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EM

 

 

An Uneasy Truce

Usual disclaimers. I don't own these characters. I just borrowed them. This is my first try at fanfic. I would appreciate feedback. Thanks.

This story starts a few days after Murdoch tells Scott and Johnny that Mrs. Dane could have been Scott's stepmother and Johnny's mother. Mrs. Dane has left to deal with her son's legal problems.

PART ONE

Scott and Johnny are working together fixing fence in the south pasture. Scott glances again at Johnny between groans of stretching the hot barbed wire and wiping the sweat out of his eyes. His brother is quieter than normal. After 3 hours of steady work the sun is starting to take it's toll and the brother's stop for a breather under the shade of a large oak tree. 

They sit in silence drinking their fill from their canteens. Scott decided to try the direct route. "What's on your mind Johnny?"

Johnny glanced up at him and then down the fence line. "Do ya think we'll ever finish fencing or do ya think we'll be doing this the rest of our lives? 100,000 acres is a lot of land to fence in."

"That's not what I meant and you know it. You've been quiet all morning and that's not like you."

"I don't know Scott, I have a lot on my mind."

"Hey maybe I can help" " That's what big brothers are for."

"Yeah Scott, I know." He said with a half smile. "You keep tellin me that anyway." Johnny sighed and looked down. He turned the oak leaf over and over and began shredding the leaf along its veins. Tossing away the decimated leaf, he looked intently into his brother's eyes for a second then looked down. He spoke softly, "Well Scott, answer me this. If after a while of not living together, do people stop being married?" "Ya know legally?"

"Johnny, are you talking about Murdoch and your mother?"

"Y...Yeah."

"Johnny only death or divorce can end a marriage."

Johnny looked at the luscious hills and grass without really seeing any of it. "Do you think he divorced my mother?"

Scott grasped Johnny on the shoulder and gave it a little shake. "What are you saying Johnny? Your mother is still alive?" Looking at his brother's anguished blue eyes he added, "So that's why you were so hostile toward Mrs. Dane. You've got to tell Murdoch Johnny. Right now." Johnny bit his lip and started playing with a piece of grass. Scott put his hand on Johnny's arm to still him. "Come on Johnny, it's the only thing to do."

"I know Scott but it's hard to talk to him, specially bout my mother. I don't know where to start and he'll be mad I didn't tell him months ago."

"You'll just have to start right in Johnny. If Murdoch has feelings for Mrs. Dane it's not fair to either of them if he's still married. It will only make things worse."

"Okay, I'll tell him after supper tonight." Johnny said reluctantly.

Scott practically dragged Johnny up and toward his horse. "Johnny come on were going home right now. This can't wait."

Scott and Johnny rode at a slow gait back to the ranch. Johnny lagged behind, obviously in deep thought on the best way to approach his father. Scott kept glancing at his little brother for signs of bolting. Scott was feeling this unpleasant pressure behind his eyes. He had come to recognize this feeling when he was afraid of another argument between his headstrong younger brother and their unyielding father. He could foresee another evening of shouting, slamming doors and cold silence. `Not this time' he vowed. `This is too important.' Scott was resigned to playing the role of mediator again. If he was honest with himself, he was feeling a bit stunned by Johnny's revelation as well.

Johnny tried to stall by heading to the barn with Barranca, but Scott took the reins and told him, "I'll take care of him for you little brother. You head on in."

Johnny slowly walked toward the house. His shoulders hunched, head down scuffing his feet in the dirt. Scott watched him for a moment, shook his head and turned toward the barn.

Johnny opened the French doors quietly to see his father at his desk bent over some papers intently. Johnny cleared his throat. "Ah...Murdoch, can I talk to you?"

"What are you doing here? Did you finish the fence already?" Murdoch said with a frown.

"Ah... well no... not yet. I wanted to talk to you about something real important."

"It better be important unless you want to do nothing else except build fence for the next month." he growled.

Johnny felt his hands start to sweat and his heart was beating faster. He had only been in the room with his father for a minute and he felt like turning and running. His father pinned him with an icy stare. "All right I'm waiting." Johnny shifted from foot to foot and fiddled with the buttons on his pants. He shifted his feet and screwed up his courage to tell his father the truth. He hated feeling this way. This man was the only one who made him feel like a boy again and it made him plain mad. He took a big gulp of air to calm himself and began. "Well Murdoch, you see I need to talk to you about something personal. It's about my mother."

Murdoch's glare turned deadly. Johnny couldn't remember a gunfighter with a more murderous stare. Murdoch snapped. "I don't want to talk about her. She left taking you with her, and now she's dead. Let it lie."

Johnny raised his eyes to meet his fathers. "She's not dead," he said quietly.

"What did you say?"

"I said she's not dead."

Murdoch set back in his chair. His large callused hands rubbed his face. "There must be some mistake. The Pinkerton report said you were on your own at 11."

"Yeah that's about right." Johnny started pacing. "You see she got thrown in jail and I was sent to a mission school, but I ran away." Speaking quickly to get it all out without interruption. "My mama got out of jail when I was about 14. By then I was on my own and we went our separate ways."

"Why didn't you tell me this before now?" Murdoch shouted.

"I didn't know how you would take it." Johnny beginning to match his father's volume. Taking a deep breath, Johnny continued, "You're so angry with her and I don't know how you felt about her or me. A few months went by and you never asked about her or talked about her. I didn't know how to bring it up. When you said you were interested in Mrs. Dane, it got me thinkin. I thought maybe you had divorced my mama when she left."

Making an effort to speak calmly, Murdoch replied, "No Johnny, I never divorced your mother. At first I thought I would find her and convince her to return. Later, there just seemed no point." "Do you know where she is Johnny?"

"No Murdoch. I don't know and I don't care. I can't believe you would care either."

"Johnny she's your mother and my wife. Does she know you are here? When was the last time you saw her?"

"It's been a while and no I didn't tell her I was coming here." Johnny muttered something.

Murdoch looked at him sharply. "What did you say?"

"Nothin Murdoch, nothin. So what do we do now?"

"I don't know Johnny, I really... don't... know." He said slowly.

********

Dinner that night was oppressively quiet. Scott and Teresa looked at each other and shrugged. It didn't seem like Murdoch and Johnny had an argument but both seemed lost in their own thoughts. Murdoch drained his wineglass and reached for the bottle to refill it. Johnny pushed his food around his plate, as he seemed to be drowning in his own thoughts.

Scott wanted to say something, anything. His polish, education and long-standing social experience fled him and left him unable to think of a thing to say.

Teresa, reading the brooding look on her guardian's face knew it was futile to start a conversation, rose and began clearing dishes from the table. "We have apple pie for dessert."

Scott trying to match her hearty manner. "That sounds wonderful Teresa" looking at his father and younger brother, he sighed when he saw no reaction from either of them.

"Johnny, do you want a piece?" Teresa offered.

"No thanks Teresa, I guess I'm not hungry tonight. I'm turning in, I'll see yall tomorrow." He said as he pushed his chair back.

"Goodnight Johnny," Teresa smiled.

Murdoch got up and went into the living room. He poured two glasses of brandy and handed one to Scott.

"Well Sir, what are you going to do?"

Murdoch looked at his oldest son and sat down in defeat. "I don't know Scott. It never occurred to me that Maria was still living. I need more time to digest this."

"Well don't take too long. I can tell Johnny is already questioning whether he should have told you or not."

Murdoch's face flushed. "Of course he should have told me! He should have told me right away."

"Don't turn this around to blame Johnny, Murdoch. He is trying to do the right thing and he feels caught in the middle. He feels loyal to you both and it makes it hard." Scott could feel his head start to ache as once again he is thrust into the role of negotiator. 

"How do you know he is loyal to me? He acts like he doesn't care about anything much of the time."

"Murdoch, that's just his way. It's an act he puts on to keep from being hurt, to protect himself."

"He doesn't need to protect himself from us. We're his family." Murdoch pointed out.

"I know, but he is still learning what that means. It's going to take him a while to feel comfortable with having a family, but I know he is starting to trust us and each day it is getting stronger."

"Scott, I'm not sure how much time I can give him."

Scott ran his hand over his face. "Well, I think I'll turn in. Good night Sir." Scott felt a wave a despair float over him. `Will anything be normal in the Lancer family? Just a few weeks of peace and quiet with everyone getting along. Is that too much to ask?'

Scott selected a book from the collection and headed upstairs to his room, his feet felt as heavy as his heart.

***********

  A month passed quickly with the constant demands of the ranch. The cattle had been rounded up and Murdoch had selected the replacement heifers for their future-breeding program. He patiently explained to his sons why he made the choices he did and he reveled in their time together. Teaching his sons. Something that was stolen from him in their youth but now teaching them about cattle and the ranch, he found his dream returning. Both boys worked hard. Scott's maturity, upbringing and education were an asset to the business end of the operation. Johnny still was struggling with his newfound responsibilities but Murdoch could see the boy had grit and determination. His stubborn boy was giving it his all. At times he did not seem to be paying attention, but when it came time to do the job, he did it well.

Murdoch sat at his desk after a busy morning organizing the vaqueros and sending them off to the far reaches of the ranch. His sons worked side by side with the experienced hands and were gaining experience as well as proving themselves to that tough bunch of men. As Murdoch reread the terms of a contract, his eyes strayed to the stack of mail at the corner of his desk. Giving up on the legal language in the contract, he decided to let Scott look it over to make sure the terms were advantageous for the ranch. Looking through the mail, Murdoch's hand hovered over the large envelope with the familiar logo in the corner. He tore open the envelope. They found her, he breathed. His wife!

The Pinkerton agent found her in Hermosillo, a small town in Mexico. She had agreed to meet with Murdoch in neutral territory and would arrive in San Francisco in a week.  According to the Pinkerton agent, he would escort her to San Diego and make sure she was safely on a ship to San Francisco. Another Pinkerton agent would meet her in San Francisco and escort her to her hotel. While Murdoch snorted at the idea of his wife being closeted like a lady, he knew San Francisco was no place for a women alone.

A cool breeze blew through the living room scattering the papers on his desk as two rambunctious young men came wrestling through the French doors. Scott had Johnny in a neck hold and Johnny was doing everything he could to trip his older brother. Both were laughing so hard they would have fallen if either let go.

Murdoch cleared his throat, "Gentlemen"

"Is he talking to us? I ain't no gentlemen." "How bout you big brother, you a gentlemen?"

"I used to be before I came here. You, my little brother are a bad influence on me."

At that both boys dissolved into laughter and made it safely to the couch where they sprawled until the hilarity of the situation died down.

Feeling close to his sons, Murdoch thinks, well it's now or never. "Boys there's something I need to discuss with you. I'm leaving for San Francisco in a few days. I may be gone for a couple of weeks."

"Do we have business in San Francisco Murdoch?"

"It's personal Scott." Murdoch looked at Johnny. "It's your mother son, they found her. I'm meeting her in San Francisco." 

Johnny froze. An unreadable mask in place over the features that just moments before had been happy and laughing.

"Johnny, you understand why I have to do this don't you?"

"I don't understand anything Murdoch. She hurt you. She took me away from my home and ..." Johnny turned away holding his arms across his body. "Do what you have to, just don't expect me to have anything to do with her." At that he fled upstairs.

Scott waited a bit and quietly asked Murdoch what he hoped to accomplish with this visit. "Answers Son and perhaps an ending. If nothing else, I need to get things wrapped up legally."

"Divorce you mean."

"Yes I intend to see a lawyer while in San Francisco and get things started."

"So you don't see any hope of reconciliation?"

"I don't see how that would be possible. She's no longer the women I married. Hell maybe she was never that women and I was too blind to see it. I know I don't need to ask it but help Johnny Son, he's going to need his brother more than ever while this is all straightened out."

********

PART TWO

Murdoch arrived in San Francisco mid-day. The morning fog that settled over the city had burned off and it was a brilliant clear day. Murdoch checked into his hotel and left immediately after depositing his baggage in his room. His first stop was to meet with Avery Nelson, his attorney. He explained the situation and made it clear that there was only one outcome he wanted. To be free and clear of this women. Nelson agreed to take the case along with a hefty retainer and Murdoch returned to the hotel feeling like he finally had control of the situation.

His meeting with Maria was set for 4:00 PM. As Murdoch freshened up and changed clothes, he felt disgusted with himself for feeling nervous. After all these years and all the trouble she caused, he would be glad to get this over with and get back to his life at the ranch. Even though his sons had been at his side just a short time, he was surprised to find that he missed them already. He filed this feeling in the back of his mind to be examined at a later date when his current problems were resolved.

As he walked the few short blocks to her hotel, he remembered the look on Johnny's face when he was getting ready to leave. He couldn't quite put his finger on it. He thought he saw a flash of a lost boy, emotions quickly replaced by anger? hurt? fear?. He wasn't sure. Just as quickly as he saw a glimpse of his son's emotions they were swallowed up by the mask he was so proficient at showing the world.

Murdoch slowly climbed the stairs and stopped outside room 321. He rapped three times on the door and it opened slowly. He took a deep breath and stepped inside.

A soft voice said "Murdoch". Time stopped for him as he stared into the face of the women he loved and detested at the same time. The years had changed her very little. Her face was still beautiful, with delicate cheekbones and full lips. Her large dark eyes sparkled with challenge and he was entranced by her thick lashes so like her son's.

Murdoch realized in a flash, `what a tiny thing she is.' Somehow he had forgotten. She still had her long curly mane of hair and she was as slim as the day he met her those many years ago.

"Maria" he said as though tasting her name for the first time.

 

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

The pace of the ranch had settled down for the evening as a spectacular sunset edged the western sky. Streaks of brilliant orange and yellow reflected off the thin clouds signaling an end to another hectic day at the ranch.

Scott relaxed in the blue chair with a snifter of brandy watching his brother out of the corner of his eye. Johnny was quiet through dinner and he was definitely on edge. Scott knew better than to question him outright when he was in this mood. He knew to bide his time until the moment was right. His brother would let him know when to ask the question.

The grandfather clock rang out it's chime signaling seven o'clock.  With the first ring, Johnny launched himself off the couch. Looking slightly sheepish, he turned away from his brother and began pacing back and forth from the desk to the fireplace.

Scott could sense the time was rapidly approaching. They had only known each other for a few months but in some way for both of them it felt like a lifetime. There was something familiar and comfortable about their relationship almost from the start.

Johnny poured himself a shot of whisky and swallowed it in one gulp grimacing as it burned it's way down his throat. With a sigh he sat heavily back down on the couch and looked at his hands.

"Talk to me Johnny" Scott said softly.

Johnny started picking at a loose bit of skin by his fingernail. He looked up into the clear steady eyes of his brother. "Scott, I don't know" he began. "It's all so confusing, I'm worried about... well, Murdoch, and you know my mama. I should have talked to Murdoch before he left and now it's too late. I should have been the one to tell him. Prepare him.."

Scott laid his hand on his brother's arms and said softly. "Johnny, Murdoch's a big boy. Stop beating yourself up. This is between the two of them. Let them handle it."

Johnny threw Scott a grateful smile and said. "I guess you're right brother."

 

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

Murdoch moved into the room, suddenly at a loss for words. He had rehearsed what he was going to say on the long trip to San Francisco. Now everything flew out of his mind.

She turned from the window and looked at him with a sad smile on her lips so like her son's. She saw the questions in his eyes.

"Murdoch, there is so much to tell and so little point in going over it. Nothing I tell you will change anything."

"I have to know Maria. Help me understand." Murdoch felt a bit startled at the mildness of his response.

Maria smiled at the man she vowed to spend her life with. "I was young when you met me in Matamoros. I was experiencing my freedom for the first time in my life. I had led a sheltered life." She smiled at the memory. "The only daughter of a hacendado. I was betrothed at a very young age. An arranged marriage as is the custom in my culture. It would have been an advantageous partnership for my family." She smiled again. "I was headstrong, wild, and wanted my freedom to do as I pleased. I ran away from my escort on the way to meet my fiancé. Matamoros was alive and exciting. Young men vied for my attention. I loved dancing in the cantina and I was drunk with freedom. My happiness was short lived when I heard that there were men sent by my father asking around about me. When I met you I felt safe. You made me feel you would stand up to my father's men."

Maria turned once again to the window and seemed to be collecting her thoughts. Murdoch said nothing as he drank in her words. She turned back and continued. "I didn't know what I was doing. I knew it was wrong in the eyes of the church, but Murdoch, I swear it seemed so right to be with you. When I found out I was pregnant, I was so afraid you would leave me. That you did not love me, but then you opened your heart to me and offered me your love and your life. I truly thought it was right and being your wife and carrying our child made me the happiest I had been in my life."

Murdoch sat there is stunned silence. After all the years he thought his memories had played him false. It was a relief that she confirmed that there had once been mutual love between them, but his anger was bubbling beneath the surface.

Now that Maria has started, it was like a flood gate had opened. "When you took me to your rancho, I thought it was the most beautiful place on earth." Her eyes danced as she spoke. "I loved riding the hillsides in the early morning and the magnificent sunsets. Even the hard work of cooking and cleaning, I didn't mind." She smiled faintly at the memory. "I was not very good at any of it as I never learned those things as a girl growing up. When Johnny was born, my life felt complete. I had my beautiful baby and my strong handsome husband. I never wanted it to change."

She paused to take measure of Murdoch's reaction, She continued gently. "Murdoch, you may have not realized it, but things started to change. You became driven to make the rancho grow. At first you were gone overnight then nights on end. You would return home exhausted and too tired to pay attention to Johnny or myself."

Murdoch interrupted angrily. "Maria, I was trying to build something for us, for our family."

"No, Murdoch, I realized you were focused on your goal of creating a perfect family so you could go east and regain your son."

"Was that so wrong Maria? Scott was missing from our lives and I needed to make sure the ranch was profitable in order to launch a campaign to retrieve him."

"Murdoch, there was nothing wrong with your plans except you did not include me in any of it. You expected me to be the quiet little broodmare to help you round out your family. I felt like your possession rather than your partner or your wife. When you informed me it was time to start trying for another child, I knew I wasn't ready, but you would not listen. You said with two children, our family would be a better environment for Scott and you were sure that the courts would agree, Murdoch, it was too much. I was not ready. I was still learning how to be a mother and a wife. I felt old and tired and I was only 19. I should have been attending parties and having fun instead of feeling like I had the weight of your hopes and dreams crushing me to the dirt.

"Maria, I had no idea. Why didn't you tell me?"

"I tried, I panicked. I started fights with you. I tried to keep you away from me. I resented you when you compared me with your perfect wife, Catherine. I felt like an impostor, second best. If I moved a chair, you scolded me like a child. You told me to leave everything where it was because that is not where "she" would have put it. I was frustrated and angry. You had two mistresses I could not compete with. Your ranch and your dead wife. Johnny and I were possessions to you."

"That's not true. You were both very important to me. I loved you both. You were the most important person in my life."

"Murdoch, at one time I believed that, but as time went by, I realized you loved the idea of having a family. We just were not measuring up to the family you had in mind. We weren't Catherine and Scott. As the time got closer for you to leave to go east, I made plans to leave. I know now it was wrong of me, but at the time, it seemed my only solution." She paused as if undecided, Murdoch had a wooden expression on his face and she was unable to read his thoughts. "I didn't love the man I left with." She admitted. "He was easily fooled and willing to take us to Mexico where I thought I could start a new life."

"Why Maria, and why take Johnny?" his voice rising unbidden.

"He is my son and I could not leave without him." She responded. "I never meant for things to turn out the way they did and I never dreamed life would be so hard for him. I know he will never forgive me for that."

"Why didn't you come back? I would have helped you."

"I didn't know that for sure Murdoch. I knew you would be angry with me. I was afraid you would take Johnny from me and send me away. I couldn't live without him."

Murdoch took a deep breath. He hadn't realized he had been holding his breath and he was starting to feel the strain of the conversation. Maria started to say something more and he held up a hand. "Maria , I need time to think about all of this. We can talk more tomorrow." Murdoch quickly turned and fled the room.

Once safely ensconced in his own room, the images flew through his head. He thought back to those times so long ago and he did not have any memory of the things Maria told him about that made her unhappy. Was he so blind that he was unaware of his wife's unhappiness?  He recalled the fights, but they had seemed to be about inconsequential things. Women's changing moods he had told himself. He realized he had missed the important clues and knew there was nothing he could do about them now.

Restless, he went downstairs and left the hotel. It was getting a bit chilly as the evening set upon the city. He did not feel like going to a crowded restaurant, but his hunger was forcing him to look for a suitable meal. He found a small cafe on a side street and ordered a steak. Mulling over the thoughts spinning in his head he resolved to finish his conversation with Maria tomorrow and start back to the ranch the following day. Looking around the city he realized there was nothing here for him on this visit. He felt alone, tired and old.

PART THREE

The day started sunny and warm with the promise of it heating up by mid- day. Scott and Johnny left to start the myriad of chores that needed to be attended to. Both Lancer sons were lost in their thoughts as they set out. Johnny quickly checked on a couple of water holes they were concerned with. Both seemed okay for now but he knew that within a week they would have to move the herd higher up in the hills as the lower water holes were starting to dry out. He worked his way back around to the ranch, stopping to mend a fence here or check on a new calf there. He ended up at the ranch in good time to start working with a horse that had been particularly stubborn. He wanted to get in a good couple of hours work on him before the heat of the day set in.

Johnny started working the bay gelding from the ground in a circle. He had him changing gaits and directions in just a short while and the horse appeared to be listening to him well.

Once he was satisfied with the progress, he approached the bay and began rubbing him all over. Placidly the gelding lowered his head and licked his lips showing every sign of contentment. Johnny placed a hackamore over his head and began running the saddle blanket all over his body and legs. The bay spooked sideways a time or two, but Johnny kept talking to him quietly and kept rubbing him with the blanket. The horse began licking his lips again in relaxation so Johnny felt comfortable moving on to the next step. He carefully placed the saddle on the horse and tightened the cinch. He secured the reins of the hackamore out of the way and sent the horse back to the rail in a circle. At first the horse froze then exploded in a fury of bucking and rearing which made Johnny thankful he was not on this fellow's back.

After a few minutes of this, the gelding settled down to a lope and Johnny worked him from the ground asking him to speedup and slow down. After the horse changed directions on command, Johnny asked him to stop. Johnny continued to talk softly to him, walking around him, and touching him all over his body. Once he was confident the horse was listening to him, he carefully placed his foot in the stirrup and stood for a moment with his weight over the saddle. The horse shifted sideways and Johnny spoke softly. "Whoa son, You’re all right. Be still for me." The bay again settled down and Johnny carefully swung his leg over the saddle and found his off side stirrup. Now he was ready.

He continued to talk softly and the horse froze in confusion. Johnny shifted his weight gently and encouraged the horse to move. The horse zig zagged his way over to the fence rail while his body adjusted to with the unaccustomed weight on his back. Within a few minutes the horse was walking slowly along the fence and was showing every sign of giving in with out a fight. Johnny was not fooled, as he knew anything could set off a green horse.

He was happy with his progress today and planned to stop when he got to the other side of the corral. Just as he was half way to his goal, a whirlwind of dirt and leaves started swirling toward the middle of the corral. Johnny sat deeper in the saddle as he watched powerlessly as the dirt devil came right at him. The green horse snorted and took off in terror as the whirling dirt came under his belly. Johnny knew he could not stop the gelding but tried to steer the terrified horse away from the fence. In the horses confusion and terror he did not see the looming fence and crashed right into it. Horse and rider went down together in a hail of kicking legs and breaking boards.

"Johnny" Scott yelled as he witnessed the terrible accident. Too far away to do anything but spur his horse into a gallop, He leaped off Charlie and ran to where the horse finally regained his footing. His brother lay still in the dirt. "Johnny" Scott said again, swallowing his own terror.

Several hands came running over to help. As Scott began opening Johnny’s shirt to check for injury, he told one hand to ride for the doctor, and asked two other hands to help him get Johnny in the house. With his heart in his throat, they carried his unconscious brother upstairs to his room. Teresa hurried in with the medical supplies. Scott began removing Johnny’s clothing, while Teresa gently washed his face.

"He’s getting a large bruise on his temple. Scott"

"I can’t tell if anything is broken, but he’s got scrapes all over him. He may have a concussion. I hope there’s nothing else we can’t see." Scott let out a breath of air he was unaware he was holding. "Sam will be here soon and I’ll feel a lot better once he has checked him over."

"Scott, do you think we should wire Murdoch?"

"Not yet, Let’s wait until Sam can tell us how he is. Then we can decide."

Johnny’s eyes fluttered open for a brief second and then closed again. Teresa and Scott stared at him willing him to wake up. He twitched again and slowly opened his eyes. He blinked twice to clear the shapes before his eyes. When he started to shake his head, the sharp stab of pain in his head stopped that motion.

"Easy brother." Scott warned. "Don’t try to move."

"What happened" Johnny slurred.

"You took a spill from a horse. Take it easy, Sam will be here soon. You’re going to be fine." Scott sounded more assured than he felt.

"Where’s Murdoch?"

"He’s in San Francisco on business."

Johnny looked at him and tried to remember but the pounding in his head was demanding all his attention. He closed his eyes and surrendered to the darkness.

Scott and Teresa exchanged worried looks. "Sleep will do him good." Teresa said uncertainly.

"Yes, it’s the best thing for him." Scott responded without conviction.

Time seemed to stand still while they waited for the doctor to arrive. Finally they heard Sam coming down the hall into the room.

While a family friend, today he was all business. He quickly checked Johnny’s pulse and heart rate. He listened to his heart and gut sounds through his stethoscope. His questions were brisk and to the point. "How long ago did this happen? Has he regained consciousness?" Sam nodded at their answers. He continued his evaluation and began replacing his equipment in his bag.

"Well," he said quietly. "I don’t find any sign of internal injury. There could be something there, but nothing is apparent at this time. Other than a concussion and a cracked rib, there are no other broken bones. It’s the concussion I am most concerned about. You will need to watch him carefully. I have another patient to check on, but I’ll come back when I am done and check Johnny again." Seeing the looks of dismay on Teresa and Scott’s faces he assured them that keeping an eye on him is all they can do for now. "If he wakes before I return, try to keep him awake and talking. If he is disoriented it is important he stay awake until he becomes lucid. If he goes back to sleep wake him every 2 hours and go through the whole procedure again. Any questions?"

Both shook their head no and Sam left promising to return as quickly as he could.

Scott went down stairs and asked Frank to ride into town and send Murdoch a wire letting him know that Johnny was hurt and advising him to return as soon as possible. Scott retrieved a pitcher of fresh water and climbed the stairs to Johnny’s room. He and Teresa continued their vigil by their dark headed brother’s bedside.

 

******

Murdoch heard the knock on his door and opened it to find Avery Nelson. Accepting a cup of coffee, the attorney got right down to business. "Normally there are extensive procedures to file a petition for divorce. Due to you wife’s abandonment of the marriage, it is a mere formality. I have drawn up a standard petition for divorce. If you review it today and return it to me by tomorrow, I can get it filed with the court this week. As your wife is in the city, she can review it as well. I assume she is agreeable to this proceeding?"

"I actually haven’t talked to her yet about a divorce. I was going to bring it up today." With that Nelson took his leave.

Murdoch poured himself another cup of coffee and started reviewing the legal documents. He scanned the legal language. It seemed straightforward. Maria would have no claim on any of his property. He did not think that would be a problem as she had never in all those years approached him for money.

Feeling a little unsettled, Murdoch waited in his room for Maria to arrive. Today he would end it. He had heard her out yesterday. ‘Now just finish it. Say what you need to say and get it over.' he thought.

He heard a soft knock on the door. He opened it to let in the woman who once captured his heart then crushed it without a backwards glance. She had a composed determined look on her face. She started to say something, but he raised his hand. "Maria, if I may. I appreciate you being so forthright about what happened all those years ago, but I can never forgive you for taking Johnny away from me. I died a little bit each year on his birthday not knowing where he was or if he was all right. Even if you hated me, you could have let me know how he was."

Maria looked down at the floor, her composure leaving her suddenly. Her eyes filled with tears but she managed to keep them under control as she coldly informed him that was not possible.

"Anything is possible Maria!" You hated me so much you hurt our son in your quest to keep him from me." Building up a head of steam, he said harshly, "You told him I didn’t want him! How could you lie to him like that? You knew how much I loved that boy." Now that he had started he found he couldn’t stop. A quiet voice in his mind was telling him to slow down, but he had waited all these years to vent his anger. "You have no idea what we went through the first few months he was home! The arguments, the angry words. We are still dealing with the problems you caused." A small part of his mind chided him that laying the blame totally at her feet was unfair, but he was not in a mood to listen. "He doesn’t want to see you now, but I expect you to tell him the truth when he is ready to hear it." He continued. "Maria. Did you hate me so much that you destroyed our son’s chance to grow up knowing his father’s love? Why didn’t you send him to me when you were sent to jail?"

I tried Murdoch."

"What do you mean you tried?" He demanded.

Talking a deep breath, she met his gaze. "Murdoch, we have a very stubborn and independent son. He resented his step- father and refused to obey him. By the time he was 10 he would run away whenever he was unhappy. We struggled with him. I asked a friend to take him to the mission school with instructions for them to send for you to get him. I heard a couple of months later that Johnny ran away before they could get a message to you. I had a dear friend who visited me in jail and she told me that Johnny was running wild. When I got out of jail, he was 14 and my hus…, my husband and I tried to get him to move back in with us. He came back for a couple of weeks and took off again. He was an angry boy..." Shaking her head in regret, she said with a sigh. "He was running with some older boys and he just refused to listen to us. I was so afraid he would get into trouble and they would send him to jail or even worse."

Murdoch was frowning while he listened to her story. He knew how headstrong and independent Johnny was and he had a feeling that Johnny was probably a handful as a child. Maria’s story was just not ringing true. His patience at an end, he barked. "The truth Maria! You owe me the whole truth!"

"The truth? Whose truth? She cried. "You don’t understand Murdoch!" Her temper started getting the better of her. "You never understood." In Spanish, she began a litany of his short comings along with some well chosen words concerning his parentage and his similarity to a burro.

At that Murdoch started in one his own list of finely chosen words. Neither listening to the other. Finally, Murdoch paused to take a breath. But Maria had the final word as she left the room. "When you stop acting like a wild pig, we can conclude our business." With that she slammed the door and she was gone.

As Murdoch’s anger subsided, he couldn’t help the smile that was coming to his lips. He had to admire her command of the Spanish language, especially her well-chosen words questioning his heritage. He well knew where Johnny’s talent in this area came from and he had gotten it honestly.

Realizing he hadn’t brought up the divorce papers, he found some hotel stationary in the drawer and penned a quick note. Feeling the need for some fresh air he decided to take a walk and mull over the things she had told him.

As he entered the lobby, he asked the hotel clerk for an envelope and made arrangements for the divorce papers and his note to be delivered to Maria as soon as possible. He would give her some time to cool off and they could conclude their business.

He turned to leave the hotel when he was stopped by his name being shouted across the room. "Mr. Lancer!" He returned to the desk. The clerk was holding a small envelope to him. "Mr. Lancer, this telegram just arrived for you, Sir."

