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Terri

 

 

Abandoned Hope

Rated: PG, there may be some violence, but nothing too graphic  

Chapter One

Johnny dragged himself toward the house, dreading the confrontation that he was sure was coming.The constant worry and arguing was getting to him, and he was beginning to wonder if it was worth it.  He had been at Lancer for almost a year now, and up until a few months ago he had known that it was the right decision.  He had hated his life as a gunfighter, and had reveled in the feeling of family and belonging that Lancer had given him.  He had felt at peace here; for the first time in his life he had felt safe.

It had been hard at first, but he had done his best to fit in and live by the myriad of rules that his father had imposed.  It had been hard, but even as he grumbled and argued, he knew deep down that his father was right, and a part of him secretly delighted in the fact that Murdoch cared enough to take the time to be concerned about what he did.  Johnny Madrid had given a token protest about disappearing into the background, but Johnny Lancer was determined to have a home and a family, and was willing to battle to the death for that right.

Six months ago Johnny Lancer knew he was going to win this battle with his nemesis.  Things started to smooth out for him.  Getting up at the crack of dawn and working hard all day no longer fazed him, and Murdoch's complaints about Johnny's actions had virtually disappeared.  He had been accepted by everyone on the ranch, and most of the people in the neighboring towns.  Murdoch had made it clear to him that those that still harbored resentment or fear about having an ex-gunfighter in their midst could take a long walk off a short pier.  It had surprised Johnny to know that his father was on his side, at least most of the time, when it didn't involve Johnny Madrid.But more than that, he felt like he belonged, really belonged.  He was home.

Johnny glanced up as the hacienda got closer and noticed the lights were still on downstairs, a sure sign that someone was waiting up for him.  Since he knew they had been informed that he was all right, there was only one reason for anyone to be waiting up.  He sighed, resigning himself to the fact that there would be another argument tonight before he could go to bed.

He hesitated a moment with his hand on the door, steeling himself for the confrontation that was looming, and then with a deep breath pushed the door open.  Murdoch was sitting in his customary place at his desk, looking out at nothing.  Johnny waited for his father to acknowledge his presence, and for one brief moment he thought that he might be able to turn and walk up the stairs without being questioned.  A moment later, however, Murdoch swung the chair around and fixed his younger son with an unfriendly stare.

“Are you all right?”

Johnny nodded.

“How many does that make this month?”

Johnny returned the stare.  “It's not like I'm goin' out lookin' for trouble.”

“You don't HAVE to!  It obviously finds you!”

Johnny's head dropped.  “I warned you when I came here that this could happen.  If I could change it I would, but I can't. What do you want me to do?  Let them gun me down?”

Murdoch sighed.  “I don't know what the answer is.  But it has to stop.  Every time you go into town I wonder if you'll come back.  Scott and Teresa are a wreck, and for that matter, so am I.  Maybe you should forget about going into town and just stay around the ranch for a while.”

“I ain't gonna be in prison.  Besides, do you think they wouldn't come out here after me?  It's better it happens in town, that way none of you are involved.”

Murdoch jumped to his feet.  “We ARE involved!  Every time you get in a fight and somebody dies it affects all of us, and it affects this ranch!  It CANNOT continue!”

Johnny fixed his father with a stare.  “Do you want me to leave?” he asked softly.

Murdoch shook his head. “NO!  But we have to do something to stop the fights.”

“Well, if you have an idea, I'm all ears.”

Murdoch sat back down and sent some papers flying in frustration.  “Why are they after you all of a sudden?  It only started a few months ago.  There must be a reason.”

Johnny shook his head in resignation.  “It just took ‘em that long ta figure out where I was.  Before I was on the move all the time and if someone wanted a fight they'd have to find me.  Now they know where I am.”  He shook his head again.  “I'm a sittin' duck here, and so are the rest of you if somebody wants ta play dirty.  Maybe I SHOULD leave.”   Johnny watched as his father hesitated just a second too long before answering, and his heart dropped.

Murdoch dropped his eyes and then slowly shook his head. “That's not the answer.   I think there's more to it than men just trying to get a reputation.  There's been too many of them, and several have tried to bushwhack you.  If they were out for a reputation, that's not the way they'd go about it.”

“Sometimes men don't care how they get somebody.  They don't care if it was a fair fight as long as they can say they won.”

Murdoch sighed.  “Do you REALLY think that's what it is?  That there's nothing more?” 

Johnny shrugged uneasily.  “What else could there be?”

“I don't know, but it seems like an awful lot of men are interested in taking you down all of a sudden.”

Johnny nodded thoughtfully.  “Yeah, it does.  Maybe I'll go into town tomorrow mornin' and see if I can get any answers outta that idiot that tried to take me today.”

Murdoch looked up in surprise.  “He's not dead?”

Johnny smiled wryly.  “Nope, he wasn't good enough ta kill.  I coulda smoked a cigarette before I drew and he'd a still been slower than me.”

Murdoch snorted.  “That's not what Tom said.  He said the guy was fast.”

Johnny grinned.  “Obviously, he wasn't fast enough.”  At Murdoch's dark look, Johnny quickly got back to the subject he was dreading.  “Look, Murdoch, I'm sorry about the fights and I don't want to take a chance on any of you getting' hurt.  If it keeps up, maybe it'd be better if I left for a while, at least until things calm down.”

Murdoch looked into his son's eyes and then slowly nodded.

 

 

Chapter Two

Johnny rode into Green River the next morning and went straight to Val's office.  He walked in and, as usual, caught the lawman with his feet up on his desk, sound asleep.  Johnny walked over to the coffee pot and helped himself to a cup, trying not to grimace at the rusty taste.  He looked over once more to where Val was snoring and walked to the back where the cells were.

The young Mexican was sitting on the floor with his arm in a sling, obviously Sam's handiwork. The man looked up when Johnny walked in and shot him a look of undisguised hatred.

Johnny smiled slightly and spoke to the man in his native tongue.  “You ought to be glad that you're still alive.  I could have just killed you.”

The man continued to glare, and Johnny tried again.  “Why were you after me?  You're no gunfighter.”  The man dropped his eyes and shrugged.  Johnny took a step closer as he studied the man.  “Who paid you?”

The Mexican's startled glance told Johnny he was on the right track.  “How much?”

The man turned his head toward the wall.

Johnny took a hold of the bars.  “Listen, friend, you have a choice.  You can either wait until the sheriff lets you out of here and you can try again, in which case I'll kill you, or you can tell me what I want to know.  If you tell me the truth and promise you won't go after me again I'll make sure you're released soon, and I'll give you one hundred dollars for your trouble.”

The man thought for a few minutes and weighed his options.  Finally he shrugged.  “Five thousand,” he grudgingly admitted. 

Johnny had to make an effort to keep his mouth from dropping open.  Five thousand dollars was a fortune, especially to a poor Mexican.  No wonder attackers were coming at him from all sides.  “Who paid you?”  He repeated.

“Nobody paid me yet.  Not until you were dead.” 

“Who is putting up the money?”

The man shrugged again.  “Senor Lopez.”

Johnny's brows knitted in confusion.  The name wasn't familiar.  “Where is he from?”

“Hermosillo.”

Again, Johnny was confused.  He couldn't remember anyone from around there that might have a grudge against him.

“Did the man say why?”

The man shook his head.  “He just said he would pay five thousand dollars to anyone who killed Johnny Madrid.”

“How did you know where I was?”

“He told me.  He has told everyone.  He said you were living at a ranch in Morro Coyo.”

“Did he say anything else?  Did he say who I was living with?  Or exactly where?”

The man shook his head.  “Just that Johnny Madrid was in Morro Coyo, and anyone who killed him would get five thousand dollars.”

Johnny sighed.  He would have to get to the bottom of this before he could even think about returning to Lancer.  And even if he went down to Mexico and took care of the problem, he doubted if he could return home, at least until things settled down.  Too many people would know where he was, and gunmen would be showing up for a long time to come in the hopes of taking him.  Even if Murdoch were willing to put up with it, which he doubted, Johnny wouldn't put his family in danger.  It looked like Johnny Madrid would get the last laugh after all.

He reached into his pocket and pulled out a hundred dollar bill that he had won in a poker game the previous night, before the fight had ruined the evening, and he tossed it into the cell.  The man scrambled over and grabbed it and Johnny turned and walked woodenly out to the front where Val was still snoring.  He shoved his friend's boots off of the desk and waited for the fireworks.

Val came up spluttering, but when he went for his gun, Johnny grabbed his friend's arm.  “Take it easy, Val, it's just me.”

Val squinted at the gunfighter.  “You of all people should know better that ta wake a man like that.  You're lucky I didn't shoot your head off.”

Johnny smiled at the thought of Val ever being able to take him by surprise.  “Now Val, you know that'll never happen.  Besides, I had ta wake you up.  What if the townspeople had seen you sleepin' on the job?”

“None of their business.” Val said grouchily.  He fixed his friend with what was supposed to be an intimidating scowl.  “What do you want, anyway?”

“I want you ta wait three or four hours and then turn my friend in there loose.”

“Why in tarnation would I do that?”

“Because I gave him my word.”

“When?  Before or after ya shot him?”

“Just now, when you were sleepin'.  Now are you going to do what I told ya to do or not?”

“He's just gonna go after you again.”  Val looked at Johnny suspiciously.  “Or is that what you had in mind?”

Johnny glared at the lawman.  “NO!  And besides, if you wait a few hours, he won't be able ta catch me.”

Val shook his head in confusion.  “All he has ta do is ride out to the ranch.”

Johnny shook his head sadly.  “I ain't gonna be there.  I'm gonna go back to Mexico.”

Val sat up in his chair, almost tipping it over in the process.  He knew how much his friend hated his old life.  “WHY?” he exploded.

Johnny shrugged.  “I don't have a choice.  Somebody has a reward out on me and is lettin' hired guns know where I am.  If I don't do somethin' ta stop it, they'll just keep comin'.”

Val stared at Johnny.  “Does Murdoch know you're leavin'?”

Johnny nodded.  “He knows.”

“And he's OK with it?”

Johnny nodded again.

Val looked at his friend suspiciously.  “What about Scott?  I can bet HE'S not OK with it.”

Johnny sighed.  “Val, let it go.  I don't have a choice.”  He smiled wryly.  “Besides, you and I both know it was too good ta last.”  Johnny clapped his friend on the back.  “See ya around.”

 

 

Chapter Three

Six hours later Val rode into the Lancer courtyard.  He had kept his word to his friend and let the prisoner go, but he had kept him longer than Johnny had asked, and had made sure the man knew exactly what would happen to him if he went after Johnny again.  Satisfied that his prisoner was sufficiently cowed and headed south after he was released, Val left town and rode out to the ranch.  He was hoping that Johnny had at least gone home one last time before taking off and that he could catch his friend and try to talk some sense into him.  The problem was, he really couldn't come up with a plan that made sense that didn't involve Johnny's leaving.  Maybe Scott could figure something out.  Johnny was always saying that his brother was smart.

Val climbed down off of his horse and glanced around, but there was no sign of the Palomino.  Hoping he wasn't too late, he walked into the house and yelled.  Murdoch immediately answered, and the lawman nearly ran into Murdoch when he entered the great room.

“Val, anything wrong?”  Murdoch asked worriedly.

“Is Johnny here?”

Murdoch shook his head.  “I thought he'd gone into town to talk to the man he fought yesterday.  Didn't he show up?”

Val could hear the strain in Murdoch's voice and he sighed.  “Yeah, he showed up all right.  He talked to the man and then told me he was leavin' and goin' back to Mexico.” Val glared at Murdoch.  “He said you knew about it.” 

Murdoch sat down abruptly on the nearby chair.  “I didn't think he was going to leave now.”

“But he DID tell you he was leaving.”

Murdoch shook his head.  “He said if they kept coming after him that he might leave for a while.  I agreed with him because I was worried he was too vulnerable here.  But I never thought he'd just take off without discussing it some more.”

Val sighed.  “You know as well as I do that's not how Johnny works.  If he had made up his mind ta leave, he wouldn't put it off.”

“But what made him decide so quickly?  He talked to the man who he was in the fight with, did he find out something?”

“Yeah.  Apparently somebody in Mexico put a bounty on Johnny's head.  Johnny's goin' down ta Mexico ta try to figure out why, and see if he can stop it.”

“Stop what?”  Scott asked as he walked into the room.

Val looked at Scott suspiciously.  “What about you?  Did you know he was leavin' too?”

“Who was leaving?”

“Johnny.  Did Johnny tell you he was leaving Lancer?”

“No, he didn't,” he said slowly. Scott turned and looked at his father.   “Did YOU know?”

Murdoch sighed.  “As I just explained to Val, I didn't think he was really serious, and I THOUGHT he'd discuss it first instead of just running off.  I agreed that he might have to leave, but I was only thinking about his safety.”

“He TOLD you he was leaving, and you agreed with him?”  Scott asked in disbelief.

Murdoch nodded his head miserably.

Scott turned once more to Val.  “Where is he headed?”

“According to the prisoner, he's headed to Hermosillo.”

Scott shot Murdoch a black look.  “I'll be back as soon as I can.  I'm going after him.”

Val reached out and grabbed Scott's arm.  “Hold on a minute.  Johnny doesn't need you goin' down there and getting' into trouble.  He knows what he's doin' and you don't.”

Scott jerked his arm from Val's grip.  “I have no intention of getting into trouble, but I AM going after my brother.  I'm not going to lose him now, and if some madman put a bounty on him, he's in danger and may need help.”

“Scott, you don't know your way around down there.  You're the one that's gonna wind up needin' help.  Johnny can take care of himself.”

“That's just it!”  Scott exploded.  “He doesn't HAVE to take care of himself anymore.”  He glared at his father.  “That's what families are for.  They take care of each other no matter what.”

Murdoch nodded.  “Scott's right.  Johnny might need help, and it's up to his family to help him.”

Scott nodded at his father.  “At least we agree on SOMETHING.  I'll keep you informed and I'll be back as soon as I can.”

“There'll be no need.  I'm going with you.”

Scott looked at his father in surprise.  “You?”

Murdoch nodded.  “I know my way around down there and you don't.  I have no intention of losing EITHER of my sons.”

Val snorted on frustration.  “NEITHER of you know your way around well enough.  Besides, things have changed down there the last couple of years.  The Rurales are real unfriendly toward Gringos lately.  You'll both be walkin' into a lion's den.  The best thing for you to do is ta cool your heels and wait ‘till Johnny shows up.”

“And what if he doesn't?”  Scott asked in exasperation.

“He will.  He always does.”

Murdoch shook his head.  “I'm not willing to take that chance.  Besides, he doesn't have a real good relationship with the Rurales either.”

Val nodded reluctantly.  “You're right about that.   But I still think you're makin' a mistake.  Johnny's gonna have a fit when he finds out I let you go down there, and I have the feelin' I'm gonna have ta go down and rescue all of ya.”

Murdoch smiled.  “We'll be fine, Val.  You worry too much.  We'll find Johnny and take care of the bounty business and be back at the ranch in time for Christmas.  I'll leave Jelly and Cipriano in charge, and have Maria stay at the house with Teresa.  I'd appreciate it if you'd check on things once in a while when we're gone.”

Val sighed.  “All right, but you make sure you stay outta trouble, or Johnny'll have my head.” 

Murdoch smiled at the sheriff.  “Don't worry, Val, we'll be careful.  And thanks.”

Val nodded once more.  “You just bring Johnny back, you hear?  He belongs at Lancer.  He don't deserve any more trouble. ”

“I promise, Val, we'll bring him home.”

 

 

Chapter Four

Johnny rode into Mexicali late in the afternoon five days later.  He was somewhat surprised and saddened at just how easy it was to go back to his old routine.  With each passing mile a piece of Johnny Lancer had fallen off, only to be replaced with Johnny Madrid.  Now, several hundred miles to the south, the gunfighter was firmly, and Johnny suspected permanently, back in charge.

With an effort he pushed all thoughts of his family and home into the dark recesses of his mind and concentrated on the task at hand.  He needed to get down to Hermosillo and try to find Senor Lopez and find out just what in the heck was going on.  As far as he knew, he had never met the man before, but the man had to have a good reason to hate him.  Five thousand dollars was a lot of money.

After he took care of Lopez, he figured he'd just wander for a while.  He wasn't going to kid himself; he'd probably be wandering the rest of his life.  He knew he couldn't go back to Lancer right away, and he figured that by the time it would be safe it would be too late.  Well, he'd given ranching a shot and it just hadn't worked out.  Just like he'd given having a home and family a try.  It wasn't anybody's fault; it was just the way things were sometimes.  It wasn't meant to be.  His fate had been mapped out a long time ago, and he'd been a fool to think he could change it.

He rode up the middle of the street, not trying to draw attention to himself, but not avoiding it, either.  He'd rather not get distracted with gunfights until he settled the matter with Lopez, but he knew that was probably asking too much.  Sometime between now and when he reached Hermosillo he would get called out, maybe more than once.  For now, all he wanted was a hot meal, a hot bath, and a soft bed.

He had checked his funds before he had left, and he figured he had enough for a couple of months if he wasn't too extravagant.  He had been pretty lucky at poker lately and hadn't had time to put any of the money in the bank.  He knew neither Murdoch nor Scott would have objected if he had taken some money from the account, but for some reason it hadn't seemed right.  He didn't think of it as his money any more.  He had left with his gun, his rifle and a few clothes.  The only things he had taken that he hadn't brought with him when he had first come to Lancer was Barranca, a watch his father had given him, and a small picture of his brother.  It wasn't enough, but it would have to do.

Johnny sauntered into the saloon that also served as a hotel and ordered a shot of tequila.  He glanced around the room and was relieved to see that no one was paying any attention to him.  He took his drink and went over to a corner table, sitting so his back was to the wall and he had a view of the entire room.  With a sigh he sat down and tilted his chair back, resting his feet on a nearby chair.

An hour or so later, a man walked in, setting Johnny's nerves jangling.  He immediately sat up and kept his eyes on the stranger as the man ordered a drink and glanced around the room.  His eyes came to rest on Johnny, and he headed toward the table where Johnny sat.  “You are in my seat, amigo.”

Johnny's eyes perused the man, noting the low- slung holster and the cocky look on the man's face.  “I ain't your amigo.”

The man's eyes narrowed.  “You are still in my seat.”

Johnny shrugged.  “Don't see no name on it.”

The man glowered at Johnny before replying.  “That is my seat, and you either get out of it now, or we will go outside and settle this.”  He fingered his holster suggestively.  “Now are you going to get out of my chair?”

“Nope.”  Johnny casually took a sip of tequila.

The man looked at Johnny in disbelief.  “Do you know who I am?”

Johnny smiled.  “Nope, and I don't really care.”

“I am Miguel Juan Corrales,” the man said proudly.

“Miguel Juan Corrales?”  Johnny asked in astonishment.  When the man nodded, Johnny shook his head.  “Never heard of ya.” 

Johnny watched as the man's face turned red and he started spluttering.  “I am a pistolero.  The best pistolero around these parts, the best pistolero in all of Mexico!”

Johnny managed to look impressed.  “Are you as good as Johnny Madrid?”

The question seemed to throw the man for a moment, but then he puffed out his chest.  “Johnny Madrid is the best gunfighter alive, but I am as good.” 

“Well, AMIGO, I guess you're gonna get your chance ta find out.”

The man's eyes narrowed once more, and Johnny figured if this guy thought too much his brain just might explode. The man thought for another moment and then scowled at Johnny.   “What do you mean?”

“First rule of gunfighting.  Know who it is you're callin' out.  Now I know who you are, since you kindly introduced yourself, but you don't have a clue who I am, do ya?”

“It don't matter.”

Johnny smiled and put down his drink.  “OK.”  Johnny stood up and headed for the saloon door, making sure he kept the man in his sight in the one of the many mirrors in the cantina.  He was almost to the door before the man's brain caught up to the conversation.  “Who are you?” the man asked.

Johnny hit the batwing doors and as he pushed his way outside he turned and called over his shoulder.  “Madrid, Johnny Madrid.”

Johnny could hear the sudden silence that enveloped the bar, and he walked out into the street before turning to face the building.  He figured there was about an even chance that the man wouldn't come out.  Ten minutes later he got tired of waiting and walked cautiously back inside the bar.  His friend was nowhere to be seen, and the rest of the patrons were careful not to make eye contact.  He went back to his table and sat down, figuring he had needed to stretch his legs anyway.  The bartender scurried over and placed a bottle of tequila in front of Johnny.  “It's on the house, senor,” he explained nervously.  Johnny nodded and tipped his chair back once more, resting his legs on a nearby chair.

 

 

Chapter Five

The morning after talking to Val, Scott got all of their gear together and made sure it was in good shape and would be able to last on a long trip.  Scott was under no delusions; he knew that even with them knowing where Johnny was supposedly headed that it would take a while to find him.  And if for some reason Johnny didn't go to Hermosillo, or if for some reason they missed him, finding him might very well turn into an impossible task.  He figured at the very minimum, if everything went perfectly, they would be gone for a month.  He didn't think Murdoch would stay away from Lancer much longer than that, and he was somewhat surprised that his father was leaving the ranch for even that period of time.  He himself had already decided that he was going to stay in Mexico as long as it took to find his brother, because he wasn't going to come home without him.

Murdoch spent the morning driving everyone crazy.  He started by going over all of the chores to be done with Jelly.  The old handyman was pretty good at keeping up on things, but Murdoch wanted to make sure he knew about everything.  Jelly kept assuring him he would make sure the place was kept up, but Murdoch was still worried. There were so many things that could go wrong. He made a list of things that needed to be done and gave it to the handyman, who looked at the paper with disgust.

“I've been runnin' this ranch for a good long while,”  Jelly snapped.  “I ain't likely ta forgit how ta do it now, jist cause you'll be gone!  Now go on and git outta here and bring that boy back, ya here?”

Murdoch's next victim was Cipriano, who tried to be patient with his boss.  Murdoch thought he had foreseen every emergency, but he was still a little nervous about leaving.  He had never been away from the ranch for as long as he figured they would be gone, and he was worrying over every detail.  He talked to Cipriano and told the Segundo all of the work that needed to be done, and made sure he knew about all of the upcoming bills that would need to be paid and supplies that would have to be ordered. He warned him about which creeks might flood, and what to do if the cattle got sick.  Finally Cipriano told him in no uncertain terms that he was not to worry, that everything would be fine and that the ranch would still be standing when they all returned.

Murdoch wandered into the house and discussed the financial arrangements with Teresa.  He was planning on leaving a fairly large amount of cash with his ward in case of an emergency, or in case he and Scott were detained for some reason.  He gave her the combination to the safe, and his lawyer's name in case of trouble.  He had already talked to his lawyer and set up an account that could be accessed by Cipriano and Jelly together for ranch expenses.  He stressed to Teresa that she shouldn't make any decision alone, but ask Cipriano and Jelly for help.  For any major problems, she should consult his lawyer, whom he trusted completely.  Finally he was satisfied that she would know what to do in an emergency, and he relaxed slightly.

However, he had one more person to talk to, but when he started in on Maria, she had scolded him soundly.  “You are not going to be gone that long, Senor.  Everything will be fine while you are gone.  The most important thing is to find Juanito and bring him home.  He belongs here.  Your ranch will survive, but you must take care of your family.  Forget about this place, and concentrate on what is important.”

Slightly abashed, Murdoch realized that Maria was right, and he had finally decided that he was leaving the ranch in the best possible hands, and whatever happened was out of his control.  He went to bed feeling somewhat confident that the ranch and Teresa would be fine.

 

The next morning Scott and Murdoch finally had all of their gear packed and were ready to go.  Teresa was trying to put on a brave front and was failing miserably.  Even though her eyes appeared dry, the constant sniffling was a dead give away.  She had gone back and forth between Scott and Murdoch trying to help but had only managed to get in the way.  Finally, Maria took her by the arm.  “Come, Chica.  The men will let us know before they leave.  Help me get breakfast ready.”

  Murdoch watched as his ward reluctantly disappeared into the house and he felt a pang of guilt for leaving her.  He knew she was in good hands, but he had never left her alone before, and he was worried just on general principles. He was grateful that he had Maria and Cipriano, and most of all Jelly, to watch out for the ranch and Teresa while he and the boys were away.  He knew that all three of them would give their lives to protect the girl.

He checked his gear one last time, and then walked with Scott into the kitchen.  The two men sat at the table and ate their meal silently, both of their thoughts miles away.  Finally the inevitable couldn't be put off any longer, and Murdoch stood up and held his arms out to his ward.  Teresa flew into them and hugged him tight, then let go and hugged Scott.  “Be careful, both of you.  And please come home soon.”

Scott nodded as he gently pulled away from his sister.  “We will, and we'll bring Johnny home with us.”

Teresa sniffled and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, then turned toward the sink.  “I guess I'd better get these dishes done.”  Murdoch and Scott watched her a moment, and then slipped out of the house to their waiting horses.  It wasn't until the two men had passed under the arch that Teresa fled to her room.  She had a feeling it was the last time she would ever see then again.

 

 

Chapter Six

Johnny rode into the small town of Galeana late at night.  He quickly got a room, signing the register with a phony name, and went upstairs.  No one spared him a second glance, and he heaved a sigh of relief as he shut the door.  He was only about twenty miles from Hermosillo, and he hoped he could find out some information before he went there.  He figured whoever this Senor Lopez was, he must be fairly well known.  Anyone with that kind of money would have to be.  It still bothered him that he couldn't figure out what was going on, but the name didn't mean anything to him, nor did the town.

The next morning he got up and went over to the cantina.  He figured if there was any news at all to hear, that's where he would hear it.  He ordered breakfast and sat for a long while, listening to the conversations of those around him.  The more he listened, the more confused he got.  Apparently, Senor Lopez had come to this country from Spain barely a year ago.   He had been wealthy in his native country, but over here his money was worth much more.  He was rumored to be one of the richest men in Mexico.  Well, that explained the money, but it didn't explain why Lopez was after him.  A year ago, Johnny was already at Lancer.  It just didn't make sense.

Johnny hung around the cantina most of the day, but didn't find out anything more to enlighten him.  He did hear that Lopez was well liked by the local people, and had a reputation for helping those in need.  Johnny shook his head; it sure didn't sound like a man that would put a five thousand dollar bounty on his head for no reason.

Finally late in the evening he gave up and headed back to his room.  It looked like he would have to go out and confront this Lopez guy and find out just what this was all about, because he sure hadn't been able to find out what he wanted to know so far.

The next morning, Johnny got up early and headed toward the stable where he'd left Barranca the night before.  He really didn't have a plan yet, and probably wouldn't until he saw just what kind of a place he would have to ride into.  He thought briefly about sending Scott and Murdoch a wire, but there were no telegraph offices within hundreds of miles, and besides, if this went wrong, he didn't want them coming down here trying to get revenge. It was dangerous down here for a couple of gringos, and he didn't want them to get hurt. It would be better if he just disappeared.

By late morning, he and Barranca stood on a small hill looking down at an impressive villa.It was easily as large as Lancer, and resembled it in many ways.  A wave of homesickness crashed over him, and he had to fight to keep his mind on the job at hand.  Maybe if he played his cards right, he could go home someday, but for now that meant staying alive and not making stupid mistakes.  He scrutinized the buildings and the neighboring hillside.  It sure didn't seem like this Lopez fellow had any security measures, another puzzle. 

He spent another hour watching and half expecting to get caught, but no one bothered him or, as far as he knew, even saw him.  Finally he decided he'd put off the meeting long enough.  He checked his gun and made sure his knife was where he could reach it easily.  He drew out a small derringer and double- checked it, and then slipped it back into his belt.  Taking a deep breath, he mounted Barranca and turned the horse down the hill toward the hacienda.

 

Two days later, Scott and Murdoch sat on the same hill overlooking the Lopez hacienda.  They looked at each other for a moment, and then pressed their mounts forward.  They knew Johnny had come here.  The man at the stable had positively identified Barranca and said that a man fitting Johnny's description had been asking questions about Senor Lopez and had ridden out in the direction of the hacienda two days previously.

Murdoch had wanted to take time to send a wire to Val, but Scott had been insistent about going after his brother.  He was afraid that if Johnny was in trouble that any delay could cost his brother his life, and Murdoch had finally agreed. It would take quite a while to get to a town with a telegraph office, and Johnny might not have that much time.  Murdoch had promised Val they would wire him as soon as they found out anything, so Murdoch guessed it could wait until they talked to Lopez.

Murdoch looked around as they rode down the hill, and he didn't see anything out of the ordinary. It looked like a typical working ranch, and no one paid them too much attention.  He wasn't sure whether to be relieved or to wonder if it was all a ruse.  He guessed they would find out soon enough.  He and Scott had talked at length, and decided that they wouldn't let Lopez know their relationship to Johnny, at least at first. As things progressed, they'd play it by ear, but Murdoch had no intention of tipping his hand too soon.  In fact, they thought they might inquire about the reward Lopez was offering; maybe they could find out some information that way.

  As they rode down into the courtyard, Scott wondered what they would find.  They hoped Johnny hadn't been reckless enough to just ride into the lion's den, but Scott had to admit that was probably just what his impulsive young brother had done.  Scott shook his head; he didn't understand how Johnny had stayed alive all those years being as reckless as he was.  It was a good thing he had somebody to watch his back now.

 

 

Chapter Seven

An older Mexican met Murdoch and Scott at the door and led them into a large study.  A man about Murdoch's age sat at the desk, sorting through papers.  He didn't notice them for a moment, and then stood and approached them. “Welcome to my home, Senors…?”

“Lancer.”  Murdoch answered.

The man inclined his head.  “And to what do I owe the honor of this visit?”

Scott hesitated and then plunged on.  “We were told that you were offering a reward for killing someone.”

Senor Lopez looked pointedly at Scott's gun.  “You are not a gunfighter.”

Scott shrugged.  “I didn't know that was one of the requirements.”

Senor Lopez smiled.  “I believe in this case, gentlemen, it would be advisable, at least if you want to remain alive.”

“Just who is it the bounty is on?” Murdoch interrupted.

Senor Lopez considered the question for a moment before answering.   “I had a bounty out on Johnny Madrid.”

Scott felt his heart freeze.  “Had?”  He asked.

  Senor Lopez nodded.  “There is no longer any need for the bounty.  The matter has been taken care of.”

“How was it taken care of?”  Murdoch asked hoarsely.

Senor Lopez shrugged.  “That, gentlemen, is my business.  Now if you'll excuse me…..” He turned toward the window and looked out at two horses that were whickering back and forth.

  “Where's my brother?” Scott asked.

The man looked confused. “Your brother?”

“Yes, my brother,” Scott ground out.  “We know he came here.”

The man shook his head.  “I know of no Senor Lancer.  If he came here, I didn't meet him.”  

Scott lunged forward and grabbed the man's shirt as Murdoch desperately tried to pry him off.  “Scott, stop!  This isn't getting us anywhere!”

Finally Murdoch wrestled his son off of Lopez, who drew himself to his full height.  “How dare you come into my house and attack me!  I want you out of my house right now before I call the Rurales!”

Scott glared at the man.  “My brother came here the other day, and I want to know what you did with him!”

  Murdoch reached out and restrained his son, and then took a step forward himself as he drew out his pistol and aimed it at the man.  “If you don't start telling us what we want to know RIGHT NOW, I just might have to use this.  NOW WHERE IS MY SON? 

Senor Lopez glared at Murdoch.  “I already told you, I know of no Senor Lancer.”

“How about Johnny Madrid?” Scott asked quietly.

The man shook his head.  “I don't understand.”

Scott went forward once more and grabbed Lopez's shirt.  “My BROTHER is Johnny Madrid, at least he used to be.  He goes by Lancer now.  Now what did you do with him?”

“I didn't do ANYTHING to him, I swear.”

Scott's grip didn't loosen.  “I don't believe you.”

Senor Lopez struggled to free himself from Scott's grip.  “Let me go.  If you'll calm down, I'll tell you.” He stared into Scott's eyes, and Scott gradually released his grip.

Murdoch cocked the pistol.  “All right, he let you go, now tell us.”

Senor Lopez glared at the two men.  “You are right; he came here two days ago.  But he left after several hours. He said he had to send a telegram.”

Scott approached Lopez again.  “And you expect us to believe that?” he asked incredulously. 

“It is the truth.”  Lopez insisted.

“You let him walk out of here after you had put a five thousand dollar bounty on his head?”  Murdoch asked sarcastically.

Lopez dropped his head and sighed.  “I was mistaken.”

Scott's eyes narrowed.  “What do you mean?”

“My family was killed a year ago.  We were in town and a man rode in; there was gunplay.  The man grabbed my wife and small son and tried to use them as shields to prevent the other men from firing at him.  It worked.”  A tear ran down the man's face.  “My wife and son were gunned down but the man who had hidden behind them escaped unharmed. The man was Johnny Madrid.”

“Johnny wouldn't do that, Scott protested.

Lopez looked up and stared at Scott.  “I had never seen the man before, but I was told that was who had done it.  There were many witnesses, and they all agreed.  Madrid had been causing a lot of problems in the area for quite some time and there was no doubt as to his identity.”

Murdoch shook his head.  “A year ago, Johnny Madrid was at Lancer, where he belonged.”

  Lopez nodded his head.  “I know that now.  The man who came here was not the man who was in town that day.”

Murdoch and Scott both relaxed slightly.  “Then he really did leave and he was all right when he left?”

Lopez smiled.  “I didn't believe him at first, but after he convinced me he was who he said, I told him I was sorry for the problems I had caused and would withdraw the reward.  Now I have to find the true identity of the animal that killed my family.”  He looked at the two men.  “I am sorry for the problems I caused all of you.”

With as sigh, Murdoch nodded and holstered his pistol.  “All right, Scott. Let's go.”  He looked at Lopez.  “Where's the nearest telegraph office?”

“Chihuahua.”

Scott stared at the man a moment longer.  “We're leaving, but if I find out you've lied….'  He let the threat hang in the air as he walked off.

Outside the two men untied their horses, and Charlie started nickering.  “Do you believe him?”  Scott asked.

Murdoch shrugged.  “We don't have any reason not to at this point.  But I'll sure be a lot happier when I find your brother.”

  Scott nodded and let his eyes wander over the surrounding buildings. Charlie nickered again, and this time there was an answering whinny.  A flash of gold caught Scott's eye, and he squinted in order to see it better.  His blood ran cold as he finally made out the familiar shape of Barranca standing in a nearby corral, whinnying at Charlie.

Scott jumped down and ran back into the house, with Murdoch on his heels.  The men burst into the room as Senor Lopez jumped to his feet.  “What do you want now?” he demanded.

Scott once more grabbed the man and this time he drew his own gun and put it to the man's face.  “Where is he?” he ground out.

“I TOLD YOU!”

  “You lied,” Murdoch said more calmly than he felt. “My son would never leave without his horse.”

“Your son's horse twisted a knee when he stepped in a hole coming down the hill. He said he needed to send a telegram and he borrowed another horse.  He said he would be back for the Palomino.”

  Scott looked out at the corral where Barranca was pacing back and forth.  “He isn't lame.”

Lopez sighed.  “Not now.”

“No, and he never was.” Scott cocked the pistol.  “If I don't see my brother in one minute, you're a dead man.”  Scott hauled Lopez to his feet and Lopez wrenched free.  Murdoch tried to grab him, but the man ran around the end of the desk, where he slipped on a rug and fell heavily, hitting his head on the side of the desk.

Scott and Murdoch stared in disbelief at the fallen man, and then Murdoch dropped as he was hit over the head with a club from behind.  Scott spun around just as he felt a blow to his own head, and then everything went dark.

 

 

Chapter Eight

Scott moaned as he woke up.  Even his subconscious knew that his head hurt worse than it ever had in his life.  He opened his eyes, trying to figure out where he was, but he quickly snapped them shut when his vision settled on a cockroach-infested wall.  Swallowing hard, he tried desperately to control the panic that was trying to invade his mind.  All he could think of was the filthy and insect infested quarters where he had been kept as a prisoner of war.

All of the horror of that time came rushing back, and he came close to losing control. He concentrated on his breathing and tried to think of other things, good things, anything to get his mind off of those horrific memories.  He thought about Lancer and Teresa, he thought about Charlie and the upcoming dance.  Finally, his breathing evened out, and he was able to push the bad memories to the back of his mind.

As he managed to control his breathing, he said a short prayer, hoping that what he had experienced was just a nightmare, and when he looked again he would recognize the familiar walls of the hacienda. He waited a moment, and then cautiously opened one eye. With another moan, he slammed his eye shut against reality.

He lay there, once again trying to get his mind to block out the nightmare from his past.  After a few moments, he was once again successful and he opened his eyes and looked around.  He was in a dark filthy cell with a dirt floor.  His leg was shackled to a ring in the wall, and he was barely able to make out the scummy bucket of water in the opposite corner.  It was dark inside his prison, but he was able to see the walls; barely five feet away; not even far enough to stretch out.

He tried to avoid looking at those walls; he didn't need to look to know that his new home was infested.  He could almost feel the vermin attacking his body, and he resisted an impulse to scratch frantically at his skin, knowing all too well that even a small break in the skin could mean agonizing death from infection in places like this.

He felt something scrambling up his leg and he tried to jump up, but he had forgotten about the shackles, and when the chain tightened he crashed onto his side.   He lay there stunned for a few moments, trying to get air back into his lungs, and then he cautiously rolled back over onto his back and sat up.  He tried desperately to think what had happened, and how he had gotten into this predicament, but the last thing he remembered was leaving Lancer with Murdoch to go after Johnny.  After that, everything was a blur.

He wondered if Murdoch was in this place, too, and the thought shocked him, sending him once more lunging to his feet.  A wave of dizziness came over him, and he grabbed the wall to keep from falling.  He felt his hand come down on a large bug, and felt the insect crunch between his fingers.  He hurriedly jerked his hand away from the wall and wiped them on his pants.  He looked down and realized that he wasn't wearing his normal attire, but instead he was dressed in what looked suspiciously like filthy pajamas.  He supposed they had once been white, but now they were a stained and dingy gray.

A memory nagged at him, but he brushed it off.  He needed to find Murdoch and figure out where he was.  He went over to the one small window that was cut in the door and tried to look out, but it was blocked by something.  Undeterred, he summoned all of his strength and started to yell.  “Murdoch!”

He waited a moment, and then tried again.  “MURDOCH!”

He waited for an answer before he yelled once more.  “MURDOCH! ARE YOU THERE?”

  In reply, the door slammed open, catching him in the shoulder and knocking him backwards.  Before he could react, someone yelled at him in a familiar language, and a bucket of ice- cold water drenched him.  He gasped aloud at the shock, and another sheet of water came hurling at him.  He turned away from the jailer and shoved his head against the roach infested wall to keep from getting the water in his face. With a curse, the jailer threw the bucket at him and slammed the door.

Scott cautiously turned away from the wall and sank down to his knees on the floor.  He had a horrible suspicion he knew where he was, and the thought was not very reassuring.  He sat there for quite a while, once again trying to deal with the panic that was threatening to overwhelm him.  Finally, the pain in his head forced him to close his eyes, and he drifted into a troubled sleep.

 

Murdoch startled awake, thinking he was hearing his name being called.  He jumped to his feet and hit his head against the short ceiling.  He grabbed his already aching head and cursed softly as he stooped over and then sat down on the cold ground.  He looked down at his chained leg, and then glanced around in confusion, trying to get his bearings.  He knew he was in a cell, but he wasn't sure where. He listened to someone nearby yelling, and then looked down at his clothes in dismay.  Within seconds he knew exactly where he was.  With a groan he leaned back against the wall, wondering if Scott was all right.  He hoped to God his son wasn't in this place, too, or the chances of them getting out were almost nil.

As he sat there, he remembered what had happened.  Evidently one or more of Lopez's men had taken them by surprise.  He didn't remember getting knocked out, but he'd had it happen enough to recognize the feeling.  He sighed as he thought about his sons.  He had no way of knowing if Scott was all right, and after meeting Lopez, it was looking pretty bleak for Johnny.  He shut his eyes.  If his sons were really dead, then he didn't care whether he ever got out of this place or not.   He looked around and watched the roaches on the wall with disinterest.  He never figured he'd wind up dying in a Mexican prison.

