The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Caroline

 

 

FFaith

An episode tag for The Prodigal
(Brief episode summary)


This story is set 18 months after the events portrayed in the episode.

There is sufficient information within the story to provide the background, so it isn’t necessary to have seen the episode to follow what’s going on.

******************

Scott sat back in his chair and sighed contentedly.  The meal had, as usual, been excellent.  He reached over for his glass as his father rose from his seat at the head of the long dining table.  Murdoch placed his napkin on his plate and smiled down at the woman sitting on his right hand side.  Scott was surprised to see a hint of nerves in Marcy Dane’s smile before she dropped her eyes to her wine glass, a glass that Scott now realised had gone untouched.

“Boys, Teresa,” Murdoch beamed happily as he looked around the table. “Marcy and I have something to tell you.”

Johnny shot a quick glance across the table at his older brother.  While being perfectly aware of the look Scott kept his attention on his father and an expression of polite interest on his face.

“As you know Marcy and I were very close a number of years ago.  I can’t tell you how unhappy I was when she decided to abide by her parents’ wishes and marry George Dane.  Nonetheless it was clear that he loved her and she tells me that they had a good life together before his premature death.  Since meeting again in San Francisco we have had the opportunity to spend a lot of time together and we’ve found that our feelings for each other have only grown stronger.  I am delighted to say that this time she has accepted my proposal of marriage.”

Johnny dropped the spoon he had been fiddling with and it hit his saucer, the sound breaking the brief silence that had greeted his father’s words.  Everyone at the table turned to look at him and a frown appeared on Murdoch’s face.  Johnny sent a pleading look to Scott before ducking his head in embarrassment.

Scott smiled slightly at his brother’s discomfort before taking pity on Johnny and clearing his throat loudly.  He stood up from his seat next to Marcy, took her hand and kissed her on the cheek.  “I’m very happy for you.”  He extended his right hand to his father.  “Congratulations, sir.  You’re a very lucky man.”

“Thank you, Scott.”  Murdoch relaxed back into his chair with a pointed look at his younger son who was still contemplating the lace tablecloth.

Scott’s pleasure was genuine.  He had been as wary as Johnny to start with but had quickly warmed to Mrs Dane.  She had spent most of the last six months at Lancer, when she wasn’t in San Francisco visiting her son. During that time she had been very careful not to intrude upon the time spent by Murdoch with his sons as they worked at strengthening the fledgling family unit. She had proved over and over that she wasn’t afraid of hard work, was an excellent cook, and she had become something of a mother figure for Teresa.

Although Teresa rarely spoke of her real mother, Scott was sensitive enough to know that she missed having an older woman to turn to.  Scott had never known his own mother and had been brought up by a succession of nursemaids and nannies.  He had no urge to have a mother figure in his life having managed quite satisfactorily without one for over twenty-five years.  He was, however, aware that Johnny’s feelings were another matter entirely.  His brother had been brought up by his mother until her death when he was ten and he was extremely suspicious of any woman who moved in and showed an interest in darning his socks and ironing his shirts.

This announcement though wasn’t unexpected and the brothers had anticipated and discussed it.  They agreed that Mrs Dane made their father happy and that they appeared well suited.  Johnny’s reservations about the match had nothing to do with Marcy and a whole lot to do with her son, Jeff.

Scott came out of his thoughts to hear Teresa excitedly prattling on about the wedding.  He grimaced good-naturedly and stole a look at Johnny.  His dark-haired sibling was looking anything but happy.

“What about Jeff?” Johnny’s quiet question cut across Teresa’s enthusiasm.

Murdoch and Marcy exchanged looks.  “We’re leaving for San Francisco the day after tomorrow to give him the news,” Murdoch stated firmly.

“That ain’t what I meant.”

“What exactly did you mean, young man?” Murdoch growled at his youngest before subsiding as Marcy laid a restraining hand on his arm.

“Nothing.” Johnny recognised that he had gone too far in the presence of the woman who was to become his step-mother.  “Mrs Dane, ma’am, I think you’re a real fine lady.  I hope that you and my father will be very happy together.”

“Why, thank you, Johnny.  Teresa, my dear, help me clear the dishes and then perhaps we can go to my room and talk about the arrangements for the wedding. There’s so much to do if we want to get married next month.”

“Next month?” Johnny cursed his inability to keep his mouth shut.

“Is there a problem, John?” his father enquired.

“No…no problem.  Just seems kinda sudden is all.”

“I have waited over twenty years to marry this woman.  I wouldn’t call that ‘sudden.’”

Johnny flinched…twenty years ago it hadn’t been that long since his mother had run off, taking him with her.  It appeared that it hadn’t taken his father as long as he had thought to get over that betrayal.  It would also seem that his father must have divorced his mother if he had been thinking about remarrying.  Johnny decided that he didn’t want to pursue that line of thought.

Scott looked helplessly from his father to his brother.  For reasons known only to himself Murdoch appeared to be blind to the problems Jeff Dane could bring to Lancer.  Johnny on the other hand had known too many young men like Jeff to be able to brush the issue under the carpet.  Scott was more inclined this time to side with his father and to give the boy a chance, something that Johnny seemed reluctant to do.

After Teresa and Marcy had left the room Scott walked over to the liquor cabinet.  “I think this deserves a toast.”  He poured three glasses of their best brandy and handed one to each man. He raised his glass to Murdoch. “To you and Marcy.  May you have a long and happy life together.”  He saw his father relax despite the fact that Johnny was still wound up tighter than a spring.

The stubborn look on Johnny’s face indicated that he was far from through with his objections.  “You didn’t answer my question, Old Man.  You expecting her no-good son to come and live here?”

Murdoch slammed his glass down onto a nearby table.  “And why shouldn’t he?  Marcy wants her son living with her and, in my view, that’s perfectly reasonable.”

“You didn’t think to discuss it with us?  I thought we were partners.”

Scott caught his breath at that statement.  Johnny wasn’t appealing to their father on a personal level but rather on a business one.

“We are partners but, as I made very clear from the outset, I call the tune.”  Murdoch’s stare bored into his son as neither man gave an inch.

“Yeah, I know.  It’s just that…well that isn’t how it’s been.  It would just have been nice if you’d talked to us about it rather than up and announcing it like that.”

The lack of aggression in Johnny’s tone allowed for a fractional easing of the tension.  Murdoch picked up his glass, taking a sip of the smooth tasting liquid and Scott wondered if his father was considering his answer before speaking.

“Perhaps you’re right.  I didn’t think it was going to cause a problem.  Jeff will be welcome here because of his mother, but he’ll have to work hard and prove himself.  I’m sure he won’t expect an easy ride. Marcy and I are planning to be away for a month or more on our honeymoon so it will be for you two to help Jeff settle in.  He’s had no experience with ranch work so you’ll have to be patient with him.”

“He’s trouble, Murdoch,” Johnny stated quietly.

“He’s young and he made some mistakes.  I would have thought you, of all people, would understand the value of giving someone a second chance.” 

“Some people don’t get any chances in this life.” Johnny raised hurt blue eyes to his father. “Last time he was here he was on the run from the Army accused of killing a man.”

“And he admitted his part in that.  Packer was the one who hit that sergeant and neither one of them intended to kill him.  Jeff’s serving his sentence and has stayed out of trouble.  He’s eligible for release in two weeks and I’m sure he’ll be grateful to have a place to start over. He was young and foolish.  He’s assured his mother that he’s learned his lesson and that he’s ready to settle down.”

Johnny shook his head.  “I told you before, I know his kind and they don’t change.”

“You did.”

“You have no idea what ‘kind’ I was.  At least I was prepared to look a man in the eye and I never lied or stole either, leastways not after I was grown.”

Scott moved between the two men.  Johnny’s sudden stillness had warned him that his brother was fighting hard to control his temper. “Now isn’t the time for this.  It’s not worth arguing over a problem that may not exist.  When Jeff gets here I’ll take him in hand. I know what it’s like being thrown into a completely new environment.” He looked from one to the other and was rewarded with a grudging nod from his brother.

“That’s a good idea, Scott.” Murdoch reached over and squeezed Scott’s shoulder in a gesture of gratitude.

Scott watched quietly as Murdoch turned back to his quick tempered, brother. He could see the wariness in Johnny’s eyes.

“Can’t you be happy for us, Son, and give him a chance?”

Johnny drained his glass.  “I am happy for you.” He set his glass on the table and walked to stand in front of his father.  He offered his hand. “Congratulations.”

Murdoch smiled and pulled Johnny into a quick hug.  “Everything will be fine.  You’ll see.”

*****

It was late when Johnny heard a quiet tap on his door.  “It’s open,” he called, not moving from his position on the bed.

“I wondered if you wanted to talk.” Scott entered the room and perched on the end of the bed.  Johnny was braiding thin strips of leather and Scott watched, his eyes glued to his brother’s movements, as quick fingers tied the knots that would turn the leather into intricately woven reins.

“They’re a present for Teresa,” Johnny explained when he saw the direction of Scott’s gaze.  He sighed and laid the strands down on the bed.  “You think I was outta line, don’t you?”

“I think you could have handled it better.  You and Murdoch have been getting along really well these past few months. Don’t let something like this push you apart again.”

“I don’t mean it to but that boy...Oh, hell, Scott I can’t even explain it to myself.  Murdoch ain’t had that much luck with his marriages and I don’t want to see him get hurt again.”

“Then why couldn’t you have told him that?” Scott asked reasonably.

Johnny bent his head while he thought about that.  When he looked up again his quirky smile had reappeared.  “Beats me.  Guess I’m no good at doing things the easy way.”

Scott slapped his brother on the leg.  “Tell me about it!  Are you going to be alright?”

“Sure, Boston, don’t worry about me.  I’ll give Jeff his chance but if he does anything to hurt this family…”

“If he does anything to hurt this family you won’t be the only person he has to worry about.”

*****

Jeff Dane watched as the hands on the clock in the guard room slowly worked their way round to two o’clock.  His mother was due to visit and it would be the last such visit before his release in a couple of week’s time.  He had lost weight during his incarceration and that had accentuated the sharpness of his features.  Johnny had once said to Murdoch that Jeff had ‘a soft kinda slip away look around the eyes.’ That hadn’t changed.

At only twenty years of age he had spent his young life lying, cheating and blaming everyone but himself for his misfortunes.  He had a grudge against the Army, against his mother but, most of all, against Murdoch Lancer.  Eighteen months previously he and his friend Al Packer had gone AWOL for three days.  For that minor offence they had been sentenced to sixty days in the guard house.  Neither man had accepted the punishment graciously and had plotted an escape.

During that escape attempt Al had hit the guard with a piece of wood, inflicting a fatal wound.  Neither of them had meant for it to happen and Jeff secretly blamed Al for hitting the man too hard.  Faced with a murder charge they had run and followed Jeff’s mother to the Lancer ranch.  They needed money so that they could take ship to South America.  It simply hadn’t occurred to Jeff that his mother wouldn’t be able to get her hands on that sort of money quickly.

He had overheard her pleading with Murdoch Lancer to lend her the money.  The rancher, with high moral principals that Jeff couldn’t understand, had refused.  He had made some meaningless promise to treat Jeff like his son and get him a good lawyer.  Jeff couldn’t imagine the man turning in either of his sons, so the words had rung hollow to his ears.

He hadn’t taken to either of the young Lancers.  The older one had been cold and condescending while the younger son had a look that terrified Jeff.  What he didn’t understand was Johnny’s reference to having been in prison.  He didn’t reckon Lancer would be happy to have a jailbird for a son.

Fortunately Packer had been around some and knew how to crack a safe.  They had helped themselves to the Lancer payroll of seven hundred dollars and had taken off.  How was he to know that his mother had overheard them talking?  The devious bitch had left Lancer a note before following them.  She’d lulled them into a false sense of security that allowed Lancer to catch up and get the drop on them.  Jeff had eventually managed to take the gun and would have sent Murdoch Lancer into the afterlife if Packer and his mother hadn’t interfered.  In the struggle for the gun he had shot and killed his best friend and his own mother had then held a gun on him.

Much to his surprise Lancer had arranged for him to have a very good lawyer who managed to negotiate a sentence of two years with the chance of parole after eighteen months if he behaved.  He had been very well behaved.  The lawyer had placed the blame for everything on Packer who was far older than Jeff with a poor record.  The Judge had accepted that Jeff had been led astray by a hardened criminal. Jeff had been suitably remorseful and thanked the judge for letting him off so lightly.  The words had all but choked him.

Now he was due to be released.  The Army had given him a dishonourable discharge, which was just fine with him.  He’d only joined up because his mother kept nagging him to do something productive with his life.  The question now was what he would do when he got out.

His mother had been visiting him regularly and he never once let on that he blamed her for his imprisonment.  So far as she and everyone else knew, he was a reformed character.  He heard the clock chime the hour just as the outer door was opened.  His false smile of welcome froze on his face when he realised that his mother wasn’t alone. He hadn’t seen Murdoch Lancer since being sentenced.

“Mom…Mr. Lancer.  How are you, sir?”

Murdoch hesitated before clearing his throat.  “I’m well.  How about you?  How have they been treating you?”

Jeff suppressed the smile that threatened at Lancer’s obvious unease. “Can’t complain.  Guess I had it coming.”

“Jeff, we have some news for you,” Marcy grasped Murdoch’s hand.  “We’re getting married.”

Jeff’s first thought was that this was the ultimate betrayal – his mother marrying the man responsible for putting him in jail.  He turned away and sat down on his cot.  Then he realised that this was the perfect opportunity to make them all sorry for what they had done.  He looked up and saw his mother’s apprehension.  “That’s wonderful news.  When’s the wedding? I hope you’re gonna wait until I can be there?”

Marcy sighed in relief.  “Of course.  The wedding is set for a month from today at the Lancer ranch.”

“It’s a condition of your bail that you live with your mother for the next six months.  Even if that weren’t the case we would both like you to live at Lancer.  You’ll need to pull your weight and work just like my sons do.  Scott has agreed to teach you what you need to know.  He had no experience of ranch work until he moved out here from Boston a couple of years ago so he understands what it’ll be like for you.”

“That’s right nice of him, Mr. Lancer.”  Jeff thought back to his first view of the Lancer hacienda.  He had never seen anything so big and grand before.  He’d been amazed by the size of the ranch.  A man could get used to such luxury and he had no intention of doing any more than the bare minimum of work.  What was the point in having all that money if you had to break your back doing menial work?  He listened to his mother talking animatedly about the wedding.  When she told him that she and Lancer would be away for over a month on their honeymoon he knew he’d been given his dearest wish.  By the time they returned he’d have given them a wedding present they would never forget.

*****

A couple of days later Johnny lay comfortably on the sofa, his head pillowed on a soft cushion.  Murdoch had returned from his trip to San Francisco that afternoon, leaving Marcy to organise her wedding dress and wait for Jeff’s release.  Teresa and Maria had provided a hearty meal to welcome back the head of the household and Johnny was too full to consider moving any time soon.  He and Scott had been working hard; doing all the little repairs to the house that never seemed to get done, in between supervising the work crews.  They had both made several trips to town on Teresa’s behalf as she seemed to have a never ending list of supplies necessary for the wedding.

“Never realised a wedding was such hard work,” he grumbled.  “This is the first time I’ve had a chance to sit down for days.”

“You’re lying flat on your back, brother, just like every other night this week.  If I wasn’t around to keep an eye on things this ranch would just grind to a halt.”

“Oh, is that right?” Johnny thought about sitting up then decided against it – it really would be too much trouble.  “So how come it took you all afternoon to fetch the supplies?  It wouldn’t have anything to do with you stopping off to talk to Sara Pickering would it?”

“I don’t know where you get your information from. I was just being neighbourly.  Her folks are away for a few days so I just stopped by to make sure she was alright.”

“Well, you’d better hope her daddy doesn’t find out.  I hear she was looking a mite rumpled when she saw you off.”

“I’ve no idea what you’re talking about.” Scott protested.

At the feigned look of outrage on his brother’s face, Johnny started to laugh when he heard his father’s deep chuckle.

“You’d better go carefully, Son, or I won’t be the only one getting married.  Jack Pickering is very protective of that girl and I wouldn’t want to see you on the wrong end of a shotgun.”

Scott glowered at his irritating brother before turning to Murdoch.  “Did you ask Sam to be your Best Man?”

“I called in to see him on my way home.  Are you two sure you don’t mind?”

Johnny yawned lazily.  “I sure don’t.  The idea of standing up and making a speech scares the hell out of me.”

“You and Sam have been friends a lot of years.  It makes sense for him to be your Best Man.”  Scott poured some coffee and handed a cup to his father.  “You haven’t told us how your trip went.  I assume there weren’t any problems.”

“Everything was fine.  Jeff will be released to his mother’s custody in a few days.  He seemed happy for us, although I can’t imagine he feels anything other than angry about my part in having him arrested.”

Johnny sat up.  “What cause has he got to be angry?  He broke the law and he was caught.  Seems to me he got off real easy when his lawyer did that deal for him.  I know you think he can change but this time you’re wrong.” He saw the color rising in his father’s face and knew he’d put his foot in it again.  He seemed to be good at doing that where the Dane family was concerned.

“You don’t know the boy, yet you’re already judging him,” Murdoch paced irritably to the fire place.  “He’s Marcy’s son, in a couple of weeks he’ll be family.  He will be welcomed into this house.  Is that clear?”

“Yeah, Murdoch, that’s real clear.”  Johnny pushed himself off the sofa.  “I’m going to bed.”

“Wait, Johnny, please.  I know you think I’m being naïve about Jeff and maybe I am.  I look at him and wonder what went wrong.  By all accounts his father was a good man. He was brought up in a stable, loving environment and yet…”

“He’s hell bent for nowhere, just like I was,” Johnny finished the thought for him.  “You think you can pull him out like you did with me.  Trouble is he and I ain’t even close to being the same.  You told me you wished people had shown faith in me while I was drifting round those border towns.  Well it might be news to you but some of them did.  It didn’t change what I was…just made it easier sometimes to sleep at night.  This kid is rotten through and through, I knew it the minute I saw him.  You can’t save him - no one can.”

“Don’t you think that’s a rather damning indictment?” Scott asked.  “I admit he’s made some mistakes, but people can turn their lives around if they want it enough.”

“People like me?”

“This isn’t about you, Johnny.  I’m not trying to compensate for the fact I wasn’t there for you, or Scott for that matter, while you were both growing up.  Jeff is almost of legal age.  He has to live here for six months as part of the conditions of his early release.  He has that amount of time to show that he can fit into this family and be a useful member.  If he can’t do that then neither I nor his mother will have any qualms about asking him to leave.  All I’m asking is that you give him the benefit of the doubt until you get to know him better.  He isn’t a child and he must realize that it’s up to him to prove himself.

“I didn’t cut the two of you any slack even though you were equal partners.  I don’t intend to treat him any differently. He will be here as a guest until the wedding.  After that he gets put to work and he can earn his place.  Marcy and I have discussed this and we are in agreement.  Is that fair?”  Murdoch looked from one son to the other and received assent from both.  “Good.  The subject is now closed.”

*****

Ten days later Jeff drove a buggy under the Lancer arch with his mother sitting by his side.  The family had assembled to greet them.  Murdoch helped Marcy down and kissed her on the cheek.

“I’ve missed you. Jeff, I don’t think you were properly introduced to my family when you were last here.  These are my sons, Scott and Johnny and this is my ward, Teresa.”

Jeff focussed his attention on Teresa.  He removed his hat.  “Pleased to meet you, ma’am.”  He was pleased to see a faint flush appear on her cheeks.

Johnny’s aggressive step forward was halted by his brother’s hand on his arm.  He glared at Scott, but the tactic seemed to have little effect on the older Lancer.  Instead, Johnny turned his glare on Jeff, finally lowering his eyes when he found himself on the receiving end of a very similar glare from his father.

“Boys,” Murdoch barked abruptly.  “Fetch the bags.  Jeff, your mother will show you to your room.  Dinner is at six.  Johnny, when you’ve finished I would like a word with you.”  He offered his arm to Marcy and led the way into the house.

Jeff smirked as he passed Johnny and then quickened his steps so that he entered the house just behind his mother.  A furtive glance over his shoulder showed the brothers in heated debate with the blond still restraining Johnny.  He was going to enjoy taking his revenge.

****

By five minutes to six everyone had gathered in the great room except for Johnny.  Scott hadn’t seen his brother since his ‘interview’ with Murdoch following Jeff’s arrival.  He looked anxiously at the clock.  Johnny knew better than to be late for dinner particularly when they had company.  At precisely six o’clock Murdoch offered his arm to Marcy and led the way to the dining table.  Jeff, who had been talking quietly to Teresa, imitated the gesture causing Teresa to giggle and Scott to grind his teeth in irritation.

Once they were all seated Maria started carrying dishes out from the kitchen.  Scott waited for a few minutes and then pushed his chair back.  He’d made it halfway to his feet before Murdoch spoke.

“Where are you going?” Murdoch’s tone was sharp.

“It’s not like Johnny to miss a meal.  I was just going to check on him.”

“I’m sure he’s fine.  Your brother knows when dinner is served.  If he doesn’t have the manners to appear on time, that’s up to him.  Sit down.”

Scott lowered himself back into his chair.  His eyes met Marcy’s.  She was looking embarrassed and he smiled apologetically.  She leaned over and spoke quietly to Murdoch, but he shook his head and concentrated on placing his napkin on his lap. Scott kept glancing in the direction of the staircase as he ate, hoping that Johnny would put in an appearance.  He allowed the conversation to flow around him, feeling for the first time like an outsider in his own home.  He excused himself as soon as the meal was over, ignoring his father’s obvious displeasure. He took the stairs two at a time and pushed open the door to Johnny’s room without bothering to knock.  The room was in darkness and unoccupied.

He headed for the barn and found, to his dismay, Barranca was missing from his stall.  He slammed the door shut behind him and stood in the yard wondering where Johnny had disappeared to.

“He took off in a mighty big hurry just after Mrs Dane and her young’-un turned up.”

Scott spun round in surprise.  “Jelly, will you please not sneak up on me like that.”

Jelly snapped his suspenders and glowered.  “Ain’t no need to yell.  I wuz only tryin’ to help.”

“Sorry.  I seem to be a bit on edge tonight.”

“Can’t say as I blame you.  That Mrs Dane seems a nice enough lady, but that boy of hers is a different story.  Heard him sweet talking Teresa not an hour after he arrived.  He’s shifty and Johnny ain’t gonna take to him.”

Scott nodded. Jelly was very protective of the youngest Lancer and didn’t suffer fools gladly. “No he isn’t and that’s the problem.  Every time he opens his mouth to Murdoch on the subject he puts his foot right in it.  He didn’t show up for dinner so we’re in for another row when he gets home.  Do you have any idea where he went?”

“He said he needed a drink.  He was looking sad, Scott.  That boy don’t like going up against his pa.”

“I know.  He needs to settle down and let things work out their own way.  If he keeps forcing it he’s going to drive a whole herd of cows between him and Murdoch.” Scott looked indecisively from the barn to the house.

“I might be persuaded to saddle your horse while you go and get your things,” Jelly offered.

With a laugh Scott slapped him on the back.  “You know, Jelly, I think I could use a drink as well.  I’ll be right back.”

Scott eased the front door open, hoping to be able to grab his hat, gloves and gunbelt without anyone noticing.  It was his misfortune that Murdoch turned his way.  “Scott.  We were wondering where you were.”

“I was just about to ride into town.”  Scott took hold of his gunbelt and swung it around his slim hips.

“A little late for that, don’t you think?” Murdoch persisted.  “And, in case you haven’t noticed, it is the middle of the week and we have guests.”

“Almost family – isn’t that what you said the other day, Murdoch?”  Scott’s slate blue eyes were cold.  “Johnny’s in town and I feel like spending some time with him.  He’s family too, remember?”

Murdoch directed an astonished stare at his oldest son.  “There’s no need to be rude.”

“And there’s no need to jump down Johnny’s throat every time he expresses an opinion.”

“This is hardly the time or the place for this discussion.”  Murdoch looked around in obvious discomfort as all the conversation around him stilled.

“You’re probably right.”  Scott finished fastening his buckle and picked up his hat and gloves.  “Mrs Dane, Teresa, I’ll see you in the morning.”

His angry strides covered the distance to the barn quickly.  Jelly was waiting with his horse all saddled up and ready to go.  “Thanks, Jelly.  Don’t wait up.”

“Wasn’t goin’ to do any such thing.  You make sure Johnny comes home, you hear me?”

“Don’t worry, he will.”  Scott spurred his horse out of the yard wishing, not for the first time, that Jeff had made a clean getaway eighteen months ago never to be seen at Lancer again.

*****

Scott found his brother in the saloon with an almost untouched glass of beer in front of him.  Johnny was lounging back in his chair, hat pulled low to hide his eyes and his legs stretched out under the table.  His seemingly relaxed appearance was deceiving.  In reality Scott knew that he was aware of everyone and everything around him. He grinned at Scott and pushed out a chair.

“Oh boy, are we gonna get into trouble for this.”

Scott accepted the chair and indicated to the bartender that he’d like a drink.  He placed his hat and gloves on the table and stretched the kinks out of his back.  “We missed you at dinner.”

“Yeah?” Johnny’s face brightened with an untrustworthy smile.  “Bet you were the only one who missed me.”

“I don’t think that’s entirely true, Brother.  I’m pretty sure Murdoch missed having you there to yell at. He had to make do with me instead.”

“He did most of his yelling this afternoon.”  Johnny picked up his glass and studied the pale liquid inside.  “Didn’t feel like playing happy families tonight.”  He took a hefty swallow of his beer.  “So I guess you’re in his bad books as well now?”

“I couldn’t let my little brother suffer alone.”  Scott nodded his thanks as the bartender delivered his drink.  “What was that all about anyway?”

“Didn’t like the way he looked at Teresa.”

“He was only being polite.”

“That’s what Murdoch said, among other things.”

“He was all over her before dinner.”  Scott saw the anger growing in Johnny again and held up a hand.  “Now don’t go getting all riled up again.  They’re about the same age, he’s not that bad looking and I can’t see him being stupid enough to overstep the mark with her.”

Johnny rested his right hand on his gun and a nasty grin appeared on his face.  “I could have a word with him.”

“I don’t think so.  I’ll talk to him…tell him to look on her as a sister.”  Scott smiled as he remembered their first morning at Lancer when Teresa had barged into his room without knocking.  His mood quickly sobered. “You know we’re not being very fair to Murdoch, though.  He’s getting married in a couple of weeks. He should be happy,” he reasoned, albeit sceptically.

“I know that.  I’m trying, honest.” Johnny smiled.  “Look I’ll apologize in the morning.  All I have to do is keep away from that little weasel until after the ceremony.”

“Johnny!” Scott chided him gently.  “That little weasel is about to become our step-brother.”

“Got all the brothers I need right here.” Johnny lifted his glass in acknowledgment to Scott.

“If you’re right about him he’ll screw up soon enough.”

“D’you think Murdoch meant what he said about throwing him out if he didn’t pull his weight?”

Scott considered this carefully.  “I don’t think he’d lie to us about that and I don’t think Mrs Dane would stand for it either.  She was the one who left Murdoch that note when Jeff and Packer stole the money from the safe.  From what Murdoch said she also held a gun on Jeff to stop him shooting our dear father.”

“There was something I was wondering.”

Scott waited, but Johnny didn’t say anything else.  “Spit it out.”

“Just thinking about the ranch.”  Johnny lapsed into silence again.

Scott kicked him under the table.  “What about the ranch?”

“Promise you won’t yell at me.”

Scott’s patience was running out.  “Get on with it,” he snapped.

“Once they’re married, if anything happened to Murdoch, would she get his share?  Cause if she would we could eventually find ourselves in partnership with that son of hers.”

Scott sat with his mouth open for a minute before taking several large swallows of his beer.  “Now that is a frightening thought. The answer is that I don’t know.”

“How d’you think he’d take it if we asked him?”

“I think if YOU asked him you’d probably end up shooting each other.”

“What about if you asked him?” The look Johnny gave his brother was full of hope.

“We might all survive the experience…if we’re lucky.”  Scott drained his glass.  “If I’m going to be asking that question tomorrow we’d better get back before it gets too late.”

Johnny stayed where he was, his hands round his glass and his gaze fixed on the table.  “Think I’ll stay here awhile.”

Scott took firm hold of Johnny’s arm and pulled him to his feet.  “Oh no.  This was your bright idea.  You’ve told me often enough that you’ll watch my back.  I think this time I’m going to have to take you up on that.”

*****

The two young men were relieved to find that their father hadn’t waited up for them.  They weren’t so lucky the following morning when they reached the kitchen for breakfast.  There was no sign of Jeff, for which Johnny was thankful.  Murdoch was sitting at the table alone while Maria cooked breakfast.  He didn’t raise his head from the newspaper he was reading until they had both taken their seats.

“Maria, the boys won’t have time to eat breakfast this morning.”

“What?” Johnny burst out.  “What’d we do to deserve that?  How’d you expect us to get a full days work done on an empty stomach?”

Murdoch stood up.  “I want to see both of you in my study right now.”

Johnny and Scott exchanged concerned glances.  The study was rarely used as Murdoch much preferred to work at the desk in the great room.  A meeting in the study usually spelt trouble as it meant Murdoch wanted to deal with some issue in private.  By the time they trailed after their father they found him sitting behind the desk.

“Close the door.”

Johnny did as instructed then leaned against the door with his arms folded.  Scott made his way over to the desk and sat in one of the chairs.

“What’s this about, sir?” Scott asked.

“I want an explanation from both of you for your disgraceful behaviour yesterday evening.  Then I want you to find Marcy and apologize.”

Johnny bristled at that. “Well, I know what I did, but you’ve no call to be yelling at Scott.”

“And just what would you know about that, young man?  You didn’t even have the common courtesy to turn up for dinner.”

“Just like you didn’t have the common courtesy to consult us before inviting that lying little…”

“Johnny, leave it.”  Scott looked pleadingly at his brother before turning back to face his father.  “I apologize for saying what I did last night in front of Mrs Dane and Teresa.  I will not apologize for what I said.  I understand why you’ve given Jeff a home here although, to be honest, I’m not any happier about it than Johnny is.  You told us yourself that he had a poor record in the Army even before he went off without leave.  He stole from us and I’ve no reason to believe he wouldn’t have shot you if Mrs Dane hadn’t intervened.  We can take care of ourselves, but what about Teresa?”

The color had risen in Murdoch’s face.  “That is a dreadful suggestion.  The boy made mistakes, he’s done his time and now he deserves to put all that behind him.”

“Yes he does, but to yell at Johnny yesterday because he wanted to look out for Teresa was out of line.”

“I won’t tolerate bad manners from either of you.  Am I really asking too much in expecting you to act like gentlemen?”

Johnny pushed away from the door and took a chair next to Scott. “Look, Murdoch, I’m sorry too.  I don’t mean to cause you problems over this.  It’s just…well, I worry about you.  I want you to be happy and I guess I became a little over-protective.  I’ll apologize to Mrs Dane and I’ll try harder.”

“I appreciate your concern, Johnny, but I can take care of myself.  You don’t have to like Jeff, but could you at least try to get to know him?  I’m asking for Marcy’s sake.  It would mean so much to her if he were to settle down, and having the two of you accepting him, would go a long way to helping that happen.”

“We’ll do our best.”  Scott promised before taking a deep breath.  “There is something we would like to ask you.  It’s about the partnership.”

Murdoch sat back in his chair and frowned.  “Go on.”

“Is there any way your share of the ranch could pass to Jeff?”

Murdoch relaxed.  “Marcy and I have discussed this.  When I die my share of the ranch passes equally to you and Johnny.  I’ve added a clause to my Will stipulating that Marcy is to be allowed to remain at Lancer with an annual income for the rest of her life.  I trust neither of you has any objection?”  He looked from one to the other as they shook their heads.  “Lancer is your birthright, no one else’s.  Now, if you hurry there might still be time for you to have breakfast before you get started.”

He shook his head in bemusement as they both scrambled for the door.  He knew enough about his sons now to understand that they weren’t acting out of malice.  He didn’t think they were jealous of his relationship with Marcy, although it would be an adjustment for all of them to have her as a permanent fixture in their lives.  He had to admit to a little apprehension himself. He’d lived without a woman in his life for a very long time.  But, he reminded himself, he’d lived without his sons for almost as long, yet they had bonded as a family far quicker than he had ever dared hope for.  All it needed was time and some goodwill on everyone’s part.  He decided to go and find Marcy to reassure her that he had straightened everything out with his sons.

*****

The next two weeks passed in a blur of activity as everyone prepared for the wedding.  Johnny and Scott had both apologized to Mrs Dane and had then expended a great deal of effort in avoiding Jeff.  In the run up to the wedding that wasn’t hard.  He had been told that he wouldn’t be expected to start work until after the marriage so he didn’t bother getting out of bed until lunchtime each day.  On a couple of occasions he had ridden into town and had returned drunk.  After a lecture from his mother he settled down and began to make friends with some of the younger ranch hands.

The afternoon before the wedding Johnny went to town to collect last minute supplies.  Having loaded the wagon he decided he deserved a beer before heading home.  Although being genuinely happy for his father he wasn’t looking forward to the fuss or having to get all dressed up in a suit.  The mere thought of wearing a shirt and tie left him feeling uncomfortable.

He found Val sitting in the saloon looking morose.  Johnny tried to remember a time when he’d actually seen his friend smile.  “Hey, Val.  Buy you a drink?”

“You’d better not have that little troublemaker with you.”

Johnny grinned as he threw his hat on the table and pulled out a chair.  “That’s not a very nice way to talk about Scott.”

“Not talking about Scott,” Val groused.  “Talkin’ about yer other ‘brother’.”

The grin disappeared leaving Val looking into the cold, hard eyes of Johnny Madrid.  “Not even you get to joke about that,” Johnny warned his friend in a deceptively soft voice.

Val wriggled uncomfortably in his chair.  “No need to bite my head off.”

Johnny forced himself to relax.  “Sorry, amigo.  It’s a sore spot is all.  What’s he been up to?”

“Well, he dang near got himself arrested for one thing.  Only reason I didn’t throw him in jail was respect for your father and Mrs Dane.  She’s a right nice lady…sure doesn’t deserve all the grief that boy’s brought her.”

“Val,” Johnny said patiently.  “What happened?”

“He was in here the other night, throwing money around and asking questions ‘bout you’n Scott.  Most people stayed away from him but you know what it’s like, there were those who were only too happy to gossip.”

“What did he find out?”

Val rubbed a hand over his bristles.  “All the usual stuff, it’s not like its any big secret.  Course he was real interested in hearing about you.  Kept asking if anyone knew if you’d done time.  Any idea why?”

Johnny lounged back in his chair.  “Probably because I told him I had.  When he turned up last time he was whining about having been sentenced to sixty days.  He was trying to make us feel sorry for him so I told him I’d been in prison and that sixty days was nothing.”

Val watched his friend carefully.  “Does he know what you were in for?”

“Nope, and neither does anyone else.  I’d sure like to keep it that way.”

“You can trust me, buddy.  Won’t say a word.”

Johnny acknowledged that with a half-smile.  “I don’t reckon you were fixing on throwing him in jail just for asking questions.”

Val snorted.  “Not hardly.  Fact is he can’t hold his liquor.  He started bragging about how hard he was and how he could take you and Scott out easy.  Some of the boys started laughing at him and he threw a punch.  No one wanted to hurt him, him being new and all and almost related...” Val cleared his throat.  “By the time someone fetched me he’d broken up a few chairs and was still mouthing off.  I took him outside, gave him a talking to and sent him on his way.  Next time I won’t be so nice.”

“Wish you hadn’t been so nice this time.” Johnny groaned.  “Scott and I are gonna have to baby-sit him while Murdoch and Mrs Dane…Marcy…are away on their honeymoon.  What did we do to deserve this?”

Preparing to leave Val slapped him on the back.  “Now you know how Scott feels.”

Stepping onto the boardwalk, the batwing doors swinging closed behind him, Val chortled to himself fully aware of, and totally unconcerned by, the piercing blue stare that was following his progress.  He was looking forward to seeing how Johnny Madrid Lancer coped with the little bastard.  For everyone’s sake he hoped that Johnny would find a way to do it that didn’t involve putting a hole between those shifty eyes.

*****

The day of the wedding dawned bright and clear.  The ceremony was to take place at midday with the newlyweds leaving in the late afternoon.  Johnny looked down at the charcoal grey suit that had been laid out across his bed.  His father and brother had matching suits with white shirts and deep blue waist coats and ties.  Fifteen minutes later he was wearing the trousers and shirt and was looking at the tie with loathing.  By the time an immaculately groomed Scott appeared he had managed to force himself to put on the waistcoat which remained unbuttoned.

Scott strolled into his brother’s room, looking elegant and quite at ease.  “Sam’s with Murdoch calming him down.  Anyone would think this was his first trip down the aisle.  I’d swear that Sam was hiding a bottle of our best brandy behind his back when I passed him earlier. Since I had nothing better to do I thought I’d come and help you get dressed.”

“Very funny.” Johnny noticed that his scowl had its usual lack of effect.

Scott picked up the hairbrush from the dresser and handed it over.  “The guests will be arriving soon.  We should be downstairs to greet them.”

“Yeah, I know.” Johnny dragged the brush through his thick hair.  “Does this feel odd to you, Scott?  It ain’t as if we’re even close to being a normal family to start off with, but this…”

Scott sat on the end of the bed watching Johnny as he struggled with his collar and the tie.  “It’s made me wonder what it would have been like if things had turned out differently.  There are so many ways it could have worked out…if my mother hadn’t died or if your mother hadn’t left and Murdoch had brought me home.  It would have been nice if we could have grown up together but that didn’t happen.  We’ve a lot of wasted years to make up for.  As for it feeling odd…yes, it does but then it was an odd feeling to travel to California and meet a father I couldn’t remember ever having seen before.  That didn’t work out so badly, did it?”

Johnny picked up his jacket and pulled it on.  “I guess not.”  He took a deep breath.  “Well, come on, Brother.  Let’s go and watch our father getting married.”

*****

The great room at Lancer had been transformed, its furniture removed.  Rows of chairs sat either side of a central aisle which was lined with dark blue and pale pink ribbon attached in bows to slender stands set at intervals down its length. Flowers adorned every available surface creating a delightful mix of scents.  After the wedding the guests would all move outside where tables groaned under the weight of food and drink.  The party would continue into the evening, although the newlyweds would be leaving on their honeymoon during the latter part of the afternoon.  Murdoch had refused to tell his sons where he and Marcy were planning on spending their wedding night, having no faith at all in their solemn assurance that they had no underhanded intentions.

Once all the guests had arrived and had been seated, the brothers made their way to their own places at the front and sat down.  It occurred to Johnny briefly that it wasn’t so long ago that he would have panicked at having to be among so many people without his gun hanging on his hip.  His life had certainly changed for the better over the last two years. He smiled at Reverend Samuels who was standing at the front waiting to conduct the ceremony.

Scott looked round and elbowed his brother.  “He’s coming.”

They both stood to greet their father who looked as if he was headed for the gallows rather than his wedding.  Sam, in contrast, was smiling broadly.  “He’s a little nervous,” he informed the two young men.

“Don’t say a word,” Murdoch growled at his sons before going to speak to the minister.

A sudden hush descended on the room and everyone turned toward the door where Teresa entered first wearing a dress made of the same deep blue material as the men’s waistcoats.  She was followed by Marcy on the arm of her son.  Jeff was attired in identical clothing to Sam and the Lancers.  His eyes constantly darted from side to side as he escorted his mother down the aisle.  He looked briefly at the brothers before his gaze slid away again.

Marcy was wearing a fitted gown of pale pink with dark blue trimmings, her hair arranged in a soft bun with flowers pinning it at the back.  Her bouquet was tied with blue ribbon.  She held herself proudly, head high and eyes sparkling with excitement.

Murdoch’s dour expression melted away and he returned her smile with one of his own.  No one could doubt the love they felt for each other. After formally giving his mother away Jeff went to sit by Teresa, his hand surreptitiously brushing against her leg as he took his seat.

Johnny, who had been watching him like a hawk, saw the move and tensed up.  He saw Teresa turn a startled look on the boy before relaxing when he leant over and whispered something in her ear.  Johnny began to have murderous thoughts only to be pulled back to the present by a kick on the ankle from his brother.

Johnny concentrated on the words of the service.  He could only see his father in profile and thought that Murdoch looked slightly dazed.  As the minister asked if anyone knew of any reason why the marriage shouldn’t go ahead Johnny realised that both his father and brother were looking at him.  A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth…it was very nearly too much of a temptation.  The momentary silence was broken as the minister continued on with the ceremony.  Almost before he was ready for it Johnny heard the minister pronouncing the couple man and wife. Johnny grinned when Murdoch was told he could ‘kiss the bride.’ His father’s look of utter embarrassment disappeared as he gazed down into the smiling face of his wife.  He kissed her full on the lips before putting his hands around her waist and pulling her into his arms.

The guests waited for the family to extend their congratulations first before surging forward to surround the happy couple.  After the speeches had been made and the cake had been cut Johnny and Scott slipped away to put the finishing touches to the carriage, and the matched pair of horses that would be harnessed to it.

Earlier in the day Teresa had braided ribbons into the horses’ manes and tails.  Johnny looked at them sympathetically as he loosened his collar and tie.  “D’you think they feel as stupid as I do being all fancied up like that?”

Scott regarded the horses and then his brother.  “I think you all look very elegant.”

“At least you didn’t say ‘pretty.’  That would’ve earned you a punch in the mouth.”  Johnny smiled good-naturedly at his brother.  “Let’s get this hitched up.”  The carriage itself had been decorated with bows and flowers and miniature horseshoes specially made by Miss Guthrie, or Gus as she was affectionately known, the blacksmith in town.  She was a guest at the wedding, being gallantly escorted by Jelly.

Once the carriage was ready Scott led the horses round to the front of the house.  He could see his father and Marcy, now in their travelling clothes, saying their good-byes to the guests.  A mound of luggage stood waiting outside the front door with Jelly standing beside it.  Scott looked round for his brother only to find that Johnny had wandered off somewhere.  “Typical,” he muttered.  “That boy can’t stand still for two minutes at a time.”

“How long’re they plannin’ on bein’ away?” Jelly asked as he began to load up the bags.

“Murdoch said a month but, by the look of all this, I’d say we’ll be lucky to see them this side of Thanksgiving.”

Jelly pushed his hat to the back of his head.  “It’s only the middle of July.”

“I know, Jelly.  Pass me that big suitcase.”

It took some time to fit all the luggage into the available space and by the time they were done, Murdoch and Marcy had arrived.  Murdoch and Scott shook hands before Marcy reached up and gave Scott a kiss on the cheek.  Murdoch looked round.

“Where’s Johnny?”

Scott couldn’t see any immediate sign of his brother and then realised that Jeff wasn’t there either.  He had seen how Johnny had been tracking the young man with his eyes during the party, and had a nasty suspicion that his brother might have slipped away for a reason.  “He can’t have gone far.  I’ll go and find him.  He won’t want to miss seeing you off.”

*****

Johnny pushed his forearm harder across Jeff’s throat and smiled.  It wasn’t a nice smile.  It was the smile he used when he wanted to put the fear of God into somebody.  He was pleased to see that it was working nicely.  He had been waiting all afternoon for this opportunity only Scott had stuck so damn close to him that he hadn’t been able to make his move.  He had caught Jeff alone and had dragged him to the barn where he now had the young man pinned up against one of the stalls.

“I thought it was time you and me had a talk, laid down some ground rules.”  Johnny kept his tone even and pleasant.  “While Murdoch’s away Scott’s in charge and if you give him any trouble you’ll answer to me.”

“What you gonna do?” Jeff challenged.  “Shoot me?  I’ve heard all about the ‘great’ Johnny Madrid.”

“I don’t need my gun to deal with the likes of you,” Johnny informed him dismissively.  “I’ll just beat the crap out of you.”  His smile displayed a mouthful of straight white teeth.

“Your pa won’t be happy about that,” Jeff whined.  “You’re nothing but a bully.  You think you’re so much better than me just because you’ve got money.”

