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Linda Borchers (Kona)

 

 

Thanksgiving With Family

This is one of four stories in my Lancer Holiday series. It is not necessary, but it would help to read them in order:
Thanksgiving with Family
A Christmas in San Francisco
A New Years Eve in Hell
An Easter to Remember

 

Chapter One

Johnny groaned as he trotted under the Lancer arch. He spotted the buggy sitting in the courtyard and knew exactly who it belonged to - Sam Jenkins, the one and only doctor caring for both Morro Coyo and Green River - Not to mention all the ranchers in between.  But, according to Sam, he spent most of his time out here at the Lancer ranch tending to Murdoch's sons.  Beacons for trouble he had said on more than one occasion.

Johnny's first impulse was to turn around and hightail it back to the north range where he had been helping the hands with a stubborn stump that was backing up the creek.  He hadn't meant to get off Barranca, he knew he had orders not to overdo…but when he saw the men obviously needed an extra strong shoulder he couldn't help himself.

Trouble was, he didn't have a strong shoulder at the moment.  It was still healing from last month's encounter with a panicked steer. But he was bristling with the forced inactivity, and against orders, had headed out for a short ride.

He pulled to a stop and was just about ready to rein Barranca around when he saw his father step out the French doors, his face filled with consternation.

"Midre de Dioes…" he breathed, "now I'm in for it."

Slowly he walked his palomino toward the stable, dismounting as gracefully as he could, not wanting his father to see the pain his foolhardy adventure caused him. If he was lucky he would have time to unsaddle Barranca and brush him down, but Murdoch's stern voice stopped him in his tracks.

"Johnny, let one of the hands take care of your horse.  I would like to see you in the study."

Johnny handed the reins to Manual and got a look of sympathy from the young wrangler.

"You are in mucho trouble, I believe, Senor Johnny.  The Patron has been looking for you."

"He has?  How long?"

"Since Senor Doctor arrived.  Two hours maybe more."

"Gracias, Manual.  Give Barranca an extra helping of oats tonight."

"Si, Senor, and good luck."

Johnny nodded, stuffing his left hand inside his belt.  Maybe he could talk his way out of this."

***

Johnny walked into the great room, his head hung in shame.  He always seemed to do something stupid to make his father angry.  This time, he had to admit, his old man had the right.

Sam sat on the sofa, brandy in hand, watching.  Johnny couldn't help but see a twinkle in the old doctor's eyes.  He was going to enjoy this.

Murdoch stood by his desk, his daunting size overpowering the room.

"Well…?" Murdoch asked.

"I just went for a ride."  Johnny shrugged, wincing at the pain his little ride had reawakened in his shoulder.

"I believe you had explicit orders NOT to ride until Sam gave you the go ahead.  Or did I not hear Sam give you the ok?"

Sam shook his head from the sofa.

"I just needed some fresh air.  I don't take good to being cooped up.  And Barranca was getting restless."

"Barranca was just fine.  Jelly has been taking good care of him, and you know that.  He even takes him out for a ride every day."

"But he doesn't know how to run the kinks out of him."

Murdoch's face turned from anger to outrage.  "You ran that horse full out?  With that shoulder?  Johnny…"

"Murdoch," Sam said, downing the last of his brandy, "before you tar and feather the boy I want to have a look at him."  He turned to Johnny. "I'll meet you in your room in a couple of minutes, and don't try to wash the evidence away."

Johnny looked at him, feigning confusion.  "What evidence?"

"Just go upstairs and wait for me."  He waved Johnny away, reaching for his medical bag. "I swear," he sighed to Murdoch, "that boy would test a saint."

"You think he's all right, don't you, Sam?" a touch of concern in his voice.  He was genuinely angry with his youngest son, the boy had no consideration for what he put his family through, but the look of worry in his old friends eyes made him hesitate.

"I didn't like the pallor of his skin, or how much he was sweating. He definitely overdid it today."

"What am I going to do, Sam, hogtie him to his bed?"

"I'm sure we can figure out something less drastic. Here," he handed Murdoch a packet from his medicine bag, "give this to Teresa and tell her to put it in a glass of lemonade.  She can bring it up in about twenty minutes.  I'll be done with my examination by then."

Murdoch looked at the packet in his hand.

"It'll put him out for the next twelve hours. He'll probably be as mad as a cornered Polecat, but he'll get the rest he needs."

"Easy for you to say," Murdoch grumbled as Sam headed up the stairs, "you won't be around when he wakes up.”

***

Johnny paced the floor, tempted to remove his shirt and wash off the dust and caked mud.  But he had learned, over the past two years that Sam Jenkins was not a man to butt heads with.  He may be on in years, and not the biggest man Johnny had ever met, but what he didn't have in size or age, he made up for in guts.  Who else would have treated Johnny Madrid like he did when he took that bullet from Day Pardee?  The old man didn't give an inch even when he threatened him. The man deserved his loyalty…so why the hell couldn't he listen to orders and follow them?

He heard the door click and turned to see Sam enter his room.

"So," he said, setting his medical bag on the bureau, "how does that shoulder feel, and I want the truth."

Johnny lowered his eyes. "A little sore," he admitted.

"Take your shirt off and let's have a look."

Johnny fumbled with the buttons on his shirt, trying to undo each one with only his right hand.

"Any reason in particular you aren't using both hands, Johnny?"  Sam asked.

"Can't raise my left arm," Johnny admitted sheepishly. "It was alright a few minutes ago, it just kind a froze up."

"Let's have a look," Sam sighed.

He gently helped Johnny remove the shirt and had him sit in a chair with his back to him.

"Just as I thought.” Sam said, palpitating Johnny's left shoulder and gently moving his arm back and forth to feel how it moved in the socket, hearing the hiss of pain the young man could not conceal. "When will you young people realize I know what I'm talking about when I tell you to rest?"

"It ain't easy, Sam. I don't take to being stuck inside the house doing nothing."

"Well you should have thought of that before you pulled this damn fool stunt today.  You broke your collarbone, remember?"

"It was feeling better.  I didn't even need the sling no more."

"And who told you that?  Dr. Johnny Lancer?"

"Sam…"

"I'll have your father bring up a tub of water.  I don't want to bind that arm as dirty as you are."

"I'll wear the sling. I promise."

"Too late, Johnny. Your shoulder is swollen and hot to the touch.  It needs to be completely immobilized for at least six weeks.  After that we'll talk about a sling."

Johnny looked at Sam dumbfounded.  "You can't keep me tied up like a turkey for six weeks!"

Sam straightened his shoulders in defiance. "I can and I will. I'll be frank with you, Johnny.  If you don't treat that shoulder right, you could be looking at surgery.  And it's not the type of surgery that I can perform. You'd have to go to San Francisco, to one of the hospitals there.  Now, I'm not just trying to scare you.  I'm telling you what you could face if you don't take this seriously."

There was a light tap at the door and Teresa poked her head in.  "Can I come in?"

"Ah, Teresa, just the person I need.  Would you please tell Murdoch and Jelly that Johnny needs a hot tub of water up here.  Then I'll need your assistance in binding Johnny's arm."

Teresa rushed over to the chair placing the glass of lemonade on the nightstand, then to Johnny's side. "Are you all right?" she asked.

"I'm fine querida. Sam just likes to torture me whenever he can."

Sam chuckled.  "And you give me so many opportunities."

***

Murdoch and Jelly brought the tub up and filled it with buckets of hot water.  Johnny decided it was useless to fight both his father and Jelly, and let them help him undress and climb into the tub.  He had to admit that his shoulder was paining him something awful and the hot water felt soothing.

After a few minutes of soaking in the warm water and drinking Teresa's cool lemonade he began to feel sleepy.

It took all three men to maneuver Johnny safely out of the tub. He was led to the chair and a sheet was thrown over his lap before Teresa returned with an armful of bandages and a freshly washed nightshirt.

By the time Johnny's left arm was securely wrapped in place across his chest, he was fast asleep.  Murdoch gently lifted him from the chair and put him to bed.

"You shouldn't hear a peep from him until sometime tomorrow morning," Sam said, repacking his medical bag.  "I want him to stay in that bed for the next three days…which, if I know Johnny, means twenty-four hours.  After that, he can move about the house. Under no circumstances do I want him on a horse."

Jelly harrumphed. "I'll put a cow bell around the boy's neck if'n I have ta.  He ain't leaving this house until he gets the ok from you doc."

"I don't think a cow bell will be necessary, Jelly," Sam laughed, "but…" his tone turned serious, "he has to take it slow.  I know how hard that is for Johnny, but that was a serious break to begin with. He has to understand that he can't treat this like any old injury."

Murdoch pulled the covers up, carefully tucking them around Johnny's shoulders.  "Don't worry, Sam, this is one time Johnny won't get his way."

Sam looked skeptically at the three determined faces.  "We'll see." He pulled a handful of packets from his bag and handed them to Teresa.  "Here are some sleeping powders and something for the pain. If I were you I wouldn't tell him about it, just give it to him when you think he needs it."

Murdoch had to laugh. "You know my son all too well."

Sam hefted his bag and headed for the door.  "Murdoch, if I were a younger man, I'd write a book, and Johnny Lancer would be the main subject.  I believe," he said with a wink, "that I could even fill two volumes with your son alone."

Murdoch smiled.  Taking one last glance at his sleeping son, he patted Sam on the back.  "I'll see you out, Sam."

***

Murdoch escorted the doctor downstairs, only to be startled by Scott as he charged through the front door.

"Of all the gall!"  Scott roared, pulling a letter from his shirt pocket. "Of all the unmitigated gall…"

"Scott?" Murdoch looked from Scott to Sam, at a loss for words.

"When I was in town I picked up the mail.  This…" he shook the letter.

Murdoch shrugged. "We're not mind readers, Scott."

"Grandfather," Scott said helplessly.

"Harlan?"

Scott nodded.  He opened the letter, "My dearest Scotty," Scott began reading, "as I near the twilight of my life, I realize how precious family truly is.  The thought of spending another Thanksgiving, possibly my last, alone is abhorrent.  Therefore I have decided to make the arduous trip from Boston to California.  The train leaves tomorrow, A.M.  If the schedule is accurate, I will reach Stockton on the twenty-second.  I have procured a personal driver, and I am told I should reach Morro Coyo by the twenty-fourth.  I am sure I can find someone with enough intelligence to direct me to your ranch.  I look forward to our meeting, Scotty, and a memorable Thanksgiving. Yours truly, Grandfather."

Murdoch stood silent, stunned.

"Today is the twenty-fourth." Scott fumed.  "He could be here any minute."

Sam barely suppressed a smile.  "It looks like you're going to have another guest for Thanksgiving dinner."

Murdoch glowered at him.  "This isn't funny, Sam.  The man is intolerable to be around.  And with Johnny laid up."

Scott noticed Sam for the first time. "Johnny?  Is he alright?"

"He'll be fine if he follows orders this time," Sam answered. "But when he wakes up I'm afraid he's going to be as grumpy as your grandfather."

"Great.  That's just great."  Scott hung his gun belt on the rack next to the door and slapped some of the dust off himself with his hat.  "I guess I'd better go tell Johnny the good news."

"There's no rush.  Sam slipped some sleeping powder in his lemonade.  He'll be out until the morning."

"Well, I had better be going.  There are other patients out there than Johnny Lancer.  Oh, Murdoch, about dinner Thursday, I think I might cancel…"

Murdoch spun on the old doctor, "Don't you dare, Sam. I'll expect you at two o'clock."

Sam nodded. "If you insist. I'll need to check my patient anyway.  See you Thursday."

***

Scott paced the floor, becoming angrier by the minute.  How dare Grandfather step foot on Lancer land after the last fiasco.  His treatment of Johnny was reprehensible.  He ridiculed Maria, openly deplored the hiring of Mexicans and complained of everything from the hot weather to the lumpy mattress in the guest room.

"Would you please sit down before you wear a hole in the carpet," Murdoch growled. He was seated at his desk going over the books, but he had to admit he wasn't making any headway.  Harlan Garrett's arrival was paramount on his mind.

"Sorry, Sir."  He plopped down on the sofa.  Sitting forward he began to drum his fingers on his knees.  "I just can't believe my Grandfather would invite himself like this.  After his last visit I wrote him and told him in no uncertain terms how upset I was with his actions. He wrote back and said he was only thinking of my best interests."

"An odd way of showing it."

"The sad part about it is that he truly believes I am wasting my time here, turning my back on a lifestyle he had fashioned for me even before I wore long pants."

"Maybe this time he will understand that you have made a decision, and that you’re not going to change your mind in the foreseeable future."

"I highly doubt it.  You know, the more I think about it, the more I realize that nothing good could come of this visit.  He will only ruin Thanksgiving for the rest of the family.  Maybe I should just send him back to Morro Coyo.  He can get a room there, and I could visit him when I have the time."

"No," Murdoch sighed, "he does have a point. Thanksgiving is for family.  And as much as I hate to admit it, he is family. No, we will welcome him into our home."

"He's my own Grandfather, but in all honesty, I can't help but think that he has an ulterior motive for being here."

Murdoch nodded.  "Meanwhile, we have another problem to contend with. Your brother."

"Johnny?"

"Sam has ordered him to stay in bed for the next three days."

Scott smirked…"I'll believe it when I see it"

"Even twenty-four hours would be a victory.  The problem is, even when he's back on his feet, he will be confined to the house for at least a week, then light activity for the next six weeks after that."

Scott whistled.  "That's like a prison sentence for Johnny."

"It gets worse, I'm afraid.  What is going to happen when he's cooped up here all day and he runs into your Grandfather at every turn?"

Understanding dawned on Scott and he collapsed back on the couch.

"Any other time, Johnny would be out on the range all day.  He would only encounter Harlan at mealtime.  But now…"

"I have a feeling this will be one Thanksgiving for the books," Scott sighed.

***

  Chapter Two

 

“Chica, this is going to be the most special Thanksgiving, ever.”  Maria laughed, as she cut vegetables for the evening meal. “Everyone is so excited.  The women are sewing new dresses, the children will be dressed in their Sunday best.  Even the vaqueros will wear their las mejores ropas.”

Teresa gleamed with anticipation as she stood shoulder to shoulder with Maria, kneading bread dough. “It is very little to repay all of you for the work you have done for Lancer this past year, and all the years before.”

“It has been a labor of love, el pequeno.  And so much more since Juanito and Senor Scott arrived.  They brought life to Lancer.”

Teresa nodded, wiping her forehead with her floured hand, leaving a streak of white above her brow. “They made this estancia a home.”

“Si.  Even the patron smiles more often.”

“He does?” she asked innocently.

Maria waved her towel at the young woman she looked upon as a daughter, “He does. But he is angry with his youngest hijo. With right.”

“I know,” Teresa sighed, “Sam has ordered him to stay in bed for three days. But knowing Johnny…”

“Si.  Juanito is a stubborn man.  But we will see to it that he obeys.  No?”

Teresa nodded. “The poor man doesn’t stand a chance.”

“Si.”

The sound of heavy footsteps made both women whirl around to see Murdoch walking into the kitchen, a scowl on his face.

“Ladies…”  Murdoch pulled out a kitchen chair and sat down heavily.

Maria quickly poured him a cup of coffee.  “Is there a problem, Senor?”

 “Si, Maria. Scott received a letter from Harlan Garrett today.”

Teresa sat down beside Murdoch. “Is Mr. Garrett all right?  Is he ill?”

“No,” Murdoch sighed, “but I may be.”

The two women looked at each other, confused.

“Senor?”

“Harlan decided to invite himself to Thanksgiving dinner.”

“Oh no…”

Murdoch nodded, “I’m afraid so…and he could be here any minute.”

“This is bad, Senor, very bad.  There are many families who will not attend if Senor Garrett is here.  They remember how they were treated last time.”

Murdoch banged his hand on the table making the women jump, “Damn the man.  Maria, you tell everyone that nothing will ruin this Thanksgiving.  Not even Harlan Garrett.  We have already hired extra help to cook, serve and clean.  Jelly has been busy making extra tables for the courtyard.  Even Annabel Marlow is coming to help Teresa supervise.”

“You go to so much work for us Senor.  I will make sure everyone is here.”

“Good.  That’s settled.”

Murdoch’s voice trailed off as the sound of a buggy pulled up outside.

“Your company has arrived,” Maria said coldly, returning to her vegetables.

Murdoch shook his head, this was going to be a long visit.  He held a hand out to Teresa. “Shall we greet our guest?”

“Do we have to?”

***

Scott took a deep breath before he opened the door. He loved his grandfather, appreciated everything the man had done for him as he grew up. The best clothes, the best schools. He was the man he was today because of his grandfather…but he was also his own man, and that seemed hard for the narrow-minded Harlan Garrett to accept.

Lancer was his home now. He was immersed in two cultures, both, in many ways, foreign to him.  But he worked hard, and life was good to him here.  He wished he could make Harlan understand that.

