The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Shelley

 

 

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

 

 

 

 

Chapter 1

The little town of Green River shimmered in the midday heat. Small groups of people still lingered in doorways and on the boardwalk, eagerly discussing the morning's events.

Halfway down the dusty street, the Lancer brothers pulled their horses to a halt to allow the Widow Clay to cross in front of them. Scott knew Johnny had been making an effort to win her over, and before today he would have sworn the boy was making progress. But now the stiffness of her spine as she thumped her furled parasol down with each step spoke volumes about her disapproval. Scott sighed when she stopped in front of Barranca and glared up at Johnny.

Johnny touched his fingers to the brim of his hat and nodded. "Ma'am," he said.

She scowled at him for a moment, her gray hair and black dress radiating indignation. "Killer,” she said, not a question or an accusation, just a flat statement. She raised her chin in defiance.

Scott could almost feel his brother tighten up. Johnny pulled the brim of his hat down a bit farther and settled deeper in the saddle. He lifted the reins and looked down at the widow. "Yes, ma'am," he said with a cold little smile.

He kneed Barranca forward around the widow and walked slowly down the middle of the street, leaving Scott staring at Mrs. Clay. She followed Johnny's progress with her eyes before transferring her glare to Scott.

"Well?" she snapped.

Scott considered her for a second, his wrists crossed on the pommel of his saddle. Then he shook his head. "Tell me, ma'am," he asked, "how much money did you have in the bank this morning?"

Her eyes widened, then narrowed. "Hmph," she said, and opened her parasol with a snap that sent Charlie skittering sideways across the dusty street. She spun on her heel and stalked off.

Scott grabbed at the pommel, dragging himself back upright, and managed to pull his snorting mount to a halt. "I don't blame you a bit, mister," he soothed, patting the nervous horse on the neck. "She has exactly the same effect on me."

Gathering up his reins and fishing around for his lost stirrup, Scott trotted Charlie out, intent on catching up to his brother. Johnny didn't even look when Scott pulled up beside him, just pushed Barranca into a lope. The brothers rode out of town side by side.

+*+*+*+*+*+*+



It had started out as a good day. There were no big jobs or deadlines to mar the morning, just a simple ride to town, blessed by sunshine, blue skies and the rare gift of time. They had talked and joked, sometimes like friends, sometimes like strangers, still feeling their way into this brotherhood thing.

Scott smiled as Johnny pointed out a fox and her kits lounging by some tumbled rocks on a hillside. Boredom was a thing he had left behind in Boston. There was always something to see or do here in this wild country. Everything out here was a bit untamed and unpredictable, and that included the young man who rode by his side.

Scott found himself laughing just for the joy of it. It occurred to him, that that too, was something new since he'd come to California. Back East laughter tended to be polite and restrained or bawdy and loud, but seldom indulged in for the sheer joy of being young and strong and alive in the world. Scott reached down and patted Charlie's neck and took in a deep breath of the scented air.

They rode through a cut in the hills where the layers of rock were exposed and twisted. Johnny asked Scott whether that 'fancy school' had taught him what could cause solid rock to bend like that. Scott stopped and gave a short geology lecture. Johnny listened, and then laughed and accused him of making it all up. But behind the twinkle of laughter, Scott thought he saw something else in Johnny's eyes, admiration and maybe pride. He was surprised to find how that affected him.

They were laughing again when they rode into town. Scott was telling an unlikely tale of life in Boston. He asked a question and when he got no answer, he looked over and studied his brother. On the surface nothing appeared to have changed. Johnny still rode, relaxed in the saddle and in tune with his horse, but something was different. There was nothing of the smiling boy in evidence now. Johnny's entire attention was focused on the street and Scott noticed that his hand had drifted down to rest on the butt of the Colt that rode low on his thigh.

"Johnny?"

"Yeah, Scott," he answered, but his eyes never left the street.

"Something wrong?"

"Don't know." Johnny spared a quick look at Scott. "Nothing I can put my finger on but…" he shrugged and aimed a small grin at his brother. "Guess I just got an itch."

Scott scanned the street himself. It looked the way it always had, a dusty little town bleaching out in the constant sun. Eight or ten horses dozed, hipshot and placid, up and down the street. Paco Hernandez was sweeping the boardwalk in front of the stage office and a yellow dog trotted by, intent on something important. The Widow Clay had managed to corner the mayor and was pressing her point home with her usual zeal.

Scott sighed to himself. There was nothing to be alarmed about that he could see. He knew Johnny's history had instilled a habit of vigilance but he hoped in time his brother could relax and not feel the need to scan every building and alley, that he could stop seeing a threat in every shadow. Until then, he'd just go along and maybe try to lead by example.

"Unless the widow is making you nervous," Scott said, "I don't see anything to worry about."

They swung their horses toward the hitching rail in front of the barbershop.

Johnny stepped down. "Maybe," he said. "Looks like she's got old Higgs backed into a corner."

Scott glanced that way and raised an eyebrow. "It couldn't happen to a more deserving soul," he said, dismounting. Johnny snorted but Scott noticed that he also slipped the rawhide loop off his gun.

Scott stepped up onto the boardwalk; Johnny ducked under the hitching rail and followed. "Listen," said Scott, taking one more look up and down the street. "I'm going down to the feed and grain, then I'll check and see if the mail's in. Why don't you go bother Val. Maybe he can scratch that itch for you. We'll meet at the cantina for lunch."

Johnny nodded absently, eyes still alert.

"You see anything?"

"Nope."

"Well," Scott elbowed his brother, "stay out of trouble."

One side of Johnny's mouth quirked up. "Go order your oats, brother."

Halfway down the street, Scott had stopped to say hello to Abe Grey, when his own itch made itself known. He felt the hair on the back of his neck stir while a flush of apprehension sang across his nerves. Something very primitive at the back of his mind was screaming for him to pay attention. He glanced back up the street and saw his brother crossing toward the bank. A bank that had three horses tethered out front, a bank that he realized had its shades drawn in the middle of the morning.

He left Grey in mid-sentence and started back up the street.

Johnny stopped by the first horse, running his hand over its flank and inspecting its tack. He had just looked back toward Val's office when the door to the bank opened. Three men walked out and moved toward the horses.

Scott saw the first man start, then make a sudden move. He heard Johnny shout, "Drop it," and all hell broke loose.

Scott pulled his gun and started to run. Too far away to help, he could only watch the unfolding chaos.

Johnny drew and fired. The outlaw grabbed for his shoulder and dropped to the ground. The tethered horses reared, squealing and pulling at their reins, desperate to get away. Johnny rolled to the left to clear the frantic animals and fired again from down low. Scott saw dirt explode near Johnny's side as a slug dug into the road and the second outlaw jackknifed into the street. The third robber had slung his bag over his saddle and was trying to mount his panicked horse. Johnny surged upright and shouted something to him. Then Scott, still too far away, was shouting too. He'd seen the first bandit stagger to his feet and turn to bring his gun to bear. When Johnny whirled the third outlaw saw his chance and drew his gun. A cluster of four shots echoed off the storefronts. Scott thought his heart had stopped.

Then there was silence. The only sounds were the snorting of the frightened horses and the rapid thud of Scott's boots pounding into the dirt. Four men were down in the street.




Chapter 2

As Scott ran up, Johnny pushed himself to his feet. Scott grabbed him by the shoulders, eyes searching. "Are you all right?"

"Yeah, I'm fine. Check the first one, will you?"

Scott took a deep breath as if to say something, then nodded and turned away. He walked cautiously around the still nervous horse.

The street noises flowed back with a rush. Doors opened, people shouted and called in alarm and the drum of running feet thundered off the boardwalks. Val Crawford was bearing down on them, gun in hand, a glistening coffee stain spreading down the front of his shirt.

Scott found the robber spread eagle beside his horse, his eyes wide open to the sky. There was blood on his shoulder and a small red hole dead center in his chest. Squatting down, he picked up a fallen gun before he leaned over and closed the staring eyes. Scott sighed; death, it seemed, was a closer companion here than it had been back in Boston. He grabbed the moneybag and stood, shook his head and walked back to where he'd left Johnny.

Johnny met him back behind the horses, two handguns in one hand and the second moneybag in the other. Scott gave him a questioning look.

“One's dead, the other's gonna' be,” he said, dropping his load in the street. “What about yours?”

“He's dead.” Scott added his haul to the pile at Johnny's feet. “What a waste, he was just a kid, eighteen or nineteen.” Scott looked at his brother. “About the same as you.”

Johnny's head came up. “Ain't a kid, Boston and neither was he.” He turned toward the gathering crowd and raised his voice. “Can somebody go get Sam?” Johnny turned back to Scott and began reloading his Colt. “He stopped being a kid about the time he decided to use that gun.”

“About the same as you?” he asked.

Johnny lifted his eyes to meet his brother's, his gaze never wavering. “Yeah.”

Val and the banker arrived just then and both started talking at once.

Scott stepped back and dropped his head. His heart was still thudding with reaction and he took a deep breath, his hands on his hips. He had been sure that Johnny was hit. In fact, he thought, scowling at his brother, he was certain that he'd seen Johnny flinch just before he'd dropped to make his final shot. Scott closed his eyes and tried to see it again. Looking up, he started back toward his brother.

The mayor had joined Val and the banker, and now all three were talking. Johnny was looking harried. Scott stalked around the group, and finally spotted what he was looking for.

"Damn it, Johnny!" He shouldered aside the mayor and grabbed Johnny's left arm.

"Hey, what are you doing, Scott?" Johnny turned back to Val, "No, I didn't see….Oww, cut it out, that hurts."

"I thought you told me you were fine."

“I am fine." Johnny jerked his arm away from his brother.

"Then how come you're bleeding?" Scott grabbed the arm again and started to unbutton the shirt cuff.

Val took a quick look and yelled for Sam.

Johnny looked down at his forearm in confusion. "I didn't think…" Scott rolled back the sleeve. "Aw hell, Scott, that ain't hardly a scratch. He barely tagged me."

Sam bulled his way into the little group. He had to push aside the mayor, who had leaned in for a closer look.

"How they doing," Val asked, nodding toward the outlaws.

"They need the undertaker, not me." Sam adjusted his glasses and peered at Johnny's arm.

"Sam, why don't you take these two over to your office and leave me to straighten out this mess. And I don't want to hear any guff out of you," he said with a glare at Johnny, who had started to protest. Val turned back to the mayor who was loudly complaining about stray bullets and the lawless element.

Johnny was about to refuse when Scott nudged him and pointed to the widow, bearing down on them all flags flying. Johnny took one look and led the way to Sam's office.

+*+*+*+*+*+*+



Val walked into the surgery just as Sam finished bandaging Johnny up and dressing him down. He was lecturing him about his reckless behavior. Scott was enjoying the lecture but had misgivings about its effectiveness. Johnny just looked sullen.

"Well, if it ain't the hometown hero," said Val, leaning back against the wall. "Any particular reason why you didn't come and get me before you took on that gang all by your lonesome?"

Johnny gave him a disgusted look. "There wasn't time, Val. I wasn't even sure what was going on til they came out of the bank and the first one pulled a gun on me. What did you all want me to do? Just let 'em waltz off with the town's savings?"

"That's not it, John Lancer, and you know it," said Sam. "It's just that we care about you boy." Johnny dropped his head, his long fingers worrying at the beads he wore on his wrist. "Sometimes you scare us to death. How do you think Scott here, or Murdoch would feel if you went and got yourself killed?"

Johnny sat, his head still bowed. "Ol' Scott, now he might feel kinda bad, but Murdoch? I don't know, he might be relieved, specially after he hears about this." He looked up and grinned at his brother.

Val snorted and Sam gave him a dirty look.

"That's not funny," said Scott.

"Aw, come on, Scott, you know how he hates anything that smells of Madrid, and you better believe the whole town will be talking Madrid after this little shindig." He shrugged. “Just the way it is, ain't no fixing it.” He stood up. "Now," he said, looking at Val, "unless you have something else you want to give me a hard time about, I'm getting out of here." He rolled down his sleeve. "Scott, did you get that grain ordered?"

Scott shook his head.

"If you go do that, I'll pick up the mail and we can head on back to Lancer."

"Johnny."

"I know, Sam," he said. "Keep it clean. It's a scratch for God's sake.”

“I know it's a scratch, but humor me.”

Johnny grinned at Sam and then shook his head. He snatched his hat off the chair seat as he headed for the door.

"Johnny."

"Yeah, Val," he said with a sigh.

"Thanks."

Johnny paused with his hand on the door and looked back over his shoulder. Then he grinned. "De nada, Sheriff, glad to help. And, Sam, thank you too."

Johnny left the porch of Sam's office with Scott a step behind him. They walked up the street to the Feed and Grain. Scott watched as Johnny continued on to pick up the mail.

One of the girls who worked in the saloon called a greeting to him. A local ranch hand shook his hand and clapped him on the back, but the townspeople backed off and stared. Scott shook his head and went in to place his order. By the time he was finished, Johnny was waiting for him, leaning against the porch upright, his hat pulled down low, rolling a coin back and forth over his knuckles. He flipped the coin up, snatched it out of the air and nodded to Scott.

Without a word, they walked to their horses, mounted and turned for home.

Scott frowned as he settled into the saddle, his shoulders hunched and tight. Johnny glanced at him as they started up the street.

"Don't let it bother you."

Scott gave him an inquiring look. "Let what bother me?"

"All these folks, staring at you. It's not you they're after.”

“Is that how it always is?”

“Mostly. They stand back and look at you, all hot and hungry.” Johnny glanced across at his brother. “Like people gathered round a train wreck. Wanting to get as close as they can without getting dirty. They get all swelled up with the importance of it, wanting to pass it on and put their name on it. The worse it is, the better they like it."

"You don't think that Murdoch is like that?"

Johnny snorted. "Him? Nah, he's not the type to waste time watchin' a train wreck. He's way too busy trying to ignore the fact that there ever was a train in the first place."

Scott couldn't help it. He laughed.

Johnny grinned back, but there wasn't much happy about it.




Chapter 3

Scott Lancer stole a glance at the man riding beside him. Johnny seemed to be quiet and relaxed, sitting deep and comfortable in the saddle, handling his horse on a slack rein. With his hat pulled down hard to shade his eyes, his face showed no sign of stress or of any emotion for that matter. Six months ago, when they had first met, Scott might have believed that careful façade. Now he wasn't so sure. In the time since they'd both come home and found that they were brothers, he thought they'd gotten to know each other pretty well. Johnny, he knew, could read him like a book and Scott was starting to think that maybe he could do a bit of the same to his independent little brother. Which, he thought with a grin, probably rattled Johnny no end.

Right now, despite Johnny's outward calm, Scott could feel waves of tension radiating off his brother. Johnny was wound up so hard and tight that Scott was sure if their boots brushed together, there would be sparks.

The prospect of facing Murdoch when he found out about this wasn't attractive and the Widow Clay hadn't helped. He just wished he could find a way to relieve the tension.

He looked over at Johnny again. “Don't pay any attention to her, Johnny, she's an old harridan.”

Johnny turned to Scott. “What? Who?”

“The Widow Clay, she's just an old harridan.”

Johnny gave his brother a strange look. “She's a what?”

Scott saw that he'd finally captured his brother's attention. “A harridan,” Scott said, “a hag, a witch, a mean old biddy.” Johnny frowned, deep in thought. Scott could almost see him tasting the word in his mind, rolling it around and filing it away. Scott knew that one day his brother would bring it out and slap it down on the conversation like the winning hand in a game of poker. Scott had seen him do it. It drove Murdoch crazy.

Scott smiled to himself.

They rode on for another mile or two with Scott thinking hard. Charlie tugged on the bit and danced, but Scott held him in. He was afraid Johnny had reason to be upset. No matter what they said, Murdoch was going to be angry. The trouble was that Johnny hadn't done anything wrong. In fact, Scott thought he would have done exactly the same thing. The difference was he probably wouldn't have survived. Not three against one, on the spur of the moment, in the middle of the street. It had been amazing … and terrifying.

“Johnny,” he said finally, “could you teach me to shoot a handgun like that?”

Johnny pulled up abruptly and stared at his brother. “Hell no. Are you crazy?”

“No, I don't think so, and why not?”

Johnny sighed then shook his head. “Three reasons.” He raised his hand with his index finger extended. “First, you don't want it bad enough.”

“How do you know how badly I want it?”

“Do you want to work at it five or six hours a day, every day, for months? Are you willing to practice ‘til your hands bleed and your arm cramps up so bad you can't sleep at night?”

Scott just looked at him.

“Two.” Johnny raised his second finger. “You don't need it. The only reason for being that fast is to stand up in the middle of the street and kill somebody. That's not the kind of situation that a respectable, law-abiding rancher ought to find himself in. That's what Murdoch's got me for.”

Johnny grinned but Scott didn't think it was funny.

Scott started to say something but Johnny went on. “You want to really be dangerous in a gunfight, brother? Forget about fast. Go out and practice until you can hit what you're aiming at, first time, every time. Hell, Scott, you're already better with a gun than most anyone you'll ever have to deal with and as for the rest of them, like I said, they're my kind. Let me handle them.”

Johnny turned Barranca and started on down the road. Scott kneed Charlie after him. “You said that there were three reasons why you wouldn't teach me, what's the third one?”

Johnny looked at him out of the corner of his eye. “Come on, Scott, if the Old Man ever found out that I was teachin' you how to shoot, it'd give him just the reason he's been looking for to boot my sorry ass off Lancer for good.”

“Johnny! You can't mean that. Is that what you think?”

Johnny blew out a breath. “Every day,” he said. “Every time we fight, every time I screw up. It's the way it works, Scott. You don't keep the gunfighter around once the fight's over.”

“But he's your father.”

Johnny snorted. “You sure put a lot of stock in that, don't you?” He glanced over at his brother. “He's been our old man all our lives. Didn't mean much of anything for most of that time, did it?”

Scott winced. “Johnny, it's not…he didn't…” Scott sighed. “Well anyway, you don't have to worry about him kicking you out.”

Johnny looked over at Scott. “What makes you think that?”

“Because it's the truth. He can't just kick you out. You own a third of Lancer. It's all nice and tight and legal. Believe me, I checked."

Johnny glanced over and a small smile flickered over his face. And then it was gone.

Scott watched as his brother thought over what he'd heard. Then he frowned and shook his head.

“What, Johnny? Come on, talk to me.”

“Aw hell, it's like you said, he's our old man. He calls the tune. Lancer's his, not mine, and no piece of paper's gonna change that. If he wants me gone, I'm gone.”

“That's not the way the law sees it.”

“Don't matter what the law thinks, that's the way it is.” They rode on in silence.

"Don't let this eat at you.” Scott said finally. “You spared that town a whole lot of trouble this morning. Murdoch will understand. You did what you had to do. You did the right thing."

Scott watched Johnny glance his way. "Thanks, brother. I appreciate the thought. I truly do." He sighed and gazed off across the golden hills.

"Mierda." He slapped his hand down hard on his leather-clad thigh. Barranca snorted and danced a few steps. "I've worked at it, Scott. I've worked at it hard. But every time I think I'm getting there, something happens and me and the old man, we're back to square one. I just don't know."

Scott heard the pain that edged his brother's statement and felt a thread of unease twist and coil in his own gut. "Come on, he's not that bad. Try giving him some credit. Would it hurt to be a bit more trusting?"

Johnny gave Scott a disbelieving look. "Tell you what, brother, I'll give him credit when he gives me some. And it's real hard to trust someone who don't even like you."

"What do you mean he doesn't like you? You're his son."

"Yeah, I'm his son," Johnny said, “but that don't mean he's gotta like me.”

Scott didn't know what to say to that, mainly because he was afraid there was some truth to the statement. "Johnny," Scott finally said, searching for words of comfort. "It's not you he doesn't like, it's Madrid. He just doesn't want to deal with Madrid."

Johnny pulled his horse to an abrupt halt, forcing Scott to swing Charlie around in order to face him.

He looked at Scott, a mixture of anger and disappointment on his face. He opened his mouth to say something and then stopped and shook his head. "Dammit, Scott," he said. "Dammit." He spun Barranca around, touched the spurs to his flanks and tore off down the road, leaving Scott to sit there, wondering what it was that he'd said.

He sighed and resumed his slow trip back to Lancer. There was no point in chasing after Johnny. Charlie was fast, but Barranca was faster and if Johnny didn't want to be caught, Scott wasn't going to catch him. Besides, if he pushed too hard, Johnny would probably just take off cross-country and kill himself flying over some huge jump or rolling down an impossible slope. Scott figured it was better to just let him run it off.

Thank God he had three days to get his brother calmed down before they had to face Murdoch.




Chapter 4

Murdoch listened from inside the stagecoach as it made a noisy appearance on the main street of Green River. Late as usual, it rolled into town accompanied by the thunder of hooves, the jingle of harness and the rumble and rattle of iron shod wheels being braked to a stop. It brought its own dust storm that finally caught the coach and settled over it, filtering grime down onto the stage, the horses and the descending passengers.

Wonderful, he thought, trying ineffectively to brush the dust off his jacket and pants, the perfect end to a wasted trip. He grimaced as his hand dragged against a large sticky spot on his jacket sleeve. Sometimes, he was almost glad his boys hadn't returned until they were adults.

Immediately he felt a sharp pang of guilt but comforted himself with the thought of those children on the stage. They really had been monsters. They'd bounced up and down, jostling the other passengers, shrieking in his ear, fighting, whining and finally the smallest boy had fallen asleep, drooling and dropping his wet half eaten sucker on Murdoch's suede sleeve. Their mother hadn't said a word. Murdoch had fumed. If his boys had grown up with him, they would never have behaved like that. He was certain of it.

Murdoch turned as his name was called and caught the bag that Rafe threw down. "Hope you had a good trip, Mr. L.," Rafe said. "We'll see you next time."

Murdoch nodded. "Thanks, Rafe." But it certainly hadn't been a good trip, and not just because of the overcrowded stage. He'd gone to Modesto to check on some highly touted Hereford cattle. John Denton had imported the stock from England and some of the more forward thinking ranchers were having great success breeding the English cattle with the native Californian stock. The resulting cross packed more beef on a shorter frame without losing the hardiness of the local breed. Murdoch was anxious to try them but Denton's Herefords didn't often come up for sale. He'd heard, through a friend, about a dozen heifers and possibly a young bull that might be for sale and had hurriedly made the trip. Unfortunately, he'd gotten there just in time to witness Denton and Joe Farley, an old rival, shake hands. Murdoch was livid. He knew he should have wired but he hadn't wanted to give Denton the chance to turn him down. He thought he'd have a better chance to close the deal face to face. He'd never dreamed that Farley would have heard about the consignment too. Now he was home, dusty, sore, disappointed and three days early.

Bag in hand, Murdoch strode off down the boardwalk. He wanted a cup of coffee and maybe a sandwich before renting a buggy and heading for Lancer. As he walked down the street, Murdoch smiled and nodded to the people he saw. But he began to get an uneasy feeling. The dusty little street was the same. He saw the usual faces, but something was different. There was something wrong with the way people were looking at him. Their glances were too bright, too intent. He straightened his tie and tugged on his collar. It was making him nervous.

He tipped his hat to a group of ladies from the local sewing society and they smiled but there was something odd about the way they acted. He chanced a glance at them in the mercantile window; they had all huddled together, whispering behind their hands. He swore he heard the name Madrid.

Madrid definitely drifted out from the saloon as he passed, followed by a whiskey soaked whisper, "Shut up you fool, there's his old man."

Murdoch began to feel the back of his neck burn.

Toby Wheelwright trotted by with a couple of his boys. Murdoch absently lifted a hand. "Hey, Murdoch," Toby yelled, turning in the saddle, "I guess there are some advantages to having a resident gunfighter after all." Then he laughed and kicked his horse into a lope.

The burn on Murdoch's neck crept up to his face.

Before he could decide what to make of Toby's remarks, Abe Gray and Henry Bowden, both members of the Cattlemen's Association, stopped at his side. "Hello, Lancer," said Gray, clapping Murdoch on the shoulder. "Just got back, hey? Should have been here this morning. That boy of yours was something. Must say, whatever else he is, he certainly knows how to use that gun. Well, good to see you. We have to go." He pulled out his gold plated watch and opened it. "Have an appointment, you know." He snapped the watch shut and strode off.

Murdoch turned to go after Abe, but Henry Bowden put a hand on his arm. Henry was short and round and sincere. He stared up at Murdoch from soft brown eyes that matched his suit. "I'm sorry, I meant to check with Sam this morning, but I got distracted." He glanced toward Abe's back. "I do hope your boy is all right."

"Henry," shouted Abe, "Shake a leg, we're going to be late."

Henry patted Murdoch's arm. "Coming, Abe," he said, and hurried off.

Murdoch stood for a moment, a horrible hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach. Suddenly he didn't want coffee. He wanted, no, he needed to see Sam or Val.

He turned back the way he'd come. By the time he dropped his bag back at the stage office, he was almost running. As he barreled around the corner by the undertaker's he slammed into Val Crawford, Green River's sheriff. The only thing that kept them both on their feet was the large marble headstone that old man Gearing used to advertise his business.

"Dammit, Murdoch," said Val, pushing the huge rancher off him and reaching back to rub his hip. "What do you think you're doing? You're a menace. Man your size ought to know better.”

Murdoch started to answer back, and then remembered why he was there. "Val," he said, "what's going on in this town? What happened this morning?"

Val shook his head. "Ah, nothing much."

Murdoch breathed a sigh of relief.

"We had a little dust up is all.”

"And I suppose my son was right in the middle of it?" Murdoch asked with a scowl.

"Which one?" asked Val, his face a picture of wide-eyed innocence, or at least as close as Crawford could get.

Murdoch closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath through his nose. When he opened them again, he nailed Val with a murderous glare. "Sheriff Crawford, would you please tell me what happened here this morning?"

"I would of thought," said Crawford, "that you might be asking me if your boy was all right."

Murdoch drew in another deep breath. "Which one?" he enunciated very carefully.

Crawford shot him a disgusted look before he gave in. "Some young idiots tried to rob the bank this morning."

"Surely you're not trying to tell me that either of my sons was involved with that?"

"Hell no!" said Val. "Johnny stopped it."

"Johnny stopped it?"

"Isn't that what I just said?"

"Where were you?" Murdoch demanded.

"I was in my office. Doin' my job. By the time I heard the gunfire and got out here, all three of 'em were dead."

"Three of them?" Murdoch's tone changed. "Is Johnny all right?"

"Humph," said Val. "You should have asked that first."

"Crawford!" roared Murdoch as he grabbed the front of the sheriff's shirt, “Just tell me, is he all right?” Half the street paused to stare.

"Yeah, he's OK," said Val, relenting. "It was just a scratch. Doc slapped a bandage on him, chewed him out and sent him home."

Murdoch drew a deep breath and released Val's shirt. Some of the tension in his gut began to fade, and then he frowned. "Damn that boy. I can't even leave town for two days and he's in trouble."

"What's the matter with you?" asked the sheriff. "He did this town a big favor. And probably saved you from losing a bundle."

"What?" asked Murdoch? "Oh, no, I bank in Cross Creek."

"Well doggone," said Val, shaking his head. "It's too bad Johnny didn't remember that. He could have just ignored 'em and saved hisself a whole passel of trouble."

"Yes, " said Murdoch, deep in thought, "I mean no. Of course not." He glared at Crawford and sighed. "I have to go. I need to get home." He left the sheriff staring after him.

Murdoch stopped to retrieve his bag from the stage office. He turned to make his way to the livery when he found his way blocked by the Widow Clay.

"Murdoch," she said, pinning him with a righteous glare.

"Hello, Clarissa," Murdoch said with resignation. The diminutive seventy-year-old widow was a force to be reckoned with in the small town. She ruled through the sheer power of unpleasantness and Murdoch usually avoided her at all costs.

"Don't you hello me, Murdoch Lancer. I gave that boy of yours a piece of my mind this morning and I'm going to do the same for you." She banged her umbrella down on the boardwalk. "I warned you, Murdoch Lancer. Before you brought that ungodly hellion back to this town, I told you that there would be problems."

"Now Clarissa," said Murdoch, becoming increasingly aware of the small crowd that had stopped to watch the show.

"What happened this morning just proves that I was right. That young killer of yours comes into town and the first thing you know, there are bullets flying everywhere, bodies littering the streets. It's not safe for a God-fearing person to go outside. You need to do something about this,” she said, poking him in the chest, "and you need to do it now."

She drew herself up to her full five feet, two inches and with a final satisfied nod of her head, stalked off. Somebody snickered.

Murdoch bowed his head, feeling terribly exposed. He took a deep breath, and without looking left or right, he strode over to the livery and disappeared inside.




Chapter 5

Charlie tugged on the bit and danced, wanting to stretch out, but Scott held him to a slow jog. He was afraid that Johnny was right. No matter what they said, Murdoch was going to be upset.

He'd thought for a moment back there that Johnny was dead. Having just found his brother, he wasn't about to give him up, not to gunfire and not to his stubborn father's mistakes. Surely there was some way to reconcile those two.

Fifteen minutes down the road, and still lost in his reverie, Scott was surprised when Charlie sucked in a lungful of air and called out loudly. The saddle shook and Scott was jerked back to the present. A soft nicker answered Charlie's call and Scott spotted Barranca, knee deep in the lush grass between the road and a lively stream.

Scott immediately scanned the area. "Johnny!" he shouted, trotting toward the palomino. He was about to dismount and check Barranca's saddle when his brother's voice reached him from the direction of the creek.

"Over here."

Scott peered at the deep shadow under the trees. Not seeing anything, he moved Charlie closer to the water. Finally he spotted Johnny. He was sitting on a flat rock that overhung a deep green pool, both legs dangling over the water. His hat hung down on his back and the dappled shade wove back and forth over him, painting moving patterns on his shoulders and face. As Scott approached he threw a pebble into the water and watched the ripples form and run. "Took you long enough," he said.

"I didn't think there was much point in chasing after you." Scott dismounted and led Charlie down to the water.

"Always said you were a smart one, Boston."

Scott grabbed his canteen off the saddle horn and moved upstream to refill it with cool, fresh water. "You think it's a good idea to just turn Barranca loose like that?" he asked.

"Him?" Johnny glanced over at the horse with a smile. "He's good. He's not going anywhere."

"Look, Johnny," Scott began.

"Hey, have you noticed how good Barranca is getting at this cow pony stuff?" Johnny threw another pebble into the stream.

"What?" Scott looked puzzled. "Yes, I suppose so, but listen, I. . ."

"No, I mean it. He's getting to be real good. I think he might end up as something special. Sorta reminds me of an old pony, used to belong to a friend of mine." Johnny glanced over at Scott, and then returned to his study of the water.

"Uh, really?"

"Yeah, really. A ratty lookin' gray, couldn't have been more than 15 hands."

"And Barranca reminds you of this horse?"

Johnny chuckled. "Well, that part's coming up. Anyway, he was the most miserable excuse for a horse that you've ever seen. The only thing that he'd rather do than bite you was kick your brains in. He'd shy at a feather and wouldn't abide another horse anywhere near him. There just wasn't any excuse for ol' Zeke to keep that cayuse around . . . "

"Zeke?" asked Scott.

"Yeah, a dried out little old guy. He looked like a good breeze would knock him over but he could outwork anybody on the place. He used to put all us kids to shame."

Scott sat down on a nearby log.

"Anyway, like I was sayin'," Johnny reached down for another stone. "There wasn't any reason to keep that horse, except for one thing. That four-legged sonuvabitch just loved to work cattle."

Scott settled back to listen. He'd noticed that the wilder the tale his brother told, the broader his drawl got.

"I tell you. I've never seen anything like it in my life. That little sucker would get right down in the dirt and go nose to nose with those big Texas longhorns and he never lost, no sir, not once. That horse almost didn't need a rider.” Johnny glanced at Scott and skimmed another pebble into the creek. "Why I heard tell, one night that pony got loose in a pen with a dozen prime steers and by the time the sun came up, them steers had lost a quarter of their market weight. Damn horse run 'em down to skin and bones. Old Zeke had himself one hell of a cowpony.

"Only trouble was, that horse was so mean that he was like to kill Zeke some days. Once that bugger realized that Zeke was takin' him out to the cows he was sweet as pie but until then, well, it wasn't pretty." Johnny sat there studying the stones left in his hand before selecting one and throwing it into the water.

"So," said Scott, after a moment, "I take it that Old Zeke managed to find a solution to his problem?"

"Yeah, he did. He outfoxed that horse but good. He figured that Gumdrop needed a si . . ."

"Gumdrop?" asked Scott, wide eyed.

"Well, yeah, that was the horse's name. Anyway, he figured that Gumdrop needed a signal to let him know when he was gonna go work cattle. So Zeke, he started callin' the horse Cutter when he got on him to work stock. After a little while, the horse would hear that name and settle right down. He and Zeke got along real well after that, unless Zeke wanted to do something with him besides cut cows. But that's another story. So you see why I said that Barranca reminded me of Zeke's horse?"

