down to the Lancer arch. Watching the rain coming in torrents, he cursed himself for not insisting that he ride out with his brother. Johnny was the first one to lend a hand if anyone had trouble but he would not accept any help. What made him so stubborn? When he gets back he's getting a piece of my mind Scott silently vowed.

"Stubborn brother..."

"Did you say something, Scott?" Teresa asked as she looked up from her book.

"No, not anything worth repeating. I'm just cursing that brother of mine, is all." Teresa couldn't help but hear the worried torment in Scott's voice as it was near to cracking with outright fear.

"I know, Scott, we're all worried. There's a lot to be worried about! There's the bandits themselves, the weather and Johnny dealing with a baby... Does he know anything about babies, do you think?"

Her eyes found his and on hearing these thoughts put into actual words, the situation seemed more hopeless yet. He ground his teeth and slammed a fisted hand on the windowsill.

"It'll be dark soon and with the rain he'll have to take cover tonight. He'd be crazy to be out in this, especially with a little one. You know, Teresa, I've waited through cold nights for the rebels to attack, waited for my release from the prisoner of war camp and waited for word from the girl I asked to be my wife, before you ask, she said no, but this is the hardest ‘wait’ I've ever had."

Sympathizing, Teresa put down her book and went to stand next to Scott. She tucked her arm around his waist and they stood together watching down the road.

<><><><> 

Dios, he hurt! Johnny could feel the blood oozing down his back. Time was starting to distort. He couldn't remember what he was doing out here. Why am I out here in the rain? He tried to look around but the movement sent an explosion of pain shooting through his body. Teeth chattering and breath coming in heavy pants, he groaned loudly and the niña, who had fallen asleep in his arms, whimpered.

"Oh, yeah, hey… querida, you... alright... in there?" The baby cooed back at him. Though light headed and dizzy he began to remember earlier in the day. He had to get this baby home... Ana's baby. Ana's gone. Dead. An agonizing bolt of pain threatened to send him out of the saddle. Johnny cried out and held on. His eyes closed for a brief minute. "Barranca, hope you... know how...ta get home..." Barranca snorted as if to say "Well, of course I do, you idiot!" As the temperature continued to drop, his horse sent up clouds of vapor with every exhaled breath.

It seemed like hours, hours the rain came down and soaked him through, chilling him to the core, and no longer able to keep a coherent thought, no longer able to focus. Heat radiated off his body alternating with the cold shivers that ran up and down his spine and every step Barranca took sent a shock wave of mind-numbing misery coursing through him. But Johnny stayed in the saddle. He didn't waver from the obligation that he had undertaken, his promise to Ana to get her baby back. And now, even in a fevered state, weak with blood loss and chills, he kept going.

Dreams of an over-turned carriage filled his brain. Blood spurting in a gruesome fountain of red and bodies sprawled in death. Death. Every one connected with him always died. There were bodies left where ever he went. Death always followed Johnny Madrid. "No!" he yelled in defiance! “No more death. Can't...do it...’nymore. No...more...” And Barranca walked under the Lancer arch.

<><><><> 

Five anxious people waited in the great room, each lost in his or her own thoughts. But all had thoughts in common. Was Johnny still alive? Had he found Angela? Did they get away? Were they safe?  Where were they? Although it was late, sleep was increasingly scarce, eluding them all as if it were something of wings and wind. It would settle only to be whisked away in the blink of an eye. Extinguish the light, lay your head on the pillow and....the brain woke asking the burning questions that were on all of their minds. Had Johnny been able to find and rescue Angela?

Jelly could not sleep, either. He climbed out of his bed and lit the lamp. Cursing the storm he peeked out the window. "That boy better have found hisself some cover. Chasin' out in this rain... He oughta....." What was that? Movement under the arch. "Did I see that yella horse?" Closer. "Oh, my God!" he threw on his pants and hastily tucked in his night shirt, he charged to the front door of the house.

"Rider comin’ in, Boss...Looks like Barranca!" Jelly called out as he threw open the front door. All five people jumped as one and raced to the front hall. Murdoch, Scott and Jelly, mindless of the downpour all went out into the chilling deluge, where Barranca stood still with his burden and Murdoch was the first to speak.

"Johnny!... Johnny, let me help you down..." But there was no recognition from the drenched man in the saddle. He reached up to help Johnny down and his hand went to the front of the heavy, wet coat as a button popped open and a tiny face peered out.

"He's got her! Johnny's got the baby!" He reached inside the coat, pulled Angela out and charged into the house shouting "Scott, help Johnny!" Murdoch entered the house and the squeal from Elena suddenly turned to a scream of horror. Angela was covered in blood. Alejandro took the baby and quickly unwrapped the layers that had been around her. With each layer there was less and less blood.

"Elena....Elena! It is not her blood, she's alright!.. Juanito...!" he breathed.

<><><><> 

Outside, Scott tried coaxing Johnny from the saddle but he didn't seem to understand what Scott was asking him to do. He looked at his brother out of red rimmed, glassy and glazed eyes. He was so tired. He just wanted them all to leave so he could sleep. God, he still hurt. When was it going to stop?

"Johnny, let me help you..."

"Scott! Catch him!" Jelly’s shout rose above the torrential rain that beat the earth as Johnny went backwards out of the saddle just as Scott grabbed a hold of the coat. He was able to break the fall for the most part, with Barranca dancing around narrowly missing Johnny with his hooves. Johnny lay as still as death, the rain pouring off the pale face. Scott and Jelly picked him up just as Cipriano raced around the corner of the house. Cip, Segundo and a trusted member of the family, was there to help, to lend his support in any way necessary.

"Cip, send someone for the doctor, Johnny's hurt!" Scott shouted and Cip was gone. Murdoch charged back out into the rain in time to find Scott and Jelly with their burden as they hurried into the house. Once inside, Teresa raced for the kitchen to put water on to boil and collect medicines and bandages.

Murdoch went up the stairs three at a time to Johnny's room and pulled the blankets off the bed; he lit several lamps and started a fire. Scott and Jelly tenderly laid Johnny on the clean sheets and began to gently remove the soaked clothes. They pulled off the boots and eased Johnny to a sitting position to slide the coat off his shoulders and ease it away from the wound in Johnny's side.

"Oh, Lord, Murdoch, this boy's full 'a holes!" Jelly warned as the coat came away and exposed the ugly wound in his back that bled profusely from the jarring fall. The wound had no exit hole. Hurry, Sam...Hurry. Murdoch's prayer went up. Waiting for Sam, the town doctor, was never easy. With the rest of the wet clothes in a heap on the floor, Murdoch, Scott and Jelly went to work turning Johnny on his side and piled pillows around him to keep him still and pressure away from the wounds. The holes in his side were ugly and still oozed but Murdoch didn't think they were life threatening but the wound in the back of the shoulder was something else altogether. With no exit hole the bullet would have to be removed. This one looked serious. Well, Sam had done it before.

Teresa lightly tapped on the door. "Murdoch, I have the hot water and bandages" she said as she toed the door open. She set the bowl of water on the night table and surveyed the sight before her. Both Murdoch and Scott were applying pressure to the wounds to get the bleeding under control and Jelly was doing his best to keep Johnny still as spasms were tossing him around on the bed. He's so cold to the touch Murdoch thought but other worries claimed his attention as Johnny started to warm up, the bleeding became worse. And the fever spiked. Where the hell was Sam!  It seemed that hours had passed since Johnny had arrived home. For the moment all they could do was keep on with the pressure and try to control any more blood loss. Murdoch stopped to change the cloth in his hand. Teresa gasped at the hole in Johnny's back, still draining blood from his body.

"Darling, please see to the Alvarez'. The baby will need to be fed." Murdoch's attempt to spare Teresa didn't go unnoticed. The clean cloth was applied to Johnny's back and was soon soaked. A cool cloth was placed on Johnny's forehead to help calm the fever. Over and over they repeated their efforts, hoping and praying that Doc Jenkins would soon arrive. The wait was becoming intolerable. Johnny remained unconscious and bleeding, Murdoch counted off the ticking seconds as they echoed in his head. Hurry, Sam, my son is bleeding out, he's dying right in front of me!

And soon they heard foot steps on the stairs and hurrying down the hall. Sam Jenkins stepped into the room, coat already off and sleeves rolled up.
 
"Murdoch, what's the story here?" he started in with his examination as he put a gentle hand to Johnny's forehead, took a pulse reading and checked out the bullet holes.

"He got in about two hours ago, soaked, cold and bleeding. That's about all I can tell you." Murdoch softly replied.

The wizened doctor said nothing to this. "Judging from the swelling of the wounds it's been a while since he was shot. Was he conscious when he came in? Talking?"  Sam questioned.

"He was awake... barely but I don't think he realized he was here and don't think he recognized us. He passed out and would have fallen off his horse if Scott hadn't caught him. Did you take a minute to check out the baby, Sam?”
 
"She's fine but I want to check her over more thoroughly after I see to Johnny. Help me turn him a little more so I can start getting that bullet out. Scott, keep the pressure on the side wounds. "It may start bleeding more as his body temperature warms up. He probably would have bled out had it not been so blasted cold out there." Murdoch shivered at this; the statement hit him like a kick to the belly.

Sam loaded his instruments in the pan of hot water and added alcohol. He dug in the medical bag, filled a syringe with morphine and injected it into Johnny's arm. As he waited a few seconds for the drug to take effect, he then began to clean the areas, washing away threads from Johnny's shirt and any dirt. Infection was always a huge threat and had to be closely watched.

"Jelly, hold him so he doesn't move. The morphine will take care of the pain but there may still be muscle spasms." Jelly held onto Johnny with all the strength he could muster and muttered to Johnny about being stubborn and chastising him the way that Jelly was wont to do, to cover his own fears. Johnny was like a son to him.

Murdoch moved to the other side of the bed and climbed onto it, scooting next to Johnny's head to hold him. Then Sam began to probe, deeper and deeper as blood began to flow out of the wound. Having no luck in locating the slug he stopped for a moment to clean the area and started to probe again.

He touched the slug with the tip of the probe and determined it was lodged tightly against the shoulder blade and deeply embedded in muscle. With the probe still touching the bullet Sam inserted long, thin forceps to grab the slug and pull it free. The forceps slipped from the bullet and Sam tried again, this time he securing a stronger hold. This produced more bleeding from the wound and working as quickly as he could, he latched firmly onto the bullet a second time to finally pull it free as it grated against bone all the way. Blood poured from the hole, which Sam quickly tried to plug with a wad of bandage, using pressure to stem the flow.

"Sam...?" Murdoch said without asking. Is my son going to make it? Please say yes!  Even with Johnny's mother's Mexican heritage he was ghostly white. Murdoch put a hand to Johnny's throat to find a pulse to make sure he was still alive.

"I'm going to have to cauterize this wound. It won't stop bleeding. Scott, put this in the fire..." Sam handed Scott the instrument, a knife-like broad blade. Scott returned to his post and Sam traded places with him to look at the side wounds. "Keep pressure on that, Scott, please." As Sam poked and prodded the side injuries, he found nothing to indicate there was internal damage. As ugly as the gaping front wound was Sam found that no organs had been damaged. This boy had an angel with him tonight! But Sam had no way of knowing just how true his thought had been. Sam was staring at the wound not believing what he was seeing.

"Murdoch, as strange as this is going to sound, I don't think, as a matter of fact, I am quite sure there is no internal damage here. It's really quite incredible!" Sam knew Murdoch wanted to hear something positive…. needed to hear something positive and Sam gave it to him. Sam stitched the entry hole closed and stitched what he could of the exit hole but most of that would have to heal from the inside out, again, with close attention for infection.

"Alright, Scott, I'll change places with you again," as Sam returned with the glowing, red hot knife that would seal, hopefully, the oozing wound in Johnny's back.

"Hold him..." Sam said as he quickly seared the flesh across the hole in the young man’s back. Johnny's body jerked in one violent heave and went slack. The air filled with the stench of burning flesh.

Scott shuddered with renewed visions of the horrors he'd witnessed and been part of on the battle fields back East. Murdoch held his breath with anxious anticipation and Jelly tried to blink away the emotion that threatened to spill from his eyes. This boy has given all of us the worst case of worries....Please let it be over now...

