The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Buckskin

 

 

In The Shadow of the Sun

Thanks to Cat and Sandy for the beta

The fire was hot enough to chase away the frigid air. It threatened to chill him to the bone, and if it hadn't been so clear, he would have sworn there would be snow, but the stars blinked on, one by one, sparkling in their nightly contest of twinkle and shine.

He appreciated these nights, though, after having argued with his father. The night could wash away the sharp and bitter words that threatened irreparable damage between father and son; the night could soothe him, dull the edge before it cut, and cut deep. It had happened before. He knew it had to stop before something was said that couldn’t be fixed. He’d saddled his horse and left, not saying a word to his father or anyone else. He didn’t trust himself to talk.

Johnny threw a few pieces of wood on the fire and watched the shower of sparks rise in their race to the sky only to blink out and disappear. He thought the night was a lot like time. It could be your friend or your enemy. But this night was friendly, in a chilly sort of way. He smiled at that. It was the first smile to visit his lips since storming out of the hacienda and away from Lancer earlier this morning.

He didn't remember being short-tempered when he went down to breakfast, and as he sat at the table, he and Murdoch conversed on friendly enough terms, but suddenly there was a tension between them that soon exploded as Murdoch became terse and Johnny's temper started to run, both reactions ran unchecked, and they clashed. Johnny couldn’t think of what they’d been talking about when the confrontation began. All he knew was, once it started, he had to end it before it was too late. So, here he sat, by himself, with just Barranca for company and the stars.

He’d collapsed on his bedroll and watched the flames, warm and cheerful, and he was mesmerized by their seductive gyrations as they danced up and down on the dry oak pieces. He’d thought long and hard about his relationship with Murdoch. Why was it so strained? Murdoch told him once that he’d felt guilty for not being able to find him after his mother took him in the middle of the night and went to Mexico. So what did Murdoch see when he looked at Johnny? His failures? Or Johnny’s?

Johnny had resorted to gun fighting as a way to support himself. And he'd been good at it, so good, in fact, that he had been sought out and paid much money for his services, and much to Murdoch’s dismay, Madrid had been born. And that was all in the past for him, now. But was it in the past for Murdoch? All Johnny knew was that he was getting tired of the tension, of having to be on guard every time he and Murdoch were in the same room. It had to stop and soon before it was too late.

Johnny began to get drowsy. Sleep pulled at his brain and soon claimed the weary man, but immediately the dreams started to play in his head. They were bloody and violent, as his former life had been. And even in sleep, he wished there had been another choice for him long ago, a choice that wouldn't lead to the nightmares that plagued him now.

He woke with a start, and sweat poured down his face and into his eyes; his heart hammered painfully against his ribs and left him breathless but tense and tight as the newly strung wire between fence posts. His breathing was ragged, irregular and his head felt like the hooves of every horse he’d ever broken were now slamming on the inside of his skull. He swiped at the sweat that ran into his eyes with the back of his hand and tried to slow his breathing.

Johnny noticed that the dreams were more frequent after he’d had words with Murdoch. Whatever the arguments were about always seemed to trigger the nightmares, and he wondered if he dare mention that to Sam. Sam Jenkins, Green River’s doctor, had become a very familiar figure at Lancer since the boys had arrived home. Sam may have some explanation why Johnny was so tortured by them when the actual incidents he dreamed about were so long ago. Why come back now? But Johnny hesitated to bring them to Sam's attention; Sam would treat it as an illness and, well, Johnny hated being sick, coddled, and hated the feeling of being watched. If he was going to be sick leave me the hell alone. So, he forgot about the idea of asking Sam anything.

Dawn would be breaking soon, so he discarded the possibility of going back to sleep. He tossed a few pieces of firewood on the red coals and stirred the embers into flame. He filled the battered coffee pot, and set it close to the fire and shortly had a warm cup in his hands. Well, he needed to get back home and set straight whatever had gone wrong but how he was going to do that was a mystery. He didn’t know what had gone wrong, so how could he fix it?

He was tired of this. Why did he feel like he always had to be defending himself with the Ol’ Man? But until Murdoch was willing to listen instead of falling back on the ‘you’re too wild and impulsive’ excuse, Johnny didn’t think anything could or would come of any hashing things out. It got them nowhere.

He broke camp, saddled Barranca and started back for Lancer and although very apprehensive about going back, he knew that it was inevitable. He’d not ridden very far when he came into a small, peacefully valley; a stream wandered through the trees at the grassy bottom. He stopped to enjoy the solitude the place offered, breathing in the pine-scented air and relaxing a bit before he moved on, but he saw movement up ahead. A mule deer buck came to drink. Venison would be a welcome change from the beef that usually graced their table, and in a smooth, quiet effort, Johnny took aim and dropped the animal with one clean shot from the Winchester. He loaded the carcass across the back of his saddle and set out, once again, for Lancer.

<><><><> 

Once home, his gut felt as if there was a large stone sitting in it. It churned and rolled and threatened to empty. He had to admit when he was on his own before he knew he had a family, he never felt like this. No rolling and queasy belly even when there was a gunfight looming. Did everyone have these issues with family?

This was strange. He’d seen no one. No hands around the bunkhouse or the barn, no one around the house. No one… Something was wrong, he felt it.

He left Barranca by the back door and entered the kitchen. Maria, Lancer cook, was sitting at the table, her head in her hands. She was crying, and Johnny's belly flipped over and turned cold with ice.

“Maria? What’s wrong?” Johnny said quietly coming up beside her and laying a gentle hand on her shoulder, squeezing slightly.

She was visibly shaken and jumped when Johnny spoke. "Oh, Juanito! It is bad! The little girl fell in the mine shaft, and Senor Scott tried to get her out but there… was a cave in and it is sealed tight! They cannot be rescued…” The wailing renewed, and Maria did not speak as tears streamed down the dark face.

Johnny grabbed her shoulders with both his hands and lightly shook her. “Where, Maria, tell me where…” Johnny commanded.

“The cave by the old Mine Road, by the lake… Everyone is there now; they worked through the night…”

“Through the night? This happened yesterday?” Disbelief and dread washed over Johnny like a smothering heat. He fought down the panic and gasped for air, suffocating with fear for his brother.

He ran from the kitchen out to Barranca, jumping into the saddle he quickly untied the buck to let it fall in a heap by the hitch rail. He was down the road in seconds and nudged the horse into a full and reckless run.

His brain kept tumbling thoughts of Scott buried alive. The raw image of Scott covered with dirt, suffocated and crushed by boulders and massive beams constricted rational thoughts and weighed heavy on his shoulders. His heart thundered in his chest, pounding so hard it threatened to burst through his ribs. This can’t be happening. He had just found his brother, they were supposed to grow old together. Scott had turned out to be Johnny’s best friend, and, not only a brother, the brother that he loved, the brother he would die for…

<><><><> 

It was more than an hour’s ride from the house to the old mine. He remembered coming across it when tracking a marauding cougar that had terrorized the valley and he found the mine by accident. The entrance had once been boarded shut but time and the elements had taken their toll, and the barricade had started to crumble leaving large gaps in the wooden rails that had at one time kept folks out, but were now big enough for a child to slip through. Surprisingly enough, the cougar had not escaped into the mine at that particular spot but had bypassed the entrance and made its way higher up the steep slope. Hidden deep within the rocks was a smaller opening that had provided the necessary means to vanish into the old mine. Maybe… Johnny could only hope...