"Um, no, I can't say that I do," said Scott.

Johnny looked up at him and dumped the rest of the pebbles into the stream. "Well, I told you, Barranca has a real talent for working cattle. I think he's going to be the best cow horse on the place. Kinda like old Gumdrop."

Johnny pulled himself to his feet and dusted himself off. "Come on,” he said, “I can't be waiting around for you all day." He walked out to Barranca, who merely lifted his head and waited.

Scott got up too, shaking his head. He untied Charlie and led him out into the sun.

Johnny lifted his foot to the stirrup. "Hey, Scott," he said, swinging aboard, "You know that part about Zeke giving his horse two names?"

Scott nodded.

"You understand, don't you?” His eyes were suddenly intense under his hat. “The fact that he called him by two different names, that didn't mean that he had more than one horse.”

“Come on," he said, turning away, "we got work to do. Murdoch's back in three days."

Scott stood and watched him go.

+*+*+*+*+*+*+



Murdoch sat at his desk. He was supposed to be checking the books but mostly he was staring out the window and brooding. He had sat at this same desk and stared out this same window for almost twenty years, dreaming of the sons he'd lost. He'd seen them as children, as teenagers and as young men. He'd watched them grow up in his mind. He'd sent them to school and taken pride in their progress, he'd taught them to ride and rope. He'd shown them right from wrong. He knew who they were supposed to be.

Now they were actually home. But instead of the sons he'd raised and molded to his own desires, he was faced with two strangers, young men who owed nothing to their father's dreams, who had their own ideas and plans. He had his sons but he had no idea what to do with them.

He looked down at the books. He knew they were correct. He'd glanced at them when he'd sat down, and recognized Scott's hand on the last several entries. He could rely on Scott. His older son might not be exactly what he'd dreamed of but he was polite and honorable, well educated and reasonable. He didn't know anything about ranching but that could be mended. Even in the short time he had been home, he was starting to master the skills he needed. Murdoch was comfortable with Scott.

Not so with Johnny. Damn that boy. He was unpredictable and wild. And every time Murdoch tried to exert some control the boy responded with defiance. Why couldn't he settle down and behave the way he was supposed to? Why couldn't he behave the way his brother did? Why couldn't he leave Madrid behind? Murdoch still felt uneasy thinking about those people staring at him this morning, whispering about Madrid, wondering and talking behind his back. And then there was that awful jolt in his gut when he'd thought the boy might have been hurt. He sighed. Johnny was a problem.

He shook his head and glanced at the clock on his desk. Now, to add insult to injury, both of them were late for dinner. He scowled and turned back to the window.

He heard them before he saw them. A muffled whoop and a scuffle, something thudded against the door just before it banged open and Johnny's laughter filled the entryway. He backed through the entry, faked a punch to Scott's gut, and then reached up to tip off the taller man's hat. As he turned toward the room, Murdoch caught a glimpse of the smile that lit his face. He felt a sudden sense of loss when their eyes met and the smile disappeared.

Scott picked up his hat, closed the door and turned to follow Johnny inside, but had to stop suddenly to keep from running him down. “Whoa, brother, warn me if you're going to stop like that. I almost knocked you. . .Oh.”

“Hello, Sir,” Scott said, stepping past his brother. Murdoch noticed that one hand rested briefly on Johnny's shoulder as Scott slipped past. “We weren't expecting you for several more days.”

Johnny followed Scott into the great room and drifted toward the fireplace. He rested one elbow on the mantle and eyed his father. “Hi, Murdoch. You have a good trip?”

“No,” Murdoch growled. “It wasn't a good trip. You're late for dinner.”

Scott glanced at Johnny, who merely raised an eyebrow. “We're sorry, Sir. If we had any idea that you were waiting, we would have been on time,” Scott said.

Murdoch glanced up at the tone of his older son's voice.

"If you'll excuse us, we'll get cleaned up and be down as soon as possible.”

“Told you,” said Johnny as they reached the top of the stairs.

Scott just gave him a shove towards his room.

Ten minutes later Scott knocked on Johnny's door and went in. Johnny was standing by the window, staring out at the courtyard.

"Come on brother, the family awaits."

"Don't that sound like fun? You suppose anybody'd believe it if you told ‘em I was sick?"

Scott chuckled. "Sorry, not a chance."

"Can I at least wear my gun?"

Scott shook his head. “No, you might be tempted to use it.”

Johnny sighed dramatically.

"How bad can it be?" asked Scott. "After all, it's only dinner."

"Yeah, I suppose. Can't be much worse than facing that firing squad and I got through that OK." Johnny squared his shoulders and marched out.

Scott was left staring after him, surprised. Johnny had never mentioned that incident, had never even acknowledged to Scott that it had happened.

A voice drifted back from the hallway. "Shake a leg, Boston. I ain't doing this alone."

Johnny and Scott slipped into their chairs just as Teresa appeared from the kitchen with a steaming tureen.

"I'm sorry, Murdoch," she said, ladling out the soup. "It won't be a very fancy welcome home dinner but we weren't expecting you. The three of us were planning on sitting around the fire eating sandwiches tonight. Tomorrow I'll have something better."

For some reason, Murdoch found the thought of his three children picnicking in the great room irritating. Maybe because it wasn't something he could imagine them doing with him.

"So, Murdoch," said Scott, taking control of the conversation. "Tell us about your trip."

Murdoch saw Johnny look over with a slight grin on his face. He scowled but gave them a rundown on the Hereford fiasco.

Teresa listened with interest. Scott asked a question or two. Johnny focused most of his attention on his soup. Teresa gave him a curious look and he smiled at her and ate another spoonful.

"That's too bad," said Scott when Murdoch was finished. "But I'm sure there's a way around it. If you're really set on trying this I have an acquaintance in San…"

"Yes, Scott, I'm sure that you can figure out something, but we'll talk about it later. I really don't want to discuss it now. I'd like to know what's been happening here since I've been gone."

Johnny looked up for a second, before he turned his attention back to his dinner.

Scott proceeded to outline the work that had been undertaken while Murdoch was away. Murdoch's expression got darker the longer his eldest talked. He bent his gaze on his younger son, who by this time had just a hint of a very irritating smile on his face.

When Scott paused for a moment, Teresa jumped in. "Oh, Murdoch, you wouldn't believe what happened to Shelby Taylor the day before yesterday," she said with conspiratorial eagerness. "She just got engaged to the Snyder boy and when she…"

"Yes, Teresa," said Murdoch with a frown, "I'm sure that you find that utterly fascinating but I was more interested in important news."

Teresa's face fell and Johnny's head came up. "It's not her fault, Old Man," he said quietly, pinning his father with an angry gaze. “There's no need to be to be rude to her. Especially when you already know the answer to your own question."

Scott heaved a sigh and Teresa just looked confused.

"What are you talking about, Johnny? What's not my fault? Did something happen?"

Johnny and Murdoch continued to glare at one another.

Scott pushed his plate to one side and plowed ahead. "There was a bank robbery this morning, Teresa, in Green River."

"Oh," she said. "How terrible! But, weren't you two in Green River this morning?"

"Yes, we were. Johnny noticed that something was wrong and stopped the outlaws before they could escape with the money."

"Johnny!" she squealed. “Really? Murdoch, did you hear that? He's a hero. Johnny, you're a hero."

She grabbed his arm and Johnny winced, his attention pulled away from his father for a moment. He reached across and pulled her hand away. "Don't, Teresa," he said. But she had already felt the bandage under his sleeve.

"Oh, but you're hurt," she cried, reaching for his shirt cuff.

He took her hand again and smiled at her. "It's OK. It's just a scratch and Sam already looked at it. He said it wasn't anything."

"I don't suppose," said Murdoch, “that it ever occurred to you to leave law enforcement to the local law. After all, Val Crawford gets paid to take care of that sort of thing."

"Murdoch," said Johnny, and suddenly he sounded very tired, "there wasn't time. I did what I had to do."

"Yes, and three men are dead because of it, you're injured and the whole town is talking."

"Yeah," said Johnny, standing up so fast that his chair teetered on its legs, "They're dead." He leaned his hands on the table and stared down on his father. "But they called the dance, and once they'd decided to shoot their way out, I just couldn't see letting them take me down. I just always seem to make the wrong decision, don't I?” He locked eyes with his father for a moment and then straightened. “I'm done here." He turned and strode toward the door.

Murdoch threw his napkin down and followed.

"John," he bellowed. "That's not what I meant."

Johnny stopped by the stairs, his head down. “So what is the matter, Old Man?” he asked softly. Turning, he raised his head and continued more strongly, “One of your decent, upright neighbors say something about your half-breed, gunfighter kid? Did I embarrass you?” He stood glaring at his father.

Murdoch just stared at him, his face growing red with anger.

Johnny waited another beat and shook his head. He spun on his heel and reached for the door.

Murdoch finally found his voice. “John!” he shouted. “That is not what this is all about.”

“Yeah?” he flung back over his shoulder, “It seems like it is to me.”

“We are not finished here.”

“You may not be,” said Johnny, jerking open the front door, “but I sure as hell am.” The slam of the door put a period on the conversation and rattled the bottles on the sideboard.

Murdoch turned and found his older son staring at him.

“I told him he should trust you. I guess I was wrong.” Scott turned and started for the stairs.

“Are you going after him?"

“No, sir, I'm not. I'm not the one who needs to talk to him.”

Murdoch sighed and sat down by the fire. This wasn't the way he had thought it would be.

+*+*+*+*+*+*+



Ed Hensley leaned against the bar nursing his drink and soaking up the bits of conversation that wove back and forth through the small, smoky room. This was his second drink. The first one he'd thrown down fast and hard. That was after he'd heard the news. He set his glass on the bar and watched the liquor roll back and forth in oily patterns. Damn, he thought. This wasn't gonna be good.

When Ted and his two idiot friends hadn't shown up at the meet, Kelly Barron had sent Ed into town to find out what happened to the kid. Well, it hadn't taken him very long to find out and it was bad news all the way down the line. Not, thought Ed with a snort, that he'd miss the kid. Truth be told, he'd been a mean little bastard and in Ed's opinion, not much smarter than the horse he rode in on. But he was Kelly's only kin and Kelly wasn't going to take this well.

Kelly Barron was the undisputed leader of an efficient little band of outlaws that had been wreaking havoc on small town banks and stage lines in California and Nevada for almost a year.

He was ruthless and hard but normally levelheaded. However, Ed knew he was capable of almost anything when riled. Now Ed had to tell him that his idiot brother had not only messed up their next bank job but had gotten himself killed in the process. Ed's biggest worry was how to keep Kelly from shooting the messenger when he broke the news to him.




Chapter 6

Scott roused gently out of a sound and dreamless sleep. The morning sun spread a band of warmth over his face and shoulders while a cool breeze, laden with birdsong and roses, teased him awake. He arched his back and stretched, then lay back for one more moment of total indulgence. Slipping one hand behind his head, he smiled up at the ceiling and started to consider the coming day. The smile vanished.

Fifteen minutes later, Scott clattered down the back stairs to breakfast. He found Murdoch at the table alone. “Where's Johnny?” Scott asked, pouring a cup of coffee.

“Your brother hasn't see fit to join us for breakfast today.”

Scott winced internally.

“He's supposed to be taking a crew over to Swallow Creek Basin to check the fencing. You two will be moving that breeding stock over there tomorrow. They've about grazed down the section we've got them in now.”

Scott nodded around a mouthful of eggs. He took a sip of coffee. “Do you want me to go over and give them a hand?”

“No, your brother should be able to handle that on his own.”

“I'm sure your son will do just fine,” said Scott, breaking open a biscuit. “What did you have in mind for me?”

Murdoch scowled, but continued. “I wanted you to go into Green River and deliver some papers to Eli Finch, then ride over to Morro Coyo and see if Peterson has that land survey finished.”

“That should take me most of the day. I'd better be on my way.” Scot snagged another biscuit and headed for the front door.

“The papers are on my desk,” Murdoch called.

Scott picked up the envelope and stopped to put on his gun belt and hat. He supposed that he should have taken the opportunity to talk to his father about Johnny, but it was more than he could face this early in the day. They say discretion is the better part of valor, he smiled to himself. Here's to being discreet.

He was buckling his gun belt when he heard raised voices from the kitchen. He listened intently. No, not Johnny, it was Murdoch and Teresa arguing. Scott thought briefly about going in to find out what was the matter, and then thought better of it. He jammed his hat down on his head and ran like a rabbit!

+*+*+*+*+*+*+



Johnny carefully followed a gully that opened out just below the crest of the hill overlooking Lancer. A line of trees spilled out of the small ravine, providing good cover and a perfect vantage point from which to observe the main house. Johnny pulled the palomino up, taking care to stay in the shelter of the trees, and cautiously watched the activity below.

He had left the house early this morning, slipping out quietly before anyone else was up. He'd stopped at the bunkhouse, grabbed a handful of biscuits and dropped in on Cipriano to check on the day's work assignments. Then he was gone. Now just four hours later, thanks to a pair of broken wire cutters, he was back and not happy about it. After the blow-up at dinner last night, Johnny's chief ambition today was to stay out of his father's way. He figured the old man needed some time to cool off and, he admitted, he needed some time to sort out his own feelings about this latest argument.

He'd decided at the age of 13 that he was done being kicked around and beaten up and he set out to do something about it. It had taken him almost a year of hard work and practice with his first gun to begin to make it happen but he'd gotten there eventually. Now no one put a hand on Johnny Madrid, not without paying the price.

The question he had to answer now was, could he let Murdoch do with words what he allowed no one else do with their fists?

The old man could hurt him. He had to admit it and it surprised him. Hell, he had a feeling that they all could hurt him and that came as a bigger surprise. It had been a long time since Johnny had let anyone in close enough to breach his defenses. He wasn't sure how it had happened this time and he wasn't sure what to do about it. He hadn't meant to let this strange group of people touch him the way they had. In fact, he'd come here intending to put a bullet in the old man. That hadn't happened.

He leaned forward suddenly, focusing on the figure that exited the barn and strode purposefully toward the house. Damn, so much for hoping that Murdoch was out on the range. Well, he wasn't going to sit up here on the ridge all day, brooding on his troubles and waiting for Murdoch to take a ride. He'd just have to be careful.

He lifted the reins and urged Barranca forward, circling around to come in from behind the barn. Dismounting, Johnny tied the palomino to the corral fence and paused a moment to scratch the horse's neck. "Now you just stand here and be real quiet,” Johnny whispered. “I won't be more than a minute." Barranca snorted softly and rolled his eye. "Yeah," Johnny grinned. "I know it's silly, but I figure, the longer I stay out of his way, the more time he has to cool down. Now behave yourself."

With a final pat, Johnny slipped in through the back door of the barn, hoping to grab a new pair of cutters and make a quick getaway. He paused a moment to listen. There were no sounds except for those that belonged. Dust motes floated gently through the shafts of sunlight that pierced the mismatched boards and Johnny felt some of the tension leak out of his shoulders.

He took another step, then jumped and reached for his hip, only to find himself facing down a ginger cat. She had padded up and stropped herself against his leg. Now she glared at him from eight feet away, her ears back and her tail fluffed out, hissing a warning. Johnny blew out a breath and shook his head. “Hey, kitty,” he whispered, “ain't we a pair? I swear, if you had a gun I'd a been flat out on the straw and you would have had yourself one hell of a reputation.”

The cat flicked one ear forward before whipping her tail back and forth. With a final hiss she stalked off in indignation.

Johnny watched her go, and grinned. “Well, if she'd got me, I wouldn't have to worry about how to fix this latest trouble with Murdoch. Yeah,” he murmured with a snort, “big ol' gunfighter, all spooked about facin' up to daddy.” He ruefully shook his head. “You need to get a grip on yourself, boy. It's not like it's a range war or something. Nobody's gonna be shooting at you…I don't think.” He laughed softly at himself and strode toward the tack room.

The place always smelled heavily of saddle soap, horses and leather. Saddles sat on their racks, bridles and harness hung from hooks and pegs. A workbench ran down the back of the room, littered with leather working tools and bits and pieces of tack that were under repair. Spare tools were hung on pegs over the bench. It was all supervised by several nosy spiders that patrolled the upper reaches of the room. It was usually a quiet spot, but not today.

As Johnny approached he heard low-pitched grumbling and the rustle of small movements. Sneaking a peek around the corner, the source of the disturbance was easy to see. Jellifer Hoskins, the ranch handyman, was set up in the very back corner of the room. With a rickety chair and a couple of packing crates as a table he was mending tack and giving the spiders a piece of his mind. Expounding on the shortcomings of the world in general and Lancer in particular.

Johnny smiled. “Hey, Jelly, what you doing back in here on such a pretty day?”

The old man jumped about a foot, sending straps and bits of leather flying.

“Dang it, boy, when ya going to start walkin' a bit heavier? Give a man a clue that yer anywheres about. You keep scarin' months off my life, I ain't gonna have anything left.” He bent down to retrieve the halter that he'd been working on.

“Sorry,” Johnny grinned. He leaned over the bench and grabbed a new pair of wire cutters. “So,” he said, “What are you doing in here instead of outside in the sunshine and breeze?”

“I'm hidin' out. What ‘cha think I'm doing? Ain't safe around this place today.”

“What are you talking about, Jelly?” Johnny propped one hip against the workbench. “You expecting an Indian attack or something?”

“Humph,” snorted the grizzled handyman. “Don't you grin at me Mr. Smarty Pants Johnny Lancer. I notice you lit out of here before breakfast and I wasn't expecting to see hide nor hair of you till dinner. Nah, ain't Injuns I'm looking out for. It's your daddy, boy. Murdoch's meaner than a bear with a burr up his butt. And Teresa ain't much better. Not worth a man's life to get caught out in the open today.”

“Teresa?” Johnny frowned, fingering the edge on the wire cutters. “What's wrong with Teresa?”

“How should I know?” Jelly asked, scrubbing furiously at the leather halter. “I'm not the sort of person to poke my nose into other folks business.”

Johnny looked at him with one eyebrow raised.

“Wal,” said Jelly, glancing up from the corner of his eye. “All I know is I heard that she and Murdoch got into some sort of dust up this morning after breakfast. There was a trip that she was wantin' to go on…”

“Yeah,” said Johnny. “She's going to San Francisco with the Martins.”

“Now how would I know that?” groused Jelly. “Anyways, Murdoch told her she could go an' now he's up and changed his mind. She's madder ‘n a wet hen an' takin' it out on anything that moves. She yelled at young Jose for tramping in dirt when he brought in the firewood this mornin' and she got Maria so wound up that she threw down her apron and went home for the rest of the day with a headache.”

“You know it's gotta be bad if even Maria's had it with Miss T. Why the woman dotes on that girl almost as much as she does on you.”

Johnny smiled for a second, dropped his head and concentrated on the cutters in his hand.

“Now what's troublin' ya, boy?”

“Ah hell, Jelly.” Johnny glanced up from under his hat, “It ain't Teresa's fault. She shouldn't be fighting with Murdoch. It's not her he's mad at.”

“Ain't your fault neither, boy. Was I you, I'd take on out of here before he sees you. Mood he's in, if he catches you here in the middle of the day, he'll chew yer hide so bad there won't be enough left to nail out on the barn to dry.”

“Yeah,” sighed Johnny. “That's what I was thinking too. See you, Jelly.”

+*+*+*+*+*+*+



"Are you sure?" Kelly Barron stood with his back to the door of the shack, his knuckles bone white from his grip on the room's only chair.

"Yeah, I'm sure." Ed Hensley had just finished telling his boss that his younger brother was dead, along with two other members of the Barron gang. Now he was torn between a strong desire to be someplace else, fast, and a grudging sympathy for the outlaw leader's grief. "The boys must have had some papers on 'em because the bartender knew all three names.”

Kelly reached up and ran his hand through his hair. "Local law in that burg?"

"Yep."

“He's a dead man."

"Weren't him, Kel," Hensley said.

Kelly looked back over his shoulder, a frown on his face. "What do you mean?"

"Seems like the law never made it out of his office till it was all over. Bartender said some rancher's son took 'em out."

"Some backwoods hayseed killed my brother? Pete and Reb too?"

"Murdoch Lancer's kid is what the bartender said."

Kelly walked over to the window and pulled back the tattered curtain. He stood for a moment looking out, while Ed grew increasingly nervous. Finally Kelly turned around, a thoughtful look on his face. "Lancer, I know that name. Murdoch Lancer is a big deal in this part of the state. A real empire builder."

Kelly looked up at Hensley and a smile crooked his lips, a smile that had nothing to do with humor. "The Lancer empire has just bought itself more trouble than it knows what to do with. Murdoch Lancer is going to pay, and then he's going to bury that son of his."

Ed nodded but wondered whether maybe he shouldn't just take off for the hills anyway.

Barron's voice cut through his thoughts. “I want you to go into town, not Green River, people might start asking questions if you go back there. Go to the other one, Morro Coyo, find out what you can about Lancer and about this kid of his.

Hensley started to turn away when Kelly's voice stopped him.

“Where is…did they…”

“It's OK, Kel. They buried them in the town cemetery with all the other folks. They did right by him.”

Kelly nodded without ever looking up.




Chapter 7

Teresa stood at the sink, with her back to the door, holding a large mixing bowl and stirring the contents with more energy than was perhaps necessary. She'd yelled at Jose, and he hadn't done anything to deserve it. She'd fought with Maria, and she was so angry with Murdoch that just thinking about him left her shaking. She didn't like the way she was behaving but she couldn't seem to do anything about it. Right now, at this minute, she wasn't sure whether she wanted to sit down on the floor and cry or grab the most spectacularly breakable piece of crockery that she could find and let fly with it.

Now she'd burned the bread and she had to start all over again – all by herself, since Maria had deserted her. Not, a little voice in the back of her head reminded her, that she could blame Maria. Lord knows, today she'd run away from herself if she could figure out how to do it.

She sighed deeply. She'd never get her chores done at this rate. Not that any of the men around here would notice. She reached over to get a bit more flour to add to the dough.

“Hey,” a voice said quietly from just behind her shoulder.

Teresa gasped and spun around, her hand going to her throat and the mixing bowl crashing to the tile floor between them.

“Oh!” she cried. “Johnny Lancer, now look what you've done. And it was my best bowl too!” She stamped her foot. There were shards of pottery everywhere and a big lump of half mixed dough sat near her shoe.

“Teresa, honey, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to scare you.”

There was a concerned look on his face but she could see the twinkle in his eyes and hear the suppressed laughter in his voice. Teresa glared at him. “You think this is funny do you? Well let me tell you, Mister, it isn't a bit funny.” She stared him down with her hands on her hips. “This is my job and it's every bit as important as anything that you do with your nasty, stinky cows! Just wait until you find yourself with no dinner and then tell me how funny you think it is.”

“Teresa, lo siento, I'm sorry,” Johnny said raising his hands and trying to look contrite. “Let me help.”

Teresa dropped abruptly to her knees to pick up the pieces of bowl. She began to brush the shards into a pile and one of them cut her finger. She yelped and grabbed her hand. Sitting back on her heels, she burst into tears. Johnny knelt across from her and leaning forward, reached out to her in concern.

She slapped his hand away. “No!” She glared at him through her tears. “Don't touch me, don't help me. Don't talk to me. I don't want you anywhere around me.”

Johnny rocked back on his heels and stared at her.

She started gathering in pieces of crockery with angry jerky movements, piling them on the dough ball in front of her. “Anytime you're around lately, it's just one problem after another.”

Johnny stood.

Teresa found herself looking at his boots. She twisted around to get some pieces behind her. “I swear, Johnny Lancer, I clean up after you, I pick up after you, I cook for you, I nurse you when you're hurt. What with one thing and another, you're just way more trouble than you're worth!” She fished another chunk of crockery out from under the counter and she swung back around. The boots were gone.

“Well good,” she said, sounding unconvinced. Then she sighed and leaned over to look hopefully out the door. He was nowhere to be seen. She sighed again. How, she wondered, could someone wearing those big Mexican spurs move so quietly?

She gathered up as much of the mess as she could, climbed to her feet and stopped, staring at the counter. There, highlighted by a beam of sunlight from the kitchen window, lay one perfect rose. She laid the remains of her cooking to one side and picked up the rose. “Oh Johnny,” she whispered. It was beautiful, and he'd even removed the thorns. She held it to her cheek and stared blankly across the room.

Just then the door to the kitchen swung back and Murdoch strode into the room, a sheaf of papers in one hand, his reading glasses in the other. Looking around, he focused on Teresa. “Was that Johnny I heard back here?”

Teresa stared at him blankly for a second, then burst into tears and ran past him, slamming the kitchen door behind her.

+*+*+*+*+*+*+



Ed Hensley drifted into the quiet town of Morro Coyo. He pulled up in front of the saloon, tied his horse to the hitching rail and stepped up on the boardwalk. Pulling out his pouch, he leaned against the porch upright and rolled a quirley while he surveyed the street.

He idly watched the comings and goings while he smoked. Taking a final drag, he flipped the butt into the dirt before turning and heading into the saloon. With the possible exception of the Ladies Sewing Circle, Ed knew there was not a better place to go fishing for a little information.

He sauntered up and leaned on the bar between a short, round man in a beat up suit and a tall, blond cowboy. “Hey buddy,” he said as the bartender walked by, “gimme a beer.”

The man nodded and came right back with a tall glass. It had a respectable head of foam on the top. Ed paid him and the bartender slid over to stand in front of the cowboy.

“How's everything out at Lancer, Scott?”

Ed's ears pricked up and he was hard pressed not to smile. Jackpot!

“Fine, Charlie, just fine.” The blond tilted his glass up and downed the last of his beer.

“You want another one of those?”

“No, thanks anyway, but I only had time for one.” He pulled out his gloves and nodded to the bartender. “See you the next time.”

Ed's eyes narrowed as he watched the lanky blond stride out of the saloon and mount a flashy chestnut with a circle L brand. Ed turned back to the bar.

The bartender looked up. “Can I get you another, Mister?”

Hensley nodded and drank down the rest of his beer.

Ed flipped the bartender a coin when a fresh glass was placed in front of him. “You serve a pretty good brew.”

The bartender smiled. “We think so.”

Ed lifted up his glass and took a long deep drink. “I heard you mention Lancer. Was that tall guy Murdoch Lancer?”

The bartender stopped polishing the bar and leaned his elbows on the edge. “The blond who was just here?”

“Yeah,” said Ed, “that's the one.”

“No,” Charlie said with a grin. “That wasn't Murdoch, that was his boy, Scott. You talk about a tall man, that Murdoch makes Scott look small.”

“Really?” Ed took another pull on his beer. “I've heard of Lancer. He's got a pretty big spread doesn't he?”

“Big? Why I'd say. You want a refill on that?” At Ed's nod he moved down and drew another glass. He resumed his spot after putting the beer in front of Hensley. “As I was saying, Lancer's about the biggest thing that we've got in these parts. Big ol' house, cattle, horses, good water, yup, Lancer's got it made.”

“That's what I thought. You know, that blond sure looked familiar, think I may have met him somewhere a couple years ago.” Ed looked up from drawing patterns in the spilled beer on the bar.

“Not unless you were back east, Mister. Scott only came out to Lancer about six months ago.”

“Really?” Ed frowned. “Seems to me I heard something about a ruckus over in Green River involving that Lancer kid.”

Charlie laughed. “Oh yeah, the bank, that was….”

“Hey Charlie.” A voice came from the back of the room. “Can we get another round back here?”

“I'll be right with ya.” Charlie smiled. “‘Scuse me, Mister, gotta go.”

Ed watched as the bartender filled the drink order. He waited around to see if his chatty pal would come back but business was picking up so he finished his beer and headed out. He had what he needed anyway.

+*+*+*+*+*+*+



The big clock in the great room chimed the half-hour just as Johnny opened the front door, slipped in and pulled it softly shut behind him. He leaned back for a moment, resting his weight against the solid wood. God, he was tired. He wondered if he had the energy to climb the stairs to his bedroom, and considered just flopping down on the couch and fading away. Then he shook his head, his hair rubbing back and forth against the smooth oak. Not a good idea, he thought. He figured he was safer upstairs, behind a good stout door. And standing down here wasn't getting him there. He pushed upright, turned toward the stairs and stopped dead. A lamp glowed softly in the great room. If the gods were kind, he thought wistfully, maybe someone had just left a light burning for him. He moved quietly toward the stairs and put his foot on the first tread.

"Johnny." Murdoch's voice rumbled out from the pool of light surrounding his chair.

Johnny sighed and rolled his eyes toward the ceiling. "Thanks," he muttered to the darkness. He backed down from the step and leaned heavily against the newel post. "Yeah," he said from deep in the shadows.

"Cipriano stopped by and told me that you had some problems. Did you get that fence finished? And what took you so long?"

"Yeah, the fence is back up. You can move the cattle in there tomorrow. Looks like one of those big cottonwoods growing on the bank of the stream went down in the last storm. Best I can figure is that it went down on the fence, and then pulled loose nearly a full section when it was swept downstream. Hell of a mess."

"Why didn't you keep some hands out with you? You know how important it is for that pasture to be ready tomorrow."

Johnny rubbed his eyes. " I kept Rico and Charlie. And I already told you, the fence is up and the pasture is ready."

"I saw those two come back three hours ago. What kept you so long?"

Murdoch saw the shadowy figure's head come up. "Like you're always tellin' me, Old Man, it ain't their ranch."

Murdoch peered into the darkness, trying to make out the figure of his son. The soft voice had no power behind it, not even in anger and the darker shadow that was his boy seemed to seep into the other shadows almost as if it were leaching away and would be gone in a moment or two, lost, like a faded memory. Murdoch shivered.

"Damn it, boy, can't you come in here to the light when I'm talking to you?"

"Yeah, I could, but I'd rather just drag myself up these steps and go to bed. It's almost eleven, I've been going since five and I'm beat. I've told you what you need to know, Murdoch. Now leave me be."

Johnny started up the stairs again.

“Johnny,” Murdoch called, and watched as the boy wearily stopped again.

“Teresa left a plate warming for you in the kitchen."

Johnny sighed. "She shouldn't have bothered." He continued his slow climb, lost finally in the darkness and silence at the top of the stairs.




Chapter eight

The brilliant blue sky arced overhead with just a few puffy clouds scattered here and there. There was a teasing little breeze and the temperature was perfect. Barranca was feeling good and despite, everything, Johnny couldn't help but smile as he drew in a deep breath of the clean, bright air.

He'd taken off early again, getting his assignments and grabbing a biscuit and a strip of bacon on his way out the door. He would have preferred to sit down to breakfast, especially after missing dinner last night, but not at the price of letting his father have another go at him. Instead he stopped at the bunkhouse and talked Cookie out of a sandwich for lunch. By Johnny's count, he'd been missing way too many meals lately. Since coming back to Lancer he'd gotten used to eating regular and he missed it when it didn't happen.

Which brought him back to his problem. He frowned. Damn it, it shouldn't be this hard. Why the hell did Murdoch make it so hard? Stopping that robbery should have been a good thing. Hell, it was a good thing, but he'd known he was going to have to pay for it. The trouble was, he couldn't figure for the life of him what else he should have done.

He wondered what Murdoch's reaction would have been if it had been Scott that had discovered the robbery. Then he pulled himself up short. This whole mess with Murdoch wasn't Scott's fault, didn't have anything to do with him and Johnny didn't want to drag him into it, not even in his thoughts.

He shook his head and sighed, riding along, lost in his own gray landscape until Barranca threw in a little buck. Johnny grabbed for his hat, then laughed to himself. The horse was right, there wasn't any point in worrying about it now. Meanwhile, the sun was out and the birds were singing. He had a fast horse and all of Lancer to ride over. And to top it off, nobody was shooting at him. It was almost enough. He leaned down and gave Barranca a friendly slap, and with a wild whoop the two of them streaked off across the waving grass.

Johnny's assignment that morning was to ride a section of fence on the eastern side of the ranch. It was a beautiful area, gently rolling hills covered with golden sun-cured grass, knee high and dotted with wildflowers; musical with the song of the birds and the bubbling rush of falling water. There was a pretty little stream that crossed at one point from Lancer to the Parsons spread. It wound, crystal bright, through the grasslands and dove into the shadows thrown by lush islands of trees and brush. It was one of Johnny's favorite places.

Apparently the Parsons family liked it too. Johnny spotted Mrs. Parsons and her three children out picking berries on the edge of one of the wooded areas. They had a blanket spread on the grass and a picnic basket sat on the tailgate of the wagon, waiting for lunch. The kids were running around playing tag, squealing and laughing while their mother picked. None of them had noticed Johnny, and he eased back into the brush a bit to keep it that way. Mr. Parsons hadn't been real happy about having a “cold blooded killer” for a neighbor and hadn't bothered to hide his opinion. Johnny had heard him telling Murdoch to keep that vicious gun hawk away from him and his family. The last thing Johnny needed right now was to have Parsons paying another visit to his father. He rode quietly on.

