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Sam

 

 

A Different Path

Note : This is an AU/AR story
Rating:  PG13 There is some blood and violence in a few of the chapters
Disclaimer :I do not own any of the original Lancer characters.  All the rest are my own

 

****

Chapter One

All eyes were upon him as he strode out of the saloon and headed straight for the position he knew would give him an advantage over his opponent. In the street folk who were going about their ordinary business stopped to stare at the young man who over the past few years had become a familiar sight around Green River. Their interest was piqued further when they saw the other man who was a stranger in these parts take up the position opposite.

A tremor of fear and expectation ran through the gathering townsfolk; curiosity overriding their sense of self-preservation as they gathered to watch rather than taking cover.  Over the years the town had seen many a gunfight yet they still watched; transfixed by the young man with the dark hair and the bright blue eyes who stood there so confidently.

The challenger narrowed his eyes as he took up position a few feet away with the strong afternoon sun shining in his eyes.  For a few painstaking seconds the two men eyed each other carefully before the elder man made his move.  A single shot rang out in the dusty street but it was the older man who fell to the ground, dead.

***

Earlier that day Johnny had ridden into town to pick up some supplies for Teresa.  Murdoch had told Johnny to send one of the hands but Johnny being Johnny had insisted he go himself.  If the truth be told he liked to get out of the house now and then.  It wasn’t like the days when he had first arrived at Lancer and had always been taking off.  These days he was more settled, tamed he thought to himself with a chuckle, thinking of his family.

The reaction he received once he had arrived at the general store was another sign of the acceptance bestowed on him over the years. It had come as a shock to Johnny; the realisation that he had wanted to be accepted so desperately and he had trouble admitting it to himself in the beginning.

“Mornin’ Mister Lancer,”

Johnny smiled down at Beth Cunningham, the daughter of old Tom who had run the general store around here for years.  It had taken a long time for the people of Green River and the locality to distinguish Johnny Lancer from Johnny Madrid but finally they had and now scarcely anyone referred to him as “Madrid” for which Johnny was thankful.

After collecting his supplies Johnny decided to call in on Val for a while. Johnny and Val Crawford had been friends a long time and in many ways it had been a surprising friendship, what with Val being the Sheriff and Johnny a hired gun. But mutual respect,  an appreciation of each other’s sense of humour and a strong sense of trust had seen them through all these years.

As Johnny entered the jail he found his friend sitting in his usual position; feet on the desk and a cup of coffee in his hand. When he saw Johnny he looked up and grinned, gesturing him in and swiping at the papers on his desk in an effort to clear a space to set his cup down.

“Busy?” Johnny asked casually, a small smirk appearing on his face as Val tried his best to nod seriously. Pulling out a chair, Johnny sat down on the other side of the desk and after declining a cup of Val’s coffee, they proceeded to chat like the old friends they were.

They had only been there for ten minutes when the door to Val’s office flew open and a breathless and flushed Beth appeared in the doorway, “Johnny – you had better get out here quick!”

Johnny shared a questioning look with Val before both men rose to their feet and followed Beth outside, Johnny leading the way.

“Look!” Beth said pointing further down the street where a crowd had already gathered.  From where he stood Johnny could see two figures standing in an all too familiar position.

“Joe,” Johnny breathed, aghast at seeing the young man about to embark in a gun fight.  Seconds later a shot rang out and the crowd moved closer, blocking Johnny’s view.  Drawing his gun, Johnny surged forward, pushing through the crowd, his eyes locked on the body of the dead man.  Relief flooded through Johnny like a waterfall when he realised the body was not that of his son.

As the relief faded, Johnny was filled with another emotion – anger, especially when he heard the comments whispered by the assembled crowd,

“That boy’s too young to be involved in gunfights.”

“Like father like son.”

Johnny heard both comments but chose to ignore them; instead he kept his eyes fixed firmly on Joe.

Joe returned the Colt to his holster and took a deep breath, adrenaline pumping through every vein in his body. Casting his eyes over the fallen man one last time he turned, intent on heading back in to the saloon to finish his beer but his eyes caught those of a figure in the crowd; the eyes of his father.

Seeing Johnny there and the anger that was flashing in his blue eyes, Joe felt every ounce of his newly gained confidence fade away just like the blood that was fading from the body in the dirt.

In a second Johnny was by his side, his hand closing around his arm in a vice-like grip, “What the hell do you think you're doin’?” he ground out from between clenched teeth.

“Pa, I-“ Joe began but before he could continue Val Crawford stepped forward.

“Apparently it was a fair fight Johnny,” The Sheriff assured his friend before turning around to look at the body, “This man, whoever he is found out who Joe was. Seems he wanted to be the one to take down your son.”

Johnny pursed his lips, his anger diminishing. This is all my fault, he thought to himself sadly for it had never occurred to him that people would see the son of Johnny Madrid as the new challenge.

“How did he know who you were?” Johnny questioned his son, taking another glance at the dead man but seeing nothing that triggered any memory of them having met before.

“I told him,” Joe admitted quietly.

“You did what?” Johnny yelled, his anger returning.

“Johnny, this ain’t the place,” Val cautioned, aware that the assembled crowd were listening intently to every word.  “Perhaps you should go home?” he suggested.

Johnny gazed at his old friend and nodded his understanding before releasing his son. “Get your horse,” he ordered and Joe went quickly, returning a minute later on Guerrero, the black stallion who had been a birthday present from his Grandfather a couple of years before.

After Johnny retrieved his horse, father and son headed out of Green River. The mid afternoon sun was high in the sky, sending scorching rays beaming down.  For a while they rode in silence but it was eventually Johnny who spoke first, unable to contain his anger any longer.

“Why did you tell him ‘bout Madrid?” he asked.  It was a direct question and Johnny expected a direct answer.

“He didn’t believe I was quick with my gun,” Joe answered honestly, his blue eyes hesitantly meeting his father’s.

“How did you get in to the position where he had reason to doubt it?” Johnny asked suspiciously.

Joe took a deep breath and proceeded to explain to his father what had happened in the saloon, “I went in there for a few beers,” he began, fully aware that Johnny would be picking up on that point later, “This man comes in and sits down. He was looking for a fight.”

“With you?” Johnny interrupted.

Joe shook his head, “With anyone,” he said, no longer meeting his father’s gaze.

“So why pick you?” Johnny pressed but Joe just shrugged, “I don’t know” he said, knowing that wasn’t exactly the truth but not wishing to tell Johnny that.  The man had entered the saloon looking for a fight, that much was true and he had started on several drinkers before turning his attention to Joe.  Joe had tried to ignore him at first but when he made reference to Joe’s mixed blood he had been unable to help himself. 

“Yuh had better watch what ya say to me Mister,” Joe had said quietly, meeting the man’s stare with intensity.

The man had laughed then which had only served to rile Joe further, “Why what ya gonna do about it boy?” he had said mockingly.

Joe had remained silent, just moved his hand down to his holster; letting his actions speak for him.

The man had glared at Joe then, annoyed by this boy’s arrogance, “Yuh think you’re any good with that do ya?” he had snarled, nodding his head towards Joe’s gun.

“Yeah,” Joe had said quietly.

“Oh sure yuh are,” the man had said, laughing again now, “What would a boy like you know about usin’ a gun?”

“I know enough,” Joe had replied frostily.

“What, been takin’ lessons have ya?” the man taunted, “Yuh Daddy a rich man is he?  Pay for a few lessons? Oh no sorry kid, yuh probably ‘ave no idea who your Daddy is!”

Joe glared at the man and shook his head, “My Pa taught me himself,” he growled.

This made the man laugh harder as he stared down at the cocky kid sitting before him, “Your Pa huh?” he said, “So yuh Mama actually knew who he was?” The man chucked evilly at his own joke but his smile quickly disappeared when Joe responded,

“Johnny Madrid is my father,” he said dangerously, relishing the shift in the older man’s expression.

“Madrid huh?  I thought he was dead?” The man said, pausing to reassess the kid in front of him, his thick stubby fingers stroking the week old stubble on his chin. Anyone who had been around a time knew the name Johnny Madrid and he licked his lips at the prospect of taking down this cocky kid who claimed to be his son.  

The rest of the story Johnny knew and Joe just hoped that he would not have to relay the whole story to his father.  He looked across at Johnny, who was concentrating on the road ahead, “Pa?”

“Let’s just get home,” Johnny snapped, “We’ll talk about this more later.”

For the remainder of the journey back to Lancer, Joe was quiet and Johnny was grateful as it gave him a chance to put his thoughts in order.  He had been horrified by what he had witnessed today and it had brought back a lot of painful memories of the past.  Putting Madrid behind him had been the hardest thing that Johnny had ever had to do but he had managed it finally with the love and support of his family.  Johnny smiled as he thought of his family; Murdoch who Johnny had finally figured out, Scott who had made Johnny realise what a family was and what it meant and finally Teresa who he had originally regarded as a surrogate younger sister only to find himself falling in love with her ten years later.  Johnny smiled as he thought of Teresa.  It was seeing her with Joe that made him realise his true feelings and boy had there been fireworks when he had finally admitted them, only for Teresa to amaze him by confessing that she had always had those feelings for him.

As they rode under the Lancer arch, Johnny’s mind snapped back to the present and the situation that he now had to deal with.

“You can rub down the horses then get washed up for dinner,” Johnny ordered his son, dismounting and handing the reins of his horse to Joe.

Joe nodded; knowing with a heavy heart that he probably hadn’t heard the last of this.

****

Chapter Two

That evening the family ate in the kitchen, a tradition that had been born a few years  after Scott and Johnny had come home and made their preference for the informal, cosiness of dinner at the kitchen table known. Now they only ever ate at the dining room table on Sundays when Scott, his wife Nina and their twin daughters would join them for dinner making the kitchen just too overcrowded.

While Maria hovered around the table making sure everyone had enough to eat, Murdoch and Teresa’s attention was focused on the tense atmosphere between Johnny and his son.  It had been obvious that something was wrong as soon as Johnny had returned from town with a subdued looking Joe in tow.  Usually if Johnny and Joe didn’t see eye to eye then the whole family knew the reason why.  Scott often joked that he could hear Johnny shouting from the house he had built on the Lancer spread and now lived in with his family.

At the head of the table, Murdoch cast his watchful blue eyes over his son and grandson.  Joe was pushing peas around the plate and Murdoch noticed that every time Joe looked up, Johnny’s glare would shoot him down; forcing his gaze back to the wooden tabletop in front of him.

Teresa was also intrigued by the atmosphere but unlike Murdoch was prepared to bide her time, knowing that Johnny would confide in her once they were alone.

“Is someone going to tell me what’s going on?” Murdoch asked finally, trying not to sound to demanding. When neither man spoke Murdoch fixed his gaze on his grandson, “Joseph?”

Joe looked up to meet his grandfather’s questioning eyes before glancing at his father.  It was now Johnny however who was concentrating on his dinner, pushing the food around on his plate with his fork.

“I was in town today,” Joe began but Johnny’s head jerked up suddenly.

“He was drinkin’ in the saloon” Johnny said quickly, shooting his son a look that warned him not to say anymore.

Murdoch pursed his lips; he had lived with his son and grandson long enough to know that there was more to this story but it had also been long enough to know not to push for the information. “The saloon young man?” Murdoch said sternly, his eyes narrowing.

Joe shifted uncomfortably in his chair, squirming under his grandfather’s disapproving gaze.

“Since when are you allowed in saloons?”

“He ain’t.” Johnny’s voice was cold, his expression stern and the fire in his blue eyes portrayed the anger he still felt towards his son.

“You two have already discussed this I presume?” Murdoch enquired. He sometimes felt that Johnny’s approach to parenting was a little too relaxed so he wanted some reassurance that Johnny had dealt with this issue.

“I’m going to deal with it Murdoch okay?” Johnny snapped angrily, making it clear that Murdoch’s interference was neither wanted or welcome.

Murdoch frowned but refrained from saying anything further. Ever since Johnny had done a disappearing act from Lancer thirteen years ago, returning with four year old Joe in tow, Murdoch had worried that Johnny’s approach to parenting was far too laid back and would only lead to trouble.  However as the years had gone by and Joe got older, Murdoch had been forced to admit that so far Johnny had proved to be a great father as Joe had turned into a fine young man.  Johnny was also a fine young man and it pained Murdoch that he could take no credit for that.  He had not been there for Johnny when he was growing up and the guilt that burdened Murdoch would be taken to the grave.

Once dinner was over, Johnny ordered Joe outside while Teresa assisted Maria in the kitchen.  Murdoch retired to the great room, sitting in his preferred chair by the fire place sipping from a glass of scotch and recalling the first time he had laid eyes on his grandson.

He and Johnny had finally settled into their roles as father and son after a difficult reunion and the aftermath of Pardee. In those days it was not unusual for Johnny to take off for days at a time, usually with no warning to anyone other than Scott.  Murdoch had assumed that he was escaping the tension between them or it was because Johnny was used to doing his own thing and having his own space.  When Johnny disappeared one day without even telling Scott and without any other obvious reason, Murdoch had worried that something had happened to him or worse still that he had returned to life as Madrid.

Murdoch closed his eyes as he remembered the pain he had felt thinking he had lost his son for a second time and then the relief that had consumed him when a rather sheepish looking Johnny had returned a fortnight later.  He had been about to unleash two weeks worth of worry and anger on his son when out of Johnny’s shadow stepped a small boy, the spitting image of Johnny. Murdoch had gawped at the boy in shocked surprise.  The little boy had bronzed skin, slightly darker than Johnny’s and he looked like he had spent every day of his life playing out in the sun. He had a mop of unruly black hair that was badly in need of a trim but it was his eyes that caused Murdoch to swallow hard. Peeping out from thick dark lashes were the brightest pair of expressive blue eyes that Murdoch had only ever seen on one other person; his own son.

The truth had come out then and the family had learned that Johnny had become a father at only seventeen years of age.

Murdoch, Scott and Teresa had listened as Johnny explained how the young but already hardened Johnny Madrid had fallen in love with a young Mexican girl called Sophia whose family had taken Johnny in when he’d been injured in an ambush.

Murdoch had listened with a heavy heart as Johnny spoke of Sophia and the love that they had shared; love, like with Catherine and Maria had been tragically short lived.

Sophia had died a month after Joe’s birth and Johnny, after ensuring his son’s safety with her parents had taken off and resumed life as Madrid; not in a position either financially or emotionally to stay and be a father.  But Johnny had thought of his son every day; visiting when he could and saying a prayer for him every time he faced death which was often over the next few years. 

As Johnny spoke, the reason for his many unexplained absences from Lancer suddenly became clear to everyone.  Scott and Teresa, whilst upset that Johnny had never confided in them before were very supportive; encouraging him to keep talking.  It had filled Murdoch with a sense of pride to know that Johnny had never abandoned his son and he had listened intently as Johnny explained that when he got word of the death of Sophia’s parents he had gone to collect his son and bring him home to Lancer.

“Why did you not bring him home earlier Johnny?” Teresa had asked her hand clasping Johnny’s in a gesture of support and affection. 

Johnny’s face had coloured and he had avoided meeting Murdoch’s eyes, “I wanted to make sure it really was home I guess,” he had mumbled, glancing quickly at Murdoch and feeling relieved to see that the old man did not look mad.

The entire family had welcomed Joe with open arms and he really was the most adorable child.  Teresa had assumed a mothering role almost immediately and Scott had been curious and amazed by his little nephew.  As for Murdoch, well the little boy had enchanted him; capturing his heart right from the outset.

Murdoch allowed himself a small smile as he recalled Joe’s childhood at Lancer.  He had loved having a child around the place again.  It often made him think about what it would have been like to see Johnny and Scott grow up here.  With Joe, Murdoch felt that he had been given a second chance, a chance he had grabbed with both hands.

In order to ensure that Joe was protected, Murdoch had insisted that if people asked then they would say that Johnny had been married to Sophia.  Johnny had been outraged at first, telling Murdoch in no uncertain terms that he had loved Sophia (at least as much as any seventeen year old boy was capable of) and as far as he was concerned there was nothing to be ashamed about.  It had been Scott who had made him see the sense in Murdoch’s suggestion, making Johnny consider the prejudice that Joe would face if people found out he was illegitimate.  Johnny who was no stranger to prejudice finally agreed that Joe would have a hard enough time growing up Mexican amongst his almost all white family.  Unlike Johnny though, Joe would always have the support of a loving family and would never have to face such narrow-mindedness alone.

The sound of Johnny’s raised voice cut through the open French doors, bringing Murdoch out of his reverie.  Teresa came out of the kitchen wiping her hands on her apron.  When she heard the shouting she looked at Murdoch with worry in her brown eyes, “Do you think I should go out there?” she asked anxiously but Murdoch shook his head.  They both knew that shouting was as far as Johnny would go.  The way he controlled his infamous Latino temper with his son amazed Murdoch.  When he had first announced to the family that he never intended to physically punish Joe, Murdoch had been sceptical.  They had all knew that Johnny had suffered some severe beatings as a child not that he had ever really talked about them.  The scars on his body told stories that he never could and so Murdoch had always respected his son’s decision, even if he didn’t entirely agree with it.

Teresa sighed and Murdoch watched his daughter-in-law intently.  It had come as a shock to him when Johnny and Teresa announced they were in love and it was even more of a shock when it became apparent that no one else was surprised.  Joe was seven years old at that time and had been living at Lancer for the past three.  During that time Teresa had become devoted to the little boy and apparently just as devoted to Johnny.

It had been Scott as usual who had made Murdoch see sense when he threatened to put a stop to the blossoming relationship between his son and his ward.  Teresa was almost twenty years old, an age where most women were already married with a child on the way and as Scott had pointed out, if Teresa were to marry then she would almost certainly leave Lancer and they would lose her where as if she married Johnny, they would stay on at Lancer together and raise their own family right here where they all belonged.

It had been a convincing argument and had won Murdoch over and now he was so thankful to Scott for allowing him the chance to have a large happy family at Lancer – something that had been his dream for so long.

***

At the rear of the hacienda, Joe was standing in front of one of the sandy coloured stone pillars while Johnny yelled at him.  In all the years they had lived together he had never seen his father this mad.  It wasn’t the volume of Johnny’s voice that was unusual, Johnny had a temper and these days he expressed it by shouting, preferring not to use the low, menacing tone that had been a trait of Madrid, but the anger in Johnny’s blue eyes that told Joe in no uncertain terms that he was in serious trouble this time.

“Haven’t I told ya before to stay outta that saloon?” Johnny punctuated each word with a jab in Joe’s chest with a pointed finger.

Joe took another step backwards and felt the cold stone of the pillar against his back and he swallowed with the realisation that he had nowhere else to go, “Yeah you have,” he admitted, “But come on Pa; I’m old enough to go for a beer!”

Johnny raised his eyebrows incredulously, “You are just seventeen years old Joe and yuh ain’t old enough till I say ya are, do you understand?”

Joe let out a deep breath and nodded, “Yes Sir,” he said respectfully, his eyes downcast.

“Look at me Joseph,” Johnny snapped; studying his son’s face carefully until finally Joe met his gaze once more. Satisfied that Joe had indeed understood, Johnny took a step away from his son and gestured towards the house, “Get inside,” he said firmly.

Joe did as he was told, his mind whirling.  Johnny didn’t know it but he had just placed him in a very difficult position. He hated lying to his father but Johnny had not said that he was forbidden from going into town, just that he was not to go in the saloons so maybe he could get what he wanted without having to lie.  He just needed the opportunities to build up his reputation.  Surely then Johnny would see how important this was to him?

As Johnny watched Joe walk back in to the house, he sighed deeply.  There was still the issue of the gunfight to discuss but Johnny realised he would need a cool head before he tackled that one.  Besides how could he lecture his son about something that he had once done for a living?  Who had taught Joe to be fast with a gun?  Johnny realised how stupid he had been to teach Joe all that he knew.

Even when Teresa pointed out later that evening if Joe was not quick with his gun then it would have been him lying in dead in the street, it did not make Johnny feel any better.  Joe was his only child, Teresa and he had not been blessed with children together but she doted on Joe as if he were her own.  He had come so close to losing Joe today and the thought made Johnny shudder as he realised how naïve he had been to teach Joe how to use a gun so well.

Later as Johnny relaxed in a tub of hot water, he closed his eyes and remembered the hours he had spent practising with his gun, never wanting to lose his edge for fear that someone from his past would come calling.  That same fear still caused him to practice to this day, even though it had been years since his draw had been tested.

When Joe had been a little boy he had stood patiently watching his father for hours on end, enjoying this time alone with Johnny.  If Johnny was honest he had enjoyed those times just as much and it had flattered his ego to know that Joe looked up to him.  There had been to many times throughout Johnny’s lonely childhood when he had to fight for every ounce of affection he got and nobody had ever loved him as unconditionally as Joe did.   Johnny liked to think that if Maria had never taken him away then Murdoch would have done the exact same thing with him, only then Johnny would have been an expert at ranching rather than with his gun.  It had never occurred to Johnny that Joe would be forced to use the skills he had taught him just because he was his father’s son.