“Money has nothing to do with it.  Running this ranch takes a lot of hard work and I’m not gonna stand by and watch you slacking off.  And it can be a dangerous place if you don’t know what you’re doing so you’ll do as you’re told when you’re told.  I’d hate to have to tell the old man when he gets back that you did something dumb and broke your neck or got yourself trampled to death.”  Johnny conspicuously failed to sound regretful.

“I think you made your point,” Scott said mildly.  “Murdoch and Marcy are leaving.”

Johnny glanced over his shoulder, annoyed that Scott had managed to sneak up on him without him being aware of it. “I’ve not finished.  You saw what he did to Teresa earlier.”

Scott pried Johnny’s arm away from Jeff’s throat.  “Yes, I saw, and it won’t happen again.  Will it?”

Jeff raised shaky fingers to his throat.  “You’d better not have left a bruise.”

Scott tightened his grip on his brother’s arm.  “Leave it, Johnny.  Go and say good-bye to them.  We’ll be along in a minute.”

Johnny irritably pulled his arm free and slammed out of the barn.  Jeff smirked at Scott.  “Guess he doesn’t like taking orders either.”

With a visible effort Scott controlled his temper.  “Johnny is part owner of this ranch.  He gives orders just like Murdoch and you’d be wise to obey them.  If there is any more inappropriate behaviour toward Teresa I’ll toss you out myself.  The same applies if you cause trouble or don’t earn your keep.  Breakfast is at sunup and I expect to see you there.  You’ll be working with me until I decide you’re ready to go out with one of the work crews. There will be no more trips into town during the week.  You can go in on a Saturday night if you want to, but if there’s any trouble and you get yourself arrested, I’m not going to be in any hurry to bail you out.  You can have a good life here, Jeff.  Don’t throw away that chance.”

*****

The following morning Jeff made an appearance as Scott and Johnny were finishing breakfast.  His hair was untidy, his shirt untucked and he was looking decidedly green.  As soon as he smelt the food he clapped a hand over his mouth and bolted for the back door.

Johnny took a bite of flapjack and grinned at his brother.  “Boy, am I glad you volunteered for this.  He looks like he’s gonna be puking his guts up all day.  Good luck getting any work out of him.”

“I wish you’d stop being so nasty to him, Johnny Lancer,” Teresa burst out before she hurried out to the backyard.

Johnny’s grin disappeared.  “I don’t like this, Scott.  She’s getting far too attached to him.”

Scott wiped his mouth with his napkin and took a final mouthful of coffee.  “You know Teresa and her strays.”

“Yeah, well this one has teeth.”

“Don’t worry, brother.” Scott stood up and slapped Johnny on the shoulder.  “Soon he’ll be too tired to do anything except eat and sleep.”

Scott collected his hat, gloves and gunbelt before going to locate his reluctant apprentice.  He found Jeff slouched on a bench in Teresa’s garden looking miserable and sipping at a cup of water.  Teresa was sitting beside him with her arm around his shoulder.  She leapt to her feet when she saw Scott.

“He doesn’t have to work today, does he Scott?  He’s not feeling well.”

Scott pulled on his gloves.  “He’s not feeling well because he drank the best part of a bottle of whiskey yesterday.”  He walked over, wrapped his hand in Jeff’s collar and hauled the young man to his feet.  “Go and saddle the horses.”  He pushed Jeff toward the gate leading to the yard. 

Jeff staggered before bending over and heaving into Teresa’s roses.  A look of disgust crossed Scott’s face.  “Go and sober up.  I’ll be back at lunchtime.”

After Scott had gone Jeff straightened up and looked pleadingly at Teresa.  “They hate me.  I made a mistake and I’ve paid for it, but they won’t let me forget it.”

Teresa twirled a lock of her hair between her fingers.  “I don’t hate you.”

Johnny walked out the back door a few minutes later to find Jeff with an arm round Teresa while he nuzzled her neck.  A blind rage consumed him.  He pulled the young man back, swung his fist and sent Jeff staggering backwards.  Jeff’s head hit the wall with a resounding smack and he sank bonelessly to the ground.

*****

Johnny sat hunched forward.  His hands were clasped together and dangling between his legs.  He couldn’t rid his mind of Teresa’s screams and accusations.  The noise had brought Maria hurrying from the kitchen and she had immediately taken charge.  Cipriano had been sent into town to fetch Sam while two of the ranch hands had carried Jeff to his room.  Teresa had screamed at Johnny to stay away from him when he went to help.  Scott had been summoned from the barn and had listened in silence as Teresa accused Johnny of attempted murder.

Now the brothers were waiting for Sam to finish his examination.  Scott paced back and forth in front of the fireplace, his displeasure with his brother obvious in every step he took. When he eventually stopped pacing he glared at Johnny.

“What on earth possessed you to hit him so hard?” he demanded. “Murdoch and Marcy have been gone for less than twenty-four hours and already there’s a crisis.  How am I supposed to explain it to them if Jeff’s seriously hurt?”

“I wasn’t thinking.  I saw him pawing Teresa.  He’d been warned to stay away from her.”

“Is this how you’re going to react to every boy that takes an interest in her?”

“No, Scott, just the ones that’re bad news.”  Johnny couldn’t help the hint of sarcasm that crept into his voice.

“You haven’t exactly had a spotless past either.”

Johnny stood up, stung by the comment. “Well thanks for the reminder, Brother.  I may be bad news but at least I’m upfront about the things I’ve done and I ain’t never killed an unarmed man.”

“I didn’t mean it that way.”

“Sure sounded that way to me.”

“Face it Johnny, you’ve been acting unreasonably ever since you were told that Jeff would be living here.”

“I’m being unreasonable?” Johnny asked in disbelief.  “What about his behaviour?”

“It will take time for him to settle in.  You weren’t exactly house trained yourself when you first arrived here.”

“House trained?  If you mean I didn’t have a whole heap of eastern manners then I guess you’re right.  I did know one end of a cow from the other though.  I seem to recall that it took quite a lot of work to get you bent into shape.”

“Boys.” Sam’s calm voice cut through the frigid atmosphere.  “Squabbling isn’t going to help.”

“No-one asked for your opinion,” Johnny snapped, angry and hurt.

“That was uncalled for, Johnny.  I’d say you owe Sam an apology.”

“Lay off, Scott.  You may be the oldest but you don’t get to order me around.”

Sam stepped between the two angry young men.  “Settle down both of you.  We have enough trouble without you two turning on each other.  Now, can we all sit down and discuss this like adults?”  Sam glared sternly at them until they grudgingly took seats at opposite sides of the room.  “Jeff has a concussion and a nasty bump at the back of the head.  He’ll recover with a few days rest.  Teresa, on the other hand, is almost incoherent and is telling anyone who’ll listen that Johnny tried to kill him.”

“She’ll get over it.  I’ll talk to her when she calms down.”

“That may not be an option, Johnny.  Jeff has asked to speak to Val.  He’s intent upon pressing charges.”

Scott and Johnny looked at each other in shock, their differences forgotten.  “He can’t be serious,” Johnny burst out.  “That snivelling…”

“Johnny, we need to think this through.  I’m sure if I talk to him I can get this straightened out.” Scott tried to keep his tone reasonable although his face betrayed his true feelings.

“He was most insistent that neither of you go anywhere near him,” Sam told them.

“Tough,” Johnny stated, getting to his feet.  “This is our house and there ain’t no-one gonna tell me where I can and can’t go.”

“I think you would be wise to stay away from him,” Sam cautioned.  “You’ve already given him more than enough ammunition.  If he does press charges Val’s going to have to arrest you.”

“This is ridiculous.” Scott slammed his hand down on the arm of the chair.  “It was a simple misunderstanding that got out of hand.  I don’t see why we have to involve the law.”

“Teresa has already sent someone into Green River.  I would have stopped her if I could, but the message had gone before I arrived.”  Sam picked up his bag and prepared to leave.  “I’ll call back in a day or two to see how he’s doing.  In the meantime I suggest you find a way to smooth this over.”

After seeing Sam out to his buggy Scott walked slowly back into the great room, clearly deep in thought.  Johnny was standing at the liquor cabinet pouring himself a large glass of whiskey.  “Want one?” he asked his brother.

“It’s a little early.” Scott looked at the grandfather clock in the corner of the room which showed it to be twenty minutes past eleven.  “And I don’t think it’s a good idea.”

“Don’t care.” Johnny downed the alcohol.  “This ain’t gonna get any better, Scott.”

Scott sighed and sat down.  “It will if you could keep a hold of your temper.  We just need to get through the next month or so until Murdoch and Marcy return.  After that Jeff is their problem.  Why don’t you go and check on the work crews.  The ride will help clear your head.  I’ll speak to Jeff and see what I can do to change his mind about pressing charges.”

Johnny considered the suggestion carefully before nodding.  He collected his gunbelt from the stand in the hall and fastened it in place.  “Don’t make any promises to him,” he warned as he put on his hat and headed for the front door.

*****

Johnny took his time.  He joined Cipriano and his crew for lunch and then rode at a leisurely pace round the remaining work sites.  Everything appeared to be running smoothly and he was in a more relaxed mood when he eventually returned to the house.  That mood evaporated when he saw Val’s horse tied to the hitching rail outside the front door.  He handed Barranca to Jelly who was hanging around trying to look disinterested and failing miserably.

“Val’s been waitin’ for you,” Jelly informed the young man.  “He ain’t in a good mood.”

“Val’s never in a good mood.  You’d better not unsaddle Barranca.  I’ve a feeling I’m gonna be needing him again.”  Johnny pushed his hat off his head so that it was dangling behind his back.  He picked up the stampede strings and chewed on the ends distractedly.  “Have you seen Teresa?”

It was well known that Jelly had a very soft spot for the young woman, looking on her as a grand-daughter.  Johnny was surprised to see a fierce scowl appear on his friend’s face.  “Don’t rightly know what’s wrong with that girl.  Heard her arguing with Val earlier.”  He patted Johnny on the arm.  “Things’ll sort themselves out, they always do.”

“Thanks Jelly.  Guess I’d better go in.”

Johnny found Scott and Val sitting in glum silence.  “You here to take me in, Val?”

“I ain’t been sitting here for the past two hours for the sake of my health.  I tried talking him out of it.”

“You lost your temper with him,” Scott interjected.  “You weren’t exactly diplomatic.  Sorry, Johnny, he wouldn’t listen to me either.  I’ll come into town with you and speak to the Judge.  I’m sure I can get you out on bail.”

“Might as well get going.” Val heaved himself to his feet and held out his hand.  “I need your gun.”

Johnny shook his head.  “You can’t ask me to ride into town unarmed.”

“Damnation, Johnny, d’you think I like this?  It’s only cause we’re friends that I’m not gonna put the cuffs on ya.  Hand it over.”

The two friends stared at each other until Johnny realised that Val wasn’t going to back down.  He pulled his gun out of its holster and thrust it at the lawman.  “Have it your way.”  He stomped toward the front door only to come face to face with Teresa.  “Happy now?” he sniped.

Teresa looked away, her expression unreadable.  “I’m sorry, Johnny.  I shouldn’t have over reacted.  It’s good of you and Scott to look out for me, but I think I’m old enough to take care of myself. I didn’t mean…”

Johnny cut her off irritably.  “Didn’t mean what, Teresa?  For me to end up locked in a cell?  Why don’t you persuade your boyfriend to drop the charges then?”

“I will…I promise I’ll talk to him.” She laid a tentative hand on his arm only to withdraw it hastily when his cold glare settled on her face.  “I promise,” she repeated in a whisper.

*****

Johnny rode in sullen silence.  Once they were out of sight of the house Val called to him to stop.  “You can have this back now.” Val held Johnny’s gun out to him.  “Had to keep up appearances, amigo.  Still gonna have to take you in, but if you give me your word that you’ll stay put I won’t keep you locked up.”

Johnny gave Val an embarrassed grin as he took his gun back.  “Yeah, Val.  I’ll be good.  Thanks.”

As they arrived in town Scott left his brother and the sheriff to go and speak to the Judge.  Johnny left Barranca outside the jail in the hope that he would soon be on his way home.  Once in Val’s office he unbuckled his gunbelt without comment and handed it over.  With a resigned sigh he walked into one of the cells and sat down.  Val closed the cell door, leaving it unlocked.

Johnny rested his back against the cold wall and closed his eyes.  He wasn’t in the mood for any conversation.  He heard Val muttering to himself about the never-ending paperwork and smiled.  Val was a damn good lawman, one of the best and most honest that Johnny had ever encountered.  However, he hated the administrative part of his job and flatly refused to toady to the mayor and parish council.

The time passed slowly as Johnny waited for his brother to return.  When Scott did, finally, make an appearance he wasn’t looking happy.  “The Judge is out of town until tomorrow,” he reported.  “I’m afraid you’ll have to stay here tonight.”

“Won’t be the first time.” Johnny gave his brother a resigned smile.  “You’d better get back to the ranch.  I’ll see you in the morning.”

After Scott had gone Val looked sympathetically at his friend.  “How about I get us some food from the cantina and a bottle of tequila?” he offered.

Johnny lay down and put his hands behind his head as he stared at the ceiling.  “That’s what I like to hear.  Can’t fault the room service around here.  Beds could be a bit more comfortable though, and if you’re planning on staying here tonight I don’t reckon I’ll get a wink of sleep. Never knew a man who could snore as loud as you.”

“I’ll bear that in mind,” Val responded sarcastically.  “Leastways you’re likely to be on your way home tomorrow.  Don’t think I could stand your complaining any longer than one night anyway.”

Johnny turned onto his stomach so that he could look at his friend through the bars.  “No offence meant, Val.  I appreciate what you’re doing for me.  Just don’t like being in a cell even if the door ain’t locked.”

“It’s hard to shake the memory, isn’t it?”

“Ain’t easy.  Six months in San Quentin leaves its mark.”

As Val walked from the jail to the cantina he thought about Johnny’s comment. He had no difficulty accepting it as the truth.  San Quentin’s reputation was notoriously bad.  For a sixteen year old ‘half-breed’ the experience was bound to have left mental scars.  Val had been incensed when Johnny had first told him about being sent to that prison.  He had been far too young to be locked up in such a place and had only been sent there because of his burgeoning reputation as a gunfighter.  If the authorities had thought they could break the young man they had been sadly mistaken.  Johnny Madrid had done his time and had come out harder and colder than before.  If Jeff persisted in his determination to see Johnny prosecuted for assault there was the possibility that he could find himself back behind bars and Val wasn’t sure how his friend would cope with that.

*****

“Jeff says he’ll drop the charges if you apologize,” Scott informed his brother. He had arrived at the jail early, as Johnny was eating breakfast, with what he hoped was good news.  It had taken a great deal more pleading than he was comfortable with to achieve this concession and he had no intention of allowing Johnny to throw away all his hard work.

“No.” Johnny concentrated on mopping up the remaining egg on his plate with a piece of bread.

“Don’t be stubborn.  With his testimony and Teresa’s you’ll be convicted for sure.”  Scott saw his brother shrug his shoulders and continue eating.  He threw his hat onto a chair before turning to the sheriff and appealing for his help.  “Maybe he’ll listen to you.”

Val dropped his feet off the desk and sat up straight.  “Scott’s right, and with your record the Judge’ll send ya to jail.”

Johnny deposited his plate on the floor with a bad-tempered thump.  “Thanks, Val.  What happened to your promise?”

Val appeared unrepentant, although Scott knew that the sheriff wouldn’t break his word lightly. He could almost see the sparks flying between the two men as they stared each other down.  “What record?”  Neither Val nor Johnny gave any indication that they were listening.  “I said…”

“I heard what you said,” Johnny snapped.  “It was a long time ago.  No reason for the Judge to find out so long as no-one opens their big mouth.” He glared at Val.

“You want to chance it?” Val asked.  “Your pa ain’t gonna be impressed with an assault conviction whether or not you get locked up.  Best to get it sorted now while only a few people know about it.”

“Johnny?  What aren’t you telling me?”  Scott pulled the door to Johnny’s cell open and walked inside. He planted himself squarely in front of his brother and folded his arms.

“Don’t like talking about it. It ain’t something I’m proud of.” Johnny looked at his brother’s determined expression and gave a resigned sigh.  “You know what, Boston? Sometimes having an older brother can be a real pain in the ass.” He tipped his head back so that he was leaning against the wall and stared at the ceiling.  “I was sixteen. Been living by my gun for about a year.  I signed on for a range war in some backwater town south of San Francisco.  It was the first time I’d looked for work in California.  I had half an idea of coming to Lancer to meet the old man and wanted some money in my pocket when I did.  Can’t even remember what the fight was about. Guess I didn’t make myself real popular.  Being young, fast and cocky didn’t earn me a lot of friends. One day I was jumped on my way into town.  I managed to get away, but one of the bastards shot me in the back.  I made it to town and holed up in the back room of a small café. I guess I must’ve passed out ‘cause the next thing I knew this old woman was screaming down my ear.  I tried to tell her to shut up. I was scared that the men who’d ambushed me were still looking to finish the job.

“She just screamed louder and louder so I grabbed her and put my hand over her mouth.  She was a tough old bird; she kicked me real hard on the shin and began screaming again.  I was lucky they didn’t lynch me when she told them I’d attacked her.  Sent me to San Quentin instead once they’d dug the bullet out of me.” Johnny looked thoughtful.  “It was a real quick trial.”

“They sent a sixteen year old with a bullet wound to San Quentin?” Scott asked, amazed.  “That’s barbaric.”

“I spent the first few weeks in the prison hospital.  The doctor was decent enough.  Once I’d recovered he arranged for me to work in the hospital and talked the warden into letting me bunk down in there rather than in my cell. It wasn’t that bad. Besides I reckon you had it worse than I did.  How old were you when you were locked up in that camp?  What I went through don’t come close to twelve months in that hell-hole.”

“This isn’t about me,” Scott hedged.  He didn’t think he’d ever be comfortable talking about that period of his life which made it easier for him to understand Johnny’s reticence. Not that he was going to let his little brother side-track him.

“Probably saved me making the biggest mistake of my life though,” Johnny continued.

“What mistake?” Scott asked warily, although he was pretty sure he knew the answer.

“Killing Murdoch Lancer,” Johnny announced nonchalantly, sneaking a look at his brother out of the corner of his eye.  “Hated him back then. Once they let me out I hightailed it back to Mexico and swore I’d never set foot in California again.”

Scott sighed.  “Well I guess that’s one thing we should be thankful for.” There was silence for a while as the brothers thought about what it would have been like if Johnny had made good on his threat to kill their father.

“You are going to apologize.” Scott’s efforts to sound stern were handicapped by a broad grin that was spreading over his brother’s face.  “What?”

“I was just imagining how you’d explain all this to Murdoch and our new step-mother. I’m sure you’d do a real good job.”

“This isn’t funny.” Scott sat down beside his brother.

“Yes it is.  Murdoch’s only been gone a coupla days and look at the mess we’re in?  Hell, he’ll probably disown us when he gets back.”  Johnny put an arm around Scott’s shoulders.  “Lighten up, Scott.  I’ll apologize to Jeff.  I’ll even be nice to him.”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” Scott said gloomily.  “He’ll probably think you have an ulterior motive.”  He saw the look of incomprehension on Johnny’s face.  “He’ll think you’re planning on shooting him in the back when his guard’s down,” he clarified.

Johnny’s smile grew even wider.  “You know, Boston, I’ve always had a high regard for your sneaky plans.” Johnny laughed at Scott’s shocked expression.  “It was a joke, Scott.”

“I know, but the way things have been going I might just shoot him myself.”  Scott stood up and held out his hand.  “Coming?”

Johnny looked quizzically at Val.  “I promise I’ll apologize and I’ll make it sound sincere.”

Val rubbed a hand over his stubbled chin.  “Guess I can trust ya.  Tell Jeff to stop by next time he’s in town to withdraw the complaint.  Now get outta my jail before I change my mind.”

Johnny shot out the door leading from the cell and held out his hand for his rig.  Scott followed at a more sedate pace and collected his hat.

“See you on Saturday, amigo,” Johnny informed the lawman.  “Reckon I’ll be needing a few drinks by then.” He gave a satisfied sigh as he finished buckling on his gunbelt.  “Come on, Scott.  What’re you waiting for?  That list of work Murdoch left ain’t gonna get done by itself.”

“Back to the house first, Brother.  Let’s get this apology over with.”

*****

Johnny stood at the foot of Jeff’s bed and tapped his fingers on the handle of his gun. His initial relief at being freed had quickly faded as he had imagined this moment.  All he wanted was to wipe the irritating smirk off Jeff’s face.  He stared intently into Jeff’s piggy little eyes and watched him squirm.

Scott took firm hold of his brother’s wrist.  “Stop that,” he hissed.

Jeff was awake, propped up by several pillows and still looking ill.  He had a vivid bruise on his jaw where Johnny’s fist had connected. A white bandage circled his hair, covering the painful lump on the back of his head.  Teresa sat in a chair by the side of the bed, staring at the cover.  She hadn’t been able to meet Johnny’s gaze since he entered the room.

Johnny hoped that Scott would give him some credit. He was trying to look contrite. Or at least he was trying not to be intimidating. He glanced at Scott and saw a growing impatience on his brother’s face as he waited for the promised apology.

“Sorry I hit you,” Johnny mumbled after a prolonged silence.  He sighed and tried again.  “How’re you feeling?”

“The doctor says I’ll have to stay in bed for a few days.”

“Yeah, well, Sam knows best.” Johnny ignored Scott’s disbelieving look.  “We’d better get back to work.”

“I had one of the men send a wire to my mother,” Jeff continued with a nasty smirk.  “I bet you hear from your father soon.”

Scott took firm hold of Johnny’s arm and tugged him toward the door.  “Let’s go, Brother and,” he warned, “not a word.”

Teresa followed the brothers from the room and put a tentative hand on Johnny’s sleeve.  “I’m glad you’re home.”

There was a world of hurt on Johnny’s face when he looked down at her.  He felt badly about losing his temper with her, but her actions in siding with Jeff had hurt him deeply.  Almost from the outset he had looked on Teresa as family.  She was his sister and he would willingly lay down his life to keep her safe.  Having her turn on him had been a shock and he wasn’t sure that it was going to be so easy to forgive.

It had taken Johnny a long time to learn to trust and Teresa had been one of the first people he had allowed under his guard.  Holding a grudge wasn’t normally part of his nature only there was nothing petty about his feelings now. He felt betrayed. He saw her anguished look and it tugged at his heart, but he couldn’t summon up the will to make this easy for her.

“Yeah, me too.” He turned to leave.

Teresa clung on to his sleeve.  “Please, Johnny, don’t be mad at me. I’m sorry for accusing you of trying to kill him.  If you’d just get to know Jeff you’d find he’s not as bad as you think.”

One look at Scott’s face warned Johnny not to say what he thought about that.  “Guess I’ll have to take your word for that,” he snapped.  “Look, Teresa, I’m tired and there’s a whole lot of work been piling up.”  His hard blue stare settled on her hand and she removed it hastily before turning and walking quickly away down the hallway.

“Was that necessary?” Scott asked, a frown creasing his forehead as he watched her hasty retreat.

“You know what, Scott?  I’m getting kinda tired of everyone acting as if I’m the one in the wrong.” Johnny had only taken a couple of steps before being pulled to a stop. “Let go,” he snarled without bothering to turn round.

“You’re playing right into Jeff’s hands.  He’d love to pull this family apart and you’re helping him.  Teresa was trying to apologize.  She’s young and she made a mistake.  Can’t you forgive her?”

Johnny bowed his head, still with his back turned to his brother.  “It ain’t that easy.  She turned on her own family…on me.  I thought I meant more to her than that.”

“You mean the world to her,” Scott reassured him.  “She was just caught up in the excitement of having Jeff showing her some attention.  She doesn’t have a lot of experience of that yet and I’ll bet she’s struggling with some new emotions.”

“When did you become so damn smart about women’s emotions?” Johnny asked as he turned to face his brother.  A glimmer of a smile was tugging at the corners of his mouth.

“Trust me, Brother.  When it comes to women I could be considered something of an expert.”

“That ain’t what I heard,” Johnny replied as his normal good humor began to reassert itself.  “Last time you tried to give me advice about women you were the one who ended up in jail.  If I hadn’t sweet talked Julie those bounty hunters would have finished you off for sure.  Then there was Glory, and then all that trouble you found yourself in when you helped Polly, and…”

“I think you’ve made your point.” Scott shoved Johnny in the direction of the stairs.  “It’s time we made a start on all that work.”  Scott followed his sibling along the hallway. “I hope our father doesn’t stay away too long.  Keeping the peace is wearing me out.”

“You’ve got a natural talent,” Johnny remarked good naturedly.  As they reached the horses he paused.  “When d’you think we’ll hear from Murdoch?”

*****

Johnny walked into the great room, having had a satisfying afternoon taking out his frustrations on some stubborn undergrowth.  While he had been chopping it into manageable chunks he had fantasised about taking Jeff apart piece by tiny piece.  He noticed that his brother was sitting behind Murdoch’s desk, turning an envelope over and over in his hands.  “From Murdoch?” he enquired.  “I’ll pour us both a drink.”

He placed a glass of whiskey in front of Scott before returning to the liquor cabinet for a glass and a bottle of tequila.  He had a feeling he was going to need it.  “You plannin’ on opening it?”

“No.” Scott shoved the telegram at his brother.  “As this is all your fault, you read it.”

Johnny downed a shot of tequila before accepting the envelope.  “We could always pretend it didn’t get here,” he suggested hopefully before wilting under his brother’s disapproving stare.  “Guess not.”

Johnny tore the envelope open and withdrew the telegram.  He read it a couple of times before laying it dejectedly on the desk.  “He ain’t happy.  Says if there’s any more trouble they’ll cut their honeymoon short and come home.”

“That’s it?”

“No.  He says that he’s not prepared to put his marriage at risk and that if we can’t get along with Jeff he’ll have to consider whether or not we can all continue to live at Lancer.”

*****

Jeff was bored…and lonely…and hungry.  Teresa had brought him his breakfast and had sat with him for a while.  She told him that she would be out for the day, visiting one of the neighbouring ranches.  He had no idea where the Lancer brothers were and would be quite happy never to see them again.  He was still in bed despite feeling well enough to get up.  Somehow he couldn’t rustle up the enthusiasm to move.  He was comfortable where he was and it sure beat having to work.  He wondered what time it was.  Teresa had said that their housekeeper would bring him his lunch.  He was sure it was past lunch time.  The small, round Mexican woman scared him.  Whenever he walked into ‘her’ kitchen she waved a wooden spoon at him and talked loudly and threateningly in a language he couldn’t understand.

He fidgeted for a while and then his empty stomach gave a loud rumble of disapproval.  With an oath, he threw back the bedclothes and reluctantly stood up.  He wandered over to the dresser and regarded his reflection in the mirror.  A white bandage was still wrapped around his head.  He hadn’t washed or shaved for days, not since the day of the wedding.  He opened the drawers and pulled out some clean clothes.  He decided to get something to eat and then head to the bath house while things were still quiet.

He padded downstairs in his stocking feet, being far too lazy to put on his boots.  As he walked through the great room he looked at the clock and found that it was after two.  He scowled furiously.  That Mexican bitch had clearly decided to starve him.  He found her in the kitchen, bustling around making preparations for supper.

“Ah, Senor Dane.  I was just about to come and see if you were awake.  Sit down and I will fetch you a bowl of stew.”

Caught off-guard by her amiable greeting Jeff pulled out a chair and sat at the kitchen table.  A bowl and spoon were placed in front of him and Jeff was so hungry that he didn’t hesitate before taking a mouthful.  His breath caught in his throat and beads of sweat appeared on his forehead.  Suddenly his mouth was on fire and he couldn’t feel his tongue.  He groped blindly for a glass of water only to find that it didn’t help.  He was still struggling to speak when the bowl was whisked away from under his nose.

“I am so sorry, Senor.  Please forgive me.  How forgetful I am becoming in my old age.  I made that stew for Johnny with mucho chilli and spices.  I had forgotten that you are not used to such food.  Drink plenty of water and you will soon feel better.”

Jeff doubted that. The woman had obviously tried to poison him.  He added it to the mental list of complaints for when his mother and step-father returned.  He continued to gulp down the water as the fire burned its way down into his stomach.

“Let me make you a sandwich instead,” Maria offered and Jeff could have sworn he heard laughter in her voice.

By the time the sandwich was ready he could at least talk although he wasn’t convinced that he would be able to taste food properly again.  He snatched the plate from her hands and fled the kitchen, seeking sanctuary.  Having arrived back in the great room he looked over at the desk, Murdoch Lancer’s desk.  Guiltily he looked around him before walking over and sitting in the leather chair.  He idly pulled open one drawer after another, rifling through the contents.  So far as he could tell it was all boring paperwork.  The bottom drawer was locked.  He tugged at the handle a few times then bent down to take a closer look.  Given time he was fairly sure he could open it, but that would have to wait for another day.  He couldn’t risk being caught tampering with the lock.

He swung his feet up onto the desk as he ate his sandwich.  His gaze wandered over the neat piles of papers, coming to rest on a piece of paper that had been scrunched up into a ball and left resting against the base of the lamp. Everything else was so neat and tidy that it looked out of place.  Curiosity overcame him and he picked it up and smoothed it out on the desk.  His first quick glance sent his heart racing.  He read it again, savouring every word.  He had to give his mother credit. She had obviously done a good job with Murdoch Lancer.  Armed with this information it should be easy enough to get rid of his step-brothers for good.

*****

The next few days passed quietly with Scott and Johnny on their best behaviour.  Their father’s implied threat had shaken both young men badly.  The first reaction from both of them had been disbelief followed swiftly by anger.  After a long discussion, aided by copious amounts of alcohol, they had agreed that they owed it to their father to try and make things work.

Johnny had been delighted to see Jeff’s downcast look when Sam had declared him fit to work.  Scott had taken him in hand and things seemed to be progressing reasonably smoothly.  Cipriano and the more experienced ranch hands still regarded Jeff with suspicion and no-one was going out of their way to make life easy for him.

Jeff himself was finding the relentless physical labor exhausting as Scott had predicted.  He did little more than work, eat and sleep and there had been no more incidents with Teresa.

Saturday night came around and the brothers went into town.  Jeff spent a quiet evening at home with Teresa, being far too tired to even think about going out.  Neither Scott nor Johnny had suggested that he should accompany them, although some of the younger men had invited him to join them.  Teresa had been glad of his company.  With Johnny still being distant with her, and Murdoch and Marcy gone she was finding life at Lancer a little lonely.  She sympathised with Jeff’s plight as he complained that every muscle he possessed was aching fiercely.

By the time Jeff emerged from his room on Sunday morning he found he had the house to himself.  Teresa had gone to church with Jelly, Maria had left early to attend the Catholic Church in Morro Coyo and the Lancer brothers hadn’t returned home from their night out.

It occurred to Jeff that now would be the perfect time to take a look at what was in the locked drawer in Murdoch’s desk.  He went to the kitchen and selected a broad bladed knife.  Kneeling down in front of the drawer he slipped the knife through the small gap, manoeuvring it as Packer had taught him.  The lock sprung open.  Jeff laid the knife on the top of the desk and pulled the drawer open.  Lying at the bottom of the drawer was a thick brown envelope. Jeff drew it out and turned it over in his hands.  He frowned when he saw the seal of the Pinkerton Agency.  He looked around furtively, afraid of being caught.  He couldn’t be certain how long he would remain undisturbed.  He closed the drawer and carried the envelope with him as he returned to his room.

*****

By the time Jeff had finished reading the Pinkerton reports he was shaking uncontrollably.  It hadn’t been hard to find men prepared to talk about the Lancer family for the price of a few beers.  He had been stunned to discover their complicated history.  He had listened to the stories of Johnny Madrid before dismissing most of them as being fanciful tales.  The information in the reports suggested that, if anything, they hadn’t done justice to Johnny’s career as a gunfighter.

It rankled with him that the entire Lancer family had been so judgemental about his mistakes when one of their own was a cold-blooded killer.  Jeff felt that he would be doing everyone a favor by finding a way to get rid of Johnny. As for Scott…he couldn’t understand why anyone would give up a privileged life in Boston to work from sunup to sundown.  Scott didn’t need his share of the Lancer estate and Johnny didn’t deserve his.  Jeff was determined to remove them from the picture entirely, leaving the way clear for him to inherit.  After all, if something happened to his sons who would Murdoch leave the ranch to?  It only made sense for it to pass to his mother and then to him.  He wondered about Teresa and whether or not she would have any claim.  It sure wasn’t a hardship for him to be nice to the girl.  She was sweet and naïve and had curves in all the right places.  Getting close to her would just consolidate his position, if it didn’t get him killed.

This brought him to the heart of the problem, and the reason why he had broken out in a cold sweat.  Taking on Johnny Lancer was one thing.  Taking on Johnny Madrid was liable to have fatal results.  Having read the telegram from Murdoch he had been intending to bait the youngest Lancer into losing his temper again.  Now he wasn’t so sure that was a good idea.  He was now armed with ample information, including Johnny’s brief spell in San Quentin, which could easily be used to provoke the former gunhawk.  That would be fine if he had a death wish.  Perhaps he could turn his attention to Scott and get him to react on his brother’s behalf.

Jeff lay back on his bed, surrounded by the pieces of paper which chronicled the life of Johnny Madrid.  From his point of view it was a damn shame that the Pinkerton agent hadn’t turned up five minutes later.  Johnny deserved to die to atone for all his crimes…all the men he had killed.  He closed his eyes, eased his sore protesting body into a more comfortable position and fell asleep.

*****

Scott rode in silence all too aware of Jeff riding beside him.  They were on their way to mend a bridge which had been partially washed away after an unexpected flash flood.  Jelly had already taken the supplies out on a wagon and Scott was hopeful of finishing the job in one day if Jeff did his part.  He snorted softly to himself on that thought.  Jeff was by nature downright lazy.  He would rather sit and watch than do any actual work.  On the rare occasion that he did put in any effort he usually managed to make a mess of what he was doing.  Scott was starting to wonder if it was deliberate.  He was definitely regretting his rash offer to teach Jeff the workings of the ranch and was counting the days until Murdoch’s return.  He was more than ready to hand the problem over to his father.

Jeff was whistling tunelessly and the noise grated on Scott’s nerves.  He debated telling the young man to shut up before deciding that it would be ungracious.  This was the first time he had seen Jeff in a good mood so perhaps things were about to take a turn for the better.

They arrived at the bridge to find all the tools and wood neatly stacked and ready for use.  Scott unsaddled his horse and tied it in the shade of a small copse of trees.  He instructed Jeff to start moving the planks of wood while he checked out the problem.  Two of the boards at one side and a board at the far side of the bridge had been pushed out of position when the stream had risen to overflow its banks.  The easiest way to remove them would be by knocking them out from underneath and that would mean standing in the fast flowing icy water.  Scott knew that if he had been working with his brother they would have tossed for that task.  He couldn’t imagine suggesting that to Jeff.

With a resigned sigh he sat on the bank of the stream and pulled off his boots and socks.  He rolled his trousers up as far as he could and climbed carefully down into the water.  The chill took his breath away and he stood for a few minutes, allowing his body to adjust to the change in temperature.  He waded over to the far side of the stream and bent down to inspect the planks.  The water had done too much damage to them to make them salvageable which had been his first hope.

He straightened up and looked over to Jeff.  “I need a mallet.  There should be one in the tool box.”  He watched as Jeff rummaged around to find the requested item.

“This what you want?” Jeff eventually asked, holding up the heavy tool.

“Bring it over here.  Just be careful on the bridge.”

Jeff took his time, testing each plank before committing his weight to it.  Scott was barely holding onto his temper by the time Jeff reached him.  He held up his hand and then squinted up into the sun as Jeff made no move to hand over the mallet.

“I was wondering something,” Jeff began conversationally.  “What was it like finding out that your brother’s job used to be killing people? I mean, did you ever think he might turn on the folks at Lancer?  He sure had one hell of a reputation.”

“What my brother did before he came back to Lancer is none of your concern,” Scott snapped.

“He can’t have had much of a conscience,” Jeff continued.  “Beating up old women and such.”

Scott could feel the heat rising in his face.  “My brother has never harmed a woman and he has a damn sight more of a conscience than most men I’ve met in my life.”

“My mistake,” Jeff drawled, dangling the mallet over the side of the bridge and just out of Scott’s reach. “I thought he’d done time for assaulting a lady.” As he spoke he released his grip on the mallet which struck Scott hard on his left shoulder before hitting the water, sending a plume of spray up into the air.

Scott hissed in pain and rubbed the tender spot on his shoulder irritably.  “I’ve no intention of discussing Johnny with you.  If you’ve any questions about his past I suggest you speak to him.  Now go and get those boards, some nails and a hammer.  And, this time, watch what you’re doing.”

With a mumbled apology Jeff turned away.  Scott gently rotated his injured shoulder, biting back a curse as it protested against the movement.  He didn’t want to believe that Jeff had injured him deliberately, but he could have sworn that the boy was trying to hold back a grin.  He gritted his teeth against the discomfort, reached into the water to retrieve the mallet and set about the task of removing the damaged boards.

*****

It was late afternoon before Scott and Jeff arrived back at the hacienda.  The pain in Scott’s shoulder had worsened as the day had worn on and he was starting to worry about the extent of his injury. He was also worried about Johnny’s reaction should he find out about it.  He could hear Jelly muttering to himself in the tack room as he struggled to unbuckle his saddle and could feel Jeff watching him as he hefted it up onto the rail between the stalls.  With one arm refusing to work properly everything took far longer than usual.  Jeff didn’t offer assistance and Scott was determined not to ask for any.  He had almost finished by the time Jelly ambled out to stand watching him.

“What’s wrong with your arm?”

Scott finished putting away the brushes and patted his horse on the neck.  He kept his back to Jelly as he was pretty sure his face would betray how much pain he was in.  “I pulled a muscle in my shoulder.  It’ll be fine by tomorrow.”

“I’ve some liniment I could give you iffn you’re interested,” Jelly offered.

Scott had encountered Jelly’s homemade cures before.  Usually they were potent, smelled vile and were far more suited for animals than humans.  “Thanks Jelly.  If it doesn’t clear up I might just try it.”

He could hear Jelly huffing in disappointment as he escaped the old handyman’s well meaning concern.  He took the backstairs to his room to avoid running into anyone.  After tossing his hat on the bed he removed his gloves with some difficulty.  He managed to unbuckle his gunbelt one handed only to have it slip out of his grasp and hit the floor with a loud thud.  He held his breath, hoping that no one would come to investigate.

He bent to retrieve his gun and, as he straightened, he caught a glimpse of his face in the mirror.  He was shocked to realise that he was pale, with beads of sweat running down his cheeks.  If Johnny saw him like this he would know immediately that something was wrong.  He had been intending to remove his shirt to check out the damage.  Now he realised that he might be able to get the garment off, but was unlikely to be able to put it back on.

He poured some water from a pitcher into the bowl on his dresser and splashed it over his face.  He sank gratefully onto the bed and towelled his face dry.  He was sure that nothing was broken, although the mallet had struck him right on the joint.  Hopefully it had only caused bruising that would settle in a few days.  In the meantime he would just have to try and carry on as normal.

He rested for half an hour before supper, trying to ignore the fiery pain that shot down his arm every time he moved it.  He knew that he would have to put in an appearance or Johnny would seek him out.  With a resigned sigh he made his way downstairs.

*****

Johnny sat at the desk and worked his way through the mail.  He pointedly ignored Teresa and Jeff who were sitting rather too close to each other on the sofa.  Every so often Teresa would give a little giggle and he grimaced.  He set most of the mail to one side deciding that Scott could see to the bills.  His brother was far better at doing the books than he was, probably because Scott had far more patience.  Johnny shot a look at Jeff and decided that Scott must have the patience of a saint to deal with that snivelling little…

He reached a letter addressed to him and Scott and smiled when he saw his father’s distinctive handwriting.  He felt a sudden pang as he realised how much he was missing Murdoch.  Now that his father was married things were bound to change and that wasn’t something that he had yet fully come to terms with.

He had spent so many years hating his father and now, even after being home for two years, felt that he was just getting comfortable with the idea of family.  He didn’t begrudge his father his chance at marital happiness…he sure as hell deserved it…but he still wished that Marcy had never come back into Murdoch’s life.  It wouldn’t even have been so bad if she hadn’t brought her rotten son with her.

Recognising the futility of wishing that things were different, he reached for the letter opener and slit open the top of the envelope.  The letter had been written while his father and step-mother were in Salt Lake City visiting old friends.  After that their plans were fluid and it wasn’t clear when they were likely to return. Unlike the most recent telegram the tone of the letter was friendly, full of small insignificant pieces of information about their journey and what they had seen so far.  Johnny read it through a couple of times, put it back in the envelope and stuck it in his pocket.  He felt no urge to share the contents with Jeff and planned on giving the letter to Scott to read later.

Hearing the clock chime six made him wonder where his brother was.  It wasn’t like Scott to be late for anything.  He knew his brother was home, having seen his horse when he had been stabling Barranca for the night.  He was just thinking irritably that he might have to ask Jeff a direct question when he heard footsteps coming from the direction of the stairs.

“’Bout time you showed up,” Johnny said as he pushed away from the desk.

“Sorry.  I lost track of time.”  Scott turned away before Johnny could get a good look at him and smiled at Teresa.  “How was your day?”

Johnny saw Teresa’s face brighten into an answering smile as she responded to Scott’s question.  He had been avoiding the girl and he knew it upset her.  Every time he resolved to make his peace with her he saw her with Jeff and his heart hardened again.  The atmosphere between them was now frosty and glaringly obvious to everyone else.  He didn’t want to think about what would happen when Murdoch returned if things hadn’t improved.  He followed the others to the table, brooding quietly and not paying much attention to what was going on around him.

Part way through the meal a few words penetrated his pre-occupation.  Teresa was prattling on about a dance in town on Saturday, explaining to Scott that Jeff had offered to accompany her.

“No.” The word slipped out before Johnny had even thought about it.  A complete silence fell over the table.  He looked up from contemplating his plate to find everyone staring at him.  There were tears of anger in Teresa’s eyes.

“I don’t have to ask for your permission.  Jeff’s part of the family now and I’m sure Murdoch wouldn’t object if he were here.”

“I don’t see that you’ve any grounds to complain, Johnny.  I might not have a spotless reputation but it’s a lot better than yours.” Jeff laid his hand reassuringly over Teresa’s, although he didn’t quite have the guts to look the furious ex-gunfighter in the eye.

Johnny flung his napkin on the table and stood up, leaning menacingly across toward Jeff.  “What the hell right do you have to come into my house and speak to me like that?” he demanded.

“Johnny, sit down,” Scott said quietly.  “We’ll discuss this later.”

Ice cold blue eyes swept over his brother and then narrowed quizzically.  For the first time that evening Johnny realized that Scott wasn’t looking well.  There was a lack of color in Scott’s face and a tightening around the mouth that told Johnny that his brother was in pain.  He sat down, noticing that Scott had turned away, apparently unwilling to meet his gaze.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong except that it would be nice to have one meal in peace occasionally.”

“Yeah, guess I put my foot in it again.”  That was as close to an apology as Johnny was willing to get where Jeff was concerned.  He’s had to grovel once and he wasn’t about to do it again.

“You’re just being plain mean, Johnny.  Why can’t you give Jeff a chance?”  Teresa glowered at him across the table.

“You know what, Teresa, why don’t we just let you make your own mistakes.” Johnny shoved his chair back and stomped off in the direction of the kitchen.

*****

By the time that Maria’s motherly attentions had soothed his nerves Johnny was starting to feel guilty about once again leaving Scott to pick up the pieces.  Johnny wasn’t in the least bit bothered about Jeff and Teresa.  So far as he was concerned they deserved each other.  He finished his last mouthful of Maria’s special stew and leant back with a contented sigh.  As he moved he remembered the letter from Murdoch.  Now was as good a time as any to show it to Scott and perhaps at the same time he could find out what was bothering his brother.

He carried his dishes over to the sink and kissed Maria on the cheek.  “Gracias, Maria.  I’ll see you in the morning.”