Sam straightened his back and reached around for the jar of salve that he spread liberally over the injuries, then using folded pads of bandages he packed the holes and held them in place with a light wrapping with strips of muslin cloth. Settling Johnny into a more comfortable position in the bed Sam said "...Now, we wait."

<><><><> 

The Alvarez' had retired for the night long before Sam came down the stairs. Teresa had curled in a chair in the great room and had fallen asleep but as she heard footfalls on the risers she got to her feet and was waiting as Sam came into view.

"Sam, how's Johnny doing?" The Lancers were all she had of family and every one of them was as dear to her as if they were blood kin, closer than most blood kin.

"All we can do now is wait, Teresa. The bullet is out and the other wounds are as good as they can be for the moment. Barring infection, fever and any more blood loss, he's got a good chance. Was the baby alright?"

"Yes, she ate and went right to sleep. Oh, Sam, she is gorgeous! What a pretty baby! I hope I can take her into see Johnny soon. I want her to know the man that saved her life!" With that Teresa's eyes welled up with tears. "Can I see him Sam?"

"You can but Murdoch and Scott are sitting with him now and I am sure you'll get your turn. You do remember how difficult Johnny is when he's injured and confined to bed...?"

"Yes, I do... Come in the kitchen and I'll fix you something to eat. You may as well spend the night. Too late to go home and be back again in the morning." Sam followed her into the kitchen. No one noticed that the rain had stopped.

<><><><> 

Murdoch dozed in the overstuffed easy chair that had been wrestled into Johnny's room and Scott took the chair, not as comfortable as the one Murdoch occupied, that was next to Johnny's window. With both men on guard one of them would be awake should Johnny need anything.

Scott watched his brother in the bed. He was livid, thankful, guilty, regretful, thankful, downright mad, thankful, outraged, appalled and thankful. Livid because of everything Johnny had gone through. Thankful he still had Johnny. Guilty because he did not have Johnny's back, Thankful he still had Johnny. Regretful that he let Johnny go alone. Thankful he still had Johnny. Downright mad because Johnny was so stubborn. Thankful he still had Johnny. Outraged that murderers had kidnapped a helpless baby. Appalled at the savagery of the bandits and finally, thankful he still had Johnny.

He watched as Johnny lay in a drug-induced sleep. Not restful but not restless. How many times in their two years together had he been in this same situation, watching over Johnny as he recovered from some injury? Johnny seemed to attract trouble. Like the proverbial moth to a flame. Scott was also furious at his brother for taking unnecessary chances. A brother he never knew had existed and now couldn't live without. A brother that meant more to him than anyone he had ever known. A brother that was... the best man he'd ever met. Did he think so little of himself that he could take all these chances? Didn't it matter to him that by taking all these chances he just may not make it out alive! Scott promised himself that when Johnny was better they were going to have a talk. Because that's what brothers should do.

<><><><> 

The eastern sky was starting to lighten when Murdoch stirred. Scott was still staring at his brother. Murdoch reached to touch Johnny's forehead. The heat was not any lower but neither was it any higher.

"I just got fresh water for him, sir."

"Have you been at this all night?"

"Yes, pretty much. I could use a cup of coffee about now. I'll bring one up for you." Scott quietly left the room.

Murdoch sat forward in the chair and studied his younger son's face. No visible sign of pain. But no sign of anything. Was this going to be the way of things forever? Sitting by one or the other of his sons' sick bed? Not wanting to dwell on the negative Murdoch thought instead of how proud he actually was. Johnny had, indeed, rescued a baby from the clutches of bandits and brought her to safety. That was truly against all odds. What was it that Val said? He'd be able to pull this off because he'd let Madrid take over.... Madrid....Maybe I shouldn't be so hard on Madrid. After all, Madrid is part of who Johnny is and Johnny is one fine young man. I am so proud of him! I just wish he wouldn't take all these chances. Murdoch had no idea he'd just wished the identical thought that Scott had.

The door eased open and Scott entered with two cups of steaming coffee. Settling back in his chair the Lancer men watched the young man in the bed. Each lost in his own thoughts and both amazingly similar.

Shortly the door opened and Sam walked to the bed. "Any changes?"

"No, Sam, he hasn't moved at all." Murdoch spoke in a hushed tone. Sam checked the injuries and felt for temperature change. Satisfied that all was well, at least for the moment, he sat on the edge of the bed.

"He will. The morphine I gave him has worn off by now and the pain is going to be intense. We have to be here to stop him from moving around and reopening the hole in his back."

"What about another dose of morphine?" Murdoch questioned

"I'd rather not unless I have to. Morphine is easily addictive. I'd rather use something not as strong if  we can get away with it. We have to wait and see, though. Laudanum is bad enough. But necessary at this point." He watched Johnny as he wondered how they would keep him down long enough to heal. "I need to get back to town in a few hours but I'll be back this afternoon. Do you want me to stop by Val's and let him know what's happened?"

"Yes, thank you. Val needs to know." Murdoch spoke softly. "Sam...Thanks for coming out so late and in that weather. We appreciate it."

"Oh, I'm used to it." Sam smiled as he watched Johnny.

<><><><> 

Voices. Soft but he heard them. He wanted to open his eyes but it was too hard. And then, pain. Pain like he hadn't had in a long time. He felt sick to his stomach but knew puking was not what he wanted to do right now. It felt like his guts were torn open. Nope, no pukin’. He tried to move, the pain intensified mercilessly. Nope, don't do that either. It seemed like he'd been hurting for some time now. When would it stop?

At Johnny’s struggle all three men came to their feet.

"Scott, help me turn him a little and we'll see if we can get some laudanum into him before it gets too bad."  Scott and Sam turned Johnny a bit as Murdoch stuffed another pillow behind him, raising his head. Murdoch reached out and brushed away a tangle of hair that had fallen onto Johnny's forehead and he agonized for his younger son. Sam reached for his bag and retrieved a bottle that he uncorked and poured the laudanum into a cup.

"Johnny, wake up now. I have something I want you to drink. Johnny, can you wake up?" Tucking his hand behind Johnny's head and lifting slightly he held the cup to Johnny's lips, he tipped it up as the bitter liquid trickled down Johnny's throat. A cough and sputter produced a groan and the thick lashes over the sapphire eyes fluttered a bit. Another cough and groan and Johnny was out again.

<><><><> 

Maria, Lancer cook and housekeeper and sometimes healer was in the kitchen already at five in the morning cooking up her own tried and true 'food for the sick'. Between Maria and Jelly, they were both experts at liniments, salves, concoctions of every sort and tonics. And, they were good at it. Johnny seemed to be their most popular customer. So, upon hearing Johnny was seriously injured, Maria went to work in the kitchen. It smelled awful and tasted even worse. But, it worked. She was also an expert in cajoling Johnny into taking his medicine with the aid of a very large wooden spoon threatening another injury should he disobey.

She held a large soft spot in her heart for Johnny as she was working at Lancer when he was born. She had aided with the delivery and watched him as a baby and many, many nights was up with him through colic, so doting over him was as easy and natural as it could be... should be. Pour Juanito, that boy needs someone to watch over him all the time. So much trouble he gets into...

<><><><> 

"I'll be back but if you need me before that send someone right away. Don't wait. And use the laudanum if you have to. I'll talk to Val for you, Murdoch."

"Thanks again, Sam. What do you think? Will he be alright?" Murdoch couldn't seem to shake the feeling that he was going to lose Johnny... again. The ugly thought was hanging in the background and wouldn't leave.

"I'll let you know more when I get back. If the fever doesn't come down any more then we'll see what needs to be done but for now he seems to be holding his own. It's still early, though." With a pat to Murdoch's arm he left them with his advice, "You two get some rest" and Sam went out the door. Scott went to his chair and resumed his watch over his brother. "Sir, why don't you get something to eat and go rest. I'll watch."

"Alright, I'll spell you in a couple of hours and I'll have Teresa come and keep you company." Murdoch conceded.

"I doubt that you'll be able to tear her away from that baby. But thanks for the thought!" Scott chuckled.

"Yes, she certainly has charmed everyone here. Especially Jelly." With that Murdoch left Scott on watch.

<><><><> 

They gathered in the great room completely entertained by a very happy, beautiful baby. For Elena and Alejandro it was bittersweet but having Angela back was the most they could have hoped for. The loss of Ana was a blow from which they would never fully recover but thanks to Johnny, they had the niña.

"How is Johnny, Murdoch? Will he be alright?" Alejandro asked sincerely.

"Sam says its' still too early to tell but if we can keep the fever down and prevent infection he should be alright."

"I am so sorry he was injured. If I could have found her without bothering Johnny I would have."

"Alejandro, you know Johnny as well as anyone here, probably better. Do you think for one minute that he wouldn't have gone to find Angela? If you had known that he was here as Johnny Lancer he would still have wanted you to tell him."

The niña, settled on the floor on a blanket doted on by 'aunt' Teresa, squealed as she played with a rag doll. Chubby little arms waved in the air and black eyes danced as she commanded the attention of everyone in the room. Murdoch knelt down on the floor next to the baby and Angela held out her arms indicating she wanted Murdoch to hold her. Not hesitating, he scooped her up for a snuggle. She laughed and burbled, not the least bit shy around these strangers. Everyone was smitten with the sweet angel with the sparkling black eyes.

<><><><> 

The door opened a bit as Teresa peeked in. "Murdoch sent me to see if you needed anything. Are you alright?" she whispered. Scott sat up in the chair, wincing as he realized his back was sore from slouching.

"Yes, thank you, Teresa" He called her Ter-RAY-sa. She liked that.

"Would you like some company? You've been up here a long time, Scott."

"What I would really like is for Johnny to wake up."

"Sam should be back soon. Maybe he'll have some good news for us, let's hope." She settled on the arm of Scott's chair, her hand resting on his shoulder and she gave him a light squeeze. "You're a good brother, Scott."

"Well, I have a good brother, too, and a good sister!"

More voices, still whispering. Bad dreams, too. With lots of blood and bodies. What the hell's goin' on. Mierda, I still hurt...

I am here, Johnny. I want to take away your pain. You saved my Angela!

Scott thought he saw a slight smile flit across Johnny's face. What is he dreaming? Scott thought.

Sam quietly came in the door frowning as he realized Scott was still there. "Have you gotten any sleep yet, Scott? I'm serious, you need to get some rest or I'll be tending to two patients... Has he been awake yet?"

Murdoch entered waiting impatiently for Sam's assessment.

"No, but I think he may be soon. I've seen his eyes moving more and heard a light groan but he could be dreaming, too."

Sam laid a gentle hand on Johnny's forehead. Still feverish. "When I finish my exam I want you to help me turn him a little so I can check the wound in his back. There may be an infection started and that may be why he's still fevered. But for now I want you to get out of here. Get something to eat and get some rest! Now!" Sam quietly ordered. With that Scott left the room. "I can handle this Murdoch. Go back downstairs and make sure Scott does what he's told. Please."

<><><><> 

Val knocked on the front door. Teresa greeted him then ushered him into the cool interior. She brought him into the great room and he exchanged a warm greeting with Alejandro and Elena. Val noticed the baby in Murdoch’s arms and went to her. Oh, my God! She's just like Ana!" His eyes started to tear up. Get a holda yerself, Crawford! Elena hadn't missed the emotion and she smiled at him. Clearing his throat he reached out to pet Angela's silky hair and she cooed and blew bubbles at him. Then he looked at Murdoch and asked about Johnny.

"Sam is with him now. We'll know something soon, I would think. Sit down, Val. Coffee? We have clean cups," Murdoch teased. Teresa moved to get Val his coffee.

"Well, Mr. Lancer, I don't want to say 'I told you so' but I told you so." A huge grin split Val's face. Murdoch smiled a bit and looked down at the baby blowing gurgling bubbles through her lips and sighed.
 
"Yes, I just hope Sam will have some good news to tell us soon." He leaned down and planted a gentle kiss on the baby's sweet smelling hair and glanced to the stairs as if willing Sam to come down with the news they were all hoping for.

A short time later Sam joined the group in the great room. Scott was resting so Murdoch and Val went to assist the doctor. The curtains had been opened as were the windows allowing cool fresh air to filter into the room. Johnny still looked pale but the muscle spasms had stopped. As Val and Murdoch carefully turned Johnny, Sam readied what he would need to clean the bullet wound.