As the water cooled, Johnny shivered involuntarily, his mind wrestling with the dilemma; if Joe had been called out because of Madrid then that made it Johnny’s fault and he couldn’t blame his son but if Joe had not been deliberately disobeying him by drinking in the saloon then the gunfight would never have taken place. 

Shaking the excess water from his tanned body Johnny stepped out of the tub and slowly got dressed, running his fingers through his wet hair.  He knew he had to speak to his son about the gunfight but at the moment he was still too angry with him.  The last thing Johnny wanted to do was overreact like Murdoch.  The comparison placed a wry grin on Johnny’s lips and he decided that he would wait until he had cooled down before talking to Joe again.

****

Chapter Three

The following Sunday, Joe found himself working alongside Scott mending fences with some of the hired hands.  Since Johnny had spoken to him the other day, Joe had done his best to stay out his father’s way.  This was partly because Joe sensed that Johnny was still mad at him and partly because he needed his own space.

Stopping work for a second, Joe let his eyes wander across the fields, past the heard of cattle that grazed lazily in the afternoon sun and beyond to the rolling green fields of Lancer.  It was Lancer land as far as the eye could see and as Joe leaned against the fence post his mind strayed to the events of the evening before.

Last night had been the first opportunity that Joe had got to go into town.  He had carefully avoided his father all day, mentioning to Teresa that he would be meeting his friends in Green River as it was Saturday night.  Teresa had searched his face before giving her consent and by the time she ran it past Johnny, Joe had already left.

Joe hadn’t exactly lied; he did meet up with some friends. Joe had known Matt and Terry since school although in many respects Joe felt he had outgrown them.  When Terry suggested going into the saloon Joe had hesitated, if only for a second and his conscience prickled as he had ordered his first beer of the evening. He half expected the bartender to tell him he couldn’t serve him anymore but he didn’t and Joe had joined Matt and Terry at the table, his drink in hand.   

They had been in the saloon for twenty minutes when Terry’s older brother Jake and some friends of his came in. When one of them suggested a game of poker, Joe agreed readily, even though he had little money.  They had been playing for about an hour and Joe had lost the last two hands.  One of Jake’s pals seemed shifty and Joe was willing to swear he was cheating somehow.  After losing the third hand in a row, Joe threw his cards on the table in disgust, glaring at Jake’s friend accusingly.    

Before anyone knew what was happening, Joe and the other man were squaring up to each other.  It was only the intervention of Robin Tomlin, the new Deputy Sheriff, who had walked in to the saloon at that exact moment, preventing the fight from escalating. Robin had broken the fight up, ordering Joe, Terry and Matt out of the saloon and home.  As they walked away from the saloon under Robin’s watchful eye Terry turned on his friend accusingly, “What was that about, accusing him of cheating? Jake’s gonna kill me when he gets home!”

“Oh whatever” Joe muttered, not in the mood for his friend’s bellyaching.

“Come on Terry,” Matt said, “Let Joe cool off”.

With a final glare in his friend’s direction, Terry and Matt had departed leaving Joe to ride home alone.  He was so incensed at the idea he had been cheated that it did not occur to him that word might get back to his family.  If it had, then he probably would have thought twice about going home.

“Joe!” Scott repeated, jolting his nephew to the here and now.

“Sorry?” Joe said blankly, wondering just how long Scott had been calling him for.

Scott shook his head. After an hour or so of working in silence, Scott had had enough and he threw his hammer onto the grass and approached his nephew. “Have you sorted things out with your Pa yet?” Scott asked, knowing full well that Joe hadn’t but hoping that the young man would talk to him about it.

Joe shook his head, turning his back on Scott and hammering the fence post with renewed vigour.

Scott couldn’t help but smile to himself at the similarities between Joe and Johnny.  It reminded him of the relationship between Murdoch and his brother, although there had never been the need to prove the love that obviously existed between this particular father and son. “Johnny’ll come round you know,” Scott pointed out, “He’s just a bit annoyed with you right now.”

“Disappointed in me you mean,” Joe snapped, turning once more to face his uncle.

Scott nodded, “Maybe but he loves you Joe. You know that don’t you?”

Joe sighed and kicked at the fencepost in frustration, “Yeah I know, I just wish he’d stop treating me like a kid.”

Scott wanted to point out that at just seventeen, Joe was still technically a kid but he kept the thought to himself, saying instead, “He just worries about you Joe. We all do.”

“Yeah well I don’t need ya to worry ‘bout me” Joe snapped.

Scott grinned, slapping his nephew on the back, “That’s what families are for boy” he said fondly.

That evening Scott, Nina and the twins joined Murdoch, Teresa, Johnny and Joe for dinner as was customary on a Sunday.  Murdoch sat at the head of the table and smiled proudly at his family relishing the moment.  There had been a time when he had almost given up hope of ever having the family he craved, but it had happened; Scott had come home from Boston, Johnny had been saved from the firing squad and he had been blessed with Joseph, Molly and Catherine not to forget Teresa and Nina.

They were half way through their meal when Maria appeared, “Perdone Juanito, Senor Crawford requests a word with you urgently.”

Johnny raised his eyebrows and exchanged puzzled looks with the others at the table. Excusing himself he left the dining room and made his way to the porch where Val was standing. Upon seeing his friend, Johnny smiled and invited him to join them for dinner but his friend declined. “So what brings you here Val?” Johnny asked, the curiosity evident in his tone.

“I’ve come as a friend Johnny,” Val said, knowing there was going to be no easy way to tell Johnny this.

Johnny grinned, humour dancing in his eyes “Yuh mean you’ve ridden all this way just to invite me to your retirement party?” he joked, knowing that his friend was considering turning in his badge, having done the job for more years than he cared to remember.  When Val remained serious, Johnny’s grin faded.

Val took off his hat and patted his hair down.  Even though it was evening, the Californian sun was still hot at this time of year and the long ride out here had made him even hotter.

“Spit it out Val” Johnny urged, not recalling a time that Val had hesitated so much.

“It’s about Joe…” Val began.

Ten minutes later Val was gone and Johnny stood alone trying to digest the information that Val had given him. “He was looking for a fight,” Val had said, having explained to Johnny that Joe had been in town again, in the saloon; seemingly looking for another chance to test his draw.  Johnny knew that Val would not have rode out here if he had not felt the matter was serious and that Joe was putting himself in situations that could spiral out of control.  Johnny cursed in frustration. What was his son thinking? You didn’t go around accusing folk of cheating unless you were just looking for trouble.  

It was obvious now which path Joe wanted to tread and all Johnny knew was that he had to stop him.  He could feel the anger building up inside of him, not just at Joe but at himself.  Keeping his arms down by his sides, clenching and unclenching his fists Johnny felt his muscles work, trying to diffuse his temper, a technique he had employed many times in the past, when a cool head was as important as a fast draw and could mean the difference between life and death.

Johnny did not want to believe that anyone would chose to travel the same path as he had done.  Madrid had been born out of anger, betrayal and a strong sense of survival.  Every drop of blood that was shed at Johnny’s hands had tainted his soul and Johnny would never forget each and every face as they fell to the ground, greeting death with a look of complete surprise.  He wanted so much more for his son.

Steeling himself, Johnny made his way back into the dining room. He wished he could talk to Scott before he saw Joe but he knew that was impossible seeing as Scott was seated at the table with the rest of the family.

Murdoch looked up as Johnny re-entered the room.  He was about to ask what Val was calling about but the thunderous expression on Johnny’s face stopped him. Joe who had his back to his father didn’t even realise Johnny had returned until he felt Johnny’s firm hand on the back of his collar, hauling him to his feet.

“Hey!” Joe spluttered twisting around to face Johnny who refused to relinquish his hold on his son’s collar.

“Johnny!” Scott and Murdoch said in unison, horrified that Johnny was behaving so out of character.

“Leave it Old Man,” Johnny snapped, dragging Joe out of the room and leaving his family to stare after him open-mouthed.

Joe let Johnny drag him as far as the veranda before wrenching free of his father’s grip.  “What are you doin’?” he demanded, angry that Johnny had humiliated him in front of the entire family.

“What am I doin’?” Johnny asked, his expression cold, “Val tells me that you are now starting fights, practically asking to get yourself shot!”

Johnny was surprised when Joe squared up to him, his blue eyes flashing, “I ain’t gonna get shot, I’m too quick” he retorted cockily.

Johnny laughed sardonically, “There’s always someone quicker Joe,” he muttered.

“Like you ya mean?” Joe snapped.

Johnny narrowed his eyes, “No not like me” he said firmly. 

“Look Pa,” Joe began, “You were famous, yuh had your turn and now it’s mine!”

Johnny looked incredulous at that statement. “You think I enjoyed it?” he demanded, his voice getting low and dangerous, “You think I had a choice in doing what I did?”

“Oh come on Pa, I’ve heard all about Madrid – you were the best and maybe you’re worried ‘bout me being that good, maybe I’m even better?”

Johnny smirked, “You ain’t better,” he snapped.

Hurt marred Joe’s good looking features for a split second but he quickly hid it from his father, “You’ll see,” he challenged.

“No I won’t cos it ain’t gonna happen!” Johnny warned, pointing a finger at his son.  He could feel his temper stirring within and Joe was pushing all the right buttons to bring it to the surface.  “From now on you don’t leave this ranch without my permission do ya hear me?”

Joe met his father’s eyes for a moment and saw the determination and anger within.  Knowing there was no way he could win this argument, Joe hung his head, “Yeah,” he muttered.

“Yeah?” Johnny repeated, not impressed by his son’s insolence.

“Yes Sir” Joe corrected, scuffing his boot in the dirt and not meeting Johnny’s disapproving stare.

Johnny nodded satisfied, “There’s one more thing Joe – Give me your gun.”  He kept his voice quiet but firm, knowing what it would mean to his son to lose his gun but it was the only way that Johnny could see of both driving his point home and keeping Joe safe.

“What?” Joe said in alarm, staring up at his father with disbelief in his blue eyes.

“You heard me,” Johnny repeated softly.

Joe felt defiance run through every vein in his body as he felt his own temper start to stir.  Taking a deep breath as if to psyche himself up Joe answered, “No.”  He knew he was really pushing his luck with Johnny right now but there was no way he could let Johnny confiscate his gun.

“No?” Johnny echoed, feeling his temper ignite like a match to paper, “You’ll hand it over now Joe or I’ll-”

“You’ll what?” Joe interrupted his voice heavy with challenge. “You’ve already told me I can’t leave the ranch.  What else ya gonna do, send me to my room?”

Scott, who had left the table to find Johnny, stopped short of the open French doors when he heard Joe throw down the gauntlet to his brother.  Scott waited with baited breath to see how Johnny would react.  Although he could not see his brother’s face he knew that Johnny would be considering his next move carefully.  Joe could be stubborn but Johnny was the most stubborn man that Scott had ever met, maybe with the exception of Murdoch.

The argument reminded Scott of the days when Murdoch and Johnny were constantly at each others throats.  Back then Johnny would never back down and Scott doubted that he would do so now. Still fatherhood had mellowed Johnny in many respects, it had certainly helped him to let go of Madrid.

Scott was brought back to the present by Johnny’s reply.

“Joseph, if I have to send you to your room, ya won’t be sittin’ comfortable,” Johnny said darkly, his meaning clear.

At that moment Scott chose to make his presence known, walking out on to the veranda, flicking his blonde hair from his eyes.  “Everything okay?” he asked, looking pointedly at his brother.

Johnny’s expression did not change and his eyes never left Joe’s face, although he nodded in answer to Scott’s question.

“Well?” Johnny asked Joe, gesturing towards the gun on his son’s hip and holding out his hand for it.

“Pa, I don’t see why I can’t keep my gun? I’m not leavin’ the ranch!” Joe pleaded.

“Joe. Give me the gun!”

“No,” Joe said stubbornly.

“Damn it!” Johnny slammed his open hand against the wall of the hacienda just above Joe’s left shoulder causing his son to flinch.

“Get to your room and wait for me there,” Johnny snapped, realising what he was going to have to do and already hating himself for it.

Joe looked at his father and saw the resolve on his face and he swallowed hard.  Johnny had never hit him before and after all this time Joe had assumed he never would. Without another word Joe turned and went quietly to his room.

With Joe gone, Johnny muttered something in Spanish and ran his hands through his thick dark hair.

“What are you going to do?” Scott asked his brother, worried by the expression on Johnny’s face and his desolate pacing on the veranda.

Johnny looked at his brother, trying to decide whether to confide in Scott or not.  Finally he decided to trust his brother, “He wants to be this famous gunfighter,” Johnny said bitterly, “I’m worried ‘bout him and I have to put an end to it – I’m just not sure how.”

Scott placed a supportive hand on his brother’s shoulder, at least stopping the pacing. “Have you explained to him what being a gunfighter is really about?”

Johnny shook his head, “He never needed to hear all that before,” he said, “Hell Scott, he’s grown up with a family who love him yet he wants to throw that all away!”

“Johnny, Joe is almost a grown man. Perhaps he’s just trying to assert his independence?”

“What are you sayin’, I’m supposed to let him get on with it?  He’ll end up dead Scott!”

Scott sighed, usually he always knew the right advice to give Johnny but this time he was lost for words.  The potential consequences were just too grave.

Johnny caught Scott’s intense expression and almost grinned, “What brother, they didn’t teach you ‘bout this stuff at that fancy school?”

Scott cracked a smile, pleased that some of the tension had lifted.  It didn’t last though because a moment later all traces of Johnny’s grin had vanished and he headed in after Joe.

“You’re really going to hit him?” Scott called after his brother.

Johnny did not turn round as he spoke, “He ain’t left me no choice,” he muttered.

***

When Joe got upstairs he hung his gun belt on the bed post and sat down on the bed. Why could Johnny not understand that he just wanted to make a name for himself?  Why didn’t he recognise that he had a talent?

Hearing the sound of Johnny walking up the stairs, Joe froze.  His palms were sweaty and as Johnny opened the bedroom door Joe quickly considered his options.  He could make a run for it, if he caught Johnny by surprise Joe was sure that he could get past him and down the stairs but then where would he go?  He could stay and fight his father, although physically Joe knew that Johnny had the edge.  At thirty-four years old Johnny was hardly past it and more than capable in a fight. The third option and the one that Joe realised he had already chosen was to take what ever Johnny gave him with as much dignity as possible.

***

A few hours later the house was quiet with all its occupants asleep with the exception of Joe who stared dejectedly at the bare bedpost where his gun belt had been. Johnny had taken it with him when he’d left his room after ensuring Joe suffered the most excruciating few minutes of his life. Johnny had not held anything back and Joe had frantically blinked back the tears that pooled in his eyes, determined that Johnny would not see them.

Knowing what he had to do; Joe got up and opened his bedroom door, peering out in to the dark landing.  Carrying his boots under one arm and his saddlebags under the other, Joe padded down the landing and the stairs.  Creeping into the great room, Joe went straight to the desk and pulled on the top drawer, guessing that was where Johnny would have stashed his gun.  When he realised the drawer was locked, Joe removed his penknife from his pocket and forced the lock, removing the confiscated weapon.  Slinging his gun belt over his shoulder Joe went into the kitchen and filled his saddlebags with enough food to get through a few days on the trail.

Leaving the house, Joe went straight to the barn where he saddled Guerrero. Pulling himself up into the saddle, he winced as his backside met the hard leather. Gritting his teeth Joe rode off into the night.  He paused just once and twisted in the saddle, gazing back at the hacienda that had been his home for so many years. Bathed in moonlight it looked so inviting and so safe but Joe needed to do this. He needed to make a name for himself and to be his own man. His family would just have to understand.

****

Chapter Four

The next morning Johnny woke earlier than usual and lay in bed for a while rethinking the events of the day before.  Guilt hammered in his heart like a steel drum because he had broken his vow and hit his son.  Johnny had wanted to make an impression on Joe, the sort of impression that would mean Johnny would never ever have to do that again so he had not gone easy on him.

Joe had reminded Johnny of himself as a child, determined not to show his pain and give anyone the satisfaction of seeing it but that had just contributed to Johnny’s guilt to the extent that he had left his son’s room last night without talking to him like he intended.  Johnny knew that Scott was right; Joe needed to hear the truth about being a gunfighter.  The truth would certainly shatter Joe’s illusions that it brought only fame and fortune.

Johnny was determined to have that conversation with his son today but it was not the only conversation he was dreading.  Murdoch had looked at Johnny with questioning eyes when he had come back downstairs last night but thankfully Scott had saved Johnny from a grilling, tactfully suggesting to Murdoch that it was best to leave Johnny be for now. Murdoch had complied but his expression showed he was not happy with the situation.

After spending some time out in the barn grooming his horse, Johnny had returned to the hacienda only when he was sure that Murdoch had retired to his room.  Scott had stopped by the barn briefly before his family’s departure to offer his continued support to his brother for which Johnny was grateful although he had not wanted to talk about what had happened in Joe’s room and so Scott had gracefully said goodnight.

Now, Johnny knew he would have to offer some explanation to Murdoch but he was determined to give him as brief an outline as he could get away with.  Only Scott and Teresa knew what had really happened in town the day before and Johnny had only told them because he knew he could trust them not to fly off the handle.

Climbing out of bed, Johnny pulled on his pants and buttoned his shirt, abandoning all thoughts of shaving and combing his hair.  Leaving Teresa asleep, Johnny went downstairs.  Maria had not yet arrived and the house was eerily silent with only the light of dawn highlighting the familiar surroundings.  It would not be long before the rest of the house awoke so Johnny, anxious to have as much time to himself as possible made his way outside.

Slipping in to the barn, Johnny greeted his horse in Spanish. Montaña was a fine horse, just like the horse that had sired him.  Johnny smiled as he thought of Barranca who had been his companion for so many years.  Losing him had been like losing his best friend, only the knowledge that his Montaña was an equally fine horse who had proved to be a most suitable replacement, had made Barranca’s loss bearable.

As his eyes accustomed to the dim light in the barn, Johnny noticed for the first time that the stall next to Montaña was empty; the stall that usually held Joe’s horse.

Bolting from the barn, Johnny ran in to the house and up the stairs, throwing open Joe’s bedroom door.  Johnny’s heart sank as he saw the unmade bed and no sign of his son.  Racing back downstairs Johnny went straight to Murdoch’s desk where he found the forced drawer.  He did not need to look inside to know that the gun was gone.

“John, what’s going on?” Murdoch asked, coming down the stairs having hurriedly dressed when he heard Johnny about at this hour of the morning.  He found Johnny leaning against the desk with his head in his hands.

“John?” Murdoch asked again, his voice laced with concern when he saw his son’s posture.

“He’s gone,” Johnny muttered, standing upright and looking at Murdoch dejectedly.

“Who has gone?” Murdoch asked, crossing the room and placing his hands on his son’s shoulders. “Johnny, talk sense boy.”

“Joe’s gone,” Johnny snapped, shaking off Murdoch’s hands.  “His horse and his gun.  I’ve got to find him.” He went to leave the room but Murdoch grabbed his arm.

“John!” he barked.

Johnny turned to face his father, contempt marring his features.  He did not have time for this; he needed to find Joe and quick.  Johnny calculated that the longest Joe could have been gone was five hours but that was enough of a head start for him to just disappear if that was what he intended.

Murdoch took a step backwards when Johnny whirled around angrily.  Correcting his tone before he spoke, Murdoch said, “John, we need to think about this son.  You can’t go tearing after him just like that.  We need to consider why and where he is likely to have gone.  I’m sure he’s just worked up about whatever it is you two discussed last night?  He’ll come home when he’s cooled down.”

Johnny’s face crumpled then and for a moment Murdoch worried that his son was going to cry.  However to Murdoch’s relief Johnny composed himself, “You don’t understand Murdoch” he said quietly, “He wants to be me.”

For a moment Murdoch was confused, “What’s wrong with that?” he started to say before he comprehended Johnny’s meaning.  “Oh I see,” he said, unable to keep the distain from his voice, “You mean he wants to be like Madrid?”

Johnny narrowed his eyes at Murdoch’s tone, “Yeah, he wants to be like me,” he repeated.

Murdoch regained his composure and to Johnny’s surprise he pulled out the chair from in front of his desk, “Johnny sit down and tell me what’s going on” he ordered gently, indicating that Johnny should sit.

Johnny did as he was told and Murdoch took up position behind his desk, reaching for his pipe. “Right, start at the beginning,” he instructed.

Johnny shifted uncomfortably in the chair. This was not the way he had intended this conversation to go, he knew now that there was nothing to be gained from giving Murdoch an edited version of yesterday’s events.