 

 

Chapter Nine

Johnny rode back into Galeana and got a room at the local cantina.  Even if he were welcome, it was just too long of a ride out to Lopez's hacienda, and he wasn't entirely comfortable with the man.  He figured he'd get a much more restful sleep in town.  He planned on waiting until tomorrow and then riding out there first thing in the morning to collect Barranca; he couldn't wait to get the palomino back.  Lopez had loaned him a good horse, but the gelding just didn't have Barranca's class.  He didn't have the stamina, either, and it had taken him longer than planned to get back here. He just hoped the palomino's knee was better; he didn't want to stay down here any longer.  He was anxious to get home.

He checked into the hotel using a fictitious name, and arranged for dinner and a bath to be sent up to his room.  He was going to take no chances of getting into a fight.  Not tonight, anyway, he was just too tired.

After he had left Lopez's rancho, he had ridden to Chihuahua in order to send a telegram to Val.  He had wired the sheriff that he was fine and that he and Barranca were heading home; he knew the sheriff would relay the message to his family.  The Old Man was probably pretty mad at him, but he figured that at least Teresa and Scott would be glad to see him.  At least he hoped they would, Scott was probably pretty mad at him, too.  

Before he had talked to Lopez, he had been pessimistic about ever going back to Lancer.  However, after Lopez had assured him he would do everything he could to call off the bounty hunters, he had finally decided he'd go back, at least for a little while, and discuss it with his family.  If Murdoch, or even Scott, thought it would be safer for the rest of them if he left for a while, he would.  He would leave it up to them. He knew now, though, that this life was no longer for him.  He would do everything he could to go home as soon as possible.

Johnny shook his head as he recalled what Lopez had told him about what had happened to Lopez's family.  All he needed was some overzealous, kill happy kid going by the name of Johnny Madrid to ruin everything. He'd be lucky if there were no more bounties put out on him before the idiot managed to get himself killed.

Lopez had assured him he would make sure everyone knew the bounty he had put out was a mistake, and Johnny had believed him.  Now the only problem that remained was the guy who was cashing in on Johnny's name.  After thinking about it though, Johnny thought that might just be a blessing in the long run, provided that “Johnny Madrid” got himself killed pretty soon, and everyone knew it.  Johnny smiled.  With any luck, he'd run into the famous gunfighter before he got home and he could help him along.

Right now, all he wanted to do was to get Barranca and head north.  He sure hoped his compadre was all right.  He'd hated leaving him with strangers, but Lopez was so eager to make amends that he was sure the man would treat the palomino right.  Johnny smirked.  He wasn't sure if Lopez was really sorry for causing an innocent man all of the trouble that he had, or if Lopez was simply scared to death of the real Johnny Madrid, but either way, the man had seemed sincere in his apologies.

 

The next morning a much- rested Johnny rode out to the Lopez ranch.  He once more stopped on the hill and looked down at the scene, old habits making him cautious.  He noted immediately that there seemed to be a lot of commotion.  A covered wagon was pulled up to the front of the hacienda, and men were loading luggage into the back.  Johnny watched for several moments to see what was going on.  He saw the man that had taken Barranca from him checking the harness on the horses pulling the wagon, and he rode down. 

“Hola, Ramiro.”

The man glanced up at him and nodded.  “Senor Madrid.  Your horse has recovered nicely.  He should be ready to ride, if you take it slow.”

Johnny nodded.  “Gracias, amigo.”  Johnny stepped off of his horse and pointed to the wagon.  “Someone leaving?  he asked curiously.

Ramiro nodded gravelly.  “Si, Senor Lopez is going back to Spain.”

Johnny's brows furrowed. Lopez hadn't said anything to him about returning to his native land anytime soon.  Johnny was sure the man hadn't had time to do much yet about stopping the bounty hunters.  “Why is he leaving?” 

Ramiro sighed and took a step closer to Johnny.  “He said he has had enough of this lawless land.”

“What happened?”

Ramiro nodded.  “Some gringos came here three days ago.  They fought with Senor Lopez, and he was badly injured.

Johnny's head dropped for a moment.  “I'm sorry.”

Ramiro nodded.  “Senor Lopez was…is a good man.”  His expression turned black.  “I hope those two gringos rot in hell for what they did.”

“What did they want?”

Ramiro shook his head.  “I do not know, and Senor Lopez does not remember.  The doctor said he would probably never remember.”  Ramiro shook his head.  “He didn't even know me when he woke up.  Since then, his memory has come back a little; he knows who he is and where he is, but that's about all.  He remembers nothing of the last several months.”

  Johnny sighed.  He hated to bring it up, but he had to know.  “Ramiro, did Senor Lopez get a chance to call off the bounty hunters?”

  Ramiro shook his head.  “No, senor.  I will do what I can, but he is in no shape to do it himself at this point.  I am sorry.”

Johnny closed his eyes.  He hoped those gringos rotted in hell, too.

 

 

Chapter Ten

Murdoch opened his eyes and stared dully at the wall in his cell.  He had already lost track of how long he had been in this hell.  It felt like it had been years, but he had the sneaking suspicion it had only been a week or so.  In that time, he hadn't talked to anyone.  Once a day the door slammed open and a jailer would shove a plate and a bucket in his direction, and then the door would slam shut.  He had tried to ask the jailer why he was here, but the man never said a word.  He didn't even look at Murdoch but ignored him as he would any inferior creature.

Murdoch looked at the plate he had received today and almost retched.  A gray piece of meat that was mostly gristle and fat floated in a weak bowl of broth.  A moldy piece of bread sat next to the soup.   He knew he needed to eat in order to keep up his strength, but so far he hadn't been able to convince his stomach of that.  The one time he had managed to get the food down, it had come back up almost immediately.

He idly wondered if Scott and Johnny were still alive.  It seemed doubtful, but if they were alive he hoped they were far away from this place.  He put his head in his hands and sighed.  All of the times he had tried to get Johnny to talk about his past, one of the things he had wanted to know was just what it was like in prison.  Well now he had first hand knowledge, and he didn't blame Johnny for not wanting to talk about it.  Murdoch snorted.  Both of his sons had been in similar hell –holes and it was a wonder they came away from the experience with their sanity intact.  They were better men than he was, that's for sure.  He could already feel himself starting to give up and stop caring.  It was so easy when there was no hope of getting out, and he knew that the chances of him getting out of this place were slim to none.

There was a slight chance if Scott had made it home, but he was afraid that hadn't happened.  If Johnny was still alive he knew that his younger son would look, but again, he doubted if Johnny had survived his encounter with Lopez.  The man was too sure that Madrid would no longer be a problem.  He figured Val or maybe Cipriano would look for them, but with Lopez's money, he knew from experience that his friends would run into nothing but dead ends. No, there was no use in nurturing false hope; he would be stuck in this prison until he died.

 

Scott opened his eyes and stared down at his legs. He made a point of looking anywhere but the walls.  He KNEW the bugs were there, but he had convinced himself that if he didn't see them, they weren't around.  He reached over and pulled the plate closer and took a tentative bite.  He had learned when he was a prisoner of war not to inspect the food too closely; if you didn't know what you were eating it made it a lot easier to choke it down.  And he HAD to eat in order to remain strong.  He was determined to get out of this place, no matter what it took.

  He was hopeful that his father was in here somewhere.  He figured that they wouldn't have let Murdoch go, and he refused to accept that he had been killed, so the only other possibility was that his father was in this prison.  Together they could figure a way out of this place if they could just get together and talk.  He hoped that his solitary confinement was temporary and he would soon be put in with other prisoners.  When that happened, it would be one step closer to freedom. 

He harbored no illusions; he knew the chances of anyone finding out where they were and getting them out were remote.  He had learned just how hard it was to find out information about a prisoner from reading the Pinkerton report on Johnny.  It had taken many months and a substantial amount of money before the information on Johnny's whereabouts had gotten out to the detective agency, and that was just for information. 

To actually try to get someone out of a place like this was almost impossible.  There were too many safeguards and too many people that would want their cut of the bribe money.  No, if they were to get out, they would have to do it on their own, and Scott was determined to do it.  He would fight for his freedom until his dying breath.  There was no way he was going to stay locked up the rest of his life.

He knew that when he had been in prison camp during the war that most men died because they had given up hope and calmly accepted death.  To them, death wasn't merely the best way out of their predicament, it was the only way.  Scott shuddered when he thought about Paul Gault, who had been captured at about the same time as Scott.  Paul had sunk deeper and deeper into depression as the time went by, and was one of the few men who had refused to try to escape.  When Scott had tried to talk him into it, Paul said he was merely accepting the inevitable.  Paul had died two days before the end of the war.  Two days before they were freed, Paul had taken his own life because he said he couldn't take prison any more.

It had been a harsh lesson for Scott; no matter how bleak things look, you never know what's in your future, so you would be a fool to ever give up. Scott Lancer was no fool; he would NEVER give up.  He would find a way out of this place and he and his father would find Johnny so they could all go home.

Scott looked down at the chains on his ankles and snorted.  Who was he kidding; he would never get out of this place.  Not this time.  He shoved his food away and shut his eyes.

 

 

Chapter Eleven

Cipriano rode into town; he needed to talk to Val, and he didn't necessarily need Teresa to hear what he had to say. Jelly was spooking her enough with his talk of aching elbows and unexplained twinges.  If Jelly were to be believed, the whole world was about to end.  He had been complaining and making dire predictions for several weeks now, and nothing that any of them said would deter the handyman from his morose attitude.  To his credit, Jelly had tried to put on a cheerful face around Teresa, but the old man wasn't much of an actor.  Although Teresa was trying to be brave, she knew as well as everyone else that her family should have been home some time before, and the chances were they had run into trouble.  Cipriano didn't believe in twinges or omens, but he did have a strong feeling that something was terribly wrong.

As far as he knew, there had only been one telegram received, and according to that, the Lancers should have been home at least a week ago.  Val had received a telegram from Johnny, saying that they had gone down to Hermosillo and that everything was fine and that they were heading home by way of Nogales.  Cipriano was relieved that the three of them were apparently together and Johnny was on his way home, but he knew his friends weren't out of danger yet.  They still had a long ride ahead of them, and Cipriano knew that all three of them had a knack for getting into trouble, especially Johnny.

He hoped they hadn't had any problems on the way home; Nogales was a rough town, as were a dozen or so towns between Chihuahua, where Johnny had sent the telegram, and Nogales.  At this point, Cipriano was still hoping there was a logical, and he hoped innocent, reason that the Lancers had been detained.  If that was the case however, he knew they would have sent another telegram.Whatever was going on, he had no intention of waiting around for news; if the Lancers were in trouble, time could be of the essence.  If Val didn't have a better idea, Cipriano was going to take a ride and see if he could find out what happened to his friends.

Cipriano rode up to the front of the sheriff's office, but before he could even dismount, Val came out of the door like he had been waiting for the Segundo.  “Any news?”  The sheriff asked worriedly.

Cipriano felt his shoulders sag as he shook his head.  He had been hoping that Val had heard something.  The sheriff took his fist and hit the hitching rail.  “Doggone it, according to Johnny's telegram, they should be home by now.”

Cipriano sighed.  “Si, senor.  They should be home, and it isn't liked Senors Murdoch and Scott not to let us know if they were delayed.  I'm going to take a ride to Nogales and see if I can find out anything.”

Val shook his head.  “Now wait just a minute.  You're needed at the ranch.  Murdoch would have my head if I let you take off and leave Teresa and the ranch unprotected, and Johnny's probably already going to bite my head off when he gets back for lettin' Scott and Murdoch go down there after him.  I don't need EVERYBODY mad at me.  You need to stay at the ranch and take care of Teresa.”

“Senor Jelly is there.”

“I rest my case.  No, Cipriano, you're needed at home. But I do think you had a pretty good idea; I think that maybe I'LL take a ride down south.”

Cipriano raised his eyebrows and looked around.  “What about the town?”

Val shrugged and then smiled.  “Half of my work has been cut out because those trouble magnet Lancers aren't around.  Besides, I'm due for a vacation, and my deputy can handle things for a week or so.”

Cipriano hesitated.  He had felt a little apprehension at leaving when Murdoch had left the ranch and his beloved ward in his care, but he figured this was an emergency.  If Val was willing to go, however, maybe he should let him.  He still wanted to go, but he was torn between what his heart was telling him and the promise he had made to Senor Lancer.  Finally he looked at Val.  “Are you sure, senor?”

Val nodded.  “Yep.  I know my way around down there ok, too.  Johnny and I spent quite a bit of time near Nogales in our wilder days.”

Cipriano shook his head.  “Things have changed.  They are not as welcoming of gringos down there as they used to be.  I told Senors Scott and Murdoch that before they left, but they wouldn't listen.”  He shook his head again.  “Maybe I should go.”

“No!  I'll go.  I know, I told Scott and Murdoch the same thing; I had the feeling they would just cause more trouble for Johnny by going down there.  I told them to wait a while, but, as usual, they wouldn't listen, and I still feel guilty about not stopping them.  No, Cipriano, I'll go. They may not be welcoming down there, but I have no intention of getting into any trouble. I plan on being very careful.”

“I'm sure that's what Senors Murdoch and Scott had planned, too.” Cipriano said gloomily.

“We don't know for sure they're in trouble.  You make sure you tell Teresa that when you get back to the ranch.  It could be something relatively minor.  If one of them got hurt or sick, there are a lot of towns down there with no telegraph offices.  They could just be holed up some while for a while; at least I hope that's it.”

Cipriano frowned.  “Then maybe we should take our own advice and wait to see if they show up.”

Val snorted.  “DO you REALLY believe what I just said?”

Cipriano shook his head glumly.  “No, Senor.”

Val nodded his head decisively.  “Look, I'll leave tomorrow, first light.  If I find out ANYTHING, I'll send you a wire.  If it's more than I can handle, I'll wait for help, and I'll let you know where I am at all times, OK?”

“Si, Senor,” Cipriano sighed.  “Just be careful.  I don't want to have to come down and rescue YOU.”

Val grinned.  “I'll be careful.  That's ONE thing Johnny and I DON'T have in common.  I have no intention of getting into trouble.”

 

 

Chapter Twelve

Johnny walked into Lopez's immense barn and he immediately heard his beloved horse give a low nicker of welcome.   He went over to the stall the greeting had come from and poked his head over the gate.  “Hey, Barranca, you miss me?”

The palomino came up and nuzzled his owner and received a pat on his neck. Barranca shoved his nose into Johnny's chest and Johnny gave the horse a quick hug and then slapped him on the neck.  “I missed you, too; now we gotta get going.  Move back.” 

Barranca took a step back, and Johnny grabbed a halter and lead rope that was hanging on a nearby peg before opening the stall door and stepping inside. A moment later, he led the palomino out of the stall and tied him next to where his saddle was hung over a rail.  Johnny brushed the golden coat, even though the horse was already spotless.

Finally he slung the saddle onto his horse's back and tightened the cinch.  When he was done, he grabbed the bridle and started to put it over Barranca's head when his eyes flicked toward the corral next to the barn and he froze.  He automatically slipped the bit into the palomino's mouth and pulled the headstall over the horse's ears, then walked over to a sorrel gelding in the nearby pen and ran his hand over the horse's face.

“Charlie, what're you doin' here?” He patted his brother's horse in confusion, and then he looked around and caught sight of his father's chalk-faced bay.   Puzzlement gave way to fear as he suddenly recalled what Ramiro had said about the two gringos. He felt his gut clench in fear and he had to take a deep breath in order to think clearly.  Pushing back the fear, he forced himself to remain calm.

Quickly he strode back over to Barranca and grabbed the trailing reins, throwing them over the palomino's head, then swung quickly up, spurring his horse toward where Ramiro was working in a nearby field.  As he rode, his facade of calm quickly shattered and he spurred Barranca once more, galloping the horse right up to the man before hauling back on the reins, causing the horse to come to a sliding stop.  Ramiro stepped back in alarm as the gunfighter jumped down and grabbed his shirt.

“WHERE ARE THEY?” 

Ramiro desperately tried to twist free.  “Who, Senor?” 

“The two gringos!  Where are they?”

Ramiro looked confused.  “The Rurales took them to the prison!”

Johnny stared at the man blankly until the words finally penetrated and he felt himself go weak.   Ramiro wrenched free and stood staring warily at the gunfighter.

Johnny swallowed hard, hoping he had jumped to the wrong conclusion.  He dropped his head for a moment, taking a deep breath before he asked the question he was afraid to have answered.  “The two gringos.” He raised his head and stared at Ramiro.  “What did they look like?” 

Ramiro wet his lips nervously.  He didn't know why Madrid was so upset, but he had no intention of getting the gunfighter angry with him.  “The older man was a large man, and the younger one was slightly shorter and had blond hair.”

Johnny felt sick as he pointed toward the corral, hoping that somehow he was wrong, but knowing in his heart that he wasn't.  “Are those their horses?”

Ramiro glanced in the direction that Johnny was pointing. “Si, Senor.  You can have them if you like,” he said eagerly.

Johnny dropped his head as he tried to regain his composure.  He felt sick.  He knew that Murdoch and Scott had been down here looking for him, and because of him they were in prison, and Johnny knew exactly what kind of a hell-hole they were in.  It was the same prison he had been locked in when the Pinkertons had finally found him.  The prison where he had almost died.

The thought of going anywhere near that place made him break out into a cold sweat, but he wasn't going to have a choice.  He didn't know how, but he was going to get them out. 

He raised his head and stared at the man.  “Ramiro, it had to have been an accident.  Those two men are my brother and father. They wouldn't have hurt your boss on purpose.”

Ramiro looked at the gunfighter in shock.  “Your family?”

Johnny nodded his head in resignation.  “Si, my family.”

“Senor, I did not know.”

Johnny closed his eyes.  “They were looking for me.  They probably found out that your boss had a reward out for me. They might have been angry, but they wouldn't have tried to kill him.  They're not murderers.”

Ramiro shook his head firmly.  “I don't know, Senor.  All I know is what I saw.  I heard the three of them arguing, and when I came into the room, I saw the two of them standing over Senor Lopez.  The blond man had a gun in his hand, and my friend was lying on the floor, unconscious.”

“He had been shot?”  Johnny asked in disbelief.

“No, Senor, he had been hit in the head.”

“Did you see them actually hit him?”

“No, Senor,” he said reluctantly.  “But there was no one else around.  It was the only explanation.”

“NO! It's not!  It could have been an ACCIDENT.”

Again, Ramiro nodded reluctantly.  “Si, I guess it could have been.”

Johnny glared at the man. “It WAS an accident.”

Ramiro swallowed hard and nodded.  “Si, Senor.”

Johnny glared at Ramiro until the man dropped his eyes.  Johnny sighed.“What happened after you found them?

Ramiro once again nervously licked his lips and took a cautious step backwards.  “I hit the younger one over the head, and Julio, who was with me, hit the older one.  They were both knocked out.”  He shook his head furiously.  “I am sorry.  Senor, I did not know they were your family.”

Johnny sighed.  “Then what?”

Ramiro dropped his head. “I called for the Rurales and told them that the men had tried to kill Senor Lopez.”

Johnny looked at the man furiously. “Then you'd better go and tell them you were mistaken.”

Ramiro shook his head. “I can't.  It wouldn't do any good.  The head of the Rurales is Senor Lopez's cousin. He wouldn't care what I said, he saw what they did to his cousin and he was furious.  He swore that the men that did it would pay.”

 

 

Chapter Thirteen

Johnny grabbed Ramiro by the shirt.  “You'd better convince him.   I have no intention of letting my family rot in that prison!”

Ramiro struggled loose.  “I assure you, Senor, I have no say in the matter.  Maybe if you talked to him, he would listen.”

Johnny's face clouded.  “I can't, and you know it.”

Ramiro nodded.  “I will go along and tell him that Senor Lopez is withdrawing the bounty.  I will tell him that it was all a misunderstanding.”

Johnny shook his head.  “There's more to it than that.  They can't know who I am, or I'll wind up back in that prison right alongside my family.”

Ramiro's eyes got big.  “Back in prison?”

Johnny nodded.  He knew he shouldn't be saying anything, but he had to trust somebody, and he had the feeling that Ramiro was all right.   “Yeah.  About a year ago, I escaped just before they were going to kill me.  I don't think they'd let me just walk out again.”

“You escaped?” Ramiro asked incredulously.  “How?”

“Long story,” Johnny sighed.  “Right now, I've got ta figure out how to get my family out.”  He bit the inside of his lip.  “Will your boss drop the charges?”

Ramiro shrugged uneasily.  “Maybe, but it might not matter.  The Rurales are very stubborn; they don't like to let anyone go. 

Johnny nodded glumly.  “Yeah, I know that much. By the way, do you know the name of your boss's cousin?”

“Medina.”

Johnny's face fell.  It was him all right.  The man who had made his life hell when he had been awaiting execution.  No, he certainly couldn't go and talk to the man.   What he should do is send another telegram to Val and let him know what was going on, just in case, but he was afraid that Scott and Murdoch didn't have that much time.  If Medina was holding a grudge against them, it might already be too late.

“Can I talk to your boss?”

Ramiro hesitated.  “Si, but he is still very confused.  I don't think he can help you.”

“I need to try,” Johnny said grimly.

Ramiro nodded and led the way back to the house.  He rapped lightly on the study door, and a young man pulled the door open.  Ramiro nodded at the man and then motioned Johnny inside.  “Senor Lopez, there is someone here to see you.”

The older man looked up with a quizzical look on his face.  “Do I know you?”

Johnny sighed.  “No, Senor Lopez.  But you and I talked a week or so ago.  You said you were going to lift the bounty on my head, remember?”

“What bounty?  The only bounty that I put out was for Johnny Madrid, and you're not him.”

“Si, Senor, I am him.  But I am not the man who killed your family.  It was someone using my name.”

Lopez shook his head.  “I don't remember,” he whispered.

Johnny took a step closer.  “My brother and father came here because they thought you had hurt me.  They are the ones that were with you when you fell.”

Lopez's face darkened.  “I was attacked.”

“No, Senor.  My family wouldn't have hurt you.  It was an accident.”

“My cousin assured me it was not.”

“He wasn't there!”  Johnny exploded.

“Neither were you.”

“Look, I KNOW it was an accident, and I'm not going to let my brother and father die in that place for something they didn't do.”

“Are you threatening me?”

“NO!  I just want you to tell your cousin that it was an accident and that you want him to release them.”

Lopez shook his head.  “Like I said, I don't remember what happened.  My cousin is convinced that your family attacked me, and he knows I don't remember.  He won't listen to me, but if you can find proof that they didn't do it, I'm sure he will let them go.”

“I don't HAVE proof!”

“Senor Madrid, I am tired and I have told you I don't remember what happened.  Now if you'll excuse me, I am going to rest for a while.”

Johnny shot a pleading look to Ramiro, and the foreman spoke up.  “Senor Lopez, I believe Senor Madrid.  We must do something to help his family.”

Lopez closed his eyes and finally sighed.   “If you want, Ramiro, I will tell my cousin that I believe it was an accident, but I can't promise anything.”  He motioned for the young man who had opened the door, and the youth promptly walked over to the desk where Lopez was sitting.  “Tony, go tell my cousin that I think what happened was an accident, and I wish for the two gringos to be released.”

The man nodded, and immediately left the room.

Johnny felt relief wash over him.  “Thank you, Senor.”

Lopez nodded.  “I hope your family is freed.”

“I hope so, too.”  Johnny dropped his eyes for a second, debating with himself, and then continued.  “Will you withdraw the bounty?”

Lopez nodded his head.  “Si.   I will leave a note telling Tony to make sure it is taken care of.”

“You won't handle it yourself?”

Lopez shook his head.  “Unfortunately, I won't be able to.  Ramiro and most of my staff are leaving with me today for Spain, and the trip can't be postponed.  However, Tony will be taking over the Rancho, and I assure you he will take care of the matter.”

Johnny nodded uncertainly.  “Is it all right if I wait here?”

“Si, make yourself at home, and adios, Senor Madrid.  I hope everything works out for you.”

Johnny nodded, and went over to the couch to wait.  Ramiro gave him a wave as he left the room with his boss, and a half of an hour later, Johnny saw the wagons and coach pull out of the driveway.  He felt a moment's unease.  He hoped Lopez was telling the truth and Tony would help him.  Suddenly nervous, he stood up and started walking around, then walked outside.  Maybe Barranca could help him calm down. 

Several hours passed, and Johnny found himself once more in the study, nervously walking around.  His instincts were screaming at him, but he couldn't quite figure out why, and there was no way he was going to run and desert his family.As he paced he studied several pictures on the walls, obviously left for Tony, because he was in most of them. 

The one that caught Johnny's attention, however, was the one that showed Tony smiling brightly into the camera, his arm draped around the shoulder of another man.  The other man was also smiling, but his expression still sent chills up Johnny's spine.  It was his old enemy, Captain Medina.

 

 

Chapter Fourteen

Johnny turned the frame over, and felt his face go pale as he read the words, “Anthony and Roberto Medina.”   He studied the picture, and it was apparent that the two men were close; probably father and son.  He cursed himself for being so stupid.  He should have listened to his instincts that told him something was not right.  Now he'd have to pay for his carelessness.

He froze for a second, unwilling to leave his family, but then he realized that if he were captured, none of them stood any hope of getting out of that place.  His only hope was to get a wire to Val and pray the sheriff could help.  Johnny bolted out of the house and jumped on the back of his palomino, spurring the horse away from the hacienda and toward Chihuahua.

He had only gone a few miles when he saw a group of riders approaching from the south and heading in the general direction of the rancho.  He immediately spurred Barranca to a faster pace, hoping the men would ignore him, but a look over his shoulder confirmed his fears.  The men immediately turned their horses toward him and spurred them to a faster gait. 

Johnny crouched down low on his horse's neck and gave Barranca his head.  A moment later, a bullet came whizzing by his ear, and then he heard the boom of a rifle.  Johnny headed for some small trees, hoping they would give him some cover, but he knew that any relief would be short lived.  He had to lose them, but they were still too close, and there wasn't any place to hide.   He hoped Barranca could hold out until night, there would be a slight chance he could lose them in the dark.

The next several hours were a blur; Johnny would urge the palomino faster for a while, and then when he had gotten a fairly good lead, he would allow the horse to slow down and walk for a minute or two.  Late in the afternoon, he was far enough ahead that he was able to let Barranca drink and grab a few bites of grass.  He refilled his own canteen, and hurriedly checked his guns and rifle, making sure they were ready for the battle that was sure to come.  

He was under no illusions.  He knew that if Medina captured him this time, there would be no miracle.  Johnny had not only escaped from under Medina's nose, he had killed several of the man's best officers.  Medina had hated him from the moment he saw him.  Half- breeds brought out the worst in the man.  That, and gringos.   Johnny shuddered; he didn't have to imagine what Scott and Murdoch were going through; he already knew, and if Medina found out they were related to him…Johnny shuddered again.  He HAD to get to Chihuahua.

By the time nightfall came, both Johnny and Barranca were about ready to collapse.  The horse had gallantly done what his owner had asked, but Johnny knew that heart would carry a horse only so far, and he had no intention of running his compadre to death, even to save his own skin.  He might do it for his family, but killing his horse would do no good. If Barranca collapsed, he would never make it to the town and get that telegram sent.

A sliver of moon was out, throwing just enough light so that he could see the trail, but hopefully not bright enough to track by.  Johnny hoped if he kept going at a steady pace, he would be far enough ahead by morning that he could lose himself in the vast desert.  He changed directions several times, hoping to throw the posse off, but he had no way of knowing how successful he was, and he knew his horse was too tired to go too far out of the way. 

If anyone in the posse had any smarts, they would soon realize where he was headed.  He kept his horse going through most of the night, and then around three in the morning he stepped off and unsaddled Barranca.  He gave the horse some water and a good rub down and the last measure of oats he carried in his saddlebags.  He tethered his friend in a patch of vegetation so Barranca could graze, but like his owner, Barranca was too tired to eat and dozed off immediately.

Johnny startled awake several hours later, cursing himself for sleeping so soundly.  He never would have done that a year ago, he was getting soft, and it just might cost him this time. He glanced at the moon and cursed to himself once more. The sun was almost up, and the posse was sure to be close by.  Any lead the darkness had bought him was now gone.  He hurriedly saddled Barranca and jumped on, heading once more into the trackless wilderness, doing his best to cover the signs of his passing.

He headed for a high outcropping of rocks, and looked cautiously out at the trail he had just come up.  Almost immediately, off in the distance, he saw signs of movement, and knew that they were still after him.  He jumped back on his exhausted horse and asked Barranca for more.  The laboring horse once more responded, and they resumed their flight.  That day passed like the one previous, and by the time Johnny collapsed in sleep that night, he was beginning to not care if they captured him or not.  The only thing that kept him going was the thought that if he were caught, Scott and Murdoch would probably die in that place.

Near dawn, he once more dragged himself to his feet and climbed aboard his horse.  Barranca pinned his ears, telling his owner in no uncertain terms that he had had enough of this nonsense, and Johnny had to talk softly to him for several minutes before the horse relaxed and moved reluctantly off down the trail.  Johnny was no longer trying to get away; he knew in his heart it was hopeless.  All he was trying to do was to reach Chihuahua at least fifteen minutes in front of the posse.  Once he'd sent the telegram telling Val where Murdoch and Scott were, Medina could do whatever he wanted to him. 

 

 

Chapter Fifteen

Late that afternoon, Johnny sat on Barranca, looking down into the valley that housed the small city of Chihuahua.  He hadn't seen hide nor hair of the posse for several hours, and it looked like he just might make it.  He didn't figure he'd lost them for good, however.  He thought they were probably getting new mounts and stocking up on supplies.  When they did show up, it would be all over unless he could get a fresh mount in the town below him. He hated to lave Barranca, but the horse was done in.   He breathed out heavily through his mouth. At least it looked like he'd be able to send that telegram.  He smiled a sad smile.  If he knew Val, he's get Scott and Murdoch out of that prison and safely home no matter what.  He didn't figure Medina would take him alive, but at least he would know that his family was safe.

  He urged his tired horse down off of the hill and suddenly Barranca slid to a halt.  Ahead of him were five mounted Rurales.  At the same time, he heard a rifle being cocked from the side, and he knew the game was up.  He dropped his head for a moment, cursing the fates for letting him get this close before Medina caught him.  The captain must have figured out where he was heading and simply come straight here, rather than wasting time tracking him. 

Johnny felt totally beaten.  He had failed to save his brother and father, and felt bitter hatred for the man who sat watching him.  Now the only decision he had to make was whether to let these bastards take him alive, or try to fight and take as many down with him as he could.  He knew the odds of escaping were almost non-existent, but as he'd told Scott on more than one occasion, he HAD faced worse and lived to tell about it.

Medina was watching Madrid carefully.  He saw the resolve in his eyes, and knew what the half-breed's next move would be.  He spoke up before Madrid had a chance to carry out his plan.  “Senor, I wouldn't.  If you do not come back with us, your family will die.”

Johnny hesitated and looked at his hated enemy before snorting.  “Yeah, and you'll just let 'em walk right outta there if I give myself up, right?”  He asked sarcastically.

Medina smiled.  “Maybe.”

Johnny snorted again.  “Sure you will.”

Medina shrugged.  “It is your choice, of course.  But I DO promise that if you do not hand over your gun and go back with us to the prison, your family will face a firing squad as soon as I get back.” 

Johnny dropped his head.  “And if I do come back, what then?”

Medina's smile became wider.  “I promise they will not die.”

Johnny shut his eyes.  No, Medina would keep them alive so he could torture them and get revenge against Johnny.  He would use them to guarantee Johnny's good behavior, but even if he cooperated fully, he knew what a sadistic fiend the man was.  He would be greatly entertained by their efforts to keep the other ones out of harm's way.  And when he tired of the game, they would all die.  Probably slowly.

Maybe it would be better to just let Medina kill all of them.  At least it would be fairly quick.  Johnny knew that without that telegram Val would have no way of finding them.  He and his family would be locked in that prison until they died.  Johnny shut his eyes, trying to make the right choice.  He had the feeling that no matter what he decided, his father and brother would curse him for it.  After all, it was his fault they were in this mess.  Finally, he made his decision and looked up into Medina's eyes. 

“Go to hell,” Johnny said softly.

 

Val rode into Nogales and got a room at the local hotel.  He had kept his eyes and ears open all the way down here, but he still hadn't seen sign of any of them.  He had been hoping that he would have run into them by now, and if everything was all right he should have, but he was beginning to think more and more that things certainly weren't all right. 

He would poke around here for another day or two, and if he didn't get any other leads, he would head on down to Chihuahua.  Johnny had sent the telegram from there, so he knew they had been together and they were all right in Chihuahua.  Certainly SOMEONE would have seen them in that town and point him in the right direction.  They COULDN'T have just vanished.

After he settled in to his room, he went down to the cantina to get a bite to eat and maybe some information.  He strolled in and took a seat by the window hoping that he would see one of his friends outside if they happened to ride by.  When the bartender came over, Val casually asked him if he had seen anyone answering the Lancers' description, and the man shook his head.  “No, senor, no one like that has come in here.”

Val hated to bring the subject up, but he knew he had to chase down any leads.  “How about Johnny Madrid?”

The man crossed himself.  “No, senor.  He has not been here, thank God.”

Val's quirked an eyebrow up at the man's response; Johnny generally had a pretty good reputation among the people.  This man had obviously listened to too many stories.  It didn't matter; evidently none of them had been seen here.  If they had, they hadn't stopped in at the bar, something Val couldn't imagine Johnny doing.  No, it was beginning to look like they had never made it this far, and that was very bad.  The uneasy feeling that he had been having was beginning to coalesce into a real fear. 

 

 

Chapter Sixteen

Johnny kept Medina's stare for another instant, but Johnny knew he was beaten.  He couldn't condemn his family to death, and Medina knew it.

“Unless you want them to die slowly, put your hands up, senor.”

  Johnny reluctantly raised his hands and felt one of the other men snatch the gun out of its holster.  Another set of hands dragged him from Barranca, and Johnny forced himself to relax, knowing that if he fought back, he'd be beaten severely.  He was roughly searched and his hands were quickly bound in front of him, which surprised Johnny.  He thought for a brief moment that maybe Medina was getting soft.  The next instant, however, the captain backhanded him viciously in the mouth, sending Johnny reeling.

  “I will teach you to try to make a fool of me.  Before I am through with you, you will wish you had tried to make your escape and died.  For that matter, so will your family.”  Medina laughed evilly.

  Johnny caught his balance and lunged toward the captain, but Medina caught him in the jaw with both fists, and Johnny crumpled to the ground. 

“Tie him behind a horse.  He can walk back to prison.”

The men quickly did as they were told, and tied him behind a big rangy bay.  Johnny had barely made it to his knees before the horse was spurred forward, sending him sprawling in the dirt once more.  The men laughed raucously at their new game, while he silently cursed them under his breath.

Finally, after being dragged for almost a mile, the captain put a halt to their game.  “I don't want to be gone for a month, and I don't want to kill him yet.  Leave him alone.  If he falls, drag him, but let him keep his feet if he can.”  He turned to Johnny.  “We'll see how tough you are now.”

After several brutal falls, Johnny finally managed to scramble desperately to his feet, and was yanked roughly along.  The bay didn't appreciate having someone following it, and every time Johnny got too close it would lash out wickedly with a hoof.  It caught Johnny's thigh several times, and Johnny could feel the leg starting to swell.  He didn't dare fall again, however, and made a gallant attempt to stay on his feet. 

The day passed slowly, and more than once, Johnny was on the verge of giving up.  Even being dragged didn't sound so bad right now.  At least he'd be off his feet.  The only thing that kept him going was the game he played in his mind.He kept himself busy imagining all sorts of revenge against the vicious bunch he was with, but mostly, he passed the time thinking of what he would do to Medina when he finally got his hands on him.  The thought made him smile.

 

The door slammed open, and Murdoch blinked against the sudden light.  He was confused for a moment; he thought he had just been served his one meal for the day an hour or so ago, but evidently he had dozed off; an occurrence that was happening more and more frequently the longer he was here.  But instead of a bucket of food being thrown at him, he was pulled roughly to his feet and shoved out the small door. 

The guard pushed Murdoch roughly along a corridor and then up a flight of steps.  Murdoch stumbled along another corridor, and finally was pushed outside.  The bright light was almost too much, and Murdoch tried desperately to shield his eyes so he could see what was happening.  Finally, his eyes got used to the light somewhat, and he could see if he squinted.  He was shoved toward a bunch of other prisoners who were massed together in the middle of a yard.

He stumbled as he drew nearer, and a man reached out and caught him before he could fall.  “Thanks,” Murdoch said, but the man simply shook his head frantically and motioned with his head toward the guard.  Murdoch's eyes narrowed, realizing the man was warning him not to talk.  He looked around, and was struck by the silence of the men gathered.  Evidently, talking was forbidden in this place.

  He slowly worked his way to the middle of the crowd, hoping he would find Scott, but at the same time praying that he wouldn't.  Finally, he saw a blond head, and hurried over.  Murdoch grabbed the man by the arm, and the man swung around, his blue eyes widening in alarm until he recognized his father.  Without a word, the two men embraced, but when Murdoch looked up and saw a guard watching them, he pulled away quickly.  He didn't want to get his son into trouble.

The two men stared at each other for several moments, each concerned as to how the other one looked.  There was so much to talk about, but they couldn't, at least not now.  They looked around in confusion, trying to figure out what was going on.  All of the prisoners seemed subdued, and more than a little nervous.   The man that had saved Murdoch from falling wandered over, and waiting until there were no guards looking, he whispered to them without moving his lips.

  “Someone's to be punished, and the guards make us watch.  If you try to turn away, you will be punished also.  No matter what, don't say anything.”  He turned and drifted away.

Scott watched the guards closely, and when it was safe, he whispered to his father.  “Are you all right?”

Murdoch nodded.  “And you?”

Scott nodded.  “We have to think of a way to get out of here.”

Murdoch smiled in spite of himself; he should have known that Scott wouldn't give up.

Just then a commotion arose from the guardhouse at the opposite end of the yard.  A door was thrown open, and a small group of guards half led and half dragged a bloodied prisoner into the yard and tied his hands to a post. His shirt was torn off, and one of the guards reached down and picked up a whip.  The prisoner's head came up for a moment, and Scott got a clear look.  “My God, it's Johnny!”

 

 

Chapter Seventeen

Murdoch's head snapped up when he heard Scott, and he strained to see the features of the man who had been tied to the post. 

Scott moved past him, oblivious of the glares of the guards.  “Murdoch!  It's Johnny!”  Murdoch grabbed at his son, attempting to stop him before he got into trouble, but Scott impatiently pulled away from his father.

“JOHNNY!”  Scott shouted.

Johnny's head came up and it appeared that he was trying to look around, his battered features clearly visible.  As Scott watched, Johnny's head dropped once more, and he sagged slightly against his bonds.

Scott desperately shoved another prisoner aside and started to move toward his brother.  A guard immediately stepped in front of him and slammed him viciously in his stomach with the short club all of the guards carried.

“QUIET!” The guard ordered.

Scott doubled over in pain and grabbed his stomach, still trying to keep his eyes on his brother.   He moved forward once more, and the guard smiled before swinging his club again, hitting Scott on his shoulder and spinning him around.  

Murdoch reached over and grabbed his son around the waist to keep him from falling.  As he tried to support him, the guard hit the older man forcefully in the back.  Murdoch went to his knees, and Scott wrenched free of his father's embrace and took a desperate swing at the guard.  Another guard hit Scott brutally on the side of the head from behind and he collapsed.  Murdoch lunged toward his son, and the first guard gave Murdoch one last blow to the back of the neck before leaving them alone.

The blow drove Murdoch to his hands and knees, but he stubbornly crawled over to his son and frantically felt Scott's neck, looking for a pulse.  He was relieved to feel movement, although Scott was out cold and his head was bleeding profusely.  Murdoch frantically tore some material from his shirt and pressed the crude bandage to his son's head to try to stop the bleeding. 