Maria caught his arm.  “Jelly was here earlier.  He told me that your hermano had hurt his shoulder.”

“He wasn’t owning up to it.  Scott can be downright secretive sometimes.  Don’t worry, I’ll check it out and if it’s anything to worry about I’ll make sure to send for Sam.”

Johnny glanced into the great room.  There was no sign of Scott, although Jeff and Teresa were sitting on the sofa where they had been earlier.  Johnny suppressed the urge to go in there, grab Jeff by the throat and show him the fastest way off Lancer.  Somehow he didn’t think his father would be very happy with him if he did that.

He took the stairs two at a time and shoved Scott’s door open without bothering to knock.  He caught a glimpse of Scott’s left shoulder before his brother reached over hastily and pulled his shirt back into position.  Johnny crossed the room hurriedly, cursing under his breath.

“Let’s see it,” he demanded.

“It’s nothing.” Scott was holding his shirt closed with his right hand, his left arm held tightly against his body.

“Like hell it isn’t.  Let me see.”

Scott nodded wearily and let his shirt swing open.  Johnny reached over and carefully pulled it down to expose the mass of vivid black and red bruising.  He ran a hand over his brother’s shoulder and Scott flinched.

“Sit down.” Johnny followed Scott over to the bed and stood facing him.  “It’s too swollen for me to be able to tell if anything’s broken.  How did it happen and why didn’t you come and tell me?”

“It was an accident and I didn’t want anyone making a fuss.  I’ll just take it easy for a few days until the bruising starts to go and…”

“That ain’t gonna get better in a few days,” Johnny interrupted.  “It’s too late to send for Sam tonight but first thing tomorrow I’m driving you into town in the buckboard.  Can you move your arm?”

“Not much,” Scott admitted.  “It’s been getting worse for the last couple of hours.”

“And how long did you think you were gonna get away with hiding it?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” Scott gave his brother a rueful smile.  “I figured about five minutes, only you were so wound up at supper time that I thought I might make it through to the morning.”

“How’d it happen?”  Johnny saw the smile fade as Scott’s gaze slid away.  There could only be one reason why Scott was keeping quiet.  “Jeff,” Johnny spat in disgust and spun on his heels intending to go and deal with the situation.

“I told you it was an accident.  Something fell and hit me.  It was no-one’s fault.” Scott’s voice was strained.  “This is why I kept quiet.  I knew you’d lose your temper and would likely end up doing something we’d all regret.  I like living at Lancer, Johnny.  I like having a family around me.  I don’t want to give Murdoch a reason to ask us to leave.”

Johnny stopped as he reached the open door.  His brother’s plea echoed his own thoughts.  He irritably kicked the door closed before turning round.  “Was it an accident?”

Scott eased himself onto the bed so that he could rest with his back against the pillows.  “I can’t prove it wasn’t.  Once Murdoch gets back he’ll see for himself what Jeff is like.  This is his problem.”

“You’re wrong, Brother.  This is *our* problem.  I’ll leave him alone this time, but if there are any more ‘accidents’ I ain’t gonna be so understanding.” Johnny walked back to the bed and sat down.  “It hurts, huh?”

“I’ve had worse.” Scott mimicked his brother’s favorite phrase before closing his eyes and trying to ride out another wave of pain.

Johnny snorted.  “Yeah?  You don’t sound too convinced about that.  You sit tight and I’ll see if there’s any laudanum in the kitchen.” He waited for his brother to protest and frowned when he realised that Scott was just going to acquiesce.  “I’ll be back in a minute.”

It didn’t take Johnny long to locate the small bottle.  He set it on the kitchen table while he poured a glass of water.  Everything was quiet.  Maria had obviously finished cleaning up from supper and had gone home for the night.  He was so engrossed in his angry thoughts that he didn’t hear Teresa entering the room.

“What’s that for?” Her puzzled question caught him by surprise.

He set the jug down with a thump and turned to confront her.  “Scott’s hurt.  Why don’t you ask your boyfriend what happened to him.”

“What’s wrong with him? I should go and check on him.”

“You stay away from him,” Johnny ordered, ignoring the hurt look.  “I’ll take care of him.”

Teresa moved a little closer and smiled timidly.  “I only want to help.”

“Then stay out of my way.” Johnny pushed past her and stormed out of the kitchen.

*****

Johnny helped his brother to undress and get comfortable in bed.  He added a small dose of laudanum to the water and handed the glass to Scott.  A look of disgust crossed his brother’s face as he drank.

“Do you want me to send for Sam tomorrow rather than going into town?”

Scott shook his head, sleepily.  “I’ll be ok.” His eyes closed and the lines of pain which had been etched into his face began to disappear.

Johnny sat for a while, his thoughts dark and dangerous.  Driving Scott into Green River would probably be a blessing…it would keep him away from Jeff and the urge to do permanent damage.  When he was satisfied that Scott was asleep he leaned over to turn down the lamps.

As the light dimmed Scott stirred.  “Johnny?” he whispered.

“Right here, Brother.”

“Did you tell Jeff about San Quentin?”

Johnny frowned.  “Why would I tell that piece of scum anything?”

"Something he said…” Scott’s voice trailed off as he drifted back to sleep.

How would Jeff know anything about his time in prison?  The only people he had ever told were Val and his brother, neither of whom would have said anything to anyone else.  A horrible thought occurred to Johnny.  Murdoch had made no secret out of the fact that he had reports from the Pinkerton Agency.  He had never offered to show them to Johnny and Johnny had never asked.  He didn’t even know where Murdoch kept them, although it seemed likely they were in the locked drawer in the desk.  He and Scott occasionally teased Murdoch about that drawer, asking him what secrets he had that were so important they had to be locked away.  Johnny balked at invading his father’s private property, but what if Jeff had done that exact same thing.  Jeff was the last person he wanted knowing any intimate details about his life.  There was only one way to find out.  With a last look at his brother he headed determinedly for the stairs.

*****

The great room was dark and deserted.  Johnny lit one of the lamps and carried it over to the desk.  He knelt down and allowed the light to shine on the bottom drawer.  He reached out almost unwillingly for the handle and gave it an experimental tug.  The drawer slid open and he sat back on his heels.  He ran his hand along the wooden edge, finding the tell tale signs of forced entry.

Still feeling as if he was intruding upon his father’s personal business, he laid the lamp down and leaned forward.  The first things he saw were two small framed pictures.  He lifted them out carefully and found a pair of very different faces looking back at him.

Seeing a picture of his mother after all this time was a shock.  He had nothing of hers, having run for his life in the middle of the night following her death.  It touched him that Murdoch had kept the picture after all the pain his mother had caused.  He ran a finger over her face, tracing the lines of her eyes…her mouth, so serious and so unlike the living reality had been. “Te amo, mama,” he whispered before setting it aside.

The other portrait was clearly of Scott’s mother.  She had the same pale coloring as her son, the same well-bred face.  Johnny had often wondered about Catherine Garrett.  She sure couldn’t have been some delicate Boston flower.  She’d defied her family to marry the man she loved before travelling the breadth of the continent to start a new and uncertain life with him.  Johnny saw strength and determination, traits that she had passed in full measure to her son. Her son, his brother and one of the most important people in his life.  Thinking of Scott brought all his anger against Jeff to the surface again.  His brother had gone out of his way to be patient and helpful and how had he been repaid?  One way or another he would find a way to make Jeff suffer for hurting Scott.

After carefully placing Catherine’s picture next to his mother’s, he turned his attention to the other items in the drawer.  There were some personal letters, which he ignored, and some official looking documents for which he spared only a cursory glance.  The final item was a large envelope and his heart sank as he looked at it.  During a career spanning over five years he had done many things he wasn’t proud of and some things of which he was downright ashamed.  It put a knot in his gut to think that his father had read about his exploits and that knot tightened with the realisation that Jeff had also read the reports.

He removed the envelope, straightened up and laid it on the desk.  He didn’t want to open it.  He slumped down into the chair and stared at it, willing it to give up its secrets without conscious action on his part.  As the minutes ticked away he chided himself for sheer cowardice.  His father had read the reports and had still welcomed him back to Lancer.  He needed to know what information Jeff now possessed so that he could head off any problems.  The secret to surviving as a gunfighter was preparation and this sort of fight would be no different. With renewed determination, he pulled the papers out of the envelope and began to read.

***** 

Scott was awake and dressed by the time Johnny arrived in his room the next day.  He saw the surprised look, but wasn’t about to admit how long it had taken and how much it had cost him to struggle into his clothes.  He had awoken in the early hours of the morning and the discomfort in his shoulder had prevented him from returning to sleep.  The pain and restriction in movement seemed worse than it had been before he had gone to sleep.  He was relieved that Johnny had caught him out the previous night, although that was something else that he planned on keeping to himself. The truth was that he was worried about the injury and would feel far happier once Sam had examined him.

He thought that Johnny looked tired.  There was a tightly controlled anger about his brother and something else, something that Scott couldn’t identify.  “You don’t look as if you had much sleep.”

Johnny grimaced.  “I spent most of the night reading those Pinkerton reports Murdoch’s been keeping locked away.”

“Why now?” Scott asked, perplexed.

“You don’t remember?  You said last night that Jeff had mentioned me being in jail.  I figured there was only one way he’d have found out any of the details.”

Scott shook his head.  He didn’t remember much about the previous evening after drinking the laudanum that had bought him a few hours peace.  As he tried to interpret the look on his brother’s face, he thought back to the limited conversation between himself and Jeff while they had been working together.  He had said something…something about Johnny beating up women.  He sat down and cradled his sore arm to relieve the strain on his shoulder.  He was fairly sure now he knew what was troubling Johnny.

“What do the reports say?”

Johnny ducked his head, clearly embarrassed.  “A lotta things I wish they didn’t.”

“It can’t be easy, knowing that Murdoch’s read them.” Scott saw his brother’s head come up, startled.  “That’s what’s bothering you, isn’t it?”

Johnny nodded slowly before walking past his brother to stare out of the window.  “Seeing it all laid out like that was hard.  Some of it’s the truth, some is exaggerated and there are things in there that just never happened.  I’ve done a lot of things in my life that I’d rather Murdoch had never found out about.  One thing I’ve never done is hurt a woman, but it’s there on my record that I was sent to jail for assaulting one.  I didn’t want you or Murdoch to know about it and now I find that he knew all along.”

“Murdoch would understand it you told him what really happened.”

Johnny shrugged his shoulders.  “Too late now to make excuses.” He turned back to Scott, his face now wiped clean of all emotion.  “D’you feel up to eating breakfast before we go into town?”

Scott wasn’t sure he wanted to face that journey with a full stomach.  “Some coffee’ll do me fine.  We can get something to eat once Sam’s finished poking and prodding me.”  Scott stood, still supporting his arm.  “You know you can always talk to me.”

“Yeah, only there are some things I don’t feel comfortable talking to anyone about.  You understand that, right?”

“I understand.  Are you going to be alright facing Jeff this morning?”

A delighted smile crept over Johnny’s face.  “Well, Brother, since you’re out of action for a while I thought I’d find something for him to do that would keep him close to the house.”

“What?” Scott asked suspiciously.

“Cleaning up the outhouse,” Johnny replied with undisguised satisfaction.

*****

“Did you see his face?” Johnny couldn’t contain his laughter as they drove along the road leading to town.  So far they were making good time, although he found himself shooting anxious looks at his brother every time one of the wheels hit a rut in the hard packed earth.

“Yes, I did, and it was a stroke of genius on your part.” Scott’s delighted chuckle mingled with the rich sounds of Johnny’s mirth.  “I doubt if Teresa will want to go near him by the time he’s finished.”

“I asked Jelly to keep an eye on him…make sure he doesn’t slack off.”

“I’m sure Jelly will take his responsibility very seriously,” Scott replied in a solemn voice, before succumbing to his amusement again.  “I can’t see any reason for us to hurry back.  We’ve brought the list of supplies. We need to go to the lumber yard and…”

“And you’re gonna take it easy,” Johnny interrupted.

“I was planning on it.  You get to do all the hard work while I supervise.” There was a slight catch in Scott’s voice.

“So, what’s new about that?” Johnny turned his eyes from the road and grinned at his brother.  The grin faded when he saw how pale Scott was looking.  “You don’t look so good.  I wish you’d taken some laudanum before we left.”

Scott tightened his grip on the seat, his knuckles white against the dark wood.  “I’ll be fine,” he replied with a noticeable lack of conviction.

Johnny reached down under the seat and pulled out the canteen of water, offering it to his brother.  His eyes narrowed in concern as Scott shook his head and became even paler.  He yanked on the reins and brought the team to a halt just before Scott leaned over the side of the buggy and lost the contents of his stomach.  He leapt down and strode round to Scott’s side, supporting him and then helping him to the ground.  “Damn, Scott.  I should’ve sent for Sam.  You’re not fit enough for this.”

Scott staggered over to the shade of a tree and sat down, drawing his knees up and bending forward.  Johnny could see his brother struggling to draw in shaky breaths.  He pulled out a bandana, uncapped the canteen and soaked the material with the cool water.  He knelt by his brother’s side and laid the dripping wet cloth across the back of Scott’s neck.

“Take it easy, Brother.  We’ll head back to Lancer as soon as you’re ready.”

Scott raised his head and Johnny held out the canteen again.  Scott’s hand was shaking as he accepted it.  “Rinse out your mouth,” Johnny advised, watching as Scott took a mouthful of the water and then spat it out.  “Now drink some…slowly.”  As Scott once again obeyed his instructions, Johnny moved the bandana from his brother’s neck and wiped the sweat from Scott’s forehead.

Johnny shifted his position so that he could sit beside Scott quietly and supportively, as his brother regained his composure.  It was shaping up to be a hot day and he was keen to get moving.  Being out in the hot sun was the last thing Scott needed.  He berated himself for suggesting the journey rather than insisting that Sam be sent for.  His guilty conclusion was that he had grabbed the excuse to put some distance between himself and Jeff.

“Thanks,” Scott spoke quietly and then took a couple of deep breaths. “We’re closer to town than the ranch.  If we turn back now it’ll be hours before we can get Sam out there.  Let’s keep going.”

“I don’t know, Scott.” Johnny looked critically at his brother.  “You sure you’re up to it?”

“I’d rather get it over with.  Besides,” Scott gave his brother a weak smile, “I don’t think I’m going to be sick again.”

Johnny scrambled to his feet and held out his hand.  He helped Scott back into the buckboard, climbed in himself and gathered up the reins.  “At least this time Sam gets to yell at you rather than me.” He slapped the reins on the horses’ backs and the buckboard lurched forward.

*****

“I’m surprised at you, Johnny.  You should have had more sense than to drag your brother into town.”  Sam efficiently completed his examination of Scott’s shoulder.  The young blond was biting his lower lip and had his eyes tightly shut. Sam turned his disapproving gaze on Johnny, who was sitting quietly on a chair in the corner of the room.

“Sorry.” Johnny lowered his eyes.

“Wasn’t his fault,” Scott whispered.  “Thought I’d be alright.”

“Well, you’re not alright and I’m not happy about you going back to Lancer today.  The muscles surrounding the shoulder joint are badly swollen. They’re pressing on the nerves and if the pressure continues for too long there could be permanent damage.  Being bounced around on that wagon is the worst thing for you. You need rest so that the swelling reduces.  Once that happens you need to do some gentle exercises to keep the joint moving.  You didn’t tell me how it happened.” Sam caught the look that passed between the brothers before Scott answered.

“Something fell and hit me.”

“What fell?” Sam asked impatiently.  Sometimes getting information from a member of the Lancer family was as hard as pulling teeth.

“A mallet.”

“When?”  Sam could feel the tension radiating from both brothers.

“Yesterday morning,” Scott admitted softly.

There were clearly things he wasn’t being told.  Scott was looking defensive and Johnny was looking murderous.  Sam was no fool and Murdoch had confided his fears about how Jeff and his sons would get along while he and Marcy were away.  “I take it that Jeff was involved in some way?”  He hid a smile as he tidied away his instruments and went to wash his hands.

“I can handle it.”  Johnny’s voice was deceptively quiet.

“Which is why you’re not going back to Lancer on your own.”  Scott sat up and swung his legs slowly round over the edge of Sam’s examination couch.  “I’ll be fine, Sam.  I promise to rest when I get home.”

“Have it your own way.  I don’t know why any of you ever bother consulting me.  It’s not like you pay any attention to the advice I give you.” He walked over to a drawer and removed a large square of black material that he fashioned into a sling.  He saw the muscles around Scott’s mouth tighten as the sling was tied in place.  The dark sling was a stark contrast to Scott’s white shirt and colorless face.

“There’s some things needing done in town,” Johnny announced.  “Doc, could Scott stay here while I take care of them?”

Sam nodded at the suggestion and saw a flicker of relief cross his patient’s face. “Of course.” He helped Scott to settle back on the couch.  “I’ll give you a shot of morphine before you leave.” He didn’t have to look at the pair to know that they were both about to protest.  “Just enough to take the edge off the pain.”  He received a reluctant nod before Scott closed his eyes and turned his head away.

Johnny picked up his hat and prepared to leave.  He cast an anxious look back over his shoulder before walking through the door, Sam following close behind.  As soon as they were out of earshot Johnny stopped.  “How bad is it?”

“Bad enough. There can be complications from this kind of injury. If the shoulder joint stops working it can take months or even years to get it back to normal.” Sam laid a hand on Johnny’s arm and squeezed sympathetically.  “I know you’re worried about him.  If he does exactly as he’s told, and doesn’t do any further damage, there’s no reason why he won’t make a full recovery relatively quickly.”

Johnny nodded and pushed his hair out of his eyes before putting on his hat.  “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

“How are things at the ranch?”

“I wish…” Johnny shook his head.  “You know, before I came home I never used to waste my time wishing that things could be different.  Guess I didn’t care enough.  Life was what you made it.  Sure, sometimes it kicked you when you were down, but you either crawled off or you got up and kicked it back.  Now I wish Murdoch hadn’t run into Marcy again and mostly I wish she hadn’t brought her rotten son to Lancer.  Kinda selfish of me.”

“It’s not selfish to want things to stay the same.  You, Scott and Murdoch have a lot of years to make up for.”

“Murdoch loves her.  You can’t argue with that and he deserves to be happy.” Johnny automatically straightened his gunbelt, settling the weight of his colt just right.  “Trouble is, it ain’t gonna work, not while Jeff’s around and Murdoch can’t see it.”

“Give it time, Johnny.  Maybe once your father and Marcy get back Jeff will start to straighten out.”

“I hope so,” Johnny replied.  “Keep an eye on Scott for me.”

Sam stood in the doorway and watched as Johnny walked toward the General Store.  He had seen very little of Jeff either before or at the wedding.  He knew the story of Jeff’s last visit to Lancer and could understand why Johnny was being so wary.  He could only hope that, in his determination to keep his father and brother safe, Johnny didn’t do something that would drive a wedge between him and his family.  He closed the door quietly behind him and went to check on his patient.

*****

For the next few days while he was confined to the house by his injury, Scott watched as his family fell apart.  Johnny was unable to say a civil word to either Teresa or Jeff.  Scott quietly cursed the effects of the laudanum that had removed his common sense.  Had he been in his right mind he would never have told Johnny about Jeff’s remarks and Johnny would never have been led to read the Pinkerton reports.  Those reports were now missing.  Scott had looked for them with the intention of locking them in the safe.  He had no intention of reading them.  Johnny had shared a lot of his past with him and that was enough.  He assumed Johnny had either removed or destroyed them.

Johnny spent most of his time away from the house, having made sure that Jeff was given work to do that was supervised by either Jelly or Cipriano.  Jeff’s expression was turning sulkier by the day and Scott had overheard his aggrieved complaints to Teresa on more than one occasion.  He had seen Jeff looking with loathing at his brother whenever Johnny’s back was turned.  Not that Jeff had the guts to say anything to Johnny who, for the most part, ignored him.

Scott hadn’t needed much by way of nursing care, but Teresa had hovered round, using every excuse to sing Jeff’s praises and moan about how unfair Johnny was being.  Scott’s tolerance was severely limited by his pain and worry about his injury.  His good manners kept him silent until, after one particularly trying day, he had informed Teresa that Johnny was in charge and he fully supported his brother.  After that, much to his relief, she had left him alone.

He spent his time bringing the books up to date, dealing with outstanding bills and conferring with his brother about the plans to dynamite a section of the water course.  There had been a landslide earlier in the year caused by the most significant earth tremor that Scott had experienced since moving to California.  Tons of rock and earth were now damming one of the major streams feeding into the lakes and rivers that supplied Lancer with water.  As there had been unnaturally high rainfall during the previous winter, clearing the stream hadn’t been an urgent priority.  Now, in high summer, the water levels were falling and the brothers had decided that they couldn’t wait much longer.

They had sought advice from one of the mining companies and it looked to be a relatively straightforward operation.  Rather than paying someone to do the work they had decided to do it themselves.  The blockage was high in the mountains and the plan had been for them to ride out, blow the obstruction and then send work crews up to remove the debris.  Scott’s injury meant the plan had to be postponed and he knew his brother was thinking of going up on his own.  So far Scott had been able to talk him out if it with the promise that he would soon be well enough to accompany him.

To his relief his arm was steadily improving.  The bruising on the top of his shoulder had turned an interesting array of colors, the swelling in the joint was going down and the sharp pains that had been caused by pressure on the nerves had finally disappeared.  Mindful of Sam’s advice he was trying to keep the joint mobile and it was moving more easily with each passing day.

A couple of letters had arrived from Murdoch.  He and Marcy were still enjoying their honeymoon and were in no hurry to return.  Scott had sent a brief reply to the last one in which he mentioned none of the events of the last few weeks.  The tone of his father’s letters suggested that Jeff had either not written to his mother or had been equally circumspect.  It appeared that Jeff wasn’t intending to bring the honeymoon to a premature end.

That the honeymoon did end abruptly had nothing to do with events at Lancer.  Scott was in his room early on Sunday morning when the door flew open to admit his brother.  Johnny stood in the doorway, eyes wide and hair in disarray.  He had pulled on a shirt that was still hanging open and he looked as if he had just woken up.

“What’s wrong?”  Scott could see a look that was close to panic on his brother’s face.

Johnny thrust an envelope at Scott.  “Maria found it.  She said it looked like it had been deliberately hidden at the back of one of the cupboards in the kitchen.”

“What is it?”

Johnny sat down hard on the bed.  “It’s a telegram from Marcy.  Murdoch’s sick so they’re coming home.  It’s dated two days ago and it had been opened before Maria gave it to me.”

“Sick?  How bad?”  Scott’s hands were shaking as he drew the telegram out and read it for himself.  “Looks like they’ll be back the day after tomorrow.  We need to go to Cross Creek to pick them up.”

“Who would have hidden it from us, Scott?  If Maria hadn’t found it we wouldn’t have known to go and meet them and what would Murdoch have thought?”

“There’s one way to find out.  Tomorrow morning we go into town and visit the telegraph office.  While we’re there we can speak to Sam.”  Scott knew what his brother was thinking.  There could only be one person who would benefit from making them look bad with their father and step-mother.  He could feel his own anger rising at the thought of Jeff knowing about Murdoch’s illness and trying to capitalise on it.

“D’you think he’ll be alright?” Johnny asked quietly.  “It don’t say much in the telegram, but it can’t be good if they’re coming home.”

“I’m sure it’s just a precaution,” Scott reassured his brother.  “Once he’s home and Sam is taking care of him he’ll be up and about in no time.”

Scott kept his tone light and comforting while his stomach knotted up.  He saw that Johnny was accepting his words because he was just as desperate to believe that everything was going to work out.   The telegram had been brief.  There was a problem with Murdoch’s lungs and the doctor had recommended that he return home.  They would have to wait until they met the train to find out the extent of the problem.

*****

“You’re not going.” Johnny’s mild tone and relaxed stance were deceptive.  “You shouldn’t have ridden into town yesterday and you sure as hell ain’t well enough to drive the buggy all the way to Cross Creek.” Deep blue eyes narrowed warningly as he held his position between his brother and the front door.

Scott had insisted upon accompanying Johnny the previous day when he went to town to find out about the telegram.  They had made little progress in proving that Jeff had known about it and had tried to keep it from them.  The telegraph operator had left town the previous day and his assistant hadn’t been on duty when the telegram from Marcy arrived.  They had stopped by to see Sam who had been furious to find that Scott had disobeyed his instructions again.  His anger had dissipated as soon as he heard about Murdoch.  He had agreed to meet the train with them to see for himself how his old friend was doing.

Johnny had left it to Scott to tell Teresa, being unable to trust himself to be kind when breaking the news.  He’d felt a twinge of guilt.  Whatever differences might have developed between him and Teresa he knew that she was devoted to Murdoch.  He had gone out of his way to tell Jeff, keeping a close watch for his reaction.  The boy had licked his lips nervously and his eyes had slid away from Johnny’s face.  When confronted with a blunt accusation he had denied knowing anything about the telegram.  Johnny knew he was lying.

He knew Scott was lying as well when he said he was fit to make the difficult cross country journey to meet the train.  One look at his brother’s face was enough to convince him that Scott had set back his recovery by his ill-advised trip into town.  He wasn’t prepared to expose his sibling to further injury.

Scott tried, unsuccessfully, to side-step the obstruction.  “I don’t know how you’re planning to stop me.”

“By force, if I have to,” Johnny growled.  “Do you want to risk losing the use of your arm?  How will that help Murdoch?  He’ll be relying on us to keep things going here while he gets better.  It’s bad enough that he’s sick without him having to worry about you too.”

“That’s unfair,” Scott protested.

"I don’t give a damn about whether it’s fair or not.  It’s the truth.”  Johnny saw the uncertainty on his brother’s face mixed with worry for their father.  “I know you want to see him, to find out how he is.  I understand, Scott.  Getting him back here isn’t gonna be easy and it’ll be ten times worse if I have to worry about you the whole time as well.  Jeff can drive the buggy and I’ll take Barranca.  Once Sam’s checked him over we’ll get him home.  I’ll look after him…I promise.”

“I know you will.” Scott’s rigid posture relaxed and he turned away from the door.  “I’m worried, Johnny.”

“We all are, but our old man’s one of the strongest and most determined people I’ve ever met.  Whatever’s wrong with him he’ll beat it.”

“Get back as fast as you can.”

“Trust me, Brother.” Johnny slapped Scott lightly on the back and turned to leave.

“Always.”

*****

Johnny paced backwards and forwards along the short platform.  The train was late, Jeff was getting on his nerves and he wanted to see his father.  He pulled out his watch and glared at it furiously.  He couldn’t understand why so little time had passed since he’d last looked at it.  He resumed his pacing, ignoring the irritated looks that he was receiving from the handful of people waiting for the train.  Just looking at Jeff made him want to resort to violence so he had sent the young man over to a nearby café for some lunch.  Sam was sitting placidly in the shade talking with the Station Master.

A shrill whistle pierced the dry, dust laden air and a plume of smoke appeared on the horizon.  Johnny stopped abruptly and stared in that direction.  After peering intently for several minutes the train finally came into view round a bend in the tracks.  With a hiss of steam the engine ground to a halt and the Station Master hurried out to help the passengers.

A door in the last coach opened and Marcy stepped out.  Johnny ran to meet her, a dozen questions tumbling from his lips.

“Johnny, thank heavens.  I was afraid the telegram wouldn’t reach Lancer in time.  Murdoch’s resting in the coach.  He’ll need help to get to the buggy.”

Johnny took hold of her arm.  “How is he?”

There was a catch in her voice as she answered.  “He’s very weak.”  She looked beyond Johnny to see Jeff and Sam approaching.  “Where’s Scott?”

“He had an accident, hurt his shoulder.  Sam didn’t reckon the journey would help so he stayed home.”

“You can tell me about it later.  Right now we need to get your father from the coach and the luggage needs to be unloaded.” Marcy’s eyes were bright with unshed tears.

“Mom,” Jeff said as he arrived and kissed her on the cheek.

Marcy clung to her son before pulling away and smiling at Sam.  “I’m glad you’re here, Doctor.”

Impatient to see his father Johnny apologetically pushed past the passengers milling around on the platform and climbed into the coach.  “Murdoch.” The word slipped out in a horrified whisper.  His father was sitting quietly in the corner of the seat with his head resting against the wall.  His eyes were closed, his face pale and drawn.  A blanket covered his knees, but Johnny could see that he was shivering despite the heat of the day.  His breathing was labored and Johnny could almost swear that he heard the breath rattling in his father’s throat.  “Dios, Murdoch, what happened to you?”

Pale blue eyes opened in response to the voice.  “Johnny, is that you son?”

The words emerged hesitantly and almost broke Johnny’s heart. “Right here, Murdoch.”  He knelt down and took his father’s hand.  “We’ll have you home in no time.  Sam’s here to take a look at you.  Just leave everything to us.” He turned his pleading gaze to Sam who had entered the coach behind him.

“Why don’t you and Jeff see to the luggage while I speak with your father? We won’t be long.  I think you’d better have a word with the Station Master as well, although I doubt if the train’s going to be ready to leave for a while.”

Indecision pressed in on Johnny.  He didn’t want to leave his father’s side.  He told himself to get a grip.  The important thing was to get Murdoch back to Lancer so he had to move and think and do what was necessary to achieve that.  He wished Scott was with him.  Scott would be able to cope.  If it hadn’t been for Jeff…The look he turned on his young step-brother caused the boy to back away, fear in his eyes.  For the first time Johnny felt that Jeff was truly afraid of him.

“Get down to the baggage car,” he ordered.  “See about off-loading the luggage.”

Jeff nodded hurriedly and made a quick escape.  With a last look at his father, who appeared to have gone back to sleep, Johnny followed.

*****

It didn’t take long to get Murdoch settled once they arrived home.  The family gathered in the great room and waited for Sam to join them.  The silence was oppressive, each person being lost in his or her own thoughts.  All eyes turned to the doctor when he eventually joined them.

“Marcy, my dear, can you tell me what happened?” he asked as he took a seat in one of the armchairs.

“He caught a chill and it turned into pneumonia.  The doctor who treated him said that it had weakened his lungs.  He told us that staying in a city wouldn’t do him any good and that the best thing was to bring him home.  The pneumonia almost killed him and he hasn’t regained his strength.  All he does is sleep, then he gets terrible coughing fits that leave him even weaker.”  Marcy pulled out a handkerchief and wiped her eyes.

“Has he ever coughed up blood?”  Sam asked, taking her hand and patting it gently.

“No.  Is that a good sign?” She turned her tear stained face toward the doctor.

“A very good sign.  He’s still battling the after effects of the pneumonia.  The weakness in his lungs means that his body isn’t getting enough oxygen and that is why his muscles are so weak.  The main problem is that this is all putting a strain on his heart so he has to be kept very calm.  With rest, good food and the devoted care I’m sure he’ll receive, I am optimistic that he will make a full recovery.  It will take time and you will all have to be patient.

“As he starts to regain his strength he is going to want to do too much.  You must be firm with him.  He doesn’t need any worry right now and in his present condition, any sudden shock could kill him.” Sam looked around the room.  Teresa had moved over to sit beside Marcy with an arm around the older woman’s shoulders.  The Lancer brothers sat together, close and supportive.  Their faces were strained, but Sam knew they would cope.  Lastly he looked at Jeff and he didn’t like what he saw.  The boy had a predatory look about him and Sam felt a twinge of unease. He resolved to speak to Scott or Johnny about his concerns.

“Why’d you wait so long to tell us he was ill?” Johnny asked Marcy quietly.

Sam turned to stare at Johnny, acutely aware of the accusation in the youngest Lancer’s voice.

“I didn’t want to worry you unnecessarily.”  Marcy smiled tentatively at her younger step-son.

“That was real thoughtful of you.” There was no answering warmth on Johnny’s face.

“Johnny!  I know it was a shock seeing your father so ill, but I hardly think…”

“Right now Sam I don’t give a damn what anyone thinks.  Our father is lying upstairs seriously ill and the first we know about it is a telegram telling us that he’s coming home.  What if he hadn’t made it back?  What if we’d never had a chance to say good-bye?”

There were too many emotions playing over Johnny’s face for Sam to be able to accurately read his mood.  He looked helplessly at Scott.  The blond leant over and spoke softly in his brother’s ear.  Johnny bent his head and listened quietly before nodding, getting up and leaving.

Scott stood and surveyed the other occupants of the room.  “I agree with Johnny that we should have been told earlier about Murdoch’s illness.  However, arguing about the rights and wrongs of something that is past is a waste of time.  All that matters is getting our father well again.  Whatever problems we might have with one another will have to wait.  Johnny and I would appreciate some time alone with Murdoch.  Sam, I apologise for Johnny’s rudeness…he’s upset and not quite his usual self.  If you will all excuse me.”

It was only as he was leaving that Sam realised that Scott hadn’t offered any apology to his step-mother.

*****

After Sam’s departure Teresa went to the kitchen to start the preparations for supper.  Marcy sat deep in thought and close to tears, not just from worry about her husband.  Lancer didn’t feel like home, and without Murdoch by her side, she didn’t feel as if she belonged here.  She missed her own small house in Sacramento and wondered if she had made a dreadful mistake.  She loved Murdoch and their honeymoon had been wonderful until he had been taken ill.  They had been able to pretend that all the problems between their sons didn’t exist and that everything would settle down.

That illusion had been shattered the minute she had seen Jeff and Johnny together.  Her son was clearly terrified of his dark-haired step-brother and had good reason if even half of what Murdoch had told her about Johnny’s past were true.  Johnny had been openly hostile and his cold demeanour had sent shivers down her spine when he had been describing the injury to Scott.  She had no doubt that Johnny would do whatever was required to protect his brother.

She had been counting on support from Scott.  He hadn’t been as suspicious of her in the beginning and she had felt that he had accepted her presence in their lives.  His clear support for his brother had quickly disabused her of that hope.  The Lancer brothers would stand together against any perceived threat to their family, and both she and Jeff were being regarded as just such a threat.

If, God forbid, Murdoch were to die she and her son would be in a hopelessly vulnerable position.  She knew that her husband had made provision for her and he had said that his sons accepted that.  Now she couldn’t imagine living in their home, relying upon their goodwill.  With a sob she pressed her hands over her eyes and bowed her head.

“It’ll be alright, Mom.”

With a shuddering sigh Marcy dropped her hands to her lap and looked up.  “Yes, of course it will, Jeff.  I’m just tired.  Tell me how you have been getting on here.”

“It’s been hard.  Teresa’s the only one who likes me.  Johnny’s been pushing me around ever since you left and it’s been worse since he’s been blaming me for Scott getting hurt.  It wasn’t my fault, Mom, honest.  It was an accident, only Johnny don’t see it like that.”

“He hasn’t hit you again?” Marcy looked searchingly at her son.

Jeff shook his head.  “He scares me and it don’t take much for him to lose his temper.  You’ve seen how he looks at me.  He’s just waiting for an excuse.” Jeff stood up.  “I found something…something I think you should read.  Wait here.  I’ll be back in a minute.”

When Jeff returned he was holding an envelope which he held out to his mother.  She raised her eyebrows in surprise when she saw the seal.  “Where did you get this?”

Jeff looked away, seemingly embarrassed.  “It was in Mr. Lancer’s desk.”

“Oh, Jeff, will you never learn?” Marcy asked in dismay, making no move to accept it.  “I want you to put it back where you found it.”

“You need to read it, Mom.  Johnny’s been a cold-blooded killer since he was a kid.  I don’t want to end up with a bullet in my back.”

The hand Marcy reached out seemed to move of its own accord.  Her fingers closed around the envelope and she drew it to her, clutching it against her breast.  “Murdoch would never put us in danger.”

“He thought he’d be here to protect us, but what if he isn’t?  Did you know that Johnny did time for attacking a helpless old lady?  That’s the kind of person he is…he’ll stop at nothing to get what he wants.  Scott’s no better.  He’ll just stand back and let Johnny get away with anything and what chance do I have when they’ve got the sheriff on their side.  You saw how Scott stood up for his brother even after Johnny had been so rude to you.”

“What do you expect me to do?”  Marcy asked miserably.

“Persuade Mr. Lancer to send Johnny away.  He loves you so he’ll listen to what you say.  Please, Mom.  You’ve got to do this for me.” Jeff’s voice rose in volume, a look of terror plastered across his face.

Marcy stood up and put her arms around her son.  She could feel him trembling.  “I’ll speak to him.  I won’t let anything happen to you.”

After his mother had gone Jeff walked over to the liquor cabinet and poured himself a generous measure of Murdoch’s whiskey.  A sly grin appeared on his face as he contemplated the ease with which he had managed to manipulate his mother.  Once she read those reports she would be begging Murdoch Lancer to throw his younger son out.  And if that didn’t work…well, he already had a plan forming that would do just as effective a job of ridding him of Johnny Madrid Lancer.

*****

Scott eased his arm into a more comfortable position in its sling.  For the last hour he and Johnny had sat with Murdoch without anyone disturbing them.  He had been as shocked as his brother by Murdoch’s condition.  The once large and powerful rancher looked frail, a pale shadow of his former self.  The journey home had clearly depleted his small reserves of strength and he had been asleep since being put to bed.

They had propped Murdoch up against a mound of pillows to aid with his breathing.  Even so the breaths were shallow and erratic.  With considerable effort Scott stopped himself breathing in concert with his father as it was starting to make him light-headed.  His brother was leaning forward in his chair with his fingers restlessly straightening the covers or playing with the fringe of the blanket.  Scott had never noticed so clearly before Johnny’s inability to keep still.

As it began to grow dark Johnny moved restlessly from his chair and lit the lamps, leaving the wicks turned down low.  Nothing existed for the brothers but their concern for the man lying in the bed.  Scott stood up and stretched his aching back before reaching out his hand to pull the drapes across the window.  His shoulder was sore again and he silently berated himself for his stupidity in riding to town.  There was too much to do. Even assuming that Murdoch pulled through the critical phase of his illness it would be weeks before he would be able to do anything.

“Leave them open,” Johnny’s voice came softly from the shadows.  “He’ll feel closed in enough.  When you can’t catch your breath it feels like you’re suffocating, like there’s a great weight pressing down on your chest.”

Scott ran his fingers down the soft material before pulling his hand away.  “Sounds like you’re talking from personal experience.” He waited, but no reply came from the bowed dark head.  “Sam says he’s going to pull through,” he offered, by way of reassurance.

“Yeah, he’s too stubborn to die on us.”

“Then what’s wrong?”

“Nothing.  I’m just tired.”

A soft knock on the door drew their attention.  Marcy stood in the doorway.  “I’ll sit with him.  Maria has prepared some food.  You should both go and get something to eat.”

Scott noticed that she kept her eyes on him while she spoke, never once looking in Johnny’s direction.  “We’re fine, Marcy.”

“I don’t think you understand, Scott.  Murdoch is my husband and this is our room.  I will look after him.  You can visit with him later.  Right now I would like you both to leave.”

“Scott,” Johnny’s voice cut through the sudden silence.  “He’s waking up.”

Marcy pushed past Scott to reach the side of the bed and took hold of Murdoch’s hand.  His eyes opened and he took a deeper breath.  The sound of his dry hacking cough filled the room and Scott felt a knot of fear twist his gut.

When the coughing fit ended everyone’s attention remained fixed on Murdoch.  Eyes that were leaking tears from his recent exertion ranged around the room.  They slid over Scott and Johnny without apparent recognition and settled on Marcy.  A weak smile settled over his face and he breathed out her name.

She turned to the brothers with a triumphant smile.  “You need to leave now.  Your father has to rest.  I will see you in the morning so that we can discuss what work needs doing around the ranch.  I do think it best that I be the one to talk to Murdoch about business matters so as not to confuse him.  I will set up a schedule for visitors and I would be grateful if you would abide by it.”

“Murdoch?” Johnny queried.

“Marcy…tired.”  Murdoch’s eyes closed again without him having acknowledged the presence of his sons.

“You heard your father.  I’ll want a full report in the morning of all that has happened while we have been away.”

Scott’s gaze locked with his brother’s and he gave an almost imperceptible shake of his head.  “Don’t worry, you’ll get it. Let’s go, Brother.” He stared down the rebellion he saw on Johnny’s face.  “Now isn’t the right time.”

The nod of acceptance was grudging as Johnny gave up his place at his father’s bedside.  The hard blue stare caused Marcy to look away.  Johnny’s mouth turned up in an ironic grin.  “Night ma’am.  You take good care of our father ‘cause we won’t take too kindly to anythin’ happening to him.”

Before Marcy could respond Scott took firm hold of Johnny’s arm and led him to the door.  As he looked back one last time he saw that she had taken Johnny’s place by the bed and that she had an expression of deep concern on her face.  After the door had closed behind them he released his hold and ran his hand through his hair.  “I think it’s time we called a council of war because I’m damned if I’m going to let that woman take over.”

A slow grin spread over Johnny’s face.  “I always did like a good fight.”

“You don’t get to shoot anyone,” Scott warned.

“Then I guess I’ll just have to trust that devious mind of yours to come up with an alternative plan.”

*****

Johnny slouched back in his chair and looked admiringly at his brother.  Marcy had demanded a report of the activities at Lancer and that was exactly what Scott was providing.  He gave no hint of his true feelings as he told her everything that had happened while she and Murdoch had been away in minute and mind-numbing detail. It didn’t take much for Johnny to imagine his brother all fancied up in his cavalry uniform giving just such a passionless report to a despised senior officer.

By Johnny’s reckoning Scott had been talking for the best part of twenty minutes and he had only covered the events of the first days.  Johnny couldn’t recall ever hearing his brother talk so much at one time…except when he had drunk too much when it was almost impossible to shut him up.  Scott appeared quite content to sit and talk all day if necessary.

Marcy sat at the opposite side of the table with her hands folded in her lap and an expression of polite interest on her face.  Her eyes had started to glaze over after the first ten minutes.  Jeff lounged beside his mother trying unsuccessfully to stifle a succession of yawns.  Even Teresa, who was normally interested in the workings of the ranch, was starting to fidget.

Johnny adjusted his position so that he could keep an eye on the door leading to the main part of the house.  Maria had quietly disappeared through that door shortly after Scott had started talking.  He poured a fresh cup of coffee and handed it to his brother.

Silence reigned as Scott took several mouthfuls to lubricate his throat.  “Thanks, Brother.” He smiled at Johnny.  “I needed that.”

Johnny could have sworn that a look of panic crossed Marcy’s face as Scott began to speak again.  Johnny bent his head to hide his grin.  After another few minutes Maria returned to the kitchen and nodded slightly to Johnny.  He sat forward and put his hand on Scott’s arm.  “You know, Scott, we’ve an awful lot of work to get through.  Maybe you should continue with this over supper.”

“No, that’s quite alright.  I can see that the ranch is in good hands.  Besides I will be taking my meals with my husband.” Marcy shot them a challenging look.

“That’s a shame,” Scott said.  “I was just about to tell you about that bunch of cows we moved to the south pasture.  You’d be amazed what logistical problems arise when you have to shift cattle from one place to another.”

Johnny, who had just taken a final bite of biscuit, began to choke.  Scott distractedly thumped him on the back as he continued to talk.  “It becomes even more interesting when you have to move them over long distances.”

“Really, Scott, I think I can manage without having quite so many details.”

“Murdoch always wanted to know exactly what was going on,” Johnny spluttered through his coughing fit.

“I’m sure he will be perfectly happy to leave things to the two of you while he convalesces.” Marcy stood up, clearly intent upon getting out of the kitchen before Scott found something else to tell her.

“I’ll be staying close to the house today,” Scott informed her helpfully.  “The lumber for the new bunkhouse is being delivered this morning so I need to go over the plans with Jelly.  You wouldn’t be interested in seeing them, would you?” he asked with an innocent expression.

“No,” Marcy replied curtly. “I would, however, like to take a look at the ranch accounts.”

“Sorry ma’am, but I’m afraid we can’t agree to that,” Johnny drawled softly.  “They’re partnership business and you ain’t a partner.”

“We’ll see what Murdoch has to say about that.  I suggest you all get to work.  I’m going to check on my husband.”

As Jeff was following behind his mother Scott called him back.  “I’ll need you to help Jelly unload the wagon when it gets here.”