He heard footsteps behind him and felt Murdoch lay his big paw of a hand on his shoulder and squeeze it reassuringly.

***

Harlan Garret sighed with relief as the buggy finally pulled to a stop in front of the Lancer home.  He shuddered at the memory of his trip here.  He should have hired a companion to travel with him.  It had been a long, lonely trip, made worse by the prospect of spending the holidays here in the middle of the wilderness, with no cultural or comfortable amenities.

But he wanted to spend time with Scott, and he knew the boy would not come to him, so…

He saw the front door open and smiled at the sight of Scott as he stepped out.  The lad was a far cry from the refined Scott Garrett Lancer he remembered from Boston. He was heavier now, with a deep tan and hair that was in dire need of a trim. He had hoped the boy was just going through a defiant stage the last time he visited.  Trying to prove something to himself and to everyone who said he would never make it out west.  But he had proven them all wrong, Harlan Garrett included, but now it was time to stop playing games and return to Boston where he belonged.

Murdoch Lancer appeared behind Scott along with Teresa, his ward.

It amazed him that Scott could tolerate the overbearing Murdoch Lancer for even a day, let alone two years.

The boy must have been brainwashed in some way.  What else would explain his lack of good judgment?

Well, before his visit was over he would have Scott seeing his way.  The only obstacle was that half-breed, half-brother.  That young man seemed to have cast a spell over young Scotty.  But even the ex-gunslinger would not stand in his way.  Scott Lancer Garrett would be in Boston by the New Year.

“Scotty, my boy.”  Harlan smiled as he waited for Scott to lend him a hand down.  His old body ached from the rough ride.  “It is so good to see you.”

“Grandfather.”  Scott offered his hand. “This is quite a surprise.”

“Yes, yes I imagine it is.  But I thought I sent my letter in a timely fashion for you to prepare for my visit.”

“We received it this morning,” Scott answered, a hint of displeasure in his voice.

“I hope my visit will not be too much of an inconvenience. But I assure you I will not be a burden.  You will hardly know I’m here. Just go about your normal activities.”

He looked past Scott to nod at Murdoch.

“Murdoch.”

“Harlan.”

Harlan noticed the two dozen or so tables set up in the courtyard.

“Are you expecting a lot of guests?” he asked.

Murdoch nodded. “It’s a family celebration.”

Harlan looked puzzled for a moment.  Murdoch had no family here except for his two sons, the only one that could possibly have an extended family was…no…the thought was too repugnant to even consider…the half-breed’s family.

“Well then, one more mouth to feed should not be an imposition. I look forward to the celebration.  Now, Scotty, if you could get one of your workers to bring my bags to my room, I will freshen up before dinner.”

Murdoch’s eyes widened as he counted the bags stacked in the buggy.

“Are you planning a long stay?”

Harlan smiled, threading his arm through Scott’s. “No, just through Christmas…”

***

Dinner was served and Harlan sat in Johnny’s chair, across from Scott.  As food was set on the table Harlan looked around. “Aren’t you going to wait for your other son?” he asked.

“My other son has a name, Johnny,” Murdoch answered, a hint of anger in his voice.  “And, no, Johnny won’t be joining us for dinner tonight.  He had an accident a few weeks ago and re-aggravated the injury today.  The doctor has confined him to bed for the next three days.”

“I’ll believe it when I see it.”  Scott laughed.

“I hope it isn’t serious.”  Harlan added what he thought was just enough concern in his voice.

“Johnny doesn’t think so.  But it is.  He broke his collarbone.  He doesn’t have the patience to let it heal completely.”

“I hope he’s well enough to join us at Thanksgiving dinner.”

“Don’t worry, Mr. Garrett,” Teresa assured him, “nothing will keep Johnny from the supper table that night.”

***

Dinner was a bit strained, but pleasant enough.  Soon after pie and coffee Harlan excused himself.

“A lovely dinner, my dear Teresa.  But now I must retire to my room.  It was a long hard trip, and I have to admit that I am exhausted.  If you will all excuse me.”

Scott started to get up. “I’ll see you to your room, Grandfather.”

“Nonsense, I know where it is.  Have that glass of brandy with Mur…your father.  I will be just fine.”

Scott sat back down.  “Good night, Sir.  We’ll talk more tomorrow.”

“I look forward to it, Scotty”

As the old man left the room there was a collective sigh.

“Did he say Christmas…?”  Murdoch cringed.

***

 

Harlan made his way down the hall toward his room.  He noticed one door left ajar and curiosity got the better of him.  As quietly as he could he opened the door enough for him to poke his head in.

He was surprised to see Scotty’s half brother sleeping soundly. The boy’s dark skin contrasted against the swaddling of white bandages wrapped tightly around his chest, holding his left arm securely in place.

Carefully Harlan opened the door far enough for him to slip inside and tiptoed over to the bed.

What possessed Scotty to bestow this ruffian with so much loyalty, loyalty that should have been reserved for no one but Harlan Garrett, the man who raised him and loved him.

He studied the boy’s features.  With the startling blue eyes hidden behind closed eyelids, there was no hint of his Anglo ancestry from Murdoch’s side.  Only Maria…the Mexican woman Murdoch had bedded in Matamoros.

Thank heavens Scotty was safe in Boston.

He had known about Murdoch’s dalliance, and his marriage to Maria. He also knew about the offspring he had sired.  A half-breed.  He remembered he felt a moment of pity for the poor boy, he would belong to neither culture, always in between.  It was no wonder he grew up to be a gunslinger.  He was destined to follow a dark path.

But not Scotty.  He was the light of Harlan Garrett’s world. That’s what made it so painful when Scotty decided to leave Boston.  He had vocalized his objections, but he had not physically tried to stop the boy.  He knew once Scotty got a taste of the wilderness and Murdoch Lancer, he would be back in Boston where he belonged. Six months at the most.

“But you came along…” Harlan whispered.  He felt the boy’s cheek, it felt cool to the touch.  His breathing was soft and even, the sleep of the drugged.  “What kind of hold do you have over my Scotty?”  He fingered the pillowcase.  It would be so easy to simply place it over the boy’s face.  In his drugged state there would be no fight. He would simply cease to breathe.  The thought was tempting.  But he had another plan. “Enjoy the company of your half-brother for a short while longer, because I will not be returning to Boston alone.”

Quietly Harlan left the room.  He needed his sleep.  There was work to be done here, and it would begin tomorrow.

***

Johnny knew the feeling, mouth as dry as the desert, mind just not quite in tune, body as heavy as stone.  Sam had slipped him something.  Well, that wasn’t about to happen again.

He opened his eyes slowly, letting them adjust to the morning sun.  Damn, he had slept all afternoon and all night.  And by the looks of the sun shinning in through his bedroom window, it was well past breakfast.

That part was ok. He really wasn’t hungry. He shifted slightly and gasped at the pain in his shoulder.  That’s when he noticed the bandages circling and crisscrossing his chest.  Sam had tied him up tighter than a turkey at Thanksgiving.

Gingerly he levered himself up on his right elbow then slid his feet over the side of the bed.  He was surprised how weak he felt, probably courtesy of Sam’s knockout drops.

The pain was more than he expected and he couldn’t suppress the curse that escaped his lips.  He hoped no one heard.

He struggled until he was sitting on the edge of the bed, his face wet with cold sweat, blackness threatening to overpower him.

But he fought back.  Nothing was going to keep him in this bed.  He’d broken bones before. It was always best for him to push himself.  He healed faster.  Lying in bed did nothing but soften his muscles.

He leaned his head forward, pushing back the nausea. He would rest when he got downstairs.

Johnny didn’t hear the light tap at the door, or see the figure take a hesitant step into the room.  He was too busy trying to keep from passing out.

“Are you alright, Johnny?”

Johnny knew that voice…he sucked in his breath, lifting his head.

“Garrett…?” he croaked.

“You really shouldn’t be trying to get out of bed on your own.  I’ve been told by your family that you are to stay in bed for three day, per the instructions of your doctor.”

“Sam is a worry wart.  He’d put you to bed for a hangnail.”

“A broken collarbone is a bit more serious than a hangnail.  Now, let me help you lie back down.”

Johnny looked at the old man suspiciously. “Don’t bother. I ain’t laying down.”

“Yes you are, young man.”  Murdoch’s stern voice startled both Johnny and Harlan. “Sam wants you to stay in this bed for three days.  It hasn’t even been twenty four hours.”

Johnny tried lifting his legs back on the bed. “I don’t need you two acting like nursemaids.  I can do it myself.”

“Perhaps it would be best if I went downstairs and told Teresa her patient is awake.”

Murdoch nodded without looking back. “Tell her Johnny would like some nice cold lemonade.”  Murdoch hoped Johnny’s mind was still too addled to remember the consequences of the last glass of lemonade he drank yesterday afternoon.

“I ain’t nobody’s patient,” Johnny yelled after the departing man.  “What the hell is he doing here?” Johnny gasped, as Murdoch disregarded his son’s complaints and gently lifted his legs back on the mattress.  He noticed the boy’s pallor and cold sweat on his forehead. He wouldn’t have made it two feet without collapsing.

“He’s joining us for the holidays,” Murdoch answered, as he gathered pillows from the two bottom drawers of Johnny’s bureau and piled them against the headboard, carefully settling Johnny in the center of them.

“You never told me you were inviting him.”  Johnny closed his eyes against the growing pain in his shoulder. “Sam’s got me tied up too tight here, my shoulder hurts like hell.”

“Your shoulder hurts like hell because you went against his instructions yesterday.  Now you have to pay the price.”

The sound of light footsteps announced Teresa’s arrival, and she hurried into the room, a tall glass of lemonade in her hand and a worried look on her face.

“Johnny, how do you feel?”  She handed him the glass and saw his right hand shake.

“Johnny decided to go for a stroll…luckily Harlan heard him and stopped him in time.”

“Oh, Johnny, when are you ever going to learn?  Now, you drink that lemonade.  It’s nice and cold and refreshing.”

Johnny sipped at it and nodded. “Tastes good.  Thank you querida.”  Looking toward Murdoch he asked again, “What is Harlan doing here?”

Murdoch shrugged. “He decided he didn’t want to spend the holidays alone and hopped on the train.  We didn’t know until about an hour before he showed up.”

“Great.”  Johnny closed his eyes against the growing fatigue. “You letting him stay?”

“I can’t very well tell the man that he can’t share Thanksgiving dinner with his grandson.  No, I think we are just going to have to grin and bear it.  And you Johnny…you are going to have to be on your best behavior.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll stay as far away as I can.  He’ll only see me at supper time.”

“And how do you plan to do that?  Remember, you are stuck in this house the next week or so, and then still restricted from riding for another month.  I’m afraid the two of you will be spending the most time together.”

“No…”  Johnny’s eyes grew heavy.  “No way…” His voice trailed off as the sleep powder took effect again.

“He’ll sleep until supper time,” Teresa whispered.

“Good.  It gives us one more day before all hell breaks loose.”

***

  Chapter Three

Breakfast began quietly.  Teresa and Maria served the customary hearty breakfast, one that would stick to a man's ribs as he worked on the range, sometimes not eating again until dinner.

Harlan watched the procession of food placed on the table: Steak, potatoes, eggs, bacon, biscuits, fresh churned butter, molasses, maple syrup, jams and jellies.

He watched, horrified, as his Scotty began piling his plate high with steak and potatoes. He followed that with mounds of scrambled eggs and a handful of biscuits.

"Scotty, far be it from me to tell you how to eat…but…isn't that rather a lot of food to eat at one meal?  You'll make yourself ill."

Scott smiled and glanced toward Murdoch's plate.  The big man's plate was filled twice as high. "I'm having a light breakfast this morning.  I've got to go into town for a few errands, so I can eat at the saloon."

"I hope you are referring to food and not beer for lunch."

"One beer and the best pot roast this side of Lancer."

Teresa giggled. "Why thank you kind sir."

"You are very welcome.  Although he does add a little zing to his gravy."

"Better not ask him where that zing comes from." Murdoch laughed.

"Don't worry. Ignorance is bliss."  Scott loaded a biscuit with molasses and stuffed half of it into his mouth.  "Grandfather, if you want to ride along, I wouldn't mind the company."

"Thank you, my boy, but I think my backside could do with a rest. Your roads, or lack of roads, I should say, are rough on an old man."

The kitchen door opened and Maria brought hot coffee and cream.

"Senor Scott," she said, patting his shoulder, "You eat like a bird this morning.  Are you ill?"

"No, Maria," he grinned, "Morro Coyo this afternoon."

"Si, the pot roast.  Juanito speaks of it often."

Harlan watched the way in which Maria spoke to Scotty, where was the respect between servant and employer?

"I have tortilla soup simmering on the stove for Juanito when he awakens. He will be mucho grouchy."

"He'll love that, Maria," Teresa said.  "It's his favorite."  She turned to Harlan. "It's Johnny's favorite soup.  She makes it only for him.  It's too hot for the rest of us."

"The first time I tasted it I thought I was eating liquid fire."  Scott laughed.  "Remember, Maria?  I thought Johnny was going to have a fit he was laughing so hard."  He patted her hand, "Thank you. You may save us all from the wrath of Johnny.  I should be home before he wakes up, so I'd like to take it to him."

"Si.  It will be ready." Maria walked back into the kitchen, feeling Harlan's eyes digging a hole in her back.

"Scotty, is it wise to become so familiar with the hired help?  There must be a distinction between the employer and the employee."

"Maria is part of this family," Murdoch responded, his smile waning.  "We treat all our people with respect, they in turn respect us.  They don't cower in the corner..."

An uncomfortable moment of silence filled the room.

"Yes, well."  Harlan placed his napkin over his half eaten breakfast and pushed back his chair. "I am still tired from my trip.  I believe I will retire to my room for a morning nap."

Murdoch nodded.  "If you need anything, Maria will be here.  I have to check the north forty boundary lines today, Teresa will be at Annabelle Marlow's house planning Thanksgiving dinner."

"Johnny should sleep through the day," Teresa said, "but if he wakes up early tell Maria.  She'll know what to do."

"No need to worry.  I will make sure the boy stays in bed."

Scott shifted uneasily in his chair. "Grandfather, I think it best that you stay away from Johnny. He's going to be in a bad mood to begin with, and you two...well, you have had your misunderstandings in the past."

Harlan waved his hand dismissing the thought. "The past is past, besides this is the holiday season, time to come together as a family.  That is why I am here.  Johnny is part of your family, so he in turn is part of mine.  Have a good day all, and I will see you this evening."

A nervous hush fell over the Lancer breakfast table.  There was trouble on the horizon...everyone could feel it.

***

Harlan passed Johnny's room and quietly opened the door.  The ex-gunfighter was sleeping soundly, propped up against a mound of pillows.  Hanging from the bed post behind the pillows he could see the butt of a pistol.  He remembered that the boy never slept without his gun close by.  Another reason Scotty was not safe in this house. Anything could happen with the likes of Johnny Madrid around.  He knew that for a fact.

He had taken great pains to follow Scotty's half brother from the time his mother first fled to Mexico until Scotty wrote that he had met him here at Lancer.

He knew Murdoch hired his own Pinkerton agents to find the boy. But they were never successful, not until just before the boy returned to the ranch.  Harlan, however, knew his every step.  Knew the names of the men he killed, knew the land wars he fought in. He knew things Murdoch couldn't even fathom.

It was a fact he had never revealed to his grandson.  The homeless boy on the streets of a dozen border towns.  The reputation that grew in leaps and bounds.  He watched silently...safe and warm in his Boston mansion, his grandson at his side.

In a perverse way, he reveled in the boy's misery, knowing in time that Murdoch Lancer would learn what had become of his precious dark haired son. He had planned on revealing all he knew soon to Murdoch, but the boy beat him to it.

He closed the door slowly and made his way to his own room.  The secrets he held were damning.  They would bring Scotty back to Boston where he belonged.

***

Johnny couldn't believe they had tricked him again. Teresa must have slipped a sleeping powder into his lemonade.

He looked up at the ceiling, waiting for his vision to clear.  He knew they meant well.  They cared for him in their own way.  But it was not his way.  No matter how bad the pain, no matter how sick he felt, he had to remain in control. It was what had kept him alive when others around him fell.  It was a part of him, as automatic as breathing in and out...which at the moment was more difficult because of Sam's bindings.  The old doctor was trying to teach him a lesson…well, Johnny Lancer was plenty smart.  He'd leave the bandages on for a week or so, just to keep peace in the family, then they'd come off.

But one thing he would not do was stay in this bed another minute.

He struggled until he was sitting up, his feet feeling the softness of the throw rug.

They had stripped him of everything but his cut-off long johns.  He looked over at the top of his bureau and spotted his pants, freshly washed, he was sure, if Teresa got her hands on them.