He was almost around a corner on the fence line when he heard the sounds coming from the Parson family outing change. The screams and squeals of the children were no longer sounds of joy but were laced with terror. Without thinking he rolled Barranca back on his haunches and took off at a gallop back the way he had come.

What he saw on the other side of the fence pulled him up short. One of Parsons' crossbred bulls had wandered down the stream and was now between Mrs. Parsons and the smallest child, a little brown haired girl.

Mrs. Parsons was frantic but had her hands full with the other two children. The bull meanwhile had fastened his attention on the flash of color from the little girl's dress and her hair ribbons, which fluttered on the morning breeze. The huge animal bellowed and tore at the sod with his horns.

Johnny's first impulse was to reach for his rifle in its scabbard under his knee, but he quickly realized that he was at a bad angle for a killing shot. If it wasn't dropped where it stood, an animal that size could travel a long way and do a lot of damage before it went down. He wouldn't risk it if he couldn't be sure.

Damn it! He pushed his hat down hard and set his spurs to his horse. Why the hell did he always get caught up in this kind of shit?

With a muttered curse, he turned Barranca for the barbed wire fence and urged him on. Angling for a section where a fast growing vine had thrown tendrils up the fencepost and across the wire, Johnny adjusted his course slightly and prayed that the vine would give the horse enough line-of-sight to clear the fence completely. If Barranca decided to brush through instead of taking the jump clean, they'd both go down, tangled in that devil wire. He didn't even want to think about that.

But he had no choice. There was no gate and there was no time.

Johnny felt his horse shorten his stride slightly coming into the fence. He tightened his legs and touched the palomino with the spurs. As Barranca brought his hindquarters underneath himself Johnny came forward in the saddle and felt the horse push off. Even under these circumstances, Johnny couldn't help but thrill to that perfect moment of flight as Barranca soared over the fence. The horse's forefeet met the ground and Johnny settled back in the saddle with hardly a jar. They swept on toward the drama playing out in the meadow.

Johnny leaned forward and called to the palomino, slapping him on the neck and urging him on. He needed to get between the bull and the child before the animal decided to charge. Barranca stretched out and ran.

They angled in from the side, cutting across almost underneath the bull's nose, Johnny shouting and kicking, doing anything he could to distract the animal from the little girl. Scared more by her mother's frantic screams than by the proximity of the big animal, the child was sunk down in the grass crying with her grubby fists raised to her mouth.

Johnny dropped a loop around the bull's neck as Barranca galloped past. With a touch of the reins, the palomino slid to a stop, and spun to face the bull. He immediately began backing to take up the slack in the rope. But instead of pulling away and fighting the rope, the bull charged. The huge animal closed the distance between them in an instant and before Johnny could react, it was boring in on Barranca, intent on sinking his horns into this golden intruder. The bull swung his massive head, smashing the back of one horn against Johnny's lower leg with numbing force and pushing Barranca off balance, further hindering the horse's frantic attempts to get away. Johnny kicked out and planted one big Spanish spur in the side of the bull's face, drawing a bloody line down its nose and startling the animal. Barranca reared and the bull's hesitation gave him just enough time to spin on his hind legs and put some distance between himself and the bull.

Johnny regrouped and swung Barranca around in a sweeping arc. As they passed behind the animal, he flipped a loop of rope to tangle with the bull's hind legs. When Barranca tightened up the line this time, 1,400 pounds of prime beef went down on its side with a ground-shaking thud.

Before the bull even hit the ground, Johnny had dropped the rope and cantered over to the frightened child. He leaned out of the saddle, scooped her off the ground and headed back to her frantic mother.

The bull, meanwhile, climbed shakily to his feet, shook his head and trotted unsteadily off to look for calmer graze.

Johnny rode up to Mrs. Parsons, the little girl in his arms. She had a double handful of his shirt and her face was buried in his chest. He could feel her trembling and the dampness from her tears was soaking into his shirt.

Her mother ran to meet them and reached up to take her but she screamed and held on tighter. "Hush now," Johnny said softly as he tried to peel her away from his shirt. But she only screamed louder. Then she bit him.

Johnny yelped and jerked his arm back as Barranca shied and danced away. Johnny took a tighter grip on the girl as he struggled to keep his seat and regain control of the fractious horse all the while cussing a blue streak under his breath. Fortunately, the child kept screaming.

Finally he brought Barranca to a stop beside Mrs. Parsons.

"Oh, Sarah," she sobbed.

Sarah turned at the sound of her mother's voice and suddenly held out her arms. She practically fell into her mother's embrace.

Johnny watched for a moment as the two older children rushed up, then he stepped down to check on Barranca. The horse had one small cut and a few scratches on his barrel. Johnny fingered a deep gouge in the stirrup fender and was grateful that it wasn't anything worse. His own leg was pretty much numb but he had a nasty suspicion that wouldn't last. Finally he checked his arm. Sam would be happy to know that thanks to his bandage the bite hadn't broken the skin but it looked like it was going to be one hell of a bruise. “Man eating little brat has jaws like a steel trap,” he muttered to himself.

He'd just finished refastening his cuff when he felt a pair of eyes on him. He turned and found the Parsons eldest, an eight-year-old boy, staring up at him, wide eyed and fascinated.

"Gosh, Mister, that was sure something."

"Yeah, well, I got a good horse." He turned back to check Barranca one more time.

"He's real good, huh?" The boy was drinking in every detail of Johnny and the palomino.

"Yup.”

The boy reached out a tentative hand and barely brushed Barranca's shoulder. "Wow," he breathed. "He sure is pretty. I never seen a golden horse before."

Johnny shook his head and laughed. "His name's Barranca. How'd you like to take a little ride on him?"

"You mean it, Mister?" The boy's eyes had gotten impossibly large.

Johnny picked him up. "Sure I do." He deposited him on Barranca's saddle and limped over to Mrs. Parsons.

She sat on the blanket, rocking the little girl in her arms and whispering to her. The younger boy was seated beside her as close as he could get.

"She OK, ma'am?" asked Johnny.

Mrs. Parsons looked up. "Yes, I think she will be, thanks to you."

Johnny ducked his head. "I don't think that bull will be back but maybe you better pack up and head on home."

Mrs. Parsons nodded.

Johnny looped Barranca's reins around the wagon wheel and went to get the team. In just a few minutes, the wagon was packed, the team was hitched up and they were ready to go. Johnny went over to Barranca, gathered up the reins and swung up behind the boy.

"You mean I'm really gonna get to ride him?" the boy asked.

Mrs. Parsons glanced over. "You don't have to do that."

"Not a problem, ma'am. I thought I'd better ride with you a ways anyway."

Mrs. Parsons smiled and the boy, who said his name was Frankie, started up a non-stop stream of questions and comments that filled the silence.

Johnny rode with them until they were just a mile or so from the Parsons house.

"Hold up, ma'am.” He rode over to the buckboard and lifted Frankie down into the wagon bed. "I think I'd better be going now. You'll be fine from here." He took off his hat and wiped the hatband. It was getting hot.

"Oh," she said, "surely you'll come up to the house. My husband will want to thank you himself."

"No, don't think that's such a good idea. Besides, I'm supposed to meet my brother pretty soon. I don't want him wondering where I am."

"I wouldn't want to make you late, M. . . . Oh my!” she said, putting a hand up to her throat. “How awful of me, I didn't even ask your name."

"It's Johnny, ma'am, Johnny Lancer."

"Johnny Lanc. . . Oh," she said, her eyes suddenly very large. "That means that
you're. . ."

Johnny looked down. "Yes, ma'am." He raised his head and touched the brim of his hat. He turned Barranca and cantered back the way they had come.

"Wait, Mr. Lancer!" she cried.

Johnny pushed Barranca into a ground-eating gallop and was gone.




Chapter 9

The noise and dust of the moving cattle announced their presence long before they could be seen. The dust rose in an orange cloud that clung to the skin of men and horses alike, forming strange patterns where beads of sweat ran down the men's faces, increasing the discomfort of man and beast.

The creak of leather, the bawl of the cattle, the thud and rumble of hundreds of hooves beating into the dry ground formed a constant background noise, punctuated by shouts and whistles and the croak of men's voices, made harsh though frustration and discomfort.

Scott Lancer pulled up in the shade of a scrubby tree and took off his hat. He uncorked his canteen and took a long drink, wet his bandanna and ran it over his face and the back of his neck. Finally he wiped out the inside of his hatband and draped the damp cloth around his neck.

Charlie shook himself and blew gustily, cocked one hip and concentrated on flicking away the ever-present flies.

What, Scott wondered, rolling his shoulders, happened to the beautiful day that he had awakened to this morning? It had been glorious, cool and clean with a pleasant little breeze and a blue-sky overhead. But the breeze had died and the heat had been building all day and with it the humidity. Towering banks of ominous clouds now leaned heavily on the horizon. The atmosphere was starting to remind Scott of the Lancer breakfast table this morning, heavy, oppressive and foreboding.

For the second day in a row, the younger Lancer hadn't sat down to breakfast and Scott thought their father was fit to be tied.

"So, Charlie," he said aloud. "What happened to our beautiful day?" For that matter, he wondered, what's happened to my little brother?

Johnny was supposed to check a section of fence; and then join the hands to help drive the herd to fresh pasture. It was now late morning and there was still no sign of him. Scott was starting to get irritated. The way things were going this week Murdoch would just love another excuse to tear into his younger son. Damn if Johnny wasn't handing it to him on a platter. Scott didn't relish the thought of mediating another of their battles. Besides, he could use the help, right here and now.

He blew out a heavy breath and jammed his hat back down on his head. A gust of wind lifted up a wall of dust and grit as he nudged Charlie back toward the reluctant herd.

As the storm grew closer and the tension built, the cattle became more nervous and difficult to handle. Men and mounts alike were getting irritable and tired. What should have been a simple job was turning into a nightmare.

Scott watched as a red spotted steer dodged past a weary cow pony and made a run for freedom. At a shouted command, Jose Dominguez spun his buckskin and streaked after the runaway. Unfortunately, Windy Miller also took out after the stray and Scott winced as Windy cut off the buckskin. Jose pulled up hard and almost went down. Windy threw a loop at the steer and missed as his horse shied at the near collision. The steer slipped between them and, tail held high, disappeared into the brush.

Scott thought he was going to have to referee a fight until Cipriano appeared out of nowhere and sent the angry men off to opposite sides of the herd.

Scott scowled. Johnny, he thought, jamming his hat back on his head and kneeing Charlie into motion, you had better have one damn fine excuse.

+*+*+*+*+*+*+



Murdoch sat at his desk with the books spread out in front of him and precious little work getting done. What Scott had said last night about Johnny not being able to trust his own father bothered Murdoch. He drew on his pipe and stared out the window. Was it true, he wondered? But, no, it couldn't be. He'd brought the boy home. He'd given him a third of Lancer and a chance at a productive life. Murdoch's stomach clenched as a brief picture of Johnny standing in front of a Mexican firing squad flashed through his mind. What more could the boy ask for?

No, the problem was that the boy wouldn't settle, wouldn't behave like a proper rancher's son. He was always taking risks, throwing himself into things that weren't his business. He didn't have a sense of priorities. It was Madrid. He was the problem. If Johnny would just leave Madrid behind, if he'd just listen to his father, then everything would be fine. Between the two of them, everything would be fine.

Murdoch nodded his head, satisfied with his conclusions. He had just put down his pipe and picked up a pencil when he heard the door open. As if to confirm his opinion, the jingle of spurs announced that his youngest was once again not where he was supposed to be.

“Johnny?” Murdoch rose to his feet and headed toward the door. Johnny was at the foot of the stairs, one hand on the railing, when Murdoch caught sight of him. He turned to his father with a wide-open smile on his face.

“Hey, Murdoch. Whew,” he said pushing the damp hair off his forehead. “Boy, it's getting hot out there.”

“Yes, I'm sure your brother thinks so too. Aren't you supposed to be helping him move those heifers?”

“Yeah, and I'm going right out there,” Johnny shifted his weight to the right and leaned back against the newel post, “just as soon as I…”

“Just as soon as what? Why is there always an excuse with you? You're supposed to be out there now, not when you feel like it.”

“Wait a minute, Murdoch.” Johnny made an awkward move forward. “You don't understand.”

“You're right about that, young man. I don't understand. I don't understand why you can't live up to your responsibilities to this ranch.”

“Believe it or not, old man, there are some things that are more important than your almighty ranch.” Johnny's face had grown hard and his eyes had a dangerous glint.

“It's your ranch too, and it would help if you'd take the time to remember that. You have responsibilities, boy, and frankly, until you grow up enough to realize that, you're a liability. You're worthless to me.”

Johnny rocked back a bit, almost, thought Murdoch, as if he had been hit and something touched his eyes briefly. Then his face grew remote.

“Well that's pretty clear. Course you didn't feel that way when Day Pardee was breathin' down your neck, did you?”

Murdoch felt like all the air had been sucked out of his lungs. “That's not what I ….”

“Yeah,” said Johnny. “Sure. I guess I'd better go earn my keep, huh?”

Murdoch found himself staring at the floor without an answer. He'd gone too far, and he knew it. He looked up when he heard the door snick shut. He headed for the outside. He had to say something. He couldn't leave it like this.

He cleared the porch just in time to see Johnny untie Barranca and mount up. But something else distracted him from his mission. “Johnny,” he said, “what's wrong with your leg? Are you limping?”

Johnny looked down on him with a baffled expression. Then he shook his head, spun his horse and galloped out of the yard and out of sight.

+*+*+*+*+*+*+



An hour later Scott pulled up again. He reached behind him and took his slicker out of his saddlebags. The weather had continued to deteriorate. Now it was spitting rain and the wind was starting to blow in fits and starts. At least the intermittent showers had cut the dust but the stinging rain and wind were adding a whole new level of misery. The cattle were nervous and contrary. Constantly resisting the cowboy's efforts, they tried to turn back, away from the wind and rising storm. The sound of their constant bawling and the click and clash of horns, combined with the mutter of far off thunder wore on everyone's nerves.

Scott pulled the raingear on. He had just resettled his hat when he heard his name being called and saw Frank gesturing towards his right. Scott looked just in time to see the tails of three more bunch quitters disappear into the brush.

Damn it, he thought. Where are you, Johnny?

He gathered the reins and leaned forward, urging Charlie out after the strays.

He had almost reached the spot where the mutineers had disappeared when suddenly, one after another, the three steers popped back out of the brush, almost under Charlie's nose. They ducked around Scott and galloped clumsily back to the safety of the herd.

The crackle of brush and a flash of gold heralded the arrival of the missing Lancer son.

"Hey, Scott," said Johnny with a grin. "You just letting them wander off by their lonesome like that?"

"We might not have so much trouble keeping them together if we weren't working short handed. Where have you been, boy?"

The grin disappeared and Johnny's face went still. "Already heard that song once today, Boston,” he said softly. “I don't need to hear it again." Johnny pulled his hat brim down tight against the rain and touched Barranca with his spurs.

Scott reached out for Johnny's arm but Johnny stepped Barranca to the side, slid past Scott's grasp and cantered toward the herd.

Scott shook his head and followed him back to the drive.

The business of moving the stock went on. Scott saw Johnny from time to time but always from a distance. Once he saw him working with Jose, the two of them engaged in a sort of multi species ballet, cowboys and cows, wheeling and stopping, and turning, balancing grace and brute strength. It was a dance that his brother excelled at.

The next time he caught sight of Johnny he was riding down on Windy Miller. He pulled Barranca to a sliding halt, spraying mud in every direction. Scott could tell, even from a distance, that the two men were having words. He was trying to decide whether he should go over to see what was wrong when a pair of heifers to his left made a break for the brush. By the time he convinced them to return to the herd, Johnny was nowhere to be seen and Windy was riding drag with a sullen look on his face.

By mid afternoon Scott was riding point, the herd strung out behind him. The intermittent rain had become a steady drizzle and thunder still rumbled and boomed all around them. Scott shivered as a trickle of rain ran down his back. A lightning bolt lit up the leaden sky and he winced. The thunder rolled over them a few seconds later. Uncomfortable as it was, Scott decided that he could put up with the rain but riding in a thunderstorm wasn't his idea of an intelligent way to spend an afternoon. At least they were nearly at their destination. Another forty-five minutes and they could close the gate on this stupid bunch of cows and think about getting to someplace warm and dry.

Scott had just pulled his collar up tighter and reined around an old stump when he felt Charlie take a misstep and then another and another. He pulled the horse to a halt and swung down to check. As his feet hit the ground he noticed Johnny and Cipriano riding toward him, the cattle lowing and shuffling along behind them.

Scott leaned over and ran his hand down Charlie's near foreleg. Then he lifted the leg and rested the hoof on his thigh. He dug the mud out of Charlie's foot and, just as he had thought, he found a stone wedged between the hoof wall and the frog. Scott gave a satisfied grunt and reached back for his pocketknife to pry out the stone.

Johnny swung his hat and eased a couple of cows back in toward the main body of the herd. He checked for any other drifters, replaced his hat and let Barranca's swinging walk take him toward the front of the drive. He glanced up as another flash of lightning lit the horizon and quickly turned his attention back to the herd. Damn lightning, he thought. The cattle were nervous and spooky and it wasn't going to take much to start them running. The hands were pretty much riding soft and careful. Johnny turned in the saddle and did another quick survey of the herd. So far the main body of the storm had swung north of them and Johnny hoped it would stay that way. Another half hour or so and they'd be safely penned behind the Swallow Creek fence line.

Johnny looked back as he heard a horse coming up behind him. He nodded to the segundo as he pulled alongside. A sudden gust of wind drove stinging rain ahead of it, then died. Cipriano looked back to the herd. The bawling and rumble that had been a constant background inched up in volume.

"That's all we need," Johnny said. But his attention was now on Scott, who had dismounted just ahead of them and was checking Charlie's hoof.

Cipriano resettled his hat. "No, this is not good."

Another burst of wind swept down on them, singing through the trees and brush, bending branches and throwing leaves and twigs into the air. Johnny swung his horse around as the cattle balked and milled. The flat crack of a rifle ripped through the following silence. The herd began to run.




Chapter 10

Cipriano knew the moment the cattle started to panic and his horse felt the spurs before the herd had taken even one jump. The segundo had seen Scott, dismounted in the path of the stampede, and knew he was probably the young man's only hope for survival. He heard Johnny call out to him but he was already halfway there.

Intent on his goal, Cipriano was appalled to see Scott's horse rear up, throwing the man backward to land hard and lie crumpled and still. The segundo slid to a stop just as Scott rolled over and grabbed his head. “Senor,” he shouted, extending his hand, “this way, quickly, if you value your life.

Scott staggered to his feet.

Johnny's first thought as he saw the herd begin to move was of Scott. He shouted to Cipriano to go after his brother and drove Barranca into the front rank of the panicked herd, shouting, waving his hat and firing into the ground, spitting dirt into the faces of the oncoming cattle. It confused them, stalling the leaders fractionally, holding them from their headlong rush for an instant—not long, just long enough for Cipriano to rush in and grab Scott's arm, just enough time for the segundo to haul Scott halfway over his saddle, wheel and sprint out of the way of the oncoming monster.

Scott thought his head would explode when he hit the front of Cip's saddle, but he grabbed on, desperately trying not to fall. Flashes of white light went off behind his eyes and the saddle horn jabbed him in the stomach, making it hard to breathe. He looked back, searching for Johnny. He saw his brother fire his last shot; then the press of the herd caught up with him. They were on him and around him. Scott saw Barranca rear, screaming above the backs and horns, and start to topple.

"No" Scott shouted, just as Cipriano's horse smashed through some brush and landed with a jolt that set off a white-hot explosion inside Scott's skull.

+*+*+*+*+*+*+



He could hear noise, no, voices. He took a breath and tried to still the pounding in his head and make sense of the world. He was lying down, someplace soft. A bed? He felt a damp cloth spread out on his forehead and he struggled to open his eyes. Once he managed to focus, he realized that he was in one of the line shacks. There was a face leaning over him that turned out to be Cipriano.

“Ah, Senor,” the Segundo smiled, “It is good to see you awake. I was worried that I had hurt you.”

“Hurt me?” Scott asked. He reached up to explore the lump on his head and groaned. “Something hurt me. What. . . I don't remember. . .” Then he did remember, suddenly and violently, the cattle, the stampede, Barranca clawing for the sky and falling back.

Oh my God, Johnny. “Cipriano, where's Johnny?”

“Easy, Boston,” came a soft voice.

Cipriano stood and moved aside. Johnny sat down on the edge of the bed.

“So you decided to rejoin the world, huh?” Johnny pushed back his hat and smiled.

“Johnny,” Scott breathed and then relaxed back onto the pillow. “Are you all right?” He reached out and touched Johnny's arm. “I saw you fall.”

“Nah, Scott, you're the only one that got racked up. You know Barranca, he moves like a cat. He twisted around and stumbled but came back up and after that it was just a matter of edging our way out of the herd and letting them go on by.”

“And you're all in one piece, you're OK?”

“Yeah. ” Johnny smiled. “I keep telling you, I'm fine. Barranca just has a few scratches and one pretty good graze on his hind end.”

Johnny leaned forward and grinned at his brother. “Me too,” he said in a conspiratorial tone. Reaching around he touched a small tear on the back of his pants, high up on his thigh. “But you have to promise not to tell anyone.” Johnny brought his hand back around and looked at it. There was a small smear of red on his fingers. “I wouldn't want it to get around that my dignity had been punctured. Not good for my image you know?” and he winked.

“Now,” he said, reaching for the cloth covering Scott's forehead, “let's see about you.”

Johnny started to say something else but all Scott could see was the blood on his brother's fingers, and Barranca, falling back into the stampede. All he could hear was the thundering beat of his heart. He felt a sudden rush of heat run through his veins and he narrowed his eyes. He pushed Johnny's hand away and levered himself up against the head of the bed. “Damn it, Johnny,” he hissed. “This is not funny.”

“What?” Johnny sat back with a frown.

“What the hell did you think you were doing? Or did you bother to think at all?”

“What's the matter with you?”

“You're what's the matter with me. I thought you were dead. I saw Barranca go down and I thought you were dead.”

“Scott, take it easy. I'm…”

“Don't tell me to take it easy.” Scott shoved Johnny back. “How many lives do you think you have? How many times do you think you can roll the dice with death and come up the winner? Today it was the herd, Tuesday it was the bank, you throw yourself into things without thinking and you leave us to pick up the pieces.”

“Now wait a minute, Scott.”

“No, I won't wait. I've had it, Johnny. I'm not going to spend any more time sitting by your bed, praying that you'll wake up. I can't do it. I'm tired of it,” Scott raged. “It's just not worth it.”

Johnny stared at him, and then stood up. “You done?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Fine. You do whatever you have to do. Right now I have some cattle to take care of.”

Johnny reset his hat and turned toward the door. He opened it but stopped, leaning with one hand on each side of the jam, his head bent forward.

“Scott,” he said softly, not looking back. “I never asked you to.”

“To what?” asked Scott.

Johnny took a deep breath, straightened up and limped out the door, shutting it quietly behind him.

Scott was left glaring at the doorway. He bent his head and rubbed his temple and, when he looked up, he found Cipriano staring at him. Leaning his head back against the wall, Scott closed his eyes and sighed deeply. He heard the segundo walk across the room. The door opened, and then closed, and Scott was alone.

+*+*+*+*+*+*+*



Scott swung his legs over the side of the bed and sat for a moment with his forehead leaning into his hands. His head felt like it was going to crack in two and fall off his shoulders. As he clamped down ruthlessly on an equally rebellious stomach, he hoped fervently that was the case. After a few deep breaths, things settled down a little. He looked up at the door and wondered if he could get there on his own. He had to talk to Johnny.

He hadn't meant to say the things that he had. He had been so scared, so sure, that Johnny was dead. When he found that he was alive, unhurt, and laughing about it, a wave of pure rage washed over him. If he'd been up to it he would have slammed his brother up against the wall and made him promise never, ever to scare him like that again. But that's not what he'd said, and what he'd said was not what he'd meant. He needed to make sure that Johnny knew that.

He stood slowly, trying not to move his head at all and walked carefully to the door. He opened it and immediately shut his eyes against the vicious blade of light that pierced his brain.

He wanted nothing more than to close the door and crawl back to the bed but instead he opened his eyes, and squinting, walked unsteadily over to the porch upright where he grabbed hold while the world dipped and swooped around him.

Johnny was out front with Cipriano, listening intently, then shaking his head and replying, gesturing with his hands.

He was about to call out when three of the hands trotted into the yard, stopped their horses by the corral fence and swung down. Johnny watched them come in, turned to Cipriano and asked a question. Cipriano answered and pointed to Windy Miller. Johnny nodded and turned to face the hands.

“Miller,” he snapped out. “Get over here.”

Windy looked at his companions before he squared his hat and swaggered over to Johnny through the sucking mud. “You wanted me?” he asked.

Johnny looked at him for a long moment before he shook his head. “No, that's the problem. Didn't I tell you to leave that coyote alone?”

“Yeah, you did, but he was bothering the cattle.”

“One lone coyote? He wasn't bothering anything. We didn't have any calves in this bunch. Any of those cows would have stomped him into jelly if he'd tried something. But you always know better don't you, Miller. You never listen. This isn't the first time that I've talked to you, but it's the last. You're done. Pull your freight and get off Lancer.”

“Are you trying to fire me?”

“I ain't trying, I just did it.” Johnny turned back to Cipriano.

“You can't fire me,” Miller shouted. “You ain't nobody. You're nothing but a half-Mex gun hawk, too stupid to move on when your job was done. Besides, you ain't got no call to fire me”

Johnny spun around. “No call to fire you?” he hissed. He grabbed Miller's shirt with both hands, almost jerking him off his feet. Johnny pulled him in close and shook him. “You disobeyed a direct order. You scattered the herd from here to Tuesday, and,” he gave Windy another vicious jerk that rattled his teeth, “you almost killed my brother. You're lucky I'm just firing you. You stupid son of a bitch, I ought to shoot you where you stand.”

Windy, two spots of color up high on his cheeks and his eyes big as saucers, made a jerky move for the gun at his side. But before Scott could call out, Johnny had reached down, grabbed the puncher's hand and twisted it back so hard that the Scott heard the joint pop from where he stood. Then he backhanded the cowhand and shoved him away. Miller's head snapped back and he sat down hard in the mud.

Johnny stood there, breathing heavily. “You want to try it, you little bastard, just go ahead.” His voice was soft but vibrated with menace. “Go ahead, I'm waitin'.”

Windy shook his head, his hand held to his chest, his voice shaking. “I think you broke my wrist.”

“You're lucky that's all I did. Now get out. Don't bother going back to the ranch. Somebody'll bring your stuff into town. I don't want to ever set eyes on you again.”

“Jose,” Cipriano called, watching the downed cowhand. “Make sure this cobarde leaves.”

“With pleasure, Senor.”

Johnny limped over to Barranca and mounted with a grunt. He swung the horse around. “Cipriano, get the men together.” Barranca snorted and danced in place. “We'll push the main bunch on to Swallow Creek, then spend the rest of the day looking for the strays.

“Johnny, wait,” Scott called.

Barranca half reared, his ears pinned flat. Johnny glared at Scott and brought the palomino back to the ground. “Cipriano,” he shouted, “have someone get that fool on the porch back inside before he falls on his head again.” Barranca snorted, sidling sideways. “Cody can take him back to the hacienda when he gets here with the wagon.”

“Si, Senor,” Cipriano said.

“Johnny,” Scott called again, but his brother loosed the reins and Barranca lunged forward, stretching into a gallop as he left the yard, mud and rainwater flying everywhere.

Windy Miller walked up to Scott holding his injured wrist. “Did you see what he did, Mr. Lancer?” He wiped at the trickle of blood on the side of his mouth. “And he tried to fire me.”

Scott looked down on him with disgust. “As of two minutes ago, Miller, you are trespassing on Lancer land. My advice is to get off, before someone decides to shoot you.” Scott turned and slowly made his way back into the line shack.

“Oh, you better believe I'm gonna keep my eye out for that bastard, Madrid.”

Scott paused in the doorway. “Actually,” he looked back over his shoulder, “I was considering doing the job myself. Leave here, Mr. Miller, as fast as you can.” The cabin door closed behind him.

+*+*+*+*+*+*+



Later that evening Cipriano knocked at the hacienda door. Murdoch himself pulled it open.

“Cipriano. Come on in.” Murdoch looked beyond the segundo toward the barn.

“Gracias, Patron, but I cannot. I must go home. Mi esposa will have dinner waiting. I just came to give you a report on the herd. Senor Scott told you what happened, si?”

Murdoch nodded.

“The main herd is now safely penned in the new pasture. We lost three head in the stampede. They were injured and we had to put them down. We butchered them.”

Murdoch frowned. “Send some in to the church. Three head is more than we can handle at once this time of year.”

“Si, Patrone. There are seven head still missing. I will send a crew out tomorrow to continue to search for them.”

“Ten head of cattle gone and Scott injured, all because of one stupid boy.” Murdoch shook his head. He looked toward the barn again. “Where's Johnny?”

Cipriano sighed. “He asked me to tell you that he was going out to the Agua Verde line shack. There are some repairs that need to be done, and no one has ridden that fence line for quite a while. It is due to be checked. It will probably take him a few days to finish.”

Murdoch lips tightened. “Is he all right?”

“He seemed to be, Patron.”

Murdoch drew in a deep breath and nodded again. “Thank you for the report. Have someone come by tomorrow for Miller's pay and have them take it and his gear into town.”

“Si. Senor Scott, he is doing well?”

“Sam says he'll be fine once his head stops pounding.”

Cipriano smiled. “That is good to hear. Buenas noches.”

“Good night, Cipriano.” Murdoch closed the door and stood for a moment in thought. Then he sighed and went back to the great room where Sam Jenkins sat with a drink in his hand.

“That was Cipriano. We lost three head of cattle in this fiasco and seven more are still unaccounted for. What a mess.”

“Well,” said Sam, studying his glass, “you could have lost a lot more.”

Murdoch gave him a hard glance but said nothing.

“Where's Johnny?”

Murdoch poured himself another drink and gestured toward Sam with the bottle. Sam shook his head.

Murdoch walked back over to his chair. “Johnny,” he sat down heavily, “is out doing whatever Johnny feels like doing. Again. You just can't count on that boy.”

“Really?” Sam studied the contents of his glass. “If you went into town and said something like that right now, I think you'd get a argument.”

“They weren't thinking like that the other day.”

“Maybe, maybe not. Maybe some of them just needed a little time to get over the shock.”

“Come on Sam, you know darn well that they haven't accepted him. Sometimes I think they never will. Especially since he won't settle down, since he keeps flaunting it in their faces.”

Sam leaned forward studying his friend. “Flaunting what?”

“Madrid, damn it, Madrid.” Murdoch snarled, “Madrid's going to get him killed.”

Sam frowned. “Right now most of the town thinks your boy is a hero. But if part of him wasn't Madrid, he'd be a dead hero. It's Madrid that's kept him alive, Murdoch. If you really want Johnny to stay here you'd better reconsider your attitude. You can't have half a son. If you won't accept the whole package, you may find that you won't have any at all. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going up to check on Scott, and then I'm going to bed.” Sam sat his drink down and left his friend sitting alone with only a solitary pool of light to hold back the darkness.

+*+*+*+*+*+*+



Johnny rode up to the Agua Verde line shack about nine o'clock. The sun still lingered low in the sky but the evening quiet had settled on the land. He stepped off Barranca and just stopped. Standing there, leaning against the solid strength of the horse, he tried to gather enough energy to finish the day. Dios, he was tired. His leg throbbed with a steady beat and his shoulders felt like somebody had caught them in a vise. He took a deep breath and pushed away from the horse. He scratched Barranca's neck and led him into the barn.

"You're tired too, huh, boy?" He stripped off the tack and checked the scrapes on Barranca's hindquarters. He'd cleaned and treated them earlier and they still looked good. "Not enough to really bother you anyway, is it?”

Johnny forked down some hay and filled the water bucket. He leaned against the door and stared toward the cabin. From where he stood it looked like a mile across the yard. He bent down and rubbed his left leg. Then he picked up his saddlebags and limped toward the house.

Twenty minutes later it was dark outside but light spilled out of the windows. The coffeepot was on and a can of beans was heating on the stove. Johnny had checked his leg and wrapped it. From the looks of the bruise he figured he was damn lucky it wasn't broken. Now he grabbed the beans, a cup of coffee and his flask and settled down on the porch. Seated on the chair with his leg propped on a rough stool, he leaned back and let the peace of the night sink into his mind. He had some thinking to do.