After the long ride from the house, the rescue efforts came into view as Johnny charged Barranca up the slope. People scattered as the large horse raced through the crowds of townsmen, all helping, hoping and praying to break through the blocked entrance, praying that the two people trapped within were still alive. Off to the side were the little girl’s parents, Mrs. Conley weeping inconsolably, surrounded by friends and held tightly by her husband.

Jumping from the saddle, Johnny raced to the barricade. Men were frantically working with
shovels and picks, pulling away tons of rock and dirt. They rolled it into piles as they worked to clear a path into the cave. Johnny spied Cipriano, Lancer’s Segundo, and made his way to the foreman’s side.

“Juanito! It is good you are here. Señor Lancer…”

And not getting the chance to finish his thought, Murdoch’s commanding voice overrode the commotion. “Johnny! Where have you been?” The edge in his tone was like a razor already starting to cut.

“Does it matter now?” Johnny replied, his voice soft in comparison. “How long has it been?” Johnny asked, turning the confrontation onto a more productive route.

“Yesterday, midmorning. The kids were playing up here, and Maggie Conley fell in the shaft. Her brother went for help and found Scott rounding up strays at the lake. He came up here and tried to get her out, by himself,” leaving the sentence unfinished as if blaming Johnny for not being at the ranch to help in the rescue attempts. The ‘razor’ had about hit an artery.

Johnny caught the insinuation and visibly winced. Not waiting to hear more, Johnny turned away only to feel a large hand grip his arm in an iron grasp.

“Where are you going, now?” The raised voice had just cut deeper. Johnny looked down at the hand holding him until Murdoch released the numbing grip.

Very softly Johnny gave him the answer. “I’m goin’ ta get my brother.” And he turned away from Murdoch without another word.

Johnny gathered up two lengths of rope, a lantern, and a canteen. Then he searched the crowd for Cipriano.

“Cip! Come with me!” Johnny vaulted onto Barranca’s back and proceeded up the mountain with Cipriano close behind.

“Murdoch! What were you thinking?” Sam was at Murdoch’s side, his jaw dropping open at the accusatory reprimand that Murdoch had used to attack Johnny. “You know that had Johnny been here, nothing would be different! What is the matter with you?” Sam stalked away leaving a stunned Murdoch staring after him.

<><><><> 

Johnny’s race up the mountain had not taken long. He remembered the back entrance as if he’d been here yesterday. It was a bit more grown over; scrub growth had all but hidden it from sight. Scouting for any recent cougar tracks and not finding any he made his way to the opening, removed his hat and squeezed through then turned back to Cip, took the lantern, canteen, and ropes.

“I’m gonna see if this tunnel connects ta where the shaft is, be back soon,” his words strained, he turned back around despite the Segundo's protests that he wait for more help, Johnny disappeared from sight.

Cip stood there as he looked at the small opening and wondered if he’d ever see Johnny again. Maybe both the Lancer boys would be lost in this cold dark tomb, and he shuddered. He made the sign of the cross on his chest, kissed his fingers and muttered a brief prayer for the two boys that had come to mean so much. Faith, Cip thought, faith had been known to move mountains, and in this case, he hoped that it was true, quite literally.

Johnny lit the lantern and watched the interior of the cave brighten. It was amazing the light that was produced from only one lamp. Cautiously he made his way through the maze of tunnels and dragged a foot to mark a trail. He’d learned that trick the hard way after he’d gotten disoriented and lost once in caves while hiding out from the Rurales in Mexico. A lesson hard learned was not soon forgotten and benefited him now, would hopefully benefit his brother and little Maggie, too.

He watched the eerie shadows cast by the lamp and glad that he was not one to be influenced by ghosts and the spirit world so prevalent in the Mexican culture. He remembered his mother telling outrageous stories, even using them as a tool for control, threatening him to be good or ‘they’ would come for him. Well, ‘they’ would not be coming for his brother or little Maggie. I promise…

It seemed he’d been in the cave for hours already but, in reality, he knew it was less than thirty minutes. He was forced to move slowly, not knowing if this section was stable or not. He did notice that the smell was beginning to change; the air was thicker as if more dust and dirt were hanging in it which made it harder to breathe. Could he be getting closer to the cave-in? His heart was beating faster; it was the only thing Johnny could hear other than an occasional creaking of support timbers. It was absolutely still. Johnny stopped periodically to listen for noises, anything to indicate there might be someone left alive.

The tunnel was widening now and every here and there was a sign of activity, human activity, the scrape on the rock walls left from the blow of a pick, a broken lantern or shovel. All good signs that he’d been right about this back entrance- that it would lead him to the missing girl and his brother.

Even though it was cool in the mine, sweat began to cling to his skin. His shirt stuck across his shoulders, and caked with the dirt in the air, it felt like a thin cast on his upper body. He felt a spider web brush across his face not caring if the occupant was still there.

Johnny stumbled more times than he could count. Rocks littered the floor of the cave, and there were deep pits where the digging produced holes in search of the ore that had been mined. He had to skirt around these holes or fall victim to their dangers, and he wondered if that’s where he would find Scott and Maggie, in the bottom of one of these pits. He shook himself clear of these thoughts and re-focused his mind on finding survivors.

He tried to slow the pounding in his chest. The fear of not finding Scott or finding him dead was more than he could bear. Failure was not an option. He and Scott had grown so close in the four short months since they’d met, and once they’d gotten to know the other, they’d become almost inseparable, as if they’d grown up together. The thought of losing his brother now was not anything that he would be able to handle. He had to find Scott, alive. And he knew time was of the essence. They had been without food and water for slightly over a day now, and if there had been any injuries, well, that made the situation all the worse. Where are you, brother?

Deeper into the mine Johnny traveled, slowly but steadily. He began to call out, hoping that one of them would be conscious enough to answer but the only thing he could hear in the tunnels he’d gone through was the chatter of the bats he’d disturbed hanging from the ceiling. But he wasn’t about to give up. He vowed to himself, and to Scott that he would find them. He’d die trying to find Scott; after all, he was sure that Murdoch didn’t much care what happened to him, but he pushed those thoughts aside, because Scott needed him now, and he wouldn't let his brother down. He would find him.

<><><><> 

Murdoch, at that moment, was still reeling from the chewing out from Sam. Sam had the foresight to steer Murdoch away from everyone before laying into him with force. Sam had seen the hurt, no, it was more than hurt. Sam knew, it was more debilitating anguish that pierced Johnny’s heart when Murdoch insinuated Johnny should have been there and gone with his brother and because Scott been alone was the reason he was now trapped, even possibly dead. Johnny did not deserve for that to be thrust upon his shoulders, the blame was not for him to bear and Sam had been appalled by the insinuation and the effect it had on Johnny. For a split second, Sam had seen it.

Johnny was crushed but, pulled himself together quickly before Murdoch saw. He’d be damned before he’d let the ol’ man know how much that had hurt him. Son-of-a-bitch!...

“Sometimes I have to wonder why you wanted Johnny home at all! You have been completely unfair with that boy since the day he rode under the Lancer arch. I've seen it, and so have about everyone else in this entire valley. And I’ll tell you another thing. I’d give my right arm to have a son like him!” Sam stalked away, his blood boiling at the Lancer patriarch and at the moment not caring if it risked his friendship with Murdoch and severed it beyond repair.

Murdoch stood and looked at the ground. He’d not said a word; he knew in his heart he’d not been fair with Johnny. Why did they butt heads all the time? Why did he think Johnny was not worth listening to when he suggested something different? Johnny had a good head on his shoulders, so why don’t I listen to him? Murdoch was puzzled himself. He would need to figure this out, and soon. Sam was right. He suddenly hoped there would still be time to do it. And would Johnny be willing to give them another chance? Even if by the grace of God Johnny were to walk out of this hell hole, he may be lost to Murdoch anyway and merely ride away without another word. Murdoch's brain began to spin out of control. What have I  done?

