The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Buckskin

 

 

The Price To Pay

Thanks to Cat and Sandy for the beta

Usual disclaimers

The ranch had been taking a toll on all of them. Everyone came to Murdoch with their problems, Scott was swamped with the books, and juggling numbers, and Johnny was left to make sure that things got done. He had never liked ramroddin’ people, but for now, that's how it was.

There were enough dumb cows on this ranch to last him a lifetime. If they weren't stuck in the brambles, they were belly deep in the mud. Johnny could never figure how any animal could be so stupid. They never ceased to amaze him with their lack of intelligence, but this was part of running a cattle ranch, so, he would have to deal with the mud and brainless cows. Until he could convince Murdoch to let him start raising the horses that he so desperately wanted to do, he'd have to bide his time

It wasn't so bad when he could work with Scott, but lately, Scott had all he could handle with ranch paperwork. Murdoch was buried with the ranch problems, the summer grass had burned early due to unusually hot weather, so moving the herd to other locations had been an issue. Ranch hands grew disgruntled as the problems became more serious. Many quit to move on to greener pastures themselves, leaving Lancer short handed which meant Johnny had to step up his workload that had already doubled. Every night after dinner, everyone was ready to literally fall into bed only to be up the next morning and start the whole process all over. And, everyone was showing signs of burning out.

Scott had developed severe headaches that left him with double vision and long bouts confined to bed in a dark room. Murdoch's temper was so volatile that even the chickens avoided him and Johnny suffered so many injuries, thankfully none too serious, that he thought Sam Jenkins, Green River’s doctor, would be moving into the Lancer hacienda permanently. Teresa had more mending than was possible for her to keep up with and had it not been for Maria, Lancer's housekeeper, cook and helper to Sam, Teresa would have gone to San Francisco until fall.

Nerves were fraying and tempers ready to snap, so something had to give, and soon. The weather finally broke in early September and brought with it a welcome and cool respite. The more serious issues had been remedied with help from everyone that made the extra effort to step up with sweat, blood, much swearing, and headaches. Murdoch, thinking on the family's tenacious determination to see the troubles rectified  or eliminated, wanted to reward them for their efforts, so he decided that some well-deserved time off was in order for all of them. At dinner that night, he made his announcement.

"We have all gone above and beyond to get through this difficult season so in light of that I would like to propose that we take some time off, away from the ranch for a while. Teresa, for a long time now you've wanted to visit your aunt in San Francisco and now you will."

Teresa gasped and rising from her chair went to Murdoch to plant a kiss on his cheek. "Oh, thank you, Murdoch! It's been such a long time since I've seen her! Thank you!" She was near to crying with joy.

"And I would like to suggest that Scott and Johnny accompany me on a hunting trip, just the three of us. Maybe Cipriano could meet us at a designated location, and he could bring home any meat we pack in. What do you say, boys? We've never done anything like this before. How does a little trip into the backcountry with 'the old man' sound?"

Scott and Johnny looked at each other, shock registered on their faces, disbelief evident. Johnny was the first to recover.

“Hey, Boston, you ever go huntin’ bear?” he asked his brother.

“No, I can’t say that I have… Have you?”

“Lots of times. Ya know, if I shoot one first, it’s the custom out here that you hafta eat the liver… raw.” Johnny stared straight into Scott’s face, and he saw the slate blue eyes widen and the complexion pale by several shades. He had a difficult time keeping the laughter at bay.

"Seriously?" Scott asked, obviously stunned and turned to Murdoch for confirmation but only got a noncommittal shrug. Teresa grinned behind her napkin and excused herself from the table to start preparations for her trip.

"Yeah," Johnny began explaining the custom. "It's a long standin' tradition, goes back generations, huh, Murdoch?"

Murdoch wisely kept silent.

"And if I shoot the first bear, you have to eat the liver raw, right?" Scott countered.

"Hell, no! It's in the rules, the Boston dandy hasta eat the raw liver!"

Scott propelled his napkin across the table, but Johnny reached to pick it out of the air before it landed on his head.

"Well, I have some old Bostonian ‘traditions’, myself. Would you like to hear them, brother?" Scott asked.

"Like what? Where to find the nearest hotel and order room service?" Johnny deadpanned.

Murdoch could not help but chuckle at his sons. Then he thought about all the lost years but that time was gone. There could be no bringing those years back, so he told himself to enjoy these precious moments.

Scott suddenly became thoughtful. "You know, Johnny, we could make this interesting... Are you up for a little wagering or are you just good for joking?" A little prod to make this irresistible for Johnny... devious Scott was warming to the ‘competition’!

"What’d you got in mind, Boston?" Johnny leaned closer, now curious.

Scott looked at the ceiling, appearing to be deep in thought. "How about... the first kill wins... a week's worth of you taking care of my horse every day." Scott already felt victorious.

"You think you're gonna make the first kill?" Johnny asked, with raised eyebrows, surprise etched on his handsome face.

"Well, yes, I do," came the indignant reply.

"You're on. How 'bout the biggest? That should be worth somethin'. How 'bout if I shoot the biggest one you do half my chores every day for a week?" Johnny was getting into the spirit of the challenge.

"Done!" Scott wasn't about to back down now.

Murdoch marveled at what his two sons had conjured up. He'd never thought that there would be so much to bet on — everything from who brought down the first kill, to the first kill before ten in the morning to the most and the first shot. The wagers were chores, taking care of the other's horse, to a case of wine versus a case of tequila, choice of restaurants for dinner and more. The banter lasted for a good twenty minutes, and then the inevitable happened.

"You two had better write all this down. You aren't going to remember it all," Murdoch advised.

"We're good, Murdoch, just wait. I'm gonna be havin' lots a free time here real soon, thanks ta Boston. Hey, Scott? How 'bout I get two ta your one and you pay for me ta get laid, I mean..." Johnny tried to cover up, but Murdoch caught the indiscretion.

"I don't think I want to hear any more," and with that, Murdoch left the room. Behind him, his two boys laughing like fourteen-year-olds at having gotten away with saying something in front of the old man.

<><><><> 

Teresa wired her Aunt Maggie to let her know she was coming. The invitation had been open for a long time and both, Teresa and aunt, were delighted for the reunion. As an extra special reward, Murdoch treated Teresa to a shopping spree in Green River, or her choice of shopping wherever she wanted, for new clothes befitting the social life in San Francisco. Teresa stood in awe as the packages were piled into the wagon. She was positively giddy as she watched in fascination the mound grow to fill the bed.

"Ah, Murdoch?"

"Yes, Johnny, what is it?"

"Ah... we got a trunk big enough for all this?" Johnny asked eyeing the pile as it expanded the length and width of the wagon. With the exception of a small area for a few new cold weather clothes for Murdoch, Scott, and Johnny that they would need for hunting, Teresa’s purchases filled much of the wagon.

"Oh, Murdoch! You are spoiling me!" Teresa exclaimed on the way home.

Murdoch puffed with pride. Had he been able to pick any girl for his daughter, he would have, indeed, chosen Teresa. She was perfect, and she had suffered much, probably more than he even knew about. When Teresa's father was murdered, it had been at the peak of the land pirates invading Lancer and so much was at stake. With so much to do, there was little time for grieving. And not knowing how exactly to comfort her, Murdoch was completely at a loss going about it. If this made her happy, it was the least he could do for her.

Teresa had surely filled the niche in the Lancer family. She was the perfect amount of feminine company to a house of bachelors, and although Murdoch secretly hoped that they all would find a mate, he rather enjoyed this time that they were together. Teresa had participated in the most difficult of times, be it birthing calves, fighting land pirates or tending their hurts, and she did it all with no complaints. So, it had been no issue to spoil her now, and Scott and Johnny, too, as they had stepped up when it was needed.

While in town, Murdock made sure to purchase a heavy coat for Johnny. The mountains could be unpredictable and given the fact that Johnny grew up along the border and in Mexico, he would be more vulnerable to the cold than he or Scott. They also picked up extra shells for their rifles and a few basic necessities, and no one paid much attention to the dirty, shaggy man standing in the back of the store. He appeared to be looking at hats, but he was listening to the light-hearted talk and banter about the trip. He also saw the color of Murdoch's money.

They were all exhausted by the time they drove under the Lancer arch. After the wagon had been unloaded, they shared a light meal and decided to retire early. They would take Teresa to the train the day after tomorrow and then the Lancer men would leave on their hunting trip.

