The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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EM

 

 

Restless

Part 1

Johnny stretched. He put his hands on his sore back and groaned as he straightened up. He looked up at the bright California sun as it bathed his skin in it’s weak spring warmth. Three weeks of doing nothing but back breaking work was starting to take it’s toll.  His muscles were protesting the constant strain and his heart craved for the freedom of his former wild ways.

Tossing the hammer to the ground, he walked over to the palomino gelding he had been training since coming to Lancer.  He had to almost start over when he recovered from Pardee’s bullet, but it was worth it as he still felt bad at bucking him out on his first morning here.  Since then, he had worked with the horse he had come to think of as Barranca, step by step building a solid foundation.  He admired the horse’s iridescent golden coat and his developing muscles. “Hey Barranca,  we’re both gettin’ muscles.” He said as he walked over to the young horse.  The gelding was learning patience as he waited tied under an oak  tree until Johnny was finished  mending the fence.

Not wanting to spook the young horse, Johnny carefully removed the canteen from the saddle.  He took a large sip to wash out his mouth and he spit it on the ground. The gelding nervously sidestepped away.  Johnny took another swallow, this time drinking deeply.  Once his thirst was quenched, he cupped his  hand and poured water into his palm and held it up to Barranca’s mouth. “Come on, boy. I know you’re thirsty.” He murmured softly as the horse turned his head away in fear.  Johnny gently persisted until the  horse tentatively lapped at the water in his hand.  Once the gelding was reassured, he drank eagerly as Johnny refilled his cupped hand several more times.  Patting the golden neck and rubbing his ears, Johnny praised the horse and returned the canteen to its place on the saddle.

“Won’t be long now boy. I’m almost finished.” He said as he returned to the fence to finished stretching the barbed wire.  He heard hoofbeats approaching as he made one last twist to the wire. As he looked up, he felt the wire slipping but he couldn’t stop it in time to keep it from cutting into his left hand between his thumb and forefinger. “Ow! Damnit.” He said as Murdoch rode up on his stocky sorrel gelding.

“How bad is it?” Murdoch asked as he saw the blood well up around the fingers holding his left hand.  He watched as Johnny wiped the blood away and put his hand to his lips.

“It’s not deep. Damned wire slipped.” He said as he pressed on the wound to stop the bleeding.

Murdoch dismounted and handed Johnny his handkerchief. “Wrap this around your hand and use yours to tie it.”  Waiting while Johnny did as he instructed, he added. “I’ll help you finish here and then you get back to the ranch and have Teresa tend to that.  I don’t want you to let it go, it might get infected.”

Johnny felt an unexpected warmth at having his father express concern for his well being.  His father had seemed concerned when he was recovering from the bullet wound, but at times Johnny had been battling fever and general weakness from the wound, so he hadn’t been aware of how it made him feel.  Once he was recovered enough to get around on his own, his father seemed to withdraw. He seemed to be too busy to talk much to Johnny as he threw himself into the task of rebuilding the ranch after the months of siege by Pardee and his landgrabbers.  Since then their conversations had been pretty much limited to orders that the old man expected to be obeyed without argument.  So far Johnny had managed to avoid a confrontation as he was determined to hold onto his temper and show this old man that he could do any job he was put to.

“Thanks” Johnny said simply. He tried to think of more to say, but his mind was a blank. He often became tongue-tied whenever he was alone with his father.  The opportunity was lost when Murdoch turned back to the fence and expertly wrapped the remaining wire stretching it tight.  He glanced impatiently over his shoulder at Johnny  and said. “Don’t just stand there. Get this nailed up.”  Johnny flushed and hurried to secure the wire to the post.

Stepping back, Murdoch turned to Johnny and said gruffly. “Go on back to the ranch and get that cut taken care of.” Pulling his watch from his pocket he checked the time and looked at it with a scowl. “I’ve got to get going. I told Scott I’d meet him in the south pasture at 3:00 to go over the placement of the new fence line.”  He glanced at Johnny and then back at the mended fence. “Now I’m running late.” He finished.

Johnny scrapped the dirt with the toe of his boot not meeting his father’s eyes.  He turned without a word and walked over to where Barranca was tied.  He tightened the cinch and mounted in time to see his father riding away toward the south pasture.   With a sigh Johnny turned the palomino toward the estancia.

 

*******

Supper that night found the new family eating together in silence.  Scott looked at his brother across the table where he was pushing the food around on his plate.

“Johnny aren’t you hungry?” He asked.

The fork stopped and Johnny’s brilliant blue eyes met Scott’s smoky gray/blue eyes.  Before he could form a response Murdoch said. “Either eat your supper Johnny, or excuse yourself and leave the table.”

Johnny’s gaze dropped to his plate and glanced at his father. “Guess I’m not hungry.” He said as he put his napkin on the table and stood up.  He saw that Teresa was looking at him with concern.  He smiled wanly and said. “It was good Teresa.” Failing to reassure her, he left the room.

“What’s eating him?”  Murdoch asked.

Scott shook his head and raised his eyebrows as he took a sip of his wine.  He would check on his brother later and see if he could find out what was bothering him.  While they were strangers less than two months ago, Scott was rapidly developing feelings for his younger brother, and he knew that Johnny felt them also even though getting him to put them into words was like pulling teeth.

Johnny went to his room, kicking himself for his behavior at the table.  ‘Why did I do that? What’s wrong with me? I should be able to get through a simple meal with them without everything tasting like sawdust.’

He sat down on his bed intending to lay back but he was feeling too restless to relax.  He got up and walked over to the open window.  Resting his elbows on the sill and he leaned out taking large gulps of the cool fresh air.  His decision made, he picked up his gunbelt and quickly wrapped it around his slim hips and buckled it securely.  Shrugging on his jacket, he picked up his hat and headed back into the hall.

He carefully walked the length of the hall toward the kitchen and listened for voices. Hearing none, he walked quietly down the stairs and paused before entering.  Stepping into the kitchen he looked around and saw Maria as she prepared coffee for her patron’s family.  Maria turned with a questioning look as Johnny put a warning finger to his lips.  She shook her head in a scolding manner but didn’t say anything.

Johnny exited the house and headed for the barn.  He was relieved that Teresa didn’t catch him as he knew she would never have let him get away without an explanation. He walked across the yard trying to look casual so none of the hands would take notice.  Saddling Barranca, he led him out of the barn, mounted and left before anyone noticed his activity.

 

***

After a somewhat strained supper which only got worse with Johnny’s absence, Teresa fled to the safety of the kitchen and Scott and Murdoch went into the living room.

“Is Johnny all right?” he asked Murdoch.

“As far as I know, he’s fine.” Murdoch replied.  “He cut his hand today, but it wasn’t bad.  I sent him back here early to get it tended to.”  Shaking his head, Murdoch continued with an air of frustration. “I don’t know.  He’s hard to figure sometimes.”

Scott privately agreed as he reached out to accept the offered brandy snifter. “Thanks.”

“Scott, let’s go over the map one more time.  He spread the map of the south pasture out on his desk and began tracing his finger along a portion.  If we move the fence to here,” he said pointing. “We could fence out a soft sand gully that’s been causing us trouble for years.  It’s full of soft sand and the cattle get trapped down there and we have a devil of a time pulling them out.”

“Good idea. That would save us time and cattle loss which would more than make up for the added cost and time to fence around it.” Scott said admiring his father’s sound planning.  Scott began studying the map incorporating this change into the plans for the new fence.

Murdoch took a sip of his brandy, savoring it’s robust taste as it surrounded his senses. “This is our most ambitious fencing job.  Once it’s done we can keep the cattle in the southern section of the ranch through the winter and we won’t have to go chasing all through the high country when the weather gets bad.”

Scott nodded thoughtfully enjoying his time with his father, listening and learning about ranching.  He felt a great contentment come over him as he listened to his father plan for their future, one Scott hoped Johnny would embrace  their destiny as he had.

Another hour went by and Scott felt his eyelids drooping.  Standing, he took a final sip of brandy draining his glass. “Sir. I’m going to call it a night.”

Murdoch looked up and smiled. “I’ll be up in a little while son. Goodnight,”

“Goodnight  Murdoch.”  Scott said feeling fond of the man he was coming to know as his father.

 

****

Scott intended to settle in his room with a book, but decided to check on Johnny first.  Getting no answer to the knock on the door, he eased the door open slowly. Stepping into the room, he could tell by the fading light that the room was empty. ‘Where’s that boy gone?’ he asked himself.  With a sigh he turned on his heel and headed out the door toward the kitchen.

As he started down the stairs he met Teresa coming up, “Have you seen Johnny?”

“Not since he left the table tonight. Is anything wrong?”

“He’s not in his room.  He must of slipped out while we were finishing dinner.”

“Maybe he’s in the barn.” She offered.

Scott nodded. They both knew he spent a lot of time with the horses and that’s probably where he was. Still...Scott felt he would sleep better after he had located his brother.

Scott pulled on his jacket and walked out to the barn.  He opened the door and was surprised to find himself in darkness. He took a match out of his pocket and scraped it along the rough edge of his boot. Raising the chimney he lit the lantern.  The horses all looked at him and began nickering nervously as he  swung the lantern from side to side casting long shadows into the far corners of the barn. ‘All here.  Except.... Johnny’s.’  He thought with disappointment. Reaching over to stroke the velvety muzzle of Murdoch’s gelding, he turned and left the horses to continue eating their hay.

Scott walked back up the stairs from the kitchen. His step just a bit heavier than earlier.  He wanted to avoid having to explain to Murdoch.  He had a feeling he would be displeased to hear his son had gone somewhere so late at night. With a sigh, he lay fully dressed on his bed, opened his book and tried to relax.

Scott awoke with a start and the book resting on his chest fell to the floor with a thump.  It took him a few seconds to orientate himself and he realized he had drifted off to sleep fully dressed.  Leaning over to pick up the book, he glanced at the clock on his bedside table. ‘Almost midnight.’ He mused. ‘I better get undressed and into bed. Morning will be here before I know it.’

Another thought struck him.  He got up, left his room, and walked across to Johnny’s door.  ‘I don’t want to wake him up. I just want to make sure he got home all right.’ He reasoned.  Feeling a bit uncomfortable in his new role as big brother, he opened Johnny’s door as quietly as possible.

The first thing he noticed was the cool breeze coming through the open window.  There was enough moonlight to see without lighting a lamp, and with sinking heart Scott could clearly see that Johnny had not returned home.

Scott was surprised at the irritation he felt toward his brother.  He knew he wouldn’t get much sleep in anticipation of the conversation he planned to have with his wayward younger brother in the morning. He turned away and returned to his room to try to salvage what was left of the night.

 

*****

Part 2

Johnny slowed Barranca to a walk as he neared the outskirts of Morro Coyo.  He was feeling unsettled as part of him wished he had stayed at the ranch but an  unease he couldn’t identify drove him on.  As he entered the street, the adobe buildings called to him.  He relaxed in a place deep inside himself few ever saw.  Outwardly he was alert for danger.  His ice blue eyes searched the shadows, seeking out the shopkeepers hurrying home after closing their establishments at dark.  Johnny knew that on a Wednesday night Morro Coyo was more than likely going to roll up the sidewalks and that was fine with him.

As he worked his way down the street, he realized that his stomach was grumbling from hunger.  He’d only eaten a couple bites at supper and now a good meal was calling him.  Heading Barranca down a side street, Johnny dismounted at the one café serving Mexican food in town.  Looking up and down the narrow street, he tied his horse to the hitching rail and sauntered inside.  He stopped just inside the door and let his eyes adjust to the dim light.  There was only one table occupied by a Mexican couple as they finished their meal.

“Buenos dias Senior. Welcome.” Senora Garcia greeted him.  As she approached, her work lined face beckoned him with a welcoming smile, arms outstretched. Johnny felt himself enveloped into a warmth and a sense of belonging he had missed since coming so far north into California.  He had been in the restaurant just two other times since his arrival and each time this friendly family had made him feel welcome.  Senora Garcia led him to a table in the kitchen where he could eat with the rest of her family.

 
Johnny flashed her a grin of thanks as she set down a plate of freshly made tortillas and salsa.  Johnny savored the sights and smells surrounding him and he felt a sense of belonging.  He listened with a faint smile to the rapidly chattering Spanish of the Garcia family as they teased each other.  The older boy was showing off a bit for Johnny’s sake but the adults looked on with an indulgent smile.

Senora Garcia and her two married daughters were at the stove putting the finishing touches on the meal.  Johnny sat back and watched as the extended family began assembling at the table.  Senor Garcia  introduced Johnny  to his son-in-laws and assorted younger children and grandchildren.  Twelve in all by the time they were all seated.

By the time the meal was served, it was after 9:00 and the restaurant was closed so the family could enjoy their meal in peace.  Johnny talked to Senor Garcia and answered his questions about the ranch. He wanted to keep up on the news of the area’s largest ranch and he asked how the vaqueros and their families were doing after the terror of Pardee’s gang passed.  Looking around the table, Johnny couldn’t help but reflect that if his mother had chosen a different man to be his father, maybe she would have been happy and he would have grown up in a close knit Mexican community.  He had always been on the fringes, every once in a while meeting a nice family who invited him into their home.

As the meal was winding down, he sat back feeling almost too full but also content. Johnny started to pull a coin out of his pocket, but Senora Garcia reached over and stilled his hand. “No Juanito.  Tonight you are our guest.”

Flushing with gratitude, he thanked the Garcia family for the wonderful meal and promised to return soon.  As he walked across the  boardwalk to Barranca, he glanced at the closed door and dark building of the café.   With a sigh he untied the reins and felt a bit sorry to lose the feeling of belonging he had at the Garcia’s table.  Not once since returning to join his father’s family had he felt so welcome as he had with this family.

Johnny swung aboard his horse and turned him intending to head back to the ranch.  He couldn’t yet call it home, but he hoped someday he would have the same feeling of belonging with his own family that he felt at the Garcia’s.  Guiding Barranca through the narrow street back onto the main street, he stopped as he made a decision.  Turning once in his saddle, he looked in the direction of the saloon a ways down the street. He saw three  horses standing patiently tied to the hitching rail, hind leg cocked at rest.

His decision made, he turned his horse and rode him at a slow walk down the street. He dismounted and led Barranca to the community water trough.  “Wait a minute, boy.” He said as he pumped fresh water for his thirsty horse to drink.  Barranca eagerly drank his fill and dribbled water over Johnny’s shoulder as he sidestepped out of the way chuckling at the impromptu bath he had just received.  Tying the gelding at a hitching rail, he walked toward the saloon.

He stopped at the doors carefully looking inside.  He saw a couple of men at the bar nursing their beers.  From the cut of their clothes and the way their guns hung on their hips, he knew they were locals and more than likely harmless.  His dark blue eyes flickered briefly to a table with 3 men playing poker.  They seemed to be relaxed and absorbed in the game.  Taking a deep breath, he stepped through the swinging doors and all eyes turned to the dark-haired stranger.

He tipped his head acknowledging the men at the table and walked catlike to the bar. When the barkeep approached him.  “I’ll have a beer.  Quiet night huh?” He said looking around.

As the barkeep set down the foamy brew, he replied. “Mid week we usually get a few folks in but the cowhands don’t come in until Saturday night, then this place starts jumpin’.”

Nodding, Johnny turned his back on the barkeep and leaned against the bar. Taking a sip, he savored his beer and casually watched the poker game.  All three men looked like cowhands.  They wore range clothes, boots and hats.  One caught his eye.  He had an easy smile and seemed to be taking the others for all they were worth as he had a pile of coins in front of him.  He had short curly dark blonde hair, a ready smile, and Johnny estimated they were about the same age.

 “More beer.” The blonde called as he raked in another winning pot.  He looked up and caught Johnny’s eye.  “Want to join us?”  He offered.

Johnny moved over to the table and said. “What’s the limit?”

“This is just a friendly game. Fifty cents is the limit.” The blonde responded.