<><><><> 

Johnny continued deeper into the cave, the dirt and dust still heavy in the air but thicker the longer he walked. He could hear creaking of timbers now louder and felt he was closer to his goal, his goal of his brother and the scared little girl. He felt in his gut they were alive and prayed that he was right, prayed like he hadn’t prayed in a long, long time. When he first entered the cave, he thought about a life without Scott. That thought was debilitating, he'd almost gone to his knees, grief taking over reason, but suddenly, miraculously that grief was replaced with hope, and he couldn't figure where it came from, but hope was there. If the footing weren't so dangerous, he would have quickened his pace, to follow that hope.

“Scott! Maggie! SCOTT!” he called out, but there was no answer. Where were they? His brain screamed.

<><><><> 

Scott had Maggie in his arms, warding off the chill that seeped into their bones. The little girl had long ago cried herself into an exhausted sleep. The deep shaft held the damp and Scott feared if not found soon that this would be their grave. The large beam and rocks had pinned his leg, and he knew it was broken, he also knew that fever was burning in his body. All he could do was to try and keep the girl as calm as he could, so he talked about Lancer, the land he’d come to love and his family but, most of all he thought about his brother and told Maggie what a good man Johnny was; a man that had been such a complete surprise in many ways. A man that Scott had come to respect and admire and more than anything had come to love. Then calmness spread over him, and he knew Johnny would find them and wondered if his brother was near, ready to drag them out of this pit. Johnny will be here; Johnny will be here… I didn't make it out of Libby only to die here!

<><><><> 

Scott thought he was dreaming, yes, he’d been dreaming about Johnny. But then he heard it again, his name being called out from above, and he saw a light.

“Here! We’re down here! Johnny?” he called out weakly. Johnny heard the cries, and his heart skipped a beat, then started to hammer, and his breathing turned ragged.

"Scott?" he called with a hitch in his voice. "Where are you?" He raised the lamp and gazed
around the chamber, then saw the hole in the floor and his heart almost stopped. The cries for help were coming from the bottom of the pit. Carefully stepping to the edge he held the lantern over to illuminate all the way to the bottom. There, half buried was his brother holding the girl as she woke, tired from lack of water, food and clean oxygen.

"Hang on, gonna getcha out." Johnny's smooth, velvet words were like a warm blanket, soothing Scott's tortured mind.  Above, Johnny tied off around a large boulder and slowly lowered himself down to the bottom of the shaft, careful to keep the dirt and rocks from pelting those below as he went. It was slow going and treacherous, but he reached the bottom and made a quick assessment of the situation.

“Hey, brother! Thought you’d get outta some work comin’ in here, did ya?” Johnny chided lightly, setting the lantern down to access the trapped duo. Scott was deteriorating, and by the looks of things, there was a broken leg to tend. He quickly decided he had no choice but to make two trips, first the girl and he would have to get her all the way out into Cip’s care and come back for Scott.

Maggie was crying, scared at the person that was now so close to her, her thoughts jumbled from lack of air and the light which hurt her eyes as she’d grown accustomed to the dark. She didn’t recognize him as Johnny Lancer, the man that had often joked with her and bought her a peppermint stick when he saw her in town.

Scott tried to soothe her with soft murmurings. “That’s alright, Maggie. He scares all the girls!” he whispered and offered Johnny a weak smile.

Johnny gave her his dazzling Johnny Madrid Lancer smile that had melted so many hearts of females of all ages. He left the canteen in Scott’s shaking hands and encouraged him to drink.

“It’s alright, querida, ‘m gonna take ya ta your folks, okay?” and he smiled at her little shocked face when she finally realized it was him. The recognition in her eyes brought a small laugh from Johnny as she threw her tiny arms around his neck and hugged him. Then he gently pulled her away so he could talk and explain to her what he was going to do.

“Listen, chica, I need ya ta help me, alright? It’s real important ya listen ta me cuz I can’t do this without ya. Now ‘m gonna put this rope around ya, alright?” and she nodded her head, her red curls bouncing in disarray. Johnny looped the rope around her and spoke very softly and clearly, looking her in the eyes, keeping direct contact with her to make sure she understood. He lifted a hand and wiped at the smudge on her tiny nose.

“Now, I want ya ta put your arms around my neck, like ‘m givin' ya a piggyback ride an’ don’t let go! Ya hafta hang on ta me, no matter what. Don’t let go!” he repeated this, stressing to the child the importance of her part to play. “Okay, chica, here we go! Hang on now! Scott, ‘m gonna hafta take the lantern with me ta get out but ‘m gonna be back as soon as I can," and giving Scott a quick smile but saying more with his eyes, Johnny started up the wall of the pit with Maggie clinging to his back.

It was slow going, but little Maggie was doing her part, a bit too well. Johnny was nearly choked as her grip was so tight. Well, he did tell her to hang on. And she did. He could see the top now, just a little further and he would be out, almost there! And he heaved himself over the edge, laying in the dirt, gasping for breath.

“Maggie, Maggie! Ya can let go now, chica!” Johnny choked out. Maggie did as she was told and looked around, blinking large brown eyes.

“Where’s Mama?”

“She’s here, Maggie, but we hafta go outside ta see her. Your Pa’s here, too. Let’s go! Watch your step, little one, okay?” Looking down the shaft, he called, “I’ll be right back, Scott!”

“’All right, Johnny…” Scott said weakly.

She did well, Johnny thought, after being trapped for over a day in the pit. Johnny caught her only twice as she would have tumbled to the ground and they made it to the entrance of the mine in much less time than it had taken Johnny on the way in. They could see the light ahead now, and that spurred them on faster.

As he reached the opening Johnny called for help, and soon Cip‘s head and arms came through, a smile as big as Texas on his face as he reached for the little girl. Then, his face fell when he did not see Scott.

“Gotta go back for him, he’s hurt. Take her back down an’ I’ll see ya as soon as I can get Scott!”

“Juanito, wait…”

“No time, Cip! Just take her down! Everything’s real unstable in here!” And Johnny disappeared back into the labyrinth of dark tunnels, still unsure of their fate.

<><><><> 

Cipriano carefully made his way down the trail carrying little Maggie. A crowd whooped and hollered and gathered around them, all asking questions at once. He handed the girl over to her weeping mother's waiting arms. With much happiness, the reunion was witnessed by all with tears of relief and thanks.

Murdoch stood off to the side and watched the family rejoice, tearfully embracing and laughing, and then he thought of his family, the two sons that were still in the mine and wondered if they would have as joyful of a reunion as the Conley’s just had. They had to make it out! They had to! Quickly they moved their rescue efforts up to the rear entrance of the mine; Cip guided them to the small opening, the opening where Johnny had dissapeared once again.

<><><><> 

Johnny raced back down the tunnels, carefully watching where he went and avoiding the deep pits in the floor. Scott, although still alive, was hurt and Johnny didn’t know how badly.

The creaking in the mine was increasing, and Johnny knew he didn't have a lot of time left. He stopped to pick up a broken shovel in hopes that he could somehow, dig away some dirt that left Scott half buried.

He reached the pit quickly and was down the rope, half falling as he reached the bottom. Scott rolled his head in Johnny’s direction but couldn’t focus his eyes. Johnny began to dig as he carefully avoided contact with Scott’s leg.

“Scott, take some water, take a drink,” he urged knowing that dehydration was as much to fear as broken bones. Scott was fading quickly.