Jeff’s mutinous expression changed when he looked at Johnny.  There was no overt threat, but Johnny knew the half-smile on his face was unsettling enough.  Jeff nodded his head and changed direction so that he could leave by the back door.

“I’ll be going into town later, Teresa,” Johnny told the girl.  “Can you let me have a list of supplies?”

The impersonal tone and cold stares from both brothers left no room to doubt how they felt about her.  “I’ll do it now,” she replied, equally impersonally, before fleeing the room.

Scott relaxed with a relieved sigh.  “That went well.”

“Gotta hand it to you, Scott.  That was a masterful performance.” Johnny chuckled before turning to Maria. “How is he?”

The brothers had been denied access to their father that morning.  Marcy had claimed that he was still asleep, and while not doubting her word, both would have felt better if they had been able to see him for themselves.  While Maria had been fixing breakfast Johnny had loitered by her side and had asked her to check on Murdoch while Scott kept everyone else distracted.

“The Patron was awake and anxious about his family.  He asked if you and Scott would be visiting him.  I was not sure what to say to him.  It is not my place…”

Johnny pushed away from the table and put his arm around her.  “I’m sorry if we put you in an awkward position.  We’re worried about him.”

“Si, Juanito, I understand and you know I will do anything to help.  His breathing was not good and he tired quickly.  This will not be an easy recovery for him and it will be harder still if that woman keeps you away.”

“Well, we’ve a plan to deal with that.  My big brother there has a very devious mind.” Johnny kissed her on the cheek.  “Now I’d best get going.  You watch yourself when Jeff’s around,” he cautioned Scott.  “I swear he gets even shiftier looking every time I see him.”

“Don’t worry about me.  He won’t be able to step out of line with Jelly running herd on him.  I’ll see you when you get back from town.”

Johnny unhooked his gunbelt from the back of the chair.  Since Scott’s ‘accident’ he had been keeping it close at hand all the time.  “D’you think we can pull this off?”

“With a little help from our friends,” Scott paused before smiling broadly.  “And I’m pleased to say we’ve a lot of those.”

*****

The wagon from the lumber yard arrived on schedule and Scott checked over the load before instructing Jelly to organize the men.  The foundations had already been dug out and the building was of a simple design so Scott was content to leave matters in Jelly’s capable hands.  He spent some time with Cipriano discussing the plans to dynamite the blockage to their water supply.  The large Segundo wasn’t happy about Johnny and Scott undertaking the task themselves.  Eventually, for the sake of peace, Scott agreed to discuss it with Murdoch.  Word had spread quickly about Murdoch’s illness and it was a source of concern to the men.  He was a popular employer, demanding hard work, but being more than fair with his men.

Cipriano had been one of the people the brothers had confided in the previous evening.  “How is the Patron this morning?” he asked Scott as the young man prepared to return to the house.

“I wish I knew,” Scott replied frankly.  “Johnny and I couldn’t get near him.  Maria spoke to him briefly.  At least he was awake and aware of where he was. Did you manage to make those arrangements we spoke about?”

“Si, Senor Scott.  Everything is in place.”

Scott took his leave and went to check on Jelly.  The old handyman was red in the face and more irritable than normal.  “I swear I’ve never come across a lazier boy.  He was born shiftless and he ain’t gonna change.”

Scott pushed his hat to the back of his head.  “What’s happened this time?”

Jelly sniffed derisively.  “He wasn’t wearing his gloves.  Said they were in his room and he couldn’t be bothered going to get them.  He caught his hand on a rough edge while he was unloading and sliced his palm.  You’d have thought he’d been gut shot…the fuss he made.  I sent him off to see Teresa.”

Scott gave a resigned sigh.  “I don’t imagine we’ll get any more work out of him today.  I’d better go and make sure he isn’t bleeding to death.”  He didn’t bother trying to keep the sarcasm out of his voice.  “Did anyone bring in the hay from the feed store?”

“Ben brought it in about an hour ago.”

“Would you mind checking how much there is?  Last time I looked we were running low so we might have to order some in.”

“I’ll get right on it.  Sometimes I don’t know how this place kept goin’ before I arrived.”

Scott rubbed his sore shoulder and tried to work up the enthusiasm to check on Jeff.  He looked around automatically, noting who was working and who was slacking off.  They had a good group of men working for them and it wasn’t often that he had to reprimand any of them for not working hard enough.  However, since Jeff’s arrival, some of the younger hands had stopped putting in quite so much effort.  The view seemed to be that if a member of the family wasn’t pulling his weight then why should they.  It was a source of irritation for both brothers who had always gone out of their way to lead by example.

He looked in the direction Jelly was walking and his eyes were drawn upwards to where a bale of hay swung gently just in front of the opening to the upper floor of the barn.  As he watched he saw the bale jerk downwards.  “Jelly!”

Scott’s frantic cry froze Jelly to the spot.  The bale of hay hurtled downwards and struck the ground no more than a foot in front of him.  Alerted by the warning a number of men ran to where Jelly was standing.  Scott reached him first.

“Are you alright?”

Jelly’s mouth was working but no sound emerged.  Scott took gentle hold of his arm.  “I think you had better sit down.  That was a close call.”

“Mr. Lancer?  Is he hurt, sir?”  The concerned question came from Ben, the young hand who had been unloading the wagon.  “I’m sure I tied that rope off properly.”

“There’s no harm done.  Can you take Jelly to his quarters?”

“Yessir.  Come on, Jelly.”

Scott listened as Ben’s apology faded into the distance before turning his attention to the rope.  He ran his hand along the section which should have been securely knotted to the wagon wheel to hold the hay in position.  When he looked down at his hand he noticed faint red streaks on his fingers…blood.  He went perfectly still as the implication hit him.  It appeared that the fight they were in the middle of was rather more deadly than they had anticipated.

*****

Johnny was whistling happily to himself as he arrived back at the hacienda.  He threw his hat onto the coat stand and debated removing his gun.

“Johnny?  Is that you?” Marcy’s voice floated toward him from the great room.

Leaving his gunbelt securely fastened around his hips, he stepped quietly into the room.  Marcy was sitting at their father’s desk and he felt a surge of anger.  “How’s Murdoch?”

“He’s resting quietly.  I would prefer it if you and your brother didn’t disturb him tonight.”

“Not really interested in what you’d prefer.  He’s our father and we’ve a right to see him.”  Johnny poured himself a drink, fully aware that his presence was intimidating the woman.  He pointed to the desk.  “You find what you were looking for?”

“Not exactly.  I think it’s time for some straight talking between us.  I know you don’t like me and that you resent my presence here.”

“You want straight talking?  No, I don’t like you and I don’t trust you, but I was willing to put up with that for Murdoch’s sake.  I was even prepared to put up with your no-good son, but there’s a limit to what I’ll let slide.  I’m not gonna stand by while someone tries to hurt my family and I sure ain’t gonna let you take over while Murdoch’s ill.”

“It’s interesting that you are so critical of Jeff.  I’m not blind to his faults, but he is my son.  He’s made mistakes and…”

“Mistakes?  Lady, you don’t know the half of it.”

“You’ve made mistakes in your life too.  Much worse than anything that Jeff has done.” Marcy looked down at the pile of papers lying between her hands.

Johnny’s eyes widened in dismay as he realized what she had been reading.  He crossed rapidly to the desk and scooped up the papers, flinging them into the fire.  “Where the hell did you get that?”

“Murdoch told me a little about your life.  I confess I felt sorry for you to start with.  It must have been hard to lose your mother like that when you were so young.”

“He had no right to tell you about that.”  Johnny felt the sharp knife of betrayal.  Details of his mother’s death weren’t contained within the reports that were now burning down to a fine ash.  She could only know what Murdoch had chosen to tell her.

“Even after all that you’d done Murdoch still chose to give you a second chance.  He’s given Jeff a second chance as well and I intend to make sure that he takes full advantage of it.  The problem is, Johnny, that I don’t see how Jeff can make a new life for himself here while you’re around.”

Johnny looked at her in disbelief.  “Are you asking me to leave?”

“Not asking…telling.  You’ve done some dreadful things in your time, things your father is ashamed of.  If word of some of your less savoury exploits were to get out…”

“Murdoch knew what he was getting into when he invited me here.”

“I wonder if he did.  He was shocked to hear about your attack on Jeff and, in his present weakened state, who knows what harm it might do if he were to find out that you’d threatened my son’s life.”

“I haven’t…” Johnny stopped, horrified to realize just what she was threatening.  “You’d risk your own husband’s life to get rid of me?”

“I will do whatever is necessary to protect my son.  And please don’t think about running off to your father to tell him about this conversation.  If the shock alone didn’t kill him I’d just deny it.  It would simply be another one of your numerous attempts to break up our marriage.”

Johnny walked slowly and deliberately up to the desk and planted his hands on the surface, leaning over to stare her in the face.  “You have no idea who you’re messing with.  This is my home and no-one’s gonna run me out of it.  If it’s a fight you want I’ll be happy to oblige.”

Marcy stood up and smoothed down the folds of her skirt.  “I suggest that you heed my warning.  This is a fight you and your brother can’t win.  By the way, I fired Maria.  She went into my room without permission and disturbed Murdoch.”

Johnny’s disbelieving stare followed her as she left the room.  Once she had gone he spun on his heels and set out to find Scott.

*****

The angry jingling of spurs forewarned Scott that his brother was on his way.  He was in the kitchen trying to console Teresa who had been devastated to hear of Maria’s dismissal.  Until Marcy’s arrival at Lancer it had been Maria that had looked out for Teresa, helping her through the difficult transition from child to woman.

“That…” Johnny’s gaze landed on Teresa and he made an obvious effort to moderate his language.  “She fired Maria.”

“I know.  Sit down.”

“What’s she snivelling for?” Johnny asked nastily, glowering at Teresa.

“There’s something I need to tell you and I would rather you were sitting down.  In fact, I’d rather you took off your gun.”

“Get it said, Brother.” Johnny made no move to either sit down or remove his gunbelt.

“It’s about Jelly.” Scott watched Johnny warily, disturbed by his brother’s extreme stillness.  “There was an accident, but he wasn’t hurt.  He was shaken up, though.”

“What kind of accident?”

“Ben had hoisted a bale of hay up to the barn.  He says he tied it off properly while he went up to the loft.  The rope came loose and it fell.”

“You saying it was Ben’s fault?”  Johnny’s right hand now rested on the handle of his gun.

Scott shook his head.  “Someone untied the rope.  I found traces of blood on it and not long before it happened Jeff had sliced open his hand.  Jelly had given him a hard time over it, saying it was his own fault.  I think he took his chance to get his revenge.”

Johnny’s disturbing stare settled on Teresa.  “Aren’t you going to stand up for him?  You’ve been singing his praises for long enough.  What’s the matter, Teresa?  Don’t tell me you’ve finally lost your blinders where he’s concerned.”

“Please,” Teresa whispered.

“Ease up, Johnny.  Fighting among ourselves isn’t going to help.”

“Is Jelly really alright?”

“He’s fine.  I spoke to him a little while ago and he’s blustering just like normal.”

Johnny eased down into a chair and turned his attention back to Teresa.  “Why the change of heart?”

“Jeff lied.  When Scott came in to tell us about Jelly’s accident Jeff said he’d been with me for fifteen minutes.  Only he hadn’t…he came in just before Scott.  He just assumed that I’d back him up.”

“Did you?”

Teresa blew her nose on her handkerchief.  “Yes, but only until I could speak to Scott alone.”

“So he doesn’t suspect?” Johnny looked thoughtful.  “Can we trust you, Teresa?”

“I’d never do anything to hurt this family.”

“You were quick enough to hurt me,” Johnny shot back.  “So far Jeff’s had me arrested, hurt Scott and tried to kill Jelly.  You should feel real proud of your choice of friends.”

“How many more times do you want me to apologize?” Teresa asked miserably.

“Oh, I don’t know.  How about you say sorry to Scott and Jelly and everyone else that Jeff’s gonna hurt if we don’t put a stop to it?”

“Alright, that’s enough.  In case you’ve both forgotten Murdoch’s life could be at stake here.  You heard what Sam had to say.  We need to handle this without involving him and that means we have to start trusting one another again.”

“Don’t see how we can keep him out of it, seein’ as it’s his bitch of a wife that’s causin’ most of the problems.”

Scott looked searchingly at his brother.  “What aren’t you telling us?”

“She’s trying to blackmail me into leaving.”

“How?  What could she possibly use against you?”

Johnny laughed without humor.  “You mean apart from my misspent youth?”  He sobered suddenly.  “She’s read the Pinkerton reports.  She threatened to make certain incidents from my past common knowledge if I don’t leave.”

“The reports? I thought you’d hidden them away somewhere.”

“I left them in Murdoch’s desk.  I guess she must have found them.”

“No.  They were gone before she and Murdoch arrived home.” Scott saw the suspicion on his brother’s face.  “I was going to lock them up in the safe.  When I couldn’t find them I just assumed that you had taken them.  I would never have read them.”

After a prolonged hesitation Johnny nodded.  “I know.  I wish Murdoch had destroyed them, but I’ve taken care of that now.  I burned them.”

“Then we don’t need to worry.”

“She and Jeff both know what’s in them.  There are some real bad things, Scott.”

“Without the reports it can only ever be rumor.  No-one’s going to believe Jeff if he starts mouthing off about you and Marcy isn’t going to move far from the house while Murdoch’s ill.  We’ll get through this.”  Scott felt an enormous weariness pressing down on him.  All they had wanted was for Murdoch to be happy and now it was clear that it was a forlorn hope.  If they weren’t careful their father would be forced into making a choice – Marcy and Jeff or him and Johnny.  Right now he wasn’t sure which way that choice would go.

*****

The bottle of tequila sitting in front of Johnny was less than half full.  During the time that he had been sitting in the saloon the level had been sinking steadily lower and lower.  It was Saturday night, and from choice he was sitting alone.  Anyone who had been inclined to join him had been deterred by his ferocious scowl.  Jeff had arrived an hour or so earlier in the company of three of the Lancer ranch hands.  The young men, with the exception of Jeff, had greeted Johnny respectfully.  Jeff had flashed a smug smile in the direction of his step-brother and had received a frigid glare in return.

Murdoch had been home for four days.  For the last three days his sons had been allowed to spend no more than an hour in total with him.  Just thinking about it made Johnny tense up.  He poured another shot and ran his finger round the rim of the glass, before picking it up and drinking.  They hadn’t even been able to speak to Murdoch alone.  Marcy had been right there, holding their father’s hand, giving the impression of being a loving wife. Johnny kicked the chair opposite him in irritation and it toppled backwards.  There was an immediate silence as everyone turned to look at him.  He ignored them and poured another drink.

The only good thing was that Murdoch was clearly improving.  His breathing was easier and he appeared to be more alert.  They had tried to talk to him about ranch business, only to have Marcy cut them off politely.  Scott’s shoulder was healing as well and he had discarded the sling.  Murdoch had shown little interest in his eldest son’s injury, yet had expressed concern at the trivial hand injury sustained by Jeff.  Murdoch seemed to be under the impression that Jeff’s injury had been caused by Jelly’s carelessness, and the brothers hadn’t yet had a chance to disabuse him of that notion.

Johnny looked up automatically as the door opened.  He shifted slightly in his seat when he saw Val.  The sheriff was looking straight at him, with his habitual scowl on his face.  It was with a resigned sigh that Johnny saw his friend walking in his direction.  He took another drink to fortify himself for the argument he could see headed his way.

“You plannin’ on drinking that whole bottle?”  Val asked as he reached the table.

“Wouldn’t be the first time.” Johnny’s words lacked their usual clarity.

“Where’s Scott?”

“What’s it matter?  Don’t need my brother to keep an eye on me.” Johnny drank again before blinking a couple of times to focus his vision.

“Just remember that if you start anything I’ll be the one keeping an eye on ya – over at the jail,” Val warned in a voice that was just loud enough to carry to the table where Jeff was sitting.

Johnny leaned back in his chair.  “Don’t plan on starting anything. Quite happy to finish anything someone else starts though.” He reached unsteadily for the bottle and knocked his glass over, sending it flying off the table.  He heard Jeff laugh and gritted his teeth.

“If I were you I’d find someplace to bunk down for the night,” Val advised.  “The state you’re in I doubt if you could find Barranca and you sure as hell couldn’t ride him without fallin’ off.”

“Thanks for the advice,” Johnny slurred sarcastically.

Val left, muttering about ungrateful friends, and Johnny closed his eyes.  He could hear Jeff and his friends getting louder and more obnoxious as the alcohol flowed freely.  He wondered what Marcy would think of her son if she saw him now.  He had no doubt that it would be an eye-opener for Teresa as well, although she had received a severe enough shock when she realized that Jeff had tried to hurt Jelly.  She hadn’t been happy at keeping up a charade of being on his side and it had taken all Scott’s powers of persuasion to convince her that it was a good idea.

Teresa was struggling to manage the household without Maria’s help.  Marcy was no help to her at all, preferring to spend her days ‘taking care’ of Murdoch.  Johnny had visited Maria, loaded down with guilt about her dismissal.  She had reassured him that she bore him no ill will.  He had given her enough money to get her through the next few weeks and had told her to look on the time as a vacation.  Maria had informed him that she would not return to Lancer unless Marcy apologized and personally asked her to resume her duties. Johnny couldn’t find it in his heart to blame her for that, although he thought that hell might freeze over first.

His thoughts came to an abrupt halt as someone staggered against him, almost knocking him out of his chair.  He was on his feet immediately, hand hovering over his gun.

Jeff squinted at him through bleary eyes.  “Sorry,” he snickered. He shouldered past Johnny and was brought to an abrupt halt as Johnny’s left hand clamped down on his arm.

“Do you really think you’re enough of a man to take me on?” Johnny’s speech was crystal clear.  He waited for the implication to begin sinking in. “Why don’t we take this outside?” He could feel Jeff starting to tremble.

“You can’t call me out,” Jeff squeaked.  “It’d be murder.”

“True,” Johnny admitted as a slow grin lit up his face.  “The way I see it, you’ve been pushing for this fight.  How about I take off my gun and we do it the old fashioned way?”  He released Jeff’s arm and began to unbuckle his gunbelt.

Jeff turned round slowly and peered suspiciously at his step-brother.  “You’re not drunk,” he said accusingly.

“No, unfortunately for you I’m not, but you are.”  Johnny’s grin disappeared as he saw Jeff reaching in panic for his gun.  Allowing his own gunbelt to slip to the floor he delivered a solid punch to Jeff’s stomach.  The younger man dropped like a stone. Johnny pulled him to his feet, belted him again, and watched as Jeff collided with a table before sliding down to the floor. He was about to reach down again when he heard the sheriff’s voice.

“What’s goin’ on?” Val demanded as he arrived back in the saloon just in time to see the results of the one-sided fight.  He glanced from Johnny to Jeff, who was lying curled up on the floor.  “I warned you.” He looked accusingly at his friend.

“It wasn’t Johnny’s fault, Sheriff.” Johnny didn’t try to hide the smug expression he wore as Joe, the bartender, walked over to the small group.  “Jeff barged into him and he was going to draw while Johnny was taking off his gunbelt.”

“I ain’t puttin’ up with any brawling in my town,” Val snapped.  “You’re both coming with me and you’re gonna stay locked up ‘til someone pays your fines.” He leaned down and hauled Jeff to his feet.  “Your ma ain’t gonna be pleased with you,” he informed the young man.

“How much is the fine?” Johnny asked.

“Fifty dollars, just like always.” Val pulled out a set of handcuffs and secured Jeff’s wrists before confiscating his gun.

Johnny reached into the pocket inside his jacket and pulled out a roll of notes.  “How about I settle my fine now so’s you don’t have to lock me up?”

Jeff looked from Johnny to Val and back again.  He struggled against the hand on his arm.  “This was all a set up.”

A delighted grin spread over Johnny’s face, having first hand knowledge of how bruising Val’s grip could be.  “You’re not as stupid as you look.”  He handed the money to Val.  “I’ll be sure to send his mother in tomorrow to bail him out.”  He picked up his gunbelt and fastened it round his hips.  “Hey, Joe, how about a proper drink before I go?”  He handed the bartender the tequila bottle. “Sure was boring drinking water all evening.”

Johnny settled his back against the bar and watched Val drag Jeff out the door.  He didn’t envy Val the misery of keeping the little bastard locked up and had no doubt that his friend would exact a steep price for his co-operation.  He drained a glass of beer, collected his hat and headed out to the livery stable.  At least he could go home and tell Scott that the first phase of their plan had worked.  Marcy would hear about her son’s arrest in the morning and would have no option but to come into town to pay his fine.  That would finally leave the way clear for him and Scott to speak to their father in private.  Now all they had to do was decide what to say to him.

*****

Johnny and Scott were in the kitchen finishing breakfast when Marcy appeared the following morning.  Their lengthy discussion, following Johnny’s arrival home, had led them to conclude that their father wasn’t likely to accept any accusation against Marcy or Jeff without direct proof.  They needed to keep the lid on the situation until Murdoch was well enough to see for himself what was going on.  That was easier said than done, given that Marcy had threatened to lie to Murdoch about Johnny’s behaviour toward Jeff. They continued their quiet discussion, ignoring her arrival.

“Have either of you seen Jeff?” Marcy asked, plainly irritated by the brothers’ failure to offer her any greeting.

“Not since last night.” Johnny couldn’t quite hide the satisfaction on his face.  “Val arrested him.”

Marcy sank down into a chair.  “Arrested him?  Why?”

“He was drunk and he started a fight.”

“Who with?”

“Me,” Johnny informed her happily.  “Val…Sheriff Crawford, wasn’t too happy with him.  He’s still on parole and Val was all for telling the authorities.” The lie was told smoothly and without a twinge of regret on Johnny’s part.

A look of panic crossed Marcy’s face.  “He can’t do that.  Jeff would be sent back to prison to finish his sentence.”

“Safest place for him,” Johnny muttered ungraciously.

Marcy turned on him venomously. “How can you say that?  How dare you sit in judgement on him after all the dreadful things you’ve done in your life?”

“I’m not a murderer,” Johnny informed her coldly.  “Jeff’s been involved in the deaths of two men, one of whom wasn’t armed.  He set out to hurt Scott and he almost killed Jelly.  He has no conscience and, if you don’t do something soon, someone else will die.  Do you want that on your head?”

“There’s no proof that Scott’s injury was anything other than an accident.  As for what happened with Jelly…Jeff told me that he was no-where near him when that bale of hay fell.  This is just another disgraceful attempt to blacken his reputation. Even if you won’t believe him I would have thought you would believe Teresa.  She confirmed that he was with her.”

“Teresa didn’t confirm anything.  She kept quiet until she could speak to me privately,” Scott informed her.  “Jeff lied and he expected Teresa to lie in order to back him up.  If Teresa were to tell Val the truth, I can’t see any way that Jeff could stay out of jail.”

Marcy visibly wilted.  “Please don’t send him back.  I know Jeff has made some bad mistakes, but he’s my son and I love him.  I refuse to believe that there isn’t good in him.  He isn’t irredeemable.  All he needs is a chance.”

“How many chances d’you think he deserves?” Johnny demanded.

“I’ll talk to him…I promise there won’t be any more trouble.”

“The only reason we’re even listening to you is the fact that our father loves you. Do you love him or are you just using him?” Scott asked bluntly.

“I love him.” Tears were running down Marcy’s cheeks.

“I hope that’s the truth, because we’re not going to stand by and watch him being hurt again.”  Scott exchanged a look with his brother.  “If you want us to co-operate in keeping Jeff out of jail then we want a few things in return.”

“Anything.”

“First of all, you have to stop denying us access to our father, and we want to be able to speak to him privately.  Secondly, you take responsibility for Jeff until Murdoch is up and about again.  From that point on Murdoch can form his own views.  Finally, if anything gets out about Johnny’s past, or you say a word to Murdoch that would prejudice him against my brother, this deal comes to an end.”  Scott presented the brothers’ terms, clearly and coldly and no-one could have doubted his determination.

Johnny felt a warm glow spreading through him.  Having Scott standing up for him, even though he knew he could always count on his brother, never failed to make him feel good.  He turned his attention to Marcy who was wringing her hands together and trying to hold back the tears.

“Agreed.” Marcy spoke so quietly that Johnny had to strain to hear her.  “Now can we go and get Jeff?”

“One more thing,” Johnny drawled.  “You’re gonna apologize to Maria and beg her to come back to work for us.”

“Anything.  I just want my son back.”

“Val will only release him to you and you’ll have to pay his fine,” Scott informed her.

“How much?”

“Fifty dollars,” Johnny said with undisguised satisfaction.

“I…I don’t have fifty dollars.”

“Then I guess you’ll have to go and tell Murdoch and ask if Jeff can have an advance on his wages.” Johnny didn’t envy her that conversation.  He had endured more than one lecture from his father in similar circumstances.  In fact, if he remembered correctly, on the last occasion Murdoch had bailed him out his father had threatened to leave him where he was in order to teach him a lesson.

“You could…” Marcy began only to be cut off by Scott.

“Jeff isn’t our responsibility any longer.  We can’t draw ranch funds to buy him out of jail without Murdoch’s approval.  Besides, I think it’s time Murdoch started to hear the truth about your son.”

*****

Murdoch allowed the newspaper to fall from his lax fingers.  The weakness that plagued him left him awake and restless, but unable to do anything.  Marcy had told him that it was Sunday morning.  He had lost track of the days since this illness had taken hold.  Maybe his sons would have time to spend with him today.  He missed their easy company and was disappointed that they had only spent a few minutes a day with him since his return home.  Marcy had tried to reassure him that they were just busy.  There was a lot that needed to be done around the ranch and time had been lost as they had lurched from one crisis to another.

He still had to speak to Johnny about that disgraceful unprovoked attack on Jeff.  Then there was Jelly who had refused to allow Jeff the few minutes it would have taken to fetch his gloves.  Now the boy was hurt again and Marcy was upset.  At least Jeff had shown some concern for Scott.  He had been openly upset at having unintentionally injured his older step-brother.  He had apologized over and over for his clumsiness only to be cold-shouldered by both brothers.

Why couldn’t his sons accept that Jeff was trying his best?  Was their continued absence simply proof that they resented his re-marriage?  He sighed wearily.  Since his release from jail, Jeff had done nothing to earn their mistrust.  He didn’t want his sons to move out of the house, but if they persisted with their unforgiving behaviour that might become the only option.

The sound of the door opening drew his attention.  He looked up eagerly, tired of his own company.  His spirits lifted when he saw his two sons accompanying his wife.  His boys looked happy and he was so glad to see them that all his misgivings evaporated.

“Scott, Johnny.  I was hoping you would stop by.”

“How are you feeling, sir?”

“Hey, Murdoch.  It’s good to see you sitting up.”  Johnny lowered his eyes for a moment before looking up with a shy smile.  “We’ve missed you.”

As he looked from one son to the other Murdoch knew that his heart would never let him send them away.  Whatever problems there were would be overcome.  “I’ve missed you too,” he reassured them before turning to smile at his wife.  His smile faded as he saw that Marcy had been crying.  He held out his hand and she came to sit on the edge of the bed.

“Jeff’s been arrested. He was involved in a fight.”

Murdoch’s expression clouded.  “I hope it was just high spirits.  I’m disappointed in the boy.  I thought he was settling down.  I assume there’s a fine to be paid?”

Marcy nodded unhappily.  “Fifty dollars.”

Murdoch looked at his sons for help.  “Take the money from the safe.  Can one of you drive Marcy into town?”

“I thought you and the boys might like to spend some time together,” Marcy told him.  “I’m sure one of the men would take me.”

“If you’re sure?” Murdoch smiled at his wife.

“Just make sure they don’t wear you out,” she cautioned before kissing him on the cheek.

“I’ll get you that money,” Scott offered.  He opened the door and let Marcy precede him.  “I won’t be long.  Do you think you two could avoid arguing while I’m gone?”

The question was asked with a hint of humour and Murdoch chuckled before catching his breath painfully.  He waved Scott from the room.  “Go on.  I’ll be fine and I think Johnny and I can be trusted on our own for ten minutes.”

Once they were alone Johnny began to amble restlessly around the room.  It exhausted Murdoch just to watch him.  “Come and sit down, Son.”

Johnny settled in a chair.  “You gave us a scare, old man.  Thought we were going to lose you.”

Murdoch studied his son’s face.  There were times when Johnny could look surprisingly vulnerable.  Most of the time he had to remind himself how young his son actually was.  Johnny was self-sufficient and capable and it had taken a long time to get past his hard exterior.

“You’re not going to lose me, Johnny.”  There was so much meaning in those few words and Murdoch was relieved to see that his son was taking them at more than their face value.  He saw Johnny relax.

“I…ah…I wanted to apologize for what happened with Jeff.  I was outta line and it won’t happen again.”

“I know this is hard for you and Scott.  There were so many years we should have been together and I can see that me marrying Marcy must seem selfish…”

“It’s not selfish to want to be happy,” Johnny interrupted.  “Just don’t shut us out.  Scott and I…well, we’ve only just gotten used to having a father.”

“But not a mother?” Murdoch asked gently.

“That’s different.” Johnny was on the defensive.  “I had my mama and I don’t rightly think I want a replacement.  Scott never knew his, but I don’t think he’s any too comfortable with the idea either.”

“With what idea?”  Scott closed the door quietly behind him and pulled over a chair.

“Having a mother.”  Johnny shrugged and lowered his head.

Scott laced his fingers together and studied them, clearly deep in thought.  “I have no experience of having a mother.  It’s hard to miss something you’ve never known.  The important thing is that Marcy is your wife.  You’re happy together and that’s what matters.  It’s not easy letting someone else into the family and you’ll have to bear with us while we adjust.”

“It’s an adjustment for all of us, including Marcy and Jeff.  It’ll all work out.” Murdoch could hear his voice becoming fainter as weariness stole over him.

“You need to rest.  We’ll come back later.”  Scott stood up and adjusted the covers over his father.

“Later.” The word emerged as a whisper as Murdoch closed his eyes and drifted contentedly to sleep.

*****

“How could you have been so stupid?” Marcy berated her son as soon as she had him clear of the jailhouse.  “By now Scott and Johnny will have wormed their way back into their father’s good graces.”

“It wasn’t my fault.”

“It never is,” Marcy snapped, leading the way back to the buggy.  Frank had driven her into town at Scott’s direct order.  None of the men had been friendly toward her since the incident involving Jelly.  Frank had brought his horse with him, tied to the rear of the buggy, and had abandoned her as soon as they arrived at the jail.

The disgustingly slovenly sheriff had taken the money and had then made her wait while he counted it.  She had been amazed that the man knew how to count.  At least he hadn’t said anything about informing the authorities about Jeff’s arrest.  Once she had consolidated her position, she would see what she could do about getting the horrible man fired.

She waited until they were on their way out of town and away from curious townsfolk, before explaining to Jeff exactly how much damage he had done.  “You’re going to have to settle down and persuade Murdoch that you deserve to live at Lancer,” she concluded.  “I was well on the way to getting rid of Johnny for you, but that isn’t going to happen now.”

She recognized the surly expression on her son’s face.  Even as a young child he had resented being told he couldn’t have his own way.  She and his father had indulged him.  He was, after all, their only child.  After his birth, she had fallen pregnant twice more without being able to carry to term.  Surely it was natural for a mother to want the best for her child.  She had initially rekindled her friendship with Murdoch Lancer in the hope of providing a stable home for her son.  That friendship had grown and matured into something more.  She hadn’t been lying when she told Scott she loved his father.  However, no-one could replace Jeff as the most important person in her life.

They drove along in silence for a while, then Jeff pulled the team to a halt.  “They hate me, Mom.  They’ll do anything to get Mr. Lancer to throw me out.  And Johnny suckered me into that fight.  He wanted me to be arrested.”

Marcy patted her son reassuringly on the arm.  “Everything will be alright so long as you trust me.  You do trust me, don’t you Jeff?”

“Guess so.”

“I’m not going to let anything happen to you.  We just need to bide our time.  They’ll get careless.  All we have to do is be ready to take advantage of the situation when it arises.”

*****

“Are you sure this is a good idea, Scott?”  Murdoch shifted wearily in the comfortable leather chair, before irritably adjusting the blanket laid over his knees.

He detested being treated like an invalid.  His entire family had closed ranks against him, refusing to let him spend more than an hour or two downstairs in the evening.  Why couldn’t they understand that being back at Lancer had been its own kind of medicine?  He took strength from the land, and the love of his family and friends.

As he looked around the room his annoyance turned to contentment.  Marcy was sitting at the far side of the fireplace, a large basket of mending by her side.  Johnny and Jelly were engaged in a loudly competitive game of checkers while Teresa sat close by them, alternating her attention between the game and the book she was reading.

There was an undercurrent of tension between Teresa and his younger son that he didn’t quite understand.  The easy going teasing that had marked their relationship seemed to be missing now.  They spoke to each other politely, but Murdoch had the feeling that there had been a falling out which hadn’t been entirely forgiven or forgotten.

He smiled at Maria as she carried in a tray of coffee.   Scott was immediately on his feet to help her, bending down to speak softly to her.  The smile she bestowed upon his son was full of affection.

“Gracias, Senor Scott.”  She acknowledged his assistance with unusual formality.  “Sit down and I will fetch the pie.”

Marcy set aside the shirt she had been working on.  “Let me help you.”

“There is no need, Senora.”

Murdoch frowned.  The words were polite, but the tone… Once again he felt as if something was being kept from him.

“I’ll get it.” Johnny bounced to his feet, full of energy even after a hard days work.  He put his arm around Maria’s shoulders and gave her a hug.

Murdoch fleetingly wished that his sons could have such an easy relationship with Marcy.  He couldn’t fault their manners…they were both perfectly polite without showing any hint of warmth.  Still, they were only in the early days of his new marriage.  Hopefully, given time a bond would be formed.

He turned his attention to Jeff.  If he were being honest, he would have to admit that he hadn’t taken to the boy.  Seeing Jeff’s permanently sulky looks only made him appreciate his own sons that much more.  Jeff did his share around the ranch without any real enthusiasm.  It was becoming harder and harder to think of him as anything other than a barely adequate hired hand.

Murdoch had hoped that his sons’ work ethic might have rubbed off on Jeff.  Instead of that he was coming to the conclusion that Jeff would never amount to anything.  He would keep trying for Marcy’s sake, and hope that time and maturity might eventually turn the boy around.  He gave silent thanks that the future of Lancer didn’t rest in Jeff’s hands.

Once the coffee and pie had been handed out Murdoch returned his attention to his discussion with Scott.  He was shocked to realize that he had lost his train of thought.

“You were querying our recommendation,” Scott offered helpfully.  “It really is a very straightforward undertaking.  If we have to hire in men it’ll only delay matters and cost money that could be better spent on strengthening the herd.  We’ve taken advice from Otto Spangler, who owes us a favor or two and the dynamite is quite safe so long as you handle it properly.”

Spangler had been involved in the fiasco over the Lorelei, the gold mine that Jelly had bought from Gus.  Although he and the Lancers had been on opposite sides of that dispute, there had been little ill will between them once everything had been straightened out.  Scott had even managed, rather charitably, to forgive Spangler for knocking him unconscious in the mine while a lit fuse headed toward the explosives. Spangler had only been doing the job he was paid to do and tempers on both sides had been running high. The fact was, there was no-one in the area who knew more than Otto did about the use of explosives.

“I’m sure Scott and Johnny are more than capable of handling this problem,” Marcy interjected as she began to tidy away her mending.  “Now I think you’ve been out of bed for long enough.”

Murdoch glowered at his wife.  “I’m not a child.”

Johnny’s delighted laugh filled the room.  “Now I know where I get it from.  You’re always the first one to tell me off for not doing what I’m told when I’m ill.  You rest up, Murdoch.  Scott and I’ll go into town tomorrow to fetch the equipment we’ll need and we’ll leave the day after.  It’ll take us a coupla days to get the job done.  Once the water’s flowing again we can send in work crews to tidy the place up.”

“We really can’t leave it any longer.  The streams are starting to dry up and this hot weather doesn’t look like it’s going to let up any time soon.”  Scott looked expectantly at his father.

“It seems I’ve been outvoted,” Murdoch groused, although he felt a surge of pride in his sons.  They were capable, determined young men and he didn’t have the heart to pull rank.  Besides, they deserved a few days to themselves and would, no doubt, enjoy the trip and each other’s company.  “Just promise me you’ll both be careful.”

Johnny grinned. “Aw, stop worrying Murdoch.  What could possibly go wrong?”

*****

Murdoch had insisted on coming downstairs to see them off.  Scott found it hard to see his father so weak and reliant upon others.  Johnny was busy giving last minute instructions to Jelly and Cipriano.  Scott knew that most of those instructions centered upon keeping Teresa safe and Jeff out of trouble.  Not that Scott knew where Jeff was.  He hadn’t shown up for breakfast and his horse wasn’t in the barn when he and Jelly had been hitching up the wagon.

Thoughts of Jeff disappeared as Johnny strolled up leading Barranca.  “Ready to go?” he asked his older sibling.

Scott did a quick visual check of the wagon.  Everything was loaded except the dynamite and fuses.  Rather than bringing them all the way to the house they had left them overnight in one of the many line shacks dotted around Lancer.  It was on the route that they would be taking and everyone had felt happier keeping the explosives away from the hacienda.  As he placed his hat on his head he felt a twinge from his shoulder.  He hoped that his slight reaction had gone unnoticed and he carefully turned away from his brother.

After shaking hands with his father and giving Marcy a cool nod he climbed onto the seat and gathered up the reins.  He was pleased to see Johnny giving Teresa a quick kiss on the cheek before mounting Barranca.  The palomino drew level with the wagon and Johnny leaned over.

"Don’t think I didn’t see that,” he said quietly.  “You leave all the heavy stuff to me.  I don’t want Sam yelling at me again for not taking care of you.”  

Johnny touched his spurs to Barranca’s flank and the horse shot away.  The two horses hitched to the wagon strained forward and Scott released the brake. “See you in a couple of days,” he called as he followed more sedately after his brother.

It wasn’t until he arrived at the line shack that Scott caught up with his brother.  He wasn’t surprised.  Johnny was a free spirit and the events of the last few weeks had been hard for him to bear.  His wild ride to the shack would have helped release his angry tension which could only be a good thing.  Despite his reassurances to Murdoch, Scott was slightly apprehensive about working with dynamite.  Having his brother wound up like a tightly coiled spring wouldn’t help.

Johnny was resting up against a tree, a blade of grass clamped between his straight white teeth.  Barranca was contentedly cropping grass beside him.  As the wagon approached Johnny sat up.  “Thought you were never gonna get here.  How about lunch before we load up?”

Scott laughed.  “So I guess it’s the food you’re happy to see rather than me.”

A grin spread across Johnny’s face.  “I wouldn’t have put it quite like that, but…” He let the words trail off and leapt agilely into the back of the wagon.  After rummaging around for a while he pulled out some sandwiches and a flask of lemonade.

Scott had made himself comfortable in the shade while he waited for his brother to join him.  “I’ll be glad to be away from the ranch for a few days.  I know Marcy’s backed off and Jeff seems to be behaving, but it’s not the same as it used to be.”

Johnny settled beside his brother and handed over the flask.  “Maybe it’ll get better,” he offered hopefully.  “Murdoch sure seems to love her.”

“Yes, he does.  You and Teresa seem to be getting along again.”

“Yeah.  I feel kinda bad about the way I treated her.  I didn’t give her a chance, you know?  At least Jeff’s staying away from her now.  I guess Marcy must’ve told him that Teresa ratted him out to you.  Jelly and Cip’ll keep an eye on her while we’re gone.  Jeff’s been pretty smart at taking his revenge on people so far and I don’t want her to get hurt.”

“I think Marcy will keep him in line now.  She knows that if he’s caught out doing anyone harm he’ll end up back in prison.”  Scott took several long swallows of the lemonade before handing the flask back and accepting a sandwich in return.

“He only has another three months of his parole then he’s free and clear.  Don’t suppose he’ll just up and leave then.  We couldn’t be that lucky.”

Scott sighed and brushed the crumbs off his trousers.  “We’re never that lucky.  Have you seen the way he looks at things?  It’s like he’s sizing them up and wondering what it would be like to own them.  He’s a parasite and he’s going to hang on to what he’s got.  We’re going to have to accept that we’re stuck with him and make the best of it.”

“He’s too lazy to stick this out for long.  Once Murdoch’s up and around again he’ll soon see what Jeff’s like and he won’t stand for it.  Hell, he didn’t let us slack off when we first arrived.  He rode us harder than any of the hired hands.”

Scott was pleased to note that there was no animosity in Johnny’s words.  The first few months had been tough for both of them.  He’d had to learn all the basics of running a cattle ranch and Johnny had needed to learn to adapt to a rigid routine.  It had been a hard discipline which had, more than once, provoked arguments between his father and brother.  They had almost lost Johnny after one such argument when he left with Wes.  That had been an abject lesson for all of them.  It had been hard to see their father bending over backwards to accommodate Jeff when he had almost driven his own son away.

“He had his reasons.  He’d made us partners without knowing either of us.  He had to find out what we were made of and I think he was secretly afraid that we’d both get fed up and leave.  Easier to bear if it had happened sooner rather than later.”

“I never wanted to leave.”  Johnny gazed out over the gently rolling hills.  “From that first day when Teresa stopped the buckboard and showed us Lancer I knew that I’d found my home.”

“It was…surprising.  I’d tried to imagine what it would be like while I was travelling from Boston.  I had no real point of reference.  When we arrived in Morro Coyo I wondered what I was getting myself into.  It was so small and primitive compared to what I was used to.  And finding I had a scruffy cowboy as a brother didn’t help either.”  Scott risked a glance at that scruffy cowboy and saw Johnny’s eyes crinkle in amusement.  “I had almost decided to meet Murdoch, throw his money back in his face, and leave.  Then, when I saw all this laid out before my eyes, I felt a sense of belonging.  It seems like a lifetime ago.  Now I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”

“Then Marcy and Jeff had to come along and spoil it.”  This time there was bitterness, which Johnny didn’t try to hide from his brother.

Scott tipped his head back to look at the sun through the branches of the trees.  “It’s too nice a day to be thinking about them.  We have a couple of days of freedom and I intend to enjoy them.”

Johnny pushed himself to his feet and brushed the grass off his leather trousers.  He held out a hand to his brother.  “You’re right.  We’d better get things loaded otherwise we won’t make the campsite before it gets dark.”

Scott accepted the proffered hand and allowed Johnny to pull him to his feet.  He winced slightly as his shoulder pulled and saw Johnny’s frown.  “It’s nothing.  Sam said I could expect to have some discomfort for a while.  I’ll be careful.”

Although his expression was full of scepticism Johnny apparently decided to let it go. “Bring the wagon closer to the shack,” he instructed before striding off in the direction of the small building.

There wasn’t much to be loaded, so Scott was content to wait on the seat for Johnny to carry out the wooden box containing the dynamite.  It had been Otto’s considered opinion that they would need about a dozen sticks, but he had recommended that they take some extra in case things didn’t go entirely according to plan.  The box they had purchased contained twice what they were expecting to use.

When Johnny emerged from the shack he wore a puzzled expression.  “Did you check the box when we picked it up yesterday?” he asked as he carefully carried it to the back of the wagon.

Scott pushed his hat onto the back of his head and swivelled round to look.  “Didn’t think to.  Otto said there were two dozen sticks and I just took his word.  Why?”

“The lid was loose so I took a look.  There’re only twenty sticks there.”

Scott felt a momentary unease then brushed the feeling aside.  “Maybe someone saw us when we left town yesterday and decided to help themselves.  It wouldn’t be the first time that stores have been stolen from one of the line shacks.  It’s not easy to keep track on a spread the size of Lancer.”

“Guess so,” Johnny replied doubtfully.

“Is any of the fuse wire missing?” They had purchased a spool of fuse wire, but if Scott remembered correctly it hadn’t been a new spool and some of it had already been used.

Johnny shrugged.  “Couldn’t tell.”