Chapter 11

Barron stood with his back pressed to the building, his gun drawn and ready. He had spent the last two days gathering information on Lancer and now he was ready to put the game in motion. He'd had the boys out scouting yesterday afternoon and it looked like Hal had hit on the perfect set up. He'd followed one of the Lancer hands to this line shack out on the backside of nowhere where nobody would stumble onto them. Kelly meant to send Old Man Lancer a message and this looked like the perfect place to do it.

The outlaw cocked his head to listen. The sun was up and the man inside had been rattling around for fifteen minutes or so. Kelly was getting impatient but it was safer to let the Lancer hand come to them. He could wait.

But he didn't have to. The door latch lifted and a dark haired kid came shuffling out. His shirt was undone and he was carrying a tin coffee cup and rubbing his eye. Kelly looked him over him and almost laughed. The boy wasn't even wearing boots.

The kid walked over to the porch railing and raised the cup to his mouth, and then went still. Kelly cocked his gun and the boy slowly turned around. A cool customer, thought Kelly, and a Mex. Then he saw the eyes. No, not a Mex, a half-breed. Kelly smiled a lazy smile. “Mornin', Chico,” he said.

The kid stood there in his stocking feet, backed up against the porch railing, his shirttails waving in the morning breeze and steam gently rising from the coffee cup in his left hand. Even like that, there was something about him that raised Kelly's hackles.

“What's your name, boy?” asked Kelly.

The kid didn't answer, just glanced to his left and shifted his weight.

Hal, who'd walked up behind him, snugged his gun barrel up against the boy's ear. “Don't even think about it,” he whispered.

The boy blew out a breath as Hal lifted the coffee cup out of his hand, took a sip, set it down and swung his legs over the porch railing.

“What do you want?” asked the kid.

Hal grabbed the boy's arms and jerked them back, holding him securely.

Ed Hensley holstered his gun and walked up in front of the kid. “What we want,” said Ed, backhanding the boy, “is for you to answer the man's question.”

Kelly watched as something flashed across the boy's face. It was there for a fraction of a second before he dropped his chin and hooded his eyes. Kelly wondered.

“Your name, boy.” Kelly asked.

“Juan,” the kid said.

“Juan what?” demanded Ed, poking him in the chest.

“Madriano, Juan Madriano.”

“You work here, Juan?” asked Kelly.

“Si.”

Stretch Bradley wandered out of the house at that point and picked up the abandoned cup of coffee. "Hey, Kelly," he said, taking a sip and draping his hip over the porch rail. "This Murdoch Lancer must not be such a big deal as we heard. Nobody with any brains is gonna trust a punk kid like this out here all by hisself, not without somebody to keep an eye on him. I sure wouldn't."

"Wouldn't be a problem," said the kid.

"And why's that," sneered Stretch.

"Cause I'd never be hard up enough to work for you."

Stretch surged to his feet but stopped at a look from Kelly. "Kid's got a point, Stretch."

"Hey," said the tall, thin outlaw.

"Maybe one of these days," drawled Kelly, "You'll learn to keep your mouth shut. Meanwhile, why don't you make yourself useful and go and check out the barn."

Stretch threw down the tin cup and stalked off.

“So,” said Kelly, settling back.“How long you been working for Lancer?”

The boy threw him a puzzled look. “A while,” he said.

Kelly looked at Ed, who grabbed the kid's hair and jerked his head up. “Be more specific,” he snarled.

“About six months,” the kid ground out.

“So you know Murdoch Lancer?” Kelly asked.

“We've met.”

Kelly sighed. “How well do you know Murdoch Lancer?”

The boy snorted, and looked Kelly in the eye. “We have dinner together,” he smirked. “Every night."

Kelly came to his feet. “I am just about running out of patience with you boy. You have a real smart mouth and I th…..”

“Hey, Kelly.” The shout came from the corral. “Boss, look what I found.” Stretch Bradley came out of the barn leading a flashy palomino. “This one's mine,” grinned the outlaw. The horse pulled back against the lead and Stretch yanked down hard on the halter. The horse threw up his head, planted his feet and refused to budge.

“Leave him alone,” shouted the boy, twisting to look back over his shoulder.

“I'll teach you to try that shit on me,” snarled Bradley. He grabbed the trailing end of the lead rope and slashed it down across the horse's face and neck.

The boy gave a piercing whistle and the palomino exploded into action. He rose on his hind legs, screaming in rage, iron-shod hooves slashing at his tormentor. His head and neck whipped back and forth in an attempt to free himself from the man holding the rope. Stretch scrambled to avoid the deadly hooves. He stumbled but recovered his footing just as those forefeet pounded back to earth. Stretch backed away but as the horse spun around to flee, his hip caught the outlaw and sent him flying into the corral fence.

The men on the front porch heard the fence boards crack as Stretch crashed into them. The palomino, freed of the weight on his head, neatly cleared the four-board fence and thundered off into the tree line.

Hal's hold on the kid's right arm relaxed as he turned to go to Bradley's aid. That was enough.

The boy slammed his head back into Hal's face, then pulled his arm free and smashed his fist into the man. Ed grabbed for his gun, but the kid was moving too fast. He spun and rammed his knee into Ed's groin, clawing for the revolver, which went flying, landing in the dirt, beyond the porch. The kid vaulted the railing but his left leg gave out on him as he landed and he went down hard, three feet from his goal. Then the boys were on him.

Kelly made a face as several boots connected before the men snatched the boy off the ground and jerked him to his feet.

Ed straightened up and limped out to collect his gun. Then he walked back to stand in front of the boy and with a snarl, buried his fist in the kid's gut, then slammed a left into his ribs and finished with a right that snapped the kid's head back and opened a messy cut on his cheekbone.

Kelly shook his head. That ought to take the starch out of the little bastard. The kid would be face down in the dirt right now if the boys weren't holding him up.

Ed stood there for a moment, rubbing his knuckles and watching the kid struggle to drag in enough air to stave off the darkness. The boy coughed, a hard rasping spasm that ended in a choking gasp. Finally his breathing evened out a bit. He took a deeper breath or two and lifted up his head.

Kelly watched, as the boy locked eyes with Ed. Hensley seemed to rock back although Kelly was sure he hadn't really moved. The kid reached out the tip of his tongue to touch the trickle of blood at the side of his mouth. Then he smiled. Ed Hensley blanched and slowly pulled his gun, he brought it up and laid it against the boy's head. The kid's gaze never flickered.

Ed had begun to pull back the hammer when Kelly's voice stopped him. “What are you doing, Ed?”

“I'm gonna blow this bastard's brains out.” His voice came out low and intense.

“Did I tell you to do that?” asked Kelly.

Ed's gaze was torn from the kid's face. “No, Kelly. But I. . .”

“Put the gun away, Ed.”

“But Kelly.” Ed's eyes flickered back and forth between his boss and the cowhand, “you don't und. . .”

“I said put the gun away.” His voice cracked out hard and determined.

Ed reluctantly holstered his colt.

“Good,” said Kelly. “I really don't need you to start thinking for yourself at this point.” Kelly stared off across the barnyard. “Besides,” he said, turning back with a disturbing little smile on his face. “I have a better idea.”




Chapter 12

Scott had overslept, probably because he hadn't slept much the night before. Every time he'd drifted off one of them had awakened him asking silly questions. He knew about concussions and he understood why they kept after him but that didn't make it any less irritating. Especially when his head was pounding and sleep was the only relief. They must have finally decided to let him sleep and he had, deeply. But the insistent sun pulled him up out of darkness. He blinked his eyes and gazed up at the ceiling, taking a moment to wrap reality around himself like a new set of clothes.

His head still hurt, but now it was just an irritation, it didn't threaten to take him to his knees or turn his stomach inside out like it had yesterday. He was grateful. He ran his hand through his hair and yawned before he turned and looked at the small clock on the bedside table. Good Lord, it was almost ten. The day was half over! Scott pulled back the covers and swung his legs over the side of the bed.

+*+*+*+*+*+*+



Murdoch was headed upstairs to check on Scott when he heard the knock. He opened the door to find Frank Parsons standing there, hat in hand. Parsons was a barrel-chested little man with red hair going to gray. Murdoch always thought of him as a bantam rooster. He had a pushy attitude to go along with the physical resemblance.

Murdoch stood a bit taller. "Frank," he said. "What can I do for you?"

Parsons took a half a step back and looked up at Murdoch. "Lancer," he said, nodding. "I, um," he looked down at his hat, then back up. "I was wondering if I could talk to your boy."

Murdoch frowned. "You want to talk to Scott?"

"No," said Parsons.

Murdoch would have sworn the man looked embarrassed.

"I need to talk to your other boy, to Johnny."

Murdoch felt his shoulders tighten up and the hand holding the door showed white at the knuckles. "Listen here, Frank," he said leaning forward. "We've already had this conversation. I told the boy to stay off your land and aside from that you have no right…"

"You told him to stay off my spread?"

"I most certainly did and…"

"Thank God he doesn't listen to you," Parsons said with a grin.

"What?" roared Murdoch? “Why you…."

Parsons smiled, then turned serious. "Murdoch, stop it. Listen to me, will you? I didn't come here to cause any trouble for Johnny." He took a deep breath. "I came to apologize to him, and to thank him." He looked down again at the hat in his hands.

Murdoch looked puzzled. "Thank him, for what?"

Parsons looked back up and met Murdoch's eyes. "Murdoch, if it wasn't for your boy, my Sarah, my baby girl, well, she'd probably be dead right now."

Murdoch stared at him for a moment and then stepped back. "I think you'd better come in, Frank, and explain this to me."

+*+*+*+*+*+*+



It had taken three of them to pull him across the yard to the corral fence. He had twisted and fought until Ed had gotten tired of it and brought his pistol down on the back of the boy's head. It had been easier then. They'd dragged him the rest of the way. Rufus and Hal had propped him up against the fence and Ed had gone for the wire.

+*+*+*+*+*+*+



From the top of the stairs Scott heard voices in the great room. He turned around and headed down the back steps to the kitchen. Teresa was standing by the stove, stirring a pot of something that smelled delicious.

She glanced back over her shoulder when she heard him. "Scott Lancer, you're supposed to be resting. What are you doing down here?"

"Coffee," said Scott walking up to her and reaching around her for the coffeepot. "I'm looking for coffee."

She batted at his hand with a spoon and pushed him toward the table. When he was seated she brought him a cup and returned in a minute with a plate of biscuits, some fresh butter and a crock of honey. Then she sat down across from him.

"How are you feeling?" she asked.

He took a long drink from the earthenware cup and sighed. "Better," he said, "much, much better. You, my dear, are an angel."

She gave him a look and shook her head. "If that's all it takes to be an angel, then I'll bring you coffee more often. But really, Scott, how's your head?"

He smiled at her over the coffee cup. "Still attached, it seems, and only slightly off center. So where's Johnny this morning?"

Teresa's face went still and she looked down at her hands. Scott started to ask her what was wrong but just then Murdoch walked into the kitchen.

"Scott," he said, "you're supposed to be resting. What are you doing down here?"

Scott smiled. "I think there's an echo in here. Who was that you were talking to, sir?"

"That was Frank Parsons," said Murdoch, looking a bit mystified.

Scott frowned. "If that blowhard is complaining about Johnny again. . ."

"He was here about Johnny," Murdoch said, “but he wasn't complaining. It seems that your brother has been out making friends."

+*+*+*+*+*+*+



Kelly sat on the front porch with his feet up on the railing, fanning himself gently with his hat. Ed and Hal had strung the kid up to the corral fence with barbed wire from a roll sitting in the barn lean-to. Kelly intended to leave him there, pegged out like a piece of jerky, curing on a rack in the sun. He smiled to himself. That ought to get Lancer's attention. And if it didn't, there were other ways. He only wished that it were Lancer's kid out there, but that would come in time. First he'd get the money, and then he'd get the bastard who'd killed his brother.

Kelly stood and sauntered over to the well. He filled the dipper then walked over to where the kid sagged against the fence. "Time to wake up," he said. He threw the water into the cowboy's face.

The boy gasped and coughed and then sucked in a deep, ragged breath and his eyes fluttered.

"How you doing, son?" Kelly asked, bending down to look into his face.

The boy tried to pull away but stopped immediately, his eyes widening with surprise as the wire bit. Kelly watched with amusement as the cowboy took stock of the situation and finally raised his eyes to lock with Kelly's.

"Ain't your son," he said pulling his legs underneath him and taking some of the strain off the wire.

"Well now, that's true enough. Just lookin' at you, a body'd know that, but no matter. Here's what I want from you. You're going to deliver a message to Murdoch Lancer."

"The hell I am."

Kelly looked at him, his eyes going hard. "You're not really understanding the situation, son. Here's how it works. I talk, you listen. I ask questions and you answer them."

The kid looked at him for a moment. "Fuck you," he said.

Kelly grabbed a handful of the dark hair and jerked the boy's head back. “You need a lesson in how to speak to your betters. Unfortunately, I don't think that you're going to live long enough to learn it.” He gave another jerk and slammed the boy's head back against the fence post. Kelly stood for a moment, watching until those incongruous blue eyes lifted to meet his own.

“So much defiance,” he said sadly. Then he kicked out and swept the boy's feet out from under him. The cowboy's entire weight came down hard on the wire. Kelly nodded in satisfaction as the barbs punctured and tore through skin and muscle and a bitten off cry was finally ripped from the stubborn kid.

Ed Hensley leaned against the porch rail and watched Kelly talk to the greaser. Damn, Kelly was enjoying playing games with the kid but Ed wanted no part of it. He knew Kelly was curious about the way the boy was getting on his nerves, curious and maybe angry too. Ed couldn't blame him. He didn't understand it any better than his boss did. But when that kid had looked him in the eye, Ed was sure, with everything in him, that if he was going to live the kid had to die. Ed needed to kill him and he needed to do it now, today, while he had the chance.

Ed watched as Kelly turned away and walked calmly toward the well. He pulled up a bucket of fresh water and splashed some over a clean handkerchief that he took from his vest pocket. He ran the cloth over his face and neck, closing his eyes at the cool sensation. Then he filled the dipper and took a long slow drink. Finally he turned, leaned his hip against the well and watched the kid struggle to regain his feet.

He was about to take another drink when Hensley walked up and stood staring at him.

Kelly glanced at Ed. He lifted the dipper and drank long and deep. "You have a problem?"

“Is that it?” asked Hensley. “You just going to leave him hanging there?”

“No,” Kelly said calmly, lowering the dipper and resuming his study of the young cowboy. “I'm going to put a note in his pocket and then I'm going to leave him there. It would be a shame to go through all this trouble and then forget to leave my message for Lancer.”

“Damn it, Kelly, just shoot him and leave the note on his body. It doesn't make any sense to leave him alive.”

Kelly studied his man for a moment, and then took another sip of water. “I've never seen you rattled this way, Ed. That kid sure has you spooked.”

Ed looked away. “That's not it at all,” he said, shifting his weight. “It's just that…”

“Here,” said Kelly, cutting him off and offering the dipper. “Have a drink.”

“Don't want a drink, all I want is…”

“That's too bad,” said Kelly, looking back toward the corral. “You'd better at least fill your canteen. Unless I miss my guess, today's going to be a real scorcher. It's not even noon and that ol' sun's already just burning away.”

Ed looked at his boss with a puzzled frown. Then he followed Kelly's line of sight. The outlaw was watching the kid the way a cat might watch a wounded mouse. Ed shuddered.

“Yup,” mused Kelly, swirling the water around in the dipper. “A man caught out in the sun without any shade on a day like this, well, it just wouldn't be pretty. With a strange little smile on his face, Kelly upended the dipper and watched the water dribble away into the thirsty earth. Suddenly he turned and looked at Hensley. “Get the boys together. Make sure that they water the horses and fill their canteens. We're leaving in five minutes.” He pushed himself up. Ed watched him walk off toward the kid.

Kelly strode over to the boy and stood in front of him for a minute, then shook his head. "Damn, kid, you're bleeding." He reached out and plucked at a section of wire. "That's not good." He wiped his blood stained fingers on the boy's cheek. "You really should try to take better care of yourself."

The cowboy just glared at him.

He took a tally book out of his pocket and pulled a pencil stub out of the center. He turned and settled his shoulders against the fence and began writing. He glanced over to find the kid watching him with smoldering eyes. "Pay attention, boy," he said smiling. "If you still happen to be among the living when somebody from Lancer shows up, I want you to make sure that Murdoch Lancer gets this note."

"What do you want with Lancer?" the boy asked.

"That, my friend, is none of your business.” He tore a page out of the tally book and walked over in front of the boy. Kelly shoved his forearm hard up under the kid's chin as the boy tried to kick out at him. “I'll tell you what, if you're still around when Lancer shows up,” he pushed the note into the shirt pocket, “you can ask him.”

Hensley rode up leading Kelly's bay. Bradley was slumped over on his horse. Hal was holding the reins. Kelly mounted and turned away, but he stopped and looked back over his shoulder. "Oh, I almost forgot, it's going to be a real hot day. You might need this." He unhooked a spare canteen from his saddle and threw it back to land at the kid's feet.

The cowboy watched the canteen raise a puff of dust as it landed. Then he raised his eyes to lock with Kelly's. "Thanks," he said softly. “I'll be sure to remember that the next time we meet."

Kelly laughed, but Ed Hensley suddenly felt cold.



Chapter 13

Scott jerked awake, his heart pounding, the book he'd been reading falling to the floor with a bang. He started to rise and then settled back and scrubbed his hand over his face. He blew out a deep breath. It must have been one heck of a dream, he thought, though he couldn't for the life of him remember what it was about, not even this close to waking.

He retrieved his book and opened it to continue reading. Three minutes later he closed it and rose from the chair. The breeze from the French doors beckoned him and he wandered out onto the patio. When the grandfather clock struck the next half hour, he was back inside pacing restlessly around the great room.

Teresa gave him a curious look as she passed through on the way to the kitchen. He trailed behind her and planted himself in one of the chairs at the kitchen table.

She watched him for a minute as he straightened the condiments on the table before she grabbed a basket of green beans and a bowl and sat down next to him. "You are supposed to be resting," she said, starting to snap the beans, "not prowling around the house like a caged tiger."

He picked up a bean and examined it. "I know," he said, smiling at her profile. "I guess I'm just not used to being stuck in the house in the middle of the day. I can't seem to settle." He took a small bite of the bean and regarded it with a disappointed look.

Teresa laughed at him and dumped a big pile of beans in front of him. "Well, Mr. Scott Lancer, if you're going to sit around my kitchen, you can make yourself useful."

Scott gave her a surprised look. After watching what she was doing for a moment, he set about being useful. They worked in comfortable silence for a few minutes. "You're doing very well," Teresa said with a grin.

"Thank you ma'am," he said with a gracious nod. "So, if I'm here fixing dinner," Teresa raised a brow at that statement, "what did my little brother say he was going to be up to today?"

Teresa's hands stilled and she looked down at the bowl in her lap. "I don't know," she said, her voice flat and soft. "I didn't see him this morning. He didn't come home last night."

Scott's head came up. "He didn't come home at all? I wondered when he didn't stop in my room but I thought. . . " He frowned. "Did Murdoch say why he didn't come back?"

Teresa shook her head and sucked in a sharp little breath. Scott looked over at her and saw a tear run down her cheek.

"Teresa?"

"It's my fault, Scott. He's mad at me and it's my fault he didn't come home."

Scott reached for her hand. "Don't be silly."

"No!" she said, swiping her hand over her eyes and looking up at him. "I said some awful things to him. I treated him terribly and he was only trying to be nice to me."

He scooted his chair over beside her and put an arm around her shoulder. "Tell me about it. It can't be that bad."

+*+*+*+*+*+*+



The buzzard stretched its wings and flapped them to settle the feathers before it tucked them back against its body. It was an ugly creature, but elegantly designed for the job that nature had set it. From its acute sense of smell to the naked skin on its head, it was the perfect scavenger. It was the last visitor at the daily dramas that took place in the wild, cleaning up after the predators, the accidents and the small battles that visited the inhabitants of the grasslands and trees. It didn't hunt and seldom killed but it was the constant companion of death, waiting patiently until movement stopped and the last breath rattled out of some injured animal, then moving in to feed, to remove the evidence, to make nature clean.

This one had ridden the breeze down out of a cloudless sky almost three hours earlier, drawn by the metallic scent of blood and the erratic movements of the creature trapped on the fence. The bird was familiar with trapped creatures. Even with creatures trapped on the thorny wire, although not usually this creature. These were more often the bringers of death than its solitary victims. But that didn't matter to the buzzard. Anything that died out here was his. Eventually.

He watched attentively as the being below him roused again and rolled its dark head against the fence. The bird cocked its head in response to a low guttural sound of distress. It watched as the creature tried again to stand upright only to fall back against the wire. The smell of blood hung heavy on the air.

The bird clapped its beak then settled to watch. Its time would come, and soon. It could wait.

+*+*+*+*+*+*+



He found Murdoch out by the forge bending raw metal to his will. Scott watched him hammering his design into the iron, surrounded by smoke and sparks and the clang of the hammer. He looked impossibly large and powerful, like some latter day Thor, wielding lightning bolts and thunder. Scott smiled at the fanciful image, but was a bit unsettled by it too.

He leaned against a rain barrel and continued to watch until his father paused.

"Murdoch, where's Johnny?"

The rancher looked up from the forge. "I thought you were supposed to be resting?"

"I am. I did.” Scott sighed. “I'm fine. Where's Johnny?"

Murdoch doused the hot metal in a bucket of water and put it back on the anvil. "Cipriano said that he went out to the line shack at Agua Verde.”

"Did he say why he went out there?"

Murdoch brought the hammer down on the metal with a clang. "No."

"Did Johnny tell him when he was coming back?"

Murdoch banged the cooling iron again. He pushed it back into the forge and pumped the bellows. "Your brother seldom bothers to tell anyone what his plans are."

Scott watched his father as the bellows stoked the forge to red heat. Then he shook his head and headed for the barn.

Scott had just slung his saddle onto his horse's back when he felt a heavy hand on his shoulder.

“What do you think you're doing?” Murdoch asked.

Scott shrugged off the hand and reached under the horse's belly to grab the cinch. “I thought I'd go for a little ride.”

“The only place that you're going, young man, is back to the house.”

“That's an interesting point of view, sir.” Scott snugged up the cinch. “We'll have to discuss it further.” He led his horse past his father. “When I get back.”

Murdoch frowned and stared after his unrepentant son. “You didn't say where you were going.”

Scott stopped by the trough and let the horse take a drink. “I thought I'd go out and pay Johnny a visit.”

“That shouldn't surprise me, “ Murdoch muttered.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Nothing,” said Murdoch. “Can't this wait? Sam didn't tell you that you could ride yet.”

“He didn't tell me I couldn't either.”

“That's probably because he thought that you would have enough sense not to go out and do something stupid.”

Scott leaned against his horse, draping his arm across the saddle. “Murdoch,” he said, “I'm not going to do something stupid. I'm merely going to take a leisurely ride across the range.”

“Can't you wait till your brother decides to come home?”

“I could, but I don't want to. Look, I got mad and said some rotten things to Johnny. I told him I was tired of looking out for him, that he wasn't worth the bother. And now I've found out that Teresa told him she didn't want him around and that he was more trouble than he was worth. He didn't do anything to deserve it either time, so no, Murdoch, I don't want to wait. I want to talk to my brother and I want to do it now.” He put his foot in the stirrup and swung aboard.

It seemed to Scott that Murdoch listened to his recitation with growing unease. Finally his father stepped up and put a hand on Scott's knee. “Can you hold up for just a couple of minutes?”

“Why?” asked Scott, gathering up his reins.

“Because I want to come with you.”

“Not if you plan on yelling at Johnny.”

“No,” said Murdoch. “I think maybe I need to talk to him too.”

+*+*+*+*+*+*+



He struggled up from where he'd been, a murky place full of claws and knives. But the claws followed him up out of his dark dream. He could feel them now, shifting and clutching, moving inside his skin and tearing at him. He groaned, and knew he shouldn't but didn't know why. It didn't matter, he wanted the light and he reached for it again.

He pried his eyes open and took stock. He was alone. He had been alone since Barron and his bunch had ridden out this morning. This wasn't the first time he'd dragged himself back to awareness after drifting off. It wasn't getting any easier with practice. He stiffened his knees and lifted his weight off the wire and bit back a cry as he shifted. Then he laughed at himself. Real macho. Hell, he could scream his head off and nobody would hear. He started to laugh again and stopped. Had he laughed out loud? He shut his eyes and breathed in deep, and then opened them again. Everything seemed to shimmer. He wasn't sure if it was the heat or just his own sorry hold on reality.

His head drooped and his eyes found the canteen that lay at his feet. He reached out a toe and nudged it. All day long that canteen had been his only company. Close enough to touch and as far away as the moon. He pushed it again and could feel the water slosh back and forth. Through the burning hell of noon, while the sun had pushed down on his head and shoulders like a giant's fist it had laid there. All afternoon, while the dirt around him reflected back heat like an oven, the canteen had called to him. He'd been tempted to kick it away, out of sight and out of reach, but he hadn't been able to bring himself to do it.

If he ever saw Barron again he planned to shoot him, just because of that canteen.

He threw his head back until it rested against the fence post and closed his eyes. Oughta' be making some noise or something, attract some attention, he thought as he tried to hold the darkness at bay. He took a deep breath, then another.

"MURDOCH!" he shouted. "Murdoch…." And then with a groan, his knees collapsed and the dark crashed down on him again.

A crow took off from the barn roof with a raucous cry and the buzzard shifted restlessly on its perch. Then all was still again.




Chapter 14

“So what did you say to him?”

Murdoch looked up in surprise. “What makes you think I said anything to him?”

"I just know. You're not nearly as good at hiding what you're thinking as Johnny is." Scott smiled. "Since I've spent so much time trying to figure out what's going on with my secretive little brother I seem to be getting better at reading other people too."

Murdoch glared at him. Scott just let the silence stretch out until Murdoch looked away. “I told him that if he couldn't follow orders, he was worthless to me.”

“Dear Lord,” Scott whispered. “We're supposed to be his family. We couldn't have produced a more coordinated attack if we'd tried. Sometimes I think . . . God, my fearless brother, the man who'll throw himself into anything without a thought for the consequences, sometimes, I get the feeling the only thing he's afraid of is us.” Scott glanced at his father. “Seems he might have good reason, doesn't it?”

Murdoch started to speak but Scott forged on.

“Do you know that he thinks that you don't even like him?”

“That's ridiculous!”

“I tried to reassure him about that but I'm afraid that I didn't do a very good job. You see,” said Scott, looking over at his father. “I'm not really sure that he isn't right.”

“Scott, he's my son.”

“I told him that too. I believe his response was, ‘That doesn't mean he has to like me.'”

Murdoch stared straight ahead, his face grim. Finally he looked down and fiddled with the reins. "It's not that, you know," he said softly. "It's not that I don't care for him. It's more that I'm afraid of him, afraid for him." He looked over at Scott's sharply indrawn breath. "Calm down, Scott, I don't think your brother's going to shoot me but I'm scared to death of what he can do to me. Every day I wake up and wonder if this is the day I'll find him gone, the day that he'll ride off on that horse of his and I'll never see him again. Or worse yet, the day that death will finally tire of waiting and I'll have to bury him. He terrifies me, Scott." He paused. "Both of you do. How can I tell him that?"

Murdoch looked off into the distance. "I don't really know what to do with feelings like that. I guess anger is easier to deal with, more comfortable.” He sighed deeply. “Unfortunately, my anger seems to have become a habit and I've hurt my son because of it."

Scott shifted uneasily as Murdoch gave him a piercing look. “Both my sons. Scott, do you feel that same way? Do you think that I don't care for you?”

Scott's eyes searched his father's face for a long moment before he turned back to the trail. “That's not the issue here. Besides," he said, reaching down to card the hair of his horse's mane, "that's not all of it is it? The biggest problem between the two of you isn't fear or anger or grief. Your biggest problem with Johnny is Madrid.”

“Madrid!” spat Murdoch. “If it weren't for Madrid then I wouldn't have to worry about Johnny riding off every time something doesn't go his way, and I wouldn't have to worry that he'll end up face down in the street every time he leaves the ranch. If it weren't for Madrid, my son wouldn't have ended up as a hired killer! His mother took him and turned him into Madrid and now that bastard's come between me and everything I ever wanted and dreamed of for my boy. Yes, I have a problem with Madrid, yes, I want him gone.”

“Too bad that somebody didn't kill him years ago,” Scott said dryly.

“It certainly is. . . damn it, Scott, you know what I mean. But yes, if I could get rid of Madrid without hurting Johnny, I'd do it in a minute.”

“And there's the problem, isn't it, Murdoch?” Scott stopped his horse and swung around to face his father. “Because you can't have one without the other. As Johnny so cleverly pointed out to me the other day, Madrid isn't another person, he's just another name, another part of Johnny. And if you can't accept the one, you can't really have the other.”

“Don't play word games with me, Scott.”

“It's not a game, sir, it's the truth. And you know what the sad part is? The man who grew out of that little boy that you've been mourning for almost twenty years is out there. You just can't get past your own preconceptions long enough to get to know him.”

“Now wait a minute, young man, I don't need one of my sons lecturing me on how I handle the other one.”

“If not me, then who, Murdoch?” Scott glared at his father. “Somebody certainly needs to do it because, Sir, if you'll pardon my saying so, you're making a mess of it.” Scott reined his horse around. “I swear. My brother thinks you're looking for an excuse to toss him out.” Murdoch's head came up, a startled look on his face. “And you think he's looking for an excuse to run. Between the two of you, you're going to force the one outcome that you both fear the most.” Scott sighed and ran his hand over his face. “It's unbelievable. There has to have been some kind of huge error here. I can't possibly be related to either one of you.” He kneed Charlie on down the trail.

“Come back here, Scott.” Murdoch growled, angrily kicking his horse into motion.

Something, a flash of color or a movement on the hillside off to the left caught Scott's eye. "Wait, Murdoch." Scott pulled his horse to a halt.

"No, I will not wait.”

"Just wait. I saw something." Scott's hand drifted toward his rifle. Charlie's ears pricked forward and suddenly he neighed. He was answered from up the hill as a large body smashed through the underbrush and came thundering down at them in a flash of gold and white. The palomino plunged to a halt at the bottom of the hill before trotting over to stand uncertainly in his accustomed place at Charlie's side.

Scott looked at his father and slowly dismounted to approach the skittish animal. “Easy there,” he murmured. “Whoa, boy.” For a second he thought the horse was going to shy away and bolt but suddenly Barranca lowered his head and snorted. Then, to Scott's surprise, he shoved his nose into Scott's shoulder and made a breathy sound that almost sounded like a sigh. Scott reached out to run his hand down the horse's face but stopped when he saw the angry looking welt on the long nose. There was another on the horse's neck. The halter was broken and hung half off Barranca's head. Scott could see a cut on his cheek; it looked like the buckle had gouged him when the halter broke.

“Sir, would you hand me your lariat please.” Scott reached back without ever taking his eyes off the horse.

Murdoch quietly handed him the rope and Scott slipped the loop carefully onto the palomino's neck. When he reached for the broken halter Barranca threw up his head and rolled his eyes in distress but after a few more soothing words Scott was able to slip the headstall off. He coiled it with the lead line and hung it over his saddle horn before he turned back to his brother's horse.

“Is he all right?”

“I think so.” Scott stepped around the other side to check for injuries.

“What happened to him?”

“I don't know.” Scott bent to run his hands down the horse's legs. “He has grass stains on his knees and shoulder. Looks like he was running loose, tripped over the lead and took a tumble. That's probably where he got that cut on his cheek.”

“Well, no wonder Johnny hasn't made it home. If Barranca got away from him…”

“Murdoch, that's not all. It looks like somebody hit him. He has a big welt across his face and neck.”

“Oh. But Johnny wouldn't…”

“No, He wouldn't.” The two men locked eyes for a moment. Scott swung up on his horse. Leading Barranca, they took off toward Agua Verde at a gallop.

+*+*+*+*+*+*+


Scott halted at the top of a hill to allow the tired horses a breather. From that vantage point, about a half-mile south of the line shack, he could see the lush meadow that bordered Agua Verde Creek. Glints of light through the trees gave away the position of the creek itself. He could just see the roof of the small barn nestled in among a stand of oaks.

And he could see the buzzards. Three of them, relentless and patient, slashed black arcs through the bright summer sky directly above the line shack.

Murdoch pulled up beside him and Scott turned and nodded toward the birds. His own heart lurched again as he watched a flash of naked fear cross the big man's face. Murdoch's eyes met his as Scott threw him Barranca's lead line and sent his chestnut plunging recklessly down the hill, leaving his father to follow at a saner pace. He heard Murdoch call his name but ignored it. His heart urged him on to the line shack. He had to get there now.

Charlie stumbled at the bottom of the hill, recovered his footing and stretched out across the dusty grass, the horse picking up on his rider's urgency. Scott leaned forward, asking for speed and more speed.