Taking a deep breath Johnny relayed everything.  His trip in to town, witnessing the gun fight, Joe’s proclamation that he was the innocent party, what Val had said yesterday and finally Joe’s refusal to give up his gun.

Murdoch listened as Johnny talked and he felt his anger build up inside.  When Johnny had finally finished, Murdoch could contain himself no longer,  “I knew this would happen!” Murdoch raged, standing up and slamming his fist on the table, “This is all down to your irresponsibility!” he accused Johnny, “I knew you should never have taught him how to use that gun.  I said it would lead to trouble. That and your downright refusal to ever lay a finger on him, even when he deserved it!”

It took a moment for Johnny to react to Murdoch’s sudden explosion but when he did he matched it with one of his own. Jumping to his feet, Johnny fixed Murdoch with his most deadly stare and when he spoke his tone was cold, “I might have known you would react like this. You think I don’t know that this is all my fault?  And as for not laying a finger on Joe, I did that because of what I went through; the beatings I got because you weren’t there to protect me!”

Those words cut Murdoch to the quick and he immediately wished he could take back what he had said. “Johnny-” he began but his son cut him off.

“And for your information Old Man I did lay a finger on him last night, in fact I laid my belt which is one of the reasons why he ain’t here right now!”

Murdoch opened his mouth in shock at Johnny’s admission but Johnny just glared at him before turning and leaving the room.

“Johnny!” Murdoch called, following his son out of the great room and into the kitchen where Johnny was urgently collecting supplies and shoving them into a bag.

“Not now Murdoch,” Johnny snapped, “I’ve wasted enough time as it is.”

“Johnny, I want to come with you,” Murdoch said.

Johnny looked at his father like he’d just suggested walking over hot coals, “No way” he said firmly.

“Johnny…” Murdoch began but the arrival of Teresa in the kitchen stopped him.

Looking between her father-in-law and her husband, Teresa’s gaze came to rest on her beloved Johnny, “Where are you going?” she asked, noting the open bag already half full.

“Joe’s gone Teresa,” Johnny said quietly, “I’ve got to go after him.”

Teresa nodded, understanding immediately why Johnny was so agitated and keen to leave. “Just you?” she asked, not wanting Johnny to go charging after Joe alone.

“Yeah just me,” Johnny replied, shooting a pointed look at his father.

Murdoch shook his head resignedly, knowing his son meant what he said.  It was Teresa who came up with a solution, “Johnny, let Scott go with you?” she pleaded.

Johnny was about to refuse when he noted the plea in Teresa’s voice.  Nodding his head, he walked over to his wife and planted a soft kiss on her lips, “I love you,” he whispered to her before leaving the house without so much as a glance in Murdoch’s direction.

Murdoch watched his son leave with a heavy heart and he wondered when he was going to stop pushing Johnny away? Cringing at the words he had said to his son, Murdoch closed his eyes as he considered that if anything happened to Joe, Johnny would be devastated and would Johnny ever be able to forgive him? Could he ever forgive himself?

****

Chapter Five

Joe rode for as long as he and Guerrero could before resigning himself to the fact that he was going to have to stop and get some rest.  It was mid afternoon and Joe had been riding for almost twelve hours, making only the briefest of stops along the way.  

Earlier that day his stomach had rumbled, telling him that it was breakfast at Lancer and for a moment Joe wondered whether he was making the right decision as he thought of his family sitting around the kitchen table enjoying Maria’s fabulous cooking; eating and laughing.  He felt guilty when he realised that there would be no laughing and joking at Lancer this morning when they realised he had gone for good.

Joe knew that Johnny would come after him which was precisely why he had been so anxious to make good progress today and why he would be spending the evening in the open rather than checking into a room in the nearest town. “Not that I’ve got the money to do that,” Joe muttered to himself, feeling the few notes he had in his pocket.  He needed to make some money and as soon as he reached a town that was far enough away to be safe, he intended to hire out his gun.

As Joe led his horse to the nearby stream, his mind wandered over the night before.    How did he feel about Johnny now?  Joe wasn’t sure.  He knew he had pushed Johnny into hitting him.  Never had he been so disrespectful to his father before nor had he deliberately disobeyed Johnny’s requests, yet in the space of one week he had done both twice.  Joe felt ashamed that it had come to this but he knew that Johnny was never going to let him live the life he wanted which was precisely why he had run.

“I sure am going to miss’em though,” he murmured to Guerrero, running his hands over the horse’s neck before leading him into a wooded area where he sat down against a tree trunk.  He was still thinking of his family as he drifted off to sleep.

Joe slept fitfully, conscious that if he stayed in one place for too long then Johnny would catch up with him and so he was up just after dark, anxious to get going.  Johnny’s tracking abilities concerned Joe slightly which was why he was glad to know he had a few hours advantage. Joe figured that Johnny would follow him for as long as he could which was all the more reason for Joe to get going now. His only saving grace would be that Johnny would have to rest too.

Packing up his makeshift camp, Joe mounted his horse and set off again, riding through the darkness and into the bright sunshine of the morning.  After once again resting for a few hours, he arrived mid afternoon at a small town he had never visited before.

Tethering Guerrero to the fence railing, Joe made his way into the only saloon in the town, pulling his hat down low just in case anybody recognised him and sent word to Lancer.  He sat in a quiet corner, keeping his head bowed to avoid attention and listening intently to the conversations around him, hoping to overhear something that would lead to the opportunity he was waiting for.

The opportunity presented itself after about an hour, although it was not in the way Joe had intended.  Overhearing two men discussing a group they were assembling for a job that involved protecting some land owned by someone called Jacobs, Joe raised his head to catch more of the conversation.  The two men were both dressed casually, one was a big stocky man with a protruding belly, uncombed brown greasy hair and greying whiskers. The other man was thinner and younger, probably mid twenties Joe guessed and he had reddish brown hair and matching stubble.  As Joe watched and listened, he realised too late that this was a mistake.  The younger of the two men whom Joe gathered was named Griff, stopped talking immediately and glared at Joe, nudging his companion to show they were being watched.  Quickly, Joe returned his gaze to his beer glass which by now had been empty for sometime.  A moment later the two men stood up and left.

Joe decided to leave too, cursing himself for being so obvious and hoping that if he went after them and explained he was willing to offer his services they would listen.

When he stepped outside in to the sunshine there was no sign of Griff and his companion.  Regretting the missed opportunity, Joe stepped down from the boardwalk and started walking along the street to where Guerrero was waiting for him.  As he passed the alley between the saloon and the next door building, Joe felt a circle of pressure against his back and realised that it could only be the barrel of a gun. 

Reacting with speed, Joe whirled around to confront his assailant, his gun drawn even before he’d finished turning.

Griff found himself staring down the barrel of Joe’s Colt and he couldn’t hide the surprise from his hazel brown eyes.

Joe kept his hand steady, aware that at such close range if either man moved to shoot then they would both be dead.  Instead, Joe attempted to stare down Griff, remembering too late that Griff had not been alone.

“Drop it boy.”

Joe did not look to see who had spoken, he didn’t need too.  Instead he kept his gaze on Griff, knowing that the second he lost his focus could be his last.

To Joe’s surprise Griff grinned, holding his free hand out to his companion in a “hold it” gesture.  “You think yuh quick with that?” he asked Joe, the surprise in his eyes quickly giving way to amusement.

“I know I am,” Joe said with more confidence than he actually felt; the amusement in Griff’s expression and words unnerving him.

When Griff raised his eyebrows expectantly, Joe took his chance, “I hear you’re lookin’ for guns?” he said carefully, not making any attempt to lower his weapon.

Griff’s companion stepped forward out of the alley menacingly, “You got big ears ain’t ya boy?” he snarled.

Joe made no comment to that, keeping his eyes and gun on Griff, “Yuh hirin’?” he asked directly.

The big man made an advance towards Joe but Griff reached out, placing his arm across his companion’s body and replacing his own gun in its holster.

“Wait just a minute Pete,” he said, his interest piqued as he appraised the youngster in front of him carefully, “Just how good are you kid?” he asked.

“I’m good,” Joe confirmed.

“Well I think we should just see ‘bout that,” Pete growled, still not trusting the boy in front of him.

“Just say the word,” Joe growled back, turning his gun on Pete.

Griff’s his face broke out in to a fully fledged grin, “I’ll give you a go, kid,” he decided much to the annoyance of Pete who simply scowled. “You got a name?”

“It’s Joe,” Joe replied.

“Joe what?” Pete asked suspiciously.

“Just Joe,” Joe said coldly. He glared at Pete, taking an instant dislike to this big man with the grey whiskers and the beer belly which spilled out over his pants.

“Well Joe,” Griff said, gesturing to Pete to put his gun away, “You got a horse?”

Joe nodded, still keeping his pistol concentrated on Pete who had reluctantly lowered his gun.  

“Well I suggest you go get it and we’ll go see the boss,” Griff said, reaching out to slap Joe on the back.

Joe slowly lowered his own gun to his side, not putting it away until Pete had replaced his.  To Joe’s relief the bigger man grunted and pushed past Joe towards his own horse.

During the dusty two hour trek to reach their destination, Griff explained that he and Pete and quite a few others were working for a man named Jacobs who owned a ranch that he was struggling to keep solvent while being constantly plagued by cattle rustlers. When they arrived, Joe was greeted by a bunch of rough looking men who Teresa would describe as needing a good wash.  Griff explained to them that Joe was the latest recruit and this seemed to be accepted by the others but it was Jacobs himself who took the convincing. When Joe went to stable his horse, Jacobs beckoned Griff into the house where he asked him curiously, “Just who is this boy, Palmer? He doesn’t look day over sixteen. How can you be sure he’s any good?”

“I’ve just got a feelin’ bout him boss,” Griff replied, looking his employer in the eye confidently and when Jacobs still looked reluctant, he said, “Look if he ain’t no good, I’ll fire ‘im.”

Jacobs shook his head doubtfully, “If he ain’t any good, he’ll be dead,” he said wearily, “We all will.”

That night Joe kept himself to himself.  Griff had shown him to the barn where a few of the other men were camping out and he had asked Pete to fill Joe in on the deal.  Apparently, the “boss”, a man named Jacobs had been having some trouble with cattle rustlers so he was putting together as many men as possible.  While Johnny Madrid would have known straight away that Pete wasn’t giving the full picture, Joe Lancer did not question this.  Instead he nodded his head; pleased that he had secured his first job and anxious to show off what he could do.

After letting the kid know as much as he needed to, Pete took up position on the other side of the room.  As Joe got his head down for the night, Pete watched him carefully. He didn’t like this Mexican kid and it was beyond him why Griff had agreed to hire him.  A smile played on Pete’s lips as he promised himself that he would prove Griff wrong.  Hell, having the kid along for the ride may make his job even easier.

***

As expected, Johnny was able to follow Joe’s tracks fairly easily.  The delay caused by riding out to collect Scott had only served to increase Johnny’s anxiety and his nerves were frayed to say the least, making him snappy and ill-tempered.

Luckily Scott understood the reason behind his brother’s short answers and spells of silence as they rode in Joe’s tracks.  When Johnny had turned up at his door early that morning and explained that Joe had gone, Scott had rushed to get ready for the trip, understanding the urgency of setting out straight away.  When Nina heard, she echoed Teresa in her thoughts that Scott should accompany Johnny and Scott appreciated her consideration.  After kissing his sleeping daughters goodbye they had set off, exactly seven hours after Joe.

They had been riding for only two hours when Montaña stumbled and Johnny realised he had thrown a shoe.  Johnny let out a stream of obscenities, all of which were in Spanish and asked Montaña why this had to happen now.

Scott also cursed their bad luck as he realised that this would seriously hold them up and he was right, by the time they had got to Montaña re-shoed, it was late afternoon.

In an attempt to make up for lost time they rode hard for the next few hours, pushing the horses to their absolute limits.  As the sun went down, Scott finally reined his horse to a halt. “This looks like a good place to camp for the night,” Scott remarked, pointing to a clearing about fifteen feet from the path.

Johnny hesitated, knowing that any rest now would only give Joe even more of a chance to get clean away.

“Johnny,” Scott said, spotting at once his brothers reluctance, “We have to rest.  The horses are tired and frankly so are we.  How do you intend to follow Joe’s tracks in the dark any how?”

Johnny frowned, knowing that Scott was right.  “Okay” he relented, “But at first light brother…”

“We’ll be on our way,” Scott finished for him.

That night as the brothers ate some of the food they had brought with them, Johnny remained silent.  Scott looked at Johnny’s face illuminated by the moonlight and he could see the worry written all over his handsome features.  “We’ll find him you know,” Scott said with more confidence than he felt, “Knowing Joe, when his money runs out he’ll come home with his tail tucked in between his legs and waving a white flag!”

“Or he’ll find a way to make money,” Johnny muttered, the words echoing his true fear, that Joe was hell bent on becoming a gun for hire.

Scott did not reply.  The thought had crossed his mind also but he was determined not to think negatively.  Provided the weather stayed fine and the wind stayed low they had a good chance of being able to follow Joe’s tracks all the way to his final destination, wherever that may be.

****

Chapter Six

True to his word, Johnny was up as soon as the inky sky began to give way to the dawn.  From his position on the ground, Scott looked up at his impatient brother, hauling himself to his feet and dusting himself off.

“You ready?” Johnny snapped irritably and Scott noticed that he had already packed and saddled Montaña. 

“Yeah,” Scott said, walking over to his own horse and getting him ready to ride.

Within ten minutes they were back on the trail, Johnny’s eyes fixed on the tracks left by Joe’s horse the day before.  Scott looked too but he could hardly see anything on the dusty path.  They had been riding for a few hours when they came across evidence of a campsite and Johnny swore in frustration.

“You think this was where Joe spent the night?” Scott asked his brother but Johnny only nodded grimly, nudging Montaña with his thighs and increasing the pace.

When once again it got to dark for them to follow Joe’s tracks Johnny became increasingly agitated.  Spending another night out here would put them even further behind Joe and make the tracks even harder to follow.   

Knowing he had no other option, Johnny and Scott set up camp for the second night but again neither of them slept and they were off as soon as the first rays of light appeared on the horizon.

After three or four hours they reached a small town.  Following Johnny’s lead, Scott rode down the main street, almost riding into the back of Johnny when he pulled up suddenly. Scott noticed at once that Johnny was edgy; his blue eyes darting around furtively and taking in his surroundings.  He seemed to decide it was safe however and dismounted his horse so Scott did the same and together the brothers stood and surveyed the town.

Compared to the towns near Lancer, this one was minuscule and as far as they could see there was only one saloon.  As soon as Johnny spotted this, he knew this was the place to start looking.

“You think he’ll still be here?” Scott asked Johnny, not seeing anything in this town that would keep his nephew here for long.

Johnny shrugged and entered the saloon which was empty except for the bartender.

“You want a beer?” Scott asked his brother and was surprised when Johnny shook his head.

“Tequila,” Johnny requested, selecting a seat with the best view of the doorway.

While Scott ordered the drinks, Johnny chewed on his fingernail and considered their options.  As Scott returned to the table with the drinks, Johnny knocked his back in one shot, letting the fiery liquid rush down his throat and relishing the taste. 

“You needed that then?” Scott observed, wondering how Johnny could cope with tequila at this time of the morning.

“Yeah,” Johnny said honestly, stoking his chin and feeling stubble.

“So what now Brother?” Scott asked, knowing that if Joe wasn’t still here then they were pretty much up the creek without a paddle.  Without tracks to follow, how on earth would they know which direction to take?

“Now I’m gettin’ another drink,” Johnny said, getting up and strolling to the bar, taking the position by the wall, his body turned just slightly towards the batwing doors; a cautionary measure from the days when he was liable to be called out if the wrong person walked through those doors after him.

“Same again?” The bartender asked, wondering just what these two men were doing drinking at this time of the day.  They certainly didn’t look like the kind of clientele who frequented his establishment, well at least the blonde one didn’t.  The barman surveyed Johnny closely, clocking the gun belt worn low on the slim hips.

Johnny knew when he was being assessed and he fixed the bartender with his piercing eyes.  The bartender immediately dropped his gaze, deliberately pouring more tequila into the glass as a peace making gesture.

Johnny recognised this and smiled to himself and decided to press this advantage,  “You seen a kid in here?” he asked quietly, “Would have been yesterday or today perhaps.  Black hair, blue eyes?”

“Half-breed you mean?” The bartender said without thinking, his face reddening when he realised his mistake.

Johnny narrowed his eyes.  He needed this information so he decided to let the insult pass, “You seen ‘im?” he asked again.

The bartender nodded, “There was a kid in here yesterday but I didn’t pay ‘im much attention,” he said with a shrug.

“Where’d he go?” Johnny asked, trying to make his enquiry sound as casual as possible.

“He left,” the bartender said with a shrug of his shoulders, wondering just what this kid had done.

Johnny nodded, paid for his drink and returned to Scott.

“Did he know anything?” Scott asked his brother, having overheard only some of Johnny’s conversation.

“Joe was here yesterday,” Johnny said, his eyes troubled. “Hell Scott, we ain’t never gonna find him!”

Seeing Johnny so desolate bothered Scott deeply.  He tried to think level-headedly, a trait that usually came so naturally to him when he realised that Johnny was waiting for him to say something that would make all of this seem better.

“Johnny, Joe wants to prove he’s good with his gun right?” Scott said, “So we need to think like he is right now.  What would you do if you were Joe?” he asked.

Johnny laughed bitterly, “You’ve got that the wrong way brother” he said, “Yuh should be askin’ me what Madrid would do, that’s what Joe is thinkin’, or thinks he’s thinking,” he muttered.

“Okay,” Scott said, seeing Johnny’s point.  “What would Madrid do right now?”

“He’d be looking for a job” Johnny said, appreciating the way Scott separated Johnny Lancer from Johnny Madrid by talking about him in the third person.  It’s a pity Murdoch can’t separate us so easily, Johnny thought to himself.

“Well then brother, let’s go find ourselves a job!” Scott answered, standing up and adjusting his hat. 

***

Over at Jacobs’ ranch Joe was passing time before he teamed up with Griff to ride the perimeter along the south side of the range.  Frustrated that nothing much seemed to be happening yet, he had found a quiet spot amongst some trees and had begun practising his draw just as he did every day at home.

He had been at it for about an hour when he became aware that someone was watching him.  Tensing, Joe spun around and sought out the eyes that he suspected were watching him from the shadows.  For some reason Joe was expecting it to be Pete so he was surprised when a stranger stepped forward.

“You always practice this much?” The white-haired man asked curiously, studying the younger man in front of him and realising what Griff had seen in him the day before.

“Yeah,” Joe admitted cautiously, “Who are ya Mister?”

“My name is Gerald Jacobs,” the man said, “This is my ranch”

“Oh,” Joe said, feeling so embarrassed that he fumbled to put his gun away. 

Jacobs smiled to himself, amazed at how the young man seemed to shrink to a boy before his very eyes.  “You know why you’re here?”

Joe nodded, “Heard ya got trouble with cattle rustlers?”

“Yes,” Jacobs admitted sadly, “There was a time when I could have handled it myself but now, I guess I’m just too old.”

Joe shook his head and assessed the old man in front of him. Jacobs was of medium height and build with wispy white hair and twinkling brown eyes that were accentuated by the deep seated crinkles of age that spread across his face.  “No it ain’t that,” Joe said, “We once had trouble with cattle rustlers at home and it took my Pa and my Uncle to….” His voice trailed off as Joe realised that he had said too much.

Jacobs studied the boy intently, “If you’ve got a home son, why aren’t you there?” he enquired gently.

Joe frowned, “I’m old enough to take care of myself,” he snapped defensively.

Jacobs nodded and let the matter drop, assuming that the boy’s home life was not a happy one.  What other reason could there be for him to be on a job like this one?

***

Chapter Seven

Scott may well have been the one to suggest they went looking for a job but he didn’t have a clue how to go about it.  On Johnny’s suggestion they booked into a room above the saloon with the intention of getting their heads down for a few hours.  Scott was a bit astonished but he trusted Johnny’s judgement.  After all Johnny was walking an old path and it was a path he knew well.

It came as no surprise that neither of them had managed to fall asleep.  The room smelt musty and as Scott’s eyes travelled over the drab walls he couldn’t believe that he had actually paid money to stay here.  In a way Scott was relieved that there was only one room available, he didn’t want to leave Johnny alone right now.

Looking across at his brother’s bed, Scott could tell that Johnny was awake, despite his motionless form.  He knew that Johnny had not slept much since they had left Lancer and that worried Scott.  Whatever they were about to get themselves into would require them both to be on their guard.  The irony of the thought suddenly struck Scott as he realised that he could not remember a time when Johnny had not been on his guard, other than when they were at home on Lancer.

While Scott had always known that Johnny often hid behind the Madrid persona, he learnt quickly that underneath his brother was a kind and loving man.  Seeing him with Joe had only served to reinforce that.  Scott smiled as he recalled the many days spent horsing around at Lancer, the fishing, play-fighting and swimming in the stream, all the while with Murdoch looking on fondly.