Murdoch felt uneasy, as only his sons knew where he was staying. Murdoch’s stomach gave a lurch as he read the short missive. He spoke to the clerk. "I’m checking out. I need that envelope back." Murdoch retrieved the note he wrote and added that he was called back to the ranch on urgent business. He told her Avery Nelson would be getting in touch with her to conclude their business.

On another sheet of paper he wrote a note to Nelson advising him of his change of plans. He asked him to complete his business with Maria and secure her traveling arrangements and expenses back to Mexico.

That task done, he gave both envelopes to the clerk and asked him to have them delivered immediately. He turned and started back upstairs taking them two at a time. He had 30 minutes to catch the next train east.

********

PART FOUR

 

Murdoch rode his rented horse at a swift lope. He was anxious to get home and check on Johnny. `What could have happened" he thought as he rode. He dreaded the thought that Johnny had been involved in another gun fight. He told himself firmly not to think about the possibilities. Frowning he knew Scott would not have sent for him if it was not serious.

As Murdoch neared the last mile of his trek, he came around a corner and hauled back on the reins sending his mount into a sliding stop just in time to avoid bumping into a horse pulling a buggy. "Sam!" Murdoch exclaimed.

"Whoa there Murdoch." Dr. Jenkins admonished. "Do you have a posse chasing you?" Sam tried to hide his delight in seeing the multitude of emotions flash across Murdoch's face.

"Not funny Sam. How's Johnny?, What happened?, What..."

Sam held up a hand cutting his old friend off. "Hold on a minute there Murdoch. Take a deep breath. Johnny's going to be just fine. He gave us quite a scare but he is much improved today over yesterday."

Feeling somewhat exasperated, Murdoch repeated. "What happened?"

"He fell off a horse."

"He fell off a horse? Johnny doesn't just fall off a horse." Murdoch said with irritation. He was hot, tired and dirty from his quick trip and now that he knew Johnny was going to be all right, he wanted answers.

"Murdoch, all I know is that Scott said he fell off a horse. He has a nasty concussion and a cracked rib. We are still watching the concussion but the rib will keep him from moving around much for at least a week. By then his headache should start easing off. Other than that, he is just pretty much covered all over with bruises and scrapes. Teresa knows what to do and I'll see him again tomorrow afternoon."

"Thanks Sam. That's a relief. I was afraid of the worst."

Well a fall like that could be fatal, but he seems to be on the mend. You look like you could use a hot meal, a bath and a good nights sleep, that is after you see those boys of yours."

Murdoch smiled at his old friend as he urged his tired mount toward home.

*******

As the last rays of light settled behind the tree covered hillside, Scott , Teresa and Johnny were enjoying each other's company in Johnny's room. Johnny was feeling much better and was teasing Scott much to all of their delight. Teresa looked up from her mending with a small smile on her lips as Johnny interrupted Scott once again. Scott was reading aloud from a novel that he had informed them was taking the country by storm.

"Truncation" Johnny drawled. "What kind of a word is that?"

"Johnny" Scott said in exasperation. "Stop interrupting. If you would listen to the whole story you would understand it!"

"How am I supposed to understand it when I don't know what them fancy words mean? Why can't they write regular words so everybody could read um? "

"Johnny...." Teresa interjected.

Before she could finish her sentence, Johnny challenged. "Okay Teresa, what does truncation mean?"

Teresa blushed slightly. "Uh... well actually, I ...well... I don't know exactly what it means either." She admitted.

Johnny practically crowed. "See Scott. I told ya. Teresa proves my point." Johnny crossed his arms looking at his brother with a rather smug look on his face.

Scott began to formulate a rather biting answer when there was a knock and the door opened.

"Murdoch!" Teresa cried as she ran over to give him a hug.

"Hey Murdoch" Johnny said as his father came by the bedside.

Scott shook his fathers hand, and said "Welcome back, Sir. You're just in time to help us keep Johnny in bed while he recovers."

"Aw... I'm all right Scott. I don't need nobody watching over me all the time."

"Yeah right little brother. I've still got a few things to do before it gets dark. I'll see you later." Scott said as he swiftly departed knowing wisely that his father and brother needed some time alone.

Teresa taking the hint, started toward the door as well and said. "Supper will be ready in an hour. We'll bring a tray up for
you Johnny."

"Thanks Teresa, see ya later." Johnny smiled at the departing girl.

"Well son, you sure know how to get yourself in a fix. Don't you?" Murdoch said looking down at his dark haired youngest son. It struck him just how much Johnny looked liked Maria. Startling actually except those sapphire blue eyes, that were right now sparkling mischievously at him.

With a big sigh, Johnny gave his father a heavily edited version of the accident ending in "The last thing I remember was breaking boards, a cloud of dust and a bay horse colliding together." He said shrugging it off as if it was no big deal.

"I met Sam on the way in Johnny and he said you had a nasty concussion so I want you to follow his orders to the letter. He'll be back tomorrow and we'll see what he says."

An awkward silence fell between father and son. Johnny was looking down at his hands as he pulled on a loose thread. Johnny was the first to speak. "So... did you see my mother?" He glanced quickly up to see his father's face look like it was made out of stone. Johnny felt his insides flutter as he worried about their meeting.

Murdoch finally spoke. "It actually went better than I thought it would. She told me some of her reasons for leaving and while I don't agree with her, I understand her a bit better. I can never forgive her Johnny for taking you away."

"Could you tell me why she left? Why she took me with her?" The plea in Johnny's voice struck Murdoch in an unexpected way. He looked down at Johnny for a minute and felt a rush of protectiveness toward his uniquely independent young son.

"I guess, Johnny it was both our faults. I was absorbed in building the ranch and I didn't notice how your mother was starting to feel left out. If she said anything I just didn't understand what she was saying. I thought taking care of you and helping me build the ranch was what she wanted too. She says she felt alone and desperate and she had no one to turn to. She was young. She thought she would have a better life back in Mexico. The reason she took you was simple. She loved you. You were her baby. She couldn't leave without you Son."

Johnny closed his eyes and for a moment, Murdoch thought he was not going to respond. "I guess I understand. I sometimes think about what I would've done if I had been old enough to choose. I don't think I could've made a choice so I guess I'm glad I didn't have to. When I was a kid, we didn't have a lot and there were a lot of bad times, but there were good times too and I'm not sure I would have wanted to miss those times with her."

Murdoch found that painful to hear but he was thankful in a way Johnny had not been put in that position as a child. "Johnny, Unfortunately, there are no winners where the three of us are concerned." Johnny looked up at his father quickly and then back down still worrying the thread.

"So what now, Murdoch?"

"We're divorcing, Johnny. When I left, your mother was going to review the terms and then return to Mexico. If you want to see her, let me know and I'll send a wire asking her to come."

Johnny shook his head no... "No Murdoch." I'll maybe go visit her someday, but not right now."

"All right Johnny" Murdoch said masking his concern for the look of sadness he saw briefly on his son's face. Well, Son I better get cleaned up before supper. You rest here for awhile and I'll see you in a bit."

"Okay Murdoch" Johnny said as he snuggled a bit down in the bed. Murdoch stifled an urge to pull the sheet up around his son's shoulders and instead turned and left the room.

Johnny looked up at the ceiling. 'No point in trying to sleep. It's only a couple of hours till bedtime.' He just couldn't get the
images of his mother out of his mind and as he relaxed, sights and sounds of his childhood began to play across his thoughts. `If I could think about the good times only.' he sighed. `At least Murdoch and my mother have concluded their business and things should be getting back to normal soon.'

********

PART FIVE
Four months later.....

The Lancer family had just completed a busy round up season and had a successful drive to the railway pens. The cattle were loaded and delivered per all their contracts and now they were getting ready for the upcoming winter. While the rainy season in California didn't start in earnest until November and some years even later, there were numerous preparations. Loose shingles on the barns needed to be secured. Stored hay needed to be inspected again for signs of spoilage. Fences checked and mended as always and stock ponds needed to inspected and maintained so they could capture the winter rains and hold the precious water to get them through the hot dry valley summers. Once the rain stopped in April, the lakes and ponds were all they had to keep the stock watered until winter.

Johnny and Scott were constantly busy. Leaving at sunup and arriving as the sun was going down and many times later. In spite of the hard work, the two brothers were as close as two who had grown up together. Johnny valued his brother's insight when it came to dealing with their stubborn, bossy father. While Johnny still felt himself bristling at times to some of the abrupt orders thrown his way, he was finally learning to pick his battles. Now if he could just learn how to verbally spar with his father in a way that wouldn't result in an explosion! Johnny thought about that a lot as he worked his way across the vast ranch. He hated fighting with his father. It made him feel wrung out and sick inside for days. He wasn't exactly sure how his father felt, as there would be no discussion about the argument. They would both just avoid the topic and move on. Johnny knew Scott felt this was a ridiculous way to deal with the problems between father and son, but he was at a loss as to any other suggestion.

Scott rode along in silence next to his brother. He was pondering on the relationship between his brother and their father. Scott had long ago learned that no amount of intervention on his part was going to stave off an argument, once one got going. Right now things were going along in a relatively peaceful state, so he could only hope that they would find a common ground to build a solid footing for their relationship. Scott knew that Johnny really wanted his father. Not his father as a business partner, but his Father. In time, he hoped his stiff necked father and his too big for his britches brother would find they both wanted the same thing.

They began checking out the largest stock pond on the ranch. This one still had a good amount of sparkling blue water supplied by an underground spring. Indian Summer was in full swing. While the nights were cool, by afternoon it was unpleasantly hot.

To Johnny, that cool water was too tempting. "Hey Scott, Let's cool off okay?"

"It does look good brother. Just a quick swim though because we still have a lot more to get done today."

With that, both boys were off their horses removing boots, socks and gunbelts. They paused for a moment and swiftly shucked the rest of their clothes off and jumped into the water. The first taste of the water felt cold but in just a minute of swimming around they were enjoying the freedom of an early fall afternoon.

Swimming, then diving under the water, Johnny came up behind Scott and playfully ducked him under. Scott came up sputtering ready to retaliate, but his brother was half way across the pond. The chase was on. Splashing and laughing as the two were wrestling together in the cool water. Finally exhausted they made it back to where their horses were watching them with a patient eye. Quickly wiping some of the water off themselves with their shirts, they flopped down in the grass and drifted off in an impromptu siesta. All thoughts of work pushed to the back of their minds. The camaraderie they shared adding to their contentment.

Johnny woke suddenly to the sound of a hoof impatiently stomping flies. Amused at himself for drifting off to sleep so soundly, he grinned at the sight of his still sleeping and still naked proper gentleman brother.

Dressing quickly, he walked over to Scott and nudged his foot with the toe of his boot. "Hey, wake up. I'm hungry."

Scott woke with a start, frowning at his smug sounding little brother. Jumping up, he donned his clothing while Johnny checked the horse's cinches.

Soon they were mounted and heading for home, formulating a plausible reason for not completing their work, while at the same time not revealing their afternoon sabbatical.

`It isn't really a lie.' Scott told himself. `Just an omission.'

Johnny just planned to keep his mouth shut and let his big brother handle it. `After all' He reasoned, `what's the point in having a big brother if you don't let him take charge once in a while.'

Murdoch sat at his desk where he had been reviewing the letter from Avery Nelson, which advised him of the status of his divorce from Maria. He knew a weight would be off his shoulders when it was final in two months. Hearing his sons coming through the front door, Murdoch deposited the papers in his lower desk drawer.

"Boys, how did everything go today? He inquired.

Scott, being the first to enter the room began giving a review of their activities. Both brothers settled into the chairs in front of Murdoch's desk. Scott held his father's eye, checked off the tasks they had completed that day. Johnny resting his right boot on his left thigh seemed to be absorbed with trying to dig the dried dirt out of the filigree work on his spur.

Scott took a deep breath and continued with his recital. He was actually quite accomplished in his ability to tactfully skirt an issue. He had many years of practice from dealing with his strict old -fashioned grandfather. "So we spent a bit more time than we planned at the stock pond, and it put us behind in our work, but we checked it out thoroughly and I don't think it will give us any trouble this winter." Murdoch nodded and Scott could see out of the corner of his eye that Johnny was biting his lip to keep from smirking.

Before Murdoch could reply, Teresa came into the room.

"Oh good, you're all here. I was hoping we could eat early. It looks like your two are already cleaned up. I'll go ahead and start getting the food on the table."

As Murdoch rose to go to the dining room table, Johnny and Scott gave each other a quick look and followed. Johnny's relief that they hadn't been questioned evident in his hearty "Great. Let's eat. I'm so hungry my boots are starting to look good."

Everyone sat down and began a round of passing platters and bowls while Teresa told of a mishap in the kitchen which resulted in the meal she had been planning being scrapped for this one. They all chuckled and complimented her on the chicken and dumplings and asked for seconds.

As the meal began winding down, Murdoch and Scott were enjoying their wine. Johnny was finally full and just pushing some greens around on his plate. Maria and Teresa were removing the trays and dishes.

"Johnny, want to try your luck at chess tonight?"

"It's not luck Scott, its skill. I'm..."

Just then a soft knock was heard on the heavy front door. Maria being the closest answered the door. Two sets of the greenest eyes she had every seen started up at her.

"¿Está Juanito aquí?" one inquired.

*****

PART SIX

Johnny froze when he heard his name. He glanced quickly at his father who was rising to go to the door to see who was visiting so late. Scott was right behind him. Maria moved away to make room for the men to see the visitors inquiring after the patron's youngest son.

Murdoch was dumfounded for a moment to see two children and his soon to be ex-wife standing at his door step. Both children looked to be the same size, the boy perhaps an inch taller. "Maria." he ground out. "What are you doing here?"

"I need to speak with my son." She said to speak quickly.

Johnny closed his eyes and thought. 'This can't be happening.' When he opened them he saw his whole family staring at him in consternation. Recovering, he moved past his older brother to the door. "Mama, Ciano, Issa. What are you doing here?"

"Mi hijo, we need your help." Seeing Johnny's expression darken, she implored. "Please listen to me, I don't have much time. I need you to keep them safe for me. I..."

"What!" Murdoch bellowed. Both children jumped back looking at the giant gringo in fear. Johnny dropped to his knees and gathered his twin brother and sister in his arms. Murmuring to them, he reassured them.

Scott taking charge of the situation eased Murdoch back into the house and told Johnny to bring them inside. Murdoch stood by the fireplace with a look of disbelief on his face. Johnny, shifting his weight from foot to foot was looking unsure what to do next. He turned to his mother. "Mama. What's going on. Are you in danger?"

"Juanito, I know I have no right to ask, but I need your help. I need to leave them with someone I trust." At the look of surprise on Johnny's face, she stepped close to him. Locking eyes with him she spoke. "Miel, I trust you, I love you. You are my son. You will do this for me, will you not?"

Taking a deep breath and with a quick glance at Murdoch's furious face, he said. "Mama what's going on. Tell me."

"One of Jess' men turned against us. He tried to take over the operation. We were attacked and we lost a couple of men. He is trying to kill Jess and take over. I need to make sure the children are safe."

"Mama, you stay here too. I'll help Jess."

"No, my son. My place is with my husband. Your place is here with your father. Do this for me so I do not have to worry about them. I will come back when I can." She wrapped her arms around Johnny for the first time in several years. She kissed him on the cheek and bent down to draw her children to her breast. "You be good for your brother. I love you." she whispered.

Murdoch looked stunned as the events unfolded before him. "Maria-you can't leave them here. I won't allow it."

Maria smiled faintly and walked out the door. It took a moment for them to react, by then it was too late as they heard the sound of hooves galloping away.

Scott was the first to break the silence. "Brother, why don't you introduce us?"

Teresa and Maria were standing open mouthed at the edge of the room. Johnny stood between the children. He hesitated, placing a hand on each shoulder. He said, "These are my mother's other two children. Graciano and Isabelle." The two children looked so small and lost standing next to Johnny. Their heads just coming to his waistline.

Scott recovered first; he came over and offered his hand to Graciano. "I'm Scott, Johnny's older brother." Sneaking a look at the glowering expression on his father's face he continued. "I guess that makes me your older brother too." Graciano tentatively shook hands with the tall blonde stranger. Scott knelt down to Isabelle who was clinging tightly to Johnny's leg. "Isabelle, I'm Scott. Isabelle is a pretty name for a very pretty girl." At that the little girl ducked shyly behind Johnny.

Murdoch and Teresa were next. Johnny made the introductions. Johnny looked down at the two dark heads the same color as his own and asked them if they were hungry. Both solemnly shook their heads no.

Teresa took over. "Children are always hungry milk and cookies." As she reached out to take their hands, two sets of green eyes looked at their big brother. At seeing his slight nod, the children allowed themselves to be directed into the kitchen.

As soon as the children left, Johnny began pacing. Furious, he cried. "I can't believe she is doing this. What is wrong with her?"

Murdoch was equally agitated. "She abandoned her children? Just dropped them off and left? What on earth is that woman thinking? I'd just take care of them for her?"

Scott, back in his role as negotiator said. "We've got to calm down. For one thing they can hear us from the kitchen. Johnny, why don't you take them to the guestroom and get them settled in for the night. Then we can figure out what's going on."

"I know what's going on Scott. Business as usual with her." With that Johnny turned on his heel to retrieve his siblings and get them to bed.

Murdoch settled into his favorite chair. Scott poured them both a drink of whisky. Normally it would be brandy, but tonight whisky was in order.

Murdoch shook his head, 'except for the green eyes, Graciano looked exactly how he pictured Johnny at 10. Isabelle, is the splitting image of her mother. Two scared, lost children being cast aside by their irresponsible mother.' He couldn't believe she would do this to them. She seemed so sincere in San Francisco when she expressed her regret on how Johnny had grown up.

Johnny escorted the children to the guestroom. He helped them undress and get into bed. The children were traveling light with one satchel between them. Just a change of clothes apiece and a nightshirt for each. Grateful for those, Johnny had them quickly ready for bed. "It's gonna be alright," he assured them. "Tell me what's going on" Sensing their need to tell him.

"Mama and Papa had to go away." Graciano said softly. "Mama said we should stay here with you."

"She said you would take care of us." Isabelle added staring trustingly at Johnny. "The bad man tried to kill Papa, it was really loud." Issa said with eyes wide.

Johnny hugged her. "Well you're safe now. My room is just three doors down on the right. If you get scared, come get me."

Both children looked at him solemnly. Graciano spoke first. "The gringo, your father, will he send us away?"

Johnny put his arm around his brother's slight shoulders, "Don't worry, he's not going to send you away." Looking down at the braided rug on the floor, Johnny bit his lip and continued. "I know we don't know each other well..." He hesitated and started again, "I know I wasn't around much. We'll get to know each other better, I promise."

"Juanito, when do you think Mama will come back?"

Johnny looked into the trusting eyes of his siblings. "S…soon. She'll be back as soon as she can." But in his heart he didn't know. Johnny felt his heart melting that his brother and sister were experiencing the heartbreak he had experienced at the hands of their mother. He tucked them into bed. "My room is 3 doors on the right if you need me," he reminded them. He kissed each one on the forehead and turned down the lamp, shutting the door quietly.

Feeling troubled, he went back downstairs.

"Come on in Johnny. Are they all settled in? Scott said as he saw Johnny in the doorway.

"Yeah." Johnny said as he shook his head. Plopping himself down on the couch, he said. "I just don't understand her, Scott."

"Did they say anything. Johnny? When is she coming back?"

Johnny looked at his father with despair. "Who knows? She could come back in a week, a year...never. She'll do whatever she wants to do as always."

"Maybe she just can't take care of them and she thought this was the best solution." Scott interjected.

"What about their father?" Murdoch asked.

Johnny snorted. "Their father. He's as bad as she is. Always in trouble. He's a smuggler, a gunrunner. The laws always after him. He's the one who got my Mama jailed. He just got out a couple of years ago and I was hoping…well I was hoping she would stay away from him. Anyway, I guess he had a scheme going and one of his men turned on him and tried to take over."

"Tell us about him, Johnny." Scott urged.

Johnny wrapped his arms around his chest. Gathering his thoughts he began. "My Mama and Jess, I guess looking at it now, are a real good match. When I was a kid, they had an on again off again relationship. Well there's a saying. "Here today, gone to Texas" He'd stay with us for a couple of months and then leave for a while. He ran guns across the border from Texas. He'd stop at our house when he was in Mexico. He'd run contraband north across the Rio." Johnny paused to collect his thoughts. "When I was about 10, there was a raid on our house when Jess was there. The federales arrested him and my Mama. She was pregnant, but they sent her to jail anyway cause they found crates of rifles stored in the barn."

"So they were born in Jail?" Scott said with disbelief.

"Yeah." Johnny said slowly.

"What happened to you, Son." Murdoch said softly.

"I got sent to a mission school. I stayed about a month or so and...well...It just wasn't for me so I… left."

"You just left?"

"Yeah Scott. I don't really want to talk about it right now."

Scott knew when Johnny was shutting down and he knew his brother needed a break. Taking the lead, Scott yawned and stretched. "Well it's getting late, I'm going to bed."

"Yeah me too." Johnny said as he rose with his brother. "Goodnight Murdoch."

"Goodnight boys. Let's get some rest. Tomorrow we'll figure out what to do." he said as he began turning down the lamps.

Scott and Johnny headed up the stairs. Johnny started to go on to his room, but his brother guided him into his own room and to the bed. Scott wasn't ready to end their discussion. Once Johnny was positioned at the end of the bed, Scott asked. "How old were the children when your mother got out of jail?"

"About 4 or 5 I think. At least that's how old they were when I first met them."

"I'm amazed that she was allowed to keep the children with her."

Johnny gave his brother a bleak look and stated flatly. "Yeah, it's amazing how that all worked out."

Scott had an uneasy feeling that he knew what his brother was saying and he didn't like the implication at all. Returning to their discussion. "Johnny, the children seem to know you quite well. You must have spent time with them."

"No Scott, they don't really know me well. I knew what they were going through so I'd stop by when I could and bring them a few things they needed. My life...you know as a gunhawk... made me want to keep all that away from them." Johnny looked his brother in the eye with those intent blue eyes. "Do you think Murdoch will let them stay?"

"I don't know Johnny. He's not at all happy about this. They're not his responsibility. Isn't there anyone else who can take them?"

"Jess has another son about 3 or 4 years older than me." Johnny said as he shook his head. "He runs with a tough bunch down along the border. He jumps the border when things get too hot."

"Well that's definitely out then." Scott asserted. "Anyone else?"

The door opened and Graciano slipped inside. "We could go to Ma's. She'd take us."

"Who's this Ma he's talking about?" Scott questioned.

"Ma O'Grady" Johnny replied. He moved to the edge of the bed and beckoned his little brother over to him. Putting one hand on each shoulder, he said. "Ma O'Grady runs the cantina in Eagles Pass. Everybody stops in there for a good meal and a clean bed. She takes care of everyone like they were her own kids. That's why we call her Ma." Johnny smiled at the thought of the spunky Irish woman. She used to tell me, " `Tis the devil in your smile Johnny my boy gonna get you in a mess of trouble." Looking up at his big brother, he smiled that mischievous smile and added. "I guess she was right."

Scott gave his brother a look and a small shake of his head. "Well, Graciano, let's get you back to bed. We have a new litter of puppies that all need names. You and your sister can take care of that chore tomorrow after breakfast. How does that sound?"

Graciano looked up at Scott and flashed him that heart stopping smile so like Johnny's. Johnny took Ciano's hand and to lead him back to his room.

"Nite brother."

"Goodnight Johnny, Graciano." He said with a wave. Scott lay on his bed still fully dressed. His hands behind his head pondering the events of the evening. A thought kept returning to his mind. Johnny's voice. 'My mother only had one kid.' As he drifted off to sleep, his last thought was, I'll ask him about that.

********

Murdoch woke up suddenly. Listening for what might have awoken him. Hearing nothing out of the ordinary, he judged the time to be around midnight based on the moonlight shining through the window. He rolled over and tried to go back to sleep, but now awake his restless mind would not still. His mind full of the two problems down the hall. Deciding to go down stairs for a brandy, he slipped on his robe and slippers and headed toward the stairs. Feeling indecisive, he turned back down the hall and stopped outside the guestroom. Listening, he heard no sound coming form the room. Easing open the door he spotted the two slight forms under the covers in the single beds.

A cool breeze was blowing the curtains from the open window. Murdoch carefully closed the window and looked at the sleeping children. Graciano, he noticed  had one leg outside the covers. Carefully Murdoch put the boy's leg back under and rearranged the sheets and blankets around the sleeping child. Isabelle had dropped the doll Teresa gave her on the floor. Murdoch retrieved the fallen doll and put it back in bed next to the little girl.

Murdoch turned to leave the room, stopping again to look at the children. He couldn't help the thought that these children should have been his. With a load of regret he silently closed the door and returned to his room. He didn't see Scott quickly closing his door to his own room after witnessing Murdoch's careful and skilful parenting of the children. Scott returned to his bed with reassurance that his father would allow the children to stay as long as necessary.

 

*****

PART SEVEN

The next morning the three Lancer men met around the table in the kitchen. Steaming cups of coffee in their hands waiting for the first
one to broach the subject most on their minds. Johnny, holding his cup with both hands, blew on his coffee to cool it before taking a
sip.

Scott, ever the diplomat spoke first. "Well, what are we going to do?"

"She didn't leave us much choice." Murdoch replied. "They can stay here for the time being. If she comes back in a week or two, fine.
If she doesn't, we'll have to make some decisions then. Seeing Johnny start to protest, Murdoch raised his hand. "Johnny there's no point in making long range plans when we don't even know yet what your mother will do."

With a sigh, Johnny nodded, "Yeah you're sure right about that, Murdoch."

Murdoch continued. "Son, I want to make it clear. They are your responsibility. We'll all help out but I expect you to be in charge
of them. At the same time, you have responsibilities to the ranch I don't want you to neglect."

Frowning, Johnny interjected. "How am I supposed to keep up on my chores while riding herd on a couple a kids?"

Murdoch smiled faintly. "They're your responsibility so you'll have to sort it all out. For today, show them around the ranch. Can they
ride?"

"Yeah, they ride pretty good."

"Good, pick out a couple of gentle horses for them to use. Scott will you take over your brother's chores for today?"

"Sure, no problem." Glancing at his obviously uneasy brother, he asked. "How about school, Murdoch?"

"I was thinking about that too Scott. If they go to school while they're here, it will keep them out of mischief. I have to go to town today, so I was thinking of stopping by the school house and talking to Mrs. Johnson about enrolling them."

Both older men looked at Johnny expectantly. He felt uneasy being asked to make decisions like this. They were both waiting for him to
respond to their unspoken question.

"Ah...sure that sounds like a good idea." He said as he fiddled with the salt shaker.

"Good, it's settled. Tomorrow, you and I will ride in with them and get them settled. They can ride home with the other children from the
ranch." Murdoch said with finality. He continued. "Starting tomorrow,  Johnny you'll get them up and down to breakfast in time to do their chores and off to school."

"Chores? What do you want them to do?"

"How about feed and water the chickens and collect the eggs?" Scott suggested.

"Johnny, you give them a few chores in the morning and afternoon when they get home from school. Check with Teresa for some ideas for Isabelle." Murdoch said as he took another sip of coffee. "At least they can learn to be responsible while they're here."

 

"Anything else?" Johnny said with irritation.

"No, nothing else for now." Murdoch replied evenly.

Teresa came into the kitchen carrying a basket of eggs. "Good morning" she said cheerfully in their general direction. "I'm going to make flapjacks this morning. Everything will be ready in a few minutes."

Johnny scooted his chair back saying, "I'm gonna see if they're awake yet." heading up the stairs.

Upstairs, Johnny knocked and opened to door to the guestroom.

"Buenos dias. Did you sleep well?" At their big smiles he said. "Well, I see you're almost dressed, are ya hungry?"

Graciano smiled at Johnny, "Sí, soy hermano muy hambriento."

Issa started to speak. Johnny interrupted her. "Speak English, here we speak English."

"Johnny, will you button me up?" Issa said carefully in English as she turned her back for her brother to secure the buttons on her dress. As Johnny's nimble fingers threaded the buttons through the holes, he told them that today he would show them around and get them horses to ride.

Their faces lit up with excitement at the mention of horses. They each had hold of one of Johnny's hands and were pulling him eagerly
toward the door, talking excitedly. Laughing at their unbridled enthusiasm, he said, "Hey slow down. Wait a minute, first we've got to have breakfast. You need to stop acting like wild Indians! Teresa's making flapjacks today." seeing the look of confusion on their faces, he explained. "They are these flour dough like things that she fries." At the look of distaste on their faces, he said. "Just try them, I think you'll like them."

Coming down the back stairs in a jumble of noise, Teresa greeted them with a happy, "Good morning" followed by similar greetings from
Murdoch and Scott.

Scott pulled out a chair for Issa. "Here you go Isabelle, I've been saving this seat for you." With a shy smile she responded. "Gracias."
then with a quick glance at Johnny, she said, "I forgot, Thank you, Scott."

Murdoch patted the chair next to him. "Graciano, you can sit here."

Glasses of milk were poured and cups of coffee refilled just as Teresa put a platter of flapjacks and bacon on the table.

"It looks wonderful Teresa." Murdoch said.

"Smells good too." Johnny replied as he took a napkin and flicked it open and tucked it under Issa's chin, nodding at Graciano to do the
same.

Scott repressed a smile of delight at his brother's action. Taking a fork, Johnny speared a couple of flapjacks and put them on each child's plate along with a couple of pieces of bacon. "Dig in ." He said.

Both children looked a little dubious at the food in front of them. Seeing the look, Johnny said. "Here, like this. Just do what I do." Taking a knife, he slathered butter over his flapjacks and then poured warm syrup all over this plate. Seeing the shocked looks of disgust over his younger siblings' faces, he reassured them. "They're good, really." With that he cut and stuffed a piece of flapjack in his mouth. "See they're good. You try em. Really good, Teresa." He smiled.

"Thank you Johnny" She said as she returned his smile. Looking closely for a moment at the children, Teresa asked. "Murdoch, could I
go into town with you today? I'd like to pick up a few things for the children. You know, clothes and a few other things."

"Good idea, Teresa. We'll leave in an hour."

Scott cleared his throat as he watched the children tentatively try a piece of the syrup soaked flapjack. Satisfied that they liked the unfamiliar food, he brought up the subject of school. "Do you children go to school?" he asked.

Both children stopped eating and glanced at each other. Graciano spoke first. "Si, yes we go to school sometimes."

Isabelle added, "Mama teaches us too." she added wistfully.

"While you're here, you can go to school with the other children from the ranch. What do you think about that?" Scott asked.

Isabelle looked at Scott giving him a smile. "I like school."

Graciano shot his sister a look of disgust, which caused all the adults at the table to chuckle. Murdoch pushed his chair from the table as he rose, saying, "I've got to gather a few things together and then we'll leave. Scott would you hitch up the wagon for me?"

"Can I help?" Graciano asked eagerly.

"Are you all done eating?"

"Si, Juanito, I'm full. It was good, Señorita Teresa" he said as he flashed her a big smile she knew all too well.