They thundered around the south corner of the barn and slid to a stop in a cloud of dust and small pebbles. Scott started to swing down, his eyes darting all around, and then he froze, half off the sweating horse. His eyes fastened on the corral facing the shack and he sucked in a breath. He slowly stepped to the ground and dropped the reins.

“Oh, Johnny, no,” he whispered. He took a couple of steps and stopped again. “No,” he repeated, his voice barely audible.

Johnny slumped, boneless on the corral fence. His legs were buckled under him and all his weight hung from his arms and shoulders. His chin rested on his chest and sweat streaked hair hid his eyes. Scott noticed his stocking feet, and in a strange moment that he would remember later with remarkable clarity, he wondered why Johnny was outside without his boots on. But the worst part was the blood. Johnny's shirt was open and his torso and arms were blotched and streaked with drying blood from multiple wounds. He hung there, totally still, the only movement the slight stir of a shirttail disturbed by the sigh of an errant breeze.

Scott found himself caught by that stillness, trapped in a world suddenly bereft of movement, sound and color, except for the violent scarlet that screamed at him from his brother's body.

His mind echoed with Johnny's words from just two nights ago. “It can't be any worse than facing a firing squad, and I survived that.”

“Not this time, brother,” he whispered. “Not this time.”

A fly lit and crawled across Johnny's cheek and Scott found his paralysis broken. He lurched across the last few feet of dirt.

He stumbled over something on the ground and kicked it away and then reached out with a groan and gently ran his hand through Johnny's hair. “Damn it, Brother, don't do this.” His hand dropped down to Johnny's shoulder but a sharp jab of pain caused him to jerk it back. “What the. . .” Scott stared down at the drop of blood that blossomed on the palm of his hand. Then he went to one knee to peer up into his brother's face.




Chapter 15

He barely registered the sound of hoofs pounding into the dirt of the yard but he stood and spun around at Murdoch's anguished cry.

He grabbed for the big gelding's bridle. “No, Murdoch, it's not what you think. He hasn't been shot, not that I can see anyway. It's barbed wire. Somebody strung him up with barbed wire but he's still alive.” He glanced back at Johnny. “He's still with us.”

Murdoch jerked his gaze away from his youngest, his eyes locked on Scott's face for a moment, before he slid down from his horse and was at Johnny's side in two strides.

“My God," he said, reaching out, but hesitating, obviously not sure where to touch him. "Who would do this?”

Scott watched as Murdoch gently tipped up Johnny's face, before he turned away to find Charlie. As he rummaged in his saddlebags for his wire cutters, he took the time for a deep breath. He could feel the beginnings of a terrible rage kindling in his gut and he struggled to master it. There was no time for that right now, later, but not now. He blew out a breath, pulled out his gloves and put them on as he walked back to where Murdoch was studying the wire that bound Johnny to the fence.

He was reaching out to clip the first strand when Murdoch's hand clamped down on his wrist.

“Wait, son, if you cut it and that wire springs back, it'll tear him to ribbons. We need to do this carefully.”

Scott rubbed his wrist as Murdoch released it and shuddered as his imagination painted a picture of what he'd almost done.

“I'll hold the wire,” Murdoch continued. “You cut it and we'll peel it back slowly. But first, if you can hand me that canteen,” he pointed to the container that Scott had kicked aside earlier, “I'd like to try to get some water into him. He's so hot.”

Scott laid the back of his wrist across Johnny's forehead. “He's not just hot, he's burning up. I'll get some water from the well. It'll be cooler.”

Scott was back in a minute with a bucket. “You'll need your gloves. Are they in your saddlebags?”

Murdoch nodded as he picked up the ladle and cradled Johnny's head in the crook of his arm.

“I'll get them.”

Scott listened to Murdoch's murmur of encouragement as he rummaged around looking for the gloves. He'd just found them when he heard the whisper of another soft voice join his father's. He snatched the gloves and hurried around the back of the horse, just in time to see his father's shoulders slump and his head bow down to rest against the crown of Johnny's head.

Scott's heart lurched again in a feeling that was becoming all too familiar. "Murdoch? Is he OK? What happened?" He touched the big man's shoulder and called his name again when he didn't answer.

"What?" Murdoch's head jerked up and he ran his hand over his face. "Oh, sorry. He came to for a moment. I got a little water down him but he passed out again."

"What did he say?"

Murdoch flinched. "Nothing, it was nothing." Then his voice hardened. "Did you get the gloves?"

Scott nodded, puzzled.

"Good." Murdoch took his bandanna and dipped it in the water. He wrung it out over Johnny's head and draped it over the back of his neck. "Maybe that will help cool him down. Let's get this done. I want to get him inside."

Ten minutes later Murdoch bundled his youngest into his arms and carried him carefully to the house. Johnny hadn't moved.

+*+*+*+*+*+*+



The cabin door slammed open and bounced back off the wall as Murdoch shouldered his way in, his son held tight to his chest. He eased him down on one of the bunks. Johnny's breath caught and he groaned softly as the mattress took his weight. Aside from that he didn't make a sound.

Scott's boot steps rang over the threshold and Murdoch spared him a quick glance. “Bring me some water and see if you can find some cloths. We need to cool him down. I'm going to have to soak the shirt off some of these cuts.”

He turned back to Johnny but was stopped by a sudden tightening in his chest. He knew Scott was rummaging around in the cupboards behind him but all he could really hear were the uneven breaths of the boy on the bed. He ran his fingers softly down the side of his son's face, careful to avoid the purple bruise and the cut that marred his left cheekbone.

“Murdoch?”

He jerked his head up. “What?”

Scott was standing there looking at him strangely. “Here's the water and I found some towels. They're beat up, but they look clean.”

“Good.” Murdoch took the basin and put it on the wooden crate that served as a bedside table. He didn't meet his son's eyes.

“I put a pan of water on the stove to heat but meanwhile you can use this…” His voice trailed off and he winced as Murdoch pulled Johnny's shirt back from a deep puncture and a fresh line of blood slid down his brother's ribs. “How's he doing?”

“I don't know.” Murdoch laid a damp cloth on Johnny's forehead, dabbed at his chest and then shook his head. “Blood loss, sunstroke, fever…what can I tell you?”

Scott sighed. “All right, unless you need something else, I'm going to get Sam.”

Murdoch just nodded his head.

“I'll send somebody out to Lancer and have Jelly bring the wagon so we can take him home. Can you think of anything else that needs to be done?”

“No. Oh, if you see Val let him know what happened. ”

Scott stepped closer and gazed down at his brother. “I wish I knew what happened,” he said softly.

Murdoch sighed. “So do I, son, so do I.”

Scott turned and started for the door.

“Scott?”

He stopped and looked back over his shoulder. “Yes?”

“Be careful.”

A small smile touched Scott's lips. “You too, sir.” Then his expression turned serious. “Take care of my brother.”

Murdoch watched as Scott left the cabin and listened as his horse galloped out of the yard. Then he turned back to the bed and the young man lying there. He dipped one of the towels in the cool water and wiped it across Johnny's face and neck before he went back to work trying to soak the ripped and stained shirt away from the partially scabbed over wounds.

+*+*+*+*+*+*+



Murdoch groaned and straightened. The more progress he made freeing Johnny's shirt the angrier he became. Whoever had done this had not only strung his boy up on that fence, they'd beaten him before they did it. When he stripped off Johnny's clothes, the angry bruises on his torso and back told the story.

The injuries from the wire ranged from long cuts and puncture wounds to a deep and ugly three-cornered tear in the tender skin under his left arm. All of them had bled and some of them already looked angry and swollen. He wished that Sam would hurry, but he knew it was much too soon to even think of that. It would take Scott almost three hours to get to Green River. Even if he found Sam in his office, they would likely wait till morning to start back. Murdoch rubbed his thumb and forefinger over his tired eyes.

He stood and walked over to the door. This place had been a homestead before he'd bought it, which explained the sturdy little cabin with its vine covered porch, and the well-built barn instead of the usual lean-to for the stock. The lush meadows that bordered the creek and the reliable source of water made this a prime site. He was glad to have gotten it but he was still saddened when he thought of the three graves on the hillside behind the house. The Delancys had loved it here but frontier life in the early days was hard and unforgiving.

It was still hard.

Murdoch looked back at the bunk where his son lay unmoving. The sun was sinking toward the horizon, throwing a golden light over the scene outside. Inside, shadows gathered in the corners. It was going to be a long night.

He walked to the stove and picked up the coffeepot. It had boiled dry. Murdoch took another look around the cabin. He noticed Johnny's boots, kicked half under the bed, an unwashed frying pan on the counter and Johnny's gun belt, hanging off the headboard. They must have jumped him first thing that morning, before he was even fully dressed. He grimaced. That meant the boy spent the whole day tied out in that brutal sun.

Back at the bed, he changed the cloth on Johnny's brow for a fresh cool one. If he could just stop the fever from rising, if he could keep the infection at bay, maybe Johnny might have a chance.

+*+*+*+*+*+*+



With the setting sun, cooler evening air invaded the cabin. He pulled the sheets up to compensate for it and noticed the deep black bruise on the boy's lower leg. He frowned and wondered if that was the injury that Parsons had spoken of. He shook his head, a bemused expression on his face; even Parsons was coming around to Johnny's side. Come to think of it, most of the comments in town the other day, with the exception of the widow's, hadn't been mean spirited. Was he filtering everything through his pride and his guilt? Were his fears keeping him from seeing his own son the way most other people did?

Murdoch settled into the chair by the bed and studied the boy's face. When Johnny slept, he could sometimes find traces of the child who had stolen his heart so many years ago, traces that disappeared when Johnny was awake.

He picked up Johnny's hand, inspecting the long, supple fingers. His son had strong hands, fast, clever hands. He shied away from that train of thought; instead his eyes were drawn back to his son's face. Yes, he could see traces of his lost boy in Johnny's slack features, but that sleeping face held no hint of what made Johnny who he was today: the flashing grin, the quick intelligence, the icy glare and even, once or twice, a glimpse of pain so deep that Murdoch thought it might stop his heart.

Murdoch shook his head and started to stand, and then stopped and slowly sank back into the chair. Was Scott right? Was he so afraid of being hurt again that he was pushing away the very thing that he had yearned for so over the years. And even worse, had he managed to convince his son that he was unwanted and unloved? Was he using Madrid as an excuse? Was he that big a coward?

He looked at his son again and those words that he'd been trying to avoid ever since he'd heard them this afternoon came swimming back into his consciousness. The words whispered by his wounded son as he hung bleeding in his father's arms, words that had sliced through him like a knife.

“This time you came.” A simple phrase but the visions that it brought to mind tormented him.

This time.

He shut his eyes. How many other times had his son needed him, and waited in vain. He had never been there for this boy, not once. And no matter what the reason, the guilt of that was almost enough to bring him to his knees.

And who had there been for his son to rely on? Who had been there to look after him and keep him safe?

Suddenly another word presented itself in his mind, a word, a revelation that shook him once again to his foundations.

Madrid.

Johnny's brow furrowed and a small noise caught in the back of his throat. He moved restlessly under the sheet. Then he began to shiver.




Chapter 16


The next few hours stretched out interminably. Johnny's fever slowly climbed and his sleep grew restless and disturbed. He tossed his head and muttered unintelligible bits of words and sentences, wandering through dark dreams and memories, slipping through a landscape that Murdoch could neither travel nor understand.

Murdoch kept his lonely vigil, fighting the chills and fever, with no other weapon than a dampened cloth and determination, fighting to hold back his darkest fears till dawn could bring hope and help.

+*+*+*+*+*+*+



For the second time in the last forty-five minutes, Murdoch stood and stretched his back. A look at his watch confirmed that it was after 3 a.m. Johnny had finally settled and was sleeping quietly. Now Murdoch was having a hard time staying awake. Earlier he had cleaned out the pot and made coffee. He poured himself another cup and walked over to the door to look out on the night. Leaning against the doorjamb, he sipped the bitter brew and watched the clouds cast moon shadows across the meadow.

Earlier that evening the air had been alive with the sound of crickets; a chorus of frogs and peepers had hit every note in the scale. Now, deep in the belly of darkness, the only sound was the wind ghosting through the trees and grass. Murdoch shuddered and shook off sudden images from his far off Celtic past. It was that time of night when fey thoughts and fears loomed large and the light was at its furthest ebb, when the ties of life seemed frayed and frail. Murdoch shuddered and moved back to the bed, feeling the need to be close to his son.

Brushing back Johnny's hair, he laid his hand on the overheated forehead. The slack body shifted under his touch and Johnny groaned. Murdoch leaned in closer. "Johnny," he called. "Wake up, boy. You've been asleep long enough. Come on, Johnny, open your eyes."

+*+*+*+*+*+*+



Johnny's brow furrowed and he muttered a few words in Spanish. Murdoch reached out to take his hand and called to him again. The heavy lashes fluttered, stilled, fluttered again and blinked open.

Murdoch smiled. “That's it. You're fine,” he whispered. “Everything's just fine.”

Johnny swallowed heavily. His eyes tracked around the room in confusion till they lit on his father's face and stopped. "Hey, Murdoch," he whispered. A small smile touched his lips.

Murdoch smiled back. He brushed his hand through the raven hair and watched as his boy's eyes slid shut again. Johnny took a deep breath and relaxed under his father's hand.

Then he shifted and Murdoch saw the moment when all the cuts and bruises woke up and made themselves known. He tightened his hold on the boy's hand and murmured encouragement as Johnny fought the pain and his own foggy perceptions.

Murdoch watched as Johnny pulled himself together, dredged up his memories and became fully awake and aware.

When their eyes met again, that soft, welcoming look was gone and Murdoch thought at that moment he could have cried, or maybe begged. Instead he raised Johnny's shoulders and offered him water.

"Here, drink this. Take it slow."

When Johnny was finished Murdoch barely got him lowered to the pillow before he slipped back into the refuge of sleep.

Murdoch settled back to wait.

Johnny drifted in and out after that first awakening, never really fully aware. Each time he roused from sleep, Murdoch got him to drink some more. So far Johnny hadn't said another word so when, after the third glass, Murdoch heard Johnny's voice, he was surprised.

“You trying to drown me, Old Man?”

Murdoch swung back and looked at his son. This time it seemed that Johnny was truly awake.

“No, just trying to replace what that sun baked out of you. How are you feeling?”

Johnny shifted and winced. "Like a pincushion. Damn." He shifted again and groaned. "How long?"

"We found you about 3:30 this afternoon. It's about 4 a.m. right now. Johnny, what happened?"

Johnny tried to rub his eyes and hissed as every cut and puncture in his arm and shoulder protested the move.

Murdoch reached out and eased the arm back down. "I think you should stay still, at least until Sam takes a look at you.”

Johnny settled back and his eyes closed. They popped open again. “What are you doing out here?”

“Scott and I decided that we needed to talk to you.”

“Scott?” Johnny looked around in confusion.

“Easy. “ Murdoch put a hand on his shoulder to keep him from trying to sit up. “I sent him into town to get Sam.”

“Hmmm.” Johnny's eyes closed again.

“Stay with me for a minute, John. I need to know what happened here.”

Johnny frowned. "Four guys, they were waiting for me when I came out the door. Asked some questions. I guess they didn't like my answers 'cause they strung me up on the corral fence.”

“Did you know them?”

Johnny blinked hard. “No.”

Murdoch frowned. “Well, what did they want? What was it all about?”

Johnny took a deep breath and closed his eyes, his focus fading. “Don't know.”

“Damn it, boy.” Murdoch's frustration boiled over. “Can't you ever just give a straight answer?”

Johnny came awake with a rush. “That is a straight answer, Old Man. Oh, I asked why. About the time that wire started biting, I got real interested in why. The man said if I was still alive by the time you got around to looking for me, I could ask you.”

“Me?”

“Yeah.” Johnny slumped back down on the pillow. “Um,” he frowned and hesitated, “there was a note. He shoved a note in my pocket.” His eyes opened and locked onto Murdoch's. “Said it was for you.”

Murdoch got up and retrieved the rumpled and bloodstained paper.

“You going to bring that over here and read it out loud? I think I earned the right to hear what it says.”

Murdoch looked up sharply. Then he walked over and sat down again by Johnny's bed.

“Murdoch Lancer,” he began.

“If you're reading this you must have found Chico there. I do hope you weren't too late. That sun was brutally hot. Well, no matter, but you should pay attention to his condition, he's what's called an object lesson.

“I must say, Mr. Lancer, you have interfered in my life. I had big plans for the bank in Green River. I understand that I have your son to thank for screwing up those plans. That was inconvenient but as my daddy always told us, it's important to be flexible, so here's my alternative plan. Since your boy cost me the bank job, you are going to make it up to me. You're going to withdraw $5,000 from your bank and your son Scott will deliver it to me. I'll contact you later with instructions for where and how to make the delivery.

“If you don't follow my instructions to the letter, or if you call in the law at any point, it won't be some worthless ranch hand . . .”


Murdoch looked up to find Johnny's eyes riveted onto him.

The boy smirked, “Hey, at least we know the two of you agree about something.”

“Johnny, I . . .”

“Never mind, Old Man, just keep readin'.”

“. . .it won't be some. . .”

Murdoch hesitated.

“. . .ranch hand who is strung up to dry. It will be your son. And I can assure you that if that happens, you will not find him in time to save his life and what I do to him will make what happened to Chico look like a picnic in the park.”

Silence followed, broken by Johnny's toneless voice. “Damn.”

Murdoch looked up from the paper in his hand. “They didn't know who you are?”

“No, I told ‘em I was a ranch hand, that my name was Juan Madriano.” Johnny shot Murdoch a sharp look, and dropped his head back on the pillow. “I didn't know – shit, I should have told ‘em who I was.”

“Don't be ridiculous, if you had told them they might have killed you outright.”

“Yeah, and now they think that . . . Scott!” Johnny's head jerked up. “Murdoch, where's Scott?”

“I told you, I sent him into town to get Sam.”

“You gotta go after him.” Johnny grabbed Murdoch's shirtfront and tried to sit up. “You gotta go after him now.”

“Johnny, take it easy, stop it. You're going to hurt yourself more.”

“It don't matter. I'll be fine here but you need to go after Scott.”

“I'm not leaving you alone. Besides, they want him to deliver the money. They won't bother him before he does it. Now settle down.” Murdoch pressed Johnny back into the sheets. “Scott will be here in a couple of hours and everything will be fine.”

“No, you don't know that.” Johnny fought against the hands that held him down on the bed. “That bastard could be stalking him right now and Scott won't even know to look out for him.”

“He'll be back here with Sam in just a few hours, Johnny. They're probably on the trail right now. Now behave.”

Johnny relaxed and Murdoch smiled at him. “That's better,” he said and turned around to get the wet cloth to wipe his son's face.

When he turned back, Johnny had pushed back the sheet and was swinging his legs over the side of the bed.

“John, stop it.” Murdoch ran around the bed to block the escape. “Are you crazy?” Murdoch grabbed his shoulders.

“Maybe, but if you won't go after Scott, I will. At least I've always been willing to fight for what's mine.”

Murdoch froze for a moment. He took a deep breath and looked into his son's eyes. “That's what I'm doing right now, John,” he said.

Johnny stopped, his eyes going wide. He opened his mouth to say something when suddenly, all the color washed out of his face and Murdoch found himself holding his son's entire weight. He eased him back onto the bed and pulled up the sheets.

Johnny watched him through half open eyes. He clutched at Murdoch's sleeve. “If something happens to him, it'll be my fault. My fault,” he muttered. Then his eyes slid shut and Murdoch found himself alone again.

+*+*+*+*+*+*+



Outside the first faint hint of dawn washed the eastern sky, snuffing out the stars one by one. Inside the single oil lamp was turned down low, casting a feeble illumination that barely brushed the shadows at the edges of the room.

The scanty light gilded Murdoch's silver hair and deepened the shadows beneath his eyes. It fell on the tousled dark head that lay restless on the pillow. Johnny's lashes, thick and black, twitched against pale cheeks, his brows furrowed and the rhythm of his breathing hitched and caught, then resumed with a heavy sigh.


He fought his way up out of the depths of sleep until his eyelids jerked and slid open. He lay for a moment staring at the ceiling and trying to drag his mind back from where it had been wandering. A small noise drew his attention and he looked to his left.

Murdoch.

With that it all came back to him and along with it came the aches and pains that had faded with sleep and stillness. Damn. He stifled a groan. He looked toward the window, it was an hour or so before dawn, too early for Scott to be back yet. He tried without much success to find a more comfortable position. He must have made a noise because Murdoch muttered something and shifted in his sleep.

Johnny froze and turned his attention to his father. The sight of Murdoch slumped in a rickety straight back chair snugged up close to the bed made Johnny wince. That chair, he knew from experience, wasn't hardly fit for sitting. Sleeping in it was going to play havoc with Murdoch's back.

He examined his father, taking the opportunity to study him, something he wouldn't risk if the man were awake. He watched the expressions wash across his father's face before the deeper waters of sleep wiped them away.

A giant of a man, he thought, with a face cut from solid rock, square jawed and unyielding, massive shoulders, and hands that looked most at home at the forge, bending raw metal to his will. He was a big man, in more ways than one, a pillar of the community, with a strong moral center and the guts to back it up.

Johnny frowned and looked away. No wonder Murdoch was disappointed. What right did he have to claim a link with someone like that? A bitter smile touched his lips. This all would have been easier if Mama had been right.

He turned his gaze back to his father again, the bent head, the furrowed brow, the huge hand, lax and empty, splayed across his belt buckle. Murdoch looked tired, tired and older than Johnny had ever seen him. That idea sent an unexpected shiver down his spine.

To think he'd once had no prouder ambition than to put this man in the ground. Johnny snorted. It wasn't a large noise, but once again Murdoch shifted. His hand came up, fumbled briefly and then rested on Johnny's arm. With that the big man shifted and settled back into sleep.

The shock of that contact echoed through every nerve in Johnny's body.

It was just a hand on his arm, a simple connection but something he'd longed for without even realizing it. Not like this though. He closed his eyes. No, he wanted it when he was well and whole and entirely himself. And he knew that wasn't going to happen. There was too much of Madrid in him when he was well and strong, too much for Murdoch to accept.

He looked again at his father. Could he tear himself in half to please the man? He shook his head with regret. He was who he was and if Murdoch wouldn't have him all, well, that's just the way it was.

No, this wasn't the way he wanted it, but for right now, in this half world between darkness and the light, he wouldn't have broken that connection for the world. He drifted back to sleep with the weight of that large hand lying heavy and warm on his arm.




Chapter 17

Murdoch surfaced from a light doze with a feeling of danger singing along his nerves. He opened his eyes to the sight of a dark clad figure bending over Johnny's bed. He must have made a noise because the intruder spun around and Murdoch found himself facing an old enemy.

Murdoch surged to his feet. “Madrid? What are you doing here?”

The gunman looked at him with those glacial eyes. “Your job, apparently.”

Murdoch felt a hot swell of rage fill his chest. “Why you. . .” Before Murdoch knew what was happening, the gunman had pulled his Colt and it was aimed, point blank at Murdoch's heart. They stared at one another for a minute and then a sardonic smile touched Madrid's lips. He reversed the gun and pressed the butt into Murdoch's hands.

“Go ahead, old man,” he whispered. “Just get it over with.”

Murdoch looked down at the gun in his hand and before he could shake his head or ask why, he felt his finger tighten on the trigger. There was an explosion of noise, a swirl of smoke and shadow. When it cleared, he wasn't facing Madrid.

His son stood before him, wearing his cutoff long johns and the bandages that Murdoch himself had applied. Johnny stared down at a scarlet stain spreading across his chest.

Murdoch felt his heart stop and the gun fell from nerveless fingers. “Johnny,” he whispered.

The boy looked up at him, his eyes filled with that limitless pain.

“Johnny, I'm sorry.”

Johnny shook his head. “Why?” he asked. “Isn't this what you've wanted?”

“No!” Murdoch shouted. He reached for his boy but his hands passed right through him as Johnny drifted away like smoke torn apart by the wind.

Murdoch woke with a wordless cry trapped in his throat and his heart thundering in his chest. He sat up and scrubbed at his face with both hands.

Beside him, Johnny stirred and muttered something in Spanish. Murdoch's attention immediately sharpened and focused on the boy in the bed. Johnny shifted and reached out blindly with one searching hand. He whispered again, in Spanish, frowned and then settled back into sleep. There was no bullet wound; the bandages that had been applied yesterday were still mostly white. Murdoch heaved a sigh of relief.

Somewhere just outside the cabin window a lark was singing its heart out to welcome the new day. If Murdoch could have gotten his hands on it he would have gladly stuffed it into the rain barrel.

Murdoch let out a breath and relaxed. He laid his hand on Johnny's forehead and scowled. Still much too warm, but not much worse than it had been. He adjusted the sheets and tucked them in more securely. Then he began the laborious task of levering himself, bone by protesting bone, out of the chair where he'd spent the night. Every muscle in his back groaned at being asked to stand up straight. He finally made it, though he was surprised that Johnny had managed to sleep through the popping and cracking of joints and ligaments.

He shuffled over to the window and yawned. The sun was spilling over the eastern hills and the morning mist lay on the banks of the creek. Every leaf and branch stood out in sharp relief against the brightening sky. It was a new day, and there was no sign yet of Scott or Sam.

Murdoch frowned. Despite what he had told Johnny, he had been worried about Scott since he first read that note. He had hoped that Scott would arrive with the rising of the sun but that was too optimistic. Murdoch sighed and took one more look in the direction of Green River.

“Not here yet?”

Murdoch looked back over his shoulder. “No. I thought you were asleep.”

“I was.” Johnny yawned and then winced. “So were you. You snore.”

Murdoch smiled. “Just stay where you are and I'll see about some breakfast.”

Johnny closed his eyes. “Don't bother on my account.”

“You have to eat something.”

Johnny shook his head.

“I'll just make you a little….”

“Murdoch,” Johnny interrupted. “Will you listen, please. It won't stay down and if you keep talkin' about it, you're likely to get a demonstration.”

“Oh.” Murdoch grimaced. “How about a little water?”

“Yeah, let's give that a try. I'm pretty dry.”

Johnny managed a half a glass before he said enough. Murdoch eased him back down on the pillows. He watched for a minute. “Are you OK?”

Johnny looked a little uncertain but he took a deep breath and nodded his head.

“You sure?”

Johnny closed his eyes and swallowed hard. “No.”

“If you need anything, just ask.” His hand strayed toward the fringe of dark hair, then hesitated and straightened the sheet instead.

“Oh, you'll be the first to know,” Johnny said. He settled deeper into the bed.

Murdoch stood there for a moment more before he went over to the stove to start a pot of coffee. Before it had begun to brew, Johnny was asleep again.

He was starting on his third cup when he heard the faint jingle of harness and the beat of approaching hoofs. He put the coffee down with a jolt that caused a brown wave to slop over the rim.

Scott cantered into the yard and dismounted just as his father stepped out the door. Sam's buggy was about a quarter mile behind.

“How is he?”

“Did you have any trouble?”

Both men spoke at the same time.

“No, no trouble.” Scott tied Charlie to the porch railing. “We waited until dawn before we left. How's Johnny?”

“He's asleep right now but he's been awake on and off. The damn fever won't let go.” Murdoch watched as Scott loosened the cinch on his horse. “Why don't you go in and see him. I'll wait for Sam.”

Scott nodded and smiled as Murdoch dropped his hand briefly on his shoulder as he walked past.

Murdoch watched as Scott went into the house. Then he turned and waited for Sam. He took hold of the bridle of Sam's mare as the doctor pulled her to a halt.

“You don't know how glad I am to see you.” Murdoch put a steadying hand on Sam's elbow as he climbed down from the buggy.

Sam smiled and straightened his hat. “So,” he said, as he reached back into the buggy to grab his bag. “What's that boy of yours done to himself this time?”

“He didn't do anything,” Murdoch growled. “It was all done to him.”

Sam raised one inquisitive eyebrow. “All right, old friend. “He laid a comforting hand on Murdoch's shoulder. “Let's go see what we can do to fix it.”

+*+*+*+*+*+*+



Scott looked up from his seat by Johnny's bed as they walked in. “He's still way too hot, Murdoch.”

“I know. Why don't you come over here and let Sam take a look at him. I need to talk to you.”

Scott hesitated before he got up and allowed Sam to take his place and walked over to Murdoch.

“Here.” Murdoch poured him a cup of coffee and waited till he'd taken a deep drink. “While Johnny was awake I asked him what happened.” Scott raised an eyebrow and Murdoch told him about the note.

Scott stared into his coffee for a moment before he looked up at Murdoch in puzzlement. “Mind you I'm not complaining, but if they were angry about what happened at the bank, why didn't they just kill him while they had him?”

“They didn't know who he was.”

“What?”

“Apparently your brother told them he was a hired hand by the name of Juan, Juan Madriano.”

Scott's eyes widened and then he snorted. “You're kidding me.”

“No,” said Murdoch. “I'm not.”

Scott looked over at the bed and laughed.

“This is not funny.” Murdoch scowled at this son before he took back the note and slipped it into his pocket.

“Oh, you're wrong about that, Sir.” Scott looked back at his father with a grin.

“You may change your mind once you've thought about it.”

Scott was still grinning. “And why is that?”

“It looks to me like they don't know that I have more than one son, and you are that one son. They know your name.”

“Oh.” Scott took a deep breath and blew it out. “That explains it.”

“Explains what?”

“When I rode up the first thing you asked me was did I have any trouble. I wondered about that.” Scott took another drink of his coffee. “Does Johnny know about all this?”

Murdoch nodded.

Scott shook his head and frowned. “I'll bet he took it well.”

“About as well as you'd expect.” Murdoch looked over at the bed and sighed. “He tried to get out of bed and ride to town in the middle of the night to warn you.”

Scott put down the coffee cup and rubbed his hand over his face. “Damn,” he muttered and looked over at his brother.

+*+*+*+*+*+*+



Sam was bent over Johnny listening to his heart and lungs when a low groan rumbled up his stethoscope. He sat up and watched as his patient came around.

“Hello,” he said as Johnny roused.

Johnny blinked and focused on the old doctor. “Hey, Sam, you finally made it.” He rubbed his eye and then stopped. “Where's Scott?” Johnny tried to sit up and see past the doctor.

“He's over there talking to Murdoch.” Sam put a restraining hand on Johnny's shoulder and shifted so that he could see his brother.

“He OK?”

“Yes, he's fine.” Sam gave him an inquisitive look. “Right now that's more than I can say for you.”

Johnny rolled his eyes. “Yeah, well…”

“How about you just lay back and let me assess the damages.”

Johnny sank back onto the mattress and sighed.

Sam peered into his eyes and then pinched the skin on his arm before straightening up. “You're dehydrated. Scott told me how they found you. How long were you out there?”

“I'm not sure. Everything got a little fuzzy for a while. Maybe seven or eight hours.”

“Hmmmm.” Sam's fingers found the bump on the back of Johnny's skull. “How's your head?”

Johnny regarded him curiously. “Not too bad now, but I had one hell of a headache yesterday. ‘Course, that usually happens when somebody bangs me on the head with the barrel of a gun.” He grinned up at the doctor.

“Humph.” Sam gave him a disgruntled look. “Then stop putting yourself in a position where people do that sort of thing.” He reached up to lay his hand on Johnny's forehead. “Had any muscle cramps?”

“Now? No, but yesterday it got kinda interesting.”

“You've got a pretty good fever going.” Sam thought for a minute, and then pulled the sheet down to Johnny's waist. “Let's see what kind of abuse your visitors managed to inflict.”

+*+*+*+*+*+*+



Murdoch and Scott stood by the stove and watched as Sam completed his examination. By the time he was done poking around, Johnny had lost what little color he had managed to regain. Sam got him to drink another glass of water and then left him to rest.

Murdoch poured a fresh cup of coffee and handed it off as Sam walked up. He managed to wait till Sam had gotten one good sip before asking the question. “How is he?”

It took one more long drink from the coffee cup before Sam raised his eyes to the two Lancers. “He's not in real good shape, but given the circumstances, he's better than I would have expected.”

“What does that mean, Sam?” Scott asked.

“Well, he took quite a beating. He may have cracked a rib or two; I'm not sure. He's lost quite a bit of blood and I want to watch those cuts. A couple of them are already inflamed and we have to keep on top of the infection. I need to sew some of them up. It will take me a while and it's not going to be pleasant for him. But my biggest concern right now is the heatstroke. The fact that his body is accustomed to the intense heat and sun in Mexico may have bought him some extra time but frankly, Murdoch, if you hadn't gotten to him when you did, those men might well have succeeded in killing him.”

Murdoch shuddered.

“But he's going to be all right? Isn't he?” Scott asked.

“I think so provided we can control the infection and keep him quiet for long enough to allow his system to readjust.”