How did none of us see this coming with Joe? Scott wondered, suddenly feeling guilty for not spotting the danger signs that must have been there.  Like Murdoch Scott had been wary when Johnny had first started to teach Joe the technique he had mastered so well but his wariness had faded in time because like Johnny, he had assumed that Joe would have no desire or need to enter that life.

Now he was Lord knows where and probably in danger.  Glancing again at his brother, Scott sighed and closed his eyes, willing sleep to come.

Johnny lay with his back to his brother and listened as Scott’s breathing settled into a regular pattern, signalling that he had finally fallen asleep.  Johnny’s own eyelids were heavy but sleep just taunted him.  In a few hours they would go downstairs to the saloon for something to eat and drink.  Johnny knew the routine well. As the sky got darker so would the characters that graced the saloon and that was where Johnny hoped to find the next clue in the search for his son.

The hours passed slowly and the blue sky seemed reluctant to make way for the night but finally the black cloak of darkness swept over the sky and after having a quick wash and combing their hair, Johnny and Scott made their way downstairs into the saloon.

The bartender nodded at them, pouring a shot of tequila and a glass of beer and placing them on the bar.  Johnny and Scott reached out for their drinks, nodding a thank you before settling at the same table as earlier.

As Scott surveyed the other patrons, he realised that his brother had been right.  They all looked shifty and Scott realised exactly why Johnny had pulled his hat down so low just before they left their room.

“You think anyone’ll recognise you after all this time?” Scott had asked his brother curiously but Johnny had just shrugged.

“I’m here to find Joe, Scott” he had replied, “I don’t want Madrid getting in the way of that.”

Scott had nodded in understanding and followed his brother downstairs.

After an hour of sitting in near silence, drinking and listening, Scott was getting restless, “Johnny, maybe this isn’t the right place?” he suggested.

Johnny looked at him with a trace of irritation, “This is the place Scott,” he growled quietly. 

Scott sighed and let his eyes wander as casually as possible but to be honest he didn’t really know what he was looking for.  When Johnny stood up abruptly about two minutes later, Scott was surprised for he had noticed nothing out of the ordinary.  “Where are you going?” Scott hissed as Johnny walked away from their table and took up position by the bar, leaning on the wooden surface with folded arms.  As Scott watched Johnny, he knew his brother was listening intently yet his face was expressionless and he almost seemed to blend in to the décor.

Looking at the other men lined up along the bar, Scott thought that they all looked the same; dirty, down trodden cowboys who all wore their guns like medals of honour.

After a few minutes Johnny was back and he signalled with his eyes that they should leave.  When they were back in their room Scott fixed Johnny with a confused look,  “Well?” he enquired, waiting for his brother to enlighten him.

“Some old man named Jacobs is havin’ trouble with cattle rustlers,” Johnny explained, repeating what he had heard. “Apparently he’s anxious to protect his land cos he’s been hiring as many men as he can.”

Scott shook his head in amazement, how had he missed that?

“Well come on then, lets go ask them if they’re still hiring!” Scott said eagerly, grabbing his discarded hat and replacing it on his head.

Johnny caught his brother’s arm before he could leave the room, “No Scott,” he hissed.  “That ain’t how it’s done.  If we go down there just askin’ like that, the only thing we’re gonna get is trouble.”

“So what do we do then?” Scott asked, frustrated with the whole situation. Downstairs was a chance of finding out exactly where Joe was yet Johnny seemed reluctant to take it.

“We wait,” Johnny said simply, knowing that the wait would be torture.

“For what?”

“Just until mornin’ then we go find us this ranch.”

Scott nodded his understanding.  They were in for another long night.

***

Joe had been at Jacobs' ranch for two days and finally last night there had been some action, even if Joe had missed it. He and Griff were riding patrol out on the south side of the ranch when Andy, one of the other men had appeared from the darkness, shouting that the rustlers were on the property.

Griff and Joe jeered their horses into a gallop and raced in the direction Andy had said. When they arrived they found Pete and a couple of the others standing around, guns drawn and chatting amongst themselves.

"What happened?" Griff asked, drawing his own gun as he dismounted his horse, his hazel eyes searching the woody area on the other side of the dirt road.

"They were back again," Pete muttered, "I got off a few shots but I don't think I got'em."

Joe bit back the sarcastic comment that was on the tip of his tongue. This was the man who had given Griff a hard time about hiring him, well at least Joe knew that he wouldn't have missed!

Satisfied that the rustlers were gone, Griff and Joe continued their patrol. Joe struggled to ride at a steady pace as he was filled with an air of excitement, knowing that at any moment he would get the opportunity to prove himself.

When they returned to the house just before dawn, the air of excitement had gone and Joe was feeling dejected and tired. As he lay down in the barn and closed his eyes, his mind drifted back to Lancer and his family. What would they be doing now? Joe wondered to himself.

He was still sure that Johnny would have come after him but the fact that he hadn't found him yet filled Joe with mixed emotions. In a way he was pleased that he was on his own, living the life he wanted but a small part of him, a part that he was trying desperately to ignore, wanted his father to show up. His thoughts were of Johnny as he gave in to sleep.

****

Chapter Eight

Joe slept for about four hours and when he opened his eyes he groaned, his body feeling stiff from the hard floor. Dragging himself to a standing position, Joe stretched his muscles and went outside. Hardly anyone was around because they took shifts to patrol the ranch and the cattle and so Joe wandered over to the water pump, cupping a handful of the running cold water and splashing it on his face in an effort to wake up.

"You okay son?" a voice behind him said.

Joe stood up, wiping the water from his face with his sleeve as he turned to where Jacobs stood.

"I'm fine" Joe said, "Sorry we didn't get'em last night."

Jacobs sighed wearily, "Yes Joe, so am I," he said taking a step closer to Joe and studying the boy. He was concerned to see that Joe looked exhausted and Jacobs could tell that he wasn't used to surviving on so little sleep. Again he wondered exactly what this boy was doing here.  "You hungry?" he asked Joe, "Would you like to join me for lunch?"

Joe's face lit up, "Yeah," he said enthusiastically, before covering it up with what he hoped was a casual grin as he followed Jacobs into the house. As Joe walked through the foyer and into the kitchen he couldn’t help but think about home. The layout of Jacobs’ house reminded him of the hacienda although this house had more of a western feel to it. Walking into the sunny kitchen with the vast window that overlooked the rear of the property, Joe was reminded of the large window in the great room at home, where he had used to sit on his Grandfather’s knee when he was a little boy and listen to stories about how Lancer had come to be built.

Jacobs watched Joe gaze out of the kitchen window and he couldn’t help but find this  kid quite intriguing, acting like a man one minute and a little boy the next. In many ways he reminded him of his own son who had died years ago and he felt a little guilty about hiring someone so young to do what was essentially man's work.

"I like to eat in here if that is okay with you?" Jacobs asked, pulling out two chairs and motioning Joe to sit as his housekeeper started to lay out the food.

Joe nodded, taking the seat and starting to devour all that was put in front of him, noticing that Jacobs’ housekeepers cooking wasn’t a patch on Maria or Teresa’s.

Jacobs watched the boy eat and wondered how long it had been since the boy had had a decent meal. "So Joe," Jacobs asked, "How old are you?"

Joe looked up from his plate, "Seventeen" he said with a trace of irritation at the fact that everyone had to bring his age into everything. "You are seventeen years old boy" was exactly what Johnny had said to him when he got into trouble last week.  Last week. Joe struggled to comprehend that it had only been a matter of days since he had last seen his family. It seemed like so much longer.

"What happened to your family Joe?" Jacobs asked, trying to make the question sound as conversational as possible, not wanting the defensive reaction he had received when he had enquired about Joe's home life the other day.

"Nothin’ happened to 'em," Joe stated matter of factly, smiling gratefully at the housekeeper as she placed a glass of lemonade down in front of him.

"They know you're here?" Jacobs pressed, assuming they couldn't know. What family in their right mind would allow their son to lead this kind of life?

Joe shook his head, "Not exactly" he said guardedly, not liking this man's questions.

"I had a son once," Jacobs said suddenly and Joe's sigh of relief was practically audible when he thought the subject was being changed.

"Yeah, what happened to 'im?" Joe asked, taking a long, refreshing sip of the lemonade.

"He drowned," Jacobs admitted sadly. "It was the worse thing, knowing that there was nothing I could do to stop it. You see Joe; he'd left home after we had argued."

Joe shifted in his seat and placed the glass of lemonade back down on the table. They were clearly still on the same subject and it was not one he was comfortable talking about.

"Is that what happened with you son?" Jacobs asked gently, seeing the turmoil on the boys face.

"No," Joe snapped, standing up abruptly. "Thanks for the meal," he snapped, turning on his heel and walking out.

Jacobs watched him go; sure he had hit the nail on the head. He was an old man and not always a wise one but he recognised the signs; Joe was a confused young man with something to prove. The questions Jacobs didn't know the answers to was `what' and `why'?

Joe felt he had to get out of the house because he couldn't breath.  Jacobs was a nice man, his manner reminding him a lot of his Uncle Scott but Joe didn't want to talk about his family or the reasons he had left.  As he returned to the barn Joe saw Griff standing outside, watching a horse and his rider disappear around the corner and out of sight.

Joe followed his gaze, assuming that Griff had just dispatched the next patrol. He liked Griff. While riding last night they had chatted amicably and Griff no longer referred to Joe as "kid" which pleased Joe immensely.

"Hey" Joe greeted his new friend, "What's up?"

Griff shook his head dumbfounded, "Word sure travels fast around 'ere" he said.

"Oh?" Joe said casually, brushing his dark hair out of his eyes.

"Yeah, we got more people looking for work round these parts than we know what to do with."

"You hire'im?" Joe asked although he wasn't really interested. He and Griff were due to ride out again in about an hour and he needed to get his head down first.

"Nah. We got all the men we need," Griff said, following Joe into the barn.

***

"I knew I shoulda gone!" Johnny yelled furiously when his brother returned to their room with the news that their offer of work had been refused at the Jacobs ranch.

Scott going in alone had been the outcome of a heated discussion between Johnny and Scott earlier that morning. Johnny had wanted to set off for the ranch as soon as he woke up having managed to grab a couple of hours sleep last night and feeling a lot better for it.

Scott had been hesitant. He had lain in bed the night before, worrying that his brother was not thinking clearly and was ready to jump in feet first. Scott was concerned that if Johnny just rode in to the ranch he would be recognised or worse still Joe would see him and run. Scott's argument was that if he went Joe would be less likely to run and maybe Scott would be able to talk some sense into his nephew. When Scott had voiced these thoughts, Johnny had looked at him like he was crazy and was slightly angry with his brother for not trusting his judgement like he had said he would.

Grabbing his gun belt and hat, Johnny had been about to leave the room when Scott spoke, "Johnny, have you thought what you are going to say when you see Joe?"

Johnny had paused and turned slowly to face his brother, "I'm gonna tell 'im," Johnny had said quietly, "I'm gonna tell him what it's like, what he's gettin' himself into!"

"And what if he won't listen?" Scott said, considering this a serious possibility.

Johnny hesitated, fiddling with his gun belt, unnerved by what Scott was saying. Since Joe had gone, all Johnny had thought about was the importance of finding him. Now they were possibly quite close and Johnny realised that Scott was right. Losing his cool was what had lost him his son in the first place. He would need to be calm and willing to listen when he saw Joe again. These were not traits that came easily to Johnny but they were natural to Scott.

With a deep sigh, Johnny had slumped down on to bed disconsolately.

"Johnny, let me go?" Scott reasoned, "I'll check things out. If they’re still hiring then I'll get us in. What if there is someone there whose been around long enough to recognise you? The last thing we need is for someone to try and take you out before we even know where Joe is!"

Johnny had begrudgingly relented then and Scott had left the room leaving his brother to pace every inch of it like a lion trapped in a cage.

After a simple enquiry at the local store had told Scott where the Jacobs Ranch was, he had ridden out there wondering if today was the day he would find his nephew. In an ideal world Scott knew that he would find Joe and get him and Johnny talking. Maybe if he explained what a gunfighter's life was like from the viewpoint of a loved one, Joe would listen to that?

As he approached the ranch he was stopped immediately by armed men at the gate. Scott acted casual, stating his purpose that he was visiting looking for work having heard they were hiring guns. The men looked at the blonde man sceptically but let him pass, satisfied that a cattle rustler was unlikely to ride right up to the ranch in
the middle of the day.

They weren't surprised when Scott reappeared sometime later and they smirked at the idea that this man would be any good with a gun.

As Scott rode back to Johnny, his thoughts were in turmoil. His offer of work had been politely but firmly refused for it seemed they had all the guns they needed for now. Scott's eyes had scanned over the house, yard and corrals but he had seen no sign of Joe. He wished that he had let his brother come along and not talked him out of it. Johnny would have known exactly the right things to say and do in order to secure them the job or at least find out if Joe was there.

Now he was once again facing Johnny's anger and Scott wished that for once he wasn't so level-headed, that he had trusted Johnny's judgement like he had said he would the day before.

"Johnny I'm sorry" Scott offered, consumed by a sense of failure. "We'll do it your way from now on."

Johnny scowled but said nothing, he needed to think and form a plan. One thing was for sure, he wouldn't be listening to Scott this time; he would be listening to the little voice inside him, the little voice that had kept him alive so many times in the past – the voice of Madrid.

***

An hour after Scott had left the Jacobs Ranch, Joe and Griff were out riding again, this time on the Western flank of the vast property. In this area they needed to be more vigilant as there was plenty of high brush that would afford someone plenty of cover should someone wish to ambush them. The ground here was also hilly, another problem and as they reached the crest of the largest hill where below the herd were grazing, they both noticed the vultures at the same time.

Having spent the majority of his life living on a ranch, Joe knew straight away that vultures meant that either something or someone was dead. The two men rode down towards the jittery herd in nervous anticipation of what they were going to find. As they rode alongside the herd, the smell of death was unmistakable and then they saw them; half a dozen cows were lying on a bed of rusty red grass, their throats slit from one side to the other.

Joe put his hand to his mouth to block out the smell. He guessed the cows had not been dead for long but in this heat it was not surprising that they smelt so bad.

Almost as a natural reaction, Joe drew his gun and when he glanced at Griff he saw that he had done the same.

"Somethin' ain't right 'ere" Griff remarked, his eyes scanning the fields for any sign of danger. "Rustlers like their cattle alive."

Joe nodded; he had been thinking the exact same thing.

"Come on, we’d better tell the boss and get some men out here to get rid of 'em," Griff said, casting one last glance at the dead cattle before riding back up the hill.

From a distance, Pete watched the two men start up the hill. He had been waiting for someone to find the dead cattle but it was a blessing in disguise that it was Griff and the half-breed. His eyes narrowed as he recalled the arrogance of the young kid, the night Griff had hired him. Pete had bided his time, waiting for the opportunity of facing this kid and shooting him down. Pete licked his lips in the anticipation of the satisfaction that he would get from watching the fear in Joe's eyes as he realised his short life was over. On the other hand Joe and Griff had become so friendly that it was unlikely Griff would let him get away with that. Maybe now was the perfect opportunity to just pick him off and watch him hit the grass.

Pete chewed his bottom lip thoughtfully. He was tired of this cattle rustling charade but he had to admit he had underestimated Jacobs' determination to hang on to his land. Now it was time to step up the game and killing his stock would send the message home to Jacobs that maybe is wasn't just the cattle they were after.

Making his decision, Pete raised his rifle, took aim and fired then smiled as he watched the vultures gather excitedly at the smell of fresh blood.
 

****

Chapter Nine

Johnny and Scott sat in the saloon, two drinks in front of them which so far remained untouched.  It had been Scott’s idea that they go downstairs, anything to break the tension that had filled their room.  Johnny had agreed but unfortunately it seemed that the tense atmosphere had followed them.

Scott sat there, trying to think of something he could say to Johnny to make him understand how sorry he was.  If he could come up with a plan that might help but his brain had ceased to function, probably because Scott had absolutely no faith in any of his own ideas right now.

Johnny stared at his drink although he wasn’t really seeing it. In his head he ran through the various options as he saw them, trying to decide the best one to choose.

It was late afternoon, some six hours since Scott had returned from Jacobs’ Ranch with no Joe, no job and no information and the saloon had not yet filled with the kind of characters they had come to expect of this establishment.  Johnny listened to the other customers chatting amongst themselves having learnt along time ago that saloons were a source of great information, if you could stay in there long enough without getting called out.  Johnny knew that they had been lucky so far, the years he had spent in retirement at Lancer were firmly on his side and so far nobody seemed to show any signs of recognising him although the mention of his name may jolt a few memories, he was sure.

Sneaking a look at Scott from beneath his black lashes, Johnny immediately felt a pang of sympathy for his sibling.  Scott was sitting there looking like the world had ended and Johnny knew he was partly to blame.

Sitting here together it was easy to recall happier times like when they had first got to know each other and gone drinking in Green River every Saturday night.  Scott hadn’t changed that much in the past dozen years or so.  His hair was blonder than it had been when he had first arrived, the sun had seen to that and his skin had a much healthier glow.  For a man approaching his late thirties he looked good although Johnny liked to tease him that he could see the odd wrinkle but they both knew it was just in jest for Scott’s skin was as smooth as it had always been.

Johnny was about to say something to his brother when the excited conversation of two men in the bar stopped him.  For once Johnny didn’t have to try and listen because the men were not cautious about anyone overhearing.

Scott’s head jerked up as he too listened with ears pricked.

The two men were chatting about Jacobs’ Ranch and what had gone down earlier that day.  Johnny and Scott listened as they heard one man tell the other that there had been more trouble with the rustlers and old man Jacobs had lost a number of men.

Johnny caught Scott’s eye and swallowed, not wanting to think about what men had died.

As the men’s conversation shifted to another topic, Johnny stood up, indicating to Scott that it was time they left.

Back in the relative privacy of their room Scott and Johnny took a moment each to digest the information.

“If a number of men were killed, Jacobs is going to be needing more help,” Scott said finally, seeing a chance to redeem what he considered his earlier failing.

Johnny nodded slowly, “Yeah” he said, a plan forming in his mind.  “Scott I’m goin’ alone,” he said, grabbing his gun belt and hat.

Scott opened his mouth in surprise, “What do you mean you’re going alone?” he demanded, “We’re in this together!”

Johnny pursed his lips, trying to think of the best way of phrasing what he was about to say, “Scott it sounds like they’ve got real trouble down at that ranch,” he said slowly, “If Jacobs has lost a lot of men already he’s only gonna be interested in hirin' real good guns.”

Scott looked indignant, “Johnny,” he said in his best big-brother voice, “May I remind you just how may times I have saved your butt?”

Johnny grinned, “I know Brother and I appreciate all those times but now I’m bein’ serious.  If Joe is there, he’ll be in trouble.  He thinks he’s good and he is with a gun but he ain’t got the instinct, the experience.  Hell Scott, I’ll have a hard enough time savin’ him let alone lookin’ out for you too!”

Scott went red but before he could say anything else, Johnny spoke again, “Yuh said we’d do it my way from now on Brother” he reminded Scott gently, “An this is my way.  I’m goin’ in there as Madrid an I need to do this alone, okay?”

Scott sighed.  He wanted to argue further but he could see that Johnny’s mind was made up.  “What am I supposed to do while Madrid is running the show?” he muttered, unable to help the trace of resentment that penetrated his tone.

“You stay here,” Johnny said simply.  “If my son is still alive then you can bet I’ll get him out of there alive, even if it means...”  Johnny’s voice trailed off for a second until Scott registered his meaning.  “I need ya to be in one piece Scott, in case you’re all he has left.”

Scott swallowed hard.  “What are you going to say to Joe when you see him?” he asked his brother for the second time that day.

This time Johnny didn’t hesitate, “I’ll tell 'im I love 'im Scott” he said simply.

Scott watched his brother set off for the ranch from the small window above the ground floor saloon.  Glancing around at the dingy room, Scott sighed and ran his hands through his golden hair, “I’ll give you two days brother,” he muttered to himself, “And then I’m going to get you.” 

***

Johnny made the two hour journey to the ranch in record time, leaving the main road before he approached the gates to the property.  Scott had already warned him that there were armed men on the gate but Johnny had no intention of going in the conventional way.

Keeping his head low and his hand on his gun, Johnny let Montaña guide him through the wooded area that bordered the ranch until he was about a hundred feet from the main gate.  Slipping off of his horse, Johnny removed his hunting knife from his left boot and set to work on the fence.  Within minutes he had sawed through the wire, making just enough of a gap for him to squeeze through.  Whispering soft words to Montaña and assuring the horse that he would be back, Johnny worked his way along the inside of the fence, his ears and eyes on full alert for any sign of danger.  After several minutes Johnny rounded a corner and saw the main house with the barn off to the side.  The place was eerily silent and two thoughts occurred to Johnny; either they were all dead or they were out on the land, trying to find the persons responsible.