"You're welcome Graciano, I'm glad you liked it." She said as she started clearing the dishes from the table.

As Scott and Ciano started out the door, Johnny added. "Stay out of the way, I'll be out in a few minutes." Johnny gave Teresa a look. "Ah, Teresa, can you watch Issa for a minute."

"Sure, Johnny she can help me wash the breakfast dishes." Johnny left as Teresa was helping Issa tie on an oversized apron.

Johnny headed into the great room where his father was rummaging through a desk drawer. Standing by the model sailing ship, Johnny ran a finger over the highly polished wood of the deck. Gathering his courage, he spoke."Murdoch, before you go, can I talk to you a
minute?"

Looking up from his desk, Murdoch said, "Sure son go ahead."

Walking on into the room, Johnny stood facing his father. Shifting his feet nervously he started. "It's just that I never thought any of this would happen with my mother and them." At a loss for a moment on what to say next, he realized it was coming out all wrong. "What I mean is I thought she maybe told you about them when you saw her."

"No, Johnny she never mentioned them."

"I guess you're wondering why I never said anything about them, huh?" Johnny started nervously tapping his fingers on the desk, not meeting his father's eyes.

"Well Johnny, I assumed it was for the same reason we never talked about your mother." Seeing his son's unease he tried again. "Son, I'm not blaming you. Were still finding our way."

"I just, well I'm sorry. I should've told you all of it. I guess I just didn't want you to think worse of her."

Murdoch inwardly cringed, not willing to share his feelings about his son's mother with him. "I was upset that she would just leave them
here, and that she allowed herself to be in a position where she needed a safe place for them. Those children are innocent and the life she is leading can only traumatize them and jeopardize their future." At that Murdoch stopped, wondering if he had gone too far. Johnny was standing rigidly, head down, arms across his chest protectively in front of him. Rising, Murdoch approached Johnny and carefully walked him toward the couch. Settling down next to him, Murdoch said gently, "Son, I know things look dark right now, but it will be alright. We'll deal with this together as a family. Believe me."

Johnny glanced quickly up at his father's face seeing genuine concern and honest caring in his father's eyes. He said with obvious relief. "Thank you Murdoch. It means a lot."

"Everything will be fine Johnny, you'll see. Son, let's start fresh. There are no other surprises. Right?"

"No Murdoch, no other brothers or sisters out there." He looked archly at his father. "At least as far as I know." he said with a grin.

"Johnny!" Murdoch laughed. The tension broken, they both walked together out the French doors to the patio.

With a clatter of wood and leather, the wagon came up next to the house. Scott and Graciano on the seat, with Graciano handling the
lines. "Whoa" Scott said taking hold of the lines, helping the youngster control the eager team. "Murdoch, I think this boy has the makings of a top hand. We had this team hitched up in no time."

"Well we can always use a top hand around here." Murdoch said as he approached the wagon.

Johnny reached up to help his brother down, earning himself a disgusted frown and a sharp. "I can do it myself." as Graciano jumped to the ground.

Scott laughed and Murdoch hid a smile, as he climbed up into the seat of the wagon. Teresa and Isabelle came through the door holding
hands. Leaving Issa at Johnny's side, Scott helped Teresa into the wagon.

"We'll be home later this afternoon," Murdoch said with a smile. "You all be good." he added as he clicked to the horse and the fresh team were off at a brisk trot.

Scott bid them good bye saying he had a lot of work to do as he headed for the barn, leaving his brother alone with his two charges.

******

The morning went by quickly. First Johnny showed them the puppies.  Six little bundles of black fur, feet, and wagging tails greeted the
delighted children. Sitting in the straw petting and cuddling the puppies kept them occupied for a good hour while the two of them discussed names for each puppy. Johnny kept an eye on them while he worked in the barn cleaning stalls. He was amused at some of the names they picked and was amazed they could tell them apart as they all were black with small spots of white on their chests.

Johnny figured he had just enough time before lunch to get the horses picked out for them and take them on a short ride so they could
become aquainted with their mounts. Leaning over the stall partition, which housed the puppies, he said. "Do you kids want to come with me and pick out your horses?"

With a shout of "Sí, deseamos montar un caballo!" the horse crazy kids took off out of the barn and toward the corral. Graciano reached
the fence first staring in awe at the golden horse. "He's beautiful." he whispered.

Johnny smiled with pride. "He's my horse." He whistled and called, "Barranca. Come here." The big palomino trotted over to the fence arching his neck and snorting. Johnny hopped the fence. Patting his horse, he praised him. "Good Barranca."

Ciano and Issa crawled through the fence to stand next to the big horse as Barranca lowered his head and began nuzzling Issa's hair.
Giggling Issa said. "That tickles."

Graciano reached over and stroked Barranca's forehead. "Where'd you get him?" he asked.

"My father gave him to me." Johnny said as the thought struck him that he had truly been given a spectacular gift as a flush of warmth
overcame him. Johnny recognized this feeling of fondness for the old man. This feeling, which once made him uncomfortable just a few short months ago, he now recognized as something he treasured beyond anything else he had ever experienced. Looking at his young brother and sister he vowed he would do everything in his power to make sure they had a chance at a decent life even if he had to defy his mother.
****

 

PART EIGHT

That night at the supper table, two animated children related their activities for the day. "I named my horse Rosita cause she’s reddish dapple gray." Isabelle said.

Not to be outdone, Graciano said, "Mine’s bigger and is faster than hers cuz she’s just a girl.

"That’s no way to talk about your sister, Graciano. Apologize to her right now." Scott said with authority.

Flushing, Graciano apologized. "Sorry, I didn’t mean it." Quickly changing the subject, Graciano told of his discovery of fish in the water trough. With his hands flying he described how the small silvery fish swam around the trough while he tried to catch one in his hand.

Johnny added. "Yeah, we all ended up wet before we gave up trying to catch a fish." Isabelle giggled at the memory of her big brother all wet.

"Have you ever been fishing Graciano?" Scott asked with a smile.

"No, but I’d like to try it." he said hopefully.

"Maybe this Saturday the boss will let us off early and we can try our luck." with that Scott gave Murdoch a questioning look.

Johnny added. "We’ve got this secret fishing hole where the fish are so big you’ve got to tie yourself to a tree, so they don’t pull ya in." Seeing the big eyes on his little brother, Johnny laughed.

Issa piped up; "Can I go too?"

Teresa joined in. "Me too?" She said with a big smile.

Graciano shot his brothers a disgusted look as Murdoch replied. "Sure, we’ll all go. Maybe take a picnic lunch. I’d like to see one of those big fish too." Murdoch said throwing a glance at Johnny.

Their plans for Saturday settled, Teresa said she would get the kids in bed and read them a story. Saying their goodnights, Johnny told them he would be up in a little while to tuck them in. Murdoch returned to his desk to complete some paperwork he had been reading and Scott and Johnny settled into chairs on the veranda.

Looking at the fading skyline, then at his silent brother, Scott mused. "Where do you think they are Johnny?"

Johnny shrugged, "Could be anywhere Scott.

"Johnny, what do you think they are planning to do? Scott’s expression belied his concern.

"Well, that Jess is a tricky one. He more than likely is going on the attack. He’ll move heaven and earth to eliminate anyone threatening him or his kids."

"You’re pretty sure about that? Tell me more about him Johnny." There was silence between them. Thinking his brother was not going to answer he asked again.

"I heard you the first time, Scott. I was just thinkin. Jess first started coming around when I was about 7 or so. He thought I was a real brat." Johnny said with a half smile. Shaking his head. "Maybe he was right. He thought my mama spoiled me and I didn’t like him comin around changin things. I didn’t hold with him tellin me what to do. He told my mother that I needed to be taught manners." Pausing, Johnny took a deep breath and seemed uncertain about continuing. "If I didn’t do as I was told...," Johnny paused again uncertain how to go about telling Scott. His mouth suddenly dry, he swallowed and said softly. "If I didn’t do as I was told, he’d whip me with his belt. I
used to get so angry with them both; I’d just leave. I didn’t know what else to do. When he found me, he’d whip me again. There were days on end I couldn’t sit down.." Johnny said ruefully.

Scott sat in mute disbelief and anger. He unclenched his fists when he realized he had them clenched so hard they were turning white at the knuckles. "He whipped you?"

"Yeah, Scott. So... your grandfather never punished you? Johnny asked.

"Yes, of course he punished me, but not by hitting me. He would take away my privileges and send me to my room. Still it is hard to believe someone would treat a child like you were treated." Scott was outraged at the way that man had treated his brother.

 

Johnny juggled a rock in his hand. "Well, that’s the way it was. I got so I just tried to stay out of his way whenever he was around."

Scott shook his head in dismay. "An occasional spanking I can understand, but using a belt is just wrong." he stated firmly.

"Scott it wasn’t all bad. I remember once when I was about 9, Jess took me to a Comanche village in Texas."

"An Indian village?" Scott said in surprise.

"Yeah," Johnny smiled. Jess’ first wife was Comanche. She died giving birth to their son, and his Grandparents raised him. I got to spend a couple of months with them. It was probably the happiest time I can remember. There were a whole pack of kids around my age and we just ran wild. We rode horses, learned to track and hunt." Johnny smiled at the memory. "Nobody treats their children better than the Comanche. The whole band takes care of the all the children and everyone teaches them the things they need to know."

"That sounds like a wonderful experience little brother. Did you ever go back?"

"Yeah, a time or two, but abuela died of the fever and abuelo was killed by solders." Johnny was silent for a minute. "You know, I always wanted to be an Indian."

Scott smiled at that thought and asked. "What happened after that?"

"By then Jess was hiring mule skinners to run long strings of mules through the canebrakes to Mexico. His son went with him to help protect them from the law and comancheros. They were takin more risks and then he got caught." Johnny sat in silence as the dark
settled over the ranch.

Scott was trying to take in everything he heard tonight and was trying to come to grips with it. His mind working frantically for a response.

Without prompting, Johnny continued. "Jess taught me a lot. He taught me how to shoot and protect myself. He taught me how to survive out on the range, so I guess I owe him something. Just when I was younger, I couldn’t see it." Rising he said, "I better go tuck them in and get to bed. I’ve gotta get up extra early if I’m gonna get them ready for school on time."

"Goodnight brother."

"Nite Scott and thanks for listening."

Looking Johnny directly in the eye, Scott responded. "Anytime little brother."

*******

 

The next morning, Johnny had both children ready for school on time, and he and Murdoch escorted them to the schoolhouse. Mrs. Johnson was waiting on the porch when they rode up. Stepping forward as they dismounted, Johnny and Murdoch tipped their hats.
"Morning, ma'am." Johnny said as he introduced his siblings. "These are my brother and sister, Isabelle and Graciano."

"Children, it’s a pleasure to meet you." She said as she shook each small hand in turn. "Why don’t you take the horses to the corral and come inside?"

Johnny led the children to the corral and helped them unsaddle their horses, while Murdoch went inside to talk to the teacher. They had arrived 30 minutes before school started so they would have time to get the children settled in before the others arrived. Johnny walked the children up the steps into the school and watched as the teacher directed them to their desks. Mrs. Johnson was a nice looking widow in her mid-thirties. She wore her brown hair in a bun, and still wore her gold wedding band. She had a firm but kindly manner about her.

She addressed the children. "Mr. Lancer tells me your mother taught you herself, but you have also attended school as well. Do you know what grade you were in?"

Looking at each other, the children slowly shook their heads no.

A bit dismayed, Mrs. Johnson asked. "Can you read and write in English or only Spanish?"

Isabelle spoke up. "We can read and write in both, but we’re better in Spanish." Graciano nodding at his sisters’ words.

"I’d like to see what grade to put you in. Let’s start by having you read from this book Isabelle. Start on this page. Out loud if you will."

Isablelle began reading hesitantly at first, then with more confidence stumbling over the harder words. "That’s good Isabelle. Graciano, start on the next page." He began to read with a bit more hesitation than his sister did. When he finished the page, he looked up at the teacher and she said. "I’ll put you both in the third grade to start, and we’ll see how you do."

Escorting Murdoch and Johnny to the door, the teacher assured them the children would be fine. With a reminder to come home straight after school with the rest of the children from the ranch, they left just as the rest of the children arrived to start their school day.

****

 

Johnny and Murdoch rode back toward the ranch. Halting his horse, Murdoch said. "Johnny, you head over to the upper range and help Scott move the herd down to winter pasture. Tomorrow or the next day, I’ll send a couple men back through there to look for any strays."

"Okay, Murdoch, see ya later." Johnny turned Barranca and nudged him into a lope.

Johnny could hear the herd before he could see it. Mama cows calling for their calves to keep up made quite a racket, not to mention clouds of dust kicked up by the large herd. Seeing Scott pushing a small group of cows into the larger herd, Johnny headed in that direction.

Scott, seeing his brother riding toward him, stopped to one side. Untying his bandana, he wiped the sweat off his face and rubbed it across the back of his neck. He called out. "Hey brother, glad you could join us. Of course most of the hard work is already done."

"No problem Scott, didn’t want to put you out none by waitin on me." He said with that lazy drawl he used to tease his big brother with.

"Did you get the kids settled in at school?" Scott asked.

"Yeah, no problem. Mrs. Johnson seems pretty nice. She put them in the 3rd grade" Johnny looked to see if Scott approved.

"Sounds good, and who knows maybe they’ll make some friends while they’re here. Let’s get back to work." Scott said as he asked his horse to lope after the departing herd.

Trotting along behind the herd. Keeping them moving as small groups of strays were added as they went along. An hour and a half later, they halted to allow the herd to settle down and get a drink at a mountain fed stream. Johnny hooked one leg over the saddle horn, relaxing in the saddle. Scanning the horizon out of habit, he thought he saw a flash. He came alert and focused on the location he thought he saw the unnatural flash. Sunlight on metal his active mind told him.

Scott seeing his brother go on alert looked in the general direction Johnny’s attention was focused on. "What did you see brother?"

"I’m not sure Scott. It was a quick flash."

"Maybe it’s nothing Johnny. A miner or someone traveling through."

Johnny shot him a look. "Yeah, probably nothing."

"Let’s get going. We have a lot of ground to cover to get this herd to the winter pasture." With that the crew once again started the Lancer herd moving toward the ranch house where the cattle would spend a relatively comfortable winter.

Johnny and Scott rode into the yard just as the sun was setting. Leading their tired horses into the barn, they quickly began to rub them down while they cooled off. Graciano walked into Barranca’s stall and picked up a brush and began grooming him.

"Howdy, Ciano. How was school today? Johnny asked.

"Okay, I guess." Ciano replied.

"Did ya learn anything?"

Ciano shrugged. "No, not much."

"What do you mean ‘not much’? You’re there to learn. Surely you learned something today?" Scott asked.

Graciano frowned and seemed to be thinking hard as he suddenly brightened. "I know. I learned that you could toss an eraser so it bounces off the window and it will hit the girl on the other side of the room." He said with what amounted to glee in his voice.

"Graciano!" both older brothers said in unison.

"I didn’t say I did it, I said I learned you could do it." he said smugly.

"Well, if I hear you’ve been doing things like that in school, you’ll learn what happens to boys who play pranks in school. Those hard chairs don’t look like they’d be too comfortable to sit on with a sore bottom." Johnny pointed out.

Hiding a smile, Scott put an arm around each brother saying, "Come on. Supper is waiting and I’m so hungry I could eat my boot." That got a huge smile from Johnny as they hurried into the house.

Later as Johnny was supervising, the children’s bath and getting them ready for bed, Murdoch and Scott settled into the living room. Relaxing as they enjoyed their brandy, Scott inquired. "He’s doing a good job with them isn’t he?"

Murdoch looking away from the flames dancing in the fireplace, said softly. "A very good job. I’m proud of they way he’s handling all of this."

"Tell him, Murdoch." Scott urged.

Murdoch looked at him with raised eyebrow. Nodding he drained his glass.

"Murdoch, what is going to happen to those kids? You know we can’t just let them go back to her." Scott pressed. "Johnny told me a few things. The life their parents are leading will ruin those kids." Scott added feeling desperate to make sure his father understood.

"How do you think Johnny feels about it? Murdoch asked.

"He feels the same way. I’m sure."

"So do I. " Murdoch said quietly. "Actually Scott, I wired Avery Nelson, my attorney in San Francisco. I received his reply today. He will be here in 10 days. He can advise us when he gets here. Until then we just wait until Maria returns.

Scott stood up and bid his father goodnight. Walking up the stairs he mulled over the idea of the children staying with them forever.

*****

PART NINE

A week later....

Johnny woke slowly, feeling chilled. The cool breeze blowing through his open window had him instinctively pulling at the blankets tangled
at his hips. He groaned and rolled over when awareness like cold water thrown on him reminded him he needed to get up and wake his
brother and sister. Groaning again, he sat up and threw his legs over the side of the bed. Knuckling the sleep from his eyes he waited
until he felt himself waking up before forcing himself to the wash stand in the corner of the room. He poured water into the bowl and
splashed his face. The water revived him and with new resolve he washed properly and scraped the stubble off his face. Dressing quickly, he headed down the hall to his sibling's room. Knocking, he opened the door. "Wake up. Come on. We got to get going."

Two sleepy children woke up rubbing their eyes and reluctantly got out of bed. Helping Issa wash her face, Johnny tossed a wash cloth at his brother. "Here, use this."

When both children were dressed, Johnny tackled Isabelle's hair. Getting her curly long hair under control gave them a challenge every
morning. Sending Graciano downstairs to start his chores, Johnny sighed as he picked up the brush. "You have hair just like Mama's."

Isabelle nodded, "Owe Johnny! Be careful, that hurts."

"Hold still." Giving up getting a brush through the tangle of hair, he worked his fingers through her hair and began braiding it in one braid down her back. Tying a green satin ribbon around the end, he said. "There at least it's neat. Come on; let's get going. Don't forget your coat. It's clear but cold today." Grabbing Graciano's coat and schoolbooks, they went downstairs for breakfast.

Murdoch and Teresa were already seated. Scott and Graciano came into the kitchen as Johnny and Isabelle sat down. "Did you wash your hands?" Johnny asked automatically.

"Yes" Scott said holding his hands out for inspection with a grin.

"Not funny, Scott."

"Yes, Johnny, yes it is." Scott replied with a smile as the family chuckled.

Maria filled the breakfast table with fruit, bacon, warm biscuits and pan-fried potatoes topped with scrambled eggs. While eating, Murdoch glanced a time or two at Graciano. Feeling uncomfortable at the scrutiny, the boy squirmed in his seat.

Johnny noting the interaction cast an inquiring look at his father. Getting no explanation, he shrugged and continued his breakfast.

Murdoch gave Scott and Johnny their instructions for the day. Johnny mused about the changes in his life. Just 6 months ago, he would have felt resentful when Murdoch gave him his orders for the day. Now he regarded it as normal and actually relished the feeling of belonging as he listened to his father's plans for the day. They still had heated disagreements, but for the most part they were without the
white-hot anger of the past.

Graciano started to get up saying he was going to saddle the horses. Murdoch cleared his throat and said. "No Graciano. You sit back
down. Scott will you saddle the horses for them? I need to have a talk with this young man. Isabelle don't you have some chores to do?" Teresa, took Issa's hand led the girl out of the kitchen.

Johnny, recognizing the look on his father's face and the tone of voice, got up to flee.

"No Johnny, you stay here too." Murdoch struggled to hide a smile seeing the stricken look on Johnny's face and the guilty look on
Graciano's. "Graciano, don't you have something to tell me?" putting the note on the table.

Johnny glanced at it curiously. Looking at his younger brother, he could see the flash of fear on his young face. Johnny reached out and retrieved the note. He quickly scanned the contents and looked at Graciano. "You were fighting?"

Eyes downcast, Graciano nodded. Murdoch took over. "Look at me, young man." He waited until those green eyes tentatively met his. "What's this all about? You know fighting is against the rules don't you?" Graciano nodded and looked down again at his plate.

Johnny asked. "Are you hurt?"

Graciano shook his head no, then looking up at Johnny, he said. "I gave Mike a black eye though."

Johnny couldn't help his own smile but seeing Murdoch's frown of disapproval, he sobered immediately.

"Young man, when you get home this afternoon, we'll talk about this and decide what your punishment will be, but mind my words, if you
ever fight again at school, I'll warm the seat of your pants." Murdoch said with conviction.

"Yes sir" the worried young boy said as he gathered up his coat and books, he left the kitchen.

Shaking his head Johnny chuckled. Seeing Murdoch's frown, he said. "Sorry Murdoch, I know fightin at school is wrong. Just he reminds me of me. I think I better go talk to him."

Murdoch laid his hand on Johnny's arm. "No son, let him go. He'll be all right." Nodding, Johnny got up and left the kitchen to get
started on his work for the day.

A short while later, Scott returned to the kitchen and helped himself to another cup of coffee. "What was that all about, Murdoch?"

Murdoch held his cup up for Scott to refill. "Graciano left a note on my desk from his teacher. She reported that Graciano and the
Peterson boy got into a fight yesterday." Scott opened his mouth to respond, but Murdoch added. "I told him we'd decide his punishment
when he gets home. I'll have to think on it a bit."

Scott smiled and said, "That boy reminds me of another brother I know."

Murdoch smiled nodding as he took a sip of coffee. Sitting in companionable silence, Scott added. "They're good kids aren't they?"

"Yes...they are."

Scott finished his coffee and told Murdoch he'd see him later. "I'll check on those two crews on my way to the south pasture."

Murdoch nodded absently. "See you later, son."

******

Mrs. Johnson rang the bell to call the children in signaling the end of recess. The children filed into the schoolhouse in a noisy fashion. "Take your seats quickly children. We are going to start working on our arithmetic." Once the noisy group was seated at their desks, she began the lesson. "Sally, please come up to the board and work on these problems. Everyone pay attention."

A young girl of about 11 in a white dress with tiny yellow flowers stepped up to the black board. She brushed a strand of blonde hair
away from her face as she picked up the chalk. As she began figuring the first problem, the door burst open and two dirty unshaven men
invaded the school. Sally screamed shrilly as several other children also vocalized their fear. Mrs. Johnson instinctively wrapped her arms around Sally. "What are your doing here? How dare you interrupt my class?" She demanded with indignation.

"Shut up lady" growled the taller man.

The shorter man pointed his gun at Graciano and Isabelle. "You two get up." he commanded. Slowly the two children rose. "Get over
here." He commanded.

The children walked fearfully toward the men. Each man grasped one child firmly around the upper arm. Isabelle immediately turned and sank her teeth into the man's arm while kicking him in the shin. The man immediately let go of the little girl with a curse. The moment his sister bit her captor, Graciano twisted away from the grasp of the man holding him. Both children made a run for the door as the school erupted in swearing and shouting from the men and screams from the children. The shorter man caught Isabelle by the hair, yanking the girl painfully back to him. The taller man grabbed Graciano by the back of his neck and spun him around as he backhanded him hard across the face. Tears filled his eyes at the sudden pain in his cheek, but he stubbornly refused to show fear to these two scum.

The slap roused Mrs. Johnson from her frozen pose. "Leave him alone. You're hurting him!"

Laughing, the taller one commanded. "Lady get back across the room or you'll get the same or worse." He threatened. "You just follow our instructions now and these kids will be just fine. You find Johnny Madrid. Tell him to get a message to Jess to come alone and meet us 3 miles south of Salmon Falls in 2 days. If he follows instructions, he'll get his two bastards back alive."

With that they hauled the children out of the school and onto horses. Riding double, they galloped away.

Mrs. Johnson sank into a nearby chair. Calling to Tyler Wilson, she said. "Run and get the Sheriff. Hurry Tyler."

******

 

Johnny and Scott met as they were returning after a busy day of ranch work. Riding into the yard, Johnny felt the hairs go up on the back of his neck when he noticed that Graciano and Isabelle's horses were not in the corral. "They're not back yet." he said pointing to the corral. Scott started to respond but instead pointed to a fast moving horse galloping toward them.

"I see him, brother" Johnny said as his hand went to the gun on his thigh. Without thought he automatically released the leather thong
which held the gun in place. Tensing, he realized the rider was Jake, who worked for the Sheriff in Green River.

Bringing his lathered horse to a sliding stop, he was panting trying to catch his breath. "Johnny....Scott...." he gasped. Now on the
ground, Scott was practically holding the winded man up while he caught his breath. "Val sent me to let ya know. Two men burst into
the school and kidnapped your brother and sister, Johnny." As the exhausted man practically crumbled to the ground.

"Take it easy Jake. Tell us what you know." Scott said throwing an anxious look at Johnny. Johnny was standing rigidly with an unreadable mask guarding his emotions.

"Johnny, they said for you to find someone named Jess and tell him to meet them 3 mi. south of Salmon Falls day after tomorrow. If he
doesn't come alone, he'll kill those kids. Val's gettin a posse ready to ride at first light."

Murdoch overhearing the conversation told Jake. "Come into the kitchen, catch your breath. We'll take care of your horse."

A hand led the three horses toward the barn. Johnny called after him. "Ricardo, saddle me a fast horse. I'll be leaving in 10 minutes."

"Come into the house son, we need to talk about this," Murdoch said while shepherding his two sons into the living room.

"What's there to talk about, Murdoch?" Johnny said with irritation.

"Where exactly are you going, Johnny? Murdoch asked.

That stopped him for a second. Making a quick decision, he said "I'll go to the school and start trackin them from there."

"Johnny we need to check with Val first. Maybe it would be better to wait for the posse."

Johnny shaking his head. "No Scott. That's too dangerous. If they see a posse, they'll kill them. I have a better chance getting close alone."

"No son, not alone, we'll all go." Murdoch said with the ring of authority brooking no argument. "We'll check with Val as well."

The three worried men left to get their gear together. Teresa getting the story from Jake, was quickly putting together provisions and
supplies for their quest. Taking the supplies gratefully Scott tied them to his saddle, mounting the three Lancer men headed off at a fast canter toward town.

*****

Arriving 45 minutes later at the Sheriff's office, Val Crawford met them on the porch outside his office. "Johnny, I'm glad you're here." Inviting them in and offering them a cup of coffee.

Scott and Murdoch in chairs, Johnny perched on the corner of Val's desk. "Tell us what you know, Val." he urged.

Val scratched his face and rubbed his unshaven jaw and began relating the circumstances of the children's abduction as it had been
described to him.

"So there were just two of them, huh?" Johnny asked.

"Yeah, Johnny but there could be more." I've got 4 good men to ride with us at day break tomorrow."

"That's too late, Val. I'm gonna start now and get as far as I can before nightfall." Looking at his father and brother, "You come along
with the posse in the morning."

Laying his hand on his worried son's arm, Murdoch spoke softly, "No son, If you won't wait until morning, we'll go with you now."

Seeing the firm determination in his father and brother's faces, Johnny nodded. With a quick thanks he turned back to Val. "Come along
in the morning, but keep back. If ya lose the sign, head for Salmon Falls, but stay out of sight. Make sure those deputies of yours don't go all trigger happy."

Murdoch added. "We just want those children back safe and sound."

Val sighed. "I wish you'd wait till morning Johnny, but you'll do what you wanta do as always. We'll play it your way."

With that the Lancer men went out the door and headed toward the schoolhouse. Johnny could see the tracks clearly and began following the sign. The tracks were harder to see as they headed over some rocky ground going into the foothills. Johnny silently cursed the short daylight of winter.

"Come on Johnny, it's getting too dark to see. Let's make camp here while there's still some light left." Scott entreated his brother.

"Good idea Scott. We'll get a fresh start in the morning." Murdoch said as he swung off his horse.

"I'll scout around a bit and be back in a little while." Johnny said as he nudged his horse back into motion.

"Be careful Johnny, don't go too far." Murdoch warned.

Johnny returned about 20 minutes later to a well-set up camp. The food Teresa had sent along was being warmed over a fire and it
smelled good as Johnny realized he hadn't eaten anything since breakfast. Making quick work of unsaddling and grooming his horse,
he lamented not having Barranca available for this search. It would have been unfair to ask the horse to go out again after a hard day
already. This bay gelding was turning into a nice horse. He has lots of stamina and was proving himself to be a quick learner. Johnny
reflected. `He better learn quick with what we'll be facing tomorrow or the next day. Sure hope he remembers his lessons well.'

After eating supper, Johnny rolled his bedroll out and sat on top of the blankets leaning against his saddle.

Scott decided to start the conversation he had been holding back on until the time was right. "Johnny, what's your plan?"

"Well for now, I'm gonna follow the tracks."

"What about finding Jess and your mother and letting them know what is going on?"

In the firelight, Johnny gave Scott a look that if Scott read it correctly was almost one of condensation. "Scott...They probably already know. Jess is a tough old wolf and you can be sure if these guys were desperate enough to steal a couple a kids, he's been doggin
them hard. They're just trying to tip the scales in their favor. Smart move actually. Jess is tough, but throwing his kids into the pot may make him reckless. I figure if we follow the tracks, we'll catch up with either them or Jess and my mother. Either way, I'm gonna make them pay." Johnny said with a deadly chill in his voice. Johnny rose and went off to take care of business before bedding down.

Scott pondered his brother's words and wondered for a minute exactly who he was going to make pay. Murdoch had been silent throughout the exchange. Speaking thoughtfully he said. "We'll get them back Scott."

Scott smiled. "I know sir. I'll just feel better when this is all over." Standing up he went to check the horses before turning in for the night.

****

 

The campfire had died down to embers in the early morning hours. The horses stamped impatiently as the first rays of light came through the trees. The sound of a cracking stick greeted the men as they awoke with a start. Johnny, the first one alert held his cocked pistol under the blanket while trying to pinpoint what woke him up.

The sound came again and Johnny started to swivel out of his blankets and aim his gun toward the sound. A hard voice commanded. "Freeze boy. Don't make another move."

*****

Part 10

The voice said, "Freeze, Don't move."

The Lancer's froze waiting for the owner of the tenor voice to come into view. Recognizing, Jess' voice Johnny relaxed a bit while waiting for his stepfather to make an appearance. Scott and Murdoch were surprised when the figure stepping out of the darkness of the trees was a woman.

"Maria" Murdoch said sharply.

Maria walked slowly forward and said softly. "Your guns are not necessary."

Looking a bit sheepish, as they realized their weapons were pointed in her direction, they holstered their guns. Hearing a rustle from
the other side of the clearing, Murdoch and Scott looked in that direction as a man steeped into the clearing. Murdoch saw for the first time the man who claimed his wife's affections. `Almost as tall as himself, but years younger. Mid -forties.' He mused. As Jess stepped farther into the clearing holding a rifle in one hand, they could see his features more clearly. Light brown hair and mustache highlighted by those unmistakable green eyes. Murdoch felt a flash of intense jealously at seeing this man, his rival standing next to Maria.

Scott found himself having his own reaction at seeing the man Johnny had told him about. Loathing the man on site, Scott was determined that he would not betray his true feelings to this stranger.

Johnny standing there with his fists clenched looked uncertain and non-too happy at seeing his mother and stepfather. He knew there
would be a meeting, but had hoped it would be under calmer circumstances.

"Get over here, Boy." Jess commanded.