Scott just raised an eyebrow.

Murdoch ran his hand through his hair. “I'll be glad when we get him back to the ranch.”

“Ain't going back to the ranch,” Johnny said from across the room.

“There's nothing wrong with his hearing.” Scott grinned over the top of his coffee cup.

Murdoch's lips thinned, but other than that he ignored the remark. “Jelly will be here with the buckboard in a little while. As soon as you're finished, Sam, we can get started.”

Sam thought for a moment. “I'd prefer that you wait until later this afternoon. Right now his body has pretty much lost the ability to regulate its temperature. I don't think it's a good idea to try moving him before the sun gets lower. Until his system is back to functioning normally, I want him still and quiet, someplace shady and cool. Bouncing around in a buckboard in the heat of the day wouldn't do him any good.

“Ain't gonna happen anyway,” Johnny growled. “Jelly can stay with me. The two of you can get on back to the hacienda.”

Murdoch turned around and gave his younger son an irritated look. “Don't be ridiculous, John, you're coming home and that's all there is to it. This is not open for discussion.”

Johnny levered up on one elbow, a frown on his face. “No I'm not, Old Man. I'm staying right here. That's not discussion, it's a fact.”

“You will listen to me, boy, I'm your father!” Murdoch strode over to the bed.

“Yeah? Most of the time you couldn't prove it by me.”

Scott looked to Sam for help and hurried over to try and keep the discussion from escalating. Johnny was trying to sit up and was glaring at his father; Murdoch was looming over the foot of the cot, his face turning bright red. He was about to issue another ultimatum when Sam stepped into the middle of the fight.

“Both of you be quiet,” the doctor shouted. Silence fell over the room. “You,” he glared at Johnny, “obviously can't stay here so settle down before you start bleeding again.”

Johnny sank back on the bed, his cheeks flushed and his breathing harsh.

Sam took a deep breath and turned to face Murdoch with a look that backed the big man up a pace. “And you, what the Sam Hill do you think you're doing? Didn't you listen to a thing I said? That boy is ill. He came within a whisker of dying yesterday and this sort of confrontation is not what he needs. Get hold of yourself, man.”

Murdoch took a deep breath and released some of his tension. "You're right." He dropped his head. "I'm sorry, Sam. It's just that there's no way that I'm leaving him out here." He looked up again. "I can't take care of him here, not the way I can at the ranch. And to be frank, I can't defend him here the way I could at the hacienda. What if the son of a bitch that did this comes back?"

Johnny glared at Sam from behind the untidy screen of hair that fell down over his forehead. “I don't have to worry about that, Sam. Those boys are done with me.” His gaze snapped over to Murdoch. “I'm nothing but a worthless ranch hand, remember?”

Murdoch flinched and Sam wondered what that was all about. Then the big man took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. “He's coming home, Sam. I don't care what he wants.”

The doctor shook his head. "Maybe that's part of the problem,” he muttered. “As for you,” he said, turning to Johnny, who was trying to sit up again, “wipe that smirk off your face and stop acting like a spoiled child. Murdoch's right and you know it. He can't care for you properly here and he can't protect you the way he should either. You of all people should realize that.”

Johnny started to say something but Sam cut him off. “Do you really think they'd leave you here alone? And what if you're wrong? What if those men do come back? Would you rather have your family trying to hold them off from here,” he gestured at the clapboard walls, “or from that fortress that you call the hacienda?”

He held Johnny's gaze for a long count until the boy looked away. Sam nodded.

Murdoch started to say something and Sam held up his hand.

“Despite what either of you may think,” he said, “I'm not siding with anyone. Believe it or not, this is not about either one of you having your own way.” Sam stopped and then continued in a calmer tone. “ This is about what is best for my patient. It's about making a logical, intelligent decision. That seems to be a foreign concept to both of you but don't worry about it. I've just taken it out of your hands. Deal with it!” Sam turned on his heel and strode out the door.

+*+*+*+*+*+*+



Sam leaned his hands against the porch railing and stared out over the yard. He could hear the stunned silence he left in his wake. He didn't care. He just needed a minute to take a deep breath and regain his composure.

He didn't get it. Heavy footsteps behind him announced Murdoch's presence. Sam glanced over his shoulder at the scowling rancher. His temper flared anew and he turned to face the irate man.

“Don't you dare come all over indignant on me, Murdoch Lancer. I swear you people are the most infuriating family in the entire San Joaquin Valley.” Sam took a step right up to Murdoch and poked his finger into the massive chest. “I am the only doctor in over 200 square miles and I'm a good one, a professional. I have more patients than I know what to do with but there is no one, no one in all that vast space, that can raise my ire or my blood pressure faster than the three of you.” Sam finished with one last poke and a glare.

Murdoch's glare faded and he dropped his head. “Oh hell, Sam, you know that we, all of us, appreciate everything that you do. It's just that sometimes….” He stumbled to a halt before looking off into the distance, as if seeking inspiration from the landscape.

Sam sighed and shook his head. “No, I'm the one who should be sorry. I shouldn't lose my temper.”

“Why not? God knows we give you reason enough.”

“Because it's unprofessional. Besides, it brings me down to the same level as you.”

Murdoch winced. “Johnny's right,” he said. “You play dirty.”

The doctor raised an eyebrow. “Well, what do you expect? You have me outnumbered.”

The two men stared at one another for a long moment and then they both burst out laughing.

Murdoch leaned against the porch railing. “Ah, Sam,” he asked, “what am I going to do?”

“I'm not sure, old friend, but I do think you had better give it some serious thought.” Sam wiped his glasses and reset them on his nose. “You might start by asking yourself what you really want.”

“What do you mean?”

“Do you want that boy to stay?”

“Of course I do!”

“Then I would suggest that you take a hard look at the course you're on and decide whether it's likely to get you where you want to go.” Sam straightened his vest and looked toward the door. “I'll leave you to think about that. Right now, I have another fight on my hands.”

He walked back into the cabin, leaving Murdoch staring off into the hazy distance.





Chapter 18

Scott spent the rest of the morning pacing around the small homestead. Jelly arrived with the buckboard just before ten. The back was filled with hay and loaded with blankets and pillows and some extra canteens. Cipriano and three ranch hands rode escort, all of them armed to the teeth.

Much to Scott and Murdoch's amazement, Sam convinced Johnny to take a dose of laudanum before the doctor settled in to spend the better part of three hours cleaning, stitching and bandaging Johnny's wounds. Scott whiled away some time outside helping Jelly rig an awning for the buckboard, and then they all settled back and waited for Johnny to wake and for the sun to sink nearer to the horizon.

To everyone's relief, around four o'clock, Sam pronounced Johnny ready to travel. They loaded him, only half awake, into the wagon and started the long, slow trip back to the hacienda.

It was a strange looking little caravan that bumped and rattled over the fields toward Lancer. Scott rode in the back of the wagon with Johnny while Murdoch and Sam followed in Sam's buggy, Barranca and Charlie tied to the back. Pete and Brazos brought up the rear with orders to keep a sharp eye out. Cipriano led out at the head of the little column, his rifle held across the pommel of his saddle. Finally Enrique rode a sort of loose patrol around the troop, topping out often on the nearest hilltop to scout the surrounding country.

The sun was drawing toward the horizon when they came to the road that led down to Lancer. Long wavering shadows painted the grass and the hacienda could be seen in the distance, glowing in the late afternoon light. Once they hit the smoother surface of the road Jelly pushed the team into a ground-covering trot and Enrique rode ahead to tell the women that they were on the way in.

They entered the yard with the jingle of harness, the thud of heavy hoofs and shouted greetings in English and Spanish. Teresa was leaning over the tailgate of the wagon almost before it stopped moving.

“How is he?” she asked, and then rattled on without waiting for an answer. “We've been so worried. I've got his bedroom all ready for him. Nobody told us anything, we didn't know what to expect. We spent the whole night worrying and I don't think I slept a bit. Maria has some willow bark tea ready and I made up some chicken soup, we killed that old hen. Remember, the nasty one with the crooked wing and she made a great broth, and Jelly didn't know anything either and we were so worried. Johnny, how are you?”

Johnny and Scott just stared at her.

“Well?”

Johnny shook his head and started to slide toward the back of the wagon. “I'm fine.” He winced and shook off his brother's hand as Scott tried to help him. “Don't make a big deal about it. I just got tangled up in some wire. Happens all the time around here.”

She started to say something else. Scott was prepared to cut her off, but Murdoch walked up and put a hand on her shoulder. “Go inside, sweetheart, and help Maria. You can ask all the questions you want later. Right now I just want to get Johnny in the house.”

She looked at Murdoch, and back to Johnny before she sighed. “All right, but is there anything else I can do? I only want to help.”

“I know you do, sweetheart. I don't know about Scott and Jelly but I'm starved. The best thing you can do is to make sure dinner is on time and plenty of it.”

“Yes, of course,” she sighed. “Food. I should have known.” She gave Murdoch a small smile and walked backward for a few steps, watching the wagon, before she turned and ran for the house.

Jelly had undone the tailgate and Scott jumped down. Johnny sat swaying on the back edge of the wagon, bits of hay sifting down to form a golden line at his feet. His face was the color of parchment and beads of sweat were popping out on his forehead but he waved off Scott's arm when his brother tried to help him to stand.

“Leave me be, Scott. Just let me sit here for a minute and catch my breath and I'll be fine. I can make it inside on my own.”

Murdoch started to move in but Scott shook his head.

“Come on, Johnny,” Scott said. “Be sensible about this. You're shaky as a newborn foal. Just lean on me and we'll have you inside in no time.” Once again Scott put his hand under Johnny's elbow and once more, Johnny shook it off.

“Lay off,” Johnny hissed. “I'll be fine on my own, and I don't want you upstairs hanging around my room either. Got it? I don't need your help, any of you.” He included Murdoch in his glare. “I can take care of myself.”

Scott stepped back and crossed his arms. “OK, go ahead and do it.”

Murdoch frowned but Scott met his eyes and shook his head again. Sam watched from the other side of the buckboard.

Johnny got to his feet, and almost went to the ground when his legs refused to hold him steady. He grabbed the side of the wagon and stood with his head down, swallowing heavily.

Scott leaned in close and whispered for Johnny's ears only. “I know you don't want to look bad in front of the men, but tell me, little brother, is it going to look any better when we peel you off the ground after you fall on your face?”

Johnny swung around to face his brother and had to take a quick step backward. He ended up sitting abruptly on the tail of the wagon.

Scott just watched, his arms still folded across his chest.

Johnny fixed a frigid gaze on his brother who continued to stand impassively.

It was a silent standoff until Johnny swallowed convulsively and closed his eyes, his arm going out to brace himself against the side of the wagon.

Scott frowned in concern but held his ground as his brother fought a short internal battle.

Johnny looked up after a moment and drew in a cautious breath. His eyes caught Scott's and held for a moment until a rueful smile crossed his face. “Do you suppose, brother, I could talk you into giving me a hand into the house?”

Scott sighed and moved in to slide an arm around Johnny's middle. “You look a little green there, boy.”

Johnny closed his eyes and took another deep breath and held it for a minute before letting it out and opening his eyes. “Yeah,” he said, “well, I've been told it's a good color for me.”

“Take my word for it,” Scott levered him off the wagon and started toward the house. “Whoever told you that did not mean this particular shade.”

Sam chuckled to himself and Murdoch shook his head before he strode ahead to open the door.

By the time they made it up the stairs, Johnny was breathing hard and Scott was supporting most of his weight. Scott eased him down on the side of the bed and then knelt to pull off his brother's boots.

“Damn.” Johnny sat on the edge of the bed and struggled to take a deep breath. “Did you put in another flight of steps while I was gone? Seems like there are about twice as many as I remember.”

Murdoch smiled. “Yes, well, we'll try to have them removed before you're up and around again.”

“Good.” Johnny lay back against the pillows and Scott lifted his legs up on the bed. “It's not a real smart thing for a man your age to go traipsing up and down that many stairs every day.”

Scott snorted and dipped his head as he tried to control his laughter. Murdoch's jaw dropped and he started to say something but Sam grabbed his arm and propelled him toward the hall. “You too, Scott,” he called back over his shoulder. “I need to examine my patient and I don't need the two of you supervising.”

They heard Johnny begin to protest.

“Don't fuss, Sam. I'm fine.”

“I'm glad to hear it. That means this won't take very long.”

And then the door closed.

+*+*+*+*+*+*+



Johnny woke the next morning to a glorious aroma and the sound of his father's heavy footsteps.

“I brought you some coffee,” Murdoch said.

Johnny blinked and reached up to rub his eyes. “Thanks.” He snuck a curious glance at his father. “That OK by Sam?”

Murdoch chuckled. “Probably not but I won't tell if you don't.”

Johnny gave his father a suspicious look. He shifted in the bed, winced and gingerly pulled himself up to sit against the headboard. He reached out for the cup and inhaled the steam rising from the dark liquid before taking a hearty swallow.

“How are you doing?”

“Another cup or two of this and I'll be great.”

Murdoch snorted. “I wouldn't push it if I were you. I doubt Sam would approve. But really, how do you feel?”

Johnny stopped for a moment to consider. “I don't know if this makes any sense, but I feel better and I hurt worse.”

Murdoch smiled and sat down by the bed. “As a matter of fact, it does make sense. Sam says your fever's down so you're feeling better but he put in quite a few stitches yesterday and scrubbed out those cuts that were infected. I'm not surprised that you're sore.”

Murdoch offered some water. Johnny put down the coffee cup and took it eagerly.

“You want to tell me how Sam managed to talk you into taking that laudanum before he started in on you?”

Johnny glanced up, wary and cautious, and then he grinned. “Nope,” he said brightly. “That's what ol' Sam calls - ” He stopped a moment to think.

“Doctor-patient privilege?” Murdoch asked.

Johnny cocked his head to one side. “You already asked him, didn't you?”

Murdoch scowled. “For all the good it did me.”

Johnny laughed. “If Sam thinks it should be kept quiet, then who am I to argue?”

“Humph.” Murdoch grumbled. “If that's the way you want it.” He reached over and picked up the brown bottle from the bedside table. “But he left this. If you're hurting, he said you could have some more.”

Johnny frowned and shook his head. “No. I'm fine. Don't need it.”

Murdoch put the bottle down without an argument. An uncomfortable silence stretched out between them.

“Look, Murdoch,” Johnny's head was down and his fingers were occupied pulling at a loose thread he'd found in the blanket. “About that thing I said yesterday, back at the cabin, I'm sorry.”

Murdoch looked at him in puzzlement. “What thing was that, Johnny?”

Johnny glanced up at him looked down again. “What I said about not being able to prove by me that you were my father. I shouldn't have said it.”

“Oh,” Murdoch grimaced. “That thing. No, it wasn't very respectful but to tell you the truth, it bothers me more that you think it than that you said it.”

Johnny looked up at that.

“Besides, I suppose I wasn't acting too much like a father at that point. But damn it, boy,” Murdoch got up and walked over to the window, “you can make me mad, faster than any person that I've ever met in my life.”

Johnny looked down to where his fingers were creating a hole in the blanket. He couldn't help but smile a little.

“You're so independent.” Murdoch began to pace. “You always have to be so strong. Maybe if you weren't it would be easier, maybe you'd listen once in a while. But damn it, boy, there's not an ounce of bend in you.” He turned to face the bed.

Johnny snorted and shoved his head back against the headboard. “Dios, Murdoch, listen to yourself. All those years on my own, if I wasn't strong, if I didn't know how to make my own decisions, I'd be dead.” He closed his eyes and sighed.

Then he lifted his head and snapped a look at his father. “And what do you mean, I don't know how to bend? I've done nothing but bend over backwards trying to please you since I rode under that arch of yours. I've changed everything for you, what I eat, when I sleep, where I go, and what I do when I get there. For years, nobody told me what to do, but I've taken your orders, and done your chores. I've walked soft around you, Old Man. I've put up with the kind of shit I swore I'd never take from another man, ever again. And none of it was good enough.” The fire died inside of him. “It was never good enough,” he said softly. He dropped his head back to the pillow. “I tried, Murdoch.” He closed his eyes and sighed. “I tried hard. I'm just not sure I have any more try left in me.”

Johnny felt a calloused hand on his brow. “Johnny, I'm sorry. Look, we can work this all out. . .”

Johnny turned his head away. “No. Stop it, Murdoch, it don't count.”

“What do you mean?”

“All this - concern, it ain't real, it won't last.”

“Johnny, I don't . . .”

“No. The only time you want anything to do with me is when I'm flat out on my back.” He paused and took a heavy breath. “I guess, when I'm sick or out of my head you don't have to deal with all the garbage that I drag along.” A crooked smile slid across his face, followed by a grimace. “Must be sorta like playing with dolls. Gives you the chance to pretend I turned out all right instead of the way I did.” He rolled his head away and closed his eyes.

“Son, no, that's not true.”

Johnny looked back at his father. “Don't lie to me, Old Man,” he whispered, “and for God's sake, don't lie to yourself.”

Murdoch looked stricken. “Son,” he began.

Johnny closed his eyes. “I'm tired. I think I'll sleep a while.” He rolled away from his father. There was silence for a moment and then the slow sound of footsteps going toward the door.

“Murdoch.”

The big man stopped at the door. “Yes?”

“Tell Teresa not to bother with anything special. I can manage by myself. I don't want to be making her any more work.”

“Johnny. . .”

“Please.”

“I'll tell her,” Murdoch said. The door snicked shut.

Johnny lay for a long time, staring at the wall, before sleep claimed him again.




Chapter 19

The coach swayed, bounced and shook. After six hours of travel, Ada Penrose felt like a marble in a tin can, rattling around and doing her best not to carom into the other passengers or the sides of the stage. She supposed she should be thankful there weren't more people packed into this stuffy box.

She and her mother occupied one bench. A grumpy farmer sat opposite her mother and across from her was a wizened drummer in a suit two sizes too large. The farmer hadn't said a word. They couldn't seem to shut the drummer up. He was peddling a line of sewing notions and had insisted on opening his sample case and describing, in excruciating detail, each and every item he sold. Thank heavens he had finally dropped off to sleep.

Ada amused herself for a while by watching him. She wondered whether he knew that he slept with his mouth open. One side of his face was resting up against the window frame. His features on that side were all pushed out of shape until he looked like one of those dried apple dolls that someone had stepped on.

Unfortunately, there was only so much entertainment value in a sleeping drummer. Ada gazed out the window and sighed.

She'd had such high hopes for this trip but she'd been disappointed. Stockton had turned out to be just like home, only bigger.

They'd gone to visit her mother's niece. Emmy just had her first baby and Mother said they should help. Ada was thrilled. Stockton was a real city. Not like Firebaugh, which her brother said was the backside of nowhere. Ada couldn't agree more. Surely something wonderful would happen in Stockton.

But it hadn't. They had cooked and talked and played with the baby. They'd sat in the parlor doing needlework and talked some more. Just like at home. Oh, there were more shops in Stockton, and that was fun for a while. They had gone on a picnic by the river and she'd enjoyed that. But nothing had happened. Nothing ever happened. Not like in the stories she read. She sighed and flounced back against the seat. Her mother was frowning at her. She didn't care. Pouting and slouching against the seat might not be ladylike, but she was bored.

It had been a boring trip and a boring visit and her cousins were boring people. She leaned her head against the window sash and listened to the rumble, jingle and clink of the moving stage.

Ada must have dozed because she woke with a jolt when the coach slowed. She could hear the driver yelling to the horses and had to brace herself to keep from sliding forward as they came to a stop. The drummer woke too and the farmer stuck his head out the window. Ada tried to do the same but her mother put a hand on her shoulder and pinned her to the seat with a glare.

Ada had to be content to gaze out the side. The farmer opened his door but stopped halfway out. Ada gasped. Through her window she could see a horseman coming out of the trees. He had a bandana over his face and a gun pointed – at them!

“Mama,” Ada said, her voice nothing more than a squeak.

Her attention was jolted back to the other side of the coach when another masked man pulled the farmer out the door. She reached for her mother. The door on her side was yanked open and a harsh voice ordered them outside, now. The drummer shrank back into his seat, his sample case clutched to his chest and his eyes big and terrified.

Ada's eyes were glued to his face, his fear serving to magnify her own. The man outside the coach yelled something else but she couldn't push past her terror enough to understand it, not until she felt her mama's hand on her arm and heard her soft voice urging her to scoot over, to climb down to the ground.

No sooner had they gotten outside than the man with the loud voice shoved them over and reached inside. He hauled the drummer out by his shirtfront and tossed him to the ground. The sample case burst open and Ada watched as shiny bobbins and colorful spools of thread spilled out and rolled away into the grass and under the coach.

The coach horses were snorting and one of them squealed. Their hooves beat into the ground as they half reared in place. The coach jerked forward a foot or so and stopped again. Ada shrank against her mama. There was shouting from behind her and shouting from the driver's box.

A thunderous roar sounded just above her head, causing her to duck and clap her hands over her ears. She heard another shout and then a body fell from the top of the coach. It landed on the ground at her feet. The sound as it hit was a sort of wet splat. She stared for a moment. There was blood, a lot of it. Some of it had splashed onto her skirt.

She screamed.

+*+*+*+*+*+*+



He was running, slipping and stumbling, desperate to get away. His breath ripped at his throat but there wasn't enough air to fill his lungs. His feet tore on the rocky ground. Hand and footholds disappeared as he reached for them. He struggled for balance, trying not to fall, and then he was falling. Everything that had seemed solid and real disappeared from underneath him. All of it gone, without warning, sending him twisting and plummeting through space until he landed, bruised and terrified, face down, in the dirt. Fog, damp and chill, shrouded everything.

He didn't dare breathe, didn't dare move. If he didn't move it might not find him, surely he'd thrown it off the track when he fell. But no, it was coming. He could sense it, feel it on the raw end of each screaming nerve. It drew nearer, coming closer and closer, and then it was here. Its hot breath blistered the back of his neck, its claws tugged at his shoulders, pierced and pulled at his skin.

He froze. Praying it would leave. His heart thundered in his chest, his muscles tightened with each second as it circled him, immense and unseen.

The terror and tension grew and bubbled up, stuck like a scream at the back of his throat. And then it struck. . .

His entire body jerked spasmodically as he sucked in an involuntary rush of air and then he stopped. He lay still, searching for information, listening, feeling, trying to understand.

A dream. Madre de Dios, it was a dream. And it was over. He was face down on his bed, not in the dirt. He sagged against the mattress, the huge breath leaking out of him along with the fear until the hair on the back of his neck stirred and he froze again.

No. He wasn't alone. Someone, or something, was here too.

He slid his hand toward the pillow. His fingers just touched the edge when his wrist was seized and held tight.

“Take it easy, it's only me.”

Scott.

He breathed out and allowed the tension to drain away. “Let go.” The pillow shoved up against his face muffled his voice. He turned his head and jerked his wrist. “Let go,” he said. “I'm awake.”

Scott released his wrist and stepped back from the bed. “Looks like you had a bad dream, brother.”

Johnny just glared at him before he rolled over and swung his legs over the side. He closed his eyes and waited for the room to settle.

“Is your fever up again?” Scott reached for his forehead.

Johnny jerked his head away. “No.” He batted at the questing hand. “I've just been laying around too long. I need to get my feet back under me.”

There was a sigh. “Here.” Scott handed him a glass of water.

“Thanks.” Johnny gulped down the water. He was a dry as Peek-a-Boo Creek in August. When he finished he cast a wary eye on his brother. Scott just stood there staring.

Johnny slipped off the bed and padded over to the window. He pulled back the curtain and the afternoon sun poured in. He looked out toward the barn. “Have you heard anything yet from Barron?” he asked.

“No. Not yet.”

Johnny didn't comment. The silence behind him swelled until it filled the room.

“You need something in particular, Scott?” He didn't turn, just continued to look out the window.

“I need to talk to you.”

“I'm standin' right here.”

“Johnny, I know you're angry with me.”

“I'm not mad at you.” He kept his voice level and quiet.

“Come on, Johnny, we have to get this…”

“I said I'm not mad.” Johnny leaned forward to watch a couple of colts roughhouse in the paddock.

Scott paused. Johnny could hear him shift his weight. “Well then, I wish you were.”

He looked back over his shoulder. Scott stood in the center of the room, his hands on his hips and his head down. He looked up and met Johnny's eyes.

“I have a feeling it would be easier to fix if you were just mad.”

They stared at one another for a few seconds before Johnny turned back to the window.

“Ain't nothing to fix.”

“Damn it, Johnny, you and I both know better than that. Just let me explain. I didn't mean. . .”

Johnny turned and started back toward the bed. “There's nothing to explain, nothing to fix.” He pushed the covers back and sat down on the bed. “Now I'm feeling a little tired.” The stitches pulled as he swung his feet up and slipped them under the sheets. He winced and he allowed it to show. He saw it register on Scott's face.

“Come on, Johnny, just let me tell you. . .”

“Scott, I'm tired. Maybe we can talk about this later. OK?” He pulled the quilt up and closed his eyes. Silence descended on the room. Unfortunately the sound of Scott's feet heading for the door didn't precede the silence.

Johnny sighed and opened his eyes. He glared at his brother. “Don't you have anything to do? Because I sure as hell don't need anybody sitting here watching me breathe. I've been doing that all by myself for a long time now.”

He rolled over and pulled the quilt up over his shoulder. He closed his eyes and waited.

A minute later, his voice rumbled up from the pillow.

“Scott.”

“What?”

“You're still here.”

“Yes.”

“Leave.”

Scott sighed. He walked across the room and out the door and Johnny breathed a sigh of relief. He listened for a few seconds to make sure that he was actually alone before throwing off the covers and walking back to the window.

A teasing little breeze from outside fingered the hair hanging down on his forehead. He scowled out over the yard. Wispy remnants from the dream darkened his mood, that plus a lingering sense of weakness and the sour taste from the skirmish with his brother left him feeling unsettled, unsettled and meaner than a cougar with a face full of porcupine quills.

+*+*+*+*+*+*+



Scott had started across the yard toward the forge when a flash of movement caught his attention. He shaded his eyes and watched as a rider cantered into the yard.

“Sheriff,” Scott said. “What brings you out this way? Have you got something on Barron and his bunch?”

“Maybe,” said Val. He stepped down from his horse and watched as Murdoch walked over from the forge.

“Sheriff.” Murdoch nodded his head. “What brings you out this way?”

Val's mouth quirked underneath his scraggly moustache. He reached up and resettled his hat and then looked up at Murdoch, his face once again under control. “I got a little information, thought maybe I could pick up some more out here.”

“What sort of information?” Murdoch asked.

Val looked down at the reins that he held in his hand and pulled in a deep breath. He looked back up at Murdoch. “Not the good kind.” His mouth was grim. “Seems somebody held up the southbound stage, comin' out of Stockton yesterday afternoon. Roughed up some of the passengers and shot Rafe Prentiss right off the box. Killed him dead. One of the passengers hiked in to the Circle D and they sent a rider into town.”

“Damn,” said Murdoch. “I was just talking to Rafe the other day.”

“You think it was the Barron gang?” Scott asked.

Val shrugged. “Could be. That's why I wanted to talk to Johnny.”

Murdoch started to shake his head when Scott broke in. “I think it might be a good idea to take this discussion upstairs.”

“No, Scott. I don't want your brother all wound up about this. Not until he's feeling a lot better.”

“I think it's too late for that, sir.” Scott jerked his head toward the open window above their heads. The curtains could be seen just swinging back into place. “If you don't want him down here in about five minutes, I suggest we go up there.”

Murdoch sighed and bowed to the inevitable. “Come along, Sheriff,” he scowled. “I suppose we'll have to go up and beard the lion in his den.” He led the way inside.




Chapter 20

They walked into Johnny's room just as he was struggling to put on a shirt without pulling any of his stitches. Scott walked behind him and lifted it out of his hands. “You won't be needing this.”

Johnny glared at him. He'd managed to pull on a pair of plain trousers, but no boots, or socks, and his hair curled away in all directions. Scott found it hard to take him seriously.

“We thought,” said Murdoch, drawing Johnny's attention away from Scott, “that you might be interested in what Val had to say so we brought the discussion up here.”

Johnny raised an eyebrow; Scott noticed he had that little mocking smile on his face, the one that was sure to make Murdoch crazy. “Oh. That's why you came up?”

Scott coughed and Murdoch scowled at all of them.

Johnny walked back over to his place by the window and peered out. “So, Val, what brought you out here?”

“First thing, I thought I'd find out how you're doin'.”

Johnny sighed. “I'm doing just fine. How many times do I have to tell you people that?”

Val grinned. “Probably till we believe you. Gotta tell you, boy, you don't look fine. Fact is you look like a bad patchwork quilt, what with all those scratches and stitches and bandages. Looks like Barron did a pretty good job on you.”

Johnny turned around and Scott was surprised. There was something in his younger brother's eyes. Something he hadn't seen before and wasn't sure he liked.

“He's gonna wish he'd done a better job before we're through. Me and Barron, we have an appointment. He just don't know it yet.”

Murdoch started to say something but Val beat him to it. “You just leave those yahoos to me, Johnny.”

Johnny and Val locked eyes. A little smile flickered across Johnny's face. “Sure, Val, whatever you say.” Scott figured if he were Val, he wouldn't put much faith in that statement. There hadn't been anything happy or friendly about the smile.

Johnny turned back to the window.

“Val.” Scott walked over and sat on the bed. “What were you telling us about the Stockton stage?”

Johnny propped a shoulder against the wall and waited.

Val recounted the story of the holdup.

When he got to the part about Rafe, Johnny dropped his head. Scott could see a muscle in his jaw bunch and quiver. “He had a wife and new kid, didn't he?” Johnny said.

Val nodded. “And there wasn't even anything much worth stealin' on that run. It's almost like he died for nothing.”

The room was quiet for a moment.

“Anyway,” Val said, “like I told your folks, one of the passengers hiked out to the Circle D and they sent a rider into town for me. We had a posse out after them this morning but we lost ‘em in that rock and shale up north of Whispering Pass. I'm figuring it was the same bunch that jumped you, Johnny. I thought maybe you could help me with that.”

Johnny looked up when Val finished. “What do you think I can tell you?”

Val shrugged. “Don't know, but maybe you have something that might help nail ‘em down. They kept their faces covered and none of the passengers figure they could identify them if they had to testify in court. Anything I can get from you might help.”

“You got anything to go on?”

“One of the passengers heard one of them called Ed.”

Johnny shrugged. “There're lots of Eds around but yeah, one of Barron's boys answered to Ed. He's the one wanted to put a bullet in my brain.”

Murdoch's head came up. “You didn't tell us about that.”

Johnny glanced over. “Didn't happen so it didn't matter. You got anything else, Val?”

Scott thought Murdoch looked a little green. He wished Johnny would notice but Val continued.

“The stage driver said that one of the gang, a long, tall drink of water, was moving like he'd gotten himself beaten up pretty good lately.” Val raised an eyebrow and looked at Johnny.

“Don't look at me.” Johnny grinned. “I never touched him. It was Barranca.”

Scott looked up. “What?”

“Yeah.” The grin faded. “Barranca slammed one of them into the fence. The son of a bitch deserved what he got; he was beating on my horse with a piece of rope. I was hoping that Barranca'd done something a little more permanent to him.”

“That's two out of five that fit. That pretty well ties the Barron gang into the stage holdup.”

“It's not going to do you much good in a court of law,” Scott said.

Val snorted. “I'll worry about that once I've got ‘em in jail.” He looked over to Johnny. “Can you think of anything else?”

“Don't know if it'll help any, but Barron was riding a blazed faced bay.”

“I'll ask if anybody remembers the horse. Now all I have to do is find the bastards.”

Johnny gave Murdoch a speculative look. “Have you gotten that message from Barron yet?”

Murdoch's scowl deepened and Val's head came up.

“Johnny…” Murdoch growled.

“You got something you ought to be tellin' me, Mr. Lancer?”

“If he doesn't, I do,” Johnny said.

“Damn it, Lancer, when were you plannin' on tellin' me about this?” Val was on his feet and steaming when Murdoch finished telling him about the demand from Barron.

“I wasn't,” said Murdoch, towering over the sheriff. “The message said no law.”

“Yeah, or they'd kill Scott.” Val slapped his hat against his leg. “You don't think they'll try that anyway?”

“We'll take care of it.” Murdoch scowled down at the sheriff. “Lancer takes care of its own.”

Val wasn't backing down. “Not without me you won't. I want to hear about it the minute that Barron contacts you. This stopped being your private little war when they killed Rafe. I've got a stake in it now and you'd better believe I'll toss your ass in jail for obstructin' justice if you try goin' this alone.”

Scott watched the rumpled sheriff in awe. It was like watching a confrontation between a wolverine and a grizzly bear. The wolverine might be smaller but nobody had told him that, and damn if the grizzly didn't back down. Scott wasn't sure which member of his family was going to explode first, Johnny from trying not to laugh or Murdoch from an overdose of righteous indignation.