Keeping his back pressed firmly to the wall, Johnny slid along the barn.  He stopped briefly to take a peak inside but when he saw it was empty he continued on to the house. 

***

Inside, Jacobs sat in his study with his head in his hands.  Beads of perspiration dotted his forehead as a result of the fast ride he had taken out to the Western range to see for himself the carnage these so called cattle rustlers had caused.

Jacobs had expected there to be bloodshed, he had been in the ranching business for too long to think it could be avoided entirely but the way in which the blood had been split disturbed the old man greatly. “He was just a kid,” he muttered to himself sadly and he had been good, only to be picked off by a distanced rifle shot.  Jacobs had got the message loud and clear; this wasn’t about the cattle, it was about the land and Jacobs feared he may be about to lose it.

As Jacobs sat at his desk consumed not only by grief for the loss of a young life but also for the loss of his ranch, he did not see Johnny enter the room.  When he did look up and saw Johnny standing there before him, his face went pale.  As Johnny gazed down at him with an unreadable expression on his face and his gun belt worn low on his hips, Jacobs knew that his time had come.

Johnny read the old man’s expression instantly and decided to put him out of his misery.  Looking the old man straight in the eye he said, “I hear you’re hirin’ guns.”

It was a statement and not a question the old man noticed once he had recovered from the realisation that maybe this man had not come to kill him.  Shaking his head sorrowfully the old man replied, “No you’re too late I’m afraid son.  It’s over.”

Johnny raised his chin and looked around him, “The place is still standin’,” he remarked casually, “Could do with brightenin’ up a bit, but it’s still standin’.”

Jacobs looked at Johnny curiously, “What’s your name son?” he asked.

Johnny took a deep breath, this was either going to work or it wasn’t, “Madrid,” he said simply, “Johnny Madrid.”

He watched as the old man nodded nonchalantly and then saw his brow furrow as he appeared to repeat the name several times under his breath, “Madrid?” he enquired at last.  “The Johnny Madrid?”

Johnny shrugged, “As far as I know there’s only one.”

Jacobs ran his eyes over Johnny, trying to think the last time he had heard mention of that name in recent years.  He remembered the name only to well from days gone by.  This boy, well this man, Jacobs corrected, was rumoured to have been one of the best.

“I thought you were dead?” Jacobs asked, causing Johnny’s eyes to light up with amusement and a smirk to tug at the corners of his mouth, “Do I look dead?” he asked.

Jacobs shook his head, “And you want to work…For me?” he asked suspiciously, wondering why someone like Johnny Madrid would want to join a losing battle like this one.

Johnny nodded, “If you’re in as much trouble as I think yuh are old man, ya won’t wanna turn me down.”

Jacobs nodded in agreement.  If Johnny was still as good as his old reputation then maybe there was some hope after all.  “Okay son – er, Mr Madrid, consider yourself hired.” He held out his hand to Johnny who shook it firmly.  Jacobs couldn’t help but notice how cool Johnny’s skin was in comparison to his own sweaty palms.

Johnny sat down, wiping his hand on his pant leg as Jacobs filled him in on the trouble he was experiencing.  Just as Johnny had suspected, the cattle rustlers were really land pirates – looking to run Jacobs off his ranch and claim it for their own.

As Johnny listened he resisted the urge to enquire about Joe.  Eventually as Jacobs concluded his story, Johnny heard the news he had been dreading.

“I lost one of my guns today.  He was only a kid.  Someone blew him right off his horse and he didn’t stand a chance.”  Jacobs looked at Johnny then to see if this would unnerve him but Johnny looked as cool and calm as he had throughout their conversation.

Before Jacobs could resume speaking they were interrupted by a knock on the study door.  “Excuse me Mister Jacobs” the man said, “But we’ve brought the body back like you told us.  Where do you want it?”

Jacobs sighed, “Dig a grave somewhere out back,” he said, waving his hand toward the back of the house.

“Yes Sir,” the man said, withdrawing from the room and closing the door.

While Johnny remained calm on the outside, on the inside he was a mess.  He could feel his stomach twisting into knots that made him want to vomit.  Coolly, Johnny said, “I think it’s about time ya introduced me to the rest of your men.”

Jacobs nodded, rising from behind his desk. “This way,” he said, indicating to Johnny that he should follow.

They stepped outside back into the searing afternoon heat just as they were unloading the body from a wagon.  Johnny took a step backwards, still feeling incredibly nauseous but knowing that if he was to vomit at the sight of a body then his reputation would be thrown into serious doubt.

“Every body – this is Johnny Madrid who will be joining the payroll,” Jacobs announced just as the body of the dead man hit the ground.  

****

Chapter Ten

When the rifle shot rang out Joe hit the ground hard, his head hitting the grass with a thud and a sharp pain searing through his left side. When he opened his eyes the pain was still there and when he tried to move his hands in to a position where he could sit, he felt something warm and sticky. Joe felt disorientated, light-headed and the pain in his side continued to burn; sending shooting sparks throughout his body. Holding his hand up to his face, Joe stared in shock at the blood that coated it. The pain in his side intensified and Joe closed his eyes again, feeling the blackness taking over.

When Joe regained consciousness he tried once more to sit up but his arms and legs would not co-operate. Frantically, Joe rolled in the grass, willing his body to oblige and finding with relief that this had eased the pain in his side somewhat. As Joe rolled further away from whatever it was that was causing him so much pain, he hit something firm. Joe blinked a few times, willing his eyes to focus properly but the bright sunshine was not helping his efforts.

When finally the world swam back in to focus, Joe found himself staring at the lifeless body of Griff who was lying on his back, a gaping hole in his chest from where the bullet had exited his body. Before death the blood had flowed freely from the wound, forming a large puddle on the grass, half of which Joe was lying in.

Scrambling away from the body in horror, Joe frantically searched the landscape to see where the shot had come from. He could see no one although there was a densely wooded area to his right which had been the mostly likely point of attack.

Breathing hard, Joe tried to get up but realised his legs were very unsteady. When the shot had rung out Guerrero had reared up, throwing Joe from the saddle onto the grass. As Joe searched around for his gun which had also come loose in the fall he noticed a sharp rock and realised that had been the cause of the pain in his side.

Finally Joe managed to stagger to his feet, reaching for Guerrero. As he hoisted himself painfully into the saddle, Joe took one last look at his dead friend before galloping off as fast as Guerrero could to raise the alarm.

His head was all over the place as he made his way back to the ranch. Images of Griff's inert body and the glazed look of his eyes kept flashing through his mind. He'd seen dead bodies before sure, he'd even killed that man in the street but somehow this was different. Griff had been a good guy.

Anger raged through Joe as he considered the unfairness of it all.  Swearing silently, Joe made a vow to himself that he would track down the person responsible and he would make them pay.

***

 

A couple of hours later Joe was riding back in for the second time that day. Despite Jacobs' protests that he should stay and get the wound on his side seen to, Joe had insisted on escorting the body of his friend back for burial.

As he approached the ranch, he saw that some of the men were assembled around Griff's body and Jacobs was there too. As Joe pulled his horse to a halt he realised that Jacobs was addressing the men.

"Every body – this is Johnny Madrid who will be joining the payroll."

For a moment Joe thought that he must have heard Jacobs wrong but a second later the men blocking Joe's view moved and Joe found himself staring straight at his father.

Blue eyes met blue eyes and neither blinked. It was Johnny who hid his reaction the best, concealing the elation he felt at finding his son alive by casually removing his gaze from Joe and letting it travel around the rest of the men, fully aware that a couple of them were nudging each other and whispering, recognising the name.

Joe dismounted his horse and winced as the pain in his side started up again. Johnny threw his son a curious look which Joe just ignored, relieved when Jacobs ordered him inside the house for a long hot bath.

Johnny watched Joe walk with difficulty in to the house, trying not to clutch at his side. When Johnny had noticed that Joe was hurt he had immediately scanned his son for signs of fresh blood and had been relieved to see only the brown rusty stains that had once flowed through Griff's veins.
 

***

 

Mucking in, Johnny helped bury the body out back, aware that the other men were watching his every move. One man in particular seemed very interested as he kicked dirt on top of the body with his foot. Johnny ignored them all, that was the way he worked best – alone. After seeing that the body was entirely covered by
dirt the rest of the men dispersed, some to the barn to rest and others back out on patrol.

Johnny knew he would have to do his turn sooner or later but right now there was only one place he wanted to be. One person he needed to see.

Approaching the back of the house cautiously, Johnny spied his son sitting in the tub just as Jacobs had instructed. Once he had reassured himself that nobody else was around, Johnny approached softly, his feet laying a silent tread on the ground and he moved so quietly that Joe didn't even realise he was there until he felt his hand on his shoulder as Johnny crouched beside the tub.

"What the-" Joe snapped, reaching quickly for his gun belt which he had shed along with the rest of his clothes and then groaning in pain as he remembered his injured side.

"Relax Joseph, ya ain't got nothin' I ain't seen before," Johnny said lightly, removing his hand from his son's shoulder and reaching around to cup his chin instead and gently pulling Joe's head to face him.

Joe's blue eyes were full of confusion and his lashes rose and fell rapidly as he blinked, not sure whether Johnny was actually there or not. When he had seen him out front, Joe had thought he was dreaming or perhaps still concussed from his fall. But now Johnny was right there in front of him and Joe could see him clearly, smell him and feel his touch. Joe knew he shouldn't be surprised that Johnny had found him, in a way he had expected him to.

For a second tears filled Joe's eyes, threatening to spill down his tanned cheeks but he quickly blinked them back, turning them instead into an angry glare, "What ya doin' here?" he hissed at Johnny, swatting his father’s hand away from his chin.

"What do ya think I'm doin?" Johnny asked, pulling away from Joe and resting his folded arms on the edge of the tub.

"Look Pa, if you've come to drag me back I'm tellin' ya I ain't goin' without a fight!" Joe warned, hoping to dissuade Johnny from that course of action.

Johnny took a deep breath, "I was hopin' I wouldn't have to drag you back Joe," he said quietly, "I was hopin' you'd wanna come back?"

Joe hesitated, images of Griff flashing once more in his mind. A large part of him wanted to say yes, he missed Lancer, Murdoch, Scott and Teresa but the other part, the part that had sworn vengeance demanded that he stay and see this through.

"Forget it," Joe muttered, not meeting his father's intense eyes.

Johnny took another deep breath, realising that it was taking every ounce of his self-control not to grab Joe by the arm and haul him off the ranch, clothes or no clothes. Why was it that as Madrid he could listen to any number of insults or be faced with any number of arrogant, cocky youths and remain completely calm yet when faced with his own son, he had to struggle to keep his temper in check?

Recalling what he had said to Scott just before he left, Johnny once more cupped Joe's chin so that once more the boy faced him, "I love you Joe, I want yuh to come home," Johnny said earnestly, watching and waiting for his son's reaction.

Joe swallowed and cast his eyes down at the water which was now slightly tinted with Griff's blood. After a few seconds he met Johnny's eyes again but not with the reaction Johnny was hoping for.  "Do you mind?" he said coldly, "I want to get out now."

Johnny let go of his son's chin, just about resisting the urge to slap it. As he walked away he heard Joe rise up out of the water and step out of the tub but Johnny didn't look back.

As Joe stood dripping, he watched Johnny leave, not sure what to make of this new calm Johnny. Is this what Madrid is really like? Joe asked himself, finding it difficult to reconcile with the image of a gun-wielding Johnny Madrid who was famous for his smart mouth as much as his quick draw.

While Joe dried himself off he thought about his infamous father.  Right from an early age Joe had heard the tales about his Pa's life as Johnny Madrid. His Mexican grandparents had told him stories, anxious to explain why Johnny could not stick around. When Johnny had taken him home to Lancer and people had found out who he was, the school yard had been buzzing with tales of Madrid, his school friends passing on the stories they had heard their own parents discussing. He had heard so many things over the years but not a single one had come from his father, or the rest of his family for that matter. Joe didn't know why it was never discussed. He figured it was because his Grandfather didn't approve of the life Johnny had led and Joe knew that his Grandfather was not one to be messed with either.

***

Johnny walked around to the front of the house, his mind a cauldron of confused thoughts. In a way, Joe's reaction had not surprised him; he was young and thought that he knew best just like most young men did at that age.

A man was just riding in as Johnny walked past but Johnny paid him no heed, having already decided that he'd better go and collect Montaña from his waiting place.

"Madrid!"

Johnny stopped walking, recognising the challenging tone of voice immediately. Turning slowly, Madrid quickly searched the face of the man who had spoken but there was nothing about this man's sun-withered face that Johnny recognised. The look in his eyes however was unmistakeable.

"An you are?" Madrid asked coldly, not taking his eyes off the man for a second.

"Clem. Clem Ford" the man said proudly, announcing his name like it should mean something.

Madrid shrugged, "Never heard of ya."

Clem's pig-like eyes immediately transformed into mere slits, "Well everyone will’a heard of me once I've put a bullet in Johnny Madrid!"

Madrid smirked, "I wouldn't bet on it," he said coolly, "If, an I mean if ya put a bullet in me Ford, all folk'll say is that I was past my prime, been retired for too many years. If you’re plannin' on buildin’ up your reputation by killin' Johnny Madrid then you're about twelve years too late."

Clem seemed to think about this for a second before matching Johnny's smirk with one of his own, "What's the matter Madrid, ya gone yeller?" he sneered.

Madrid sighed; as always he had tried to talk his way out of the gunfight first, to give the other man a chance to reconsider what would in effect be their suicide. Tilting his head slightly, Madrid narrowed his eyes, "Why don't ya find out?"

From the doorway of the house, Joe watched Clem go for his gun and Johnny shoot him in the chest. The speed of the draw left Joe breathless, just like it did Clem who hit the dirt like a lead weight.

Madrid turned; his instinct telling him he was not alone. When he saw Joe standing there watching him, his face a mixture of shock and awe, Johnny shook his head and this time it was his choice as he walked away from his son.

Joe watched Johnny walk away and tried to make sense of what he had just seen. He had never seen Johnny Madrid in action before and he was good, no he was better than Joe had ever imagined. One thing that irked at Joe was that Johnny had tried to talk Clem out of drawing on him. Why do that when you were so good it was impossible to lose?

***

Later that afternoon, Johnny having declined all offers of company, rode the perimeter alone. As he rode he thought about what had taken place and the effect it would have on his son. It was the first time in a long time that Johnny had been forced to defend himself and he just hoped that was what Joe had seen, although the look on his face had suggested otherwise and Johnny cursed Clem for what it could have cost them.

As he gazed across the open fields of the ranch he thought of Lancer and questioned for the first time if he had the ability to bring his son back there alive. Johnny had no doubt that he was still quick enough to save lives but what it the life in question didn't want to be saved?

After several hours Johnny headed back in, having seen nothing out of the usual. He took care of Montaña before heading to the barn where he spotted Joe straight away. He was lying asleep, in the position most comfortable for his injury and after checking that the other men were all asleep, Johnny crept over to his son.

Crouching down beside him, Johnny brushed a lock of dark hair from his son's face, realising how young Joe still looked, and how innocent too. Lowering his head, Johnny planted a brief kiss on his son's forehead. He didn't see the fleeting shadow of a man in the barn doorway as Joe stirred slightly but did not wake.

Johnny crossed the room and lay down, his back against the wall so he could keep his eyes on the doors and on his son. He knew now was the time to speak to Joe about life as a gunfighter and a plan formed in his mind of exactly how he could get that opportunity.

***
Outside in the shadows, Pete considered what he had just seen. He had thought the two men looked similar when he had seen them together when Griff's body had come back but he had thought nothing of it at the time. After all, all half-breeds looked alike didn't they? Pete guessed they must be brothers or at a push father and son but he could recall no stories about Johnny Madrid having any family.

"Hmmm," he murmured to himself, "This will make things very interestin'."

****

Chapter Eleven

It was the sun shining through the rafters of the barn that woke Joe the next morning and he just lay there for a moment, thinking over the events of yesterday.  Once he had a chance to digest all that he had witnessed, Joe had gone looking for Johnny only to discover that he had ridden out alone.  Joe had waited patiently for his father to come back in but eventually the events of the day had taken their toll and Joe had collapsed into an exhausted sleep.

Now getting gingerly to his feet, Joe examined his side and saw that he had a vivid purple bruise from where he had connected with that rock but thankfully it was nowhere near as painful as it had been yesterday.

Going outside, Joe spotted Jacobs and Johnny over by the house along with several of the men who were already mounted on horseback ready to set off for the day.  As Joe approached the group, Jacobs turned to greet him while Johnny stood there, his face impassive.

“Joe, how are you feeling this morning son?” Jacobs asked warmly, noticing that the boy was walking easier than he had been yesterday.

“I’m fine,” Joe mumbled, finding it strange to be called son by another man when his actual father was only standing a foot away.

“Good” Jacobs said, “You’re going to ride out with Johnny today.”

“What?” Joe exclaimed, the alarm only too noticeable in his voice.

Jacobs smiled reassuringly, not surprised that the boy was wary considering how effectively Johnny had dealt with Clem the day before.

“Joe, we’ve got to be careful” Jacobs cautioned, “After all that happened yesterday I don’t want to take any chances.”

Joe sighed as he scuffed his boot in the dirt, unable to think of a plausible reason to refuse.

“Let’s get goin’” Johnny said gruffly, easing himself on to Montaña with grace.

Joe glared at Johnny as he mounted Guerrero but he waited until they were well out of Jacobs’ hearing range before launching an attack on his father, “I know what you’re doin'!” Joe snapped, “I don’t need no babysitter Pa!”

Johnny said nothing, just stared straight ahead at the fields stretching out in front of them.

“How many times do I have to tell ya I ain’t comin' back with ya?  I’m stayin' right here an there ain’t nothin' you can do 'bout it!”

Johnny pulled Montaña to a halt and twisted his body round in the saddle so he was facing his son head on, “Joseph” he said, his voice calm but the tone dangerous, “There’s only so much of your smart mouth I’m gonna take!”

Joe clamped his mouth shut, remembering exactly what had happened the last time he pushed his luck too far.

Johnny amended his tone to what he hoped was a softer one, “I understand what you’re trying to do here Joe, I really do.” He paused then, still unsure of how much to tell his son about his own life and past.  Steeling himself, Johnny decided he needed to say as much as was necessary for his son to realise that this was no game.  He had hoped that Griff’s death would have been enough but it clearly wasn’t. “Joe you’ve got this all wrong, real wrong.  Yuh think that being a gunfighter is some big thing, something to be proud of; well I can tell you it ain’t.  It ain’t about money, reputation, fame or glory –it’s about survival and killin' Joe, as simple as that.”

“Like yesterday you mean?” Joe asked, the smallest hint of sarcasm lacing his tone.

Johnny, determined not to let Joe’s attitude prevent him from saying what needed to be said, continued, “Like I said it’s about survival.  With every man you kill, a little bit of ya dies as well and that is what you gotta realise!”

Johnny paused to see what effect his words were having on his son but now Joe’s face was impassive although Johnny could tell he was listening intently, “You know how old I was when I killed my first man?” Johnny asked and when Joe shrugged he continued, “I was ten years old and do you wanna know why I killed 'im?”

Joe nodded.

“Cos he raped and killed my Mama,” Johnny said, trying not to let the memories overtake him until he had said all he had to say. “Why did you kill your first man Joe?” he asked, trying to keep the judgemental tone from his voice.

Joe flushed, knowing that his reasons were not comparable to Johnny’s.

“I had to kill 'im Pa” he said defensively, “He would have killed me.”

Johnny nodded, knowing that was true, “Yeah an that’s how ya wanna spend your life is it?  Kill or be killed?  Always looking over your shoulder, being challenged by other kids who think they’ve got what it takes?”

“No,” Joe said quietly, hating this conversation more than anything.

“That ain’t what I want for you either” Johnny said gently, “That’s why I got so damn mad when you were hangin’ out in those saloons, when you got in that gunfight.  I was scared for ya Joe, really scared and I ain’t been scared since I was ten years old...”

“But Pa, I just want a chance to prove myself!” Joe said exasperatedly.

“Prove yourself to who?” Johnny asked, “Your good with ya gun Joe, I should know I taught ya.  I know it, you know it, and the whole family knows it.  Ain’t that enough?”

“I don’t know,” Joe admitted honestly, tears filling his big blue eyes.

Johnny stared long and hard at his son, not sure he’d quite got the message home yet.

“Being good with your gun is just a small part of it Joe. The rest is luck and no one can teach ya to be good with that.  I maybe fast but I’m sure I’ve come up against men that were faster than me, who should’ve shot me dead, only on that day I had a little luck on my side.  I spent my whole life tryin’ to find something to give up that life for Joe and you were it.  You go down this path and it’s all been for nothin'.  I may as well have let that man kill me when he killed my Mama,”  Johnny paused, looking at Joe and hoping he had gotten through.  The words had not come easy but he had meant every one.