He stood up cautiously.  He waited until the room stopped spinning then carefully walked over to fetch his pants.

Putting them on was a whole different story.  He returned to the bed and sat on the edge, struggling with each pant leg.  Then the real problem arose…how was he going to button his pants one handed? He tried, failing miserably.

***

Harlan heard the stifled curse from behind Johnny's door as he walked down the hall. Intrigued, he tapped on the door lightly, then opened it.  The boy might have tried to get out of bed and hurt himself this time.

Instead, he found Johnny standing by the bed berating himself in a long line of Spanish expletives, as he tried to button the fly of his pants.

"May I be of help?" he offered.

Harlan Garrett was not ready for the cold, dangerous look he received from the ex-gunfighter.  A shiver ran down his spine.  This was a very dangerous man.  Thank God he was not too late to save his grandson.

"I believe your doctor recommended three days bed rest." Harlan was proud that his voice revealed none of the apprehension he felt being so close to a known killer.

"The doc can recommend all he wants.  I ain't staying in this bed another minute. And I ain't falling for any more sleeping powders."

Harlan laughed in spite of himself.  The man seemed more of a petulant little boy at the moment, defying authority.

"Then perhaps you had better let me help you."  He nodded at Johnny's left arm, entombed in the layers of bandaging. "You seem to be at a distinct disadvantage at the moment."

"I don't need your help.  Tell Scott or Murdoch to come up here."

"Unfortunately they are both gone.  In fact, it is just you and I and your cook downstairs.  So, you can allow me to help, or go downstairs like that."

Johnny flushed at the sight of his pants hanging open.  He tried again to ease the button through the buttonhole, but it was impossible.  With a heavy sigh he nodded his head.

Johnny averted his head, embarrassed, as Harlan began buttoning his fly.

"You know, you need not feel embarrassed, I did the same thing for Scotty when he returned from the war."

"Yea?"

Harlan nodded. "He was ill for quite some time and required a lot of attention.  He was embarrassed at first also.  He needed help nearly every day for almost a month."

"He was pretty sick, huh?"

"Yes.  Very ill.  He hasn't told you about it?"

Johnny shook his head. "He doesn't talk about the war much. He doesn't talk about much of anything, really. He tells us about Boston, and the places he's gone, the things he's seen, but not much about himself."

Harlan felt a soar of excitement.  The boy was opening the door.  This was going to be much easier than he thought.

"I'll tell you what." Harlan finished the last button and stepped back, giving the young man a moment to regain his dignity. "Why don't you sit in this chair right here." he motioned to the chair beneath the window. "And I'll tell you a little about your brother.  I'll even show you."

"No. We go downstairs, then you can tell me about Scott."

"Do you think its wise to attempt those stairs?"

"Maybe not, but that's never stopped me before.  Where are my boots?"

Harlan raised his hand. "You will have no need for boots lying on the sofa downstairs. I can see why Murdoch says you are a handful."

"He does?"

"Yes.  And rightly so.  Now, let's get you downstairs and comfortable.  Then I'll show you something you will find quite interesting."

Johnny found his legs weaker than he thought.  Damn Sam and his sleeping powders. The effects lasted longer than a hangover.

Harlan wrapped his arm around Johnny's waist, his arm surprisingly strong for an old man, and slowly eased the young man down the stairs.

By the time Johnny reached the last step he was dripping with cold sweat.

Maria walked out of the kitchen, drying a vase when she saw Johnny.  "Madre de Dios!  What are you thinking, Juanito?" She set the vase down and hurried to take Johnny's right arm, leading him to the sofa with Harlan's help.

"You are supposed to be resting in your bed.  The Patron will be mucho angry with you, as am I."

"Maria, I'm not dying.  I got a broken bone.  I've had 'em before."

"You heard Senor Doctor, he has much concern over your broken bone.  Aye…" She raced around finding a blanket and pillows. "Then I insist you lay down here on the sofa."

Johnny allowed her and Harlan to ease him down onto the sofa, secretly relieved to be off his feet.  In all honesty he was about ready to pass out.

"That will be all."  Harlan said tersely to Maria.  "We will call you if we need further assistance."

Maria harrumphed, spinning on her toes and marching back into the kitchen, the vase forgotten.

Johnny had not heard the exchange, he was too busy trying to find a comfortable position for his throbbing shoulder.  Maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all.  But he had made it out of that bed.

"There now." Harlan smiled. "You rest comfortably and I'll see about getting those things I mentioned about Scotty.  I will only be a moment."

Johnny closed his eyes.  Wasn't it enough that he was stuck here with a broken shoulder…did he have to put up with Harlan Garrett too?  And worse…it was a nice Harlan Garrett.

***

Harlan rummaged through one of his many suitcases until he found what he wanted.  A twenty by ten inch box, five inches deep at the most.

He set it carefully on the bed and opened the lid.  He brushed the fine leather cover of a photo album.  Inside the pages of that album rested Johnny Madrid's demise.

He opened it to the next to last page, making sure the letter was still there, folded so Madrid's name was impossible to miss.

He smiled.  Soon he would have his Scotty back.  It was a shame he had to break up the family just two days before Thanksgiving, but Christmas was only weeks away and he was determined to have Scotty home in Boston for the holiday.

He closed the book and headed down the stairs.

***

Johnny was surprised when he realized he had dozed off.  Harlan was standing over him, a leather-bound book of some kind in his hands.

"Sorry I woke you Johnny.  Perhaps you should get some more rest. This can wait until later."

"What's that?"  Johnny asked before he could catch himself.  If he hadn't said anything the old man would have taken off.

"It's a photo album of Scotty as he grew up."

Johnny was instantly intrigued.  He had never had his picture taken until Murdoch had insisted on a family portrait.  But he had seen his share of wanted posters with his face sketched for all to see.

Harlan laid the album on Johnny's lap and helped him to sit up straighter against the pillow.

"I was lucky enough to retain an excellent photographer when Scotty was still an infant.  As you will see the quality of the photos change as he gets older and photography improved.  I consigned a very well known bookmaker to assemble this album.  Take your time.  Look through it.  There are inscriptions beneath each picture…some are quite lengthy, others are simply dated with the location.  If you have any questions, I'll be looking through your father's vast array of books.  I was surprised, quite frankly, when Scotty wrote of Murdoch's predilection for good books."

Johnny nodded, barely hearing the old man's words as he opened the album.  He was instantly drawn into another world…his brother's world.

 

Chapter Four

Johnny slowly turned page after page, mesmerized.

Here was his brother, growing up before his eyes.  The first picture was of an infant, only a few months old.  The photo was brown and gray, the paper thick and heavy.  Beneath it, inscribed in gold lettering was Scott Garrett.  Age: 3 months.  June 14th, 1845.

The next picture was of a little boy holding onto a low table, the gray tones of the photo still highlighting his blonde hair and light skin.  Scott Garrett's first steps, it read. April 28th, 1846.

"Once little Scotty started walking, he was a handful." Harlan startled Johnny, leaning over the back of the couch, making him flinch.  The movement brought a stab of pain to his shoulder. "We had to rearrange the entire house."

Page after page showed a little boy growing up.  But there was never a smile on the boy's face.  He looked stiff and profoundly sad.

Another one, Scott Garrett, Christmas 1849.  Little Scott was surrounded by stacks of Christmas presents.  Johnny could only imagine the bright colors of the wrappings around the packages.  He felt a twinge of resentment.  Scott had everything, in excess.  When he was five he was lucky if there was food on the table for him and his mama.

"Scotty always loved the holidays.  You would never know it, by the look on his face, he hated posing for pictures.  He was so excited on Christmas mornings.  He could barely wait until the servants had prepared breakfast.  I insisted that he eat a full meal before he could touch even one present."

Harlan studied the look on Johnny's face.  Did he see a shadow of envy cross the ex-gunslinger's face, or was it perhaps resentment?

The next page revealed a series of pictures taken at a birthday party.  Johnny saw a little boy, dressed in a fancy suit with short pants.  One picture showed the boy, surrounded by a dozen or more little boys his age, holding up a sign reading, March 3rd,1850, Happy 5th Birthday Scotty.  Never once did he see the boy smile. One picture caught his eye.  Scott stood next to a younger Harlan and a man who towered over everyone.  As Johnny looked closer he sucked in his breath, it was Murdoch.

"Your father visited Scotty once in Boston.  It was decided that Scott would be better off if he stayed with me, where he could take advantage of the best schools and everything my wealth would provide him.  Scotty had also made a number of friends he would dearly miss if he were to leave."

Johnny suddenly felt overwhelmingly sad.  He had never had a boyhood friend. Never had a birthday party.  The month of his sixteenth birthday, what day of the month he had long forgotten, was spent in jail.

His friends were boys like himself, living life just to survive day to day.  Any one of them would have stabbed you in the back for a hot meal and a warm bed.

Johnny cleared his throat. "Scott didn't know Murdoch was his father?"

"Not then.  Later I told him. Told him he could visit if he wanted to.  Scotty chose to remain in Boston."

"And me?  Did he know about me?"

"No.  I didn't think he was ready to learn that his half-brother was a killer for hire."

Johnny bristled at the contempt in the old man's voice.

"Johnny, Scotty was a child of privilege."  Harlan's voice softened, he couldn't show his hand too early.  The boy had to trust him. For just a moment.  That's all it would take. "Scotty never went to bed with a belly aching from hunger.  He never awoke alone and afraid. There was always money in his pocket to buy whatever he wished.  How could he understand the life you led?  For him, there was right and wrong.  No in between.  I feared he would see only the wrong."

Johnny bowed his head.  The old man spoke the truth. Scott saw life as black and white, right and wrong. His own rights and wrongs were always colored with the need for survival.  How could Scott understand that his gun became his only friend.  His reputation the only thing he could take pride in.

It was not always so bad. When he was very young he could remember his mama taking him to big houses where she cooked and cleaned. There was always food on the table.  Not a lot…but enough.  But birthdays and Christmas's were ignored. There was never enough money for gifts, so his mama chose to not celebrate at all.

When he was old enough to understand he saw the tears. She seemed to grow sadder every day.  He couldn't remember a smile or a laugh.

Then when he was seven or eight, she changed. Bringing home men every night, drinking from sunup `till the strangers left the tiny house early the next morning.  She had died inwardly long before she was killed by her enraged lover.

Johnny took a deep breath.  He hated the memories.  For him, life began the moment he became Johnny Madrid.

He returned to the album and turned the next page. Still more pictures.  Scott in his teens.  In one picture he was dressed in a suit Johnny wouldn't wear even to his own burying.

Johnny had to smile at the sight of his brother, standing stiff as a board, wearing a black suit with a white shirt, the collar tight enough to strangle the boy, and a top hat and white gloves.  Johnny wondered for a moment if he hadn't had a better life. No restrictions, no rules to follow, no strangulation suits to wear. But the answer had to be a resounding no.  At fifteen Johnny already had a reputation as Johnny Madrid.  Never a night went by that he didn't wonder if he would see the sun the next morning.  His reputation made him a target.  Even as he slept, there was no guarantee that someone wouldn't put a bullet between his eyes and claim bragging rights.

No one would ever know how tough his life had really been.  In the end all he had was a reputation. But it appeared that Scott had had everything.

The next inscription read, Mr. Scott Garrett and Miss Penelope Hudson, Debutant Ball, November 17, 1861.  He would have to ask Scott what the hell a debutant ball was.  It must have been something fancy.  Scott was again dressed in that strangulating suit, his right, white-gloved hand, posed over his heart and the other threaded around the young woman's elbow.  She was pretty with her hair piled high atop her head.  This time there was a smile. But it looked cold and forced.

"Miss Penelope Hudson was a lovely girl, wasn't she?" Harlan asked.  "She was quite smitten with young Scotty Garrett.  And she wasn't the only one. There wasn't a young woman in Boston who would not faint at the mere mention of his name."

"He didn't use the name Lancer?"

Harlan shook his head. "In the beginning it seemed easier for Scotty to go by Garrett.  It averted a lot of embarrassing questions.  When he was old enough to make his own decision he chose to keep the name."

Johnny turned the page and found the picture Scott had in his room of him and General Sheridan.  So that was the beginning of his war years.  Scott looked proud there.

"That was the last picture of Scotty.  He sent that to me just prior to his capture," Harlan said sadly. "But," he laid his hand on Johnny's shoulder, "I almost forgot, you haven't eaten since yesterday.  I'll go tell the cook to prepare you some lunch."

Harlan started for the kitchen, stopping at the doorway to watch, surreptitiously, as Johnny turned the next page.

As Johnny turned the page he noticed a folded letter.  At a glance he recognized Scott's neat, precise handwriting.  He was about to ignore the letter and concentrate on the pictures beneath it when he noticed his name.

Slowly he picked up the letter.  It was not his to read, but there was his name: Johnny Madrid.

With difficulty, he unfolded the letter one handed, and began to read…

My dearest Grandfather,

I write to you as I sit at my brother's bedside, as he recovers from a gunshot wound to his back.

I cannot tell you how shocked I was to find that I had a half brother.  I believe he was just as shocked.

We met when he procured a seat on my stage during the last leg of my long grueling trip.  Never would I have thought, in a million years, that the dusty, rude cowboy that wedged himself between myself and another passenger would turn out to be my brother.

 

I have stayed by his bedside for hours now, watching him struggle through the fever that courses through his body.  As he cries out in his delirium, I understand little of what he is saying.  It appears his native tongue is Spanish.

To be truthful, Grandfather, I don't know what to make of him. At first I disliked him intensely.  He was caustic and rude to Murdoch Lancer.  I'm not saying Mr. Lancer did not deserve his contempt.  As it turned out, the letter, and the promise of a thousand dollars for a minute of our time was just a ruse to get us to Lancer to help in the fight against land pirates.

I believe he stayed for the money only.  I stayed, I'm really not sure why I stayed.  It was surely not for the money.

In the end he put his life on the line.  To be certain he is not a coward.  He fought the battle in his own way, and survived, barely.

But the dilemma is the man himself.

Grandfather, he frightens me. There is a coldness about him that makes my skin run cold.

I cannot get past the fact that he is Johnny Madrid, gun for hire.  A cold- blooded killer.  I have done some research.  His reputation is legendary along the California-Mexico border towns.

The stories have him killing twenty to two hundred men, depending on what side of the border you are on.

In the end, it does not matter the number.  Only that he was hired to murder each and every one of them.

I don't believe I can remain under the same roof with a man like that.  He goes against every value I hold dear.

As I look at him now, I cannot believe we are related.  We are as different as night and day.  He is dark completed, with hair as black as coal.  The only thing he inherited from Murdoch Lancer was his eyes.  A startling blue.

He obviously holds onto his Mexican heritage.  He dresses in the gaudy colors of the Mexican people.  At times I wonder if I am even standing on American soil.  More than half the workers here are Mexican.

I knew California had a cross culture, but I did not know that the Mexican influence would be so strong.  Even overwhelming.  I find myself unable to converse with half the workers…workers who I must direct as part owner of Lancer, if I wish to remain.

In closing, I must say that I don't know how long I will stay here. I am not sure that I would ever feel safe under the same roof with a hired killer. I abhor everything Johnny Madrid stands for. He is a killer.  He guns down men for profit, the most vile form of human there is.

I will write again soon.

With love and respect, Scott.

Johnny's hand shook as he read the last paragraph, over and over. ‘I abhor everything Johnny Madrid stands for.  He is a killer.’

And he still was.  Why else would he strap his gun on daily, hang it over his bedpost at night, sneak off whenever he could to practice his draw.  He was still Johnny Madrid.  Killer.

Did Scott still fear him?   Had he seen it in his brother's eyes…that flash of uncertainty?

Johnny let his chin sink to his chest, his shoulder throbbing.  He felt the unaccustomed hot sting of tears in his eyes and forced them back.

It was all a lie.  Scott hated and feared him. Emotions like that are hard to change.  They can be pushed behind a wall of denial…but they still remain.  

He felt like the world bottomed out beneath him. The only person he had ever let into his heart, had trusted with blind faith, believed he was a cold-blooded killer.

 

Harlan was suddenly beside him, snatching the letter from his hand.

"I'm so sorry, Johnny," he sputtered. "This letter was never meant for your eyes.  How could I have been so careless?"

"Are there more?"  Johnny growled.

"They were never meant for you, or anyone else.  They were private letters between my grandson and myself."

"Are there more?" Johnny demanded.

"Yes…but…"

"Get them," Johnny ordered.

"Johnny, please…"

Johnny threw the cover off, struggling to push himself off the sofa.  "Then I'll get them myself."

"No."  Harlan gently forced him back down. "I will get them.  But Johnny, you must remember, they were written when Scotty first came here.  His views and ideas have changed."

"Some ideas never change, even if you want them to," Johnny said, coldly. "Get the letters."

"Very well.  I will only be a moment."