Of course, Teresa had trouble sleeping. She had gotten into bed but could not stay there. She got up to open the wardrobe in her room and look at her new clothes. She just could not believe that Murdoch had spent so much money on her! She would undoubtedly be the toast of all San Francisco! She pulled on her robe and shuffled down the stairs in search of her guardian.
The three Lancer men were standing around Murdoch's desk looking at his map of the high country, making their plans. Teresa stepped to Murdoch’s side and slipped an arm around his waist. He looked down at her, surprised.

"Darling, I thought you went to bed!" he said as he kissed the top of her head.

"Yes, I did, but... I wanted to thank you again for... everything! Murdoch, it's so much! I still can't believe it!" She hugged him again and went up on tiptoes to place a kiss on his cheek.

Delighted with her pleasure and her affection, he hugged her back. “You deserve it, Darling!” 

Then she turned and with another ‘good night and sleep well' she went upstairs to her room.

"Boy, you sure made points with her, ol’ man!" Johnny laughed. "I ain't never seen her so happy!"

"Well, she does deserve it. She works so hard around here with never a complaint. She's also lost a great deal here. Paul had asked me if something were ever to happen to him if I would be her legal guardian. I jumped at the chance. Yes, if I had a daughter, I would want her to be Teresa." Murdoch cleared his throat of the lump that had suddenly grown there and got back to the business of their hunting trip.

<><><><> 

The new day dawned chilly but bright. The last-minute chores were on the ‘to do’ list for the day. Johnny walked out onto the patio and watched as Jelly stood and rubbed what looked like an aching elbow.

"What's the matter, Jelly? Got a new ache?"

"Aw, it's this bursitis actin' up. You'd think it was January the way this thing's been carryin' on. Can't hardly bend the dawg-gone thing!" groused the old handyman. Jelly had become a valued asset to the Lancer ranch, and because of that, he was allowed a few liberties that other hands weren't.

"Why don't ya try one a them liniments that you're always forcing on me when I get laid up," Johnny suggested with a smile, knowing what the answer would be.

"Naw, ain't that bad," but Jelly kept up rubbing the aching joint.

Johnny thought to himself that Jelly knew better than to slather all that foul-smelling liniment on himself... he's savin' it ta make my life miserable!

The day went quickly. There had been much to do before anyone left the ranch and by the time dinner had been served, they all felt like turning in immediately after eating. Scott and Johnny busied themselves with packing the provisions for their trip and going over it a second and third time making sure nothing was forgotten. They had also gotten Teresa's trunks down from her room and had them in the front hall to load in the wagon in the morning. She had asked each one of them which dress they liked on her for the initial ride there, and they all gave her a different answer, so she had to make the decision on her own. Secretly, she had agreed with Johnny's choice but chose a fourth outfit so as not to slight the other Lancer men. All plans had been made, and they went to bed early. Tomorrow would come soon enough.

<><><><> 

The ride into Green River was long, but as the train did not go through Morro Coyo, there was no other choice. Teresa hadn't stopped talking from the time they left the ranch, so excited was she that every thought that popped into her head tumbled out of her mouth like the bubbling of a snowmelt brook.

Murdoch drove the wagon, and he smiled. Seeing her this happy was worth all the money he'd spent, and then some. But as Green River came into view, Teresa became quiet. She couldn't put a name to the change that had come over her, but there was definitely a change as if a dark shadow had been cast upon them and suddenly she didn't know if she wanted to leave. Murdoch looked at her realizing that she had stopped her chatter.

"Sweetheart, is something wrong?" he questioned, wondering at her silence.

"I don't know, Murdoch. I suddenly felt a... doubt, a bad feeling. Oh, it's probably just lack of sleep! I didn't get much the last few nights!" She smiled into his face as she didn't want to spoil the trip they had planned. But, she thought, there was something, she felt it in the pit of her stomach.

With Teresa on the train, Murdoch, Scott, and Johnny watched it pull out of the Green River station. She waved out the window, and then the train picked up speed and was gone.

"San Francisco will never be the same," Scott murmured.

"Scott, San Francisco ain't been the same since you got out here!" Johnny joked. "How 'bout a drink?" Johnny looked at Murdoch and Scott.

"It's a little early, isn't, Johnny?" Murdoch chided.

"Not if you been up since midnight, it ain't."

"You have me there! I have a couple of things to do yet, but I'll meet you at the saloon later, boys." Murdoch excused himself and walked down the street to the bank.

Scott and Johnny headed through the batwing doors and found a table in the back. Ordering beers, they relaxed into the chairs and waited on their father.

Patrons came and went, and as usual, out of habit, Johnny scrutinized them all without appearing to do so. He knew who entered and who was still there but more importantly, who had left. The strangers were the ones he was interested in the most, and where Scott and Murdoch did not seem to notice, Johnny did. It's what had kept him alive this long.
Murdoch arrived, and soon the three were talking about hunting trips they'd been on, successful and not, some good, some bad. However, the three Lancer men were all thinking along the lines of this trip was a long time in coming, and all three were looking forward to the early morning when they would leave and ride out under the Lancer arch. With their beers finished they left the saloon, as usual, Johnny hesitated to check the street before walking out on the boardwalk and headed for home.

<><><><> 

At dawn, they had their last cup of coffee around the kitchen table. Maria hovered over them like they were all children to be fussed over and making sure they all had a good hot breakfast in their bellies before they left. Maria stood in the kitchen and suddenly crossed herself and sent up a silent prayer for them to be watched over.

They grabbed their saddlebags and headed to the barn. Jelly was up and had the horses saddled for them and the packhorses ready. He was rubbing his elbow again and, of course, Johnny brought up the liniment issue. Jelly scowled at Johnny's insistence.

"Could almost predict some bad weather up there, Murdoch. You boys watch yourselves, ya hear?" the old man seemed worried.

"Don't worry about us, Jelly. We'll be fine. And now that you've warned us, we will be sure to keep our eyes open for any danger," Murdoch assured him.

"You boys remember ta pack up all a them medical supplies Maria got together for ya?"

"Yup, Jelly, we got it, and she's makin' us take some a that liniment shit you cooked up! How come we gotta take it with us for 'just in case,' but you're standin' there with a bad arm an' you ain't usin' it... huh?" Johnny persisted.

"You just take care a yourself there, Mister Accident Just A'waitin' Ta Happen an' don't ya be worryin' 'bout me!" Jelly shot back, and Johnny laughed.

"Okay, Jelly, we'll be careful. Hey, you watch yourself here, too!" Johnny swung gracefully onto Barranca’s back and waited for Murdoch and Scott to mount up.

"We have everything, boys?" Murdoch asked, quickly giving their gear a once over.

"Guess we're ready. Let's go." And at Scott's suggestion, they headed out.

Jelly stood and watched them go, rubbing vigorously at his arm.

<><><><> 

The Lancer men headed due west. They took turns leading the packhorses and even though they were not riding hard, they did eat up more miles in the first day of traveling than they had originally thought. They made camp for the night then Scott and Johnny got down to serious betting regarding the first kills and the most and who would get what as they won their bets.

Again, Murdoch just sat back and enjoyed the lighthearted camaraderie of his sons! Looking at them, he thought how different they were. Of course, they looked nothing alike as Scott's mother had been fair and tall, her elegant Eastern bloodlines very apparent in Scott. Johnny's mother had been Mexican and small of stature. So, where Scott was light and slightly taller, Johnny was olive skinned but had inherited the Lancer Scottish side of brilliant blue eyes. They were breathtaking. When rage-filled their depths you could not help but get lost in the stunning sea of blue; they were fringed with long, thick black lashes that had been known to drive the ladies wild.

Murdoch couldn't help but smile. This had been a long time in coming, and he was overwhelmed that it was finally here! He was jolted from his musings as Johnny spoke.

"Hey, Murdoch, what’cha thinkin'? You're sittin' there smilin'. What's so funny?"

"You two..." was all the patriarch said.

Johnny reached to pull his saddlebags to him and took out his ever-present bottle of tequila. He poured it into his cup then offered some to the others and leaned back against the upturned saddle. Then he pulled his blanket up around him. It had gotten colder.

"Don't suppose there's anything to Jelly's aches an' pains about the weather, do ya?" Johnny asked.

"There could be, Johnny. I sometimes know when my back acts up we'll get rain and cooler temperatures." Murdoch countered.