If Johnny had found the words hard to say, then Joe had found them inexplicitly hard to hear, especially with the knowledge that Johnny was speaking from the heart.  Joe knew he was fighting a losing battle with his emotions when he felt the tears escape from his eyes and trickle down his cheeks.  Feeling confused and embarrassed, Joe hastened to wipe away the tears with his sleeve before nudging Gerrero past Johnny and riding on ahead.

Johnny watched his son ride on, knowing that Joe was wrestling with the information he had given him. “There ain’t nothin' wrong with cryin' Joe,” he muttered to himself as he watched his son’s back.

“It just means you got a soul.”

****

Chapter Twelve

That night the moon was shy, sprinkling only the slimmest glimmer of light over the ranch.  There was also a slight wind, rustling the leaves on the trees and making the loose dirt from the ground jump up and dance for a few seconds before it settled once more.  

Under the cover of darkness, several figures approached the ranch on horseback armed with rifles and death on their minds. Pete waited for them, tired of playing games.  He and his gang had been ready to move in yesterday evening after Pete had taken care of Griff and Jacobs was vulnerable but the arrival of Johnny Madrid had forced him to reconsider his plans.

Pete had recognised the name immediately, being old enough to remember Johnny first time around but unfortunately their paths had never crossed in those days.  If they had Pete was sure he would have taken him out.  Now in addition to getting his hands on this prime piece of land he would also get to destroy Johnny Madrid and that cocky relation of his. 

***

Back in town, Scott had spent the last two days virtually tearing his hair out with the need to know what was going on over at the ranch.  Not only was he feeling incredibly helpless but he was also immensely bored.  This was a small town but it seemed a hell of a lot smaller when you were alone.  He had considered sending a telegram back to Lancer to let everyone know that they were okay but he couldn’t.  They would want to know about Joe and what could Scott tell them on that?  He didn’t know if Joe was actually at the ranch, if Johnny had found him or if indeed they were both still alive.

When he had watched Johnny ride out to the ranch the day before, his body rigid with determination, Scott had sworn that he would give his brother two days.  Two days to bring Joe out of there and that time was up.  Scott closed his eyes and tried to picture what Johnny was doing right now but several images floated through his mind and no single one seemed to stick.

A frown settled over his handsome face as Scott gathered his belongings together.  Taking one last glance around the room that had been his home for the last three days, Scott muttered, “I’m sure not going to miss this place,” as he left in search of his family.

As soon as the entrance to the ranch came in to view, Scott knew that something was not quite right. Unlike before there were no men on the gate so Scott rode through unchallenged.  He was several feet into Jacobs’ property when he heard gun shots.

As he got closer to the main house, Scott could see smoke reaching above the trees and twisting its way up to the night sky. Forced to manoeuvre his horse around the bodies of two men that lay on the path, Scott’s heart hammered as he dismounted and bent down to roll the corpses over.  The sense of relief consumed him when he realised that it was neither Johnny nor Joe but more likely the men who had been guarding the gate.

Tethering his horse to the fence post on the edge of the property, Scott made the rest of the way on foot, making the most of the cover afforded by the trees and the darkness of the night. 

***

Earlier; Jacobs, Johnny, Joe and Pete had been standing in the study pouring over a map of the ranch, trying to determine from which angle the next attack would come.

Like Joe, Johnny had taken an instant dislike to Pete having caught the man staring at him a few times, as if trying to place him in a scene of his mind. However Jacobs seemed to trust him and until Johnny had any evidence to suggest otherwise he was prepared to tolerate the man.

Looking up from the map, Johnny met Joe’s eyes only briefly because his son immediately looked away.  The rest of their time out in the fields had been spent in relative silence although they had at least come to some kind of understanding when they had arrived back at the house.

Joe had turned to Johnny for the first time, “Pa I listened to what you said,” he had begun, hoping that Johnny would not interrupt until he had finished, “An maybe I have got this wrong so I will go back with ya to Lancer.”

Johnny was just about to release a strong sigh of relief when Joe had continued, “But I have to stay an see this through first.  Griff was a good man, he didn’t deserve to be murdered like that,” Joe’s voice trembled as once again the violent images of seeing his friend covered in blood flashed through his head. “I can’t go back until this is finished. Until I’ve found the scum that shot 'im and made 'em pay.”

Joe waited hesitantly for Johnny’s reaction and was relieved to see understanding in Johnny’s eyes.

“I understand Joe,” Johnny said honestly, putting into words what his eyes had already given away.  “We’ll see this through together but you will not put yourself in any more danger, understand?” He did not add that Griff may not have been such a good man as Joe thought because at the end of the day he had obviously taken Joe under his wing and looked out for him and Johnny admired his son’s determination to get justice for this man.

“Yeah I understand Pa,” Joe had said before walking Guerrero to the barn.

Johnny had stood there for a moment and let out that sigh of relief although it wasn’t as sweet as it would have been if Joe had agreed they could leave now.

“We got trouble!” Andy yelled his face blackened with smoke as he ran to the window and wrenched back the drapes to reveal the burning barn. 

All the men in the room jumped to their feet, reaching for their firearms.

Madrid took control of the situation immediately, beckoning to Pete to follow him and pointing a finger at his son, “You stay here,” he ordered firmly, his tone making it clear that he expected no argument.

Joe shook his head, equally as adamant, “No way!” he snapped, making a move to follow Johnny out of the door.

Jacobs looked at the two men, aware that something else was going on here but not quite knowing what it was.  Deciding that Johnny Madrid would know best in this situation, Jacobs turned to Joe, “Joe I need a good gun to stay here and help me protect the house.”

Joe seemed to hesitate for a moment, torn between going outside with Johnny and Pete or staying and following the boss’s orders.  Finally he nodded, still keeping a firm grip on his gun.

As Madrid and Pete left the room Jacobs thought that Madrid shot him a grateful look.  Turning to Joe, Jacobs questioned the young man directly, “Do you two know each other?”

Joe flushed, fiddling with his hands as the orange glow of the flames that were licking the barn shone through the window and danced on his face. “He’s my Pa,” Joe admitted quietly.

Outside Madrid and Pete kept to the shadows, their guns drawn.  Those men who worked the ranch and were not good with a gun were trying desperately to dowse the flames, having managed to get the horses out safely.

For a moment Madrid could see no one but then suddenly a thunder of hooves broke the tension and a dozen armed men on horseback appeared, firing wildly.

Pete and Madrid reacted instantaneously, both firing off a shot at the same time. Jacobs’ other hired guns also fired and for a moment the yard was illuminated by the sparks of a dozen bullets, all searching for a target.

Madrid rolled on the ground, dodging a bullet that thought it had his name on.  Fanning his hammer, Madrid took out two of the armed men but at the same time was fully aware that the enemy guns were picking off Jacobs’ men quickly and efficiently.

As the gunfight continued and Jacobs’ men fell, Madrid wondered whether he could take them all.  In the confusion he could no longer see Pete and he just hoped that the man was good enough not to be dead already. The luck that he had told Joe about seemed to be holding fast so far as Madrid took out another three of the gang.  Jacobs’ man Andy took a shot at one of them, finding his target but also getting a bullet in between the eyes for his trouble.

Seeing that they were on to a losing battle, the other men abandoned their efforts to save the barn, grabbing instead what ever weapons they could find and charging at the remaining gang with gusto. 

***

Scott who had virtually walked into the midst of the gunfight, inhaled sharply as he realised the violence and danger of the situation before him.  He saw three or four men armed with pitchforks and other such implements charge the gang only to be shot down before they had a chance to use them.  Drawing his gun, Scott crept closer just as one of the men turned and saw him, pointing his gun squarely at Scott’s head.  Scott fired immediately, shooting the man from his horse and when his companion went to shoot, Scott fired at him too, watching with grim satisfaction as he successfully hit the target again. 

***

Madrid, who had managed to find cover behind some rocks saw someone shoot the men from their horses and he assumed that Pete was still alive after all. After taking out another two of the three remaining members of the gang, the third man headed for the trees, his body crashing clumsily through the undergrowth as he fled.  With a quick glance at the bodies that littered the ground, Madrid went after him. 

***

Suddenly the gun shots ceased and only the crackling of fire as the barn became a bonfire broke the silence.  Keeping alert, Scott made his way to the house, stepping over the sea of bodies.  When he entered the house it was dark, the entrance illuminated only by a flicker of light that crept from the doorway of one of the rooms.  Listening at the door for a second, Scott twisted the handle and opened it only to find himself staring down the barrel of a gun.

“Uncle Scott!” Joe said in shock, lowering his gun, completely taken aback to see this uncle.

“Joe” Scott cried, embracing his nephew in a fierce hug.  “Where’s Johnny?” he asked, suddenly realising that his brother was not there.

“He’s out there” Joe said unhappily, pointing towards the front of the house.  Scott clasped his gun tightly, “Stay here I’ll be back,” he said, making a move to leave but finding himself prevented by Joe’s hand on his arm.

“Uncle Scott don’t you start as well,” Joe snapped impatiently, “You can’t go out there alone.  This is a proper gunfight!”

Scott opened his mouth in shock; first it was his brother telling him that he weren’t good enough to handle himself now his nephew was trying it as well!

Pete who snuck back in to the house while Johnny was preoccupied with the gun fight had watched from the shadows as the blonde stranger entered the house.  Pete had never seen this man before and he wondered exactly where he fitted into this picture.

Moments later he had his answer as he heard Joe greet him and call him Uncle. In the dim light, Pete motioned for one of the remaining two members of his gang to go outside and cover the window and wait for his signal.  As the man left the house silently, Pete made his move.

Scott was about to reprimand Joe for his insulting comment when he heard a noise behind him and second later a strong arm laced around his throat and he felt the unmistakeable circle of steel pressed against his right side.

Joe was about to shoot his uncle’s attacker when a familiar voice stopped him, “I wouldn’t do that if I wer you,” Pete snarled, “I’ve got two other men, one of which is just outside the window.  You make a move kid and your Uncle dies – either way.”

Joe cursed in frustration, knowing that Johnny Madrid would never have let himself be taken so easily.

As Pete forced Scott further into the room, positioning them so that they were facing the door, another man entered behind them and with his gun firmly trained on Joe, ordered him to return it to its holster.  Joe did as he was told reluctantly, his blue eyes burning with anger.

Pete gave the signal and the third man entered the room, his eyes locked on Jacobs who had been watching this turn of events with undisguised shock.  Before he could do or say anything the man shot him, catching Jacobs in the right arm and spinning him around.  Jacobs groaned, slumping to the floor and losing consciousness. 

***

Madrid pursued the fleeing man for several minutes, the branches and leaves coupled with the dark making it impossible for him to get a clean shot. When a bullet whizzed past his ear, missing him by barely an inch, Johnny decided to rely on a little bit of the Madrid luck and he fired several times, hearing a strangled cry and then nothing.  Satisfied that he had found the target, Madrid made his way back to the house.  He had only taken several steps when he heard another gun shot ring out.

“Joe!” Johnny breathed as he raced to get back to the house, his son’s safety at the forefront of his mind.  It was this concern that prevented Johnny from thinking as Madrid and he rushed straight into Jacobs’ study and straight into the trap. 

****

Chapter Thirteen

Johnny burst in through the study door without thinking and froze at the sight of Scott and Joe being held hostage.

“Aah. Welcome Mr Madrid” Pete said mockingly, keeping his gun firmly embedded in Scott’s ribs and his arm still around his throat in a choking hold.  “Welcome to your family reunion!  Perhaps you’d like to put that gun away?”

Johnny did not miss the fact that Pete seemed to know or had sussed that he, Scott and Joe were related.  Quickly he assessed the situation, seeing that it was helpless.  At three on one he was outnumbered and even he wasn’t quick enough to take all three without risking Scott or Joe getting shot.

Unwillingly, Johnny returned his gun to its holster, wondering where Jacobs had gone.  He spotted the blood spreading out from behind the desk and creeping across the terracotta tiles, giving him his answer.

“What do you want Pete?” Johnny asked, once again transforming into Madrid.

Pete raised an eyebrow suggestively, “I want the land of course!” he replied.

Madrid kept his cool.  Indicating Jacobs’ blood on the floor, Madrid said “Looks like ya got what you want then don’t it?”

Pete grinned manically, his already enormous belly seeming to increase in size as he puffed his chest out proudly, “Yeah but now that ain’t enough.”

Madrid looked past Scott directly into Pete’s eyes and studied his evil face.  He was worried that if his eyes connected with Scott’s blue-grey ones then he would lose it.  They had both been in dangerous situations before but never had Johnny not had something up his sleeve that would get them out of it.

Reading Pete’s expression, Madrid already knew what else Pete wanted, “You want me Pete?” he asked casually. 

“Well,” Pete said his grin still firmly in place, “At first I wanted 'im” he said, nodding his head in Joe’s direction, “But now I gotta choice of three!”

Madrid waited, knowing that Pete would continue.

Pete glowered when Madrid did not ask what his intentions were. “I think we’re gonna playa little game. A trade if ya like” Pete said evilly.

Still Madrid said nothing, waiting for Pete to speak.

“I like to think I’m a fair man” Pete said, “So I’m gonna give ya a choice Madrid, I’m gonna give ya both a choice” he said, nodding his head once more at Joe.

“What kinda choice?” Joe demanded, regretting not shooting Pete down at their first meeting.

Madrid shot Joe a warning look and Pete laughed.

“Yuh both reckon you're fast, now I wanna see who’s fastest!” he said, relishing the look of horror on Joe’s face as his words sank in.  Madrid on the other hand still did not react and Pete wondered exactly what it would take to make him lose his cool.

“I don’t think so” Madrid said finally, his expression closed and his stance challenging.

“Well in that case,” Pete said, pushing the gun even further into Scott’s side causing the blonde man to wince.

“Pete don’t!” Joe cried out, certain that Pete was going to shoot Scott in front of both of them.

“This is what’s gonna happen” Pete ordered quickly, relishing his position of power. “I’m gonna count to three and when I’m done you two are gonna draw on each other and one of ya is gonna die.  Maybe both if you’re as fast as ya reckon,” he said, talking to Joe again.

“And how is this a trade?” Scott gasped, Pete’s arm partly blocking off his airway.

“Well the one that’s still standin’ gets to take ya home blondie,” Pete grinned, “Now, when these two half-breeds are ready. One...”

Inside Johnny’s heart sank with the knowledge that Madrid’s luck may just have run out.  He watched his son closely, seeing that Joe had made no move to go for his gun but instead was stood there looking very much like a little boy lost, his face a picture of suspended disbelief.

“Two...”

Johnny knew what he had to do.  Signalling with his eyes for Joe to follow his lead, Johnny moved his hand down to his gun, ready to draw.  He knew he had to draw but he also knew that this would not be the draw of Johnny Madrid.  Instead it would be the draw of a father who wanted to save his son and his brother so much that he was willing to die.

Joe watched his father’s hand move and fear gripped his chest, tightening around his heart like the hand of death.  He closed his eyes for a second, willing himself to wake up from this nightmare safely in his bed at Lancer but when he opened them again and met Johnny’s eyes he knew that wasn’t going to happen.  Moving his hand towards his own holster, Joe’s hand hovered, ready to draw, ready to die.

Scott watched the unfolding scene with the horrific realisation that he was about to see both his brother and nephew killed.  He knew with certainty that neither would draw fast, both would be prepared to die to save the other and all the while he was there looking on helplessly.  Time seemed to stand still as the events of the last few days flashed through Scott’s mind.  He had come on this trip for one reason only; to bring Johnny and Joe back together and Scott knew then what he would do.

“Three!"

At Pete’s triumphant shout, Johnny glanced at his brother and saw Scott’s thoughts emblazoned in his eyes and expression as clearly as if he had written them down on a piece of paper for Johnny to read.

“Scott, no!” Johnny yelled but it was too late.

With as much strength as he possessed, Scott drew his left elbow in towards his body, sending it straight back out again into Pete’s mid-section.  Pete groaned, releasing his arm from around Scott’s throat but still managing to pull the trigger of his gun.

Scott felt an explosion of pain rip straight through his body.  His last thought as he slumped to the ground was that Johnny and Joe would take this opportunity and use it wisely.

Johnny and Joe did just that.  Before anyone in the room could react, Joe shot the third man and Johnny took out the second.

Pete, who had been winded severely by Scott’s blow, glanced down at the motionless form at his feet and grinned.  He was still grinning when the bullet entered his skull. 

****

Chapter Fourteen

Almost twenty-four hours later the barn was a blackened heap of smouldering ash and men brought in from the local town worked tirelessly as the sun set burying the endless bodies of victims and killers alike in shallow graves at the back of the house.

Inside the house Johnny sat at his brother’s bedside, while the local Doctor held Scott’s limp wrist, feeling anxiously for the pulse that he was surprised was still there.

The bullet had entered Scott’s body on his left side and passed right through his body, exiting on his right side, some how missing his vital organs.  What it had done was shatter some of Scott’s ribs and damaged some of the tissue within.  Dr Adams was concerned about internal bleeding but he didn’t want to have to open Scott up unless he had to.  He had lost too much blood as it was.

“That boy must’ve had angels on his side to survive a shot at such close range” Dr. Adams murmured to the man who had maintained a vigil at his brother’s side ever since the Doctor had arrived.

Johnny sat still, knowing that his brother was not out of the woods yet.  He had seen this to many times before, lived through it himself too many times to recall and he knew that the real test was still to come.  Even if Scott wasn’t bleeding internally, chances were that the wound would get infected; bringing on a fever so consuming that it would take the strongest man to battle back from the brink.

Johnny wondered just how much strength Scott had left.  He had already made the biggest sacrifice, taking the bullet to save Johnny and Joe from a duel that would have ended in certain death for one or both of them.

Johnny cringed as he thought over the events of the night before, shuddered as he recalled the fear that he had felt when he had heard that gunshot and his amazement when Joe had reacted so quickly, shooting Pete in the head before he had a chance to aim his gun at anyone else.  Shaking his head, Johnny was filled with a sense of shame that it was left to his son to finish Pete off.  While Johnny had managed to shoot the second man he had frozen when he had turned to shoot Pete and that had never happened to him before.   Never had Madrid abandoned him at such an important moment but seeing what he thought was his brother’s death had left Johnny Lancer shell-shocked.

Once Pete had been shot, Johnny and Joe had both hastened to Scott’s side, Johnny rolling his brother over to check the extent of the wound, yelling at Joe to take off his shirt so he could use it to stem the bleeding.

Jacobs had regained consciousness then, crawling around from behind the desk, his bloody left arm hanging at an obscure angle from the rest of his body, clearly dislocated.

Ordering Joe over to tend to Jacobs, Johnny had concentrated on applying pressure to the wound but it was difficult seeing as the bullet had passed straight through meaning that Scott’s blood had two means of escape.

Jacobs was groggy but he could see that Scott was in dire need of medical assistance.  Struggling to speak he instructed Joe to go find Madelaine the housekeeper so that she could assist and then Joe could ride in to town to fetch Doctor Adams. 

Joe did as he was told, running into the kitchen in search of Madelaine.  He finally found her sitting in the pantry where she had been since the fighting had begun, clutching her knees to her chest and rocking back and forth.

“Madelaine?” Joe said gently, bending down in front of the petrified woman.

Madelaine looked up at Joe with a tear stained face, “Si Senor?” she murmured, thankful for a familiar face.

“Jacobs has been shot, my Uncle too.  We need your help while I go get Doctor Adams.”

Madelaine nodded, mentally trying to pull herself together.  Getting to her feet she leaned on Joe heavily for support.  Joe glared at the woman impatiently, “Come on,” he muttered, knowing that time was of the essence if they were to save Scott’s life.

Eventually Madelaine seemed to compose herself.  Taking her hands off of Joe she dashed into the kitchen, collecting towels and water before proceeding to the study where she assisted Johnny in tending to Scott and offering Jacobs a towel to press on his own wound.

The wait for Joe to return with the doctor had seemed endless.  All Johnny wanted to do was to get Scott off of the floor but he couldn’t move him, not while he was still losing blood.

Eventually Joe had returned with the Doctor who had got straight to work, cleaning and stitching his patient’s wounds.  Thankfully Scott had a natural remedy for pain relief – unconsciousness.  Johnny had been thankful for that at the time but now all this time later, Scott hadn’t so much as stirred and Johnny’s thankfulness was now turning into something else – worry.

Johnny looked up from the makeshift bed they had made for Scott in the study and his eyes met those of Jacobs first.  The old man was sitting there deep in prayer, looking like he had aged another twenty years.  His left arm was heavily bandaged and in a sling, the bullet having been removed and his arm rather painfully placed back in its socket as soon as the Doctor had finished stitching Scott.