Murdoch put a protective arm around his older son, and then looked up in anguish as he heard the first snap of the whip as it brutally cut into his younger son's back.  Murdoch looked on hopelessly as the whip landed again and again on Johnny's skin.  Murdoch tried desperately to shut out the sound, but it was all too clear.  He felt weak and sick, and guilty that he could do nothing to stop the torture, that he couldn't do anything to get them all out of this nightmare.  Eventually, the lack of food and the blows he had taken combined to send him gratefully into oblivion.   

 

Val rode into Chihuahua, hopeful that he'd find out SOMETHING, anything that would lead him to his friends.  So far, he had ridden over a good portion of Mexico and had found out absolutely nothing useful.  He had asked every person he had seen; every bartender, every stable owner, and every sheriff.  Nothing. There was absolutely no trace of any of the missing men.

As he rode into town, he looked around, amazed that the Mexican town hadn't changed in the five years since he'd last been here.  Everything appeared to be the same as the last time he had come through here, down to the same dust on the filthy windows.

This town brought back a lot of memories for Val, both good and bad.  Back then there had been both a lot of close calls and a lot of fun times, and Johnny had figured prominently in both.  One thing Val could say, the time he had spent with Johnny had never been boring.   Even now, after Johnny had more or less settled down, he had a way of stirring up excitement, one way or another.

Val smiled slightly as he passed the town jail.  He and Johnny had both spent their fair share of time in that fine establishment, sometimes even at the same time.  In fact, that was where they had first met.  That first time they had both had one too many beers at the local cantina, and had gotten into a knock down drag out fight with each other over a lady.  They had both ended up in jail, and had resumed their fight when they woke up.  After trying to kill each other for a week, they had gradually come to respect each other, and by the time they had been released, they had become friends.

Val smiled; he remembered his shock when he found out the man he had been trying to tear apart was none other than the infamous Johnny Madrid.  When he had found out, he had been a little puzzled why Madrid hadn't simply ended the fight in the saloon by drawing his gun and blowing Val away.  No one in this town would have cared one little bit if a gringo would have gotten himself killed.  After a while however, he learned that his new friend had a very well defined sense of fair play, and he only used his gun when he had to. 

They had traveled together after that, at least for a while.   Six months later, Val had taken a job as a sheriff in a little border town.  He had always wanted to be a lawman, and he had tried to convince Johnny to stay on and help him.  The gunfighter had tried it for a while, but Johnny wasn't ready to settle down and had ridden out a couple of weeks later.

The two men had crossed paths a few times after that, and the friendship had steadily grown stronger.   Johnny had even saved his life once, and taken a bullet for his efforts.  Val had to admit that Johnny was the best friend he had ever had, and one of the few people that he trusted completely. He liked to think that Johnny felt the same way about him, and that was why he was going to find his friend, no matter what.

 

 

Chapter Eighteen

“All right, the show's over!  Get back to your cells, NOW!”

Murdoch heard the words as if he was underwater, and he struggled toward the surface.  He knew there was a reason he didn't want to be awake, but for the life of him he couldn't quite remember the reason.  As he swam toward the surface memories started returning, and by the time he was fully awake he remembered the whole mess.  He glanced down at the son he still had in his arms and sadly stroked his hair away from his face.

“I SAID NOW!”  The guard kicked at Murdoch, and Murdoch rolled away from the man as best he could.  The guard aimed another kick, and Murdoch struggled to his feet while he fought to keep his grip on Scott.  As soon as he was standing, Murdoch forced himself to look over to the post where his younger son had been tied.  Johnny was hanging limply, his back a bloody mess.  Murdoch took a step in that direction, and one of the older guards blocked his path.  “I wouldn't, senor.”

  “Please. I have to help him.”

“No, senor, you don't.  Now get going before you wind up on the post yourself.”

“I can't leave him like that.” Murdoch pleaded.

  “Or maybe,” the old guard continued as he gestured toward Scott, “We should see how this one likes the post.”  The guard took a step forward and grabbed at Scott, but Murdoch whirled away, shielding his son's body with his own.  He knew there was nothing he could do for Johnny and if he persisted, he might endanger Scott.   

  “All right, I'm going,” he yelled in frustration.

The guards let Murdoch go, and they watched impassively as Murdoch shuffled toward the massive building.  Murdoch couldn't help casting occasional glances over his shoulder toward the man tied to the post, alternately cursing the guards and praying that Johnny would somehow be all right.

The bearded guard followed the men, and gave Murdoch as shove as he hesitated at the entrance.  “Inside, senor, and welcome to hell.”

Murdoch shuffled in the direction the guard pointed, and became more and more determined not to be separated from Scott. No matter what it took, he was going to make sure that he and Scott stayed together.  His son was still unconscious, and he was getting worried that Scott was suffering from more than a bump on the head.   His son needed care, and there was no way he was going to let the guards throw Scott into a cell by himself.

They wove in and out of corridors, and then went down a flight of stairs, with Murdoch alternately dragging and carrying his son.  Finally, the guard stopped at a cell and opened the door with a key.  He pointed at Murdoch.  “You!  Leave him and go inside.”

Murdoch stared back at the guard.  “No.”

The guard took a step toward him and raised his arm threateningly.  “What did you say?”

Murdoch dropped his head for a second, and then brought it up and looked once more into the guard's eyes.  “Please.  He'll die if I leave him.  Please.”

The guard hesitated, staring at Murdoch for an eternity, and then laughed coarsely.  “All right, if that's what you want.  But you'll get the same amount of food if there's one or two.  Your choice.”

Murdoch closed his eyes and then nodded in resignation.  He had the feeling that it really wouldn't matter, they would all be dead soon and at least he and Scott would be together.  “All right.”

Murdoch turned and pulled Scott into the cell, and the iron door clanged shut behind them, plunging them into darkness.

 

As soon as he checked into the hotel, Val walked over to the telegraph office.  The young man immediately greeted him.  “Hola, senor, what can I do for you?”

“I'd like to send a telegram, please.”

“Si, senor.”  He handed Val a piece of paper and a pencil, and the sheriff wrote the message and handed it back to the clerk.  The operator read it, and then sat down and started to send the message. Val waited until the man was finished, and then handed the man some money.

“I'd like some information.  I'm looking for a man who sent a telegram from here several weeks ago.  He sent the telegram to Green River.  The man had dark hair and blue eyes.”

The clerk thought for a moment, and then smiled.  “Si, senor.  I remember.”

Val felt a moment's relief. AT least SOMEONE had seen his friend.   He had started to think that Johnny was invisible.  “Do you know where he went after he left here?”

The clerk shook his head.  “No, senor.”

“Did you see the men that were with him?”

The clerk frowned. “I did not see anyone with him, senor.  He was alone.” 

Val shook his head.  “No, he wasn't.  He was traveling with two other men.  Maybe you just didn't see them.”

The clerk shrugged.  “Maybe, senor.  But when he rode out of town, he was alone.”

“You saw him?”

“Si, senor.”

Val frowned.  Something sure didn't make sense.  “Are you sure?”

The clerk nodded.  “Si.”

“It just doesn't make sense, why would he send a telegram saying they were with him if he was still by himself?”  Val asked himself.

Val thought about it, and just couldn't come up with an answer.  Maybe Murdoch and Scott were waiting for him outside of town for some reason.   That had to be it.  He nodded at the clerk. “All right, thanks.”

  “Si, senor.”

Val started to walk out, and then thought of something, and turned back toward the counter.  “Any chance you still have the paper my friend wrote the message on?”

The clerk shrugged, and rummaged through the trash.  He finally brought up a piece of paper.  “It is illegal to tell you what was sent,” the man said suggestively.

With a sigh, Val stuffed his hand in his pocket and came up with a few coins.  He slapped them on the counter, and looked at the clerk expectantly.  The clerk counted the coins carefully, and then handed over the paper.

 

 

Chapter Nineteen

Val grasped the paper that the telegraph operator handed him and studied it.  He immediately recognized Johnny's distinctive handwriting; there was no doubt in the sheriff's mind that his friend had indeed sent the wire.  The message was simple, except as he studied it, Val realized that it wasn't the message that had been received in Green River.  He handed it back to the clerk.  “Is this the message you sent?”

The clerk read it, and nodded. “Si.”

  Val shook his head in confusion.  The telegraph operator in Green River was usually pretty reliable, but he had evidently made a mistake.  The sheriff thought back to the exact wording of the message that he had gotten and then looked at the message once more, and an idea began to form.  He handed the paper back to the clerk.  “Read it.”

The man looked at him in surprise, then shrugged and in halting English he read the message.  “Everything Ok with LopezStopWe'll be home soonStop  Going through Nogales  Stop   Johnny.”   

Val shook his head, the mystery solved.  “Look at it a little more carefully, senor.”

The man studied the message, a frown etched on his face as he concentrated.  Finally he looked up at the lawman.  “Everything OK with LopezStop   Going through Nogales  Stop   WILL be home soon?”

Val nodded.  Well, that explained why Johnny had appeared to be traveling alone, but it didn't really help anything.  Together or separately, ALL of the Lancers were still missing, seemingly without a trace.

Val went over to the saloon and tried to think about just what could have happened to his friends.  Since there had been absolutely no word or sightings of Scott or Murdoch, he decided to concentrate on finding Johnny.  He figured if he found Johnny, the other two would probably be close by.  That something had happened to the three men individually was unlikely.  They had probably met up sometime after Johnny had sent the telegram, and then something had happened to all three of them.

Val went over all of the facts one more time and tried to think what could have happened.  Obviously, Johnny was fine when he left Lopez's ranch, the comment in the telegram proved that.  And he was fine when he was here, or he wouldn't have sent the wire.  No, SOMETHING had to have happened between Chihuahua and home.  It was the only thing that made sense.  With a sigh, he drained the rest of his drink and stood up.  Tomorrow he would head back toward the border, checking out all of the towns between here and Green River.   Somewhere along the way, he was sure he'd find his friends.

 

Scott slowly woke up, his head throbbing and making him feel dizzy.  He felt anxious; somewhere in the back of his mind he thought he was in danger, but the soft, reassuring voice was familiar and he relaxed, knowing he was safe.  He waited before opening his eyes, hoping the nausea would go away, but when it persisted, he finally forced his eyes open.   He panicked for a moment, unable to see, but Murdoch's grip tightened and reassured him everything was all right.  Scott stopped fighting, and struggled to figure out where he was.   He glanced around, and when his eyes were finally able to focus, he thought he was having another nightmare.  He closed his eyes again, and gradually his memory came flooding back.  No, not a nightmare. 

  He felt Murdoch shift, and a moment later a cool rag was pressed to his face.  Scott opened his mouth, and a small swallow of water was offered to him.   He swallowed greedily, and then relaxed.  That slight motion sent his head swimming, and without warning he was sick.  He looked frantically around for a bucket, but when he found it, the stench that arose from it made him retch again.  He thought his insides just might come up before he stopped, but he finally lay back, exhausted.

Murdoch sat next to him, and Scott knew his father would watch over him.  Exhaustion took over, and he drifted into a sound sleep.   When he awoke again, it was just as dark, but the nausea had passed.  Murdoch was sleeping soundly, propped up against the moldy wall, one hand on Scott's arm.  Scott gingerly moved his father's arm and reached over and grabbed the water bucket.  He pulled it toward him, and purposely shutting his eyes so he wouldn't see the condition of the water, he took several swallows.

Looking around, he realized they were in a slightly larger cell than he had been in before, and they weren't chained, even though there were chains attached to the wall.  There was a dim light coming from the only window, a small barred opening of about a foot.  The door itself was heavily reinforced with iron, and the walls were stone.  The only part of the cell that didn't seem impenetrable was the floor, which was made of dirt.   Scott stored that information for later use, and vowed that they would get out.

The vision of his brother tied to the post came rushing into his head, and he felt sick once more.  He had seen many men whipped in his life, and he himself had felt the lash while he had been a prisoner of war, but the thought of his brother being whipped almost made him retch again.  He had tried so hard to get to Johnny, but he hadn't been able to help him, and he was sure his father hadn't been able to, either.  Johnny had told him a little bit about life in this prison, and Scott wondered if his brother was still alive.  Apparently, whipping a prisoner to death was a common occurrence in this place.

Scott shut his eyes and prayed that his brother was still alive, and then he prayed that they would all get out of this place and be able to go home to Lancer.  He had the feeling that God would be the only one who could help them now.

 

 

Chapter Twenty

The door to the cell clanged open and both Scott and Murdoch shrank away from the expected bucket of cold water.  The guards seemed to get special joy in regularly dousing the prisoners with buckets of water, whether they talked or not.  Of course, if the guard heard the men taking, the baths were more frequent.

Instead of a bucket of water, the bearded guard came in, and roughly grabbed Murdoch's wrist.  The guard reached over and yanked the chain on the wall close to him, then closed it around the prisoner's hand.   When he was done, he went over to where Scott was sitting and repeated the process.  The guard looked down at them for a moment and then laughed.  “Just to make sure you don't help too much.”

Scott shook his head slowly.  His mastery of the Mexican language was not perfect, but what the guard said hadn't made any sense.  Help what?  With a resigned sigh, he shook his head; they'd probably find out soon enough.  He glanced over at his father and caught Murdoch's eyes.  Murdoch attempted a smile, but failed miserably.  The grimace that came through more than told his true feelings.

An hour later, the door once again banged open and the guards threw another man up against the far wall, where he crumpled bonelessly.  The door slammed shut, and a moment later Scott and Murdoch realized that their family was once more reunited.   

As soon as he recognized his brother, Scott tried to scramble over to him, but the chain around the wrist brought him up short.   He yanked on it furiously and stretched himself out as far as he could, but he was still several inches short.

“Let me try,” Murdoch whispered.  The larger man reached desperately toward his unconscious son, but his fingertips barely brushed Johnny's leg. Finally he sat down in resignation.  “Well, at least now we know what the guards were talking about.”

Scott raked his eyes over Johnny's bruised and bleeding form.  His brother was lying on his stomach, but was propped slightly against the wall with his back toward them, giving the two men a clear picture of the damage.  Johnny's shirt was still off, and his back was bloody and ripped open in several spots.  Scott again tried to reach his brother, even though he knew it was useless, but he knew that those wounds HAD to be cleaned out.  Johnny was prone to infection and high fevers anyway, and if these wounds weren't taken care of, it might be enough to kill him.

Scott felt hopelessness starting to creep in.  He knew they didn't have anything to clean the wounds with, even if they managed to reach Johnny.  Their shirts were filthy and trying to clean his brother's back with those would guarantee an infection.  The best they could do was to try to pour a lot of water on the wounds and hope for the best.  The only problem was, they only received one small bucket of water a day, barely enough to keep them from getting dehydrated, and now Johnny would need water to drink, too.

Scott finally sat back, hoping his brother would wake up soon.  They would have to wait until Johnny woke up and hope he had the strength to come over to them.  Scott glanced at his father, and saw the same hopeless look mirrored on his father's face.  Things were steadily getting worse, and the significance of Johnny's arrival was not lost on Scott.  It meant that their chances of getting out had just diminished dramatically. Apparently, the Captain in charge of this place had a grudge against his brother, and knew that he and Murdoch were related to Johnny.  No, it wasn't looking good at all.   The hope Scott had been desperately clinging to started to fade. 

 

Teresa hung up the laundry automatically, glancing down the road toward the arch every few minutes or so.  She put another peg on the sheet she had just laundered, and looked toward the arch once more.  Finally, she was done and stood looking down the road before turning and walking slowly back to the house.  She had done nothing but look down that road her whole life, and she thought she'd probably do it until the day she died.

Murdoch and Scott had been gone for far too long, and everyone was trying to tell her that they were probably just detained, but she knew better.  She knew in her heart that her family was in trouble.  She prayed a dozen times a day that they would come home safe, but she had the feeling that her prayers wouldn't be answered this time.  She had the feeling that something horrible had happened, and the thought that she might now be all alone nearly sent her into a panic.  She needed her family.

A moment later, she was running out of the house toward the driveway.  She had caught sight of a lone rider and hope had once again fought its way to the surface of her mind.  She had only gone a few steps, however, when she realized that it wasn't one of the people she was praying it would be.  It was only Val.  Cipriano came out of the barn and walked toward the rider, holding his horse as the sheriff dismounted, and then handed the animal to a waiting hand.  Val spoke with the Segundo for a moment, and then both men turned and walked toward the house, motioning for her to join them.

Suddenly, she didn't want to hear whatever it was that Val had to say.  She knew it wasn't good news, because Cipriano's face was a blank mask.   She fled to the kitchen, where she started busying herself making lemonade for the men before Maria came and shooed her gently out into the great Room.  Teresa approached the men slowly, and finally perched on a small chair and looked at Val expectantly, steeling herself for the blow. 

Val took off his hat and played with it for a few moments before speaking.  He wouldn't look either Cipriano or Teresa in the eyes, and Teresa knew for sure that the news was bad.  Finally, Val started talking in a low, tired voice.

“I went down to Chihuahua, and I stopped at every town and village on the way.  I asked everyone I saw if they had seen ANYONE answering their descriptions, and the answer was always the same, no.  The only person that saw ANYTHING was the telegraph operator in Chihuahua.  That's where Johnny sent the last telegram.”  He looked up at Cipriano.  “By the way, Johnny was alone when he sent it.  The telegraph operator made a mistake.” 

Val dropped his head again.  “I know Johnny was all right there, and he said he was on the way home, so I headed back to Lancer, once again stopping everywhere I could think of on the way home.  I hit every town within a sixty mile radius of Chihuahua, and stopped again at the places I had stopped at on the way up.” 

“And you didn't find ANYTHING?” Teresa asked, tears coming to her eyes.

Val shook his head, but kept his head down.  “It's like they just vanished without a trace.”  He brought his eyes up to Cipriano's.  “I don't think there's much hope anymore of finding them, at least alive.  I think we have to accept the fact that they're gone.”

 

 

Chapter Twenty-One

Scott watched his brother continually, willing him to wake up.  The wounds on his brother's back needed attention, although Scott wasn't sure just what they could do about it.  Their resources were severely limited.  Scott folded his arms around himself and shivered, then looked at his brother and grinned slightly.  At least it wasn't hot.  Sam had always told them that to get fevers down, the patient should be kept cool.  Scott shivered once again.  It was more than just cool in the cell, but maybe the low temperature would help if Johnny did develop a fever. 

“Murdoch.”  Scott whispered.  When his father's eyes came up, Scott motioned to his feet.  Murdoch's gaze remained impassive, and Scott was afraid that his father was losing his will to live. The thought frightened him, and he whispered louder, “Murdoch!”

Finally his father blinked his eyes, and Scott motioned once more to his feet.  “We can't reach him with our hands, but we might be able to reach him with our feet.   Let's try.”

Murdoch stared at Scott for several seconds before slowly nodding.  The two men got on their backs on the cold ground and stretched out full length.  Scott shut his eyes as he felt the squish of several large bugs underneath him, but he didn't give up.  He grimaced in satisfaction when he was able to hook a foot around Johnny's shoulder.  He glanced over and saw that his father had managed to snag Johnny's knee.  With a nod to Murdoch, Scott started slowly pulling his brother toward him. 

Suddenly, Johnny's body started to roll, and Scott tried frantically to stop it.  “Wait!” he yelled urgently, and then cringed when he realized that he had said the word a little too loudly.  He froze for a second, and then continued, “We can't let his back touch the dirt.  He'd get an infection for sure.”  The men moved their feet away from Johnny and tried to think how to accomplish what they wanted without exposing his back to the dirt.

A second later, the expected bucket of water was thrown into the cell, and both Scott and Murdoch cringed as the icy sheet hit them, making the already cold cell even colder.  Scott sat there for a moment, thoroughly miserable and freezing cold.  He felt like giving up.  It wasn't going to work, and they were just wasting their efforts trying.  All he wanted was to curl up in a ball and go to sleep, away from the cold and the bugs and the horror.

  This time it was Murdoch who started working his feet toward Johnny once more.  Scott watched him for several seconds, wondering why they were even bothering.  Even if they were able to get Johnny over to them, they couldn't do anything to help him.  He watched as a bug trundled busily along Johnny's back, and Scott shut his eyes once more.   Finally, with a sigh, he stretched out his feet and went to work.

Scott had lost track of time, but he figured it was an hour later when they finally were able to draw Johnny's body close enough to grab it.  Both he and Murdoch had managed to work up a sweat, even though the cell was freezing.  In all of that time, his brother hadn't moved or made a sound, and Scott was nearly frantic with worry.

Scott reached out and started to draw Johnny close when the door opened once more.  The bearded guard stood in the doorway, and Scott cringed.  Of all of the guards, this one seemed to take the most delight in making their life miserable.  The guard took a step forward, and then reached down and grabbed Johnny's shirt.  A brief tug of war ensued, with Murdoch joining in, but after receiving several vicious kicks, both of the older men lost their grip on their prize.  The guard threw Johnny roughly right back where he was before, and Scott closed his eyes in despair as his brother's back skidded along the filthy dirt of their cell.

“On your feet!”  The guard ordered, as the old guard came in and undid their chains.

Scott hesitated, unwilling to leave his brother, but the guards gave him no choice.  They herded him with cuffs and kicks until he stood outside the cell.  With a last backward glance over his shoulder, Scott marched with his father down the hall, wondering whether he'd ever see his brother again.

Once more they were led outside, and were made to watch as another unfortunate prisoner was punished.   This time, the victim was whipped to death, and afterwards, his body was unceremoniously thrown onto a fire at the far end of the yard.   Scott had wondered what the fire was for, and now he knew.  It had been burning the day that Johnny was whipped, and Scott shuddered as he realized that the guards probably had not expecting him to survive.  Scott thought he just might have gone crazy if he had been made to watch his brother's body being burned.  As it was, he averted his eyes and tried not to breathe too deeply as the fire consumed the unknown man's body. 

  Their friend from before once more sidled up to them.  “How is Johnny?”  He whispered.

Scott shook his head.  “You know him?”

The man shrugged.  “He helped me a long time ago.”  He glanced at the guards furtively.  “He made a fool of the Captain when he was here before and escaped.  The captain will make sure it doesn't happen again.”

The prisoner glanced over and saw a guard looking their way.  He waited for several moments for the man to turn his attention elsewhere and then looked again at Scott.  “The guards are not the only threat.  There are many men in here that would gladly kill Madrid to help their own reputation.  It doesn't matter if he is too weak to defend himself, they will still kill him.”

“Don't worry,” Murdoch whispered grimly, “no one will hurt him if we can help it.”

“The guards will punish you if you interfere.  Especially the bearded one, Juarez.”

“The guards can go to hell.”  Scott said vehemently.

The man smiled sadly.  “I too once felt that way.  But there is no way out, senor.  The guards always win, and the sooner you realize that, the better off you will be.  Soon, you will stop fighting and accept the inevitable.  The only way you will survive in this place is to watch out for yourself and let everyone else look out for themselves.”

Scott closed his eyes as he heard the words the man said, because he knew they were true, but he'd never sit back and let anyone hurt Murdoch or Johnny.  Not if he could help it.  They would all get out of this place together or they would go down together.   Scott sighed as he realized it would probably be the latter.

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Two

A half of an hour later it was over and Murdoch and Scott were herded roughly back to their cell by Juarez and the old guard.  Each time they went out into the yard, they were gaining valuable information, although they weren't sure just how to use it yet.  Scott knew that somehow they would find a way to get out of this place.

Juarez shoved them inside their cell, and they both tried to go to Johnny, who was still apparently unconscious.  Before they could reach him, however, Juarez pushed Scott roughly to the other side of the cell and once more chained his hand before turning and stalking out of the cell.  The older guard, whose name they had learned was Ruiz, pushed Murdoch down next to him, and then attached the chain to the prisoner's ankle.  He looked at them for a moment as if he were going to say something, but then he turned and left, slamming the cell door behind him.

Murdoch watched the door for several minutes, expecting the guard to realize his mistake and come charging back in, but the door remained firmly closed.  Murdoch looked over at his younger son, and after a moment his eyes narrowed.

 “Scott,” he whispered.  “Look at your brother.”

Scott looked over at Johnny in confusion, but it took him several moments to realize what was different.  It looked as though someone might have tried to clean off the wounds and had put Johnny back on his stomach, so his back would be off of the dirt.  Scott looked at Murdoch and shrugged.  Maybe Medina didn't want Johnny to die just yet.  Or, more likely, it was just wishful thinking on their part and Johnny had come to a little bit and had managed to roll over.

Murdoch reached out and managed to barely snag Johnny's arm, and he pulled his son close, cradling him for a moment before trying to assess the damage.

“Is he awake at all?”  Scott asked.

Murdoch shook his head as his eyes took in the gashes on his son's back.  “No.  He's out cold and he's got a bad fever.  Even if someone tried to clean those wounds out, it was too late.  They're infected.”  Murdoch checked over the rest of his son the best he could and found numerous other injuries, but most of them were already starting to heal.  The only ones that seemed dangerous at this point were the cuts on his son's back.  He looked around in desperation.  “We HAVE to get this fever down, or we're going to lose him!”

“HOW?”  Scott growled.  “HOW ARE WE SUPPOSED to get his fever down?  There's barely enough water in the cell to drink, and we need to try to get him to drink what little there is.  We don't have enough to sponge him off with!” 

A moment later, the door flew open in answer to Scott's outburst, and a sheet of water drenched the three men.  Murdoch looked over at Scott and grinned.  “That's how,” he said calmly.

 

Teresa sat in the lawyer's office, along with Cipriano and Jelly, trying desperately to understand just what it was that the man was saying.

“Do you understand, Miss O'Brien?”

“No.”

The lawyer sighed.  “I'll make it as simple as I can.  All three men owned Lancer Ranch equally.  In the case of his death, Murdoch left his share to be divided evenly between his two sons, and Scott and Johnny left their shares to each other.  However, ALL THREE men left their shares to you in the event that all three of them died.”

“BUT THEY'RE NOT DEAD!  I KNOW they aren't!”

The lawyer shook his head.  “Miss O'Brien, at this point, nothing is certain, but you need to understand the implications.  IF they do not show up the ranch will eventually belong to you unless, of course, they have any heirs that they didn't know about.  In the meantime, however, it will be held in trust and will have to be managed as though they were still alive.”

“They ARE ALIVE!” Teresa nearly sobbed.

The lawyer nodded his head in understanding.  “I'm sure we are all hoping that is the case, but in the meantime…”

“What do you mean about any heirs that they didn't know about?”  Jelly interrupted suspiciously.

The lawyer averted his eyes. “If any of them have a son or daughter, that son or daughter could challenge Miss O'Brien's claim on the ranch.”

“But how could that be proven?”  Teresa asked in confusion.

“I'm afraid it couldn't.  Cases where people have claimed kinship with deceased property owners for monetary gain is, I'm afraid, very common.  Most cases are tied up in the courts for years.”

“And what happens if someone SHOULD try it?”  Jelly asked.

The lawyer shrugged his shoulders.  “It could go either way. It would depend on the jury, and what proof, or lack thereof, is submitted.  Either way, you would be in for a fight.”

“I just want them home,” Teresa moaned.

Jelly and Cipriano both put their arms around her, and she gave them a hug back, before sighing and turning once more to the lawyer.  “So what do we do now?”

“Right now, nothing. It's too early to have them declared legally dead, but you will have to run things.  You have access to all bank accounts and files, as do Jelly and Cipriano jointly.  You also have access to their private papers, and anything else you need to run the ranch.  It should be enough, but if not we can file for a temporary ruling to give you more power, but I think we should wait on that, at least for a while.

He looked up at Cipriano and Jelly.  “Between the three of you, I'm sure you'll be able to handle things, and if you have any questions, just ask.  Whatever you do, don't sign ANYTHING or agree to ANY transaction unless you let me see it first, understood?”

  Teresa nodded her head numbly.  Of all the things she had expected, this wasn't one of them.  She didn't know if she could do this, although she would do her best to make sure the ranch was in good shape for when they came home.  And they WERE coming home.  She refused to think of the alternative.

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Three

Scott couldn't remember ever being as cold as he was now.  Even in the prison camp during the war, they had been allowed fires and the prisoners were able to huddle together for warmth.  Here in this stone cell, the warmth drained out of a person like water out of a sieve.  Of course, the regular cold showers certainly didn't help matters, but they were necessary to keep his brother alive, and right now, that was about all Scott was worried about.

  He shivered once more and looked at his father with concern.  Murdoch was shivering so hard his teeth were rattling together, but he had refused to even think about giving up their plan.  So far, Scott had to admit it had worked beautifully.  At regular intervals, whenever Johnny's fever started to rise, either Scott or Murdoch would turn Johnny's back toward the door and then shout loud enough to make sure the guards would respond.   So far, the water had come right on schedule, and it had done the double duty of helping to clean the dirt from Johnny's skin and to cool him off.

It was hard to tell because he himself was so cold, but Scott thought that Johnny's fever was starting to come down slightly.  He certainly didn't feel as hot as he had been.  Scott snorted, Johnny's fever would probably break about the time he and Murdoch came down with pneumonia from the repeated drenching.

Scott wasn't sure how long they had been doing it, but it had been at least two days.   At least he thought it had been.  Time was beginning to blur in Scott's mind, and he was becoming lethargic.  He knew that if they were going to try to escape, they would have to do it soon, or it would be too late.  Prison had a way of numbing a person's mind and robbing him of his will to fight back, but Scott was determined to keep fighting.

They had received two meals since Johnny had been thrown in with them, and both he and Murdoch had tried desperately to get some food down the man, but he still wasn't completely conscious.  The best they could do was to dribble a little water down the delirious man's throat, but even that was difficult because he kept choking.  Murdoch had found a lump on Johnny's head that might explain his unconscious state, but Scott was really beginning to worry about his little brother.  He was afraid he just might never wake up.  Part of Scott told himself that might be a good thing, because if the rurale captain really had a grudge against his brother, he knew Johnny was in for a mighty hard time. Maybe he wasn't doing Johnny any favors by keeping him alive.

Scott tried to remain optimistic, but he knew in his heart that the chance of ANY of them getting out of this place was highly unlikely.  In all probability, no one knew they were even here, and without outside help, their chances were non-existent.  They would be here until they died.  Scott looked down at his brother and sighed.  His brain might tell him to let his brother go, but his heart said something different altogether.  He couldn't just sit there and let his brother die no matter what the consequences.  He would try every means available to nurse his brother back to health.

  He felt Johnny's forehead and realized that it was about time to get wet again.  He shivered involuntarily at the thought, and wondered briefly if being drenched with cold water was doing his brother more harm than good.  He was also worried that if they kept up the ruse much longer, the guards would resort to more drastic punishment for their indiscretion.  He wasn't afraid for himself, but he was concerned about his father.  Murdoch had seemed to age ten years in the time he had been in prison, and seemed to be getting more feeble every day.

Scott was also worried about what would happen to Johnny if he and Murdoch were taken away and punished.  He didn't think his little brother would be able to survive on his own, at least until he had recovered.  He looked down at Johnny's face and noticed with satisfaction that he was finally resting comfortably.  At least one of them was comfortable, he thought wryly.  He looked at Murdoch, who returned his son's stare, and then with a sigh, Murdoch started shouting. Scott braced himself and waited.

 

Teresa looked out of the window, her eyes automatically going toward the arch.   In spite of her resolve, she was beginning to give up hope of ever seeing her family again.  She had tried to be brave, but it was becoming harder and harder to keep up the facade, especially when she saw the pitying looks from almost everyone she knew.

At church last Sunday, several people had approached her, asking what she intended to do with the ranch. She had been ashamed of herself later when she realized they were probably just trying to look out for her interests, but at the time the questions had infuriated her, and her response had been hardly ladylike as she told them in no uncertain terms that she was staying put.  

Val and Sam had been completely supportive, and she didn't know what she would do without them, and Jelly and Cipriano had also been wonderful, running the ranch as best they could.  They hadn't bothered her with any of the day to day business, but they had asked her advice on several business matters.  She had never really been in on any of the decision making before, and had told them to do what they thought best.  At this point, it was all she could do.  As time went on, she would try to learn more about the business end, and take more of an active role in decisions, although she fervently hoped she wouldn't need that knowledge.   She looked back toward the arch and said a prayer.

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Four

Johnny was fighting desperately, trying to get away from the hands that were holding him down.  They were going to hurt him some more, just like they always did.  He struggled against the restraining hands, twisting and turning, but the hands were relentlessly trying to keep him still.  He felt the fire in his back, and knew that he was right; the hurt had already begun.  He tried once more to free himself, but the hands were too strong and for some reason he felt so weak.  He gave up for a moment, and a moan escaped his lips.  He immediately felt someone put their hand over his mouth, and he started fighting once more.

He knew he was in danger but he couldn't quite remember the details and for some reason he didn't want to know.  The vision of himself kneeling in the dirt awaiting his execution kept swimming into focus, but he knew that he was safe from that threat, anyway.  But there WAS something he should be remembering.  Something important, something important to the lives of his family.  That realization shocked him, and he began struggling again.  He immediately felt the hands restraining him, but he wasn't going to give up, he was going to get away and save his family. He clawed desperately in a hopeless attempt to escape, but he finally realized even in his subconscious state that it was useless.Finally, exhausted, he slipped back into the welcoming blackness.  

Murdoch looked up at his older son.  “He's passed out again.”

Scott merely nodded; as much as he wanted the reassurance of seeing Johnny awake and alert, the constant battles with his brother while he was semi-conscious had worn both he and his father down.  The lack of proper food and the constant deluge of water over the past several days had weakened both of them.  Thankfully, Johnny was weaker also, or they wouldn't have been able to handle him.

Scott put his head back against the stone wall and dozed.  Short naps were about all he and Murdoch had managed for the last several days. If Johnny didn't get better soon, Scott was afraid that neither he nor his father would be able to help him.  They were becoming progressively weaker themselves. He watched as his father gently swept a stray lock of hair out of Johnny's eyes and he shook his head.  He knew without a doubt that it would kill his father if he had to watch Johnny die in this filthy cell, but Scott was afraid that was exactly what was going to happen.  Scott closed his eyes again, hardly noticing the bugs crawling busily on the wall.



Johnny fought his way toward consciousness once more.  It was hard this time, and part of him didn't want to make the effort.  It would be so much easier to just give in to the blackness and be able to stop fighting.  It seemed as if he had been fighting his while life, one way or the other, and he was tired.  Tired of the fight, but mostly tired of the pain, both physical and emotional.  It seemed as if the pain never stopped.  Then he remembered; his family was in danger, and he swam upward away from the black. After a terrific struggle, he finally broke through the surface, and he slowly opened his eyes.

He lay still for a moment, sure he was awake, but for some reason he was not able to see anything.  Panic engulfed him as he remembered another time when he had awakened to total blackness and Sam had told him that he was blind.  The very real possibility that he would never see again had left him almost frozen with fear, and now the fear came back with a vengeance.  He bolted into a sitting position, bringing his hands up to try and see them, and he immediately felt someone grab him.  He turned and fought savagely, determined to break away from his tormentors.

“Johnny... Johnny stop.” The whispered words confused him, making him wonder if he was really hearing them or they were only in his mind.

“Johnny, it's me, Scott.  Be quiet.”  The words finally registered in Johnny's muddled brain, and he stopped struggling for a moment.

“Johnny be still, you're OK.”

Johnny recognized Scott's voice, and that, more than the words themselves calmed him down.  He blinked rapidly, and his brother's face swam in front of his eyes. He relaxed further, and sank back against....what?  Johnny looked around in confusion, expecting to see the familiar walls of the hacienda, but what he saw brought a tightening to his gut.  He glanced rapidly around in the dim light, hoping to see something that would tell him he wasn't where he feared, but he wasn't reassured.

“Where are we?”  Johnny asked hoarsely, fearing the answer.

“SHH,” Scott whispered.  “Don't talk too loudly or the guards will hear you...”

Johnny closed his eyes, knowing the answer before Scott finished.

“...I'm afraid we've all managed to land in jail.”

“All?”  Johnny said in alarm, once more sitting up. He looked wildly around and finally caught sight of his father slumped against the opposite wall.  Johnny started over to him, but Scott held him back.  “Don't.  Let him sleep.”

Johnny stopped and stared at his brother.  “Mexico?”  He asked fearfully.

Scott nodded, and Johnny felt his mouth go dry. He struggled to remember, and finally he remembered his encounter with Medina.  Everything else was fuzzy.  He shifted against the stone wall, and felt the familiar sharp pains in his back.  He looked up at his brother. “How long?”

Scott sighed.  “I'm not sure how long we've been in here, probably two weeks.  You've been here considerably less time, maybe four days.”

  Johnny nodded, vaguely remembering being dragged and the whipping he had received, but most of it remained mercifully cloudy.  Suddenly he sat bolt upright.

  “Why am I here?” he asked urgently.

Scott looked confused.  “I don't know.  I assume it was because Medina recognized you.”

Johnny shook his head.  “No, I didn't mean why am I in prison.  I meant why am I in this cell with you?”

Scott shrugged.  “They know we're related.”

Johnny sank back against the wall and shut his eyes.  His family was going to go through hell before Medina finally killed them, and it was all going to be his fault.

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Five

Medina sat in his filthy cramped office and swore softly.  He looked at the cracked tile on the walls, the filthy yellow ceiling, and the dirt floor and swore again.  He hated this place and everyone connected with this prison.  A year ago he had thought he was through with this place for good, but the fates had turned against him.  The fates and Madrid.

A little over a year ago, Medina had been notified by his superiors that he was to receive a promotion for his efficiency in running the prison.  He was going to be reassigned to a new position in Mazatlan, complete with a new office with a view of the beach.   He had been ecstatic that his worth had finally been recognized by his superiors and he was going to get what he deserved.

  He couldn't wait to move to his new station and leave this miserable hell hole.  He hated the oppressing heat in this place.  The heat and the dirt and the filth.He would be able to work in a cool office with a wonderful view, and he would no longer spend his days sweating and trying unsuccessfully to keep clean.

One week before Medina was to leave, Madrid had been dumped on him, along with several other prisoners from a failed revolution attempt a little further south. He hadn't paid attention to the half-breed, at least not at first.  There were many such men in this prison, and Medina had shown all of them just who exactly was in charge, but he had never been able to get the best of Madrid.  Madrid had fought him and defied him to the last, and finally Medina had actually given up trying to break him and had satisfied himself with the knowledge that he would watch the gunfighter die.

The day of the execution, Medina himself had accompanied the other guards out to the field.  The captain normally didn't trouble himself with executions; they had long ago lost their charm, but this particular one he had wanted to see.  If he were very lucky, Madrid just might beg for his life and he didn't want to miss the fun.  He wanted to be there to gloat if Madrid broke, as many did when faced with the certainty of their deaths.

Instead, the unthinkable had happened.  A gringo had come racing onto the scene and interrupted the executions.  He had flashed large bills of American money at the guards and he had tried to buy Madrid's release.  The Captain had pretended to go along with it, but in actuality, he had no intention of letting Madrid go.  The gringo would wind up dead, too.  After all, it was his fault for flashing all of that money around.  What were Medina and his men supposed to do?   Ignore it?  The man would die for his stupidity.

Medina had talked quietly to his men, and told them to shoot both the gringo and Madrid, but when the guards had gone for their guns, Madrid had grabbed the pistol from the gringo's holster and had fired back.  Medina himself was one of the first to take a bullet, and the rest of his men fell, allowing Madrid to escape.

If there had been no witnesses, Medina might have been able to convince his superiors that he had fought valiantly against superior forces and had been overwhelmed.  One of the older guards had seen the whole thing, however, and he didn't have the brains to keep his mouth shut about what had happened.  He had told everyone exactly what had taken place, and had managed to make Medina look like an inept fool in the process.

  When Medina finally recovered from his wounds, he was informed in no uncertain terms that his promotion was no longer in effect, and if he was lucky he would be allowed to remain in charge of this place instead of being put up in front of a firing squad himself.  At the time, Medina had thought the firing squad just might be the better choice.  He hated this place so much he didn't know if he could survive if he stayed here any longer.  Finally, however, he had swallowed his pride and remained.  He knew in his heart that he would someday have another chance.

  Since that day, he had drowned his disappointment in booze, and taken out his anger and frustration on everyone around him, prisoners and guards alike.  He was under no illusions; the guards that worked for him hated him almost as much as the prisoners did, but that was fine with him.  The feeling was mutual.