Cutting away the bandages Sam was relieved to see no further bleeding but it had cracked apart a bit and was very red at the edges indicating some infection, a serious risk, especially after the cauterizing. He set a rag soaked in warm water over the wound for several minutes, and then began to clean it. The more he washed the more the wound oozed with infection. When he was finished and satisfied it was sufficiently drained, he nodded at Murdoch and Val who held Johnny secure and Sam poured carbolic directly over the stitched area, which drew an immediate reaction from Johnny. He bucked and thrashed but got nowhere and finally he settled down and Sam continued to wrap the shoulder.

"Sam... tell me something I want to hear..." Murdoch voiced concern in every word.

"The fever should come down now. Has he been given any laudanum after I left this morning?"

"No, I don't think so. Scott didn't say anything."

"This is truly amazing. I would have staked my reputation that he would've needed something by now... Don't you dare breathe a word of this or I will be ruined around these parts!" Sam joked.

Reputation...whose reputation? Damn Madrid. What have I done now?

Hush, Johnny. It's not you they are talking about. I relieved some of your pain and the doctor is trying to figure out why you don't need anything for it. Rest, querido and I will be here with you.

<><><><> 

"Ana..." The word mumbled softly through the dry mouth.

"Shhh, Johnny, don't try to talk. Here drink some of this," someone said as a hand slid under his head gently lifting it up, a cup was placed to his mouth. The cool water was sweet and had never tasted so good. "Not too much, you don't want to be sick..." and the cup was withdrawn. The sapphire eyes cracked open and tried to focus. His head hurt. His side hurt. His shoulder was on fire. Hell, his hair hurt.

"Murdoch?"

"Yes, son, I'm here. Don't talk. I'll tell you what happened. You've been here for one day, now..."

"Murdoch.. ba..baby...Where's An..gela?"
 
"She's here, Johnny, safe. There's not a scratch on her. She's as safe and happy as she can be. You brought her home, Johnny..."

"Murdoch...?"
 
"Yes, Johnny?"
 
"Murdoch, throw...my coat a-away..."

Murdoch looked puzzled. "Johnny, why should I throw your coat away?"

"Stinks..." Johnny whispered with gravelly words. "Smells like... shit..." Murdoch remembered how the baby was tucked inside Johnny's coat. Even under these conditions, Murdoch had to laugh. Only Johnny would think of that! he thought.

Johnny seemed to relax on the pillows and a small sigh of relief escaped his lips. He closed his eyes and fell into a deep healing sleep. No laudanum-induced unconsciousness. Murdoch could have sworn he heard a whispered "Gracias, Ana..." slip from Johnny's lips. He watched his son sleep. He had never felt so proud, both his sons were home and both fine young men. Murdoch was a lucky man.

And then it hit him. Johnny's home because of Madrid... Madrid, the name I detested hearing, the name I wanted to get rid of ....forever. And without Madrid, Johnny wouldn't be here right now... Things were about to change for Murdoch. This realization shook him to his core. He was about to do what he'd promised himself he wouldn't ever do. He welcomed Madrid into his heart. Madrid was who Johnny was. Madrid was the reason that Johnny had stayed alive all those years when Murdoch couldn't find him. Johnny was on his own and stayed alive from a very young boy... Because of Madrid. Murdoch wanted to break down and cry. His tough Scottish ancestry squelched the tears and forced Murdoch to draw a deep breath instead. Johnny Madrid Lancer, you are a remarkable young man, my son!

<><><><> 

Murdoch eased the door open slowly and carried his large mug of coffee over to the chair beside Johnny's bed. As he sat, Johnny's eyes fluttered open.

"That coffee I smell?" he asked softly.

"Yes, it is but not for you... Maria's on her way up with some Willow bark tea for you to drink... a very large cup of it, too."

Johnny could hear the smile of joy in Murdoch's voice. Johnny's head rolled to the side to face Murdoch. "That's mean, Ol’ Man,... plain mean," Johnny mumbled, knowing he was in for lots of trouble and lots of foul things to drink.

With that the door burst open and with a string of rapid Spanish, Maria, head cook and second in line for healing, after Sam, hustled into Johnny's room and the quiet atmosphere dissolved into chaos.
"Oh, Juanito, you are so skinny! We will have to fatten you up after you drink all this tea I bring for you. And lots and lots of my special soup!"

"Ummmmm! This is good coffee!" Murdoch said with a smile, as he enjoyed the teasing. Enjoying, too, the look of disgusted anguish on Johnny's face. Johnny looked like a little boy that had been denied a sweet. "Maria, your coffee is exceptional this morning! Boy, that is good..."

"Murdoch...?"

"Yes, Johnny, what can I do for you?"

"...Go away..." With that Murdoch burst into laughter, laughter that had been absent from the house for a long while now.

"I think I'll stay and make sure Maria doesn't have any trouble....although I don't know what kind of trouble she could possibly have with...you." The sarcasm was not lost on Johnny and he huffed.

“Juanito, here, drink this tea I make..."

As  Maria put in cup in front of his face he paled a bit.

"Por favor, Maria, ...not... now." The smell of the stuff was about to push him over the edge.

"No, no, no Juanito, you must drink... all of it," Maria burbled disregarding the warning as she lifted Johnny's head. He began to pull away when he heard a very stern "John!" from Murdoch.

"Can't...do it.....Murdoch. Ain't gonna...stay...put." Johnny was desperately trying to quell the belly that was threatening to explode... violently. He took as large of a breath as he could in an effort to settle the churning without sending his wounds into spasms and the stitches to pull on the torn flesh. Maria finally saw Johnny's dilemma and relinquished her "attack".  Johnny settled back onto the pillows once more, eyes shut and tried to control his ragged breathing.

"I bring you something for your belly. It will help, Juanito, I promise," and with that she was gone from the room.

"She gone, Murdoch?" Johnny quietly asked with eyes still closed.

"Yes, son, she is but she's coming back with something to help settle your stomach. And you will take it. You have to start eating, Johnny, you'll heal faster."

Maybe if I try to fake sleepin' she'll leave me alone. No, Murdoch is catchin' on ta that one. He'll never let it slide... Maria was back before Johnny could think of anything else to fool them. Sitting on the bed next to Johnny she put her cool hand on his forehead.
 
“Juanito, I make this just for you. Try this...por favor. Muy pequito. It will help, Juanito. Take just a spoonful... here... “ and she wiggled the spoon in between his lips and dribbled the contents of the spoon onto his tongue. Well, it wasn't as bad as some of the crap they were trying to push into him but it could have tasted better, too. However his stomach had no plans for it to stay there and almost as fast as it hit bottom, it was back up with a force that Murdoch could only describe as volcanic.

Anticipating this, Murdoch had been prepared with the chamber pot, lid off and ready. After the first convulsing retch, Johnny grabbed his side in agony. Pain seared through him like fire and he heaved again and again. Murdoch steadied Johnny, holding gently onto his trembling shoulders and his head, half supporting his weight as he tenderly wiped Johnny’s mouth with a cool cloth. Finally empty, Johnny stopped the retching but continued to gasp as the pain wouldn't relent. Breaking into a cold sweat, Maria placed a soothing cloth on his forehead and stroked his wet hair.
 
"Lo siento, Juanito but we have to try to get this into your belly. Once it is there it will help..."

"Later... Maria, please..." Johnny panted out.

Murdoch put his hand on Maria's shoulder. "Later will be fine. Maybe it is a little soon."

Maria left the room.

"Johnny? Johnny, let me check your side and make sure nothing tore loose." Murdoch began to pull the sheet and blankets aside, checked the wound and covered Johnny again. He wondered if Sam was still here.

He didn't have to wonder long as he descended the stairs and heard conversation and laughter in the kitchen. As he rounded the corner, everyone was seated at the table, Scott, the Alvarez', Teresa, Jelly and Val. And, of course, little Angela. Angela was entertaining them all as she tried to eat with no assistance. Sam had gone out to the buggy to get a few more supplies that he would need for Johnny. Maria had informed him of the failed attempt to get something into Johnny's stomach.

Teresa jumped up and said "I'll go sit with him. Murdoch, there's something on the stove for you to eat." With that she left the kitchen.

"Guess he didn't take the tea very well..." Scott asked, looking concerned at Murdoch.

"No, but it is a little early yet," Murdoch sighed.

"Looks like I'd better try! Plain ta see you all don't know how to get it done!" Jelly started to get up when Murdoch spoke.

"Jelly, everything's fine. Sit down, please" Though there was a 'please' the message was clear.

Sam returned to the kitchen with more bandages and bottles...and a long rubber tube. This doesn't look good Murdoch thought.

Sam recognized the look on Murdoch's face. "Don't worry, Murdoch, this is just for a bit of psychological manipulation!" Sam said with a smile. Johnny had been threatened with the nasal tube before... and it had worked then. Why not try again?

Elena rose from the table and left the room, giving the baby a kiss on the top of her dark silken head as she went by. The baby giggled with glee and brought a much needed smile to all their faces.

<><><><> 

As she climbed the stairs Elena did not know what she would say but she knew she needed to see Johnny. She needed to tell him what was in her heart. She knocked softly then entered the room. Teresa, sitting next to Johnny, was changing out the cloth on his forehead for a cooler one. She smiled as Elena came closer.

"How is he, my dear?" the woman whispered.

Teresa smiled. "Oh, I guess he's as good as he can be, under the circumstances. Please sit, Señora." Teresa left the chair and encouraged Elena to take the seat next to Johnny, then she moved aside to allow Elena some privacy with him.

Elena picked up Johnny's hand and held it between her own, with fingers long and graceful she held his tightly. “Juanito, listen to me, now. You have brought the niña home safe and Alejandro and I cannot thank you enough. We have to start to heal now. Our beloved Ana is gone but we have Angela, because of you. Now we need for you to recover, we need to see you well.

"We need for you to be there for Angela, too, because she will need your friendship and love, just like Ana did. Johnny, you are so very important to this family. You are part of this family and we love you so!" Stroking his hair she bent to kiss him on the forehead. “Te amo, my son..." She turned to Teresa and put her hand to the young woman's cheek then she left the room. Teresa wiped away a tear and took her place at Johnny's side.

Listen to my Mother, Juanito. You know she is right. You are a very lucky person to have two families love you so. Do not let them down. You need to fight and get well...

 

Teresa looked up as the flame of the lamp flickered and she swore it brightened a bit. Well, it was her imagination. She was so tired from everything that had gone on. At least Johnny was home again and hopefully was getting better but she also knew that when Johnny was hurt there were definitely going to be ups and downs. The fight had really just begun.

<><><><> 

The sun was peeking over the mountains to show its face as another glorious day dawned. The rain three days ago had washed the air clean and fresh. The sunrise was spectacular, giving birth to another wonderful day. For some. Johnny Madrid Lancer was not a happy man. He hurt. He couldn't get out of bed, he couldn’t get comfortable and they kept trying to make him swallow all sorts of bad things. Really bad things.

"Maria, por favor, but go away.... "

“Juanito, you need to do this. Doctor Sam said you...."

"To hell with Doctor Sam! I ain't drinkin' that shi...crap!"

Maria calmly, skillfully maneuvered the spoon into his mouth as he complained. And, of course, it was followed by coughing, lots of groaning and icy stares but Maria was not to be intimidated. Johnny fought for control of his belly again. Still in danger of rejecting its contents, it rolled and gurgled, really wanting to rebel.

"Breathe deep, Juanito. It will be fine. Let the medicine do its work," she murmured. Little did she know that thoughts of kidnapping, hiring someone to take her far away and never let her come back, well, until he was better, that is, and could have some of her cooking, were skittering around inside his head. His quaking belly would not settle and every time he puked he felt like his guts were on fire. Then it would spread into his back. Usually he would pass out cold, only to have nightmares, horrific and gruesome. After seeing all the men he'd killed again and again, watching all the violence in his life, seeing more hardships and strife, Ana would appear and talk to him. She would calm him, ease his distress and soon he would sleep. Then he would wake and start the whole process all over.