Johnny moved his gaze this time to Joe who was sitting there morosely, his head in his hands.  Quickly Johnny looked away; realising that he could not bear to look at his son right now.  Concentrating once more on his brother, Johnny clasped Scott’s hand in his; trying to will some of his own body warmth in to Scott’s cold fingers.  

***

It wasn’t until the next day that Scott regained consciousness but as soon as he did, Johnny and the Doctor realised straight away that it was the fever that had awoken him.

Johnny sat there in helpless despair as he heard Scott’s delirious ramblings about all the people that were dear to him; Nina, his daughters, Teresa, Murdoch, Johnny and Joe.

Madelaine kept a steady supply of cold towels coming, each one resting on Scott’s forehead a matter of minutes before needing to be replaced.  A couple of times over the next few hours Johnny was aware that Joe was hovering just behind him, wanting to speak but not knowing the words to say.

Johnny was pleased that Joe had not said anything for he did not feel he could trust his reaction right now.  When finally Joe did pluck up the courage to say something a bit later, he soon wished he hadn’t.

“Pa, is Uncle Scott gonna be okay?” Joe asked in a timid voice, desperately seeking some reassurance from his father that Scott’s death was not going to haunt him for the rest of his life.

Johnny scowled, the anger swirling low in the pit of his stomach.  He did not answer his son, hoping that Joe would read the signs and know that now was not the time to start this conversation.

Unfortunately Joe’s need for Johnny’s support right now outweighed his logical thinking, “Pa, I’m so sorry.  This is all my fault.”

Johnny felt the anger shoot through every vein in his body as he stood and whirled around to face his son, “You’re damn right this is all your fault!” he accused.  “I told ya this would happen didn’t I?  I told ya that this weren’t no game, that it’s kill or be killed!”

Joe took an involuntary step backwards, his eyes on the floor.  He knew that he deserved every word that Johnny said to him right now, “Pa I never meant it to turn out this way an that is the honest truth.  I know you’re angry with me right now and ya have every right to be.  I should’ve listened to ya.  I know it should be me lying in that bed right now.”

When Joe finally met Johnny’s gaze his sapphire eyes were filled with sincerity but it was lost on Johnny who simply glowered at his son.  He was tempted to say that Joe was right, that he did think it should be him on that bed right now instead of Scott but he didn’t because it wouldn’t be the truth.   They would just be more words spoken in anger that weren’t meant, and that was Murdoch’s forte not his.

Instead Johnny fixed Joe with a dismissive glance, “Get out,” he said in a voice of steel.

Joe hesitated, searching his father’s face for any sign that Johnny didn’t hate him but when Johnny turned away, Joe realised that maybe he did, “Pa?” Joe said, his voice taking on a pleading note.

Johnny, who had turned once more to the restless form of his feverish brother, felt all of the emotions from the last few days collide within.  As rage seized him, all but the smallest piece of reason deserted him as he spun around to face Joe,  “Boy you are this close to feelin’ the back of my hand, NOW GET OUT!”  Johnny yelled, holding up his hand so that Joe could see that his forefinger and thumb were barely a quarter of an inch apart.

Jacobs and the Doctor, having heard the argument entered the room abruptly at Johnny’s outburst, “What’s going on here?” Dr Adams demanded, “There is a very sick man in this room and this will not help his recovery.  Now I’d like you both to leave!”

“Come on Joe,” Jacobs said, placing the hand of his uninjured arm on to Joe’s and tugging him gently in the direction of the doorway.

With one last glance at Johnny, Joe followed Jacobs from the room.

“Did you not hear what I said?” The Doctor asked Johnny.

Johnny nodded; “I heard ya but I’m stayin’ put” he said with such finality that the Doctor could do nothing else but throw his hands in the air in disgust. 

****

Chapter Fifteen

Joe left the study feeling like his whole world had just collapsed and that he had been the one holding the sledgehammer.  The night of the shootings had brought home to Joe just how selfish, immature and downright stupid he had been over this whole business.  It had been bad enough when Pete had tried to force Joe and Johnny to draw on each other but when Scott had sacrificed himself to prevent that, well the guilt that Joe felt he would never be able to put into words.

Now he was in exactly the same position as he had been the day he had left Lancer,  with Johnny angry at him. Angry don’t near cover it Joe thought to himself as he followed Jacobs into the kitchen.  It hadn’t been just anger that Joe had seen in his father’s eyes a moment ago but disappointment and disgust.  Joe had never before faced a reaction like that from a loved one and he didn’t know what he could do to put things right.  How could Johnny ever forgive him for this?     

And then there was Scott who could still die.  Joe prayed to God that wouldn’t happen.  He needed his Uncle Scott to be okay, he needed to apologise to him and thank him so much for saving their lives. How could he go home to Lancer after this?  Would Johnny and Scott even be interested in taking him back?  All these questions jabbed at Joe but they were questions he could not answer.

“Here, drink this,” Jacobs said to Joe, handing him a glass filled with whiskey.  Joe took a small sip of the strong liquor and winced as it burned a pathway down his throat.

“I’m sure your father didn’t mean what he said to you Joe,” Jacobs said caringly, “He’s just upset about Scott is all.”

Joe shook his head, taking another sip of whiskey as he steeled himself to tell Jacobs the truth.  “He did mean it and he has every right to hate me.  This whole thing has been all my fault; you see my Pa didn’t want me to be a gunfighter.”

Jacobs nodded, he had gathered as much by Johnny’s reluctance to let Joe go outside the night before.

“He an my Uncle Scott, they were only here cos of me.  I ran away from home cos I thought I wanted to be like my Pa.  I should’ve listened to him Jacobs; I should’ve gone home when he told me to.”

Jacobs nodded. “And why didn’t you?”

Joe flushed, “Cos I wanted to prove myself and I wanted to avenge Griff’s death.”

“And your father understood that?  He must have done Joe.  From what I have gathered about Johnny, if he didn’t understand your reasons for wanting to stay then he’d have dragged you home by your ear sharpish.  I’m sure that if you give your father a bit of time he will come round Joe and then you two can talk.”

Joe swallowed another sip of whiskey, finding it was going down a lot easier now.  He didn’t let on to Jacobs that he feared that Johnny’s idea of a talk would involve his belt and Joe’s backside.  Not that he didn’t really deserve that this time.

Jacobs noted that Joe no longer grimaced as he sipped the strong drink so he reached out and firmly removed the glass from the boy’s hand.

“Do you want me to have a word with your father Joe?” Jacobs, studying Joe’s face and he was surprised by his vehement reaction, “No!”

“Okay, okay” Jacobs said, holding up his hands in a surrendering gesture, “But you two do need to talk.”

***

It took another two days for Scott’s fever to break and when it did he opened his eyes and stared around in confusion at his surroundings.  Shifting in the bed, Scott was reminded of exactly where he was and the events of that night by the excruciating pain that shot through his stomach.

“Aargh,” Scott groaned, feeling like he had just been shot all over again.

“Scott, you’re awake!” Johnny cried, realising that he himself must have drifted off to sleep for a few minutes.

“Yeah,” Scott managed, his throat so dry that the words felt like they were slicing into his skin as he spoke.

“Here, drink this” Johnny said, holding a glass of cold water up to Scott’s lips.

Scott managed a few sips, relishing the relief it brought his parched throat. “Joe?” he managed to say feebly.

Johnny’s expression darkened at the mention of his son’s name, “He’s fine Scott” he snapped. “We’re both fine.”

The change in Johnny’s demeanour was not lost on Scott, even in his weakened state.  He managed with great effort to raise his eyebrows questioningly at his brother but Johnny got up from the bed in avoidance, “I’ll get the Doc,” he said.

Joe was sitting once more in the kitchen when Johnny came in yelling for the Doctor.

“Is Uncle Scott okay?” Joe asked worriedly but Johnny acted like he had not heard, turning instead to the Doctor who had come in to the room at the summons.

“Doc, he’s awake!” Johnny said, allowing a smile to grace his face for the first time in days.

The Doctor smiled also, hurrying in to see his patient.

“Pa?” Joe started as Johnny turned to follow the Doctor.

“Sit down an don’t move!” Johnny growled, pointing to the chair that Joe had just risen from, “Don’t ya think you’ve done enough?”

Jacobs who had entered the room in time to witness the exchange between father and son, watched as Joe slumped dejectedly back down on the chair with his head in his hands.  Jacobs thought he understood how angry Johnny was with his son right now.  There was nothing more worrying than watching your child put their life in danger and when the consequences were as severe as in this case, well…. Maybe he should try and talk to Johnny, Jacobs decided.

Scott had only remained awake for a few minutes before falling into an exhausted sleep which the Doctor had a hard time convincing Johnny was just what he needed right now.

For the next two hours, Johnny paced the room while Scott slept.  How on earth was he going to explain this to the family when they returned to Lancer?  How could he tell Nina that her husband had been prepared to give his own life to save him and his nephew, and then there was Teresa?  She would be devastated to learn about all the heartache that Joe had caused.  And Murdoch well, Johnny shook his head as he thought about what his Old Man was going to have to say on this subject.  “No doubt it’ll be my fault again,” Johnny muttered to himself; his feelings for his father still raw after their last confrontation.

“Johnny?”

Johnny stopped pacing as Jacobs appeared in the doorway.  “He’s sleepin’” Johnny said, indicating Scott’s still form on the bed.

“He’s going to be okay Doctor Adams says,” Jacobs remarked, silently thanking God for answering his prayers.

“Yeah, I dunno what I would have done if I had lost him,” Johnny admitted, casting his blue eyes over Scott who was sleeping peacefully, his chest rising and falling in rhythm with his breathing.

“Speaking of losing people…” Jacobs began nervously, finding it a daunting prospect to give advice to Johnny Madrid.  “Your son is out there and he could really use his father right now.”

Johnny glared at Jacobs, “Well spit it out then!” he demanded, “You tell me what I’m supposed to say to ‘im!”

Jacobs took a step backwards, relieved that Johnny was not wearing his gun belt, “I’m sorry Johnny, and maybe this ain’t my place…”

“No it damn well isn’t,” Johnny snapped, his hostility obvious in both tone and expression.

“I’ll just say one more thing if I may,” Jacobs said, hurrying on quickly when Johnny remained silent, fearing his courage would desert him otherwise, “That boy realises just what his actions have cost you all.  He’s sorry Johnny, I know it.  Now I can’t tell you how to play this, that’s down to you but one things for sure; you came all this way after him – are you really prepared to lose him now?”

His piece said Jacobs exited the room leaving Johnny to consider his words.  He was on the verge of dismissing them when he heard Scott’s quiet voice, “He’s right you know brother.”

Johnny looked up at his brother in shock, “Scott what are ya sayin’?  He almost killed you!”

Scott shook his head, “No he didn’t Johnny.  It was my choice to do what I did.”

“Yeah but ya should never have had to make that choice Scott,” Johnny said, crossing the room and perching on the edge of the makeshift bed.

“No but that’s life, Brother” Scott said, not feeling up to the telling off he was sure Johnny had in mind for him.

“Yeah and speaking of life Scott – just what were ya thinkin’?” Johnny demanded, determined to give his brother a piece of his mind.

Scott smiled wearily, “I was thinking of you and Joe, Johnny.”

“Hmmph” Johnny huffed, “Well it was a really stupid thing to do!” he berated his brother, unable at the same time to hide his pride and gratitude towards Scott’s selfless act.

Scott felt his eyes growing tired again but he was determined not to let sleep win until he had gotten through to this stubborn man, “Johnny when you first came home and people came calling for Madrid, what happened?” Scott paused as Johnny bowed his head, “We stood by you. Me, Teresa and Murdoch.  Even though it put us all in danger.  It didn’t matter because we loved you and whatever mistakes you may or may not have made in the past were irrelevant. Can’t you see that this is the same thing?  Joe needs you to stand by him now. Hey, I’m not saying you have to go easy on him!” Scott added with humour.

Johnny thought over Scott’s words for a minute before looking back up at his brother, “Thanks Scott,” he said but Scott had not heard him.  He was sound asleep.

Smoothing Scott’s matted hair from his forehead, Johnny stood and for what seemed the umpteenth time in as many days he went to find his son. 

****

Chapter Sixteen

Johnny found Joe still sitting on the chair, having not moved just as Johnny had instructed. Now he does as he’s told, Johnny thought to himself.

Jacobs who was sitting in the chair opposite made a move to leave when he saw Johnny emerge from the study but Johnny held up his hand, letting the man know that was not necessary.

Joe was aware of his father’s presence but he did not look up, afraid of being ignored once again.

“Outside,” Johnny commanded, leading the way out of the kitchen and into the back yard.

Joe did look up then, knowing by the harsh tone of Johnny’s voice that he could only be talking to him. He caught Jacobs eyes for a moment and the sympathetic look the elder man gave him, just served to increase Joe’s sense of dread over what was to come.

 

When Johnny stepped through the back door, he squinted against the bright morning sunlight.  This was the first time he had stepped foot outside of the house since Scott had been shot and it amazed him how peaceful the ranch was now the threat of Pete’s gang was dead.  Johnny shuddered to think that only days before it had been a war zone and many men had lost their lives, quite a few at his own hands.  That thought was still burning in his mind when he turned to face his son.

Joe walked towards his father with wary trepidation, sure that Johnny was going to remove his belt any minute and ensure that he was truly sorry for all that had occurred.  Never had Joe been as scared as he was right at this moment.  It was not quite the same fear as he had felt in the midst of the gun fight, when he had thought they were all going to die and when had thought that his Uncle Scott was dead but a different kind; a fear that Johnny hated him and that there was no way back for either of them.

,Johnny watched his son walk towards him slowly, as if he had to force his feet to move.  He reminded Johnny of the men he had seen in Mexico, shortly before they faced the firing squad and on any other day Johnny would have smiled at the absurdity of the comparison but not today.  Johnny would be lying if he said that the thought of giving Joe a thrashing had not crossed his mind.  After the first time, Johnny had sworn to himself that it would also be the last; that at seventeen Joe was too old for such a punishment and it would only end as it had done then – with him running away.  However the events of the last few days had told Johnny one thing;  in many respects Joe was still a boy with a hell of a lot of growing up to do and so Johnny remained undecided on how he intended to handle this conversation and what the outcome would be.

“You wanted to see me Sir?” Joe asked, taking no chances at being disrespectful to his father right now.  His heart was hammering in his chest so loudly, he was sure Johnny must be able to hear it.

Sir.  Every time the boy uttered those words it reminded Johnny of Murdoch.  He didn’t like being called Sir; it made him feel old and reminded him that he was behaving like his own father.  Still Johnny knew that at least Joe was now trying to be respectful although he was mindful that there had been no “Yes Sirs” during their conversations of the last few days.  Johnny was no fool, he’d been a kid himself once and knew the lengths you would go to in order to avoid a punishment, only in Johnny’s case it had not been someone that loved him wielding the belt, rather someone that despised him for the colour of his skin.

“Sit down” Johnny ordered, indicating the bench that looked out over the back yard from where Jacobs had probably used to sit and enjoy the serenity.  From now on he would be sitting on it and looking out over the shallow graves of those who had died to protect that very thing.

Joe sat and noticed that Johnny did not choose to sit beside him, even though there was easily room for two.  Instead Johnny stood looking down at Joe and Joe could feel the heat of his father’s glare warming his scalp, just like the sun.

Now that Johnny had his son sitting obediently in front of him, he didn’t know quite where to begin. There were so many accusations and reprimands swirling in Johnny’s head that it was impossible to know where to start. I wish you could help me out here brother, Johnny thought to himself.  Scott always knew just the right thing to say.

Johnny and Scott had often reflected on what it would have been like growing up together at Lancer and had both come to the conclusion that Johnny would be able to instigate as many scrapes as he liked because Scott would always be on hand with his clever tongue to smooth things over with Murdoch.

“Pa?” Joe asked, raising his head ever so slightly but still not managing to look Johnny in the eye, “Are yuh gonna hit me?”

The fact that Joe had the guts to ask that question surprised Johnny and gave him the opening he needed, “Do ya think I should?” he asked, putting the ball firmly back in his son’s court.

Joe frowned for a moment. Half of him knew he should say yes but the other half; the half that valued his hide wanted to say no, most definitely not!  Finally after what seemed like an endless pause Joe said, “I won’t blame ya if you do?”

“Oh well that’s nice to know,” Johnny said sarcastically, deliberately not setting his son’s mind at rest as to his intentions.  There was no point in lulling Joe into a false sense of security as Johnny knew it would only take one wrong word to make him lose his temper entirely.

Joe took a deep breath, fully aware that the threat of a whipping still hung in the air just as the smell of death had done for days after the gunfight. “Pa I am so sorry for everything that has happened,” Joe said solemnly, meeting Johnny’s eyes for the first time.  “I know that don’t mean an awful lot to ya right now in view of everything that’s happened.”  Joe made a sweeping gesture with his arm and Johnny knew he was indicating the graves, “But I swear Pa, I never meant for any of this to happen.  I never meant for Uncle Scott to get shot, or Jacobs…or anyone.”

“And what about me Joe, huh?” Johnny demanded, that burning thought in his mind searing to the front. “What about what you’ve put me through?”

“Pa I know you was worried…”

“Worried?  I’m not talkin’ about being worried Joseph, I’m talkin’ ‘bout what you’ve made me do!  The men I’ve had to kill; men who I should never have even met if it wasn’t for you and your stupid desire to be some big shot gun hawk!”

“Yeah but I never meant-“

“Yeah, yeah so you’ve said,” Johnny snapped, feeling his temper start to fray like old rope. “The point is it’s happened and it can’t be taken back!”

Joe’s eyes became tearful then but for once they cut no ice with Johnny, “Scott is lyin' in that room shot straight through! Any one of us could have been killed an for what?  So you could prove a point to yourself?”

“No Pa, it was about Griff and-“

“Don’t give me that rubbish!” Johnny snorted, “You were already on this path before ya even met Griff!”

Joe knew his father was making reference to the first man he had killed in the street and to be honest Joe had been thinking a lot about that too.  When it came down to it Joe knew he had to kill that man, otherwise he would have been killed himself.  But what Johnny did not know, and what would sit on Joe’s conscience forever was the knowledge that he had in effect provoked the man into calling him out.

“No Joseph, this whole thing has been about you and your damned selfishness!” Johnny continued to yell, until Joe found his own temper.

“No it’s been 'bout you!” he snapped, redirecting the anger and guilt he felt for himself towards Johnny. “Why do you think I did all this Pa huh?  My whole life I’ve heard stories about Johnny Madrid, I just wanted to be like ya Pa, is that so wrong?”

“Yes it-" Johnny started but Joe cut him off, anticipating his father’s response.

“Well how would I know that huh?  Ya never talked to me about it before! Yuh left me to hear all sorts of stories from everyone else but you!  If you’d have put me right long ago then maybe none of this would have happened!”

Johnny was taken aback by this accusation and found himself at a loss for words, partly because he was amazed that Joe had found the courage to yell at him and partly because, deep down inside he knew that there was truth in what Joe was saying, “You never asked me!” Johnny said defensively, wondering just how the tables had turned so quickly.

“Yes I did!” Joe yelled, “Remember when I came home from my first day of school?  I asked ya what it was like being Johnny Madrid and you said yuh didn’t wanna talk ‘bout it!  Every time I asked Pa, the answer was always the same!”

That struck a chord with Johnny but he quickly dismissed his son’s point, desperate to regain some control of this conversation, “You better quit yellin’ at me Joe!” he warned but Joe was too far gone to recognise the warning in his father’s tone.

“What’s the matter Pa, you can’t handle being faced with the truth?”

Johnny lost it then and he grabbed Joe by the arm with one hand and hauled him to  his feet, slapping his back of his hand firmly across Joe’s mouth.

For a moment neither man spoke.  Johnny lowered his hand immediately and released the hold on his son, as if Joe’s skin had suddenly become too hot to touch. Joe’s left hand flew up to his face and he touched his fingers to his lip gingerly, wincing when he glanced down to see a small drop of blood.

The silence remained as each man considered the words that had been spoken.

Johnny was outraged but he was having a hard time pinpointing exactly which part of this argument had caused it.  Inside, he knew that his boy was sorry for all that had happened and he also knew that he had to shoulder some of the responsibility for the way things had turned out.

Joe’s fiery temper had been all too firmly distinguished with that slap and he knew that he and Johnny had reached a dead end.

Johnny, needing some distance from his son right now turned and walked a few paces away.  Staring out over the back fields of the ranch, Johnny wondered if his bridges with Joe were well and truly burnt.  If he had turned around he would have seen the agony in Joe’s eyes as his son wondered the exact same thing and Johnny would have known that all was not lost.

Joe watched his father with wretched eyes.  There was nothing more he could say to Johnny to make this right; he needed to show his father somehow. In a quiet voice that met Johnny’s ears as a whisper on the soft summer breeze, he said, “You were right Pa, about everything.  If you don’t want me to return to Lancer with ya then I won’t?”