When his son had come charging into the prison and told him that Johnny Madrid was at Senor Lopez's estancia, Medina thought at first the young man was joking, even though Roberto knew better than to joke about something that made his father that angry.   Finally, however, Medina was convinced that Madrid was within his grasp. 

What made the whole thing perfect, however, was the information that Roberto gave him regarding Madrid's family.  The half-breed's father and brother were already apparently ensconced in Medina's jail and the Captain knew that this time, he held the winning cards.  He would get his revenge on Madrid, and enjoy every moment. 

He just had to make sure he didn't weaken any of them too much, at least not yet.  If Madrid's father or brother died, he would lose some of the hold he had on the gunfighter.  If Madrid died too soon, Medina would be cheated out of all the fun he was planning to make Madrid miserable.  No, he would go slowly and make sure they all remained fairly healthy before he slowly wore them down.  He would make sure they blamed Madrid for all of their problems, and he would make sure that both Madrid's father and brother died cursing the half-breed.  Medina would finally get his revenge, and heaven help anyone that got in his way. 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Six

Johnny watched as Murdoch slept, his head tilted at an unnatural angle against the cold stone walls.  He'd have a heck of a stiff neck when he woke up, but Johnny knew it was still better than putting his head in the filth on the floor.  Johnny absent-mindedly scratched at the dirt, and Scott immediately crawled over to him.

“The floor is about the only part of the cell that isn't stone or rock.”  Scott whispered eagerly.  “Maybe, if we're really careful we can try to dig...”

Johnny shook his head.  “Nope.”

“What do you mean, no?  We HAVE to try something.”

Johnny sighed, hating to destroy his brother's hopes.  “Last time I was in here, I thought the same thing.  I dug with my hands for about a month, tearin' off my nails and doin' my best ta hide it from the guards.   When they came in I laid over the hole.   Damn guards probably knew all about it, but they didn't stop me.  They probably had a good laugh at all the trouble I was goin' to.  Anyway, I got down about two feet, and found solid rock.  The prison is built on bedrock. That's why they don't bury dead prisoners; they burn ‘em.  The whole prison follows the natural shape of the stone, that's why there are different levels.  The men that built it kept digging until they hit rock, and then they'd start building in a different direction.”

Scott felt his hopes fade.  It hadn't been much of a plan, but it had been enough to keep his optimism alive for a little while longer.  Now he no longer even had that.  The whispered explanation of his brother had shattered even that one hope.

  “Isn't there ANY way out?”  Scott whispered.

Johnny watched as Murdoch slowly woke up and locked eyes with his son.  Johnny shrugged and a small smile formed on his lips.  “Yeah, ya know anybody willing ta pay the Pinkertons ta bribe the guards?”

Scott shook his head.  His brother's sense of humor was certainly better than his at the moment.  He dropped his head for a second, unwilling to ask, but he felt as if he had to know.  He kept his eyes down as he asked his brother the question that he knew that Johnny knew the answer to all to well.  “Just what can we expect here?”  Murdoch's expression indicated that he, too, wanted to know what they were facing and he stared at his youngest.

Johnny studied his father and brother, wondering whether it would be better to lie to them, rather than destroy all of their hope, but he decided it really wouldn't matter in the long run.  With a sigh, Johnny started whispering.  “Every cutthroat and low life in Mexico winds up behind these walls.  The prisoners are just as dangerous as the guards.  There are plenty of men in the yard that'll kill ya if they can, so the best thing to do is try ta stay together.  It might discourage some of ‘em.”

“Just some of them?”  Murdoch whispered.

Johnny nodded.  “Some of them are just plain crazy.  They'll try ta kill ya for no reason, even though they know they'll get punished for it.”

Scott shook his head.   “So we make sure we don't let anyone get the best of us.  Anyone attacks us, we'll make sure we teach them a lesson they'll never forget.”

“It ain't that simple, Boston.  If ya fight back, you'll be in trouble, too, even if you're just defendin' yourself.  You'll find yourself tied ta that post or beaten within an inch of your life.”

Murdoch's voice rose slightly, and both boys immediately put their fingers to their mouths to remind him to be quiet.  They waited to see if the guards had noticed, and after a minute resumed their conversation.   “So what are we supposed to do?  Let them kill us?”  Murdoch asked in frustration.

Johnny shook his head.  “No.  But only fight back if ya have to, and then do it quick, preferably when a guard ain't watchin'.”  He focused his gaze on his brother.  “And if that happens, kill ‘em if ya can.”

Scott looked at his brother in shock.  “I'm not a murderer!”

Johnny shook his head sadly.  “No, but THEY are.  And if ya beat somebody in a fair fight, next time they'll make sure it ain't fair.  It's kill or be killed in here, and ya can't afford ta play by the rules.  The ones that survive are the ones that are too tough and mean ta kill.  Period.”

Both Murdoch and Scott dropped their heads.  They knew that what Johnny was telling them was the truth, but they didn't know if they could kill someone without ample cause.  Murdoch didn't want to even think about it, so he changed the subject.  “What about the guards?”

Johnny shrugged.  “Most of ‘em are sadistic animals.  Once in a while you'll get one that isn't too bad, but he can't be nice or the other guards would laugh him out of the place.  The best thing you can do is to keep your mouth shut, don't argue, and don't fight back.  Then ya MIGHT survive for a while.”

Scott shook his head.  This was way worse than the prison he had been in during the war.  That camp had been crowded and filthy, and some of guards had been brutal, but there had been some nice ones, too.  Then a thought occurred to him.  “Why isn't the prison more crowded?  Do that many prisoners die?”

Johnny nodded.  “Enough do, that's for sure.  But Medina also has a little side business goin'.   There are a lot of mines in the area, and a few farmers.  He sells the prisoners as slave labor to the highest bidder, and most of ‘em never come back.  If a prisoner gets too worn out ta work, he just gets shot while tryin' ta escape.  Saves a trip back here and nobody here cares.  It solves everybody's problem.”

“That's illegal!”  Scott said indignantly.

Johnny smiled sadly.  “This ain't the States, Boston.  Nobody here cares what happens to a no good convict and nobody's gonna stop it.”

Johnny watched as comprehension dawned on the faces of his brother and father, and he saw the hope leave their eyes like a live thing.  A moment later, the door slammed open, and a sheet of water descended.

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Teresa sat at the dining room table, trying to make sense of the books.  She couldn't bring herself to sit at Murdoch's desk; it was too much like a sacrilege.  She told herself that he would be furious if he caught her there.  A small lie and a small daydream that kept her mostly sane.   It had been four months now since her family had vanished, and hope was becoming something that was a little harder to hold onto.

She kept up the illusion of them being here by imagining what they would say or do in any situation, but it was becoming harder and harder to play the game.  She kept their rooms clean, and changed the sheets faithfully, just like she did when they were home.  She was afraid that if she didn't, she would jinx it somehow.  As long as she pretended that they were coming back, there was a chance that they would. 

She knew that others had given up hope.  She saw the pitying stares of the people in town, and even some of the ranch hands wouldn't meet her gaze.  She had stopped going to church three weeks ago, when the reverend had singled her out after the service and had asked her if she was planning a memorial service for the Lancers.  She had come perilously close to slapping his face, and had cried the whole way back to the ranch.

Cipriano and Jelly were still supportive, but she saw the glances and shakes of the head that they gave each other when they were around her and they didn't think she was looking.   She didn't care.  Her family was alive, and she wouldn't let anyone tell her differently, not without proof.  And if they gave her that proof...she would face that if it happened.  Until then, she wasn't about to bury them, no matter what anyone else thought.

It had been a hard several months.  Christmas had come and gone, and for the second time in her life Christmas had been miserable.  The last time it was because her father had just died, and even though Murdoch had done his best, she had been too heartbroken to appreciate the season.  This year, she hadn't even wanted to bother to pretend, but a comment by Maria had made her think.  She said that Juanito would come home for Christmas, she was sure.   Then at church that week, the Reverend had said that it was a season for miracles, and looked right at her.

  She had spent the next week in a frenzy of cleaning and baking, suddenly certain that her family would be home to celebrate with her.  She had made all of their favorite foods, and decorated the house from top to bottom.   She had stayed up all night Christmas Eve with Jelly and Maria and they had all attempted to be cheerful.   Christmas day she spent sitting by the fire alone, staring out the large window and praying. The day after Christmas, she had torn all of the decorations down and threw the tree in the fireplace and watched it burn.  The food had gotten moldy and had been thrown out, untouched.

She took a drink of lemonade, and forced her attention back to the books.  A small smile graced her lips.  No wonder Johnny hated doing these stupid things. It was almost impossible to get the same numbers twice in a row, and after a while, it felt like your brain was numb, and then NOTHING came out right.  At least she didn't have to worry about Murdoch yelling at her for a mistake.  She burst into tears, knowing that she would give anything for one of his lectures.

 

  Cipriano and Jelly were having their daily conference in the barn.  They had done their best to run the ranch, and so far they hadn't made any terrible mistakes.  Cattle had to be rounded up and branded, and a decision had to be made as to which cows and bulls to keep in the breeding program, and which ones would be sent to slaughter.  Murdoch would usually decide as to how many steers they would keep until the fall round-up, depending on how the ranch had fared over the winter. Sometimes they kept all of the stock at spring round up, and sometimes they sold a large percentage.  Somehow, as long as they had known him, Murdoch always seemed to make the right decision, and the ranch had flourished.   Now they had to make that same decision.  They both knew what would be decided was critical. A wrong guess and the ranch could lose a fortune.  More than one bad decision could doom it.

Both men knew the stakes, and were terrified of making a mistake.  Instead of fighting over which one was right, they were both very willing to leave the decision to the other one. Since the Lancers had been gone, Cipriano and Jelly had more or less divvied up the responsibilities.  Anything to do with the house or around the barnyard was Jelly's responsibility, while Cipriano took care of the rest of the ranch.

  Cipriano sighed; he knew this was supposed to be his decision, but he desperately wanted to get out of it, and he needed a second opinion.  Jelly wasn't willing to give that to him, so it would all be on his shoulders.   He knew he would have to choose which cattle to keep, but the decision of how many to sell was daunting. He looked at Jelly pleadingly.  “Maybe we should ask Senorita O'Brien.”

  With as sigh, Jelly nodded.  She would have to start making decisions sooner or later.  After all, whether any of them wanted to admit it or not, it looked like she was the owner now, and at the very least, she needed to be kept informed. 

Reluctantly, the two men entered the house, and found Teresa weeping in Maria's arms.  Jelly and Cipriano looked at each other helplessly and quickly slipped back outside.  It looked like they were on their own, at least for a while.

 

 

Chapter Twenty –Eight

The three men walked slowly out of the building, the sun making them squint their eyes as they tried to see what awaited them this time.  Scott tried to block the sun with his hands, and then he gave up and glanced over at his brother.  Johnny was trudging along, his eyes downcast and his shoulders hunched.

Scott knew that his brother was on the verge of breaking, and he didn't know what he could do about it.  Both he and Murdoch had tried to convince Johnny that what was happening wasn't his fault, but Medina had made sure that every time one of them was punished, Johnny was told it was because of him.  Scott was afraid that his brother believed the captain, no matter what anyone else told him.  Johnny had always believed the worst of himself and always blamed himself when things went wrong, and this time, it was a little too close to the truth for Scott to convince him that it wasn't so.

Scott had to admit, Medina knew how to torture his brother.  Since that first day when Johnny had been whipped, the guards hadn't inflicted much more than a cuff or two on Johnny.  Instead, they had turned all of their hate toward himself and Murdoch.  At first, Johnny had railed against the guards, frantically trying to get them to focus their attention on him and leave Scott and Murdoch alone, but he soon discovered that the more he tried to protect his family, the more harsh the punishment they received.  Finally, Johnny had stopped trying, but he had closed himself off from everyone and everything, and was responding less and less.  Scott was afraid that soon his brother would be beyond their reach for good.

Scott idly wondered which one of them was going to be punished today, and how.  Both had taken their turn on the post, and both had been beaten unmercifully. They had spent more than there share of time in the box.  The guards, or perhaps Medina, were very creative at finding new ways to make their life hell.  The guards had been careful, however.  They never went far enough to kill them, just enough to make them thoroughly miserable and to make them wish that they were dead.  Scott was beginning to hope that one of the guards would make a mistake and go a little too far one time.  He knew in his heart they didn't have much of a chance of getting out of this place, and he was tired of the constant battle to survive.

It was hard to keep track of time in this place; days seemed like months.  Scott had started making marks on the wall with his chain soon after his arrival, and by his reckoning, they had been here a little over six months.  None of them had thought they would be alive even this long.  He wasn't sure if they were lucky or unlucky to still be alive, but he was leaning toward unlucky at this point.   He figured if help was going to arrive, it would have come by now.   He was sure that Val and Cipriano, as well as Jelly and Teresa, figured they were dead.  He snorted.  He didn't think their assumptions were too far wrong, just a little premature.  Without outside intervention, Scott knew that they couldn't survive much longer.

He looked up as Medina came down the rickety stairs of the office and immediately motioned for one of the guards to approach.  Medina muttered in the man's ear for a moment, and the guard smiled and turned toward the three men huddled together.  Johnny never even looked up when the guard grabbed Scott, but Murdoch did.  He lunged at the guard who had taken a hold of his older son, catching him by surprise and decking him with his huge right hand.

The bearded guard, Juarez, who was on the other side of Scott, shoved his prisoner to the ground and went after Murdoch, his club in his hand.  Murdoch saw the blow coming, but was unable to duck, and the club caught him on the side of the head.  He dropped to the ground without a sound, his head bleeding profusely.

  Scott dove for his father, trying frantically to shield him with his body as the second guard began raining blows on the two men.   Scott felt the club smash into his body and he tried to cover his head, although he knew it was no use.  Juarez was in a blind rage and Scott had been on the receiving end of that anger before.   Through a pain filled haze, he heard shouts and cursing, but the blows continued unmercifully.   Suddenly a shot rang out and the guard toppled over on top of them, a bullet hole in his head.   Scott looked up in confusion and saw Medina standing by the steps, a gun in his hand. 

Medina glared at the remaining guards and then snarled, “I warned all of you not to kill these men.  I will not TOLERATE your disobedience, is that understood?  You'd better pray that the old man doesn't die, or you'll ALL be punished.  Now get these men back to their cell, and then get a prisoner detail to get a fire going to take care of Juarez's body.”  He turned and stalked into the office and slammed the door. 

The old guard, Ruiz, pried Murdoch from Scott's grasp, and he and another guard carried the unconscious man back toward the cell.  Scott stumbled to his feet, dizzy and disoriented, and trailed along behind, one hand on Johnny's arm.  He leaned on his brother and at the same time guided Johnny along.  Between the two of them, they managed to follow their father.   Scott kept looking at his brother, but Johnny hadn't reacted to anything that had happened.  A feeling of panic began to assail Scott.  There was a good chance Murdoch wouldn't survive his injuries, and it looked as if his brother was going to be lost to him, too, one way or the other.   He knew he couldn't survive in this place on his own.  If his family died, he knew he would, too. 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Scott and Johnny followed the old guard into their cell, where Murdoch was unceremoniously dumped on the ground before the guards turned and walked out.  Scott let go of Johnny's arm and immediately went over to his father and felt his head.  He tore a piece off of his filthy shirt and after hesitating for a moment, he dipped it into the water bucket.  He knew that infection was a distinct possibility, but he had no choice; he had to get the bleeding stopped.

A moment later, a somewhat clean rag was tossed into the cell, and the door clanged shut.  Scott looked up in surprise, and he realized for the first time that none of them had been chained.  He didn't have time to think about it however, and went to work to try to stop the bleeding.  Johnny scooted over to him and took the rag from Scott's hand and put it to Murdoch's head.  Scott looked up in relief as he realized that Johnny apparently was back with them; at least for now.

Scott and Johnny finally got the bleeding under control, and Murdoch began coming around.  Scott lifted his father's head gently and offered him some of their precious water, and after taking a few sips he fell asleep.   Scott held Murdoch's head on his lap as he slept, unwilling to put it down in the filth of the cell floor.  He watched Murdoch for a few minutes, and then looked at his brother.  “I think he'll be all right.”

“Yeah, sure.  We'll ALL be all right,”   Johnny said bitterly.

“Johnny you can't give up.”

“Why not?  I think it would be a lot better for everyone if I were dead.  At least then Medina wouldn't be punishing you.”

“DON'T SAY THAT!”  Scott snapped.

“Why?  It's the truth and you know it.  If I weren't around, Medina might lighten up on the two of you enough that you could figure out a way to escape.  As it is, none of us will EVER get outta here, and you know it.”

“I know NO such thing!”

Johnny wrapped his arms around his knees and started rocking back and forth, and Scott watched him fearfully.  Johnny was perilously close to the edge, and it was up to Scot to make sure he didn't go over.  “Johnny,” he said softly.  “It ISN'T your fault.  Medina is angry with us because the man we supposedly assaulted is Medina's cousin.”

  Johnny snorted.  “Yeah, and how come you were down in Mexico and talkin' to him in the first place?”

Scott sighed.  “You can't blame yourself for everything, brother.”

“I don't.  Just the things that are my fault, and this whole thing is definitely my fault.”  He looked up at Scott beseechingly. “Do you know what it's like seeing the two of you being hurt and knowing I'm responsible?  And knowin' that I can't even try ta help you?  If I even LOOK like I'm gonna make a move in your direction Medina makes sure he makes it worse for you.  If he'd beat me up, I wouldn't care, but his method is a lot worse.  Scott, I would die for either one of you but Medina won't let me.  He knows this is hurtin' me a lot more.”  Johnny shook his head.  “I don't know how much longer I can take seein' you hurt because of me.”

“And how do you think Murdoch or I would feel if you DID die for us?”  Scott snapped.  “Johnny, it ISN'T your fault.  It's nobody's fault.  It just happened.   You need to stop blaming yourself and we have to think of a way out of here.”

Johnny shook his head resignedly. “I don't think there is one, brother.  Except for that fire.”

Scott decided to change the subject.  “Well, at least things are looking up.  I wonder why the guard didn't chain us.”

Johnny laughed bitterly.  “For what?  What are we gonna do?  Escape?”

Scott sighed and then looked at his brother speculatively.  “HAS anyone ever escaped from here?”

Johnny shrugged.  “Who knows.”

“Johnny, it's important.  Have you ever heard of anyone escaping?”

“Not without help.” 

Scott tried one last time.  “When you were here before, didn't you come up with ANYTHING?  No matter HOW far-fetched?”

  Johnny snorted.  “Yeah.  But it wouldn't work”.

“Let's hear it.”

  Johnny shook his head.  “All it would do is get us killed.”

  “We could try it.”

“Nope.  It wouldn't work.”

“Haven't you ever heard someone else say something about an idea to get out of here?”

Johnny shook his head in frustration.  “Look, Scott, there's LOTS of ideas.  But every last one of the attempts I've seen has ended up with the prisoner dead or wishing he was.”  Johnny's voice softened and he bowed his head.  “Pretty soon we'll all be too weak to even try.  Medina said you'd die cursing me, and he was right.  I should have let him kill me instead of taking me in.  At least then it woulda been quick for all of us.”

  “But you didn't, did you?  Why?”  Scott asked quietly.

“I don't know,” Johnny said resignedly.

  “I do.  You didn't because you were trying to protect us.”

Johnny snorted.  “Fat lot of good it did.”

“Johnny, things happen.  Things we have no control over.  You did your best to protect us and it's not your fault that it didn't work.  And Murdoch and I will NEVER hate you for that.”

Johnny kept his head bowed.  “You say that now.  What about when Murdoch is beaten ta death next time?  What about then?”  He brought his eyes up and stared at his brother, but before Scott could answer, Murdoch started fighting Scott and struggling to get up.  He was obviously out of his head, and it took both Scott and Johnny to keep him from hurting himself.   By the time they had their father calmed down, Scott had forgotten he had never answered Johnny's question, but in Johnny's mind, the fact that Scott hadn't denied it was all the answer he needed.   

 

 

Chapter Thirty

Scott and Johnny were exhausted by the time morning rolled around.  Murdoch had been unconscious for most of the night, and when he was awake, he wasn't in his right mind. Sometimes he fought them, and at other times he was merely incoherent.

Some food was thrown in the cell in the morning, along with a fresh water bucket, and then they were left alone for the rest of the day.  Both Scott and Johnny thought that was unusual, because usually the guards checked them fairly frequently.  They weren't sure just what it meant, but at least they weren't being harassed.   They took turns trying to get some sleep, but between the uncomfortable cell and their worry for their father, they slept fitfully.

  They managed to get some food and water down Murdoch's throat, but he was still only semi-conscious most of the time.  At least he hadn't started to run a fever, and they hoped that with time he would improve.  Johnny realized that the punishments and beatings were not only getting harsher, but more frequent.  He was afraid that one of these times it would go too far, and one of them would be killed.  If they didn't escape soon, they never would.

Johnny figured it was late afternoon before the door swung open and the old guard, Ruiz, stood in the opening.  He watched them for a moment, and then asked quietly; “How is he?”

Johnny looked at the guard suspiciously.  “What do you care?”

Ruiz stared at Johnny, a slight smile on his lips.  “You have a smart mouth, boy.  Do you know who I am?”

Johnny shook his head, too tired to play the game.  Ruiz smiled.  “My name is Juan Ruiz.”  He hesitated a moment, and then continued.  “My brother was Pedro Ruiz, father of Maria Antonia Ruiz.”

Johnny's eyes widened as he studied the man, and Scott spoke up.  “You know him, Johnny?”

As if in a daze, Johnny nodded his head.  “He's my Great Uncle.”

Scott's indignation flared.  “And you let Medina torture Johnny, whip him half to death and then treat him like this?”

Ruiz glanced sharply at Scott.  “No one could have stopped that.  Medina is insane.  If I had tried to interfere, or if Medina knew I was sympathetic to you he would have killed me.  I had to wait for the right time and pray that you could survive until then.  I couldn't even let any of the other guards know when I tried to help. I was afraid that one of them would tell Medina.  Most of the guards despise him, but a few are loyal to Medina, and some are simply afraid to cross him.”

As angry as he was, Scott decided now was not the time to argue.  “You have to send a telegram to the sheriff in Moro Coyo.”

“That is not possible.  There are no telegraph offices for hundreds of miles.  Besides, there is not time.  Medina is growing tired of his game and plans on killing you one at a time.”

  Johnny shook his head and then stared at his uncle.  “Can you help us?”  he asked softly.

Ruiz studied Johnny for a moment, and then nodded.  “Do you know what day today is?”

Johnny shook his head.  “I have no idea.”

  “Today is Cinco de Mayo.”

Johnny's brows furrowed as he thought about that information, and after several moments a slow grin began to form.   Impatient, Scott shook his head. “What difference does it make what day it is?”

Johnny turned toward his brother with a grin.  “It makes a difference because on Cinco de Mayo, all good Mexicans get drunk.”

  Ruiz nodded slowly.  “And the guards are no exception.  I am one of the few men here that is able to make his rounds.”

Hope surged in Scott's heart.  “We can escape?”

Ruiz shrugged.  “It will be risky, and I can't guarantee it will work, but you can try.”

Scott and Johnny locked eyes for a moment, and then Johnny spoke.  “I don't care.  I'd rather die tryin' ta make a break than rotting behind these walls.  I don't want to die in chains.”

Scott nodded.  “I agree.  But there is one problem, though.”  He nodded toward Murdoch.  “He's still unconscious.”

Ruiz nodded.  “There is one more problem.  I only own two horses. There are guards at the stables and it would be impossible to steal any of the horses inside.  You will have to make do with two.”  He hesitated for a moment, and then nodded toward Murdoch.  “You might have to leave him.”

“NO!”  The words exploded simultaneously from Scott and Johnny.  Johnny shook his head.  “NO.  If we left him, Medina would kill him for sure.  He goes with us, or we all stay here.”

Scott nodded in agreement, and Ruiz shrugged reluctantly.  “The horses are tied outside the gate behind the outcropping of rocks.  There are canteens and two rifles tied to the saddles; it was all I had.  There is one guard on the upper level and one guard patrolling the gate.  There are more men, but they are all sleeping until their shift.”

He handed Johnny a key.  “Be careful, the gate squeaks if you open it too quickly, and be sure to close it after you, or someone will notice.  There is a guard change in three hours.  With any luck you won't be missed until then, and with even greater luck, the guard on duty will be too drunk to check even then.  You need to head due north, and the border is about sixty miles away.” He looked at Johnny.  “You will have to knock me out, or Medina will kill me.  Go with God.”

Johnny swallowed hard.  “Take care of yourself, old man, and thank you.”

  Ruiz nodded and shut his eyes.  Johnny looked at Scott and then took the club from Ruiz's belt.  He hesitated for a moment, and then swung the club against the old man's head.  Ruiz dropped to the floor, unconscious.  Johnny knelt down on the floor and felt for a pulse.  Finally he straightened.  “He's alive.”

Scott nodded.  “But we won't be if we don't hurry.  Come on.”  He grabbed Murdoch by the shoulders and Johnny grabbed his father's feet, and they carried him out of the cell.  They headed for the stairs, both wishing fervently that their father was a smaller man.

 

 

Chapter Thirty One

Scott and Johnny managed to get their unconscious father up the first flight of stairs without being seen.  Right before they reached the upper level, Johnny carefully put Murdoch's legs down and motioned for Scott to stay where he was.  Johnny cautiously opened the door and peered through.  After several seconds, he slipped through the door and was gone.  Scott waited, his muscles tensed, expecting to hear gunfire at any second, but all remained quiet.

After what seemed like an eternity, Johnny returned, holding a club belonging to one of the guards. He nodded at Scott, and they proceeded through the doorway.  Scott glanced to his right and saw the guard that Johnny had killed, slumped over a small table, his neck broken.  Scott knew the man had to be killed in order for them to make their escape, but he was still upset that his brother had killed the man in cold blood.  He knew he wasn't being rational, but it still bothered him.  He averted his eyes and the two men carried their father through the now deserted building.  Scott could hear men in the distance obviously partying, and he prayed that none of them would decide to take a look outside while they were making their escape.

  When they reached the door leading to the outside, Johnny once again put his burden down and cautiously opened the door. He looked outside for a moment, and then smiled.  “It's raining,” he whispered.  “The guards probably won't be out.”

Johnny picked up his father's legs and took a deep breath.  If one of the guards saw them at this point, they would be shot without warning.  Johnny figured that was still better than dying chained in a cell.  He hadn't said anything to Scott, but he had already made up his mind that if they were caught, he wouldn't go back. He would die before he let them put him back in this place.

Scott and Johnny hurried as fast as they could across the deserted yard, and finally reached the main gate.  They had been extremely lucky so far.   Murdoch had remained unconscious and silent, and the rain had increased.  They knew no one had seen them because they were still alive.  Johnny took the key Ruiz had given him and tried it in the lock.  For a panicked moment, he thought it wouldn't work, but then the lock popped open, and the gate slowly started to swing.  Scott let go of Murdoch with one hand and grabbed the gate, remembering what Ruiz had said about it squeaking. 

The two men hurried through, and Johnny once more put Murdoch down and slowly pulled the gate shut.  Scott and Johnny looked at each other for a moment in relief that they had made it outside the prison, but they couldn't rest yet.  They had to find the horses and get a head start on the posse that was sure to follow. 

They struggled with their father's dead weight over some rocky outcroppings until they at last spied the horses, tied where Ruiz said they'd be. They hurriedly untied them, and Johnny mounted what looked like the strongest horse, and then waited while Scott lifted Murdoch up to him.  Scott had planned on carrying their father, but they didn't have time to argue, and Scott knew they'd both get their turn.

  As soon as Johnny had his father settled in the saddle as solidly as he could, he kicked his horse into a run.  He knew that the sounds of the hooves would be drowned out by the rain, and they needed all the head start they could get. He was worried about the quality of the horses, but there was nothing he could do about it now.  He wished he'd been able to find Barranca, but he didn't even know if he was here. He vowed that if they survived this, he would find his friend.

  By the time the sun was setting, they figured they had a pretty good lead on the posse.  The horses were tiring, and even though they had traded Murdoch back and forth several times, both men's arms were aching.  A few miles up ahead, Johnny saw a small hill and he aimed for it.  They could stop there for a few hours, and from that vantage point, could see for a long way in case someone was trying to follow them.

By the time the horses climbed the hill, they were about done in, as were the two men.  The gently put Murdoch down and unsaddled the horses and rubbed them down as best they could. They tied them where they could forage for what little greenery there was, and then they turned their attention toward their father.  For the last several miles he had been fighting them unknowingly, and they found that he had a high fever.  There was nothing they could do about it now however, and they prayed that he would be all right until they could cross the border and get help.

Johnny looked hopefully in the saddlebags, and was rewarded with some jerky and a flask of what proved to be tequila.  Scott was less than thrilled with the discovery of tequila and opted for water, but he dutifully ate some of the dried meat.  The rain had finally stopped, and the visibility was clearing.   Johnny watched the trail behind them for a long time, but finally, both men decided to relax while their horses rested.   

Johnny sighed and looked at Scott. “We owe a lot to Ruiz.”

Scott nodded and Johnny continued.  “I'm afraid that Medina will know what he did.”  

  “How?”

“The horses.  Someone HAD to leave them there, and Medina won't stop until he finds out who.”

Scott nodded. “You may be right.”

Johnny sighed again and felt Murdoch's forehead.  “Do you think he'll be all right?”

“He will if we can get him to a doctor.”

  “We will.”  Johnny glanced at the horses.  “I think they've rested enough.  We need to go.”

Scott nodded and went over to saddle the animals.  Suddenly, Scott heard Johnny curse and he whirled around to see what was wrong.  His brother was staring down into the valley they had just come from, and Scott looked at the place his brother was staring at.  He could see small pinpoints of lights following the trail they had just come up.  The posse was already following.

 

 

Chapter Thirty Two

Teresa sat in the chair, clutching the Pinkerton report and staring out the window at the distant mountains.  She had stopped crying over an hour ago, and although she still felt like it, she had simply run out of tears.  It wasn't fair.  She had lost her father not very long ago, and she had come to think of Murdoch and Scott and Johnny as her family.  She loved all of them unconditionally, and had prayed that all of them would return to Lancer safely.  Now that dream was shattered and would never be again be whole.

When she had hired the detectives at Val's suggestion, she had been sure they would find the three men and put everything right. She had been living with that hope for several months, knowing how hard it might be to find her lost family.  Long ago, she had listened to her father and Murdoch talk about how long it had taken the Pinkertons to find Johnny, and she knew how easy it was to stay lost down in Mexico.  Even though the months had dragged on with no word about her missing family, she remained optimistic.  She knew that sooner or later the men would be found and would return home.

When Val had ridden in with the report earlier today, she knew she would find good news inside and would be reunited with her family shortly.  She had had torn the envelope open in haste and ripped the report in her frantic need to know its contents.  She read the message several times before the true enormity of what she was reading sank in, and then she had collapsed in tears.  Maria had come over and wrapped her in her arms and guided her over to the couch, trying to calm Teresa's sobs with quiet words.  Val had taken the message from Teresa's hands and read it himself, and she heard him swear softly.

A moment later, he was down on his knees in front if her.  “I'm going out to meet them.  We don't know what kind of shape they'll be in and they'll probably need help, but don't worry, I'll bring them home.”

Teresa nodded numbly, “Bring them home, Val.  I can't bear to lose anyone else.”

Val sighed.  “I will.  I'll send a telegram as soon as I've caught up with them and let you know that they're all right.”

  Teresa nodded once again, and Val continued.  “If it's all right with you, I'm going to go out and talk to Cipriano and Jelly.  I'll come back in before I leave.”

Teresa nodded her agreement and Val slipped out of the door and headed for the barn.  The report had shaken him more than he wanted to admit, even to himself.  He had also come to think of the three men on this ranch as friends and even family, and he blamed himself for not figuring out where they were when he had been down in Mexico earlier. 

Val knew just what Johnny had gone through in that prison before, and to know that he had been back there in the hands of his hated enemy made Val sick.  He wondered just what his friend had gone through; what they had ALL gone through in that place.   One night almost a year ago Johnny had had a little too much to drink and he had told Val about his experience in that Mexican prison before Murdoch had rescued him.  He had told Val he would rather die than ever go back there again, and the sheriff had believed him.  He would feel the same way. 

Val had spent a few days in Mexican jails here and there in his younger days, and they were bad enough.  He had heard enough horror stories about the prisons to vow NEVER to end up in one.  He also knew that escape from such a place was almost impossible and he wondered how they had managed it.  He was surprised that all of them hadn't wound up dead.

  As he approached the barn, Cipriano walked out and greeted him.  One look at Val's face told the Segundo that whatever news that Senorita Teresa had received was not good.  He braced himself as Val nodded to him.  “Where's Jelly?  He needs to hear this too.  I only intend to say it once.”

  Cipriano sighed and walked over to the tack room.  Inside, they found Jelly industriously cleaning some tack. They stood for a moment, but Jelly didn't turn around.  Finally the old man spoke.  “I don't want ta hear it.”

“Jelly.”

The old man shook his head.  “Them Pinkertons make mistakes, just like everybody else.  Well, they made one this time, too.”

Val sighed and looked at Cipriano hopelessly.  “Jelly, you may not believe it, but you need to hear it.”

  “I'll listen, but I'll make up my own mind.”  His jaw jutted out belligerently, daring Val to deny him that right.

  Instead Val nodded.  “Evidently, they've been in a Mexican prison. Murdoch and Scott were sent there for assaulting and trying to kill Senor Lopez, the man that had the warrant out for Johnny.  There's no mention about how Johnny wound up in there, but I'm sure his old friend the Rurale captain had something to do with it.” 

  Jelly nodded.  “Go on.”

“They've been in there all this time.  I never thought to look that far east; Johnny sent that telegram that they'd left Lopez' place and were safe.” He looked at the other two men miserably.  “I'm sorry.”

“Weren't your fault.  Now get on with it.”  Jelly demanded.

Val took a deep breath.  “Evidently, they somehow managed to escape.  They were chased by the prison guards for several days, and finally crossed the border down by Nogales.  Pinkertons say that according to witnesses they were hurt pretty bad, but they left there and made it into Arizona.  There they disappeared.”

“Well what's so bad about that?  They'll turn up all right, you just wait and see.”

  Val shook his head.  “I plan on going down and trying to find them.  But there's something else you need to know.”

  Jelly swallowed hard.  He knew it was too good to be true.  “What?”

  Val dropped his head.  “Only two of them made it.  The posse caught and killed …one of them… while they were still down in Mexico.  It's been confirmed.”

Jelly and Cipriano stared at Val.  “Who?” they whispered.

 

 

Chapter Thirty – Three

Scott and Johnny were about done in.  The posse had been following them for a whole day and a half now.  Johnny had managed to throw them off a few times, but the stubborn rurales always managed to find the right trail eventually.   Murdoch had a fever and had been awake a few times, but it was a lot easier when he was unconscious.  When he was awake or delirious, his movements made it difficult to keep him in the saddle.

It was almost dark once more, and Johnny again headed for some higher ground where he could see if anyone got too close.  He didn't know how the posse was managing to keep going when they themselves were ready to drop.  They had run out of food this morning, but had at least managed to keep the canteens filled. Johnny hoped to rest a few hours tonight, and start out when the moon came up. The horses needed the rest even worse than they did and Johnny was afraid they wouldn't last.   They weren't top quality to begin with, but they had been trying gamely the whole time.   He figured they weren't very far from the border; all they needed was an hour or so head start and they would make it.

Johnny led the way up the hill in the semi-darkness, heading for an outcropping at the top.  He turned around to see how Scott was doing with Murdoch, and saw that his brother was having some difficulty keeping their father in the saddle on the steep slope.  Johnny turned in his saddle to look back around just as his horse lost his footing.  Johnny tried desperately to keep the animal moving forward, but the slope and the loose shale underfoot prevented the horse from getting purchase and he continued to slide backwards. Johnny glanced back in alarm; in a moment they would ram Scott's horse, sending them all tumbling down to the bottom. 

Johnny wrenched violently on the reins and threw his weight to the left, causing the horse to lose his balance and fall heavily on his side, then the horse rolled on top of Johnny and both horse and rider went rolling down the hill to land thirty feet below in a tangled heap.

Scott watched in horror as the horse rolled down the hill with his brother, but he knew if he tried to stop now he and Murdoch would suffer the same fate, so he leaned forward in the saddle as much as possible and urged his exhausted horse up the remainder of the slope.  As soon as he reached the top, he jumped down and dragged Murdoch off of the horse.  Murdoch was somewhat lucid, so Scott grabbed the horse's reins and stuffed them in his father's hands, then turned and ran down the hill toward his brother.

Both Johnny and his horse were lying at the base of the slope, and Scott said a prayer when he saw no movement.  Just as he reached his brother's side, Johnny moaned a couple of times and then tried to sit up.  Scott grabbed him and pushed him back down.  “Take it easy.  You've had a bad spill.”

Johnny nodded and sat still for a moment, and then twisted around to look at the horse.  “Dead?”  he asked his brother.

Scott glanced at the still animal and noticed the horse's neck was thrown back at an impossible angle.  “Yes,” he answered, shivering when he thought of how easily Johnny could have broken his neck, and thankful it was the horse that was lying there dead instead of his brother.

  Johnny sighed deeply, and then tried to regain his feet.  Scott grabbed his arm to help him, and Johnny gasped in pain and twisted away from his brother.  He stood there panting for a moment, and then looked at his brother with frightened eyes. 

“It's broken, bad.” 

  Scott approached and carefully tried to lift the arm so he could see it, but even that was too much for Johnny.  Scott could see the arm was hanging uselessly, and there was blood on his brother's shirtsleeve.  Scott knew that Johnny never complained of being in pain, and for him to say it was bad meant that the break probably involved multiple bones and was probably a compound fracture on top of it.

Scott tore his own shirt off and fashioned a wrap, then carefully bound his brother's arm to his side.  By the time he was done, Johnny was sweating profusely and was as pale as a sheet.  He looked at his brother.  “Where's Murdoch?”

Scott nodded toward the top of the hill.  “He's all right.  He's conscious again.”

Johnny nodded, and by leaning heavily on his brother he managed to make the climb to the top.  Johnny took another look behind them, and saw that the posse was still coming toward them. Unless the rurales stopped, the three of them would have to take off again, and soon.

Scott helped his brother over to a rock next to Murdoch and sat him down carefully.  Murdoch was once again unconscious and shivering badly.  Scott felt his father's forehead and noticed without surprise that Murdoch was burning up.   He snorted softly.  What more could go wrong?  He looked Johnny in the eyes. “I'm going to have to set that arm.”

  Johnny shook his head.  “Nope.”

“What do you mean, no?

“If you set it, I'm gonna pass out, and we can't afford that right now.”

  “You can't ride like that, and you know it.”

“I'm not plannin' on it.”

“What does that mean?”

Johnny ducked his head.  “I figure we're about ten miles from the border.”

“So?  Scott asked suspiciously.

Johnny refused to meet his brother's eyes.  “So, there's no way we can all make it there ahead of the posse with just one horse.”

  Scott froze. The significance of the animal's death hadn't occurred to him.  He had been too worried about Johnny. He swallowed hard.   “Then we'll stay and fight.”

Johnny nodded, knowing he'd have to lead his brother to the obvious conclusion.  If he tried to force it, Scott would stop listening and refuse to do what was necessary.  “Yeah, we can fight.   How many of them do ya think there are following us?”

Scott shifted uncomfortably.  “Twenty, maybe more.”

  Johnny nodded again.  “The ‘maybe more' is my guess, too.  We've got two guns and probably twenty shells.”

  Scott stared fiercely at his brother, knowing where this was leading, but refusing to accept it.  “It's a chance, anyway.”

“No it's not, and you know it.  We'll all die here if we try ta fight.”

“Then we'll give ourselves up.  We can fight another day.”

Johnny snorted.  “Do you REALLY think they'll take us back alive?  And if they did, do you WANT them to?”

Scott shook his head in frustration then looked at his brother hopelessly.  “What do we do?”

Johnny smiled.  He knew that no matter how much Scott hated it, he would do what had to be done.  He just hoped Murdoch didn't wake up until it was over.