"We had this housekeeper in Boston that swore her knee could predict the weather. And it was fairly accurate. She hobbled around for three days and then we had the worst snowstorm we'd had in ten years," Scott volunteered.

"Great! Knew I shoulda stayed in Mexico!" groused Johnny as Scott threw Johnny's hat at him. They sat like that for an hour, joking, talking and laughing before settling in for the night under the star-studded, moonlit sky.

The morning broke, and they had a breakfast of bacon, Johnny’s pan biscuits and coffee. They saddled up and started in a northerly direction. Scott led the packhorses leaving Johnny to scout for signs of game. He was quite accomplished at tracking and knew more about survival in the outdoors than both Murdoch and Scott put together.

"So, Johnny, where did you learn to survive in the elements?" Scott asked when they had stopped to rest the horses that afternoon.

"Oh, here an’ there..." Johnny did not appear to want to say more, but when neither Scott nor Murdoch said anything, he figured they'd ask anyway. "Lived with the Apache for a while an', well, ya learn or die so I figured it'd be a smart move ta learn somethin'."

Murdoch was stunned. He had no idea that Johnny had ties with the Apaches. There had not been anything in the Pinkerton reports indicating anything of that sort. There was so much he didn't know about his sons, particularly Johnny. Maybe sitting around the campfire tonight would give him an opportunity to learn more about them both. He thought he'd pick up a lot if he listened more.

Scott was impressed. His little brother had learned much for himself and most of it the hard way. His brother was, indeed, a very complex man and it's a miracle he's still alive...

<><><><> 

Johnny looked up at the sky. The afternoon was starting to fade into another spectacular sunset that would give way to a cold, clear night. They made their camp and began planning out tomorrow's hunt. They were in the high country now, and there were more and more signs of elk, deer, bear and even bighorn sheep a bit higher up.

"So, Scott, what'cha lookin' for tomorrow?" Johnny began the conversation hoping to gain a little insight into his big brother's plans.

"Whatever I come across, little brother."

Johnny grunted a reply. It was apparent Scott hadn't got this hunting thing down, Johnny thought.

"Ah, Scott... ya gotta kinda hafta know where to look for what ya want ta go after. Ya can't look for bighorn sheep over in the swamp an' ya don't go after something durin' the day that's more'n likely only out at night."

"Oh, in that case, I'll have to rely on you, won't I?"

"Yeah, I guess ya will," and under his breath, so Murdoch couldn't hear he told Scott, "an' you're payin' for me ta get laid, too!" with a twinkle in his eyes.

"Johnny?" Murdoch asked quietly.

"Yeah?" Johnny answered a bit apprehensively thinking that Murdoch heard the comment.

"Do you mind telling us more about living with the Apaches? If it’s bad memories, then I understand, but there's a lot I'd like to know about you both, and this may be a place to start." Murdoch looked sincere and almost pleading.

"Not much ta tell. Lost my horse and some scouts found me wanderin' in the desert. Got captured an' lived after they beat the hell outta me, guess they figured I wasn't such a bad guy after all. Lived with 'em 'bout a year an’ a half an' learned the Apache way." Johnny sat cross-legged, Indian style as he gazed into the fire. He'd left out the part of the young Indian woman he'd fallen in love with. That was still too painful to think much about. And Johnny didn't want to spoil this trip talking about things, certain things that he still had trouble dealing with, things that were secreted away in his heart. And her death, especially the way she died, was something he definitely had trouble dealing with and had yet to come to terms regarding the incident. He'd have to deal with it one of these days... but not now.

"Scott, tell me something about yourself," Murdoch turned to his oldest sensing that Johnny was not about to elaborate; however, Murdoch knew there was more to the story than what Johnny had said.

"Like what? You know most everything already." Scott was having difficulty coming up with something that his family didn't already know.

"How did you meet Julie?" Murdoch asked of Scott's former fiancée.

Johnny perked up suddenly. "Whoooeeee, Scott, Dios, she was pretty! How'd you let that one slip away?"

Scott was silent for a while. He did not know how to tell them his grandfather was behind the whole sordid mess. "It was an unfortunate misunderstanding...," and Scott fell silent. Murdoch's eyes met Johnny's over the fire, and they both knew it was Harlan Garrett to blame, Scott's wealthy and manipulative grandfather in Boston.

"Well, I'll tell you boys something I bet you never knew about me," Murdoch decided to change the subject. "On the ship over here from Scotland, I bested every man on board arm wrestling. I am the unbeaten champion!" he said with a triumphant smile. Both Scott and Johnny seemed to snap out of the slump they'd fallen into and asked more about Murdoch's life in Scotland, the people there and his trip west. He was delighted that both boys seemed interested in his life and wanted to know more about it. After telling his sons about his years in Scotland and its people, Murdoch called the end to the talk.

"Hey, boys, we'd better get to sleep if we want to get up early tomorrow and hunt." After banking the fire, they crawled into their blankets soon all were asleep.

<><><><> 

Johnny knew the moment was near. He had watched the bull elk for an hour, and it had finally wandered within range. Scott and Murdoch wondered how Johnny could have so much patience with this and be so edgy at home when things took time. Johnny lay on the ground and found the bull in the sight of the rifle, taking his time. He slowly squeezed off the shot, and the elk dropped to the ground without a twitch.

"That'll be a case of tequila, por favor," he proudly claimed the winner of their bet to Scott, and under his breath, he whispered "an' a good lay..."

Scott grinned. His brother did enjoy his women, he thought.

Johnny got up off the ground. "Kay, let's go see what I got," as he vaulted onto Barranca’s back. The other two men followed.

<><><><> 

"Yup, it's them all right." The gnarled dirty hands took the battered spyglass from his eye and turned to his three partners. "Let's give 'em another day or two ta git comfortable an' then we'll hit 'em. We either take what they's got on 'em, or we hold 'em for ransom. How's that for a plan, boys?"

<><><><> 

Johnny pulled on Barranca’s reins. The horse obediently stopped, and Johnny dismounted in one smooth motion. He moved to the dead elk and grinned as Murdoch and Scott both whistled at the kill. It was the biggest elk they had ever seen.

"Johnny, that rack has to span five, almost six feet if it's an inch! Great shot, by the way!" Scott beamed.

"Thanks, brother. Now it's your turn, show me what’cha got." Johnny's smile was stunning. This was the easiest, the most laid back that Murdoch had ever seen him and he never wanted to let this moment go. Not ever.

They dressed out the elk, Johnny helpfully pointing out the liver to Scott and packed it back to camp where they hoisted it up in the trees for safekeeping. The first kill and hopefully the first of many. It will be good to have something other than beef, Murdoch thought. Maria was a very talented cook, and there was not anything that wasn't excellent that came out of the kitchen when she was there.

"Kay, Boston, whatcha wanna go after? Might wanna wait a while. Everything around is probably spooked by the shot anyway."

"Well then, we'll just wait a while for everything to calm down. I think I just may even things up a bit," Scott proclaimed confidently with a grin. They're at it again, thought Murdoch.

Throughout the afternoon, they spotted more elk but nothing of the caliber of the one Johnny brought down, and they saw big horn sheep. As they waited for the sheep to settle down, Scott finally took his turn and missed as the animals scattered. Then he quickly sighted again and snapped off a second shot; this one found its mark.

"That'll be a big plateful of tamales an' enchiladas at Rosa's Place!" Johnny claimed his prize, just like Scott knew he would. "Don't worry, Boston, we still got time so you can get two ta my one." Johnny tried comforting his brother. And, that's the way it was for the rest of the day.

Around the fire that night, they made plans for the following day. They would go in the opposite direction and try their luck. Johnny secretly hoped Scott would score big tomorrow. He deserved it, and Johnny decided then and there that Scott would get his chance. He would take him to where there would be sure game.

And there was. More game than Scott had ever seen. The big surprise was when a grizzly ambled out into the meadow and down to the water. With Scott, Johnny and Murdoch up on the ridge Scott had a clear shot.

"Kay, Scott, he's checkin' the wind, maybe caught our scent. He's gonna start ta go back soon, back the way he came, maybe at a run..." Johnny talked him through it.

"How do you know this? How could you know what a bear is going to do?"

"Told'ya the other night, I had good teachers... Apaches," was all Johnny said. And with that, the grizzly turned and started back the way he'd come. And Scott took his shot. The grizzly fell and lay still. Scott lay in the dirt stunned and stared down at his trophy. He then turned to Johnny with shock, indeed surprise and gratitude on his face. He could not believe what he'd just done, with the help of his little brother, of course. Then he jumped up and started to run down to the water's edge to where the grizzly lay.