“Does it feel like it’s broken, Scott?” Johnny asked and wondered if it was how he would get Scott out of here...

“Don’t feel much anymore, but I think it is. Cold, can’t feel much…” Johnny glanced into his brother’s face and could tell that shock had set in, he was fevered, too. Son-of-a-bitch! Gotta get him outta here, fast! And Johnny dug faster. When he touched the leg to see if it would move, Scott cried out in pain.

Johnny cringed but forced it from his mind. “Sorry, brother, but I gotta see how much more I need ta dig…” Pebbles slid down the wall to pile on top of what Johnny had just dug out from under Scott’s leg.

“’S kay, Johnny, keep going…" His words were beginning to slur, and Scott's head lolled to the side, almost losing his battle to stay conscious. Johnny could see that he was making progress, just a little more and his brother would be free. He was still thinking of the best way to get Scott up and out of the pit. Think faster, Johnny! he told himself.

He could see most of Scott’s leg now and decided to move him. Johnny secured his arms around his brother’s shoulders and gently pulled, again ignoring the cries of pain that pierced his brain. One last pull and Johnny was able to tug his brother from the rocks that pinned him. Once free of the debris, Johnny tied a rope under Scott’s arms making as sure as he could that it wouldn’t slip off, and again, Johnny found himself climbing up the crumbling wall and out of the pit, while his adrenaline coursed through his body like white water rapids.

Again on the top, Johnny began the torturous task of pulling Scott to freedom. With nothing to splint his brother’s leg, it dangled and bumped against the wall of the pit, and Scott soon passed out, unable to bear the pain any longer. That left Johnny to haul the dead weight of his brother from what would have been his grave. Johnny heaved and tugged, knowing that if he dropped Scott, there would be no retrieving him.

Then the rope began to slip; he gripped tighter with more strength than he knew he possessed and pulled harder, causing deep rope burns over his hands that Johnny had to ignore. It tore deep into his flesh, leaving searing and ragged wounds on his fingers and palms, blood mixed with the dirt making the rope slick. It made the exertion more and more difficult but he pushed the pain aside to focus on controlling the rope, pulling his brother to freedom with determination and will. The pit seemed deeper than it had before. Johnny knew Scott had to be close although he could not see him. Just keep pullin’ the damn rope, keep pullin’, keep… And Scott’s head appeared over the edge, his chin sagged to his chest in unconsciousness.

With one last mighty heave, Johnny grabbed his brother and hauled him out of the hole. His hand still clutching the rope and Scott's shirt, Johnny sank to his knees desperately trying to catch his breath. When it finally slowed he then began the arduous task of dragging his brother out towards sunlight. Catching Scott under his arms, Johnny began pulling his brother away from the pit, the progress agonizingly slow. He was forced to stop many times as he backed his way, hopefully, to freedom. Just keep goin’… He didn’t know how far they had come; time ceased to be as Johnny half carried Scott from the deep, black depths but he kept on going fulfilling the promise he had made to his brother to get him to safety.

He barely heard the crack when it came, and Johnny instantly knew there was trouble. He had the strength to shove Scott further up the tunnel when the timber came down, slamming into Johnny’s shoulder and tons of rock and dirt began to fill up the passageway that they had just vacated and the pit that would have been Scott’s grave. The many feet they had just traveled were buried, sealing the tunnel for all time.

<><><><> 

The rumbling deep in the mountain could not only be heard by all standing around the small entrance but could be felt as the trembling beneath their feet reverberated throughout the rock. The crowd let out a collective groan as they realized that there had been another cave in and they stood in stunned shock as they knew that Scott and Johnny were still inside.

Murdoch's heart dropped to his feet, and a loud hissing sounded in his ears as he shrugged off the restraining holds on his arms and threw punches to free himself, then started for the opening. He fought them all, and he fought savagely.

“Damn it! They’re still in there! My sons are still in there!”’ he screamed as he was dragged back and dirt belched from the opening in a massive cloud as if in response to Murdoch's pleas, denying them all and laughing at his request. He went to his knees and wept. My sons… My sons…
<><><><> 

Johnny knew it hadn't been long since the cave-in. He'd not lost full consciousness, but the roar in his ears and his cotton stuffed brain had trouble pulling together time and facts. A cough ripped through his chest waking a blinding surge of pain in his head as he tried to move but more pain shot through his shoulder and he felt hot, sticky blood running down his body. Then it hit him. Scott! Where was Scott? He tried to peer through the dirt hanging in the air, too thick. His eyes burned as the grit and dirt scratched mercilessly and blurred his sight.

The cave-in had missed Scott, Johnny realized with great relief. He, himself, had been hit with a broken beam but not buried. They’d been on the outer edge of trouble. Johnny forced himself to his knees and with the aid of only one arm crawled, feeling the ground in search of his brother. Johnny finally touched a leather boot and felt a leg. He followed the leg up to Scott’s chest and knew he would have to drag Scott the rest of the way, not an easy task in the dark using one arm and just hope they were going in the right direction.

There was a slight brightening up ahead as the dust was thinning. Had they come further than he thought? Johnny called out. He didn’t have much air in his lungs and was spitting mud, and coughed and choked as the dirt caught in his throat but if Cip could hear them, they had a good chance. Another fit of coughing overcame him as blackness threatened to claim his senses, but he fought it back and forced a bellow as loud as he could out of his lungs knowing that help was near. Again he tried to pull Scott forward and call out to let Cip know they were close. Almost there, Boston!

<><><><> 

Cip held up his hands.

“Everyone! Quiet!" He'd gotten their attention and got close to the opening, closing his eyes so the escaping dirt couldn’t blind him. Then he concentrated on the sounds from within the tunnel. There it was! Juanito!

“I can hear Juanito! He’s alive! Get shovels in here, date prisa!”

All Murdoch heard was the word ‘alive'. He shot to his feet pushing through bodies to the tunnel opening. With his bare hands, he began tearing at the rocks and earth surrounding the entrance and soon the hole was doubled in size. Crawling through he called for a lantern and having one thrust into his impatiently waiting grasp, Murdoch turned into the tunnel. He closed his eyes to keep out the grit and listened for signs, any signs from his sons.

“Scott! Johnny!”  My God! He thought as he frantically called out. He stopped then to listen for a response. And finally it came, weak and gravel like, a call mixed with a cough but it was there, and it was close.

“Murdoch…” Johnny's strangled cry broke off with fits of dry hacking coughs making it impossible to talk.

“Johnny?”

“Yeah,” another fit of hoarse coughing guided Murdoch through the haze of dust and there right before him were both of his sons. His heart seemed to thunder out of his chest, and he watched Johnny struggle to his feet and saw the death grip he had on Scott’s arm in sheer determination to bring him out of the mine and into the sunlight. He staggered again as Murdoch rushed to catch him, but he fell just short of his father’s reach. He landed in the dirt and passed out.

Quickly assessing their injuries, Murdoch dragged Scott to the entrance, and he was pulled through by the others outside. He went back for Johnny, carefully picked him up to race back to the opening and handed him through as Cipriano took his sobrino. Murdoch then crawled out and stood to blink in the brightness of the afternoon amid cheers and shouts of joy from the town’s folk. He turned to look back into the mine.

Catching Cip's eye, he gestured to the foreman. “When everyone is gone, blast both openings so this won’t happen again.”

“Si, Patrón.”

<><><><> 

The ride home was long and tiring. Murdoch sat in the wagon bed with his sons, one on either side of him. Sam had tended them quickly as they were hauled out of the cave, Scott’s leg swiftly splinted, the compound fracture washed and stabilized, and Johnny's shoulder wrapped to keep it immobile, the gash above his temple washed and his hands cleaned and wrapped; both were dosed heavily with laudanum to keep them quiet.