As Harlan started for the stairs he couldn't keep the smile from spreading across his face.  Everything was going perfectly.  The boy had fallen so easily into his trap.  If all went well, Johnny Madrid would be gone from Lancer before they sat down to Thanksgiving dinner.  And with Johnny gone, Scotty would return with him to Boston. He stayed here only because of his misplaced loyalty to his half-breed brother, Johnny Madrid. Without him, there was no reason to stay.

 

Two hours later, Johnny sat stone still on the sofa, three letters lying open on his lap.

The world as he knew it had spiraled away, replaced by uncertainty and bitterness.

The letters were outright indictments against Johnny Madrid.  There were long paragraphs telling of Scott's life on the ranch, his new experiences, his growing love of the country life.  But there were also recollections of Johnny's encounters with his past. The gunfights…the confusion Scott felt over his brother's cold emotionless alter ego…Johnny Madrid.

Grandfather, I find it hard to separate the two at times. Johnny Lancer is warm and caring.  Quick to laugh, honest to a fault…then I see the ghost of Johnny Madrid standing at his side. Which one is the true Johnny?

How do I ignore the fact that he was a hired killer?

There it was.  Again and again.  Hired killer.  Scott feared him. Despised him for what he was.

Slowly he managed to get to his feet, swaying as he walked toward the stairs.  He would leave as soon as he was able.

The last step was the hardest. He had no strength left, emotionally, or physically.  He managed to get to his room and closed the door.

He wanted to be left alone today, to think.

 

Chapter Five

 

Scott rolled to a stop in the courtyard, his wagon filled with food and decorations for tomorrow night's Thanksgiving dinner. He grabbed the small bag of licorice he had sitting on the seat.  It was Johnny's favorite.  His brother seemed to have a sweet tooth that was never satisfied.  Probably because he never had the sweet treats most kids had growing up.

Scott was determined that Johnny experienced everything he had missed.  In so many ways, Johnny really was his "little" brother.  Not in age, or intelligence, but in his child like glee at experiencing something new.

He jumped down, a smile spreading across his face as he surveyed the dozens of tables set up for tomorrow.

By this time tomorrow Thanksgiving would be in full swing.  The tables would be covered by fancy table cloths, decorated with flowers and filled with enough food to fill three times the people invited.

Jelly had worked all month on a huge tarp just in case the weather turned, being that they were already late in November, nothing was left to chance.

Scott was proud when Murdoch announced the plans for this year's celebration. To honor all the hard working people who had given so much over the years was an inspired idea. It promised to be the best Thanksgiving for everyone.

A wonderful way to celebrate everything that was Lancer.

Even the appearance of Harlan Garrett wasn't going to ruin this year. If necessary, he would send his grandfather into Morro Coyo for dinner at the hotel there. It would be difficult, but he would do it.  He had spent most of his life in Boston with his grandfather.  Now it was time he spent a good part of the rest of his life here with his new family at Lancer.

It was too bad Johnny had disregarded Sam's orders, but he could still attend dinner. His after dinner activities would be severely curtailed though. But between Murdoch, Teresa, Jelly, Sam and every woman who was dying to nurse the poor injured Juanito, his brother didn't stand a chance.

He turned and noticed Harlan emerging from the French doors of the great room.

"Grandfather, how was your day?" he called. If Johnny had stayed in his room, perhaps it went well.

"Very nice. Very relaxing." The old man nodded. "Your cook fixed me a passable lunch." He looked passed Scott at the loaded wagon. "It appears you are entertaining the entire county."

Scott grinned. "Not quite, but pretty close to it. How's Johnny?"

"He spent a short time on the sofa downstairs, then retired to his room."

"You let him come downstairs?" Scott's smile disappeared. He was hoping with his grandfather downstairs, Johnny would prefer to stay in his room, where he belonged.

"My dear boy, when Johnny Madrid sets his mind on something, well…"

"He goes by Lancer now." Scott corrected him, a hint of anger in his voice. "Please remember that tomorrow afternoon at dinner."

"Of course."

"I'd better go up and check on him. Would you tell Maria that I have the food Teresa ordered?  She'll know what to do with it."

Harlan arched an eyebrow, ready to complain at the inappropriateness of him addressing the cook, but thought better of it. "Of course. You go look in on your brother."

Scott passed by his grandfather heading for the stairs and feeling a little apprehension.  Johnny and his grandfather were like oil and water. No matter what you did, they would never mix.

***

Scott opened Johnny's door quietly, not wanting to wake him if he had fallen asleep.

He found Johnny lying on top of the covers, fully dressed, staring up at the ceiling, his face expressionless.

"Hey," Scott said softly, closing the door behind him, “You feeling all right little brother?"

"I ain't your little brother…" Johnny said flatly.

Scott grinned. "You mad about the lemonade?"

"I figure that was Sam and Teresa's doing."

"It was. They were only trying to help."

Scott crossed the room, lifting the spoon in a full bowl of tortilla soup. "Not hungry?"

Johnny ignored him.

"So, why the long face?"

"Leave me be, Scott." Johnny said, his voice still flat, "I'm tired."

"I'm not surprised. I heard you took a trip downstairs. Was it worth it?"

Johnny closed his eyes. "Probably the worst mistake of my life." He said softly.

"Johnny…?"

"I said go away, Scott." Johnny said more forcefully.

"Not until I know what's bothering you."

"Get out!" Johnny shouted, grunting at the pain his outburst caused. He dropped his head back down into the pillows. "Please. I need time to think."

"About what?" Scott persisted.  He noticed Johnny's gun was missing from its holster that hung from his headboard.  A prickle of unease washed across him.

"About who I am. About who you are," Johnny answered cryptically.

"I don't understand."

Johnny closed his eyes again, "Scott, I'm asking you nicely to leave me alone."

"All right." Scott stepped away from the bed, confused.  He noticed the sheen of sweat on Johnny's face, and the pale complexion. Paler than this morning. "All right. For now. But you know I'm here if you need to talk."

"I won't."

Scott stared at Johnny for a long moment as he stood in the doorway. There was something missing. His brother was there, in body, but not in spirit. It couldn't have been the accident. He'd been hurt before…ten times worse than this…it was as if he had lost his last friend.

What could have happened between this morning and…Grandfather. Scott slowly closed the door, his anger rising. What had his grandfather said to Johnny?

 

Scott found Harlan sitting in Teresa's garden, his head resting against the back of the bench, with his eyes closed. Was that a look of contentment on his face?

He had such mixed feeling about the old man. Harlan had provided him with everything he could have ever needed as he grew up. Everything he needed, except a warm heart. He craved the love he saw from other parents. When he was sick or hurt he wanted nothing more than a hug. But Harlan Garrett was a cold man. Business was his life. He owned things. He bought friendships.

And yet, Scott found it hard to turn his back on the old man. Even though he didn't know how to show the emotions Scott so desperately wanted, he still loved him in his own way.

And on the dark side, he knew Harlan Garrett would stop at nothing to get what he wanted. There was a long line of broken men behind him.

The thought sent a shiver down his spine. What lengths would he go to drive Johnny out of his life?

"Grandfather," he said sharply.

"Ah, Scotty, I hope you found your brother well."

"Actually, I found him rather depressed. Do you know anything about it?"

"Should I?" Harlan sat up straight, but there was little concern on his face. "What happened?"

"I thought you could tell me. I expected to find him angry. He doesn't like taking pain medications. But there is something else going on here. Do you know what that might be?"

"How should I know what goes through the mind of a…" Harlan stopped, realizing he was heading into dangerous territory.

"A what? A half-breed? A gunfighter?"

"You are being unfair, Scotty. I meant nothing of the kind."

Scott turned toward a trellis of rose bushes, fingering the soft pedals. "What did you talk about?" he asked, keeping his back to the old man.

"I guess we mostly spoke about you."

"Me?"

"You are the only thing we have in common."

"What did you say?"

Harlan straightened his shoulders, eyeing Scott with a look of disapproval. "Scotty, is this an interrogation?"

"I want to know what you said."

"We talked about your childhood. I showed him a few pictures I thought he would enjoy seeing."

"You showed him pictures? What kind?"

"Scotty, I don't think I like your tone of voice."

"What kind of pictures?" Scott demanded.

"I can't remember them all. There were some of you as a baby, a birthday party, Christmas morning…just…"

"Just everything he never had. How could you be so insensitive?! You know he had a rough childhood. Hell, a rough childhood would have been easy. He had no childhood. And you flaunt all the wealth we had?"

"I was not flaunting. I thought he would enjoy seeing his brother in happier times."

"Happier times?"

"Besides," Harlan ignored the question, "if he is so shallow that he could become jealous over what you had…Scotty, should you have suffered just because he didn't have some of the niceties you had?"

"Niceties..? Grandfather, there were times when he was so hungry he'd eat other people's garbage to keep from starving."

"Scotty," Harlan stood up, "I'm sorry. I guess I was just not thinking about the ramifications. I certainly didn't mean that young man harm. I came here to join my grandson and his family at Thanksgiving dinner. Johnny is your half-brother, which makes him part of your family."

"Why do I think that sickens you?"

"Now, you listen here young man, I came here because I'm an old man. I don't know how many holidays I have left. I would like to spend them with you while I can. You have made it abundantly clear that you were not going to come to Boston, so I came here. I'm sorry if I disturbed Johnny, it was not my intention."

"All right…" Scott nodded, "I'll accept that for now. But if I find you said anything else…"

"Believe me, I never said a word that could have been misconstrued."

***

Johnny remained motionless long after Scott left, the letter clenched tightly in his hand.

The words from Scott's letter echoed in his mind as if the man himself had spoken them.  Words that cut like a knife.

`Cold blooded killer…the lowest form of life…'

It broke his heart that Scott had felt that strongly that he could set the words to paper.

But they were true honest thoughts. Proving Johnny Lancer was a lie. Perpetuated by a family who longed to pick up the pieces of a shattered life and make it whole again…  But some things could not be fixed.

Johnny would forever be Johnny Madrid, no matter what he did, no matter how far he tried to distance himself from that life…it was who he was.

Scott knew it then.  He still knew it now.  The only difference was that he had swept the dirty parts of his brother's life into a dark corner of his mind.  Sealing them there, against his own fears and uncertainties.

But the thoughts were still there.  It would only be a matter of time before something happened and they resurfaced.

Johnny couldn't bear the thought of that day.  Of seeing the fear and loathing in his brother's eyes again.

Harlan Garrett had tried to hurt him.  Force him out of his grandson's life. And he had won.

He would leave this evening after dark.

He couldn't stay here now.  Not with that fear hanging over his head.

‘Madre el Dios…’ How could I have been so stupid to think I could change who I was?

The boy who was born here twenty-two years ago died when his mother bundled him in a blanket and disappeared into the night.  He was re-born ten years later as Johnny Madrid.  To think that he could again return twelve years later, with the stink of death on him and assume the role of Johnny Lancer was foolhardy.

He clenched the letter in his palm and closed his eyes.  He needed to regain his strength by nightfall. The pain in his shoulder was intensifying. He would have to shack up close by for a few days until he could ride any distance. He would have to find a place where neither he or the palomino would be spotted.

The plan made, Johnny slipped into a light, nightmare filled sleep.

***

  Chapter Six

 

Murdoch arrived home, just before dinner, tired and hungry.

He was not a young man, and the occasional jobs that required his attention on horseback taxed his throbbing leg and aching back.

A hot soak in the tub and a full meal would do wonders for his disposition.

He was pleased to see the tables nearly ready for the next day's activities.  This Thanksgiving would be one to remember. But nothing could rival last year's celebration.  The first family Thanksgiving with his sons.

He heard the sound of a buggy and saw Teresa pass under the Lancer arch, Cipriano driving the team.

"Everything is almost ready!" she cried before the buggy even came to a stop.

Murdoch swung her down from the buggy, noting her rosy cheeks and sparkling eyes.

"We baked all day." She laughed, her enthusiasm catching. "I even made a special chocolate cake for Johnny.  How is he?  Did he behave himself?"

"I'm sure he had no choice after that lemonade you and Sam concocted.  Even Jelly isn't as devious."

"Why Murdoch Lancer, I believe you just paid me a very big compliment."

"Johnny may differ with you."

"I can handle Johnny Lancer."  Teresa laughed.  "And you look tired and hungry.  I bet Maria has something special on the stove.  You know, she appreciates what we are doing for her, but it is killing her that she can't help prepare tomorrow's meal.  Maybe we should let her do a few things."

"Maybe," Murdoch winked, "we should put her in charge of Johnny. She wouldn't have a moment to worry about cooking."

Teresa slapped him on the arm. "You are impossible.  But I like the idea."

 

As they walked into the house they found a disquieting silence.

Scott sat on the sofa in the great room, nursing a double shot of Murdoch's best bourbon.

Murdoch knew immediately that something had happened. Scott seldom drank before dinner, and then only when he was distressed.  His first thought was of Johnny.

"Scott?" he asked, his voice betraying his concern.

Scott raised his glass toward his father. "Murdoch…welcome home.  The holiday festivities have already begun."

"What…?"

"It seems that my grandfather helped Johnny get dressed and then helped him downstairs."

"Is he alright?"  Teresa asked, feeding her hand through Murdoch's crooked arm.  There was more.  Much more. She could tell by the tone of Scott's voice.

"Physically he's hurting.  But Johnny always pushes himself too hard.  That's not the problem."

"Then what is?"  Murdoch's unease was building.

"While they were down here my grandfather showed Johnny an album of pictures.  They were of me as I grew up."

"Oh no…"  Teresa's heart sank.  "How could he?"

"I don't understand," Murdoch said, "Johnny has often asked you about your childhood.  He seemed genuinely happy to listen to the stories of your holidays in Boston.  I've never seen even a spark of jealousy."

"You're right.  Johnny thrives on my memories.  He lives vicariously through them.  I'm sure he enjoyed looking at the pictures." Scott held up his hand, a wrinkled letter clenched so tightly his knuckles turned white. "But not this."

Murdoch took the few paces across the room and took the letter from Scott.

As he read it, his face reddened with anger.

At first Scott thought the anger was directed towards him.  The look on his father's face was murderous.

"I wrote four letters the first month I was here," Scott said, not to defend his actions, but to explain himself.  "I was confused, lonely and, truthfully a little frightened by Johnny.  He was so different from me.  He was filled with so much anger and hurt. I wrote those in confidentiality to my grandfather, because I needed to talk to someone.  He wrote back and urged me to return to Boston, immediately.  He said it was too dangerous living under the same roof with a gunfighter."

"As you know, it wasn't long before my fears were vanquished by Johnny himself.  He was everything I wasn't, and yet I felt I knew him, understood him as if we had been together for years.  I forgot about those letters.  They were a part of my past. Just as Madrid is part of Johnny's past."

"Johnny read this?"  Murdoch asked, his voice strained.  The words were damning.

Scott nodded, taking another sip of his drink.  "Grandfather said it was an accident, he didn't know the letter was in the album." Scott stood up, smashing the still unfinished glass of bourbon into the fireplace. "My grandfather doesn't make mistakes.  Everything is done with precise planning.  He knew if Johnny read any of those letters he would be devastated.  It was the one thing he could use to put a wedge between Johnny and me."

"What did Johnny say?" Teresa asked, her voice trembling.

"Nothing.  He had fallen asleep.  I found the letter in his hand. I can't even imagine what must be going through his mind.  When we spoke earlier, he said he wanted to be left alone, that he needed time to think about who he was, about who I was.  I didn't understand what he meant at the time…but now…"

"And Harlan?" Murdoch asked.

"I told my grandfather to start packing.  I would drive him into town in the morning and he could get a room there."

Murdoch crushed the letter in his huge hand. "I'd better have a talk with Johnny.  Somehow we have to make him understand he is not the same man this letter described.  He is Johnny Lancer now.  And," he added, his voice filled with venom, "tell your grandfather to keep out of my way.  If I see him I may do something I won't regret.”

***

Johnny was startled awake by raised voices downstairs.  He squeezed his eyes tight, trying to scuttle the cobwebs in his mind.  He hadn't meant to fall asleep.  There were too many things he had to do before nightfall.

He suddenly remembered he had planned to hide the letter so Scott wouldn't find it.  He knew Scott would be filled with guilt if he knew his brother had read his words written so long ago.  Words that still spoke volumes today.

Damn, it had fallen out of his hand.  He searched beneath him, struggled to a sitting position to look on the floor around the bed.  It wasn't there.  Johnny hoped Harlan had snuck into his room to take back the evidence.  But by the sound of Scott and Murdoch's voices below, he knew Harlan had not taken the letter.  Scott did.

He no longer had the time he thought he did.  He wanted to be gone before he had to face Scott.  Before he saw the guilt and then the uncertainty.