Johnny pulled out a chair and set his beer down. “I can play a few hands.” He said as he pushed his hat onto his back held by the storm strings around his neck.

“I’m Stacy,” The blonde said. “This here’s Billy and that’s Wade.” He said by introduction pointing to his two companions.

“Howdy. Name’s Johnny.”  He said as he tossed in two bits. “I’m in.”

Cards were dealt and the three men looked at the new comer surpendiously over their cards.  Johnny knew they were looking but he was studying them as well. They seemed harmless and the talk went on in the western tradition.  None of them asked each other for personal information. None given or even expected.  On a first name basis only they spent a couple of hours in a friendly game.  Johnny won some pots and lost a few but as the time neared midnight, he figured he was about $5.00 ahead.

As he drained the beer out of his  glass, Stacy looked at his companions and said. “Well, we better git back before the old man misses us.”

“Nice meetin’ you boys.” Johnny said as he walked with them from the saloon heading toward his horse.

“Hey Johnny.” Stacy called.

Johnny tensed and turned back. “Yeah?”

“Are ya comin’ into town this Saturday night?”

“Maybe. I’m not sure yet.”

“Look for us if ya come in.  Us Box D hands rarely miss a Saturday night around here.”

Johnny smiled and looked at the three slightly drunken cowhands and said. “I’ll mind it.”

Before he could reach his horse, Billy’s voice stopped him.  “Hey Johnny, we play poker here most Wednesday nights.  If ya kin get away, we’d be right pleased to have ya join us.  Right Wade?”

“Sure thing Billy.  Anytime Johnny.” The tall thin cowboy replied.

“Thanks. Night.”  Johnny said as he mounted his horse and headed out of town.  Looking at the position of the moon, Johnny figured by the time he got home he’d get a few hours of sleep before it was time to get up at dawn and start another day of labor.  He knew he’d be tired in the morning, but he felt it was a fair trade off for the few hours of time off he got that evening.

 

Johnny arrived back at the ranch just after 1:00 AM.  He quickly took care of Barranca patting his neck as the horse contentedly munched his hay.  Feeling as if his burden was lighter than it had been in weeks, he headed to the house and slipped quietly through the front door.  The massive door creaked as he closed it and he vowed to oil the hinges first thing in the morning.

He walked a couple steps on the hard wood floor and realized he couldn’t get up to his room without making noise in his boots so he toed them off and carried them on silent feet upstairs to his room.  He eased his door open practically jumping out of his skin when his door squeaked. ‘Don’t they ever oil the hinges around here?’ He asked himself. Once the door was closed, his heart rate returned to normal, and a self-satisfied smile played across his lips as he eased off his gunbelt and flopped onto his bed.  He lay there for a moment thinking back over the night’s activities with satisfaction.  He propped his arms behind his head as he relaxed and he reflected that this was the time he usually went to bed. ‘Of course, back then I could sleep till noon if I wanted.’ He mused. ‘Now I gotta be up at the crack ‘o dawn or the Old Man will get his tail feathers bent out of shape.’  He rolled over, closed his eyes and was soon asleep.

 

Scott smiled to himself as he heard Johnny’s door open.  His little brother was in for a rude awakening in the morning when big brother jumped all over him for his late night excursion.  Now that Johnny was safely home, he could fall back to a restful sleep.

 

*****

Part 3

Scott awoke with a start.  He opened one eye and saw the first light breaking through the darkness signaling the dawn.  In the distance he could hear a rooster crow answered by another then another.  He fought off the temptation to roll over for a few minutes more shut eye.

This morning he had a mission to accomplish and he would not be denied.  Groaning, he forced himself out of  bed and ran his fingers through his blonde hair.  He started his morning ministrations.  Washing and shaving quickly, he relished the meeting of the minds he intended to have with his younger brother in a few minutes.

As he washed the last of the shaving soap from his face, he justified his upcoming action as being in his brother’s best interest.  After all, he told himself, he could let him oversleep and face the wrath of Murdoch.  He didn’t think Johnny would want to go through that again after the reaming Murdoch gave him two weeks ago for sleeping late.

The sun was now making an appearance as Scott stepped into the hallway.  He walked quietly to Johnny’s door.  With a huge smile on his face, he flung the door open with a bang. “Wake up Johnny.” He said loudly.  “Come on boy. Rise and shine. We’ve got to get an early start on the day.”

Scott stood back with his arms folded across his chest and watched with amusement as Johnny struggled to either wake up or go back to sleep.  For a couple of moments, Scott couldn’t tell which.

Johnny tried to pull the covers over his head and mumbled something that sounded like. “Go way. Scott.”

“Come on brother. Wake up.” Scott insisted as he yanked the covers off Johnny in one quick movement.

“Hey! Leave me alone.” Johnny growled getting angry. “Get the hell outta here.”

Scott reached over and took Johnny by the shirt collar and hauled his still sleepy brother upright.  Johnny swung a half hearted arm at him, missing by a mile.  Scott hauled Johnny to his feet and deposited him in a chair as began to stand up, Scott commanded. “Sit and Listen.”  Johnny glared at his brother, and before he could say anything, Scott started in. “Be grateful, brother that it’s me and not Murdoch, hauling you out of bed.”

“Scott…” Johnny stopped as Scott interrupted him by pointing a finger at him.

“No. You be quiet and listen.  I don’t know what you were up to last night and I’m not sure I want to know.  You’re part of this family now and you no longer have the right to take off without letting anyone know.”  Looking hard at the expression on his brother’s face.  Scott saw a mixture of resentment, and confusion.  He went on in a gentler tone. “I was worried about you.  You got in well after midnight and let me tell you Johnny,  you can’t run around at night and expect to make it through the day around here.”

“What do you care?  It’s my life.  I’ve got a right to do what I want.”

“Not anymore, you don’t.  You have a family to answer to, just as we have to answer to you.”  Noticing the resentment on Johnny’s face, Scott sought to help him understand. “We worry about you.  I…worry about you Johnny.” Seeing that Johnny was ready to protest, Scott held up a hand. “I know. I know. You know how to take care of yourself. Besides….” A half-smile crossed his lips. “ You could have asked me to go with you Johnny.”  Scott  had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from bursting out laughing at the expression on Johnny’s face.

Looking at his hands. Johnny  felt an unaccustomed guilt sweep over him as he  looked at his brother. “I’m sorry Scott.”  He mumbled,  again looking at his hands,  “I didn’t think about askin’ ya.”  Looking at his brother in a new light, he asked. “Do ya want to go into town with me Saturday night Scott?”

Scott broke out into a smile and clapped his hand on Johnny’s shoulder.  “Sounds good brother and you can buy the first round. You owe me.”

‘I owe you? How do you figure that?”  Johnny said with amusement.

“For waking you up this morning.” Scott said matter of factually.

“The only thing I owe ya is a dunk in the horse trough.”

“You have an amazingly short memory brother if you’ve forgotten already the joy  of Murdoch waking you up if you oversleep.”  Scott had a hard time keeping a straight face as he watched the expressions on Johnny’s face as he remembered that morning two weeks ago when Murdoch’s  angry voice woke him out of a deep slumber.

“Naw, I don’t want to put the old man out again. Thanks Scott.”

Just then, the door was pushed fully open and Murdoch’s booming voice asked. “You don’t want to put the old man out for what, Johnny?”

Johnny sighed as it looked like he was not going to get a break today. “Nuthin’.  I didn’t mean nuthin.” He muttered.

Looking hard at his youngest son, he decided not to push it. “Breakfast is ready.” He announced.  “Get a move on, we’ve got a lot to do today.” He turned on his heel  and headed for the kitchen.

Scott stood up straight, saluted the space his father had just vacated and said crisply “Yes Sir.”  Turning back to Johnny, they both began to laugh.

Johnny mused. ‘Maybe today won’t be so bad after all.’

 

****

Johnny joined his family at the breakfast table in the kitchen.  Teresa set a cup of steaming coffee in front of him and he smiled at her  saying. “Gracias, T’resa.”

Teresa smiled back and him and his day got measurably better.  Maria placed a platter of eggs and bacon on the table and Johnny found himself perking up at the wonderful smells of breakfast.

“Milk, Johnny?” Teresa said as she poured herself a glass.

Holding his glass toward her, he said. “Sure thing Teresa. Thanks.”  He set the glass down and took another long sip of coffee and started to feel his normal energy return. He began eating his eggs and bacon with the look of a man who hadn’t eaten in days.

Scott looked at his brother and had a hard time to keep from laughing at the change from the sleepy brother to the wide awake bundle of energy. In a teasing voice he said. “Hungry brother?”

Johnny stopped mid bite and smiled before stuffing the next fork full of eggs into his mouth.  “We got a big day today.  I’m stockin up.” Johnny said with a glance at Murdoch and rolled his eyes.

Scott cut off a snort of laughter and covered it by taking a bite of bacon.  Murdoch looked up at the sound and then returned to his breakfast.

For the next few minutes, the only sound was of cutlery against stoneware as the family ate breakfast.  Teresa finally broke the silence. “Murdoch, I’m going into town today with Carlos to get the supplies for the round up and for the barbecue at the Dawson’s on Sunday.  Is there anything you want us to pickup?”

“Yes, there are a few things I need. I’ll make a list.”

Johnny and Scott stopped eating in unison and both looked at Murdoch.  Scott was the one to voice the question.  “Sir, you mentioned the roundup next week, but I was wondering what you expected from us?”

Before Murdoch could answer, Teresa started in with enthusiasm. “Oh Scott, you’re just going to love it.  All the ranches in this part of the valley get together to help each other to gather and brand their herds.  One ranch always hosts the barbecue the Sunday before.  This year it’s at the Box D.   Everyone brings food, there’s music, and dancing.  It’s so much fun.” She said as her eyes danced with delight.

She brushed  a strand of brown hair out of her face and continued.  “I’m making pies and  Pedro is taking over a side of beef on Saturday.  It will be slow cooked and will melt in your mouth by Sunday afternoon.”

It’s making me hungry already.” Murdoch spoke up. “Actually, all fun aside, the round up is hard work.  It’s long days of non stop work. We start at the Dawson’s, move on to the Carter’s, then we go over to the Vegas’ and finally finish up here.  We will need to rotate the hands out to the different ranches and still keep everything going here.” He took a sip of coffee before continuing.

“We’ll make sure our herds are pushed down into the south pasture so they will be easy to round up and get to the branding pens.  Scott, will you go over to the branding pens this morning and make sure the men get that done today?  It needs to be strong and sturdy.  Johnny, you head over to the fence you were working on yesterday and follow it to the northeast corner and along back here.  It will take up the whole day.  You’ll need to take along the mending tools as I noticed there were a number of places the wire was loose or down.  We need to make sure the cattle can’t get through any holes over on that side.”

He paused as he waited for both sons to acknowledge his instructions for the day.  “Any questions? Johnny?”

“This barbecue.  How many people are gonna be there?”  Johnny asked.

“This year, counting the hands from all the ranches and people from town, maybe 50 or so.”

Johnny whistled. “That’s quite a crowd.”

“It sounds like we’ll be able to meet a lot of our neighbors.” Scott commented.

“They’re good hard working people.” Murdoch replied.

Teresa noticed the look of concern on Johnny’s face. “Don’t worry about a thing.  I’ll introduce you to all my friends.” Teresa said as she contemplated introducing these two handsome men to the young ladies in the area.  Most of her friends would be falling all over themselves to dance with the Lancer sons. Johnny and Scott pushed themselves away from the table preparing to start work  for the day.

 

****

Scott met Johnny late in the afternoon as he was just finishing the last of the fence.  As Scott rode up, Johnny shielded his eyes against the low setting sun. “Hey, Scott.  I’ll tell you I’ve never been so glad to get a job done.” He said as he nailed the last strand of barbed wire onto the post.

“It looks good, Johnny.  That should hold the cattle....at least for a while.”

“What is it about cows, anyway?” Johnny said as he pointed with his hammer. “They have all this good graze and they push on the fences and tear them up.”

Scott chuckled at the expression on Johnny’s dirt streaked face. “Maybe they figure that’s what they have us around for, brother.”

Johnny chucked as he walked over to Barranca.  “That must be it.” He agreed.  He took his canteen off the saddle and took a long drink.  ‘Ya want some?” He said holding it out to Scott.

Scott started to shake his head no, then legged his horse over and took the canteen. Drinking deeply, he capped the canteen and said. “Thanks, Johnny.”  Scott waited for Johnny to collect his gear and mount Barranca.  The two brothers turned and headed home.

 

*****

Murdoch was checking the list against the supplies left in the wagon.  Teresa’s supplies had been unloaded at the kitchen door and Murdoch was helping Carlos unload the remaining supplies at the storage door of the barn. “Senior, they only had six salt blocks. More will be coming from Modesto in two weeks.” The hired man informed him.

“Thank you, Carlos. We’ll make do with these until they come in.  Leave them in the wagon and you can take them tomorrow and lay them out.”

Murdoch looked up to see Scott and Johnny riding in together. An unaccustomed feeling of pride washed over him at seeing his two boys together.  His life long dream of having his sons by his side was finally coming true.

“Hello boys.” he said walking over to them. “How did everything go today?”

Scott answered first. “Everything is ready at the branding pens for next week. When I left the men were just loading the tools and the unused materials into the wagon.”

Murdoch looked at Johnny. “And you, son. How’s that fence coming?”

“I got it done. Those cows won’t be pushing through it for a while at least.” Johnny replied.

“Good job, Johnny.” Murdoch said as he clapped him on the shoulder and walked toward the house.

Scott chuckled at the look of outright surprise on his brother’s face at his father’s praise. “Better close your mouth, Johnny. You’re going to let the flies in.” He advised.

Scowling at his brother, Johnny turned and led Barranca into the barn.

****

That evening after supper,  the sunset was painting a glorious pallet of orange across the sky.  Murdoch stood on the verandah absorbed by the peacefulness of the ranch.  Brandy snifter in hand, he relished the quiet, as his eyes focused on movement in the front pasture.  He watched in fascination as the fading light flickered off the golden coat of the galloping horse. The only sound was the faint hoofbeats muffled by the thick grass.

His heart beat faster as the horse bore down on the lone figure standing still in the middle of the field.  Murdoch felt a surge of alarm as he scanned the ground sure he would see the mangled body of his son as the horse flew past. The palomino made a heart stopping turn at the last minute before the fence, and as he galloped away he could see his son riding the horse bareback without the benefit of saddle or bridle.  Murdoch marveled at the speed which his son mounted the galloping horse as it flew by him.

Taking a sip of brandy, he watched as his son rolled off the galloping horse and came to his feet.  The horse made a wide circle and stopped facing his partner in this dance.  Eyes sparkling, ears flicking, waiting for the music only the pair of them could hear to start the next waltz.

Murdoch waited in anticipation straining to hear or see the commands Johnny was using to cue the horse.  He heard footsteps on the tile and turned to see Scott coming to join him.

“Would you like some company, Sir?”

“Of course, Scott.” He answered.

“What are you looking at?”

Murdoch gestured with his glass. “Look at your brother.”

Scott’s attention was directed to the field where Johnny rode the palomino. The horse was loping in a straight line, and every third stride, he would change leads effortlessly like he had been doing it his whole life.  “Amazing.” Scott breathed. “I’ve seen this done before, but never without a saddle and bridle, and the horse had years of training.”

As the light was fading, Johnny slipped off his horse and walked to the gate. The palomino followed at his shoulder.  Johnny stopped at the gate, rubbed the golden neck and crawled through the gate.  The horse tossed his head and wheeled,  galloping away throwing in a few bucks to signal his displeasure at being left alone in the pasture.

Scott laughed at the horse’s antics and said.  “I think if  you’d let him, Johnny would have that horse living in the house.”

Murdoch chucked and said. “I think you’re right about that, son.”

Murdoch and Scott returned to the house and Murdoch decided he would talk to Johnny about the amazing display of horsemanship he had witnessed.  ‘Johnny was proving himself to be quite a hand when it came to horses.’ He thought.