<><><><> 

Scott felt helpless when he would sit with his brother. He began to look at the situation from another angle. Instead of getting so upset with Johnny’s obstinate behavior, only now did he realize the extent of Johnny’s independence. He had grown up alone with no one to guide him, no one to protect him… from anything. No wonder he felt that he needed his gun under his pillow when he slept. He felt that he could take care of himself, after all, he’d done it since he was a child and he didn’t like all the fussing over him. It made him feel… dependent. It was foreign and unwelcome and Johnny got to the point where he cringed in the bed when the door opened wondering who it would be to come and watch him, observe him and poke and prod. He’d taken care of himself all this time and now he was under scrutiny, again. And, he didn’t like it.

Scott thought, it was his job as older protective brother to try and make things a little easier for him, perhaps ease the troubled emotions and keep enforcing the idea of his family really did care and worry about him.

Scott knocked on the door softly but received no answer. Slowly he pushed it open to see Johnny asleep so Scott quietly took up his post in the chair beside the bed. He tried to relax knowing that when Johnny woke there would not be any calm moments or time for relaxing, that Johnny’s restlessness was getting the better of him. He wanted to get up and that was out of the question. So, Scott waited but not for long.

Johnny knew someone was there with him so he lay without moving until he could read the situation. How could he reach his gun without someone taking it from him first? Then it hit him… nature was calling and it was calling loudly and demanding his attention. Johnny cracked his eyes open to see Scott in the chair reading his ever present book. He groaned as he moved and Scott looked up to see the flutter of long lashes and a flash of out of focus sapphire eyes.

“Hey, Brother, how are you feeling? Any better?” Scott asked in a soft tone. Another groan, louder than before, was issued from Johnny as he rubbed his eyes with his right hand.

“Scott, help me get up,” Johnny muttered as he tried to throw off the blankets but the motion was stopped by his brother. “Scott, help me, gotta go out back.” Scott leaned down and pulled the dreaded chamber pot from under the bed and held it for Johnny to see. The look that he shot his older brother rivaled any glare that would have been issued to an opponent in a gunfight.

“Sorry, Johnny. Sam would have my head if he knew I let you get up. This is going to have to do. Here let me help…” Scott made to pull the blankets away but Johnny wasn’t having any of it. “Johnny, just roll on your side and tuck the pot….”

“Scott, ya ain’t makin’ this any easier for me!” Johnny huffed, his temper rising.

But Scott could only laugh. “Well, it’s this or… a wet bed,” he said.

Johnny was livid. “Son-of-a-bitch, Scott, c’mon, help me up!” Scott crossed his arms over his chest and smiled. With the situation now critical, Johnny snatched the pot and settled it beside him under the blankets and cursed his helplessness. This can’t be happening!

“Fuck! Can’t even take a piss by myself!”

And Scott attempted to lighten the situation. “Oh, sure you can, Johnny, it just probably wouldn’t be in the chamber pot...” He let the implication hang and Johnny thought a minute finally getting what Scott was saying. And he started to laugh thinking that this was, indeed, better than lying in a wet bed. But as he laughed the pain awoke that made him gasp and turned a paler shade of white.

“Damn it, Scott, don’t… make me …laugh!”

<><><><> 

Later that afternoon, as Johnny lay dozing, Scott poked his head around the door to check in on him.

Johnny cracked an eye halfway open. "What...are you doing?" he asked, thinking Scott was acting peculiar.

"Oh, just wanted to know if you were up for company?"

"Not real...." With that, Scott nudged the door open to allow him access to Johnny's room. In his arms he held Angela. Johnny's grin widened and Angela squealed shrilly upon seeing him in the bed. She lunged forward out of Scott's arms and he had to quickly grab her before she fell. Angela was trying to get to Johnny as fast as she could. She laughed and held out her tiny arms, waving little fists in the air. Scott sat her on the bed next to Johnny but she immediately tried to scoot closer. He reached out with his good arm and pulled her to him. Her laugh burbled up from the tips of her little toes as she seemed elated to be with him again.

Johnny seemed a bit perplexed at this excessive display of affection but began to enjoy the simple purity of it. With every word he said to her, every look he gave her she laughed harder and cooed more and blew more bubbles. Baby bliss... Johnny was genuinely touched by this open display of affection, even by one so young. This was adoration in its purest form. This innocent child, this beautiful baby, Ana's baby, had given her tiny heart to Johnny Madrid. And that made Johnny's heart almost stop. I ain't worth it, querida..."

Johnny! Do not do this! My Angela loves you now, as we all do.... Nurture that love....And, yes, you are worth it. You are worth everything.

"Johnny, what's wrong, do you want me to get Sam? He's still here....  Are you alright?" Scott fired questions at him quickly, concerned...

"Yeah, I'm alright. Jus' thinkin' 'bout Ana..." Well, it wasn't a total lie. 

Relieved Scott said, "This sure is a happy baby. She's cute, too!"

"You shoulda seen her mother. Even as a young girl... so pretty. Beautiful." Johnny struggled to sit up and Scott tucked another pillow behind him and could now see Angela peering at him with those black eyes so wide with undisguised adoring intensity and now bubbling over with peals of laughter. She kicked her legs and continued to wave her arms so that she toppled over and shrieked with baby giggles. Scott had never in his life witnessed such a sight, and never dreamed that his little brother, the ex-
gunhawk, could elicit this type of behavior from a child this small.

Scott had seen Johnny playing with some of the younger children of the ranch employees but never like this, never an infant. Johnny had never failed to surprise him. After nonstop shenanigans little Angela had worn herself out. She leaned forward and laid her tiny head on Johnny's chest and closed her eyes, her little hand fisted to her sweet pink lips. Johnny pulled the sheet and blanket over her and in the blink of an eye, she was sound asleep.

"Let me take her off you..." Scott stood and made a move to lift her from Johnny.

"It's alright, Scott, you can leave her for a while," he said softly. Johnny's right arm folded lightly across her back and before Scott could reclaim his chair both Johnny and Angela were asleep.
Deeply touched by the scene, Scott quietly rose from the chair and quickly went out the door into the hall. Making his way to the great room he stood with a grin that threatened to spill into laughter.

"Excuse me, everyone, but you all need to see this... quietly, please." They all looked surprised, what could this be about? What was so important that they all need to follow Scott... Upstairs?
Outside of Johnny's room Scott put a finger to his lips in the universal sign of 'hush" and he opened the door as they all silently stepped inside.

The sight they were blessed with was unbelievable. Elena's eyes were immediately misty, Teresa's hands went to cover the gasp that threatened to escape her, and Alejandro was pleased and tried to cover the hitch in his throat, Jelly looked proud as if to say, "That's my boy!" And Murdoch, Murdoch thought "to Hell with that Scottish emotion." His eyes did well up... and spill over. His son, Johnny Madrid Lancer, looking so young himself, and innocent. What a beautiful picture this was and everyone in that room would remember it as long as they lived. Johnny with a sleeping baby on his chest. This was truly a precious sight. They filed out of the room and left the sleeping ones in peace... for the next three hours.

<><><><> 

Sam entered the room intending to check Johnny's injuries and Murdoch accompanied him to aid Sam if needed. But they were greeted with something Sam was definitely not expecting. Both Johnny and Angela sleeping, peacefully. The sweetness of the scene was not lost on Sam. Like Scott, Sam had been aware of Johnny's soft spot for children and stray animals and this was not surprising but, indeed, precious to see. And they both slept. Finally, Sam thought. He turned and Murdoch silently followed him out of the room into the hall. Sam quietly shut the door behind them.

"Sam, what's wrong?" questioned Murdoch, concern evident on his face.

"Nothing, Murdoch, absolutely nothing." Murdoch became more puzzled then Sam answered, "He's sleeping, by himself. No drugs and sleeping deeply. This is what he needs to heal and I am not going to disturb him now. The exam can wait till he wakes.”

<><><><> 

Johnny woke to a growling belly. He opened his eyes to find Murdoch sitting next to his bed.
"You really don't need to stay in here, Ol’ Man. I ain't goin’ anywhere. Don't think I could, anyway."

Murdoch, still deeply moved by the scene he'd witnessed earlier, stood and reached over to touch Johnny's forehead. The heat wasn't as prevalent. "Johnny, do you think you could eat something? Maria made broth for you."

Johnny looked up at Murdoch's face and not seeing any humor as when Murdoch teased about the coffee asked: "She make broth or poison? Some a' that shi...crap she made me drink today was 'nough ta kill me," he groused

"No, son, no poison. It's broth, pure and simple. I'll get you some." Murdoch left the room.

When he returned Johnny was staring out the window and didn't turn to Murdoch on his arrival. Neither did he acknowledge the bowl of soup. Teresa had brought Angela in to see Johnny and she was as content as she could be sprawled on Johnny's chest.

"She was so good and pure, it ain't right, Murdoch..." The words so softly spoken Murdoch had to strain to hear them.

"Johnny, what's not right, son?" he asked as he noticed the turmoil in Johnny’s eyes and realized something was bothering him. A frown etched his forehead with worry in his pale blue eyes.

"That she's connected to any of this. Ana doesn't deserve to have this kind of violence wrapped around her memory because of someone like me."

Murdoch was startled. "What do you mean 'someone like you'?"

"Killer," came Johnny's self loathing reply.

"Johnny, you did what you had to do to stay alive..."

Johnny's icy stare bored into his and held his eyes. "Not always," Johnny whispered.

"Johnny, you can't blame yourself for everything that's happened. You didn't grow up with a privileged childhood and I can only imagine what you were forced to do to survive. If I'd have paid more attention to your Mother..."

"She would have left anyway, Murdoch. It's just the way she was," Johnny interrupted, his response spoken in a defeated sigh.

"I could have searched harder, longer," Murdoch said regretfully. Was this an apology? "Johnny, look in your arms. Doesn't this count for anything? You saved Ana's baby! It was an impossible undertaking, you risked your life and you saved her baby, Johnny! Yes, you couldn't be there for her but you were for Angela. Look at her, son," Murdoch urged.

Johnny looked down at the featherweight beauty that slept soundly on his chest. What joy she had brought him in the few days he'd known her. But there was something else, too. He felt Ana. Sweet Ana. But the thoughts of what he really wanted to do to Silva seem to poison anything good that he should have felt.

I slit a man's throat, watched him bleed his life away, glad because of it and now it's all linked to Ana. It shouldn't be like this.....and it is... because of me.

"This ain't the way it's supposed to be, Murdoch. None of it. Don't you get it? I ain't sorry for killin' Silva....that's just it! I wanted to string his guts on a fence from here to Mexico! Now that's connected ta Ana, too....because of me."

"Johnny, do you think Ana would have been the person she was, that kind, angel of a young lady if you hadn't been in her life? Nothing is perfect, Johnny, and everything has a certain amount of tragedy and darkness attached it..... no matter how pure it is. Without you this could have been much worse... it could have ended tragically… But it didn’t… because of you! No matter what your thoughts, Johnny and because Ana was so good, what happened to her would have provoked those emotions from a saint. Now, Johnny, you're a good man but even I know you're not a saint..." Murdoch's attempt at levity did not go unnoticed. 

Johnny looked down at his hands then snorted a small laugh.

“I don't know if it was normal but, I know violent thoughts under these circumstances would be expected." Johnny listened while Murdoch spoke. "When your mother left with you I know I would have killed to get you back, whatever it took, I'd have done anything and, yes, I had violent thoughts. I think if I'd gotten my hands on that man she left with I'd have literally torn him to pieces." The realization hit Johnny like a lightning bolt, Murdoch had always wanted him. He had always wanted Johnny and Scott with him. Johnny let his head fall back on his pillow.

"Can you take her, now?" Johnny asked.

"Are you alright?" Murdock asked, suddenly worried.

"I will be... I guess," Johnny closed his eyes as exhaustion took hold of him.

"Here, Johnny, drink this... it will help you sleep." Murdock tried to hand him a glass.

"Don't want it." Johnny was adamant, the battle was on.

"Well, I'm coming back in a few minutes, and then we'll 'talk' about it." Murdoch leaned down and gently eased Angela from the comfort of Johnny's chest. She whimpered a bit but did not wake. Murdoch looked down at the tiny, beautiful face and whispered, "It's been a long time since a baby this tiny has been in this house." He found it was difficult to take his eyes from her. Wrapping a small blanket around her, he left Johnny's room.

<><><><> 

Johnny spent the rest of the day in turmoil. As exhausted as he was after the conversation with Murdoch, sleep eluded him. And luckily, Murdoch hadn't come back to force the awful sleeping powders down Johnny's throat. As soon as he would drift off, dreams of slitting Silva's throat jolted him awake. Then Ana's face would rise above him and quickly fade away.