He looked around the room and spotted the small brown bottle of laudanum sitting on the small table beside him. He uncorked the bottle with his teeth and took a sip, just enough to get him through what needed to be done. He felt the vile liquid tickle down his throat. He shoulder was hurting too bad for him to even get down the stairs, let alone away from the house.

He sat on the edge of the bed, pushing back the dizziness and pain until he felt both diminish to the point where he could stand up.

He looked down at his bare feet.  He should have insisted that Garrett help him put his socks and boots on earlier.  It would have made things much easier now.  But that was a "What if?" and he knew better than to play that game when time and energy were in low supply.

With more effort than he could afford to expend, he struggled one handed to slip his socks on and then shove his feet into the boots.

He sat for too long, trying to push away the dizziness.  Scott could be heading up the stairs any minute. He sighed deeply, the thought of just flopping back on the bed was tempting…but he knew he couldn't stay.  Not now.

As quietly as he could he pulled his saddle bag from the bottom drawer of his bureau and threw a few shirts and long johns in.  He also added a pair of socks and the family picture he had taken last Thanksgiving.  It seemed his world was suddenly surrounded by reflections of the ones he loved on black and white paper.

As an afterthought, he grabbed the bottle of Laudanum and stuffed it in the bag.

Pushing back from the bureau he slung the saddlebags over his good shoulder and reached under his pillow for his gun.  He wouldn't need his gun belt for awhile. Not until his collarbone healed.

He took one last look at his room.  His room…how often had he dreamed of having a place he could call his own?  Now he had to walk away from it.  He couldn't stand a disappointment as bitter as the one he knew would come, some time, some day when Scott realized who he really was.

Taking a deep breath, he opened his bedroom door and peeked out to find the hallway clear.  He intended to use the outside stairs, hoping no one would notice him.

As he opened the door leading to the small landing at the top of the stairs, he felt a bout of dizziness nearly pitch him over the railing. He took a deep breath of fresh air and held on until it passed.

Taking each step slowly, he made it to the bottom, his legs trembling.  He was sorely out of shape.  How was he ever going to mount Barranca with his arm lashed to his chest?

He would figure that out when the time came.

As he rushed across the courtyard, and behind the stable, he noticed the tables being readied for tomorrow.  He had forgotten about Thanksgiving.  He hoped his friends would have a great feast.  They all deserved it.  They had worked hard, every one of them.

He had made good friends here.  Friends he hated to leave. Why had he allowed himself to get involved in other people's lives?  He knew it wasn't worth the pain in the end.  He would never allow it to happen again. Ever.

***

Murdoch found Johnny's door ajar and pushed it open quietly so as not to wake his son if he was still sleeping.

Scott froze when he heard the roar of his father's voice upstairs. "He's gone!"

He raced up the stairs, Teresa on his heels.

"What do you mean he's gone?"  Scott panted.  He pulled the bottom drawer of Johnny's dresser open and saw the missing saddlebags. "Damn…" he hissed.  "Why…?" he asked, turning to face his father, looking for an answer.

Murdoch shook his head.  "The letter must have affected him even more than we realized. He couldn't have gotten far.  Not in his condition."

"The laudanum's missing," Teresa reported.  "He must feel desperate to take the medicine he hates so much." She searched the room. There was hardly a thing that would indicate he had lived there for more than two years.  No pictures, no personal mementos.  But she knew that despite the lack of accoutrements that personalized most bedrooms, this was Johnny's special place.  It was the only room he could remember calling his.  For him to leave like this broke her heart.

"That proves how much pain he must be in."  Murdoch headed for the door. "He couldn't have gotten far.  Scott, check the stable, see if Barranca is still there.  Form a search party.  Make sure they scour very inch of this house inside and out.  Your brother had a lot of practice making himself invisible. Teresa, you continue with the preparations for tomorrow's dinner."

"But Murdoch…Johnny…"

Murdoch pulled Teresa into his strong arms, brushing the hair from her cheek. "We will find Johnny, I promise.  And we'll bring him back to celebrate Thanksgiving with all of us together."

***

Johnny traveled a little more than twenty minutes when his strength gave out in one big rush.  He fell to the ground, landing on his injured shoulder.  The cry that escaped his lips sent a flock of birds crying into the sky.  He hoped no one saw them and put two and two together.

Already his plan had gone wrong.  He couldn't get near the corral where Barranca was trotting back and forth nervously, feeling Johnny's presence.  And he couldn't get into the stables. Jelly and a half a dozen men were working in and around the structure, preparing for tomorrow.

He allowed himself to rest for a few minutes, face down in the thick grass. He knew there wasn't much in the way of conventional cover.  But he had been on the run, in one way or the other, for more than half his life.  He had saved his skin on more than one occasion by finding cover where there wasn't any. Unless Murdoch resorted to dogs sniffing out his trail, he felt confident that he could hide out here, fairly close to the ranch until he could reach Barranca.

He felt the first hint of the approaching night as the air grew cooler.  The nights were cold here this time of year.  He realized with a sinking heart that he had forgotten to bring a jacket.  He had forgotten a lot of things. The easy life at Lancer had robbed him of his finely honed instinct for survival.  He would never have been caught in the open without a jacket.  He was in for a rough night.

***

Night was fast approaching.  Murdoch's prediction of it being easy to find Johnny was no longer looking like such a sure thing.

Most of the hands were out searching.  The women and children had joined in.  Every inch of the house was checked.  The stables, barn and, corral were searched. Even the old brick prison was not overlooked.

Searchers carefully combed the fields, on foot and horseback, taking care not to trample Johnny if he was laying somewhere unconscious in the tall grass.

But as night fell across the valley, there was no sign of him. Slowly men began to trickle back, heads hung low, soft whispers lamenting the loss of a good friend.  They would all resume the search at first light, but they also knew how unforgiving the cold nights could be to an injured man.

Tomorrow was to be a feast of Thanksgiving. A day dedicated to the workers of Lancer.  But it would not be day of celebration if they did not find the Patron's youngest son.  He was not just a boss, he was a true friend to them all. He knew their world, spoke their language, joined them at their tables.  He was both jefe and amigo.

Scott collapsed into the sofa, tired and disappointed.  Their search had been fruitless.  Johnny was an expert when he didn't want to be found.  Even when he was hurt.

He would go out again at first light. But the night was getting cold.  He feared that Johnny wouldn't have the strength to make it through the night.

What on God's earth was his grandfather thinking?  Didn't he know that he was building a wall between them, making it insurmountable with every new lie and trick he used to bring him back to Boston?

This last trick was the worst.  Not only was it despicable, but it was hurtful.  If Johnny didn't survive, he would see that Harlan Garrett never set eyes on him again.

"Scotty…any luck?"

Scott turned around to see his grandfather standing in the entryway to the great room.

"Can I come in?" he asked.

Scott shrugged his shoulders.  "Do as you wish."

"Any luck finding Johnny?"  Harlan walked to the sofa and sat down.

"Does it look like we had any luck?" Scott shot back. "I don't see how he made it past the courtyard, given his condition. Damn it. Grandfather, what were you thinking?"

"I had no intentions of hurting that young man.  I simply forgot the letter was in there."  Harlan studied Scott closely. The boy was terribly distraught.  It was a shame that he had allowed himself to be manipulated by a half-breed gunslinger.  If not for Johnny Madrid, Scotty would be home in Boston where he belonged.   But this time it looked like his plan would work and Madrid would be found days from now, dead and out of Scotty's life.

"Well you did.  And I won't forget this one, Grandfather."

Harlan shrugged.  "What more could I say?"

Scott shook his head sadly. He wanted to believe the old man…but his gut told him this was no accident.  As Harlan Garrett always said, there was no such thing as an accident.  You held the cards in your hand and played to win. Accidents befell the other guy.

***

 

Johnny maneuvered himself around until he was nestled deeply in the tall grass.  Already the ground beneath him was feeling cold, drawing the heat from his body.

He curled up the best he could, his shoulder screaming with pain.  He didn't dare take a sip of the laudanum.  He had to stay awake throughout the night. Too many dangers out here in the open.

Why did he always act so impulsively?  If he had waited, just a few days until his shoulder was better and he had regained some of his strength, then maybe he could have simply ridden away.  But no…he had to do it the hard way.

What was his family doing right now?  They were probably worried sick.  Teresa and Jelly would be sitting by the fire, waiting.  Murdoch would be at his desk, trying to work his emotions out through his ledger.  And Scott…Scott would worry the most.

But he could not get past the pain those letters brought.  He would never look upon his brother the same way.  Something had died today.

Johnny slowly closed his eyes.  The dream of a home and family was just that…a dream.  He didn't have the right to expect that kind of happiness.  What did that old padre say years ago when he nursed him back to health…‘We all pay for our sins in one way or the other’.  Looked like the old priest was right.  Johnny Madrid was paying for his sins.

 

Chapter Seven

The old grandfather clock ticked slowly in the silent great room.  It was only seven o'clock and already it was pitch black outside.

Jelly stoked the fire in the hearth, the warmth spreading across the four glum figures.

"Johnny knows how to take care of himself," Teresa offered, her voice lacking conviction.  "He'll find shelter for the night. And then in the morning you'll find him.  I know you will."

Murdoch tried to smile in the affirmative, but he couldn't lie. The night would be bitter cold.  Before the morning it would be below forty degrees.  They had found Johnny's jacket still in his room.

He had left with the clothes on his back and two extra shirts.  Ill equipped for the long cold night ahead.

"Well, I sure as shootin' ain't given up on that boy."  Jelly bristled.  "I seen that boy come out the wrong side of a bad situation before.  Lot's a times. He's gonna do the same this time.  You just wait and see."

"I don't understand."  Teresa wrapped her arms around herself.  The house felt terribly wrong with one of their own missing.  And she would willingly admit that she felt Johnny's absence the most. "Why would he leave like this?  I know he's upset…but to take off without a jacket…on foot.  What's going through his mind?"

"I don't think he knows himself," Scott answered. "He's been under those sleeping powders you and Sam slipped into his lemonade.  Combine that with the laudanum and my grandfather's enlightenment…he's just not thinking coherently."

Teresa looked at the grim faces surrounding her and suddenly fled the room.  They could hear her run up the stairs and her bedroom door slam shut.

"I hope you're right, Jelly." Murdoch said. "I just don't want to get that girl's hopes up just to learn the worst in the morning."

"Teresa's hopes…or yours?"  Scott asked.

Murdoch sat forward, feeling the heat from the fire warm his face.  "I know what a cold night can do to a man who is hurt.  It saps the energy out of him. First you're so cold you think you'll never stop shivering.  Then you're too sleepy to care. If Johnny keeps moving, he might stand a chance.  But if he's down.  If he falls asleep…if he takes that laudanum…"

Scott jumped to his feet, his nerves wound too tight to sit.  "We should be out there right now looking for him."

"How?  There's not even a moon tonight.  We could pass by him a dozen times and not know it.  Worse, we could trample him."

"Then we go on foot.  He couldn't have gotten far.  Not in his condition."

"No. We stay here.  We wait for first light."

"You can stay, but I'm going after Johnny."

Murdoch stood up, imploring Scott to think with his head not his heart.

"Listen to me, son."

Scott tried to push him aside but Murdoch grabbed him by the arms, holding him fast.

"It’s pitch black out there. You'll never find him."

"Then we'll use lanterns. As many as we can find. With all of us working together we could cover a mile in each direction.  If we don't find him, we'll keep going.  I can't just sit here, Murdoch.  He's out there because of me."

"Now wait a minute."  Murdoch's voice dropped.  "You did nothing wrong.  Your grandfather orchestrated all this.  He knew how Johnny would react."

"But I wrote those words."

"And they were true when you wrote them. Johnny was unpredictable and full of anger.  How else would you have acted?  He was a perfect stranger.  Hell…he was a perfect stranger to me…his own father."

"I should have waited. Things changed so quickly after the first couple of months. Johnny was no longer the same angry man.  If I had waited."

"And how were you to know that your grandfather would use your words to hurt your brother two years later?  It was a despicable act."

"I knew my grandfather was capable of a lot of underhanded things to get his way…but I never dreamed he would stoop this low."

Murdoch released his grip on Scott.  "And you feel responsible in a way.  But Scott, you're not.  You have absolutely nothing to feel guilty about."

"I'm still going out.  I have to do something."

Murdoch nodded, understanding his son's need. "Take Cipriano and as many men as you need."

"I'm a goin' with ya."  Jelly hurried past Murdoch, heading for the French doors.

"No Jelly," Scott said, "you stay here with Murdoch in case Johnny somehow makes his way back here."

Jelly's shoulder's drooped.  "Guess you're right. But, you go out there and ya find that boy…ya here?"

"I hear ya Jelly."

***

 

"Ya really did it this time, didn't ya boy?"

Johnny heard the voice distantly, as if it were carried on the wind.

"Ya had everything ya wanted. Just couldn't stomach being happy."

"Go away," Johnny mumbled. "Leave me alone."

"Is that what you really want?  To be left alone?"  The voice was closer now. But directionless, it seemed to fill the air around him. "I didn't know ya was such a coward there, Johnny Boy."

Johnny felt the first vestiges of pain return to his shoulder. He realized at first that he was shivering uncontrollably.  Then the memory of where he was resurfaced and a low moan escaped his lips unheeded…

"Looks like you made a nasty mess of that shoulder there. Sam'll probably send ya to that fancy hospital in San Francisco he warned ya about.  You won't like it there much.  They won't tolerate the likes of you there."

Johnny's anger suddenly flared and he forced his eyes open, searching for the man responsible for those words.

"What do you mean, `like me'?"  he growled.

"Touching and stupid. A dangerous combination," the voice tisked. "They don't like cowboys like you who don't know how ta take care of themselves when they ought ta.  When they're too pigheaded to listen to what the doctor tells ‘em point blank."

Johnny looked around, searching for the owner of the voice, but the night was pitch black. He spotted a figure to his left standing perfectly still in the darkness. He waited and watched for the telltale sign of movement.  But there was none. Then he realized, with a hint of embarrassment, that it was only another tree.  Much the same as the tree he had the small of his back pressed up against.

He was lying on his right side, his knees drawn up to his chest, trying to hold off the stinging cold.  But his thin shirt was no match for the biting wind that was sweeping down off the snow packed Sierras.

He didn't remember stopping after he left the ranch, only the agony of running through the tall grass, his legs barely holding him up.  He wasn't sure how far he had gotten. He hoped it was far enough.

He did, however, remember falling, right on his injured shoulder. The pain had been excruciating. And it was threatening to resurface just as strong.

"Them doctors and nurses at those big fancy hospitals, they never let ya rest."  The voice continued. "What with their poking and prodding, then when they got ya full awake…they give ya a sleeping powder to knock ya out.  No…I don't think you're gonna like the place much, Johnny my boy."

"Go away," Johnny snapped.

"Can't do that. Not until you and me have a little talk."

Johnny closed his eyes.  He thought about trying to sit up, to get a better look at his tormentor, but he didn't have the energy.  And his shoulder was screaming with pain now.  He thought of the laudanum stashed in his saddlebag.

"Not a good idea, Johnny," The voice warned.  "Even if ya could get to the stuff, it'd put ya out and ya'd freeze to death."

"What does it matter to you?"

"If ya freeze ta death?  I just think it's a shame to see a good man throw his life away."

"Then you ain't talking about me," Johnny whispered. "Just leave me alone."

"There now.  There's the problem in a nutshell…ya feeling like ya ain't worth nothing.  Where'd ya get a blamed fool idea like that?"

"It's the truth."

"Who's truth?  Your brother's?"

Johnny closed his eyes again, feeling himself slipping into a deeper blackness.

The voice suddenly shouted, so close to his ear he could feel the hot breath.  "I ain't done with ya yet, boy."

Johnny snapped his eyes open.

"Ya know, you're falling right into Harlan Garrett's trap.  You're doing everything he expected.  He's sitting in your house, drinking your booze, warming his sorry soul in front of your fireplace.  Think how warm that fireplace is right about now, Johnny."

"Ain't my house," Johnny said dully.

There was a long silence, and Johnny found himself missing the voice.  He tried to move to see if he could find the owner of the voice, but something between his neck and his shoulder suddenly made a loud cracking noise in his left ear and blinding pain rushed into his brain, ripping the air from his lungs.

He lay absolutely still, afraid to move.

"I told ya Johnny boy…ya gotta stay still. Sam's gonna be all over ya like white on snow when he sees what ya done to his doctoring.  That is…" the voice added, "if ya make it through the night."

The pain was absolute.  Every breath he took made his whole body tremble. The beating of his heart pulsated in his shoulder, each beat clamping the vice grip of pain tighter.

"Johnny…?"  The voice held a note of concern now. "Johnny…I know I said you couldn't take the laudanum, but you got no choice now.  It's in your saddle bag, remember?"

Johnny remembered, but the pain was so overwhelming that he couldn't move a muscle.

"Come on Johnny…your saddle bag is right in front of you. Reach out your right hand."