Scott stepped in before things really went south. “Of course we'll keep you informed, Val. Why don't the two of you go downstairs. I'll join you in a couple of minutes and we'll discuss it.”

Murdoch and Val remained locked together, eye-to-eye, until Val finally nodded once. “Fine. Just so's we understand one another.”

Murdoch growled something inarticulate.

“That's nice that you have it settled between you.” Johnny shifted his weight against the wall. “But don't you think I might have something to say about all this?”

“No!” Murdoch and Scott both rounded on him at the same time.

“You're staying right here in this room until Sam says that you're fit to leave it. And that's final.” Murdoch turned and stalked out of the room.

Scott winced at that last bit but prepared to reinforce Murdoch's position. But instead of shouting, Johnny just shook his head and looked over at Val.

The sheriff plopped his hat down on his head. A grin lifted the ends of his moustache. “You take care of yourself, ya hear?”

He got a nod and a knowing smile that saw him out the door.

Scott found himself alone in the room with Johnny and a huge silence. “Promise me that you'll let us take care of this. You're not up to it yet.” His only response was an enigmatic stare. Scott changed tack.

“I didn't know that you knew Rafe.”

“Didn't, really. I talked to him once while I was waiting for the mail to come in.”

“Then how did you know about his wife and kid?”

“I told you, I talked to him. You let a man talk and really listen to him and most of ‘em will tell you what's important to them.”

Scott caught his gaze and held it. “Most of them, but not all of them?”

That little smile came and went again. “Nope, not all of ‘em.” Johnny turned and paced back to the window.

“Johnny, we've got to settle this thing between us.”

“I told you before, there's nothing to settle.” His restless hands tapped out a rhythm against his thighs.

“If we're going to make this family work we all have to admit that we need each other and…”

“Now that's where you got it wrong, Scott.” Johnny swung around and stormed back across the room to stand just inches away from his brother. “I don't need a family, I don't need you or Murdoch, I don't need anybody. I never have, I never will.”

“You're mistaken brother. We all need each other. It's what makes us human.”

“Grow up, Scott. You want to be safe in this world, you want to get by? Then you'd better learn to watch your own back, because believe me, you're the only one you can count on to do it. And quit expecting things from people because when push comes to shove, they'll let you down every time. That's just the way it is, brother. “ He almost spat that last word. “The sooner you learn that, the better off you'll be.”

Scott looked down. “I'm sorry, Johnny. I didn't mean to…”

“Get out.”

“Look, I…”

Johnny took another half step forward. “I said get out.”

Scott stood for a moment and then he sighed and walked out. The door slammed behind him. He winced at the sound of pottery shattering against the wall as he walked away.

+*+*+*+*+*+*+



Johnny pulled back the curtain and gazed out at the barnyard, looking to absorb some peace from the daily routines of the land. He rubbed his hand over his belly, seeking relief from the twisted knot of misery that had centered there for days. It set his nerves on edge, made him itchy and uncomfortable in his own skin. He turned from the window and paced back across the room. One of the shards from the broken pitcher poked into his foot and he stopped to pick it out. He threw the fragment against the wall and continued toward the bed. Now each step jabbed at him and left a map of his progress across the room. It hurt but he found he didn't mind. It was almost a welcome distraction from the pain in his gut.

He was finding it hard to settle. Stalking back and forth, restless and wary, stuck here in his father's house. For a while this place had felt like a refuge. He stopped and stared into the mirror. Something inside him had softened and opened up to that warmth. He'd stretched into it like a cat settling in on the hearth. He spun around and continued his trek across the room. He should have known better. Now it felt dangerous, like a trap, with walls that leaned in above him and brushed his shoulders when he moved. He found himself viewing it all with suspicion, careful of what he touched in case he brushed up against the wrong thing, or the wrong person.

The knot of nerves and tension tightened up a notch. It made him want to snarl and strike out at someone, anyone.

He prowled back over to the window, pulled up a chair and threw himself down in it.

He was still sitting there when Val, Scott and Murdoch came out of the house.

He watched them walk across to the corral where Val's horse was tied. They stood there talking for a while. Johnny was occupied with planning how to find out what they'd decided, when all three of them turned and looked off toward the road. He leaned forward and watched as a rider came thundering into the yard, shattering the rule about galloping inside the gate. He listened but couldn't make out more than an occasional word. But he didn't have to think too hard to figure out what was going on. Barron was making his play.




Chapter 21

The morning sun was just making its first move against the night. Later, dawn would roll over the horizon with the power and inevitability of the tide coming in but for now, it was a slow advance, one that stripped the heaviness from the night and spread a faint blush across the sky.

Johnny sat in a chair by his window and watched the coming of the day. He had been sitting, absolutely still except for the faint tapping of the fingers of his right hand, for over an hour now. He was dressed, right down to his boots. They'd given him some trouble but he'd managed. Now there was nothing to do but wait. Wait and think.

Mostly he thought about what he'd found out last night.

He'd gone down to dinner for the first time since they'd brought him home from the line shack, ignoring his father's disapproving scowl and Scott's raised eyebrow. It seemed that Teresa was the only one glad to see him up and about.

The meal was strained. Scott tried to make conversation and Teresa joined in occasionally but she was clearly puzzled by the tension in the room. Murdoch hardly looked up from his plate.

Finally Johnny asked the question straight out. Scott, his brother, looked him in the eye and flat out lied.

Johnny held Scott's gaze for a moment before he dropped his head and fiddled with what was left of his dinner. It was no more than he'd expected, but still, it was a disappointment. He excused himself a few minutes later, saying he was too tired to be interested in dessert.

He dragged himself up the stairs, kicked off his boots and crawled into bed. They must have sat at the table for a while because he was on the verge of actually falling asleep when the door finally opened.

There was a long, quiet pause before it was carefully closed. Johnny waited a minute or so, threw back the covers and rose to his feet.

He thought about putting his boots back on but the effort had cost him too much the first time. Besides, he figured he'd be quieter in his stocking feet. He didn't bother with his holster, just tucked the Colt into the back of his waistband and carefully eased the door open. He listened. Hearing nothing, he slipped out into the hall.

The front stairs were his first goal, but he changed his mind. On second thought it seemed safer to go down the outside stairway and listen to the conversation in the great room from the French doors. It was a warm night and they were sure to be open.

That's where he got his first break of the evening. Murdoch and Scott had taken their drinks outside onto the patio and were talking there.

All he had to do was slip into the shadow of one of the massive adobe pillars and he could hear everything.

+*+*+*+*+*+*+



Johnny settled deeper into his chair and looked back toward the door. Soon. Soon they would come to check on him, to make sure he was asleep in his bed and well out of the coming action. He snorted softly. Unless they came right into the room they wouldn't see him here. All they'd see was the artfully arranged bed. In the pre-dawn light that should be enough.

His hand dropped to the gun belt coiled neatly in his lap and his thumb ran absently over the butt of his Colt while his mind replayed what he'd heard last night. He couldn't put his finger on it but something was wrong.

He'd listened to Scott and Murdoch discuss Barron's demands and their own plans. On the surface everything sounded fine, but he couldn't shake the feeling that he was missing something, something important.

Barron had demanded five thousand dollars, and had insisted that Scott deliver it. The exchange was to take place this morning at ten at the entrance to Blue Horse Canyon. That was a good two and a half hour ride from the hacienda. Scott would have to leave early.

The instructions demanded that Scott arrive, alone and unarmed. He was to dismount and wait by the big slab of rock that marked the entrance to the canyon. They said he'd be watched and if Barron spotted anyone else, they'd kill Scott.

Murdoch, Val and Scott had come up with a plan. Val, Cipriano and a half dozen men had left the hacienda in the night. By midnight they would have been hidden in the rocks and brush surrounding the drop-off site. They would wait there until Barron and his men showed up and then catch them in a crossfire.

When the shooting started, Scott would be in a vulnerable position but they had discussed several places he could use for cover. Cipriano was to leave a handgun in each of them. The plan was for Scott to dive into the nearest one, come up with the hidden gun and join the fight. They'd even made plans for Sam to stop by Lancer in case he was needed.

It sounded good, it ought to work, and Johnny didn't like it, not one bit.

He didn't understand Barron's thinking. This wasn't the way he would have done it. Why would Barron give Murdoch and Scott so much time to plan and prepare? No, something definitely wasn't right.

He sat, deep in thought until he heard the snick of the latch on his bedroom door. The big wingback chair blocked his view but he could hear the door slowly open. There was a long pause and it swung shut.

Johnny shook his head and grinned. That was way too easy. He picked up his rig as he stood and swung it around his hips as he walked over to the window. Jiggling the buckles to get them straight, he took a quick glance out the window before drawing in a deep breath and pulling the leather tight. Standing to one side and hidden by the curtains, he surveyed the yard, his hand absently checking that the Colt was seated correctly. The sky had lightened considerably and he could begin to make out details of the landscape.

Rosie and her new foal were turned out in the corral and Johnny could see the baby's tail whip back and forth as he butted and tugged at his breakfast. Paco walked up from the direction of the bunkhouse, scratching his head and yawning as he went. One of the barn cats crept toward the back of the barn and froze for a second before she turned and streaked back the way she'd come.

Johnny frowned and leaned forward to get a better look. Another movement caught his eye and he jerked back out of sight.

Scott was walking across toward the barn. He had a bulging set of saddlebags over his left shoulder and he put his hat on as he walked. Someone said something from the direction of the front door, Murdoch probably. Scott turned and answered, too softly for Johnny to hear. Johnny drew back a bit more. Sure enough, just before he swung back toward the barn, Scott stopped and glanced up at the window.

Johnny froze until Scott was out of sight and then shook his head and frowned. He'd been trying to figure some way to keep Scott out of this, but short of knocking him cold and tying him up in the tack room, he hadn't been able to come up with anything. Damn it, this was his fight, not Scott's or Murdoch's. He should be the one in harm's way. If he'd been smart enough to mind his own business in town, if he hadn't let himself get caught off guard at Agua Verde, if he'd told Barron his right name, if he'd done any of those things then Scott wouldn't be riding out of here all alone.

He sighed and was about to turn away when Rosie, who'd been ambling over to the barn, suddenly shied and, herding her baby ahead of her, retreated to the far corner of the paddock.

“What the….” Johnny pulled back the drapes and leaned forward for a better look. “Son of a bitch!” He whirled and ran across the room. He was halfway down the back stairs when there was a shout and the first shot rang out.

There was no one in the kitchen when he cleared the last steps. He could hear noise from the front of the house and then the ratcheting boom of Murdoch's Yellowboy. Good. Maybe the old man could keep them distracted. Meanwhile, he was headed for the barn.

Scott was in the barn.




Chapter 22

Johnny crossed the kitchen in three huge strides. Taking time for just one deep breath, he pulled his Colt, yanked the door open and dashed for the nearest cover. The original pair of guns had been joined by a chorus of other weapons speaking back and forth between the buildings. But it seemed that none of them were pointed in his direction, not yet anyway.

His senses were on high alert, the familiar surge and lift of excitement singing in his veins. It was almost but not quite enough to override the discomfort from his injuries.

He stuck his head out for a quick look before running for the garden wall. Once there he peered around the gate, trying to determine who was where.

Eddy McGuire ran out of the bunkhouse, his shirt untucked and his suspenders flapping against his thighs. Eddy had his gun in hand and he ducked behind the pile of firewood outside the forge, looking for targets.

A flash of color caught Johnny's eye. Someone was moving along the fence line that ran behind Eddy's position. Johnny brought his gun up and focused on a break in the line of cover. A few seconds later an unfamiliar face showed in the gap. Johnny fired.

Eddy jumped and turned in time to see the falling body. He glanced over at Johnny and nodded his thanks. “Cover me,” Johnny shouted and while Eddy fired a barrage that kept the outlaws' heads down, Johnny darted from the garden wall to the storage shed on the other side of the lane.

From there he made his way around the back of the shed and over to the forge, taking out another of the outlaws as he came around the corner of the building. He hunkered down by the flatbed wagon, which was piled with bales of hay, and reloaded his gun. He was happy to hear the flat bark of the Yellowboy. It meant that Murdoch was still in the fight.

Pausing for a moment to catch his breath, he considered the current situation. He couldn't believe that Barron had meant to storm the ranch. Something must have gone wrong and upset the man's plan. But regardless, he was sure that Scott was the target. Scott and the money in those saddle bags. There was only one more long open stretch across the corral before he could slip into the barn and find out what was going on. Sitting here wasn't getting it done.

He ducked between the fence rails and started his run for the barn. Twenty feet from his goal the ground beside his feet leapt up in a series of small explosions as searching fire reached out for him. Johnny dove for cover.

He hit the ground rolling and came up hard against the watering trough. One part of his mind registered a searing, tearing pain as several sets of stitches ripped free and the half healed wounds pulled apart, but the larger part of his concentration stayed focused on the current danger. There would be time later to take care of torn stitches.

He curled in tight on himself and yanked in a foot when another shot came too close for comfort. The trough didn't offer much cover, or safety. He ducked again as a bullet went right through the plank and a spout of water began to pour down on his calf. Damn, he couldn't stay and he couldn't go. He waited until the next shot splashed against the trough and popped up to send back his own fire. He didn't hit anything but he caught a blur of motion that told him where his opponent was hiding.

“Hey kid!” A voice called from the shooter's location. “I got you this time. Kelly stopped me before, but this time you're mine.”

Johnny frowned. He knew that voice, and then his expression cleared. Hensley, Ed Hensley. Oh yeah, that bastard had it coming. The question was how to make it happen. Johnny looked around. The barn was off to the left but there was no real cover between him and it, and his position was vulnerable from every angle except the front. He had to move. His hand closed on a piece of wood that had been used to level the trough. He yanked it free and waited. When the next shot came he gave it a count of two and lobbed the wood toward the barn. It hit with a thunk and Johnny rolled to the right as Hensley showed himself to shoot at the sound. Johnny fired and Hensley jackknifed and then melted to the ground.

Johnny didn't spare him a second glance but rolled to his feet and sprinted to the barn.

He ran down the long side and slipped through a small door toward the rear of the building, pausing for a moment to give his eyes time to adjust to the dimness and to take stock of the situation. He couldn't see anyone but he could hear a voice. He moved toward it.

Stepping soundlessly around a corner, Johnny froze. Scott lay in the main aisle, the bulging saddlebags on the ground beside him. Blood covered his left shoulder. Barron knelt over him with a knife to his throat. The voice resolved itself into a litany of threats and abuse. “He was my brother,” Barron was saying, “and you killed him. You're not gonna get away with that. You think it's going to help you that you're a rich man's son? Well it won't.” He jabbed the knife a little deeper. Johnny could see Scott try to pull away. His eyes didn't really seem to focus, but Barron kept on talking. “I was going to take you with me and make it a long slow death but I'll have to make do with….

Johnny stepped forward, his gun in his hand. “Drop it.”

Barron peered into the darkness and then smiled. “Well, well, if it isn't my friend from the fence. Guess they found you in time, huh, kid?”

“Yeah, they did. Now drop that knife.”

Barron shook his head. “I don't think so. All it's going to take is one twitch and this blade will be buried in Lancer's neck.” He pressed a little harder and a trickle of blood slid down to stain the collar of Scott's shirt. “If you don't want to see that happen, you'd better throw that gun of yours over here and raise your hands.”

Johnny stared at Barron for a moment before he smiled. “Looks like we got ourselves a standoff. Of course, if we stay here long enough, somebody else from Lancer will show up and you'll be finished. The trouble is, I never was much for just hanging around, provided I have a choice, so I'll tell you what, I'll holster my gun. You drop that knife and stand away from him,” he nodded at Scott, “and we'll settle this between the two of us.”

“This son of a bitch,” he jabbed at Scott a little more, “killed my brother. Why should I want to turn him lose just to have a go at you?”

“Cause you have the wrong man.”

“Don't give me that. Everyone in town said Murdoch Lancer's kid killed my brother, and this is Murdoch Lancer's son.”

“Yup. That's true, but Lancer's got more than one kid. You got the wrong one. “

Barron snorted. “And where's the right one.”

“You're lookin' at him.”

“You?” Barron laughed. “You're Lancer's other son?”

Johnny shrugged. “Mama was from Mexico.”

“You said your name was Madriano.”

Johnny grinned. “Names can change. In your line of work, you ought to know that. I used to use another one but now I go by Lancer.”

Barron snorted. “You've got guts, chico. I'll grant you that. But you're asking me to believe that you took down my brother and two more of the boys?”

Johnny sighed. “Yeah, it wasn't really a fair fight.” His eyes bored into Barron's. “There were only three of ‘em.”

Barron's expression hardened. “You got a big mouth, chico. And you've got a deal. Holster the gun.”

The metallic click of Johnny's Colt being uncocked seemed out of place in the dusty silence of the barn. The gun slipped with just a whisper back into its holster.

Barron slid the knife back into his boot. He grabbed the saddlebags and tossed them behind him and then stood away from Scott.

“Scott.” Johnny didn't take his eyes off Barron. He raised his voice and tried again. “Scott, wake up and move out of the way.”

“Huh?” Scott blinked to try to clear blurry eyes.

“Just do it, Scott. Now.”

Barron flexed his right hand and looked hard into Johnny's eyes. “I don't care if you're telling me the truth or not. A damn breed with a mouth like yours, I'm sick of listening to you. I'm going to take care of you myself. When I'm done, I'll finish off Lancer over there, just for good measure.”

Johnny smiled again. “You'd still have to be breathin' to do that and that's not going to happen.”

Barron glared. “I should have listened to Ed and put a bullet in you when I had you strung up to that fence.”

“Yeah, you should have. It's too bad about Ed.”

“What do you mean?”

“He and I met up out in the yard. He won't be backing your play this time.”

Barron frowned and Johnny saw a flicker of uncertainty on his face. He pressed the advantage.

“Oh, and about that name, I guess I sort of lied about that.”

“I didn't think you were Lancer's kid,” Kelly sneered.

“Oh, I'm a Lancer all right.” Johnny grinned. “It's the other name I lied about. I never did go by Madriano. They used to call me Madrid. Johnny Madrid.”

Some of the color washed out of Barron's face and he licked his lips. Johnny knew he'd rattled the man. He hoped he could end this soon. He could feel the sweat popping out on his forehead and there was hot blood running down his arm from the cut on his shoulder. He'd pulled the stitches in a couple of other places too and he just hoped that none of them were bleeding too bad. If this went on much longer he was just as likely to pass out as he was to take Barron down. He was in trouble.

Barron's gaze sharpened, and he knew that the outlaw saw it too.

Barron smiled. “Oh, you're good. I have to hand it to you. You almost had me going there. But you see, boy, it really doesn't matter who you think you were, does it? It don't matter a bit, because what you are right now is all tore up. You're not anywhere near the top of your game, and I'm gonna take you down.”

“If that thought makes you feel better, then you just hang on to it. A man in your position needs to take comfort where he can find it,” Johnny said. “Now, are we going to talk all day or are you going to start this dance?”

Barron shook his head. “Damn, chico, you just keep trying, don't you? Like when I had you pegged out on that fence, hanging there, helpless as a kitten in a sack but you were spittin' sass, regardless. Yessiree, boy, you got more…”

Johnny saw the flicker in Barron's eyes a fraction before the man's hand streaked for his gun. Johnny reached for his Colt, but he could feel the pull and tear of abused muscle and flesh. And in that moment he knew. He knew that no matter how he tried to ignore it, no matter how he forced himself to push through it, Barron was right, he was too beat up, and he was too slow.

Two guns exploded as one.




Chapter 23

Gunsmoke hung like a dirty cloud, drifting slowly toward the rafters. The horses snorted and shifted and above, in the gables, there was the rattle and clatter of frantic wings. From the aisle there was only silence, broken finally by a soft metallic clash as a gun rolled free from lax fingers.

Johnny straightened from his crouch and pulled in a deep breath. He walked over and knelt by Barron. The man was dead. Johnny knew it, he could smell it, but years of experience dictated that he make sure. He picked up the fallen gun, emptied the cylinder and tossed it aside and then leaned forward to feel for a pulse in the outlaw's neck. There was none. He rocked back on his heels and holstered his own weapon.

It had been close. He fingered a hole in the side of his shirt made by Barron's bullet as it blazed past. He sighed and ran a hand over his face. Sometimes he had the devil's own luck. He snorted at that thought and then sagged. He was suddenly tired, tempted to just lay down where he was and let the good earth do the work of holding him up.

“Johnny?”

Scott's voice pulled him out of his reverie. He hauled himself to his feet, walked heavily over to where his brother lay and dropped back to his knees. “Hey, Scott, how you doing?” He pulled a handkerchief out of his brother's pocket and held it to the oozing wound on Scott's shoulder.

Scott reached up with a vague hand and tried to push the pad away. “Are you all right? I thought… it looked so close… I thought he beat you.”

Johnny drew in a deep breath and sighed it out. “He did.”

“Johnny!” Scott struggled to sit up.

“Easy.” Johnny put a hand on his brother's chest. “Stay down. I'm fine.” He sat back on his heels. “It was close but he didn't hit me.” He smiled, but it lacked his usual sparkle. “It's like I told you the other day, brother, it's not always about who's the fastest.”

Scott lay back and peered up at Johnny. “You're bleeding!”

Johnny lifted the handkerchief and checked the wound on Scott's shoulder. He resumed the pressure when it still oozed. “A little,” he said. “It's nothing. You're the only one that got himself shot.”

Scott tried to pull away. “That hurts. What were you doing out here anyway? Are you…?”

Another gunshot sounded from outside and both men tensed.

Scott tried to rise but sank back down with a groan. “Murdoch,” he muttered.

“Shut up. Listen.”

There were no more shots but running footsteps could be heard coming toward the barn.

“Lay still.” Johnny's gun was back in his hand. “Don't move,” he whispered and then he melted back into the shadows of the nearest stall.

He stood, pressed up against the wood of the stall partition, his gun up, his eyes on the doorway. Raised voices could be heard outside, confused and distant but all of his concentration was on the barn door. The footsteps slowed and then stopped.

“Senor Scott?” a hesitant voice called.

The voice belonged to Isidro.

Johnny blew out a breath and leaned back wearily against the wall, his gun dropping to his side. “Come on in, Isidro. It's OK.”

The vaquero poked his head around the doorframe. “Senor Johnny?” He looked puzzled. “What are you doing here?” He took a step inside and looked around. “Aiiii!” He crossed himself as he saw Barron's body. He stared at the dead man and muttered something in Spanish before looking at Johnny and then peering around the stable. “Where is your hermano? Senor Scott, he was supposed to be… Madre de Dios!” He rushed over to where Scott lay.

Johnny pushed himself away from the wall and followed. “How's he doing?”

“El es inconsciente.” Isidro patted Scott's cheek and tried to look under the handkerchief but it was stuck to the wound.

Johnny looked around. There was a lap robe that they used when they took out the surrey. Johnny grabbed it from the shelf. “Put this over him. He was awake a minute ago.” Scott was pale as milk and he shivered slightly. “Isidro, go get Mu…”

Johnny's head came up. He could hear a group of men approaching the barn but his hand dropped from his gun as he recognized at least one voice. Several of the hands rushed into the barn, guns drawn, eyes searching but they stopped at the sight of Isidro and Johnny bent over Scott.

Following them and issuing orders as he walked came Murdoch. Johnny stepped back toward the shadows.

Murdoch took in the scene with a thoroughness and attention to detail that Johnny thought would have done any gunman proud. He smiled a little at that and slipped farther into the background.

Johnny watched as his father took charge, checking Scott over as best he could, sending Isidro to let Maria know what was happening and ordering a litter brought so that they could move Scott to the hacienda as comfortably as possible. When everything was arranged as he wanted, he stood and stretched with one hand on the small of his back. Then he turned and looked at Johnny.

“What are you doing out here, boy?” he asked as he walked toward his younger son.

Johnny shook his head and grinned slightly. “That does seem to be the big question today.”

“Well then answer it,” Murdoch demanded.

Johnny's head came up and his eyes narrowed. “Take a look around, what the hell do you think I've been doing?”

“Not what you were told to do, that's obvious.”

“I told you before, old man, I was never very good at following orders.”

Murdoch's lips tightened but he stepped back and drew a deep breath in through his nose. “Who's that?” he asked, nodding at the body.

“That's your buddy, Barron. Apparently he didn't let you in on all his plans. He showed up here this morning figuring on making off with the money and having it out with the man who shot his brother. I gave him what he wanted, or at least part of it.” He looked away from Murdoch and then down at the floor. His voice dropped to almost a whisper. “But not before he shot Scott.”

“Johnny,” Murdoch sighed, “that wasn't your fault.”

Johnny's head came up. “Yeah, it was. I started this with that mess in town, and it was my job to finish it.” He glared up into his father's eyes. “Now it's finished.”

“Damn it, boy, you are the most stubborn…” Murdoch's gaze shifted and he leaned forward, squinting into the shadows. The volume of his voice lowered considerably. “You're bleeding.” He put a hand out to touch his son.

Johnny stepped away. “I'm fine. It's nothing.”

“You're not…”

“No. I told you, old man, I'm fine.” He looked down and sighed. “Just tore a few stitches is all.”

Murdoch reached out again and put his hand gently on Johnny's shoulder but it dropped to his side when Johnny flinched. He drew in a breath, that same hand formed into a fist and his voice hardened. “Well, you wouldn't be bleeding, you wouldn't be hurt again – can't you ever do as you're told?”

“If I'd done as I was told, you'd be planning a funeral instead of making work for Sam.” They stood staring at one another for a long beat until Johnny backed off and turned away. He rested his hands against the stall door and leaned into it. “Just leave me alone, OK? Go take care of your son and leave me be.”

“I have two sons, Johnny.”

There was something odd in Murdoch's voice but Johnny shrugged it off.

“Johnny…”

“Mr. Lancer?”

Murdoch glanced back over his shoulder. “What?” he snapped.

“We're ready to take Scott back to the house. You coming or you want we should just go without you?”

Murdoch blew out a deep breath. “No, I'm coming.” He looked back at Johnny. “You get back to the house, young man. We'll talk later.”




Chapter 24

Murdoch turned and walked back to Scott. He hovered, grumbling under his breath and issuing orders, as the hands lifted the makeshift stretcher. With one final long look back at Johnny, Murdoch gave the command and the small group made its careful way into the early morning light.

Johnny watched them go.

The sounds of their presence faded and quiet descended on the stable. One of the horses shifted and the straw rustled. Johnny swayed on his feet, feeling hollow and drained, as though he'd forgotten even how to breathe. The only movement around him was the winking fall of dust motes as they drifted through random beams of light.

He drew in a sudden breath and ran a hand over his face, realizing he had no idea how long he had been standing there, alone with the dull buzz of gathering flies. He should do something, walk up to the house, check on Scott - something. He turned to go when a shape leaning against the nearest stall partition caught his eye.

Changing direction, he walked over and picked up a pair of saddlebags. Scott's saddlebags. Johnny eased himself down on the nearest hay bale and unbuckled one of the pouches. It was full of money, $5,000 he'd guess. Damn. He ruffled the edge of one packet of bills. Murdoch never even thought about this. All that money and he never even asked. Johnny stuffed the stack of bills back in the bag and shook his head. Two weeks ago he was sure he was going to get the boot for forgetting the receipt on a seven-dollar order at the mercantile. Now the old man walks out of the barn and leaves a small fortune sitting in the dirt. He'd never understand the man.

Resting his forearms on his knees, he clasped his hands and stared down at the money. Yeah, Murdoch was worried about Scott. That made sense. That was the way it was supposed to be. And on top of that, the old man was probably mad as hell at him for starting this whole thing and then failing to keep his brother safe. His head dipped a little farther. Not much point in putting up with a gunfighter around the place if he can't get the job done.

But hadn't Murdoch said that he didn't blame him, that it wasn't his fault? Had he really meant that? He'd said it just before he'd reached out and… Johnny rubbed his shoulder; the memory of that heavy hand resting there still burned, clear through to the bone. What had that meant? And that last look before he left the barn…

Maybe Scott was right, maybe he wasn't giving the old man enough credit. Maybe if he bent a little more Murdoch would too. He sat with his brow furrowed for a moment and then he snorted. Yeah, and maybe pigs will fly. But what the hell, it couldn't hurt to try.

He blew out a deep breath and hauled himself to his feet. Grabbing the saddlebags, he left the flies to their wake and walked toward the light. He hesitated a moment at the door, squinting into the bright morning before he threw the saddlebags over his shoulder and headed for the house.

+*+*+*+*+*+*+



“Damn it, Murdoch, you're in my light.” Sam elbowed the big man out of his way. “Where are Maria and Teresa?”

“They're in the bunkhouse taking care of Paco and Dusty until you can get to them.”

Sam scowled and leaned in closer to his patient. “How badly are those two hurt?” He gently prodded Scott's shoulder.

“Paco was shot in the leg. Cipriano didn't think it was too bad. Dusty wasn't looking too good the last time I saw him.” Murdoch shifted his position, leaning in so that he could see better.

“Was anyone else hurt? Hand me that cloth.”

Murdoch passed over the damp piece of fabric. “Cipriano is still trying to account for everyone. I do know that we had one casualty.”

Sam looked up. “Who?”

“Enrique Valdez.”

“Damn. I liked Enrique. Murdoch, would you please give me some room.”

Murdoch backed off a couple of inches. “He was a good man. Oh and one of the raiders was still alive when I came up here.” He winced as Sam pulled away the makeshift bandage and Scott's wound started to ooze. “That reminds me, Johnny pulled out some of his stitches. You're going to have to sew him up again.”

Sam's head came up. “What? What was he doing out… Oh, never mind.” He shook his head. “ Stubborn,” he muttered. “The damn boy is stubborn, just like his father.”

Murdoch scowled.

Sam swung around to get something from his bag, only to bump into Murdoch again. “Look," the doctor said, "why don't you go out to the bunkhouse and send one of the ladies back here?”

The resulting glare was accompanied by a rumbling growl. “I don't see why…”

“Because they know what they're doing and you don't.”

Murdoch opened his mouth to protest. Then, in a move that was a piercing reminder of his younger son, he dropped his head. “ Please, Sam, I need…”

“All right, all right.” Sam sighed. “I don't have time to argue with you.”

"Thank you." Murdoch leaned over Sam's shoulder, breathing down the doctor's neck. "Will he be all right?"

Sam shot him an impatient look. “As soon as I know, you'll know."

Sam began to cut Scott's shirt off. Murdoch leaned in closer. Sam sighed and straightened.

"Murdoch, I'm going to need some hot water and some things from Teresa's medical stores. Why don't you go get them for me?"

Murdoch started to protest, but another look from Sam had him meekly nodding yes. He left Scott's room and started down the hall but he stopped, backtracked, and knocked on Johnny's door. He eased it open when there was no answer.

"Johnny?"

He poked his head in and surveyed the room. It was empty. Murdoch's lips thinned and he frowned. Damn that boy.

The door was closed less gently than it had been opened and Murdoch headed for the kitchen. He hurried down the stairs and scanned the great room as he passed through.

No sign of Johnny.

The medical supplies were stored in the pantry. Murdoch quickly sorted out what Sam wanted, bundled it together and put it on the kitchen table. Next he ladled water from the big pot that was kept warming on the back of the stove into a kettle. He stoked up the fire and put the kettle on to boil. Then he waited.

He walked over to the table and looked over his supplies. It was all there. He paced back to the stove and checked the kettle. It wasn't ready yet. He stalked over to the window and peered out. Where was that boy? He should have been back to the house by now. Damn.

Was he all right? He'd said he was, but then, he always said that. He glanced over at the kettle which still wasn't boiling. He walked to the door and looked out. There was no one around. What if the blood on Johnny's shirt was from a fresh wound? What if he were passed out in the barn, bleeding and helpless?

Murdoch started out the door but the kettle began to whistle. He turned back, torn between two sets of worries. He looked back out toward the barn. There was no one to be
seen. He glared at the kettle, but Sam was waiting. He looked back out the door. Damn it. Why was there never anyone around when he needed them.

He hesitated for a second and then with a muttered curse, he snatched up the kettle, grabbed the supplies and started back upstairs.

Sam was waiting. Scott needed him. He just hoped Johnny really was fine.

+*+*+*+*+*+*+



Johnny entered the house with the saddlebags over his shoulder. His boot heels made a hollow sound on the tile floors of the main entrance. The house felt cold and empty and a chill ran up his back as he looked toward the stairs and Scott's room. He moved into the great room but it was unwelcoming and much too quiet. The silence played on his nerves. When a noise came from the direction of the kitchen, he spun around, ready for anything, only to draw in a deep breath and relax at the sight of his father heading purposefully for the stairs.

"Hey, Murdoch, how's Scott?"

Murdoch jumped and stopped abruptly. " Johnny!" He took a step toward his son. "Are you all right?"