 

 

Chapter Thirty Four

“NO!”

  “Scott, think about it.  It's the only thing that might work.”

  “I don't HAVE to think about it.  We're not going to do it that way.  We're ALL going to get out of this mess.  Now I don't want to hear about it again.”

“All right, I'll drop it.  Do you have a better plan?  One that gets all of us out of here, because if you do, I'm listening.”

Scott shook his head in frustration.  “Not yet.  Give me some time, and I'll come up with something.”

  “We don't have TIME for you to think of one.  That posse is still comin' and they'll be here pretty soon.  Whatever we do, we have to do it now, and what I suggested is the only thing that stands a chance of workin'.”

  Scott spun around and walked toward the remaining horse and buried his face in the animal's mane.  He was trying desperately to figure something, ANYTHING, out other than the plan his brother had so calmly suggested. As he stood there, Johnny walked up behind him and put his good hand on Scott's shoulder.  “It's the only way, brother, and you know it if you'll just think about it rationally.”

  Scott spun around, a look of determination on his face.  “OK, you may be right.  It's the only thing that might work.  But I'll stay, not you.”

Johnny dropped his head, hiding a smile that was forming.  Johnny knew the biggest hurdle was over, now that Scott realized it was the only way.  “Ok, if that's the way you want it.”

Scott looked at his brother suspiciously.  There was no way Johnny would give up that easily.

“You'll let me stay?”  Scott asked uncertainly.

Johnny nodded.  “Of course, if you do, you'll be signing your father's death warrant.  I can't hold him in the saddle.  Not with this arm.  So both you and he will have to stay here.”

Scott ground his teeth in frustration.  “We'll tie him on.”

“With WHAT?  We don't have any rope!  And before you suggest braidin' some outta horse hair, you listen to me.  The way this arm is hurtin' I'll probably pass out before I go a mile. I ain't just sayin' that; the bouncing from the horse would probably do it.  I'm havin' trouble right now.  Then it'll all be for nothing.”

“You could try,”   Scott ground out.

“Are you willin' ta bet Murdoch's life on me TRYIN”?  Because that's what you'll be doin'.  You'll be sentencing your father ta death when you could save him.  Are you willin' ta do that?”

“NO!  I'm not willing to sentence him to death, but I'm not willing to leave my own brother to die, either.”

Johnny just stared at him and shook his head slowly.  “Scott, it's the only thing that has a chance of gettin' Murdoch outta here and you know it.  You're the only one that can get our father back.”

Scott dropped his head and glanced at his unconscious father. A horrible thought crossed his mind. “What if we leave Murdoch?” he asked quietly.

Johnny stared back at his brother, knowing just what that question had cost Scott and how much it was going to haunt his brother in the future.  Johnny shook his head.  “He can't buy us any time; he's out cold right now.  The posse wouldn't even know he was up here; they'd go right on by and go after us.  It wouldn't work.  We need someone up here ta slow 'em down.”

Scott nodded, partially in relief, and partially from guilt at the suggestion he'd made, but he COULDN'T leave Johnny, he just couldn't.  “There must be some other way.”

“There isn't.  Believe me; I tried ta think of one.”  Johnny dropped his head and sighed.  “Scott, it'll be OK.  Just get Murdoch home.”

Scott turned away, not wanting his brother to see the tears that were threatening to form.  He knew Johnny was right, at least his mind did.  His heart was screaming that the whole thing was all wrong.

Johnny's voice was calm.  “You take off now, and I'll make some noise and move around.  Let ‘em think we're all still here.  When they get closer I'll find some shelter.  I don't know how many of ‘em I can take out, but I'll take down as many as I can.  With any luck I can keep ‘em occupied long enough for you ta make it to the border.”

  Scott nodded; not trusting his voice.  He went over and managed to lift Murdoch onto the saddle, and then turned toward his brother.  This time he couldn't hide the tears.  “We'll come back and get you out, I promise.”

Johnny smiled sadly.  “No, Scott.  Just get Murdoch home.”

“Johnny…”  Scott pleaded.

Johnny shook his head again.  “I ain't goin' back ta that place. You know what Medina would do to me. You just go on home, do you hear me?”

“It's not FAIR!”

“Life isn't fair, but it can be good.  And the last year has been the best of my life.  You make sure you tell Murdoch that.  I've been livin' on borrowed time anyway.  I shoulda died in front of that firing squad, and if I had, I woulda been dyin' for somethin' a lot less important.”

Johnny looked deep into his brother's eyes, and then Scott hugged him.  “I love you, brother.”

“I love you, too.  Now get going.  You're runnin out of time.”

  Scott reached up and untied the rifle from the saddle and handed it to his brother.Johnny shook his head.  “You keep it.”

Scott shook his head.   “If they get past you it won't do us any good.”

  Johnny nodded and took the rifle, then grabbed his brother's arm.  “You take care of yourself and the Old Man, you hear me?”

Scott nodded, the tears starting to flow again.  He squeezed his brother's hand for the last time, and then kicked his horse down the hill, the ground blurring in front of him.  At this point he didn't really care if he made it or not.  The only reason he was doing it was because of Murdoch, but he had the feeling that Murdoch wouldn't care, either.  He had the feeling that neither of them would care about anything for a long, long time.

 

 

Chapter Thirty-five

  Scott rode mechanically, not thinking of where he was going, not thinking of the posse, not thinking of anything.  Murdoch shifted and Scott knew he was starting to come around.  He hoped his father didn't come around sufficiently to ask about Johnny, but after moaning a few times, Murdoch settled back down.  Scott kept heading toward the river, and he had been riding almost an hour when he heard the sounds he had hoped he wouldn't.  Sound carried a long way in the desert, and gunshots were no exception. 

  Scott heard the spatter of gunfire, sporadic at first, and then more steady.  The noise increased and then suddenly there was silence.  A long moment later, one lone shot rang out, and the realization of what that shot meant made him physically sick.  He leaned over and lost the contents of his stomach, then continued to heave.  Finally, his eyes blurring, he kicked the exhausted horse into a lope.  If he stayed here and the posse caught him, he knew Johnny would never forgive him.

A short while later, Scott reached the Rio Grande.  He looked behind him, halfway expecting to se the posse, but all was quiet, at least so far.   Technically, they were safe on the other side of the river, but overly exuberant posses had been known to follow their quarry across.  He shifted Murdoch in his arms so he had a better grip, and then he kicked his horse into the river.

Two hours later, Scott was in a small house on the outskirts of Corvales, Arizona. He had been guided to the home of the doctor by a local businessman when he had entered their town.  Both he and Murdoch were pretty well done in, and their horse was definitely on his last legs.  The horse managed to stumble to the doctor's house, and Scott dismounted shakily, then pulled his father off and dragged him toward the house. 

He had only gone a few feet before the door swung open and a young man came out to help him.  Without a word, the two men managed to carry Murdoch inside, where he was placed on a clean bed.  Scott straightened up slowly.  “I'm looking for the doctor.”

  The young man stuck out his hand.  “I'm Doctor Owens.”

  Scott shook his hand, a sense of relief that his father would at last get some decent care.  “I'm Scott Lancer, and this is my father, Murdoch lancer.  He was hit on the head a couple of days ago, and he's come to several times, but he has a high fever.”

The doctor nodded.  “We need to get the fever down, and then we'll see.”  He looked at Scott curiously.  “It looks like you've had a pretty hard time yourself.”

Scott nodded; uncomfortable with saying too much.  He wasn't sure who he could trust, and he didn't want to wind up back in that prison. Before he could pursue that line of thought too far, the doctor spoke up. “I believe it would be best if you stayed in the house.  When your father is in good enough shape to move, I will take you to my brother's house.  His wife is a good nurse, and you should be safe there.”

“What makes you think we're in trouble?”  Scott asked cautiously.

The doctor smiled.  “You are obviously wearing prison garments, and you both look exhausted.   I assume it was a Mexican prison?”

Scott nodded wearily; too tired to try to figure out if the Doctor was on their side.

“There are people in town who are very friendly with the rurales.  We need to be very careful.   Does anyone know you are here?”

Scott shook his head.  “Only one person.  I think he was the owner of the general store.  He told me how to get here.”

  Doctor Owens nodded.  “That would be Sam Littlefield. We have nothing to worry about from him.  Just to be sure, next time I'm in town I'll tell him to keep quiet if anyone should ask for you.  In the meantime, rest.  I promise you, you're both safe.”

  Scott nodded, and then another thought crossed his mind. “I will have to pay you after I wire for some money.”

  The doctor smiled.  “I'm not worried about it.  Now get some sleep.  I'll look after your father.”

  Scott gratefully lay down in the next room and tried to sleep, but he kept thinking about his brother.  Now that it was too late, he decided that he should never have left him. They should have stayed together, no matter what. Finally, sheer exhaustion forced him into a troubled sleep.

Scott awoke sometime later.  He lay still for a moment, and then heard his father's panicked voice from the next room.  He jumped to his feet and ran into the next room, where the doctor was trying to calm his father down.  Doctor Owens looked up when Scott rushed in, and nodded gratefully.  “Will you tell him you're all right?”

Scott went up to the bed and took his father's hand.  Scott could see that Murdoch was still feverish, but his eyes looked sane.  “It's OK, Murdoch.  You're safe.”

Murdoch looked at Scott and then sighed in relief.   He lay back and studied his son.  “Where are we?”

  “We're in Arizona.”

“Arizona?”

  Scott nodded. 

“How?”  Murdoch asked in shock.  “How did you manage to get away?”

  “Don't you remember anything? You seemed awake part of the time.”

  Murdoch shook his head cautiously.   “Maybe bits and pieces.  It's all jumbled up.”

Scott took a deep breath.  “The guard, Ruiz, turned out to be Johnny's uncle.  He helped us escape and gave us two horses.  We got a good head start and headed toward the border.”

Murdoch shook his head.  “He was on our side all along?”

  “Evidently.  But he couldn't help us until there was no one around.”

Murdoch nodded.  “Well, at least we're all safe.” Murdoch saw the stricken look on his son's face, and a feeling of doom pervaded his soul.  “Where's Johnny?” he whispered.

Scott dropped his head, unable to look his father in the eyes.  “He didn't make it.”

  Murdoch bolted upright.  “What do you mean, he didn't make it?  Where IS he?”

Scott sighed, and then said quietly.  “The posse was catching up and he stayed behind to slow them down and give us a chance to escape.  He's dead.”

  Murdoch stared at his son for a moment and then closed his eyes.  “Go away.  Go away and leave me alone.”

 

 

Chapter Thirty Six

Murdoch was sitting up in bed and staring out of the window.  Scott had explained everything, and Murdoch was devastated by what had happened.  He had been absolutely hateful toward Scott, and had accused him of leaving his brother to die.  Scott had looked at him for a moment, his eyes full of unshed tears, and then turned and quietly left the room.  Murdoch hadn't seen him since. 

Murdoch hung his head.  He knew that Scott didn't leave his brother willingly, and that was the problem.  He knew the only reason that Scott had agreed to Johnny's plan was to save him, and the guilt of that knowledge was almost too much to bear.  He wished to God that they had left him instead.

Murdoch didn't care what Scott said, he was going to go back and see for himself that Johnny had really died.  After all, they hadn't been there, and he had no intention of letting his younger son languish in that prison.  As soon as he could travel, he was going back to Mexico and find out for himself.

 

  Scott sat at the local saloon, trying to forget his father's words.  He knew he shouldn't be here, but right now he didn't really care if someone recognized him.  What his father had said had hit a little too close to home, and served to make him more miserable than he already was. He already knew that he'd abandoned his brother and left him to die without Murdoch pointing it out to him.  At the time, Scott had reluctantly thought that Johnny was right, but now he wasn't sure.  If they had all stayed, they probably would have been killed, but Scott wasn't convinced that shouldn't have happened.  At least they would have been together.

  As it was, the thought of Johnny dying by himself out in that desert nearly killed him.  That last shot kept intruding on his thoughts, and he wondered if his brother had taken his own life, or if the shot he had heard was one of the rurales finishing his brother off.  Either way, that one shot had haunted his sleep ever since he'd heard it, and he knew it would haunt him for the rest of his life.

  He looked up as a customer walked into the saloon, and at first thought he was seeing things.  The stranger saw Scott and walked over to him, and plopped down at the table.  “I was beginning to think I wouldn't find you.”

Scott looked at the sheriff quizzically.  “How did you know where to look?”

“Teresa hired the Pinkertons.  We received a report four days ago that you had escaped, and I took the first stage here.”

Scott sighed and looked at his friend.  “Did they tell you about…”  Scott looked away, unable to finish, and Val put his hand on Scott's arm.  “Yes,” he said quietly.  “I know about Johnny.”

  Val waited for a moment and then continued.  “Then it's true?”

  Scott nodded slowly and told the sheriff what had happened.   “…And when I told him, Murdoch accused me of leaving him to die.  I guess he's right, because that's exactly what I did.”

“No!  I know Johnny, and he would have done it no matter what you said or did.  It wasn't your choice, it was his, and from what you say, it was the only thing that would have given any of you a chance.”

  Scott dropped his head.  “I know,” he whispered, “but it still hurts.”

Val nodded.  “I know.”

Val looked around.  “Where's Murdoch?”

Scott shrugged.  “He's over at the doctor's brother's house.  He's almost better.  Doctor Owens said he'll be able to go home in a day or two.  The only problem is, he doesn't want to go home, he wants to go back to Mexico and find out for sure what happened to Johnny.”

“That would be suicide.  That's just what the rurales will expect you to do.”

“I know, but we have to find out for sure.”

Val shook his head.   “Let's go talk to Murdoch; maybe what I have to say will make him think twice.”  Scott nodded, although he wasn't sure he wanted Val to talk his father out of it.  They both needed to know.

The two men walked back over to the house where Murdoch and Scott had been staying.  Murdoch was surprised and happy to see Val, and asked about everyone at the ranch. Scott couldn't believe that he himself was so upset about Johnny that he hadn't even given anyone else a thought.  Val reassured them that everyone was fine, and the ranch was in good shape, and then he told Murdoch about the Pinkerton report they had received.

“Murdoch, the Pinks don't make mistakes like that.  From what Scott told us that Johnny said and from the report, there's no hope that Johnny's still alive, and you know it.”

  Murdoch stared at the lawman belligerently.  “I know no such thing.”

Val sighed.  “Murdoch, for you to go back into Mexico now would be suicide.  You wouldn't even get within five miles of that prison before they shot you dead.  Give it some time, and then go back.”

“Johnny might not HAVE that time!”

Val shot a look at Scott, who shook his head sadly.  “Murdoch, you have to accept the truth.  Johnny didn't make it this time.  If you want more proof, then send another Pinkerton agent to find out, but DON'T put yourself in danger.  Do you want Johnny's sacrifice to have been for nothing?  What do you think he'd feel if he knew you willingly went back into that prison or got yourself killed?”

Murdoch shook his head, Val's arguments making him unsure.  He looked at Scott.  “I HAVE to be sure.”

  Scott nodded.  “I agree.  Maybe we can hire the Pinkerton's to go down and make sure, one way or the other.”

  With a sigh, Murdoch nodded.  Val was right, Johnny would never forgive him if he did something foolish and made Johnny's sacrifice all for nothing.  He would make sure that it wasn't, and he would go back to Lancer, even though he knew that part of his heart would never leave Mexico.

 

 

Chapter Thirty-Seven

The trip back to Lancer was slow and difficult.  Murdoch had insisted on going back, even though he wasn't really ready yet.  He wanted to go home.   Scott really didn't care about much of anything, and he wasn't sure if he ever would again. Johnny had meant more to him than he would ever admit, even to himself, and the nagging sense that he had betrayed his brother increased the hurt.

Val had sent a telegram to Teresa, just like he'd promised, and told them that Murdoch and Scott would be home in a couple of weeks.  In the meantime, Val rode down into Mexico to see if he could pick up any clues as to what had happened for sure.  Scott had told the lawman exactly the route they had taken, and Val had backtracked along the trail.  He had easily read the tracks that Murdoch and Scott had left; the horse was carrying double, and its hooves sank deep into the sand.  He followed the tracks until he saw a rock outcropping in the distance, and his gut clenched as he saw a large flock of vultures clustered around a spot on the ground.  He hoped that the Rurales had at least been decent enough to bury his friend, although he wouldn't bet on it.

  As he approached the mass of birds, he saw that the carcass was a horse, lying at an impossible angle at the bottom of the hill.  He sighed with relief as he realized it was the horse that had fallen on Johnny and the body was not that of his friend.  He dismounted and ground tied his own horse, and climbed up to the top of the outcropping.  At first, he didn't see anything, but then he saw something that made him sick. 

  He went over and picked up a dirty shirt that had been left in the dirt.  It was the kind that he knew that prisoners usually wore.  It was torn and heavily stained with blood, and there was a bullet hole in the front of it.  He looked down and saw that the ground where the shirt had lain was blood soaked.   Val closed his eyes as he realized that his friend had actually died here.  He looked around to make sure there was nothing else; apparently they had taken Johnny's body back after all.  He said a prayer for his friend, and headed back down the hill.  He climbed back onto his horse, and with a last look around, he nudged the horse into a lope.  He would have to report what he had found to Murdoch, and then he would contact the Pinkertons and made sure they sent someone down to Mexico to verify what Val finally accepted as the truth.

 

By the time they reached the ranch, both Scott and Murdoch were exhausted.   Sam met them at the hacienda, and he immediately gave instructions for both of them to go to bed and stay there until he gave his permission to get up.  Sam was both relieved and worried when both men did as he asked without a struggle.

The doctor walked into Murdoch's room first, and sat down on the bed.  “How do you feel?”

  Murdoch shrugged.  “Fine,” he said flatly

Sam grabbed Murdoch's wrist and took his pulse, then looked in his eyes.  Murdoch offered no protest and that in itself bothered the Doctor.  “Any symptoms?  Dizziness?  Blurred vision?  Nausea?”

  Murdoch shook his head.  “I told you I'm fine.  Just tired is all.”

  Sam nodded and carefully folded his stethoscope and put it away.  “I'm sorry, Murdoch.  You know how I felt about that boy.”

Murdoch closed his eyes.  “I know.  He had a lot of friends.”  Murdoch smiled sadly.  “You know, when he first came to Lancer, I was worried that no one would accept him.”  He shook his head.  “I'd say that he was liked a whole lot better than either Scott or I were.”

Sam smiled.  “Well, I don't know about Scott, but I know for sure that he was more popular than you were.”

“He DID have a way with people, that's for sure.  People and animals. I don't think he ever failed to win any of them over if he was given half a chance,” Murdoch mused.

Sam nodded.  “He'll be missed.”

“He gave his life for us,” Murdoch said hoarsely. “He held them off long enough for Scott and I to make it to the border.”

  Sam put his hand on his friend's arm.  “I know.”

  Murdoch turned tortured eyes on his friend.  “Why Sam?  Why?  It's not fair.  Of any of us, he's the one that deserved more.”  Murdoch dropped his head, his tears running unnoticed down his face.

“I don't know why, Murdoch.  But he did what he wanted to do, and he died knowing that he had helped you, and you know how important that was to him.”

  “I didn't deserve that.  It was my fault he grew up the way he did; I should have tried harder to find him when he was a child.”

“You DID try, and you know it.  I was there, remember?   It WASN”T your fault, and Johnny would be the first one to tell you that.  Sometimes, it's nobody's fault; it just is, and you can't do anything to change it.”

  “Sam, I don't know if I can get over this.  I've lost too much in my life.”

“Murdoch Lancer, don't you talk like that.  You need to be grateful for the blessings that you DO have.  What about Scott and Teresa?  They need you now, more than ever.  You're going to have to make sure that this family doesn't fall apart.   You're the only one that can hold it together.”

  Murdoch nodded slowly.  “I'll try, Sam.  But it's going to be awfully hard.”

  “I know, Murdoch, I know.  But you have to do it for Johnny's sake”. 

Murdoch nodded.  He would try, but he didn't know if his family would ever survive the blow it had been dealt.  Its heart had been ripped out and had died down in Mexico.

 

 

Chapter Thirty-Eight

Murdoch had refused to have a memorial service for his son until they received the final report from the Pinkertons.  Val was surprised that it was Murdoch that held onto the slight hope that Johnny was alive rather than Scott.  He had expected Scott to be the one who held on to the belief that Johnny had somehow survived, but Johnny's brother had apparently abandoned all hope of that miracle coming to pass.  Val wondered just exactly what had been said between the brothers that last day to make Scott so sure.

Val had contacted the Pinkerton's personally, and they said that they would send one of their top agents down to Mexico to find out Johnny's fate once and for all.  That had been almost a month ago, and there was still no word. Val knew in his heart that his friend was dead, partially because of Scott's belief, but also because of what he had found that day in the desert.

Val also knew Johnny better than most people realized, and although he would never say so to Murdoch, he didn't think that Johnny would let the rurales get a hold of him again.  He thought that maybe Johnny had made sure that that hadn't happened, and he wondered if his friend had said as much to his brother, and that was the reason Scott was so pessimistic.  He sure wasn't going to ask; he figured that whatever had been said was between the two of them.   No matter what had really happened, he just hoped the guilt that Scott was obviously feeling would soon go away.  Val knew that Scott would never have left his brother if there was another way to get Murdoch to safety.

  Val looked up as the noon stage came rumbling into town, and like he had every day for the last week, he walked outside to meet it.

“Clyde,” Val greeted the driver.

Clyde reached behind him and picked up a mailbag and tossed it to the sheriff.  “Here ya go, Val.  Hope it's got what ya want in it this time.”

Val nodded and carried it over to the General Store, which also served as the local post office.  He dumped it on the counter and began pawing through it. Miss Beckwith, the ancient owner of the store and unofficial postmistress, scowled at him.  She took exception with anyone messing with HER mail, but she knew what Val was after, so she cut him some slack.  Instead of giving him one of her notorious lectures, she contented herself with dirty looks.  Unfortunately, Val was too busy going through the mail to notice.

  Finally, he spied a large yellow envelope and grabbed it.  He held it up and saw that it was from the Pinkerton Detective Agency.  Clutching it tightly, he went out the door and headed toward his office.  Now that he had it in his hands, he was afraid to open it.  Up until now he had been able to pretend that it was all a horrible mistake and his friend would show up again.  Once he opened that letter, however, he had the feeling that he would never again have that hope.

Val walked into the office and shut the door, locking it behind him.  He certainly didn't want any visitors right now, and he pulled the shades just to make sure.  He went over and poured himself a shot of whisky he kept in the office for medicinal purposes and sat down at the desk.   He took a drink, and studied the letter, turning it over and over in his hands.   Finally, he tossed down the remainder of his whisky and carefully opened the envelope and stared at his contents for a long, long time.

  Two hours later, Val rode under the Lancer arch and headed toward the house.  He tied his horse to the hitching post outside the great room and walked inside.  He had long ago been told not to knock.  He found Murdoch sitting at his usual spot at his desk, and Scott reading a book next to the fireplace.  He was glad they were both together, and he was just as glad that Teresa was nowhere around.   Murdoch looked up and saw the lawman and knew immediately why he was there.

“Val.”

Val nodded at the two men.  “Murdoch, Scott.  I got the Pinkerton report in today's mail.”

Murdoch merely stared at his friend, and Scott stood up, bracing himself for the news.  Val dropped his head, unable to look the two men in the eyes.  “I'm sorry; it says that it's been confirmed.”

  Val saw Murdoch visibly wilt, while Scott slowly sank back into his chair. 

Murdoch's eyes were closed as he asked the question.  “There's no doubt?”

Val shook his head and then realized Murdoch couldn't see him.  “No.”

  “What does it say?”

Val hesitated, and then Scott said quietly, “We want to know.”

  “The report says that the agent went down and talked to several guards and even found some peasants that saw them bringing…the body… back to the jail.  The body was… burned once they got back.”  Val sighed and shook his head.  “I'm sorry.”

Murdoch nodded woodenly while Scott lunged to his feet and escaped outside.  Val stood for a few moments, and then turned and left his friends to their grief.  He had already shed his tears in private before he left town, and if he didn't leave now, he just might embarrass himself.

 

The funeral was held on a cold, clear day a week later.   The marker was put at the top of the hill overlooking the ranch and the crowd that attended was immense. Johnny's family managed to get through the ceremony and be civil to the people afterwards, but they were merely acting on instinct.  All of their thoughts were miles away.

 

  The Pinkerton agent sat on his bed in a small hotel in Arizona.  He had been paid handsomely for this assignment, and he could afford to stay at a better place than he usually did.  He felt a small twinge of guilt about his deception, but from what he'd been told, he knew that Madrid was dead and he figured no one would know the difference.  There was no way he was going to risk his life going down to that prison again just to get proof for something he already knew was the truth.  The last time he had gone down there was to get Madrid out, and he had almost gotten himself killed.   He wasn't going to make that mistake again, besides he wasn't hurting anyone.

 

 

Chapter Thirty-Nine

Johnny opened his eyes and his first thought was that his arm was on fire.  He moaned aloud and tried to focus his eyes, but he could tell that he'd been drugged; his eyes wouldn't work properly.  He struggled to look around, and then another pain, worse than the first, ripped through his arm.  He turned his head to look, and saw an old man with a filthy apron trying to straighten his injured arm.  Johnny moaned aloud, but the man continued to pull on his limb.  Johnny tried to grab at the man to stop him, but discovered his hands had been tied down.  He couldn't remember exactly what had happened, but he knew enough to realize that he had failed in his plan; he was alive.   He finally figured out that he was in the prison infirmary, and he willingly allowed blackness to overtake him.

When he woke up, it was dark, but he could make out the bars on the window above him.  He tried to move his limbs, but he had been shackled securely, and his injured left arm had been splinted and tied to his side. He had a familiar ache in his shoulder and he knew that he had been shot, also.   He could smell the filth and the stench of infection and death, and it made him nauseated.  He was thirsty and cold, but there was no one around, and he didn't want to call out.  He was afraid that whatever was waiting for him was worse than a little discomfort.  

Johnny dozed off and on until morning.  The pain in his arm was almost overwhelming at times, and his raging thirst and muddled brain told him he had a fever. He looked down at his arm and shoulder and saw the filthy rags binding his wounds, and he smiled.  They might have taken him alive, but he had the feeling that he wouldn't survive much longer, and all he felt was relief.  The only regret he had was the fact that he would die in prison rather than a free man, but at least Medina wouldn't have time to break him. 

 

“How is he?”  Medina asked the prison doctor.  Actually, Medina thought, doctor was too good of a term for the man.  He spent most of his time in a drunken stupor, and even when sober his lack of skill was apparent.

  The doctor shrugged lackadaisically.  “He has a fever and he's only semi -conscious most of the time.   I told you that he probably wouldn't survive.”

  “If you were a decent doctor, he'd be fine,” Medina stormed.  “I don't care how you do it, but you'd better make sure he lives, or YOU'LL take his place.”

  “Why do you want him to live so badly?”

“Because,” Medina growled.  “He's going to pay, and I want him in good shape before I break him.   Did you fix his arm?”

The doctor nodded.  “As best as I could.”

“I want you to make sure he's not left alone for even a minute; I don't want him to escape again.”

The doctor snorted.  “He's chained, he's delirious, and he's weak as a kitten.  There's no way he could escape.”

Medina shook his head.  “There is more than one way to escape, doctor.  When the men found him, it was apparent that he had stayed behind to draw the posse's attention away from the other two men.  It was also clear that he had no intention of being taken alive.  Unfortunately for him, one of my men got off a lucky shot that hit Madrid in the shoulder and knocked the rifle out of his hand right before it went off.  I am NOT going to lose him again, not until I'm through with him, understood?  Now you get back there and make sure he lives.”

The next several weeks passed in a blur for Johnny.  He was delirious a good portion of the time, and when he wasn't, someone was forcing evil tasting broth and medicine down his throat.  He fought feebly against being fed, but he was too weak to resist.  After a while, he gave up even that show of defiance; he was past the point of caring.  He was in too much pain, both physical and mental, and he knew he was in for more.

Gradually, in spite of himself, he grew stronger, and the fever went down.  His arm was still strapped to his side, and no longer hurt very much, but he couldn't move it to tell just how bad it was,  At least it a his left hand, and he would still be able to handle a gun.  He snorted.  Sure he would.

  As he slowly recovered, he wondered where Medina was.  He knew he wasn't lucky enough to hope the rurale had died, and he also knew that the man would be out to make his life hell.  The constant stress of waiting for the man to appear started wearing on Johnny.  He wanted to get it over with.

 

  Johnny woke up with a start and saw Medina looming over him, an evil grin on his face.  “Well, senor Madrid, the doctor tells me you are almost fully recovered from your little ordeal.  I'm glad you are well enough to resume our little games.”  Medina shrugged.  “It's too bad that your father and brother can't join us, but unfortunately, that's impossible.”  Medina grinned wider.  “I had so wanted for you to watch as their bodies were burned, but you were a little under the weather, and we couldn't wait any longer.”  He watched his captive's face closely, and was rewarded to see a flicker of doubt as he continued, “They almost made it, but the horse finally gave out.  They tried their best to protect each other, but the posse knew I wanted you back alive, and you were bleeding heavily.  They didn't have time to try to take your family alive.  Your father and brother saw you and knew you had failed them, and then they were shot down like dogs.”  Medina laughed as Johnny tried to lunge at him, but was drawn up short by the chains.  This was going to be fun.

 

 

Chapter Forty

Johnny was shoved unceremoniously into Medina's office and chained securely into a rickety chair.  He took a deep breath, knowing what was coming. He had finally recovered from his injuries suffered during the escape, and he was under no illusions as to why the rurale had made sure he recovered fully.  Johnny knew Medina would make life hell for him from now on.  Johnny tried to get his breathing under control and force Madrid to the surface; the gunfighter was far better equipped for the upcoming confrontation than Johnny Lancer was, and Johnny figured he'd need all of his strength to survive the upcoming battles. 

Finally, Medina walked into his office and poured himself a glass of tequila.  He took a sip without even glancing at his captive, and then slowly lit a cigar. After taking a few puffs he sauntered over to Johnny and watched him speculatively for several minutes. 

“Who gave you the horses?”

Johnny felt his heart skip a beat although outwardly he showed no sign the question had bothered him.  He had been expecting a lot of things, but he had totally forgotten about his earlier fears that his uncle would be caught.   Johnny shrugged casually.  “No one.”

Medina slapped Johnny across the face.  “Don't lie to me.  Who gave you the horses?”

Johnny glared at the rurale.  “No one.  We found them outside the stable.”

Medina slapped him again. “I am not stupid. Who left them there?”

Johnny remained quiet and just shook his head, earning another slap.  Medina smirked at him.  You'd better answer me, boy, or you'll be joining your father and brother.”

Johnny smiled.  “You're going ta turn me loose?”

Median smiled evilly.  “You're brother and father died out in the desert.”

Johnny watched his captor closely.  “You're lying. They escaped.”

Median grinned.  “Think what you want.  You'll find out the truth soon enough.  Everyone saw us burn the bodies.”

  Johnny felt his mouth go dry.  They had to have made it.  He glared at Medina once more.  “They made it.”

Again, Medina smiled and shrugged.  “Then I guess they abandoned you, didn't they?  If they were alive then they chose not to come back for you.”

Johnny dropped his head.  “They think I'm dead,” he said, mostly to himself.

Medina laughed.  “But you aren't, are you?  And you won't be for a long, long time.  Do you really think they wouldn't at least make sure you were dead before they wrote you off?  Or maybe they wouldn't.  Maybe they set you up; maybe they were glad to be rid of you.” He smiled at his captive.  “Or, MAYBE I was telling the truth the first time.  Maybe they are dead.”

Johnny did his best to hide his emotions, but he knew he wasn't very successful.  Medina was right; either way it meant his life was over.

Medina watched in delight as he saw Madrid struggle with reality.  He knew his prisoner was having trouble coping, and he realized again that Madrid wasn't as strong as he'd been the first time he had been here.  Medina knew that it was because his prisoner had allowed himself to care about the men who had escaped, and that would be Madrid's undoing. 

Medina glared at Johnny. “I want an answer, and I want it now, or things will get VERY unpleasant for you.”

Johnny snorted.  “And if tell you, things will be easy?  Go to hell.”

 

Scott walked into the great room, hoping to find his father alone.  Scott had been dreaming about Johnny every night and Scott was sure his brother was trying to tell him something, but until this morning he had no idea what.  This morning, however, it finally came to him, and he was disgusted that he hadn't thought of it sooner.  He prayed it wasn't too late, because he intended to do this last favor for Johnny no matter what.  Scott figured he would be in for a fight; he knew Murdoch wouldn't want to spend the money, but this was important to Scott and he had no intention of letting this go.

  Murdoch was sitting in his customary place at his desk in front of the window, staring out at the hills.  Scott watched him for a moment, knowing that his father's thoughts were miles away.  Finally, Scott spoke.  “I need to talk to you, Sir.”

Murdoch smiled to himself before turning around.  Whenever Scott called him sir, it was a pretty good indication that they would be arguing shortly.  He turned and looked at Scott questioningly.

  Scott took a deep breath.   “Sir, I want to send someone down to Mexico to bring Barranca back.”

Murdoch dropped his eyes, and Scott drew himself up and readied for a fight.  “It would be important to Johnny, and I intend to do it, with or without your permission.  It's the least we can do for him.”

Murdoch shook his head.  “Scott, calm down.”  Murdoch fiddled with the edge of his desk.  “I already took care of it.”

“You what?”

Murdoch sighed.  “I should have said something to you, but I didn't want to tell you until I knew the man was successful.”

“Who did you send?”  Scott asked, stunned that his father was so far ahead of him.

“Cipriano's cousin Mario offered to go. He left last week.”

Scott dropped his head, feeling guilty that he had thought Murdoch wouldn't approve.  “Thank you, sir.”

Murdoch's head shot up and he glared at Scott.  “For what?” he snapped.  “Don't you think I know how important it would be for Johnny to know Barranca was taken care of?”

Scott dropped his head; his father was right.  “I'm sorry, Murdoch, I just…”  Scott shook his head in resignation.

“I know, Scott, I know.  It's all right.  Let's just hope that Mario is successful. ”

Scott nodded.  It wouldn't stop the pain; nothing would do that, but doing this for his brother might ease it a tiny bit, and he was determined that at least Barranca would be coming home.

 

 

Chapter Forty One

Ruiz walked cautiously into the barn, being careful not to be seen by anyone.  When Johnny had been brought back, Ruiz thought that it was just a matter of time before Medina found out just who had supplied the getaway horses.  He had considered running, but he knew Medina would find him, so he had resigned himself to the fact he was going to die, and probably very unpleasantly.

He still couldn't believe his nephew hadn't talked.  He knew that he would have and he knew that most men would have.  He had seen too many men break under Medina's brutal interrogations over the years, but Johnny had continued to mock the captain.   He wished he could do more to help his nephew, but Medina was watching all of the guards with suspicion.  Ruiz would have to wait for the right time and pray he had the courage to help him when it mattered.

Now, he was hoping to find out just what had happened to Johnny's father and brother.  One of the other guards had told him that a man named Mario, who said he represented Madrid's family, had contacted him when he had been in town.  The guard was going to secretly meet the man in the barn outside the prison to find out what he wanted.  Ruiz had feigned disinterest, but he wondered who the man was and what he wanted.  He thought that Johnny's brother and father had made good their escape, but if they did, they had made no effort to free the young man they had left behind.   Maybe he could find the answer to the mystery by listening in on the conversation between the guard and the man who had contacted him.

He crept cautiously into the barn, and then hunkered down next to some hay when he heard the voices, already deep in conversation.

“How much?”

“Five thousand American dollars.”

  “You're out of your mind.  He's not worth it.”

“If Madrid's family wants him back, that's what it will cost them.”

“They're not stupid; they don't want him back that bad.”

“Then he will stay here till he rots.”

“Two thousand and that's my final offer.  They won't go any higher.”

“Then that's their problem.  If they want him, they'll come up with the cash.”

“It won't happen. Like I said, they don't want him back that bad.  He's just not worth that kind of money to them.”

“You tell him that if they don't come up with the money they'll never see him again.  He'll be shot or sold.”

“I'll wire them and see what they say, but like I said, they're not stupid.  I'm afraid I won't be back.”

“Their choice, my friend.  Adios.”

  Ruiz stayed crouched behind the bales of hay, as the guard and the man named Mario walked by him.  Ruiz couldn't believe what he had heard.  Apparently, Johnny's family had betrayed him after all.  He couldn't believe they knew Johnny was alive but were unwilling to spend the money to get him out.   After the men had left, Ruiz got shakily to his feet and walked blindly out of the barn. 

 

Johnny trudged out of his cell, not knowing where he was being taken, and not really caring.  He had lost track of time and had no idea how long he had been in this place since the escape, although he thought it must have been at least several months.  He had never told Medina who had given them the horses, and after a lot of pain, Johnny thought that he might have convinced the rurale that someone who was joining the Cinco de Mayo party against regulations had left the horses there.

Since Medina had planted those initial seeds of doubt about the fate of Scott and Murdoch, they had grown immensely.  Johnny had at first stubbornly clung to the belief that even though he had told Scott not to come back that his brother wouldn't listen to him.  He had believed that Scott and Murdoch wouldn't abandon him, and he had been convinced that they would do what it took to get him out and back home.

The fact that he hadn't been contacted and there had been no attempt to break him out had worried him, however.   He had known that if they were alive, they would get him out; at least he had hoped they would.  He knew it had been his fault that they had wound up here in the first place and they had to be angry at him for that, as well as for all of the abuse they had suffered, but he hadn't thought that they would leave him here.   At least he had hoped they wouldn't, but even thinking that they had abandoned him was better than admitting they were dead; at least that's what he had told himself.

He learned what he believed to be the truth only a month or so ago. Johnny had finally been able to talk to his uncle, and the news that the man had given him had just about destroyed him.  Ruiz had told him about the conversation he had overheard in the barn, and even though he trusted his uncle, he kept hoping that somehow it was a simple misunderstanding.  However as time passed, the hope he had first clung to had gradually faded.  His finally admitted to himself that his family knew he was here but was unwilling to pay the money to get him out.

He continued to shuffle through the yard, wondering idly what the rurale had in mind for him this time.  The captain sure was creative in finding new ways to cause pain, both mentally and physically.   The physical pain he could usually handle, at least to a certain extent, but it was the constant reminder by Medina that his family was either dead or more likely had forgotten about him that hurt the most.

Johnny was tired of the unceasing pain, and he felt that one way or the other, his torment would be over soon.  If he was mistaken and his family really was dead, he would be joining them soon.  And if they weren't dead…  Johnny shook his head.  If they were still alive and had abandoned him, then it really didn't matter, because he had nothing left to live for anyway.

Johnny finally looked up as the guard yanked him to a halt.  He shuddered as he realized just where he was, but in a way it was a relief, too. He didn't mind dying anymore, but he would have preferred the firing squad; at least a firing squad was quick.  He saw Medina grinning at him, and just in back of him, a scaffold with a noose was outlined starkly against the setting sun.

 

 

Chapter Forty Two

Johnny met Medina's gaze and smiled.  The smile was genuine; he knew that he had won, and Medina could no longer hurt him.  The rurale captain cursed Johnny and backhanded him viciously.  He grabbed Johnny by the arm and shoved him toward the scaffold.  “You can smile all you want to now, but you won't be smiling in a minute. I'll make sure it's nice and slow.”

“You think that scares me?”  Johnny asked in disbelief.  “You can't hurt me anymore.  I stopped carin' what you did ta me a long time ago.  All you can do is put me outta my misery.”

Medina was fuming.  He still couldn't make Madrid beg, and he had done his best to break the man.  He would have sworn that by now the half breed would be on his knees.  “Oh, I can hurt you all right.  You just wait and see.”  Medina turned furiously toward a nearby guard.  “Tie his hands behind his back and get him up there.”

Ruiz watched in concern, knowing that Johnny had finally run out of time.   Ruiz knew that without his intervention, his nephew would die a horrible death at Medina's hands.  Quickly, he made a choice and before he could change his mind, Ruiz grabbed his rifle and brought it to his shoulders.  He hesitated only a moment and then pulled the trigger.  Medina looked at him with a startled expression on his face and then slumped to the ground.