"No…I can't."  Johnny gasped.  "I can't move. It hurts."

"If ya don't, you'll die.  Is that what you want?  Is that why you ran away from Lancer?"

"No…"

"Then reach forward, two feet…"

Johnny sobbed from the overwhelming pain, but he slowly inched his right hand through the dry grass until he felt the cold leather touch his fingers.

Despite the cold, he felt a sheen of sweat breaking out on his face.

"That's it, Johnny.  Open the flap, the bottle is right on top."

Johnny walked his fingers along the bag until he felt the flap and reached in to find the bottle just where the voice said it would be.

He could barely squeeze his hand around it he was shaking so hard. Carefully he drew it back toward him, knowing if he dropped it in the tall grass he would never find it in the dark.

"Johnny, I want you to take just a small sip.  We want to ease your pain, not knock you out."

Johnny moved the bottle toward his mouth, his left shoulder incased in a fire storm of pain. He eased it up to his shivering lips, pulling the cork out with his teeth.

Two big swallows and it would all be over for the night.  He would simply fall asleep and…

"That's not what you really want, Johnny.  You've survived worse than this.  And you have more at stake this time."

Johnny held the cork between his teeth and slipped the top of the small bottle between his teeth, letting a small amount run over his tongue and trickle down his throat.

"Reseal the bottle, Johnny.  In case you need more."

Johnny didn't know why he obeyed the voice, but he did, re-corking the bottle and letting it slip to the ground next to him.

The desire to lay his head on his outstretched right arm and simply drift to sleep was taunting him.

"You can sleep tomorrow, when you're safely back in your own bed."

How the hell did he do that?  Johnny wondered, angered that the voice could read his every thought.

Slowly he felt the pain begin to lessen to a steady, but manageable throb, from his neck to the fingertips of his left hand.

"That's better," The voice said.  "You can just lie still now while we talk."

"I got nothing to say." Johnny laid his head down on his arm and stared into the blackness.  "Who are you?  Why are you so interested in me?"

"For someone who has nothing ta say, you ask a lot of questions."

"I got a right to know who I'm dying with."

"Who said anything about dying?  If ya already decided you ain't gonna fight…then I might as well find someone who really wants and needs my help."

Silence filled the darkness again and Johnny's heart began to beat faster. He didn't want to die. He didn't want to leave Lancer…Most of all… he didn't want to be left alone.

"Don't leave…"  Johnny whispered.

The call of a coyote in the distance echoed in the blackness.

He waited.  The thought of dying here under the moonless sky, all alone scared him.  He had never feared death before.  Now he knew, for the first time in his life, that he wasn't ready.

"…Scott…"  Johnny breathed.

"Scott.  It always boils down to Scott, doesn't it?  I can see why ya left, ya know.  I wouldn't want ta be around a sissified greenhorn from Boston either."

"He's no greenhorn!" Johnny snapped.

"I don't understand, Johnny.  Why are you defending him?  He's always meddling in your business…"

"He ain't meddling.  He's trying to help. He just doesn't always know how things work out here."

"He's the reason you're running, ain't it?"

"I ain't running!"

"It looks like running ta me.  Sneaking down the outside steps. Taking off without a jacket or a horse.  Sounds like an act of a desperate man.  What are ya afraid of Johnny?"

"I ain't afraid of nothing," Johnny lied.  "Look…"  He closed his eyes against the headache banging dully in his skull.  "I'm tired.  I need to rest.  Just a few minutes."

"You fall asleep, Johnny, and you'll never wake up."  The voice cautioned.

"Why do you care?"

"Guess I don't want ta see ya throw away a perfectly good life.  Johnny, you've been waiting for a family like this all your life. Ya got a brother who'd lay down his life for ya, if need be. A father, who in his own way, loves you and Scott more than anything else on God's green earth.  And Teresa…she's crying her eyes outright now."

"I never meant to hurt her."

"I know.  But you are.  You're hurting a lot of people.  Good people who love you.  Johnny Lancer."

"What about Johnny Madrid?"

"What about him?"

"Scott's scared of him. Of me."

"He was.  At first.  And with good reason.  Johnny Madrid scared a lot of people."

"I didn't do nothing to him.  And he wrote…"

"He wrote what?  The truth as he saw it?"

"I never said or did anything…"

"Does…and I quote…‘Better than laying in a ditch with ants crawling across your eyeballs…’  You said that, didn't ya?  The first morning you were together at Lancer.  Don't sound too friendly ta me. And ya let Pardee's men beat him up, while you sat and watched. Never said nothing…never did nothing."

"I couldn't."

"You could have said something.  Anything would have been better than your silence."

"He hated me.  I couldn't stand it if he hated me again."

"Why would he hate you again?  Johnny…Scott loves you.  He didn't know you that first month.  The first week no one knew whose side you were on.  You played it close to the vest `cause, you had to. But Scott didn't know that.  Then the next two weeks you were lying flat on your back recovering from Pardee's bullet.  When was he supposed to get to know you?"

"Those letters."

"They were truthful words.  What did he say? `I abhor everything Johnny Madrid stands for. He is a killer.  He guns down men for profit, the most vile form of human there is.' Strong words.  Hurtful words."

Johnny closed his eyes against the memory of those letters.

"Johnny…you are no more that man than Scott is that greenhorn… No…" There was a long pause, letting the darkness seep in…Johnny clutched a hand full of grass and tried to hold on. "No..." the voice continued, a new timbre to the voice, an echo of understanding…"You never were that man. Not the cold blooded killer of legend.  You picked your fights, chose your stands carefully. How else could you have found the courage to turn your back on Johnny Madrid?"

Johnny felt the cold enveloping him, pulling him down.  His strength was waning.

"Johnny, you've got to hold on.  You have to hold on for Scott.  The guilt would kill him."

"I wanna go home," Johnny said softly.

"I know, Johnny boy, I know."

***

  Chapter Eight

 

Scott moved steadily forward, feeling the grass beneath his feet before committing to each step. The wash of the lantern splashed light over a far too small area. There was no way of seeing Johnny in the pitch blackness, even if the dry grass wasn't waist deep in places.

He had to admit that Murdoch might have been right. There was only a chance in a million that he would stumble onto his brother.

He looked to his right and left and saw a line of twenty lanterns moving slowly across the grass. Logic told him that this was a fruitless search. That he was keeping these men from their homes, with their families, the night before Thanksgiving. But he knew in his heart, that not one of them would give up trying…not while there was still a shadow of hope that the young Lancer brother could be found.

With each step Scott thought of his grandfather and how he had betrayed him. Those letters were personal. They were as private as a diary, passages meant for Harlan Garrett's eyes only.

How could he have used them to tear him apart from his brother?

And he couldn't help but be angry at Johnny for believing that he could ever feel that way again. When he found that brother of his, he was going to pound some sense into that thick skull. If he had stayed, if he had confronted the issue…But he didn't because Johnny always thought the worst of himself. He had grown into a man, never having the opportunity to be a child. He was never taught to love himself. Never told he was something special, that he didn't need a fast gun and a reputation, that just being Johnny was enough.

His grandfather honed right in on those insecurities. Plunged the knife of self doubt into Johnny's heart and twisted it. Forced him out of that sick bed with no other recourse in sight but to run.

Harlan Garrett was going to pay. This time he had gone too far. He had stepped over the line. Scott had turned his back and looked the other way too many times. Never again would he step foot inside the Garrett mansion in Boston. Never again would he equate the word grandfather with trust.

***

Murdoch stared at the crackling fire. The thought of losing Johnny drove a spike of pain into his heart, so painful it was hard to breathe.

After waiting so long, he had found his boy. He had grown into a man he neither liked nor trusted at first. Then the persona of Johnny Madrid peeled away, layer after layer, until the real man was revealed.  An honest, caring man. A man he was proud to call son.

Johnny Lancer was home at last. And with Scott by their side, they forged a friendship, often tested, but never broken. Until now. Two years later.

Broken by the cruelest of acts. Using brother against brother, Harlan Garrett had driven a wedge between them. One that time might never heal. One that might never have a chance to be repaired if Johnny didn't survive the night.

Murdoch bowed his head, his lips moving as he made a silent oath, ‘If Johnny died, Harlan Garrett would pay.’

***

"Ya only got a couple more hours ‘til sunup, Johnny."

Johnny heard the voice on the fringes of his mind, but he didn't want to listen anymore.  In the past hour he had felt a comforting warmth spread across his body, driving away the numbing cold.

Memories drifted through his sluggish mind…He remembered another time…he was so young then…he had fallen into the river, crashing through a thin sheet of ice.  The men had pulled him out, so cold and scared he could barely breathe.  But Mama was there. She wrapped him in warm blankets and brought him in the house, sitting next to a roaring fire.  There she cuddled him, her loving arms encircling his little body, singing sweetly as he slowly fell asleep, safe and warm, his face nuzzled against her bosom, the beat of her heart keeping pace with his own. He was safe and warm…

"…Mama…"

"Your mama is dead, Johnny."

"…No…" The word strangled in Johnny's throat.

"Yes, Johnny."

"Go away." Johnny pleaded.

"I can't, boy."

"Why…?"

"Cause you still got too much living ta do.  Cause ya got a lot of people who love you and worry about you.  Scott's so close.  Can ya hear him Johnny?"

The warmth called to him.  He only needed to relax into it.  No more pain…

"Scott's been out all night looking for ya.  Are you gonna let him down?"

No, he couldn't let Scott down.  He had to tell his brother that the letters meant nothing to him.  That he understood. Scott had to know he understood.

"Help me..."  Johnny whispered. "Help me, please…"

"I can only guide you, Johnny.  You have to do this because you want to.  You have ta have that fire in your gut…you have ta want to live.  You got that fire, Johnny?"

Johnny felt the warmth evaporate, the stinging cold biting at him again.

"That's it, Johnny. Ya got ta fight for it. Nothing comes easy in life. But I don't have ta tell you that. You've been fightin' all your life, one way or another since the day you was born. Was it worth it, Johnny? Was it worth all the pain…all the disappointments?"

The warmth beckoned again, but he pushed it back… The question deserved an answer.

But he wasn't sure if he had one.

"The people you helped thought so. Your family thinks so." There was a long pause…"I think so. Ya gave more than ya ever took, Johnny. Ya went about it in a strange way. But in the end, ya still made a mark on this earth. Ya made a difference. Not all men can claim that."

"It was worth it…" Johnny admitted, his voice barely a whisper.

"I'm glad ta hear that. Now ya just keep fightin'."

***

Scott saw the first rays of the sun glow over the mountains surrounding the San Joaquin Valley. There was little chance they could have found Johnny in the darkness, but Scott knew he could not have lived with himself if he had not tried.

He watched the tired men blow out the lanterns and head toward their homes and the bunkhouse.  They would rest for awhile then resume the search. No one would give up until they had Johnny back with them.  Alive or not… they would make sure he was back where he belonged.

He made it back to the stable just as the first workers braved the cold damp morning. He spotted Jelly emerging from the main house, his sparse hair tangled, his suspenders drooping off his shoulders, his steps slow and despondent. He hadn't slept that night.  No one had.

"Jelly!" he called.

"Scott…?" The old man looked at him, beseeching him for the answer he so desperately wanted to hear.

Scott shook his head.

"I was hopin'…"

"We all were. Jelly, I want you to saddle Barranca."

"Barranca? Scott, ya know Barranca don't take ta nobody less'en Johnny tells `em to."

"I know. But have you ever watched Barranca when Johnny's around? You can tell the minute he's near just by Barranca's reaction."

"And ya think he'll react if he senses Johnny out there?"

"I'm hoping so."

"It might work." Jelly nodded. "It might just work. Now, I'll get that palomino saddled for ya while ya get somethin' ta eat. You're ready ta fall flat on your face. Now I know I should be telling ya that ya shouldn't be going out again after being out all night, but I know man or beast couldn't keep ya from searching for that brother of yours. Ya get that food and Barranca will be waiting for ya."

"Thanks, Jelly." He squeezed the old man's arm gently. "We'll find him. I promise, we'll find him."

"I know ya will. Now, get that food, times a wasting."

Scott headed for the back door of the kitchen. Maria would have something hot to eat.

***

"Its morning, boy. Ya made it through the night. Open your eyes, Johnny."

Johnny heard his own labored breathing in his ears. It seemed to keep pace with the increasing pain in his shoulder. He would need the laudanum soon again.

"Come on. It's a beautiful morning. Just like ya like `em. I think God must have smiled on this land. Ain't seen none prettier."

"…My…land…"

"Sure is. Now, you best be making yourself ready for company. They're gonna find ya any time now."

"Not…here." Johnny whispered, "Hidden…"

"You don't worry there, Johnny. They'll find ya."

***

Scott sat relaxed in the saddle belying the anxiety he felt as he carefully guided Barranca on a zigzag search pattern. One he had learned in the cavalry.

Even in the cool morning sunlight, it was hard to see what lay nestled in the tall grass.  The fear of trampling Johnny kept everyone to a slow walk.

It was nerve racking and time consuming, but necessary.

He looked to his left and right.  Men followed their own search patterns, not leaving an inch of grass untouched.

They would follow this pattern for three miles…the odds of Johnny making it further than that, injured and on foot, were too low to waste their time.

If they did not find him, they would start back in the opposite direction further south.  The same search pattern was being followed behind the house and to the east and west.

They would find him.

Suddenly Barranca shifted beneath him.  Scott could feel a difference in the horse's gait.

Had the horse sensed Johnny nearby?

The explosion of sound and movement startled Scott and he had his hands full trying to calm a skittish Barranca, as he watched  hundreds of birds turn the sky black above a nearby eucalyptus tree.

He watched the birds fly away in formation, puzzled by the appearance of the Black Orioles who were never spotted after the first hint of Fall.

Jumping down from Barranca, he grabbed his canteen, and ran toward the tree.  If Johnny was near, he could be anywhere in the grass.

As he neared the shadow of the tree he spotted a dark shape lying near the trunk.  It could have been a fallen tree or…

His knees nearly gave way as he got close enough to see that it was a man, his knees drawn up tightly against his chest to ward off the cold night.  He desperately wanted it to be Johnny…but he was afraid.  The figure lay deathly still.

Scott's heart was in his throat as he dropped to his knees next to Johnny.  With a shaking hand, he lifted Johnny's right wrist, stretched out in front of him, his head laying on his arm, and felt for a pulse.

Tex Miller dropped down next to him, coming to the same conclusion as Scott when he saw the birds.

"He's alive."  Scott chocked back a knot in his throat.

Tex felt Johnny's cheek.  "Not long," he said, roughly, "if we don't get him warm.  The boy's nearly frozen to death."

Scott nodded, peeling off his jacket.  Tex followed Scott's lead and added his jacket.

Tex drew his gun and fired three shots into the air.

The sound made Johnny jerk and Scott quickly leaned down close to Johnny's face.

"Johnny..?  You with us little brother?"

Johnny's eyelids fluttered open.

"Hey there.  You had us all worried."  Scott accepted the opened canteen from Tex and gently lifted Johnny's head off his arm just enough to put the canteen to his lips.

"Just a couple of sips," Scott ordered.

Johnny managed one before a cough shook his body.  A hiss of pain escaped his lips as the cough reignited the fire in his shoulder.

Scott noticed the bottle of laudanum lying by his side.

"You took this?" Scott asked, moving the bottle into Johnny's view.

Johnny nodded. "He told me to take just a little."

"He…?"  Scott looked over at Tex who could only shrug. "Was someone with you last night?"

"He kept me awake."

The sound of the rest of the search party converging on them drowned out Scott's next question. He decided to pursue the question later when they had Johnny safely at home.

Blankets were added to the jackets until Johnny was barely visible beneath the mound of covers.

Johnny remained as still as possible.  He knew the consequences of moving.  His shoulder had settled to a bearable pain…for now.

"I'm…sorry…"  Johnny rasped.  "I don't know why I ran."

"No Johnny….I'm the one who should be sorry.  I never wanted to hurt you."

"I know."  Johnny closed his eyes for a moment.  "I guess it was a pretty dumb thing to do."

Scott smiled. "Not the first.  And I'm sure not the last."

Johnny nodded.  "Take me home, Scott."

Scott forced back the sting of tears in his eyes.  "Jelly's on his way with the wagon."

"Good…" Johnny mumbled.

"Scott." Tex grabbed his arm and pulled him away from the tree. "That shoulder doesn't look good. I think maybe we should wait for Dr. Jenkins before we move him."

Scott looked back at Johnny.  He was lying at an odd angle.

Scott nodded.  "Send someone to get him.  We'll make Johnny as comfortable as we can.  And have him tell Murdoch where we are."

Scott returned to Johnny.  "Hey brother, you know what day this is?"

Johnny shook his head.

"Thanksgiving.  We have a big dinner to attend tonight, remember?"