“There’s nothing we can do about it anyway,” Scott stated reasonably.  “When we get back we can ask around, but I doubt if we’ll be able to track down whoever stole it.  We’ve still got more than we need. Make sure that box is in the shade and let’s get going.”

*****

It was a beautiful clear night as the brothers set up camp.  They had arrived in time to take another good look at the landslide and had discussed where they would place the dynamite.  There was a canyon about a quarter mile from their camp where they would leave the wagon and horses the next day.  They had argued amiably about their respective tasks.  The route up the jumbled rocks and broken branches was treacherous and the blockage was too large to clear just by placing dynamite at the base.  It would have to be blasted apart in stages and that meant positioning the first couple of sticks of the explosive quite high up.  Johnny was adamant that Scott wasn’t going to be the one scrambling around up there with a vulnerable shoulder.  Scott had capitulated with reasonable grace, having long since recognized the futility of arguing with Johnny once his mind was made up.

Scott collected kindling and started the fire while Johnny tended to the horses.  Maria had supplied them with a brace of cleaned rabbits which Scott spitted and set to roast.  They leaned against their upturned saddles as the fat from the rabbits dripped into the fire causing it to hiss and crackle.

Johnny tried to relax, but the missing dynamite was bothering him.  He needed something to take his mind off it and decided that teasing his big brother would do very nicely.

“You never did tell me why you and Julie didn’t get married.” He grinned as he saw Scott stiffen.

“No, I didn’t.”

Johnny ignored the finality in Scott’s voice.  “You sure seemed pleased to see her.  I guess you weren’t the one to break it off.”

“Is there a point to this?” Scott glared at his annoying brother.

“Just making conversation.”

“Then make it about something else.”  Scott turned the spits and checked on their supper.

“Was only thinkin’ about that lecture you gave me about Teresa.  I mean, if you’re such an expert with women how come you let Julie get away?”

“You’re not going to drop this, are you?”

“Nope.”

“This had better not go any further,” Scott warned.

“You can trust me, Brother.”  Johnny watched with interest as a faint flush appeared on Scott’s face.

“She, ah, caught me with another woman.”

Johnny’s mouth fell open in astonishment.  “I thought you were a gentleman?”

“I am…I was…damn it, Johnny, do we have to talk about this?”

Johnny sat forward, eagerly.  “We sure do.  Who was she?”

“Her name was Barbara.  You’ve no idea what it was like in Boston.  Harlan Garrett’s grandson was regarded as prime husband material.  Sometimes I felt like nothing more than one of those stallions you’re so proud of.  Julie was different from most of the women of my acquaintance.  We’d known each other a long time and she helped me recover after the war.  I loved her, Johnny, and I’d have been happy to settle down with her.  The trouble was that not everyone accepted that. Barbara was…well to put it delicately, she had a healthy sexual appetite.  That was fine for the men, but the women were supposed to keep themselves for their husbands.  One night she cornered me at a party.

“I wasn’t expecting Julie to be there, which is no excuse,” Scott continued. “She’d been out of town; arrived home early and turned up to surprise me.  She surprised me alright.  She broke off the engagement there and then, and wouldn’t speak to me after that.  It was only a month or so later that I was approached by that Pinkerton agent. Getting out of Boston was appealing so I came west.”

“I’m glad you did.”

“Me too.” Scott handed Johnny his supper and leaned back again.  “What about you?  Has there ever been anyone special in your life?”

Johnny bit carefully into the hot meat and chewed thoughtfully.  “Can’t say as there was before I came home.  It was kinda hard to form a lasting relationship in my line of work.” Johnny’s expression turned sad.  “I was getting real fond of Lucy though before she took up with that sheepman.” His eyes darkened as he remembered her death at the hands of cowboys who hadn’t been prepared to accept the presence of sheep in cattle country. “Then there was Mattie…”

“Sorry,” Scott’s apology was immediate and clearly sincere.

Johnny summoned up a weak smile.  “Nothing to be sorry for.  Reckon it’s my own fault for prying into your business.”

There was silence between them for a while as they ate.  Once they had finished and tidied up, Scott produced a bottle of whiskey and a pack of cards and they settled in for a companionable evening.  They were both careful not to drink too much and they turned in early.

Johnny lay on his back and listened to his brother’s soft snores.  There had been so many times when his life could have taken a different road.  The same was true of Scott.  If Julie hadn’t broken off their engagement Scott would never had embarked on the long journey to California and they would never have met.  Without Scott’s presence in those early days he might well have taken his one thousand dollars listening money and left.  And if Murdoch hadn’t run into Marcy again in San Francisco…He groaned and turned on his side.  Why did everything have to come back to that?  He couldn’t even get through one night without dwelling on the twist of fate that had brought her back into Murdoch’s life.  He closed his eyes and willed himself to sleep.

*****

The combined smells of fresh coffee and bacon frying teased Scott awake.  His brother was hunkered down by the fire busily preparing breakfast, yet the sky was still dark.  Scott shivered and pulled the blanket around his shoulders.  “A little early isn’t it?” he queried mildly.

“Couldn’t sleep.” Johnny poured some coffee and handed over the cup.

“I seem to recall you telling me you always slept well.”  The hot liquid was dispelling the chill of the early morning air and the last vestiges of sleep.

“Guess I lied.” Beaten eggs were added to the frying pan before Johnny threw in a handful of chopped peppers.

“What’s wrong?”

There was no response as Johnny dished up the food.  Scott allowed the silence to develop as they ate.  The peppers added a sharp edge to the eggs without being overpowering.  Scott appreciated his brother’s consideration.  Even after two years his pallet couldn’t cope with the hot dishes that Maria sometimes prepared for his sibling.

“You know I ain’t one to be afraid of shadows, but something’s not right.” Johnny threw the dregs of his coffee on the fire.

Scott’s first thought was that his brother sounded as if he was expecting to be ridiculed for making that statement.  He had learned to trust Johnny’s instincts, instincts that had once again proved to be accurate so far as Jeff was concerned.  “Go on.”

“That missing dynamite…it’s been bothering me.”

“Then we’ll be careful.  Have you seen or heard anything to make you think we’ve been followed?”

“No.  Doesn’t mean much though.  There’re a dozen places a man could hole up around here and we’d never know it.”

The implication of Johnny’s words hit Scott hard.  “You don’t think…?  Johnny, you can’t seriously think that Jeff stole that dynamite and is waiting somewhere to use it.”

“Why not?” Johnny asked with a touch of aggression.  “He’s already injured you and tried to hurt Jelly, and that’s not taking account of the fact that he’s been involved in two killings.”

Scott shook his head.  “He’s the sort who takes advantage of the situation.  I don’t see him as being cold-blooded enough to plot a murder.”

“I hope you’re right, Brother.”  Johnny looked off toward the horizon where the first hints of dawn were appearing.  “I’ll take the wagon and horses to that canyon out of the way while you get started on the fuses.  I won’t be long, and Scott, keep your eyes open.”

“I will.”

Johnny hitched the horses to the wagon and saddled Barranca as Scott cleaned up from breakfast.  After watching his brother disappear down the track, Scott collected the fuse wire and drew his knife.  He measured out the required lengths and cut them to size.  By the time he had finished, the sun was well established in the sky.  His brother’s words were repeating over and over in his mind.  Feeling somewhat foolish he started toward his bedroll where he had left his gun.  The hairs on the back of his neck stood up as he suddenly realized he wasn’t alone.  He turned slowly, his vision impaired by the strong rays of the sun.

As his eyesight focused on the figure standing before him, he couldn’t help his instinctive question.  “What are you doing here?”

*****

“What are you doing here?” Scott repeated the question impatiently. His eyes strayed to his bedroll and the gunbelt lying beside it.  He cursed his stupidity in being caught completely unawares.  The distance was too great.  All he could do was stall and try to buy enough time for Johnny to return.

He tried to relax and took a step forward only to freeze as a gun was brought to bear on his chest.  “I don’t know what you think this is going to accomplish,” he stated reasonably.  “Put the gun down and let’s talk.”

He was answered with a sneer although Scott thought that he detected an odor of fear.  The gun was waved to his right indicating that he should move in that direction.  He planted his feet firmly on the ground and refused to move.

“It’s your choice,” his assailant informed him.  “You can either get moving up among those rocks or I’ll shoot you where you stand.”

Scott swiveled his head and took stock of his situation.  Once he was in the rocks he might be able to reach cover.  On the other hand he wasn’t keen on turning his back on someone clearly intent upon killing him.  He nodded, trying to ignore the sweat that was now trickling down beneath his shirt.  He scrambled upwards, looking for his opportunity.  As he turned to look down he realised, too late, that his time had run out.  The last thing he heard was the sound of a bullet exploding from the chamber.

*****

“My dear, what more could you possibly do here this morning?  You need a break from nurse-maiding me.  A trip to town with Jeff will do you good.  I promise, I’ll be fine.”

His words of encouragement still ringing in his ears, Murdoch heaved a sigh of relief as the door closed behind Marcy.  Her constant hovering was starting to wear on his nerves.  He hated inactivity and it was torture for him to be excluded from the running of the ranch.  Since his sons had left a couple of days previously, he hadn’t had anyone to keep him informed of what was going on.  Scott and Johnny were due back later and he intended to surprise them by being up, dressed and working at his desk.

It had taken all his powers of persuasion to convince Marcy to go into town for a few hours with her son.  He knew that he would have to be patient and wait for her to leave before getting up.  He would never hear the end of it if she caught him before he had made it downstairs.  Thoughts of Marcy drew him irresistibly to make comparisons between his wives.  Catherine, his first love, had been strong-willed and compassionate, very much like the son she had left him.  Maria had been tempestuous and full of life.  She had thawed a heart frozen by loss. Her son was just as passionate about life, while lacking her self-centered streak.  Marcy, who he had loved, lost and found again, was turning out to be a little too controlling for his liking, although he was sure that it was only her concern for his well being that was making her act that way. Once he was well everything would settle down.

It took time to make his lethargic limbs respond.  Sam had warned him that it could be months before his lungs were working properly again.  Any attempt to take deep breaths caused tightness in his chest and left him feeling dizzy.  He would have to learn to pace himself. That brought a wry smile to his lips.  He had never been good at taking things easy, a trait that he seemed to have gifted to his sons who were equally bad patients.

It took an annoyingly long time for him to get dressed and descend the stairs to the kitchen.  He stood for a minute in the doorway, catching his breath and watching Teresa chopping up vegetables for supper.  It occurred to him that this was the perfect opportunity for him to find out what had happened between her and Johnny.

Teresa turned away from the table and caught sight of her guardian.  “I’ve been expecting you.  Come and sit down and I’ll make you a sandwich.”

Murdoch took her hand and allowed her to lead him to a chair.  “Aren’t you going to lecture me?” he asked affectionately.

“Oh, I think I’ll leave that to Marcy and your sons.”

After preparing a plate of sandwiches and a pot of coffee, Teresa removed her apron and draped it over the back of a chair.  “You’re looking better.”

“I feel better.  It’s time to get things back to normal around here.”

“Scott and Johnny did a good job while you and Marcy were away.”

“They are very capable young men.”  Murdoch watched Teresa closely.  “Are you going to tell me why you and Johnny aren’t getting on as well as you used to?”

Color flooded Teresa’s face and she busied herself clearing the table.  “It was just a silly misunderstanding.”

“Involving Jeff?”

“It was my fault that Johnny was arrested.  I was angry with him when he hit Jeff and I sent for Val.”

“The way I understand it Johnny was in the wrong.”

“He didn’t deserve to be locked up, and when he came home he was so hurt.  I thought he was just being spiteful, but then after that incident with Scott and then Jelly…”

“I think you’d better tell me what’s been going on.”

*****

Murdoch sat at his desk deep in troubled thought.  He had verified for himself the fact that the Pinkerton reports were no longer safely locked away.  He berated himself for having kept them.  What did they matter now?  He had his younger son safely home and he knew what kind of man Johnny was.  The reports had horrified him, but only because they had brought to the surface all his guilt and a deep sorrow about the life his son had been forced to live.  Now he wasn’t sure what was worse, that Jeff and Marcy had read the reports or that Johnny had.

He would have to speak to both of his sons when they returned.  It was clear now that they had kept quiet to spare his feelings. The things Teresa had told him about Marcy’s attitude toward his sons concerned him.  He supposed that he should be angry with them for arranging to have Jeff arrested and then lying about Val’s intentions.  Instead, all he felt was an admiration for their inventiveness.  They could have publicly opposed Marcy, which would have undermined her position in the household and made it untenable.  He couldn’t entirely condone what they had done, but neither could he condemn them for it.  It was time for him to have a frank discussion with his wife about the boys’ position at Lancer.  Clearly, she had underestimated his love for his sons and misunderstood the true nature of the partnership agreement.

If it were true that Jeff had maliciously injured Scott and tried to hurt Jelly, then he couldn’t see how the boy could continue to live at Lancer once his parole ended.  He also had to address the fact that Marcy had tried to blackmail Johnny into leaving.  He couldn’t understand how she could have been that cruel.  She knew the life Johnny had lived.  He had confided a number of things to her, trusting in her discretion. If anyone deserved a stable home and loving family it was his younger son.  A deep disappointment settled over him.  Marcy had once confessed that she had tried to ensnare him in a relationship to provide a new home for Jeff.  She had expressed regret and had told him that she had come to love him.  Was it all a lie?  He turned to look out of the window.  He loved his sons and he loved this land.  He wasn’t prepared to sacrifice either and, if Marcy couldn’t see that, then maybe he had made a massive mistake in marrying her.

*****

“Something’s bothering you.” Marcy laid her hand on her son’s arm in concern.  The trip to town had been a pleasant change from being tied to the house by her husband’s illness.  She didn’t begrudge looking after him, but it had been a relief to get away from the suspicious looks and whispers that seemed to follow her and Jeff everywhere they went. The only thing spoiling the day was Jeff’s uncharacteristic silence, and she was determined to find out what was wrong.

Jeff reined the buggy to a halt and sat looking at his hands.  “You’ve gotta promise me you won’t say anything to anyone.”

Marcy felt a flutter of panic.  “What have you done?”

“I followed Scott and Johnny when they went out to dynamite that landslide.”

"Why on earth would you do a thing like that?  I thought you wanted to stay as far away from them as possible.”

“I was scared, Mom.  Johnny’d been threatening me when no one else was around…telling me to leave Lancer.  I’m not brave enough to stand up to someone like him so I thought if I told Scott he’d get his brother to back off.”

“Why didn’t you come to me?”

“Didn’t want to worry you.  Besides, you’ve been busy looking after Mr. Lancer.”

Marcy gripped Jeff’s arm tightly.  “Just tell me what happened.”

“I only meant to talk to him.  I swear I didn’t intend to hurt him.  You have to believe me…”

Marcy’s mouth was dry with fear.  “Hurt who?”

Jeff’s head was down, his expression hidden.  “Scott.  I saw Johnny leaving with the wagon so I went down to talk to him.  He turned on me, and I was afraid of what he’d do, so I drew my gun.  He didn’t stop and I panicked.  I shot him, Mom.”

Marcy gasped, her heart filling with dread at her son’s revelation. “Did you kill him?”

“Yeah,” Jeff answered in a whisper.

“And then you left him.” Marcy couldn’t contain her disgust.  For years she had been making excuses for her son.  Even after he shot his friend and threatened to shoot Murdoch, she had stood by him.

“Not exactly.  I knew if Johnny saw that he’d been shot he’d come after me.  I wanted to make it look like an accident so I set off some of the dynamite.  Only thing was…Johnny heard the shot and arrived back just before the explosion.  He was caught in the blast.”  Jeff paused and the length of the silence seemed interminable.  “They’re both dead.”

Loathing and an uncontrollable sense of panic overwhelmed Marcy.  “You have to leave, now before anyone finds out!”

“Don’t you see this is the best thing that could’ve happened?  You can’t tell me to leave.”

“You can’t expect to stay here after what you’ve done!  Murdoch needs to be told so that he can send men to recover their bodies.”

“There’s nothing left.  I checked and there were only bits of clothing.  I wouldn’t have left Johnny if he’d still been alive.”

“I don’t believe you.  All you’ve ever done is lie and cheat, and now you’ve murdered two innocent men.”

Jeff gave her a look of disbelief.  “You can’t turn your back on me.  If the law finds out, you know I’ll hang.  We can have it good here.  Murdoch’ll have to leave the ranch to you now that his sons are dead.  Imagine what it would be like to own all this.”  Jeff swept an arm round by way of emphasis.  “If you tell him what happened, do you really think he’ll believe you had nothing to do with it?”

“Yes, I do.  We’ll go back to the house and you can pack your things.  When the boys don’t come home he’ll send someone out to check on them.  By the time he gets the news, I want you a long way from here.”

“I don’t have any money.  How far d’you think I’ll get?  Besides, running just makes me look guilty.  There’s no way for anyone to find out what I did.  There’s no evidence left.”

“Alright.” Marcy pulled herself together and thought quickly.  “You can stay at Lancer until the end of your parole and then you leave.  No one will be surprised.  It’s clear you aren’t cut out for life on a ranch.  Get the horses moving.  I want to be with Murdoch when he realises that something is wrong.  He’s going to need my support to get through this.”

Jeff picked up the reins and set the team in motion.  As they drew closer and closer to the hacienda, Marcy wondered how she was going to manage not to betray the knowledge that was eating away at her.  Even worse was the tiny flame of hope.  With Scott and Johnny dead, she finally had a chance of making this marriage work.

*****

Murdoch looked up from the mound of paperwork as he heard the front door open.  Marcy walked into the great room followed by Jeff who was loaded down with packages.  Murdoch’s first thought was that Marcy looked pale and tired.  He felt a rush of affection for her.  She had worn herself out looking after him and his earlier annoyance seemed churlish. He smiled guiltily as Marcy acknowledged his presence with a slight frown.  “I wanted to surprise you and the boys.”

At the mention of his sons he saw Marcy’s expression change.  Rather than looking severe, she appeared almost apprehensive.  He berated himself for not having taken more time to reassure her.  His sons were strong willed and opinionated young men.   Marcy must be finding it hard to settle into her new role as their step-mother.  And now, he had to find a way to gently remind her how important his sons were to him.

“Why don’t you come and sit down?”  He stood up and offered her his hand.  “You’ve been doing far too much.”

“I am rather tired.” Marcy smiled weakly.  “Jeff, could you take those parcels to our room?”

“Sure.”  Jeff hurriedly exited and headed up the stairs.

Marcy sat on the sofa then patted the seat beside her.  Murdoch smiled at his wife and sat down.  “How was your trip to town?”

“Very pleasant.  Now, are you going to tell me why you’re ignoring Sam’s orders?”

“I’m afraid we Lancers aren’t very good at lounging around in bed.  Once I’ve seen the boys I promise I’ll take a nap.”

“Murdoch, I…” Marcy stopped and shook her head.  “I should go and help Teresa.”

“Teresa has everything under control.  I’d like to talk to you while we have a little peace and quiet.”

“Is something wrong?”

Murdoch studied his hands and considered how to approach what had to be said.  “I know that things have been difficult for you recently.  This wasn’t quite how I pictured our return from honeymoon.  I think we made a mistake leaving Jeff here with the boys.  It’s clear they don’t get along and I’m not sure that will ever change.”

“He’s scared, Murdoch,” Marcy spoke in a strained voice.  “He believes Johnny was looking for an excuse to hurt him again.”

“I’m not excusing what Johnny did, but I do not accept that he ever maliciously set out to hurt Jeff.  He acted in the heat of the moment.”

“You don’t understand.  Johnny blamed Jeff for Scott’s injury and he is very protective of his brother.”  Marcy pulled a handkerchief out of her sleeve and dabbed her eyes.

“So you tried to persuade him to leave.”  Murdoch tried to keep the accusation from his voice only to see Marcy flinch as if he had struck her.

“I’m sorry.  I shouldn’t have done that.  I was worried about Jeff.  I thought it would be for the best.”

“How could you possibly think that?  I love my sons…both of them.  I was parted from them for too many years and have no intention of losing either one of them again.  Besides, you seem to be forgetting that Johnny is part owner of Lancer.  He and Scott have as much say in the running of this ranch as I do.  When they get back, I think we all need to sit down and clear the air.  They are reasonable young men and I’m sure we can work this out. One thing I do want to know is how you came to read those Pinkerton reports.  They were private property and I had no intention of ever sharing their contents with anyone.”

“I was looking for some writing paper in the desk and found them.  I’m sorry for reading them.  I’m afraid my curiosity overcame my good manners.  Jeff had told me how afraid he was of Johnny.  I…I wanted to see how much of a threat he really was.”

Murdoch felt a knot form in his stomach.  He knew from Teresa that his sons had suspected Jeff of breaking into the desk and finding the reports.  She had also told him that they had gone missing before he and Marcy had returned home.  The clear implication was that Jeff had handed the reports to his mother.  Now Marcy was lying again to protect her son.

Disappointment drained the last of his strength.  “Johnny is only a danger to anyone who threatens his family.”  His chest was tightening again, a sure sign that he had overdone things.  He stifled a cough.  “I think I’ll get some rest before the boys get home.” A quick look at the clock made him frown.  It was growing late and he had expected them to be back earlier.

Responding to the look of concern Marcy laid her hand on his knee.  “Perhaps they decided to stay out for another night.  Why don’t you go and lie down for a while before supper.  If…if they appear, I’ll send them up to see you.”

Murdoch nodded wearily.  His sons most likely had taken the opportunity to have some time to themselves.  A nagging worry insinuated itself into his mind. If they weren’t back by tomorrow noon he would send someone out to find them.

*****

“I want you to take a couple of men and check on the boys,” Murdoch instructed Jelly the following day, trying to hide a growing feeling of dread.

Jelly snorted.  “Iffn you want my opinion it was downright stupid to let those two go off by themselves with explosives.  If there’s trouble waiting somewhere they’ll find it.”

“I don’t want your opinion, Jelly.  I want you to go and find them.”

“And just what do I tell them when I find them?”

"Tell them anything you like,” Murdoch snapped before moderating his tone.  “I’m sorry, Jelly.  I’m worried about them.  Oh, I know they are probably fine and won’t be happy at having their old man checking up on them, but…” Murdoch hesitated, unable to explain his concern.  “Humor me.”

“Things ain’t been right around here since that boy showed up.” Jelly jutted his chin out belligerently, as if daring Murdoch to disagree.  “Everyone’s on edge and I can’t say as I blame ‘em.  Why, if Scott hadn’t seen what was happening I’d be laid up right now.”

Murdoch laid a hand on his friend’s shoulder.  “I know there have been problems and I promise we’ll get everything straightened out once Scott and Johnny get back.  Now, do you think you could do as I ask and go and find them?”

“Sure, Boss.”

Murdoch waited in the yard until Jelly, Jose and Pedro had disappeared from view.  He was joined by Teresa who didn’t complain when he put his arm around her shoulders, and hugged her tightly to him.  “They’ll be back before you know it,” he reassured her.

She tilted her head up, her smile at odds with the worry in her eyes.  “I know they will.  Come inside and have something to eat.”

“No, darling.  I’m not in the mood for eating right now.  You go ahead.  I’ll be along in a little while.”  He kissed the top of her head and removed his arm, giving her a little push in the direction of the house.  He could feel an air of tension settling over the ranch and it worried him.  It was as if everyone was waiting for disaster to strike.

*****

It was late afternoon before Jelly and his companions rounded the bend in the road leading to the site of the landslide.  For the last hour his elbow had been aching fiercely, a sure sign in his experience of trouble ahead.  The sight that greeted them brought all three to a standstill.  One or more huge explosions had cleared the blockage.  Rock and debris was strewn over a large area and they could hear the rushing water of the river.  A short distance from the river was the remains of the Lancers camp with no sign of its former occupants.

“Well, what are you waiting for?” The gruffness in Jelly’s voice betrayed his concern. “Take a look around and see if there’s any sign of them.”

The two younger men dismounted and scrambled over the rocks while Jelly checked the camp.  The bedrolls were covered in sticks, leaves and small pebbles.  He felt the remains of the fire, which proved to be stone cold.  As he pushed the debris aside with his foot he spied a glint of metal off to one side.  The metal turned out to be the buckle of a gunbelt which he recognised as belonging to Scott.  He picked it up and held it against his chest, fighting against a rising panic.

“Jelly!”

Jelly looked up at Pedro who was waving his arms to attract his attention.  “Hold yer horses.  I ain’t as young as I used to be.”  Slipping and sliding, he slowly worked his way up to join the ranch hand.  The young man was staring fearfully at the object he was holding in his hand.  As Jelly reached him he held it out.

“It is Senor Johnny’s hat and…look over there.” Pedro pointed to a brighter colored patch a short distance away.

Jelly sank down to the ground, knees trembling and hands shaking.  He carefully moved some sharp edged shards of rock before picking up the piece of material.  The faded pink of Johnny’s favorite shirt was now marred by the deeper rusty red of dried blood.

“Keep looking.” Jelly’s voice shook.  “They must be here somewhere.  Johnny! Scott!” He cleared his throat before calling again, the call being taken up by Jose and Pedro.

They searched until the last of the light left the sky.  Apart from finding some more bloodstains they were no closer to finding the missing men.  Finally Jelly called a halt.  “We need more men.  They could be buried under the rocks.”  He didn’t want to leave, but how could he ask one of the men to tell Murdoch Lancer that his sons were likely dead?  “Pedro, you stay here.  Jose and I’ll go back to the ranch for men and supplies.”

“Si, Jelly.  I will keep looking.” 

Pedro was a good friend of the young Lancers and Jelly knew the man would willingly tear the place apart with his bare hands to find them.

“Just be careful.  Don’t go climbing round these rocks in the dark or you’ll break your fool neck.” Jelly swiped a tear from his eye as he made his way back to his horse.  He knew that the one thing that could destroy Murdoch was the loss of his sons.  It would tear the heart out of him and the whole of Lancer.

***** 

Johnny lay in the dark, fragments of images teasing at his mind.  He tried to remember…to make sense of where he was and why he was there.  He knew he had been here, wherever ‘here’ was, for hours, perhaps days.  Drifting in and out of consciousness he had sometimes seen light a few feet away from him, while at other times it had been dark.  How many sunrises and sunsets had he missed while he inhabited his dream world?

He was very thirsty.  There was water somewhere near, cold spring water, sweeter than honey to his parched throat.  If only he could summon enough energy to move.  His body was awash in pain, his muscles lethargic and unresponsive.  If he didn’t do something soon he would die and he tried to recall why that would matter.  With a patience born of necessity he turned his mind to solving the riddle only to recoil as the images coalesced into memory.

>>>>>> 

He could feel himself falling, tumbling head over heels.  He was helpless to prevent the painful collisions with rocks and trees.  The sound of the explosion echoed in his ears.  Bright flashes of light penetrated tightly shuttered eyelids.

He had lost his grip on his brother when his world had turned upside down.  Having had no warning, he was taken completely off-guard.  Shards of stone ripped into clothing and flesh.  Warm blood tricked down his face.  The fall seemed endless, yet he embraced it almost eagerly.  His brother…his best friend, was dead.  Soon he would join him and the pain would be over.  The physical pain was nothing, the pain of loss was more than he could cope with.

One final collision forced the breath from his lungs.  He kept his eyes shut and waited for death to claim him.

He hadn’t planned on waking up.  The pain in his head was intense, interfering with thought.  He felt no inclination to move or open his eyes.  The ringing noise in his ears persisted, preventing him from slipping back into the pain free darkness he had been inhabiting.

As he lay unmoving, his last coherent thought returned to haunt him and a sob caught in his throat.  He replayed the scene over and over in his head and his grief turned to something else…something darker.  He knew what vengeance felt like, had experienced it before.  It could eat you alive if you let it, and this time he didn’t care.  There was no doubt in his mind as to who was responsible.

It took a long time to pry his eyelids open; they were sticky with dried blood.  He raised a shaky hand to his forehead.  The cut that had been bleeding so freely had now stopped, leading him to wonder how long he had been unconscious.  He was lying face down and he allowed his gaze to travel along one outstretched arm.  His shirt sleeve was ripped and blood stained.  There was a well defined pain in his wrist, leading to the unwelcome conclusion that it was broken.

He concentrated on moving his other arm, his right arm, and his fingers settled around the handle of his gun.  Teeth bared in a ferocious smile as he imagined the pleasure of pointing the gun and pulling the trigger.  It wouldn’t be murder, although the law might have a different view.  It would be justifiable retribution.

He pushed himself over onto his back and stared up at the inky blackness of the night sky.  The moon hung high above him providing a little light.  He levered himself up on one elbow to check his legs.  The right leg of his trousers was ripped and there was a deep cut on his shin.

His shifting vision indicated a concussion, and he knew from experience that trying to move too much, too quickly, would make him sick.  There was no hurry.  Eventually, Murdoch would send someone out to check on them.

He dozed until daybreak then took thought to his situation.  Lying where he was, without water, would expose him to the full force of the sun.  If he was going to survive long enough to be rescued, he would have to find some shelter.

This high in the mountains there were plenty of caves.  He could rest up for a while then, come nightfall, might be able to make it back to the canyon where he had left Barranca.  Johnny sat up slowly and tentatively explored the injury to his left wrist.  It seemed to be a clean break, although that didn’t make it any less painful.  It was swollen and hot to the touch.

He looked around for something to use as a crutch as he wasn’t convinced his leg would support him.  His eyes fell instead upon the lifeless body of his brother.  Forgetting his own injuries he scrambled to Scott’s side.  The blond hair was matted with blood, just as it had been when Johnny had raced into their camp long minutes after hearing the gunshot.  He had eventually located his brother’s motionless body wedged between rocks part way up the landslide.  Having reached Scott, he had only had time to register the fact that his brother had been shot in the head before the dynamite had exploded.

Now, as he brushed the hair away from Scott’s forehead, he realized that the bullet had grazed the side of his brother’s head, rather than lodging itself fatally in his brain. Johnny’s breathing quickened as he pressed his fingers to the side of Scott’s neck.  Long minutes later, he felt the faint beat of a pulse.  “Scott.” The name emerged from a throat parched and tight with emotion.

He had to get his brother under cover, and he looked around frantically.  The blast had changed the landscape and he couldn’t get his bearings.  His hearing was still impaired by the explosion and try as he might, he couldn’t hear the sound of the river.  The hillside loomed to his right and he hesitated, torn between leaving his brother to seek shelter and trying to drag Scott with him.  Common sense prevailed.  He was barely capable of moving himself.  He had to locate a cave and then find the strength somehow to move Scott.

“I’ll be back soon, hermano.  You hold on, you hear me, Boston?”

Silence greeted his words and he laid his hand over the blond’s chest, feeling the weak beat of his brother’s heart.  Relief washed over him.  Scott would cling to life, of that Johnny was sure.  His brother wouldn’t give up.  He patted Scott gently on the cheek, calling his name.  Other than a faint groan he received no response.  He turned his attention to checking for other injuries.  His brother’s clothing was also torn and there were numerous cuts and abrasions on his arms and legs.  Superficial burns marred exposed flesh and Johnny looked at his own arms which bore similar marks. Scott’s left shoulder, not yet fully healed, now looked to be dislocated again.  Under the mask of blood Scott’s face was pale, his breathing shallow.

The heat of the sun forced Johnny to move from his place by his brother’s side.  He crawled slowly, and painfully, away from Scott and grasped a sturdy branch.  He levered himself to his feet and tested the condition of his right leg.  The cut was deep and he bit his lower lip against the agony that shot both up to his hip and down to his ankle.

Now that he was upright he could see where they had landed.  They were on the opposite side of the original landslide from their camp, with no realistic prospect of reaching it unaided.  His progress over the debris was slow and uncertain, and it took him the best part of an hour to find a shallow cave.  A thin trickle of water ran down the rock face outside the cave entrance.  Johnny propped himself against the warm stone and held out his right hand to catch the moisture, bringing it eagerly to his mouth.

 

After resting for a few minutes he backtracked to where he had left Scott.  His brother was stirring fitfully and Johnny could see an unhealthy flush now staining Scott’s cheeks.  “Boston, por favor, I need you to wake up.”  There was a hint of panic in Johnny’s voice.  He was exhausted and couldn’t conceive of any way to get Scott to his feet.  He shook his brother’s uninjured shoulder with increasing force.

“W…what…?”

Johnny’s emotions threatened to overwhelm him as he heard his brother’s voice.  He peered intently at Scott’s face, willing him to open his eyes.  When the eyelids finally parted, Johnny saw only confusion in his brother’s fever bright gaze.

“You need to get up,” Johnny urged.  “I know you’re hurt, but we’ll both die if we stay out in the sun.”

Scott shook his head and winced.  “Can’t.” He ran his tongue over lips that were dry and cracked.

“Yes, you can.  Don’t you quit on me, Brother.” As he spoke Johnny was tugging on Scott’s arm, managing to pull the blond into a sitting position.

Scott’s head lolled to one side, his eyes closing again.  “Need…sleep.”

“Not yet. I’ve found shelter, but I can’t get you there unless you help.”

“You go.”

“Not likely.  Murdoch’ll have men out looking for us soon.  We only need to hold on for a few more hours.” Johnny watched in despair as Scott’s senses appeared to slip away again.  “Wake up.” The command was forceful and fuelled by desperation.

Scott roused again.  “Don’t shout…head hurts.”

“Not surprised seein’ as someone shot you.”

“Shot?”

“Don’t you remember?” Johnny used Scott’s distraction to encourage his brother to get to his feet.  He wrapped his good arm around Scott’s waist.

Johnny wasn’t sure if he was supporting Scott, or the other way around, as they made their way toward the cave he had found.  His hearing was returning to normal and every time they were forced to stop and rest he listened intently, hoping to hear approaching horses.

Scott had lapsed into silence, eyes narrowed and lips compressed into a severe line.  During one break in their journey Johnny propped them both against a rocky outcropping.

“Did you see who shot you?”

Scott’s hand travelled to the side of his head, his fingers quickly becoming red and sticky with blood.  “I’ve no idea.  Don’t…” He paused to suck in a shaky breath. “Don’t even remember waking up this morning.”  The effort of getting so many words spoken clearly drained what little strength he had left.

Johnny rested his pounding head against the rock.  His broken wrist was swollen and now blessedly numb.  It didn’t take much imagination to know how bad his brother must be feeling. Scott’s left arm hung uselessly by his side and he appeared to be too dazed to realize how badly it had been hurt.

Johnny distracted himself with thoughts of the lecture they would receive from Murdoch and Sam.  His senses jolted as he recognized how vulnerable Scott would be at home if, as he suspected, Jeff was responsible for the attempt on their lives.  Even without Scott’s injury, he would have been under no illusions about the explosion.  Someone had tried to kill them.

He forced his brother back into motion, heaving a relieved sigh as he finally saw the entrance to the cave.  They stopped long enough to drink some water before collapsing in the cool interior.  Now that the need to move was past, Johnny’s strength deserted him.  He closed his eyes and knew nothing more.

>>>>>> 

Despite Marcy’s best efforts, Murdoch was pacing back and forth outside the front door when Jelly and Jose arrived back.  His eager expression faded as he realized that they were alone.

Jelly slid from his horse and handed the reins to Jose who led it away leaving the two older men facing each other.

“It’s bad, Boss.  I think we should go inside.”

Ten minutes later Murdoch was on his horse and pounding his way toward the scene of the disaster.  He had abruptly brushed off Marcy’s concern and had left instructions for all the available men to follow him as quickly as possible.

He was not deterred by the gathering darkness, which only mirrored the darkness in his mind.  He refused to accept Jelly’s pessimism.  His boys weren’t dead.  He would find them and bring them safely home.

He ignored the tightness in his chest and the racking cough that worsened the harder he pushed himself.  The long strides of his horse ate up the miles.  Jelly would be following more slowly with a wagon loaded with supplies, lanterns and shovels.

Marcy and Teresa were at home, making preparations for the treatment of injuries.  At the very least the blood found by Jelly told him that his boys were hurt.  He had been taken aback by Marcy’s reaction.  She had appeared almost panic stricken and it had been Teresa who had taken charge. It had been an unexpected and pleasant surprise when Jeff had volunteered to ride into town to fetch Sam who could then be on hand to provide any immediate medical treatment.

His horse stumbled in the darkness and he reined back to a more sensible speed.  Right now all he could see in his mind’s eye were his sons…dark and fair, laughing and joking together, working and playing hard…and he needed to get to them.  They were God given gifts that he might never have known and now couldn’t imagine living without.

It took him longer than he would have liked to reach the site of the explosion, his progress slowed by the darkness and his own weakened state.  He was immediately greeted by Pedro, who cautioned him against rashly scrambling over rocks and tearing up the debris with his bare hands.  He called and called until he was hoarse, rendered weak and shaking by a coughing fit that left him bereft of his voice. When Jelly and the other men arrived he was persuaded to sit by the campfire, unsleeping and sore of heart.  He acknowledged the good advice about resting and starting the search in the morning as the fear tightened its grip on mind and body.  He was afraid of what the morning would bring.

*****

The memory of what had happened left Johnny shaken.  He knew now why death wasn’t an option…Scott.  His brother was lying on his side, shifting restlessly.  The fever had taken firm hold and Scott was mumbling incoherently.  Johnny was fairly sure that he was also running a slight fever, undoubtedly caused by dirt entering the deep cut on his leg.  He had dealt with fevers before and he wasn’t going to let this one beat him.  Using the cave wall to brace himself, he pushed to his feet and kept his uninjured hand resting against the stone as he made his way to the entrance.  It had gone dark again and the heat had drained out of the air.  Sound would travel a long way in the stillness of the night and he unholstered his gun, preparing to fire it.

He curled his finger around the trigger and then hesitated.  Since returning to Lancer there had never been a time when he hadn’t seen it as a haven from danger.  Even when Pardee and his men had been threatening the valley, the thick walls of the hacienda had seemed impenetrable.  It had been toward that illusion of safety that he had been riding when he was shot out of his saddle.

Now, if he was correct in his suspicions, there was danger inside those walls.  Danger for himself but, more importantly, for Scott.  He didn’t know if his sibling had seen who had fired that shot.  Scott’s memory of what had happened might well return when his fever abated.  But, the fact that his brother was still alive made him a threat to the man who had pulled the trigger.  How could he protect Scott from an enemy who had full access to the house and everyone in it?  He couldn’t accuse Jeff without proof, and there was the added complication of Marcy.  If she offered to care for Scott, as was likely, how could he keep her away?  He knew perfectly well that his own injuries would confine him to bed for at least a day or so, plenty of time for Jeff to ensure that Scott succumbed to his fever.

He allowed his gun to slip back into the leather of the holster.  He needed time to think this through.  The first thing he needed to do was stop his fever worsening.  He ripped a length of material from the tattered remains of his shirt and soaked it in the water that was still dripping down the rock face.  Before sliding to the ground he drank several handfuls of the liquid, feeling the dust finally clearing from his throat.  The leg of his trousers was torn and he eased it apart to reach his injury.  He almost snarled in frustration at having to work one-handed.

The cut was jagged, deep and encrusted with dirt.  It looked like he was about to add to his tally of scars, although he had come to admire Sam’s handiwork with a needle.  The edges were tinged with red, indicating the presence of an infection.  With prompt treatment he reckoned he could head off the worst of it, which meant alerting someone to their position.  He cleaned the cut carefully and thoroughly, and then used another strip of material soaked in water as a crude bandage.

The final remnants of his shirt were doused in water to be used to try and cool the fever raging through his brother.  Having re-entered the cave, he manoeuvred Scott into a position resting against his chest and began to systematically wipe away the blood and dirt on his brother’s face.  He wished that he had the strength to reset Scott’s shoulder while he was unconscious.  He had dislocated his shoulder once in a fall, and the memory of the nausea and pain he felt as someone slammed it back into position had taken a long time to fade.

As he ran the cloth over Scott’s face he spoke to him, quietly and rhythmically in Spanish.  It didn’t matter what he was saying…most of it was nonsense he remembered hearing from his mother as a child…what mattered was the sound of his voice.  He felt Scott growing quieter, his breathing becoming more regular as he crossed from unconsciousness to natural sleep.  Johnny’s own eyelids felt heavy and he leaned back against the wall, comforted by the feel of his brother’s heartbeat.

A gasp of pain roused Johnny and he tightened his grip on Scott.  “Take it easy, Brother.”

“Where…” Scott tried to turn and his injured shoulder jostled painfully against Johnny’s chest, tearing a moan from his throat.

“You hurt your shoulder again.  Sam’s not gonna be happy with us.  I’ve got a busted wrist and you’ve a head injury and a fever.  Thing is, Scott…I’m not sure it’s safe to go home.”

Scott’s head moved slowly as he took in their surroundings.  “Can’t stay here.  Why…?”

“Why can’t we go home? ‘Cause I’m pretty sure that it was Jeff that shot you and tried to blow us up.”

There was a long silence and Johnny began to wonder if Scott had gone back to sleep.  Finally, Scott spoke quietly and thoughtfully.  “Need help, Johnny.  Stay…stay here and we’ll die.”

“I know,” Johnny admitted.  “Just don’t know how to protect you, is all.  I’m not gonna give Jeff another shot at you.”

“Be ok,” Scott mumbled.  “Murdoch’ll look after us.”

The heat radiating from the blond was increasing.  He needed to be in a clean bed with proper attention, and Johnny knew that he had no choice.  “You rest here for a minute.  I’m gonna fire off a coupla shots to attract attention.”

There was no acknowledgment from Scott, who was now shivering fiercely.  Johnny shifted position carefully and dragged himself back outside.  This time when he drew his gun he didn’t allow himself to think of the consequences.  He pointed the Colt away from the cave and fired.

*****

The first faint sound of a gunshot startled Murdoch from his depressed thoughts. The men around him stirred and he barked at them to keep quiet.  A second shot sounded, and then a third, before silence was restored.  Three shots, evenly spaced, was the distress signal agreed on long before, between Murdoch and his sons.  He immediately forgot his gloomy forebodings and his own weakness.  Orders were issued and obeyed.  Jelly hurried to harness the team to the wagon and the other men, led by Murdoch, fanned out to move swiftly in the direction from which the shots had originated.  The deep darkness of the night had passed, and despite the uneven footing, their progress was rapid.

“Senor Murdoch!  Over here.”

The shout came from Cipriano and Murdoch angled to his right to reach the Segundo.  The large Mexican was kneeling down, his bulk preventing Murdoch from seeing what he was doing.  He peered over Cipriano’s shoulder and caught his breath, torn between worry and relief.  Johnny lay in an ungainly heap on the ground, his gun still held loosely in his right hand.  His bare torso was covered in cuts and bruises and bore the marks of healing burns.  Dark hair framed a face streaked with blood and dirt.  As Murdoch stared speechlessly at his younger son, he realized that deep blue eyes were regarding him in return.

He dropped heavily to his knees and reached out to touch his son, to convince himself that Johnny was really there and alive.  He cleared his throat.  “We were worried about you.”

A weak smile appeared on Johnny’s face only to be replaced by a look of concern.  “Scott…cave.”

He tried to struggle into an upright position, giving up as Murdoch pressed him gently back to the ground.  “I’ll check on him.”

Murdoch entered the shallow cave fearful of what he might find.  His older son was as dirty and blood-stained as his younger brother.  Scott’s eyes were closed, but he wasn’t at peace.  Murdoch could see movement beneath the lids and uncontrollable trembling assaulting his son’s body.  He turned as he heard footsteps, frowning when he saw Johnny making his way slowly toward him, strongly supported by Cipriano’s arm around his waist.

“He’s real sick, Murdoch.”

“You don’t look in the best of health yourself, Son.”

“Don’t matter about me.  He’s burning up.”

Murdoch resisted the temptation to remind Johnny that he was just as important as his brother.  In his present agitated state, he would pay no attention.  He moved to Scott’s side, taking in the injury to the shoulder and trying to find the source of the fever that was so clearly raging through his son’s body.

“How long has he been like this?” he asked in concern.

“It’s been getting worse since I came round after the blast and found him.  I’ve been out of it for a while too.  Don’t even know how long we’ve been here. Before the explosion I thought he was dead.”