A rider was sent ahead to the hacienda and Maria would be waiting to assist Sam. Murdoch sat, watching their faces still caked with dirt and blood. Murdoch worried about Johnny’s head wound, concerned about a concussion, but they were alive, both of them! And suddenly Murdoch realized what his thoughts had just confirmed. He had two sons, both that he loved and he vowed to start acting like it. Please let them both be alright!

The Lancer arch was a very welcome sight; it seemed like hours had passed since they had gotten into the wagon, and the trip had been agonizingly slow. With both sons drugged into unconsciousness, the traveling hadn't been overly stressful for either of them and for that Murdoch was grateful. He thought about the selfless acts they had both accomplished, given the greatest gift to another person that they could, their lives.

Murdoch was stunned to silence when he thought about them. Scott entering the mine, to begin with, in an effort to rescue a small child and Johnny going in, knowing there had already been a cave in and risking everything to save his brother and, of course, the girl. Now, if they would be alright after these injuries and… could he mend the turbulent relationship with Johnny? Or was it already too late?

Murdoch and the hands got the boys to their rooms. Maria had pulled herself together when the rider recklessly thundered into the yard, yelling for her at the top of his lungs. She paled and thought, at first, it was terrible news, but one look at the young cowboy’s face told her what she never expected to hear, both of them safe, but hurt, get everything ready for Doc Jenkins! Maria shrieked for joy, first putting on large kettles of water to heat, and then hurrying into the pantry to get the supply of medicinal herbs she kept. Then she raced upstairs to their rooms to start a fire, turn the beds covers back and replenish water in the wash basins. Everything was ready for them. Tom had told her briefly of the injuries so she had an idea of what would need to be prepared for Doc Jenkins.

Sam was setting Scott's leg. The compound fracture was severe. It was full of dirt and infection had set in. The shock and fever were serious in themselves, and Scott would need close tending for a long while. Johnny’s injuries were not as serious physically but would need time healing. The deep tissue bruising would take a while to mend, and the laceration across his shoulder would need many stitches to close as would the gash on his head. But Maria also knew that Johnny's heart had almost been ripped from his chest during the argument with Murdoch. Señor Lancer was the Patrón and a well-respected man, but he still had a lot to learn regarding the handling of his younger son.

Sam gave a loud sigh as he stood over Scott and watched the pale face. He'd done the best he could, and now all that could to be done was wait. The break was set, all bone shards removed, and it was cleaned, medicated and tightly wrapped. He rechecked Scott's temperature and satisfied it was stable, gave orders to Murdoch to continue encouraging the drinks of water in small amounts, then Sam moved to his next patient leaving Murdoch in charge of Scott.

He entered Johnny's room across the hall as Maria tenderly washed the filth from Johnny's face. The worst of it would have to wait until Johnny could either get into a tub brought to his room or get down to the bathhouse. In the meantime, both of the boys would have to suffer through the indignities of a sponge bath. That was not a good thing for either of them. Sam smiled at the thought. Maria looked up when Sam came through the door.

“How is Señor Scott?” Her large brown eyes held worry. Sam came to the side of the bed to watch Johnny a moment.

"He's holding his own. His leg is set and cleaned, and we'll watch the infection, but I think he'll be alright if we can keep him off that leg for a while.” Both Sam and Maria rolled their eyes. They had often joked between themselves about these two young men and their impatience to be up and about after an injury.

Sam washed his hands and began his exam. Johnny's shoulder still oozed, but that could be a good sign. The blood would wash away much of dirt decreasing chances for infection, and as it wasn’t bleeding badly, Sam wasn’t overly concerned. But he was concerned about the bones in the shoulder. He knew it wasn't broken, but there might be a hairline fracture, either way making the recovery much too long for Johnny. Keeping him quiet was always the hard part and not knowing exactly what they were dealing with yet, well, just keep him as quiet as we can.

Sam stitched the shoulder wound closed. It had been deep and ragged and would be very sore and tender for a while as the bruising went very deep. Then he closed the head wound, not wrapping it but letting the air get to it to help the healing. Sam looked at the young face as he slept, almost angelic, completely relaxed and the savvy doctor knew that wasn't about to last. There would be angry words between this young man and his father before too long, Sam could feel it. He left Johnny sleeping and checked in on Scott.

<><><><> 

The next few days passed with the standard routine. Johnny was recovering more quickly than Scott. Scott was still heavily medicated so dealing with him was not difficult yet. But there was something strange in Johnny’s behavior.

Sam had managed so far to keep Johnny somewhat confined and as he was just now waking after having taken a dose of the dreaded sleeping powders and somewhat still manageable. Sam watched as Johnny became more and more aware of his surroundings. But Johnny remained quiet and relatively still. Sam knew something was not right. This was not typical for him. He checked for fever and finding none, he performed a brief exam and found no issues that would provoke this kind of behavior.

“Johnny? Are you alright?” And he knew what Johnny would say before he said it. He could almost recite the conversation they would have. He knew every line by heart.

“I’m fine…” Johnny said very softly, sounding tired but Sam knew he wasn’t. The usual spark was gone from the deep blue eyes and Sam knew Johnny was thinking about the situation with his father. He’d mumbled about it in his sleep, mumbled hell! There’d been nightmares, and Sam also knew that it weighed heavy not only on Johnny’s mind but in his heart. Remembering what Murdoch had said to Johnny when he first got up to the mine would weigh heavy in any person's heart.

Johnny sighed and closed his eyes, hoping that Sam would leave but after a few minutes, he cracked them open a bit and took a careful look through his lashes. Damn, he’s still there, and Johnny knew Sam wanted to talk. Slowly he opened his eyes as Sam sat and watched him. Johnny turned his head in Sam's direction, and the doctor had all he could do to not react to what he saw in those deep stormy blue orbs. They were filled with pain and not physical pain, this was a broken spirit, and it was bitter and agonizing.

“Johnny? Do you want to talk about it?” Sam quietly urged, hoping to nudge the conversation in a productive direction.

“Nothin’ ta talk about…” Johnny said, his answer dull and emotionless; the tortured gaze was still locked on him. Sam smiled a bit, not sure what to say. This had to be straightened out, the air desperately needed to be cleared and Murdoch was the only one that could do it.

“You know, Johnny, when you and Scott came here, every aspect of this ranch changed. And for the better, I might add. I know this is hard for you to believe, but it’s true.” Johnny huffed in disbelief to prove he didn’t think Sam was right. After that, he hadn't said a word. Sam had a one-sided conversation, and Johnny made no effort to join him. Finally, Sam had all but given up.

"He doesn't want me here, Sam," Johnny whispered. Sam wasn't sure he'd heard correctly. He started to deny that thought.

“Sam, I see it and feel it, every day, whether he wants ta admit it or not, an’ if you’re honest about it you’ve seen it, too, haven’t ya?” Johnny wouldn’t let him go until Sam said, yes, he’d seen it.

“Now ya know…” Johnny whispered and turned his head away. “I’m tired, Sam," Johnny dismissed the doctor and closed his eyes. Sitting in stunned silence, absolutely hurting for the misery and pain he saw pouring off the young man, Sam began to get furious. Again, he would have a conversation with Murdoch. What is the matter with that man?

<><><><> 

Sam quietly left Johnny’s room and searched out Murdoch. This would end, now, today, Sam vowed.

Murdoch was seated behind the huge desk where he spent many hours lately thinking on the precarious situation between his youngest son and himself. He looked up as Sam approached and Murdoch’s face fell as Sam’s expression told of a problem. Murdoch started to rise out of his chair.