"What? Yeah, I'm fine, I told you that before. What about Scott?"

Murdoch glanced at the stairs. "Sam's with him."

"He'll be OK though?"

"Sam hasn't said yet." Murdoch's voice was flat and heavy and only served to increase Johnny's unease.

"I'm sorry."

"John..."

"No, never mind. Listen, Murdoch." He pulled the saddlebags off his shoulder. "I found these in the barn...”

Murdoch shook his head. "Never mind that, I…”

"Murdoch?" Sam's voice sounded from upstairs. "What's taking you so long?"

"I'm coming. Johnny, I...."

"Murdoch, now!"

Murdoch looked at the stairs and then at Johnny. "Damn it,” he said, his voice rough with frustration. “For once, boy, will you do as you're told and get upstairs where you're supposed to be? I don't want to have to come looking for you again." With that, the big man turned and all but ran up the stairs, leaving his son alone with the silence.

Johnny watched him go and then leaned forward, his head down, his hands on the back of the sofa. He rocked back and forth gently as his knuckles turned white. Finally he pushed himself upright, took a deep breath and started toward the front hall but almost tripped over the saddlebags. He picked them up, weighed them in his hand and shook his head.

"Son of a bitch," he snarled, and flung them back in the direction of Murdoch's desk. They caught on the edge and hung down over the back. Johnny stormed off toward the stairs, the sound of his footsteps echoed by a series of dull thuds as packets of money slid free, and one by one, fell to the floor.

+*+*+*+*+*+*+



Murdoch woke with a snort and a sputter. He jerked upright from his slouched position in the chair and ran a hand over his face. Squinting into the morning light, he tried to drag his mind back from sleep and figure out where he was and why. Then his gaze fell on Scott's pale visage and it all came thundering back.

He leaned forward and put a hand on his son's brow. He was pleased to find it cool and dry. Scott stirred slightly and Murdoch leaned back in his chair, content to watch him sleep for now. Sam had said that Scott should be fine, provided he didn't develop an infection. The lack of a fever this morning was a good sign. Murdoch sighed and felt a weight lift off his chest.

He stood, stretched his back and spent a moment smiling down on his son before quietly leaving the room. He'd send Teresa back to sit with Scott.

Meanwhile, he walked across the hall to check on Johnny. He had looked in on him before dinner the night before but Johnny was sprawled across his bed, fresh bandages on his shoulders and chest attesting to Sam's ministrations. He'd meant to stop back later but he had fallen asleep while sitting with Scott.

This time when he opened the door, Johnny wasn't there.

+*+*+*+*+*+*+



“Maria, have you seen Johnny?”

“No, senor. Not since yesterday afternoon.”

“He's gone.” Sam was sitting at the kitchen table finishing his coffee, the remains of his breakfast on a plate in front of him.

“What?” Murdoch spun around, noticing his old friend. “What do you mean, he's gone?”

“I mean gone, as in no longer here. He left last night after everyone had gone to bed. I was down getting a glass of water and ran into him.” Sam stirred sugar into his coffee and took a sip.

“Why didn't you tell me?”

“Because he's my patient and he asked me not to.” Sam stared up at Murdoch. “He made me promise not to wake you. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to check on your older son and then I have some other patients to see.”




Chapter 25

"Sam! Get back here."

Sam stopped on his way to the great room. He turned around and adjusted his glasses before looking up at Murdoch.

"What?"

"You can't just walk out like that! What did he say? Where did he go?" and then more quietly, "Why? Why did he go?"

Sam sighed. "He said he was leaving. He didn't say where he was going, and as for why, you should know better than I. Damn it, Murdoch,” Sam's irritation and worry finally bubbled to the surface. “I warned you about this. Several times. I told you to be careful with that boy. I don't know why you should be so surprised.”

Instead of the angry response that Sam was expecting, Murdoch just stood there, his shoulders slumped, his eyes on the ground.

Sam shook his head and ran a hand over his face. “I don't know what else I can tell you."

Murdoch opened his mouth to say something but stopped and looked down. Finally he raised his head. "Was he all right?"

Sam looked startled for a moment and then sad. "Yes. He's still hurting and a little shaky but barring complications, and providing he gives himself time to heal, he should be fine."

+*+*+*+*+*+*+



Murdoch was striding across to the barn a fierce scowl on his face when he heard the sound of a horse coming in fast. He stopped and lifted his hand to shade his eyes. There was no mistaking that slouched figure or the rawboned buckskin gelding he rode. Sheriff Val Crawford was paying a call and he was just the man Murdoch wanted to talk to.

“Val.” Murdoch put a hand on the bridle as the sheriff brought his horse to a jolting halt. “I'm glad to see you. I was hoping you'd stop by. I need your help."

Val swung down from his horse. “Yeah? What do you want?”

“Well.” Murdoch hesitated. “Johnny's gone.”

“Gone?” Val lifted an eyebrow.

“Yes. He's left. He took off last night after the dust up with Barron and his boys.” Murdoch frowned and looked off toward the horizon. “He got Sam to stitch him up, asked about Scott and then he left. Just faded away into the night. I didn't know he was gone until this morning.”

“Sam sewed him up?” Val's eyes narrowed. “He didn't get hurt again, did he?”

“No. Thank God. He just tore out some stitches. But he's gone. Again.” There was a world of pain in that last word. “He left without talking to… anyone.”

Murdoch turned away for a moment, and stared out across the wild hills. Val waited until the rancher straightened his shoulders and turned back.

“So,” Murdoch said in a firmer voice. “I need you to send some telegrams, ask around. I want you to help me find him.”

Val reached out to straighten one of the buckles on his saddle. “Why?”

“What do you mean, why? He's my son. I want to find him. I want him here at home, where he belongs.”

Val turned back, one hand on his hip. He scratched his ear with the other hand and looked up at Murdoch. “Well hell, you could'a fooled me.”

Murdoch's face darkened and his hands balled into fists. “Look, Crawford, what happens between me and my family is not any of your business and it's certainly not your place to pass judgment on any of it. You're the sheriff, all I want is from you is for you to do your job. So are you going to help?”

“Nope.”

“What?” He moved a step closer and loomed over the lawman. “What the hell do you mean by that?”

Val never moved, just cocked his head back a bit more in order to look into the big man's eyes. “Means I ain't gonna send no damn telegrams.”

“Val…” Murdoch loomed a bit taller and then took a deep breath. “Why not?”

“Don't need to look for him. I know where he is.”

Murdoch's eyes widened and he seemed to wilt by about four inches. “Why didn't you – oh, never mind. Where is he?”

“Saw him in town first thing this mornin'. He said if I had any questions for him about Barron and that bunch, he'd be out at Agua Verde. Said he'd promised Sam he'd take it easy for a few days.”

“Agua Verde?” Murdoch frowned and shook his head. “He wouldn't go back there, not after what happened. That's where he was hurt so badly.”

Val turned to his horse and began to loosen the cinch. He shrugged. “There's more than one way to get hurt.” He looked past Murdoch and stepped to the side. “Hey Cipriano,” he called, “I need to ask you a couple questions.”

He walked away without a backward look, leaving Murdoch alone, stunned and torn between anger and hope. Finally he spun around and started for the barn but a voice from the house stopped him in his tracks.

“Murdoch,” Teresa called from the doorway. “Scott's awake and he's asking for you.”

+*+*+*+*+*+*+



Murdoch slipped quietly into Scott's room. He didn't want to wake him if he'd fallen asleep again. Even if he were awake, Murdoch wasn't sure he wanted to face him with the news about Johnny.

Scott was sitting up in bed. His first words were, “How's Johnny?”

Murdoch winced.

Scott didn't notice. He was shifting around a bit, trying to find a more comfortable position. “Is he all right? He said he was but you know how he is.”

Murdoch shook his head. “He's fine, Scott. Really.”

“He was bleeding, Murdoch.”

“I know. But Sam looked him over. It was just some torn stitches. Sam fixed him up again and he's all right. And how are you?”

“Me? Oh I'm… Scott started to shrug and caught himself. He drew in a sharp breath and reached over to cradle his right elbow. “I'd be a lot better if I'd remember not to do things like that.”

Murdoch moved to the head of the bed and poured a glass of water. “Here, drink this.”

“No thanks. I'm not thirsty.”

“Drink it anyway. You lost a lot of blood yesterday and Sam wants you to drink as much as we can get down you.”

Scott grimaced and stared at the tall glass. “OK, I'll take that if you'll tell me how everything came out yesterday. It was yesterday, wasn't it?”

On safer ground, Murdoch smiled and settled into the chair that was pulled up by the bed.

By the time Scott finished his water and Murdoch came to the end of his narrative, Scott was starting to fade.

Murdoch took the glass and helped him to slide back down in the bed.

“You go to sleep now. I'll send Teresa back up to sit with you.”

Scott nodded and settled a little deeper into the pillow. Murdoch pulled the blanket up and stood watching as his son closed his eyes and blew out a deep breath.

He started to turn away but a touch on his elbow and the sound of Scott's voice stopped him.

“Murdoch, can you ask Johnny to come in here please? Just for a moment.”

There was a second's hesitation. “I don't really think that's such a good idea right now.”

“Oh, that's all right then.” Scott yawned. “Let him sleep. Just ask him to come in when he wakes up.”

Murdoch hesitated. “Scott…”

“I'm glad he's resting. He wasn't in any shape to be out there yesterday, but there he was anyway.”

“Scott, I…”

“Murdoch, do you have any idea how close it was?”

“Yes. I'm sorry, son. I know our plan didn't go well and I'm sorry that you had to pay for it.”

Scott looked up sharply. “Not me, Johnny.”

“What?”

“He didn't have any business being out there facing down Kelly Barron. He wasn't up to it.” Scott shook his head and caught his lower lip in his teeth as he relived that scene in the barn. Then he drew in a deep breath. “I was watching. Barron outdrew him.”

“What?” Murdoch dropped heavily back into the chair.

“It scared the hell out of me. The only reason Johnny's still with us, the only reason either of us are still breathing is that Barron got rattled and missed his first shot.

“Johnny didn't.

“When the smoke cleared away he looked so bad, so unsteady, I was sure he'd been hit. I guess he was just exhausted.” Scott looked up at his father. “So let him sleep. He earned it.”

Murdoch stood and walked over to the window. He pulled aside the curtain and gazed out for a minute. “Scott, Johnny's not in bed.”

“Well he certainly should be. Whatever he's doing, you need to get him back to his room right now.”

Murdoch sighed and turned back to face his son. “He's not here, Scott. He's gone.”

“I… what do you mean gone?”

“He packed up his things last night and left.”

“He left?” Scott sagged back against the pillows a stunned look on his face. “But what…and you weren't going to tell me?”

“Of course I was going to tell you. I just didn't think that now was the best time.”

“Oh, you were going to tell me later? Like maybe when he'd had time to put some more distance between us? When it was too late and he was gone past all hope of recall?” Scott threw back the blankets and swung his legs out. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply as he swayed dangerously on the edge of the bed.

Murdoch strode across the room and put a steadying hand on Scott's shoulder.

“Take your hands off me.” Scott shrugged out of Murdoch's grasp.

“Stop it, Scott.” Murdoch steadied him again. “How far do you think you'd get if I let you out of that bed? I swear you're just like your brother.”

Scott gave him an angry look and then his strength gave out and he sagged against his father's strong grip.

“It seems to me,” said Murdoch, easing Scott back against the pillows, “that I just went through this scene with Johnny a couple of days ago. He was determined to get up and go after you.”

“And now someone has to go after him. We can't just let him disappear.”

“I have no intention of letting him disappear.” Murdoch straightened the blankets. “And it's not something that you need to worry about, at least not for the next few days. I know where he is.”

“What? Where?”

“Val Crawford arrived a little while ago. He said he'd seen Johnny this morning in Green River. Johnny said he'd be around for a few days.” Murdoch looked at Scott. “He told Val he'd be out at Agua Verde.”

Scott blanched at that.

Murdoch nodded. “Apparently that idea bothers us more than it does your brother. Anyway, I was about to head out there when Teresa called me in here.”

Scott's already pale face went a shade whiter. “Murdoch…”

An irritated look flashed across the big man's face. “What would you suggest? That I send Cipriano?”

“No, I…” Scott slammed his good fist down on the bed. “Of all the stupid, inopportune times for me to be stuck in this bed. Listen, given enough time and a little luck, I'm pretty sure I can talk Johnny out of running. But I can't do that if he's not here, and I'm in no shape to go after him right now. So it's up to you to get me that time.”

Murdoch looked down at the floor and then ran a hand over his face. “I'll do my best.”

“I'm counting on you. Don't disappoint me.”

“Believe me, Scott, you don't want this any more than I do.

“It's not me you need to convince.”




Chapter 26

Murdoch rode out under the Lancer arch at a determined canter, but the farther he went, the more uncertain he became. The closer he came to his destination the more his pace slowed until finally he drew his horse to a shambling halt at the base of a tree-crowned hill.

Just the other side of that rise lay Agua Verde. The last time he had been here, the sight of Johnny staked out on that fence, limp and bloody, had almost stopped his heart. This was a place that Murdoch had no wish to ever see again. But whether he wished it or not, he was back, and once again in search of his untamed son. He sighed and rubbed a hand over his face as he contemplated his mission.

He was facing a situation he'd never wanted but now recognized he'd been moving toward since that first day in the great room. This was exactly what he'd been afraid of. And now he had to face the fact that not only was it happening, but that he, himself, had made it happen. He'd been so afraid that Johnny would leave, the way his mother had left, that he'd finally pushed the boy into doing just that. He'd been testing his son from the beginning, searching for some sign that he'd stay, holding him at arm's length in case he didn't. Looking for certainty where certainty was never an option.

What he'd needed was faith and trust, what he'd shown was fear and suspicion. Now he faced his last chance to make things right. This confrontation might just require more courage than any other of his life. But then, this time, he had more to lose. He drew in a deep breath, straightened his shoulders and kneed his horse up the trail toward the line shack.

He topped out on the rise and pulled up in the shelter of the trees. Below him he could see Johnny standing by the corral fence, not far from where they'd found him a week or so before. The sight made Murdoch's heart skip a beat and his stomach roll. But this time Johnny wasn't helpless. This time he was armed. Gazing at his son, Murdoch was almost as frightened as he'd been the last time he was here.

He watched as Johnny practiced, drawing, aiming and dry firing his gun, adjusting his stance and doing it again and again and again with endless patience and predatory grace.

Murdoch swallowed, his mouth dry, his throat tight. Was this the future? Was Johnny heading back to the border? Back to that dark world of guns and blood? The thought made him shudder. If that happened, Murdoch was terrified that even Madrid wouldn't be able to keep his son alive for long.

He had a sudden vision of himself, sitting in his armchair by the fire with a glass of Scotch and a newspaper. He saw himself opening the pages and finding an article about the death of Johnny Madrid. The scene shot through him with such blinding force and clarity that he almost reeled in the saddle and had to choke back a cry of protest.

He took a deep breath as a shudder ran through his frame. His horse shifted uneasily and Murdoch gathered the reins and settled the bay. He studied the boy below him. Madrid. He shook his head. He'd finally realized that it never really had been about Madrid. The problem wasn't the gunfighter. The problem was his own fear. Murdoch had been desperate for Johnny to need him. If Johnny needed him, and the life that he offered, then Murdoch would have had a tie to keep him close. But Madrid didn't need anyone. That made the gunfighter the prime enemy in the one-man war that Murdoch had been waging. Only now that war was almost over. There was just one more battle, and the only way to win it might just be to surrender.

Murdoch was torn from his reflections by the explosive thunder of a handgun fired at speed. This time Johnny had spun as he drew and fired at three cans set up on the corral fence. All three of them jumped from the fence. The last one jerked and changed directions three times before it hit the ground.

Johnny remained in his crouch for a half a beat before he straightened and stretched his right arm. He reached across to rub his shoulder and Murdoch pushed his horse out of the shelter of the trees. Damn that boy, he thought as he asked the bay to move a bit faster. Why couldn't he ever just give himself time to heal?

Johnny glanced up from reloading his gun as Murdoch rode into the yard. “I wondered if you were gonna sit up there all day.” He snapped the cylinder back in place and slid the Colt into its holster. “Been expecting you.”

“Expecting me?” Murdoch pulled up a few feet from his son.

“I figured Val would tell you where I was. Sooner or later.”

Murdoch grunted in acknowledgement and swung down from the saddle. He walked over to the fence and tied his horse where it could reach the water trough. “Thank God it was sooner,” he muttered to himself.

Johnny cast a quick look his way and bent to pick up a spent shell casing.

Murdoch loosened the cinch and then paused for a moment before he squared his shoulders and turned back toward his son. “Johnny, I…”

“How's Scott?”

Murdoch stopped, the air let out of his planned speech. “Uh, he's doing well. Sam thinks he'll be fine. But he's asking for you.”

Johnny stepped over to the corral fence and folded his arms on the top rail. He rested his chin on his wrist and looked out over the valley. Finally he sighed and Murdoch had to listen hard for the barely audible reply.

“He'll do just fine without me.”

“He won't, Johnny, and he shouldn't….”

“No.” The softly spoken word brought Murdoch to a halt again.

“What?”

“I said no.” There was no anger in that voice, just a tired determination. “That ain't how this is gonna go. Not this time. This time you're gonna listen to me.”

Murdoch frowned as a spark of irritation kindled in his belly. He took a hard rein on his temper. “What do you mean?”

Johnny glanced his way. “What I mean is that ever since I got here, you've been telling me how it's gonna be, what we're gonna do, how I'm supposed to act. Well, not this time, old man. This time it's my turn to talk and you get to listen.”

Murdoch could feel his anger growing. He wanted to state his case, force his son to see the right of it. But Johnny had other ideas. He looked at his son. At first glance he presented a calm and completely in control image. But looking closer, he could see the tension building in the boy. It showed in the tightening of the muscles in Johnny's shoulders, in the deepening lines at the corners of his eyes and in the stillness that only masked itself as ease.

Maybe it was time he gave Johnny what he needed. “All right. I'm listening.”

Johnny shot a sharp look his way before he reached down and picked up a stick from the ground at his feet and resumed his position against the fence.

Silence fell between them as Johnny gathered his thoughts. Murdoch found himself watching his son's hands as Johnny worried the bark away from the wood. For a while the movement was almost hypnotic until Murdoch realized that time was passing.

“Johnny, I didn't …”

“This just isn't…”

The two of them spoke together and Johnny pinned his father with a barbed look.

“Sorry,” Murdoch said. “Go ahead.”

“This whole thing, Murdoch, it's just not working. You spend all your time mad, or waiting to be mad. Hell, you never smile. Teresa's just miserable. It tears her up to see us goin' at one another. And Scott, he keeps throwin' himself into the middle, trying to make peace and getting' caught up in the explosion. Some days the tension in that house is so thick it's like tryin' to breathe quicksand. It's no way to live, not for any of us. I guess I just don't know how to handle this family thing.”

“It's not your fault…” Murdoch started but Johnny cut him off.

“Don't matter whose fault it is. The fact is, you and me, we can't seem to be in the same place at the same time without fireworks going off. We're like oil and water, we just don't mix.” It's not right to put everybody through this.” He stopped and drew in a deep breath. “This isn't what I wanted.”

Murdoch stood there studying the ground at his feet. Finally he looked up. “What is it that you did want?”

Johnny's head came up “What did I want? I don't know, I…” He paused for a moment. “No,” he whispered, “that's not true. Hell, Murdoch, I wanted it all.” He gazed off across the meadow. “I wanted everything you laid out that first day in the great room, the land, the hacienda. I wanted my brother, a family, I wanted… “ Johnny glanced briefly at his father before looking back down at the stick in his hands. “I wanted it all.”

Murdoch was at a loss for words. The boy had wanted to stay. He'd always wanted to stay. All of this, the shouting, the anger, the pain, had been for nothing. The look in Johnny's eyes tore at Murdoch's heart and all the words he'd brought with him dried up and crumbled away. The silence stretched out between them, drawn and brittle and suddenly shattered as the stick in Johnny's hands snapped in two. Johnny blew out a sharp breath.

“But hey,” he said after a long pause, “this isn't so bad. Hell, it's not bad at all. I like it here. There's a nice solid cabin and a good barn. The creek's always out there singing. It's real pretty. Peaceful.” He dropped his head and snorted. “It's quiet. I like quiet. And it's close enough that...”

Murdoch frowned. “Wait…” he hesitated. “I don't….Do you mean you're not leaving Lancer? I thought you were leaving.”

Johnny dropped the stick and spun to face his father. This time the anger flared, hard and strong. Murdoch could see it sparking in Johnny's eyes and hear it in his voice.

“I knew it! I knew it would come down to this. It's time for the gunfighter to hit the road, right? Well I have some bad news for you, old man. I'm not plannin' on going anywhere. My mama didn't raise no stupid kids and I'm smart enough to know that this is the best thing I'll ever have. I'm not about to let you push me out. You got rid of me once, old man. It's not gonna happen again.”

Johnny took another step forward, crowding his father. “One third of this,” he swept his arm out in a broad gesture, “is mine. You signed your name to it and by God, now you're going to have to live with it. I delivered on my end of the deal. I bled for it. I've worked for it and there ain't nobody going to take it away from me. You hear me?

“And don't think you can weasel out of it with some sort of legal trick. Scott told me it was all tight and proper and I went and checked it out myself. You're stuck, old man, and I'm here to stay.”

Johnny stood in front of him, hands balled into fists weight slightly forward, positively vibrating with aggression. Murdoch was suddenly overpoweringly happy and proud.

“What the hell are you smiling at, old man? Because I have to tell you, I'm not kidding around here.”

Murdoch dropped his head and schooled his expression into something more serious.

“I know you aren't, Johnny.” He looked up and met his son's eyes. “And you're right, one third of Lancer is yours. You earned it and no one can take it from you. Not even me. Even if I wanted to. But no matter what you think right now, I don't want to. I want you to stay. It's all I've ever wanted. I know words are cheap and up until now, I've used all the wrong ones, but believe me, I want you here at Lancer. It's where you belong.”

Johnny took a step back and shook his head, but Murdoch forged on.

“What I really want is for you to come back to the hacienda. Please, Johnny, give us - give me - another chance.” Johnny started to protest but Murdoch waved him off. “I know, let me finish. That's what I want, but maybe it's time I asked what you want. If this arrangement is what you prefer, if staying here at Agua Verde is what it takes to keep you near, well, so be it. Just let me know what you need and I'll see to it.”

Johnny just stood and stared at him and Murdoch resisted the urge to smile - hell, to laugh out loud, to shout and dance and pick up his oh so dangerous son and swing him around like a toddler. Instead he straightened his hat. “Meanwhile, your brother is waiting to hear how it went out here. I don't think he's waiting patiently.”

Murdoch walked over to his horse and tightened the cinch. He swung up to the saddle and sat for a moment, smiling down on his boy. “Think about it son, if you ever want to come home, just remember, it is your home. It always was and it always will be.”

He started to turn away but stopped and looked back. “Oh, and Johnny, feel free to bring Mr. Madrid with you. I think he and I have come to a understanding.”

“Murdoch?”

“We'll talk some more later. There'll be time.” He turned his horse and kneed it back toward the hill and home. He looked back to see Johnny standing where he'd left him, hands on hips, his expression caught somewhere between bewilderment and anger.

+*+*+*+*+*+*+



Murdoch pulled up on the other side of the hill and took a deep breath. A big smile broke out on his face and he slapped the bay on the neck. “So what do you think about that, boy? He's not leaving. He never did want to leave.” The big man shook his head. Scott had asked for time, now he had it. They all had time, all the time in the world.

Murdoch whipped his hat off his head and with a wild and totally undignified whoop he brought it down on the rump of the startled horse. With a snort and a bound, the two of them thundered off toward home.




Epilogue

Scott leaned against the porch support outside the harness shop in Green River. He and Murdoch had a ten o'clock appointment at the bank to sign some papers. Scott pulled out his watch. It was now 9:52. Murdoch was inside the shop placing an order for a new draft horse hitch while they waited for Johnny to make an appearance.

It had been a little over two months since Johnny had moved to Agua Verde. Things had certainly been less tense around the hacienda since then, but Scott didn't think it was a good trade. The calm was quiet and the quiet was empty. Something integral was missing. Murdoch thought so too. Scott was certain of it. Murdoch didn't say much but several times lately, when they gathered in the great room after dinner, Scott had caught him staring sadly at the spot in front of the hearth where Johnny had liked to sit. Once Murdoch had noticed Scott watching him, and Scott would swear the man had blushed.

Johnny seemed to be doing fine - on the surface anyway. He had settled into his solitary home. He met with Cipriano every day to coordinate the work assignments. He'd been back to the hacienda several times to discuss ranch business. He'd even come to Sunday dinner a couple of times.

He'd managed to capture and start training a few wild horses and was excited at the prospect of finally starting his horse operation, even if it was only a one-man, part-time show. But, like Murdoch, there was a vague aura of disappointment and longing about him.

Scott found himself spending a lot of time out at Agua Verde. He and Johnny had done some talking and they spent most days working the range, side by side. They were finding their way back to where they'd been before.

Scott was happy about that, but he knew Murdoch was waiting and expecting him to bring Johnny home. It was what he wanted too but he wasn't really sure that the two of them were ready for it.

A flash of gold at the end of the street drew Scott's attention from his musings.

“Murdoch, he's here.”

Inside the shop, Murdoch shook hands with the owner before he walked out and joined Scott on the boardwalk. He looked down the street at the approaching rider. “This would all be so much easier if only he…”

“Murdoch.”

The big man sighed. “I know, Scott. I know.”

Murdoch squinted down the road. “How does he look? Does he look all right?”

Scott smiled. “From three blocks away he looks fine.”

Murdoch glanced at his son and frowned. “I thought he looked thin the last time I saw him. He's probably not eating right.”

Scott snorted. “With all the stuff that Maria keeps sending out there? Not a chance, sir. Besides, he's actually a pretty good cook. Provided you don't mind having your tonsils burned out.”

Murdoch smiled, looked at his watch and frowned. “Why does he always cut it so close?”

“He's on time, sir. That's about as good as it gets with Johnny.” Murdoch sighed and went back to watching his son's progress down the middle of the street. Scott wondered whether Johnny had been sitting outside of town, figuring just how long he could keep them waiting and still be exactly on time.

Johnny pulled Barranca to a halt in front of Murdoch and Scott. He nodded and pushed his hat back. “Mind tellin' me what you two are doing hanging around over here? I thought we had a ten o'clock meeting at the bank. If you don't get a move on, we're gonna be late.” He reined Barranca around and jogged over to the bank, leaving Murdoch staring after him.

The rancher swung around, his mouth open like a fish out of water. Scott had to laugh. Murdoch shook his head. “Jokers,” he said, stepping off the boardwalk and heading toward the bank. “My sons are nothing but a pair of jokers.”

Scott was fairly certain that he'd just seen a glint of humor in Murdoch's eye. He was also pretty sure that his earlier speculation about Johnny was right on the money. He followed his father across the dusty street.

+*+*+*+*+*+*+



Johnny left the bank with the look of a man just seeing the sun again after a long prison term. He walked over and gave Barranca a scratch while Murdoch let out a big sigh of satisfaction. Murdoch put his hands on his lower back and stretched. “Well,” he said, straightening up, “that's taken care of. That piece of property will insure enough water for the west section, even in a dry year. Congratulations, gentlemen, a job well done. What do you say we go over to the Scarlet Lady and get a drink? I'll buy.”

Johnny's head came up and one eyebrow rose in surprise. He looked over at Scott and grinned. “That, sir,” Scott said, “is too good an offer to refuse.”

“Good!” Murdoch started off but stopped abruptly.

“Hold up a minute, boys.” Murdoch stepped forward. “Carl?” he called. “Carl McKeen, is that you?”

Scott watched as a ruggedly built, middle-aged man who had just left the freight office turned at Murdoch's call. He was about medium height with a barrel chest and a truly magnificent moustache that was just starting to go gray.

“Murdoch Lancer, you old dog. I was wonderin' if I'd get a chance to see you.”

The two men came together and clasped hands. Murdoch slapped the shorter man on the back. “Carl, what are you doing here? I haven't seen you in almost a year.”

“A little business brought me over this way. I'm glad to find you here in town.”

“ We just finished up some business of our own at the bank…” Murdoch glanced back at his sons. “Come over here, Carl.” He took McKeen's arm and steered him over to Johnny and Scott.

“Boys, I'd like you to meet a good friend of mine. This is Carl McKeen. He owns a nice spread over toward Modesto. Carl, I'd like you to meet my boys. This is Scott, my eldest.”

McKeen nodded and extended his hand.

“And this,” Murdoch rested his hand on Johnny's shoulder, “is Johnny.”

McKeen's eyes narrowed and his hands rested conspicuously on his hips. “Oh, I've heard about this one. You're that gunslinger, Johnny Madrid, aren't you?”

Johnny's eyes hardened and Scott watched as he relaxed into an insolent slouch but before Johnny could say anything, Murdoch's hand tightened on his shoulder and pulled him back a little. The rancher stepped forward to tower over McKeen.

“Yes, he was Johnny Madrid.” Murdoch said. “And he wasn't just a gunfighter, he was the best. Now he's Johnny Lancer, rancher, and if his performance to date is any indication, he's going to be one of the best at that too. But know this, Carl.” Murdoch leaned in even closer. “No matter which name he answers to, he has always been my son. Understood?”

Carl's eyes were locked on Murdoch's. He nodded. “Nice to meet you,” he muttered, his eyes shifting to a space somewhere between the two boys. He nodded once more, turned on his heel and retreated down the boardwalk.

Murdoch watched him go. Johnny watched Murdoch. Scott watched them both.

Murdoch shook his head, his eyes never leaving McKeen's broad back. “Never did like that man.”

They had just started back down the boardwalk when Murdoch groaned. Scott would later swear that his father was looking for a hiding place. But it was too late. The Widow was almost upon them.

The Lancer men stood aside to let her pass. She inclined her head toward the big rancher. “Murdoch,” she said. She nodded coolly to Scott as she passed him. She stopped in front of Johnny.

“Well, Mr. Madrid.” She looked him up and down from beneath the shelter of her parasol. “Word went around that you had left our fair community. How unfortunate that, like most gossip, that information proved to be incorrect. I so hoped that your father had listened to me and thrown you out.”

“Clarissa!” Murdoch hissed.

She snapped her parasol shut and turned toward him, stalking back to stand toe to toe with the huge man. “Don't you Clarissa me, Murdoch Lancer. I have told you repeatedly that killer of yours is a danger to the entire community.” Murdoch started to say something but the widow poked him in the stomach. “Don't interrupt. But have you listened to me? No. Instead you've clasped that serpent to your heart. Well, you'll just have to learn the hard way. I only hope the rest of us don't have to suffer for your mistake.”

The vein in Murdoch's forehead was throbbing and his complexion was turning purple. “Goddamn it, woman…” he started.

Clarissa brought the point of her parasol down hard on the top of Murdoch's foot. “Don't you dare use that kind of language with me, Murdoch Lancer. I'm a lady and I will not abide that sort of talk.” She snapped her parasol open and, turning, swept on down the boardwalk.

Johnny tipped his hat as she passed. “You have a real nice day, ma'am.”

She hesitated, gave a very unladylike sniff and continued on.

Murdoch was leaning against the building, holding his injured foot and cussing under his breath.

“Do you think we should take you down to Sam's, sir?” Scott asked.

Johnny shot him a look and leaned over to stare at Murdoch's dusty boot. “Do you suppose it's broke?”

“I don't need to see Sam, and no, it's not broken,” Murdoch snapped. He put his foot down and tried to stand squarely but listed rather badly to the left. “It's just that…Damn it, that is the most infuriating woman!”

Johnny grinned. “Don't let her bother you, Murdoch. She's just an old harridan.”

Scott's head came up as Murdoch turned a surprised look on his younger son. “What?”

“You know, a harridan. It means a hag, a witch, a mean old biddy.”

Murdoch's face still held an amazed expression.

Johnny shook his head. “Never mind, Scott can help you look it up in that big ol' book of yours when you two get home but meanwhile, I want that beer that you promised – if you're up to it.”

Murdoch growled out something unintelligible. They turned and started off with Murdoch hitching along, trying to keep up with his younger son.

Johnny stopped and looked up with a sparkle in his eye. “Say, old man, you need a shoulder to lean on? Looks like that old lady beat you up pretty good.”

“What? No I don't need any help. I'm just fine.” Murdoch attempted to even out his stride.

“Yeah? Well for somebody who's just fine, you're limpin' like a three legged dog in a cactus patch.”

“Now see here young man, I'll have you know…”

Scott smiled as he followed them down the boardwalk. Murdoch slipped his arm around Johnny's shoulder and a big smile bloomed on Scott's face. He hadn't noticed before what a really pretty day it was.


 

~end~

 

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