Johnny bolted after him. "Scott, SCOTT wait!"

Scott stopped and turned around in surprise as Johnny caught up to him, Murdoch not far behind. "What's wrong, brother? You afraid he's going to get up and walk away with that shot I just made?" Scott looked ready to burst with pride.

"Yeah, Scott, that's exactly what 'm afraid of. More 'n one hunter got as dead as dead can be by doin' just that. We're gonna sit here a while an’ make sure he's dead," Johnny said brooking no challenge.

"Oh, come on, Johnny, are trying to tell me that bears pretend to be dead?" Scott questioned incredulously.

"Yeah, Scott, I am. So, we're gonna just sit here a while. If he's dead I'll say good shot but 'till I know for sure, you ain't goin' down there just yet." Both Johnny and Murdoch sat on boulders in the sun and waited. Scott kept looking between them and his bear still not believing the whole situation.

After thirty long minutes of waiting, he'd had enough.
"That's it, I'm going, NOW!"  and started down to the water.

"Scott!! Take a look!" Johnny yelled at the top of his voice as the bear started to move and Scott raised his rifle to put a final slug into the massive head. He turned sheepishly to look at Johnny.

"That, little brother, is a lesson I will not soon forget. Thanks!" Scott said taken aback but giving his brother the credit he deserved.

"Well, Boston, it's a mistake you'll only make once..." Johnny said with a chuckle. Murdoch was glad the whole thing was over. They gutted the bear and stripped the hide, bundled up the meat in oiled canvas, and after washing the gore in the water, they headed back to camp. The meat was hoisted up with the other game, and the three Lancers settled down for another evening getting to know each other better.

Once more around the fire, their meal of fresh venison steaks, thanks to Scott’s shooting, eaten and the mess cleaned up, Johnny started to dig deeper about Murdoch's family. They each broke out their drink of choice as the evening got chillier.

"Murdoch, how many in your family? Were you the only one?" Johnny asked of his father.

Pleased that the boys were showing an interest, he opened up to tell in detail the members of his immediate family. "First there was my brother Gavin followed by my sister, Isla, then Angus, Cameron, I was next, then two sisters, Effie and Lilias. There were seven of us siblings in a small house just outside of Edinburgh. My father was a farmer as most people were in that area. And his father was a farmer. We'd eat haggis and mutton, mutton permitting there was enough money for it..."

"What the hell is haggis?" Johnny asked.

"It's the parts of the organs most people throw away, chopped up fine and cooked in the lining of the sheep stomach for hours..." Scott offered, thinking this would make Johnny turn green with just the thought. But it didn't happen.

"....had worse...." was all Johnny said.

I have GOT to know my brother better! There's too much I don't know about him! Scott thought.

"Anyway, that was really a treat. On Sundays, the men would wear our kilts..."

"What's a kilt?" Johnny interrupted.

"Well, it's like a skirt..." Murdock started to explain. 

Uh oh, here it comes thought Scott, and he was right.

"Wait, wait... wait. Murdoch, are you tellin' me you wore... a... skirt?" The mirth was already escaping as Johnny started to laugh and the more Murdoch tried to explain the harder Johnny laughed until he was out of breath and could no longer sit up. Finally, Johnny held up his hand.

"I’m sorry, Murdoch, really. Just can't picture you...in a.....skirt!" and it started all over again. Johnny tried to pull his emotions together and almost made it, several times. Finally, he sat up and wiped his eyes on the backs of his hands. "...sorry..." he muttered

"Yes, well, I guess it does sound very strange, but don't forget, it's your heritage, too!" Murdoch pointed out.

"Ya left your skirt back in Scotland... didn't ya? Please say you left it back there...?" Johnny's eyes were wide with the question. "Cuz if Val finds out ya got a skirt in your room, your skirt, he ain't never gonna let ya live it down!" Murdoch was beginning to see what Johnny found so humorous and soon all three of them were laughing beyond any control.

"Murdoch, where did you land when the ship docked in this country?" Scott took the history lesson in another direction.

"The ship, The Oceana, docked in New York City and from there I traveled to Boston. It's where I met your mother, Scott. Not long after, I asked her to marry me and, I was completely shocked when she said yes, then we began making plans for the journey west. Of course, there were obstacles..."

"Grandfather..." was Scott's answer.

"Yes, and to some extent, he was probably right to object. I hadn't much money; California was an awfully long distance away. There was no Lancer back then. We were going to find a place together, and we did but only for a short while." The conversation had lost all the humor of just a few minutes ago. Murdoch stared into the fire and remembered as if it had happened yesterday. Catherine had become pregnant, and as the time drew near, she began to have difficulties.

They found land, what was now the thriving Lancer Ranch, but with the threat of land pirates, Murdoch sent Catherine away thinking her to be safe and away from trouble. Little did he know that Harlan Garrett was right behind them and by the time Murdoch returned Catherine had passed, after giving birth to Scott. Harlan took Scott back to Boston to be raised in a civil environment and left Catherine to be buried by strangers. Harlan had not been present for his only child's funeral.

"After I had lost both Catherine and Scott, Lancer was all I had, and it began to grow, it wasn't as big as it is now, but that became my focus. I lost the battle with Harlan over you, Scott. I couldn't fight his legal team. So, I worked on building Lancer in hopes that one day you could be there with me. After about two years I took a trip down to Matamoras. As I was standing outside a cafe, I saw a beautiful young woman crossing the plaza trying to control a very stubborn donkey loaded with kindling. Small, slender and full of more spunk than any other woman I'd ever met.

“The donkey was giving her trouble, so I intervened, and that's when I met your mother, Johnny. Maria took my breath away, and when she turned to face me, I felt like I'd been hit by lightning. Soon after, we were seeing each other, and shortly after that, we were married. When we got back to Lancer, I really don't think she was prepared for ranch life. I think she must have had this idea that she would be waited on and she would have an easy, luxurious life.

“But it wasn't what she wanted. She was already carrying you, Johnny, and then you came early, yes, impatient then as you are now. For a while, she seemed to settle into ranch life. The night you were born was probably one of the happiest nights of my life. I remember sitting in a rocking chair next to Maria while she slept and I held you, all night. It was like nothing I'd ever felt before... Anyway, two years later she was gone and you with her. I kept thinking maybe there was something that I should have done to make her feel..."

"Murdoch, I told ya b'fore, that's just the way she was. There wasn't anything that ya coulda done ta make her stay. Ya can't keep beatin' yourself up about it. Trust me, I know..."  Johnny said with a heavy sigh.

Murdoch hesitated a minute. "This started out being a wonderful conversation, boys. I'm sorry for how it's turned out, really, I am." Murdoch frowned and again stared into the fire.

"Hey, Murdoch, we're big boys now. We know how and what happened, kinda, an’ we ain't blamin' you for any of it, so stop blamin' yourself..." Johnny stared at him, his deep blue eyes sparkling in the firelight. Then Johnny smiled the smile that only Johnny could give and it pierced Murdoch's heart. What he wouldn't have given to have this boy grow up in his house where he'd always belonged, both of his sons should have been there all this time, but they're here now!

"I think I can speak for Johnny, as well, but I'd like to tell you in all honesty that although we missed out for those early years, nothing can diminish what we have now, sir. And we owe it all to you." Scott had spoken softly, but those words exploded in Murdoch's heart, overflowing with the sweet emotions that should have filled with all those empty years. He felt his eyes well with moisture, but he didn't care.

"Thank you, boys, thank you..." He could say no more for several minutes. Then he cleared his throat and smiled. "We'd better turn in, boys, Cipriano will be meeting us tomorrow, and we need to be ready." They all settled into their bedrolls, and then Scott and Murdoch could hear Johnny start up all over again.

"Murdoch's got a skirt…"

<><><><> 

They met Cipriano in the designated spot and traded the loaded packhorses for fresh ones. Then they continued into the mountains to new territory that they had yet to explore.

<><><><> 

The spyglass was trained on them again; the four ragged ruffians followed at a safe distance watching every move the Lancers made, honing their plan and counting their dollars before they even saw them.

<><><><> 

Johnny began to get restless. He turned in the saddle to look behind them then checked his pistol.

"What's the matter, Johnny? You miss Cindy at The Angel’s Nest?" Scott needled.

"Hell, ya, I miss Cindy but that ain't what the problem is."