"Sit down, Murdoch!" Sam ordered, without his usual tact. This was an order. And Murdoch sat. Sam began to pace in silence, and suddenly Murdoch became annoyed. Opening his mouth to speak, Sam interrupted.

"You are going to listen, and you'd better listen good, Murdoch. I've had to speak to you about this before, and this will be the last time I do because there will not be another chance. So listen up, my friend… Your son, your youngest son, is about as ill as I've ever seen, and do you want to know why?"

“What…”

“Shut up and listen, Murdoch, for once in your life, just listen! Johnny’s in trouble, serious trouble and I will tell you why, that is if you care.” Sam’s nerves were stretched to their limits. He had to make Murdoch understand the seriousness of the situation.

“Sam! I’ve had about enough of the insults…”

“And I said shut up and listen! I can’t stand by and let this happen any longer.” Sam lowered his voice and sat down opposite Murdoch’s desk, looking at the Lancer patriarch.
“Murdoch, we’ve been friends, good friends for a long time now, but I can’t sit back and let this go on anymore. This situation between you and Johnny has got to be resolved, and soon! Do you know he thinks that you don’t want him here? Don’t say anything until I tell you everything. Now, listen. You can’t expect him to conform to your expectations, your rules and regulations. You two are from completely opposite worlds, exactly opposite. There may be a few parallels; of course, you had to fight for the ranch. Johnny had to fight to merely exist, but they are two different worlds. Murdoch, you can’t demand that he lives up to your way of life, your terms and ideals. He’s a man, for God's sake, and you've never treated him like one. His methods are different than yours, granted, but it seems to me that they get you to the same destination and sometimes have beaten you there. As it is now, you are going to lose that boy and believe this or not, it's destroying him, his heart is breaking, and it's because of you!

“Now, I’ve been reading up on this, and the latest research is suggesting that rejection from a loved one is worse than that person dying. Murdoch, as a friend, I am begging you, go to him and let him know, show him that you love him, that is if you haven’t already lost him. In case you haven’t been paying attention, are you aware of the fact that he’s not eating?”

Murdoch’s face fell in total surprise, and shock flooded his features.

“Do you know why he’s not eating? Because he can’t. Nothing is staying down. So, not only has his heart been ripped out of his chest, this has affected him physically, now, too, and if we can’t get this straightened out, and soon, he will get worse and worse. So, Murdoch, you have your work cut out for you. You can let him be and go on believing he means nothing to you because you certainly haven’t let him know otherwise, or you can start treating him like a son you care about and just hope he can find it in his heart to forgive you…”

<><><><> 

What does he want from me? B’sides for me ta leave? Beats the hell outta me why he wanted me back here… Oh, yeah, he needed my gun, an’ now Pardee’s not a threat anymore, he wants me gone. Bet he wishes Pardee’s bullet woulda finished the job. Could prob’ly deal with not seein’ the Ol’ Man ‘cept for that means havin’ ta say goodbye ta Scott, too, an’ that’ll kill me. What the hell, the way it’s goin’ I‘m not gonna be around that much longer. Can’t eat, havin’ trouble sleepin’ without them damn nightmares, fuck! Might as well just go ahead an’ end it, myself. Save everyone the trouble.

His belly rolled and threatened to empty. Hell, there wasn't anything in it to empty. He willed it to be still, breathing deeply through his mouth and soon the rolling stopped. Johnny closed his eyes and tried to clear his mind. Deep in the torn depths of his aching heart, he knew what he would have to do. As soon as he could stand he would leave the ranch. He would leave Lancer and those he loved.

<><><><> 

Murdoch watched Johnny sleeping fitfully. He was witnessing a nightmare, not believing the sorrow and anguish on the gaunt features, he was afraid. And Murdoch began to cry. Had he caused this? He was appalled at himself.

Slightly composed, Murdoch retrieved the cloth out of the basin of water, wrung it out and placed it on Johnny’s forehead. At once Johnny jerked awake, and there was Madrid to help, to help protect him. Murdoch was chilled to his core as he watched Madrid appear. Never in his life had he witnessed anything remotely like what he’d just seen and he was scared, no, he was terrified at the things he saw in those icy, cold blue eyes. Is this what those who tried to outdraw him saw as they faced him down in the streets?

Murdoch had to make the first move, and he had to be good, he had to be honest.

“Johnny, how are you feeling?” he asked, and smiled what he hoped was a warm and genuine smile. But the gesture was met with a glacial stare that pierced his soul, not malicious, but cold and blank as if there was absolutely nothing, no feeling in those stormy dark eyes. Madrid was on duty, protecting, shielding. How much had Johnny been through in his young life that he had perfected this blanket, this safeguard that shielded his heart? And how could Murdoch penetrate it and breach that wall?

“Son, can I get you anything? Can you eat something?” Murdoch asked hopefully. Johnny simply shook his head slightly. He was grasping for anything that might help him to break through the wall that Johnny had erected with the building materials that Murdoch supplied.

“You know what I wish?” he began again.

“That Pardee’s bullet woulda finished the job…?” Johnny quietly guessed.

Murdoch was stunned, and he drained of color. “No! How could you even think something like that?” Murdoch was shocked breathless.

“How? Oh, yeah, I forgot about all the kindness and consideration you’ve shown me. Hell, Murdoch, face it,  ya don’t want me here, ya wouldn't listen ta anything I said, an' when I suggested somethin' ya ignored it like I wasn't even there, so don't come in here an' act like ya wanna patch things up, cuz ta be honest, which is a lot more than what you’ve been with me… I can’t do this anymore,” the last coming softly and defeated and he turned his head away.

“What are you saying, Johnny?” Murdoch asked as panic began to wrap its icy fingers around his heart. Heart pounding, the old man held his breath.

Had Johnny been watching he would have seen the worry, the fear in Murdoch’s eyes.

“I’m saying, ya don’t hafta worry about me embarrassin’ ya anymore. Soon as I get on my feet, I‘m leavin’.” Johnny said with no emotion in his voice.

Murdoch began to panic. “Johnny, I don’t know what to say to make you understand… I don't want you to leave!”

“Yeah, ya do, you’re just not bein’ honest with yourself, just like ya haven’t been with me.”

“When your mother took off with you, I would have killed to get you back…”

Johnny cut him off, not allowing Murdoch to continue. "Like a puppy, cute, long as they stay little, but once they grow up, ya don't want ‘em anymore. Look, Murdoch, I been on my own for a long time, I know when I‘m bein' lied to, so don't say any more." Johnny put a hand to his forehead as the headache started to pound, feeling like it would explode all over his pillow. He closed his eyes and sighed loudly. “I’m tired,” he whispered as if dismissing his father and Murdoch knew that he had to try again, he had to make his son know how wrong he’d been, how desperate he was to make it up to him.

He stood and glanced down at the young man in the bed. Johnny looked exhausted, pale and… haunted and Murdoch knew that he was to blame.

Murdoch left Johnny’s room looking older than when he went in. Sam was on his way to see Scott but stopped as Murdoch held up his hands in a ‘don’t ask’ gesture and shrugged in defeat.

“No good, he’s leaving.” The words tore his heart in two and he walked through his bedroom door and closed it quietly.

<><><><> 

Scott's leg was healing remarkably well, and Sam was glad one of his patients would make a full recovery. He rechecked Scott's injury and was very pleased with the progress. Although Scott remained skeptical, Sam was delighted.

“How’s Johnny doing, Sam?” And with this question, Sam’s smile disappeared, and Scott immediately became suspicious.