Murdoch settled himself in front of the fire as a wave of regret passed over him.  Johnny had so much talent. Why did he choose to live by his gun? What circumstances drove him to do it? Murdoch was afraid to ask; to find out the darkness that lay beneath the surface of his youngest son.  He is such a riddle. Murdoch thought.  Tough and hard one minute. laughing and teasing another. A cold hard man, old beyond his years but at times a mischievous boy.

Murdoch couldn’t help but smile as he recalled the prank Johnny pulled on Scott a week ago and the look on his oldest son’s face as he realized he’d been had. It was taking Scott a while to get used to having a little brother in his life. This was a new experience for all of them. As Teresa had wisely reminded him. ‘It will take a little time.’

 

****

The next morning after breakfast Johnny and Scott pushed back their chairs ready to start work for the day. They had their orders and they knew exactly what the old man expected  them to get done today.

‘When the old man said he would call the tune, he wasn’t kidding.’ Johnny thought. ‘As long as I keep movin today, I should be able to get everything done  by dark.’

“Ah Johnny, stay a minute. I want to talk to you.” Murdoch requested.

Scott threw a sympathetic look at his brother as he noticed Johnny’s shoulders tense. “I’ll see you this evening.” Scott said as he took his hat and left the kitchen.

“Sit down, Johnny.  Have another cup of coffee with me.” He said as he poured the coffee.

Johnny sat back down and quickly reviewed everything he had done in the last couple of days and he couldn’t think of anything he had done wrong.  He forced a smile at his father as he held the cup of coffee to his lips and blew on the steaming brew to cool it.  He took a sip, and set it down harder on the table than he planned as a thought struck him. ‘No. He found out about Wednesday night.  He couldn’t be mad at me for that.  I didn’t do nothin’ wrong.’ He thought as he waited apprehensively for his father to point out his many shortcomings. ‘Wish he’d just get it over with.’  Johnny thought as he fiddled with the salt shaker.

Murdoch watched his son shift nervously in his seat and he felt sadness that so far he and Johnny hadn’t found common ground.  It was obvious that his youngest felt uncomfortable whenever he was alone with him.

Clearing his throat, he attempted to get Johnny to relax and look at him. “Son, I saw you last night with your horse.” He stopped as those dark blues eyes shot up at him in surprise, then just as quickly they dropped to the table again.  Shaking his head, Murdoch forged on. “I just wanted to tell you that was a magnificent display of horsemanship,”

Johnny felt himself flushing down to the roots of his hair at the unaccustomed praise. “Thanks.” he squeaked out.

“Where did you learn that son? Who taught you?”

Johnny shrugged. “Just picked it up I guess.”  Unwilling to discuss this with his father. He knew it would only hurt him and he was unwilling to be the cause of  hurt to his father.

Murdoch looked into Johnny’s eyes and caught the look that was asking him to drop it.  Murdoch nodded in deferment to his son’s feelings. ‘I’ll drop if for now, but will we talk about it someday.’ He vowed silently.

Johnny took another sip of coffee and rose. “If that’s all, I better get going if I’m gonna get done today.”

Before Murdoch could respond, he found himself alone in the kitchen.  ‘If the boy would only open up to me.’ He thought. ‘How do I get him to relax? Trust me?’ he asked himself.

He pondered his thoughts about his youngest as he went about his day, working for a few hours at his desk and then riding out to check on the progress of the crew working on the bridge.

****

Two tired young men sat at the Lancer table that night. It had been a long day as they crisscrossed the vast ranch to get their assigned chores done. Murdoch had grilled them both on what they had accomplished, asking about the condition of the cattle, how the grass looked, how the water holes were holding up among other things.

He hoped they understood that he wanted them to gain enough experience to be able to tell if the graze was starting to thin or if the cattle were not flourishing.  He knew it would take them some time to gain the knowledge they would need to successfully handle the ranch someday when he was gone.

Both boys were sharp.  Johnny had a real eye for conformation, both horses and cattle.  Scott had a good head on his shoulders for business.  He could see that his son’s were forming a bond with each other that he hoped would grow strong enough for them to want to settle down and raise families here.

‘Life is good.’ Murdoch thought contentedly as he relaxed at the head of the Lancer table.

******

Part 4

Saturday morning found the ranch a bustle of activity.  Every person had a job assigned getting ready for the spring roundup.  Murdoch had sent his sons to oversee the men who were moving the cattle down into the south pasture in preparation for driving the cows with calves to the branding pens later the next week.

As Murdoch settled at his desk he heard a knock on the door. Striding across the room to the front door, he opened it to find Jeff Carter at his doorstep.  “Jeff. This is a nice surprise. Come on in.”

“Hello Murdoch. I’m glad you’re home.”  The thin dark haired man said as he hung his hat on the hat stand by the door.  “I wanted to talk to you about the round up.”

Murdoch gestured for him to take a seat in the living room and poured them both a cup of coffee from the fresh pot Teresa had just brought in.  “What’s on your mind? “

“As you know, my herd has been running with the Vegas’ herd and some of those calves have gotten pretty big. I want to get it straightened out ahead of time, whose brand goes on them.  I don’t want any trouble so I wanted to get your help.”  He stopped and looked at Murdoch with his piercing brown eyes.

Murdoch felt uncomfortable with this neighbor, as it always seemed that he made problems more often than not and this looked like another problem he was going to have to mediate.  In the 5 years Jefferson Carter had lived in the area, he had made more than his fair share of enemies with neighboring ranchers.  He was a member of the association, but Murdoch knew that several of the other members were unhappy with his participation.

Taking a sip of coffee, he looked at Jeff over the cup.  Mustering every bit of diplomacy that he had he said. “Jeff, we’ll handle like we have in the past.  Calves will be branded with the same brand as their mother.  In a mixed herd, any weaned calves will be branded equally between the ranches.  That’s the way we have always done it and I don’t see any reason to change now.”

“When I was in Arizona, we did it different.  We would see how many lone cows there were and then brand the calves according to who owned the cows.  That seemed a lot fairer to me.” Jeff said looking disgruntled at Murdoch.

“Jeff, I know that things are done differently in other areas, but here we continue to do it as we always have.”  Murdoch said firmly hoping to end the discussion.

Jeff stood and picked up his hat with a sour look on his thin face. “I’m gonna bring this up at the next board meeting Murdoch.  It’s time the ranchers in this valley started looking at new ways of doing things.”

“You do that Jeff.  See you tomorrow at the Dawson’s.”  Murdoch said walking his unwelcome guest to the door.

As the dour man rode off Murdoch shook his head and hoped there wouldn’t be any trouble this year.  The valley already had its share of problems without hotheads and troublemakers adding to the problems.

*****

Later that afternoon, Scott and his crew pushed the herd they had gathered into the south pasture.  It was a hot dusty job and Scott looked forward to going home and getting a nice relaxing bath.  He heard a whistle off to his right and turned to see Johnny and his crew bringing in a sizable herd.  The cattle were bawling for their calves to catch up as the two herds milled together.

Johnny rode up wiping his arm across his sweaty forehead. “Hey brother. It sure is hot today.  It feels like my clothes are stuck to me and I’ll have to peel them off.”

Scott looked at the dirt on his brothers’ face and on his shirt and he silently agreed. “A cool drink and a hot bath will set you up in no time brother.”

Johnny laughed and backhanded Scott in the stomach as he rode by.  “Don’t forget were goin’ to town tonight and kick off some of this range dust, brother.”

“If I remember correctly, you’re buying the first round little brother.”  Scott reminded him.

 

****

Johnny and Scott rode into town as darkness fell.  As they neared the saloon they could hear the sound of an out of tune piano accompanied by the occasional shout from inside the bustling establishment.

“Sounds like they’re already havin’ a good time.” Johnny said as he tied Barranca to the hitching rail. “Let’s get in and wash some of that trail dust outta our throats.” He said as he gave Scott a playful shove.

“Watch it Johnny, or I’ll have to teach you some manners.” Scott teased.

Johnny rolled his eyes and stepped through the doors into the crowded saloon.  At the Lancer brothers’ entrance, all eyes turned to the new comers and a sudden silence fell over the saloon.

Scott looked at Johnny and saw that his brother’s blue eyes had taken on an icy darkness as he searched the darkened room.

“Johnny! Over here!” A voice called out.  Through the smoke, Scott could make out a young man wearing a gray Stetson motioning to them.

“Over here, Scott. “ Johnny mumbled as he started pushing his way through the crowed room.

“Hi Stacy.  Boys.  Scott, these boys are from the Double D.  This heres Stacy and that tall drink of water is Wade and this fella is Billy..  This is my brother Scott Lancer.” Johnny said by way of introduction.

“Hello.”  Scott said somewhat stiffly.

“Any brother of Johnny’s is of friend a ours.”  Billy said.

Stacy kicked out a chair and said. “Sit on down.  I’ll buy the first round.”

Scott smiled at that and said. “Actually fellas. My brother is buying the first round tonight.”  Scott had a hard time not laughing at the expression on Johnny’s face as it changed from mild consternation to resignation.

Johnny motioned to the barkeeper and glanced balefully at his brother. “I suppose you’re expecting champagne brother?”

With that they all broke up laughing.  “Good one Johnny” Wade said through snorts as he tried to keep his last swallow of beer down.

“What’ll you boys have?”  Johnny asked.

“Another one of these will suit me just fine.” Stacy said hold up his beer mug.

The others all agreed, so it was beer all around.  Johnny flipped a $5.00 gold piece to the bartender and ordered beer all around.

As Johnny and Scott sat and made themselves comfortable, the activity around the room returned to normal.  At the small table there was a lot of good natured joshing and Scott was amazed at how quickly Johnny had made friends with these three young men.  As the night progressed they were introduced to a number of other ranch hands in the area that came into town to enjoy their Saturday night.

The saloon was filled to capacity by eleven o’clock as this was the first Saturday after payday and the locals were anxious to spend their hard-earned dollars on a few hours of leisure.

Scott noticed that the patrons were becoming drunker and louder as time went on.  The five men at the table were playing a friendly game of poker.  Johnny looked at Scott with a slight smile playing about his lips. “That’s a flush lookin’ about you, Scott.” He said as Scott was contemplating whether to call or fold.

Scott  decided his brother might be bluffing so he called.  Johnny’s face broke out in a huge grin as he presented his flush and began scooping up the pile of money in the middle of the table.

“Whew wee Scott.  Johnny sure took ya on that.”  Billy said with delight.

Scott began shuffling the cards as he smiled and shook his head at his brother’s audacity.  He was plotting his revenge as a large man in a black leather vest side stepped into Johnny spilling his beer on the table and splashing all of them.  He turned to scowl at Johnny and snarled. “Watch it.”

Johnny held up his left hand. “I didn’t do nuthin mister.  You should watch where you’re steppin’.” He warned, his eyes growing icy.

Scott could see this situation could easily escalate out of control, and the saloon once again became quiet as the two men locked stares.

“Whatta you doin’ in here, greaser? We don’t allow your kind in our saloon.” The drunk snarled.

“Ya wanta make me move outta here? Anytime you want.  Just try me.” Johnny challenged in a quiet voice.

Scott sat motionless wanting to intervene, but afraid of distracting Johnny.  One of the drunken man’s friends sidled up. “Hey Jack.  That’s Johnny Madrid.” He whispered fairly loudly.  “Ya don’t want to take him on.” He advised.

The frown on Jack’s face didn’t make any improvement to his appearance as he contemplated his options in his alcohol-induced mind.  He didn’t want to back down but he knew this wasn’t the place or time.  “Madrid. Huh?”

“I go by Lancer now.”  Johnny said quietly.

“Another time, Gunhawk.”  Jack spat as he turned to leave the saloon.

“I’m ready to oblige, anytime you want.” Johnny replied to the back of the retreating man. Johnny took a deep breath, a little surprised with himself.  In the past he would have added the word ‘coward’ to the end of his sentence and forced the man to meet him out on the street. He would have taken the man down and returned to enjoying his night.  A strange feeling of unease washed over him, as he knew he had just let an enemy walk out the door.

As the time neared midnight, Scott wanted to start for home.  After the confrontation with Jack he didn’t feel comfortable staying any longer.  He was relieved that they had avoided a fight earlier, but for him, it ruined the evening.  Johnny didn’t seem to be in the least bit affected by the events and Scott found that to be somewhat disturbing.

“Come on, Johnny.  It’s getting late.”  Scott said in his brother’s ear.

Johnny looked at him in surprise. “Late?  We’re just getting’ started. We don’t have to work tomorrow, or did ya forget?” Johnny teased.

“I know but everyone who’s left is getting pretty drunk and I don’t care to be here if a fight breaks out.”

Stacy spoke up. “But Scott. That’s when it gets interesting.”

“Hey, you boys should go with us over to Spanish wells some night.  The saloon over there has some of the prettiest gals you ever did see.”  Wade said.

“Yeah. Right friendly gals with soft skin and pretty smiles.” Billy enthused.

Scott looked at the three Box D hands and said evasively. “Maybe we will.”  With that he took a firm grasp of Johnny’s upper arm and helped him to his feet.  “Come on brother. We’re leaving.”

“We’ll see you boys tomorrow.” Stacy said as Scott and Johnny began working their way out of the crowded saloon.

“Yeah Stace. You can show me that mare you were talkin’ about.” Johnny said as they left the saloon.

As they rode home, Scott asked. “Do you think we should mention this to Murdoch?”

“Mention what.”

“That scene tonight with Jack.”

Johnny looked at his brother. “What do you mean Scott?”

“Well… maybe he could talk to his boss and get him warned off.  He’s just spoiling for a fight”

“Naw Scott. Forget it.  He’s just askin’ to get hisself killed.  Maybe…maybe I’ll be the one to oblige.” Johnny said ominously as he urged Barranca into a lope.

Scott stared at his brother as his concern grew before starting home after him.

 

*******

Part 5

Sunday morning found Murdoch alone at the kitchen table nursing his first cup of coffee for the day.  Maria walked into the kitchen carrying a basket of eggs and gave the Lancer patriarch  a small smile.

“Buenos dias Senior. Como esta los ninos?”

“Buenos dias Maria.  I assume they are still sleeping. They got in last night after midnight.”  Murdoch grimaced slightly as he shifted his stiff leg. He envied his sons. ‘How long had it been since I’ve been able to put in a full days work and still hightail it to town for a night out drinking and who knows what?’  Those days are long gone, he thought.  ‘I wonder what shape they’ll be in this morning?’ He pondered.

Maria placed his breakfast in front of him.  Smiling gratefully at the older woman, he said. “Gracias Maria.  It looks very good.”

She awarded him a small smile and turned back to rolling out dough for the pies she was sending to the Dawson’s for the barbecue.  Teresa had gone over the day before to help  Mrs. Dawson prepare for the crowd due to descend on the Box D later that day.

Murdoch looked up from his breakfast as he heard the sound of slow footsteps coming down the stairs.  A smiled crept across his lips at the sight of Scott stepping a bit gingerly into the kitchen.  “Tough night?” Murdoch said as he took another sip of coffee.

"What makes you say that, sir?”  Scott asked as he slipped into his chair.

“Well son,” Murdoch said sardonically. “One clue may be the fact you have your shirt buttoned wrong.”  His smile widened and reached his eyes as he pointed his fork toward Scott’s shirt.

Scott blushed and stood up, turned his back on his father and Maria.  In disgust he unbuttoned and buttoned his shirt correctly before tucking it back into his pants all around.  His blush started to fade as he turned around and sheepishly returned to his chair. “Thanks.”  He said a bit selfconciously.

“How was your night?”

Scott grimaced after taking a sip of the strong brew.  He blew on the hot coffee and said . “Not bad.  Actually we had a good time.” He smiled at the  memory and shook his head.  “Johnny took me for ten dollars in poker last night.”

“Oh?”

‘Yes...  I thought he was bluffing.”

Murdoch started chuckling and Scott gave him a questioning look then began to laugh also. “I hoped  you learned your lesson son.”