Juanito! Stop doing this to yourself! Stop it, now! You are a good man. A very good man and I am proud to have you as my brother! And I need for you to be there for my Angela! Por favor, do not ever forget that!

Johnny jolted awake, again. Dios, that was so real! He wiped at the sweat trickling into his eyes. Juanito, I am real! Sweet Ana!

<><><><> 

Sam entered the room carrying his ever present bag filled with instruments of torture. He sat down in the chair facing the bed and held Johnny in his stare, not saying a word.
.
"What...?" Johnny asked, immediately suspicious. Sam simply stared at him. "You goin' loco on me, Sam?"

"Talk." demanded Sam. The doctor had learned long ago that the direct approach worked the best where Johnny was concerned. Beating around the bush got you nowhere with this boy, because that's what he'd give right back. Come straight to the point, no bullshit and you'll get an answer...usually.

"'K, what'd you wanna talk about? But don't be too long 'cause Scott's bringin' Angela in a few minutes."

"Murdoch tells me..."

“Mierda, Sam, 'm fine. Just gettin' things worked out in my head, is all."

"So tell me about it." Again, a demand.

"Kinda personal," Johnny tried to dodge the question.

"Johnny, I'm your doctor. I've been about as personal with you as I can get. Now let's have it..." Johnny took as deep of breath as he was able and there was pain, which Sam didn't miss.

Johnny leveled eyes on the doctor and started to come clean in one big rush. "It ain't no big problem, Sam. Just thinkin' that there's a lot of bad that happened an' how it's tied to Ana now. An' that ain't supposed to happen 'cuz Ana was so good." Johnny paused for a minute then looked Sam square in the eye. "Sam, do you believe in divine intervention?"

Taken aback, Sam paused for a few seconds not knowing where this was going. "Yes, I do. Why do you ask, Johnny?" he asked with a curious look about him.

"'Cuz she talks to me, Sam. Mostly when I'm asleep but she's helped me think a lot of this through. Don't know that I believe it all myself but she's helped sort everything... some."

"Good! Maybe she can talk some sense into your thick head about taking your medicine and eating!" With that Sam grabbed his bag and left the room as the door shut with a loud force as it met the frame and the latch snapped shut, leaving Johnny to wonder what the hell just happened! Sam stood out in the hall and pondered what Johnny just revealed... if that divine intervention had been responsible for the bullet to have passed completely through Johnny's side without causing any more damage than it did...

<><><><> 

They could be heard all the way down the long hall. Scott and Angela were having a merry time and they barged in Johnny's room without a knock. Angela took one look at Johnny and again threw herself out of Scott's arms in her hurry to get to him but this time Scott was prepared for that. Johnny sat up in bed and with Scott's help was propped up with pillows sitting in a comfortable reclining position. Scott sat Angela down on the bed next to him. She played and laughed and tried to climb onto Johnny's chest, never still and always on the move for something new. And something new she did. Her tiny foot kicked out in an effort to scoot closer to Johnny's face and it landed square on the large bullet hole under his ribs, Johnny went white with an agonized groan.
 
"S-Scott, t-take her..." Again the razor sharp bolts of pain radiated and sliced through his body. He grabbed Angela and held her until Scott had her securely then Johnny let go and rolled onto his side gasping for air.

"Johnny...? Johnny, hang on and I'll get Sam!" Scott picked up the infant and her cry rang through out the room. She was a bit scared but mostly distressed with having to leave Johnny. She opened her tiny mouth and filled the room with a shrill scream that seemed absurdly ludicrous coming from one so small. Scott was halfway down the hall when they all came charging up the stairs, Elena in the lead. She was a very swift and nimble woman these last few days. Angela cried pitifully and kept reaching over Scott's shoulder back toward Johnny's room.

"Que?" came Elena's panicked question as she took the screaming infant from Scott.
 
"Sam, is he still here?" Scott asked and kept his voice calm as to not raise anymore panic.

"Yes, but he's out in the bunkhouse looking after Walt's leg. What happened, Scott?" Murdoch's face was white with worry.

"Angela hit the wound in Johnny's side when she tried to climb on his chest. It hit pretty hard. He's in a lot of pain. I think someone should go get Sam....now," came Scott's explanation.

"I'll go," Jelly replied and he was gone. Murdoch ran down the hall to Johnny's room to find him curled into a ball on his right side. His face was white and drenched in sweat, and he was panting, trying to even out his breathing.

"Son, let me take a look... Johnny, move your hands, I have to check this out..."  Johnny felt like he was going to be sick again but mercy was on his side and his belly started to quiet. He got his breathing under control and moved his shaking hands. Murdock raised the sheet and peeled back the bandage noticing the slight bleeding.

"Sam said this would take a while to heal. He'll be here in a minute, Johnny, try to relax." He didn't know if Johnny heard him or not so he laid his large, warm hand on Johnny's chest. "Easy, son..."

Three minutes later Sam came through the door with bag in hand.

"Looks like I can't leave you for more than an hour before you get into some kind of mischief. Let's take a look here...." as he poked and prodded. "Johnny, this is a large open wound. It has to heal from the inside out and it's going to take a while. You'll need to be very careful."

"Ain't like... I was lookin'... for trouble, Sam, ... it just kinda finds... me..."

Sam cleaned the wound and applied a thick layer of salve which was starting to burn. He wiped Johnny's forehead with a clean damp cloth. "You need to rest, now, Johnny. I'll be downstairs if you need anything. Who's turn to baby sit?" which prompted a groan and angry eye from the man in the bed.

"Don't need....no baby-s-sitter...." he groused.

Sam turned to Johnny with a raised eye brow "Really...?" was all he said as he reached for the water with the sleeping powder in it.

<><><><> 

Teresa volunteered to sit with Johnny while the others returned to the great room. She was happy to be there with her brother although he wasn't much company so she retrieved her basket of sewing and was content to mend the rips and tears for the men and as usual, most of the repairs were Johnny's.

She glanced at his sleeping face etched with pain. This never got any easier, she thought. The boys were always getting hurt, usually nothing too serious though. And when there was something like this, it set the house in turmoil. What do they say? Boys will be boys! But that didn't apply here as what Johnny had accomplished in rescuing Angela could hardly be considered tomfoolery. In fact the more Teresa thought about it, it was nothing short of a miracle. And she was proud of him, just as Murdoch and Scott were. She smiled as she continued her chore and thought herself very lucky.

<><><><> 

The light was streaming through the windows so he knew it wasn't very late. What the hell happened? He felt awfully sore. Wasn't this crap supposed to go away soon? He cracked an eye open a little further as Murdoch came in the door.

"Hey, Johnny, how are you feeling?"

Johnny started to laugh at the ridiculous question but was cut short as the pain seized him and he gasped. "Ahhhhh, Murdoch....don't m-make me...laugh...." and he sighed again.

"I didn't mean to make you laugh Johnny; I only wanted to know how you were..."

"'M fi....."

"Don't you say fine... You know you're not fine!"

"'K, I feel like shit."

"That's better!" And Murdoch left in a huff closing the door harder than was necessary. Getting a straight answer out of that boy is as difficult as wrestling the wind...

What the hell's wrong with everyone today? First Sam walks out on me, then the ol’ man... Damn, what'd I do? Johnny rested his head on the pillows and drifted to sleep.

<><><><> 

The door eased open and Scott assessed the situation. Johnny lay sprawled on the bed; the sheet half covering his naked torso. The open window was letting in the early evening breeze and refreshing the room. Scott looked down at his sleeping brother. It seemed strange to see Johnny so quiet. When he was about there was usually some activity or commotion, especially when he was in a good mood. And Johnny was always the first one up in the morning and the last to retire for the night so to see him sleeping at this time of day made Scott feel uneasy. He sat in the chair next to his brother and didn't have to wait very long. Johnny cracked open an eye wondering why everyone was watching him lately.

"You gonna slam the door, too?" he asked.

Scott looked at him like Johnny was losing his mind. "What?" he asked starting to get concerned for his brother's mental state.

"Nuthin'....Where's the niña?"

"Well, they asked me to come up here and see if you were up for company," Scott answered.

A grin split Johnny's face. "Yeah, sure, go get her!"

Scott left the room only to return a few minutes later with... all of them. Angela squealed in delight as she saw Johnny and reached for him with her tiny arms. They all chuckled as Scott sat Angela on the bed, this time keeping hold of her so she wouldn't crawl over Johnny. She giggled and laughed and when Johnny talked to her she laughed all the harder.

"Yes, brother, that's the affect you have on most women..." Scott deadpanned. Murdoch threw back his head and laughed heartily as did Alejandro, Elena and Teresa.

Johnny looked squarely at Scott and said, "Well, looks like it's 'bout time everyone hears the story of you an' Cindy Preston..." Johnny started but was suddenly cut off.

"Ah, that can wait. You're looking better, Johnny. Doesn't he look better, Murdoch?" Scott expertly changed the subject. They all agreed Johnny did appear much improved. Then there was an awkward silence.

"Ah, Johnny," Murdoch began and with this Teresa discreetly left the room as did Scott.

"What's the matter?" Johnny asked. "What's goin' on...?" Johnny asked, suspicious of the serious expressions on their faces.

"Juanito," Alejandro spoke up, "... tomorrow morning we are leaving for home. We wanted to make sure that you were going to be alright and now that all our prayers have been answered we will leave. We need to get back to our home and start a new life with the niña."

The smile disappeared from Johnny's face and he looked down as he often did when there was nothing left to say. He looked at Angela sitting next to him and wiped away a bit of drool from her chin with his thumb. She reached out to latch hold of his hand. As Johnny looked up he noticed that only Alejandro and Elena remained in his room.

"Juanito, you can never know what you have done for us," Elena said the emotion thick in her voice. "We thought that we would never see Angela again. We thought we had lost her, too, along with our Ana. But when you returned with the niña, we knew we would be able to live again, to be a family with this little angel, just as Ana would have wanted." Elena sat on the bed and as she did Angela put her little head on Johnny's shoulder and started to close her eyes. Elena smiled, touched to her core that this tiny baby and this hardened ex-gunhawk were bonded together with ties that went far beyond family.
 
"Guess I knew you couldn't stay on here but I sure will be sorry to see ya'll go." Johnny spoke softly, sadness creeping into his voice. "Can you let her sleep here for a while?" He looked at them with his crystal blue eyes and they could not refuse him.

"Sí, Juanito, sí," and they left the room. Johnny looked down at the slumbering bundle at his side and as if for the first time it hit him what this tiny bit of fluff meant. How did this happen? How did this baby cast such a spell on him without him ever realizing how or when or why? Damn, Johnny, get a hold of yerself... What the hell's happenin' ta ya? Ana, I need some more 'a your support, here. Don't think I can say good bye to your baby tomorrow. Help me.... And he laid his head on the pillows. He needed to think. He needed to listen when Ana came to him to help. And he closed his eyes, holding gently onto the sweet bundle in his arms for the last time.

<><><><> 

 

Morning came much too quickly and before he knew what was happening Alejandro, Elena and sweet Niña Angela were all standing by Johnny's bed saying the tearful goodbyes. Elena bent and gently hugged Johnny, Alejandro took Johnny's hand in both of his. Tears welled in all of their eyes. Alejandro lifted Angela from Johnny's side and leaned her into Johnny for a sweet hug and he gently kissed her cheek. Then Alvarez stood and slowly walked out the door. Angela, realizing she was being taken from Johnny, began to cry, softly at first, then hard racking sobs. Johnny lay back and listened until the heart wrenching wails faded completely away. Their carriage was long under the Lancer arch when he finally could breathe again.


<><><><> 

The clock in the great room struck ten and Murdoch was about to turn in for the night. There was a scuff on the stairs and as he turned, he saw Johnny struggling down the last step. Dressed in his leather calzoneras and without the aid of both hands to fasten them Johnny left his shirt untucked to cover the open buttons, the shirt only on one arm and around his other shoulder over the sling. His bare feet were stuffed inside a pair of soft moccasins.

"Johnny! Son, you shouldn't be up!" Murdoch stated in surprise as he hurried over to Johnny as he slowly shuffled into the room. "How did you get dressed by yourself?"