Johnny slowly walked over to the couple. Jess looked him up and down and enveloped Johnny in an unexpected bear hug. "It's good to see ya boy. It's been too long, way too long."

Johnny stiffened totally unprepared for the unwelcome contact in front of his family. Murdoch's mind screamed out. `Take your hands
off my son!' But he said nothing as he glowered at the unwelcome stranger. As Johnny was released, he took a couple of steps back to
make sure he was out of arms reach.

Maria stepped forward and gave Johnny a quick hug and a kiss on the cheek. "It is so good to see you, my son."

Johnny said, " Mama, do you know?"

"Si, mi hijo. We heard the news. We had a man keeping an eye on them."

Words he hadn't planned on saying came out unbidden. "Lo siento, Mama. I tried to keep them safe." He said as he hung is head.

"Johnny, it's not your fault!" Scott interjected. "Don't blame yourself."

Johnny threw his brother a grateful smile and turned back to his mother. "Still in all, brother, It shouldn't a happened."

Fixing their eyes on Scott, he became aware he'd never been introduced to Maria. Stepping forward he said, "I'm Scott Lancer, Johnny's brother. I take it you're Johnny's mother?"

Maria stepped forward to meet Scott. "I thought as much." Talking his hand she met his stare and said softly, "Call me Maria. Thank you
Scott for helping my children. I appreciate it very much."

Turning to Murdoch, she introduced her husband. "Murdoch, this is Jess, My husband. Looking down at the ground she composed her
thoughts and continued. "He's Graciano and Isabelle's father."

Murdoch and Jess nodded at each other like two dogs circling a bone. Both obviously unhappy and uneasy in each other's presence. Johnny recognizing that Murdoch was doing a slow burn took a deep breath. He was going to have to do something to deflect Murdoch's anger before the explosion. "Jess, Mama, what's been going on?" he asked.

Jess scratched his jaw and said with his Texas drawl. "We've been pickin them off. They still have quite a bunch, and they may have
more coming."

"Why are so they interested in you?" Johnny asked.

"Well now, I can't rightly say for sure but it could be the $100,000 in gold I been asked to deliver to Mexico. For the revolución." He
finished with a smile.

"One Hundred Thousand Dollars in Gold?" Scott said with disbelief. "Where is it."

"Oh don't worry it's safe. But it's the reason we are in California. We had to wait for it to be delivered and Maria's business with him coincided nicely." Jess said while nodding at Murdoch.

"Does this guy have a name?" Johnny asked.

"Cody Mathers" Jess replied. Johnny started and locked eyes with his stepfather.

Scott and Murdoch exchanged looks and Scott asked. "Who's Cody Mathers?" looking from Jess to Johnny.

`Just about the meanest cutthroat you ever did see. Why he'd kill his own mother if he thought he'd get $5.00 for it." Jess said.

"Nice friends you have." Scott replied.

Jess set his jaw while looking at the clean-cut looks of Johnny's half brother. "Sometimes you can't be too choosy about the company ya
keep in this world, boy."

Maria having seen enough of the men's posturing, stepped forward and laid a hand on her son and her husband's arms. "Come, we need to talk. Johnny will you help us?"

Johnny looked down into the eyes of the women who brought him into this world and realized he could not deny her. Clearing his throat he said softly. "Mama, I'll do whatever it takes to get Graciano and Isabelle back safely. You have my word on that." He said as he squeezed her arm. She flashed him a smile as she allowed him to lead her to the campfire.

Scott moved the coffeepot to the edge of the flames. "Coffee's ready" he announced.

Slowly Murdoch returned to the fire while the others followed. Settling down, each with a cup of coffee, they waited for someone to start the conversation most on their mind. Jess spoke first. "Johnny, I have four good men left. With you along we should be able to handle that bunch and get Ciano and Issa back alive. It's going to be tricky, but we can do it."

"We're all going." Murdoch said harshly.

A moment of silence settled over the group, as the two older men looked glares. Jess conceded first. "Fine." he ground out.

Once breakfast was complete and they broke camp quickly. Shortly after sunrise, the five of them were back on the trail of the men who
kidnapped the children. Within 30 minutes, they met up with Jess' 4 men who indicated they had lost the sign. "Find the sign, Boy." Jess
ordered. "Enrique go with him."

Johnny rode off in the direction indicated with one of Jess' men. Scott started right after them. "Not you boy." as Jess moved his horse sideways in front of Scott. "Hold up a minute-we'll follow a ways back, don't want to mess up the sign." Scott opened his mouth to protest when Jess added, "Johnny will tell us when we can move up closer, and Enrique will watch his back while Johnny tracks."

Scott had no choice but to agree as they followed at a trot. He was fascinated at seeing the skill his brother had at tracking. `What was
it Jess called it,' he asked himself. `Following sign. I'll have to ask Johnny sometime.' he mused. His brother suddenly stopped his horse and started circling in ever-larger circles. He seemed to find what he was looking for and took off at a lope. Scott followed along looking down to see what had drawn Johnny's attention. He had complete faith that Johnny knew what he was doing.

Murdoch, found himself impressed with Johnny's skill. `He tracks fast,' he thought. `Only an expert tracks like Johnny does. I wonder where he picked it up?'

"Come on." Jess said breaking into Murdoch's thoughts. Seeing Johnny's signal, they quickly closed the distance. Johnny had found
where they camped last night. Running his fingers through the cool embers from the fire, he said. "We're maybe three hours behind them. The kids are slowin them down." Johnny looked at the sun and the surrounding landscape. They're not heading for Salmon Falls yet. Looks like they're still heading northeast. Maybe they figure to circle around. Keep movin until it's time to meet up with you."

Jess studied the remains of the campfire and began kicking it around with the toe of his boot. He brushed his hands on his pants and blew air out through his lips. "The way I see it, we have two choices. We can keep doggin em and try to catch up with them before they meet up with the whole gang, or they can come to me."

Maria stepped forward and took hold of Jess' arm. "What do you mean?"

"I just mean, I can get around in front of them and pick the time and place and make it so they can't resist coming in to take me."

"Are you sure that will work?" Scott asked.

Johnny smiled at his brother. "Yeah Scott. It's risky but they won't be able to stick to their plan. Jess will be in control and it will throw them off."

`Okay, so it's decided. I'll ride ahead. See those two sets of rocks up there that look like a woman's...." Seeing the look on Maria's face, Jess cleared his throat and didn't complete his sentence. `I'll head that way. I'm supposing that Cody will head through the Valley below by tomorrow to head for Salmon Falls. You all continue to follow them from behind, but be ready to push forward fast. You're only job is to get the kids free. Understand?" Waiting until everyone in the group responded with a nod, he continued. "I'll take Raul and Miguel with me."

"No, Jess, I'll go with you." Johnny said.

Smiling with pride at Johnny, Jess shook his head, "No Johnny. You stay here and keep trackin them. I'll meet you tomorrow in the valley below. Remember what I always told ya, boy. Be careful and if you can't be careful be good, and if ya can't be good, don't get
caught." he said with a smile.

Maria stepped forward. "Jess, don't do this. It's too dangerous."

Taking Maria into his arms in a passionate embrace, he said "I have querida, stay with Johnny. I'll be careful. He gave Maria a long
lingering kiss without any concern for the bystanders.

Murdoch felt the sudden urge to turn away at the sight of his wife in the arms of another man.

Jess, looking over the top of Maria's head caught Johnny's eye. He gave Maria another kiss and turned her into Johnny's waiting arms. "Come on Mama, we need to get moving."

"Si, Juanito." She said as she watched Jess mount and ride away from her with his two men following in his wake. Johnny stood for a
moment longer feeling a wave of unease as his mother left his side to mount her horse. Feeling a hand on his shoulder, he turned at his
brother's touch. "Johnny, are you all right?"

Taking a deep breath and seeing Scott's look of concern, Johnny smiled slightly. "Yeah, brother. I'm all right, but I feel like I'm on a run away horse. I can't stop it and I can't get off." he said as he pushed a pinecone around with the toe of his boot.

 

Scott squeezed his shoulder and said sincerely, "I know what you mean, Johnny. Everything has gotten so complicated. Once we get
Graciano and Isabelle back, there will be a lot to sort out."

Blue eyes met blue eyes as Johnny nodded and saw that the others were mounted and ready to move out. Clapping a hand around Scott's shoulders, he said. "Thanks brother. Come on, we got a lot of ground to cover."

The small group rode out at a brisk trot. Johnny taking the lead following the tracks of his sibling's captors. Enrique once again watching his back. Murdoch and Scott rode silently side by side. Scott tried to think to something to say to ease Murdoch's obvious distress but seeing the grim lines of his father's set mouth, Scott decided the wiser course of action was to say nothing. Maria rode behind Murdoch and Scott. Luis, the tall gangly man brought up the rear. Rifle in hand, at the ready, he scanned the horizon on the lookout for trouble.

Mile after mile they kept their horses at a ground covering trot. Frequently dismounting and leading their horses to allow them to rest while keeping on the move. Scott could tell by the set of his jaw, that the long hours in the saddle were beginning to take its toll on Murdoch. `Not that the stubborn Scotsman would complain.' Scott thought ruefully. As Johnny would say, "the old man's too hardheaded
for that." Glancing over his shoulder, he noted Maria right behind them on her pretty buckskin mare. She had said very little and certainly hadn't complained or slowed them down at all. He had to give her credit, though he would never say so out loud. Perhaps that instinct that mother's have to protect their children was driving her on. Scott wondered if so, why now with these children and not with Johnny? Feeling rage start to bubble under the surface once again, he pushed the thought away chiding himself. `Not now. This is not the time.' Focusing once again on the task at hand, he realized that Johnny had called a halt and was motioning them forward.

"We've made up a lot of time today. We're gettin close. The sun's gonna go down in about half an hour and I don't want to stumble on
them in the dark. You make camp here and I'll scout ahead and see if I can find them. I'll probably be back after dark. Save me something to eat." he added with a meaningful look at Scott. Turning he mounted quickly with Enrique starting to follow.

Enrique felt a hand on his shoulder and Scott said. "This one's mine amigo." Scott swiftly mounted his horse and Johnny smiled as the two brothers rode into the fading light. Scott was silent as he rode alongside his amazing brother. Watching him follow the sign as he had
heard Luis and Enrique call it. He could see that Johnny was using all his skill in the last rays of daylight to find the predators.

Johnny halted and motioned for Scott to do the same. "Real quiet now brother." He whispered. "We go on foot." Tying their horses in a
clump of oak trees, they made sure that they could crop the grass without getting a foot over the rein. With a regretful thought that he couldn't loosen the horse's cinches to make them more comfortable. Johnny knew their next move was far too dangerous to risk having to
tighten a cinch to make a quick escape.

Working their way as silently as possible, the two brothers saw a flickering light of a campfire. Johnny gave a small tug to Scott's shirtsleeve and pointed toward a man standing guard. Moving silently around the man, they came upon the camp 100 yards downwind. Johnny breathed out "We found them." Once close enough to make out shapes, they counted 15 horses. Johnny's heart fell to his stomach with the realization that they had discovered a viper's nest of at least 15 men.

Scott sat in shock as he realized their predicament. "Johnny." he whispered giving his brother's name all the feeling and emotion he
was feeling.

"I know Scott." Johnny whispered back. Scanning the camp in the muted light, he was searching for some sign of Graciano and Isabelle.

Scott started to rise and said, "Come on, let's start back."

Johnny shook his head, "No not yet. I've gotta find them. Make sure they're okay."

"Johnny, we can't do anything tonight. If we start something, we could get them killed. We've got to get back and work out a plan."  As Scott finished his sentence, Johnny tensed as two small figures were thrust roughly toward the fire.

Graciano and Isabelle were forced to sit down by the fire. From the slump of their shoulders Johnny could see how tired they were. He
desperately wanted to go get them and hold them tightly in his arms. His restless fingers rubbed the smooth metal of his rifle mentally
calculating the odds of a successful ambush on the camp. Scott's sensible words cut into his thoughts.

"Come on Johnny. We can't do anything tonight."

"We could wait until they're asleep and try to sneak in."

"No brother. Be reasonable." Taking Johnny by the arm, he gave him a little pull and started him back toward the horses. He knew Johnny was feeling bad at leaving them to the mercy of those men for another night but it couldn't be helped. He saw the agony in his brother's blue eyes and knew that Johnny had been patient up to this point, but he was on edge. It wouldn't take much to push him into doing something reckless and Scott was determined not to let that happen. Scott directed Johnny back to the horses. Leading their tired horses for half a mile before mounting, they headed back to camp.

*******

 

Enrique started a fire while Luis took care of the horses. Working silently from years of experience, the two had the camp set up quickly. Murdoch carried his saddle in one hand and Maria's in the other. Maria began opening saddlebags to get the food ready for their supper. "Coffee's ready" she said as she glanced at Murdoch. He got his cup out of his saddlebag. As she poured him a cup of coffee they both had a moment of dejavou. Feeling uncomfortable, Maria dropped her eyes and returned to the task at hand.

Murdoch sat on his bedroll leaning against his saddle. Staring into the fire, he tried to keep unpleasant thoughts at bay. Churning in his head, his growing feelings for Maria warred with his dread over the safety of Graciano and Isabelle, and worry about Scott and Johnny. He couldn't relax until they returned.

"Supper is almost ready. We should go ahead and eat and I'll save some for Johnny and your son." She said handing Murdoch a filled
plate. Biscuits, beans and some slice of something which he was unfamiliar with. He raised his eyebrows in question while holding up the unfamiliar food.

"It's pemmican." She said at his unasked question. "It is quite good and very nourishing."

Taking a small bit of the unfamiliar food, Murdoch was pleasantly surprised at the sweet taste he recognized to be berry and the crunchy tang of pecans.

"It's an old Comanche recipe." She said. "It keeps forever and you can make it with whatever berries and nuts are handy."

"I have to say, I'm a bit surprised Maria. Your cooking has definitely improved over the years."

She looked at him with an angry retort on her lips, but seeing the glint of teasing in his eyes, she realized he meant no harm. "I'm glad you like it." She responded instead. Holding her plate, she sank down next to him, sitting cross-legged. Murdoch recognized the posture instantly as one he had seen from Johnny.

Eating in companionable silence, the two old adversaries had come to an unspoken truce. One bound by an old love, shared memories, good and bad, and a child so special neither was willing to share.

As darkness settled in, Murdoch and Maria talked quietly. Mostly trivial things, each uneasy to broach the difficult subjects. Afraid of the ensuing argument that was beneath the surface of their relationship. Maria sat quietly turning a stick over and over in her hands. Breaking the stick with a sharp snap, Murdoch looked up from his cup of coffee. Blue eyes met brown, and he cleared his throat. "Maria." He started, then stopped unsure of what to say next. "When this is all over, can we sit down and talk? You're Johnny's mother and we need to find some common ground so we don't tear our son apart. We can't keep going over old arguments and expect him to choose between us. Agreed?"

"I agree." She said softly while continuing to peel the bark off her stick.

Seeing the familiar nervous habit of her restless fingers, Murdoch reached over and grasped her hand. "We need to also talk about
Graciano and Isabelle." Not wanting to say too much and scare her off, he decided to take another tack. "They're great kids. You've done a good job raising them." Seeing the look of disbelief on her face, he went on. "After being around them, I have to believe if circumstances had been different, you would have been a good mother to Johnny too." Unsure if this was a compliment or a criticism, she said nothing. He went on. "I hate to see you put yourself in danger. Surely there is something else Jess could do that is legal if you
insist on remaining with him.

"It's the only life we know Murdoch. It may not be the life I expected but..." She stopped for a moment unsure if she should go on. "But I love him." She finished. Looking at Murdoch's strong feature she knew she did not want to hurt him anymore. "I'm sorry." She said and arose to wash the supper dishes.

Murdoch sat for a few minutes. His mind lost in the past. How easy it would be to love this woman again. It was foolish, he knew, to even contemplate such a thing. She loved another man, not him and had a life in another place. With resolve he pushed those thoughts away. He vowed to return to his ranch and banish this woman back to the dark corner of his heart. Hearing hoof beats, he stood up waiting expectantly for news from Johnny and Scott.

Luis took their horses and went off to water and rub them down. Two weary brothers settled by the fire. Maria placed cups of coffee in their hands.

"We found them." Johnny said. "About 4 miles south of here in a draw. It's well protected and…"

Maria interrupted. "Ciano and Issa? Did you see them?"

"Si Mama, we saw them. They looked all right."

"What do we do now? How do we get them back?" She asked eagerly.

"There are at least 15 of them Maria." Scott said taking charge. I propose we develop a plan as soon as my brother and I clean up and
have supper.

Scott, giving Murdoch a look, took his brother by the arm and steered him toward the stream. The cold water revived them both and they made their way back to camp feeling better than they had in hours. Once they were fed, the five men and one woman began planning their next move.

Scott, ever the tactician took the lead. "Jess and his two men are here." He said placing a rock on the ground. Placing a stick a few
inches away, he said. "The ridge is here." Taking another rock he placed it to the north of the ridge. "Here is where they are camped.
As we said there are at least 15 of them. Too many for us to take on alone especially as we don't want to jeopardize the children's
safety. We're here," Placing another rock. "Presumably the posse is 6 or 7 hours behind us. Looking up to see their faces he saw he had their full attention. Continuing to lay out the plan he had been working on during their ride back to camp, he said. "They are now
heading in a southerly direction right toward Jess. I think we should follow discretely as they continue toward Jess and be ready to
move forward fast when they start to engage them." Looking around the circle of faces, he saw agreement.

Clapping his hand with pride on Scott's shoulder, Murdoch said. "Good thinking son. Very well thought out. We'll start at daybreak. So we
better turn in. I'll take the first watch." Scott flushed at his father's words of praise and turned away to get ready for sleep. Murdoch with rifle in hand moved to an area off to the side where he could alert the camp of any intruders. He was not going to make that greenhorn mistake again.

PART 11/A

As the first rays of morning light filtered through the trees, Johnny gave a thumbs up sign to Luis who had pulled early morning guard
duty. Quickly saddling his horse, he led it quietly away from his sleeping family. Johnny set out to check on the status of Mather's camp. He rode at full alert for about 2 1/2 miles until he could risk riding no more. Tying his bay in a clump of trees, he made his way toward the camp.

Watching his every move he edged closer to the outlaw camp. Hearing a sound to his left, he froze. One foot in the air poised to take a
step. He cocked his head in the direction of the sound, straining to identify it. He waited a bit longer and didn't hear it again. Resuming his journey to a vantagepoint above the camp, he was able to see the gang in the midst of breaking camp. He would have liked to stay and make sure they were heading south, but he had already been gone too long and needed to return quickly.

Carefully retracing the path back to his horse, Johnny heard the sound again. He waited a bit longer and didn't hear it again, but his second sense was telling him danger was nearby. Try as he might he couldn't pinpoint the direction of the sound. Trusting his instincts, he slowly and without a sound melted into the foliage with a tree stump and brush as cover. He settled in content to play a waiting game. He had patience when it counted something his brother and father had a hard time believing, he knew. Too many years of being the hunter and the hunted had honed his instincts for survival to a sharp edge. His heart beat slowed as he felt himself going back to another time and another place where his instincts for survival were all that kept him alive.

The only part of him that could be seen moving was the slight rise and fall of his chest and the constant scanning of his eyes while he
sought out the enemy that he knew was lurking in the shadows of the forested hillside. Another sound came to his straining ears as he
focused all his senses toward the trees, a man moving stealthily from tree to tree came into view. Johnny took a deep breath and held it
as he considered his options. The way the man was acting he was searching for something or someone.

Johnny had a sinking feeling his horse had been discovered and the man was hunting for him. Deciding on a course of action, as the man moved past Johnny's hiding place, he left cover and began following him.

*****

Back at the camp....

A cold breakfast was eaten and the horses stood saddled and ready to go. Murdoch was pacing angrily. With set jaw, he looked like he was ready to explode. Maria was brushing her buckskin mare while glancing warily at Murdoch, undecided as to whether she should
approach him. Scott returned from the stream and stood in the path Murdoch was pacing. Brought up short by the sudden appearance of his older son, Scott said. "Sir, we better get going."

"Where is he?" Murdoch said with anger. "What does that boy think he is doing? How could he be so irresponsible to take off like that
without telling anyone?"

Scott didn't have an answer as he was asking himself the same questions. He hoped Johnny didn't decide to try to rescue the children by himself. He desperately hoped Johnny was all right, but when he returned Scott intended to blister his little brothers ears.

Murdoch turned to Scott and said "Mount up. We'll head in the direction of their camp and see if we can flush them out. When I catch up with your brother, I intend to give him a piece my mind. When I'm done with him he'll think twice before pulling another stunt like this again."

Having nothing to add, Scott followed Murdoch to the waiting horses. Silently the four men and one woman headed in the direction the
youngest Lancer took that morning.

****

Johnny, making a fateful decision began following the man who had been tracking him. He knew he had been gone from camp far too long, but couldn't risk this loner revealing his position to the outlaw gang. As Johnny followed the man, he took cover whenever he felt he
might be discovered. He began gaining ground on him. The hunted became the hunter as Johnny saw his chance. Climbing an embankment he launched himself on top of the man bringing him down. The man was quick, pulling a knife as he fell to the ground, he slashed backwards at Johnny. Johnny saw a glint of steel as the blade slashed across his side. He felt the warm rush of blood as he struggled to keep the man from finishing the job. Over and over the two enemies rolled as they struggled to gain control of the knife. With a sudden surge of strength Johnny rolled the man over onto his stomach. With an agonizing moan, he went limp. Johnny felt the hot gush of blood flood his hand as he realized the man had impaled himself on his own knife.

Breathing in ragged breaths from the exertion and swallowing to keep his stomach from betraying him, he slowly recovered as he realized he needed to check on the knife wound in his side. Dragging himself away from the man, Johnny pulled his shirt out of his pants and away from the bleeding cut. Craning his neck to see, and carefully probing with his fingers, he realized it was a long slice, but not too deep. Drawing a ragged breath he wiped the sweat out of his eyes with his shirtsleeve. Struggling to his feet he held his hand tightly to his side. Hissing through his teeth as a sharp stab of pain overtook him he thought. `It may not be too deep, but it sure hurts like hell.'

Making his way back to his horse, he was relieved to find the bay still tied where he left him. With unsteady fingers he took the canteen from the saddle and drank a few swallows of the refreshing water. Next he took off his bloody shirt and used it to wipe away as much of the blood and dirt he could from the wound. Opening his canteen, he steeled himself for the pain he knew would come. Pouring water over the wound he felt tears come to his eyes. Biting down on his lip, he chided himself. "You're gettin soft, Madrid. A little cut almost has ya bawling like a baby.' Once again using his shirt to wipe away the blood tinged water, he began tearing his shirt into strips to make a bandage. Wrapping the material around his waist he was able to provide temporary protection for his tender side. Donning his spare shirt, he attempted to mount his horse. On his first try, he couldn't get his foot to the stirrup due to the pulling and pain in his side. Looking around for an alternative, he saw a downed tree. Carefully maneuvering his horse next to the stump, he gingerly climbed onto it. The bay stepped sideways at the unfamiliar position of his rider. Talking softly and reassuring the horse, Johnny returned the horse to the correct position next to the stump. Telling the gelding whoa and to stand, He carefully put his foot in the stirrup and swung into the saddle. Clicking to the horse he rode back toward the search party, he couldn't help but think, `Boy am I gonna get it now.'

Johnny hadn't gone 200 yards when he heard the sound of horses coming toward him. Urging his mount up the hillside to his right, he
quickly hid out of sight. Tense moments went by until the riders came into sight. Recognizing Scott in the lead, he gave a short whistle. Stopping quickly Scott looked in the direction of the whistle as his right hand pulled his Colt from its holster. Recognizing his wayward brother, Scott returned the gun to its resting-place and waited for him to descend the hillside.

Grinning, Johnny worked his way down to his waiting family. "Howdy." He said as he registered the looks on Murdoch and Scott's faces. `The old man looks like he's got steam comin outta his ears and Scott does too.' Johnny thought as the smile disappeared from his face. `Scott must be pretty mad, he don't look like that too often.' "Hey there. They just started movin out." He began.

"Johnny." Murdoch said harshly.

Johnny locked eyes with his father and then looked down playing with his horse's mane. `Yep, I'm right, he's steamed.' he thought.

Murdoch gestured to Scott. "Move out son. Johnny and I will catch up in a bit. We have some talking to do."

With a solemn nod at his father, Scott tried to catch his little brother's eye, but he had his head down and didn't look up as the small group rode ahead. Scott hoped Murdoch would keep his temper in check, but knew this was not going to be pretty.

Once the others were out of sight, Murdoch ordered. "Get off that horse, boy." Johnny met his father's eye and could see the anger. He closed his eyes for a moment, he knew what was coming next. He swung off his horse and stood in front of his father, head down, waiting for the explosion that had been building up for the past couple of days. "Well...aren't you going to explain yourself?"

Johnny looked up at his father in puzzlement. "What?"

"Johnny, I'm getting tired of your games. When are you going to grow up and start behaving in a responsible manner? Leaving camp this morning was just plain bad judgment." Murdoch said building up steam.

"I just wanted to see if they had left that's all." Johnny mumbled.

"We were worried about you son. You could have been caught snooping around that camp. You could have endangered the children even more. Did you even think of that? "

"Murdoch, I just wanted to see what direction they were going." he said lamely. He was feeling very uncomfortable with his father staring at him but he couldn't bring himself to look him in the eye. He knew all he would see was disapproval and disappointment.

"That's no excuse. You never once considered the rest of us!" Murdoch shouted, as he became furious with Johnny's lack of emotion or
outward concern.

"I...I know, I'm sorry Murdoch." Johnny said as he tried to placate his angry father.

"Sorry doesn't cut it Johnny!" Murdoch said harshly as he was unwilling to back off from his tirade

Johnny felt frozen in place, Unsure what to say or do to defuse his father's anger. He knew he should have waited and not gone alone to
scout the camp. Still he didn't know how to fix it. Biting his lip he spared a glance to see if the lecture was over. Murdoch was staring at him without saying anything. He hated it when his father did that.

Murdoch's anger had peaked and he was waiting for his son to say something. Anything. Some reassurance that he'd be more careful and think things through. Be more like his older brother...

"Ya done old man? Johnny said sharply. "I mean, ya done with the sermon?"

"Johnny is that what you think? That I enjoy saying these things to you? Believe me young man, I would rather not have to remind you to
be more responsible and think things through. Just when I think you're growing up, you go ahead and pull something like this." Pausing to see if his words were having the desired effect. Seeing no response from Johnny, he ordered. "Mount up. We've wasted enough time." Murdoch mounted and set out at a lope without a glance back at his son.

Johnny stood looking at the stiff departing back of his father and wondered if they would ever comes to terms with each other. Making a
move to mount, he felt a wave of dizziness and he held onto the saddle to stay upright. "Whoa, I almost fell there.' he thought. He pressed his hand to his side once again and thought. 'Dam that hurts.' Mounting his horse, he followed tentatively after his father.

 

Part 11/B

Murdoch caught up with the others quickly. Scott maneuvered along side his father and asked. "Where's Johnny?"

"He'll be along shortly." He said shaking his head. "I just don't know what gets into that boy." He finished with a sigh.

Maria glanced back and frowned when she did not see Johnny but before she could ask Murdoch where he was, Enrique called a halt. He ground tied his horse and started climbing a rocky outcropping while the others gathered at the bottom. Enrique cautiously looked over the top of the ridge. From his vantagepoint he could see the kidnappers as they rode single file down into the valley below. He returned to the waiting searchers as Johnny rode up. "They are in the valley. I counted 15 horses. Ciano and Issa are riding double on one horse."

"If they're thinking, maybe they'll get clear when the shooting starts." Luis said.

"No, there can be no shooting until the children are clear." Murdoch declared.

"Senior, It is unlikely that will happen. We have to try to create a diversion so they can get clear." Luis insisted.

"No, that's too risky. Mama, what do you think?" Johnny asked.

Maria looked at the faces of her husband's men, her son, her ex husband, and his son. "I don't want them to be in the center of a gun battle, but I know these men, they'll kill them even if they get Jess. They are not going to trade them. I say we keep to the plan. Jess expects us to get Ciano and Issa free." With that she nudged her buckskin down the trail with the others following.

Scott held a hand out to Johnny and said "You okay?"

"I'm okay." Johnny said with hooded eyes.

Scott knew Murdoch must of really let Johnny have it and wished they could stop and talk it through, but now was not the time. Handing
Johnny a biscuit he said. `Here, you missed breakfast."

With a small smile, Johnny replied. "Thanks brother."

"Your going to need all your wits about you today little brother and we can't have you fainting from hunger now can we?" Scott was
disappointed to see that his joke fell flat. He had been hoping for at least a small smile, but nothing. With a worried glance at his brother, he nudged his horse after the others with Johnny following.

Holding the reins in one hand and the biscuit in the other, Johnny knew he should eat. His stomach growled but he couldn't bring himself
to take more than one bite. It tasted like chalk in his dry mouth and he tossed the rest of the biscuit into the bushes

*****

Working their way down the hillside, while Enrique rode ahead to the keep the Mather's gang in sight, Scott, Maria and Murdoch followed in close formation. Johnny and Luis brought up the rear.

Maria growing concerned over Johnny's sudden silence allowed her mare to drift behind the others until Johnny's horse was next to hers. She reached over and squeezed his arm. Lost in his own thoughts, he startled at the contact. "Johnny, where are you?" She asked with growing concern. When her son's blue eyes met hers she was unprepared for the sadness she saw flash across his handsome features."What is it meil? Tell me." Getting no response she probed further. "Is it your father? Did he hurt you?"

Johnny immediately shook his head. "No... No I'm fine. Just tired I guess. I'll be all right Mama." He said with a small smile.

Looking at him uncertainly, she squeezed his arm again and nudged her mare into a trot to catch up with the others.

Johnny focused his eyes on a hawk circling for prey and tried to push the conflicting emotions from his mind. He felt bad lying to his
mother, but he could never tell her how Murdoch's words had affected him. He felt himself floating away from his body and he wasn't sure if it was from his injury or from this latest assault on his relationship with his father. He let his father down. Scott too now that he thought about it. `Scott had that look on his face when he's disappointed in me' Sighing he came back to the present when Luis rode up to Johnny.

"Amigo, we need to catch up to the others."

"Si, lo siento." Johnny said as he moved his horse into a lope.

Enrique had called a halt and was conferring with Scott when Luis and Johnny caught up to them.

"The gang is less than 2 miles from the spot Jess picked out." Enqrique explained.

Scott took over the planning. "Jess will have to call the play and we'll back him up. At the first sign of shooting we'll go in. Maria, you stay back and out of the line of fire."

"No." She said firmly. "I can take care of myself."

Seeing the look of determination on her face, Scott took a deep breath and said, "All right Maria. You and Murdoch stay together and
be ready to get to the children. The four of us will provide fire power and give you as much cover as we can." Seeing the agreement on
the faces of the unlikely band of compatriots, they pushed down into the valley.