Murdoch looked up at Johnny in confusion, worried that his youngest might have sustained a head injury.  So far as he was aware, the explosion had been an accident; a misjudgement of some kind that had almost had unbearably tragic consequences.  “You’re not making any sense, Son.  Why don’t you sit down and tell me what happened while we wait for Jelly to get here with the wagon.”

He took off his jacket and draped it around Johnny’s bare shoulders, then helped him over to sit by his brother.  Johnny was still clutching his gun and the determined look on his face challenged anyone to come near Scott.

Footsteps on loose rock and gravel caused both men to look up.  Murdoch was startled to see that Johnny had also brought his gun to bear on the entrance to the cave.  Cipriano wore the same bemused expression as he found himself looking down the barrel of the Colt.  He laid two canteens of water on the floor and backed out.

Murdoch uncapped one of the canteens and offered it to his son.  With his left wrist being damaged, the only way Johnny could take it was to lay his gun down.  The hesitation, even as the young man looked greedily at the canteen and licked dry lips, worried Murdoch even more.

“You’re safe now, Johnny.  Put the gun down and have a drink. I’ll look after Scott.”

“Promise?”  Johnny’s gaze bored into his father then, apparently satisfied, he nodded slightly and placed the gun on the ground within easy reach.

As Johnny drank, Murdoch returned to his inspection of Scott’s injuries.  Noting the blood staining the blond hair he ran his hand gently over the side of his older son’s head.  As he brushed the hair out of the way he could clearly see the injury that was the source of the infection.  His first thought was that it had been caused by the sharp edge of a rock, a reasonable assumption given what had happened.  He pulled out a handkerchief and used the water from the other canteen to soak it.  As he leaned forward to clean the wound he bit back a gasp of disbelief.

Finally, understanding Johnny’s concern he turned to his dark-haired son.  “That’s a bullet wound.  This wasn’t an accident, was it?”

“No.  Someone shot him and left him for me to find.  It was a trap and I walked right into it.”

“Who?” The question was abrupt.

Johnny’s eyes slid away and he shook his head.  “Don’t know for sure.  I didn’t see anyone and Scott doesn’t remember.”

Over the last two years, Murdoch had come to know his sons well and he knew when Johnny was being evasive.  “You have an idea though.”

“I ain’t got any proof.”

“Someone just tried to kill my sons.  Right now, I’m open to theories and we can worry about getting the proof later.”  He waited impatiently for an answer.  It was obvious that Johnny was wrestling some inner conflict and it gradually dawned on Murdoch what it was.

“You think it was Jeff?”

“Yeah, Murdoch, I do.” The direct blue stare was back, hard and unyielding.  “And I think that when he finds Scott’s still alive he’s gonna come after him again.  He ain’t gonna know Scott can’t remember.  All he’ll see is the man who could get him hanged.”

*****

Murdoch reined his horse to a standstill and allowed Jelly to drive the wagon past him.  From his vantage point he had a good view of his sons lying in the bed of the wagon on a pile of blankets.  Both were asleep although neither was resting easily. A white bandage circled Scott’s head, a stark contrast to the unhealthy flush staining his cheeks and neck.

The rancher had worked hard with Jelly to get the boys as comfortable as possible for the journey home.  Scott’s shoulder had been re-set and the abruptly painful procedure had jerked the blond back to agonising awareness. There had been no recognition in Scott’s eyes during his brief period of wakefulness.

They had forced some water into him before allowing him to slip back to sleep. The bullet wound had been cleaned and Scott had been repeatedly wiped down with cool water.  Murdoch had done what was necessary, had gone through the motions, and all the while his mind grappled with the notion that Jeff might have been the one responsible.

Johnny’s broken wrist had been splinted and bandaged and his arm now rested in a sling.  The injury to his leg had been checked and bandaged again.  His slight fever hadn’t worsened, but there was no doubt that his younger son was exhausted.

An awning was rigged over part of the wagon and Scott had been laid in the shade with Johnny climbing in beside him.  Johnny had belatedly remembered Barranca and the team of horses and men had been despatched to collect them. Meanwhile, word had quickly spread about the attempt on Scott’s life.  As a result the men rode in a state of readiness, eyes ranging from side to side as they began the slow journey. Nothing was being said openly about the cause of the explosion, which Murdoch was content to pass off as an accident for now. None of the inevitable speculation about the identity of Scott’s attacker had yet reached his ears.

Refusing to rest, Scott’s head pillowed on his lap, Johnny had sat up against the side of the wagon, gun drawn.  As the miles passed and the day became hotter, Johnny’s eyes had started to close.  Occasionally, his head would fall forward only for him to startle awake again.  Finally exhaustion had won out and he had fallen into a deep sleep.  Ordering the wagon to a halt, Murdoch had eased his dark haired son down into a more comfortable position.

Now, they were nearly home and he was no closer than he had been hours before to deciding how to approach things with Marcy.  As far as he knew Jeff would be at Lancer, having had more than enough time to fetch Sam from Green River.  He tried to recall how Jeff had been acting over the last few days.  With a sigh, he had to concede that he had paid very little attention to the boy.

He hadn’t yet shared Johnny’s suspicions with anyone, not even with Jelly.  Everyone was alert for an outside threat.  If Johnny was right, then the threat was actually within their midst.

They passed under the Lancer arch.  At any other time he would have been happy and relieved to be home.  Now he was riding through a cloud of worry, uncertainty and suspicion.  As they clattered into the yard the door opened and Teresa sped out, halting a few feet from the wagon.  Her expression told of her hopes and fears and Murdoch immediately reassured her.

“They’re both alive.  Scott’s battling a head injury and a fever.  Johnny’s left wrist is broken. He has a cut on his leg that needs stitches.”  He looked around.  “Where’s Sam?”

“He isn’t here.  When Jeff eventually tracked him down, he was at the Andrews ranch.  Mrs. Andrews was in labor and Sam said to tell you he’d be here as soon as he could.”

Murdoch cursed inwardly. They didn’t dare try to treat Scott’s head wound, although they could work on lowering his temperature.  Johnny’s wrist needed to be medically assessed and possibly reset.  Plus, the sooner that leg wound was stitched closed the better the chances of heading off a worsening fever.  He felt as if he was being pulled in two directions, wanting desperately to be with both of his sons.  He had to force himself to think rationally and clearly.

“Jelly, I’d like you and Cipriano to get Scott up to his room.  Teresa, can you and Maria do what you can to bring his temperature down?  I’ll get a dose of laudanum into Johnny and see to his leg.  That’ll keep him quiet until Sam gets here.”

“He sure ain’t gonna take to that.”  Jelly’s gruff tone was at odds with the deep concern etched into his face.

Murdoch pulled his friend to one side.  “Send someone into town to fetch Val. Warn the men to be on their guard and then find out where Jeff is and keep an eye on him.”

“You think he had something to do with this?”

“It’s only a precaution,” Murdoch hedged, aware that he needed to speak to Marcy before throwing out unsubstantiated accusations.

As Jelly turned to leave, Murdoch laid a hand on his shoulder.  “Jelly?  Be careful.”

“Don’t worry about me, Boss.  You just take care of those young’uns.”

Teresa and Cipriano lowered the tail board of the wagon.  The Segundo gathered Scott into his arms as easily as if the young man had been a child.  The activity was drawing Johnny out of his slumber and he cried out in protest when he realized that Scott was being moved.

Murdoch was on his way to reassure his son when he saw Marcy step out into the courtyard.  Their eyes met briefly, before he was drawn away to deal with his increasingly alarmed and ferociously determined son.

Johnny was fighting off all the well meaning efforts to help him.  Blue eyes blazed out an accusation.  “You said you’d keep him safe!  I need to be with him.  Let go!”  The last words were snarled at one of the men who had placed a restraining hand on his arm.

“You need to calm down, Son.  Scott is perfectly safe.  Teresa and Maria will look after him.”

Johnny’s gaze swept past his father and settled on Marcy who now stood by Murdoch’s side.  “Not that bitch.  She don’t go near him.”

“Johnny!” Murdoch’s tone was sharper than he intended.

There was no sign that Johnny had noticed the harsh tone as his hate filled stare remained unwaveringly on his step-mother.  Marcy took a step closer to Murdoch, who instinctively put his arm around her.  The look of betrayal that crossed Johnny’s face stunned him.  Surely his son didn’t believe that Marcy was somehow mixed up in what had happened?

“Just relax, Johnny,” he said soothingly.  “Let’s get you up to your room.”

Johnny tightened his grip on his gun.  “Scott’s room.”

“Not until you’ve rested and I’ve stitched up your leg.”

Johnny shook his head dismissively and returned his attention to Marcy.  “Where’s Jeff?”

“He’s in the house I think.  I haven’t seen him for a while.”  Marcy huddled in the protection of Murdoch’s arm.

“Now isn’t the time for this, Son.  We need to get you and Scott comfortable while we wait for Sam to arrive.”  Murdoch tried to keep his words calm and soothing.  It wouldn’t take much to provoke Johnny into unwise action.

The news that Sam wasn’t at Lancer appeared to be all the provocation Johnny needed and Murdoch saw his son inching his way toward the back of the wagon.

“Gotta be with Scott,” Johnny announced, looking hopefully at his father.

Murdoch helped him to the ground and steadied him.  “There’s nothing you can do for Scott. We’ll work on trying to lower his temperature.  Other than that we need Sam’s assessment of that head injury.”

“Head injury?” Marcy asked quietly, her voice strained.

“Yeah, someone shot him,” Johnny snapped back bitterly.

“Someone?  Then you don’t know who it was?”

Johnny opened his mouth to respond and then looked at his father for guidance.  When he turned away without saying anything more, Murdoch knew that his silent appeal had worked.  He didn’t want Johnny throwing out accusations against Jeff before he had been given the chance to speak privately with his wife.

“After Scott was shot, both he and Johnny were injured in an explosion.  Since we found them Scott hasn’t been rational.”

“He was awake and talking before that damn fever took hold.” Johnny interjected before leaning into his father’s strong grip, appearing grateful for the support.

Murdoch suspected that his son’s injuries were paining him more than he wanted to admit and tightened his hold. The pressure was subtle as he steered Johnny into the house and up the stairs toward his own room.  He found himself carrying more and more of Johnny’s weight before he easily deposited his son on the bed.

Dark eyelashes fluttered open.  “No…” Johnny tried to rise and was defeated by his own weakness.

“Can you bring up a glass of water and some laudanum?” Murdoch asked Marcy quietly, knowing the next few hours would be a lot easier if he could get some of the soporific drug into his younger son.

While Marcy was obtaining the requested items, Murdoch pulled Johnny’s boots off and removed his trousers.  He covered his son’s waist and the top half of his legs with a sheet then unwound the bandage around the deep cut.  Once Johnny was safely asleep he could check on Scott and gather the other supplies necessary to deal with the injury.  He easily evaded Johnny’s feeble attempts to fend off his ministrations.  With his left hand out of commission, and weak from exhaustion, Johnny was no match for his father.

“Don’t leave Scott alone,” Johnny pleaded.  “Not safe.”

“He won’t be left alone and I’ll make sure that only a few people have access to him.”  Hearing the door open and close quietly Murdoch turned and acknowledged his wife with a nod of thanks.

He turned his back to Johnny to shield what he was doing and added some laudanum to the water.  He laid the glass down on the bedside table and directed his attention to raising Johnny up.  When he turned to pick up the glass again he found Marcy already holding it out to him.  As he pressed the glass to his son’s lip’s he wasn’t surprised to find Johnny fighting him.  He tightened his grip against Johnny’s struggles and forced the liquid down his throat.

“This is for your own good, Son.  Sam’ll be here by the time you wake up and then you can visit with Scott.”

The initial look of outraged betrayal changed as the drug took effect, but for just a second Murdoch could have sworn that Johnny looked afraid.

*****

By the time Marcy left Johnny’s room, she was shaking uncontrollably.  She had assisted Murdoch while he stitched up Johnny’s leg wound and had very nearly lost her composure when told that Jeff was a suspect in Scott’s shooting.  She had managed a proper mixture of disbelief and outrage, accusing Johnny of spreading false tales in order to rid Lancer of her son.

She had been taken aback by her husband’s reaction.  He had immediately and forcefully leapt to Johnny’s defence, making it clear that no direct accusation had been made by his son.  On hearing this she had moderated her own response, fearful of making Murdoch even more suspicious.  The news that Val had been sent for, however, was unwelcome.  She had pointed out the close friendship between the sheriff and the Lancers and had made strong reference to Jeff’s arrest following his so-called ‘fight’ with Johnny in town.

Murdoch, however, had remained firm in his decision and she had made her escape as soon as she could.  She had to find Jeff and get him away from Lancer before either Val arrived or Scott woke up.  At least there was no fear of Johnny waking any time soon.  Unknown to her husband she had added a significant additional dose of laudanum to the water that he had given his son.  She had acted solely out of maternal fear.  Keeping Johnny drugged and helpless removed one threat to her son’s safety.  She had seen the flash of impotent fear in Johnny’s eyes as he had realised that the drug was dangerously strong, yet she had no doubt that it was fear for his brother, rather than for himself.  For once the great Johnny Madrid wouldn’t be in any position to watch his brother’s back.

It took time for her to track Jeff down.  He was in the barn, huddled in the corner of one of the stalls.  “You need to leave,” she urged.

“How did they survive?  They should be dead?” Jeff’s voice rang with hysteria.

Marcy pulled him to his feet and wrapped her arms around him.  “Shh.  You don’t want anyone to overhear you.  Scott’s very sick…he may not pull through.  He told his brother that he doesn’t remember who shot him but, if he regains his memory, he’ll be able to identify you.   Murdoch’s sent for the sheriff and there’s no doubt that he and Johnny suspect you.  We can’t take the chance of you still being here if they do come up with some proof.”

“If I run, they’ll know I did it.  Johnny’ll hunt me down.”

“Johnny isn’t going to be leaving his room.  I’ve dosed him up with laudanum and Murdoch’s going to be too distracted with looking after his boys to come after you straight away.”

“Where’ll I go?  I don’t have any money.”

“I’ll get you money.  Murdoch’s opened an account for me at the bank in Green River.  Meet me at the livery stable at noon tomorrow.  You can do what you planned on doing last time…get to San Francisco and take a ship to South America.”

Marcy hugged her son then pushed him gently away.  “Find somewhere to hide out tonight.  I love you, Jeff.”

“I love you too, Mom.”

With a final tearful look, Marcy slipped from the barn, ready to resume her role as a loving and concerned wife and step-mother.

*****

Murdoch dipped the cloth in the cool water then wrung out the excess moisture before wiping the material over Scott’s chest and arms.  His son was finally resting easier and Murdoch was convinced that Scott was winning the battle with the infection.  Placing the cloth back in the basin he stood and stretched his back.  He had been sitting hunched over for hours tending to the young man, having refused all offers of help.  From time to time Scott had mumbled snatches of conversation.  Nothing made sense, although once he had cried out in alarm and had called his brother’s name.  Murdoch had held on tightly to Scott’s hand, speaking quietly and assuring him that both he and his brother were home and safe.

For the last hour Murdoch had been expecting Johnny to wake up and come barging in, full of recriminations and concern for his brother.  The laudanum shouldn’t have kept him asleep this long and Murdoch could only assume that his youngest was still exhausted from the effort of moving himself and his brother to the cave, while suffering from his own serious injuries.  There was no doubt in Murdoch’s mind that neither of the boys would have survived without Johnny’s determination and quick thinking.

His brief discussion with Marcy had not gone well.  It had hardly been an ideal setting, but he hadn’t wanted to risk her hearing rumours from the men.  He rubbed a hand wearily over his face.  The sad fact was that his marriage appeared to be under threat whether or not Jeff was guilty.

He had left Scott’s side briefly when Val arrived and had presented the sheriff with the facts only, keeping his suspicions to himself for now.  With Scott and Johnny safe he could afford to let the investigation run its course.  Val’s face had darkened with anger upon being told of the attempt on his friends’ lives.  He had immediately set out for the scene, promising to return the following day to speak to the brothers.

The door to the bedroom opened and closed quietly, and Murdoch smiled with relief at seeing Sam.

“I’m sorry it’s taken me so long, Murdoch.  I’m afraid that the latest addition to the Andrews family was rather reluctant to make his appearance.”  As he was talking, Sam removed his jacket, rolled up his shirt sleeves and washed his hands with the soap and water laid ready on the dresser.  “You’d think that after producing five boys it would be as easy as shelling peas.”

“Are Jessie and the baby alright?” Murdoch enquired.

“She’s exhausted.  He’s as loud and demanding as the rest of the family.  Now, why don’t you tell me what your boys have done to themselves this time?  I understand from Teresa that they’re both home.  When Jeff came to find me last night, all he could tell me was that they were missing and that you thought they might be hurt.”

As Sam began his examination, Murdoch gave him as much information as he could.  All his worry spilled out.  “They were out there, hurt, for the best part of three days and nights.  Somehow Johnny found them shelter otherwise I don’t think either of them would have survived.”

“How is Johnny?  I’m surprised he isn’t camped out in here keeping an eye on his brother.”

“He’s broken his left wrist and has a nasty cut on his leg, but he managed to clean it up enough to prevent a full blown infection.  He’s pretty bruised and sore as you can imagine.  They’re both dehydrated and haven’t eaten anything for days.  I gave him some laudanum and stitched his leg seeing as we didn’t know how long you would be.”

Sam smiled.  “You’re a brave man, Murdoch.  What did he have to say about that?”

“He hasn’t woken up yet, but I’m sure he’ll make his views known when he does.”

Sam checked Scott’s pulse and listened to his chest before turning his attention to the head wound.  “He was lucky.  The bullet caught him in the side of the head and it looks as if it glanced off his skull rather than lodging in it.  He’s clearly lost a lot of blood and dirt has been forced deeply into the wound.  It’s not surprising that he’s running a temperature.  Has he been awake?”

“Not since we found them.  Johnny said that he was awake from time to time and that he was aware of where he was.  Then the fever worsened and he hasn’t been coherent since.”

Sam ran a hand over Scott’s left shoulder, tracing the line of fresh bruising.  “Did he injure this shoulder again?”

“It was out of place.  I put it back.”

“You did a good job.  It was still weak from that previous injury.  Hopefully, no permanent damage has been done to the nerves.”

“He seemed alright before they left.”

Sam looked questioningly at his friend.  “You do understand how serious that injury was, don’t you?  I warned him about the risks if he were to do further damage to it.”

Murdoch could feel himself coloring.  He hadn’t paid much attention to Scott’s injury and his son certainly hadn’t complained about any ongoing problems.  “I didn’t think much of it,” he confessed.

“Well, you were ill yourself at the time so I suppose that’s understandable.  How are you feeling by the way?  All this worry and riding around is hardly the convalescence I had in mind for you.”

“I’m fine.”

Sam laughed.  “I wouldn’t expect to hear anything else from a Lancer.  Do you think you could ask Teresa to boil some water so that I can make sure the wound is clean?  I’d say that his fever has started to abate which is a blessing.”

Murdoch stared down at his son.  Beads of sweat had started to appear on Scott’s forehead, a sure sign that his fever was breaking.  “Why hasn’t he woken up yet?”

“Head injuries can be tricky, Murdoch, and that fever has taken a toll on his body. He needs rest.  Barring any unforeseen complications, he’ll wake in his own good time. Unfortunately, until he does wake up we won’t know how badly he has been affected.”

*****

Murdoch stared out of the window as Sam continued to tend to his son.  He hadn’t noticed it growing dark or the lamps being lit and now he wondered what time it was.  He was mildly concerned that Johnny had still not woken up.  He had checked on him on his way back from the kitchen to Scott’s room and was on the point of voicing his concern when he heard a weak groan issuing from the man on the bed.  He crossed the distance quickly and took Scott’s right hand in his.

“Scott?  Can you hear me, Son?”

“Murdoch?”  The voice was weak and was accompanied by a slight fluttering of blond eyelashes.

“Don’t rush it.  Take your time.”  Murdoch looked around for a glass of water.  Raising Scott slightly in his arms he held the glass to the pale lips.

Reacting to the pressure Scott opened his mouth and took several small sips.  “T…thanks.”  Blue-grey eyes opened tiredly.

“Welcome back.” Murdoch smiled happily.  “How do you feel?”

“Like…like I’ve been…trampled.”  Scott licked his lips and Murdoch took the hint, returning the glass to his son’s mouth.

“Do you remember what happened?”  Sam’s voice floated over Murdoch’s shoulder.

“Not much.”  Scott’s forehead creased in thought.

“It doesn’t matter right now,” Murdoch assured him.

Scott continued to frown, looking as if he was trying to chase down an elusive thought.  “Does…matter.  Why…need to remember?” His speech was disjointed and his breathing quickened.

“He’s pushing himself too fast,” Sam cautioned.  “You need to calm him down.”

“Gunshot…” Scott’s voice rose in volume.  “Johnny, help me.”  His breath was coming in great heaving gasps. “Tried…tried to run.  Hurts so bad.   He’ll hurt Johnny too.”  His right hand was locked on Murdoch’s sleeve, his eyes now wide and fearful.

“Johnny’s safe and so are you.  Relax, Scott.”  Murdoch kept a tight hold of his son, hoping that the physical contact would draw Scott back to them.

“See... Johnny…?”

“Soon.  He’s asleep right now.”  Murdoch looked worriedly at the doctor as Sam reached over to check Scott’s pulse.

“Safe?”  There was a fractional lessening of Scott’s grip and Murdoch could see some comprehension returning to his son’s face.  “Safe to sleep?”  His fingers relaxed and he leaned back heavily against his father’s arm.

“That’s right.  Close your eyes and get some sleep.”  Murdoch lowered him gently back onto the pillows.

“Check Johnny ok?”

“As soon as I get Teresa to come and sit with you,” Murdoch promised.

Scott’s breathing steadied and he gave a slight nod before turning his head and closing his eyes.  Murdoch sat with him while Sam fetched Teresa.  After reassuring the girl that Scott had turned the corner in his recovery, the two men left the room and crossed the hallway.

It was dark in Johnny’s room and perfectly quiet.  Murdoch felt a twinge of unease and hurried to light the lamp by the bedside.  He raised it up so that the light fell on Johnny’s face and he heard a shocked gasp from Sam.

“Dear God, Murdoch.  How much laudanum did you give him?”

“No more than usual.  Why?” The unease that had been teasing the edges of his mind turned to a suffocating feeling of panic.

“Because it looks to me like he’s been given an overdose.”

Dropping his bag on the bedside table, Sam pulled out his stethoscope.  Johnny’s face was pale and clammy to the touch and he lay frighteningly still.  Peeling back an eyelid, it was as he expected.  Johnny’s pupil had contracted so that it was just a pinpoint of darkness.  He could hear Murdoch’s harsh breathing beside him as he put the stethoscope to Johnny’s chest.  The heartbeat was weak and he drew his watch from his waistcoat pocket to count Johnny’s shallow breaths.  They were far fewer than they should have been and were likely to decrease even further, if they didn’t act quickly.  In addition, Johnny’s hands and feet were cold and lightly tinged an unhealthy blue color.

“How long?” Sam’s voice shook.  “How long since you gave him the laudanum?”

“I…I didn’t.  I mean…I didn’t give him enough to cause this,” Murdoch stammered.

Sam looked sympathetically at his friend.  “You aren’t well and the last twenty-four hours has taken a lot out of you.  We can talk about how it happened later.  For now I need to know when it happened.”

“Early or mid-afternoon?” Murdoch speculated weakly.  “I’m not sure.  I wasn’t paying much attention to the time.”

“More than two hours ago,” Sam muttered to himself.  “The drug will have been absorbed into his body by now so there’s nothing we can do to stop it.” He pulled himself together and raised his voice.  “We need to make sure he doesn’t choke if he’s sick. Help me roll him on his side and then bring me some pillows to prop him up.”

“What’s happening to him?”

“His body is going into shock.  We have to wake him up so that I can get him to take some Atropine.  Once he’s awake I’ll organize some warm mustard plasters to put on his arms and legs.  They might help to raise his temperature.”

“What…what can I do?”

“Get him to wake up. Talk to him, shout at him if you have to.  Shake him, slap his face…anything.  The only way you can hurt him is to do nothing.  With the Atropine he has a chance,” Sam spoke bluntly.  “Without it, he’ll die.”

As Sam stood back to let the distraught father take his place by the bed, he noticed the silence that always seemed to cover a house like a shroud whenever a loved one was gravely ill.  The family would do whatever was necessary, clinging to hope yet fearful of the final outcome.  As his thoughts turned briefly to Scott’s condition he reflected upon the tragic irony.  While everyone had been concerned about Johnny the real fear had been for Scott.  It was the life of the older Lancer son that had hung in the balance, and still did.  Sam doubted if Scott was strong enough to survive the loss of his brother and it was that brother who was the one now most at risk.

He rubbed his chin, deep in thought. Things were not making any sense. Getting laudanum into either of the young men was never easy and Murdoch had become an expert at ensuring they received the right amount, whether or not they wanted it.  Johnny, in particular, both hated and feared its effects.  The last thing he would have wanted, particularly given Scott’s condition, was to be drugged senseless.  Johnny would never have consented to relinquishing his self-appointed role as his brother’s protector.  Had their situations been reversed Scott would have been equally dogmatic.

Someone had already tried to murder the brothers.  As unthinkable at it was, could Johnny’s present condition be something other than an accident?  Perhaps someone had tainted the water before Murdoch administered what he believed to be the correct dose.  As unwell as his old friend had been, he might not have noticed any peculiar smell beforehand.  It seemed the only answer.  Johnny would have known from the taste that it was too strong, and as he would’ve been quickly overcome, he wouldn’t have been able to alert his father.  Were Johnny’s last thoughts going to have been fear and condemnation of the father he loved so deeply?

Sam heard the door open to admit Marcy, who was looking uneasy and pensive.  His heart went out to her.  She was newly married, had almost lost her husband and now her two step-sons were seriously ill.  It was a worrying and upsetting time for her.  He moved to intercept her, not wanting anything to distract Murdoch from his efforts to wake his son.

“Sam.  I was getting worried. How are the boys?”

He thought she looked fearful of hearing the answer and who could blame her?  “Scott woke up a little while back.  There has been some improvement and…”

“Did he say what happened?  Does he know who shot him?”

Sam wondered about that for a moment, finally concluding that she was afraid that whoever had been responsible might make another attempt at Lancer.  “No, but don’t you worry.  The men will all be on high alert.  No one will get near him or Johnny.” When Marcy nodded hesitantly, he continued.  “Right now, though, it’s Johnny who I’m most concerned about.”

Marcy’s gaze darted to the bed.  “What do you mean?  His injuries weren’t that serious.”

“He’s seriously ill at the moment.  The laudanum he took earlier was too concentrated.  Murdoch is trying to wake him up so that I can give him something to help counteract the effects.  We don’t have much time. Could you do something for me?  Teresa needs to know, but she is sitting with Scott and I would rather that this be kept from him.  His father promised him that Johnny was safe and Scott isn’t strong enough to get out of bed, which is precisely what he’ll want to do if he finds out the truth.”

“How could this have happened?”  Marcy’s voice quivered.

“That is of secondary importance right now.”  Sam tried to keep the impatience from his voice.  He felt sorry for Marcy and regretted that he didn’t have the time to offer consoling words, but Johnny’s life hung by a thread and that was where his priorities lay.

“Murdoch…Murdoch was shaking badly when he was tending to Johnny.  I didn’t watch him measure out the liquid.  Maybe I should have kept a closer eye on him.  If Johnny dies Murdoch will blame himself.”

Sam looked at her quizzically, a horrible suspicion forming in his mind with the revelation that she had been in the room at the time Johnny was given the laudanum.  Years of practice at keeping his thoughts to himself allowed him to answer neutrally. “Yes, he will, but I will do everything in my power to keep that young man alive.”

As Marcy left the room again Sam turned his attention back to the situation unfolding before him.  He could hear Murdoch’s voice.  The normally self-confident rancher sounded hesitant as he begged his beloved son to keep his eyes open.

Murdoch caught Sam’s eye. “He’s awake.”

Sam positioned himself close to the bed and gripped Johnny’s wrist to measure his pulse.  The young man’s heartbeat was slowing and he couldn’t see any improvement in the boy’s breathing. Tremors could clearly be seen flowing through the muscles in his arms and legs.  Sam spared a brief thought for Johnny’s broken wrist, although with the opium in his system, he wouldn’t be feeling any pain.

“I want you to concentrate on your breathing,” Sam instructed.

“W…what…?”  Johnny’s confused gaze ranged over Sam and toward his father.

“You have too much laudanum in your body and it’s affecting your ability to breathe.  I have some medicine that will help. There’s no need to talk, but you must stay awake. Do you understand?”  He waited in vain for a response.  Johnny’s attention had wandered and his eyes were closing.  “Pass me my bag, Murdoch.”  Sam raised his voice.  “Johnny…Johnny, stay with me, son.”

“Cold.”

“I know,” Sam responded sympathetically.  “We’ll do what we can to warm you up soon.  I’ll ask Marcy…”

“N…no.”  Johnny’s movement became agitated, puzzling the elderly doctor.

Murdoch took Johnny’s right hand between his palms and began to massage the icy cold skin.  “She only wants to help.  I know you don’t trust her because of Jeff, but she would never hurt either you or Scott.”

Sam’s earlier suspicions resurfaced.  Johnny had never taken a particular liking to his step-mother, but something told him that there was more to it than that.

Mention of his brother brought a sharpening of Johnny’s attention.  “Scott?”  A look that was close to panic crossed his face.  “Sick…”

Johnny’s shortness of breath forced Sam from his reverie and he quickly measured out the correct dose of Atropine, levering Johnny into a position where he could drink.  The hesitation was fractional then Sam saw a look of trust appear on Johnny’s face.  “Scott woke up a little while ago,” he explained as he tilted the glass toward his patient’s mouth.  “His fever was breaking and he was lucid, but he was worried about you.”  Sam smiled in response to the weak grin.  His expression quickly sobered as he saw that Johnny was slipping away again.  “You have to fight this.  Scott would never forgive you if you gave up.”

“Sam, I don’t think…” Murdoch’s protests faded as voices carrying from across the hallway drew his attention.  He released Johnny’s hand and headed for the door, closely followed by Sam.  As they reached the hallway, the door to Scott’s room opened and Marcy hurried out.  They could now clearly hear Teresa shouting at Scott to stay where he was.

Marcy grasped Murdoch’s arm.  “I’m so sorry, this is all my fault.  I told Teresa about Johnny as Sam asked.  I thought Scott was asleep, only it appears he heard me.  He’s trying to get out of bed.  You have to stop him.”

Sam cursed inwardly that she hadn’t been more careful.  In Scott’s weakened condition any sudden movement could cause irreparable damage.  Forgetting his misgivings about Marcy, he curtly instructed her to stay with Johnny.

By the time the men reached Scott’s room, they found that his injuries had achieved what no amount of rational argument would have and that he was once again unconscious.  Sam quickly checked his vital signs while Murdoch consoled Teresa.

“No harm done,” Sam reported thankfully.  “You did a good job, Teresa.”

“Get back to Johnny.  I’ll be fine here with Scott.”

Sam acknowledged her grit and fortitude with a brief smile while Murdoch gave her a hug.  “Call us if you need anything.”

They returned to Johnny’s room to find him glaring, wide-eyed at Marcy.  He turned his imploring gaze to Sam and then his father, trying to catch his breath.  The effort was too great to allow him to speak.  Assuming that Johnny’s fear was for his brother, Sam reassured him as to Scott’s condition.  The accusation in the young man’s eyes didn’t lessen, leading Sam to speculate that Johnny was blaming them for keeping him from Scott’s side.

“You’re not well enough to be with Scott.  You have your own battle to fight and he would understand that,” he admonished gently.

“No…” Johnny panted desperately.  “Get…her…out.”

Pain and guilt crossed Murdoch’s face.  “Marcy, my dear, it might be best if you left.  He isn’t thinking clearly.”

“Don’t worry, Murdoch, I understand.”  Marcy stood and Johnny’s eyes followed her progress.  “I’ll help Teresa look after Scott.”

Sam thought that Johnny was going to have a seizure as he tried unsuccessfully to push himself off the mound of pillows.  His frantic gaze locked on Sam, pleading silently for assistance.

“There is no need for you to concern yourself with Scott right now, Marcy.  He’s in good hands with Teresa,” Sam reasoned. “You can help, though.  I need some warm mustard plasters for Johnny and I’m sure everyone could do with something to eat.”  He saw Johnny subside with a look of profound gratitude.

He walked with Marcy to the door, murmuring instructions.  All they could do now was try to keep Johnny awake, persuade him to take some fluids and pray.

*****

The endless hours of the night passed slowly.  Murdoch, clearly worn out, dozed in a chair.  It had hurt Sam to see how withdrawn his friend had become.  He knew that Murdoch was convinced that somehow he was responsible for Johnny’s condition.  The more Sam thought about it, the more he was convinced that someone had tried to finish the job started by Scott’s head wound and the explosion.  Sam had questioned Murdoch carefully, not voicing his suspicions, and had ascertained that only he and Marcy had had access to the water and laudanum.

Murdoch had shared Johnny’s views about Jeff, and his words convinced Sam that the rancher was torn between his undeniable love for his wife and his fears that Johnny was correct.  Johnny had remained silent, struggling with every ounce of determination he had to keep breathing.  More than once Sam had feared that the efforts would be in vain, but had shamelessly used every weapon he had to keep the boy fighting.  The most potent form of encouragement was mention of Scott.  Each time Johnny would narrow his eyes and focus again on his task of staying alive.

At regular intervals Sam checked on the blond’s progress, answering the unspoken plea in the expressive deep blue eyes.  As Scott had a head injury, Teresa had been waking him every two hours.  Each brief conversation had followed a similar pattern as she checked that he was coherent and then gave him some water.  His first and only thought was for his brother.  His own weakness kept him tied to the bed, with sleep following swiftly on the heels of Teresa’s reassurances.

As the hours ticked by, and Johnny stubbornly clung to life, Sam began to allow himself a little hope.  Now, Johnny’s eyelids were drooping shut as the doctor checked his pulse and breathing.  Murdoch woke with a grunt and painfully straightened the kinks in his spine.

“How is he?”

“There’s been some improvement.  I think it might be safe to let him sleep.”

Murdoch leaned over and took Johnny’s hand.  “I can’t tell you how sorry I am.  I don’t know how it happened.  I’ll understand if you can’t find it in your heart to forgive me.”

A puzzled frown appeared on Johnny’s face.  “Not…you.”  His voice was hoarse from disuse.

Murdoch raised his son up in his arms and gave him a drink of water.  Johnny nodded weak thanks and sank back against the pillows.

It seemed an eternity before Johnny could summon up the strength to speak again.  “Marcy…saw her.”

All the color left Murdoch’s face and his hands began to tremble.  “You must have been mistaken,” he croaked.

Johnny’s head moved from side to side in denial.  “Protect Scott.”

“That’s enough,” Sam interjected.  “Get some rest now.  No one will hurt Scott any more, we’ll see to that.”

Sam didn’t know if Johnny accepted the assurance.  He did know that the young man had reached the limits of his endurance.  His breathing was stronger and more regular, but his body and will were exhausted by the efforts to defeat the drug in his body.  Sam had no doubt that Johnny had prevailed, however, only time would tell whether or not any damage had been done to his heart or lungs.  The brothers were each facing a protracted period of convalescence and their father wasn’t looking much better.

As Johnny slipped unwillingly into sleep Sam turned his attentions to the older man.  Murdoch’s face was grey, his shoulders slumped in defeat and his breath rasping in his throat.

“You should go and lie down,” Sam instructed kindly.  “I’m sure Jelly won’t mind going into town to fetch Val.  The sheriff will want to know how the boys are doing any way.”

“What am I going to do?”

“I don’t think you have any choice.  You have to let the law handle it.”

“She’s my wife, Sam.  Why would she do something like that?”

Sam shook his head.  “I can’t answer that.  Perhaps she was trying to protect Jeff from Johnny.”

Murdoch pushed himself resolutely to his feet.  “My sons’ lives are all that matter.  I asked Jelly to keep an eye on Jeff.  I’m going to have him locked up until Val gets here.  I hope Johnny is wrong, but I’m not going to take that chance.”

“And Marcy?”

“I’ll post guards.  She won’t get near the boys and I don’t think she’ll try to leave if we have Jeff in custody.”

*****

Murdoch checked on his eldest son and then arranged for Maria to sit with him so that Teresa could snatch a few hours rest.  He was exhausted and sick at heart as he strode through the house searching in vain for his wife.  Finally, he went to find Jelly.  Although the sun had risen some time previously he was informed that Jelly was in his room.  When the door opened Murdoch realized that Jelly probably hadn’t slept any more than the rest of them.  The old handyman thought too much of the Lancer brothers to rest easily while their lives hung in the balance.

He accepted Jelly’s invitation to enter and sat heavily in the rocking chair.  He was aware that he was functioning on will-power alone and that he couldn’t go on forever.  Jelly pressed a cup of steaming hot coffee into his hands and waited for him to take a few grateful sips.

“How’re they doin’?”

Murdoch considered the question, wondering just how much Jelly knew about Johnny’s condition.  “They’re both hanging on, though neither one of them will be out of bed any time soon.”

“You look like you could use some sleep yourself and I reckon Sam must be plum tuckered out.”

“I can’t sleep yet.  There are things that need to be arranged.”  Murdoch laid the cup down and rubbed his tired eyes.  “I’d like you to go into town and fetch Val.”

“They ready to talk to him?” Jelly looked and sounded sceptical.

“No…at least not about what happened up in the hills.  It’s…it’s delicate.  Johnny believes Jeff was responsible, although there’s no proof and Scott doesn’t remember who shot him.  Yesterday someone gave Johnny an overdose of laudanum. He’s convinced it was Marcy.”

The shock on Jelly’s face was enough to reassure Murdoch that this was news and he breathed a sigh of relief.  The last thing he wanted was for rumours to circulate about his wife’s possible involvement.  “I want Jeff locked up as a precaution and, when I find Marcy, I’ll tell her to stay in the house until Val arrives.”

“They ain’t here,” Jelly blurted out.  “When you said to keep an eye on that boy you didn’t say to keep him here.”

Murdoch was on his feet immediately.  “Where are they?”

“Jeff hightailed it out of here yesterday afternoon after havin’ a little chat with his Ma.  Mrs. Lancer had me harness up the buggy about an hour ago.  I thought it was peculiar, but she said that Sam needed some supplies from town.”

“Saddle my horse,” Murdoch ordered.  “Tell Sam where I’ve gone and make sure someone keeps an eye on the boys.”

*****

Murdoch wasn’t sure where the strength came from to accomplish the ride into town.  He hated to leave his sons, but confronting Marcy was something only he could do.  His thoughts were churning, full of anger, worry and guilt.  None of this would have happened if he hadn’t resumed his relationship with Marcy.  He had loved her, and had believed that she returned that love.  It should have been enough.  She had betrayed his love, his trust and he had almost lost Johnny as a result.  It was looking more and more like Jeff had also betrayed the faith that had been placed in him and had tried to kill his step-brothers.  Had Marcy known?  Was that why she had given Johnny too strong a dose of laudanum?  She had known that Johnny was suspicious of Jeff.  Had she acted in a misguided attempt to protect her son?

He slowed his horse as he reached the main street and easily spotted the Lancer buggy tied up outside the bank.  He rode round a corner and tethered his horse out of sight.  Although spying on his wife wasn’t something he was comfortable with, he was prepared to push his scruples to one side.  Ignoring the interested stares of the passers-by he settled down to wait.

He had only been there for a few minutes when he saw Marcy emerge from the bank.  She was fastening her purse, leading him to conclude that she had withdrawn some money.  After crossing the street, she headed toward the livery stable opposite the saloon.  He waited for her to disappear inside before striding out purposefully in the same direction.  As he reached the door he could hear her talking to the liveryman.  Moments later she retraced her steps, stopping with a horrified expression on her face as she saw her husband.

“Murdoch! I…What are you doing here?”

Murdoch took firm hold of her arm and steered her away to a more secluded spot.  “That’s exactly what I was going to ask you?” He released her arm and took her purse, ignoring her protests. All his worst suspicions were confirmed when he saw the thick roll of banknotes.  “Is this all for Jeff, or are you planning to go on the run with him?”  He flung the money into the dirt at her feet in disgust.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Johnny saw you…you almost killed him.  Why?” His self control deserted him as he spat the question at her.

Marcy reached out a hand, stopping short of touching Murdoch as he glared at her. “I didn’t mean to put his life in danger.  I only wanted to make sure he stayed asleep long enough for Jeff to get away. You must believe me.  You can’t think I wanted Johnny to die.”

Murdoch ignored her pleas. “So you’re covering for Jeff again.  How many people does he have to hurt before you finally see him for what he is?”

Marcy raised her tear stained face to him.  “He’s my son.”

“Just as Scott and Johnny are my sons.  The difference is that I don’t make excuses for them and they are men enough to take responsibility for their own actions.”  His fingers dug into her shoulders and he ignored her gasp of pain.  “Where is he?”

“I don’t know.”

“Did he beg you for money again or did you offer it this time?”

“He was afraid.  He knew he would get blamed for Johnny and Scott being hurt.  None of you wanted him here and this is the perfect excuse to get rid of him.”

“Oh, I can believe he’s afraid…afraid that Scott will remember who shot him.”

“There’s no proof…”

“To hell with proof,” Murdoch interrupted harshly.  “I want him locked away until Val finishes his investigation.  I will not take any more risks with my sons’ lives.”

“He’s not here.”

“Then where is he?  You obviously expected to meet him in town and he won’t have gone far without money.”

“I swear to you that I don’t know where he is.  Yes, I was supposed to be meeting him, but he never showed up,” she sobbed.

Johnny’s words rang in his head.  <I think that when he finds Scott’s still alive he’s gonna come after him again.  He ain’t gonna know Scott can’t remember.  All he’ll see is the man who could get him hanged.>

Murdoch felt his chest constrict with fear. “No…it’s not possible.  Scott!”

*****

His heart hammering, Jeff eased open the door leading from the rear stairway to Scott’s room.  He had his gun drawn and held loosely at his side. From listening at the kitchen window, he knew that Teresa was with Maria brewing some willow bark tea for her patients.  He had heard her tell Maria that Johnny was still asleep and that Murdoch had left for town on business.  Rounding up the horses he’d released from the corral was occupying Jelly and most of the men, giving him free run of the house.

He closed the door quietly behind him and turned the key.  The drapes were drawn, casting the room in shadow and it took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the darkness.  He hesitated. Now that he was here, he wasn’t sure he could go through with his plan, but self-preservation made it a necessity.  His life was certainly more important than that of his older step-brother.  Besides, he’d killed before and it wasn’t really that hard.  He had thought this through very carefully during a long, sleepless night.  Scott had to die.  He was the only one who could conclusively link him to the shooting and the explosion.  Too bad he just couldn’t put a bullet in the blond’s head and be done with it, but common sense dictated it would have to be quiet so he could escape undetected.  He cursed himself for the fear he had felt when he ambushed Scott at the landslide.  His arm had been shaking so much that he had failed to keep his gun firmly fixed on his target.  He had given in to panic, worried that Johnny would arrive back and catch him, and had trusted the explosion to ensure that the brothers died.  His carelessness made this act necessary. He knew he didn’t have long and his determination to kill the only witness to his treachery strengthened as he put his plan into motion.

He heard Scott moan in pain as he shifted but, so far as he could tell, the injured man was still asleep.  He remembered Teresa telling him that neither of the brothers’ liked taking medication and Scott’s fitful movements suggested that he had either refused pain relief, or was about to come round from the last dose.  He cursed silently; it would have been so much easier if Scott had been drugged unconscious.  He felt an uncontrollable surge of panic.  His mother had told him that Scott was badly hurt, but what if he was strong enough to put up a fight?   Scott had only to call out for his plan to be ruined.  Why hadn’t he anticipated this and taken precautions?  It would have been easy enough to sneak some rope out of the barn. Now he had to find a way to immobilize his victim before launching his attack.