“Well one thing I learned is Johnny plays his cards close to the vest…”   Scott said after a minute.  “Not just in poker.”  Taking another sip of coffee, he asked. “He’s not up yet?”

“I haven’t seen him.”

Scott smiled at Maria  as he took a bite of ham. “Maria, has Johnny been down?”

“No senor.  He still sleeps, I think.”

“Let him.” Murdoch suggested. “We’ve all been pushing hard the last few weeks.  This coming week will be no walk in the park.  We all need as much rest as we can get.”

Maria poured them more coffee and cleared away the breakfast plates.  Scott sat quietly playing with the salt shaker, a habit he seemed to have picked up from his brother.

Realizing what he was doing, he set it down quickly and knocked it over.  He quickly righted it and thought with some amusement about the changes in his life.  If he was in Boston, he certainly wouldn’t be sitting in the kitchen  with a servant hovering nearby.  On the rare occasions he breakfasted with his Grandfather, he would have been frowned at for playing with the salt shaker,  here things were a lot more causal and it suited him just fine.

Thinking back over the evening, he thought, ‘Even the entertainment is drastically different than at home.’  His  stopped. ‘I mean in Boston. He silently corrected himself.  He continued to think of his old life.  There were parties, elegant meals, beautiful sophisticated women.  Younger and older more than willing to be on the arm of Harlan Garret’s grandson.  Shaking his head, he returned to the present.  He cleared his throat.  “Sir, there was almost some trouble last night.”

“Oh?” Murdoch said looking concerned.

“Do you know a large fellow, dark hair, named Jack?”

“Jack Miller? Wears a black vest?”  Murdoch said with disgust.

“That sounds like him.”

“He’s a bully. He works for Jeff Carter.  I don’t know why Jeff keeps him on.  He does nothing but cause trouble.” Murdoch finished and thought to himself. ‘Just like his employer.’ Instead of voicing his thought, he asked. “What happened?”

“He came into the saloon around 11:30.  I think he was already pretty drunk.  He was with two other men; didn’t catch their names. Anyway, this Jack fellow staggered by our table and bumped into Johnny.  He spilled beer everywhere and then got mad at Johnny.  He almost called him out until one of his friends told him he would be calling out Johnny Madrid.”

Murdoch chewed his lip for a moment. “What did Johnny do?”

“He said he’d oblige anytime.”  Scott looked at his father  and said with wonder. “He was so calm. I don’t know how he does that, but I thought my heart was going to jump right out of my chest. You know how Johnny is around here when he doesn’t have enough to do?”  He waited for Murdoch’s nod. “He paces or fiddles with things.  When that man started leaning on him, he was motionless, he didn’t even blink, I swear...”  Scott stopped at a loss for words to describe the change in his brother the night before.

 

Murdoch shook his head and looked unhappy.  “It’s starting.  I’m relieved your brother stayed out of a gun fight but I’m afraid there will be other fools trying to take down Johnny Madrid.”

“I don’t understand.  Why would they want to challenge Johnny for no reason?”

“Because they wantta make a name for themselves.”  Johnny’s soft drawl cut into the conversation.

Murdoch and Scott’s heads turned as Johnny entered the kitchen.  Both registering surprise as neither had heard him come in.   Murdoch cleared his throat. Err...Johnny...Scott was just telling me you had a run in with Jack Miller.  When he’s sober he’s not too bad, but he can be trouble if he’s crossed.  Do your best to stay out of his way.  He’s a hand at the Carter ranch which...”

“Is one of the ranches participating in the round up.” Scott said completing Murdoch’s sentence.

“I have no problem with him.” Johnny said as he flashed a smile at Maria.  “As long as he stays outta my way, there won’t be no trouble.”

“Just mind what I said Johnny.” Murdoch advised as he got up from the table.  “I have a few things to do before we head over to the Dawson’s.  It’s 8:00 now. Let’s plan on leaving at 10:30.

*******

Murdoch, Scott and Johnny rode together to the Box D. There was quite a crowd.  Buggys and wagons were parked all over the front yard, horses were hitched to trees and fences.  Johnny pointed out a shady spot to tether the three horses where they would be out of the way and comfortable for the duration.

“Murdoch!  It’s so good to see you.” A stocky  auburn haired woman cried when she saw her neighbor.  The woman was in her late forties and she had a big smile of welcome on her face as she hurried toward the Lancers while wipin gher hands on her apron.

"Millie."  Murdoch took  her by the shoulders, and gave her a peck on the cheek.  "Boys, I want you to meet Mrs. Dawson.  Millie, these are my sons.  This is Scott, my oldest son from Boston."

Murdoch waited while Scott took Mrs. Dawson's offered hand.  "It's a pleasure to meet you madam." Scott said politely.

Millie practically simpered. "Oh so mannerly Murdoch." She said with a smile.

"It must be that Harvard education." Murdoch said proudly.  He then turned to Johnny would was standing with his arms behind his back, kicking at the dirt with the toe of his boot looking for all the world like a school boy.  "Millie, this is my younger son, John.  Johnny, this is Mrs. Dawson."

Johnny looked into her kindly face and said a bit shyly. "Howdy Ma'am."

Scott nudged Johnny and whispered. "Take off your hat."

Johnny quickly took off his hat, and looked uncomfortable in this new situation.  "It's such a pleasure to meet you Johnny. Come meet my husband."  With that  she threaded her arm through Johnny’s and allowed him to escort her with Murdoch and Scott following along behind.

"Bill" She called. "Murdoch and the boys are here."

Scott and Johnny saw a man about Murdoch's age start toward him.  He was about six feet tall and had dark blonde hair flecked with gray.  He stepped forward and pumped Murdoch's hand. "Murdoch. Good to see you old friend. Now introduce me to these sons of yours."

"Bill, this is Scott, and my youngest son, Johnny."

Bill shook Scott's hand. "Good to meet you Scott."  He gave Johnny a long look and took Johnny's hand in a firm handshake. "Johnny, I believe you’ve made the acquaintance of my son Stacy and some of our hands."

"Yes sir. I met Stacy a few days ago."  Johnny agreed vaguely.  He wasn't sure if he should bring up the mid week poker game.  He didn't have anything to hide, he just didn't want to discuss it with Stacy's father.

Stacy came out of the house and joined his parents.  "Hey Johnny, Scott. Some of the fellers are setting up for a shooting match behind the barn.  Come on." The energetic blonde took off practically dragging Scott and Johnny with him.

"Stacy. Where are your manners?  You didn't even say hello to Mr. Lancer. "

Stacy stopped in his tracks recogninzing 'the tone'.  "Sorry Ma." He muttered as he stepped back toward his parents.  "Mr. Lancer, It's a pleasure to see you again, sir."

"Hello Stacy.  Good to see you again also."

Stacy shifted from foot to foot with impatience waiting for the pleasantries to be over.  Murdoch had a heard time to keep from laughing at the display of impatience from the young man.  His behavior reminded him of Johnny. Always on the go, never still.   Taking pity on the young man, he said. "Well, go on. You're going to miss the contest."

At the sight of the three young men high tailing it toward the barn, Millie threw up her hands. "Boys!"

Murdoch laughed out loud.  He couldn't agree more.  Bill and Murdoch looked at each other and both hurried over to where the shooting contest was getting set up.  They didn't want to miss it either.  Millie looked after the departing men and shook her head as she returned to the house to finish getting supper ready for her guests.

*****

The shooting match was just getting organized when Stacy and the Lancer boys came around the barn.  Several men had already thrown five dollars in a hat.  "Winner take all." Wade told Stacy.

"Come on Stacy.  You can take these guys." Billy added.

"Sure thing. Can't pass this up." Stacy said as he put five dollars in the hat.  "How bout you Scott?" Stacy asked. There were more than a few snickers from the crowd at the idea of the eastern bred man trying his skill against the best in the area.

Scott looked over the assembled crowd and said. "Sure, I'll try my hand."  While a  colt was not his weapon of choice, he was a good marksman and he had been target practicing quite a bit and with a few pointers from Johnny, had improved greatly in the short time since coming to Lancer. He could never match his brother's speed, but he considered himself a  fair hand when he took his aim .

He looked over at his brother. "Johnny why don't you show us how it's done?"

"Naw.  You go ahead Scott." Johnny replied.

The bottles were set up along the top rail of the fence.  The first two men hit three of six bottles.  The third man hit four of six.  There were loud guffaws from the crowd as they heckled the shooters on the outcome of their performance.  The fourth contestant hit five of six and a loud cheer went up through the crowd.

Jack Miller stepped up to the line and calmly shot six of six bottles.  His performance brought a round of applause from the assembled audience. Stacy was next. With a look of calm determination, he shot six out of six bottles.  The crowd cheered as Stacy was obviously a favorite among the locals.

Scott looked at Johnny who gave him a grin of encouragement. He stepped to the line and with a look of concentration, aimed and hit six out of six bottles.  The crowd was getting louder and more enthusiastic but the only voice of praise he heard above the din was his brother's, "That's good shootin' brother."

Now it was a three way tie.  The line was moved back 10 paces and Jack Miller took his turn next. He wasn't going to let a wet behind the ears kid and an eastern dandy show him up.  Taking careful aim, he shot.  The crowd groaned when they saw one bottle still standing.  Jack's face twisted with black rage.  He pointed at six year old Andy Johnson. "That stupid kid was jumpin' around and makin' noise.  He threw off my aim.  I demand a reshoot."

Several of the men started to shout him down, but a quiet voice said. "Sure, let him shoot again.  I wouldn't want it said I didn't win this match fair and square."  Stacy said with a challenge in his voice.

"Why you..." Jack was stopped by one of the Carter hands.

"Come on Jack. Ignore him, just shoot."

The bottles were set up again, and Jack took aim hitting six of six once again.  With a smug look of satisfaction on his face he  stepped back to let Stacy have his turn.

Stacy took a deep breath and one of the Box D hands yelled. "Come on Stace.  I got a half months wages  bet on ya."  Stacy smiled, drew and fired at the bottles.  A loud cheer rang up from the crowd as he once again hit six of six bottles.

Scott stepped up for his turn and shot.  Maybe it was the breeze or a touch of nerves, but he left one bottle standing.

"Bad luck Scott." Johnny said clapping his older brother on the shoulder.  "That was still good shootin' though."

"Thanks, Johnny." Scott said with gratitude.

Once again the mark was moved back ten paces for the next round of the contest.  The tension among the crowd went up a notch further as the Box D hands were wagering with the Carter Ranch hands.  Jack walked up to take his next shot.  Just before he reached the mark, Stacy reminded the crowd. "Now ya'll be quiet. Jack needs quiet to shoot." His voice mocking the older man.

Johnny looked down kicking at the dirt, with a mocking smiling curling at his lips as Stacy goaded the older man.  Anger clouded Jack's face as his dark eyes smoldered darkly.  "I’ll show those kids whose the best shooter.  "I'll teach Madrid speed isn't everything."

The sound of six shots filled the air and the crowd gasped and stepped back as Jack Miller realized he'd left one bottle standing.  He holstered his gun, spun on his heel and walked away.  Small chuckles could be heard as the bottles were set up for Stacy.

Stacy licked his lips and rolled his shoulders.  Drawing his gun, he fired knocking down all six bottles.  A roar went up through the crowd from the assembled cowhands.  The Box D hands rushed forward and started pounding Stacy on the back congratulating him.  As Stacy scooped up the offered money from the hat, he accepted his father's hand which drew him into a bear hug of congratulations.

Johnny stood back and waited to the crowd to give Stacy a bit of room.  "Good shootin' Stacy.  I guess this means you'll be buying us drinks Saturday night huh?"

"Yeah! Drinks on Stacy!" Billy whooped.

Stacy laughed and looked at Johnny. "Hey Wade. Set them bottles up again.  Come on Johnny, show us how it's done."

Johnny looked reluctant at showing off his shooting skill, but Scott, his ever helpful brother, propelled him to the line.  Johnny debated a minute and decided he might as well.  Maybe it will get the Carter hands to back off if they got a taste of what they'd be up against if they took him on.

"Okay Johnny. Let's see what ya got." Stacy said good naturedly.

Johnny smiled.  The silence was deafening and you could almost hear a pin drop.  Even little Andy was quiet for once as all eyes were on the dark haired son of Murdoch Lancer who came to their valley with a big reputation.  Like lightening, Johnny drew and fanned the hammer.  The crowd groaned with disappointment as all six bottles still stood in place.  "Shot in the neck. All six of em." Someone in the crowd said.  The crowd looked on in disbelief as Johnny casually reloaded his colt.  The crowd passed on the word. "Six of six, right in the neck."  They all looked at the young gunhawk in awe.

"Great shootin'  Johnny." Stacy said in admiration.

Johnny smiled his crooked smile and responded. "It's one of my better party tricks."

"Tricks!" Wade said. "I'd say that's just about the slickest shootin' I ever did see."

"Come on., I'll buy ya a beer." Stacy said as he slung his arm over Johnny's shoulders.

As the young men walked off, Murdoch shook his head as Bill watched his friend’s reaction. "It looks like our two boys have a lot in common Murdoch."  Bill caught himself as he almost made mention of the fact that it's too bad the boys didn't grow up together.  He knew Murdoch had many regrets over the fact that his two son's didn't grow up at Lancer due to the betrayal of Murdoch's second wife.

****

Teresa came out of house carrying  baskets of fresh fruit to go on the tables. She almost squealed in delight at seeing Scott and Johnny.  "You made it."

"Course we did.  It's only about 15 miles. Weren’t likely to get lost." Johnny teased.

Teresa decided to ignore him and instead took hold of each of their arms. "Come on.  I want to introduce you."

As Teresa made their rounds introducing Scott and Johnny to all their neighbors, one pair of dark brown eyes watched their every move.

****

"This is Sara Sullivan." Teresa said as she introduced the boys to the fresh faced 19 year old daughter of the banker.  She had a clear complexion with a hint of freckles over her cheekbones. blue eyes and strawberry blonde hair.

Johnny decided now was as good a time as any to get off Teresa's tour, so he stepped forward.  "Sara.  That's a beautiful name.  May I offer you some lemonade?"

Sara blushed at the handsome dark headed Lancer son, and smiled into his engaging blue eyes. "I'd be most grateful for some lemonade, Mr. Lancer." She said taking Johnny’s offered arm.

"Johnny. Call me Johnny." He said as he threw a triumphant look over his shoulder at his brother.

Scott chuckled to himself at Johnny's timing as he saw a woman walking purposefully over to intercept Teresa and himself.  It seemed he was destined to meet all the eligible young ladies in the area.  As he looked at the woman approaching, he realized 'young' may not be a fair description.  She had a hard look to her face, a set mouth and her eyes had a hard cast to them making her eyes seem very dark brown.  She wore her brunet hair harshly pinned to her head in a severe fashion which accented her sharp cheekbones even more.   Scott looked to see if there was anyone he could use as a distraction, but no one was near at hand.

"Hello, Teresa. You'll have to excuse me. I couldn't help but notice you were introducing Mr. Lancer's sons around."

"Oh, Rebecca.  I'm so sorry, we must have missed you." Teresa said to cover her blunder.

"My dear, that's perfectly all right. "  The woman held her hand out to Scott.  "I'm Rebecca Carter."

"Scott Lancer." He said taking her offered hand.

"It's very nice to meet you Scott."  She fanned herself with her handkerchief. "It's unseasonably warm today.  Could I trouble you for a lemonade?"

"Of course." He said taking her offered arm as he escorted her to get a drink.  Handing her a glass of lemonade, he decided hard cider was in order to get through the afternoon.

*****

Johnny had just left Miss Sullivan in the company of Teresa and some of her friends.  Even though he found her attractive, a little voice told him she was too young.  Ruefully, he realized she was just a little younger than himself; still she was a sweet young girl and Johnny knew instinctively he wasn't suitable for sweet young girls.  He walked over to observe some men playing horseshoes.  Murdoch and Bill were playing two other men Johnny hadn't yet met.  He watched the game with vague  interest and surprised himself with the unusual feeling of pride when Murdoch threw a ringer.