******

Thirty minutes later they heard the echo of shots ringing out followed by a volley of shots. They urged their horses into a gallop and eagerly pushed into the fray. Jess and his two men had taken up position to catch the group in a crossfire. By the time the reinforcements arrived the Mather's gang were scattering for cover and returning the fire.

Scott directed the men to take cover. "Don't fire yet," He warned. He wanted them to wait until Murdoch and Maria were in position
before announcing their presence.

Suddenly a man stood up holding Isabelle in front of him, using her as a shield. "Jess, if you want to see your little girl again, you'll tell them to throw down their guns. Do it our way Jess or I'll turn these animals loose on these pretty little kids."

 

Their blood ran cold as the Lancer's heard the threats against the children. Taking a chance, Jess ordered his men to toss down their
weapons. He stood up holding his hands in sight. "Cody, it's me ya want. Ya got me. Send the kids out."

"Walk this way Jess. We've got some talkin to do."

"Let them go Cody." Jess said in a menacing voice as he stepped into the clearing.

Two hundred yards away, Scott had his rifle aimed and he had a bead on Cody Mather's head. Finger ready to gently squeeze the trigger Scott waited patiently for the perfect shot.

Cody pushed the girl out into the clearing and gave her a shove. Isabelle fell to her knees but was up quickly and Jess said "Git Issa." The girl scrambled away toward the rocks as Cody held a gun on her father.

"We've got the boy still." Cody warned. "Don't try anything Jess. You'll get him back when you show me where the gold is. I know I can't break you, but when you hear that little boy cry you'll tell me everything I want to know." Cody brought his hand down and they all heard Graciano scream out in anguish.

Scott took a deep breath and let it out half way while gently squeezing the trigger. His aim true as the vicious bandit's head exploded. At the first shot pandemonium cut loose. Jess dived to the ground desperately seeking shelter as the outlaws realized their leader was down and they were caught in a crossfire.

Maria ran using whatever cover she could find down into the fight frantically calling for Graciano. Murdoch on her heels firing as he went to provide protection for them both. Scott directed the men to move forward. So far they were lucky and they had the advantage of surprise. They had evened the odds and were finding targets among the outlaws. Jess and his men had recovered their weapons and we
adding to the firefight.

Johnny, coming in from the side looking for his little brother, felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise. He rolled to the left as he saw a man aiming at him. As he hit the ground, he fanned the hammer of his gun sending the gunman to his maker in a blink of the eye. Crouching and moving into the middle of the outlaws, he shot another man, then another before taking cover behind a pile of rocks. He
opened the chamber of his gun and spun it dropping the hot empty cartridges to the ground before reloading from his gun belt. Years
of practice saw him ready to rejoin the fight in a short time. Wiping his arm across his forehead to clear the sweat off, he saw his next
target. The man had Graciano by the scruff of his neck and was jerking him to his feet. Johnny jumped out and said "Hold it." The man turned and fired at the same time Johnny fired. The man went down and Graciano scrambled into his brother's arms as Johnny sank to
the ground.

The firing was slowing down as the remaining outlaws mounted and rode away at a gallop. Scott was amazed at the turn of events until he
realized that the posse was bearing down on them. `Better late than never' he thought wryly. Getting up to check on his family, he saw to his horror that Murdoch was crouched down holding Maria's limp form, Graciano was kneeling at Johnny's side, and Isabelle was in tears holding her father's still body.

Val and his posse rode into the devastation of what once had been a peaceful valley. Seeing the wounded, he quickly dismounted. Scott
motioned for Val to go to Isabelle. If the worst had happened, they needed to comfort the little girl. Scott rushed to Johnny's side and saw blood staining his shirt. As Johnny started to sit up, Scott commanded. "Stay down. Where are you hit?"

Johnny ignored him and sat up hugging Graciano to him. "I'm all right Scott."

"I hate to tell you this, but you're bleeding, brother." He said as he lifted Johnny's shirt. Seeing the strips of cloth around Johnny's waist, he sat back on his heels and looked at him in consternation. "What happened." He snapped.

"Long story brother. It's nothin." Pushing himself to his knees he grabbed Scott's hand for balance and pulled himself to his feet. Once up he swayed a bit as he looked over at the unmoving form of Jess. "Scott, check on Murdoch and Mama, Okay?" Taking Graciano with
him Johnny walked slowly over to Jess' still form. Issa was crying with Val ineffectually patting her shoulder unsure of what to do to comfort the distraught child. Johnny knelt next to Issa and took her in his arms. Graciano next to him as both children gave into their
grief over the death of their father. Johnny held both children tight as he felt his own tears of grief overtake him at the loss of the man who had been the only father he ever knew.

Johnny vaguely heard Scott tell Val to send one of his men for the doctor and another to the ranch to bring back two wagons. Johnny
wondered dimly why the rush when he realized there were other wounded. Scott laid a hand on Johnny's shoulder and handed him a
blanket. Together, with care, they spread it over Jess' still form. Each child giving their father a last kiss before Scott pulled the blanket over his head.

Leading Johnny and the children away from the others, he waited a moment for them to gather their composure. "Your mother has been
shot." He said quietly. Seeing the stricken looks on the three young faces he added. "She's alive. Murdoch's with her. We'll see her in a
minute but you have to be brave for her."

"How bad Scott?"

Looking at the two children's tear streaked faces, Scott said. "I'm not sure."

Taking the children by the hand, Johnny led them over to their mother. Murdoch was holding a pad of cloth to try to stop the flow of blood. He was talking to her calmly, assuring her. "The children?" She asked again.

"They're safe," He said as he watched Johnny bringing the children to see their mother.

Maria smiled when she saw her children. Looking at her little girl, then her younger son, and finally her oldest son she was relieved to see they were alive. Johnny knelt down next to his mother and took her hand in his. "It's all right meil." She said as she ran her hands over Issa's hair smoothing it in place, providing comfort in the familiar gesture to the girl. Taking hold of Graciano's hand she drew it up to her lips and gave his hand a kiss. Turning her attention to Johnny, she beckoned him closer. Whispering she said. "Take care of your hermano y hermana if anything happens to me. Promise?"

"Si, Mama. I promise."

"There's a buckboard on the way. Val sent a rider for Doctor Jenkins to meet us at the house." Scott said. Turning to Murdoch he
whispered. "How bad is it?"

Murdoch shook his head. "I'm not sure. The bullet is still in." Pausing, he shook his head and said in wonderment. "She saved my life. She could've gotten clear, but she stopped and drew his fire." Shaking his head once again. Taking the pad of cloth away from her side, he was relieved to see the bleeding had stopped. "Stay still Maria. We'll get you help."

Scott and Murdoch moved away. "Jess?"

"He died" Scott responded.

"What a waste. Two fatherless children and for what?" Murdoch said knowing there was no answer. Looking back at Maria who was
surrounded by her family he said. "I'll get her bandaged up so she'll be ready to move when the wagon gets here."

Scott was staring absentmindedly when his mind screamed. `Johnny!' Scott hurried over to where his brother was still comforting his
mother and his siblings. "Brother." He said as he laid his hand on Johnny's arm. "Let me take a look at you."

"Later Scott." Johnny said unwilling to leave his mother's side.

"No... Now. Murdoch's going to take care of her. He'll get her bandaged up, but I want to get you checked out. Move little brother." He said in his best commanding officers tone of voice.

Leaving Murdoch and the two children, a reluctant Johnny and a protective older brother moved a few feet away. Setting Johnny down
on a large rock, Scott started unbuttoning his shirt. Johnny tried to slap his hands away. "I can do it."

"Quit it Johnny." Scott said as he quickly worked the buttons free.  Once again seeing the blood stained strips of shirt around his brother's waist, he shook his head. Johnny held himself stiffly as Scott sawed through the pieces of cloth with his knife. With a sharp
intake of breath Scott said. "This is a knife cut. Johnny when did you get this?"

"This morning brother and it's nothin to worry about."

"Nothing to worry about! It'll be a miracle if it's not already infected and it needs stitches." Dabbing at the long jagged cut that started just below the rib cage and ended at his hip, Scott could see bits of cloth and dirt in the wound. Shaking his head he retrieved his canteen and warned his brother. "This is going to sting a bit." He carefully poured water into the wound to flush out as much debris as he could.

Hissing from the pain. Johnny questioned. "A bit?"

Scott smiled and continued his ministrations as Johnny bit his lip to keep quiet. Using Johnny's old shirt to wipe away the blood stained
water he prepared to bandage his brother's side. Tearing his spare shirt into strips, he carefully wrapped the clean material around his
brother's waist. Scott could hold it in no longer. "How in hell's name did this happen? Why didn't you tell us you were hurt?"

Johnny decided to answer the second question first. "Wasn't that bad and didn't want to slow us down on my account."

With a disgusted look on his face, Scott felt his brother's forehead. "Good planning. You're feeling hot. You've already got a fever."

Johnny knowing he disappointed his brother for the second time in one day couldn't meet his eyes. He looked at the ground, nervously
twisting a button on the side of his pants while waiting for the lecture.

Scott opened his mouth to give Johnny a piece of his mind concerning the foolishness of his actions when the sound of an approaching
buckboard caught his attention. "Later brother." Scott said with warning and went over to direct the driver to move the wagon close to where Maria lay.

 

PART 12

 

Carefully the men eased Maria into the wagon. Graciano and Isabelle climbed in with her. Scott told the driver to get started back to the
ranch. Val took charge of the dead and was speaking to Murdoch over by the wagon that held Jess' body.

Scott looked around for Johnny and finally found him petting the bay gelding on the neck. Seeing the stricken look on his brother's face,
Scott put a hand on Johnny's shoulder. "He musta caught a stray bullet."

Nodding, Scott gave Johnny's shoulder a pat.

"Don't seem right, just leavin him here for the coyotes to get. We started out rough me and him but he turned into a real good horse."

Scott mentally groaned when he remembered the sight of this horse and his brother falling in a hail of broken boards. "Come on Johnny.
Let's go home."

`Home' Johnny thought as he walked back toward his family. `Sounds good.' Looking over at Scott, a bit of his old self returned as he said. "I'm so hungry I could eat one of Teresa's ol' milk cows and sleep a week."

Scott lightly pushed Johnny playfully and smiled relieved that he was returning to his old self. "Maybe the old man will let us sleep in. Maybe 6 or 6:30?"

Johnny stopped short when he saw the wagon departing with his injured mother. Luis handed him his mother's buckskin mare and he swung into the saddle and started after it.

Scott tossed Johnny's saddle and equipment into the other wagon and said to Murdoch. "Are we done here, Sir?"

Looking at the tired face of his oldest son, Murdoch smiled faintly and said, "Yes son, Lets go home."

Guiding their tired horses through the front gate of Lancer, Scott said with relief. "Doc Jenkins is here." Passing the reins to a hand, Scott and Murdoch entered the house to find Teresa in the kitchen. "Let me take that for you." Scott said as he took the heavy pot from her.

"Careful, that's hot." She warned.

Scott carefully carried the cauldron of hot water upstairs to the guestroom, following along behind Murdoch. Sitting on the floor outside the closed door were Johnny with Graciano and Isabelle on each side of him. He had his eyes closed and an arm around each child as they both leaned into him for support. Stepping carefully over the exhausted children, Scott and Murdoch entered the guestroom.

"Sam." Murdoch said as he approached the bed. "How is she?"

"I'm going to have to remove the bullet. It's lodged just under her ribcage here." He said as he traced the path of the bullet to Maria's ribcage.

"Do we need to move her downstairs to the kitchen?

"No, I can do it here. Teresa's boiling my instruments and Maria will help me with the procedure." Looking gratefully at the calm competent woman by the bedside. The wise doctor saw the fatigue and worry on his old friend's face and added. "She's young and strong Murdoch. She should get through this all right. I'll know more once the bullet is removed. Was anyone else hurt?"

Surprised Scott mentally kicked himself as he said, "Yes." At the same time Murdoch said "No." Murdoch looked at him with questioning
eyes, Scott said. "Johnny. Johnny is hurt."

Murdoch looked at Scott with surprise. "How bad? Where was he shot?"

Scott shook his head and started to speak, when Sam said. "Well, let's take a look." Heading through the doorway, he stopped short as
he almost fell over the prone bodies on the floor. Johnny opened his eyes to Sam's gentle hand on his shoulder. "Come on Johnny, let's
get you checked out."

Scott reached down and helped Johnny to his feet. "I'll take care of the children. Johnny, you go with Sam."

"I'm all right Sam, just take care of my Mama."

"I will in a few minutes Johnny, but I want to get a look at you first."

"Son, what happened? Were you shot? Murdoch said looking intently at Johnny's pale face through the tired lines of dirt.

Sighing, Johnny said, "No, knife wound. I tangled with a guy this morning when I scouted the camp." He said. "Killed him." He looked up
at his father with a flash of defiance.

Murdoch felt a wash of relief when he realized Johnny could have been killed this morning and he was once more thankful that his son was safe. Noticing the tense look on his son's face he sought to reassure him by placing a hand on his shoulder and saying. "Let's get
you taken care of son."

Removing Johnny's shirt Doc Jenkins said, "Who bandaged you up?"

"Scott" Johnny replied.

Once the bandage was cut away, Murdoch drew in a deep breath when he saw the angry jagged red slice in his son's side.

Sam shook his head and said. "Johnny, I'm going clean this up, but I'll have to put stitches in later. Murdoch will you get some bandages and hot water?"

Murdoch met Scott in the hall on his way back from the kitchen. "Why didn't he say anything?"

Scott just shook his head. "I don't know sir."

Murdoch returned to Johnny's room to hear the tail end of Sam's lecture to Johnny about the importance of getting wounds properly
treated to avoid infection and complications. Placing the hot water, towels, and bandages within easy reach, Sam looked up and said. "Thank you Murdoch. Why don't go check to make sure everything is ready for me in Maria's room." Murdoch left as Sam was cleaning Johnny's wound.

Murdoch entered the room of his ex-wife and moved to her bedside. Maria looked at him and said, "Pardone Patron. If you would sit with
her for a few moments, I will go get more towels."

Looking gratefully at the woman who kept the household running smoothly, he responded. "Si Maria, I'll sit with her."

Taking her small hand in his large work worn one, he turned it over to see gunpowder burns on the back of her hand. `She saved my life.' He thought. Her eyes opened slowly and she coughed.

Holding a glass of water for her, he urged. "Take a small sip." He supported her as she took a sip of water. "You're going to be all right Maria." He assured her.

She smiled that small smile which made his heart beat faster. "Jess didn't make it. Did he?"

"No…No he didn't." He said squeezing her hand. Her eyes closed with pain as she had her suspicions confirmed. "I'm sorry Maria." He
said awkwardly.

She nodded and Murdoch thought she had gone to sleep. She opened her eyes after a few minutes. "Murdoch, I know I have no right to ask. If anything happens to me will you help Johnny with the children?"

"Nothing is going to happen Maria. Doctor Jenkins says you're going to be fine." He found himself staring into the depths of her eyes as
if she could see into his soul. If anything happens to you Maria, I promise to look after them for you." He found himself saying.

With a sigh of relief she settled back into the pillows. Her eyes opened once more as her mind leapt to another subject. "Juanito. Él es stubbourn como su papa."

Nodding his head. "Yes he is." Not wanting to talk to her about their son at this time, he sought to change the subject. "Maria." He started awkwardly. "I want to thank you…"She looked up at him with a questioning look. "For saving my life."

"De nada." She said as she closed her eyes.

"No, it is not nothing." He insisted. "It means a lot." He started to say more as Sam entered the room drying his hands on a towel.

"I'll finish him up later." He said when he saw Murdoch's inquiring look. "He's resting."

Teresa entered the room carrying the steaming instruments over to a side table. At Sam's look, she gently took Murdoch's arm. "Come on Murdoch, I have fresh coffee and a slice of hot apple pie waiting for you downstairs." Giving him that smile he couldn't resist, Murdoch allowed Teresa to lead him out of the room.

Murdoch and Scott, now bathed and fed were waiting downstairs for word from Sam. Hearing footsteps they turned to see Teresa in the
doorway. Teresa had helped the children bathe and gotten them tucked into bed.

Entering the living room she said, "I took stew upstairs to Johnny and the children. They didn't eat much."

"We'll all feel better after a good night's sleep." Scott said.

"When Sam's finished I want him to check over the children before he leaves." Murdoch said suddenly.

Both Scott and Teresa looked at him warily before Teresa turned away and walked woodenly into the kitchen.

Another hour passed before Sam entered the living room. Pouring himself a cup of coffee, he settled onto the couch while the Lancer
men looked at him expectantly.

"Come on man." Murdoch said impatiently. "How is she?"

"She's going to be alright. I had to dig quite a bit to reach the bullet but it didn't hit any major organs. She's going to be bruised and sore for several weeks. She may very likely have a fever, but I expect her to make a full recovery. I'll leave some medication with Teresa and I'll come back tomorrow afternoon."

Standing up, Sam stretched and said. "I'll go upstairs and sew Johnny up. Try to keep him in bed for a few days." Seeing the skeptical
looks on their faces, Sam smiled and added. "I know, I know" as he held up a hand. "It's nasty, but not life threatening. He's already running a fever since the wound was contaminated. Teresa and Maria know what to do."

Sam headed for the stairs to complete his work when Murdoch called. "Sam, I want you to check the children over before you leave."

Catching Murdoch's look, Sam nodded and asked. "Do you have a spare room where I can examine them privately?"

"The guest room next to Maria's is empty. You can use that." Murdoch answered.

Another long hour passed before Sam returned to the living room. Murdoch knew he wouldn't be able to rest until he knew that the children were unharmed. Sam motioned for Murdoch to sit back down and he settled himself into a chair as well. "Both children are
exhausted." He explained. "The both have assorted bruises and a few scratches but nothing to be concerned about. Graciano looks like he was hit several times. He has a fading bruise on his cheek and a couple elsewhere but overall they are in better shape than they could have been. They are scared and seem to be shy of strangers." Seeing the looks of dismay on their faces, he quickly continued. "It could have been much worse." He said pointedly. "They need time and a stable environment. The most important thing is for them to feel
secure so they regain their footing."

"Thank you, Sam. It's late, would you like a bed for the night?"  Murdoch inquired.

Looking at his old friend. "No." He said wistfully. "I wish I could, but I have an early morning. I'll be back this way tomorrow afternoon. If I time it right I may be done about suppertime." He said with a twinkle in his eye.

Smiling, the Lancer's walked their old friend to the door. "Scott, I'm done in." Murdoch said stretching his back.

"Me too. Do you think someone needs to sit with Maria or Johnny tonight?"

"No. Teresa and Maria will keep an eye on them, but Sam thought they would be fine for the night." Murdoch said as he started going
upstairs. "Goodnight, Son."

"Good night Sir." Scott said as he started turning down the lamps before going to bed.

Johnny awoke in the middle of the night feeling hot and sweaty. `Fever,' he thought as he swung his legs over the side of the bed. He sat there a moment while he got his bearings. The lamp was set low casting enough glow so he could see his way around his room. He stood up and walked on bare feet across the room to the water pitcher and poured some water on a towel. Wiping his face and neck, he cooled off his steaming skin. Feeling a bit better, he took a drink of water and felt too restless to return to bed. Thinking of his brother and sister, he left his bedroom and quietly padded down the hall to their room. Easing the door open, he silently entered the room. He looked lovingly down at his young siblings. A feeling of gratitude rushed over him and he blinked back tears at the sudden emotion he felt at the sight of their sleeping forms. He quietly eased the door closed and went down the hall toward his room. Stopping for a moment at Scott's door he listened but could hear nothing coming from his brother's room. His hand hovered over the doorknob as he debated opening the door. `He's awfully tired.' He thought. `I better leave him alone. I'll square things with him in the morning.'

Johnny looked down the hall and his eyes focused on his mother's room. As he approached, he saw light under the door. Taking a deep
breath, he opened the door and stepped inside. Letting his eyes become accustomed to the dim light in the room, he saw his mother was
alone and asleep. He walked slowly to her side and sank quietly down into the chair next to her. Yawning, he found his eyes growing heavy and he pulled the blanket that had been draped on the chair haphazardly around his fevered body.

Maria started to roll over when the pain in her ribs brought her awake sharply. Feeling the presence of another person, she turned her head expecting to see the girl, Teresa in the chair. Instead, she saw her oldest son Johnny fast asleep. A feeling of warmth and affection swept over her and as she studied her son's handsome face. Marveling at how young he looked in sleep. He reminded her so much of
Graciano. She felt thankful to have him here with her now. So many years lost. She drew in a breath and held it as he shifted in the chair and woke with a start.

Johnny ran a hand over his face and looked surprised to see where he was. `Mama, you're awake."

"Yes, my Son. We should both be resting. Doctor Jenkins told me of your injury." She reached up her hand to feel his forehead and
said. "You should be in bed. You have a fever. Wrap the blanket around you better and go back to bed mi hijo."

"Si Mama. I will… Mama…?"

"Yes Juanito?

Johnny's eyes sought hers searching for answers. Maybe now was the time for him to say what had been on his mind for so long. Gathering up his courage, he started. "Mama, I need to talk to you."

"Go ahead." She said softly.

"I have questions."

"Ask" She said simply.

"Why. Why did you leave my father?"

"Johnny, it is very complicated but I will answer the best I can. Your Papa and I were in love." She reassured him. "As time went by, he seemed to love me less and less. He worked all the time to build his rancho. I needed more." She paused to see his reaction. " It was selfish Johnny, and I didn't foresee the consequences."

"Mama, why did you take me? He said softly.

She smiled through the tears in her eyes. Johnny that is the most simple reason of all. Because I love you my son. I couldn't leave my baby and I couldn't stay so we both left. You were my life for so many years."

There was silence between them while they held hands tightly. Johnny asked her in a small voice. "Why did you tell me that my father threw us out? That he didn't want me. Why Mama?" He said with the years of pain in his voice.

Taking a deep breath she said. "I have no excuse for what I did mi hijo. I was foolish and prideful. I didn't want you to wish for a father you could not have. I didn't want you to be hurt the way I was by him. I wanted you to accept Jess as your father and even more, I wanted you to accept that you could never have both of us. Do you understand, Johnny?"

Johnny looked at her for a long moment, then nodded slowly before looking down again playing with a loose thread in the blanket.

She continued, "When you ran away…when I tried to tell you the truth about your father, I finally realized I had not only been wrong, but
I had hurt you badly. I'm so very sorry Johnny. Can you ever forgive me?"

It took Johnny a couple of minutes before he found the words he needed to say. "Mama, I do love you, I always have. You hurt me. I hated my father because of the lies you told me. It's taking a long time for Murdoch and me to get past all of that." He looked down at his hands worrying the thread once again. "I want to believe you, and maybe someday I'll feel different. I'm still so angry with you." He said as he looked her directly in the eye for a moment then dropped his eyes back to his hands.

Maria felt her son's pain and said quietly. "I know…All I can tell is that I love you. I have always loved you." She reached up and ran her hand across his cheekbone and through his hair. He closed his eyes and she pulled him into a hug. He laid his head on the bed and she continued to stroke his hair. He felt years of memories wash through his mind cleansing his troubled heart.

Johnny slowly woke as he realized he had gone to sleep leaning onto his mother's bed. "Juanito, wake up." Maria said softly. "Come, get
into bed with me."

Johnny climbed into bed next to his mother and discovered Issa and Ciano were sound asleep on each side of her. Carefully stretching
out, he closed his eyes and drifted off into a deep peaceful sleep.

In the early hours of dawn, Murdoch left his room to start his day. `Johnny must be up' he noted when he saw his open door. `I didn't expect him up so early.' As he looked down the hall, he noticed the door to the children's room was ajar. Heading toward the room, he expected to find Johnny there. Finding the room empty, he realized the three of them must have already gone down for breakfast.

He decided to stop and check on Maria before going down to breakfast. Quietly opening the door he was dumbstruck at the sight of Maria and her three children together in bed. In his wildest dreams this was a sight he never expected to see. Swallowing hard from the sudden lump in his throat, he carefully spread another blanket over the sleeping family and left them to their much-needed healing sleep .

 

PART 13

Johnny sat by the window in his room and looked out at the rain pouring down. It had been raining steadily since yesterday and the
weather was matching his mood. It had been three days since they had returned home. Both he and his mother had fought a battle with a fever and like him she was getting better. Johnny began to feel better yesterday and he knew his body was mending. But it seemed
like the better his body felt the more on edge his temper became. `Why was he feeling so listless' he asked himself. Earlier this morning he snapped at Teresa for something she did not deserve. When he started to apologize, she looked at him with eyes ready to brim over with tears. At a loss for words, he turned back to the window until he heard the door click shut.

Alone now, he looked out the window, his eyes focused on the rainwater as it collected in runoff creating small rivers as it surged over the ground. He flinched as he heard a soft knock on the door, followed by the door creaking as it opened. "Johnny"

Johnny did not respond. He kept staring out the window. `Maybe he can't see Me.' he thought. `Maybe he'll go away."

"Son... Look at me."

Knowing his father wouldn't leave until Johnny complied, he turned his head and looked at his father. Murdoch moved over to the chair
and laid a hand on his shoulder. "What is it Johnny? Teresa said you were out of sorts with her this morning." Johnny shrugged and said nothing. He turned his head back to stare out the window. "Son, I know this has been hard on you. You're injured and you're exhausted. I know how you feel. I..."

Johnny jumped up. "You know how I feel? How could you know how I feel?" What had been cold depression had quickly turned to hot
anger.

Johnny paced across the room reminding Murdoch of a caged Tiger he saw once in London. Johnny fists and jaw was clenched tight. "Son, calm down."

"Just leave me alone Murdoch. I don't wanna talk to you about this!" He cried.

Murdoch's heart went out to his struggling son. "Why not Johnny?" He pressed.

"Because" He cried sounding like a wounded animal. "I'm...I don't know. I don't know how I'm supposed to feel." He took two ragged
breaths and tried to compose his thoughts while Murdoch waited patiently but with an expectant look on his face. "Jess is dead. I feel...but he's not my father!" Holding his arms protectively around himself, Johnny paced the floor. The hurt and anguish poured out of
him. He chanced a look at his father expecting to see disgust at his childish behavior, but he only saw concern. A feeling of relief washed over him when Murdoch said softly.

"Son come over here. Sit down."

Johnny sat next to his father on the bed and began smoothing the sheet where it lay rumpled from his restless night.

"Son, I know you have a lot to deal with right now. You're hurting about Jess. It's all right. You don't have to hide it from me. I know he was like a father to you."

"He's the only father I knew when I was a kid." Johnny admitted.

Murdoch fought back a smile and thought.'From where I sit, you're still a kid, Johnny.' He didn't voice it but instead admitted. "I was
jealous when I saw you with him. Angry even, then I realized I should be grateful there was someone who cared about you and took the
time to teach you since I couldn't be there. Johnny, I know you learned how to survive, now you need to learn how to live." Murdoch's
arms ached to take his son and hold him in his arms but he feared he still hadn't earned the right, so he held his breath and waited.

With those words, Johnny felt closer to his father than he ever had, but at the same time he felt the old resentment that his father
wasn't there for him and he fought the tears that threatened to overwhelm him. He mastered his emotions as he has since he was a
child and managed to swallow. Finding his voice he gave his father a small smile and said. "Thanks for tellin me Murdoch. It means a lot."

Murdoch gave Johnny's leg an affectionate slap and said, "We'll get through this Johnny. We'll get through this together as a family. Why don't you finish getting dressed and come on down for breakfast? Those two children are jumping out of their skins with energy at being locked in the house and they need both their big brothers to keep them entertained today." Then looking sternly at Johnny, he said in his best fatherly voice. "And you will apologize to Teresa for your behavior toward her this morning."

Johnny ducked his head and could hear the silent `young man' tacked onto the end of his father's sentence. He bit his lip to keep from
grinning and said meekly, "Yes sir."

*****

 

Later that afternoon, Murdoch was sitting at his desk trying to catch up on all the paperwork that had piled up while he had been occupied with getting his family back together. The children were upstairs with Scott working on their studies and Johnny and Maria were resting. The rain had finally let up and it looked like tomorrow would be a cold but clear winter day. He was mulling over where to
send the crews tomorrow. While there was not as much work to do in the winter, they still needed to keep up with the maintenance. He
knew very well how hard it was to catch up if they fell behind. His mind went back to the aftermath of Pardee's attacks, It took 6 months
to catch up with everyone working themselves to the bone.

He couldn't bring himself to say they had recovered. Nothing would bring back Paul, Teresa's father and his best and most trusted friend. Today he was missing him more than usual. He could use his council. He was sure Paul would have sound advice on how he could help Johnny, and what to do about Maria and the children. Sighing, he knew part of him would like her to stay, try again. A secret he would take to his grave, but the practical part of him wished he could find a way for the children to stay, even if Maria left. He could tell that Maria had changed but he wondered how long it would be before she would take up with another charismatic adventurer. He worried about her and the children's future if they went with her. If they went back to Mexico, Graciano could be another Johnny Madrid in the making. Isabelle....he shuddered to think. No he had to find another solution that would put the children's welfare first.

He resolved to talk to Maria when she was stronger. Jess had been buried in the cemetery in Morro Coyo. Murdoch had made arrangements with the priest to conduct a service once Maria was well enough to ride into town. She had been withdrawn since yesterday. He assumed she was going through the mourning process and hoped it was not setting back her recovery.

The children were showing remarkable strength. They had periods when they showed their grief. Issa had burst into tears just this morning, but then the resilience of youth took over and they were soon teasing and tussling over some toy they found in Teresa's old
toy chest.

Shaking his head and taking a sip of cool coffee, he returned to his work. He was on the second page of a letter from a fellow rancher
detailing the railroad's plans to add a spur and holding pens, which would be advantageous for the ranches in the Valley. Before they
themselves would start the project, they were requiring a commitment from the ranchers. I'll have Scott look this over he thought as he
set the letter aside.

His work was interrupted by a knock on the front door. He crossed the room and opened the door to find Avery Nelson, hat in hand,
brushing some drops of water off his coat with the other.

"Avery! Come on in." Surprise in Murdoch's voice. "I didn't expect you for 2 more days." Murdoch took his lawyer's damp coat and gave
it to Teresa who had come to the door upon hearing the knock. "Teresa, this is my lawyer, Avery Nelson. Avery, this is my ward Teresa O'Brien."

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Miss O'Brien." Avery said with a smile.

"Mr. Avery." She smiled as he let go of her hand. "I'll take your coat to the mud room to dry. Would you like something to eat? Coffee?"

"For now, Coffee sounds good Teresa. Thank you."

"Murdoch?" She inquired.

"Coffee is all I want honey."

"Lovely girl." The attorney said as Murdoch escorted him into the living room.

"Yes. She's growing up to be a wonderful young lady."

The two men settled down on the couch and Teresa left quickly after she set a tray on the coffee table with coffeepot, cups and a plate of cookies.

"Well, Murdoch. Your letter was quite a shock. When I received your wire stating you needed to see me, I never expected it was because your wife had children from a previous relationship."

Murdoch nodded as he took a sip of coffee. `Shock is putting it mildly.' He thought.