"What's the matter, then?" Scott persisted, with a frown now creasing brow.

"...dunno...," Johnny said quietly.

"Well, boys, we've got a lot of hunting to do yet, so I say let's get on with it!" Murdoch suggested.

It was a very productive day. Every valley they entered brought a bountiful reward. Johnny scored a huge Big Horn ram, and after going to lower elevations, Scott shot a large Mule Deer. Murdoch brought down another large elk. Taking a day to dress out and skin their trophies, the three men decided to start for home in the morning. They set up camp in the next valley over from where they cleaned their kills as it would draw predators of every kind.

Once again hoisting the meat and hides into the trees for the night, the Lancers settled in for their last night in the mountains under the stars.

"You know, boys, this has been a trip I will never forget. I want you two to know how happy this has made me. Really, I want to thank you..."

"Aw, come on Murdoch, don't go gettin' all sentimental on us. Besides, there'll be more of these trips, won't there, Scott?" Johnny said quietly and tried to break his unease at the sentiment.

"Yes, sir! This is definitely not the last hunting we will do. I have to one-up my little brother, you know!" Scott smiled at Johnny knowing full well that Johnny intended to hold him to the bets. Especially the bet where he pays for Johnny to get the feminine company that he won, fair and square!

Murdoch leaned back on his saddle, still marveling at the boys. The first year had been rough but these last few days had made up for a lot of the heartache, but he would be content with the way it is. More than content!

"You know, we'll be getting home soon and there will still be time...What about a little trip to San Francisco and surprise Teresa? Maybe we can all have dinner together? What about it?" Murdoch pressed. “We’ve made a large circle and aren’t all that far from the estancia. If we push through tomorrow, we should get home by nightfall.”

Yeah, maybe that's where I get laid at Scott’s expense! Johnny thought with a very large smile growing across his face.

<><><><> 

The morning sun broke over the mountain tops promising another beautiful day. The night had gotten cold and the morning was frosty. The coffee tasted more than good. Johnny, still seated against his saddle enjoyed the last few swallows and looked up the ridge they would be crossing over. There it was again. Movements where there should not be any.

Anxious to get started, they began to saddle up. Scott and Murdoch were completely unaware of the potential for danger. Johnny came to his feet and wandered over to them. Taking his time he avoided looking at the ridge again, then he broke the news.
 
"We got company- don't look up. There's at least three of them an' they're headed this way. We can start for home, but we got good cover here if we hafta make a stand..." Johnny warned.

Murdoch thought about the chances. "We don't even know if it's trouble or not, could be just coincidence."

"They been up there long enough just watchin'. If they weren't meanin' any harm they'd a been down here by now," Johnny countered.

"I wonder what they want? Surely not the meat...?" Scott wondered.

"Could be they're hungry... I say we wait." Johnny said.

They took their time packing up, and keeping a surreptitious eye on their company, the Lancers pretended to relax over one last cup of coffee.

There were three of them, one scragglier than the next. They stopped about twenty feet out of camp. Johnny recognized them from the saloon in Green River when they had a drink after they'd taken Teresa to the train. Johnny knew there had been a fourth man with them, but he wasn't here now... it made the hair on the back of his neck stand on end. This is trouble, Johnny thought. And he knew he was right.

"Be ready; this is trouble. There's a fourth man out there, somewhere,"  Johnny warned.

"How do you know that?" Scott questioned.

"Seen them at the saloon in Green River when we were havin' a drink. There were four of them. Just be ready..." To look at Johnny standing in the morning sun, a casual observer might think he was as relaxed as he could be. Cup in his left hand, his right arm hung at his side, weight on his left leg, but inside he was wound tight and ready.

"Good morning!" Murdoch called out. "You boys need help?" Murdoch took in their appearance. Dirty, worn clothing, torn, some of it patched, signs of men not used to regular work.

"Mornin'! Wonderin’ if ya could spare any a that coffee? Sure smelled good comin' down the trail..." Johnny thought Yeah it would have if you'd been comin' from the other way where the wind is blowin' to, couldn't smell it from where you were... The man got off his tired old horse, a horse that had been ridden hard and poorly cared for. Johnny casually turned and looked behind them, and not seeing anyone he faced the three in front of them. The other man was out there somewhere, waiting.

The newcomer spoke through a huge smile. "Name's Rafe, this here’s," indicating the second man, "my brother Simon and that over there's Moose- Moose on accounta he's big!"  Moose was, in fact, a huge man. He dwarfed his horse. Johnny pitied the poor animal for lugging the monster man around. The other two men nodded in acknowledgment, but Johnny ignored the gesture, and the fact was not lost on Rafe.

"Not much coffee left- we're just getting ready to pack up and head out," Murdoch announced.

"Where ya headed," Rafe asked bluntly.

"Oh, we thought we'd try our luck a little south," Murdoch said.

"Seems ta me that's where ya came from..." Rafe let the implication hang wanting to get down to business.

"Why ya been followin' us? What'd ya want?" Johnny asked, not mincing words. Rafe took in this young man standing so boldly before him. He didn't miss the fact that the boy's coat was pulled back behind the pistol that hung low on his hip as natural as if he'd been born with it. And Rafe didn't miss the smile that didn't reach the younger man's eyes.

"Why, no need ta get yer feathers ruffled, boy, we's just bein' sociable!" Rafe bluffed... Where was Snake? He needs ta be gittin' in position behind these guys b'fore we start, and this young’un looks like he's gonna spring any second...

Johnny thought they were stalling. I ain't waitin' for no ambush...

"How about you just get back on your horses and get out of here. There ain't nothin' for you here. NOTHIN'," Johnny responded with deadly implication.

"Now, boy that's just downright inhospitable of you!" Rafe pressed.

"Yeah, inhospitable, huh? An' you're gonna be dead if you don't leave... NOW!" Johnny countered, very calmly, much too calm for Rafe. He didn't like this young'un much!

"I wouldn't be so hasty, boy..." Rafe said as Simon, behind his horse, pulled his gun and fired missing Johnny by a good two feet. They all dove for cover. Murdoch and Scott were behind boulders while Rafe, Simon, and Moose took refuge in trees and smaller rocks, whatever had been closest. Johnny fell to the ground and quickly crawled behind a fallen tree. He glanced behind them again and still was unable to locate the fourth man. Where the hell is he? 

They traded shots, Scott winged Simon and the man yelped as he dropped his gun, then he tried to wrap his wound one-handed. Moose took aim at Johnny and sent chips of tree trunk spraying over his hat. A chip of stone sliced along Scott’s left cheekbone leaving a thin trail of blood. Moose stood and turned, enough for Murdoch to squeeze off a shot and Moose fell with a bullet in his throat.

When Moose hit the ground Rafe roared out, incensed by his death, and a string of obscenities filled the small valley, rage taking control of his mind. Simon had dropped his gun but retrieved it to take a shot at Scott; the bullet whistled through his hat to fall in the dust behind him.
 Johnny kept firing hoping to catch Rafe; he waited for just the right second. Rafe looked up, and Johnny pulled the trigger sending his slug into Rafe's head above the right eye, and it exploded blood, bone and brain matter in a gory red spray behind him on the ground. Rafe fell like a redwood. Simon took one last ill-fated aim, and Scott easily sent a bullet through his lung. He fell dead between Rafe and Moose.

Simon had not settled to the ground yet when Johnny began to reload his Colt. Scanning around, he still watched for the fourth man and suddenly spotted him in the trees behind them. Snake was drawing down on Murdoch's broad back. Mierda! I'm not gonna get reloaded in time flashed through Johnny's brain. He knew the finger was beginning to tighten on the trigger and Johnny launched himself at Murdoch, his strangled "NNOOOOOOO" competed with the blast from the rifle shattering the cold morning air. And at the last second of consciousness, Johnny saw Scott turn and fire.

Johnny reached Murdoch just as the bullet tore through his upper left chest and slammed him into Murdoch's back. Scott turned to bring up his rifle and pull the trigger with little time to aim. Snake  dropped to the ground and lay with his blood pooling under the hole in his head. Scott hurried to check the four bodies to make sure they were dead.

Johnny fell to the ground at Murdoch’s feet, and the patriarch was immediately beside him. He carefully rolled Johnny face up and quickly assessed the wound. Blood was pouring from the large hole, soaking his shirt in seconds. His head rolled listlessly, deep in unconsciousness.