The guard who had been ready to tie Johnny's hands swung around and grabbed for his rifle, but Ruiz shot him before the man could aim.  Ruiz brought his rifle around and brought down yet another guard, but by then the rest of the guards were finally able to respond.  Johnny was shoved roughly to the ground by a guard who was trying desperately to get a bead on Ruiz as bullets exploded all around him. 

When the commotion finally died down and Johnny was able to raise his head, he saw his uncle lying on the ground, bleeding.  Johnny tried to scramble over to him, but his path was blocked by several guards, and when he tried to push his way past, the butt of a rifle hit him in the head, and he too collapsed in the dirt, unconscious.  

 

Johnny came to slowly, his head throbbing unmercifully.  It took him a minute to remember where he was, and then another minute to remember what had happened just before he was hit.  He looked around and saw that he was once more back in his familiar cell.  With a sigh of resignation, he lay back down, wondering if both Medina and his uncle were really dead, but for some reason he couldn't feel anything one way or the other.He closed his eyes and drifted off.

Two days later he was taken out of his cell and pushed out into the yard with the other inmates.  The old man who had first spoken to Murdoch and Scott sidled up to him, a grin on his face as Johnny watched him warily.  Johnny had learned long ago that in prison, even innocent looking men could be cold blooded killers, and he had found out the hard way that no one could be trusted. 

The old man chuckled when he saw Johnny's cautious perusal.  “You don't have to worry about catching a knife.  No one in here would dare hurt you.”

  “And why is that, old man?”  

  “Because, you are responsible for getting rid of Medina.  If anyone hurt you the rest of the prisoners would get revenge.”

Johnny looked at him warily. “He's dead?”

“As a doornail.”

  Johnny dropped his head.  “What about Ruiz?”

The old man shook his head.  “He's dead, too.”

Both guilt and anger washed over Johnny.  His uncle had given his life to save him, and Johnny hadn't even wanted him to.  Johnny had more than resigned himself to his own death, he had been hoping for it.  Since the escape, he hadn't considered suicide, though.  He knew it was a mortal sin, and after thinking about it, he had decided that on the off chance he could be forgiven for the rest of his sins, he wasn't going condemn himself to Hell for eternity to avoid some pain.   

But that didn't mean he had to fight to stay alive, either.   Instead, he had been looking forward to the time when Medina tired of the game and would end it, along with Johnny's life. He had been so close, and then his well meaning uncle had messed things up.  Now he was right back where he started.  He felt the hopelessness that had been dogging him since his arrival in this place finally slip permanently into place.

 

Johnny was escorted out of his cell and taken out to the yard, along with some of the other prisoners.  Things had improved considerably in the months since Medina's death and Johnny was no longer being persecuted, but he hardly noticed.   The man that had taken over as warden hadn't given him a second glance and since Medina's death, Johnny had been virtually ignored by the guards, but it was too late.  He was finally past the point of caring.   The growing belief that his family had abandoned him, along with the abuse and pain that he had suffered at Medina's hands for the year he had been in prison had robbed him of his will to fight. 

Once in the yard, Johnny looked around with disinterest.  He noticed a group of men standing with the guards at one end of the yard, and he wondered briefly who they were and what they were doing in the prison.  He didn't have long to wait, and he realized with resignation that he and the other inmates in the yard were about to be sold as slave labor to the various men in the yard.   He closed his eyes and once more cursed his uncle for saving his life.

 

 

Chapter Forty Three

Johnny kept his head down as the men talked among themselves.  He knew the humiliation that was coming, and he would need all his strength to get through it.  To be sold like an animal was just about more than he could bear, and he cursed his uncle for the hundredth time.  He had prayed to get out of this place, but he thought that working in a mine might be just as bad.  He hated dark places and more than that, he hated the feeling of being trapped.  The thought of working below ground day after day and never seeing the sun again would probably make this place seem almost pleasant.

One of the guards sauntered over.  “Do any of you swine speak English?”

Johnny kept his head down, wondering if he should say anything or not.  He glanced furtively up at the group of men and saw a middle aged man standing off to one side, away from the rest.  The man was obviously not Mexican, and as he studied him quickly Johnny decided he didn't look like a mine owner either; more like a farmer.  Johnny decided he would take a chance on opening his mouth.  He knew he didn't want to have to work in a dark mine for the rest of his life.

Johnny raised his head.  “I do.”

Johnny's eyes met the farmer's and they both took stock of the other.  Finally, the farmer nodded, and two of the guards motioned Johnny over to a small shack, where he was given some clean clothes and some of his hair was cut off.  Johnny was hoping they'd cut his beard off, but instead, the guards attached manacles to his wrists to match the ones on his legs and shoved him to his feet.

With a deep breath, Johnny stepped out into the hot sunshine, wondering if he was really going to be able to leave this place.  Right now, the very real possibility he would be worked to death didn't even bother him.  At least he wouldn't rot in this prison, and unless he was mistaken, he wouldn't die below ground, either.  He was shoved toward the gate and he held his breath, hoping it wasn't a cruel trick.

 

The farmer stepped out of another shack where he had been signing papers.  The deeper he got into this, the more the farmer felt he was making a bad mistake.  He wasn't really sure why he had decided to try this; desperation he guessed.  He had broken his leg in an accident two months ago, and the doctor had told him he needed surgery to make it right.   The farmer had refused, knowing that if he had the surgery, he would never be healed quickly enough to plant a crop for the upcoming year.  He had gambled on healing without the surgery, but it hadn't happened.  He could barely walk, even with the aid of a cane, and there was no way he could plow his fields.

Charles Peterson had been in Mexico for only a few months before the accident, drawn by the promise of cheap land and fertile soil.  He had finally lost his farm in Kansas after struggling against the hostile elements for years, and had brought his wife and three daughters south, along with some livestock and the few belongings they could fit in the wagon.

He had promised his wife, Helen, that this was the last move they would make, and he intended to keep that promise.  He had worked hard before the accident, and managed to build a house and barn to shelter his family and the few animals they owned.  It was while putting the last shingles on the barn roof that he had lost his balance and fell, and he had been lucky to get away with only a broken leg.

Now there was no where else to go.  He had no money, and the only way his family would eat this winter was to plant the seed he had already purchased.  In desperation, he had come to the prison to try and negotiate for a prisoner to help him with the planting.  He was somewhat surprised that the rurale in charge had been willing to take his farm as collateral, but he had. 

Now he was having second thoughts.  Bringing a dangerous criminal back to his farm suddenly didn't seem very smart.  He wasn't afraid so much for himself, but for his wife and daughters.  He would never forgive himself if something happened to them because of him.  He watched as the prisoner shuffled out of a nearby shed, and he noted the added shackles and realized he had just made a very serious mistake.  The rurales had refused to tell him what any of the men were in prison for, but Peterson realized this man had to be dangerous for them to chain him that securely.

  The prisoner was guided toward him, and Peterson watched him in indecision.  The rough beard and still shaggy hair made the man look decidedly sinister.  The guard handed Peterson the keys to the shackles, but the farmer didn't take them.  Instead, he shook his head.  “I've changed my mind.”

  One of the guards laughed and said in broken English, “Too late, senor.  He's all yours.”

  Peterson shook his head.  “I want my deed back.  I don't want to take him to my home. I don't want him around my wife and children.”

The guard shrugged.  “Your decision, but you're not getting your deed back…unless, of course the prisoner is killed while trying to escape.”  He laughed coarsely.  “You bring back his body; we'll consider giving you your farm back.”

“I'm not a murderer!”

The guard shrugged.  “Then here are the keys Senor, and good luck.  If you change your mind…”  He walked off.

Peterson looked into the prisoner's eyes and saw no fear. To his relief, he saw no trace of anger or hate, either, just resigned acceptance. With a sigh, the farmer shook his head.  “What's your name?”

“Johnny.”

“Well, Johnny, my name's Charles Peterson, and it looks like we're stuck with each other.”

Johnny studied the man, wondering if the man planned on shooting him as soon as they were away from the prison, and then deciding it really didn't matter, anyway.  At least he would be out of this hell hole.

 

 

Chapter Forty Four

Peterson pointed toward a nearby wagon, and Johnny walked slowly toward it, unable to believe he was really out of prison.  At Peterson's gesture, Johnny climbed into the back, and the farmer fumbled with the key until he was finally able to undo the chain from one of Johnny's legs and attach it to the chain holding the tailgate shut. Without a word, Peterson walked to the front of the wagon and climbed aboard.

The wagon jolted forward and Johnny watched as the prison gradually faded into the distance like a bad dream.  When it had finally disappeared, he looked up at the man driving the wagon and wondered just what had driven the man to such a desperate measure, especially when he had a family.   The man was obviously hurt and unable to work, and Johnny thought idly that he might try to find out how just how handicapped he was.  He glanced at the rifle sitting next to Peterson, and wondered how good the man was with the rifle that he carried.   He snorted; he'd probably find out before it was over.

  They had only gone a short ways when the farmer pulled the wagon off of the road and headed toward a small stream.  It was late afternoon, but Johnny figured they had an hour or so of daylight left, and Johnny wondered why they were stopping so early.   Peterson pulled the horses to a halt and then clumsily climbed down off of the wagon, grabbing his rifle on the way down.  Johnny watched the man warily, and when Peterson stood and stared at him a long while, Johnny figured he knew what was coming.

Finally Peterson reached over and undid the chain from the tailgate and then backed up.  “All right, get down, slowly.”

Johnny just shook his head and smiled ruefully.  “You'll save yourself a lot of work if ya just shoot me in the wagon.  Then ya won't have ta figure out how ta get my carcass back in here with that bum leg of yours.”

Peterson's face turned red and he shook his head.  “I'm not going to shoot you.  Like I said, I'm not a murderer.  Now get down.”

Johnny studied him for a moment and then with a shrug he scooted to the end of the wagon and hopped down as gracefully as the chains allowed.  Johnny realized that Peterson was standing a little too close, and that he could probably take the man before the farmer could get off a shot, but he wasn't sure if he wanted to.   Peterson was holding the rifle pointed toward the ground instead of at him, but as Johnny hesitated, Peterson brought the rifle up and motioned toward the stream, and the opportunity passed. Johnny turned and shuffled in the direction the farmer had indicated, expecting to feel a bullet in his back the whole way. 

“Hold it right there.”

Johnny stopped and looked quizzically at Peterson, who motioned him over next to a small tree.  “Sit down.”

The farmer cautiously attached the chain to the tree and then went back to take care of the horse.   Johnny was surprised that the man hadn't shot him; he knew that HE sure wouldn't take a chance on bringing a convict around HIS family.  Johnny's jaws clenched.  What family, he thought bitterly.  He'd never really had a family after all and now he never would.  Any thought he had of trying to overpower Peterson and escape evaporated as he realized that the farmer had a whole lot more to live for than he did.

Peterson came back carrying an armload of firewood, and Johnny watched as the farmer silently got a fire going and then started some coffee.  The two men sat silently until the coffee boiled, and then Peterson poured a cup and handed it to Johnny. Johnny hesitated in surprise before accepting it   “Thank you.”

Peterson nodded and then pulled some jerky out of a satchel.  He broke off a chunk and handed it to Johnny, who accepted it gratefully.  Johnny hadn't eaten that day and he was starving.  Peterson sat down with his back against a log and watched his prisoner. 

“Do you know anything about farming?”

Johnny shook his head and Peterson sighed.  “Well, I guess you'll have to learn.”

Johnny fiddled with his pant leg, unable to meet the man's gaze.  “Why didn't ya shoot me?”

“I TOLD you, I'm not a murderer.”  Peterson stared at Johnny belligerently. “But if you think I won't protect my family, you're mistaken.  If I think they're in danger from you, I WILL kill you.''

Johnny looked up and met the man's gaze calmly before speaking quietly.  “You have no reason ta believe me, but I won't hurt your family.  I've done a lot of bad things in my life, but hurtin' women or children isn't one of them.”   

Peterson nodded.  “I'm glad to hear that, but I'm still not going to trust you.”

  Johnny dropped his eyes and took a bite of his jerky.  “Wouldn't expect ya to,” he said resignedly. 

Two days later in the evening, the wagon topped a small rise and Johnny looked down into a small valley at a farmhouse nestled against the side of a hill.  The sight brought back memories of the first time he had seen Lancer, and he angrily pushed the thought out of his mind.  This time, there would be no new beginning, no hope for a new life.  He wouldn't be riding down the hill to a new family and a new start in life.  All that was waiting for him this time was misery and loneliness.  Of course, all the hope he had arrived at Lancer with had been destroyed in that prison, and all he had been left with from his time at Lancer was pain.  It would have been better if he had never gone there.  It would have been better if he had died in front of the firing squad.  It would have saved him a lot of heartache.

 

 

Chapter Forty Five

 Scott turned Charlie toward the rise, and the horse made his way without being guided.  Since being returned to the ranch, the horse had made this trip many times before.  He slowed to a stop, and Scott stiffly dismounted.  He had been wrestling with ungrateful steers all day, and he was exhausted down to his bones, but he never missed visiting with his brother, even if it was for only a few minutes.  He knew that Johnny wasn't really here, but at least it was a place to come to pretend he was close to his brother.  The thought that he was unable to even bring his body home for a decent burial gnawed at him.

He had let his brother down in so many ways that he had long ago come to the conclusion that if Johnny were somehow able to look down on him, his little brother would be sorely disappointed, if not downright angry.  Scott had failed to keep his brother safe; a promise he had made to Johnny a long time ago.  Johnny hadn't known about it, but it had been made just the same.  He had made the promise after Johnny had been shot by Pardee and both Scott and Murdoch had realized just how brutal Johnny's past had been.  Scott vowed he would never let anyone hurt his little brother again, and he had failed miserably.

With a sigh, Scott walked over and stood next to the marker.  Cipriano had insisted on making it, and it was ornately carved and embellished.  Scott knelt down and began talking as if his brother could hear him, telling him about what was going on with the ranch and with his family.  Scott had never really believed in heaven, but now he hoped fervently that there really was such a place, for if anyone deserved to be in heaven, it was his brother.   There was another, more selfish reason also.  If there really were a heaven, there was a chance that he would one day see Johnny again, although he wasn't sure if Johnny would want to see him.  He knew it was his fault that Johnny had died, and heaven wasn't exactly the place he expected to go to.

With a sigh, he finally got to his feet and stood quietly for a moment before turning and walking back to his horse.  Before turning Charlie toward home, he stopped on the ridge overlooking the ranch and looked at the panoramic view that had so captivated him when he had first come home.  He knew that Johnny had fallen in love with the land that day also.  As he looked at the scenery, Scott realized that land was all that it was.  The magic had left when Johnny had died.   It no longer held him the way it used to, and if he hadn't promised his brother that he would look after Murdoch and Teresa, he would have left months ago.  Tiredly, he scrubbed his hand over his grimy face and nudged Charlie down the hill toward the house. 

 

Murdoch sat at his desk and watched as his son rode slowly down the hill.  Scott's whole demeanor spoke of the depression that had seemed to grip all of them for the last several months.  It was an effort just to get up in the morning and most days it hardly seemed worth the effort.  Murdoch shook his head; even though he and Johnny had argued almost incessantly he had loved and respected his son.  He just hoped that Johnny had known that.

Murdoch picked up a picture of Johnny and Scott that had been taken a month or so before Johnny had left for Mexico.  The traveling photographer had come by Lancer and Murdoch had insisted the boys stop their chores and get their pictures taken.  Johnny had complained bitterly about having to stop in the middle of the day and get cleaned up to have his picture taken, and his son's disgust had shown in his expression.  Murdoch smiled ruefully as he remembered how both Scott and Johnny had wrangled back and forth as the photographer had tried to take the picture.  The man had said afterwards that the last time he'd had so much trouble, his subjects had been four years old.  With a sigh, Murdoch placed the picture back on the desk and buried his face in his hands.  Lancer no longer seemed as important to him as it once had; he would give it up in a heartbeat if he could just have his son back.

 

Jelly came out of the barn and took Charlie's reins from Scott.  “Go on in the house.  I'll take care of him.”

“Thanks, Jelly.”

The old man nodded and then took the horse and led him into the barn.  Scott watched until he disappeared and then shook his head.  The old man did his job, but some of the life had gone out of him.  Jelly had always shown a soft spot for Johnny, and Scott had always figured it was because the old man considered Johnny to be one of his lost boys.  When Murdoch and Scott had returned, Jelly had refused to believe that Johnny was really dead, and had kept the faith a lot longer than either he or Murdoch had.  When they had finally received proof and there was no longer any hope of Johnny being alive, the old man had taken it hard.  He had closed off and hardly spoke, and his complaining and grumbling had all but stopped.  Scott figured he just didn't care anymore, but for some reason, Jelly's grumbling was something that Scott missed most of all.  Besides his brother, that is.

Scott walked tiredly toward the house and caught sight of Teresa sitting in the garden.  He changed course and walked over to her.  “You OK?”

Teresa nodded.  “I'm all right,” she said softly.  “But I'm worried about Murdoch.  He acts like he just doesn't care anymore.  He…he seems to have aged overnight.”

Scott put his arm around the girl and gave her a small hug.  “We all have.”

 

 

Chapter Forty Six

Peterson pulled the wagon up to the barn with a sigh of relief.  He had been worried that the prisoner would try something, but the man had been quiet and cooperative.   Of course, he had been very careful and hadn't given his prisoner any chance to act up, and he had no intention of letting his guard down now.  He wasn't going to take any chances on either losing his farm or having his family hurt.

  He guided the prisoner into the barn and toward an empty stall that he had fixed for the prisoner before he had left.  He attached the leg chain to a ring in the floor, and removed Johnny's wrist shackles.  Peterson quickly took care of the horse and then checked on his prisoner once more.  “You'd better get some sleep, we start early in the morning.”

Johnny watched the man as he disappeared from the barn and sighed heavily.  He looked around and decided it was still better than a prison cell. There were several blankets neatly stacked in the corner, and a bucket of clean water.   There was a heavy layer of straw piled around the stall, which would be a whole lot better to sleep on than a cold stone floor.  Even better was the reassuring smell of horse coming from a nearby stall.  The barn itself was neat and clean, and from what Johnny could tell, pretty tightly built.  If it weren't for the chain on his leg, he could be fairly comfortable here; it was a whole lot better than a lot of the places he had stayed in over the years.  Of course, it wasn't like his own bed at Lancer; nothing would be.

 

Johnny woke up with a start.  It was still dark outside, but he could swear he could smell coffee.  A moment later, Peterson appeared, holding a steaming mug and a plate.  He set the food down in front of Johnny.  “Were you warm enough last night?”

Johnny nodded, surprised the man even thought about it.

Peterson nodded back.  “If you need more blankets, let me know.  I'll get Dolly harnessed while you eat.”

Johnny looked down at the food and heard his stomach rumble.  Eggs, potatoes and sausage were piled high on the plate.  The only thing that was missing was tortillas, but Johnny wasn't complaining.  He dug in hungrily, but he realized that his stomach had shrunk during the time he was in prison.  There was no way he could eat more than a few bites.  He looked at the remainder of the food regretfully and then set the plate aside.

  Peterson reappeared a few minutes later and looked pointedly at the almost untouched plate, then glared at Johnny.  “Don't you like my wife's cooking?” he asked icily.

  Johnny nodded.  “Your wife's a fine cook.  I just can't eat it.”

“Why?”

  Johnny dropped his head. “It's a little more than I'm used ta eatin'.”

  Peterson's anger evaporated when he realized what the young man was saying.  His prisoner was skin and bones, and it was obvious he hadn't been getting much to eat.   Peterson nodded.  “You'd better try to start eating more.  Farming is hard work; you're going to need your strength.”

Johnny felt his temper flare.  He didn't need to be reminded that he was nothing more than slave labor.  “Don't worry; you'll get your money's worth,” he spat.

Peterson was taken aback by the young man's anger and he realized that he needed to keep this strictly business.  He tossed the shackles over to the prisoner.  “OK.   Put these on your wrists.”  After Johnny had done as he was told, Peterson cautiously undid the chain on Johnny's ankle.  “Let's go.”

Five hours later, Johnny was going on sheer stubbornness.  The abuse he had suffered in prison had taken its toll, and he was weak from malnutrition.   It had taken him a while to get the hang of using the plow, and he knew his inexperience made it much harder than it actually was.  Peterson had allowed him to stop for a few minutes once in a while in order to get a drink, but Johnny was close to collapse.  The heat didn't help matters, and he was sweating almost as much as the horse.  He glanced over to where Peterson was sitting in the shade of a tree and felt a moment's resentment, but he realized that there was no way the man could work with his leg.

Finally, Peterson yelled at him to rest for while.  Johnny wanted nothing more than to collapse in the shade, but one look at the horse told him he'd have to wait a few minutes. He undid the buckles and led the horse over to the small stream running next to the field as Peterson watched him closely.   He let the horse drink her fill, and then leaned down and took a drink himself.  He felt lightheaded, and wished he'd been able to choke down more breakfast.  He had the feeling that he'd only be fed once a day and he vowed he'd eat all of his meal tomorrow no matter what.

  When the horse was done drinking, Johnny led her over to the tree and tethered her so she could graze, then stood uncertainly, watching as Peterson ate some fried chicken.  Finally he sat down, trying to ignore the smell of the food.  He wasn't going to give the man the satisfaction of begging.

Peterson looked up curiously and pushed the basket of chicken toward Johnny.  “Aren't you hungry?”

Johnny hesitated only as second before reaching over and grabbing a piece of chicken.  Peterson pointed toward a flask.  “There's some cold lemonade, too.  Help yourself.”

Johnny managed to eat several pieces of chicken and was bitterly disappointed when he had to turn down the pie in the bottom of the basket.He smiled ruefully.  He wouldn't make that mistake again.  To his surprise, Peterson didn't tell him to get back to work right away, and Johnny leaned back against the trunk of the tree and closed his eyes.

Johnny woke up some time later, disoriented, and it took him a moment to remember just where he was.  He looked over at Peterson, who was watching him calmly, and with as sigh, Johnny lurched to his feet and went back to work.

 

 

Chapter Forty Seven

Just when Johnny thought he was going to collapse, Peterson motioned for him to stop.  Gratefully, Johnny unhitched the horse and led her toward the stream.  As she drank, Johnny looked at the water longingly.  When Peterson finally approached, Johnny turned toward him.  “Mind if I wash up?”

  Peterson hesitated and shook his head.  “Supper's almost ready, and the missus will have my hide if I'm late. Maybe tomorrow.”

Johnny thought briefly about falling in anyway, but he figured he'd been dirty so long one more day wouldn't make any difference.  With a sigh, he turned and led the horse toward the barn.  Once inside the barn, he unharnessed Dolly and brushed her down, with Peterson watching his every move.  Johnny ran his hands over the mare's belly.   “She shouldn't be workin' this hard.”

  Peterson nodded his head.  “I know, but I don't have a choice,” he said regretfully.  “My other horse died a few months ago, and Dolly was already in foal.  Without her, I can't plant my crops.  I'd hate to lose her, and not just because I need her.  She's my daughter's special pet, but right now I just can't do anything about it.”

Johnny nodded, knowing the man was right.  Peterson couldn't jeopardize his family for a horse, and from what he'd seen, the farmer certainly didn't have the money to buy another one.  Johnny just hoped the mare was tough enough to tolerate the strain without losing her foal or worse.  With a last pat, Johnny led the mare over to her box stall and turned her in.  Johnny was glad the mare could at least move around and get comfortable instead of being tied in a straight stall.  He snorted; he should be so lucky.

The next day went about like the first.  Johnny had been so exhausted the night before he hadn't even eaten his dinner, but had fallen asleep as soon as Peterson had left the barn.  Today he had managed to finish his breakfast, though, and he was finally getting the hang of using the plow.  Johnny was still weak and struggling to do the work; he wasn't used to physical labor anymore and it was hard to keep going, but he stubbornly refused to stop.

It was only early afternoon when the farmer motioned for him to stop, and Johnny glanced at the sun, wondering why they were stopping so early, but grateful for the break.  He unhitched Dolly and took her back to the barn, casting sidelong glances at the farmer the whole way.  When Johnny had finished taking care of the horse, Peterson came over and undid the chains Johnny was wearing and then picked up a bag and motioned for Johnny to come with him. Johnny hesitated for a moment, relishing the sensation of not having any chains on him. He had worn them for so long he had almost forgotten what it felt like to not have them on.

Peterson left the barn and motioned for Johnny to go ahead of him down a narrow path that ran in the opposite direction from the field.  After several minutes, the path opened up into a clearing next to a clear pond fed by the same stream that ran next to the field.  Peterson reached into the bag and pulled out a bar of soap and handed it to Johnny.

With a grin, Johnny took the soap and headed toward the water.

  ‘Take off those clothes; I have some new ones for you.  You're about my size so they should fit.  They're a little ragged, but they're better than what you've got on.”

  Johnny couldn't agree more. He'd rather wear a flour sack than those hated prison clothes.  He took off his shirt and then glanced toward the house.

  Peterson shook his head.  “My wife and kids are in town and won't be back for several hours.  Take your time.”

A few moments later, Johnny was in heaven.  He hadn't bathed for over a year and he luxuriated in the sensation of the water on his skin.  He scrubbed his body and his hair so many times he was afraid there wouldn't be anything left, but he didn't care.  He was scrubbing away the smell and the feel of that prison, and he didn't care if he had to lose all of his skin to do it.  

Peterson watched as Johnny scrubbed up and tried not to show his shock when he saw the scars on the young man's body.  He figured a lot of them, including the whip marks, came from his stay in prison, but he didn't think they could all be from that time.  Some of them looked very old, and he wondered just what kind of a violent life the man had led.  Peterson shook his head; the prisoner didn't seem mean, and so far hadn't given him any trouble, but maybe he was just trying to gain the farmer's trust so he could try something.  Peterson vowed to be even more careful in the future.

Peterson watched in indecision as Johnny finally started to slog out of the water, and remembered the vow he had made just minutes before, but the farmer cautiously decided to take a chance.  He took a step forward and held out his hand.  Johnny stopped and stared for a moment, and then carefully took the offering, wondering briefly if the man had lost his mind, but he wasn't going to question his luck.

Johnny attacked his beard with relish.  He had never liked wearing one, and the only times he had been forced to grow one was when he had been locked up.  It was just one more thing that reminded him that he was a prisoner, and he couldn't wait to get rid of it.   It took him a long time to get through the year's worth of growth, and when he was finally rid of his beard, he started in on his shaggy hair.

At last he was done, and he carefully cleaned off the blade and then walked out of the pond.  He glanced up at the farmer, and then approached Peterson slowly, holding the razor with the handle toward the farmer.  The man shifted the rifle to the other arm, and for one second, he let his guard down.  The rifle was held loosely in his hand, pointing carelessly toward the ground.

Johnny knew that without those hated chains he could take Peterson before the man could react.  He could slit the man's throat with the razor, grab the rifle and make his way back to the barn to steal the horse without anyone being the wiser.  It would be hours before anyone figured out what happened, and by then it would be too late.He stared at Peterson for an instant, and then he made his decision.

 

 

Chapter Forty Eight

Johnny took another step toward Peterson and held out the razor.  Peterson looked into Johnny's eyes and then held his hand out.  Johnny placed the object in the farmer's hand, his eyes still locked on Peterson's.

  “Thank you,” Johnny said.

  Peterson nodded, and Johnny hurriedly put his new clothes on.  The farmer was right; they had certainly seen better days, but they were a whole lot better than what he had been wearing.  He was beginning to feel almost human again, thanks to the farmer.

He felt guilty about his earlier thought of taking off, even though the idea of attacking Peterson had been dismissed almost immediately after it had formed.

As desperate as he thought he was to escape, he couldn't bring himself to hurt or kill Peterson without provocation, and the farmer certainly hadn't done anything to Johnny to warrant an attack.  Johnny knew that even if he didn't physically hurt the man, Johnny's escape would ruin him.  If he escaped, the farmer would lose his farm, and Johnny hadn't gotten so hardened that he would repay the way he had been treated by causing the farmer harm.  Johnny snorted; besides, he had no where to go anyway.  One way or the other, his family was dead, and the more he thought about it, the more he came to the conclusion that Ruiz had been telling him the truth.  The man had no reason to lie to him, and the man had given his life for Johnny's. 

Johnny knew that if he did run, he couldn't stay in Mexico, but he no longer had any ties to the States.  He had no where to go, and no one to see.  He guessed he'd stay here for a while until he built up his strength, and then he'd decide what to do.  Peterson had already made several slips, and Johnny was confident that he could escape when he needed to.  That knowledge made him feel much less helpless and improved his mood considerably.

The two men walked back toward the barn, neither one speaking, both lost in their own thoughts.  Peterson once more chained Johnny securely and then left the barn, promising to bring supper out later. Johnny lay back against the stall wall and dozed.  He slept until Peterson brought out his dinner, but once again, Johnny barely ate anything before falling into an exhausted sleep.

When Johnny finally awoke, he looked around in confusion.  The sun coming in through the window indicated it was way past dawn, and Johnny wondered if something was wrong, because Peterson had told him how important it was to get the crop in as soon as possible.  With a sigh, he sat back against the wall.  Even if there was something wrong, it wasn't like he could do anything about it.

About an hour later, he heard the door slide open and the familiar smell of coffee and bacon.  He looked up curiously as Peterson approached.   “I thought ya might have decided ta take the day off.”

Peterson nodded.  “As a matter of fact, I have.  It's Sunday, and we don't work on Sunday.  My family and I go to church instead.”  He set the plate down next to Johnny.  “I put some extra biscuits and bacon on the plate because lunch might be a little late.”

Johnny nodded, grateful that he'd have a day to rest. 

  The farmer handed him some tack and a rag.  “Rest all you want, but if you get bored, you can clean up the harness.”

Johnny nodded and picked up the tack.  It was well worn, and could use some attention.  He thought about asking the farmer for some scraps of leather and a knife, but with a wry smile realized that might be pushing his luck. 

“OK,” he replied. “I'll see what I can do.”

Peterson nodded, and turned and walked out of the building, and a few moments later, Johnny heard the sound of the rest of the family in the yard.  Evidently the church was close enough that they could walk to church, and he was glad that Dolly would get a chance to rest, too.

He heard the excited chattering of the farmer's girls, and a woman's laugh, and suddenly his mood darkened.   Johnny listened longingly until the voices faded into the distance, and then he threw the harness down in disgust.  Angrily, he remembered all of the times Murdoch and Scott had tried to talk him into going to church with them and how he had refused.  Now he was glad he did. All of their talk about family and friends was just that: talk.   Johnny didn't have either one.

He had never thought that either man would betray him, but he had figured wrong.  He might have known the Old Man wouldn't want to spend much money to bring him home, but he had hoped that Scott would have at least tried.  The realization that he hadn't still hurt.  Johnny had learned long ago not to trust or get close to anyone, and the last year had just proven once again that he had been right.  He had made a mistake by caring about Scott and Murdoch, and their betrayal served him right for being so stupid.

Even Val and Cipriano had proven that they didn't give a damn about him.  If they had, they would have made some effort to get him out of that hell hole, whether his family was alive or not.   Val especially knew how bad that prison was and what Johnny would be going through, but apparently Val didn't care, either.

No, all of his so called friends and family had once more proven to him that no one could be trusted, and that it wasn't safe to get close to anyone.  He wasn't going to make that mistake again, and he was going to stop worrying about anyone else and take care of number one.

He yanked angrily at the chains that held him.  He had been stupid not to take off when he'd had the chance.  To hell with Peterson.  He should have slit the man's throat and disappeared.  It wasn't Johnny's problem that the man was desperate, and what became of the man's family was none of his concern.  After all, the farmer at least HAD a family, which was more than Johnny could ever hope to have.  He was tired of always being the one to be hurt, always the one to not have anything.  It wasn't fair.

 

 

Chapter Forty Nine

Johnny slept for most of the day, but each time he woke up, even though he felt better physically, his mood was blacker.  Remembering the light hearted and easy banter between the farmer and his family had forced him to realize that it had never been that easy with his own family, and it angered him.   The abuse and the betrayal that he had suffered his whole life came back to him with more clarity and more pain each time he awoke, and in his mind, the injustices grew.

It seemed that nothing had ever gone right for him, while most people were able to drift along fairly comfortably without much effort.  His whole life he had had to fight tooth and nail for everything he had ever gotten, and that hadn't been much.  The unfairness of his situation ate at him until he was blaming everyone he had ever met for his misfortune, with Murdoch and Scott Lancer at the top of the list.

In his anger, every slight, every cross word and every argument magnified in his mind until it seemed to him that everyone he had ever been close to had never done anything but hurt him.  Even Val, Cipriano, and Jelly, now that he thought back seemed to have been only pretending to be on his side. Johnny snorted; his father hadn't even pretended. 

In the dark recesses of his mind, he knew he was blowing things way out of proportion, but in his current foul mood, he really didn't care.  The anger and uncertainty that had been festering for the last year had to be released somehow, and the family that had betrayed him bore the obvious brunt of his anger.   He pulled angrily on his chain for several minutes until his ankle was raw.  Finally he lay back, exhausted, and eventually drifted back to sleep

He woke up again in the late afternoon and glared at his bleeding ankle, then morosely decided to finish the last of the biscuits.   He sat there for a while and then he picked up the harness the farmer had left for him to clean and in a fit of anger threw it across the barn.  If his captor wanted the harness cleaned, he could damn well do it himself; he was through cooperating.  All it would take would be one more slip on Peterson's part, and Johnny would be gone, even if he had to kill the farmer to do it.  He was through being someone's slave and through worrying about everyone else when no one cared about him. 

By the time he heard Peterson and his family coming back, Johnny had worked himself into a rage.  For the first time in his life, he thought that he might be capable of cold blooded murder, and it scared him a little.  He knew that he was behaving irrationally, but he was too angry to stop, and he wasn't even sure he wanted to.

He listened as the farmer went into the house with his family, and became even angrier.  The farmer would go in and have a nice leisurely meal with his doting family while he would have to wait until the farmer had eaten before he received his meal. Then he could eat his lonely supper with the rats.  He knew he was being unreasonable, but he was too furious to care.  The anger in a way was cleansing.  He had kept the hate locked inside for so long, and if he didn't release it, he just might explode, only now that rage was threatening to explode all over Peterson.

A few minutes later, the farmer came out into the barn with a plate piled high with chicken and cornbread and set the plate down at Johnny's feet.  As he set the food down, he glanced up and caught Johnny's eyes.  He froze at the look in those icy eyes.  He was taken back by the rage and hate he saw in them, and confused as to the reason for the change.  From the beginning, the young man had seemed reasonable and relatively easy going.  The farmer thought that he had made at least a step toward gaining the man's trust, and was disappointed by the change.   He took a step back and studied the prisoner.  “What's wrong?”

“Nothin',” Johnny spat.

Peterson's eyes narrowed at the response.  “What's wrong with you?”

Johnny kept his stare locked on the farmer.  “Oh, I don't know,” he said sarcastically.  “Maybe I just don't like bein' somebody's slave and bein' kept chained up like some animal.”

Peterson's expression hardened.  “I can't help that.  I'm doing the best by you that I can, but I need my crops planted and you're the only one that can do it.”  He dropped his eyes.  “I'm sorry.  I really am, but there's nothing I can do about it.”

Johnny snorted. “Sure, I bet you have trouble sleepin' at night.”

The farmer glanced around uneasily and his eyes focused on a jumble of leather in the corner of the barn.  “I guess you decided not to work on the harness.”

“Guess not,” Johnny said belligerently.  “Guess that's gonna cost me, huh?”

Peterson shook his head in confusion.  “I told you that you didn't have to do it unless you wanted to.”

“Well I didn't want to. Why should I do any favors for you?”

Peterson hesitated, and then shook his head once more while he reached into his pocket.  “My girls bought you this with their allowance.  They thought it might make you feel better about being here, away from your family.”  He tossed a bag of candy at Johnny, but the gunfighter made no move to catch it, and it rolled on the floor. 

“I ain't got no family,” Johnny growled, “and I don't want nothin' from your family or you.”  Johnny picked up the bag and threw it back to the farmer, the candy spilling out and dropping on the floor.  “Tell ‘em ta give it ta somebody that cares.  I stopped carin' a long time ago.  Now unless you're gonna beat me up for not fixin' that harness, leave me the hell alone.”

 

 

Chapter Fifty

Val sat at his desk, trying to decide whether to ride out to Lancer or to just let it be.  For the last several months he had been hearing rumors that Johnny Madrid was still alive and was raising cain down by the border.  At first the sheriff had ignored the stories, but each time he did, there was a little voice in the back of his head wondering if there could be any truth to them.  After all, it wouldn't be the first time that Johnny surprised everyone and came back from the dead. 

The only thing that didn't make sense to Val was the fact that if it WAS Johnny, why wasn't he hightailin' it for home, and why would he be getting into so much trouble.  It didn't make any sense, but that didn't necessarily mean it wasn't true.  Saying that Johnny didn't always do the expected was a pretty big understatement.  

  Val sighed.  He didn't want to raise any false hopes in Johnny's family, but on the small chance that his friend was alive, he didn't want to ignore the stories, either.  The only thing that he really had trouble with was the rumor that Madrid had murdered a farmer while he was escaping custody.  Val knew his old friend wasn't a murderer, and he couldn't believe that Johnny would kill an unarmed farmer, no matter what the provocation.   That didn't necessarily mean that the man in question wasn't Johnny, however.  It was entirely possible that it hadn't happened the way the story was being told.

  The sheriff knew how stories got blown out of proportion, especially when it involved an infamous gunfighter like his friend, and he finally made up his mind to go down to Mexico and check things out.  He knew it was probably a waste of time, but his heart wouldn't let him let it go. He decided to go down there for at least a week to try to find out if whoever was causing trouble was really his old friend or an imposter.

  He thought about asking Scott to go with him, but he quickly dismissed the idea.  In the first place, Scott would be in danger if anyone happened to recognize him down there, and secondly, Val didn't want to falsely raise his friend's hopes.  He knew that Scott was still having a hard time with the loss of his brother and Val didn't want to make it any worse.  The chance that it was Johnny was slim to none, but that didn't stop Val from wanting to find out for sure.  He missed his old friend, too.   He went into the back room to pack his saddlebags for the trip.  He'd leave in the morning as soon as his new deputy arrived for work.

 

Johnny sat alone in the dark and felt the guilt wash over him.  He couldn't believe he had done what he had done.   He had been so angry he had been literally out of control, and he hadn't been able to help himself any more than he could stop the sun from rising.  He had always prided himself on his icy hold on his emotions, but since he'd met his family, it had been harder and harder to keep his emotions in check. 

While he had been at Lancer, he hadn't wanted to.  He had enjoyed the feeling of letting go and allowing his family into his heart.  It had been a mistake.  He had let them in, only to have them rip his heart out and leave him more bitter and worse off than before.  Now he knew he could never let anyone in again.  He snorted; not that he would ever get the chance anyway.  His life was in ruins, with no hope of a way out of the mess he had managed to get himself into.

He still couldn't quite understand what had happened.  It had spiraled out of control so quickly, and he had been helpless to stop it.   He didn't think that he had ever been as angry at anyone in his life, but for the life of him, he couldn't figure out why.  The love and harmony the farmer and his family enjoyed had served to drive him into a rage when he had realized that he had never enjoyed  relationship like that, even though he had longed for it all of his life.  The connection he had with Murdoch had been rocky from the start, and even though it had improved, it had never been easy or without serious conflicts.

He had thought his relationship with Scott was sound, but apparently he had been mistaken.  He had never had any experience with a loving family relationship before and he had nothing to compare it to.  Before he had come to Lancer, his life had been marred with nothing but violence and hate.  He had grabbed onto Scott like a drowning man grabs a branch.   Looking back, he realized there had been problems, but he had chosen to pretend they didn't exist.  That had been his fault, and he cursed himself once again for being such a fool.

  He put his head in his hands and moaned slightly.  He had never meant to hurt the farmer; the man had been one of the few people who had actually been nice to him.  Johnny realized now that Peterson had really gone out of his way to make things as easy for Johnny as he could, and Johnny had paid him back with hate.  Well, Johnny wouldn't have to worry about it anymore; he had made sure no one would be nice to him again.