Opening his briefcase, Avery brought out a sheath of papers. Laying them on the coffee table, he searched for his journal. "I did some
research and I believe I have the answers you were needing. Before I begin, what is the current status of the children? Has their mother
returned?"

"Yes...Actually she's here now."

"She's here?"

"Long story."

"What about the man who is their father?"

"Dead." Murdoch said simply.

"That's good."

Murdoch looked at him sharply starting to protest.

Avery held up a hand. "No, I didn't mean I was glad to hear he was dead. It makes it easier legally is all I meant."

Settling back down, Murdoch was anxious to hear his lawyer's words.

"It's quite simple, really. In California the law is clear. There is a built in protection for innocent children. All children born during the course of a legal or common law marriage are considered legitimate irrespective of the actual nature of their parentage." Seeing Murdoch's look of puzzlement he explained. "Legally children are protected under the law from being disowned by one of their parents even though they may not actually be the actual parent of that child. Seeing the frozen look on Murdoch's face, Avery leaned forward and said gently, "Legally Murdoch, these are you children. They have the right to your name just as your older sons have."

Waiting for Murdoch to comment and when none was forthcoming the lawyer continued. "It will be no problem for you to gain custody of
the children. The court will award custody of minor children to the injured party in a divorce. If your wife tries to fight it, we can easily show that you have the more stable environment. We can, with your son Johnny's help, prove her unfitness as a mother. We can also
threaten her with disallowing her visitation if she causes trouble. Any questions?"

Waiting for Murdoch's reaction and getting a shake of the head, indicating he had no questions he went on. "There is one thing. As
there are now minor children involved, I have to refile the divorce papers."

Murdoch looked up with him with concern.

Avery explained. "There will be a delay because of this, Your wife withheld a material fact from the courts concerning her status and
that needs to be corrected before the court rules on your divorce.

"How much longer?"

"Unfortunately, this could take another 6-8 months." Seeing the dismay on his client's face, he added. "I'm sorry Murdoch, but there
is no way around it. When I get back to the city, I'll start the process. I'll inform Ted Sanders about these developments. He is acting on behalf of your wife in this matter. He'll be non-too happy with his client I suspect.  I will also file for temporary custody on your behalf for the children. I'll have the custody papers sent by messenger. You should have them by the end of next week."

Murdoch was a bit taken aback by the enormity of what he was about the do. Before he could respond, Teresa interrupted them by
announcing that lunch is ready.

"Miss O'Brien." Avery said as he stood up. "Your timing is impeccable. I'll head back right after lunch."

Murdoch and his lawyer followed Teresa into the kitchen as she chatted about the heavy rain they had the last couple of days.

*****

 

Scott sat in Johnny's room quietly reading a book as his brother slept. He had wanted to talk to Johnny since they returned but he hadn't found the right moment. He hoped Johnny would be in a better mood when he woke up, as he had been in a rotten mood for a couple of
days.

A half-hour went by before Johnny started waking up. He saw through blurry eyes, Scott sitting in the chair next to his bed. "Hey big
brother."

Smiling at Johnny, Scott said teasingly. "Did you get enough beauty rest little brother?"

Johnny teased back. "I'd have to sleep for a month to get as pretty as you brother."

Scott reached over and gave Johnny a light shove on his cheek. Johnny caught Scott's hand and pulled him down on the bed. They
began wresting. Johnny at the mercy of the sheets and blankets tangled around him and Scott equally disadvantaged as he was trying
to avoid causing further injury to Johnny's side. Laughing and gasping, Scott had Johnny in a neck hold. "Do you give up?"

"Never," Johnny said as he struggled to get free. Scott maintained his hold while his other hand poked Johnny in the ribs on his non-
injured side. Johnny now laughing harder yelled. "Cut that out!"

"Do you give up little brother?" Scott said again.

Johnny relaxed as the fight went out of him. Breathing hard he gasped. "I give up. Let me go!"

Scott released his hold on him while Johnny reached over and dumped a glass of water in Scott's lap. Scott jumped up ready to throttle his little brother who was by then laughing and holding his injured side. Murdoch opened the door. Glaring from one to the other he
demanded. "What's going on here?"

"Nuthin Murdoch. Just havin a little fun with Scott here."

Scott was nodding his head in agreement.

"Have your fun a bit more quietly if you don't mind, won't you boys?" Nodding toward Scott he said. "Son, don't you think you should be
more careful at your age?" He left the room to the sound of their laughter. Music to his ears, he thought.

Johnny and Scott lay back on the bed feeling good in each other's company. Each chuckling a bit over their spirited antics. As they settled down, Scott asked. "Hey, Johnny. There's something I've been meaning to ask you for awhile."

Johnny looked at him with a puzzled expression on his face. "Ask."

"Well it's just when we first met, you said your mother only had one kid." Looking directly at Johnny, the brother's eyes met. "I was just wondering why you lied."

Johnny's face flushed with shame at their first meeting. That whole day was a bad memory. No, not bad, if he was truthful with himself.
It was the day he found out he had a brother, met his father and he had a place to belong. No not bad at all, but it was probably the most uncomfortable day he could remember.

Johnny was quiet for so long, just staring at his hands, Scott thought he wasn't going to answer. He felt bad now even asking the question. It didn't really matter. They had been strangers and they were thrust together without any knowledge of each other to deal with
a father they both had mixed feelings about. "It's all right. It's not important."

"No...No Scott. It's not all right. I lied and that's not all right. That day...I just said the first thing that came into my head. Meeting you...finding out about you...really threw me ya know?" Johnny glanced at Scott and saw understanding on his brother's face. "When I first came here I was all torn up inside. I didn't want to let the old man see that so I acted that way to keep him away. I guess..." Shaking his head. "I was so mad at him and he knew it."

"Things have changed haven't they Johnny? You're not mad at him anymore, are you?"

Taking a deep breath and letting is out slowly, Johnny said. "Nooo...I'm not mad at him the way I was. I understand him better and I know he didn't kick us out. My Mama had her reasons Scott."

Once again, Scott kept his opinions to himself and changed the subject. "Has she told you her plans?"

"Yeah. When she's well, they're gonna return to Hermosillo. She's got a house there. It's a nice little town about 100 miles south of the border. It has a huge cathedral in the center of town with fountains and lots of flowers.

"How will she live?"

"She's got the money from Jess' last job. $8,000.00 I think. She paid off Jess' men $500.00 each."

Scott whistled. "Nice pay."

"Yeah, good men like that are hard to come by."

Silent once again and comfortable with each other in their own thoughts, Johnny broke the silence. "I'm thinkin of goin with them." Seeing the dismay flash across Scott's face. Johnny quickly added. "Not to stay. Just to help them get settled. I want to make sure they're all right."

"Maybe I could go with you Johnny. I've never been to Mexico. You could show me around."

"I'd like that Scott. I could show you some places where they make the best tamales."

"The best in hottest?" Scott teased.

"I'll have em make them milder for you, Scott. Then we can get us some pretty chicas and do the town up right."

Scott put both hands behind his head and said. "Next week is Thanksgiving and then Christmas after that. Do you think she'll wait until the New Year to go back?"

"Maybe, I'll ask her but you work on Murdoch. Okay?"

Looking at his scamp of a brother, Scott playfully slapped his cheek. "You have a deal, little brother."

 

Part 14

The next several days passed quickly as life returned to some semblance of normalcy. Murdoch decided to keep the children out of school for the time being until everything was settled but he had insisted that they keep up on their schoolwork with the help of Mrs. Johnson and Scott.

As Murdoch shaved, he was torn between sharing his plans with his sons or keeping them to himself. He decided to keep it to himself for the time being. Johnny was doing much better. He was healing quickly and had been complaining that the stitches in his side were pulling and itching. Maria was beginning to recover her strength and had been able to walk a short distance yesterday. There would be
enough time to discuss the children later.

Murdoch stretched the tight muscles in his back and finished dressing for the day. He could hear the sounds of his family waking up
outside his door. Scott had taken over for Johnny when it came to looking after the children, though everyone took their turn. Murdoch
was amused at the thought that it took 6 adults to keep two ten year olds in line and sometimes even that wasn't enough.

Murdoch opened his bedroom door just in time to see two balls of fire running down the hall with Scott hurrying after them urging them to
be quiet. With a small smile, Murdoch followed the fast moving trio down the hall to Maria's room. He joined Scott at the doorway in time
to see Ciano and Issa jump into bed with Maria, waking her with a start.

Maria took a moment to realize her bed was now home to her two eager bright-eyed children, now chattering to her happily in Spanish. She looked over their heads to see the bemused look on the faces of the two waiting men. Seeing the raised eyebrow and questioning look from Murdoch, she shook her head no, and he reached down and closed the door leaving them in privacy.

"It looks like they'll be occupied for a minutes at least. I'll head down to Johnny's room and see if he wants to join us for breakfast." Scott said.

"I'll expect you both in a short while son." Murdoch said as he headed toward the stairs leading to the kitchen.

Scott walked to Johnny's door, knocked once and opened it. He enjoyed pulling Teresa's favorite trick on Johnny as Johnny had picked up that bad habit from her. He leaned against the door jam with his arms crossed waiting in amusement as his brother went through several stages of waking up. Johnny was now struggling to sit up and rub his eyes awake. Blinking at the grinning image of his big brother in the doorway, he scowled.

"Hey brother, it's time to get up. I'm amazed you could sleep through all that racket coming from the hall." Scott teased.

Johnny slowly got his legs over the side of the bed running one hand through his hair while waving the other arm at Scott in a go away
motion. "I'll be down in a little while. Save me some coffee."

Scott gave his brother a grin and left the room. Fifteen minutes later, a sleepy looking Johnny walked slowly down the stairs into the
kitchen amid clinking silverware on plates and the chatter of two energetic siblings. He immediately turned around to head back upstairs when the sound of his father's voice caught his attention. "John. Sit down."

Reluctantly returning to the melee that was now the Lancer breakfast table, he sank down into a chair as Maria placed a plate of flapjacks
and bacon in front of him. Giving her a grateful smile, he said. "Gracias Maria." She smiled at him warmly and returned to the stove. Scott poured him a cup of coffee and Johnny reached over for the milk pitcher and poured himself a glass.

"Johnny, it's good to see you up and about this morning." Murdoch said good-naturedly.

Graciano looked up from where he was trying to roll a flapjack and spear it with his fork. "Good Morning, Brother." He said in his best Scott voice.

Johnny gave him a baleful look as he took a sip of the black strong brew. He jumped as he felt a kick to his shin and glowered at Scott
only to receive a reproachful look. Deciding it was in his best interest, he greeted his little brother. "Morning, Graciano. Issa did you sleep well?"

Issa smiled at Johnny. "Yes. I only woke up once, but I went right back to sleep." She glanced up at Murdoch who gave the little girl a wink.

Clearing his throat, Murdoch said. "Graciano cut that." Motioning with his knife. Looking disappointed, Graciano reluctantly put the rolled up flapjack that he had been planning to stuff whole in his mouth and began cutting it into bite sized pieces.

"Johnny, I want you to spend some time today working on the books. I showed you how to post the entries a couple of months ago. Do you want me to go over it again?"

The scowl that had been threatening returned with a vengeance at the mention of those dratted books. "No. I remember."

"All right. I'm going into town, and I expect them to be done when I return."

Johnny looked up at Murdoch. "Could you mail this letter for me?"

Murdoch looked surprised and reached out for the envelope. Turning it over, he saw it was addressed in Maria's handwriting to a man in
Texas.

Seeing the questioning look in Murdoch's eyes, Johnny glanced at Issa and Ciano. "My Mama wanted to let Jess' son know."

Murdoch nodded and said. "I'll send it."

Scott pushed his chair back and said. "I'll go out to check on the crews working on the fence, and then head on down to the winter calving pasture. So far none of the cows have had any trouble calving, but there are a couple I want to keep an eye on."

Murdoch responded. "So far, it's been a good year. If any of them look like they're having a problem, Scott, bring them on down here,"

With a nod Scott left to get to work. As Murdoch stood to leave the kitchen, he gave the remaining children "The Look" and said. "You all
be good today." Getting no response, he waited with his hands on his hips, while his silent presence made an impression.

Johnny was the first to glance up to see his father towering over them. His mind had been elsewhere and he didn't even remember Scott
leaving. He wondered what he missed as he looked up at his father with confusion. Graciano and Isabelle saw the look on their brother's face and followed his gaze to Murdoch's glare. Murdoch repeated his earlier command, enunciating clearly. "I expect you to stay out of mischief today and get your work done. Is that clear?"

Three quiet "Yes sirs." satisfied the Lancer patriarch that he had gotten his point across as he exited the kitchen.

Johnny saw the serious looks on his sibling's faces. "Come on finish breakfast and then lets go to the barn. I bet those puppies are
really big." Seeing his brother and sister getting ready to dash out of the kitchen, he held up a restraining hand. "No let's just give Scott and Murdoch a little time to get on their way." Both children wisely settled down to finish their breakfast in leisure under the disapproving gaze of Maria.

Later that afternoon, Murdoch drove the buckboard of supplies into the yard and left it by the kitchen door. He strode through the kitchen noticing a roast on the spit cooking slowly. Walking into the living room, a smile broke out on his face at seeing Johnny sound asleep at his desk amid paperwork scattered over the top. He debated waking him up when he noticed the bottle of ink too close to his right hand. Slowly reaching over, he picked the bottle up off the desk. While reaching back for the stopper, Johnny came awake with a start knocking the ledger off the desk while making a move for his gun. Realizing he didn't have his gun and he was in his own living room, he looked sheepishly up at Murdoch.

"I'm sorry son. I didn't mean to startle you." Murdoch placed the ink out of harms way and bent down to pick up the ledger and other papers off the floor while Johnny composed himself. "Son, have you had lunch yet?"

"No." Rubbing his eyes. "I guess I went to sleep." He said as he looked around like he was searching for something.

Murdoch opened the ledger and was admiring his son's neat printing of the entries. "It looks like you made a good start here. You can
finish this later. Let's go have lunch."

Johnny followed Murdoch into the kitchen. Scott came into the kitchen from the upstairs just then and said. "Graciano and Isabelle just
finished lunch and are working on their studies. I don't know what the three of you got into this morning, but I had to have them take a
bath before they could eat lunch." Seeing Johnny look down at this plate and flush, Scott continued. "They looked like they had been out
rolling in the mud. Do you know anything about that brother?"

Flustered that his brother hadn't taken pity on him Johnny said. "We went out to see the puppies and while they were playin with them, I
was brushin Barranca. I didn't see them playin in the mud till it was too late."

"Why didn't you get them cleaned up?"

"We wiped off the worst of it. I didn't think it would be worth it as they were still playin. His voice trailed off as he realized Murdoch was giving him that look.

"What were you doing at the barn, Johnny? Murdoch said pinning him with his eyes. "Sam hasn't released you from the house yet."

Johnny had the grace to look guilty and muttered. "I guess I forgot."

Quickly, changing the subject, Scott rescued Johnny with a report on how the cows looked. Successfully changing the subject, they discussed ranch matters throughout lunch. Getting ready to leave the table, Murdoch reminded Johnny that Sam would be out later in the
afternoon to check him over.

Johnny made a face and said. "Yeah. I remember. If he'd just stop pokin and proddin me I'd get well a lot faster." Finishing with an eloquent sigh.

"Just follow what he tells you. Mind? Murdoch said giving his younger son `The Look.'

Holding his hands up in surrender. "Okay, Okay. I give up. Sam's the boss.

"Just you remember that, Little brother." Scott said as his grinned.

Rising Johnny drawled. "I'll just get back to wrangling them books if you two have had your fun."

"I don't know what you're talking about brother." Scott said with an expression of pure innocence.

Murdoch managed to shrug portraying the unjustly accused. With a chuckle, his spirits lifted, Johnny returned to the living room to finish working on the ranch ledgers.

About an hour later, Johnny heard the sound of horse and buggy outside. With a sigh he put down the pen and closed the inkwell. Sam
let himself in. "Hello there, Johnny. How are you feeling today?"

Trying to match Sam's heartiness, Johnny relied. "Just fine Sam. All rarin to get these stitches out and get back to work."

"Well Johnny, how about you let me be the doctor today." Seeing the scowl start to return on his young patient's face he continued. "You
go upstairs. I'll be along in a minute. Where is your father?"

"Last time I saw him, he was unloading the wagon outside the kitchen." Johnny said as he headed for the stairs.

The family doctor headed in the direction of the kitchen and saw his old friend carrying two sacks of flour into the pantry. "Sam, good
to see you. We were expecting to see you a bit later in the day."

"I got done sooner than expected and decided to go ahead and come on out here." Sitting together at the kitchen table the two old friends took the measure of each other over cups of coffee. "How have things been going here?" Sam said raising his eyes.

Murdoch took another sip of coffee and thought a minute before answering. "Strained." There was silence between them before Murdoch
continued. "Actually that's not entirely true. It's not great, but it's not as bad as I feared. Evidentially Maria is planning on returning to Mexico when she can travel."

"How do you feel about that?" Murdoch's oldest friend probed.

Shrugging his shoulders, Murdoch said. "What difference? She's the mother of my son. That's all." He said firmly.

Sam looked at him long and hard waiting for him to continue. When he said nothing, Sam questioned. "Do you really believe that?"

"What do you want me to do?" Murdoch responded growing angry. "Court her? Bring her flowers? We're not kids. We're adults with
responsibilities. She made her choice. The subject is closed." He said finality.

Sam knew he had pushed his friend all he could. He knew Murdoch was holding a tight rein on his feelings and he didn't want him to bottle it all in. Aware there would be a detonation at some point, and knowing the trigger was often Murdoch's youngest son, he had hoped to draw him out. Finishing his coffee, he rose, and picked up his medical bag and headed for the stairs. "I'll check them over and see you in a little while."

Nodding Murdoch got up to return to unloading the supplies.

It was nearly 4 o'clock when Sam finished examining Johnny and Maria. He headed down the main stairs into the living room to find
Murdoch at his desk. Murdoch's earlier fit of temper forgotten, he gave his friend a run down on how his patients were doing today.

"Johnny is healing nicely. He popped a couple of stitches." Seeing Murdoch's look of concern, he quickly said. "It's not too bad. I'm
going to leave it for now. I told him to be very careful. As long as he doesn't pull any more out, he'll be fine. If he doesn't follow instructions, I may have to put a few stitches in." Sam waited a moment before adding. "He wasn't too happy about that. I told him
he's still restricted to the house. He is not to do anything that would pull on those stitches. That means practically no physical activity.

"How long?" Murdoch asked dreading keeping Johnny confined for any length of time.

"Maybe 5 days. Hopefully I can remove the stitches next week. Now for Maria. She's doing quite well. It's going to take a few weeks for
her to get her strength back, but if she takes it easy, she should recover fully. She mentioned she wanted to go into town tomorrow for
a service for her husband." Sam said sympathetically for his friend. Seeing Murdoch's nod, he continued. "As long as it is brief and she
comes straight back here to bed, I'll allow it. Johnny too if he wants to go. Make sure they both stay warm and dry, and they should be fine." Rising Sam took his watch from the pocket in his vest and checked the time. "I'd best be going."

"Why don't you stay for supper Sam?"

"No, Not this time, Murdoch. Thank you." The Doctor said as he headed for the door.

Murdoch followed him to the door and said. "Come for Thanksgiving dinner." Not taking no for an answer, Murdoch continued. "3 o'clock
sharp. You can check your patients at the same time. Save you a trip."

Smiling Sam said. "I'll see you then." Placing his hat on his head, he left the Lancer home.

The next morning was sunny but cool with a steady breeze blowing from the north, which made it seem even colder. A hand drove the covered surrey to the front of the house. The two horses were fresh and eager to move off. Scott herded Graciano and Isabelle to the front door. They were both dressed in new clothes purchased for this somber occasion. Murdoch waited impatiently to get this ordeal over. Hearing sounds from the steps he caught his breath at the sight of Johnny in a dark suit escorting Maria down the stairs. She was
moving slowly but steady as she carefully navigated the steps holding one hand on Johnny's arm. Turning, he urged Scott to get the
children in the front seat of the surrey.

Johnny helped his mother into the back seat and climbed in stiffly next to her. Murdoch climbed aboard and took up the lines. Glancing
over his shoulder to make sure everyone was ready, he started the horses toward town.

Murdoch kept the horses at a mile eating trot For once, the children were quiet and there was no conversation from the back of the surrey as well. Slowing the team as they entered the town, Murdoch guided them toward the church. Using one foot to put on the break, he settled the team. Jumping down, he helped first Isabelle and then Maria to the ground. Johnny and Graciano came around to join them. They paused for a moment as they took in the church and the significance of what they were there for. A few towns' people gave
them curious glances as they hurried by. Murdoch took a deep breath knowing the rumors would fly widely around the community by nightfall.

Taking Maria's elbow, he escorted her into the church with the others following. Padre Felipe was waiting near the front of the chapel. After greeting them he asked Maria if she would like to come into the chapel. Nodding, she followed the Padre into the sanctuary

Murdoch waited with Johnny and the children for Maria to return. The children were beginning to get restless just as she returned and
Padre Felipe said. "If you will follow me." They followed the robed priest to the church cemetery and were directed to the fresh mound of
dirt.

Johnny nudged Isabelle and she stepped forward placing the flowers she had been clutching on her father's grave. Holding back her grief, she held Johnny's hand tightly while he gave Graciano's shoulder a squeeze letting his little brother know he was there.

The Priest began the service in all the old customary ways, saying the words committing Jess' soul to the hereafter. With bowed head,
Johnny could see his mother's lips moving slightly as she recited the words learned a lifetime ago. Crossing herself as the Priest completed his final prayer Johnny, Graciano and Isabelle did the same. The Priest drifted silently away to give the family time to grieve together and Murdoch stood off to the side feeling detached from the scene. Isabelle and Graciano broke down in tears and Johnny hugged them while trying to bring them comfort over the loss of their father. Maria moved over to the grief stricken children and brought them into her arms. Murdoch watched from the sidelines and felt the lump in his throat settle into his stomach as he watched the four mourners clinging to each other for support.

After what seemed like hours, but was probably only minutes, Maria led the children back to the Surrey. With out a word, the mourners
climbed into the surrey and started home.

Later that evening Murdoch took a tray with tea upstairs to Maria. It had been a grueling day and he hoped it hadn't set her back in
recovery. He knocked on her door.

"Come in."

Easing the door open with his foot and then closing it with his with his shoulder, he carefully set the tray on the table. "I thought you
would like some tea."

He poured her a cup, and turned around to hand her the tea when he saw she had her eyes closed. Studying her for a moment thinking
perhaps she was asleep, before she opened her eyes again and he said. "Forgive me. I'll let you rest."

"No. Murdoch, I'm fine. Sit."

He gave her the tea and sat awkwardly by her bed.

She blew on the tea to cool it and took a sip. "Es Bueno. Muchas gracias."

"Da nada"

"No, it is not nothing. You have been very kind to me and I know you have no reason for treating me anyway but badly."

Murdoch feeling self-conscious studied his hands. Looking into her eyes he said. "Maria, you have the ability to make me so angry I
can't think straight." His voice trailing off.

Now it was her turn to look at her hands, in a rare moment, unsure of herself. "I have imposed on your hospitality. We will be gone as
soon as I can."

He looked a bit chagrinned and took her hand. "I'm too old to stay angry any longer. We need to find a way to compromise. Do you think
we could try that?"

She smiled that half smile he loved so much and said quietly. "I would like that." A moment of silence passed and she resumed. "You have been very good to Graciano and Isabelle and I thank you. They are so happy to have gotten to know Johnny better and their `big
brother, Scott." She said with a smile.

Murdoch cleared his throat and commented. "Graciano is how I envision Johnny at that age." Managing to make his statement sound like a question.

Maria was silent for a few minutes and then said. "Si, they are alike. Graciano tends to get into mischief much like Johnny did at that age."

Murdoch chuckled and began telling her of some of the children's escapades during their time at Lancer and in a short while they were
at ease in each other's company.

"Tell me about Johnny." He urged.

"What do you want to know?"

"Everything. Tell me something you remember about him that makes you smile."

Maria thought for a moment and then started. "When Johnny was a child he used to bring home all sorts of stray and lost animals. Kittens, puppies, birds, you name it. No matter how many times I begged him not to bring home any more, he would show up with another one. One time I had a bad cold and was trying to rest while he was at school. I kept hearing a noise in the house but I couldn't figure out what it was. I got up several times to look around and the sound would stop. Just as I was getting back to sleep, I heard a crash from the kitchen. I jumped out of bed and ran in to find a kitten covered with flour, one had climbed the curtains, one was in the sink and the other had gotten into the fireplace and was tracking little sooty paw prints over the floor."

"How old was he?"

"He was 8, I think."

Murdoch and Maria laughed at the thought of young Johnny thinking the kittens would stay quiet in the box while he was at school. "That
wasn't the worst."

"Oh no. Tell me." Murdoch said wiping tears from his eyes.

"The worst was when he brought home a baby skunk."

"A skunk!"

Yes, he put it under his shirt and hid it in a pillowcase until bedtime. He actually had it in bed with him. I never could understand why he thought it was a good idea." She began laughing and Murdoch joined in. "The thing scratched him, but we managed to get it out of the house before it sprayed. He got himself spanked over that one. I told him he wasn't to bring home another animal without asking me first."

"Did he?"

Sighing she said. "Yes… but he never brought home another skunk."

As their laughter died down, Murdoch said. "Thank you for telling me Maria. Our son still brings home strays but so far no skunks." Getting up he bid her good night and decided it was time to turn in as well.

The next day dawned sunny and cold. The men were dispatched to various jobs around the ranch. Murdoch was returning to the house
after speaking with some of the men when he noticed a rider heading in toward the house.

"Mr. Lancer?

"That's me."

"Sir, this is for you." Handing him an envelope to his outstretched hand.

"Thank you. Would you like something to eat or coffee before you go?"

"No, I have to get back. Thank you." He said as he turned his horse and trotted away.

Murdoch tapped the envelope against his hand and walked into the house. Sitting heavily in his chair at the desk, he opened the envelope. Slowly unfolding the court documents and letter from Avery Nelson, he looked at the documents giving him full custody of
Graciano and Isabelle.

As he was reading the terms, he jumped as he heard a crash and a cry from the kitchen. He ran in to see Teresa holding her arm and Maria taking her to the sink to pour water over the burn. Relieved she was not seriously hurt, he was still concerned that she had been
burned so badly. Maria had her taken care of quickly and he was confident she was in good hands, so he returned to the living room. He stopped dead in his tracks when he saw Johnny standing at his desk reading he court papers.

"Johnny!"

Johnny looked up at him with devastation written over his face. "How could you do this? You can't do this to them." Throwing the papers
on the desk, he ran toward the stairs.

"Johnny. Come back." Murdoch called.

Johnny bounded up the stairs without looking back. Murdoch strode to his desk slapping his hand down on his desk in frustration. He swept the papers into his desk drawer, and locked it with a click of the key. With a grim set to his mouth, he started up the stairs.

 

Part 15

Murdoch ran up the stairs as fast as his stiff leg would let him. He half expected to find Johnny in Maria's room. He was visibly relieved to find her asleep and alone when he opened her door. Catching his breath he tried to calm down before he confronted Johnny. Upon reaching Johnny's door, he took a deep breath and opened it. Johnny glanced up and returned to his position without saying a word. He was sitting against the headboard, legs drawn up, arms around his legs and his chin resting on his knees. Murdoch took in his son's look of despair and for a moment his resolve faltered.

Taking another deep breath to push back any residual anger, he spoke softly. "Johnny?" Getting no response, he tried again. "Johnny. Look at me son." He waited a moment thinking he was not going to cooperate, but Johnny looked up and immediately dropped his eyes
again. "Johnny, we need to talk about this."

Johnny met his eyes. His son's dark blue eyes blazed anger and hurt. "What's there to talk about Murdoch? It looks like those papers did all your talkin for you." Before Murdoch could answer Johnny continued. "Don't you think you should have talked about this first before that fancy law wrangler of yours took my mother's children away from her?" Growing angrier, Johnny's voice was getting louder.

Murdoch did not, under any circumstances want anyone else to know about this. He was desperate to get Johnny's understanding and
cooperation. "Son, Mr. Nelson said this was the law, and the court would appoint the person with the most stable home to be their guardian." He said stretching the truth to the breaking point. "Try to understand... You know what your Mother's life is like. You ran away from that when you were a child. Do you want the same thing for Graciano or Isabelle?"

Johnny felt the walls of the room closing in on him. He knew in some way his father was right, but he knew the extreme pain this would
cause his mother as well as his brother and sister. A sudden thought struck him. A horrifying thought and he felt the icy hand of dread
grip him as he leveled the charge at his father. "You're doing it to her. She did it to you and now you are doing it to her!"

"What the devil are you talking about?"

"She stole me away from you, so you're getting her back by stealing her children from her." He said in as even a voice as he could manage.

"That's not true!" Murdoch said vehemently.

A soft voice at the door said, "Then what do you call it, Murdoch?"

Johnny's head snapped up at the sound as his father whirled at the new presence in the room.

"I heard loud voices, and thought I should come and check to see what is going on."

"This is between me and Johnny." Murdoch said firmly.

"This does sound like it concerns me too. I want to know what he meant when he said `you're taking her children away from her'"

Swallowing, feeling the situation spiraling out of control, he looked from the figure in the door and back to Johnny. He went to the door
and said, "Come with me Maria." Taking her by the arm he led her back to her room. Johnny sat up unsure if he should follow, wait, or
leave. He was afraid of the argument he knew was coming, and then realized Graciano and Isabelle were a few doors down. He quickly
left to take his brother and sister out of the house, away from the unpleasant scene getting ready to take place behind their mother's
bedroom door.

"Sit down Maria." Murdoch said stiffly.

She sat waiting for him to start. "Tell me what's going on." She nudged.

Running his hand over his face, he looked at her waiting expectantly. "Maria, I hope you can see that this is the right thing." he started awkwardly.

"What is the right thing?"

"Maria. I have grown to love Graciano and Isabelle. We all have. I want to provide for them. Give them a chance at a better life." He glanced to see her reaction. I want to give them a good education, a secure home, guidance."

"I see." She said slowly. "And you do not believe I can provide these things?"

`No. I don't think you can. I'm not saying you don't love them Maria. I know you do, but sometimes love is not enough."

She looked at him as if he had lost his mind. Her voice rising with her anger. "You. You have no idea what love is. You hide behind your
pride and bury love like it is only something to take out on holidays!" Now she was started her quick temper was fueling her words. "I pity you. All these years since I left, did you find love again? No! You buried any feelings you may have had behind your self-pity. You could have found someone else, someone who would have loved you and made you happy, but you spent all these years becoming bitter and unhappy. I know love Murdoch. I had it with Jess. I had it every day, not just when you felt like giving it! Get Out! My children and I will be leaving today."

"No Maria. You can leave, but the children stay. I have a court order stating I have custody of them and you can't do anything about it."

Her eyes narrowed as she considered his words. "If you do this Murdoch, you will be very sorry. I will not rest until I have my children back." She spat as she started to pack her meager belongings in a carpetbag.