He looked around at the faces of the people watching the game and noticed how open and relaxed they seemed to be. 'Not like the people around the border.' He thought. Many of them were suspicious of strangers only concerned with staying alive. These people were more like those he had met a few times farther south, deeper into Mexico.  More open and charitable.  Here they seemed to be enjoying life after the terror Pardee had brought to the valley.

A sudden thought struck Johnny.  'Maybe this is what it's always like after the gunhawks leave.'  He always rode out after a job.  He'd been asked to stay a couple of times by a grateful family, but he knew once the job was done, no one wanted a gunfighter to stay around long.  He shook himself mentally and picked out a piece of straw from a nearby bale.  He absentmindedly chewed on the end, rolling his thoughts around in his mind.

His watched the children playing innocently nearby and the relaxed state of the adults reminded him uneasily of sheep and he felt uncomfortably like the wolf among them.

*****

Scott heaved a sigh of relief as he had finally gotten away from Rebecca Carter.  He saw Johnny standing by a tree watching the horseshoe match.  Walking up behind him, he said in Johnny's ear. "Who's winning?"

Johnny jumped in surprise and looked sheepish at his reaction. "You scared me Scott. Don't sneak up on me like that again."

"I wasn't sneaking brother, you just weren’t listening."

As Johnny opened his mouth to respond, the clatter of the triangle rang out the news that supper was ready.  Johnny playfully backhanded his brother in the stomach. "Come on brother. I'm starvin'."

Scott grabbed Johnny and quickly had him in a headlock.  Johnny struggled and tried to kick Scott's feet out from under him when  a stern voice got their attention. "Boys."

Several of the watching neighbors chuckled at Murdoch's consternation of being confronted with his son's behaving like kids instead of the two young men he expected them to be.

Scott let Johnny go and had the grace to look a bit embarrassed.  Johnny straightened up and muttered. "Sorry Murdoch."

Scott looked at Murdoch and said.  "I was just trying to teach my little brother some manners.  I guess this is not the time or place." He finished with a smile.

Murdoch chose to ignore the explanation and said. "Supper is ready.  Come on let's eat."

As the three men began walking toward the tables, Johnny took hold of Scott's arm and began pulling him toward the table where Stacy, Wade and Billy were sitting.  Murdoch saw the move and said.  "No. You two come with me.  Teresa's waiting for us over there."

Seeing no fun in sitting with his family, Johnny began to protest. "Aw Murdoch..." He was cut off as Scott dug him in the ribs and they followed their father to the table Teresa had set for them.

"Look at all the wonderful food." Teresa said gesturing with her arms.  She placed a pitcher of lemonade on the table and instructed them to take their plate and get it loaded up.  The three Lancer men proceeded to fill their plates with barbecued beef, corn on the cob, potato salad and corn bread.

As they returned to their table, Bill Dawson rang the dinner bell to get everyone’s attention. "Quiet please. I want to personally welcome you all to the Box D.  We have plenty of good food and good company.  This is our 12th annual spring roundup, and I look forward along with my son to working side by side with all of you for many more roundups to come."

There were suddenly whoops and yells from the Box D hands and a cry of, "Let's eat!."

Bill laughed. "I couldn't say it any better. Let's eat."

Everyone laughed as they seated themselves at the tables set out on the lawn shaded by leafy ash trees.  Johnny set his plate on the table.  He heard his name called as he started to sit down.

"Madrid!"

Scott and Murdoch froze but Johnny calmly turned around to face the voice.

"You're dead, gunhawk.  You killed my wife!" he shouted.

******

Part 6

The cold voice rang out. “You’re dead gunhawk.  You killed my wife!”

Johnny stopped himself as he began to make a move for his gun as he realized the man was unarmed.  He squinted to make out the man’s features which were obscured by the dappled shade.  “Do I know you mister?”  Johnny asked.

Before the man could respond, Murdoch’s voice demanded.  “What the devil are you talking about Carter?”

“He killed her.  Just as if he put a bullet in her himself.” Jeff Carter gasped.

“Mister. I don’t know you, and I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about.”

“Almost six years ago.  I tried to hire you.  You said no, turned me down.  My money wasn’t good enough for a killer like you.”

Johnny searched his memory.  ‘Carter, Jeff...Carter.’  He remembered. “Range war.  Down ‘round Tubec.  You were stirring things up Mr. Carter.”  Johnny drawled as he scratched his jaw with his fingers.

“I came to you for help.  You said you’d look into it and get back to me. I was offering you $500.00 and you turned me down!  I said I’d double it and you just said no and rode away.  My wife was killed because you rode away!”

“I’m sorry about your wife Carter, but I took another job. Didn’t want no part of that range war.”

A crowd assembled around the men, everyone straining to hear what it was all about.  Murdoch had heard enough.  “Jeff.  Johnny had nothing to do with the death of your wife.  He was just a boy. 15 years old back then.  He didn’t take your job.  He’s sorry your wife was killed...we’re all sorry but Johnny had nothing to do with it.”

Carter pointed a shaking finger at Johnny. “He cost me everything.  My wife...My ranch...”

“Not everything Carter.  You still have family....your daughter.” Murdoch stopped as Rebecca and Jack Miller pushed through the crowd.

Rebecca reached out to her father. “Father, he’s not worth it.  He’s just a hired killer. You always said so.”

As she finished her last word, Jack went for his gun. No one had time to react before Jack froze staring into the barrel of Johnny Madrid’s gun.  The gasp that went through the crowd covered the sound of the click as the gun was cocked ready to fire. Johnny’s finger held the trigger fully depressed and the only thing keeping Miller alive was his thumb holding back the hammer.

“Johnny!” Murdoch’s voice rang out. Then more gently. “Put it away son.  That’s not the answer.”

Johnny’s eyes left Miller for a second and focused on his father. As they returned to Miller, he saw Stacy, gun pointed at Jack, reach over and remove his gun from his hand.  Johnny lowered his gun and released the trigger before carefully letting the hammer fall harmlessly back into place.

Stacy grabbed Miller by the shirt collar and dragged him through the crowd, pushing him before him, Stacy said. “I’ll give your gun to Mr. Carter when he leaves.  Get off the Box D and don’t ever set foot one our land again.  If ya know what’s good for ya, stay offa Johnny’s trail.”

Rebecca took hold of her father’s arms and pulled gently. “Come on Father.  We should leave.”

For a moment, it looked Jeff Carter was going to argue with his daughter but he took a couple of steps and stopped.  He looked at Murdoch.  “It’s not over Murdoch. I’ll shoot that boy if he puts on foot onto  my land.”

“Jeff, If you hurt my son in any way, there will be no place in this world you can hide.  I’ll find you...” he let the threat hang there.

Johnny was looking at his father with utter shock and surprise.  Never in his wildest dreams did he think his father would defend him.  This was almost too much to comprehend.

“All right. Show’s over.” Bill said to get the crowd to go back to their tables.  He could see the strain on the faces of the Lancer family and knew this was not going to die an easy death.  Giving his old friend some privacy with his family, Bill returned to his own table as Murdoch gave him a grateful glance.

Johnny was holding his colt in front of him in both hands, hanging his head.  “Sorry Murdoch” he muttered afraid to meet his father’s eyes.

Murdoch didn’t respond to Johnny , but instead said to Scott. “Son, take your brother home and wait there for me.  I’ll make our apologies and Teresa and I will be home a little later.”

Scott nodded and laid his hand on Johnny’s shoulder.  He could feel his brother’s tension under his fingers and he wished with all his heart this incident with Carter hadn’t marred what otherwise had been a perfect day.  “Come on Johnny.  Let’s get going.  Murdoch, please give out thanks to the Dawson’s.”

As Johnny started to walk past Teresa, he laid his hand on her arm and said quietly. “Sorry T’resa.” and walked with Scott to the horses.

******

Teresa and Murdoch returned home several hours later.  There had been an emergency meeting of the cattleman’s association to discuss the damaged relations between the ranches and the possible disruption of the roundup.

Murdoch hung his hat on the rack as he walked through the door and hung his holster below it. He stretched his back, and walked in to the living room to find Scott on the couch reading a book.

Scott looked up as his father entered the room. “How did everything go?”

“Where’s your brother?” Murdoch said without answering Scott’s inquiry.

“Upstairs”

Nodding, he said. “Would you go get him for me?”

Scott looked  worried, but  started toward to the  stairs.  He stopped for a moment, and thought  to turn back, then changed his mind and climbed the stairs.

Scott knocked on his brother’s door and opened it when he heard the soft “Come in.” Johnny looked up from the chair he was sitting in by the window.

“Johnny, Murdoch’s home.  He wanted to see you downstairs.”

Johnny looked at his hands and shrugged. He slowly stood up and followed Scott downstairs.  He was not sure he was ready to hear what his father had to say.

Murdoch was standing by the fireplace.  His arm resting on the mantle, head bowed staring at the flickering flames.

Scott cleared his throat as he walked up behind his father.  Murdoch turned at the sound and said.  “Boys, sit down.” Pointing to the couch.

Johnny’s heart sank to his stomach as he woodenly sat as instructed.  Murdoch cleared his throat and looked hesitant before speaking which only heightened Johnny’s unease.

“We had a meeting after you left.  It was decided that to avoid trouble, that you, Johnny won’t be participating in the round up at the other ranches.”

Johnny’s piercing blue eyes locked with his father’s then dropped to his lap.  “Okay.” He said quietly.

“Son, it’s for the best.”  Murdoch’s voice insisted.  “Tension is running high right now and Carter was already causing trouble before today.  It isn’t personal son, it’s business.  All the ranches are counting on a successful roundup.  We have to avoid a fight breaking out.” He stopped and looked at his sons.  Johnny wouldn’t meet his father’s eyes and Scott looked at his father with disbelief.

Scott couldn’t hold his tongue any longer.  “I can’t believe you’re taking Carter’s side, Murdoch!”

“I’m not taking his side Scott.”  He said as he walked across to pour himself a whisky.  He offered the decanter toward his sons and they both shook their heads.  “The man’s a fool, but he’s also a member of the association, so his feelings have to be considered.”

“Murdoch! After what he said to Johnny, he shouldn’t be given any consideration at all!”

“Scott.  It’s Okay. Forget it.”  Johnny insisted.  “Murdoch, it’s fine. Really.”

Murdoch took a deep breath and continued.  “Since we’ll be short handed Johnny, I need you here to gathering the herd.  Without the Carter hands to help, we need to get started a few days early.

“Okay. I’ll take care of it.” Johnny said as he got to his feet. “If there’s nothing else, I’m going to turn in.”

Murdoch shook his head.  He did have something on his mind, but he wasn’t ready to talk about it especially in front of Scott.

******

Johnny spent a restless night and he was relieved to see the first rays of sunlight peaking over the mountains.  He dressed quickly hoping to get an early start on the day.  As he wiped a damp cloth over his freshly shaven face, he heard a knock on the door.

“Come In.” He called and as he turned he was surprised to see that it was Murdoch poking his head around the door instead of Scott as he expected.

“Good Morning Johnny.”

“Morning,”

“When you’re finished dressing meet me in the kitchen.  I want to talk to you a few minutes before you leave for the day.”

Johnny looked up quickly, his half unbuttoned shirt forgotten as his full attention turned to his father.  “What is it?”

“We’ll talk about it downstairs.”

“Where’s Scott?”  Johnny said feeling uneasy.

“He left a few minutes ago for the Box D.  He wanted to get there early.”

Johnny’s fingers returned to the task of threading the buttons through the holes.  “I’ll see ya in a few minutes.” he said without looking up.

Murdoch closed the door and headed for a much needed cup of coffee in the kitchen.

******

Johnny walked slowly down the stairs into the kitchen.  He had a feeling of dread and his insides were screaming a warning.  As he sat down in his usual chair, Maria brought him a plate filled with eggs, bacon and pan fried potatoes.

He smiled. “Gracias Maria.  It sure looks good.”

Murdoch poured him a cup of coffee and handed it to him. “Thanks, Murdoch.”

“Eat up Johnny.  You have a busy day ahead of you.”

Murdoch felt uneasy with the subject he had to broach with Johnny, but for his son’s own good, he felt he had to talk to him today.

He had spent a restless night pondering the subject on how to approach Johnny.  In the end being straight forward seemed the only solution.  Once he had decided that was the best way to handle it, what to say became the next problem.

It was just a  few months ago, when he found out Johnny was coming to meet him,  he had so many emotions from elation to fear.  In the end he was totally unprepared for his first meeting with either son.  To this day, he regretted the rough start they had and he vowed that he would do a better job handling this situation.

Murdoch pushed his plate back and watched his son eat his breakfast.

Johnny, sensing his father’s eyes on him, began feeling uncomfortable with the scrutiny. He risked a glance up. ‘Yeah. He’s lookin’ at me.’  His stomach suddenly felt like rocks rolling around in it and just the thought of another bite of food suddenly made him feel very queasy.

“Eat son.  You’re going to be hungry later.” Murdoch urged.

Pushing his plate away, Johnny mumbled. “Not hungry. I’m done.”

Standing up  Murdoch said, “Come into the living room for a minute Johnny.  There’s something...I need to discuss with you.”  He turned and left the kitchen leaving Johnny with those rocks turning into boulders making him feel almost light headed.

As Johnny stood up and started walking slowly toward the living room, he racked his brain trying to come up with a clue of what this might be about.  Other than that confrontation yesterday, he hadn’t been in trouble lately.

Taking a deep breath to calm his nerves he stepped through the doors into the living room.  As he got control of his nerves, he realized he was getting angry that his father’s words and attitude were getting to him so easily.

‘He probably just wants to give me some instructions of what me and the roundup crew are supposed to get done today.’ He reasoned.

Reaching his father’s desk, he sat down in his usual chair in front of it.  Scott always sat on the right, he always sat on the left. An odd stray thought flitted through his mind. ‘From the time Scott and me got here, Scott always picks first where he sits and I just take whatever is left. Next time, I’m gonna surprise big brother and get the first chair.  See what he makes of it.’

Bringing his mind back to his father,  he asked. ‘What’s up?’

“Johnny. What I have to day...Well... it’s not exactly easy.”  Murdoch looked at his son like he was trying to get him to understand unspoken words.

Johnny felt uneasy once again with his father’s scrutiny and shifted restlessly in his chair. He felt a wave of impatience wash over him.  He always preferred the direct approach.  This  pussy footing around was making his nerves twist and sing.  He grasped onto the arms of the chair tightly as he felt himself fight his need to pace.  “Get it said.” He practically growled.

Murdoch glared at his impertinent son and felt his own anger rising.  He clamped down on it as he remembered his vow to handle this properly.  Taking a deep breath, he started.  “Milton Sullivan stopped me yesterday.  He’s the banker in Green River.”  He waited a moment for Johnny to nod. “He has a daughter, Sara.”

“Yeah. I met her.  Pretty girl.”

“Well son, this isn’t easy, but that’s what I need to talk to you about.  Milt feels his daughter is young and impressionable and he..well..he doesn’t feel you are a good match for her.”  Murdoch stopped unsure of how to proceed waiting for a reaction from Johnny.

“Not a good match huh?  I just met the girl. We barely know each other.”

“I’m sorry son, but Milton does not want you to have anything to do with his daughter and he asked me to ask you to stay away from her.”

“He asked or told, Murdoch?”

Murdoch felt a flush of shame at how easily Johnny could read the situation. “Both.” He said quietly.  Trying to soften the blow and explain. “His daughter’s underage Johnny. He has the right to say who is going to court her.”

“Court her?  Who ever said I was even interested in  her?”  Johnny’s anger started to get the better of him.  “So what is it Murdoch. Is it cause I’m not white? Or cause I’m a hired killer?”