  Johnny shook his head in resignation.  He had turned into the man he had always sworn he wouldn't become; a cold, bitter killer without a conscience.  He wished he had died in that prison. He shook his head once more, and a tear ran down his face. No, he wished he had died years ago, in fact he wished he had never been born.

 

 

Chapter Fifty One

Val sat on the rise above the Lancer ranch, wondering for the hundredth time whether he should go down and tell his friends what he had found down in Mexico, or whether he should just let it go.  With any luck, maybe the Lancers wouldn't hear the stories and would never find out, but he doubted any of them would have that kind of luck.  Besides, they deserved to know the truth, no matter how much it hurt.

He knew that Scott and Murdoch didn't know where he'd been the last three weeks because he hadn't told anyone.  He hadn't wanted anyone to know where he was or what he had been doing until he was sure of what he'd find.  Now he knew, and he didn't know if he wanted to tell his friends what he had found.

He started to turn his horse away, and then, with an oath, he yanked the reins and turned his mount back toward the hacienda.  To hell with it; he was going to tell them.  He owed them that much.

Val figured that they'd find out sooner or later anyway, and they might as well hear it from him. It was better than hearing it from some drunk in a bar or thrown at them by some enemy trying to get their goats.  He sure wasn't looking forward to it, but he guessed it was his responsibility.

“Val!”  Murdoch greeted his friend as the lawman walked into the house. “I didn't know you were back yet!  Come on in, we'll be eating in about an hour.”

Val grabbed his hat off of his head and scrunched it nervously in his hands.  “Got a drink?”

Murdoch nodded and motioned toward the liquor cabinet.  “Help yourself.”

Val walked over and filled a large glass a quarter full of tequila.  Then, as an afterthought, he poured some more in before turning and walking toward the fireplace, where he stood and studied the pictures on the mantel.  He took a sip while he looked at the pictures.  Two of them were of Johnny; one with Scott in front of the hacienda, and the second a portrait of all three of the Lancers and Murdoch's ward Teresa in a studio setting.  Even in the formal picture, Val could see the glint of mischief in his friend's eyes, and he was sure that as soon as the photographer was through, Johnny had pulled some stunt that had gotten him in trouble.

Murdoch studied his friend for a moment, and then heard Scott's footsteps approaching from outside.  From the way that Val was acting, Murdoch had the feeling that the both of them should hear what the lawman had to say, so he kept his mouth shut and waited for his son to enter the room.

Scott looked at the lawman in surprise.  “Val, what are you doing here?  Sam said you were gone for a while.”

Val nodded.  “I was, but I'm back now.”

Scott walked over to the cabinet and poured his own drink, and after glancing at his father's expression, he poured a glass of brandy for his father.  He took the glass over to Murdoch and then sat down on the couch and took a sip of his drink.  He looked at Val expectantly, but realized that the lawman was still staring at the pictures, lost in his own thoughts.  He looked at Murdoch, who shrugged before clearing his throat.

“Val?”

The sheriff shook his head slightly, as though trying to clear it, and then took another drink before turning toward Murdoch.  “I went down to Mexico.”

“Why?”

Val dropped his head and worked on his hat some more with his free hand.  “I'd been hearin' some stories.”

“Stories?”  Scott asked.

  Val nodded.  “I'd been hearin that …maybe…”  He sighed and took another swallow of his tequila.  “I'd been hearin' that maybe …Johnny was still alive.”

Scott and Murdoch both bolted to their feet.  “What?” they asked in unison.

Val held up his hand.  “Let me finish.  I went down to Mexico to see if there was any truth to it.  The stories that I had heard made me think that it couldn't really be Johnny, but I had to find out for sure.”

  “What kind of stories?”  Scott asked.

Val sighed once more.  “I'd heard that he'd gone bad.  That he'd killed a farmer and that he'd been terrorizing the population down there.  He was robbing banks and shooting lawmen.”

Scott shook his head in disbelief.  “And you really thought that it could be Johnny?  OUR Johnny?”

“I had to find out.”  Val brought his head up and stared at Murdoch.  “Besides, I thought that if he WAS alive, he might have …some… reason for acting up. I mean…  I guess it was still better than …” Val dropped his head.

Murdoch dropped his head too.  “Val, you might not believe me, but I wish you HAD found out that it was him. At least then we'd know that he was alive.  But I'm afraid that we all have to accept the truth.”

Val glanced at Scott before looked back at Murdoch.  “Well, yeah.  That's what I came here ta tell ya; the truth.”

Murdoch's head shot up and his eyes narrowed alarmingly.  “What do you mean?”

“I rode down to one of the towns that had reported that Johnny Madrid had robbed the bank.  I talked to the local rurales and the eyewitnesses.  The man who robbed the bank fit Johnny's description, all right.  Plus, several of the locals had said that he wasn't exactly trying to hide his identity.  He made sure that everyone knew who he was.”

“That doesn't sound like Johnny,” Scott observed.

Val shook his head.  “No.  At least the Johnny we knew.  Anyway, the man that killed that farmer was also identified as Johnny Madrid.  They said he just shot him down in cold blood, and that the farmer was unarmed.”

Murdoch shook his head.  “Johnny wouldn't murder anyone, let alone an unarmed farmer.  I don't care how much he changed.”

“That's what I thought, too,” Val said sadly.

 

 

Chapter Fifty Two

Scott froze as he heard the sheriff's words.  “Val, is Johnny alive?” he asked quietly, refusing to give into the hope that was trying to crowd its way into his heart.  The last six months had been the worst Scott had ever spent.  The guilt that he felt over Johnny's death ate into his soul a little more every day.  He missed his brother terribly, and the thought that his little brother might have somehow survived; the thought that Johnny might someday come home and end Scott's misery took his breath away.

Murdoch looked at the lawman, hope washing over him like a wave.  He didn't care what his son had done, he didn't care what Val thought he had found out. They could work out anything, cope with anything, if it meant Johnny coming home.  The last six months had been hell on all of them, and if there was any chance that he could get his son back…“Val?”  he asked hopefully.

Val shook his head, realizing what he had done.  “No.  I'm sorry, I didn't mean to…no, Johnny's not alive.  I even went to the prison while I was down there and managed ta bribe one of the guards to let me see the list of prisoners they had there.”  Val dropped his head tiredly.  “His name wasn't on the list.”

Both Murdoch and Scott felt their hearts break once again and they both slumped back into their chairs.  “Val, what's this all about?”  Murdoch asked tiredly.

Val shook his head, unable to meet the men's eyes.   “When I heard the stories, I knew that it couldn't be Johnny.  I mean, I knew, but I still had to find out, just in case.”  He looked at the two men, pleading for understanding with his eyes.

Scott nodded.  He knew he would have done the same.  He would go to hell itself if he thought he could bring his little brother back. “Go on.”

“The man using Johnny's name fits his general description, but he's a little older.  He's also a whole lot meaner.  He's raising all sorts of havoc down there. Murder, bank robbery, rape, assault; you name it. He's also supposed to be damn fast with a gun. Rumor has it he's killed over fifty men in gunfights, and he ain't too particular about makin' sure those fights are fair.  Course some of those numbers could be from the real Johnny, but even so, this guy is trouble.”

  Scott turned toward his father.  “It must be the same man that killed Senor Lopez's wife and son.”

Val nodded.  “Probably.  I don't know that for sure, but it seems likely.  This guy has been pretending to be Johnny for quite some time; at least since the real Johnny's been at Lancer.   This guy was real careful at first to stay out of Johnny's known haunts, but gradually he became bolder.  When he never ran into the real Johnny, he felt free to use the name more and more.  Of course, the more people who saw him and remembered him as Madrid, the more he could pass as Johnny.  Even if a few people knew he wasn't the real Madrid, they were probably becoming outnumbered.  They might even be convinced that the real Johnny was the imposter.”

“And the atrocious acts that this….monster… is committing are being blamed on MY SON!”  Murdoch fumed.

  Val nodded.  “Yep.  At one time, Johnny had a pretty good reputation down in Mexico, at least with the peasants.  Now he's getting another reputation, and it's not good.  People are scared ta death of this guy.”

Murdoch buried his head in his hands.  “Johnny doesn't deserve that.  He doesn't deserve to have the people he tried so hard to help, the people he DIED for, to hate him.”

“No, he doesn't,” Scott said quietly.  “Val, were you able to talk to this guy at all?”

Val snorted.  “Do you really think I'd a just TALKED to this guy if I'd found him?”

“No,” Scott sighed.  “I just thought that you might have run into him somewhere.”

  Val shook his head.  “No.  I never even saw him.”

  “Then how can you be so sure it ISN'T our Johnny?”  Murdoch questioned, staring intently at the lawman.

Val shook his head.  “First off, I KNOW that Johnny wouldn't be doin' them things.  Also, the age doesn't match; this guy's supposed to be in his late twenties, maybe early thirties.  Thirdly, several of the things that this Johnny did happened either when the real Johnny was here at Lancer or when he was in prison.”

Scott sighed in frustration.  “So we aren't even sure what this guy looks like?”

Val dropped his head.  “No.  He is supposed to be a…”  Val dropped his head and mumbled the word.  “Half breed, sorry Murdoch.”

Murdoch waved his hand in dismissal.  “What else?”

Val shrugged.  “Blue eyes, dark hair, medium build.  Just like Johnny.”

Scott snorted.  “No, not like Johnny at all.  This guy just happens to look like him.”

  Val nodded.  “I know.  I'm sorry.  I tried ta catch up with him, but didn't have much luck.”

Murdoch shook his head.  “I'm glad you didn't find him, Val.”

  The sheriff's head shot up. “Why in the world not?”

  “Because if this guy's good enough to pass himself off as Johnny, you know he has to be fast, and I don't want to lose you.”

“I may not be in Johnny's league, Mr. Lancer, but I could take this guy.”

“You don't know that.”

“I'm willin' ta take that chance.”

“Well I'm not!  I forbid you to go after him!” ”

Val looked at the rancher in amusement.  “You're orderin' me around?  I don't remember signin' on.”

Murdoch shook his head in frustration.  “Val, I don't want you going after him, there's a better way to handle this.  I don't want to take any chances of that man hurting anyone I care about again, and I'm sure as hell not going to let him continue to destroy Johnny's name.”

  Scott looked at his father quizzically.  “What are you planning on doing about it?”

  Murdoch stared at his son.  “The same thing Lopez did.  I'm going to put out a reward for Johnny Madrid.  Dead or alive.”

 

 

Chapter Fifty Three

Scott looked at his father incredulously.  “You can't mean it!”

Murdoch shook his head.  “Why not?  It's not Johnny we're putting the reward out on.  It's just some slime ball masquerading as him.”

Scott shook his head.  “I don't know, it just seems…wrong some how.”

Murdoch dropped his head.  “Scott, Johnny's gone and nothing's going to bring him back. This man is ruining Johnny's reputation, and stopping this man is something we can still do for him.”

Scott sighed deeply and looked at Val.  Scott trusted the sheriff's judgment, and he knew that Johnny had too.  Next to Scott, Val had been Johnny's closest friend.  “What do you think?”

Val shrugged.  “You can give it a try.  Murdoch's right.  Putting a reward out on this guy sure can't hurt Johnny any, and it might work.”

Scott nodded reluctantly.  He knew that Murdoch and Val's arguments made sense, but something was telling him that it was a mistake.  After all, putting a reward out on someone was how this whole mess started in the first place.  He looked at his father and realized that Murdoch was leaving it up to him.  Finally, Scott nodded.  “All right.  But I'm not comfortable with the ‘dead or alive' part.”

Val shook his head.  “Actually, it'd be better if whoever brought him in did kill this guy.  I don't know that he's wanted by the law on this side of the border, and if they bring him to you alive, what're ya gonna do with him?”

Murdoch snorted.  “I know what I'd LIKE to do to him, but I'm afraid it's illegal.”

Val smiled.  “You and me both, but you're right.  It IS illegal.”

Murdoch sighed.  “Any ideas?”

Val shook his head again.  “If he's not wanted up here it'll be pretty tough doin' anything to him, at least legally.”

Scott shrugged his shoulders.  “We don't have to do anything to him.  Once he's here, we can hire some private guards to take him back down to Mexico.  I'm sure the rurales would love to get their hands on him, and at this point I really don't care if they aren't exactly gracious toward him  It would serve him right if they decided to throw him in that prison instead of killing him.”

Murdoch looked at Val, who nodded.  “The rurales will take him, all right.  This guy's been thumbin' his nose at them for a long time.  I'm sure they'll give him everything he deserves.”

“Then it's settled.  I'll make sure we get plenty of posters made up.  Val, can you try to make sure they're circulated?”

  Val nodded.   “I'll make sure everybody comin' through town gets one, and I'll send some to the nearby towns.”  He looked at Murdoch speculatively.  He knew the rancher wasn't exactly free with his money.  “This man's no pushover.  You're gonna have ta make the reward big enough for it to be worth the risk of someone tryin' ta take him.”

Murdoch though for a moment.  “Five thousand?  That was enough to make all sorts of gunhawks come out of the woodwork after Johnny.”

Val whistled.  “Five thousand should do it.  That's a lot of money.”

Murdoch sighed. “I'd give double that to stop this idiot.”

Val studied his friend.  “Murdoch, if this DOES work, well…”  He scuffed the toe of his boot on the floor.

“Go on.”

“If ya decide not ta send him ta Mexico and ya decide ta…”

“Spit it out, Val,” Murdoch ordered impatiently.

Val brought his head up and locked his eyes on Murdoch.  “If he has an ‘accident' while he's here, I won't say nothin'.  In fact, if ya want, I can come out here and make SURE he has one.”

Murdoch was surprised; Val always made sure his prisoners were given due process.  On the other hand, he knew just how close Val and Johnny had been.  He nodded slowly.  “I'll remember that.”

Val glanced at Scott, who was looking at his father with a troubled look on his face.  Val ducked his head.  He had never come close to murder; he had never even roughed up a prisoner except in self defense.  Now he was offering to kill someone in cold blood, and he knew that he could do it.  This one time, he could do it.

 

Johnny sat up all night, thinking.  He still felt badly about what he had done, but he finally decided that maybe it was for the best.   He had become too careless; he had started to care once more, and Johnny had vowed never to make that mistake again.  He didn't know what was the matter with him; it seemed as though he never learned.  He didn't think he was stupid; he seemed to be able to learn other things all right, but this one thing eluded him.  He had made the same mistake over and over throughout the years.

All his life, ever since he was a child, he'd been swearing to himself he wouldn't get close to anyone, and time after time he'd forget and would wind up caring.  Each time he'd tell himself that THIS time it would work, that THIS time it would be different.  And each time he'd find out too late that nothing was different after all.  For some reason it wasn't his lot in life to be loved or trusted, and he didn't know why.

This time, though, he had caught himself in time.  It had been close; Peterson had tried to lull him into a false sense of trust, even the beginnings off a feeling of belonging.  He had barely come to his senses in time.  This time, he hadn't fallen for the lies and the promises and he had made sure that the farmer wouldn't try that again.   Johnny thought that he just might have finally learned his lesson.

From now on, he would make sure he kept things strictly business.  He would hold everyone at arms length and not allow anyone inside.  He was through trying to be sympathetic; he was through trying to be a nice guy.  No one ever bought it anyway.Everyone thought Madrid was a cold hearted bastard; now he would show them just how cold he could be.

 

 

Chapter Fifty Four

Peterson sat in his kitchen, wishing he had a drink.  He wasn't a drinking man and didn't keep alcohol in his house, but right now he thought he could probably polish off a whole bottle with no trouble at all.

His wife had already left to take the girls to school, and wouldn't be back for at least several hours. She had given him a strange look when he had told her that he thought he'd take the day off, but she hadn't questioned him.  

Now he was sitting in the empty house, weighing his options.  He had known from the beginning that this whole plan would probably be a huge mistake, but for a while, it seemed as if it might work after all.  For the first couple of days, the young man had seemed likeable and easy to get along with; someone he could actually become friends with.  He certainly hadn't seemed dangerous.  

Yesterday, however, that had all changed.  The young man had launched a vicious verbal attack that had shaken the farmer to his core.  It had started when Peterson had come back from church and had continued when he had come out to the barn later that evening to pick up the prisoner's plate.  When he had come out to the barn the second time, Peterson had hoped that Johnny had calmed down and would be back to normal.   Instead, if anything he had been even angrier.  The coldness in those startling blue eyes had been an almost physical thing, and for the first time, the farmer had feared for his life.  He knew without a doubt that if the prisoner could get free that he would be in grave danger.

Peterson was confused as to why the young man was so angry.  He thought back and could come up with nothing to explain the transformation.  It was almost as if there were two men, and the farmer wondered if Johnny had some sort of mental problem.  He shook his head; it really didn't matter.  He had to make a decision about what to do, and a wrong decision could cost him everything.

His first instinct was to take the young man back to the prison, but the rurales had made it clear that the only way that they would take him back was if the prisoner was dead.  Peterson knew without a doubt that he was incapable of killing the man; in fact he was incapable of killing anyone.  He had told Johnny that first day that he would kill him if he endangered the farmer's family, but Person knew it was an idle threat. 

He couldn't take him back, but the truth was; he was afraid of the prisoner.  One look in those eyes reassured Peterson that the young man was no stranger to violence and was more than capable of killing someone.  The farmer supposed that he could leave the prisoner locked up, but if the man didn't work there would be no crop.  Without a crop, he would not only be unable to feed the prisoner, he would be unable to feed his family.  They would all starve.

  The farmer once more wished for a drink.  He was sure he would need one before this was done, in fact, he wouldn't be surprised if he didn't wind up getting drunk regularly.   That is if the prisoner didn't kill him first.  He knew the only choice he had was to try to be as careful as he could be and still keep the prisoner working, but the risk was enormous.  If Johnny escaped, he could not only kill Peterson, but he could kill the farmer's family as well.   The farmer buried his face in his hands; he wished he'd never come up with this stupid idea.

After several minutes, Peterson stood up with a sigh.  He picked up his rifle and headed to the barn.  There was still plenty of daylight left, and he might as well get it over with.  One thing for sure; he wasn't going to try to make friends with the man any more.  If Johnny wanted to act like a vicious killer, that's exactly how he would be treated.  Peterson had tried to be nice, and it had backfired horribly.  From now on, he would be as tough and cold as his prisoner.

 

Johnny looked up when he heard the farmer approaching.  He had had time to calm down, and he already regretted the way he had acted.  He knew the farmer had been trying to be nice, and Peterson couldn't help that Johnny had been betrayed so many times.   The man knew nothing about his background, had no way of knowing that the very fact that the farmer had a loving family had been the cause of the outburst.  Johnny sighed; he realized he had been totally irrational.  He had even known it at the time, but he hadn't been able to help himself.  Today he just felt drained; the rage and hate was miraculously gone.  He had vented it all out on the head of an innocent man.

Johnny dropped his head.  Despite his dismal thoughts of the night before, he was ashamed of himself for the way he had acted.  He knew he should apologize, but he finally decided to leave things the way they stood.  He figured the farmer would probably toughen things up for him, but that was OK.  It was more important that the farmer stop trying to be friendly because Johnny didn't think he could handle that anymore.  He just wanted to be left alone, and he figured that shouldn't be a problem anymore.   He was sure that after his temper tantrum of the day before, Peterson would never make the mistake of being friendly again.  Johnny snorted.After the way he'd threatened the man and his family, he'd be lucky if the farmer didn't just blow his head off and be done with it.

Johnny watched as the farmer came into view, and his first thought was that blowing his head off was exactly what the man had in mind.  The rifle was no longer slung carelessly over Peterson's shoulder; it was held at the ready and aimed right at Johnny's heart.  Johnny looked into the man's eyes and felt a moment's uncertainty about his decision to keep things the way they were.  He had the feeling he would be regretting it very shortly.

 

 

Chapter Fifty Five

Peterson tossed Johnny the shackles, and Johnny put them around his wrists.  Then Peterson threw him the key to the chain that was around his ankle, and Johnny undid it.

“All right, let's go.”

Johnny stood up quickly and heard the unmistakable sound of the rifle bolt sliding into place.  He stared at Peterson for a moment, and saw no trace of friendliness in his eyes.  He knew that should make him happy, but for some reason it didn't.  All he felt was a sense of loss.  With a sigh, Johnny plodded out of the barn, knowing it was going to be a long year.   

 

Johnny lay on his bed in the corner of the barn and listened to the sounds coming from Dolly's stall.  The mare had gone into labor early this afternoon, and evidently she was having some problems.  At least she had waited until the plowing was done to have her foal. 

The last several weeks had been hard, both physically and mentally.  Johnny had finally gotten pretty good at using the plow, a skill he hoped he'd never have to use again.  As much as he hated to admit it, he missed being a rancher.  The work at the ranch had been brutal, but it had been satisfying, too.  He guessed this work was satisfying, at least to Peterson, but still, Johnny would rather be out on the open range than walking behind a plow.  Farming just wasn't in his blood.

His head came up, listening to the groans of the mare and the soothing voice of the farmer.  Occasionally, Peterson's older daughter, Laura, would say something to her horse, trying to allay both of their fears.  Personally, Johnny thought it was a mistake to have the girl in the barn, but nobody had asked him.   From the sounds of things, it wasn't going well, and Johnny had the feeling that it wouldn't be a happy ending.

They had finished the plowing the week before, and were now planting the fields.   That work was a little easier than plowing, but not by much.  At night, Johnny felt like his back just might be broken.  He couldn't wait until harvest; he'd be willing to bet that would be just as much fun.  He had never thought much about farming, and was surprised at the amount of sheer labor involved.  Of course, a lot of farmers probably thought that all ranchers did all day was stand around and wait for cows to be born and then sell them for a profit.

The voices in the stall rose once more, and Johnny could hear some muffled curses, although knowing Peterson, the worst he would be saying would be something like “good heavens!”  The farmer was about the gentlest man that Johnny had ever met.  Johnny smiled.  Even though he knew that Peterson had tried his best to be rough on him, he just didn't have it in him to be a tough guy.  The farmer hadn't talked much to him except to give him orders, but he had still fed Johnny right and given him plenty of time to rest, and the weekly baths had continued. 

As the voices got louder, he scooted down as far as his chains allowed and looked into the open stall.  The mare was standing with her head down, obviously worn out.  Peterson was talking to her encouragingly and patting her occasionally, but Johnny's eyes were drawn to the girl.  The farmer had been very careful to keep the prisoner away from his family, and Johnny had only gotten a glimpse of them at a distance.  He knew there were three girls, the oldest being around eighteen, then a girl of twelve, and the baby was probably four.  Peterson had told Johnny about them before Johnny had opened his mouth and backed the farmer off.  Johnny watched as the girl threw her arms around the mare and said something unintelligible.

Johnny shook his head; the mare was obviously in trouble, and it was just as obvious that the farmer didn't have a clue what to do about it.   As Johnny watched, Laura grabbed the mare's halter and steadied the horse, while Peterson gingerly inserted his hand into the animal's uterus to try once more to feel what was wrong.  Johnny saw immediately by the hesitant attempt that the farmer made in feeling around inside the animal that he had never done it before.  Johnny smiled, remembering the first time he had done it.

When he had first come to Lancer, Johnny had thought he knew all about horses.  He could break and train anything with four legs, and he was pretty adept at their care and taking care of their illnesses and injuries.  The only problem had been that he had never owned a mare.   Surprisingly, it had been Scott that had shown him what to do that first time.   His brother had talked him through it and Johnny still remembered the sense of accomplishment when the colt had wobbled over to his mother on spindly legs and taken that first drink.  He had thought at the time that he was finally a part of something positive; that instead of killing, he was helping to bring new life into the world.  It was one of the reasons that he had stayed.

He mentally shook himself; he wasn't going to go there again.  He hadn't exactly liked the results the last time he'd gone down memory lane.  He couldn't do anything to change what had happened, and he was tired of the pain that came with remembering that time in his life.  It seemed that for some reason he couldn't get himself killed, so he might as well make the best of things.  He wasn't going to get close to anyone again, but he no longer felt like murdering anyone, either.

A cry of protest intruded into his thoughts, and he poked his head as far as he could out of the stall.  The mare was down, and Peterson was ordering his daughter into the house.  She was arguing and pleading with him. 

“Please Pa, don't kill her!”

  Johnny could hear the anguish in the man's voice.  “If we kill her now, we might be able to save the foal.  If we wait, we'll lose both of them for sure.”

  “PLEASE!”

“Go on, now.  Get in the house.”

“PA!”

“NOW Laura!”

Johnny watched as the girl ran over and threw her arms around the mare's neck, then kissed her before turning and running from the barn.

 

 

Chapter Fifty Six

Johnny watched as the farmer walked over to the horse and knelt beside her, murmuring reassurances to her.  Johnny dropped his head; he knew what it was like to lose a favorite horse. He wondered for the thousandth time what had happened to Barranca.  He knew he'd never know, and his imagination did nothing to ease his fears.  He knew that the palomino was classy enough that he would be fought over by the officers, but Johnny was also afraid that his horse's feisty nature would wind up getting him shot by a short- tempered owner.

Johnny watched as Peterson stood up, picked up his rifle and then stood over the horse.  Johnny shut his eyes, arguing with himself over whether to interfere, but finally the horse's groans and the memory of the girl's impassioned pleading made up his mind.

  “I can help her.”

Peterson whirled around, staring at the prisoner.  It was the first time Johnny had talked, other to answer direct questions, for several weeks.  He studied the man for a moment, and then shook his head.  “No.”

Johnny dropped his head, but didn't give up.  “You're just gonna shoot her when I can save her?”  Johnny wasn't sure if he could save her or not, but he at least wanted to try.

Peterson stopped and looked at the man again.  “Look.  It takes a lot of experience to save a horse when she's in this much trouble.  You don't have that experience.”

“Yes I do.”

Peterson shook his head.  “You didn't even know how to use a plow.”

“Just because I'm not a farmer doesn't mean I don't know nothin' about horses.”

“Look, I'm not going to let you prolong that poor mare's suffering just because you're trying to make points.”

With an effort, Johnny held onto his temper.  “I could care less about makin' ‘points'.   All I care about is tryin' ta save that horse and her foal.”

“Why?”

Johnny shook his head, realizing no one would question him if he said he wanted to kill the horse; after all, wasn't that what was expected of him?  He sighed. “Because, no matter what you might think of me, I don't like seein' horses suffer, and I don't like seein' girls cry.”

Peterson watched him for several moments, and the finally walked over to Johnny.  “If this is a trick…”

Johnny stared at the farmer.  “It ain't no trick.”  He kept the man's gaze for a long minute, and then finally Peterson dropped his eyes and shook his head.  He started to walk away, and Johnny called out to him, “I give ya my word I won't try nothin'.”

  The farmer turned around and finally nodded toward the shackles at the far end of the stall.  “Put them on.”

Johnny shook his head.  “I can't do nothin with those on.”

Peterson hesitated and then tossed Johnny the key to the chain on his ankle, and then leveled the rifle at him.  Johnny undid the chain, and then slowly stood up and walked over to the horse, ignoring the farmer.  Johnny started talking softly to the mare and then rubbed his hands over her body, working his way back to her rump.  

Johnny took off his shirt and then proceeded to try to feel what was wrong.  He immediately felt a small hoof, and traced it back until he could feel another one.  Puzzled, he wondered what the problem was.  He reached in further and traced the first leg back to see if it was a front leg or a rear leg.  He realized it was a front leg, and was even more puzzled at what was holding the foal back.  He pulled his arm out and stood back for a second, trying to think.

“Well?”

Johnny shook his head.  “I'm not sure what's wrong.”

Peterson brought his rifle up toward the horse.  “Move back.”

  “Wouldja just wait a minute?  Let me give it another shot.”

Peterson nodded reluctantly.  “I'll give you one more chance.”

“Thanks,” Johnny said sarcastically.  He went back over and tried again.  This time, he followed the other leg along its length, and then he suddenly stopped.  He felt again, and suddenly realized what the problem was.  He had never had to handle this situation in a horse, but he had handled it in a cow.  He figured it couldn't be a whole lot different.  At least he hoped it wouldn't.  He pulled back once more, and saw the farmer's expression; a mixture of disappointment and disgust.  “Ok, that's enough,” Peterson said.

“I know what's wrong.”

The farmer's face changed to careful optimism.  “What?”

Johnny smiled.  “She's got twins!”

Peterson gaped at his prisoner.  “Twins?”

Johnny nodded. “And they're both tryin' ta get out at the same time.  All we have ta do is push one back while we pull the other one forward.”

Peterson shook his head.  “That's impossible.”

“Maybe, but I'd like ta try.”

Peterson studied Johnny for a moment and then nodded.  “All right.”

“I'll need some twine.”

“What for?”

“Humor me.”

The farmer shook his head, tempted to refuse, but he was curious to see just what the man had in mind.  Keeping a close eye on Johnny, he rummaged around and came up with a length of twine.  He held it out to Johnny, who took it and tied a slipknot in the end and once more inserted his hand into the mare.  A few seconds later, he handed the end of the twine to the farmer.  “Hold this, and when I tell ya to, pull.”

“What are you doing?”

“I put the loop around the first foal's pastern.  I'm gonna hold the second foal back, and you're gonna pull ‘till both the first foal's legs are in the birth canal.”

Peterson nodded, and Johnny pushed back on the second foal.  “OK, now pull!”

The farmer pulled on the string, but nothing happened.  Johnny looked at the man as the farmer tried to pull on the twine while keeping his rifle leveled.  “You're gonna have ta use both hands,” he said in frustration.

Peterson shook his head, and Johnny sighed.  “If ya want ta save these animals, you're gonna have ta trust me.  I told ya, I won't try anything.”  He grinned, “Besides, I'm not exactly in a position ta make any sudden moves.” 

Peterson hesitated for a moment, and then he carefully put his rifle down at his feet and grabbed the twine with both hands.  He waited until Johnny signaled, and then pulled with all his might.  A second later, a foot popped out.  Johnny repeated the procedure and a few minutes later, the first foal was born, followed quickly by the second.

 

 

Chapter Fifty Seven

Johnny knelt down and examined the foals.  “Ya got a colt and a filly.”  Johnny watched as the foals struggled for balance, and then he stepped back as Dolly lurched to her feet.  The mare went over and nuzzled the two foals, sniffing them all over and then giving them a soft nicker of welcome.   Johnny could swear she looked proud, and he couldn't blame her.  A warm feeling washed over him as he watched the new family.  He turned toward the farmer, a smile on his face, but stopped when he saw that the man had picked up the rifle and it was once more aiming at his heart.

Johnny dropped his head, the smile disappearing as he made his way back to where he slept.  Without a word, he picked up the chain and locked it onto his ankle, then sat down and pulled his legs up, wrapping his arms around them before dropping his head between his knees.  He knew that the way the farmer acted was his doing, and for the first time, he regretted his actions of the month before.

He had done a good job of convincing himself that he didn't need anyone, but the truth was, he did. It was as simple as that.  That had always been his problem.  There was something inside of him that needed to be wanted and accepted, and he had always kept trying, even though he knew it would end in heartbreak.   He hated being by himself and he finally admitted that he was lonely.

Peterson stood and watched the prisoner uncertainly.  He couldn't figure the man out.  A short time ago, Johnny had acted like he would have gladly ripped Peterson's head off and not worried about it at all, and now he had shown an unexpected soft spot and saved the mare and her foals.  The farmer shook his head, even more convinced that maybe Johnny had some mental problem.  Whatever the reason for the man's shifting personality, Peterson still couldn't trust the man; he would never know when the prisoner's attitude would once more turn deadly.  With a sigh, the farmer turned and left the barn.

A few minutes later, Peterson reappeared with a bucket of water and some soap for Johnny to wash off with.  The farmer stood and watched as the prisoner silently scrubbed the grime off of him, never meeting his eyes.  Peterson looked over to where his daughter was happily introducing herself to the new additions, and with a sigh he looked back at Johnny.  “Thank you.”

Johnny nodded, still not looking up.  “You're welcome.”

A moment later, Johnny looked up in surprise when he heard a new voice.  “Thank you for saving Dolly.”

  Johnny watched as Peterson glared at his daughter.  “Laura, I told you never to come over here. Now go on.”

Laura looked at her father defiantly.  “I just wanted to thank him.”  She looked back at Johnny and smiled, and Johnny held her gaze and smiled back.   Peterson angrily pushed her away from the stall.  “Get in the house!”

Johnny watched the girl as she left and then turned his gaze on the farmer.  “I wouldn't hurt her.”

Peterson snorted.  “That's not what you said a month ago.”

Johnny dropped his head, deeply ashamed of both what he had said and what he had implied.  “Yeah, well, I'm sorry about that.  I said a lot of things I didn't mean.”

The farmer watched the man curiously, wondering if he was being sincere.  “Then why did you?”

Johnny shrugged.  “Don't matter.”  He looked up at the farmer.  “It won't happen again and I won't give ya any more trouble.”

Peterson nodded slowly.  “I hope not, but I still can't trust you just because you tell me you can.”

Johnny dropped his head and shut his eyes with a sigh.  “I know.”

 

The next several months passed slowly for Johnny.   The days were spent weeding and hoeing, with occasional odd jobs thrown in.  The weather was stifling hot and made it difficult to work through the day, but the farmer allowed Johnny to rest in the middle of the afternoon when the temperatures climbed too high. Peterson was still more than fair with him, but he no longer talked to Johnny much, and he kept things very impersonal. Even though Johnny kept his word and behaved himself, Peterson was slow to trust him and he no longer made many mistakes about letting his guard down.  The rifle seemed to always be at the ready, continually reminding Johnny just where he stood.

Finally, as the weather cooled down the harvest season started.  Once again, the work was brutally hard, and the days lasted from sunup to sunset.  Even though Johnny had finally gotten his strength back, he found himself falling asleep soon after supper every night.  After all, there wasn't much else to do. Peterson had finally given him a small knife and some leather to work with, and Johnny had managed to repair most of the tack, but that was the only concession the farmer was willing to make.  The knife made the man nervous enough, although he was very careful in making sure the knife was accounted for each time he turned Johnny loose in the morning.

Johnny sat and wove some horsehair he had managed to snag from Dolly's tail.  He was making a small halter for one of the foals and was hoping Peterson would let him work with the babies on Sundays.  Johnny hoped he could talk the farmer into lengthening his chain so he could reach the nearby stall where the horses were kept so he would have something to do on his day off.

With a sigh, Johnny put the halter down.  It was getting too dark to see inside the barn, although he guessed there were still a couple of hours of daylight left.  He wished he had a lantern, but the farmer had refused, saying it was too much of a fire hazard in all that straw, and Johnny had reluctantly agreed.

He sat back against the side of the stall and closed his eyes.  A moment later, his eyes flew open when he heard a girl's scream.

 

 

Chapter Fifty Eight

Johnny bolted to his feet, but the chain held him firmly in place.  He strained forward, but could see nothing outside the barn.  Suddenly, he heard the sound of running feet, and the farmer's eldest daughter came into view.  She ran frantically toward Johnny and then stopped several feet away and stared at him.

“What's wrong?”  Johnny shouted.

Laura gulped, trying not to cry.  “It's Pa.  He was fixing the wagon and it fell on him.  I…I don't think he can breathe!”

“Give me the key.  It's hanging on that nail right next to you.”

Laura shook her head.  “I CAN'T!”

“LAURA!  I PROMISE I won't run off on you. Now turn me loose!”

The girl shook her head and ran out of the barn, with Johnny calling after her.  He slammed his hand down against the stall partition in frustration, but a moment later she was back, her father's rifle in her hands.  She reached up and grabbed the key, then threw it at Johnny.  He caught it and quickly undid the chain and sprang to his feet.  He ran outside, with Laura following him, the rifle at the ready.  Peterson was lying under the front wagon axle, unconscious.  Both front wheels were off, and Johnny figured he'd been working on the axle when something had gone terribly wrong.

Johnny knelt by his side and felt for a pulse, and was reassured when he felt a steady beat.  He sat up, ran his hand through his hair and looked at the girl.  “Where's your Ma?”

  The girl hesitated, not sure if she should tell him, but then she answered him reluctantly, “She and my sister Ann went to visit my aunt.” She looked at Johnny worriedly.  “Is he alive?” 

Johnny nodded.  “Yes, but we have to get him out from under the wagon.  You're right, he's having trouble breathing.  I'm going to try to lift the edge of the wagon, and when I do, you're going to have to pull him out.”

Laura nodded, and then looked at the rifle in her hands and back to Johnny.  He could see the indecision in her eyes.  Johnny shook his head and talked soothingly to the frightened girl.  “Laura, I can't do it myself.  If you don't pull him out, he'll die. You're going to have to trust me.”

Laura looked into his eyes for a long while, and then slowly put the rifle down.  Johnny nodded.  “All right, now get ready.”  Johnny grabbed the edge of the wagon, silently saying a prayer that he would have the strength to lift it enough so that the girl could slide her father out.  If he had to take time to rig up some sort of block and tackle he was afraid that Peterson would die.

Johnny strained against the weight, and he felt the wagon slowly rise.  He continued to struggle with the weight, striving to raise it even higher, until finally he heard Laura call out, “OK, he's out!”

Johnny gratefully lowered the wagon to the ground and then hurried over to the fallen man.  He knelt down beside him and felt once more for a pulse.  It took several moments, but he relaxed when he finally found one.  He tore off Peterson's shirt and noticed some deep bruising on the man's chest.  He gently felt the man's torso, and discovered what he thought were several broken ribs.  He continued to explore, and found a broken upper arm.  He noticed some blood, and traced it to a deep gash on the man's side.

Johnny shook his head and looked at Laura.  “He needs a doctor.”

She shook her head.  “There aren't any around here.”

“Are you sure?”

Laura nodded.  “When Doc Carter died a few months ago, it was one of the things Ma was so worried about.   We were supposed to get a new one, but right now the nearest one is almost a hundred miles away.”

Johnny sighed and then looked down once more at the farmer.  The man was badly hurt and Johnny wasn't sure Peterson would live, even if a doctor was available.  “Let's get him in the house.  I'll see what I can do.”  Laura watched as Johnny picked up her father and carried him toward the house.  She hesitated, and then scooped up the rifle and followed. 

Johnny carried the unconscious man into the house and set him on the bed.  He looked up as Laura walked in and saw she was still carrying the rifle.  He caught her gaze and held it.  “You're father is badly hurt.  He needs a doctor, and without one, his chances of pulling through aren't very good.”  Johnny saw the stricken look on the girl's face and hesitated.  He didn't want to hurt her, but it would be hard enough to try and help Peterson without having a rifle stuck in his face the whole time, especially by a nervous female.

“Laura, we don't have time for this.  Either you trust me enough ta put that rifle down and help me, or ya stand there and watch while your father dies.”

The rifle slowly slid from the girl's fingers, and Johnny nodded.  “All right, I'll need some clean cloths and some water, and then a needle and thread.  I'm gonna have ta stitch him up.”

Laura ran to get the things Johnny had requested, and Johnny looked around the small house. It was well made and snug, but it was hardly bigger than his bedroom back at Lancer.  There was only one main room and a small bedroom where they apparently all slept.  As he watched, the door to the small room opened, and Peterson's youngest daughter emerged.  He smiled at her, and she shyly ducked her head and ran back into the room.  Johnny turned his attention back to the farmer and he shook his head.  He was afraid that Peterson wasn't going to make it.  He could stitch the man up and bind his chest, but he couldn't fix internal injuries, and he was afraid that was just what the farmer had.

 

 

 Chapter Fifty Nine

Johnny sat by the side of the bed and watched as the farmer struggled for breath.  Johnny had set the farmer's broken arm and bound the ribs as best he could, but he wasn't a doctor.   He knew the man's ribs were broken, but he was also afraid that one of the ribs had gone through a lung.  He hoped he was wrong, because if that were the case, the man's chances weren't very good without a doctor's care. There wasn't any blood in the man's mouth, but he was having trouble breathing.  He was running a fever, too, something that sure wouldn't help.  