Murdoch left as his anger washed over him. Scott was walking toward him in the hall with a worried frown on his face. "What's going on?
We could hear you two from downstairs."

"Get a wagon hitched up and take Maria into town, Scott. The children are staying here." He said with finality and strode to the stairs heading down to the living room.

Scott stood there for a moment at a loss to explain what was happening. He turned to Maria's door and knocked softly. He heard her
soft voice biding him to enter.

She looked up with surprise to see Murdoch's son standing there. "What do you want?" She said as she turned her back to finish packing unwilling for him to see the tears on her cheeks.

Scott, cleared his throat and said "Ma'am, Murdoch asked me to drive you into town."

"I'm not leaving without my children." She said stubbornly.

"I don't know anything about that, just that Murdoch said to take you to town, and the children are staying here."

Handing him her bag, she walked past him and went down the stairs to the kitchen. "¿cuando sea Juanito?" She abruptly asked Maria.

Looking very uncomfortable about being questioned by this woman, Maria answered nervously. "Él tomó a niños afuera. Están en el
granero, yo creen." (He took the children outside. They are in the barn, I believe.)

Heading out to the barn as fast as her healing wound would allow, she stopped half way there to catch her breath. Holding her hand to her side she gasped as her energy left her in a rush.

Johnny was coming out of the barn when he saw her look like she was going to collapse in the middle of the yard. He ran over to her and
put his arms around her to help steady her. "Mama! Are you all right? " He looked around anxiously and said. "I don't think you should be out of bed." He knew his parents had quarreled and this is what was causing his mother such distress. "Come back to the house." He said firmly.

"No, Just help me into the barn. Por favor?"

Johnny helped his mother walk into the barn and sit on a bale of hay. She caught her breath then asked. "Where are Graciano and
Isabelle?"

Keeping his voice pitched low, Johnny told her. "They're in the last stall with the puppies." Pointing toward the end of the barn.

Nodding, Maria also said quietly. "We have to leave. We have to get away now. Your father has done something very bad and I need your help." She said looking up at him with look of pleading that few could resist.

"Mama. Please don't ask me." He sat with shoulders slumped but mind whirling trying to come up with a plan where he would not be forced to betray the trust of either parent.

"Why don't you compromise. Come to an agreement?" Scott said as he walked further into the barn.

Both Johnny and Maria jumped a bit at his sudden presence, neither realizing he was standing in the doorway.

Maria smiled the half smile Scott had come to recognize from Johnny.  One full of irony with a touch of scorn. "Your father is a stubborn
mule Scott. I took Johnny from him and now he is taking Graciano and Isabelle from me."

"That's just not true!" Scott said almost losing his temper. Blushing at his words when they were practically the ones he had been thinking just minutes before when he demanded an explanation from Murdoch in the living room. "He wants to protect the children from the danger you seem to have no trouble exposing them to. If you cared so much about them you would never have allowed them to be caught up in Jess' business in the first place!" Now that his tongue had been freed he was letting all the thoughts and feelings he had
been holding back batter Maria and Johnny. Taking a deep breath, he tried to rein his emotions back in. "Look, we are not going to solve
anything today. Are you leaving or not?"

"I'm not leaving without my children." She said firmly.

"Fine. You're not leaving today." Scott turned on his heel and walked back to the house with Maria's carpetbag.

Turning back to Johnny she said firmly. "Who can take a message for me? I need to speak to my lawyer."

"Get it ready and I'll give it to Carlos. He'll send it for you."

Maria nodded and started slowly toward the house. Johnny turned back to look for his brother and sister. He looked into the stall where
the puppies lived and there was no sign of them. He called. "Ciano! Issa! Where are you?" Getting no response, he started searching the barn for them. He looked in the tack room and behind the hay. They couldn't have left the barn, as they would have had to go past him so he knew the last place to check was the hayloft. Climbing the ladder carefully, feeling the stitches pulling in his side, he stood up on the second floor of the barn. Letting his eyes adjust to the darkness, he started looking. In the far corner he saw them hugging each other and looking miserable.

Johnny approached slowly and went down on his knees. Wrapping his arms around the children, they began to sob. Johnny's heart lurched at all they had been through. Getting practically abandoned by their parents and left with strangers. Kidnapped, threatened and scared by the Mather's gang. Their father being killed in front of their very eyes and their mother shot and now this. How much more can they take? How much more should they have to take? Johnny felt himself growing angrier by the minute. He tried to control his anger for
their sake but it took him many minutes before he felt even a modicum of control returning.

"It's going to be all right."

"Is Mama going to go away again." Issa said through her large tear filled eyes.

Johnny couldn't lie to them. The other's seemed to have no problem doing it but he just couldn't. "She might have to. She doesn't want
to. She loves you both so much."

"Then why does she have to leave? Why can't we go with her?" Graciano asked.

Johnny struggled with an answer. It wasn't really clear in his head either. He spoke from his heart. "We want you to be safe. We don't
want you to ever go through what you just went through ever again. You want to be like Scott don't you?" he said looking over at Graciano. "He's a pretty good big brother. He's smart and knows a lot of things." Seeing Graciano's smile, he went on. "You can't be
like Scott unless you go to school."

"I still want to be with mama." Issa said quietly.

"I know you do meil. I know you do." Johnny said as he gathered the children in his arms.

*****

 

Supper was a quiet affair that night, Murdoch looked around the table at the sullen faces on every one of them except his dear Teresa. She just seemed uncomfortable with the silence radiating from the rest of the family members. Feeling irritation wash over him, he looked at Graciano and snapped. "Graciano, stop playing with your food, or you can go upstairs to bed."

Graciano, in a fit of temper, threw his fork down and got up and ran upstairs. Johnny made a move to follow him and Murdoch said. "No.
Stay here. I'll check on him later. You sit back down and finish your supper."

Johnny reluctantly sat down and picked up his fork moving the green beans from place to place on his plate. Murdoch looked ready to snap out another edict when Teresa tried to intervene. Thanksgiving is the day after tomorrow. Everything is planned. Do you think Maria
will be joining us?"

With an effort to be civil, Murdoch saw everyone's eyes staring at him waiting for a reply. "I don't know darling. Perhaps you would like to invite her?"

"I'll ask her." Teresa said firmly with a nod.

*****

 

Johnny retired immediately after supper and Scott escaped the tension radiating off Murdoch shortly after. He sought his brother out and
found he was far from asleep. Joining his brother, Scott tried to gage Johnny's mood. He noticed Johnny rubbing his side and said. "Johnny, Sam will be out the day after tomorrow and he'll take those stitches out. You'll feel a lot better and you can get back to helping us around here."

Johnny smiled ruefully and responded. "I'm ready, but ...well I pulled a couple more stitches out today." He confessed.

"How did you do that?" Scott said with exasperation.

"I think when I climbed the ladder to the loft. I felt somethin tear."

"Here, let me see." Scott said as he reached over and pulled up Johnny's shirt. He looked closely and saw where the thread had pulled through his brother's skin. Wincing as he touched the small fresh scabs where the skin bled. Johnny flinched away. "Hold still." Scott commanded.

Pulling his shirt down, Scott crossed his arms and said. "You were lucky. They aren't right next to the other stitches you tore out. Tomorrow, you will stay in the house if I have to tie you and hopefully everything will stay together until Sam gets here on Thursday. Understand?"

"Yeah..." Seeing Scott's mouth harden in an unpleasant line, Johnny changed his tune. "All right Scott. I'll be careful and I'll stay in
the house. Happy?"

"You better remember that." His tone softening a bit, he asked. "How are you handling all of this Johnny?"

"It's hard Scott." He said, sitting on the side of the bed. He was twisting a button on his shirt as he spoke. "I want to believe Murdoch. I think he wants to do the right thing, but it's gonna be hard on them. I wish there were another way. That's all." Glancing up at the face of the man he trusted with his life.

Scott pulled the chair closer to the bed and spoke from his heart. "Johnny, I think Murdoch could have handled it better, but his intentions are in the best interests of the children. Maybe you can talk to your mother to come to a compromise."

Johnny looked at Scott and smiled before his mouth turned to a thoughtful frown. "Scott, I'll try talkin to her, but she pretty much will go her own way...Always has." He yawned as he finished.

Scott reached over and gave Johnny's arm a squeeze. "Get into bed, brother." he said fondly as he stood up to leave.

"Good night Scott." Johnny said softly feeling better after talking with his big brother. His spirits had lifted. Nothing was solved tonight, but he felt better after talking it out with Scott.

*****

 

Johnny and Maria slept late the next morning and the family let them. Teresa kept the children occupied while Murdoch and Scott left to
take care of work around the ranch. Responding to the knock at the front door, Teresa opened the door to a short dark haired man. "May I help you?" She inquired.

"I hope so. I am here to see Maria Lancer. I am Ted Sanders, Mrs. Lancer's attorney."

"Please come in. I'll ask her if she is able to see you." She said directing him to a chair in the living room before dashing up the stairs to Maria's room.

Knocking quickly, she called "Maria"

Teresa was surprised to have Maria open the door, fully dressed. T..there's a man downstairs to see you." She said awkwardly. "He says he's your attorney. Mr. Sanders?"

Maria, looked a bit surprised as she had just had a telegram sent to him yesterday. Recovering quickly, she said "Please tell him, I'll be
down in a few minutes."

The lawyer sipped coffee and looked admiringly around the Lancer living room. Signs of understated wealth showing in the pieces of
artwork scattered almost haphazardly around the room. He turned at the sound of swishing skirts to see his client enter the room. She
took his breath away as she did with most men as she entered with an unmistakable command of the room. 'This woman would turn heads whether she was entering a hovel or a party at the statehouse' he thought.

Taking her hand, he directed her to a chair. "Mrs. Lancer." he began.

She held up a delicate hand. "Please do not call me that. You may call me Maria. I am a bit surprised to see you here today. I just sent a telegram to you yesterday."

"I never received a wire. But I did meet with Mr. Lancer's attorney. I was not able to block the temporary custody order." Looking reproachfully at Maria for a moment, he continued. "This divorce has gotten more complicated. You should have told me about the children. I could have advised you properly right from the start."

"I did not think they would be an issue as they are not Murdoch's children." Pinning her lawyer with an icy gaze she stated firmly. "Under no circumstances will I give up my children. You find a way to make it happen."

"I thought that may be your response, so I did a bit of digging. Do you know that Lancer gave one third share of this ranch to each of
his sons?" Seeing her nod, he continued. "I think we can give him something else to worry about as I believe the court will give us a
temporary injunction to reexamine the legalities of that partnership agreement. The first flaw is that Johnny was under age when he signed that agreement, and it looks like the backwater lawyer they hired didn't have his father witness it as his guardian. Then there's the fact that the two of you are still married and you may have some rights to the ranch that would possibly void the agreement. Finally, I'll file a claim on the children's behalf. I don't expect these to stand up in court intact, but we can tie Lancer's hands for as long as necessary until he is willing to negotiate."

Maria smiled fully at her lawyer. "I see I have found the right man for the job. Do what you need to do. I will not give up my children and Murdoch Lancer loves nothing more than his precious ranch. Let's see how he feels when someone is threatening to take away something he loves."

Part 16

 

Johnny woke early Thanksgiving morning. It was a bright sunny day with the first rays of light streaming through his bedroom window. He stretched slowly like a cat waking from an afternoon nap. Feeling the slightest pain from his stitches, he was looking forward to Sam's
arrival this afternoon to remove them. Feeling refreshed for the first time in days since the rescue of Graciano and Isabelle, he decided to get dressed, get up and enjoy the morning. Grunting as he pulled the last boot on, he stood up and started for the door. Hesitating at the door, he turned back and snatched his black jacket off a nearby chair and headed quietly into the hallway. This morning, he didn't want to draw the attention of Maria or anyone else in the kitchen so he headed toward the stairs leading into the living room. He stopped for a moment outside his mother's door feeling indecisive. He was tempted to go in and talk to her, but his need to be alone with his thoughts drove him to continue down the stairs and out of the house.

It was a glorious morning that greeted Johnny. He drank in the crisp air and could feel the morning sun radiate it's weak winter warmth.
His decision made, he walked quickly to the barn. Upon entering, he was greeted by the horses nickering. Eager for attention, Barranca
pricked his ears and nickered his greeting softly, meant only for Johnny ears. Johnny's spirits lifted and he greeted his companion with soft words and gentle hand on his neck. "Hey boy, how bout if we go for a quick ride? Nobody's up yet and we can get out and stretch
your legs some." Barranca nodded his head up and down, Johnny chuckled and took that as Barranca's agreement to the plan.

Johnny quickly saddled Barranca and stopped just inside the barn doorway. Looking carefully out into the yard, he saw none of his family out this early. Taking a deep breath, he led Barranca outside and mounted. Holding his breath, he turned and nudged Barranca into a trot. No one called to him to return, so breathing a bit easier, he urged the palomino into a lope. He reveled in the feel of the powerful gelding's smooth stride. He let Barranca set the pace and the direction, as he was in no particular hurry and he had no set
destination in mind. Barranca slowed to a walk as they crested the hill overlooking the ranch and Johnny turned to look down at the ranch buildings. They were so small from up here that he couldn't see individual people now starting their work.

For one moment, Johnny thought of returning, knowing that Murdoch and Scott by now had discovered he was missing. "Well boy, I'm in for it. Not really supposed to be out riding yet. We should go back, but…If I'm going to hear about it, I might as well enjoy it." He said as he turned Barranca away from the road leading home and headed down the hill at an even trot.

Murdoch and Scott met in the living room. "He's gone." Scott announced with exasperation. "He just couldn't wait." He said as he tossed his hat on the couch.

Murdoch had a displeased look on his face and sat heavily in his chair. Running a hand through his hair, he said. "I'm surprised he
lasted this long. I wish he had at least left a message letting us know where he was going and how long he was going to be gone."

Scott was surprised that Murdoch seemed accepting of Johnny's unscheduled absence. He was secretly thrilled that Murdoch was relaxing a bit toward his youngest son. Picking up his hat he said. "I'll send him home if I see him out there."

Nodding Murdoch picked up some paperwork intending to put in a few hours of work. "Don't forget son, we're having supper today at 3:00 sharp. Don't be late or Teresa will give you an earful."

"I don't intend to miss one of Teresa's special feasts." Scott said as he headed out the door.
*********

 

Scott only intended to get away for a short while. The tension in the house was getting unbearable and he really couldn't blame Johnny for wanting to get away. He knew a showdown of sorts was looming between Murdoch and Maria and he feared the consequences to the rest of them. He knew this was hardest on Johnny, Graciano and Isabelle but Scott was well aware of the effect it was having on Teresa as well as himself. Teresa had withdrawn and become unnaturally quiet. Her normal smile and attempts to keep the peace gone with the uneasy strife building in the house. Scott knew this time of the year was the anniversary of her father's death and this holiday was apt to
upset her. She had been keeping busy under Maria's watchful eye and Scott felt bad none of them had spent a lot of time with her lately
due to all the issues between Murdoch and Maria.

Nudging his horse into a ground covering lope, Scott felt his spirits lift with the rush of the wind and he began to feel refreshed as he
headed out to check a couple of streams. The last couple of rains had been pretty hard and he wanted to make sure they hadn't become
blocked by debris.

Several hours later, the winter sun was beginning to edge to the west. Scott was going to check one last stream before heading back to
the house. Rounding the corner, a sardonic smile burst out on his lips. Halting his horse, he stopped to watch Johnny trying to pull a
large snarly oak branch out of the stream. "You like to live dangerously, don't you brother?"

Johnny stopped his struggles and looked with exasperation at his grinning older brother. "Ya could get offa that there horse and help
me ya know."

Scott hid a grin at Johnny's teasing remark thinking it was good to have his smart mouthed brother back again. He swung off his horse,
ground tying him and walked over to where Johnny was waiting. "Boy, I'll help you all right. Doc Jenkins will be here in a few hours and
he is more than likely going to be unhappy when he hears about this little foray of yours."

"He's not gonna know Scott unless you open your big mouth and tell him."

"Don't forget Murdoch. You'll have to explain it to him too. You'll be lucky if you're not eating Thanksgiving supper standing up."

Johnny stared at him for a moment to see if he was serious, then a slow sassy grin spread across his face. "Murdoch's too old and slow
to catch up with me, Scott. Sides, you gave me your word you'd watch out for me."

"Not if you go around poking a sleeping bear with a stick I won't." Scott warned as he grabbed hold of the oak limb and the two brothers
pulling together got the streamed unblocked.

Settling down in the grass to catch their breaths, Johnny was chewing on a blade of new grass and shredding another with his nimble
fingers. Taking the blade of grass from his mouth, he tossed it at Scott. "Scott." He said softly. Once he had his brother's attention he continued. "Tell me about this Thanksgiving. I mean I've heard of it, just it's not a holiday in Mexico. Is it like a fiesta?"

Smiling at Johnny's naiveté, Scott enlightened him. Thanksgiving is for giving thanks for the good in our lives. In 1863, President
Lincoln enacted a National Day of Thanksgiving. It is becoming popular as a day to celebrate, but it also commemorates the coming
together of the Pilgrims and the Indians who shared their food and ate a supper in peace."

Johnny took a few moments to digest this and then asked. `What's a Pilgrim?"

"Johnny! Those are what our forefather's were called. The first immigrants came to the New World to settle here."

"They're not my forefathers." Johnny pointed out. "Murdoch wasn't no Pilgrim."

"Johnny don't be difficult." Scott said trying to keep the exasperation out of his voice. "Just take this in the spirit it is meant. We have a lot to be thankful for Johnny. We met each other and Murdoch. We have a beautiful place to live. Teresa couldn't be a better sister. There's a lot for us to be thankful for." Scott finished quietly.

Johnny chewed on his hat strap for a moment before getting to his feet. "You're right Scott. Come-on I'll race ya back to the ranch." With that he did a flying mount onto Barranca and headed him home at a gallop.

Scott, shook his head and mounted his gelding and followed quickly on his heels. The brothers slowed as they reached the crest of the hill overlooking the ranch. Scott followed Johnny's lead as he trotted his horse down the hill. Once they were in the meadow, Johnny urged Barranca back into a gallop with Scott racing to catch up. Soon both horse were side by side, their instinct to lead very strong as they surged as one toward the house. As both horses were tiring, and Johnny himself was starting to wonder if he could hang on, they
reached the yard and let their horses drop to a trot then a walk halting in front of their father. Murdoch was standing with his hands on his hips and his lips pursed in a frown at his errant sons arriving just thirty minutes before supper.

"It's about time you showed up. Johnny what did you not understand about being told to stay in the house until Sam released you?"

Dismounting, Johnny wondered if perhaps Scott hadn't been joking. He expected to be scolded for going riding, he just hoped that maybe Murdoch would let him off. "Hey Murdoch. We didn't want to miss Teresa and Maria's Thanksgiving supper. You know we all have a lot to be thankful for. This being our first one together and all." Johnny looked up at his father through his long eye lashes.

Scott shook his head and hid a smile hearing the performance Johnny was putting on. `That scamp.' he thought. `He's trying to distract
Murdoch, and I think it's working.'

"Go on both of you. Get cleaned up and back down here by three."

Taking his little brother by the arm, he directed him toward the stairs before Murdoch had time to question Johnny about his unapproved ride.

*******

A knock on the door roused Murdoch from his reading. Opening the door to his old friend and family doctor he said. "Sam, Come on in."

"Happy Thanksgiving, Murdoch."

Shaking the doctor's hand, Murdoch escorted him into the house. "You're right on time. We'll be sitting down as soon as Scott and Johnny clean up and get down here."

The family doctor raised his eyebrows at that. "And Johnny was…?" He questioned.

"He couldn't stand being in the house any longer and he went for a ride early this morning. He was gone most of the day. He just got
back a few minutes ago. He didn't seem any worse for wear."

Doctor Jenkins was shaking his head. "I don't know why I bother. That boy is just going to do what ever he wants anyway." Waiting a
minute, he added. "How's everything else going?" Nodding toward the stairs.

Before Murdoch could answer, Graciano and Isabelle came running down the stairs into the living room. "Slow down, you two. No rough
housing in the house." Seeing that two children were heading for the front door in their Sunday best, he quickly added. "No. You're not
going outside. Come in here, sit quietly and wait for your brothers. We're going to have supper soon. The two children sat down on the
couch and proceeded to fidget and squirm until Teresa called them to the table.

*******

 

The Lancer family and their guest sat down to their Thanksgiving feast promptly at 3 PM. Before the food was brought to the table, Murdoch said a prayer of Thanksgiving. Maria was noticeably absen from the table and several of them were relieved she opted not to
join them.

Johnny was pulling at his tie to get more comfortable. Scott, sitting next to him for this occasion, reached over and brushed his hands away. "Leave it." He commanded.

"It's too tight." Johnny complained as he continued to fiddle with it.

Scott reached over and straightened the tie. "Leave it alone. You can take it off after supper."

Teresa looked up and said "I think you both look handsome in those suits. You should wear them more often." Smiling as Johnny gave her a murderous glare.

Platters and bowls were passed around the table with everyone commenting on the wide array of dishes.

Issa said with wonderment, "I've never seen so much food!"

"Me neither." Johnny said under his breath.

Once everyone had a plateful, Teresa picked up her fork and began eating signaling that everyone else should start.

"Back east, we have turkey." Scott said as he cut into his slice of ham.

"We tried turkey couple of years ago. It was tough and stringy." Teresa said.

"Yeah those turkeys out on the range look like tough old birds." Johnny remarked.

"In the east, they raise them just like chickens." Scott added.

"Why don't you try catchin some babies and start raisin them Scott? Graciano asked.

Raising an eyebrow at the boy, Scott caught Murdoch's amused smirk. "Well... Graciano. That might be a fine enterprise. Maybe you
and me could go into business together. Scott and Graciano's Turkey Ranch. I like the sound of that."

Graciano thought about it for a moment and said. "How about Graciano and Scott's Turkey Ranch? It was my idea." He said seriously.

Everybody started to laugh and Johnny chimed in. "Yeah that does have a nicer ring to it."

Once supper was completed and the dishes cleared, Teresa brought out pumpkin pies and set them in front of Murdoch. He sliced into the pie and began serving pieces to each of the family members. "Teresa, you have outdone yourself this year." He said as he took a bite of the pie. Noticing that Johnny was just looking at his pie, he asked. "Johnny, haven't you had pumpkin pie?"

Making a face, Johnny replied. "I've heard of pumpkin soup, but not pie." He saw that Graciano and Isabelle were also looking at their
pie with suspicion.

"Try it, it's good." Scott said as he took another bite.

"It's sweet. I added cinnamon and nutmeg." Teresa encouraged.

Ciano and Issa looked at Johnny obviously not planning to take a bite until he did. With resignation, he took a small taste of the pie filling. The spicy sweetness surrounded his taste buds and he nodded his head. "It's good. Try it."

Both children took a small bite and were pleasantly surprised by the sweet taste.

Sam caught Murdoch's eye, both sharing the enjoyment they felt at the exchange. The pie was eaten with compliments to the chef and Murdoch declared the meal a resounding success. They all retired into the living room stuffed to the gills and ready to do nothing more
strenuous than sit.

After an hour, Sam excused himself to go check on Maria. Scott and Graciano were embroiled in a fierce game of checkers and Johnny was showing Issa the finer points of poker. Teresa was working on her embroidery and sipping tea. Murdoch looked up when he saw Sam come down the stairs. He got up and met him over by the landing. "How is she?"

"She's doing fine. I'll take the stitches out next week and she should be ready to resume her normal activities. I just don't want her to overdo it for a couple of weeks."

Murdoch blew out the air he was holding in and asked. "When can she travel?"

Sam looked closely at Murdoch, and said "The earliest would be a week from now, but I would prefer she stay put for two." Seeing Murdoch's face fall, he laid a hand on his arm. "The time will go fast. You don't want her to leave sooner than she should and end up worse and staying longer, do you?"

Seeing his old friend had a valid point, Murdoch agreed with him and rolled his eyes. Sam cleared his throat and said "Johnny? Upstairs
now. It's your turn."

Johnny was torn. He was looking forward to getting the stitches out, but he was wary of the old doctor after seeing the looks Sam was
giving him over the supper table. He figured there was no way out of this so he slowly got up and headed upstairs to his room with the
doctor on his heels.

****

A short time later, Sam came back into the living room with Johnny following looking relieved but subdued. Murdoch handed Sam a brandy as they all settled back down.

"Well, Sam. What's the verdict? Is my little brother going to live?"

Sam decided now was not the time to tease Johnny any further and replied seriously. "I removed the stitches. His side is healing well. He can start resuming normal activity, but I don't want him doing anything too strenuous for a week. No fencing, digging postholes, moving hay bales, wresting steers to the ground. Understand?"

Johnny muttered under his breath. "What else is there?"

Murdoch caught that and replied. "I think I can find something for you to do. Don't worry."

"Thanks..." Johnny said without grace and Scott laughed. "It's not funny." Johnny said as he took a half hearted swing at his brother.

Scott moved out of his reach and held up his hands. "Relax, brother. I give up."

Everyone laughed once more and even Johnny had to chuckle as his good mood was once again restored. Besides, he felt a lot better now that he had that danged suit coat and tie off.

*****

The next few days passed peacefully. The weather was holding and the warmth of the winter sun was welcome to all. Maria had taken to
walking around the garden or sitting out on the veranda with the children. She and Murdoch had no further arguments and the whole house breathed a collective sigh of relief. This sunny Tuesday morning found Maria in the garden with Teresa. She had found Teresa
to be a quiet companion and that suited her just fine. Maria knew the ranch families were gossiping about her. She had overheard more
than one snide comment, but she had become used to the talk, and tended to ignore it. Even the women she knew from when she lived
here before tended to avoid her and that was fine with her. She found the memories of her life here with Murdoch and Johnny too painful, and the loss she was feeling over Jess too fresh to dwell on the past.

She saw Teresa look up and hold a hand to her eyes as she focused on something in the distance. Maria stood up and looked in the same direction to see a rider coming in from the west. As he got closer it was obvious he wasn't one of the ranch hands as he had large
saddlebags, a bedroll and no lasso on his saddle. When he dismounted, he went to the saddlebags and rummaged around until he
found the large envelope he was searching for. Teresa and Maria moved around the veranda to watch as he handed the envelope to
Murdoch, remounted his horse and left. Maria closed her eyes for a moment and thought. 'It's starting.' She was thankful that the
children were in school and Johnny was out somewhere with Scott. She knew the next hour was going to be anything but pleasant.

Maria turned to Teresa and said. "It's a beautiful day. Why don't you go for a ride."

Teresa gave her a questioning look and Maria said. "Mr. Lancer and I will be discussing some personal matters in a little while, and I would strongly suggest you leave while you can."

Teresa taking the hint, quickly headed for the barn, grateful she was wearing trousers while working in the garden.

Maria sat on the bench on the veranda waiting for the inevitable. She didn't have long to wait when she heard her name bellowed. "M A R I A !!"

She jumped, even though she was expecting it. She had heard him yell like that only one other time and it brought back the stomach clenching feeling she had back then. Walking to the French doors she could see him standing by the stairs as he yelled her name again.
Taking a deep breath, she opened the doors and went in saying quietly. "I'm right here."

Murdoch whirled around, his face red with anger holding a sheaf of papers. He walked quickly over to her shaking the papers in her face. "What is the meaning of this?" Before she could stage an answer he continued. "Do you really think I'll let you get away with this?
If you think so, you're out of your mind!"

Maria had gone pale as she was pinned up against the door with a very angry man towering over her. "I only want what is mine Murdoch. You tried to threaten me with my children, so now I am threatening the thing you love most in your life."

Murdoch drew his hand back, out of control now. As he brought his hand forward, he saw her flinch and he was able to stop the blow in
time to lower his arm. "GET OUT! Get out of my house!" His anger at it's crescent.

In a show of outward bravado, she crossed her arms and looked up into the angry features of her husband and stated. "No. You can not make me leave. Until this is settled, this is my home too. There is nothing you can do about it." She quickly opened the door behind her
and left before Murdoch's anger began to boil over once again.

Murdoch, having no one to vent his anger on went over to his desk and kicked the door of his safe. He sat down and began reviewing the
papers to plan his next strategic move. He would be giving his lawyer an earful when he next spoke to him.

Part 17

Johnny and Scott rode into the yard in the late afternoon. After unsaddling their horses they turned them out into the large sand arena to cool off and roll. Brushing the dirt off themselves as they walked to the house, they looked forward to something cool to drink.

Entering the kitchen, they found Maria busy at the stove making preparations for supper. She was muttering to herself in Spanish. "Buenos tardes, Maria." Johnny said as he leaned over her shoulder from behind to give her a kiss on her check.

She turned around with a large wooden spoon in her hand, and scowled at the dark haired Lancer son and said. "Everyone shouting. Slamming doors! Usted es padre es muy enojado!"

Johnny and Scott looked at each other and Scott sighed. "I guess we better go see what that's all about."

Looking very unsure that that would be the better thing to do, Johnny followed Scott into the living room.

Murdoch looked up at their approach and motioned them over to his desk. "Sit." He said abruptly. "I've got something to discuss with you."

Once they were both seated in the chairs in front of his desk, Murdoch settled down in his chair. Looking from one to the other of his sons until they were both feeling uncomfortable, he cleared his throat. "Boys. It looks like we've got some trouble." Seeing their startled, but expectant looks, he continued. "There is a legal challenge to our partnership agreement."

"What!" Scott exclaimed. Johnny opened his mouth to echo his brothers' sentiment, but Murdoch made a motion to get them both to settle down.

Looking at Johnny, he said "Son, remember when we signed the partnership agreement?" Seeing Johnny's uncertain nod, he continued
gently. "Johnny, you were only 20. Not of legal age in this state to sign a contract."

Scott suddenly had insight to where this conversation was going, but he decided to wait until Murdoch was finished before he began asking questions.

"The lawyer we used then neglected to have your signature properly endorsed by mine."

"What difference does that make now? I'm almost 22."

Murdoch hid a smile and refrained from pointing out that actually he would be 22 in 6 months, instead he said. "I know, but a court could
find that as you were underage when you signed the agreement, that the agreement is subject to invalidation." He paused to take his
son's measure. "Don't worry, my lawyer is working on it. He sent me word today about the legal challenge and some other issues that have come up. He is doing his best to block it. We may just need to rewrite the agreement once some other things get settled."

Scott felt now was the appropriate time to ask the questions most on his mind. "What other issues? Who's behind this Murdoch?"

Murdoch took a long look at Scott and then turned to Johnny. "Your mother, son."

Johnny's face registered shock. "She wouldn't do this." He denied.

"I'm sorry Johnny, but she is. She hates me and doesn't care whom she hurts to get back at me. I'm sorry son, I know this is a shock."

"I'll talk to her." Johnny said starting to rise.

"No son. I don't want you getting involved in this."

Scott couldn't stay out of this any longer. "Involved. He's already involved. We all are. What could be the harm in him talking to her?"

"I'd rather he didn't until we can speak to Avery Nelson. Wait son, he'll be here tomorrow and he can advise us."