Johnny knew he was being unfair to his father and his harsh words were meant to inflict pain, but he’d been pushed too far and he couldn’t stop himself.  He needed Murdoch to lay his cards n the table. “So what are ya sayin’ old man?”  Johnny snarled as he stood up and started pacing.

“Johnny!  Calm down and sit down!” Murdoch ordered his voice ringing with authority.  Running his hand over his forehead and through his hair, Murdoch immediately chided himself for letting his temper get the better of him.  Making an effort to soften his voice, he spoke.  “Son, come over here and listen.”

He waited and watched Johnny.  His shoulders tense, his mouth a grim line, fingers twitching at his side.  Murdoch held his breath as he watched Johnny master his emotions.  Finally a slight nod signaled Johnny’s agreement to listen.

He sat back down and looked at his hands, pulling at a loose bit of skin by his thumb nail. He said softly. “Sorry Murdoch.  I ain’t mad at you.”

“Son, these people don’t know you, Yes some of them are afraid of your reputation and some of them are prejudiced against you for your mixed heritage.  As they get to know you, some will change their minds. Others...” He let the sentence drop.

“I know all that Murdoch.  I’ve lived with that all my life.”

“It doesn’t make it right, Johnny.”

Johnny looked at his father.  His brilliant blue eyes locked with his father’s eyes. “It don’t make it easier either.” Johnny said softly.

“Give it time Johnny.”

Johnny looked down and pulled at the hang nail a bit more. As he pulled it off blood welled up around the nail.   At the sudden pain, he looked at his father and said. “What about you? Do you trust me?”

Murdoch looked like he had been hit in the gut.  He opened his mouth to respond and he felt like the breath had been knocked out of him at the unexpected question he hadn’t answered yet himself.

Johnny stood up.  “I guess I got my answer.  I’ve got work to do.” He walked quickly to the front hall and took his hat, jacket and gunbelt off the coat tree and walked out the front door.

Murdoch’s breath returned with a gasp. “Johnny!”  The only sound he heard in return was the sound of his son’s steps fading away.

Murdoch dropped his head to his hands as he relived the shame he felt in Johnny’s words. He’d failed his son and himself by not having the courage to trust his son.

*******

Part 7

Johnny walked out to the barn kicking himself all the way.  ‘What kind of a fool question was that?  What did I expect?  Yeah he was gonna say “Oh Johnny, Of course I trust you.”  He don’t trust me any farther than he can throw me.’

Johnny stopped at the barn and kicked it savagely venting his frustration.  as he flung the door open he asked himself. ‘How could I have been so stupid...again.’

He opened the door and took a couple of deep breaths to calm himself down before approaching his young horse.  ‘No need gettin’ him all upset.  He’d probably toss me on my fool head.’

Johnny saddled his horse  and led him out of the barn.  He glanced back at the house, not seeing any sign of his father, he ran his hand down the sleek golden neck.  With a sigh, he mounted and headed out to meet the crew moving the herd.

****

Murdoch sat heavily in his chair and tried to focus on a letter from a fellow rancher in Sacramento County.  After reading the same line for the third time, he set it down with a sigh.  He swiveled his chair around to look out the plate glass window.  Normally the pastoral view of towering oaks and rolling green hills soothed his soul but today they mocked him.

He remembered telling his sons on the first day they were together that he loved this land more than anything else.  He had a gray hair for every good blade of grass.  He smiled at the thought that it was sure true, he had enough gray hair to compensate for each blade of grass.

His amusement left him at the thought that his first statement was no longer true.  Actually it had never been true, but that tension filled afternoon caused him to say things he never meant to say.  He hoped one day soon he could tell his sons how much it meant to him that they were here with him today.

As that thought flitted through his mind, his thoughts settled on the disquieting conversation he’d just had with Johnny.  He had been trying to spare his feelings, but somehow it had gone all wrong again.  He had such a hard time talking with Johnny.

It was hard to talk to someone who visibly tensed whenever he was alone with you.  He wondered how long it would be before Johnny felt comfortable with him.  He felt another flush of shame at being caught unprepared when Johnny asked him if he trusted him.  It was a hard question to answer honestly, and he knew without knowing Johnny well, that his son would brook nothing less than honesty.  The only honest answer he could give him today is ‘I don’t know.’

Murdoch desperately wanted to trust his son, but the words of Milton Sullivan echoed in his mind. “Murdoch, what do you really know about that boy?  You know for sure he was a gun for hire.  Are you telling me you think I’m being unreasonable?  I don’t want my 19 year old daughter to fall for him.  She’s innocent and inexperienced.  Johnny has obviously been around, He could hurt her without even meaning to.”

Murdoch had been hard pressed to come up with an argument against Milton’s reasons.  Then Milt pressed home his point.  “Murdoch, if you think that boy is a good match for a young girl, how would you feel if he started sparking, Teresa?”

Murdoch’s faced burned at the thought that flashed through his mind at the suggestion.  Before he could stop it, his face registered his dismay.  Milt chuckled and slapped Murdoch on the back. “Just as I thought.  You’d run that boy off with a shotgun if he showed the slightest interest in Teresa.”

“After he’s been here for a while, you’ll change your mind, Milt.”  He said lamely.

“I sure hope so Murdoch.  I’ll tell you what, You warn him off and I’ll withhold my judgment. If Johnny stays out of trouble, I’ll  reconsider.”

Murdoch remembered riding home with Teresa as she chattered about the barbecue and the bad luck that Carter knew Johnny.  He listened with half an ear as his heart ached with the knowledge he was gong to have to talk to Johnny about Milt’s concerns.

He had gone through with it and now he and his son was once more at odds.  Shaking his head, he got up and walked over to the front door.  He slowly shrugged on his jacket.  ‘Maybe I can catch Johnny before he goes, and try to talk to him.’

As he stepped into the yard, he saw Johnny and Barranca loping though the arched gates.  With a sigh, he turned back to the house intending to make amends when Johnny got home later that evening.

******

Johnny allowed Barranca to lope for about a mile and then asked him to walk.  He was in no hurry to join the men.  Normally he relished their camaraderie, but today, he needed the solitude and contentment he found between him and his horse.

He allowed the palomino gelding to pick his own way, even snatching at grass here and there along the trail.  His thoughts wandered as he eyes tracked the graceful red tailed hawk floating effortlessly on air currents high above them.

Suddenly, he halted Barranca and turned in the saddle to look behind him.  Decision made, he turned to the left and headed south east toward Morro Coyo.

****

Johnny slowed Barranca to a walk as he entered the adobe walled town.  He was beginning to have a real liking for the little town.  It reminded him of a Mexican town he knew about 50 miles south of the border.  Filled with poor people, nonetheless, they were honest hard working people.

As he hadn’t finished his breakfast and he was starting to feel hungry, Johnny turned Barranca to the Garcia’s cafe.  Tying his horse to the hitching rail, he entered the Cafe to the sound of melodic Spanish that bathed his ears and soothed his troubled soul.

Senora Garcia hurried over.  “Juanito. It is a surprise to see you today.”

“Buenos Dias Mamacita. I couldn’t stay away from your good cookin’ too long.” He teased.

She showed him to a table, he ordered and she left him to get him some tortillas and salsa.  Johnny took a deep breath. He knew he shouldn’t be here, and he knew he’d be in trouble when he got home.

He was almost tempted to get up and leave.  If he hurried, he could salvage the day and join the men in gathering the cattle.  Just as he resolved to leave, Senora Garcia came back with his food, and he sank back into his chair sealing his fate for the day.

****

Murdoch spent the rest of the morning working on odds and ends at his desk.  Teresa brought his lunch to his desk and he ate in silence.  He sat alone with his dark mood and contemplated his options for dealing with Johnny.  Maria came to refill his coffee, but he waved her away.

“Maria, please tell Teresa that I’m going out to check on the crew gathering the herd.  I’ll be back around 4:00.  If Scott gets home before I do, let him know also.”

“Si Patron.” She said demurely as she started to clear away the lunch dishes.

Murdoch rose and left the house for the barn.  He saw Miguel and asked him to saddle his sorrel gelding.  Before returning to the barn, he stopped to talk to one of the men working in the tackroom. Once he was sure his orders were being followed, he collected his horse and headed out to meet Johnny and the crew.

Murdoch rode for about an hour before he could see sign of the working men.  He saw a trail of dust first, followed by the bawling of cows and calves calling to each other as the herd was being driven toward the branding pens.

Murdoch’s eyes searched for Johnny and his golden horse. Normally he was easy to spot.  He had found that Johnny was a hard worker.  He often would be riding drag and going after the mavericks who tried to escape back into the brush.

Today, he scanned the scene in front of him in vain.  Johnny was no where in sight.  He rode down into the herd and found Frank, taking a drink from his canteen.

“Mr. Lancer.” he said in greeting, wetting his bandanna and wiping it across his dirt streaked face.

“Frank.  It’s looking good.  There must be close to 200 pairs here.  We should get a least this many tomorrow from the south range and close to this many on Wednesday when we sweep the lower boundary.”

“Yes sir. We got a lot done today.  I thought on Thursday, I’d send some of the boys back to pick up any strays we missed and we’ll be all ready for Friday.”

“Sounds good Frank.  You’ve done a good job here.” He praised. “Where’s Johnny?  Is he looking for strays?” He tried to sound casual.

Frank tensed as he knew there was no good to come from his answer.  Sighing, knowing there was no way around it, he said. “I’m sorry Sir, I haven’t seen him.”

“He left hours ago to come out here.” Murdoch’s voice trailed off.  A flash of anger came over him. “Where is that boy?”  He said gruffly.

Frank knew that no answer was expected but he threw one out anyway. “Maybe his horse threw a shoe or stepped in a hole.  Lots a things could of happened.” He finished, knowing how lame it sounded.

Murdoch turned his horse and said.  “If he shows up, tell him I want to see him right away and send him back to the ranch,”

“Yes sir.” Frank said to Murdoch’s back as his boss rode away.

*****

Johnny arrived back on Lancer land early afternoon with every intention of catching up with the crew gathering the herd and salvaging what he could of the day.  He was beginning to feel remorseful for leaving the ranch and he hoped to make amends by working hard this afternoon.  He knew that he would be having an unpleasant discussion with his father later that evening, as he knew very well that Murdoch had eyes and ears all over the ranch.  There wasn’t much that Johnny said or did that didn’t get passed right back to the old man.  At least if he put in a good half days work, maybe he could have something to say for himself.

As Johnny rounded a small hill, his attention was diverted by several turkey buzzards circling overhead.  ‘One, two,...five, six, seven.” He counted as he rode toward the spot they were circling.  “Man, they sure are ugly things.’ He thought as he kept on eye out  for whatever they were interested in.

Standing in his stirrups, Johnny could make out a black shape ahead on the ground.  As he drew closer, he realized it was a cow down.  He stopped Barranca a few feet from the cow as he realized she was still alive.  Dismounting, he pulled his rifle from the boot and walked quietly toward the suffering cow.  “Easy girl.  It won’t be long. I’ll take care of you.” He crooned softly.  He took careful aim and one bullet put the poor creature out of her misery.

As Johnny approached the cow, he realized she had just given birth. Something had gone terribly wrong and the ground was saturated with her blood.  He looked around for a calf thinking perhaps a wild animal had already gotten it when he saw a small black shape laying in the grass a few feet away.

He hurried toward the calf and dropped to his knees.  “Hey little one.” He said as he began stroking the now dry newborn calf.  He rolled it over a bit and checked it’s umbilical cord and began rubbing it briskly to stimulate it’s circulation.  The little calf got unsteadily to it’s feet and began butting Johnny in the chest looking for somewhere to eat.

“Hey little girl, I know you’re hungry, but you gotta come home with me to get some food.”  He said as the little girl calf was eagerly sucking his fingers looking desperately for nourishment.

Johnny looked over at the dead cow and wondered if she had any milk, this new baby could have to get her back to the ranch.  He hadn’t much ranch experience but he knew the first milk was important for protecting newborns.

He helped the baby over to her mama and positioned the dead cow in such a way that the calf could latch onto a nipple and get whatever nourishment it could.  The calf sucked until the first nipple was no longer producing any milk, Johnny guided the little one to the next nipple.  The baby drank until her eyes started to drift closed in contentment, her little pink tongue was still wrapped around a cooling nipple.

Johnny picked her up and carried her to Barranca.  The horse eyed the unfamiliar bundle balefully.  “Easy boy.  Relax.  It’s just me and this little girl. She needs a ride back to the ranch. That’s all.” Barranca settled down at the familiar sounding tone and Johnny hefted the calf in front of his saddle.  He mounted, and holding the baby in his arms, guided Barranca home.

*****

Murdoch arrived back at the ranch in a foul temper just as Scott rode in from the Box D. “You’re early.”  Murdoch remarked. “How did it go?”

“Everything went very smoothly and we’re all ready to start branding tomorrow.  Mrs. Dawson is fixing another feast for anyone staying over, but I decided I’d rather get a good nights sleep in my own bed.”

A hand took their horses from them and the two men headed for the house. “How did our gather go today?” Scott asked.

“Fine...They brought in about 200 pairs, so it was a good day.”  He stopped and waited while Scott washed his hands and face at the basin on the patio. He watched his tall slim son as he wiped the dirty water off his face with a towel and ran it behind the back of his neck.

As the two men started in the house, movement caught their attention.  “Johnny’s coming home.” Scott said with obvious delight in his voice.

Murdoch frowned as he watched his errant son approach the yard.  Johnny hadn’t seen them and was heading directly to the barn.  “Johnny!” He called with enough of an edge to his voice that Scott looked at him in surprise.

Johnny stopped Barranca and slowly turned him and walked over toward the house.  He stopped the big horse around 15 feet from his father and brother. “You wanted me?” he couldn’t keep the sharpness out of his voice.

“I want to know where you were today Johnny.”  Murdoch said sharply.  Before Johnny could formulate a response, Murdoch said. “Let Ramon put up your horse and come inside...we need to talk.”

“Uh...Murdoch...I found this calf. Her mama was dyin’ so I put her down.”  He waited nervously as his father turned to look closer at the limp form over his saddle.

Murdoch addressed Ramon. “Ramon, take Senor Johnny’s horse and care for him. Take the calf to Senora Rodriguez and ask her to see if it can be saved.”

Johnny dismounted and reluctantly gave the precious calf to Ramon and followed his father and brother into the house to face the music. He knew he earned whatever lecture his  father cared to give, but he knew it wasn’t going to be easy hearing it.

*******

Part 8

Johnny walked slowly across the patio into the house following his father and brother.  He wiped a bit of sweat from his forehead with his hand and rubbed it dry on his pants.  He felt his heart racing and he tried to calm it by taking a couple of deep breaths but it didn’t seem to help.

Murdoch marched into the living room with a bewildered Scott on his heels.  Scott sank into one of the blue wing chairs and Murdoch planted himself in front of the fireplace.  Johnny seemed to slink into the room with head down looking for all the world like a 12 year old caught playing hooky.  Murdoch pursed his lips in anger.  He didn’t give one third of his ranch to Johnny to have him behave like a child.  Whether he liked it or not he was going to make sure his son understood his responsibilities.

Scott felt very uneasy in his role of observer as he watched his brother stand with his head down, with his father glaring at him, arms folded across his chest.  Clearing his throat, he asked. “What’s going on?”

Murdoch broke his glare at his youngest and fixed Scott with a scowl.  “You’re brother...” He said pointing a finger at Johnny. “I told him to go out with the crew to gather the cattle.  He just disappeared.  Never even showed up.”

Johnny’s eyes met Murdoch’s and he lowered them immediately as he muttered. “Look, I’m sorry.  I...shoudda done what you said.”

“Where were you Johnny?” Murdoch asked.

Johnny began pushing the fringe of the rug around with the toe of his boot as he worked out an answer.  “Um...well... I was heading out there and I...ah ...just decided not to.”

“You just decided not to.” Murdoch repeated scornfully.

To Johnny’s ears he knew it sounded bad.  He really didn’t have an excuse, but he tried again.  “I can’t really explain it.  I just went into Morro Coyo...”