"Turkeys and stuffing?"  Johnny asked hopefully.

Scott laughed, "And mashed potatoes with plenty of gravy. Biscuits with sweet butter.  I heard that Teresa even made someone a chocolate cake."

"Sounds good."

"That it does, brother."

 

Scott sat talking softly to Johnny for the next half hour until he heard the rattle of the buckboard.  He sighed with relief when he saw Sam sitting next to Jelly.  Murdoch rode behind.

"Scott?"  Murdoch called before he dismounted.

"He's cold but he's alive."

Murdoch dismounted carefully, kneeling next to his son.

"You had a lot of people very worried, young man," He said, gently brushing a strand of hair from his eyes.

"Sorry," Johnny answered contritely, his voice ragged.

"Well, young man," Sam said, moving into Murdoch's place. "Let's take a look at you."

"He's been in and out for the past hour or so," Scott reported. "We've been trying to warm him up."

Sam nodded.  "Jelly prepared the back of the wagon. We'll need something to move him into the wagon.

"I'll get right on it.  Sam, is he going to be alright?"

"Scott, you did all the right things so far."  He patted Scott on the shoulder. "I can tell you more after I've taken a look at him."

***

Fifteen minutes later Sam stood up.  Moving away from Johnny's earshot he explained his findings.

"I can't be sure without a through examination, but I believe he re-broke that collarbone.  He's also suffering from hypothermia. We need to get him home and in a warm tub of water. I gave him an injection of morphine to make the move easier. He's going to feel better than he is.  We have to keep him as quiet as possible."

"Sam…?"  Johnny called.

"Yes John?"

"You staying for turkey dinner tonight?"

The question brought laughter from everyone.

"Yes. I had planned to."

"And me?"

"Well, I don't know, John.  You're going to be spending a lot of time in bed for the next few weeks."

"Sam." Scott kneeled down next to Johnny.  "You think we could set up a bed outside?"

"If Johnny's up to it.  Yes, I think that would be acceptable.  But then straight back upstairs.

Johnny nodded, a small smile on his face.

***

Johnny felt little discomfort on the trip home.  The mattress was soft and Sam gave him another injection of the morphine before the first one wore off.

As they pulled in under the Lancer arch, Johnny felt a swell of safety wash over him.  This was his home.  He deserved to be here.

Teresa came running to the wagon followed by a dozen excited workers.

"Oh Johnny," she cried, "we were so worried."

"I'm fine miel.  Just a little cold."

"We're going to take care of that, John."  Sam leaned back over the seat.  "Teresa, would you have a tub brought to Johnny's room."

"Right away."

"Make the water tepid to begin with.  We'll warm it as needed."

The wagon pulled to a stop and as Johnny was carried from the wagon toward the house he saw the tables in the courtyard covered with tablecloths and vases of flowers.

He felt a pang of guilt that he might have ruined this special day for so many.

 

Johnny was stripped of his clothes and with the aide of four men, he was lifted into the tub.  The tepid water stung his cold skin.  As he warmed up, warmer water was added until an hour later he was ready to be toweled off and dressed in a nightshirt.

"You said I could eat dinner outside with you," Johnny said, as Sam pulled the blankets over his shoulders.

"I said, I would think about it.  I'll make my decision later, after you've had some rest.  Now, I want you to have some warm broth and get some sleep."

 

Murdoch and Scott followed Sam out the door.

"Well, Sam?"  Murdoch asked once the door was closed.

"I'm afraid I can't do much for his shoulder now. I've rewrapped it and I can medicate him for the pain, but he's going to have to see the doctors in San Francisco.  I warned the boy. I'm sorry, Murdoch.  I'll make arrangements for next week."

"That means he'll be spending Christmas in San Francisco?"

Sam nodded.  "Most definitely."

Scott shook his head.  "Johnny will never go along with that."

"Johnny doesn't have a say in the matter.  If he wants to use that arm again he's going to have to listen to my instructions.  Now, I think I will retire to my room until dinner this afternoon."

***

Scott started down for his room when he heard the door behind him open.

Harlan stepped out, looking hesitantly at his grandson.

"I understand you found your brother this morning," he said.

Scott nodded.

"Is he all right?"

"No.  He's not all right.  He almost died of exposure out there last night."

"I m truly sorry that he found that letter, Scotty.  But if he loves you like you say he does then he will understand."

"Just like that.  Everything is all right.  Everything is forgiven.  Well, it’s not that easy Harlan."

Garrett flinched at the use of his first name.  Scotty had always called him grandfather.

"Johnny re-broke his collarbone.  We'll be leaving for San Francisco early next week for the hospital there.  He needs surgery Sam can't perform here."

"I'm sorry to hear that, Scotty."

"My name is Scott," Scott shouted.  "I always hated the name Scotty."

"Please, Scott…" Harlan gently squeezed Scott's arm. "Don't let a simple mistake, a minor error tear us apart.  I am sorry for what happened to that…to your brother.  It was unfortunate but…"

"But…?"  Scott's eyes flashed with rage.  "One letter may have been an accident.  But four?! You deliberately set Johnny up. It was just your good fortune that Johnny was already laid up and not thinking straight."

"Scott, please, try to understand…I did it for you."

"For me?" Scott asked incredulously.

"You don't belong out here in this wilderness, with these savages. I raised you, I gave you everything you ever needed, the best schools, the best social circles.  And this is how you repay me? I expected you to join the family business. To carry on for me when I was too old to continue."

"I owe you nothing but my thanks for a good education."

"You owe me a hell of a lot more.  If I had let you come back here…if Murdoch had raised you, you would be nothing more than that half breed of a brother…"

Scott didn't even realize that he had punched Harlan in the face until the man staggered back against the wall, covering his left eye with his hand.

"Scotty…" he gasped.

"You stay away from me and my brother, you hear me?"  Scott headed down the hall, leaving a stunned Harlan watching him disappear.

"Scotty…"  Harlan whispered, "what have they done to you here?"  He opened the door into his room.  He had not wanted to play his hand so soon.  He had hoped the letters would work.  But now Scott left him no choice.  Johnny Madrid would be out of Scott's life for good in a very short time.

***

Chapter Nine

Harlan Garrett kept a low profile the rest of the morning. He was both angry and dismayed at his grandson's behavior. All his fears that living at Lancer amongst these heathens, especially Johnny Madrid, had proven accurate. The man he encountered in the hall two hours ago was not the grandson he remembered.  He only hoped that he was in time to save Scotty from himself.

He looked in the mirror and studied the black eye that was still darkening as he watched.  It would be a long time before he forgot that punch.  But, he could not blame the lad, he was distraught over the ordeal of looking for his brother. Brother, the very word was an insult to the Garrett legacy.  Johnny was no brother to Scott Garrett.  A night of hedonistic passion between Murdoch Lancer and a Mexican wench had produced Johnny Madrid.  The boy was little more than a mongrel pup. The sooner Scotty was away from here and back in Boston the better.

He heard a commotion outside his window and pushed back the curtains to see a dozen women working feverishly to set tables and decorate the courtyard.

It appeared that Thanksgiving dinner was still going to be served today.  A bit later than planned, but the Lancers had promised it would be a party to remember.

Harlan noticed that he didn't recognize any of the servants working below.  Murdoch must have brought in extra help.  This Thanksgiving dinner now promised to be more than he had expected.  After all, there were enough tables downstairs to sit sixty people
or more.  Perhaps Murdoch had invited the local Founding Fathers of Morro Coyo and Green River.  Not exactly high society.  But hopefully a little more refined than the ruffians he encountered here.

There was a knock at the door and a small smile spread across his face.  Scotty had come to apologize.  He knew he would.  In fact he was a bit surprised it took him so long.

As he opened the door he was surprised to see Murdoch Lancer standing in the hallway.

"Murdoch."  He looked beyond the tall man to see if Scotty was in the hallway.  He hoped the disappointment didn't show on his face. "I trust your son is doing well."

Harlan could see the anger simmering in Murdoch's eyes...

"Johnny is resting comfortably for the moment.  No thanks to you."

"As I've said before, it was a terrible oversight on my part.  I had no idea that letter was in the album.  I am truly sorry for any discomfort I may have inadvertently brought the family."

Murdoch took a menacing step closer to Harlan, "You do one more thing to hurt my boys and you won't have to worry about inadvertently hurting anyone.  You'll be six feet under."

"In Boston, that kind of threat could get you thrown in jail."

"Well, Harlan, we aren't in Boston, are we?"  Murdoch stretched his shoulders for a moment, seemingly trying to compose himself. "I am here to tell you, you are still
welcome to join us at dinner tonight."

Harlan's jaw dropped. "Murdoch, I am quite surprised. I never expected..."

"Please be ready an hour before dinner is served. One of my 'servants' will escort you downstairs.  Please don't leave your room until then."

"Are you implying I am a prisoner in my room until then?"

"Just consider it protective custody.  There are a lot of people around here who love Johnny."

Harlan harrumphed, and closed the door rather loudly. The man was a Neanderthal.  But at least he would be sitting with some people of refinement this evening.

 

***

"No!" Johnny hurled the nightshirt across the room.  "I ain't going downstairs wearing no nightshirt!"

Johnny grimaced with pain and frustration. Sam had wrapped his arm so tightly to his chest that he couldn't move it an inch.  Worse, Sam had bound it so he was forced to lie in a semi-sitting position, with no way to leverage himself up.

"If you want to join us for dinner," Teresa said patiently, "you will wear this.  Otherwise you can stay in your room."

"Teresa, por favor," Johnny used his best lost puppy look. "I can’t let them women see me like this.  And what about the kids, they'll all laugh at me.  Come on, querida, I'm only asking for a shirt and pants.  I'll even leave my boots off.  Please?"

"Pouting will get you no where, Johnny Lancer," Teresa scolded him, retrieving the nightshirt from the floor.  "Sam says if he DOES let you come down for dinner, it will be in a bed, in a nightshirt."

"I'd listen to her little brother."  Scott grinned as he entered the room, carrying his best suit over his arm.  "I'm sure a nightshirt will be far more comfortable than this abomination.  To think I used to dress like this every day."

"Scott," Johnny grabbed the offending nightshirt from Teresa's hand, "you can't make me wear this. It's embarrassing."

"You should have thought about that before you ignored your doctor's orders."  Sam admonished as he walked in.

"What is this?  A town meeting?"  Johnny's surly question brought a laugh from everyone.   "Where are Murdoch and Maria?  Oh, don't forget Jelly and Cipriano, then you can all take a vote, see if I wear this," he waved the offending nightshirt, "or my best shirt."

"Johnny." Scott laughed, "You would lose hands down."

"I'm afraid he's right, John.  Now, if you will all excuse me, my patient and I have a few things to discuss."

Scott patted Johnny on the knee. "You listen to Sam.  I'm going to get ready for dinner."

 

Johnny watched Scott and Teresa walk out of the room, feeling terribly vulnerable.

"How are you feeling?"  Sam asked, lifting Johnny's wrist to check his pulse.  "A little fast," he reported.  "A little warm too," he said, feeling Johnny's forehead.

Johnny tried to brush Sam's hand away. “I'm fine, Sam."

Sam raised a skeptical eyebrow.  "All right, Johnny," he sighed, "it's time we put our cards on the table.  That little escapade of yours caused some serious damage to your collarbone and shoulder. It's beyond my abilities to repair.  I've already told your father you will have to travel to San Francisco for surgery next week."

Johnny's jaw dropped open.  "But, Sam..."

Sam raised his hand for silence. "I talk, you listen.  You have a slight fever, not surprising after spending the night out in the cold.  I've stabilized your collarbone the best I can, but it is imperative that you don't move around, Johnny."

"All I'm asking for is a shirt and pants, Sam.  Just a little dignity. Ya got to move me to get me downstairs anyway."

Sam studied Johnny for a long minute, a smile creeping across his face.

"You could sell ice to an Eskimo.  Alright.  But just a shirt."

Johnny’s smile was pure joy.  "Thanks, Sam."

"Don't make me regret my decision.  Remember, the morphine is keeping the pain down. I want you to lie as still as possible."

"I'll be careful, Sam. Promise."

"I know you will." Sam patted his arm. "Now get some rest before dinner."

As Sam closed the door, he watched Johnny staring at the ceiling, a worried look on his face.  The boy hid his feelings well. But there was no doubt that he was a scared young man.

***

 

There was a feeling of excitement in the air.  The tables in the courtyard were set with fine china and crystal wine glasses.  Teresa had worked hard to collect enough place settings from neighbors, as far away as the Barkley's in Stockton.

The guests started arriving, most dressed in their finest Mexican attire, proud of their heritage. The American families dressed in their Sunday best.

Everyone mingled as one.  Gossip was shared, stories were told.

It was to be the finest dinner ever.

Murdoch was the perfect host, welcoming everyone by name.  These were his friends as well as his workers.  They didn’t notice when Murdoch surreptitiously slipped into the great room.

***

Harlan listened to the gathering crowd in the courtyard.  Soon he would meet people who had a modicum of good taste.  He wasn't expecting the likes of Boston society, but anything was better than the dust covered heathens he was surrounded with here.

Scotty was right.  He could barely tell he was still on U.S. soil.  Sometimes he felt he was in the heart of Mexico.  More than half the workers didn't even speak English.

Poor Scotty.  No wonder he was so confused.

There was a knock at his door and he opened it to see Jellifer Hoskins standing in the hallway.

"The boss wants ta see ya in the great room.  Right away. I'm ta take ya to him."

"Dinner so soon?  I must admit I am famished.  Tell me, have the important guests arrived yet?"

"Important?  Well, I guess ya could say they've all arrived."

"Excellent."

Harlan followed Jelly down the stairs, checking his bowtie and cummerbund. He would, no doubt, be the best dressed guest there.

He only hoped that Scotty would apologize for his unconscionable behavior this morning. He didn't blame the poor boy.  It was his association with the likes of Johnny Madrid that brought on the outrageous show of violence.  Once he was back in Boston, all would be well again.

Jelly led him to the great room and left him to wander around the room until Murdoch arrived some twenty minutes later.

He was surprised to see the Lancer patriarch dressed in a simple black suit. Modest, but it suited his large frame.

"Murdoch, I thought you had forgotten me," he complained. "I would like to mingle with the guests as soon as possible.  No disrespect intended, but I long to converse with intelligent people who speak English."

Murdoch arched an eyebrow. “Then you will enjoy today's guests.  Harlan, this Thanksgiving is dedicated to the workers and their families who have worked so hard to make Lancer what it is. Today, we wait on them.  And," Murdoch could barely conceal his delight as he handed Harlan an apron, "since you were instrumental in depriving us of Johnny's help in serving, it seems only right that you take his place."

Harlan's face turned beet red. His mouth opened and closed several times before he found his voice.  "This is preposterous. I’ll do nothing of the kind!  I will not wait on a bunch of..."

"You will do as you are told," Murdoch warned.  "It is a long walk from here to Morro Coyo.  You can pack your bags and leave right now, or report to the kitchen."

"Well, I never."

"I'm sure you haven't.  You better get going.  And Harlan," all levity was gone from Murdoch's voice, "if you do one thing to make my guests feel uncomfortable, I will personally make you wish you were still in Boston."

Murdoch turned on his heel and left a stunned Harlan Garrett standing in the center of the room, his apron clenched in his hand.

 

***

 

Johnny listened to the arrival of the guests in the courtyard.

He was usually not interested in his entertainment being organized, avoided parties like the plague.  But this Thanksgiving was special.  This was the culmination of a second year here at Lancer. One that had had its ups and downs, but with the disagreements came
new understanding.  They were truly a family now.

It also acknowledged the hard work of people he respected as friends. Too often ranch owners looked upon Mexican workers as little more than chattel.

Murdoch Lancer looked upon them as hardworking honest people. Many of them were close friends.

It was one of the things that persuaded Johnny to stay in the first place.

He and Murdoch may have had their differences, but being half Mexican was not one of them.

Yes, this was going to be a Thanksgiving to remember.

He heard the heavy steps of his father heading up the stairs, followed by a half dozen others. Were they bringing the party to him?  Had Sam changed his mind? He felt of pang of disappointment.  He really wanted to be a part of the festivities downstairs.

 

"Are you ready, Son?"  Murdoch asked.  He was dressed in a dark suit Johnny had not seen before.

"Yes."  Johnny nodded.

"Good. Then let's get started."

His room was suddenly filled with three of the strongest Lancer hands, standing beside Scott and Jelly.  Sam stood behind them, keeping a close eye on everything.

Cipriano carried in an old bedroom door that had been stored in the barn for as long as he had been there.

"Sam says we have to keep you level.  This door should do it."

The door was placed next to the mattress and Murdoch warned, "Let us move you, Johnny.  You don't do any of the work."

Johnny caught his breath as Murdoch and Scott carefully slid him onto the door.  The pain nearly made him pass out.