"Johnny! My, God! Scott! Help me with him!" They ripped Johnny's shirt open trying desperately to stem the flow of blood, while Scott retrieved the medical supplies they all carried with them in their saddlebags, Murdoch sat applying pressure on the wound to stop Johnny from bleeding out. Panic was starting to set in as the cloth he was using had been quickly saturated. He reached for his large, wide hunting knife from the sheath on his belt and handed it to Scott.

"Put this in the fire, Scott. We may have no other choice than to cauterize the wound just to get him home alive." He's bleeding out! Murdoch thought helplessly. He began to pray- to God, to the Saints and he even prayed to Maria, Johnny's mother, that she would help them with their son and stop the life-giving blood that poured out of Johnny's body.

But Murdoch's pleas were heard by one. With the utmost of grace and dignity, she approached Johnny with the kindest, most beautiful smile Johnny had ever seen. She reached out a hand to him and brushed the tangled hair from his forehead. She spoke softly when she told him that this was not his time- he was still needed for Murdoch and Scott, please do not disappoint them- you are all family now, and they would not make it without you, Johnny. Please be a good brother to my Scott! And then she was gone.

He felt cold. He was freezing. There had been a warm hand on his face — a soft, warm, feminine hand. She had a beautiful smile- No! Don't go! Please come back! He felt other hands on him but not as gentle as hers had been. These hands were frantic and desperate. What was happening? And now pain- excruciating, white-hot pain. Pain so bad he thought that he would explode. He tried to push away but it was as though he were tied, he could not move, and he was tired, so tired... His head was lifted, and a small bottle was thrust between his lips as the bitter liquid flowed down his throat almost gagging him. The laudanum would help with the pain but did nothing to quell the rolling of his belly.

"Murdoch? Do you want me to do it?" Scott asked silently hoping he wouldn't have to.

"No, Scott, you hold him and hold him tight as you can because he's going to buck with strength that you're not going to believe he's capable of right now..."

Scott wrapped his arms around his brother and prepared to hang on for all he was worth, and all his brother was worth. Murdoch reached the glowing red blade to Johnny's chest and laid it on the gaping bleeding wound. A tortured scream was ripped from Johnny's throat and then... nothing.

His boot heels had dug in the dirt nearly toppling them both when the blade burned through his hide, and his violent thrashing threatened to knock both his brother and self away from the torture. Then he lapsed into total darkness and went limp in Scott’s arms so suddenly that Scott's heart almost stopped.

"We need to get this wrapped as tight as we can get it and start for home..." They worked fast, when finally Johnny was bandaged together they wrestled him in front of Murdoch on his horse. Toby could take both men, and Barranca would trail behind. Scott cut the pack horses loose along with the horses that belonged to their attackers. He then kicked dirt over the fire and mounted Remmie.

"You head for Sam, Scott, and I'll get Johnny home and meet you there. Chances are you'll beat us, but we'll be there as soon as we can." With that, Murdoch kicked Toby into action and headed due east to Lancer, with his youngest son, the son who'd just saved his life, unconscious in his arms.

<><><><> 

Fire. Fire burnin’ in my chest- hard ta breathe. What the hell's goin' on? Son-of-a-BITCH!- that hurts. Cold now. Chest is burnin' an’ I feel cold. Can't take the pain no more. Need help... please help.

 I will do what I can Johnny, but Sam needs to see you, and he'll know what to do. My Scott went to get him. Shecradled his face with her hands, and they felt like velvet on his skin. Be strong Johnny! Both Murdoch and Scott need you... Johnny sighed and leaned back into Murdoch's strong arms.

Murdoch thought he had just lost his son. The son that was the most difficult and worrisome, the son that had needed the most guidance and now that son was fighting for his life. As Johnny went limp in his arms, Murdoch put his fingers on Johnny's neck and finding a pulse; he breathed deeply.

"Stay with me, Johnny, you're going to make it, just a little further and we both know you can do this." Murdoch kept up with his ramblings. The temperature was dropping quickly, and the sky was darkening. Just keep going, have to get my boy home, have to save him... as he saved me. Snow started to fall, and Murdoch thought that Jelly had been right after all. If they could keep up this pace, they'd be home in about eight hours. If Toby showed any signs of failing they could ride Barranca the rest of the way, but Toby was large and strong and quite capable.

As Murdoch made their way over the mountains, he could not keep his mind off his sons. They were finally home, and now Johnny may have sacrificed himself for... me.” The thought nearly took his breath away. The son that I have such guilt over, the son I let down the most may be dying in my arms! God- someone, help us!

She watched them both, the man she loved when they were married and the young man who was so important to her son, and therefore, important to her. She stayed with them all through that day, soothing Johnny when he neared consciousness and easing his pain as much as she could, though nothing short of Sam's surgery was going to do much. But she helped them both as much as she could.

<><><><> 

Scott rode like Satan himself was on their tail, and Remmie was up for the challenge. He glided along the mountain trails smoothly and swiftly ate up the miles. They needed to be back at the ranch as soon as possible. Scott had faith in Murdoch’s ability to treat gunshot wounds, but he hoped that the cauterizing of Johnny's shoulder would hold enough to get him home without any more bleeding. If it didn't, he couldn't think about life without his brother. Suddenly Scott knew Johnny still lived. It was a feeling- a certainty.

<><><><> 

Catherine Garrett Lancer smiled. She had talked with Johnny and eased his pain, and she assured Scott that his brother still lived. Was her job here finished? Maybe not. I think I will stay around for a while. Johnny seems like such a nice young man, and I can see why Scott is so fond of him. I would like to know him better and understand the relationship with this Johnny and my Scott.

Dios, what the hell did I do this time? He tried to move but found himself trapped. Mierda! Hurts! Can't do it... no more... no more... Who was that woman talkin' ta me? Sure is pretty...

“Shhh! Johnny, quiet, I've got you, you're going to be all right. Just don't move around. It's all right, son." Murdoch tried to soothe Johnny's restlessness and hoped his son wouldn't be regaining consciousness. It would be intense pain and nausea but if they had to stop they certainly would. Murdoch tried to check the bandages and seeing no fresh blood he sighed in relief.

"Johnny, can you hear me?" Murdoch tried talking; checking the degree of consciousness and hoped Johnny was still out. But he heard a hissing groan indicating Johnny had heard some of what Murdoch had said. "Here’s some water, son. We need to keep you hydrated. Drink," as he held the canteen to Johnny's mouth. He swallowed a small amount that ended in a cough making Johnny think he’d split his chest wide open. He gasped and grabbed for the injury, groaning, nearly falling forward as Murdoch held him tight against his body.

"Easy, Johnny, relax, son..."

"... easy... for... you...ta say..." came the anguished reply, and then another deep groan.

"Johnny, it's going to rain soon. I'm going to put your slicker around you, all right? You need to stay put. I have to lean over to Barranca; he's right alongside us... Stay here, Johnny, don't slide off..." and Murdoch reached to the ties that held Johnny's slicker in place behind his saddle. Soon it was settled protectively around Johnny's shoulders, and he pulled it tight to fasten it. Johnny's head fell back against Murdoch’s broad chest, flipping his hat off.

Murdoch set it back on Johnny's thick, soft hair. Time suddenly flashed backward over twenty years to when Johnny was a toddler and Murdoch was dressing him to go out riding with him. Johnny had always loved the horses and begged to ride every day, all day. Johnny impishly knocked his hat off so Murdoch would have to put it on him again and again. Suddenly Murdoch’s eyes welled with unshed tears. Here he was trying to get this same son home. Would he be able to get him there alive? He couldn't lose Johnny now! The loss of either son would be life-threatening to Murdoch. He did not think he could recover from that… ever.

It started to rain.

<><><><> 

Scott huddled into his slicker and thought about his brother. As far back as he could remember he had wanted a brother but when he first met Johnny, he could not believe that the crude, dusty ruffian standing next to him could possibly share the same blood. The first few weeks were trying, but once they got past the initial shock of their discovery and gave each other a chance they forged a bond, strong and deep, one that went deeper than blood. What they shared was extraordinary and had surprised them both. He would not let Johnny down. Johnny had saved Murdoch's life and as long as he lived Scott would never forget turning to see Johnny fall and lie at Murdoch's feet unmoving and still as death. Scott had never been so scared. He had seen battle, had been in the war; he'd been held prisoner at Libby Prison and still had not ever been that scared. He had to get Sam back to Lancer in time.