“To the saloon?” Murdoch interrupted.

“No... just to the Garcia’s”

“Why?”

‘Why’ Johnny thought.  That’s a good question.  “I just felt like it. They’re nice people and I just went.” Before Murdoch could say anything, Johnny quickly added. “I was gonna go back to the crew and finish the day.  I knew I done wrong, it’s just I found that cow and then came back here instead.” he finished with a rush.

Murdoch could feel his temper boil over.  Not only did Johnny neglect his work, but he didn’t even have a good reason.  He unleashed his temper at his son.  “I think we both know what’s going on here Johnny.  You were angry with me and decided to get me back by running off when you should have been working.” Seeing no reaction from Johnny pushed him over the top,  “What do you have to say for yourself Boy!” he shouted.

Johnny jumped at the angry words, and Scott had enough.  “Murdoch!  Stop it.  Leave Johnny alone!”  Scott ordered.

“You keep out of this Scott. This is between Johnny and me.”

‘I don’t think so Sir.  Johnny is my brother and we are all partners here.  He’s said he’s sorry, he knows he should have gone to work. What more do you want?”

Murdoch lowed his voice a bit and said.  “All I want, Scott is an explanation and a reassurance from him that he won’t do this again.”  Murdoch’s anger was building again as he watched the closed off stance of his younger son.  “I want to know that I can trust him to do his work!”  As Murdoch said the fateful words he saw the stricken look on Johnny’s face.

“Stop it.”  Johnny hissed.  He paced across the room and turned to face his father and brother.  “This is my fault. I was angry with you this morning...” He trailed off as he wrapped his arms across his chest.

“So this is how you behave when you are angry? You have to learn to be responsible boy.” Murdoch retorted.

Johnny felt his own fury take over as he turned toward his father. “I know how to be responsible.  I’ve been takin’ care of myself my whole life.” He said coldly. “And yeah, If someone says somethin’ I don’t like, I walk away...or shoot em.  Suddenly that don’t seem like such a bad idea.”  Johnny started walking toward the door.

Murdoch grabbed hold of his arm and swung him around. “You better not be threatening me boy.  I’ll take you apart if you are.”

Johnny looked at the red angry face of the man towering over him.  He  shrugged off the arm and quickly went out the door.

Scott stood stunned at the argument he’d witnessed. As Johnny left the house, Scott started after him.  Murdoch caught him by the arm and said.  “Don’t. Let him go. He needs to cool off.”

Murdoch poured them both a drink and handed a glass to Scott. He downed the whisky in one gulp and poured himself another.

Scott watched him warily and remarked.  “Does that make you feel better?”

“Don’t start Scott.”  Shaking his head he sat on the couch.  “I just don’t understand that boy.” He said sounding defeated.

“What happened?  I don’t understand how all this came about.”

Murdoch took a deep breath and let the air out in a rush. “Scott, your brother’s background is making the community nervous.  I had Milton Sullivan, asked me to tell Johnny to stay away from his daughter.”

Scott felt a sudden rush of protectiveness toward his absent brother. “So you told him?”

“Yes, this morning after breakfast.”

“How did he take it?”

“For the most part better than I thought.  It must of hurt him, but he didn’t let it show.”  Murdoch ran a big hand over his face, “I think he often hides his feelings.  He’s hard to read.”

Scott looked at him skeptically. “Sir, if you don’t mind me saying, you have to get to know him, spend time with him in order to know how he feels and who he is.”

“And if he won’t let me Scott?  How do I get to know him if he won’t let me?” Murdoch said draining his glass.

“I don’t have answer for you sir, but you better find a way.” He warned.  Scott got up as he finished his whisky.  “I’ll talk to him later. In the meantime, I’m going to take a bath and wash some of this dirt off me.”

“See you at supper son.”  Murdoch replied.

*****

Johnny found himself at the same barn door he had kicked just that morning.  He was tempted to give it a good kick again.  ‘Be just my luck, I’d knock it off it’s hinges and have ta fix it.’  He entered the dark building and breathed deeply of the smell of fresh hay and horses.  He loved this smell and he found his anger dissipating.

He approached Barranca and stroked his velvety muzzle as the horse’s nostrils fluttered in a gentle nicker.  He leaned in and rested his forehead on his horse’s neck, the silky mane tickling his nose.  The adrenaline left him in a rush and he felt only tired as he sagged against his horse. “Today’s just not my day big horse.  I shoulda stayed in bed.”

Wiping a hand across his eyes,  he picked up a brush and began grooming his understanding friend.  As he brushed a particularly good spot, he chuckled as he watched Barranca lift his head up and twitch the end of his muzzle back and forth in enjoyment.

Johnny moved on to another spot and the horse turned around and began nuzzling his back.  At this show of affection, Johnny felt his eyes grow wet again and he wrapped his arms around the gelding’s neck and hung on while he let his fragile emotions take hold of him.

The barn door opened  disrupting Johnny’s solace.  He turned to see Ramon leading Scott’s horse to his stall.  “Hola Johnny. I was going to feed the stock.  Are you taking him out again?” The wrangler said.

“No. He’s done for the day, Gracias.” Johnny said as he gave his horse a final pat and left the barn.

Johnny stood outside for a minute looking at the house.  It held no interest so he turned and went around the barn to the little cottage occupied by Senora Rodriguez.  From what Johnny knew, she had been on the ranch a long time and her husband had worked here for many years.  He had died a couple of years ago and the Senora had no other family.  She helped with the orphan calves and other chores around the ranch.

He didn’t know her all that well, but whenever she looked at him, Johnny felt a wave of disapproval.  He knew some of the hands were still wary of him, but they were getting to know him and accept him.  Senora Rodriguez seemed like she was going to hold on to her disapproval  for a while and make him prove himself before she would trust him. A sudden thought struck him...like Murdoch.

Johnny skirted around the outside of her cottage and went to the little barn used for the orphan calves.  He found his calf in a tiny pen bedded in clean fresh straw. “Hey little one.” He said softly as he knelt next to her small black body.

The calf woke up at the touch and she got up on her wobbly legs climbing into his lap looking for food.  He chuckled as she sucked on his fingers. “You sure are a hungry one.”

He heard a sound and saw Senora Rodriguez standing over him holding out a bottle of milk. “Here, nino. You feed her.”

Johnny took the bottle and looked up in surprise as the Senora turned and left the barn. Looking down on the wiggling hungry calf he held the bottle for her as she eagerly latched onto the nipple and began drinking.

Johnny stroked her back as she nursed and the calf wiggled in contentment, butting the bottle as she slurped.  Milk began running down the sides of her mouth dripping onto his pants and he pulled the bottle away from her. “Hey slow down.”  He held the bottle again within reach and the hungry calf latched on to the nipple.  He chucked and felt better than he had all day.  “I’m gonna call you esperanza. That means hope.”  He said quietly into the calf’s ear.

Johnny never saw or heard his father leave the small barn after witnessing his son’s gentleness with the orphaned calf.

********

Part 9

Dinner that night was quiet with each member of the family lost in their own thoughts.  Teresa had come down with a cold, so had not joined the three men and without her presence the atmosphere was decidedly chilly.

Scott  attempted to engage Murdoch and Johnny in conversation, but gave up when he was met with Murdoch’s short answers and Johnny’s shrugs.  As supper was completed, they all felt a wave of relief at being able to free themselves from the confines of the family dining table.

Johnny pushed his chair back when Murdoch’s voice stopped him.  “Johnny.  I’m going to be leaving early tomorrow with Scott. I need to talk with Bill about plans to move the crews over to the Carters and Vegas’. As they share the range over there I want to make sure there is no trouble between the ranches.  I’ll be back late.”

Johnny nodded at this information and felt relief that tomorrow he and his father wouldn’t be tripping all over each other trying to stay out of the others’ way.  “Okay.”

“For the rest of this week, you work with Cipriano.  He knows what needs to be done.” Murdoch paused as Johnny intense blue eyes caught his.

Johnny dropped his eyes and said. “All right.  I’ll work with him.”

Scott tired to break the tension by saying. “Come on Johnny. I’ll beat you at a game of checkers.”  Standing, he tried to smile at his brother to encourage him to join him.

Johnny now standing, shook his head. “Naw Scott.  Thanks. I’m tired, I’m gonna to turn in.”

“Good night Johnny.” Scott said with every intention of going up and talking to his brother a bit later.

“Good night son.” Murdoch said absent mindedly.

Johnny froze for a moment on hearing that as he left the room.  He turned around, and saw that his father was not looking in his direction.  He didn’t know why he bothered but something made him want to bid his father goodnight. “Night.” He said quietly and turned to go upstairs.

 

*****

Scott came upstairs after an hour of reading and knocked softly on Johnny’s door. He heard his brother say “Come in,” so he pushed the heavy door open.

Johnny was lying on the bed fully clothed with his arms behind his head.  He seemed to be staring at nothing in particular.

“Tough day.” Scott said as he pulled the chair over to the bed.

Johnny glanced at him once and turned back to his study of the ceiling.  A big sigh escaped his lips and he said. “Yeah. Tough day.”

“Look Johnny. I’m sorry you and Murdoch had that row today.”

“My fault.”

“Not all of it brother.”  Scott said as Johnny turned his head and their eyes met.  Scott held up a hand at seeing Johnny begin to protest.

“You had things on your mind and you needed some space.  There’s nothing wrong with it, just maybe the way you handled it.” He waited and let his words sink in.  “Johnny, I just want you to know, I’m here for you if you need to talk.”  He watched a frown start across Johnny’s lips.  “I know. You’re used to taking care of yourself, but I read in a book that big brothers are supposed to take care of little brothers and you wouldn’t want me to shirk my duty do you?”

Johnny’s expression was priceless as he looked at his brother with what can only be described as disbelief.  A grin began spreading across Johnny’s face. “No big brother, I wouldn’t want to cause you to shirk your duty.”

“Johnny we just have to get through this week and things will get back to normal. Maybe you and Murdoch can sit down to talk.  You and he need to spend some time together and get to know each other.  I think you two have more in common than you think.”

Johnny looked at his brother again with disbelief. “Ya sure we wouldn’t end up killin’ each other brother?”

“I have faith in you Johnny, you may drive the old man crazy, but kill him you won’t do.”

Johnny returned to staring at the ceiling and Scott had to strain to hear his reply.  “I almost did.  Kill him I mean.”  Johnny waited and glanced at Scott expecting to see horror at his remark. He only saw a question so he went on.  “I told myself from the time I was a little kid that I was gonna come up here and make him pay for what he done to my mama and me.  I was gonna come here get that money and put a bullet right between his eyes.”

Scott’s throat was suddenly dry as he listened to his brother’s cold words. “What changed your mind, Johnny?”

“You.”

“What?”

“When I met you, found out I had a brother...well it was a shock.”  He paused to see Scott nod his head in agreement.  Johnny played with the fringe on the blanket, pulling and twisting it.  “When I walked with you into the living room that first day, it was so different than anything I ever expected.  I just couldn’t do it.  I was still pretty mad at him, but finding out about you, and what Murdoch had lost, well...it really set me back.”

“I’m glad Johnny. Relieved you thought it over.  I guess I don’t need to tell you that you made the right choice.”

“Yeah. I know. Especially when Teresa told me that my mother left, we weren’t kicked out.  It’s hard to come to terms with it, ya know?” His blue eyes met his brothers blue gray eyes.

“So what now?”  Scott asked.

Johnny dropped his eyes. “I can understand why Murdoch don’t trust me. His son’s a hired killer.  I just got to work harder to prove to him I can stick it out.  Prove it to myself too.”

Scott reached over and gave Johnny’s shoulder a squeeze.  “Just remember brother, I’m here. That’s what brothers are for.  Now this brother needs to get his beauty sleep. It’s going to be another big day tomorrow.”

Scott left the room leaving Johnny with his thoughts.  He mulled the day over in his mind going over his brothers words.  He felt a load lift off his shoulders as his brother’s words made sense.  For the first time all day, he felt relaxed and drifted off to sleep.

*****

The next two days passed in a flurry of activity.  Scott and Murdoch were gone most of each day at the neighboring ranches while Johnny worked with Cipriano making sure all was ready for the branding at the end of the week.

Late Wednesday afternoon,  Johnny rode back to the ranch with several vaqueros.  They were laughing,  teasing each other and Johnny joined in on their high spirited fun.  He had found these men to be hard working and loyal to his father and Lancer.  Many of them had been there several years.  They worked for Lancer because the Patron was a fair man.

Johnny was relieved to find that his father did not take advantage of the Mexican hands like many Anglo ranchers did in the southwest.  He knew that in parts of Texas, Mexican workers were paid less than white workers even though they did the same job.

Listening to the vaqueros praise his father and Lancer made Johnny think hard about the man his father seemed to be to others and the man he was with him. 

*****

Supper that night found the Lancer family discussing the day's events. Murdoch had been talking about the progress of the branding at the other ranches.  As his took another sip of wine he remembered something he wanted to share with his sons.  “Frank told me about a nice looking herd of wild horses over by Black Mesa.”

Both Johnny and Scott looked at him with interest.  Murdoch continued.  “I thought, maybe after the branding, we might go out and try to round up a herd.”

“Sounds good.”  Johnny said around a mouthful of mashed potatoes.

“I think I would enjoy that sir.” Scott added.

Murdoch nodded and said. “We usually roundup a herd or two every year and take some of the younger animals.  Usually 2 to 5 year olds are the best, then we turn the rest loose.”

“What about the stallion?”  Johnny asked.

“We let the stallion go. We just want some good stock to train to use for ranch work.”

“Didn’t you used to breed horses sir?”  Scott inquired.

Murdoch looked at his sons and then at his plate before answering.  He suddenly felt uncomfortable about the direction of the conversation.  “Yes.  When we lost the stallion to Pardee...well...we haven’t found another one to replace him.”

Both sons were silent as they knew their father was reliving a painful memory from that day.  The day he was shot and the day he lost his good friend, Paul O’Brien.

Murdoch was glad Teresa had decided to eat again in her room as she didn’t need to be reminded of the loss of her father.

During the lull in the conversation, Johnny sought to change the subject. “We finished getting the last of those cows down to the holding field.  There was a lame cow so I had Jose bring her down to the barn to get her treated.”

Murdoch looked at him with approval. “Good move, Johnny.  The sooner we get them taken care of the faster they recover.”

Johnny blushed and looked at the remaining food on his plate.  He felt a rush of relief at his father’s words.  He risked a glance up to see his father cutting his steak and Scott grinning at him.

Scott saw Johnny’s discomfort and deftly changed the subject.  “Stacy asked me to tell you he’d be in town tonight if you’re coming in. What’s that about?”

“Oh just some of the Box D hands go into town and play poker once in a while.  They invited me to join them.” Johnny said casually.

Murdoch looked up quickly, but said nothing as Johnny continued. “I was thinking of riding in.  Do ya want to go with me?”

Scott chuckled.  “No little brother.  The only place I want to go tonight is to bed.  Thanks for asking, maybe next time.”

Johnny stood up as Maria came in to clear away the dishes. “Gracias Maria. It was very good.”  He smiled at her as she nodded and smiled back. “I’m goin’ to town. See ya tomorrow.”

“Don’t stay out too late son.  We have a lot of work to do tomorrow.”

Johnny nodded as he gathered his hat, jacket and gunbelt and left the house.

Murdoch let out a hiss of air through his teeth.

“What?” Scott asked as he finished the last of his wine.

“I just wish he’d settle down.  This running off into town has got to stop.” He finished in frustration.

“He’s not running anywhere.  He’s young and just wants to spend a night out with his friends.  There’s nothing wrong with that.” Scott defended.

“Let’s hope he gets home early so we don’t have to drag him out of bed in the morning.”

Scott said with a chuckle. “I don’t think that will be a problem ever again sir. Johnny learned that lesson several weeks ago.”