There was an uncomfortable silence between the three men before Murdoch spoke again. "I know it's hard, but this is all tied up in the divorce. Due to the custody issue of the children, she's claiming half of my wealth including this ranch!"

"She can't do that!" Scott said incredulous.

"We'll that's what she is trying to do! She is claiming that this ranch has materially grown considerably since our marriage, she is entitled to half."

"That's preposterous. She abandoned the marriage! She had nothing to do with the growth of this ranch." Scott pointed out.

"I know son and I'm sure this will all be straightened out but it could be a prolonged court battle to keep what is ours." He stopped when he saw Johnny had disengaged from the conversation. Johnny's handsome features showed the stress he was feeling and he knew hard
times were coming for Johnny.

Scott looked up from the documents he had been reviewing when Murdoch stopped. "So she's claiming that since the law considers Graciano and Isabelle your children, she needs to protect their interests as well as Johnny's. That by allowing that partnership to stand as it is, damages their ability to benefit from their rightful share of your property. Since the partnership agreement was flawed due to Johnny's age, and the fact that you are still married to her, she is asking the court for an equitable division."

"That just about covers it son. She is also asking for a substantial settlement in lieu of her share of the ranch. She also wants custody
of the children and support for them which would have them living like kings and a guarantee for their share of my estate that she will
control until they are 21."

Feeling very much like the wind had been knocked out of him by his mother's unreasonable demands, Johnny struggled to take a deep
breath. Finding his voice he said. "Anything else?"

"Isn't that enough?" Scott questioned.

"There's nothing we can do until we get more information from Avery. His letter says he and Maria's lawyer will be arriving tomorrow."

"There's something I can do right now." Johnny said as he got up and headed for the stairs.

Murdoch stood up intent on stopping him, but Scott put out a restraining hand. "Let him go Murdoch. He needs to talk to her."

Shaking his head, Murdoch walked across the room and poured himself a healthy shot of whisky. Motioning with the bottle toward Scott, he said. "I don't know about you, but I could use a drink."

*****

 

Johnny knocked on his mother's door. Getting no answer, he pushed it open. The room empty, he turned and walked to the stairs leading
down to the kitchen. As he descended he could hear his mother's voice. At the entrance to the kitchen he saw her stirring a pot. She had cornmeal on her face and her apron.

Maria looked up to see her son staring at her from the entranceway. She smiled and said. "Juanito. I'm cooking a special meal for us
tonight. Tamales, refried beans and your favorite, Sopa de la albóndiga." She paused when she realized that Johnny's expression had
not changed. "Johnny?"

Johnny walked into the kitchen and took his mother by the arm ignoring the curious glances of the others working in the kitchen. "Come with me," He said grimly.

He escorted his mother toward the kitchen door. She stopped long enough to take off her apron and hang it on a hook by the door. Steering her into the garden he took her to a bench in a remote part of the garden, unwilling for anyone else to hear their words.

Johnny fought the angry words that were trying to burst forth. Instead he steeled himself, using all the skills he had mastered to stay calm during a gunfight. He asked matter of factually. "Mama why are you doing this? Do you know how much trouble you are causing?"

Maria, determined to charm Johnny at all costs smiled at her handsome son. "Juanito, mio." She crooned. "I am protecting myself the only way I know how. Your father will take Ciano and Issa from me. Leave me with nothing. He hates me and will do anything to destroy me."

Johnny looked down at the pebbles scattered in front of the bench. He was rolling them around with the toe of his boot. When he looked up at his mother, she couldn't help but see pain written across her son's face. "Mama, You tell me Murdoch hates you and he tells me you hate him. Which is it? Do both my parents hate each other? Do they hate each other so much they're willing to destroy everyone else?" His voice was rising and he realized this was getting out of hand but he couldn't stop. "Why can't you talk to him? Work something out so we don't have to go through with this?"

"Talk to him Johnny? Why don't you talk to him? In my short time here it is painfully obvious that the two of you have not done much
talking. If he is so easy to talk to, you do it." She said firmly.

Johnny blew out a breath of air and said. "I…" He stopped, unsure of what he was going to say. "We don't talk very well but we're working on it and you're making it harder." With that Johnny got up and began pacing in front of her. "This is going to tear us apart Mama. Can't you just let it go?

'No, Johnny. I can't. I will fight for the children. They are mine, not Murdoch's. I can take care of them just as I always have. If Murdoch thinks he can just take them away with out a fight he will find out how wrong he is in a hurry. Johnny, I will need your help."

"Mama, I told you before, don't put me in the middle. I can't help you." He said firmly.

She couldn't help feeling disappointed but then said. "Alright. I understand. Your father has bought your loyalty. Just promise me one
thing, promise me you won't go against me." She bore her eyes into his and he felt anguish as he tried to decide what was the right
thing to do here. He didn't want to go against either parent but at the same time he needed to be true to himself.

Slowly he said. "I...promise. I won't go against you. But you need to promise me that you will follow the law. You won't do anything outside the law to tip the scales to your side."

"I promise Johnny. I also promise you that you will keep your share of the ranch. Now I must go finish cooking. If your father and brother would prefer not to join us, we will eat in the kitchen, just the four of us." She got up and headed back to the house.

Johnny watched her go, knowing this was not the last of the conversation. He feared the fireworks when the lawyers arrived tomorrow. Everything was spiraling out of control.

Neither Maria nor Johnny saw Scott silently move out of the shadows toward the house.

*****

There was a certain grimness that settled around the Lancer household. The feeling of a divided battlefield escalated when the children and Johnny joined their mother in the kitchen for supper and Murdoch declined the invitation to eat with them. Scott and Teresa showed their support by joining Murdoch for supper in the dining room. Scott looked across the table at the empty seats and felt discouraged at the chasm opening up in the family. He glanced over at Teresa and could see the tears threatening to brim over in her eyes. Murdoch sat at the head of the table, in silence as he cut his meat and stared off into the empty living room as he ate his meal.

In the kitchen, Maria tried to direct the conversation away from the problems most on their minds. Even the children were subdued
throughout supper and Johnny was also at a loss for words. Issa spoke up "Mama, are you going to leave us?"

Maria looked up at her daughter's question and saw both Johnny and Graciano looking at her with expectation. Putting down her fork, she looked uncertain as to how to answer Issa's question. "Miel. I do not want that to happen. I am doing everything I can to prevent
that, but I will not lie to you, I may have no choice."

Tears spilled down Issa's cheeks. "Mama. I want to stay with you."

"Me too. Why can't we go home?" Graciano asked.

Johnny looked at his mother to see what she was going to tell them. Taking a deep breath Maria tried to explain. "No matter what happens, you will be safe and cared for. Mr. Lancer wants to provide for your education and he would like you to stay here. I can't stay
here. This is not my home anymore so either we convince the court that you are better off staying with me or we make the best of it and
you will stay here. Either way, you need to remember that I love you and I want what is best for you. I will fight for you to stay with me and it may be difficult for all of us, but whatever happens, I will always love you." Looking up at Johnny she added. "I will always love all of you."

"Nice speech Maria." Murdoch said coldly as he entered the kitchen. "Johnny, take you brother and sister upstairs and help them with their schoolwork."

Johnny stood up with a look of surprise, but complied with his father's request. Ushering the children upstairs as he heard his father say. "What the devil was that Maria? Stop lying and tell them the truth! You're an unfit mother. That's all there is to it."

Johnny hurried the children upstairs to avoid them overhearing the argument in the kitchen. His distress over this situation was causing him so much grief, but he knew his siblings must feel even more upset as they were faced with losing contact with their mother if Murdoch was successful in his bid for custody. He settled on the bed with a child on each side of him and tried to come up with words
to help them deal with it.

"I don't want to leave Mama." Issa cried as she held onto Johnny.

Graciano began to get angry. "Stop crying Issa. He can't make us stay here. We'll run away and go back to Mexico if we have to." He
glared at Johnny and said with defiance. "No one can stop us."

Scott overheard this statement as he eased the door open. "Look, no one is going to run away, but I have an idea for a tactical retreat.
You kids pack some clothes for a few days and put your bags under the bed. Don't say anything to anyone. I'll be back for you in a few
hours. Start reading your primer and get ready for bed. Johnny, come with me. We have some arrangements to make."

Scott's calm determined manner with the children helped them feel more comfortable with the situation. As the two older brothers left
the room, the children started collecting their belongings. Steering Johnny into his own room, he held a finger to his lips to keep Johnny
from asking questions. In the dim light, Johnny was surprised to see Teresa sitting in the chair by the bed. "Sit, brother. We need to
talk."

Once they were all settled. Scott took command of the conversation. "This situation can't go on. It's disrupting all of us and we have to find a way to force Maria and Murdoch to come to an agreement. Right now, they're down there yelling at each other." He hesitated before continuing. "The children are upset and hurt by all the fighting." He looked from one to the other and said. "We all are."

"What can we do Scott?" Teresa asked.

Scott looked from one to the other. Johnny's face reflected Teresa's question as well. Folding his arms across his chest he said. "We leave. We'll take off as soon as everyone is in bed. We'll leave them a note so they don't worry but we will tell them that we will not live here until they come to an agreement." He waited while this sunk in.

Johnny looked at his brother for a moment, and with a small smile he said. "Brother. I'm so proud of you. We refuse to return until they
agree to stop fighting and find a way to make this work."

"That's right brother. Once we get settled, we will send them a list of our demands."

Teresa's eyes were lively as she asked. "Where should we go?"

"I have an idea." Scott said. "Have you ever heard of hiding in plain sight

 

Part 18

Five silent figures left the Lancer ranch in the shadow of darkness. Scott rode in the lead followed by the two children, then Teresa and
finally Johnny brought up the rear leading a pack horse. They rode for close to 2 hours. Their journey was slow due to darkness and the
need to conceal their route.

Upon reaching their destination, the tired travelers dismounted and entered the small house. Johnny and Scott brought in the provisions
while Teresa and the children lit lanterns and began preparing the beds. Once a fire was roaring in the fireplace and the house began
to heat up, they were quickly fast asleep.

*********

 

Murdoch awoke to another sunny morning. He dressed quickly anxious to get his day started. He was determined to get answers from his lawyer when he arrived later in the day. He wanted to have it out with Maria once and for all. He figured that both lawyers could hash
all this out and they would have a better idea when everything would be straightened out.

Murdoch walked down the stairs into the kitchen to find Maria cooking by the stove. Surprised to find her there alone, he asked. "Where
is everyone?"

Glancing up from her cooking, she replied, "No se, senior. I have seen no one."

Murdoch reached into the pocket of his trousers and pulled out his watch. Flicking it open one handed, he saw that it was almost 6:00
AM. Frowning, he walked back to the stairs and yelled. "Johnny! Scott!" Getting no reply, he started up the stairs intent on reminding his son's of their responsibilities. As he reached the second floor, he saw Maria coming out of her room. Her hair was down draping below her shoulders. She was tying her robe and looked like she had just awoken.

"What is wrong? Why are you bellowing like a love sick bull?" She asked with exasperation.

Distracted for a moment by her appearance, he shook himself and walked beyond her to Scott's room. Pushing the door open, he said
loudly. "Scott." As his eyes focused on the neatly made bed, he realized his son was already up and about for the day. Turning, he almost knocked Maria over as he proceeded to Johnny's room. He strode through the door intending to give his youngest a piece of his
mind only to find Johnny's bed unslept in. Scott was always neat and left his bed made and orderly, but Johnny was notorious for leaving
his bed unmade, often with the blankets on the floor and clothes scattered about. He closed his mouth on the words that had been on the tip of his tongue and looked around the room. Everything else seemed to be in place. He walked over to the dresser and looked in the first drawer. `Nothing out of place.' He told himself. Opening the next drawer, he took a deep breath. Johnny's spare box of ammunition was gone.

"What are you doing?" Maria asked from Johnny's door.

"He's not here." Murdoch said slowly.

"I can see that. So?" Maria said not sure what Murdoch was concerned about.

"He didn't sleep in his bed last night." Murdoch tried to explain.

"Murdoch, our son is a big boy. Perhaps he went into town last night. For...some entertainment?"

Not wanting to get into a discussion of his son's social engagements, he asked. "Where are the children? Have you seen them this morning?"

"No. I was just going to get them ready for school when I heard you yelling."

"You check on them. I'll ask Teresa if she knows where they are."

Maria, still not understanding Murdoch's distress headed down the hall to the children's room while Murdoch went to find his ward. She
could hear him calling `Teresa' throughout the house. Shaking her head and smiling a bit she thought to herself that she couldn't remember Murdoch being such a worrywart in the days of her marriage to him. Her smile faded quickly as she was confronted by the sight of two neatly made beds. She noticed that most of their clothes and their carpetbag were missing. Dread washed over her much like her fear when she had heard the children had been kidnapped by the Mather's gang. Before she could do more than react at the
realization that her young children were missing, she heard her name being called loudly from the living room. Unmindful of her state of
undress she hurried barefooted down the stairs, her hair flowing behind her.

Upon reaching the living room she found Murdoch standing by his desk, holding a note out to her. "Read this." He commanded.

She took the note, her fingers trembling a bit. Her eyes focused on the neat handwriting.

Murdoch and Maria,

We have left and are safe. We will remain away while you come to an equitable agreement. We expect you to come to an agreement, which will allow all of us to live in peace with each other. You will receive a list of our demands later today. Do not try to find us. We
are safe, and we are only doing this to keep our family from being torn apart.

Your children,
Scott, Johnny, Teresa, Graciano, Isabelle

"Scott wrote this." Murdoch said.

"Your son stole my children! Did you put him up to this?" Maria accused.

"Maria. Stop jumping to conclusions. I had nothing to do with it. I'm as upset as you are. They had no business running away. This seems more like something Johnny would pull." He stopped realizing that was not how he meant it to come out.

"Oh, so you're blaming Johnny! That's just perfect. The perfect Patron Lancer is never wrong. He never takes responsibility for anything. It must be someone else's fault."

"Stop it Maria! You're one to talk! You were just blaming Scott! You..." Murdoch's tirade was interrupted by a clearing of a throat.

"Sorry to interrupt." Avery Nelson said as he came through the front door with Maria's lawyer. "We knocked but...er.." He trailed off.

Flushing, Maria pulled the robe closed around her as the two men averted their eyes. Murdoch motioned them in and said, "Sorry
gentlemen, we are having a bit of a crisis. Let go into the kitchen for some coffee while Maria gets dressed and I'll fill you in."

****

 

At the small house in the hills the weary fugitives were waking up to morning creeping toward lunchtime. Johnny and Scott, sharing a
bedroom could smell coffee and bacon beckoning them from the kitchen. "Hey Scott, that was smart thinkin' brinin' Teresa with us." He said while playfully swatting at Scott.

"Don't let her hear you say that Johnny, or you might end up cooking your own breakfast And having to wash the dishes." He chucked.

Buttoning his shirt after shaving, Johnny looked seriously at his brother. "What do you think is happening...at home?"

Scott thought a minute as he tucked his blue shirt in. "They're probably mad at us but maybe they won't be yelling at each other." He
said throughfully. Seeing Johnny's look of concern he added. "Don't worry about it. It's done. We'll deal with the repercussions later."

"It's those reper things I'm most worried about. Come on let's go eat before she gives it all to Graciano."

"Yeah that kid sure can eat."Scott said, his voice full of irony.

Once down into the kitchen, Teresa looked up at them with a smile and cheerfully greeted them. "Good morning. Did you sleep well?"

Giving her a quick kiss on the cheek, Johnny said "I always sleep well, but it was a short night." He let go of her arm as he reached
behind her and snagged a piece of bacon.

"Hey! Stop that Johnny. Maria lets you get away with way too much. Sit down and eat like a gentleman."

Johnny and Scott sat down and Johnny was just going to begin complaining about being scolded for his manners, Graciano and
Isabelle came into the kitchen.

"Morning." Johnny said as they sat at the table. The sleepy children gave him a wane smile and waited for breakfast.

Teresa brought the rest of the food to the table and sat down herself. They started filling their plates with flapjacks and bacon. "I'm gonna have to start brinin' you with me Teresa. This is much better than what I get out on the trail." Johnny joked around a mouthful of food.

"Don't talk with your mouth full Johnny." Teresa scolded.

Johnny looked up to see Scott's amused smile and he muttered. "On the other hand, maybe not."

Scott laughed and said. "After breakfast, I want us to sit down and go over the letter we want to send back to them." They all stopped
eating and four pairs of suddenly serious eyes locked on him. "We need to let them know what we expect of them." He said gently. Seeing agreement on their faces, he returned to eating his breakfast.

"The last time I was here, there was a good looking fishin stream. Maybe after we're done, we could find some poles and try it out."
Johnny said.

Both children looked at Scott with bright eyes. "Can we Scott?" Graciano said.

"Sure. I don't see why not, but it will be pretty late in the day so we might not catch anything." He warned.

Johnny was looking around at their surroundings. "This is a pretty nice house. I know it's part of Lancer, but do you know who lived
here?" He said looking at Teresa.

"Mr. and Mrs. Miller used to own this house." Teresa said with a look of sadness. "They died about three years ago. Stagecoach accident. Afterwards their two children went to St. Louis to live with relatives and Murdoch bought this place to give them enough money to live on until they grow up."

"I remember seeing the yard last spring, it was covered with flowers of every color." Scott added.

"Sarah loved flowers, and she helped her mother tend the garden whenever school was out." Teresa said with a touch of sadness. "Sarah and I were good friends. We still write, but it's not the same as living nearby."

They were silent for a moment and then Scott asked. "How far is it to Green River from here?"

"On horse back, it's about half an hour." Johnny answered "By wagon, maybe an hour."

"Nice location" Scott mused. "Let's get the table cleared and start on our list."

The children jumped up and started helping clear the dishes from the table. Teresa tossed Johnny a damp towel. "Wipe the table Johnny.
Clean up that syrup." She said as she pointed to a sticky area on the table.

Scott brought over paper and pencils. He passed out a sheet to each of them and a pencil. "Let's all write what we want to happen and
then we'll put it together in a single list of demands."

Ten minutes later they were all seated at the table. Graciano was writing slowly and Isabelle was concentrating on her penmanship.
Scott smiled as he saw that Johnny had written just a few lines and was decorating his paper with drawings.

******

 

The two lawyers met their clients at the Lancer dining table. Murdoch was seated in his usual location, Maria at the opposite end of the table with their two attorneys' on each side. Clearing his throat, Avery Nelson began the proceedings. "We have a hearing scheduled in Sacramento next Wednesday. The judge has ordered us to try to come to a settlement before then. That is why we are here today."

Maria's lawyer said. "That is what my client desires as well."

Murdoch looked with impatience at the two men. "All she wants is to get back at me and force me to cave into her demands. Well it's not
going to happen. Not this time." he said angrily.

"Murdoch, we can come to an agreement. I will drop all claim to your precious ranch and you drop your custody suit for my children." She said glaring at him defiantly.

Maria's lawyer said. "Well there is more to it than that actually. Mrs. Lancer neglected to mention she had minor children when we originally filed the divorce suit." Looking at Murdoch he fixed him with a stare. "And you Mr. Lancer neglected to mention that Mrs. Lancer's family provided you with cattle to help upgrade your herd. A wedding present? I believe. And more cattle were sent upon your
son's birth."

"What does that have to do with anything?" Murdoch asked

Avery spoke up. "Actually, Murdoch, it does tend to complicate the issue. Your wife is claiming the ranch has grown materially and it
could be construed that the breeding stock given to you by her family was a significant factor to the success of the ranch."

Murdoch looked like he could have steam coming out his ears any minute. His face was red and he was struggling to keep from losing
control. He glared at his lawyer and then affixed an icy stare at Maria across the table.

He said coldly. "What do you want?"

"I want my children." She said quietly.

Murdoch slapped his hand on the table and replied angrily. "Stop it Maria! Stop using them as a pawn. You want money and to see me
suffer. Haven't you caused enough suffering for me as well as Johnny? You will not win Maria. I'll send you back to the dirt where you belong!"

"Mr. Lancer! Control yourself." Maria's lawyer jumped in.

Murdoch's lawyer also stood and was prepared to intervene, as it appeared his client had lost all ability to reason.

Maria calmly stayed seated. "See gentlemen. See what I have to put up with? The man has no control over his behavior. He has yelled at me numerous times since I have been a guest here. He yells at anyone who does not instantly obey him. I will not allow my children to be
raised by someone like him!"

Taking a deep breath, she continued. "Yes, I left him many years ago, but..."

At that Murdoch lost all caution and began raging at Maria, listing her sins against him and their marriage. "...adultery, kidnapping our son, having children out of wedlock, and if that's not bad enough, you are a convicted felon! You lied to our son to make him hate me and now you're trying to blackmail me for a share of this ranch."

"That's enough Murdoch!" Avery Nelson interjected. "The hearing is on Wednesday at 1 PM. Meet me at the Capitol Inn at 11:00 to go over the case." He looked over at his colleague who was commiserating with his client. "And for God's sake, Murdoch. Leave her alone. You don't want an assault charge on top of the problems we already have to sort out." Approaching the other attorney and his client, he
asked. "Ma'am. Would you like to go into town with us?"

Maria looked up at Murdoch's attorney and said. "No. I will be all right here. He would not dare hurt me. I can take care of myself." That last barb, she directed at Murdoch who just clenched his fists.

"Alright. I will see you Wednesday in Sacramento. Please bring the children and your son John as well. The judge may very well want to
talk to them." Placing his hat on his head and gathering up his briefcase, Maria's lawyer headed toward the door with Avery.

The two adversaries stood staring at each other as the sound of hoofbeats left the yard. Maria turned and sat down on the couch while Murdoch tried to decide what to do from there. Her presence in the living room made it impossible for him to work at his desk. As he started to go outside, he saw Maria come from the kitchen into the living room. She held an envelope out to him.

Unfolding the single sheet of paper, he began reading their demands.

1. Stop fighting. No yelling at each other.
2. Stop using us for leverage against each other. We will not choose between you.
3. Mama, settle down, live a respectable life and allow us to go to school here.
4. Murdoch, provide support and guidance for Graciano and Isabelle and provide for their schooling.
5. Mama, allow Murdoch to help Graciano and Isabelle to grow up happy and safe here at Lancer, if you can't find a way to live near here with them.
6. Allow the children to be part of our family. We love them also.

Murdoch allowed himself a small smile as he recognized which of them wrote each line. Maria had come over to look over Murdoch's arm to read the letter. "Scott says they will not return until we agree to these demands. He says if we do not agree, he will take the children and enroll them in school and start a new life with Teresa and Johnny." Murdoch said quietly.

"They can't do that." Maria said softly.

"I guess we've driven them to it." Looking at Maria, he said. "We've pushed them into this." Feeling the flush of shame that he had helped
drive his children to do this.

"So now what?" She asked.

Murdoch walked over to the tray holding his finest brandy and poured two glasses. "I don't think it's too early for this. Do you?" Handing Maria a glass.

They both sat down sipping the brandy lost in thought. Maria was the first one to speak. "Murdoch, I want my children. I made so many
mistakes with Johnny, I am trying to do better with them. Won't you let me try?" She appealed.

"Maria, Those two children are great kids." Looking down at the glass in his hand he continued. "I suppose they wouldn't be so polite and
well behaved if you hadn't been doing a decent job of taking care of them. It's just, I can't let you take them back to Mexico. A woman alone with children..." He stopped shaking his head. Looking at her waiting expression he continued. "I just can't risk it. I can't risk them...or you." She started to say something, but his raised hand stopped her. "Maria. I'm serious about this. Don't let your anger at me cloud your judgement. Stay here, if not in this house, near here. Let the children go to school in Green River and be part of our lives. If you are here, maybe you and Johnny could rebuild a relationship as well."

He waited for her to reply. He was holding his breath waiting for her outburst. `She's so much like Johnny,' he thought. `If she would take a moment and think it through, she'll see I'm right.'

"What are you suggesting?" She asked.

Taking a deep breath, with a strong feeling that it was now or never, he said. "I'll pay for their education. As far as they want to go. I'll provide you with an income monthly for your support and theirs and find you a house to live in."

"And if I agree, what do you require from me?" She asked.

"Stay here and raise the children. If you need to leave let them stay here. We share custody. They need someone to guide them and
teach them. Let me do that for them and you." he said softly.

A hint of defiance showed in her eyes. "I am quite capable of guiding them." She stopped for a moment and the said. "I'm sorry. I know that is not what you meant." She waited a moment and said gently. "Murdoch, do you really think we can stop fighting? The children say they will only return if we promise to do so."

"I'll make you a deal. I'll try if you do. I know I have said some things today that were out of line, but Maria sometimes you make me so angry I can't think straight."

She smiled and said. "I always could. Some people say hate and love are two emotions very close to each other. Murdoch, you and I always were right on that line. We would fight tooth and nail and then not speak to each other for days before we made up. Remember?"

"Yes...I remember." he said slowly. "That last time...I was out of line. I know that is what pushed you away all those years ago. I just couldn't swallow my pride and make it right between us."

Maria looked at him with shock. "I can't believe you would say that. Where is this coming from?"

"I like to believe I have gained some wisdom with the years." Feeling a bit embarrassed now, he said. "I know we can't go back, but for our children's sake can we move forward?"

Seeing him for the first time with new eyes she murmured. "I'd be willing to try." Taking his hand she looked him in the eye. "I'll try for all of our sakes."

"Alright. Now we just have to convince them." Standing up, he drained his brandy and went into the kitchen.

He found Maria, preparing lunch and starting a stew for supper. "Maria. Who brought this note?"

"It was one of the hands, senior. Ramon brought it."

"Did he say who gave it to him?"

`He said Senior Scott met him in the north pasture and told him to being it to you. Ramon said that Scott told him that he would return
at 3:00 PM for your answer."

Murdoch checked his watch to find it was only 1:45. "Gracias Maria." He said as he returned to the living room to inform Maria.

"Scott will be waiting in the north pasture at 3:00 for our answer. What shall I tell him?"

"Tell him, I agree to their terms. And you?"

"I'll tell him the same thing." With that, he started for the door.

"Wait. I'll ride with you. If you will saddle the horses, I'll change."

Nodding, Murdoch headed for the barn. Maria met him outside 15 minutes later and they started to the north pasture to inform Scott of their decision. Both felt a bit uneasy with their arrangement, but could see the wisdom in working together to achieve their goal.

*****

 

Scott was waiting at the house when Teresa, Johnny and the children returned from their fishing trip. The children ran ahead when they
saw him chattering excitedly about the fish they caught. "We each caught one." Issa said with pride.

"Hi there Scott, We're havin' rainbow trout for lunch." Johnny said holding up their prize.

"Can we cook it over a campfire? It always tastes better that way." Graciano asked.
 
"Sure. I'll get it started. Maybe our big brother can do the cleaning while I get the fire going."

Scott felt like he was being snookered by his younger brother, but today was just too perfect to object. Scott rolled his shoulders and felt the tension of the last few weeks' release from his body. `Maybe we won't go back' He mused. `We could stay right here and not have to worry about Murdoch's moods and Maria's sharp tongue.' He chuckled to himself as he started toward the back of the house with the fish, knowing full well this was a short interlude before the next battle. He just hoped Maria and Murdoch would come to their senses before something more drastic took place.

After a wonderful meal of trout, Scott suggested the children go into the house and work on their studies. "I won't have you getting behind." he warned. "Johnny, its about time I returned to the north pasture to see if they have a message for us."

`I'm goin' with ya." Johnny said with determination.

Scott seeing no way to dissuade his brother, nodded his head. "Alright then. Let's go."

*****

 

Scott and Johnny topped the ridge overlooking the north pasture. From here they could see down into the valley below and would be able to see a messenger before he saw them. Scott took out his binoculars and scanned the surrounding area. `It's only 2:30. A bit early yet." he said dismounting.

Johnny got down as well and loosened his cinch so Barranca could relax a bit. Tying off the reins, he allowed his horse to graze. Scott did the same, but wisely attached hobbles to his horse's front legs. Scott continued to scan for movement in the valley below. He glanced at his brother, leaning against a tree chewing a piece of grass with his hat over his eyes. Scott checked his watch. `2:55'. If someone was going to come from the ranch, they would be there any minute. As it would probably be Murdoch, he figured his impatient father would be there a bit early if he could. Scott scanned the area again and sat up a bit straighter when he saw two horses ride into the valley. "Johnny." he said as he nudged his brother's boot.

Johnny immediately became alert. "Who is it?"

"Murdoch...and...your mother."

"Both of them?" He asked.

"Yes. Come on. Let's go down to meet them."

A bit more slowly, Johnny gathered Barranca and tightened his cinch before mounting. The two brothers picked their way carefully down
the hill toward the waiting couple.

Murdoch nudged Maria's arm at seeing the two young men riding to meet them. He raised a hand in greeting.

"I hope this is good news." Johnny muttered under his breath.

Scott was the first to speak. `Hello, Murdoch. Maria. Thank you for meeting us."

Not one to stand on ceremony and wanting to get this over with, Johnny said. "Have you agreed to our demands?"

Murdoch was a bit taken aback by his son's blunt words, but Maria put a soft hand on his arm reminding him of their agreement. "Yes Johnny. Your father and I have had a long talk and we have come to an agreement."

"No more fighting? Arguing? Yelling?" Johnny asked.

"Johnny. I know it has gotten out of hand lately, but we'll do our best to avoid fighting and yelling." He looked at Johnny. "Son, to be honest, I'm not sure we will always be able to avoid arguing, but we have talked out a lot of things and we are both willing to try. That's the best we can do." Stopping and looking at the expression on Johnny's face, he added. "Is that enough?"

Nodding, Johnny asked. "What about all the other things?"

"Your mother and I have talked. She is willing to live near the ranch and allow the children to be part of our family. I have agreed to support them financially. All the details still need to be worked out."

"Mama. You agreed to all of this?" Johnny asked a bit skeptically.

"Yes son. I have agreed to give it a chance. We still have things to work out, but we will try to make it work."

Johnny looked at her with uncertainty. He desperately wanted to believe her, but his experience with her was that her best intentions
often left a lot to be desired.

Seeing his obvious uncertainty, she said. "Johnny, give me a chance. Let me show you that I can do this,"

"All right Mama. I'll give you a chance, but if you hurt Graciano or Isabelle, I'll track you down, there will be no where you can hide."
he said menacingly.

"Don't threaten me nino." She returned in the same tone. She stared at him until he gave up and dropped his eyes.

Scott watched the interaction in fascination, but said nothing. Johnny looked back at his mother and to her. "Just remember what I said." With that he turned Barranca around and headed back to the small house.

"I guess we'll gather everybody up, and be heading home." Scott said as he turned his horse to follow Johnny.

Murdoch cleared his throat. "Scott. When we get back home, you and I need to talk about your role in this."

Scott waited a minute and then realized that Murdoch was smiling, "Yes Sir." he said as he nudged his horse into a trot following after his brother.

Murdoch and Maria looked at each other for the first time with a feeling of understanding and followed after the two Lancer sons anxious to reunite the family.

 

~end~

I would like to thank everyone who gave feedback for my first effort writing fan fiction. You're support made it a very enjoyable experience and I truly appreciate it.

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