<><><><> 

Mierda! He was cold! How can there be such fire in my chest an' everything else is freezin'? Must be goin' crazy... The ol' man wears skirts, I'm hot 'n cold at the same time and can't remember nuthin'... Hope they don't put a skirt on me, Scottish tradition or not...

Johnny was getting restless, and Murdoch knew the laudanum was wearing off. He took the bottle from his pocket and held it to Johnny's mouth. Johnny rolled his head across Murdoch's broad chest not wanting to drink the vile stuff. The patriarch held him still, long enough to get another heavy dose into him in hopes that it would be enough to get Johnny home relatively pain free. It had rained now for several hours, and they were both soaked regardless of the slickers. Holding Johnny all this way was taking its toll on Murdoch’s back. He hadn't been this tired in years.

He could not wait to see that beautiful arch signifying that they were finally home, but all he saw was the angry gray sky. He could feel the heat coming off Johnny's body but also feel him shivering with cold and fervently Murdoch prayed this wouldn't lead to pneumonia. This boy needed a warm bed and Maria doting over him, even though he truly hated being fussed over. Regardless, they needed to be home.

Murdoch once again peeked inside Johnny's coat and saw clean, white bandage. Relief flooded through him, but the relief was short lived as Johnny gave way to a violent bout of coughing. Murdoch tightened his hold on Johnny doing his best to offer comfort, what comfort could be provided on horseback in a bone-chilling rainstorm. He leaned Johnny to the right as he started to gag and the dry retching seemed to tear Johnny's body apart. Finally, it subsided, and Johnny went limp in Murdoch’s arms. We have to keep going! We need to get home fast! He's fading right in front of my eyes! Murdoch thought. And on they rode.

Hurts, hafta stay alive, though, can’t give up. Can’t leave my brother… or the ol’ man.

Murdoch had no idea how long they'd been riding and had no idea how much further they needed to go. All he knew was that Johnny was getting worse. His son was dying. Hope was about gone. He looked skyward as the rain washed into his eyes. How could you do this to us? How could you let my son go, be taken from me over twenty years ago and take him away now? HOW??? Murdoch was beyond rage. This son saved his life and would die in his arms. He could not deal with that. He could not live with that.

Suddenly he heard hoof beats and looked up. How...? Could it be? Home...? Cipriano was riding toward them at breakneck speed. And there not a hundred feet ahead of them was that beautiful adobe Lancer arch. They had made it! Murdoch wanted to wave but couldn't risk letting Johnny fall. Cip was there and helped Murdoch with his burden as they rode to the front of the house.

At a shout from Cip, help came running. Jelly was the first, and he and Cip carried Johnny into the house and up to his room. Maria was summoned, but Murdoch was distressed that Scott and Sam were not there yet.

The house became a flurry of activity. Cip sent a rider out to town for Sam in case Scott had run into trouble. Deep in Murdoch's heart, he would not let himself think that was true, but it was the right thing to do. Maria started water to boil, chose the right herbs she would need and collected bandages. Dr. Sam would be able to start when he arrived without waiting for hot water.

Johnny had been put to bed, extra pillows behind him propping him up to help him breathe. Soon a fire blazed, and a pot of water was hung over the flames laced with herbs that emitted a strong-smelling vapors. Lamps were lit providing more light. Soon there would not be any more to do except wait for Sam.

<><><><> 

Scott knew he was getting close to town, but the rain was coming down so hard he couldn't see. Too bad he'd have to drag Sam out in this, but there wasn't any other choice. Sam understood, he always did.

He brought Remmie to a skidding stop in front of Sam's house and ran up onto the porch. He pounded on the door and Sam was there in seconds. Scott quickly stepped into the foyer of Sam's comfortable, warm and dry home.

"It's Johnny, hurt bad, almost bled out, you need to hurry, Sam, he was shot, upper chest, shoulder. Murdoch had to cauterize it to stop the bleeding! Hurry Sam! Don't know how much time we've got!"

Sam took it all in and ran to his surgery to retrieve his medical bag, more drugs and a few other things he may need. While he did that, Scott ran to the barn and hitched the horse to the buggy. As they rode out to Lancer, the sky opened up, and torrents of rain spilled from the heavens turning their world into dark and foggy turmoil.

<><><><> 

Murdoch sat alone beside Johnny's bed. The lamps were turned low, and possibly Johnny could rest more quietly; the fire had been stoked to ward off the chill. Murdoch watched the shallow rise and fall of his son's chest, willing the next breaths in and out. He saw his small, baby boy, his niño with the dark, tousled hair and the startling blue eyes running to him to jump into his arms and beg for a ride. The little boy that stole his heart the second he'd come into this world. Now that same little boy was a grown man, a fine young man, fighting for his life. Murdoch had spent many nights in this room with him during those first two years, and he began to talk to Johnny just as he had when Johnny was a baby.

"You used to wake at night, and I'd come in here to sit with you. I don't think you were scared by anything, more like you wanted to make sure that when the morning would come, you'd be ready for it. So anxious you were! You wanted to see everything, do everything and you did it with such innocence that only one so small could get away with. Oh, you had me wrapped around your little finger! All you had to do was look at me with those eyes, and I'd melt like a snowflake on your little tongue! You held everyone's heart in the palm of your hand, and you were so young that you didn't even know what that meant.

I had so many plans for us! And I wanted Scott here with us, too. My two boys! We should have been together all this time, well, I guess I will be satisfied with what we have now.

"I remember one time you were sick with a fever, and I came here to pick you up so you could sleep in my arms. You were struggling to breathe, and you were so hot. When you opened your eyes, they were glassy, but I knew that you knew I was there for you. All night I held you, the fever kept spiking, and all you did was lie on my chest, just lay without moving, limp and unresponsive. You were so small, and I was so scared. I've never been as scared as I was at that moment... until now... Johnny, please stay with us!"

Catherine almost cried. How beautiful were these words between this man and his son! She watched as he took the damp cloth to gently cool the fever that threatened to suffocate Johnny. He repeatedly dampened the cloth and laid it over the injured man's forehead, and Johnny still hadn't uttered a sound, no movement, no sign that he heard what Murdoch was telling him, yet Murdoch kept talking, telling Johnny that it was going to be all right and not to worry. Scott would be here soon with Sam, and in a few weeks, everything would be over. Johnny would be up and around and back to his usual self, causing a ruckus with his tomfoolery.

But it was so quiet here now.

Johnny, you need to listen to your father. He is right, keep listening to him.

There she is again- who are you? I hear Murdoch, too... Where's Scott? Dios, this pain is makin' me wanna puke!  Johnny groaned, and Murdoch leaned closer to listen to him. He rinsed out the cloth he'd been using to clean his son’s face and neck. The mumblings ceased for the time being, but Murdoch was sure they would continue.

As he reached for Johnny, he saw his own hands trembling. These hands held this man when he was a baby; they dressed his scrapes and cuts and held him steady when he was learning to walk. These hands picked him up when he fell and played together with the puppy they had gotten for him. But they couldn't keep Maria from running away with him, couldn't find him when wife and son disappeared and couldn't keep Johnny from a life of danger, hardships, and misery.

The regrets were too many! And I can't keep my boy from pain now! Why did he jump in front of me? It should be me lying in this bed, not Johnny! Murdoch had never felt such anxiety as he did at this moment. He prayed that Scott had gotten to Sam. Please hurry!

He checked the dressing on the chest wound. There was no new blood, but the cauterizing would produce its own hell. The risk of infection was very high. Maria cleaned it as best she could, but that would not prevent it either. Had he done the right thing? Johnny would have bled out, no doubt, but what if the cauterizing wasn't the right thing to do? What if Johnny died as a direct result?

He would never forget the feeling of pressing that hot blade onto his son’s exposed flesh, the putrid smell mixed with the smoke that swirled in the air; holding the blade steady as Johnny bucked in his brother’s arms… and worst of all was the strangled scream that ripped from Johnny’s throat, then suddenly there was deafening silence. The scene played over and over in Murdoch’s brain and he knew with certainty that he could never do it again.

Johnny suddenly gasped in pain, his right hand coming up to hold the injured shoulder. Murdoch leaned forward to take the wandering hand in his own.

"Johnny, can you hear me? You've been injured and need to be very still. Scott went for Sam. They'll be here soon. Please be still, son." Murdoch whispered to Johnny in a soothing voice still wiping him down with the cool cloth. Johnny seemed to quiet a bit but suddenly grew restless again. The pain was intensifying. And the fever persistently spiked. Murdoch pulled the bandage away from the wound and saw it needed Sam's expertise and quickly.  