Changing the subject, Murdoch walked into the living room. “Let’s go over our plans for tomorrow and Friday. We should finish up tomorrow at the Vegas’ and then start at dawn here Friday.  If all goes well, we should be done by late Saturday afternoon.”

“Teresa was telling me about the festivities Saturday night.  Is there anything Johnny or I should know about it?”

“No. It’s a big potluck and dance to celebrate the end of the branding. Everyone will get here by dark and since the weather has been so nice, we’ll set it up outside in the courtyard. The only thing you and your brother need to do is stay out of Teresa’s way...unless you like to hang decorations that is.”  He finished with a grin.

“Not likely.” He responded with his own grin.  Scott felt a sudden nervousness as he sought a way to bring up a sensitive subject with his father.  Deciding that being direct was the only way. he jumped in. “Sir.  Tonight when you told Johnny that he did well...did you notice how he seemed almost...I don’t know...” he stopped unsure if he should go on.

“I noticed that he seems unable to accept compliments if that’s what you mean.”

“Do you ever wonder why?”

“There’s a lot about your brother we don’t know, Scott.”  Effectively closing the subject.

*****

Johnny left the saloon about 11:00 PM for Lancer.  He had played poker for several hours with Stacy, Wade, and Billy catching up on the news.  As he rode back, he mulled over what Stacy told him about Jack Miller.  Jack had been going around telling the hands at the roundup that he was taking Sara Sullivan to the dance this Saturday at the Lancer Ranch.

Johnny was not looking forward to Miller and the Carter hands coming out to the ranch, but he figured he would just stay out of the way as he didn’t want to cause any more trouble for Murdoch.

He hoped Jeff Carter wouldn’t come, but he figured he wouldn’t get lucky on that score so he planned to make himself scarce Saturday night.

He sighed and reached down to pat Barranca’s neck.  “Hey fella, I sure will be glad when this week’s over.  Maybe we can go run down those wild horses Murdoch was talking about.”  Johnny always felt better after talking things out with his horse and with spirits lifted, he loped on home.

*****

Branding day started early at the Lancer ranch.  The crews were well organized and calves were quickly restrained and branded with the Lancer brand, and if male were castrated before being reunited with it’s worried mother.

Murdoch was inspecting the calves, picking out a few bull calves to keep as replacement bulls. “See this one Scott?  He has a deep shoulder and long hip. He’s wide in the chest.  We’ll keep an eye on him and we’ll see how he grows up.”  Murdoch looked up to see Scott nodding to where he pointed.  “He’ll make a fine bull if he keeps growing like this.”

Later Murdoch stood next to Bill Dawson and watched Johnny wrestle a bawling calf to the ground as Stacy neatly applied the Lancer L to it’s hip.

“He’s a good boy Murdoch.” Bill said suddenly.

Murdoch looked at his old friend in surprise and looked down again for a moment. “I know Bill.  He’s making a hand.  He’s a hard worker, takes on any job I give him.” Murdoch stopped suddenly unwilling to go on.

“But?” Bill asked.

“I just hope he stays.” Murdoch said quietly.

“Don’t give him any reason to leave.”  Bill advised.

Murdoch just nodded and walked away.

*****

Scott sank into the hot water and let the  water work the kinks out of his aching muscles.  It had been a long week, but the branding was done.  He felt he had accomplished a great deal as he held his own and learned a great deal as well.

He had also seen ways to improve the process, but being new to ranching, he was going to wait a while to bring up his ideas.  Scott worked the soap into the flannel and washed first one leg, then the other relishing being really clean for the first time in days.

As the water was getting a bit cool, he reached over to the kettle and added hot water carefully.  Once the temperature was comfortable, he leaned back in the tub and closed his eyes. He felt rather than saw the door to the bath house open when  a cool draft of air flowed over his torso.

“Hey!” he yelled grabbing at a towel.  ‘If Teresa thinks this is funny...’ he fumed.  He stopped trying to cover himself when he realized it was Johnny who had invaded his bath.

“Hey brother. Ain’t you clean enough?”

“Johnny! Get out of here.” Scott said as he threw the towel at his grinning brother.

Johnny ducked out the way of the now wet towel and teased.  “Gonna get all duded up, huh brother?”  He brought some folded clothes out from behind his back. “I thought I’d help you out.  Be like one of them dressers yer used to back east.”

“Dresser?” Scott asked wondering what on earth his brother meant, and he had a sinking feeling he may not want to know.

“Ya know one of them people who lay out all yer clothes fancy like and help ya put em on.” He said as he carefully shook out the clothes he had brought for Scott and laid them on the bench.

Scott flushed as he realized Johnny had found his plaid pants from the bottom drawer of his dresser.  “I can dress myself thank you.” He said formally.

“Just tryin’ to be of service, brother.”

“Well, you’re trying anyway. Now get out of here so I can get dressed!”

“Okay. If you’re sure ya don’t need me to help ya.”

“Out!” Scott said trying to stifle the laughter.

“I’m goin’. I’m goin’.” Johnny said as he slipped out the door.

Scott heaved out of the water laughing to himself at the nerve of his little brother. He’d have to think of a way to get him back as he dried himself the best he could with the wet towel and dressed  in the clothes he brought to wear to the party tonight.  This was the first party at the ranch since they came home and he was looking forward to it, but a little voice told him that with the tension among the ranches, something might go wrong.

 

Part 10  Hanky Warning

Scott stepped out into the courtyard and found the party in full swing.  Colorful lanterns hung from the big tree in the middle of the courtyard, and small lanterns were strung along the top of the adobe wall.

The band was playing a lively tune and couples were dancing, if not gracefully, at least enthusiastically in time with the music.  To one side he could see tables laden with enough food to feed an army.

He worked his way past the ladies carrying trays of food to stand next to his father.  Murdoch was greeting the guests as they arrived and Murdoch took the time to introduce them to Scott as they came through.

During a lull in the arrivals Scott asked. “Have you seen Johnny sir?”

Murdoch looked at him with a distracted gaze as another group arrived. “No I haven’t seen him since late this afternoon.”

“I think I’ll scout around and see if I can track him down.” Scott said as Murdoch went back to welcoming the guests.

Scott worked his way through the crowd to the other side of the court yard.  Many of the hands he had met this week stopped him to say a few words and he felt good that he had made some new friends.  Still he was focused on finding his brother as he opened the French door and stepped into the living room.

He looked around the familiar surroundings seeing no sign of his brother.   He walked upstairs and checked out Johnny’s empty bedroom and proceeded down the hall to the stairs leading to the kitchen.

‘This is kind of like hide and seek.’ He thought as he ascended the stairs. ‘You can get a real work out looking for someone in this house.’  As he walked into the kitchen, he found Johnny sitting on the table, swinging his legs back and forth as he  twirled a wooden spoon as if he was spinning his gun and talking to Maria in Spanish.

Johnny whistled as Scott entered the kitchen and stopped twirling the spoon and said. “My. Now don’t you look pretty.”

Scott smiled and said. “Don’t get smart little brother or I’ll have to take that wooden spoon and put it to good use.”  Before Johnny could respond, Scott continued. “Why are  in here and not out dancing with all the pretty girls?”  He stopped as he saw Johnny’s smile turn to a frown.

Johnny looked down and said. “I’m gonna pass on this one brother.  I guess you get all the pretty girls tonight.”

“Come on  Johnny.  Not all the father’s are going to be like Sullivan.  Give them a chance to get to know you. Hiding in here is not going to get it done.”

Sighing, Johnny returned his brother’s steady gaze and he felt a wave of trust fill his heart. “I don’t know Scott. I ain’t much for dancin’”

“Then just come out for the party.”  Taking hold of Johnny’s arm he pulled his brother to his feet. Taking the wooden spoon, he handed it to Maria as he prodded Johnny out the door into the courtyard.

******

As Scott and Johnny walked into the courtyard, Teresa rang the dinner bell signaling everyone to assemble at the tables.  Murdoch called. “Johnny, Scott. Come over here.”

He waited until his sons stood at his side , and as the crowd silenced he began addressing them. “As a member of the California Cattlemen’s Association, I want to welcome all of you to the Lancer Ranch.  Many of you have had the opportunity to meet my sons this week, but for those of you who haven’t, I want to take this opportunity to introduce my oldest son, Scott and Johnny, my youngest.  Lancer waited a long time for them to come home and I know they will make a lasting contribution to the community.”  He waited for the applause to die down and continued.  “We’ve had another successful spring branding and as long as we continue to work together  this valley will remain a leader in the cattle industry in California.  Enough talking. Lets eat!.”

Whoops resounded from the assembled cow hands as they rushed to line up at the table.  “Come on boys. We better get in line if we want to get something to eat.” Murdoch said as he chuckled over the antics of the famished hands.

****

Scott sat with Murdoch and a couple of other ranchers letting the rich food digest.  He watched several cowboys vying for the attention of the girls.  The young men outnumbered the girls 3 to 1 so the girls could dance all night if they wanted to.  Johnny had disappeared again shortly after eating and Scott decided to leave him in peace for now.

Teresa’s voice cut through his thoughts as she took hold of his arm.  “Scott will you dance with me?” She gave him that big smile that he had a very hard time resisting.

“Oh Teresa. Maybe later. I’m still so full.”

“Please?” She again gave him that smile.

Scott felt his resolve slipping under her look and stood up and took her hand. “It would be my pleasure.” Bowing slightly he escorted her to the dance floor, and quickly found the rhythm of the unfamiliar tune.  They whirled and spun to the music and looked for all the world like Scott had been doing it his whole life.

****

Johnny stood in the shadows observing the dancers and the crowd.  He had seen one of the hands spike the punch but said nothing figuring that anything that would liven up some of those old biddies would be a good thing.

As his eyes roamed once more over the crowd, he noticed with a start that Jack Miller was over in the corner and seemed to be arguing with Sara Sullivan.  From where he was standing it looked like the girl gave in and allowed Jack to lead her onto the dance floor.

Johnny jumped as he felt a hand slap his shoulder. “Johnny where ya been?  I’ve been lookin’ for you all night.” Stacy grinned.

“Oh, I’ve been here. Just didn’t feel much like dancin’.”  Johnny said  while not taking his eyes off Jack and Sara.

Stacy saw the couple dancing and said. “What do you make of that?

“I wouldn’t think her father’d be too happy.  Him bein’ so particular and all.”

“Ya, he is at that. Told me to stay away from her a few months ago. Said I was too wild.” Stacy said with a grin.

“Oh?” Johnny replied. “Me too.”

Both men started laughing at the irony of the situation.  Their laughter died down as Milton Sullivan angrily strode across the dance floor pushing couples out of the way to get to his daughter.

The band stopped playing as the guests noticed a commotion toward the edge of the crowd.  “Stay away from my daughter.  If you lay one finger on her, I’ll...I’ll...”

“What’ll ya do little man?” Jack sneered.

“I’ll have you arrested.” The banker declared.

With that Jack began laughing, and  he pushed the banker aside. “Come on honey.  You and me are gonna dance this next dance.”  Taking her roughly by the arm, he yelled. “Music!”

As they started back toward the center of the courtyard, their path was blocked by Johnny and Stacy.  “Let the lady go.” Johnny said in a deceptively soft voice.

“Get outta my way greaser.” Jack snarled.

“Let her go, Miller.” Stacy demanded.

Before anyone could break the stalemate a harsh voice commanded. “Hold it.”  Johnny felt a gun barrel stuck in his neck.  Jeff Carter smiled. “Now I’ve got you. I’ll make you beg before you die, just like my dear wife did.”

“Carter, take that gun out of my son’s neck.”  Murdoch demanded.

“Not this time, Murdoch.  Your boy’s going to pay.” 

All hell broke loose when Carter motioned with his gun for Johnny to walk toward where the horses were tied.  As soon as he felt the gun shift away from his neck, he stepped into the man and reached for the gun.  With his other arm, he shoved Miller back in hopes of throwing him off balance so Sara could get away.

Scott stepped forward and caught Sara and pulled her to safety, while Johnny grappled with Carter.

Johnny never saw what happened next.  All his attention was turned on his struggle with Carter over the gun.  In the background he could hear screaming and shouting, then the muffled sound of gunfire.

Carter went limp under him as his hand grabbed the gun tightly.  They were both on the ground and Johnny felt the weight of a body over his legs.  Twisting around, he saw Jack level his smoking gun at Johnny.

Johnny squeezed off a shot and Jack stood frozen with a surprised look on his face.  His gun fell to the ground and the man collapsed in a heap onto of Johnny and Carter.

Johnny felt hands everywhere pulling the bodies apart.  As Miller was lifted off him, Johnny’s eyes focused on the  fancy white shirt. ‘Oh no!.” He thought as he struggled to reach the motionless body.  Pushing back the blonde hair from his forehead he cried. ‘S...Stacy!

Bill Dawson sank to his knees at his son’s side and cradled the lifeless body of his only son. Rocking him back and forth, he softly called his name.

Murdoch put his hand gently on Johnny’s shoulder and helped him stand up.

“It’s my fault.”  Johnny said softly unable to stop looking at Bill and Stacy.

“No son. It isn’t your fault.”

Johnny looked up into the slate blue eyes of his father and tried to make him understand. “It should’ve been me!”

“Scott take your brother in the house.” He said as he passed Johnny into Scott’s waiting arms.

Murdoch bent down to comfort his old friend as the loss of a son was an unbearable hurt he could understand.

The party broke up immediately with the toll being three dead that night.  Jeff Carter, a man who died 5 years before with his wife.  Jack Miller who had been living on borrowed time, and Stacy Dawson, a young man who had been living life to the fullest and had just started on the path leading to the rest of his life.

A piece of Johnny Madrid slipped away that night too, and Johnny Lancer felt the sorrow of losing a good friend.

****

Three days later the weather turned cold and windy. The mourners stood in their dark clothes as the reverend said words meant to comfort the living.

The Lancer  family stood together hats in hand.  Murdoch had his arm around Teresa as the girl wept for the loss of a dear friend.  Stacy’s parents stood at the gravesite.  His mother sobbed uncontrollably while Stacy’s father stood head bowed, and stone faced.  His arm wrapped around his grieving wife but unable to offer more comfort as he had none left to give.

Johnny stood motionless between Murdoch and Scott.  The reverend’s words unheard as he thought of the good times he and Stacy had shared in the short time they knew each other.

He felt his brother’s hand on his arm as it had been many times in the last few days offering support and comfort.  Johnny was grateful to his brother for understanding how hard this was for him.

Mr. and Mrs. Dawson turned away from their son’s casket as the grave diggers began filling in the dirt and walked over to the Lancer family.  Murdoch offered Bill his hand and Teresa gave Mrs. Dawson a hug and once more the women dissolved in tears.

Mrs. Dawson looked at Johnny with tears in her eyes.  He wanted to look away, but he couldn’t. Finding his voice, he said. “I’m so sorry. Stacy was a fine man and a real good friend to me.”

Millie embraced Johnny and held him in a tight hug. “He was lucky to have a friend like you Johnny.  You were a good friend to our son and for that I will always be grateful to you.”

****

Two days later Johnny awoke to the sun shining over the eastern hills. He could hear birds chirping and singing their morning songs.  He knew life would go on, but a part of it was just a little less bright without Stacy.

Last night he had met Wade and Billy in town where they had a beer and played a hand of poker in Stacy’s memory.  Wade and Billy had decided to move on.  The Box D had lost its appeal without Stacy to lead them on their wild path.

Johnny was grateful that Scott had joined him.  It made that ride home in the dark a lot less lonely.

He sighed  and felt content for the first time in weeks.  He got out of bed and began getting ready for the day.  Just as he finished buttoning his pants the door flew open and Teresa barged in.

“Breakfast’s ready.  Hurry up, you don’t want to be late.”

“Be right down.” He assured. Johnny smiled as the young girl he was rapidly thinking of as a sister threw open his brother’s door and he heard Scott shout. “Teresa!”

Chucking, he finished getting dressed and headed for the breakfast table.  Not just any breakfast table, he thought. ‘My breakfast table.’

 

~end~
2003

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