"Well, I ain't, really..." referring to the unbuttoned pants and shirt draped over him. “But, ta answer your question... kinda slow like."

"Here, Johnny, sit down," and Murdoch helped him into a chair.

Johnny gratefully accepted the assist, wondering how much further he could have gotten before he ended up on the floor. "Thanks, Murdoch..." Johnny murmured.

"Having trouble sleeping, John?"

"Yeah, a little, I guess..."

"It wouldn't have anything to do with missing a certain little girl, would it?" Murdoch asked softly with a smile.

Johnny looked down at his sling and shrugged. "Yeah, some..."

Murdoch barely heard the response. "You know, Johnny, it's not like you'll never see her again. I don't think anyone has told you but Elena suggested we spend some time with them this year, a short vacation. I think that's a wonderful idea." Murdoch smiled as he watched his son's response.

Johnny's head came up and with the dazzling smile as only Johnny could give, he said quietly, "Yeah, I'd like that... Murdoch?"

"Yes, son?"

"How did it happen so fast? I mean, I had her for all of two hours before she had me wrapped around that little bitty finger 'a hers..." the wonder in Johnny's eyes evident.

"Well, Johnny, I don't know how or why but I do know that it doesn't take long at all... When you were born I felt it the moment I held you in my arms for the first time," Murdoch said as he remembered that magical night, the weight of the tiny baby in his arms so comforting, he never wanted to put Johnny in his cradle, he wanted to hold him all night. "Are you alright? And don't say you're fine..."

Johnny met the stare, uncertainty shadowed his face. "Right now, no, I ain't, but it’ll pass... I hope."

"Johnny, I never got to tell you that I am very, very proud of you. Of who and what you are. And something dawned on me, too, while I was sitting by your bedside. The man you've become is because of Madrid and you probably wouldn't have made it as long as you have without him, probably would never have made it back with Angela without Madrid... I am so proud that John Madrid Lancer is my son!"

Murdoch reached for Johnny's good shoulder and laid his large hand on it.  Johnny sat in stunned silence. "There's something else, too, Johnny..." Murdoch bit back a sigh. “I need to tell you I am so sorry for all those years you were alone. Any number of things could have happened, too many to think about, too many to worry about..." A shudder passed through Murdoch's large frame.

"Murdoch..." Johnny choked out in an agonized whisper. Murdoch locked eyes with his son. "There wasn't anything you coulda done that woulda made a difference. I'm here now and I ain't goin' nowhere...'cept back ta bed..." Johnny started to rise out of the chair. Murdoch hurried to stand beside him and with a hand at the ready to help Johnny onto unsteady legs.

"I can make it," Johnny responded to the help.

"Indulge me, please. Let me help you. Let me dote a little on my son." Johnny smiled as Murdoch wrapped an arm around his shoulders and they went up the stairs.

<><><><> 

 

"Owww, Sam, don't be doin' that! That hurts!"

"Well, if you were a good patient and did what you're told I wouldn't have to be doing this. Now, sit still." Johnny relented and bit his lip until Sam was done with his exam. "You still need to be very careful, Johnny. All of your injuries were serious and you're nowhere near healed."

"Come on, Sam, I'm goin' crazy in this house! If it ain't Maria tryin' ta shove some 'o that crap down my throat, it's Jelly wantin' to try out new poultices on me an' some a that shit makes me puke... that ain’t good, is it...?"

"Well, it won't hurt you but I can use the experience from them. Maybe they'll discover something new that I can use in my practice. Hold still!"

"Shit...."

<><><><> 

Under Sam's orders, Johnny was obedient and taking it easy. He lay atop his bed albeit fully clothed, resting. In all honesty it did feel good to be able to relax, alone, with on one leaning over him asking if he was alright or if he needed anything or if he was awake. He detested the mothering. Dig the bullet out an' leave me the hell alone, he thought. His door opened a bit.

"Johnny, are you awake? Do you need anything?" Scott’s voice intruded quietly.

Aw, shit....!!! Here we go again.

"I'm awake an' no I don't need nuthin'," Johnny replied, hiding his thoughts. He knew they were, after all, only trying to help but that didn’t make it any easier…

"Good. We need to talk." Scott pulled up a chair and sat.

"'K. Talk. An' before ya ask, no I never told Teresa the story 'bout you an' Cindy Preston," Johnny said with a smirk.

A bit confused, Scott sat with his mouth open for a second then shook his head. "No, that's not what I want to talk to you about."

"It ain't...?" There was a look of pure innocence on Johnny's face.

"No, it's not. I want to talk to you about the chances you take and all the danger you put yourself in. Johnny, it's going kill you one of these days. I don't think that you really know how much the deck is stacked against you. We haven't been a family all that long but I'm not ready to have you taken from us so soon. We were all sick with worry..." The longer Scott talked the more frustrated he became.

Johnny immediately started to throw up his defenses but after a minute it came to him that his family was genuinely worried about him, they really cared what happened to him. This was something that he would have to come to terms with. After all, hadn't Murdoch told him just a few days ago how proud he was to have Johnny as his son? This family stuff was going to take some gettin' used to, he thought. He’d been on his own for too long.

"Well, Scott, 'm sorry that I worried ya'll so much." Johnny paused and looked down then back at his brother with half a smile. "Just still ain't used ta havin' people look out so much for me. No one took too much notice of me for a long time so all I ever had ta worry 'bout was me. Until the Alvarez'. Up till now they were all I had as far as family an' if you'd known Ana you wouldn'ta thought twice 'bout goin' after her baby, either.... R'member when your grandfather came out here an' tried ta make ya go back ta Boston with him?" Scott shook his head yes, wondering where this was going. "Well ya went, didn't cha? You knew it was somethin' that ya had ta do, right?"

Again, Scott shook his head yes, but hesitated. "But that was different, Johnny... Grandfather was blackmailing Murdoch!"

"No, that wasn't any different. You were gonna go when you knew what it was doin' ta all of us, but... you were gonna go anyway. An' you were right... just like I was. I can't say that it won't ever happen again but, next time I'll think ‘bout lettin’ ya come along. That alright?" Scott finally smiled now, understanding his little brother more. Understanding what went on inside that head of his, albeit a bit convoluted.

Standing he said, "Good. You get some rest, now."

"I'm tryin'," Johnny replied. Scott closed the door and Johnny felt his gut twist in knots. He had just lied to his brother and knew he could never put Scott in that position. No, Scott wouldn't go with him if there was a next time.

<><><><> 

Johnny reined Barranca into the barn. Dios, it was good to get out again! Good to ride , wind in my face and Barranca runnin' at a full gallop.....Nuthin' like it! But he knew he'd overdone it. He’d ridden Barranca too hard, too soon. He'd be alright after a good night's sleep... he hoped. He didn't think he could take another one of Sam's lectures about not taking care of himself. Johnny stripped the saddle from Barranca’s back, brushed him down, watered and fed him. He washed his hands and face at the back door and went into the house hoping that he wasn't late for dinner again. Murdoch sure was a stickler about having to eat at six. What, couldn't he eat nuthin' after six? Would he turn inta a chicken or somethin'? Johnny entered the great room just as they were all seating themselves around the table.

"Johnny, you're just in time for dinner." Murdoch was pleased.

"Yeah, I planned my ride so I'd be back in time..." Johnny looked at his plate and kept his head down but he sneaked a peek though his lashes at Scott across the table. Scott rolled his eyes in disbelief, not bothering to disguise it. Murdoch never caught the exchange.

"Well, everyone, I have some news," Murdoch began the conversation as the meal was being passed. "We received a letter today, an invitation, really, for all of us to join the Alvarez family for Angela's christening in two weeks. I've already accepted and sent a telegram saying we were all coming." He looked around the table at his grown children and, pleased to see smiles on all of their faces said, "Good! I'll get the arrangements made tomorrow!"

 

Johnny lay in his bed that night trying to sleep. He was anxious at the thought of seeing Angela again, also Alejandro and Elena but Angela had his heart. That tiny little girl had stolen it right away from him and he never knew when it happened.

Ana smiled. I knew you would love her, Juanito. I wish you could see just how good of a man you are. You need to believe you are and I know you do not think so. I wish I could change that for you. You deserve all that is good in life...trust me.

Johnny felt it again... a tiny stirring of warm air brushed across his face. He smiled, thinking it felt like a kiss on his cheek...
<><><><> 

The next two weeks passed slowly, agonizingly slow for Johnny. Although released from Sam's care, Johnny still got a list of do's and don'ts and gave Sam his solemn word he would obey, however, Sam knew better. The day finally came and they all boarded the train headed south to Santa Margarita. The train moved slowly up the mountain pass.

Hell, I could get out an' walk faster 'n this thing is goin'. Angela'll be gettin' married by the time we get there. Shoulda rode Barranca an' beat this train. Johnny walked the isles, unable to settle down.

Murdoch read the thoughts going through his younger son's head and smiled. It still amazed him to the many facets of Johnny's personality. Prankster, serious and not to be taken lightly, hard worker that he turned out to be, an excellent fighter with both fists and weapons but also tender and compassionate. All these traits, these characteristics that did not seem compatible but yet, here they were, all rolled into one remarkable young man. His son. How did Johnny learn these good, no, great qualities on his own? No one was there to guide any thoughts or actions. No supervision, discipline, well, we still need to work on that one a bit, but in all, this was unbelievable! Murdoch wondered how he'd gotten so lucky. Both his sons, finally home. He marveled how it had all come to pass, still mind boggled that the sequence of events turned out as it did. He was in Heaven...

However, Johnny was not. He couldn't sit still. Anxiousness had driven him to change seats, walk the aisles and finally to stand out on the small deck to watch the scenery. He wished he had Barranca to ride. The door opened and Teresa stepped out beside him. She gently put her arm around his narrow waist, watchful of the still healing bullet wound.

"It's so beautiful, isn't it, Johnny?" she said, wanting to start a conversation to help relieve him of his anxious state and distract him.

"Huh? Oh, yeah, pretty enough... I guess." His reply was softly spoken.

"Are you alright?" she questioned, concern apparent in her large expressive eyes. He looked down at her face and couldn't help but smile.

"Yeah, just don't like bein' confined. Coulda made the trip faster if I had Barranca..."

Teresa started to laugh as she looked into his face.

"What's so funny 'bout that?" he asked her.

"Johnny, you're so head over heels about that baby! You can't wait to see her!"

"It's that easy ta read, huh?" He gave her a sheepish grin.

"Yes... it is!"

<><><><> 


Inside the car, Murdoch was thinking about the conversation he'd had with Johnny shortly after they had gotten the invitation to Angela's christening. Johnny had come to Murdoch and asked how everything was going on the ranch.

"Fine, Johnny, why do you ask?" Murdoch asked, eyes wide and questioning.

"Well, I'd like to take a coupla days an' head on up ta San Jose, maybe take Scott with me. That be alright? Can ya spare both of us?" Johnny asked with a half smile on his handsome face.

"Yes, of course, as a matter of fact it's a good idea...that is, if you're doing alright. Maybe we should talk it over with Sam first?"

"'M fine just need to pick somethin' up in San Jose, is all."

"Nothing in Green River will do?"

"No, it's in San Jose an’ I need Scott ta be there."

"A special gift for Angela, if I may venture a guess?" Johnny just laughed.

Lord, it was good to hear him do that! And Murdoch grinned.

<><><><> 

It was a long, hot ride during the day. The speed of the train cut in half when going through the mountains. Steep, sheer sides led down into deep canyons with winding rivers at the bottom. The sun was setting and it would be another cold night in the high elevations. The moon was rising over the towering tree tops and the sky was crystal clear. Soon they would be across the mountains and quickly after that was Santa Margarita... and Angela.

Having only catnapped on the train for three days, Johnny was beat, physically and mentally. His pacing and the inability to relax had taken its toll. He looked positively wrung out, how did the saying go?  "Rode hard and put away wet".

Johnny cracked an eye open and immediately was wide awake. He bolted upright in his seat and felt like yelling "yaahhhooooo" at the top of his lungs. He recognized some of the landmarks. They were close to Santa Margarita... very close. After just a few minutes the train slowed, the whistle blew, and the white smoke billowed from the brakes as the train jerked to a stop.