Sam was by his side, taking his pulse, his face rigid with concern.  But he let them continue.

Once he was settled on the makeshift stretcher, the pillows were wedged under his back and he gratefully collapsed into them. Teresa made sure he was covered properly, taking special care that his favorite shirt, the salmon colored one with the intricate embroidery, was not hidden.

Sam was by his side again, hypodermic syringe in his hand.  "I had hoped to delay this for a while longer, but I think you need it now."

Johnny nodded.  He knew this time he could not fight Sam.  As much as he detested being medicated, he feared the pain he had felt last night more.

The sting of the needle brought almost instant relief.

"All right, let's get him settled downstairs," Sam ordered.

 

It was a slow process maneuvering the door down the stairs, and even more of a problem getting it out the door, but they did and Johnny felt the sharp fresh air of fall on his face.

And then he saw the bed waiting for him, next to the tables, and he wanted to be anywhere but there.

He felt all the eyes on him.  If he could, he would have jumped off the stretcher and disappeared for a month.

Why did he insist on coming out here?

It took fifteen minutes before Sam was sure he was laying just the right way and Teresa was sure he was comfortable.  He didn't have the heart to tell her the two could not co-exist.

There was a steady parade of well wishers, all vowing to pray for his fast recovery.  It seemed they all knew about his trip to San Francisco before he did.

The sound of Murdoch tapping his spoon against his wine glass brought everyone to attention.

"Everyone, please take your seats.  Dinner is about to be served."

There was a commotion of sound and gay laughter as the families took their seats.

Murdoch cleared his throat, and everyone looked up expectantly.

"Welcome to our Thanksgiving feast. I know that this is traditionally the day we celebrate the memory of the Pilgrims who first landed in this great land. But, today it is also an homage to all of you who have worked so hard to make this ranch one of the best in the valley.

You have worked tirelessly, with little complaint. Well..." he laughed, "just a little complaint here and there. And," he made eye contact with Maria and Cipriano, "you know who you are."

Johnny listened to the words of his father, and the good-natured laughter that filled the courtyard, and he was glad he was there.

"As you know, we have hired workers to cook and serve you.  That doesn't mean much to you vaqueros, but I know it means a lot to the women who are as necessary to running this ranch as the range riders and the field workers."

A chorus of "Si's" filled the air.

"Last, but far from least, we celebrate the safe return of my son, Johnny."

Johnny's heart skipped a beat.  He would have crawled beneath the covers if he could.

Scott was suddenly at his side, gripping his right hand tightly.

"Si."  Consuelo called, standing up slowly.  "We are a family, Senor Murdoch. We talk as a family, we mourn as a family, and we love as a family.  Forgive me if my English is not so good."

"It is fine, Consuelo," Murdoch assured her.

"We hear things. Not," Consuelo hastened to add, "from Maria.  Aye, that woman will not reveal a thing, it is very frustrating.  But we hear things.  We hear that Senor Juanito read some terrible letters, letters that were never meant for his eyes."

Murdoch looked over at Johnny, seeing the pain and embarrassment on his face.

"Consuelo, I don't think this is the time to..."

"This is a day of Thanksgiving, is it not?" she asked.

"Yes, but..."

"Patron, please allow us to say what is in our hearts."

Murdoch nodded. He made his way over to Johnny's bed, laying a comforting hand on his son's shoulder.

"We, of course do not know what was said in those letters, that is to remain private.  But, we know how words, spoken or written can hurt."

She looked at Johnny and smiled.  "We also know they can heal."

Consuelo's husband, seated next to her, handed her a stack of letters.

"Juanito, everyone here loves and respects you."

Johnny felt Scott squeeze his hand reassuringly.

"We have all written our own letters."  She separated three from the stack.  "May I?" she asked.

Murdoch didn't know quite what to say. He simply nodded.

Consuelo handed one of the letters to a boy sitting at the next table.

"Juan, would you read your letter to Senor Johnny?"

Juan stood up quickly.  He had just celebrated his ninth birthday a month ago and he felt proud of the honor.

"Senor Johnny," he began.  "Mama said bad things were said about you, and that made you sad. They could not be true, because you are a good man.  You are my friend.  When you get back home I hope I can ride with you and Barranca again.  Juan."

"Thank you Juan."  Consuelo smiled at the boy, then looked back to see Johnny. His face flushed with embarrassment.

Consuelo handed another letter to the woman sitting beside her.

"Senora Benito, por favor?"

Mary Benito stood up slowly, her face as red as Johnny's.

"Senor Johnny," she began. "My son Ernesto asked if he could be like his friend Johnny Lancer one day.  I told him, si, he if worked hard, respected others and gave of his heart.  Only then could he be like you.  I told him I would be proud to call him son, just as the Patron is proud to call Juanito son."

Johnny felt a lump in his throat. He didn't know what to say. He felt Scott's hand tremble in his and saw a sparkle of a tear in Scott's eyes.

Consuelo handed the last letter to Maria.  "Maria, would you read your letter to Senor Johnny?"

Maria shook her head, "It is personal between Juanito and myself."

"Si.  I understand."

Consuelo retrieved the two letters read by Juan and Mary and handed them to Johnny.

"These are for you, nino, they are written from the heart.  They tell you how much we truly love you.  Please come back to us soon."  She leaned down and kissed him gently on the cheek. "Vaya con Dios, Juanito."

Johnny closed his eyes against the emotions that threatened to pour out.  Teresa was at his side, her eyes brimming with tears.  He felt Murdoch's hand squeeze his shoulder.

"Thank you," Johnny called, his voice trembling with emotion.

"I told ya, didn't I boy?"

Johnny looked around for the owner of the voice, knowing in his heart he would not find him.

"You are important in this world, Johnny boy. See ya again some day."

"Wait!"

Scott had heard his whisper.  "What?"

"Ya don't need me no more, Johnny. You have your family and friends ta look after ya now."

Johnny nodded.  "Thank you," he whispered.

Scott glanced at Teresa and she simply shrugged.

Murdoch cleared his throat.  "Thank you Consuelo.  Thank you, everyone.  You are truly good friends.  Now, I believe everyone is hungry."

There was a chorus of yeses.

"Then let's get them vittles on the table."

Teresa kissed Johnny and giggled as she ran into the house.

"Hey, big brother, ain't ya helping?"  Johnny asked.

"Murdoch said my only job was to see after you, little brother."

Johnny grinned.  This was a day he would never forget.

A dozen strangers converged on the tables, placing steaming bowls of mashed potatoes, gravy, biscuits, green beans, more food than Johnny had ever seen in his life. Next came Murdoch with a golden roasted turkey, setting it on the table next to Johnny's bed.  Then more turkeys arrived, one for each table.

"Eat up, everyone,"  Murdoch urged.  "There is plenty more. And we have a very special guest to serve us this afternoon."

Right on cue, Harlan Garret stepped out of the house, his expensive suit covered by a chief's apron. His face was scrunched into a furious scowl as he carried a steaming bowl of stuffing.

Johnny nearly choked with surprise.  He heard a strangled gasp from Scott, then uncontained laughter.

Harlan glared at him as he placed the bowl of stuffing on their table.

"Thank you, Harlan, you are doing an excellent job." Murdoch fought to keep from exploding with laughter.

Harlan's cheeks literally puffed with rage.

"I think our guests are ready for some more wine."

As Harlan passed by he leaned down and whispered in Murdoch's ear, "You will pay for this, Murdoch."

"Oh, I'm sure I will.  But for now, I'm enjoying the hell out of it."

Harlan marched back to the kitchen to fetch more wine.

"I can't believe you got Harlan to do that." Johnny grinned.

"Yes, how did you get him to agree to..." Scott began.

"I simply told him it was a long walk back to Morro Coyo."

Everyone burst into riotous laughter.

As Johnny ate his fill of turkey he closed his eyes, saying a silent prayer of thanks.

He had his family and friends surrounding him.  A full stomach, and the knowledge that Johnny Madrid Lancer did mean something in this world.

Yes, this was a truly a day of thanks.

A Thanksgiving with family.

 

Epilog

 

Johnny didn’t feel himself being carried back up to his room.  He had fallen asleep soon after dinner was served.

The Lancer’s guests stayed late into the night, laughing and drinking and forgetting that anything else existed but this good night.

Scott excused himself to check on Johnny.

He entered Johnny’s room, surprised to see Johnny laying awake.

“Hey brother,” he said, dragging a chair close to the bed, “that was quite a night, wasn’t it?”

Johnny nodded.

“You have a lot of friends here, Johnny.”

“I know.”  Johnny could still hear the laughter coming from the courtyard below. “I guess I didn’t know how many.”

Scott noticed Johnny shiver and he reached over to pull the blanket up higher around his shoulders.  He had noticed the heightened tinge of fever on his brother’s cheeks earlier…so had Sam. But the dose of love he received from friends and workers was more therapeutic than any medicinal powder or elixir Sam had in his medical bag.

“How’s the shoulder?” he asked.

“Not bad. Smarts a bit.”  Johnny answered.  He looked up toward the ceiling, “You think you could talk Sam out of this trip to San Francisco?”

“Not likely. You did some real damage to that shoulder.”

Johnny turned back toward Scott, the pain in his eyes not only from his throbbing shoulder, but the deep hurt that came from his gut.

“I’m sorry, Scott. For not trusting you.  I know better. Can’t figure out why I took them letters to heart like that.”

“I think you had a little help from my grandfather.  I can’t deny that it didn’t hurt to think that you could have believed I still felt that way…”

“No, Scott, that’s not how it was.  I never thought you felt like that about me now.  It’s later, when I do something wrong, or my past rears up and drags me back down. I was afraid I would see that fear and hurt again…”

“Johnny, I…”

“No, let me get this said.  I had a long talk with someone out there last night. He told me things I needed to hear.  He made me see that I wasn’t Johnny Madrid no more.  That I wasn’t the same person you wrote them letters about.  I’m Johnny Lancer now. I didn’t always go about doing things the right way, but I got them done the only way I knew how.  With my gun.  Scott, you gotta know that I was the Johnny Madrid people talk about when I first strapped on my gun, when I first got the kind of respect that I wanted. I hired my gun out. I killed for the money and the power it gave me. For the feeling of being someone.  Not just a poor mestizo. But it wasn’t long before the thrill was gone. When the money felt dirty. I tried to change.  To give it all up.  But my reputation wouldn’t let me, it kept growing, but I swear to you, Scott, after that, I never killed a man who wasn’t gunning for me first.  There’s a lot of men out there buried six feet under with my bullet still in ‘em.  But I was protecting myself or someone else.”

Scott lowered his head, and he realized it was a trait of his brother’s when he was troubled.  They were so much a part of each other now.

“That first month was hard, Johnny.  A new father, a new brother…” Scott smiled.  He still marveled at the thought that he had a brother, after all this time… “and Day Pardee. I didn’t know who you were.  Only the stories the hands told me of the great Johnny Madrid.  Then you took that bullet in the back.  I couldn’t talk to you then either.  You were an angry, lost, young man two years ago. I’ll be the first one to admit that I was afraid of you then. Afraid because I knew you were my brother and I couldn’t just walk away.

“We’ve both grown, Johnny.  Neither one of us is the same man we were when we met on that stagecoach.”

Scott saw Johnny’s eyes begin to droop.  “I think we’ve done enough talking for tonight. You need to get your rest.”

“I’m not tired,” Johnny said, his voice already slurred.

“Well, I am, little brother, and I’m going to turn in.  You get…”

But the words were unnecessary.  Johnny had fallen into a deep sleep.

Scott eased himself out of the chair and turned the wick down low in the lantern, bathing the bed in a soft glow.

“Good night,” he whispered, and quietly closed the door behind him.

***

Downstairs he found a weary family slowly dragging themselves toward the warmth and comfort of the great room.

The last guest had finally left, and now it was their turn to rest.

Sam was invited to stay the night, too long of a ride home, and he gratefully accepted the glass of fine bourbon Murdoch handed him.

“I must say, Murdoch,” he chuckled, “that was quite an evening.”

Murdoch eased his large, and aging body, into his chair by the fire and smiled.

“Yes, it was.  I had no idea what Consuelo had in mind.  I would have stopped her in her tracks if I had known.  But Johnny handled it very well.”

“Murdoch, a word to the wise, old friend…You are going to have to start trusting that son of yours. He has a better head on his shoulders than a lot of men I know who are three times his age.”

“I was concerned when he ran off like that.  Not exactly a wise move.”

“That was partly my fault.  I didn’t realize he would be so confused when he awoke from the sleeping powders.  Everyone tolerates them differently.  Next time I’ll know.”

Murdoch raised an eyebrow…“Next time?”

“Next time, what?”  Scott asked as he joined them.

“We were talking about Johnny’s reaction to the sleeping powders, how badly they affected his judgment when he first woke up.”

Scott sat down across from Murdoch and Sam. “That’s what I wanted to talk to you about, Sam. I was just talking to him upstairs…”

“How is he?”  Teresa asked, setting a tray of coffee cups on the table.

“We talked for a few minutes then he fell back to sleep.  Sam, for the second time Johnny mentioned talking to someone out there with him last night.  I couldn’t find any evidence of anyone else being there but Johnny.  It was damp from the frost this morning and there would have been footprints.  But…”

Sam sat back on the couch, searching for a way to explain the unexplainable. “It’s not the first time I’ve heard of something like that.  A person alone, despondent, ready to give in.  I don’t know if it is the person himself who creates his guardian angel…or if it is sent from a higher being…but it has saved more than one life.  And don’t be mistaken…Johnny came very close to dying out there.  The cold, the fever and his injury.  It is a miracle in itself that he did survive.  So don’t prod him.  If he wants to tell you, let him…in his own time.  It may be something that is just too personal.”

“I’m just thankful that he is home with us,” Murdoch said, closing his eyes against the mounting fatigue.  No one got any sleep last night.

“For now,” Sam said. “Are you all planning to go to San Francisco with Johnny next week?”

Scott looked up.  “I hadn’t thought about it.  That is a wonderful idea, Sam.  We could all celebrate Christmas there.  I’ve been to San Francisco several times, it’s a beautiful city.”

“Sounds nice, but we couldn’t all just…”

“Why not?”  Teresa jumped to her feet.  “We all need a vacation.  You too, Sam.  You could come with us.”

“Teresa, thank you for the invitation, but…”

“But what?  Just because you’re a doctor you don’t get to enjoy yourself once in a while?  I’m sure someone could come in and replace you for a couple of weeks.  You don’t have to stay long…just have a little fun for a change.”

“Teresa…”  Murdoch motioned for her to sit down.  “We are not going to San Francisco for fun, we are going because Johnny needs surgery on his shoulder.  It is hardly a festive occasion.”

“I know that.  But it doesn’t mean that we can’t tour the city while he’s in the hospital.  And when he gets out, he’s going to want to take in some of the sights.  And that’s where you come in, Sam…” her voice was still an octave higher with excitement. “When Johnny is on his feet again he’ll need to be watched, carefully.  You know how he is.”

“I loathe to say it, Sam…” Scott smirked, “but I think little sister here has an excellent idea.  It would certainly ease Johnny’s mind.”

“Scott…it’s just not possible.”  Murdoch said. “One of us has to stay here…”

“Jelly and Cip can run things for a few weeks. There’s nothing pressing this time of year.”

“Then it’s decided.”  Teresa declared happily.  “Wait until I tell Johnny in the morning.  He is going to feel so much better about going.”

Murdoch looked toward Sam and they both conceded, without uttering a word, that they had both been giving their traveling orders.

***

Harlan headed up the stairs, more tired than he could remember in two decades.

The very idea that he had to wait on those stinking heathens made him physically ill. He would not forget this night.  They stepped over the line.  They humiliated him. No one did that to Harlan Garrett.  No one.

As he walked down the hall he noticed Johnny’s door ajar.  The root of all his misery.

He pushed the door open slowly, seeing Madrid sleeping soundly.  Quietly he walked across the room until he was standing over the sleeping boy.

“Don’t think this is over…” he whispered.  “You don’t make a fool of me without paying.  You turned my grandson against me.  For that, I will see that you rot in hell.”

He lifted the edge of the blanket covering Johnny’s bandaged shoulder. “I was going to use the information I’ve gathered over the years to disgrace you into leaving…but it appears I won’t have to resort to that.  No…I believe I have a much better idea.”

He replaced the cover and smiled down at Johnny.  “I won’t be seeing you again, Madrid.  I’ve decided to take Scotty’s suggestion and spend the next few days at a hotel in Morro Coyo.  It will be much easier for me to send the necessary telegrams to San Francisco to assure your stay there will be most memorable.”

Harlan smiled as he closed the door and headed for his room.  There was a lot of work to be done.  But in the end it would be worth it.  He could already taste the revenge…and it tasted sweet.

To A Lancer Christmas In San Francisco

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