Johnny began to mumble incoherently, rolling his head from side to side and Murdoch's heart broke a little more. Watching his son like this was killing him as much as it was Johnny. Murdoch finally picked up on a word.

"...Murdoch...?" Johnny breathed out.

"Yes, son, I'm here."

".... good... thanks..." Murdoch was stunned. Here was Johnny with a bullet sealed in his chest; a bullet that was meant for him and Johnny was thanking him.

"Son, I'll always be here. Now lie still. We'll get you taken care of very soon. Sam is on his way."

He hoped...

<><><><> 

Scott could see the lights from the house now as they came up the road. Sam was right behind him, the buggy going as fast as possible in several inches of mud. The rain was still falling, though not as hard as before, but the temperature was still cold, the air starting to become bitter. They rode under the Lancer arch, and Scott was secretly praying they weren't too late. The wound was serious, how many hours now since he saw Johnny fall? They had to be in time...
<><><><> 

Murdoch held Johnny close as he coughed, gasping for air and groaning in severe pain. Where was Sam? Then he heard footsteps running down the hallway. The door burst open, and a drenched Sam and Scott barged in while Johnny still fought to catch his breath; the burning in his chest was unbearable.

"Any blood when he coughs, Murdoch?" Sam questioned.

"No, thank God!" came Murdoch’s strained reply.

Sam eased Johnny back on the pillows to begin his exam. He opened the lids of Johnny's eyes and checked the pupils, felt his forehead and then started to peel back the bandage over the chest wound. Noting Maria's attention to the injury, he silently sent up a prayer of thanks for the woman. She was definitely an asset here, especially with these two boys.

"Scott, get me some hot water, lots of it and get Maria! This is going to be a long night..."

Scott came back with the water and Sam went to work. After sterilizing instruments and hands, he set about a thorough examination. He would have to cut through the seared flesh and locate the bullet and hope that it missed the lung and any major arteries. After giving Johnny morphine, Sam began the surgery. Maria had made coffee and urged Murdoch and Scott to go downstairs for a while.

<><><><> 

"I can't wait any longer, Murdoch. I'm going upstairs," Scott said quietly.

"Yes, I'm right behind you, son!" They both hurried to Johnny's room.

Sam was probing for the bullet when they entered. Maria had the cloth on Johnny's forehead trying to lower the heat that poured from his body. Blood soaked bandages were everywhere.

"Maria, hand me those forceps, I've got it... yes, those are the ones..." Sam inserted the tool into Johnny’s chest and withdrew the slug and immediately packed the wound with bandages. "Scott, come over here and hold his shoulder."

Scott crawled over the bed next to his brother and held Johnny tight. Maria quickly crossed herself and began repeating her prayers. Murdoch watched as Sam poured carbolic into the wound and winced for Johnny. Even out cold, there was pain, and Murdoch wished it was he lying in bed and not his son. Bleeding freely with no sign of infection, Sam was as satisfied as he could be under the circumstances. After getting the bleeding under control, he stitched and dressed the shoulder and settled Johnny in the bed.

"Sam...?" Murdoch began.

"He's holding his own. There's no infection, but we need to be very careful about that. With both the bullet and the cauterizing, the chances are more than fifty percent higher that infection will set in. The good news is his lung was only lightly creased, but that will cause more pain when he coughs."

"About the cauterizing, Sam... was it the right thing to do?" Murdoch’s worry filled eyes pierced Sam’s heart. Sam knew what Murdoch was feeling.

"If you hadn't done it, Murdoch, he wouldn't be here now. You did the right thing." Sam laid his hand on Murdoch's arm.

<><><><> 

Johnny? Can you hear me? You need to open your eyes now. Johnny? Wake up. They're waiting to see you.

Who are you? Do I know you?

No, Johnny, you don't know me, but I would have liked to have met you. You mean so much to Scott and that means you mean a lot to me.

Why?

Because Scott is important to me.

What's your name?

Catherine.

"Catherine..." Johnny murmured, barely a whisper. Murdoch's heart skipped a beat. He leaned forward to hear more and laid a hand on Johnny's arm.

"Johnny? Son, can you hear me?" There was no answer, but Murdoch could see Johnny's eyes moving under the lids and thought he was starting to come out of the effects of the morphine. Sam had decreased the dosages little by little and thought Johnny would soon waken.

"Johnny," Murdoch started again. "Open your eyes, Johnny," and his heart almost burst from his chest when Johnny cracked his eyes open a bit. It was such a small bit; still, Murdoch could see the magnificent blue staring at him.

"How do you feel, son?"

"... been better..." His eyes drifted shut again, and he was sleeping.

<><><><> 

Scott sat by his brother’s bed and watched him sleep. The crisis was over, and now his brother could begin the long process of healing. It had been a horrible time for Scott as he agonized over and over during the long ride to get Sam. His brother could have died out there, without Scott at his side and that alone filled him with debilitating fear. But it didn’t happen. Murdoch had gotten Johnny home, and Johnny’s stubborn nature wouldn’t let him give up. And Scott wouldn’t know until later the role his mother played in keeping Johnny alive.

Scott watched the flutter of the long lashes as Johnny opened his eyes. “Here, Johnny, you need to drink,” he said as he eased Johnny up and held a glass to his lips.

“Thanks, Boston,” Johnny murmured, the blue orbs disappearing behind heavy lids. “Boston?” Johnny whispered.

“What is it, brother?”

“Ya won the bets…” The soft words slurred a bit.

“What bets, Johnny?” Scott asked puzzled by the words.

“That was a helluva shot, Boston… best shot of the whole trip…” and Johnny settled into a healing sleep.

<><><><> 

"Are you up for some company?" Murdoch asked poking his head in the door.

"Hell, ya, I'm about ready ta go crazy up here." Johnny knew he was pressing his luck with the language issue.

"Well, Sam said about another week..." Murdoch said knowing there would be an argument.
Johnny rolled his eyes and let his head fall back onto the pillows. "You're kiddin' me... right? Another week? This ain't right, Murdoch! Why don't ya just take me out an' shoot me? Why…" A cough erupted from Johnny's chest cutting off the complaint, and he gasped at the pain it sent through him.

Murdoch helped him sit forward until it eased. "That's why! Now you need to be more patient. Sam also said that this absolutely could not be rushed. NO overdoing it, so you will stay where you are!" Murdoch thought he'd better leave. Johnny was getting irritated already. "I'll come back later," and turned to go.

"Murdoch, wait. Don't go, I'm sorry. Just gettin' impatient, I guess." Johnny's disappointment was evident on his face.

"I don't think you realize how serious this is, Johnny," Murdoch admonished.

"Yeah, I do. Been shot before. Almost didn't make it a couple times. I know how bad it is. Just gettin' over it takes so damn long..."

"That's what I wanted to talk to you about, Johnny. You said you remembered what happened but why did you jump in front of me? Why did you take that bullet?"

"Couldn't let him shoot ya and my gun was empty, I was tryin' ta get it reloaded, but he got there too fast. No other choice." Johnny looked squarely into Murdoch’s eyes when he spoke, and Murdoch saw in those blue pools that it finally hit Johnny, too, he finally felt at home, part of the family and finally admitted to himself that he was accepted and loved.

"It was the price ta pay, I guess," Johnny said in a whisper.

<><><><> 

He stopped his horse at the Carterville Cemetery. The monument was not difficult to find. It was the largest one there. He took off his hat as he approached and stood for a minute looking at the cold granite stone before he spoke, but not quite knowing how to start. He thought she must have been a courageous young woman to leave her home and travel across the entire country to a place she'd never seen before. To start an entirely different life with a man she'd only been married to for a short time took heart and faith, and to bear a child with only a stranger to help confirmed to Johnny that she would be honored and respected for all time.

"I wish I coulda known ya, if Scott's anything like you, I know I woulda liked you. He sure is somethin'. You'd be proud of him. I know Murdoch is an' I am, too. He's a good brother. But that ain't why I'm here. I remember you were there, helpin' me, an' I, well, I just wanted ta thank you because I don't think I woulda made it without ya. You made me think about Murdoch an' Scott instead of givin' up an' that's what I was pretty close ta doin'. So, I guess I kinda do know you. Thank you, Catherine Garrett Lancer."

With that said, Johnny mounted Barranca and started for home.

 

 

~ end ~

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