Silently he crossed the room and stood by the bed.  Scott was lying on his back, his right hand lying loosely on the covers and his left arm resting in a sling.  He drew a cautious breath when Scott tossed his head from side to side uneasily, without waking.  Jeff was trembling as he untied the sling, pulled the lax hands together and tied the material tightly around the wrists.  He groped in his back pocket and pulled out a bandana, only to freeze as he realized that Scott was on the verge of waking up.

*****

An unrelenting pain in his head pulled Scott out of the warm, comfortable darkness.  He tossed his head from side to side in a fruitless attempt to ease the pressure in his skull, which was severe enough to make him want to scream.  As much as he hated taking drugs he could recognize his inability to cope with the pounding agony.  He tried to raise a hand to rub his temple and couldn’t get his arms to move.  His jolt of surprise reignited the pain in his injured shoulder and an involuntary cry bubbled up in his throat, only to die away unheard as a hand was pressed over his mouth.

“I know you’re waking up,” a soft voice informed him.  “Don’t even think about yelling ‘cause I’m gonna shoot the first person who walks through that door.”

Scott opened his eyes hesitantly.  He could feel the cold metal of a gun barrel pressed to the side of his head and he saw his step-brother hovering over him.  Jeff removed his hand and backed off, the gun unsteady, but still a deadly threat.  The realization that his hands had been bound caused Scott a moment of panic.  He pulled against the cloth only to find that it had been tied too tightly to give him any immediate hope of freedom.

“Why…why are you d…doing this?”  He detested the weakness that made his voice shake.

“The way I figure it, it’s either you or me.  You can identify me as the one who shot you and I can’t let you testify.”

Scott could see Jeff fingering a bandana and knew that his only hope was to try and talk some sense into the young man before it was used to silence him.  “Couldn’t testify…didn’t remember,” he rasped. His mouth was dry and his breathing ragged.

The brief indecision he saw on Jeff’s face caused by that admission was quickly replaced with a look of renewed determination.  “Don’t matter now.”  Jeff moved back toward the bed, the bandana now scrunched into a ball.  “Open your mouth.”

Scott swallowed.  “No.”

“The longer this takes, the more chance there is of someone walking in on us.  I swear I’ll shoot the first person who comes in.”  Jeff’s voice took on a desperate, dangerous edge.  “D’you want to risk that?  Want to watch me shoot Teresa, or that Mexican bitch…or maybe your precious brother?”

“You won’t f…fire…too risky.” Scott could feel himself breaking out in a cold sweat.  How could this be happening?  Johnny was just in the next room and there should be at least a dozen people in or around the house.  And where was his father?  He had assured his brother that Murdoch would keep them safe.  Instead of that he had heard Marcy say that the rancher had carelessly given Johnny an overdose of laudanum which had nearly killed him.

“You want to take the chance?”  Jeff didn’t give him any opportunity to answer.

Quickly laying his gun on the bedside table, he leaned over and squeezed Scott’s sore shoulder.

The pain ripped through him and Scott opened his mouth to scream.  He felt the bandana being thrust between his teeth and fought down the urge to retch as the cloth brushed against the back of his throat.  His vision contracted as he battled the pain, unable to concentrate sufficiently to try and push the material out.

Jeff bent closer and whispered, “Why didn’t you and your half-breed brother die when you were supposed to?  All this would be mine now.  I don’t want to hang and you’re the only witness.  The way I see it, it’s either you or me. Just relax and it’ll be over that much sooner.”

Scott felt his chest tightening as his breathing was compromised.  The only thought in his head was that Jeff might turn his attentions to Johnny next.  He tried to form the words to plead for his brother’s life, but the best he could manage was an unintelligible grunt and he saw Jeff smile at his helplessness.

When he saw Jeff pick up one of the pillows, he couldn’t keep a look of shock and fear from appearing on his face.  His apprehension was quickly replaced with smouldering anger when he saw that Jeff was gloating.  Despite his head swimming with pain and the lack of air, he still tried to fight, even when Jeff pressed the pillow across his face.  His breathing became more labored, the pain in his chest excruciating as his lungs fought for oxygen, until it quickly became too much of an effort to fight the lethargy spreading through his body.  Finally, resignedly, he gave up the battle, closed his eyes and went limp.

*****

A piercing scream followed by the sounds of breaking china jolted Johnny from sleep.  His left wrist was throbbing painfully and his head felt as if it was stuffed full of straw.  His heart pounding, he struggled to take measured breaths to calm himself.  For a moment, he lay where he was until the significance of the sounds spurred him into action.  Using his one good hand he pushed himself into a sitting position before throwing back the covers.  He had to wait for the spinning sensation to cease as his vision expanded and then contracted in an alarming fashion.  Knowing he needed his gun, his eyes raked the room frantically.  With a profound sigh of relief, he saw his rig dangling from the headboard of the bed, his gun sitting snugly in its holster.  His right hand closed around the handle and a blanket of calmness settled over him.  The gun felt heavy and it was an effort to lift his arm, but he didn’t care.  He knew that gun as well as he knew himself and had supreme confidence in his ability to use it effectively.

Unfortunately, he wasn’t as confident in his ability to get from his bed to Scott’s room.  The sounds had been close enough for him to realize that was where they had come from and he knew his brother needed him.  He managed to get to his feet, steadfastly ignoring the pain in his leg and limped to the door, catching the door frame to steady himself.  The door leading to Scott’s room stood ajar and in his haste, he almost collided with Sam and Teresa who were both standing just inside the room staring toward the bed.

“What…?”

They both turned on hearing his voice and Sam caught him around the waist.  Now that his view was no longer obstructed, he could see what the problem was.  Jeff stood by the bed, gun pointed unsteadily in the direction of the small group of onlookers.  Scott lay deathly still and Johnny’s breath caught in his throat when he saw that his desperately ill brother had been bound and gagged. As he tore his eyes away from the bed, he saw the discarded pillow lying on the floor.  He had no doubt what Jeff had been doing. The hatred and anger that coursed through him was as strong as when he had faced the man who had killed his mother.  He wasn’t prepared to allow another person he loved to be murdered.  He kept his right hand out of sight, hoping that Jeff wouldn’t realize that he was armed.

“See to Scott,” he hissed to Sam.

“He won’t let me.”  Sam’s voice shook with emotion.

“We can’t leave him like that.” Johnny tried to pull away from the doctor.

“Stay where you are,” Jeff ordered, his voice high-pitched and shaky.  “Make one more move and I’ll shoot Teresa.”  The gun swung towards the girl and Jeff began backing up to the door leading to the back stairs, his left hand fumbling with the key in the lock.

“You’re a dead man,” Johnny snarled, leaning gratefully against the elderly doctor.  Without Sam’s help he was pretty sure he’d be face down on the floor by now.  He waited until Jeff was momentarily distracted by the key turning, before taking a step forward so that he was standing between Teresa and Jeff.

“I warned you.”  Jeff squeezed the trigger, his shot going wild as Johnny’s bullet tore into him.

“Scott!”  Johnny’s shoulders drooped and the gun slid from his hand as his strength gave out.

*****

The sound of shots emanating from inside the Lancer hacienda nearly caused Val’s heart to miss a beat.  He had spent the night out at the site of the explosion, hoping to find something to prove the identity of the man or men responsible.  He had his own theory, which he didn’t feel able to share with the Lancers without proof.  He had ridden back to the ranch to report his woeful lack of progress and to see if Scott had recovered enough to say who had shot him.

He flung himself off his horse, drew his gun and sprinted for the front door.  Once inside he paused, unsure now where the sounds had come from.  Common sense suggested that any trouble was likely to be found in one of the brothers’ rooms.  He mounted the stairs silently, alert for any threat.  As soon as he reached the upstairs hallway he could hear voices and headed in that direction.

The door leading to Scott’s room stood wide open.  He stepped inside and his mouth dropped open as he took in the scene.  Sam was leaning over the bed where Scott lay, seemingly asleep.  Val dismissed that thought regretfully.  Scott couldn’t have slept through gunshots in such close proximity.  His eyes widened when he saw that Sam was wrestling with knots securing Scott’s wrists.  Why the hell would anyone have tied Scott up? To the right of the doorway Johnny was lying slumped in Teresa’s arms, struggling to breathe, his eyes fixed on Sam’s face and a look of desperation clouding his features.

A pathetic groaning noise coming from the far side of the bed attracted Val’s attention.  Jeff lay curled up on the floor, his hand pressed over a bullet wound in the upper right side of his chest.  Blood was seeping freely between his fingers and he was staring at it with an expression of horrified fascination.

“I’m bleeding to death,” he whimpered when he saw the sheriff watching him.

“Be quiet,” Sam snapped at him.  The material binding Scott fell away and Sam bent closer, fingers pressed hard against the young man’s throat as he sought some signs of life.

“Someone want to tell me what happened here?” Val spoke quietly so as not to distract Sam.

It was a surprise when Teresa answered, her voice tight with emotion.  “Sam and I found him,” she looked with disgust at Jeff, “with a pillow over Scott’s face.  I screamed and he backed off, only then he grabbed his gun and pointed it at us. He fired, but Johnny was faster.”

“Sam?” Johnny’s voice was shaking.

The doctor looked up with compassion and regret.  “I’m sorry, Johnny, I can’t find a pulse.”

Johnny shook his head in denial.  “He ain’t dead. He can’t be dead. Keep trying.”

The anguish in his friend’s voice almost made Val turn away.  Then he saw the pain disappear, replaced with a burning anger as Johnny turned his attention to Jeff.  Jeff must have seen it as well because he started to scramble backwards, eyes darting from side to side when Johnny’s hand closed over the handle of his Colt.

Val followed the direction of his gaze and saw Jeff’s gun lying under the small table by the window.  Even uninjured, Jeff wouldn’t have had a prayer of reaching it in time.  Johnny, on the other hand, now had firm hold of his gun.  He was struggling determinedly to his feet, aided by Teresa who had silent tears running down her cheeks.

Val took a step toward his friend.  “You don’t want to do this,” he cautioned.

Johnny’s gun swung in his direction.  “You’re wrong.”

“No, I ain’t.  Think, amigo.  You gun him down in cold blood and they’ll hang ya.  What’ll that do to Murdoch and Teresa, and everyone else who cares about you and Scott?”

The gun swung back to aim unwaveringly at Jeff.  Johnny’s finger tightened on the trigger and Jeff whimpered fearfully.  Val drew his own gun and pointed it at his closest friend.

“I can’t let you do it.  I ain’t gonna let you throw your life away for this worthless piece of scum.”

Johnny’s eyes, bright with tears he would never shed, begged for understanding.  “He killed Scott.  He tied him up and held a pillow over his face.”

“I know, buddy, and he’ll hang for it.  Please put the gun down.”

“I can’t.”  The words were no more than a soft whisper on the still air, yet they were enough to seal Jeff’s fate.

Val hesitated, torn between his duty and a deep understanding of what was driving Johnny.  Jeff was openly crying and begging for his life as Johnny turned cold blue eyes in his direction.

“You’re a pathetic, snivelling coward.  Scott was ten times the man you are.  I swore to protect him and I failed.  The least I can do for him is to send you to hell.  Take a good look around ‘cause this is the last sight you’re gonna see.”

“Johnny, I’m warning you.”  Val pulled back the hammer of his gun, the sound reverberating around the room.  “Don’t make me shoot you.”

Johnny’s finger tightened slowly and deliberately on the trigger. “Sorry, Val.”

*****

For an eternity the future of two young men rested on a knife edge.  Val prepared to do the unthinkable…to shoot his friend in order to save Johnny from himself.  Had the young man not been physically weakened, and overwhelmed with grief, he would never have considered the desperate course that he was now following.  Johnny’s hesitation to shoot gave the sheriff some hope.  Jeff continued to whimper fearfully as the gun remained fixed on him.  Val saw Johnny’s arm starting to tremble and the gun lowered, only to be jerked back up again. He could only see the young man’s profile and the determined set of the jaw as he kept his own gun trained on his friend.

He could feel the pain radiating in waves from Johnny and prayed that common sense rather than the need to seek empty vengeance would prevail.  “Johnny?  Murdoch’s gonna need you.”

Time hung suspended until Johnny finally lowered his head.  “Sorry, Brother,” he whispered, relaxing his grip on the trigger and dropping his right arm to his side.

As Val let out an explosive sigh Sam looked up and barked a command.

“Wait!”

“Doc?” Val queried, not taking his eyes off Johnny.

“I think…yes…he’s still breathing.  It’s very faint.  Val, get Johnny over here.  Johnny, I need you to talk to him, encourage him to wake up. Your voice could be the anchor he needs.”

Val glanced quickly at the bed and then back at Johnny.  Any color that there might have been in his friend’s face had disappeared as he teetered on the brink of collapse.  He hurried over to take the weight from Teresa, guiding the young man over to sit on a corner of the bed.

Johnny’s attention was firmly fixed on the unmoving form of his brother. “Por favor, hermano, abrase los oyos.” (Please, brother, open your eyes).  “Come on, Scott, it’s time to wake up.”

Val kept tight hold of Johnny, feeling the tremors running through his friend’s body from stress and illness.  Apart from Jeff, who was still cowering in a corner, everyone was now looking at Scott, although he was still showing no signs of waking.

“You can’t give in now,” Johnny pleaded.  “You can’t let the bastard win.”  His voice was strained and growing weaker.  “Por favor, Scott.  Por favor.”

Sam pressed his stethoscope to Scott’s chest.  “I think it’s working.  Try again, Johnny. His breathing is getting stronger and his heart rate has increased.”

“You’re doing good, Brother.” Johnny offered the encouragement before looking up as Teresa walked over to place a gentle hand on his shoulder.  His smile, tinged with hope, was a pale imitation of the one that usually lit up his face.

Johnny kept talking, even as his voice grew steadily weaker and weaker.  Every few minutes he would pause to let Sam check Scott’s breathing and pulse, but still there was no sign of movement.  Finally, Johnny couldn’t force any more words out and he bowed his head, shoulders slumped in despair.

Val looked questioningly at the doctor and Sam shook his head.  “Although there’s been an improvement he may still not wake up.  He was very weak before the attack and we don’t know how long he was deprived of air.” Jenkins turned his attention to Johnny.  “You’ve done all you can, son.  Now, we just need to wait.”

Teresa sat down next to Johnny and Val kept his arm around his young friend. Johnny wouldn’t meet their gaze as he seemed to drift halfway between sleep and wakefulness.  It was obvious that he had used up all his strength to get this far and had nothing more to give. As the time passed Val found himself supporting more and more of Johnny’s weight, fearful that his friend was slipping back into a state of unconsciousness.

Sam left Scott’s side to check on Jeff, who was snivelling miserably.  The bleeding had slowed to a trickle and Sam thrust a towel into Jeff’s hand.  “Press that against the wound, and pray that Scott makes it, because you’re going to live to stand trial and they’ll hang you for sure if he dies.”

For an endless period of time, the only sound in the room was the ticking of the clock and Jeff’s occasional sobs and moans.  Then there was a slight movement of Scott’s head and a faint cough.   Blond eyelashes parted slowly and Scott gasped, fighting for breath.

“It’s alright, Scott.  Just try to breathe normally.” Sam laid a steadying hand on his patient’s shoulder as Johnny looked up, eyes blazing with renewed hope.

Scott’s unfocused gaze settled on Johnny and stayed there.  It took several attempts before he could form any words. “You…okay?” he asked weakly.

“Si.”  Johnny sagged against Val and closed his eyes.

“You both need to rest now. Back to bed,” Sam ordered Johnny kindly, before hardening his tone.  “I have another patient to take care of.”

“Not leaving…”  Johnny opened his eyes again and lay down wearily on the edge of his brother’s bed.  “Be fine here,” he mumbled, not even noticing as his gun clattered to the floor.

“I can ask some of the men to set up another bed in here,” Teresa offered, hurrying from the room before anyone could argue.

Scott had already drifted back to sleep, the rise and fall of his chest more noticeable now and steadier.

Val picked up Johnny’s Colt and stuck it in his waistband before collecting Jeff’s gun from its resting place under the table.  “Don’t reckon either of them’ll be going anywhere for a while.  We’d best see to this piece of trash.”  He hauled Jeff to his feet.  “Looks like you’re gonna have to dig the bullet out, Doc.  Let’s get him over to the guard house.  He don’t deserve the comfort of a proper bed.”  He kept a tight grip on his prisoner as Jeff sagged bonelessly against him, trembling uncontrollably.

Sam nodded as he gently placed a blanket over Johnny.  “I can treat him perfectly well out there.  Get him out of here and I’ll be over shortly. On your way, could you see if someone could come and sit with these two?  I don’t want to leave them unattended.”

“Sure, Doc.  Alright Dane, let’s go.”  He pulled the unresisting young man out of the room and away from the scene of a barely averted tragedy.

*****

Murdoch was exhausted as he pushed his equally weary mount to cover the last mile of the journey home.  He had left Marcy in town, stunned and speechless.  He had no idea what she would do, but he did know that in the final moment before he left her he had been tempted to strike her.  The thought sickened him.  He had never raised his hand to a woman before and had despised those men who thought it was acceptable.  He was almost out of his mind with worry, and somewhere during the last few days he had lost his principles.

He finally arrived at the hacienda to find Val pacing restlessly between the house and the corral.  The sheriff hurried to meet him.

“Murdoch, glad you’re back.”

“Jeff…?”

“He tried to kill Scott.  Johnny shot him.  I’ve put him in the guardhouse and Sam’s operating now to remove the bullet.”

Murdoch’s breath caught in his throat. “Is Scott alright?”

“Sam reckons he will be.  The cowardly little bastard tied him up and tried to smother him.  Fortunately, Teresa and Sam walked in on him and managed to raise the alarm.”

The depth of Jeff’s viciousness shocked Murdoch to the core. “And Johnny?”

“Teresa’s had a bed set up in Scott’s room.  Johnny’s fast asleep in there.  He hung on until he knew Scott was gonna make it and no one had the heart to make him go back to his own room.”

“How badly is Jeff hurt?” Murdoch asked coldly.

“He’ll recover to face a jury.  We may not be able to prove that he was behind those earlier murder attempts, but Teresa and Sam were witnesses to this one and they won’t hesitate to testify.  There’s a good chance he’ll swing, but even if he doesn’t, I reckon the judge’ll throw away the key for good this time.”

Murdoch could feel himself shaking with tiredness. “I need to check on my boys.”

“Do you know where Mrs. Lancer is?” Val looked embarrassed.  “Sam told me about the laudanum.  I’ll need to speak to Johnny before I can do anything about that, but it looks like an attempted murder charge.”

“I left her in town.” Murdoch’s tone was frigid.  “If she comes back here, can you put her under house arrest until Johnny is ready to press charges?”

“I’ll make some arrangement.  She’ll probably want to look after that worthless piece of…” Val’s jaw tightened as he ground to a halt.

Murdoch reached over and squeezed the sheriff’s shoulder understandingly.  “I know how hard this is for you and I appreciate all your efforts.  I’ll be in Scott’s room if anyone needs me.”

He climbed the stairs quickly, eager to see for himself that his sons were safe.  Standing in the doorway, he took in the scene before him.  Scott was lying on his back, his left arm immobilized in a sling and his right arm flung across the bed.  His head was turned slightly toward the window and the bed in which his brother lay.

Johnny’s dark head was buried in a pile of pillows.  The blankets were tangled around his legs and he had his right hand resting under his cheek.  The heavy splint on his broken wrist looked awkward, but Murdoch comforted himself with the knowledge that it would do its job.

Until his sons were stronger, they couldn’t be certain that no permanent damage had been done and he found himself resenting Val’s words.  How could there be any doubt about the outcome? Jeff deserved to hang for all the pain he had caused.  Johnny had been right all along.  He had brought a viper into the house and that decision had nearly cost him both his sons.  He had been blinded by his love for Marcy and had believed that Jeff would respond to the faith shown to him.  In the event, that faith had proved to be almost fatally misplaced.

He couldn’t understand now why he’d been so convinced that Jeff could turn his life around.  Perhaps, he had been trying to compensate for his past failings as a father.  The result was that he had failed again.  Jeff was a lost cause, and in trying to save him, the relationship with his own sons had been damaged.  They had spent two years getting to the point where they were comfortable with each other, and he had thrown that away for a woman from his past.

“Murdoch.”

He brought his thoughts back to the present. “Teresa, darling, how are you?” He opened his arms to his ward and she rested her head on his chest.

“I’m fine.  You should rest.”

He tightened his grip, overwhelmed with relief. “I’m proud of you. Everything you’ve done…”

“Come and sit down.  Can I get you anything?”  Teresa took his hand and tugged him toward a chair.

The thought of eating made him feel ill as his unsettled emotions churned within him. “Some coffee will do fine.”

“Put a shot of whiskey in it,” Sam advised as he walked in.  “I think we could do with a little fortification.”

Teresa smiled at both men before leaving and closing the door quietly behind her.  Murdoch walked over to stare down at Scott.  His eldest son was breathing normally and sleeping peacefully.  Murdoch reached down and brushed a stray lock of blond hair from Scott’s eyes.

He turned his attention to his youngest.  Johnny was mumbling under his breath as he shifted position.  Murdoch ruffled his dark hair. “Thank you, Son.”  He positioned the chair between the two beds, sat down and heaved a sigh of relief.  Watching Sam check on both his patients, he noted the exhaustion on the doctor’s face.  “How’s Jeff?”

“The wound looks worse than it is.  He passed out while I was removing the bullet.  Before that he was whining like a child.  Val should be able to move him to the jail tomorrow.  I don’t imagine you want him here any longer than necessary.”

“I don’t understand him.” Murdoch looked helplessly at his friend.

“Some people are just born rotten.  There’s nothing you can do for them.  You gave Jeff a second chance and he threw it away.  Be grateful for your sons, Murdoch.  They are fine young men.”

“I give thanks for them every day, and I can only hope that they’ll forgive me for bringing that woman and her son into our house.”

***** 

After Murdoch had abandoned her in town Marcy stood paralyzed with fear and indecision.  If Jeff had gone back to the ranch it could only have been for one reason.  She had no real option; she had never yet turned her back on her son.  Whatever Jeff had done she would stand by him…if he was still alive.  Her marriage and her life, however, were over.  Johnny would press changes and she would go to jail.  Murdoch wouldn’t help her, and how could she blame him?  She had become ensnared in Jeff’s lies and deceit with the result being that she had done something terrible and unforgivable.  Now she would pay whatever price was demanded of her.

The journey back to the ranch passed in a blur.  As she brought the team to a halt outside the house, she became aware of the hateful stares of the vaqueros and colored guiltily.  One of the men walked right up to her and spat on the ground.

“Punta.”

Cringing back fearfully she looked round for assistance. Teresa was standing by the front door staring at her.  Gone was the happy laughing girl who had been thrilled to be her bridesmaid.  In her place was a hard and unyielding young woman.

Teresa turned to the man who had just issued the insult.  “Pedro, fetch Sheriff Crawford, por favor.”

“Si, senorita.” Pedro hurried off in the direction of the guard house.

“He’s right,” Teresa said.  “You are a bitch.  You were welcomed into this family and have caused nothing but hurt.”

Marcy climbed wearily out of the buggy and made her way over to Teresa. “I know you have every reason to hate me, but please, can you tell me if Jeff’s here?”

“Don’t you want to know how Scott is?  Or Johnny?”

“Please,” Marcy begged, holding back her tears with an effort.

“Jeff came here to kill Scott.  He almost succeeded.  He’s under arrest in the guard house.  Sam had to remove a bullet.” Teresa smiled coldly.  “Johnny wasn’t in a very forgiving mood.”

“How badly is he hurt?” She felt her stomach lurch wildly and grasped blindly for support against one of the pillars.

“Sam says he’ll recover.  Scott and Johnny should recover as well, no thanks to you or your son.”

“Mrs. Lancer?”

Marcy spun round at the sound of Val’s voice.  The sheriff regarded her grimly.  “I’ll have to ask you to go to your room and stay there.”

“Am I under arrest?”  The words emerged bitterly as she fumed inwardly against the unfairness of her position.  She had only done what any loving mother would do to protect her child, yet she was being judged harshly by those who couldn’t possibly understand.

“That depends, ma’am.  Is there something you want to tell me?”

Despite her resolution to face up to the consequences of her actions, she couldn’t bring herself to confess in front of a hostile audience.  “No, Sheriff.”

“Then I’d rather call it protective custody.  I’m not sure I can guarantee your safety if you leave the house.  Once I’ve spoken with Johnny there might be formal charges.”

Marcy straightened her shoulders. “I’d like to see my son.”

Val nodded.  “I’ll escort you back to the house when you’re done.”

“Mr. Lancer has had your things moved to one of the guest rooms,” Teresa informed her with undisguised satisfaction.

And with that final proof that her husband had washed his hands of her, she bowed her head and followed the sheriff.

*****

Johnny had finally been persuaded to return to his own room.  Both he and Scott had slept for the best part of twenty-four hours following Jeff’s arrest.  Scott still slept for hours at a stretch, thanks to his head wound, although Johnny had been reassured that his brother’s periods of wakefulness were increasing.

For the first time in days Johnny felt clear headed.  He had already tried unsuccessfully to argue his way out of bed.  His pleading and cajoling had only succeeded in wringing a promise of a decent meal out of his exasperated father.

He sat up in bed, eagerly anticipating introducing his stomach to something other than chicken broth.  While he waited, he plotted his strategy for inveigling permission to visit Scott.  It had been more than a day since he had seen his brother and he wanted to see evidence of Scott’s improvement for himself. When the door opened, he smelled the tempting aroma of food and grinned as his father carried the heavily laden tray into the room.

Soon he was devouring steak pie, potatoes and carrots, washed down with a large glass of milk.  It was awkward eating one handed, but Murdoch had carefully cut everything up into manageable pieces.  Conversation was scant as Johnny demolished his meal.  Having cleared his plate he leaned back with a contented sigh.  “That was the best meal I’ve ever had.”

Murdoch laughed.  “I can see why it would seem that way.”

Johnny looked affectionately at his father.  “How’re you doin’, Murdoch?”

“So long as I have you and Scott, I’ll be fine.”

“Sam told me you’d been doing too much.  You’ve gotta take care of yourself.”

Murdoch grimaced. “Sam talks too much.  My chest is fine, and now that you two are on the mend, I’ll take it easier.”

“Promeso?”

“Si, mi hijo, prometo.”

Johnny’s broad grin turned into a yawn.  “If I take a nap now, can I go and visit with Scott when I wake up?”  He turned his best pleading expression on his father.

“We’ll see.  Maybe for ten minutes.” Murdoch cleared away the dishes and helped Johnny to slide down into a more comfortable position.  “Val said he might come by later.  He needs to know what to do about…about Marcy.”

Johnny searched his father’s face.  The weight of his wife’s betrayal was crushing him.  Teresa had told him that Marcy had moved into the hotel in town in order to be closer to Jeff who was now languishing in Val’s jail.  He couldn’t imagine that anyone had felt any urge to talk her into staying at Lancer, and Teresa had said there had been a sense of relief when she had decided to accompany Val and her son. His friend had spent five minutes with him before leaving, and appeared willing to accept Marcy’s word that she wouldn’t try to leave town.  Johnny could imagine that the gossip mongers were having a fine old time speculating as to what had been going on.

“Val don’t need to do anything about her.  I ain’t pressing charges.”

There was a stunned silence from his father, so Johnny continued.  “The way I see it, Murdoch, she’s lost everything.  I’ve thought about it a lot when I ain’t been sleeping, and I don’t think she set out to kill me.”

“Maybe not, but she must have known there was a risk.”

“Do you want to see her go to prison?”

“It’s what she deserves.  She was also planning to help Jeff escape, even though she must have known he’d tried to kill both you and Scott.”

“Unless Scott remembers who shot him there ain’t any proof Jeff was to blame.  Our suspicions won’t be enough for a jury to convict. Val can charge her with tryin’ to help Jeff if he wants, though I reckon it won’t be easy to prove she knew what he’d done.  I’ve made up my mind.  Just one thing, though, I ain’t doing it for her.”

“I know, Son.  Get some rest.”

Johnny watched his father leave the room.  His whole posture told of disappointment and weariness and, not for the first time, Johnny cursed the chance meeting with Marcy in San Francisco that had led them to this moment.

*****

Scott opened his eyes, before slowly, and carefully, pushing himself into a reclining position propped up with pillows.  The pain in his shoulder had subsided to a throbbing ache, although any sudden movement was accompanied by a sharp stab of agony.  His ever present headache was more manageable than it had been, and his superficial injuries were well on their way to being healed.  He still had no memory of being shot and only a hazy recollection of what had happened more recently when Jeff had tried to suffocate him.  Just thinking about it broke him out in a cold sweat and left his heart beating wildly.  He had overheard snippets of conversations while he had been drifting on the verge of consciousness.  Now, he was awake and wanted some proper answers to his questions.

 

Reaching over to the nightstand, he closed his right hand firmly around a glass of water.  The tremors in his weakened muscles caused the liquid to dance around wildly and slop over the sides, dripping down onto the covers.  He gritted his teeth and concentrated on bringing the glass to his lips.  As he was contemplating the task of returning the glass to the bedside table he heard the door open.

“Here, let me help you.”

On hearing his father’s voice, his headache increased as he tensed up. “I can manage,” he replied briskly and without looking up.

Murdoch reached the bed and took the glass from Scott’s unsteady grip, setting it down as he said, “I’ve brought you a visitor.”

Scott raised his head in annoyance and found himself face to face with his brother.  Johnny wore a delighted grin and Scott couldn’t control the answering smile that lit up his face.  “I’ve missed you, Brother.”

“Yeah, well they wouldn’t let me out of bed.  I had to threaten to shoot them.”  Johnny limped over to the bed and sat down.  “How’re you feeling?”

“Ready for some answers,” Scott stated firmly.

“What do you want to know?”  Murdoch asked as he settled in a chair.

Scott felt as if his emotions were going to smother him as surely as Jeff had done.  His jaw muscles clenched as he forced the words past the tightness in his throat.  “I’d like to know, Sir, why you appear to be showing no remorse for giving Johnny that overdose.  And perhaps you can tell me where you were when Jeff tried to kill me?”

Despite all his attention being concentrated on his father he still heard Johnny’s gasp.  Murdoch hadn’t moved, although an expression of shock had settled over his features.  “Well?” Scott demanded impatiently.

“Hold on, Scott.  Murdoch wasn’t to blame for that laudanum.”

“Not intentionally,” Scott conceded.  “But that doesn’t change the fact that he almost killed you.”

“You’re wrong.” Johnny spoke with such conviction that Scott tore his eyes away from his father to look at his younger brother.

“No, he isn’t.” Murdoch’s voice was strained.  “I had no right to give you laudanum against your wishes, and I shouldn’t have trusted Marcy…”

“What’s Marcy got to do with it?” Scott’s confusion only served to increase his animosity.  His head was pounding fiercely again as he tried to hold on to his failing strength.

Once again, the answer came from Johnny.  “It was Marcy that added the extra laudanum to the water.  I saw her.”

“But…I heard her tell Teresa what happened.  She said you were very sick because Murdoch had over medicated you.”  He looked from Johnny to Murdoch.  Johnny’s expression was one of pure loathing, while Murdoch looked like a man struck down with guilt.

“Did that bruja know you were awake?” Johnny asked harshly.

“Yes.  Teresa had just finished helping me to take a drink.  Why?”

A low growl emanated from his brother’s lips. “Damn it, Murdoch, she did it on purpose.” Johnny turned his furious gaze on his father. “She knew how Scott would react!”

Confused, Scott narrowed his eyes and stared at his brother.  “What?”

“Sam asked her to tell Teresa that Johnny was dangerously ill,” Murdoch explained quietly.  “But he specifically told her not to tell you as he was afraid you would try to get out of bed.”

“Which is exactly what you did, Boston,” Johnny interjected.  “It’s just a miracle you didn’t injure yourself further.”

Unable to pin down the memory, Scott shook his head, wincing at the increased pain. “I don’t…It’s hard to remember.  I…I’m sorry.”

“You have nothing to be sorry for, Scott.” Murdoch laid a gentle hand on his son’s forehead.  “You feel a little warm.  You should rest now and we’ll talk some more when you’re stronger.  I have a lot to explain to both of you.”

Scott’s senses were reeling as exhaustion finally overtook him.  He nodded weakly, seeing identical looks of concern on the faces of his father and brother.  Closing his eyes, he surrendered himself to oblivion.

*****

The following morning Murdoch rode alone into Green River.  He had slept badly, unable to rid his mind of Scott’s plaintive question. <Where were you when Jeff tried to kill me?> When he’d ordered the guards posted and originally confronted Marcy in town that fateful day, he had foolishly allowed himself to believe that the danger was over.  It hadn’t, for a second, occurred to him that Jeff would be so desperate as to return to the ranch to finish the job.  Even though he had relied on others and taken what he thought, were the necessary precautions, how could that excuse his failure to be there and protect his own son?

Neither Johnny nor Teresa had spoken of the events of that day and he hadn’t pressed them.  He had, however, noticed a change in Teresa.  What she had witnessed had robbed her of her trusting innocence. Feeling deeply concerned, he had demanded a full accounting from Sam during his last visit.

His anger at hearing how Jeff had cold-bloodedly restrained Scott before trying to snuff out his son’s life, had only been surpassed by his horror at learning that Johnny had come within an inch of executing Jeff, believing that Scott was dead.  A small, dark and unacknowledged corner of his mind regretted that Johnny hadn’t pulled the trigger.

He rode along the main street toward the jail, ignoring the interested stares of the townsfolk.  They would be whispering behind their hands, taking a perverse interest in the misfortunes of others.  He dismounted stiffly and regarded the closed door leading to the sheriff’s office.  His mission gave him no pleasure.  Despite everything, Johnny remained adamant that he was not going to press charges against Marcy.  Their argument on that subject after leaving Scott’s room the previous day had been short and heated.  Johnny had ended the discussion by voluntarily returning to bed and announcing that he was tired.

A message had been sent to Val, telling him not to bother coming out to the ranch that day.  Now, he was in town to convey Johnny’s decision and to confront the man who had almost robbed him of both of his sons.  Val had kept him away from Jeff while he was being held in the guardhouse.  The sheriff had made no pretense as to his reasons.  Crawford was afraid that he wouldn’t be able to control himself.  Although resenting the restriction, he had also accepted that Val’s concern was valid.

On the journey into town he had tried to will himself to be calm, and had failed miserably.  Now, his hands clenched into fists as he felt the anger and hatred roaring through his body.  He no longer felt like a civilized man. His primitive urge to protect his sons and to exact retribution swept away his humanity.  He could picture himself wrapping his large hands around Jeff’s throat and squeezing the life out of him.  Staggering backwards, his breathing harsh, he realized what he was on the verge of becoming.

He entered the jail, his eyes going immediately to the cell containing his step-son.  Jeff was sitting hunched over on the cot.  The boy looked up listlessly and then his gaze slid away.  Murdoch’s long strides ate up the distance to the bars and he raised both hands to grip the cold metal.  “Why?” he asked furiously.  “What did my sons ever do to deserve your hatred?”

“Mr. Lancer.” Val’s voice came from behind him.  “You shouldn’t be talkin’ to the prisoner. His ma’s hired him a lawyer.”

Murdoch gave a bitter laugh.  “No doubt Lancer’s paying for him.”  With a final disgusted look at Jeff’s downcast head, he turned away.  “I’d like a word with you, Sheriff.”

“Let’s step outside then,” Val suggested, giving his prisoner a hard look. “Get away from the smell.”

Murdoch watched the sheriff’s expression darken as he explained Johnny’s decision.  “I don’t like it any more than you do, but he won’t be dissuaded,” he concluded.

“Sometimes that boy can be a damn fool.  There’s no evidence to link Jeff to the earlier murder attempts, so I can’t charge his mother with trying to aid a fugitive to escape.  Jeff won’t see her, you know?  Last time she came over he told her it was all her fault he was in jail.  He’s shown no remorse at all for what he’s done and that ain’t gonna go down well with a judge and jury.”

“Have you any idea when the trial will be?”

“He’ll be fit enough to enter his plea in a week or so.  After that it depends.  Unless he pleads guilty, we’ll have to call witnesses and I’m guessing it’s gonna be some time before the boys are ready to testify.”

“How could he possibly plead anything other than guilty?” Murdoch was stunned by the suggestion.

“His lawyer seems to think he might be able to persuade a jury that Jeff ain’t right in the head.  I don’t know what Jeff’s been telling him, but I have the feeling he’s gonna try and wriggle out of the charges.”

“That’s preposterous,” Murdoch burst out.  “He knew exactly what he was doing.”

“Calm down, Murdoch. You’re just gonna have to let the law take its course.”

*****

Murdoch was still trying to come to terms with Val’s news when he reached the hotel.  The desk clerk flushed with embarrassment when the rancher demanded to know which room his wife was staying in.  He took the stairs two at a time and hammered on the door.

“Who is it?”

Murdoch heard the fear in Marcy’s voice.  For a moment he felt pity for her, before hardening his heart against the love he had once felt for this woman. “Murdoch,” he responded sharply.

He heard the key turning in the lock and the door was opened a fraction.  “What do you want?”

“We have things to discuss.  I suggest you let me in, unless you want the whole town to know our business.”

The door opened fully and he entered the room, one of the smaller and cheaper rooms with the drapes pulled across the windows.  He wondered how much the lawyer was costing, before remembering that Marcy had money of her own from the sale of her house.  The proceeds of that sale had been deposited in a bank in Sacramento, intended as a legacy for Jeff.

“Why are you here?”

“I’ve just been speaking to the sheriff.  He tells me Jeff is intending to contest the charges.”

“So I believe.” Marcy’s voice quivered.  “He won’t see me.”

“He’ll be convicted,” Murdoch stated bluntly.  “And so will you, if Johnny presses charges.”

“If?” She looked at him warily.

“I have a proposition for you,” Murdoch told her.  He felt no guilt about what he was going to do.  He didn’t agree with Johnny’s decision, but could do nothing to change it.  He could, however, use the threat of prosecution to safeguard his sons’ inheritance.  “I intend to divorce you.  There are various grounds I could use.  The kindest, although God knows you don’t deserve the consideration, is your desertion.  If you agree not to contest the divorce and sign a document renouncing any claim to Lancer, Johnny will agree not to bring charges.”

“Why?  I thought after all that happened that he, and you, would be glad to see me behind bars.”

“That’s the difference between our sons.  I’m sure if the roles were reversed that Jeff would take great pleasure in sending me to jail.  Fortunately for you, my sons are decent young men who don’t like to see people suffer.  Do we have an agreement?”

“Yes.  I’ll sign anything you want.  I’m grateful…”

“Save your gratitude,” Murdoch snapped.  “No-one is doing this for your benefit.  If it were my decision alone, believe me when I tell you I’d lose no sleep over sending you to prison for the rest of your life.”

*****

Johnny dozed contentedly, listening to the sounds drifting in through his open window.  He could hear Jelly’s querulous tone as he delivered instructions to a hapless ranch hand who had incurred the old man’s wrath.  A stallion in the corral signalled his interest in one of the mares.  Teresa’s voice could be heard as she rattled off a list of supplies required from town.  He smiled to himself.  Teresa had more than redeemed herself in his eyes.  She had supported him without flinching, while he had wrestled with the urge to kill Jeff.  The thought of Jeff caused his contentment to evaporate.  While accepting that he had done the right thing in allowing the little worm to live, part of him still felt that he had let his brother down.

He opened one eye and looked warily around the room.  Yep, he was definitely alone.  It took him an annoyingly long time to get dressed.  Having fumbled, one handed, to fasten the buttons on his trousers he discovered that he couldn’t get the splint on his left arm through the sleeve of his shirt. He settled for draping the garment over his shoulders.  He was pleased to find that his leg was healing, leaving him with only a slight limp.  Having crossed the room, he pulled the door open and peered out into the hallway.  A small smile tugged at his lips as he acknowledged the absurdity of creeping around in his own house.  However, he knew that if he was caught out of bed someone would lecture him, and he didn’t want anything to spoil his good mood.

As soon as he had satisfied himself that the coast was clear he headed for Scott’s room.  He had been disturbed by Scott’s aggressive reaction to their father the previous day and wanted a private chat with his brother.  He had resolved his own issues with Murdoch’s perceived lack of faith in his instincts, and cared too much about his father to allow past mistakes to fester.  Scott, on the other hand, appeared to be laboring under the misunderstanding that everything that had happened had been Murdoch’s fault.  He was determined to set the record straight before their father returned. When he reached Scott’s bed he found a pair of blue-grey eyes watching him from beneath tousled blond hair.

“Bored?” Scott enquired as he pushed himself into a sitting position.

“Ready to climb the walls,” Johnny replied with a broad grin.  “Thought I’d sneak out while no-one’s around.  How are you feeling, Boston?”

Scott’s hand strayed to the bandage around his head.  “Lucky to be alive.” His hand dropped back to his side.  “I wish I could remember something…anything, but it’s all a blur. What happened, Johnny?”

The version of events was highly edited and Johnny could see that his brother wasn’t entirely convinced that he was being told the whole truth.  Right now, there were some things Johnny wasn’t prepared to share with anyone.  There was a dark place in his soul which would have rejoiced at Jeff’s death and he wasn’t ready to confront that.

“Murdoch’s taking it hard.”

Scott’s expression darkened and Johnny could feel the tension radiating out from his sibling.  “Yes.”

There was no warmth in his brother’s reply and Johnny frowned at the icy barrier that had suddenly sprung up between them. Not ready to lay the blame in his father’s lap, Johnny took a cautious breath. He chose his words carefully, so as not to further antagonize his brother. “He didn’t mean for any of this to happen, you know. He’s gonna need our support.”

Johnny watched Scott mull over his words.  His brother’s internal struggle was only too obvious as a host of emotions chased one another across the blond’s face. Finally, came the hesitant response, “I know. Only…”

“Only you feel I let you both down.”  Murdoch’s voice carried clearly from the doorway.  “You’re right and I’m sorry.”

Johnny turned slowly to look at his father.  An immediate denial sprang to his lips only for Scott’s deep voice to intrude.

“Yes, Sir, you did.”

Shock, disappointment, acceptance…Johnny wasn’t sure which of those emotions his father was feeling more prominently as Murdoch nodded sadly.  He returned his attention to his brother, relieved to find a lack of animosity, but realizing, with regret, that Scott still harbored feelings of betrayal.

“Yesterday I asked you where you were when Jeff tried to kill me,” Scott said coolly.  “Now I think that was the wrong question.  What I want to know is how you could have let yourself be blinded to Jeff’s nature?”

“I thought he could change.”

“That’s a little inadequate, don’t you think?” Scott’s tone remained even, although his breathing had noticeably quickened. “We tried to warn you about Jeff, only you wouldn’t listen.  You were more willing to believe him, to jump to conclusions about Johnny.”

Concerned by Scott’s growing agitation, Johnny shifted position so that he was sitting shoulder to shoulder with his brother.  He allowed the very slightest contact and felt Scott slowly relaxing. Meeting his father’s eyes Johnny said, “I never believed he could change. But I never expected him to go to these lengths to get rid of us either.”

“You brought him into our house,” Scott accused.  “I’ve tried, Murdoch, but I can’t get past that.  I don’t remember what was said…that day in my room.  I do remember Jeff holding a gun to my head, finding my hands had been tied, the feel and smell of the cloth he shoved in my mouth.  The struggle to breathe…I’ve never felt so helpless before, not even…”

“Take it easy, Boston.” Johnny placed a soothing hand on his brother’s arm.

Scott nodded and took a shaky breath before he continued.  “Not even when I was in Libby.” He looked up at his father, and Johnny saw the tortured gaze darken once more when his brother all but whispered, “I believed I was going to die.”

“Scott please…how can I help you?”  Murdoch asked contritely.  “I realize now I made mistakes, bad mistakes.  Tell me how to make it right.”

Scott lowered his eyes.  “I don’t know. I just don’t know.”

*****

Murdoch had tried to sleep.  He’d tossed and turned restlessly, no closer to finding a way to reach Scott and bridge the gap between him and his oldest son.  His thoughts kept coming back to the discussion with his sons only a few hours before, and the desolation he had heard in Scott’s voice.  Despite his request to speak with Scott privately, Johnny had refused to leave his brother.  It had hurt that Scott had been equally determined to have Johnny stay, to act as a buffer between them.  The three of them had talked at length about what happened, until Scott had pleaded tiredness and asked to be left alone.