Joe waited for Johnny to turn, praying that his father would reassure him that Lancer was still his home but when Johnny did not move, Joe continued “I’ll find somethin' I’m good at and I’ll make ya proud of me.”

Johnny scowled to himself, assuming his son was planning on returning to life by the gun.

“There’s somethin’ I want ya to have Pa,” Joe said, hoping his father would now at least manage to look at him.  When Johnny remained still Joe said quietly, “I’ll leave it here for you then.”

Johnny waited until he heard Joe’s footsteps fade into the house before he turned around to see what it was Joe had left.  There, lying on the bench was Joe’s gun.

Johnny stared at it for a moment, understanding the significance of Joe’s action.  Before he could say or do anything however, Jacobs appeared in the doorway, walking with caution over to where Johnny stood.

“I was thinking Johnny.  I’m gonna need some help getting this ranch back on its feet.  If you like I could offer Joe a job here, purely from a ranching perspective,” Jacobs said hurriedly in case Johnny thought he was making reference to the gun.

Johnny considered this for a moment, the light breeze gently flowing through his hair.  Joe would be okay with Jacobs he knew.  Making his decision, Johnny turned to Jacobs and reached out to shake the man’s hand.    

****

Chapter Seventeen

Johnny found Joe standing over Scott’s bed, watching his uncle sleep.  Johnny could not see the expression on his son’s face but he could tell by the way his dark head was bowed and his hands were clasped in front of him that Joe was either praying or crying, possibly both.

For a moment all Johnny could see was that his son needed him and those paternal feelings that had come as such a revelation to him when Joe had been born surged through his body, making him want to go over and comfort his son.

He didn’t know why he hesitated. The anger that had been so instrumental in the way their conversation had gone outside was gone but it had been replaced by a feeling of helplessness and unease.

Outside the birds had started singing and it was only the sound of their voices along with the sound of Scott’s steady breathing that disturbed the silence of the room.  Johnny thought that both were beautiful sounds.

Approaching his son, Johnny placed a hand on his shoulder.  Joe looked up and Johnny realised that he had been right in his assessment.  Joe’s eyes were red and his skin was paler than it usually was.  His bottom lip was slightly swollen and was already sporting a small scab.

“We ain’t done talkin,” Johnny said quietly.

Joe nodded, assuming that Johnny wanted him to go back outside again so he was surprised when Johnny pulled out the chair by Scott’s bedside and motioned his son to sit.

Settling by Scott’s feet Johnny reached out and brushed the hair from Joe’s eyes, cringing when his son flinched at his touch. “I ain’t gonna hit ya again Joe” Johnny said quietly.

Joe said nothing, waiting for Johnny to continue.

“Jacobs has said you can stay on here and work for him on the ranch,” Johnny said, watching his son’s face carefully for his reaction.

“Okay,” Joe said resignedly, trying not to let the disappointment show in his tone.

“But…I declined his offer,” Johnny said slowly, “I want you to come home Joe, that’s why I’m here.  That’s why we’re all here,” he said, indicating Scott.

Joe’s eyes brightened instantly and his face broke out into a happy, relieved grin, only for it to vanish when Johnny remained serious.

“But there are some things I need to know first,” Johnny said firmly, “And things you need to hear.”

Joe nodded so Johnny continued, “Firstly I want ya to take a good hard look at that man lying on that bed,” he said pointing to Scott, “And I want ya to think real hard about how ya feel ‘bout the condition he’s in.”

Joe followed Johnny’s gaze to Scott and swallowed hard.  It hurt him just to look at his uncle lying there.

“Now you may not have pulled the trigger on Scott, Joe but what ‘bout the other men?  They all got families going through much worse than this right now.  Have ya thought of that at all?  Have ya thought about the men I’ve had to kill just to keep us all alive?”

Joe bowed his head.  If he was really honest with himself at the time he had not stopped to think about what killing that first man in the street had meant.  Instead he had remained fixated on his goal, his ambition.  When Johnny had come after him, all Joe could see was Johnny Madrid; the enigma, the person he so wanted to be.  It wasn’t until Johnny had talked to him that day out in the fields that Joe had started to realise that maybe things were not the way he had thought, the way he had imagined.

Now that Joe’s illusions had been shattered it was like a mist had lifted.  For the first time Joe was seeing things the way they were and he was struggling to acknowledge the feelings that had surfaced within him.  Feelings of remorse, regret and grief.   

“What you said out there was right,” Johnny conceded.  “I should’ve told ya ‘bout my life before Lancer.  I should’ve taught ya those lessons as I taught ya how to use that gun.  I didn’t because it is hard for me to talk ‘bout that part of my life. It ain’t nothin’ to be proud of.”

Johnny felt the tears prick the back of his eyelids but he stubbornly refused to let them fall.  He studied his son’s face and finally, for the first time since he had arrived he knew that he had gotten through to his son.

“The way you’re feelin’ right now, Joe.  That’s what Johnny Madrid is about.”

Joe nodded, finally understanding.  His eyes welled up and his body trembled with the onslaught of so many emotions.

Johnny watched him for a moment and saw himself all those years ago; only he had had no one to hold him, nobody to forgive him. Letting his paternal instinct take over, Johnny reached out and held his son.

Neither man noticed the small smile flicker over Scott’s face as he lay on the bed with his eyes closed.   

****

Chapter Eighteen

It had been three long weeks since Scott had been shot and while his recovery had been slow initially, these last few days Scott had felt a million times better.  His ribs still hurt though and he had to keep them heavily bandaged in order to provide some support but all in all he was making good progress.

“Not good enough to make the journey home yet,” Doctor Adams had warned sternly when Scott had broached the subject the day before.  They had been gone from Lancer for a whole month and even though Scott knew that Johnny had sent a telegram back home informing the family that they were all okay, his heart still ached for his wife, daughters and even for Murdoch.

Johnny had laughed when he recognised his own wilful behaviour with Doctors in Scott.  Johnny had always been a bad patient and Scott had faced an uphill struggle many times before to get his younger brother to obey Doctors orders.  Now that the boot was on the other foot, Scott had gained more of an insight into the frustration Johnny had experienced each time he had gotten hurt. 

Sitting on the edge of the bed, waiting for someone to come in and apply the bandages, Scott looked over his bare chest and stomach, inspecting the fresh scars that were prominent on each side of his waist.  The golden tan that Scott had acquired during many a day working bare-chested in the Californian sunshine had faded and his skin was paler now, much like it had been when he had first arrived from Boston.  When Johnny had seen that he had been unable to resist reverting back to the nickname he had given Scott right from their very first meeting.  Scott was also dismayed to see that he had lost some of the muscle tone in his stomach and arms.  Now he wasn’t a vain man, certainly not in comparison to Johnny, Scott chuckled to himself, but the sooner he could get back to some hard work the better.  After all, how disappointed the ladies of Lancer would be if they could no longer stare appreciatively at Scott when he came in from a hard days sweat and toil?

Making a conscious effort not to think of home, Scott’s mind shifted over the events that had followed that night.  Overhearing the conversation between Johnny and Joe had filled Scott with a sense of contentment and he had drifted off to sleep, the small smile still on his face.  He closed his eyes as he remembered awaking from sleep to see his nephew perched nervously at the foot of his bed, pulling the threads of the beige blanket apart with his fingers.

“Hey,” Scott had said quietly, waiting until Joe looked up before pointing at the glass of water that sat on the table.  He had smiled when Joe had hastened to get it, spilling half the contents over the blanket in the process.

“Uncle Scott I’m real sorry for every thing that’s happened,” Joe had blurted out, his blue eyes hopeful of forgiveness.

Scott had held his hand up, letting Joe know with that simple gesture that he already knew.  How he knew though he did not let on, instead he casually enquired as to whether Johnny had heeded his advice and sorted things out with his son.

Joe had smiled at the question, the relief evident on his face, “Yeah,” he nodded, remembering how good it felt when Johnny had hugged him.

“I don’t think I’m going to be allowed to leave the house and yard until I’m at least twenty-one though,” he had added, his eyes downcast as he remembered the list of punishments that Johnny had insisted he suffer when they got home.

Scott grinned then quickly tried to look as serious as possible, “Good Joe, I’m pleased that you and Johnny have talked.  Now all you’ve got to come is the punishment  I’m going to give you as soon as I’m strong enough to get up out of this bed!”

Joe looked sharply at his uncle, his eyes widening with panic at the realisation that Scott maybe hadn’t forgiven him after all, “Uncle Scott, ya don’t have to do that I really am sorry…"

Scott couldn’t maintain his serious expression any longer and his face broke out in to a wide grin that met his eyes, “I figure I owe you some sort of punishment Joe for implying that I would be no good in a...oh let me see what was it again? A ‘proper gunfight?’”

Joe’s face reddened as he realised that Scott was teasing him, “I was wrong to say that,” he admitted, “What you did was amazing Uncle Scott. You saved us all.”

Scott blushed at the praise and wondered smugly if Joe had just found a new hero before the dark side to that thought suddenly struck him and his face became serious once again, “I did what I had to do, Joe” he said, “But I never want any of us to be put in that position again, understand?”

Joe nodded solemnly, understanding only too well. 

***

“Hey Boston, ready to be mummified again?” Johnny cracked as he entered the room, his arms laden with bandages.  Scott laughed, wincing as pain shot through his chest.  “You’d better tie’em tightly,” he instructed, “We’ve got a long ride home.”

Johnny’s eyebrows shot up, “But Scott, the Doctor said-“

“I know what he said Johnny,” Scott said irritated, “We’ll take it slow.  But we are going home.”

Johnny tilted his head side ways and scrutinised his determined brother, “The Doc ain’t gonna like it” he warned but Scott just shrugged, “Nor will he like it if I go stir-crazy from being in this blooming bed too long!”

Johnny was right; Doctor Adams didn’t like it when he stopped by later that day to find Scott, Johnny and Joe ready to leave.

“You need more time Scott…” Doctor Adams insisted, wondering exactly what kind of man had bred such a group of stubborn young men.

“Look, my skin has healed hasn’t it?” Scott asked, satisfied when the Doctor nodded.

“And there’s no infection?”

Again the Doctor shook his head.

“And my ribs are fine as long as I keep them bandaged?” Scott pushed, determined to win this battle.

Doctor Adams sighed, “You won’t be able to ride for too long at a time” he said, “You’ll need to take plenty of rests and keep yourself hydrated.”

Scott smiled, “Let’s go!” he said happily.

Outside, Johnny shook Jacobs hand firmly, just as he had done when he had politely declined his offer of a job for Joe.  Over the past few weeks Johnny had recognised that in Jacobs was a respectable, kind-hearted man and Johnny was thankful that of all the jobs Joe could have got embroiled in, this was the best – if you could look at it that way.

Jacobs had been full of gratitude as he said goodbye to all three Lancers, knowing what each of them had risked these past few weeks.  As he watched the three men ride away, his eyes became misty as he looked around the ranch that, thanks to them was still his. 

***

The ride home took five days and on more than one occasion Scott regretted being so determined to leave so soon, not that he would ever admit it to Johnny or Joe.  However all thoughts of regret were soon forgotten as they arrived back on Lancer land.

Scott, desperate to see Nina and the twins declined to go to the hacienda, opting instead to go straight home.  Johnny and Joe accompanied him and watched with joy as Scott was almost toppled when both of his young daughters launched themselves at their father.  Johnny and Joe also found themselves enveloped in hugs and kisses as Nina fussed over them.

Between them they had agreed on an edited version of events to tell the family.  They did not need to hear what had happened to force Scott to risk his life to protect them.  It would remain their secret.

“Murdoch’s gonna know he ain’t gettin’ the full story,” Johnny had muttered as they had approached Lancer.

Scott turned to his brother, remembering then that he had never asked Johnny what Murdoch’s reaction had been when they discovered Joe was missing.  Checking to see that Joe was still riding up ahead and out of earshot, Scott probed his brother further.

“How do ya think he reacted Scott?” Johnny had said wearily, “Just like he always does.”

“All your fault, right?” Scott guessed, knowing by Johnny’s expression that he was correct in his assumption.

“Yep,” Johnny had replied, his eager anticipation at returning home suddenly marred by thoughts of his father and their painful conversation before he left.

“Well this is not all your fault Johnny,” Scott said firmly, “And if Murdoch doesn’t see that then he’s an old fool!”

Johnny had smiled at this, “I’ll let you tell him that brother” he said wryly.

“It’ll be my pleasure,” Scott said, matching Johnny’s smile with one of his own. 

***

It was just starting to get dark when Johnny and Joe arrived at the Hacienda.  Making their way directly to the barn they rubbed down their horses who also looked pleased to be at home in familiar surroundings.

“Grandpa’s gonna be mad ain’t he?” Joe asked Johnny as they walked towards the house.

In the dim light Johnny nodded, “Yeah he is but you’ve just got to keep ya mouth shut and let ‘im get it over with,” he advised his son, speaking from years of experience.

Joe looked questioningly at his father, “Is that what you’re gonna do?”

Johnny pursed his lips and shot Joe an aggravated look as he realised Joe must have overheard some of what he and Scott had been talking about.  

They had taken just two steps inside the door when Murdoch and Teresa came rushing out of the kitchen, almost falling over themselves in the anticipation that it may be Johnny and Joe returning home.

Teresa reached them first, Murdoch’s stiff back giving her the advantage and she launched herself at Johnny first and then Joe.  As she withdrew her arms from around her stepson’s neck she eyed him up and down and her pretty face became stern.

“You’re filthy young man!” she scolded, “I want you in that tub now do you hear me?”

Joe nodded meekly, his eyes flicking over to where Murdoch stood.

“Welcome home both of you,” Murdoch said awkwardly and then just before Joe went to do Teresa’s bidding, he said to his grandson sternly, “I’d like a word with you as soon as you’re done young man!”

Joe’s eyes widened but he remembered Johnny’s advice from a moment ago, “Yes Sir” he answered, practically running out of the house to get away from the intense glare of his Grandfather.

When once again Teresa threw her arms around Johnny, burying her face in his neck and relishing the warmth and smell of her husband, Murdoch coughed politely.

Blushing, Teresa stepped away from Johnny, her brown eyes dancing with merriment.  “I’ll be upstairs,” she said, her tone suggesting that she was far from sleepy.

Johnny grinned as he watched her hop up the stairs but his grin soon faded when he realised that he was now alone with his father. 

****

Chapter Nineteen

“Would you like a drink?” Murdoch asked crossing over to the desk and pouring two drinks without waiting for Johnny to answer.  He crossed the room again and offered the glass to Johnny who took it warily, his eyes not giving away anything about what he was feeling right now.

Murdoch sighed as he took a sip of his drink.  He had had ages to consider how he would react when Johnny came home, he had even considered the possibility that Johnny would wish to leave Lancer and Murdoch knew that he couldn’t blame him if he did.  Just as he had done virtually every day since Johnny had taken off after Joe, Murdoch cursed himself for being such a stubborn old fool.  Determined to act quickly before he changed his mind, Murdoch hurriedly placed his glass on the table.

Johnny who was yet to sip any of the drink was taken completely by surprise when Murdoch put his drink down and threw his arms around him, practically squeezing the life out of him.  Johnny felt the glass slip from his fingers and it was only when it shattered on the floor that Murdoch released him, standing back and surveying his son as if seeing him for the first time.

“Are you hurt son?” Murdoch asked suddenly, seeing the startled look on Johnny’s face.

“No I ain’t hurt,” Johnny answered carefully, still in shock from this uncharacteristic show of affection.

“Not physically anyway,” Murdoch finished for him, his tone sad.

Johnny raised his eyebrows at Murdoch’s observation but still did not answer.

“Where’s Scott?” Murdoch asked, realising for the first time that his elder son was missing.

“He went home.  He said he’d stop by tomorrow,” Johnny said, waiting for the interrogation to begin.

“He’s going to be okay?” Murdoch asked his voice fraught with worry.

“He’s going to be fine,” Johnny answered truthfully.

“Thank God,” Murdoch muttered, closing his eyes for a moment.  When he opened them Johnny could see that they were moist. “Son...” Murdoch began, wincing at the way Johnny’s expression became defensive almost immediately. “Son I want to say I’m sorry, really sorry about how I acted that morning, the things I said.  I know that none of this is your fault and I had no right to question your parenting.  You are a great father.  The kind of father that I fear I will never be and that has been incredibly hard to face up to...”.  He paused and was relieved to see that Johnny no longer looked defensive; instead he looked intrigued, wondering where Murdoch was headed.

“I am a stubborn ass Johnny,” Murdoch admitted, “But this past month has given me plenty of time to think and I swear to you son I am going to try.”

“Try what?” Johnny asked

“Try to show you how much I love you and how much it means to me having you here.”

Johnny nodded slowly, knowing how difficult it must be for his father to say these things.

“And I’m not going to ask you for the details of whatever has happened.  You, Scott and Joe are safe and that is all I care about,” Murdoch paused again, “Maybe one day you’ll be able to tell me?”

Johnny nodded, surprised and relieved that Murdoch was not going to press this issue.

“But I do intend to have some strong words with my grandson about the worry he has caused his old Grandpa, you understand?”

Johnny smiled in spite of himself, “Go for it,” he said wickedly.

“Now I think that a certain young lady is waiting for you,” Murdoch reminded his son, his eyes dancing with memories of what it was like to be young and in love.

Johnny’s smile got even bigger as he started upstairs towards the bedroom but he paused on the second step when he heard Murdoch speak again, “We...we are okay aren’t we son?”

Johnny turned around at the pleading tone in Murdoch’s question, “We’re okay” he answered before rushing up the stairs.

Murdoch nodded, casting his eyes over the broken glass that could have so easily been his family.  As he bent to pick up the shards of glass he smiled.  They were all going to be okay. 

****

Epilogue

It had been another bright sunny day at Lancer that matched everyone’s mood.  All that is except for Joe who was really feeling the effects of his confinement.  Although it had been two weeks since they had returned to Lancer, Johnny had showed no signs of giving in on any of his stipulated rules.  Joe had not so much as left the yard and he had been so busy with all the chores that Johnny and Murdoch had given him that he thought he might just drop dead from exhaustion at the end of each day.  Out of habit, Joe’s hands brushed his right hip where his gun usually sat but he didn’t feel resentful that Johnny had allowed him to wear it for the journey home and then removed it promptly as soon as they arrived.  He knew in time that Johnny would allow him to wear it once more and Joe knew with equal certainty that it would never be used as it had been before; he had learned his lesson the hard way.

Joe looked up at the sound of horses approaching the ranch and he smiled when he saw his friend Matt and his younger sister Ginny.

“Hey Joe, we heard ya was back,” Matt said in greeting to his friend, jumping off of his horse and slapping his friend on the back.  “Tell us what happened!”

As Joe tried to think of the best way to avoid this question, his attention was caught by Johnny and Scott who had just arrived back from checking the fence lines on the western side of the ranch and were walking over to them. 

Johnny frowned when he saw Joe standing there chatting to his friends but Scott just smiled, pleased that things were back to normal.  His ribs were a lot less painful now and he had only recently started to put in a full days work.

“Guess I won’t be callin’ ya Boston for much longer eh?” Johnny had remarked earlier that day when he noticed that Scott was already regaining his California colour.  Scott had flashed Johnny a grin, his blue-grey eyes sparking with health and vitality.

“Joseph, you done all your chores?” Johnny asked his son, knowing full well that with the length of his list there was no possible way that Joe could have finished by now.

“Not yet Pa,” Joe said wearily.

“Well then?” Johnny asked pointedly.

Matt took the hint and turned to his sister, “Come on Gin,” he said, turning his horse around and setting off.

Ginny who at sixteen was only a year younger than her brother and Joe, fixed Joe with her pretty hazel eyes, “Bye Joe,” she said, eyeing the younger Lancer up and down appreciatively.

Joe flashed her his most charming grin, “Hey Ginny” he said, “Perhaps when I’m allowed back into town, I could take ya out?”

Ginny smiled coyly as she played with a lock of her raven hair, “I’d like that,” she practically purred.

Joe continued to grin as he watched her ride out.  He was brought back to earth by Johnny and Scott’s laughter.

“What’s so funny?” Joe asked them angrily, embarrassed that Johnny and Scott had overheard all of their conversation.

Johnny wiped the tears away from his eyes, “Nothin’” he said innocently.  “Hadn’t you better get back to work if ya plan on takin’ Ginny out sometime?”

Joe’s face reddened as he returned once more to the barn where he had spent the afternoon cleaning tack.

Johnny watched his son disappear before turning and walking towards the house, the grin still firmly on his face.  Turning to Scott he said, “Women.  Now that’s one area of my expertise that I don’t mind him following!”

Scott laughed and Johnny threw his arm around his brother’s shoulders and together they walked in to the house. 

 

~end~
Aug 2004

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