 Johnny was the first off, only then remembering his manners and returning to help Teresa as Scott was assisting Murdoch. After claiming their baggage, Johnny and Scott went to the livery to rent a carriage for Murdoch and Teresa, and horses for themselves but found when they got there that the Alvarez' had left them horses and a carriage from the ranch. Finally in charge of his own transportation Johnny led the way out of town and to the Alvarez Rancho.

<><><><> 

Johnny pointed out at the range to Scott. "An’ right over there is where I saw Ana for the first time. Her horse ran off, spooked or somethin' and she was hangin' on with all she had..." the smile disappeared from his face. This time on returning to the rancho, she would not be there to greet him ... but Angela would.

After several miles a magnificent hacienda loomed on the horizon. Soon they were riding under the huge wrought iron arched gate with "Alvarez" written with black iron rods. Once on Alvarez land other riders joined them and with greetings from many ranch hands Johnny renewed old friendships. Spanish flowed so rapidly, Scott, who did alright on his own, couldn't follow a word. Then, the moment Johnny had waited for so long was at hand.

They were at the massive, heavy front door and it opened to reveal Alejandro and Elena, who carried Angela. Johnny swung gracefully down off his mount and walked to Elena. Angela, again, threw herself at Johnny and he had to reach out to catch her. She squealed and laughed as Johnny remembered her doing at Lancer. He couldn't believe how she had grown! He wondered if she would remember him, but that was not a worry now! After a warm welcome they all retired into the hacienda with Johnny carrying Angela.
 
They were shown to their rooms and they all rested, except for Johnny. He still had the baby in his arms and she continued cooing and bubbling. He sat in a chair with the niña on his lap and couldn't take his eyes from her tiny cherub face. Although in baby form she looked more like Ana than she did when Johnny saw her last.

Elena tried to take her saying, “Juanito, you are tired. You need to rest. Go upstairs to your room!" Angela started to whimper as she was taken from Johnny's arms. “Una momento, Chica..."  He laughed softly at her and she rewarded him with a huge grin, then a belch.

"Angela!" Elena chided in Spanish as she 'scolded' the baby. Johnny threw his head back and laughed. He took the stairs two at a time and soon was lying across his bed, exhaustion over took him and he was asleep in seconds.

<><><><> 

"Johnny, wake up, dinner is about ready!" Scott called, pounding on his door and finally barged in. "Please don't make us wait for you here like you make us wait at Lancer!"

Johnny rolled off the bed and before Scott had finished berating him, he scrubbed his face, washed his hands and brushed by Scott who was still chiding his brother.

They both entered the elegant dining room as the rest were being seated. Though it was not truly a formal dinner, everyone but Johnny had dressed for the occasion. No one was shocked at his casual dress, they were all used to Johnny's laid back and completely informal attire. Especially Angela who was delighted in the seating arrangements as she was next to Johnny.

Dinner was exceptional. The beef was tender, the potatoes were seasoned to perfection and even Johnny ate the peas. The conversation was light and pleasant and they all laughed when Alejandro told a story of Johnny trying to break a horse that didn't want to be broke. "Johnny limped for a week after that!" Even Johnny was laughing. Well, it was funny...

With dinner finished, they retired to the large, elegant library to relax. Alejandro and Elena with Angela in her arms stood in front of the gigantic stone fireplace.
 
"We would like to make an announcement, por favor," commanding the attention of the Lancers. Alejandro began. "We are so pleased and grateful that you could join us for this special occasion. It should be shared with special people!" They both wore smiles, genuine and warm. "And that is why we would like to have you, Johnny, as godfather for our Angela!"

Johnny was stunned speechless, he felt the blood drain to his feet. "I... I..." he stuttered, rose from his chair with a mumbled, “’Scuse me, por favor," and hurried from the room. Everyone sat in shock. Murdoch, jolted, with his mouth open waiting for the words to call Johnny back into the room. They didn't come. Scott made the move to follow his brother.

But Elena, the wisest in the room said, "No, por favor, give him a moment and I will speak with him." They sat and no one broke the awkward silence, which filled the room as little Angela whimpered when Johnny walked away.

<><><><> 

The full moon was brilliant but, Johnny didn't see it. He didn't see the glorious stars or hear the night sounds that usually helped to put him at ease. All he heard was 'killer' and gun-hawk' with memories of blood, death and violence flashing through his mind and he wondered if he had heard Elena right. They want me for the godfather of that little one? Me! How could that be? This wasn't right. Everything in his head told him that it was the wrong thing to do. He didn't deserve this honor... this privilege. He paced, he sat and got up to pace again. His breath came in short gasps. Get ahold 'a yourself, Johnny! He thought. Ana, how could they do that? Help me, again, Ana, I need you...

Listen to my mother, Johnny. She will come to talk with you and you need to listen to her...

Johnny felt a spark in his brain. Ana, that you? A soft voice from behind him whispered his name. Johnny turned to find Elena standing there with the beginnings of a smile on her delicate lips.

“Juanito, are you alright? You are not angry with me, are you?" The pleading element in her voice came very near to breaking his heart.
 
"’M stunned, shocked, astounded, questionin’ your sanity an' surprised but... angry, no... I ain’t angry," he spoke quietly.

“Bueno, then listen to me. There is no one we would rather have for Angela..."

"Elena! Think about what you're sayin’. Think about what you're askin’! You know what I am or was, an’ some 'a the things I've done...  Elena I got no right to do this..." Johnny pleaded, he knew in his heart it was not right.

Elena watched the turmoil in Johnny's eyes, she had to help him believe... in himself. “Juanito! I want you to listen to me. Everything that you think you are is because of the things you've done. Sí?" When Johnny nodded yes, she continued. "Then think of this, who saved Ana that day when her horse bolted? You did not stay so we could show you our gratitude. You left. When you were returned to us you stayed for three years and in those years we saw nothing but kindness to everyone, we saw sympathy and compassion, benevolence and the need to be a good person!" Johnny sat with elbows on his thighs and hung his head. "Will you wait here? I have something I need to show you. Juanito...? You will wait?"

"Sí, I will be here," Johnny whispered as he sat staring his hands with troubled thoughts careening around in his head.

Elena then moved swiftly into the house.

Could she be right? Murdoch believed in him. Why couldn't he believe in himself?

Elena returned a few minutes later carrying a lantern in her hand. She sat close to Johnny and reached out to him. "Juanito, you need to read this." In her hand was an envelope. He hesitated a minute then took the missive and opened it to find several folded papers. He saw Ana's beautiful writing and began to read:

This man hasn't a clue. Not even the slightest clue what-so-ever how very special he is. He has no idea what his effect has had on those around him. I remember before he came to our rancho, despair and terror were common and a woman could not leave her home after dark and expect to return alive, much less safe. The men went about their business in pairs to be able to get home again unscathed and to watch out for each other. Everyone thought this was the way of things, the way things would always be... just go along with the trouble... do not make it worse... do not challenge... until Johnny got here. And then things changed.

For him it was a matter of right versus wrong and where Johnny was concerned these poor peasants, most farmers by trade, were in the right, but they did not know how to stand up to this vermin that had taken over most of the lawless territory. They needed help; someone to show them the way. Not long after he arrived the lawless were beaten back, either left by their own accord or were defeated by Johnny but, always in a fair fight. Most of the lawless did not want to fight him, after all, who in their right mind would even dream of challenging Johnny Madrid? But a few did and they were vanquished. Johnny was not always left unscathed. There were the occasional injuries and on one occasion his horse was shot out from under him and rolled on him but he always bounced back to protect the innocent and champion the downtrodden.

I have seen him laugh at danger, cheat death over and over and spit in the eye of the devil. And I have seen him soothe a frightened or angry horse, pick a child up out of the dirt to tend an injury and open a door to help with a burden for the lowliest old village woman, always polite with impeccable manners, respect and a warm and kind heart.

I asked him once why he had not settled down and found a good woman to share his life and love... His answer haunted me and does to this day. At first he smiled, that slow, sad smile he used when he really did not want to talk about things but, then he said, "Look at the things I've done, been in trouble most 'a my life, kill for a living... Who would want to share that?" He never saw any of the good, the great things he had done for our people. He never saw what everyone else saw... He gave the people back their dignity and honor....and he never realized the good he had done, none of it.

When he left the rancho it was a different place, and all because of one man. One man that any woman would be proud to be with. One man with such goodness and kindness in his heart could be an inspiration for all. He was sure that any decent woman would not want anything to do with him because of his past and what he thought he'd become. If I ever see him again I will tell him that he is so very wrong because these eyes see so much good and these eyes also see a longing for love and a yearning for peace. Through these eyes I see Johnny Madrid, a man so very good, so decent and deeply loved by this family and he is so very lonely.

He is a man of honor and principals yet he cannot see beyond the tragic and horrible things he has been forced to do to stay alive, things that nightmares are made of. He cannot see that he has risen above... He cannot see that he deserves happiness and love. He thinks his soul belongs to the devil and these good things would be wasted on a "person like him". But he is so very wrong!

Through these eyes I see the man he really is....

Vaya con Dios, my Johnny, wherever you ride you will always and forever be in my heart.

Johnny drew a ragged breath. He looked over to Elena through tear filled eyes.

She put her hands on either side of his face and whispered, "Believe these words Juanito. I couldn't have written them any better. Ana saw all this in you, as we did and still do, now more than ever. You are a good man, my son. Never forget that!" At this, she leaned to him and placed a kiss on his forehead, then she left him alone.

He sat for a few minutes in the garden and then saddled his horse.

<><><><> 

Riding alone for a while, not having a destination in mind, Johnny was surprised when his horse stopped in the middle of the dirt path leading to the church. There was a light in the window, it beckoned him, called out for him to enter. Johnny walked quietly into the tiny church and took a seat in the last row. When he was very little his mama would bring him once in a while but, the habit never stuck and they never stayed around one place very long anyway. Now, he wondered what lead him here... Did Ana ‘arrange’ for this to happen?

Before too long an old priest with white hair hobbled across in front of the altar. He stopped and genuflected as much as his old knees would let him, then he crossed himself and slowly shuffled down the isle toward Johnny and he startled when he realized he wasn't alone. There in the back row was a man sitting in the dark.

"Can I help you, my son?" he asked the shadow.

"Don't really know. Don't know why 'm here..." Johnny spoke very softly with his head bowed.

"Do you need confession?" the old priest asked.

 Johnny looked at the priest then chuckled a bit and said, "No, got nuthin' ta hide," the humor did not reach his eyes.

"But something is troubling you, sí?" The wise old man recognized the signs. "Tell me, my son..." he said waiting patiently and sat next to the troubled young man..

Johnny hesitated, then looked at the old priest. The old man was shocked at what he saw in the turbulent eyes, conflict and torment and confusion. This young man looked as if he were being torn apart.

"Well," he began so softly the old man had to strain to hear. "I got asked to do this job but I don't think 'm the right person for it an' in all honesty 'm having a hard time makin' this decision. Just tryin' ta get my head thinkin' right, I guess."

"This must be a very important thing someone has asked you to do."

"Yeah, they're good people an' I don't want ta do the wrong thing by them."

"What is it they ask of you, my son?"

"They want me to be the godfather to their granddaughter."

Recognition filled the old man's eyes and a smile crossed his face. "I think you need to tell them yes."

Johnny's head snapped up to look at the priest. "Do you know who I am?" he hissed.

"Sí, I know you probably better than you know yourself. I remember when you were here last. Why do you question this that has been asked of you? The fact that you are here in this church should tell you something... something good."

"I question it because I don't think I should be the godfather to that niña who deserves a lot better 'n me..." Johnny's voice was strained to a whisper.

"Why?" the old man persisted.

"Because I've killed people, she needs better." Johnny stated plainly, very matter-of-fact.

"What would have happened had you not killed those people?" the priest kept digging in hope of making Johnny see from a different angle instead of the one from the self incriminating view he was at now.

"I prob’bly woulda been shot an’ other’s woulda died."

"The person you killed, was he a good man, Juanito?"

"No." The reply came as a harsh whisper and Johnny shook his head and closed his eyes as he remembered the horrific chain of events that led to the root of Johnny's torment.

"The other people you killed... if you hadn't killed them, what would have happened?"

"More innocent people woulda died." Johnny had wanted to forget about these awful times in his past. He wished the priest would stop the questions. His head began to pound and pain grew behind his eyes.