In the end it hadn’t only been Scott who had welcomed Johnny’s presence.  His younger son had displayed a startling maturity, trying to remain neutral while offering his support quietly and unobtrusively.  He had been invaluable in soothing Scott’s raw nerves and deserved the credit for ensuring that the discussion had lasted as long as it had.  Yet, in the end, the still gap remained and he now felt further from his older son than when this whole ordeal began.

Finally, in frustration, he threw off the covers, lit the lamp and reached for his clothes.  His door opened with a slight creak and he looked anxiously down the hallway.  A thin sliver of light spilled from under Scott’s door and he hesitated, unsure if his presence would be welcomed if his older boy were awake.  With a heavy sigh he turned in the other direction and went down the stairs.

He lit a couple of the lamps and poured himself a glass of brandy.  Turning the glass round and round in his hands without drinking he mentally surveyed the ruin of his family.  A slight noise from the doorway startled him.

“Scott.  What are you doing out of bed?” He hurried over to provide a supportive hand to his son, who was looking none too steady.

“Couldn’t sleep and I needed to get out of that room.” Scott didn’t resist the assistance and allowed himself to be guided over to one of the sofas.

“Can I get you anything?”  Murdoch sat down opposite his son, noting the unnatural pallor and the tightness around Scott’s mouth and eyes.

“No, thank you.  I was hoping we could talk.”  Scott shifted uncomfortably and adjusted the sling supporting his left arm. Murdoch leaned over and placed a cushion on Scott’s lap, the younger man resting his sore arm on it with a faint sigh.

Cautiously hopeful, Murdoch replied, “Of course,” He waited patiently for his son to take a deep breath, no doubt gathering his thoughts, as he settled himself more comfortably.

“When I was growing up,” Scott began, “I didn’t think much about what it would be like to have a father.  Grandfather took good care of me, kept me safe.  Then the war came and I enlisted,” he paused, sighing, “and my nice safe life came to an end.” Scott fidgeted with the fabric of the sling, his gaze darkening from memories and Murdoch leaned forward as his son’s voice grew quieter.  “I survived the war,” Scott continued softly, “being captured and locked away for a year.  I thought nothing that bad could ever happen again, only it did…here in my own home, and it shook me.”

Scott’s eyes lowered, but Murdoch sat quietly and listened, sensing that his son wasn’t looking for a response from him.

“You see,” Scott said, raising his gaze to look straight at Murdoch. “I’d come to realize what having a father meant and I felt you had let me down.  But, after our talk earlier and listening to Johnny, I realized that wasn’t fair.  I’m an adult, not a child who needs his father to watch over him…”

“Scott,” Murdoch interrupted, only to be silenced by his son’s raised right hand.

“Let me finish, Murdoch,” Scott urged intently.  He shifted once more, his face skewing in pain, and Murdoch reached forward to help him adjust the cushion beneath his arm.  Scott nodded his thanks and Murdoch eased back into his chair as his son continued. “You fell in love with a woman and wanted her to be your wife.  That was your right and I was happy for you.  It wasn’t your fault that her son turned out the way he did.”

He paused once more to catch his breath, his skin now glistening with a fine sheen of perspiration.  Murdoch considered calling an end to this discussion, so he could urge Scott back to bed in order to get some rest.  His son, on the other hand, was equally determined to finish, saying, “Johnny and I were both wary of him, yet we didn’t see this coming.  It wasn’t right of me to blame you and I’m sorry.”

Murdoch felt as if a weight had been lifted off his shoulders, but he wasn’t yet ready to throw aside the mantle of guilt. “You had every right to blame me.  I should have listened to you and your brother.”

“And what would you have done?” Scott asked sincerely. “Jeff needed someplace to go when he was let out on parole.  He was only released on the understanding that his mother would be answerable for his behaviour. It’s done, Murdoch.  It’s in the past.  Johnny told me that he isn’t pressing charges against Marcy and I’m glad.  You’ve suffered enough through her betrayal and I want you to know that you have my support with whatever you decide to do.”

“Thank you, Son,” Murdoch replied with a relieved smile. “I’m afraid Johnny might not approve, but I used his decision to make a deal with her to safeguard Lancer.  There will be a divorce and she will retract any claim she might have on the ranch or its assets.”

“I’m sorry it didn’t work out between the two of you.”

Murdoch’s smile faded. “So am I.  I had been in love with her for a long time.  It’s a shame that the woman I fell in love with no longer existed.” He stood, reaching down to help his son to his feet. “Now, I think it would be a good idea if you were to go back to bed.  I don’t think either of us wants to fall foul of our good doctor.”

“I’d be grateful if you could help me back up the stairs.  My legs aren’t quite as steady as I thought.”

Murdoch wrapped his arm around his son’s slender waist and felt Scott lean into his strength.  And that trusting gesture alone told him louder than a thousand words that he had been forgiven.

*****

As the weeks passed, and the brothers began to recover their strength, Murdoch began to feel as if he was sitting on top of a volcano which was about to erupt.  The injuries to shoulder and wrist respectively, ensured that neither of his sons could ride or return to any form of manual work.  Johnny was the first to start chafing against the restrictions, followed more slowly by Scott, who had been battling the after-effects of his head wound.  Sam and Val had both visited regularly, keeping the family up-dated with events in Green River.

Jeff had made an uneventful recovery from his wound and had appeared in front of Judge Bates to enter a ‘not guilty’ plea to the charge of attempted murder.  He was still refusing to see his mother, who had temporarily returned to Sacramento.  Before leaving Green River she had signed the legal documents waiving any claim to the Lancer assets.  Murdoch hadn’t discussed that meeting in any detail with his sons, although he had appreciated their considerate behavior upon his return home.  The pain of her betrayal would take a long time to ease.

Johnny, on being informed of the deal struck with Marcy, had shrugged his shoulders and said he was glad to be rid of her. Murdoch wished that he felt the same way.  He had spent years regretting the loss of the woman who had made him forget, however fleetingly, Maria’s desertion and Johnny’s disappearance.  His wedding day had been one of the happiest days of his life, only for that happiness to come crashing down around him such a short while later.  He could have forgiven her for standing by her son, however undeserving the boy might be of such loyalty.  Forgiveness was never on the table once she took direct action to hurt his sons. In the lonely hours of the night, he wondered how he could have misjudged her so badly.  She had told him that she loved him, and he had believed her.  Now, he wasn’t so sure.

Entering the house, following a meeting with his Segundo, he heard fractious voices and bit back a smile.  His sons, bored to distraction, were squabbling again like a pair of children.   If they were lucky, Sam would come by tomorrow to remove Johnny’s splint and assess Scott’s shoulder.  He worried about Scott.  Sam had assured them that Johnny’s broken wrist was healing cleanly.  He had been far more reticent about Scott’s injury and Murdoch had seen for himself the pain and frustration on his eldest son’s face as he tried to move his arm.  The sad truth was that Scott had suffered two serious injuries to the joint in quick succession and was unlikely to make a speedy recovery.

He stepped into the great room unnoticed by the brothers who were engaged in a furious row.  “I’d say that you two need a nap,” he announced with a straight face.

The sudden silence was followed by two pairs of aggrieved blue eyes turning in his direction.  His struggle to contain his grin was in vain and it wasn’t long before he received answering tentative smiles from his boys.

“That bad, huh?” Johnny asked.

“I’m afraid so.” Murdoch walked over to the liquor cabinet and poured them all a drink.  “I know it’s been hard for you both to sit around.  Hopefully, for all our sakes, Sam will let you off the leash a bit tomorrow.”

“Any word about the trial?” Scott accepted his drink with a nod of thanks and settled on one of the sofas.

The knowledge that they would have to face Jeff and Marcy in court had been like a black cloud hanging over the family.  Johnny had raged furiously at the news that Jeff was to plead ‘not guilty’.  Scott had taken it quietly, withdrawing into himself for a few days.  Murdoch suspected that the brothers had discussed it privately as they both gradually came round to accepting the situation.

“That’s what I was coming to tell you.  Cipriano has just returned from town.  Judge Bates doesn’t want to delay matters any longer.  The hearing starts the day after tomorrow.

*****

As the clock struck one, Scott settled himself into the chair, ready to give evidence.  Earlier that morning, the jury had been sworn in and opening statements were made.  The proceedings had been adjourned for lunch and now, it was time to hear evidence for the prosecution.

Johnny looked around the room.  The courtroom in Green River could never have been described as spacious, and today, it was full to overflowing.  He disliked the fact that so many people were in attendance out of sheer nosiness.  They reminded him of a flock of vultures, circling a freshly killed carcass and salivating at the thought of blood.  He shuddered with revulsion.

He shifted, trying to get comfortable in the oppressive confines. The room was hot and airless, all the windows and doors being securely closed.  Jeff sat in handcuffs next to his attorney, with Val sitting directly behind him.  Val was the only person in the room wearing a side arm and Johnny felt his old edginess at being unarmed in public.  Since the events at Lancer he was rarely without his gun at his hip, even when in the house.  It saddened and angered him that Jeff’s actions had destroyed his hard won peace.

The prosecutor had just risen to his feet to start his questioning when Johnny’s gaze fell on his step-mother.  He hadn’t seen Marcy since the day she had tried to kill him.  He’d never doubted her motives, despite his words to his father.  She hadn’t been present in court during the morning session, having only just returned on the morning stage from Sacramento.  He could tell that she was aware of his scrutiny and his mouth curled up in a sneer when he realized that she wasn’t going to look him in the eye.  It amused him to see that the chairs on either side of her remained unoccupied as everyone distanced themselves from her.

He was conscious of the comforting presence of his father on his left hand side.  Murdoch was staring straight ahead with a stony expression on his face.  Teresa, sitting on his right, slipped her hand into his.  He knew how nervous she was about giving evidence, and gave her hand a little squeeze.

The sound of his brother’s voice drew his attention back to the front of the court room.  Scott was sitting with his back ramrod straight looking quietly determined.  The blond’s memory of who had shot him had never returned.  Neither could he recall in any detail what Jeff had said to him before attempting to suffocate him.

Scott’s voice as he answered the questions was deep and steady, faltering only once, when he described his feeling of helplessness right before Jeff had pressed the pillow across his face.  Johnny could only imagine what it was costing Scott to discuss the murder attempt so dispassionately.

The prosecutor sat down and for the next hour Jeff’s attorney, Arnold Buchanan, tried to push Scott into admitting that Jeff had appeared mentally unstable on the day of the attack.  The questions became mind numbingly repetitive and Johnny found his attention straying.

Looking down at his left hand, he was grateful that his arm was no longer encased in the cumbersome splint.  He grimaced as he attempted to move his wrist.  It had shaken him to find how little movement there was in the joint which had stiffened up from disuse.  Sam had been reassuring, however, telling him that it was quite normal.  Despite trusting the doctor implicitly Johnny couldn’t push away his feeling of panic every time he looked at his useless limb. Gritting his teeth, he tried to bend it, but not even his fierce determination could make it move more than a fraction.  Sam had shown him some exercises and had agreed that he could return to light work.  Still, the restricted movement left him feeling vulnerable.

He returned his attention to Scott, surmising from the tone of his brother’s voice that the questioning was irritating him.  A flicker of pain crossed the Easterner’s face as he shifted his position.  Johnny gritted his teeth and glared with hate filled venom at the back of Jeff’s head.  It galled him that the only charges against Jeff, related to his attempt to smother Scott. Johnny’s belief that his step-brother was guilty of the shooting and explosion was unshakeable, even if they couldn’t prove it to the satisfaction of the court.  As the defense lawyer continued to try and bully Scott into submission, Jeff turned to smirk at Johnny.  Only Murdoch’s hand on his arm, and whispered instructions to sit still, kept Johnny in his seat.

*****

It was a relief to be outside.  The judge had declared a thirty minute recess at the end of Scott’s evidence.  Scott had declined the offer of company and Johnny, seeing how hard it had been for his brother to relive the events of that day in his room, had respected his wish to be alone for a while.  Teresa was talking with Sam, leaving Johnny with his father.

“Can I ask you something?” Johnny leaned against the outside wall of the small courthouse, arms folded, looking everywhere except at Murdoch.

“What do you want to know?” There was only mild curiosity in Murdoch’s voice.

“I was wondering something.  You knew I’d done time for assault.  Didn’t it worry you?  I mean you had Teresa to consider.”

It seemed to Johnny that Murdoch was taking a long time to answer and a sick feeling settled on his stomach.

“There were many things that disturbed me when I first read those reports.”

Stricken blue eyes shot up and settled on the rancher as Murdoch continued.  “The most disturbing thing of all was seeing how you had been forced to live.”

“No-one forced me to live by the gun, Old Man,” Johnny refuted.

“Didn’t they?” Murdoch asked gently.  “You’d survived against all the odds.  Was it really so surprising that you wanted some respect?  Neither I, nor anyone else, have the right to question the choices you made.  You weren’t doing anything illegal.”

“Are you sure about that?” Johnny challenged.

“Yes I am,” Murdoch replied firmly. “I must have read those reports a dozen times, trying to reconcile the toddler I remembered with the young man described on those pages.  Each time, I found myself questioning that conviction.  It wasn’t consistent with the rest of the information.”

“I was young.” Johnny offered, dropping his head.  “How do you know I didn’t just lose control that day?”

“I considered that possibility.  Only, I don’t think Johnny Madrid lost control very often even at sixteen.”

Johnny’s faint smile acknowledged the truth of that observation.

“I asked the Agency to make further enquiries.  They spoke to the woman you were convicted of assaulting.  She told them that she’d been so shocked to find you in that room that she’d over reacted.  She said that she’d realized afterwards that you’d just been a scared hurt kid.  By the time the truth came out and she tried to retract her evidence it was too late and you’d already been sentenced.”

“You believed in me…even then after reading everything in those reports?”

“Yes, Son.  The truth is, I never stopped believing in you.”

“I guess you gave me some of that faith you were talking about, huh?” Johnny’s lop sided smile began to reappear.

Murdoch’s large hands came to rest gently on Johnny’s shoulders.  “And I’ve never regretted it.”

*****

Scott returned to his place in the courtroom after the recess, relieved that his evidence was over and grateful that his family had left him alone with his thoughts.  Seeing Jeff again had been harder than anticipated.  Now that he had regained his strength he had discovered a previously unacknowledged desire to inflict the same pain and fear, as he had experienced, on his step-brother.  The urge to lean across the desk and wrap his hands around Jeff’s throat had been almost impossible to ignore.  The idea that Jeff might escape justice for his actions tormented him.  He had toyed with the idea of lying; of saying that he remembered Jeff shooting him, only to reach the reluctant conclusion that he wouldn’t be able to live with his conscience. He’d not mentioned his unworthy thoughts to anyone, not even Johnny, and he felt ashamed that he’d even considered it.

As his father and brother returned to their seats, he detected a change in his brother’s demeanor.  He leaned forward to peer around Murdoch and raised a quizzical eyebrow.  Johnny shook his head, indicating that now wasn’t the time, so Scott settled back in his chair.

Teresa was called to the stand.  Although she was giving her evidence willingly, Scott was angry that she would have to discuss her personal life in front of the interested crowd of spectators.  The prosecutor had agreed to confine his questions to the day of the attack.  Scott listened carefully, having no first hand knowledge of what Teresa had seen.

“I was on my way to check on Scott,” Teresa stated clearly.  “Sam was with me.  I was carrying a cup and a pot of willow bark tea.  Sam opened the door and stood aside to let me enter the room first.  I looked at the bed and…”  Her voice broke and she looked over at Jeff.

“Take your time, Miss O’Brien,” the prosecutor advised.

“I…I’m alright.  Jeff was standing beside the bed holding a pillow over Scott’s face.  I dropped the cups and the pot and screamed.  I must have startled him, because the pillow slipped out of his hands and fell to the floor.  It was then that I saw that he’d…that he’d tied Scott’s hands and gagged him so that he couldn’t fight back or call for help.”

She looked toward Scott, tears sparkling in her eyes, and he gave her a wan smile of encouragement.

“When I looked back at Jeff, he was pointing a gun at us.  Sam wanted to help Scott, only Jeff told us that he’d shoot us if we moved.  Then Johnny came in and…and Jeff was going to shoot me, only Johnny was faster.”

Scott tore his eyes away from Teresa and looked at the jury.  He could see that Teresa’s evidence had moved them.  Many had daughters or grand-daughters who were close in age to his ‘sister’, and he could see them thinking how awful it would have been if one of their relatives had witnessed such a brutal attack.

Buchanan was careful how he handled Teresa, but still insisted that she explain about her feelings for Jeff during the first few weeks after his arrival at Lancer.  Teresa’s cheeks blazed scarlet as she was forced to admit that she had been attracted to Jeff, and that she had been the one responsible for Johnny’s arrest the day after the wedding.  She conceded that Jeff had been afraid of Johnny, and that Jeff’s behavior had become more and more erratic.  As her evidence progressed, Scott became aware of Johnny shifting restlessly in his chair.  He was having a hard time keeping still himself as Buchanan drew out of Teresa a picture of a young man, isolated and friendless, living in fear of his step-brother.

When Buchanan made reference to Johnny’s past he was sternly rebuked by the Judge, but the damage had been done.  By the time that the hearing was brought to a close for the day, Teresa was almost in tears.

*****

Murdoch was at the reins of the buggy for the journey home.  Teresa sat beside him, eyes averted and silent. Johnny and Scott sat together on the back seat, and occasionally, Murdoch heard one of his sons speaking softly to the other.  As they moved further away from town, even those sporadic sounds ceased. An air of apprehension hung over them all; the silence uncharacteristic, as each seemed to withdraw into their own world.  Murdoch didn’t have the words to comfort Teresa.  He could tell that she felt she had let her family down.

As soon as they arrived home Teresa excused herself to go and change while Murdoch caught up with events at the ranch from Jelly and Cipriano.  On his way back to the house he took a detour and spoke briefly to Maria, asking her to offer Teresa the necessary support.  The counsel of a sympathetic older woman was likely to be easier to accept than any faltering words from the male members of the household.

He found his sons in the great room, both making inroads into large glasses of whiskey.  “I didn’t think the day went that badly.” He ventured his opinion cautiously.

“Oh, it went just fine,” Scott snapped back.  “I couldn’t remember anything useful, and Teresa was pushed into admitting that for Jeff to attack me in my room wasn’t the action of someone with a rational mind.”

“He ain’t gonna get away with it.”  Johnny’s announcement was chilling in its absolute conviction.

Murdoch looked worriedly at his younger son. Johnny was still wearing his gunbelt and his right hand was resting lightly on the handle of his Colt. “You are not going to do anything stupid,” he warned.  He saw Johnny blink rapidly and look confused, as if his mind had been somewhere else.

“No, I guess I had my chance and I blew it,” Johnny replied sullenly after a moment.

“And I’m grateful you didn’t kill him.”  Scott replenished his glass before continuing.  “If you had, it would be you sitting in that court and you’d be facing the death penalty.”

“Even if he’s convicted he’ll only go to jail,” Johnny hissed in frustration.  “How can that be right?”

“It isn’t right, Son, not after all the damage he did.  Unfortunately, it’s the law.”

Johnny stood up, tension and irritation written into every line in his body. “I don’t care what you think.  I wish I’d killed him.  He doesn’t deserve to live.”

“I think for someone like Jeff, going to jail again will be very hard to take.  And this time he won’t be in the custody of the Army, he’ll be in the state penitentiary.  It won’t be an easy life.”

“And what if he convinces the jury that he didn’t know what he was doing?  What then, Murdoch? Do you really think he won’t come after Scott again?  Or Teresa?” Johnny’s eyes were hard and cold as he paced restlessly in front of his father.  “I won’t let that happen,” he warned.

“Johnny…” Murdoch’s tone was sharp with worry.

“I don’t want to hear it, Old Man. I’m gonna get some air.”

Johnny strode angrily from the room, leaving his father to wonder despairingly when they would finally be free of the repercussions of his disastrous marriage.

*****

The following day, the Lancers were back in court again, listening intently as Sam gave his evidence.  When asked for his medical opinion on Jeff’s sanity, he replied was that he hadn’t seen anything in Jeff’s behavior that day to suggest that the accused hadn’t known exactly what he was doing.

The prosecutor had been in two minds about calling Johnny to give evidence, finally deciding that it was important for the jury to hear everything that had happened. Johnny had been positively radiating aggression all morning.  Scott watched his brother taking the oath and could tell from the soft disinterested drawl that they were in for an unpredictable time.  He listened, fascinated and appalled, as the story emerged.  He had known that his brother had shot Jeff in defense of Teresa.  He’d also been aware that there was a point at which Johnny had been tempted to shoot Jeff as the young man lay wounded and unarmed.  He hadn’t, however, appreciated the depth of Johnny’s suffering, or that his brother had believed that Jeff’s murder attempt had been successful.  To hear how close Val had come to shooting his own friend was horrifying.

Scott glanced at his father and saw that Murdoch had paled.  It appeared that he wasn’t the only one who had been kept in the dark about all the distressing details.  Scott tensed as Arnold Buchanan began his questioning.  Rather than dealing with the day of the attack, he concentrated on asking Johnny about his attitude toward his step-brother.  He referred to Johnny’s threats on the day of the wedding, his ‘unprovoked assault’ on Jeff the following day, and his general attempts at intimidation.

Johnny’s answers were short and far more restrained than Scott had expected.  He managed to maintain his self-control, even when questioned closely about his past.  Scott bit back a curse when Johnny’s conviction for assault was raised.

“It was fortunate for you that my client decided not to press charges when you hit him hard enough to knock him out,” Buchanan smirked.  “Given your history of unrestrained violence, is it any wonder that he was afraid for his life?”

“You makin’ a speech or askin’ me a question?” Johnny queried softly.  “It ain’t my history of ‘unrestrained violence’ the jury’s interested in.”

“Perhaps it should be,” Buchanan snapped back.  “You grew up wild and were sent to jail for assaulting a terrified old woman when you were only sixteen.  By the time Jeff was brought, unwillingly, into the Lancer household you had spent years prowling the border, killing God knows how many men...”

Scott’s move to defend his brother was forestalled by Murdoch.  “Don’t give them the satisfaction of knowing how much this hurts,” he advised.  “Trust your brother.  He can deal with it.”

Scott’s eyes met Johnny’s and the younger man smiled.  “It’s okay, Boston.  The people that matter know the truth.”

The blond looked from his brother to his father.  Murdoch was smiling supportively at his younger son, leading Scott to the welcome conclusion that Johnny had broached the painful subject and had received reassurance from his father.  Scott relaxed secure in the knowledge that Jeff’s attempts to tear the family apart had failed.

As the questioning continued, Johnny didn’t attempt to hide or excuse his feelings about Jeff.  He accepted that Jeff might well have been afraid of him, before growling that this “didn’t give the little bastard the right to try and kill anyone.”

After being warned by the judge to watch his language, Johnny managed to be contrite.  Scott hid a small smile, convinced that Johnny’s apology had been as insincere as the innocent expression now plastered all over his face.  By the end of the day, Buchanan had given up on shaking Johnny’s evidence that Jeff had known full well what he was doing.  He had, however, managed to present a picture of a helpless young man living in fear of the unpredictable temper of his dark haired step-brother.

The trial dragged into its third day and the prosecutor closed his case with evidence from Val.  The interested crowd of spectators hadn’t reduced in number and there was a tangible air of expectancy when Jeff finally took the stand.

*****

Val leaned back in his chair and studied the Lancers.  All three of them were staring fixedly at Jeff.  He swiveled round to look at Marcy, who was sitting a few rows behind him.  Her head was down and her fingers were worrying at a lace handkerchief.

As Jeff took the oath, promising to tell the truth, Val thought he heard a faint disbelieving snort coming from Johnny.  He smiled grimly.  His limited experience of Jeff suggested that the truth wasn’t something with which Dane was well acquainted.

During the six weeks that he had been languishing in jail, Jeff hadn’t said much.  He could almost be described as a model prisoner, behaving himself and following instructions.  That hadn’t made Val hate him any less.  Each morning, it had been necessary to remind himself sternly that he had his duty to do and that Jeff was to be regarded as innocent, until proven guilty.

From a law enforcement point of view, it had been a blessing that the youngest Lancer and his volatile temper had been confined to the ranch.  It had been hard enough when Murdoch had barged in.  Then he’d had to deal with Marcy’s tears when Jeff turned on her.  Never at ease with hysterical women that had proved to be a real test of his diplomacy.  And diplomacy had never been his strong suit. He wished that the trial was over.  It was time to ship Jeff off to the state pen and let the Lancers start to put their lives back together again.

Buchanan began by taking Jeff through his thoughts and feelings on being told of his mother’s impending marriage.  Jeff’s assertion that he had been happy for her, while being apprehensive of going to live at Lancer, was met with a derisive comment from Johnny.  Val almost choked when he heard Johnny describing his step-brother as “a lying little weasel.”  There was a ripple of laughter from the spectators.

The judge frowned in censure at the dark haired man and Val watched Scott lean over to whisper something to his brother.  Johnny shrugged, slouched down in his chair and continued to glare at Jeff.  Val sighed quietly.  If the family couldn’t keep Johnny under control, he could end up doing a great deal of harm.

Jeff described, in vivid detail, the incident in the barn on the day of the wedding.  Val had the feeling, that for once Jeff was telling the unvarnished truth.  It didn’t help that both brothers had managed to threaten him in quick succession.  Val saw Murdoch glare sternly at each of his sons.  If it hadn’t been so serious, Val might have enjoyed seeing the two self-sufficient young men squirming under their father’s forbidding look.

For the remainder of the day Jeff explained about being assaulted by Johnny, his decision not to press charges and his unintentional carelessness in injuring Scott’s shoulder.  Val had to admit that Dane was doing a masterful job of presenting himself as the victim.  As the court went into recess for the day he noticed Marcy hurrying to speak to the prosecuting attorney, Charles Rankin.  There was a brief exchange of words, which Val was too far away to overhear.  What he couldn’t miss, however, was the look of hatred on his prisoner’s face as the young man stared at his mother’s back.

*****

The following day, Jeff took the stand in a coldly vengeful mood.  Why had his bitch of a mother been talking to the prosecutor?  He’d worried about it all night, coming to the conclusion that she’d betrayed him yet again.  He’d resolved to make her pay.  He was going to ruin her life, just like she’d ruined his.

He turned his attention to his lawyer, who was asking him about the aftermath of Scott’s shoulder injury.  He took pleasure in describing in detail how everyone, except Teresa, had acted as if the injury had been deliberate.  His gaze fell on Teresa.  She was another one who’d let him down.  Women were all the same; they couldn’t be trusted.  He squirmed when he realized that Teresa was staring boldly back at him, her face hard and filled with disapproval.

“Tell us what happened when your mother and Mr. Lancer returned from their honeymoon,” Buchanan asked.

Jeff glared at his mother and prepared to place the blame for his predicament where it rightfully belonged. “Mr. Lancer was sick.  I was worried that he wouldn’t make it and that Mom and I would be left with no one to protect us.”

“Who were you afraid of?”

Jeff lowered his eyes and suppressed his anticipation. “Scott and Johnny.  We had no where else to live and I thought, if their father died, that they’d throw us out.”

“But Mr. Lancer had made provision for your mother, in the event of his death.”

“I didn’t know that, but I wouldn’t have trusted them anyway.” He allowed himself a quick fearful glance at the brothers.

“What did you do?”

“I told Mom about the Pinkerton reports on Johnny.  He’d attacked one woman.  Who’s to say he wouldn’t do it again.  I only wanted to look out for her.”

Jeff looked imploringly at the women in the crowd, pleased to see they were starting to soften at this apparent concern by a son for his mother.

“What was your mother’s reaction?”

A small smile appeared. “She said that she would speak to Mr. Lancer and get him to send Johnny away.”

“What happened?”

“He wouldn’t do it.  Then Johnny set me up and I was arrested.  He and Scott told Mom that they’d get me sent back to jail if she didn’t back off.  She promised me she’d find a way to get rid of Johnny.” He looked at his mother and couldn’t quite prevent his voice taking on a whining tone.  “She promised me.”

“What do you remember about the events leading up to you being shot?”

“Scott and Johnny had been away for a few days.  Then we heard that there had been an accident and that they were both missing, possibly dead.  I offered to go and fetch the doctor and bring him back to Lancer, in case they were found.” Jeff glared at his step-brothers.  They should never have been found, at least not alive.  “I was at the ranch when Mr. Lancer brought them home.  They were both badly hurt and word got around that it hadn’t been an accident.  I was worried that I would get the blame so I stayed out of the way.  Then I started to think.” Jeff looked briefly at his mother before continuing. “And I remembered what Mom had said.  I wondered if maybe she’d been responsible.”

Marcy’s shocked gasp coincided with every person in the room turning to stare at her.  A buzz of conversation started and the judge angrily banged his gavel to restore order.  Jeff could see an expression of pure shock on Murdoch’s face.  The brothers were holding their emotions tightly under control and a snide smile appeared on his face. His smugness disappeared as he saw Rankin furiously writing notes for himself.

Once everyone had quieted down he resumed his evidence, voice deliberately quivering to demonstrate the depth of his emotions.  “Mom came to find me.  She said that she was worried that Scott would remember who shot him.  She told me that I was bound to be blamed and that I should run.”

“What was your reaction to that?” Buchanan asked.

“I was shocked and confused. I hadn’t done anything wrong. I wondered why she would worry about Scott remembering who’d shot him.”  He looked at the jury, his words heavy with meaning.  “Then she said that she’d taken care of Johnny.”

“What did she mean by that?”

“She’d given him too much laudanum.  She told me I wouldn’t have to worry about him coming after me.  Then she said that Scott was real sick and might not make it.  The way she said it, I knew what she was hinting at.”

“That’s a lie,” Marcy’s voice was strained.

“Madam, be quiet,” Judge Bates instructed.

“What happened next?” Buchanan pressed.

“I…I left the ranch.  I was terrified that I’d get the blame for everything.  I went into town and…and the next thing I remember is being shot.”

“You don’t remember coming back to the ranch and trying to kill Scott?”

Jeff shook his head and looked down at the ground.  “After everything that had happened, I…I think I must have lost my mind.  I was so scared, I couldn’t even think straight.”

“You’ve heard the testimony from the prosecution witnesses.  They say it must have been a cold blooded murder attempt, because you took the time to tie Scott up before trying to smother him.”

Jeff shot Scott and Johnny a look full of loathing.  By rights, his blond step-brother should be dead and he should be free to get on with his life. “If I’d gone there intending to tie him up, I’d have taken rope and more than one bandana so that I could’ve gagged him properly.”  Jeff’s voice was laced with pure spite.  “As it was, I was told afterwards that I’d used the sling to bind his hands and just shoved a bandana into his mouth to keep him quiet.  It wasn’t planned.  I didn’t consciously go there to kill him. I don’t even know how I got there.”

He could see that his evidence was having its effect upon all the Lancers and he felt a thrill of achievement.  They’d made his life miserable and they deserved to suffer.  And once he was free…He turned on the prosecutor with a triumphant look.  Rankin looked up from his papers with a small smile that turned Jeff’s blood cold.  Had he said something wrong?  Oh God, had he done something to give himself away?  What had his mother told the prosecutor?

*****

Charles Rankin had been looking forward to cross examining the accused.  Dane might have thought he had done a good job, but to the experienced eye he was clearly lying through his teeth.  Rankin had been surprised by the approach from Mrs. Lancer the previous day.  She’d asked him to consider reducing the charge to ‘assault.’  Although he had promised to consider it, the brief discussion he’d had with Murdoch Lancer that morning had left him in no doubt as to what was expected of him.  The rancher had explained, with crystal clear clarity, that he and his sons would be very unhappy with any reduction in the charge.  Rankin hadn’t been put out by this.  He was convinced he could get the guilty verdict he wanted for attempted murder.

He was an experienced advocate and could tell that the jury didn’t like the defendant.  Everything he’d heard, suggested that Jeff Dane had done nothing to endear himself to the folks at Lancer or the citizens of Green River.  He stood up and moved slowly to stand in front of the young man.  He was carrying a sheet of paper with him and he took his time, studying it carefully.  In reality, the paper contained nothing of importance, but the delay and worry about what was written there were starting to make Jeff sweat.

When he was ready, Rankin looked up and smiled.  “How did you find out about the attempt to kill Scott and Johnny?”

Jeff licked his lips nervously.  “My mother told me.”

“And where were you at the time?”

He could see Jeff frowning, probably wondering if this was some kind of trap.  Finally Dane answered.  “In the barn.”

“Hiding in the barn?” Rankin asked pleasantly.  He waited until Jeff had shaken his head in denial.  “So the affidavit from Mr. Hoskins, which talks about you ‘cowering in the barn like a whipped dog’, isn’t correct?”

“I wasn’t hiding.  Why would I be hiding?”

“That’s an interesting question, Mr. Dane.  Would you care to answer it?”  Rankin waited patiently as Jeff nervously fiddled with his handcuffs.  “Maybe you could tell us where you were when someone shot Scott and tried to blow him and his brother up.”

“Working.”

“Ah, yes, a novel experience for you by all accounts.”  Rankin acknowledged the smiles of the jury and the frown from the judge with equanimity.  “You were hiding because you knew there was a risk you were about to be found out.  You ran for the same reason.”

“No! I’ve already told you.  I was afraid I was going to be blamed.  I was worried that Johnny would kill me.”

“That’s not true, is it?  You’ve already told us that your mother had,” Rankin consulted his notes, “taken care of Johnny. You had nothing to worry about from him.  So far as you were aware, Johnny was out of the picture, leaving only Scott as a potential loose end.  You ran because you were guilty, only then you changed your mind.  You’d become used to living at Lancer.  With Scott out of the way, there was no reason why you couldn’t stay and enjoy all the advantages of being related to the Lancer family.”

“I ran because my mother told me to.”

Rankin frowned.  “Why would she do that unless she thought you had something to hide?” He looked at Marcy, who appeared on the verge of tears, and a plan formed in his mind.  He returned his attention to Jeff.  “Why not stay and fight for your innocence?”

 

“No one would’ve believed me,” Jeff replied with a sulky note in his voice.

“I wonder why?  After all, you are such a fine upstanding young man,” Rankin said snidely, withdrawing the comment before Buchanan could make it to his feet to object. “You have testified that you recall nothing of your attempt to kill Scott in his room.  Your first memory, you said, was of being shot by his brother.  I don’t imagine you were feeling very well after that.”

“He was going to murder me.  I was unarmed and he was going to shoot me.”

Rankin’s dislike for Jeff intensified.  The prisoner was whining about Johnny’s actions, when he’d attacked a seriously ill man who had never had a hope of defending himself. “But he didn’t.  Did you see Dr. Jenkins untying Scott?”

“No.  I was lying on the floor with a bullet in my chest.” Jeff turned a furious glare on Johnny, who looked impassively back at him.

“You said earlier, that if you had been intending to restrain Scott properly, you would have brought rope and more than one bandana.  Yet, you claim not to have seen Scott while he was tied up.  How do you know what was used to immobilize him?”

“I, uh, someone must have told me.”

“Really?  Can you recall who it might have been?  The sheriff?  Perhaps Dr. Jenkins told you while he was operating to remove the bullet.  Your mother?  What was your reaction when you were told?  Were you horrified by your actions, or sorry that you had once again failed to accomplish your goal of killing one of your step-brothers?”

“I didn’t…”

“Oh, stop lying,” Rankin snapped.  “You set out to kill Scott Lancer to prevent him identifying you as his earlier attacker.  You’re trying to pin the blame for all your criminal activities on your poor, longsuffering mother.”  He scowled at Jeff who was now sitting with his mouth open, then turned to the judge.  “Once I’ve finished with this witness, Your Honor, I’d like to call Marcy Lancer to the stand. I think she should have the chance to rebut the shameful and unfounded allegations being made against her by her own son.”

As anticipated, Buchanan objected and the judge cleared the court while the lawyers argued the point.  Eventually, the judge ruled in favor of the prosecution and the hearing resumed.  For the remainder of the day, Rankin continued his cross examination of the accused.  As he’d hoped, the news that his mother was to give evidence had shaken Dane’s composure.  His answers became evasive and incomplete, his whole demeanor telling of his panic.  Rankin hadn’t quite finished when the judge ordered the court into recess for the day.  That suited him just fine.  Let Dane sweat overnight and he would make an even worse witness the next day.

*****

The atmosphere in the courtroom was oppressive.  Jeff had concluded his evidence by mid-morning, before slinking back to the chair by his defense lawyer.  Val stood against the wall, arms folded and alert for trouble.  He’d stayed at the jail overnight; worried about Jeff’s state of mind, and neither he nor his prisoner had slept much.  He watched the Lancers as Marcy made her slow way to the witness stand.  Murdoch’s face was as still as a block of granite.  Whatever the Lancer patriarch was thinking and feeling was locked safely away from prying eyes.

The same couldn’t be said for the brothers.  The strain of the trial was wearing them both down.  Val hadn’t missed Johnny’s surreptitious attempts to exercise his damaged wrist and Scott’s face told him that the blond was still suffering with his shoulder.  He began to wish that Jeff would provide an excuse to shoot him.

Marcy looked no happier than her estranged husband.  Val almost felt sorry for the woman.  He didn’t believe for a minute that she’d had anything to do with Scott’s shooting or the explosion.  She had, however, almost succeeded in killing his good friend and for that he reckoned she deserved to suffer.

Charles Rankin was handling her carefully, trying to put her at ease.  Val knew that it was only a matter of time before the prosecutor went for the jugular, and Marcy couldn’t have been under any illusions.  Her answers were monosyllabic and she kept darting little glances at Murdoch as if expecting him to rescue her.  He suppressed a derisive snort at that idea.  Johnny had told him just a few days ago that his father expected a divorce decree on the annulment papers, which had been filed over a month ago, to arrive any day from Sacramento.

“This court isn’t concerned with your conduct, Mrs. Lancer,” Rankin told her reassuringly.  “However, we’ve all listened and been appalled by your son’s attempts to blame you for the tragic events that have befallen the Lancer family.”

Rankin waited, in vain, for a reaction.  “Is it true that you advised your son that it would be in his best interests to leave Lancer, after Scott and Johnny were hurt?”

Marcy’s reply was inaudible and the judge reminded her gently that the jury needed to hear her answer.  “Yes, I did,” she repeated quietly.

“That seems a peculiar thing for a mother to do,” Rankin stated.

“I…I thought it was best.”

“Why?  Did you have reason to think that he had anything to hide?”

Val couldn’t see Jeff’s expression, but he could see the indecision on Marcy’s face.  “No, no reason.”

“You are under oath, Mrs. Lancer,” Rankin reminded her.  “Do you wish to reconsider your answer?”

Marcy looked down at her hands resting in her lap and shook her head.

“The day after your step-sons returned home, when both were still seriously ill, you left Lancer and traveled alone into Green River.”  It was a statement rather than a question from the prosecutor.

“Yes.  The crisis was over and I had some business to attend to.”

“Banking business?  I understand that you withdrew a considerable amount of money from the account set up for you by your husband.”

Marcy raised her head, her face inscrutable.  “That is my business, Mr. Rankin.”

“You were expecting to meet your son in town, weren’t you?”

Marcy looked pleadingly at the judge.  Obviously finding no reassurance, she nodded silently.

“Your intention was to give him money so that he could escape justice for his crimes.” Rankin’s voice rang round the courtroom.

Val tore his eyes away from Marcy, whose expression resembled that of a cornered animal, as Jeff became more and more agitated.  He carefully eased the safety loop from around his revolver.  He risked a look at the Lancers and saw Johnny straightening up, his right hand straying to his hip.  Val began to wish that he hadn’t insisted upon everyone disarming before entering the courtroom.  Something was about to bust loose.  He took a step forward, just as Jeff lost all sense of caution.

“Why don’t you just tell them, you useless bitch?” he screamed at his mother.

Jeff shoved his lawyer out of the way and Buchanan fell heavily against Val who had started to move closer.  Val’s lower back collided painfully with the edge of the table and the breath left his lungs in a surprised whoosh.  Before he could gather his senses, he felt his gun being torn out of its holster.   Jeff backed up, the gun waving indiscriminately around the room.

Marcy only had time for one breathless scream before Jeff had the gun pressed against her side.  His movements were hampered by the chains on his wrists, but his intent was clear.  It would take little provocation for him to shoot his mother.

Val’s breathing was harsh as he pulled himself upright, pain shooting down his right leg.  The initial shock had passed and panic was about to set in amongst the spectators.  His fleeting glance toward the Lancers showed that all three were on their feet, silent and watchful.

“You’re gonna do something useful and get me out of here,” Jeff hissed into his mother’s ear.

“Jeff…please…don’t do this,” Marcy begged.

“Shut up.  Start moving and,” Jeff’s gaze raked the watching throng, “if anyone tries to stop me, I’ll put a bullet in her.”

Val held his breath as Murdoch stepped forward.  “You’re only making things worse for yourself.”

“Don’t tell me you care what happens to her?” Jeff sneered.

“I loved your mother, and despite everything that’s happened, I don’t want to see her hurt.”

“You’re a gullible fool,” Jeff taunted.  “She never loved you…or me.  She was only interested in what she could get for herself.”  He swung his mother round so that he could look at the sheriff.  “Give her the keys to the cuffs,” he ordered.

Val pulled out the keys and handed them cautiously to Marcy before backing off again.  From the corner of his eye he could see Scott and Johnny moving quietly away from each other.  Jeff must have noticed the movement and reacted as soon as his wrists were free.  He flung one arm around his mother’s throat and pressed the gun harder into her side.

“Stay where you are.  I’m gonna shoot the next person who moves.”

Val took a half step back, hoping to draw Jeff’s attention in his direction, and saw the judge reaching under his desk.  Jeff couldn’t see what the judge was doing and Val smiled grimly when he saw the elderly man pull out a gun.  He’d forgotten that the judge always kept a concealed weapon close at hand for personal protection.  Johnny was also looking in the judge’s direction.  When he returned his attention to Val an unspoken message passed between the two friends.

Johnny’s sudden movement caught Jeff by surprise.  Taking advantage of the distraction the judge threw the gun toward Val.  As the gun arced into the air the sheriff began to move, catching it and pulling back the hammer in one smooth movement.  When Dane swiveled, raising his weapon, there was no time for thought, not time to try and bluff Jeff into surrendering his gun.  Val aimed and fired.

Marcy screamed as her son’s blood splattered over her face and neck.  Jeff’s expression was one of total surprise as he lost the use of his limbs and slid to the floor, blood streaming from the corner of his slack mouth.  He coughed once, before his eyes closed and his head lolled to one side.

For a moment there was silence, except for Marcy’s shocked piercing shrieks, and the echo of the gunshot.  Then, others in the courtroom started toward the exit, hastily retreating from the gruesome scene.  Most were talking excitedly, no doubt, recounting the event in their own words, while some women were crying, desperately upset from having witnessed the spectacle.

Val glanced quickly at Judge Bates, acknowledging the man’s forethought with a thankful nod of his head.  He shifted the gun to his left hand and bent down to pick up his own weapon, prying it from Jeff’s fingers.  Standing, he holstered it and his eyes sought out those of his young friend.  Meeting Johnny’s gaze, Val smiled thinly.  The returning smile was brief, unnoticed by everyone but him.  He nodded once more, knowing too well, that though it wasn’t Johnny’s finger that pulled the trigger, the satisfaction of retribution for the wrongs done to his family was no less rewarding.

Val broke eye contact when Murdoch walked to Johnny and put his arm around his son’s waist, stating firmly, “It’s time to go home.”  Murdoch led Johnny over to stand by his brother and Scott reached up to squeeze Johnny’s shoulder, an unreadable expression on his face.

Marcy’s sobs drew Val’s attention downwards, but not before he saw Teresa look up at her guardian, who offered her his hand.  With his sons preceding him, and paying no attention to his distraught wife or the dead body of his step-son, Murdoch escorted Teresa from the courtroom.  He closed the door gently behind him, leaving Val to deal with the aftermath of a young man’s pointless death.

 

~end~
June 06

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