“What’s wrong, Sam? And don’t tell me nothing. Johnny hasn’t been in here to see me, so I know something is going on. Tell me…” Scott pleaded.

Sam looked up into eyes that were almost as tortured as the ones he’d seen on Johnny.
“I think you should rest, Scott…” Sam advised.

Not having a chance to finish, Scott resumed his plea. “Sam… Please…”

Sam relented. "Johnny's leaving, Scott. He's been hurt enough, and he can't take any more. As soon as he is able, he'll be going. And, yes, I've talked to Murdoch and Murdoch has tried to talk to Johnny, but, and these are Johnny’s words, he can’t do it anymore. ” Sam looked down at his hands as if searching for an answer. Scott paled and let his head fall back onto the pillows.

“Sam- I need to see Johnny, now…”

“I can’t allow that, Scott, Johnny is in no condition…”

“What do you mean ‘no condition’? I thought he only sustained minor injuries in the cave-in?” Scott was shocked and wary, staring at Sam.

"Well, yes, but he's not been eating, can't keep any food down and, to be honest, is very weak. He's been having nightmares, and so he hasn’t been getting the rest he needs. You know how he is when he’s been injured…”

“Sam, either you get Johnny in here to see me, or I’m getting out of this bed… Right now!” Scott made as if he would throw the bed covers aside and try to get up.

“All right, all right, just give me a minute…” Sam left the chair beside Scott’s bed and went across the hall to see Johnny.

Pretending to be asleep had been developed into an art form, and Johnny played it well. He'd heard Sam exit Scott's room, and immediately he shut his eyes, feigning sleep, and Sam bit, hook line and sinker. Happy that the young Lancer was getting much-needed rest he returned to Scott with the ‘good news’.

<><><><> 

Johnny mulled over in his mind that he was going to have to talk to Scott, he couldn’t just leave without saying goodbye, but the thing was… he couldn’t say goodbye. He knew that he would not be able to stand and face Scott and say those words. But he couldn't stay here, either, not with Murdoch thinking the way he did, and saying the things he said. Did Murdoch honestly believe that Johnny was as too irresponsible and untrustworthy to have any faith in him at all? Well, apparently, that’s the way it was, so Johnny had only one option, and that was to leave and let Murdoch have the ranch, bought with Johnny’s blood and live happily ever after. Isn't that how they said it in all those storybooks? Happily ever after?

He finished the letter and sealed the envelope. It was late, he knew, but that would work out just fine. He tugged on his boots and stood on unsteady feet, but once he gained his balance, he walked with cat-like softness and grace, carefully opened his door and peered down the hall. Seeing no one, he crossed to the door opposite his and slowly eased it open.

Scott lay in his bed softly snoring, and Johnny quietly stood at his brother’s side, watching the man as he slept and remembered every little thing, every fun time and everything about the man that Scott was. The brother he deeply loved. The brother he’d never known about until that stage ride when he’d accidentally fallen on this Eastern dude. He’d apologized with more than a hint of sarcastic humor for messing up his suit when the coach took off expectantly. And then to find out this ‘Eastern dude’ was his brother was quite a shock but what was more of a surprise was to find out that Scott could hold his own and was a man to be respected. This was no Boston Dandy who could not defend himself. This was a man that Johnny was privileged to know and fight alongside. This was a man who was a credit to the West, and Johnny was proud to call him brother. And now he was saying goodbye.

The pain in his body paled in comparison to the pain that filled his heart. Johnny's eyes welled up with moisture, and he found it hard to breathe. He watched Scott for a few more seconds, then he turned around and headed to the door, quietly closing it behind him. Damn Murdoch!

Johnny made it to the barn where he slowly and carefully saddled Barranca, mounted the beautiful golden stallion and left, riding under the Lancer arch for the last time.

<><><><> 

Scott stretched and yawned, looking out the window at the gray and rainy day. Rivulets of water streaked down the glass making the bed seem extra warm and cozy. He moved his hand to scratch his head but heard a crinkle of paper and saw the envelope in his hand. His stomach flipped, and he thought he would be sick. Ripping open the letter he read the words that struck grief and rage, too, in his heart.

Dear Scott,

Please don't think bad of me but I can't do this anymore. The constant battles with Murdoch are more than what I can handle. He thinks of me as a big disappointment, and I can't seem to do anything right in his eyes, so the best thing for all is for me to move on. Johnny Madrid served me well in the past, so I'll have to count on him again to get me through. Do me a favor, though, and don't believe everything you hear about him. He really isn’t that bad of a guy. He’s gotten me through some pretty bad scrapes so I reckon he can do it again.

All I can say is that I wish it would have worked out. Maybe I wasn’t the best son, the son that he thought I should be but I tried and wasn’t living up to the standards he set in his mind. Coming from different worlds, well, you know they got to clash and clash they did.

I’ll be using the name Madrid so as not to cause the Old Man any more embarrassment. Using Lancer would only make matters worse.

I really wanted to tell you this face to face but found that I couldn’t look you in the eye and say goodbye. It’s been a pleasure to know you, Scott, and an honor to have you in my life, even if it was only a short while.  Maybe we’ll see each other around.

Johnny

Scott flopped his head back on the pillow and shut his eyes. He’d just lost his brother. The hell I did!

“MURDOCH! MURDOCH!” he bellowed with all his strength, and within seconds Murdoch barged through the door.

“Scott! What is it?” Murdoch, startled, asked before the door was open. Scott sat on the bed with the paper in his shaking hand, glaring at his father.

“Read this,” thrusting the letter out for Murdoch to take. Shaking hands reached for the missive and reading the surprisingly neatly written words, Murdoch stood with his head hanging.

“Now, go after him!” Scott commanded his father, brooking no argument.

“I tried talking to him, Scott. He wants to leave…” Murdoch stammered.

“No! He doesn't want to leave! Now, go talk to him some more! Just get him back here where he belongs! Because, if you don’t, then I will!” Scott’s eyes held his father’s and Murdoch knew his oldest son was serious. Turning he left the room and began getting ready to venture out into the rain and bring Johnny home.

<><><><> 

The cold rain found its way down his back even though the slicker had been thrown across his shoulders. He was cold, wet and so tired. His head bobbed as he rode and all he wanted was to sleep. Hell, can’t do that, either. Damn nightmares’ll start again. He didn’t know where he was going and was having a difficult time keeping coherent thoughts.

The thundering in his skull wouldn't cease, and his vision blurred, accented with dancing black spots. The pounding in his shoulder matched the beat in his head. His mind kept wandering; flitting here and there with half of a notion then faded and on to something else before he would complete any thought. His head felt stuffed with cotton, and his body shivered with no control from the cold and wet of the day. He had dry heaved until he thought he was turned inside out and he wanted to close his eyes and rest, just close… eyes… rest. And he fell, rolling in the wet grass and came to a jolting stop at the bottom of a hill.

<><><><> 

The tracks were visible, but the rain was washing them away. Murdoch did the best he could, but admittedly, he wasn't as proficient as he would like to have been at following a trail. He did not think that Johnny was more than a couple hours ahead and he knew Johnny shouldn't be out in this cold and damp weather so a couple of hours ahead could be more than detrimental.

What was he going to say to change Johnny’s mind? What could he say to make any difference? He knew he was wrong but how to convince his youngest son that he now realized what he’d done? Why had he been so insistent that things were to be done his way and no other way would be good enough? That line of thought may have cost him a son.