"Innocent people?" the priest kept digging.
 
“Sí." Johnny sighed suddenly very tired, he struggled for breath.

"My son, you are taking responsibility for things... for people beyond your control. Would you have been able to reason with these bad people? Ask them not to kill?" The priest knew the answer to this but he wanted for Johnny to say the words.

Johnny snorted a quiet laugh. "No, that wouldn'ta worked. They set their sights on poor folks not expectin' much trouble."

"So, you saved these poor people. Saved their lives and... condemn yourself for it?"

"I tried ta tell another man, a good man, the same thing... I wanted to kill these men... Dios, I wanted to cut their hearts out of their chests and send 'em all ta Hell! Does that sound like a man who should be a godfather?" The old priest saw such pain in the blue eyes. Like a violent storm. This is a man with a conscience, the priest thought, and a very good man, but then he'd known that before when Juanito was here years ago.

"This other man you told... what did he say?"

Johnny almost smiled at this as he remembered Murdoch's words. "He said what happened would have provoked violence from a saint."

The old priest smiled. "Ana," was all he said. Johnny looked up into the old man's eyes. "She talked to me about you after you left here." Johnny was stunned. "Ana worried about you, she prayed for you and always lit a candle."

Oh, sweet Ana! Johnny hung his head... Still he was not sorry for what he'd done to Silva...

"She wasn't troubled by your soul; she knew you were a good man. She prayed for your safety." The priest watched Johnny's face, his doubt and anguish very much present. Juanito was a man tortured by things he had no command over.

"My son, listen to these words... You cannot control everything that happens."

"I know what you're sayin' but I don't think you heard me. I wanted to kill them! I can't believe that's the type of person fit to make sure this niña has a proper religious upbringin'. That's the purpose of a godfather, ain't it?" Johnny questioned.

“Sí, that is one but, I think you are too hard on yourself. What happened was beyond your control, but Juanito, it will never happen again. These men are paying for the sins they committed and it will never happen again. Because of you. See, even now you may have saved another from a horrible fate and sometimes we cannot afford to turn the other cheek, cannot look the other way and let the ugliness continue.

“What you do now or have done in the past is and was for the good of the people you care about. Good people... Because you dealt justice does not mean you are not fit for this honor, and it is a great honor, especially for one so dear. She is just like her mother and, Juanito, you are a very lucky man to be so loved by both of them."

Another spark went off in Johnny's head. The loss of Ana was a blow like he'd never known before, to care so deeply for another person was wonderful and mysterious and something to be so grateful for. Even when you lose them. And though Ana was no longer of this Earth, she would always be with him and so would Angela. Now he knew Ana deeply loved him and this was something he never thought possible nor would he ever forget, he would never let that go. It was too precious.

"You have done so much for our people and think so little of yourself. You do yourself a great injustice, my son. Listen to your heart; sometimes it is wiser than your head. Stay as long as you need but, por favor, close the door behind you. Remember, your heart is wise."

With that the old priest left Johnny wondering at his heart. Had he deceived himself? Murdoch thought he was good and now the old priest seemed to agree. Was it possible that for all these years he’d been wrong?

<><><><> 

It was getting late when he returned to the hacienda but he was still praying that Ana would help him. After bedding down his horse, Johnny stopped in the yard and looked up at the sky. The stars were brilliant, brighter than he'd ever remembered seeing. Was this a sign? Was he really worthy of Angela? He put his hand in the pocket of his jacket and felt Ana's letter. When she had written it, Elena didn't know but had found it in Ana's Bible after she had been killed, in Ana's Bible, to be safe, just like she had prayed for Johnny's safety.

Quickly he closed the door. No one was up and for that he was grateful. Climbing the stairs he reached his room and took off his jacket. He took Ana's letter, toed off his boots and lit a lamp. He sat on the bed with her letter in his hands, looking at the beautiful writing, the perfectly formed letters. They touched his heart and he felt light headed. How could Ana know all these things? She was just a kid...
He lay back on the bed, with the letter clutched in his hand and he shut his eyes. This night he did not dream of death, blood or violence.

<><><><> 

The christening was in two days and preparations were well underway. By Saturday night the house was spotless, the courtyard beautifully decorated and everyone was exhausted. They all fell into bed in heavy sleep. Except for one.... Johnny lay on his bed with a few lingering second thoughts. They all told him to let it go, certainly easier ta say than ta do it.... The sun peeked through the windows and Johnny still hadn't slept.

During breakfast Scott watched him through lowered lashes, sneaking glances but as usual Johnny's face was unreadable.

"Are you alright, Johnny?" Scott asked.

"Yeah 'm alright," Johnny answered and wondered why Scott questioned him.

"Nervous?" Scott had the bit in his teeth and wasn't letting go.

"No, I ain't nervous. What I got ta be nervous 'bout?"

"Oh, I don't know, maybe standing up there in front of the church with all those people watching you… but, oh, don't worry, it's nothing. Nothing to be nervous about, no, not at all."

"All what people?" Johnny suddenly asked.

"Never mind." With that Scott left the table, satisfied his brother would do just fine. Johnny always did under pressure!

<><><><> 

The church was beautifully decorated with white lilies and green palms. White ribbons with long tails trimmed out the finishing touches. Family and friends packed into the church, dressed in their Sunday best clothing, leaving the first row for the Alvarez family and their special guests. Murdoch, Scott and Teresa looked on proudly as the service started and Johnny, handsomely dressed in the elegant traditional attire, a black on black Charro suit, elaborately stitched, befitting of the godfather. He answered his questions perfectly and precisely, promising to actively take part in Angela's upbringing and with no rowdy language slipping in, Scott was much relieved.

Then came the moment they all waited for. Elena handed Angela over to Johnny and she squealed in delight. She burbled and cooed as he reclined her in his arms, drawing a chorus of chuckles from the congregation, then the priest carefully made the cross on her forehead as a drop of Holy Water trickled into her hair. The words were spoken with Johnny’s commitment vowed in his soft smooth tones. Angela’s eyes never left Johnny's face and her smile never left the sweet little mouth, all the while her gentle coos still bubbled for all to hear. Murdoch watched his younger son with emotions he never knew before. He was amazed at Johnny, ex-gunhawk, now godfather and seeming to enjoy his new role. The ceremony was over and the church emptied. Johnny fulfilled his obligations as Padrino and tossed coins for the children that witnessed the ceremony. Now for the festivities.

<><><><> 

Scott could tell Johnny was uneasy. He never liked his fun organized and this was... organized. And formal. And he was impressed with Johnny’s demeanor. Well, he'd give Johnny the surprise, but later. The food was served and everyone ate their fill. A man entered the room and began to set up a screen placed behind a chair. The photographer was meticulous with his set. It would have to be perfect. He took pictures of Angela, Angela and the Alvarez', Angela, the Alvarez' and Johnny, Angela, Johnny and the Lancers, anyone that desired their picture taken.

Johnny was relieved, now, that he had taken Scott with him to San Jose as Scott had experience and was knowledgeable in picking out the proper gift. Johnny wanted something special and Scott suggested a necklace with a centered pearl. What Johnny selected was the pearl necklace but also added a teardrop garnet jewel surrounded by seed pearls to hang in the center. Truly, an elegant piece that was as timeless as it was beautiful. And, for every special event in Angela's life Johnny would purchase another pearl to add to the strand. Every birthday, every momentous event, another pearl would be added. When she was old enough to marry Angela would wear this necklace... and think of her padrino, Johnny. Scott also suggested an ornate silver picture frame.
 
"There will be pictures taken, I'm sure. Now she'll have a frame to go with a special photograph..." Both Murdoch and Teresa had taken Scott into their confidence, unbeknownst to Johnny. Scott purchased tiny pearl earrings to match Johnny's necklace for Teresa and Murdoch had Scott purchase and ornate box in which to keep these precious items.

The night wore on and people finally began to leave for home. Scott watched his brother; Johnny was about done in. But he still held Angela who was alert as could be.

"Johnny?" Scott called, "Can you do me a favor?"

"Sure, Scott, what’dya you need?"

"Can you please change into your other clothes? I'd hate for you to mess those up. I need help with a carriage for one of the guests outside."

"Sure, can you take her for me?" Johnny handed Angela over to Scott and then took off for his room, positively relieved to get out of these clothes. He returned dressed as Johnny Madrid Lancer. Scott walked up with Angela in his arms and handed her back to Johnny.

"Hey, there, Chica...did you miss me? So where's this carriage you need help with?"

"Never mind, it's taken care of but there is something over here you can do." With the deception over, Scott led him to a place in front of the photographer and his camera. Johnny looked puzzled.

"Look at her Johnny..." Scott said.

Johnny held Angela lying in his hands, one hand under her head, the other under her backside. She looked into Johnny's eyes with a huge angelic smile on her tiny face as Johnny looked down into her eyes. The photo was taken at a side view, close up so all that was seen was chest high. With the picture taken Johnny was about to move when he swung Angela to an upright pose and the photographer halted him for another shot. Several more pictures were taken and finally Johnny begged off. He was done. Enough!

The hacienda was straightened as the last guest finally left. Johnny saw Scott go into the foyer and followed him. Scott took his wallet out of his pocket and paid the photographer... He had arranged for the pictures to be taken; that was his gift to Angela, and everyone else. His privileged upbringing had benefited them all. He coordinated the gifts and the photographs and Johnny would never be able to thank him enough for the foresight in arrangements that had made this a very special day. This was a celebration to remember, indeed.

<><><><> 

"Hey, Boss...there's a big package that came for Johnny. Where should I leave it?"

"What is it, Jelly? I don't remember Johnny saying anything about a package," Murdoch responded.

Jelly indignantly replied "Well, how would I know? I don't go snoopin' around through things that ain't any of my never mind! You'd think I knew everthin' that goes on around this ranch..." and he continued his rant out the back door and all the way to the barn. Murdoch chuckled at the grouchy old hand and wandered over to the table where Jelly had deposited the crate, wondering what Johnny had sent for.

<><><><> 

He hefted the saddle from Barranca's sweaty back and swung it over the railing on the side of the stall. Johnny brushed the golden coat till it was dry. He fed and watered the animal and scratched the long ears, he talked to Barranca as if the horse knew every word and received a head butt for his reward. Johnny reached into his pocket and drew out a piece of carrot for him, then headed into the house.

Upon entering the kitchen he spied the crate on the table. "Hey, Murdoch, what’cha got in the box?" he asked as Murdoch came into the room.

"It's addressed to you, Johnny. Open it..." At Murdoch's encouragement Johnny looked the crate over and checked the mailing information. Yup, addressed ta me alright... What the hell is it? As he sought out tools to pry the lid from the box, Scott put in his appearance, and he stood back and watched. Johnny came back with tools and in no time the lid was off and the packing material was dropped on the floor.

He stood staring into the box with shock and was stunned at the contents. Ever so gently, he took out a large portrait size photograph of Angela and himself, the pose with the baby lying in his hands looking in each other's eyes. The photo nearly took his breath away. The sweetness of the picture was like nothing else Johnny had ever seen. He stared at it for a long while, completely at a loss for words. No words could express the emotions he felt at that moment... and he appreciated Scott's thoughtfulness that he changed into his Johnny Madrid clothes. This was the picture that Johnny would hold dear. He sat the portrait on the table and continued removing photo after photo of different poses. The one of Angela and the Lancers would be hung on the wall in the great room but the rest were for Johnny. He looked at Scott, his emotions tugged at his heart and came close to taking his breath away.
 
"I don't know what to say, Scott. It's.... I.... thank you,” Johnny struggled. He looked from the pictures and back at his brother. "Thank you...." he whispered.

<><><><> 

Barranca stood quietly in the shade of a tree, the cattle milled contently around the water hole as Johnny sat in the saddle and watched. The day was quiet and a gentle breeze drifted across his face. He smiled as his thoughts turned to Ana. She had been a child when he left Rancho Alvarez, the words she wrote were filled with wisdom. Johnny pulled Ana's letter from his pocket and re-read the remarkable things she had written. He was overwhelmed with the insight of this one so young, Johnny thought, and wise beyond her years. It had been an honor to know her and he was a better person for it as he saw himself through her eyes. He looked down at the letter... through the eyes of an angel, my angel.

 

 

 

~ end ~

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