So consumed with guilty thoughts, Murdoch almost missed the flash of a golden coat through the trees. His breath caught in his throat. Could it be Barranca?  And he nudged his horse a bit faster. The Palomino stood as if on watch duty, and he did not shy away as Murdoch neared. But where was Johnny? Then after scouting the area, Murdoch’s sights were drawn to the bottom of the hill.
<><><><> 

He tried to come out of the fog; they were coming for him. He thought if they would just kill him all his troubles would be over. No more nightmares, and where he would probably end up, well, at least he wouldn't be cold anymore. But they were coming for him, now… And soon it would be over.

<><><><> 

Murdoch raced down the hill to Johnny’s side. Finding a weak pulse on the cold skin of his neck, he picked Johnny up; gently he brushed away the flailing hands. Murdoch carried him up the hill to Barranca and got him in the saddle. He could feel the tremors rack his son’s body and could only wrap Johnny in his bedroll for warmth. Securing the young man in the saddle, they started for home.

<><><><>

The voices were distant, but they were there, whispering but sounding like a drum in his head. The pounding had increased as he lay trying to figure out what had happened. Then it dawned on him, he was in a bed, and it felt like… Mierda! He was back at Lancer! His stomach rolled, and he gagged, he felt himself being turned on his side as the retching slammed through his body, and soon a cool, wet cloth wiped across his mouth. Another cloth was laid across his forehead and the voices hushed. They started again, only quieter. They whispered amongst themselves, but Johnny couldn’t follow any of it. He only wanted to sleep, Just shut up an lemme sleep…

“What was he thinking?” Murdoch asked of Sam as they watched the emotions flit across Johnny’s face.

Sam thought he’d already squared off with Murdoch about this. How much more would he have to explain? He stared at Murdoch with wide, questioning eyes.  “I told you, Murdoch! How can you expect him to stay, to want to stay with your attitude toward him?”

“Is he in such a hurry to be gone from here that it almost killed him?” Murdoch asked as if in defense.

“And why would you care? You’ve made it plain to him…”

“I only wanted him to become responsible and not so wild…”

“So you wanted to break his spirit, thinking you could mold him into what you thought he should be? What is so bad about the person he is now?” Sam challenged.

“There’s nothing bad, just…” Murdoch stammered.

“Just not what you wanted…” Sam finished the thought for him and having it put into words, Murdoch was, again, appalled at himself; this thought was ugly and unfair. Murdoch held his head in his hands, trying to gain composure. Sam hit the target square, dead center.

“You need to talk to him, Murdoch. Now. He’ll hear you.” Sam went to the door and left the two men alone, one of them not sure what to say, the other not sure if he wanted to listen.

Sam entered Scott’s room to find the elder son sitting up in bed, pillows propped around him and under his splinted leg.

“Well, how is he?” Scott asked, anxious for word on his brother. Sam sat in the chair next to the bed; he leaned back as if exhausted and deeply sighed.

"Johnny will be fine, once we get him to eat and keep it down. It will be a little slow at first, but he'll be alright. It's Murdoch that’s the problem right now. He’s run this place for so long that he is having difficulty realizing that there is more than his way to get things done. Basically, that's what it boils down to, Scott. And unfortunately for you, you're the one caught in the middle. I don't know what he thought things would be like when you two came home, but certainly, he had to know that it wouldn’t be the same…”

<><><><> 

“I hope you can hear me, son. Sam seemed to think that my talking would help, so, I’ll try and explain a few things…” Murdoch suddenly stopped, not saying what he was about to say. He couldn’t put it into words, because it was a lie. Johnny deserves to hear the truth.

“Johnny, I am so sorry things got this far out of hand. I honestly had no intentions of running you off, of pushing you away and I hope you can believe me; I hope you can forgive me. I am so sorry…”

In his muddled brain he listened to words spoken, it sounded a lot like Murdoch, but since when did the old man have any time for his youngest, then he heard very clearly his asking for Johnny’s forgiveness. Murdoch’s askin’ me ta forgive him? I must be sicker ‘n I thought…

Murdoch talked for over an hour, having expressed his hopes and wishes and apologies. All the while he spoke he watched Johnny's face, looking for some sign that his son could hear and understood what he was saying, and acceptance of those words spoken from his heart. But Johnny remained still. Finally finished, Murdoch sighed and rose from his chair. Standing over Johnny he leaned forward and placed a work-roughened hand on his son’s cheek and spoke softly.

“I love you, Johnny,” and left the room.

The day wore on, still rainy and chilly, the fat drops battered the windows and ran down the panes to wash to the ground. Johnny slept until early evening before opening blurry, unfocused eyes. The pounding in his head had subsided a bit, now only a dull roar thundered in his skull, and his shoulder only hurt when he moved. Risking a renewed onslaught, Johnny rolled his head slowly to his right and saw someone sitting in the chair next to him. A slight cough escaped him, renewing waves of pain and Murdoch had a glass of water held to his mouth so Johnny could drink.

"It's only water, Johnny," knowing his son's aversion to painkillers. "Not too much," and he took the water away.

“Thanks, Murdoch,” Johnny mumbled, the words sounding like music to Murdoch’s ears.

“Can you eat something, Johnny? Maybe a little broth?” Murdoch coaxed hopefully.

“Maria make it?” Johnny asked absently.

“Yes, she did. It’s been simmering all afternoon. I’ll get you some, I’ll be right back…”

Johnny closed his eyes, they’d only been half open when he talked with Murdoch, but it had been a monumental effort to keep them there. It seemed just seconds had passed when someone was softly calling his name, and once again the deep blue eyes cracked, barely able to see.

“Let me help you sit up a little,” and a gentle arm was around him to carefully lift him forward as more pillows were stuffed behind him. He felt a warm spoon against his mouth, and he opened up to take a small taste of the broth. It was heavenly! Maria worked miracles in the kitchen, Johnny thought. He could feel it spread through his body, revitalizing his tired, beaten carcass. And not only did it taste good, better than anything, it stayed down.

Johnny had eaten more than half when he'd had enough, slightly holding a hand up with a minimal shake of his head. Murdoch got the message and removed the napkin from under Johnny's chin.

“Water, son?” Murdoch asked and tipping the glass to Johnny’s mouth, he encouraged him to drink. “Can I get you anything else?”

“Tequila out of the question?” Johnny asked with a half-smile.

Murdoch chuckled, thinking a chuckle never felt as good as this one did!

“Yes, it certainly is…”

“Can’t blame me for tryin’,” Johnny said and settled in the bed more comfortably.

“Johnny? Can we talk a bit? Are you up for a little conversation?” Murdoch asked, hoping to address the issue again, this time with Johnny listening.

“Is it gonna be the same conversation we had earlier? Yeah, I heard ya, just couldn’t do any answerin’,” he explained at Murdoch’s shocked expression.

“I can’t say that it won’t happen again, Murdoch, we’re two different people, came from different backgrounds and look at things sometimes from opposite sides, but all I know is I can't deal with the… disappointment I see in your eyes. Dios, that sounds like a whiny little kid when I say it…” Johnny closed his eyes with a heavy sigh.

“Johnny, I’ve done a lot of thinking these last few days, thanks to Sam.” Johnny smiled at this acknowledgment. “And I know that things have to change between us, I know how… wrong I’ve been. And I know I don’t want you to leave. You belong here with Scott and me. Please, son, please stay…?”

“No more standin’ in the shadow of the sun?” Johnny asked softly.

Murdoch frowned, not understanding.

“Standin’ in the shadow of the sun, bein’ there but not bein’ seen…” Johnny explained.

“No, son, no more standing in the shadow of the sun.”

Johnny smiled and closed his eyes, sleep taking over, and this time there were no nightmares.

 

 

~ end ~

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