Johnny lifted the blanket and checked around the bandages that were wrapped around the man's torso.  He peeked for the hundredth time under the bandage that covered the wound, but he still didn't see any sign of infection, and he sighed in relief.   It had taken nearly thirty stitches to close the gash, and Johnny was worried about infection.  He had washed and cleaned the wound as best he could, but the farmer didn't have any alcohol in the house, even for medicinal purposes.  Johnny knew how important it was to use alcohol on the wound and his hands, but he'd had no choice.  The wound had to be stitched.  Actually, Johnny was surprised that the man was still alive, but he was, and Johnny was beginning to hope that maybe he would stay that way.  Peterson hadn't gotten any worse, except for the fever, and Johnny was finally starting to get a handle on that.   

A fever was one thing that Johnny knew how to treat; both Scott and Murdoch ran high fevers; it seemed to be a family trait.  Johnny remembered the times that he had been laid up.  He had at first been surprised that Scott and Murdoch had stayed by him while he was recovering, and later, he had come to count on it.  He had come to feel safe at Lancer and had made the mistake of getting too comfortable there.

With a sigh, Johnny dipped the rag in the basin and pressed it to the farmer's temple, then looked over at the girl who was fixing lunch for her sister.  It had been almost twenty four hours since the accident, and Peterson was still unconscious.  Both Johnny and Laura had been awake since the day before, and the exhaustion was evident in the young girl's actions.  Johnny had been pleasantly surprised that she had been able to help him; evidently she was tougher than she looked.  Laura had stood next to him and handed him supplies throughout the whole ordeal.  She had even helped him set the arm; holding her father's shoulder down while he manipulated the arm to put the bone back in place. 

He watched her as she prepared the food, aware, not for the first time, of just how long it had been since he'd been with a woman.  He turned his head away; those thoughts would lead to nothing but trouble.  But he had to admit, she sure was pretty.

Laura sat Julie down at the table with a bowl and spoon and then came over and handed Johnny a sandwich.  “How is he?”

Johnny put the food down on the small table next to the bed and looked up at the girl.  “About the same.”

She looked at her father worriedly. “He should be better by now.”

Johnny shrugged.  “Injuries take time ta heal.  At least he's no worse.  He has a chance.”

Laura nodded and put her hand on his shoulder.  “Thank you, you saved his life.”

Johnny dropped his head, knowing he had to get out of the house.   “It's OK.”  He hesitated.  “Look, I don't want ta leave ya alone with him, but…”

“You promised!” Laura shouted.  “You gave me your word that you wouldn't take off!”

“Laura…”

“I should have known better than to trust you!”  She turned around and ran to the fireplace, where she wrestled the rifle down from its peg.  Johnny jumped up and grabbed the rifle away from the girl, earning him several slaps as she panicked.  He grabbed her hands and fought to still the struggling girl.  After a brief struggle, Laura finally gave up, and stood crying.  She looked up at Johnny with tears in her eyes, “I believed you; I trusted you.”

Johnny controlled his emotions and desire with great difficulty, and then picked up the girl's face and looked into her eyes.  “I'm not going to leave.”

She shook her head in confusion.  “But you said…”

“I said I didn't want to leave you alone with him.  But your Pa made it real clear that the crop had ta be harvested as soon as possible.  He was so worried about it that he even talked about missin' church ta get it in.”

Laura nodded.  “I know.  He was afraid that the storms were going to come early.”

“I need ta get that crop in.”

She looked up at him in shock.  “You're not going to escape?”

Johnny smiled and shook his head.  “Laura, if I was going to take off, I would have done it a long time ago.”

“How?  Pa was real careful.”

Johnny grinned.  “Not that careful.”  He looked into her eyes.  “Laura, I made up my mind a long time ago not ta run.”

Laura shook her head in confusion.  “Why?” 

Johnny sighed.  “Long story, but mostly I didn't want your Pa to lose his farm because of me.  He's a good man, and he didn't deserve that.”

Laura dropped her head.  “I'm sorry I jumped to the wrong conclusion.”

“That's OK.  Now, are you going to be all right in here by yourself?  All ya have ta do is keep bathing his face and arms with cool water.  If his fever comes up or ya need any help, I'll be in the field.”

The girl nodded.  “I'll be fine.”

  Johnny walked over and picked up the sandwich and then headed for the door, desperate to get out of the house and away from the girl.  Besides, he was already more than a day behind with the harvest.

 

 

Chapter Sixty

Helen Peterson walked toward her house, worried about being gone so long.  It was the first time she had been away from her family, but her sister was having a baby, and Helen was the only help around.  Her sister had started her labor several days previously, and the labor had been long and difficult.  Mary had had a difficult time of it, and by the time her son was born, the mother had been exhausted.  Helen had stayed for another two days to help her take care of the baby, but for some reason she felt nervous about being away from her own family.

  She knew that Laura was more than capable of running the household during her absence, but she hoped that little Julie was minding her manners and hadn't given her big sister a bad time.  She also felt guilty about not helping Charles with the harvest, but her husband had been very adamant about her staying away from the prisoner.  She thought that something had happened soon after the prisoner had arrived to make him concerned for their safety. 

The first few days, Charles had seemed pleased with the way things were working out.  He had told her that the man had been working hard, and had not given him any trouble.  Before that first week was over, however, Charles had turned quiet and seemed to dread the morning when he had to take the prisoner out.  At the same time, he had also warned them not to ever go out to the barn without him. She knew instinctively that something bad had happened, but her husband refused to discuss it.  She had tried to talk him into taking the convict back to the prison; she had been against it in the first place, and she had told him saving their crop wasn't worth any of their lives.  Charles had merely shook his head and said that he couldn't do that, much to Helen's disgust.

Since the prisoner had been with them, Helen had spent the days worrying about what was happening out in the field.  She found herself checking on her husband a dozen times a day, although she had no idea what she could do if the young man tried anything.  She looked at her middle daughter, Ann, and shuddered.  She'd hate to think what that convict would do if he got loose.  She had discussed her fears with her sister, and Mary had been shocked that they had taken such a chance.  She had made Helen promise she'd try to talk Charles into returning the convict to the prison.  Helen sighed; she knew that her husband would argue about it, but she was prepared to argue back.  Nothing was worth endangering her daughters.

With that resolved, she walked faster toward her home, determined to talk to Charles as soon as she arrived.  When her house came into view, she sighed in relief, glad that her trip was over.  Ann went running on ahead, and Helen watched as her daughter disappeared into the house.   A minute later she stepped across the threshold and stopped dead.  Her husband was lying on the bed, and Laura was crying and talking to Ann.

  “What happened!”  Helen ran to her husband's side and knelt by the bed.

“The wagon fell on him.  He's better now.”

Helen frantically called to her husband, and he opened his eyes for a moment, then let his eyes slide shut again.  She turned to her daughter.  “What happened?

Laura shook her head.  “Pa was working on the wagon when it fell on him.  He was hurt real bad, and I didn't know what to do.”

Helen looked at her husband and then back to her daughter.  “”Well, evidently you did the right thing.  I'm proud of you.”

Laura smiled back at her mother, and then hesitated.  Before she could get any words out, the door opened and Johnny walked in.  Mrs. Peterson stared at him for a moment, and then ran for the rifle.

“Ma, NO!”  Laura ran after her mother and grabbed her arm, preventing Helen from reaching the gun.  “NO! It's all right!”

Helen turned and stared at her daughter, and then raised her eyes to the prisoner, who was holding her youngest daughter in his arms.  Slowly, he put Julie down, and the little girl ran to her mother, who scooped her up protectively.

Laura pulled her mother around to face her.  “He saved Pa's life.  He won't hurt us.”

Johnny met the woman's eyes.  “You're daughter is right.  I've never hurt a woman or a child in my life, and I have no intention of starting now.”

“How did you get loose?”  She glanced at her daughter, who dropped her head.  “I turned him loose, Ma.  I didn't have any choice, Pa couldn't breathe!  Johnny pulled him out from under the wagon and then he stitched him up and fixed his arm.”

Helen looked once more at Johnny and then walked over to her husband.  “What's wrong with him?” She asked softly.

Johnny took a step closer.  “He's got some broken ribs and a busted arm.  He has a bad gash on his side, but he's starting to heal.  I think he might have injured his leg again, but I don't think it's broken.”

  Helen brushed her hand against Charles' cheek and then turned toward Johnny, looking him in the eyes.  “Thank you.”

Johnny nodded.  “He had us scared for a day or two, but I think he'll be fine.”

The woman sat down next to her husband and Laura brought her some bread.   “We're out of meat,” she explained to her mother.   Helen nodded her head with a sigh.  “Your father hasn't been able to go hunting for a while, and we can't spare any more chickens right now.  We'll have to make do.”

Johnny watched them for a few minutes and then shrugged.  “I've got ta get back to work.”  He turned and walked out of the door, and Mrs. Peterson turned toward her daughter.  “He didn't …hurt you…did he?”

Laura shook her head.  “No, MA.  I told you, he wouldn't hurt us.  He's even been bringing in the crop for us, and he fixed the porch roof.”

Helen took a deep breath, hoping that the prisoner didn't have some ulterior motive and wasn't just biding his time.  Not that she could do much about it anyway, with just herself and three young girls.  She said as short prayer that he had been telling the truth, and then she turned her attention to her husband. 

 

 

Chapter Sixty One

Charles gradually improved, and he was thankful to Johnny for saving his life, but he was still concerned.  Johnny had turned once before without seeming provocation, and the farmer was concerned he would do it again.  Johnny still slept in the barn, but he came into the house for meals, and it made Charles nervous.  The prisoner was always respectful and the farmer was somewhat surprised at his good manners, but he was still a convict.

Charles didn't want to frighten his wife, but he needed to at least talk to Johnny in private.  He needed to know just what was going on in the man's mind and get some reassurance that Johnny wasn't going to lose his temper once more.   He had the opportunity to talk to him the next day when Helen went with the girls to church.  Johnny came into the house for lunch, and Charles called him over to the bed.  “Johnny, I want to thank you again for saving my life.”

  Johnny shrugged.  “Like you said to me, I ain't a murderer.”

Charles studied the man.  “That's not what you led me to believe a few months ago.  In fact, you were pretty adamant that you WERE capable of it.”

Johnny dropped his head.  “I told ya I didn't mean it.”

Charles shook his head.  “Yes, you did mean it; at least you did at the time.”

Johnny hesitated and then took a deep breath and nodded. “You're right; I did mean it at the time.  I'm sorry.”

The farmer looked at him curiously.  “What happened that day?  Why did you change so suddenly?

Johnny sighed deeply.  “It's a long story.”

Charles smiled.  “I've got time.”

Johnny looked into the farmer's eyes, and felt like he could trust this man.  However, he had felt like he could trust Scott and Murdoch, too, and had been badly mistaken.  He shook his head.  “Maybe someday, but not now.”

  Charles shook his head.  “Johnny, I need to know.  I have to know it won't happen again.”

Johnny brought his gaze up to the farmer's.  “It won't happen again.”

“How do I know that?”

“You're still afraid I'll hurt your family,” Johnny said flatly.

Charles nodded.  “Wouldn't you be, with the way you had acted?  Especially when you won't tell me WHY you acted like that?  How do I know you won't go crazy on me again?”

  With a sigh, Johnny reluctantly nodded.  “I guess.”

Peterson waited as he watched the emotions flit across the young man's face.  Finally, Johnny brought his eyes up to the farmer's and he shrugged.  “I've never had anybody I could trust.  The few times I thought I could trust somebody, I was wrong.  I swore I'd never trust anybody again, never let anybody get close ta me again.”  He dropped his head.

“And you started trusting me, and knew I was starting to trust you,” Peterson said matter of factly.

Johnny merely nodded, unable to look the man in the eyes.

“So you said those things to make me back off.”

Johnny took a deep breath, but he didn't answer, and Peterson studied him for a moment.  “Or did you mean those things?”

  Johnny shrugged, “I was mad.”

“At what?”  Peterson asked, puzzled.

Johnny shook his head and then looked at the farmer.  “At you.  I was mad because you had a family and a home, and I've never had either one.”

“Never?”

Johnny dropped his head.  “I thought I did once, but I was mistaken,” he said softly.

Peterson studied him intently.  “But they're alive, aren't they?”

Johnny whipped his head up and glared at the farmer.  “They aren't to me!”  Johnny turned to leave, but the farmer's voice stopped him.

  “You're sure?”

Johnny turned back.  “I'm sure,” he said icily.  “Now drop it.  I don't want ta discuss it anymore.”

Peterson studied the man for a moment and then shrugged.  “Seems to me that you're trying to convince yourself of that.”

“I don't have ta convince myself of anything.  They already did that for me.”

Peterson nodded.  “Maybe they did.  But it seems like you still have some doubt, however slight, and before I convinced myself that I didn't have a family, I'd make sure I   was right.”

Johnny looked at the man angrily.  “Did you have anything else ta say, or can I get back ta work?”

  Peterson sighed.  “You can do what you want, but think about what I said, OK?”

Johnny nodded and stalked out of the house, angry with the farmer for butting into his business.  He headed for the field, but as he walked, he thought about what the farmer had said.  He knew the man was right; he had tried and convicted Murdoch and Scott without knowing the truth for sure.  He dropped his head.  Maybe he had been so quick to believe they had abandoned him because as painful as that was, it was better than thinking that they were dead.  Either way, he decided he needed to know the truth for sure.

He didn't know just how to go about it, however.  He could simply write a letter; he was sure that Peterson would mail it for him now, but for some reason, if they HAD betrayed him, he didn't want them to know where he was.  He didn't know exactly why he felt like that, but he did.  He didn't want to have to talk to them or deal with them if he had been right. He just wanted to try to go on with his life and not have to worry about seeing them again.

  Johnny bit his lip as he thought.  If he wrote the letter, he was sure that Scott and Murdoch would recognize his handwriting, unless….maybe he could print the letter instead of writing it.  As far as he knew, none of them had ever seen his printing.  He could write an inquiry about some stock, use a false name, and see who answered.  With any luck, he would find out all he needed to know.  His mind made up, he nodded to himself; he would find out the truth, once and for all.

 

 

Chapter Sixty Two

Peterson heard the knock on the door and sat up in his bed.  He had been working on getting up for longer periods, but his wife didn't want him getting up unless she was there to help him, and although he had argued, he was relieved.  He still felt as weak as a kitten, and his balance was bad.  His leg just wouldn't hold him most of the time, and he had come close to taking several bad falls.  He felt terribly lazy staying in bed at this late hour and he knew he should get up, but Helen and the girls had left an hour earlier to go into town, and as far as he knew, Johnny was working in the field.  “Come in.”

A moment later, Johnny walked in.  “How are ya feelin'?”

  Peterson shrugged.  “Better.”

  Johnny nodded and then bit his lip nervously.  “I wanted ta talk to ya about somethin'.”

Charles sat up straighter and motioned Johnny over.  “What's on your mind?”

Johnny dropped his head.  “Mrs. Peterson said that food was getting' scarce, and I know we haven't had any meat in a couple of weeks.   I was wonderin'…”  He looked up at the farmer.  “I was wonderin' if you'd trust me with that rifle.  I saw a deer this mornin' and I don't think she's gone far.” 

Peterson contemplated the young man for a moment and then shook his head.  “Are you planning on escaping?” he asked quietly.

Johnny snorted angrily.  “I could leave anytime I wanted to.”  He turned and walked toward the fireplace.  “Do you really think I couldn't grab that rifle down right now and take off?”

Peterson shook his head, realizing again how volatile this young man's temper was.   He had a knack for taking everything that was said in the wrong way.  “I'm sorry; I didn't mean it that way.  I know you could escape any time you wanted to.  I guess I'm just sort of wondering why you haven't.”

Johnny relaxed slightly and shrugged.  “I've been askin' myself the same question.”  He shook his head.  “I guess I just don't want ta see ya lose your ranch because of me.  Ya treated me right and ya coulda made my life miserable.  If ya hadn't gotten me out in the first place, I figure I'd be dead by now.  There's no way I could survive in one of those mines.”  He shook his head sadly.   “Besides, I don't really have anywhere else ta go.”

  Peterson watched the young man's expression and sighed.   Johnny had asked him for a paper and pen several weeks ago, and Peterson had given him one, surprised that the young man could write.  The next day Helen had walked into town and mailed it for him.  “My wife is picking up the mail today.  Maybe you'll have an answer to your letter.”

Johnny shrugged again.  “Don't matter.  No matter what it says, I figure I don't have a family no more.”

“You need to at least know for sure.”

“I told ya, I already do.”

Peterson nodded.  “I know we don't have much, but you're welcome to share what we do have.  We'd like you to stay.”  

Johnny snorted. “I bet ya do.  When those rurales come ta take me back and they find I'm gone, they'll take this ranch away before you can even blink.  Probably throw you in that prison just for the heck of it.”

“Do you think that's the only reason I said that?”

“Yeah, I do.”

Peterson shook his head.  “You really don't trust anyone, do you?”

“Nope.”

“Johnny, as you pointed out, you could leave anytime you wanted to.  I'm not going to chain you again, and I'm not going to force you to stay.  You saved my life and I'm not going to repay you by betraying you.   If the rurales come back, we'll figure something out.”

Johnny snorted.  “Oh, don't worry, they'll be back.  There's no way they're gonna forget about me.”

  “Why?  What did you do?”

Johnny grinned.  “I was wonderin' when you was goin ta get around ta askin' me that.”  He ticked off the list on his fingers.  “Let me see, murder, rape, assault, bank robbery, arson… I can't remember what else.”

Peterson's mouth gaped open until he saw the glint of amusement in the man's eyes.  There was something else there, too.  A challenge, almost.

“Uh huh,” the farmer said.

“Dontcha believe me?”

“No, as a matter of fact I don't.  Now what were you in there for?”

Johnny dropped his head, surprised the farmer had been able to read him so well.  If he had told Murdoch that, the Old Man probably would have believed him with no problem and hanged him himself. 

“Well?”

Johnny shrugged.  “I got involved in a revolution down here a couple of years ago and had the bad luck ta be on the losin' side.  I escaped right before they were gonna shoot me.  A year later they got a hold of me again, only this time I didn't escape.  Next thing ya know, I was here.”

Peterson breathed a silent sigh of relief.  Even though he knew the young man wasn't a killer, it eased his mind to know that he really wasn't a criminal, either.  Finally he nodded, “Go ahead and take the gun, but try not to be gone too long.  I hate ta keep on about it, but that crop really needs to come in.”

Johnny nodded.  “I should be back by morning.”  He went over and picked up the rifle and checked it over.  “Where are the shells?”

“In the cupboard, the middle drawer.”

Johnny went over and opened the large drawer and moved several things to find the ammunition.  Suddenly he froze as an object was pushed into view.  He stood staring, mesmerized by the sight and wondering where the farmer had gotten it.

  “Something wrong?”

Johnny shook his head.  “No.”  He moved the object and his hand closed around a box of shells.  He poured some out and stuffed them into his pocket, then turned and nodded at the farmer.  “Wish me luck.”

Peterson smiled.  “Good luck.  I'm tired of eating potatoes.”

As Johnny headed for the door, Peterson spoke up.  “Are you taking Dolly?”

“Nope.  I figure she could use a day off, and I don't think I'll have ta go that far.”

“At least bring back a rabbit if you can.”

“I'll do my best.”  Johnny shut the door and headed out to where he saw the tracks, feeling more comfortable than he had in a long time.

 

 

  Chapter Sixty Three

Johnny headed towards the small woods in back of the farm, carrying the rifle slung over his shoulder.  At first, he didn't even pay attention to where he was going; he simply relished the freedom to go where he wanted to.   He breathed in deeply, thinking that even the air smelled better when he was free.  He knew that maybe technically he wasn't a free man, but it was only a technicality.  In reality, he could leave whenever he wanted to, and that alone made him feel free. 

He thought about his situation and shook his head.  He knew that if he had really wanted to, he could have left the first day out of prison, and almost any time after that.  He really wasn't sure why he hadn't.  He knew he hadn't wanted to kill the farmer, but he really wouldn't have had to kill him to escape.  He could have knocked the man out and disappeared.  If he had taken Dolly, there was no way Peterson could have caught him. 

The question was, did he want to leave?  He certainly didn't have anywhere else to go, and it really wasn't that bad here.  He more or less had his freedom, and he liked the farmer and his family.  The only problem was, he wasn't a farmer and he never would be. Although farming was hard work, it was boring. The same thing happened day in and day out, and he missed the constant surprises and challenges that ranching provided.  He certainly didn't miss his other life, and he no longer thought of himself as a gunfighter, although he knew he could never totally escape his past.  He thought of himself as a rancher, and he hoped that was what he could be again someday.

So why hadn't he left?He dropped his head as he allowed himself to admit the truth.  He knew he had been afraid.  He had known that if he left he would have no excuse but to return to Lancer, and he wasn't sure if he could handle that, no matter what the circumstances were there. 

As he walked through the shrubby woods, he thought about the letter he had finally gotten up enough courage to send and wondered just what kind of response he would get, if any.  He had addressed it to Murdoch or Scott Lancer and in it he had said that he was planning on moving to Green River in the future and asked about buying some breeding stock.  He had signed it J Smith and given the Peterson's return address.

He figured there were several possibilities.  The first was that the letter wouldn't be answered, either because his family was dead or because they were too busy.  He figured that was the most likely; the letter wouldn't be answered and he would never know the truth for sure.

The second possibility was that he would receive a response that would tell him for sure that his family had been killed.  He decided that if he received a response from Teresa or even Cipriano telling him that Murdoch and Scott were dead, he would write them back and tell them he was alive.  He still hadn't decided whether he'd go back to Lancer if that were the case, he just didn't know if he could stand to be there without them.

The third possibility was that Murdoch or Scott would answer the letter.  Johnny didn't even want to think about that.  He was torn between praying that they were alive and hoping there was a valid reason they hadn't come back for him.  The problem was; he knew they HAD come back.  His uncle wouldn't lie, he was convinced of that, so SOMEONE at Lancer knew he had still been in prison, and was still alive.   

He knew that if a letter came back from either Scott or Murdoch, it would mean that he HAD been abandoned, and he no longer had a family.   If that were the case, he wasn't even sure he would open the letter.  The return address bearing his father's or brother's name would tell him all he needed to know.

He walked along, lost in thought, and wondered just where his life was heading.  He sure wished he could see into the future.  He snorted; if he could have seen his future up to this point, he probably would have blown his brains out a long time ago. The only good time in his life was the time he had spent at Lancer, and one way or the other; those times were gone for good.

He shook his head; he'd better stop feeling sorry for himself and get his mind on his work, or he'd trip over that deer and wreck his only chance of getting some fresh meat.  He stopped and looked around, then studied the ground.  Slowly, he started walking, scanning the ground for any sign of tracks, shoving all thoughts of his situation out of his mind

After several hours, he stopped and uncapped his canteen, then took a long swallow.  He looked around, taking careful note of his surroundings; he sure didn't need to get lost.  He scanned the nearby area, wondering whether he should continue after the elusive deer, or try his luck with another type of prey.

As he was standing there, the question was answered for him.  A large wild boar came snuffling along the path Johnny had been following, and the man melted back into the brush.  He waited until the unwary animal came closer, then raised his rifle and aimed.  A moment later, the gunshot rang out, and the animal dropped to the ground.  Johnny grinned; he'd take pig over deer any day.

Several hours later, he dragged his makeshift travois into the yard with the gutted boar on it.  The Petersons met him in the yard, and he helped them cut up the meat, and when they were done, Johnny walked down to the creek to wash up.  When he came back, Mrs. Peterson walked over and handed him an envelope.  He met her eyes, suddenly frightened of finding out.  After a moment, he dropped his head and scanned the envelope, noting the return address and the name written there.  He stared at it for several seconds, and then his shoulders slumped and he turned and walked into the barn.

 

 

Chapter Sixty Four

Johnny walked woodenly into the barn and sank down into the straw that served as his bed.  He stared at the envelope and ran his fingers over the familiar logo, memories flooding over him unbidden.  He blinked quickly, trying to keep his emotions from overflowing, but he wasn't entirely successful.

  “Johnny?”  Peterson stood in the doorway watching, uncertain about whether to intrude or not.

“Leave me alone.”

“Johnny….”

  “I SAID leave me alone!”

  Peterson stood there for a minute, and then turned and walked out, leaving the man alone with his thoughts.  The farmer had no wish to be on the receiving end of Johnny's temper again.

  Johnny sat there for a long time, staring at the envelope.  Even if his brother's handwriting wasn't instantly recognizable, the name on the return address left no doubt that Scott was alive.  He dropped his head, glad that his brother had made it home, but the final proof that he had indeed been abandoned tempered some of those feelings.

He fingered the envelope, wondering if Murdoch had also made it home and was all right.  He knew he shouldn't care, but he did, even if they no longer cared about him.  He couldn't just turn his feelings off as easily as they obviously had.

He laid the letter down, not wanting to open it, and not even sure if he should.  After all, they didn't even know it was from him.  The letter wouldn't contain any personal news, all it would tell him was whether they had stock to sell, and he didn't really care.   The envelope alone had told him more than he wanted to know. 

He continued staring at it for a long time, and then he leaned back against the partition and shut his eyes.  He didn't sleep; his mind was in too much turmoil for that.  Instead, he thought about his family and all the time he had spent at Lancer.  He had been happy there, for the first time in his life. He knew that he and his father argued frequently, but he had never had any doubts that his father cared about him.

He and Scott, on the other hand, had never even argued.  He thought that his brother had cared about him as much as he cared about Scott, but evidently he had been wrong.  He dropped his head, confused as to how he could have been so mistaken.  He shook his head in anger; he HADN'T been mistaken.  They HAD cared, but SOMETHING had happened.  

He would have been willing to believe that they thought he was dead if it hadn't been for the man who his uncle had overheard that day in the barn.  Johnny knew his uncle couldn't have been that mistaken about what had been said, and when he had relayed the conversation to Johnny there had been no doubt in Johnny's mind at all.  The negotiator had mentioned Johnny by name and said point blank that his family wasn't willing to pay the amount of money needed to get him out.  

The only thing that Johnny could think of was that they had blamed him for all of the pain and misery that Medina had put them through.  At the time they had said they didn't, but the problem was, it WAS his fault.  Both Scott and Murdoch had been tortured simply because Medina hated him, and he had been powerless to stop it.  No matter what they had said at the time, they had blamed him and hated him for it.  It was the only thing that made sense.

He had thought that the bond between them was stronger than that, but he had been wrong. Everyone had their breaking point, and apparently Murdoch and Scott had reached theirs in that prison and had decided to take it out on him. He understood, but he was still disappointed.  Not only disappointed, he was hurt.  He stared at the letter, knowing that the knowledge he now had was enough to destroy him if he let it. 

He sat there the rest of the night, trying to make sense of what had happened, and trying come to terms with the fact that he really didn't have a family.  No one bothered him, and he smiled sadly.  Peterson still wasn't able to walk much, and there was no way the farmer would send his wife out, not after the reception Johnny had given him the last time he was upset.

Before, whenever Johnny had been hurt by someone, he had become angry.  For some reason though, this time all he felt was resignation.  He felt more tired than he ever had in his life, and he wished once again that he had died in that prison.  He was tired of trying, and he was tired of being hurt.  He shook his head, knowing he had no choice but to go on; he had made the decision before not to end his life, even though he was beginning to wonder if he would have the courage to keep on living.

One thing he was determined not to do, and that was to not take out his frustration on Peterson again.  The man and his family had been nice to him, and even though he didn't trust ANYONE anymore, until they turned on him he wouldn't do anything to hurt them.  He had the feeling that somewhere along the line, his anger would return, but he would make sure that anger wasn't unleashed on innocent people.  Besides, this isolated farm was like its own safe little world, and Johnny found he could forget about everyone and everything else when he was here.  Maybe if he stayed here long enough, he could forget about his family.

  He looked up and saw the pink tinge in the sky that signaled the coming sunrise, and he stood up and started getting Dolly ready for the day.  He was behind with the harvest, and if they were going to eat this winter, he had to make up for the lost time.  As he brushed the horse, he thought that maybe being a farmer wasn't that bad after all.

 

 

Chapter Sixty Five

Johnny led the six month old colt out of the barn into a small corral next to the building and attached a long line to his halter.  He let go of the horse, and then tried to chase the youngster away from him.  The man smiled when the colt refused to leave him, and instead kept nuzzling his hands.  He waved his arms, but the horse merely tossed his head and backed up a few feet.  Johnny laughed, and the colt stepped back toward him, confident of his welcome.  Johnny wrapped his arm around the horse and scratched the animal's neck.  After a few scratches, the man pushed the colt away, and the animal ducked his head and started bucking playfully, then bounced back toward Johnny and tossed his head once more before bumping the man with his nose.   He rubbed the horse's cheek and tugged on his forelock playfully.

“What are you doing?”

Johnny looked up, startled.  He had thought he was alone.  Every Sunday the Peterson family attended church, and they were usually gone until late afternoon.  He normally used that time to work the horses, but sometimes he went hunting or simply lazed around.  It was his time, and he was free to do anything he wanted to do.  He looked at the girl quizzically.

“Why aren't you at church?”

  Laura shrugged.  “I told my Ma and Pa I wasn't feeling well.”

Johnny shook his head and smiled slightly.  “You seem to feel OK now.”

  The girl grinned.  “I recover quickly.”  She ducked under the corral fence and approached the colt.  “What are you doing with him?”  she asked again.

  “I'm TRYIN' ta lunge him.”

“What?”

Johnny grinned.  “I'm trying ta teach him some commands by making him run in a circle around me.”

  “Why?”

“Cause it makes it easier on him if he learns things now.  The more I can teach him when he's young, the easier it will be when he's old enough ta work.”

Laura shrugged.  “I guess that makes sense.”  She looked at the friendly horse.  “He doesn't seem to want to leave.”

“Nope, but he will eventually.” He patted the colt once more, and then turned his back on him.  The horse followed him around until he was facing Johnny's face once more.  He stood looking at the man for a moment, and when he didn't get a response, he butted Johnny with his head.  

  Laura laughed.  “I think he wants you to play with him some more.”   

Johnny nodded.  “Yeah, he does, but he's got ta learn he has to earn it.”  He turned his back once again, and walked away, letting the colt follow him.  The colt butted Johnny again, but this time got no response.  After several minutes of being ignored, the horse finally settled down and followed the man quietly.  Slowly, Johnny let the colt get ahead of him and then waved him away with his right hand.  This time the colt responded, and moved away from the man, moving in a circle at the end of the line. 

Johnny coaxed the colt into a trot and then a lope, then made him change gaits several times before allowing the horse to come to a halt.  The colt immediately turned and walked into the center of the ring and stood with his head nestled between Johnny's body and his arm.  The man gave the horse a pat and scratched his neck before turning him loose in the pen to play.

“Where did you learn how to do that?”

“An old man taught me when I was a kid.”  He smiled wryly.  “He figured if I knew how ta train horses, I could stay out of trouble.”

“Did it work?”  She said without thinking.  She dropped her head and looked at him cautiously, but there was a twinkle in his eye that reassured her. 

Johnny shook his head.  “Obviously not.”

“But you're so good with horses; is that what you did, before,…”  She stopped in awkward silence, realizing she had done it again.

“NO” he said abruptly.

Laura's cheeks turned red.  “I'm sorry, I didn't mean to pry.”

Johnny nodded once and kept his eyes on the colt. “It's time to try it again.”

“Can I try it?”

Johnny shrugged.  “It's your horse.”

“What do I do?”

He walked over to the colt and snapped the rope onto his halter, then handed the rope to the girl.  “Walk him along, and then gradually urge him to get further away from you.”

Laura followed Johnny's directions, and the colt responded.  She turned around and beamed at the man, and then went back to concentrating on the colt.  After about fifteen minutes, Johnny told her the animal had had enough, and Laura walked over and patted the colt like she had seen Johnny do, then turned the horse loose.  The colt followed her as she walked back to the center of the pen, and tried to interest her in playing with him again.  When that didn't work, he dropped his head and lipped her hands playfully.   Laura laughed in delight, then turned around and gave Johnny a hug.  “Thank you.”

As soon as she hugged him she felt him stiffen, and she let go immediately, then stepped back and looked at him in confusion.

Johnny fought for control, aware once again of how long it had been since he'd been with a woman.  He was painfully aware of both her proximity and the absence of her family and knew he had to get away from her.  With an effort he pushed her away and turned back toward the colt to hide his jangled nerves.

  “I think he's had enough for today.  I'm going ta put him away,” he said quickly, then he grabbed the colt's halter and led him out of the pen and into the barn.  

  Laura watched him go and she felt mildly disappointed.  She thought he was about the handsomest man she'd ever seen, and even though she was too young and inexperienced to really know much about men, she knew enough to know she had just been rejected.

 

 

Chapter Sixty Six

“Johnny, I need to talk to you.”  Johnny looked up from the harness he was mending, and looked questioningly at the farmer.  Peterson licked his lips nervously and glanced away from Johnny's gaze.  Johnny continued to stare, waiting for the man to continue.  Finally Peterson sighed.  “I was wondering if you would do something for me.”

  Johnny shrugged, wondering why the farmer was so nervous.  “What?”

Peterson took a deep breath.  “The new doctor came into town the other day. I had him look at my leg, and he says I won't ever walk right again without surgery.  But if I have the surgery, I'll have to be in the hospital for several weeks.  With travel time, I'd have to be gone at least a month, maybe longer.”  He shook his head.  “Before there was no way I could leave my family and all of the chores that long.  Now…”  He looked at Johnny hopefully.  “I was hoping I could have the surgery now.”

Johnny looked at the man and then dropped his head.  “You trust me that much?” he asked quietly.  He brought his head back up and looked into Peterson's eyes as the man nodded.   “Yes.” 

Johnny thought about Laura and knew he didn't want to be alone with her for a month.   She was just too tempting, and for the last several months, ever since that day in the corral, Johnny had made a point to not be alone with her.  He wasn't sure if she had feelings for him or was just naturally friendly, and he didn't want to find out.   He knew he cared about her, but he wasn't sure in what way, and he wouldn't allow himself to think about it.  There was no future in it, and he refused to take advantage of her feelings.  He knew he would probably be going back to prison eventually, one way or the other, and he wasn't going to break her heart.   Besides, he figured Peterson would probably take a shotgun to him if he even suspected that his daughter was in love with a convict.   “Is Mrs. Peterson going with you?”  he asked casually.

The farmer shook his head.  “No.  I plan on going by myself.”

Johnny nodded, trying not to show his relief.  “When are you goin'?”

Peterson relaxed when he realized Johnny was agreeing to do it.  “Next month.”

  “I'll take care of things for you, and don't worry; your family will be safe.”

Peterson clapped Johnny on the back before leaving.  “I know they will, and thanks, Johnny; you don't know how much I appreciate it.  I feel so much better knowing you'll be here to take care of things.”

Johnny nodded, a feeling of warmth coming over him. He had been here almost a year, and the last several months had been some of the best in his life.  The Petersons were family now, and the pain caused by his biological family had faded to a distant ache.  He still thought about them, but not as much.   He was happy here, even if he still couldn't get enthusiastic about digging in the dirt.

He turned his attention back to the harness.  Plowing would start in a few weeks, and he had to make sure the harness would last.  Even one missed day could be disastrous.  He'd have to start the crop while Peterson was gone, and he wanted to make sure the crop was in the ground by the time the farmer came back.  He'd probably have to go hunting a few times, too.  Meat was scarce on the farm, and the few head of livestock they had were too valuable to slaughter.

Johnny snorted; there had been times at Lancer when he had been sick of eating beef, but right now it sounded mighty good.  He hadn't had it since before he was in prison.   His head dropped as his mind treacherously went back in time.  No matter how much he tried to out them put of his mind, the people at Lancer kept intruding into his thoughts.  He shook his head angrily, forcing the memories away. Those people were out of his life forever.  THIS was his home now, and the Petersons were his family, the only family he would ever have. 

  The only worry he had was the prison sentence still hanging over his head.  The rurales could show up at any time and haul him back to prison, but he figured there was nothing he could do about it if they did.  Peterson had told him if they could manage to make enough to pay them off they would, but Johnny knew that was a vain hope.  The farm barely made enough to feed them, let alone make a profit, and the rurales weren't cheap.  No, the only way he wouldn't be going back to that prison was if he ran, and he wouldn't do that.  He wouldn't ruin his family to save himself.

He just hoped that when they did decide to make an appearance, no one else would get hurt.  The rurales had a nasty habit of getting mean, and he didn't want anyone else suffering at their hands because of him.  He guessed he'd just have to cross that bridge when he came to it.  If they showed up, he'd cooperate as much as possible, and try to make sure the Petersons stayed in the house, especially Ann and Laura.  He shivered when he thought about what they would do if they got their hands on the girls, and then pushed it from his mind.  He would never allow it, no matter what.  

He sighed.  There had been too much violence in his life, and he had been the cause of a lot of it.  Through the years he had been responsible for a lot of innocent people suffering.  His mother, Murdoch, Scott, they had all suffered because of him and he vowed to do his best to make sure it never happened again. He would forget about Madrid and he would banish Lancer from his mind.  He would become a peaceful farmer.   He was going to start over and make a life for himself here, for as long as fate would allow.   After that…only God knew.

 

 

Chapter Sixty Seven

  “It's been almost a YEAR!'” Murdoch slammed his fist down on the table.  “Why can't they find him?”

Val shook his head.  “From what I hear, several of them HAVE found him, much to their great misfortune.”  He took a gulp of his tequila.  “No one's been able ta get him out of Mexico.  I hear two of them made it to the border; they found their bodies right by the river.  They'd both been shot in the head.”

Murdoch shook his head in resignation.  “A much as I want this guy, I don't want to be responsible for any more deaths.  Maybe I should withdraw the reward.”

“And let that coward keep cashin' in on Johnny's name?”

Scott took a long drink of his brandy and then laughed shortly.  “If he'd used his own name from the beginning, by now he'd have a pretty notorious reputation of his own, without having to drag Johnny's name through the mud.”

  Val nodded.  “Yep, but he probably needed it in the beginning, and later it was too hard ta change.”

  “Should we withdraw the reward?”  Murdoch asked again.

  Val shook his head.  “No.  Somebody needs ta stop this guy!”

“I don't want anyone else getting killed trying to bring him in.”

“The only men stupid enough ta try it are bounty hunters, and most of them aren't much better than the guy they're tryin' ta collect on.  You don't have to feel guilty about them.  They know what they're getting' into.  Nobody's forcin' them ta take him on.”

“I STILL don't think we should have posted it as ‘dead or alive',” Scott observed.  “That still bothers me.  It makes us seem almost as bad as he is somehow.  Besides, it's what started all of this in the first place.”

Val shook his head.  “A guy like that is too dangerous to have to bring in alive.  If those bounty hunters didn't have the option of bringing him in dead, most of them wouldn't even try it.”

Murdoch sat down and rubbed his eyes tiredly.  “I don't know what to do anymore.  I just want this whole thing to end.”

  Val put his hand on Murdoch's shoulder.  “We all do, but we can't stop now.”  Val shook his head slowly.  “Maybe I should take another ride down there.”

  “NO!”

“Murdoch…”

  “No.  I mean it, Val.  From what I know of this man, he's extremely dangerous and has no qualms about killing just for the fun of it.  As you said, leave it to the bounty hunters.  I would never forgive myself if anything happened to you.”  He looked at the sheriff pleadingly.  “Please Val, don't. Let someone else handle it.”

Val nodded reluctantly.  “I guess, but this guy is makin' me awful mad.”

“Do you think it would help if I raised the bounty?”

Val considered the question and then shook his head.  “I don't think so.  Five thousand dollars is more than enough to convince people to try to turn him in, especially down in Mexico.  It's a fortune down there.  That much money would make his own grandmother turn him in.”

  Scott smiled ruefully. “Well it would sure make it a lot easier if she did, but so far he's managed to convince her not to.”

  Val grinned back.  “Give it some more time; five thousand dollars can make a lot of people forget about loyalty.”

 

Johnny was busy working the filly when he saw the Peterson's wagon approaching from town.  He glanced at the sun, wondering why they were coming home so early, and he felt a tingle of apprehension.  He turned the filly loose and stepped between the bars of the pen, watching the approaching wagon with unease. 

As it got closer, he saw the grim line on Peterson's face and the strained expressions on the rest of the family. None of them were meeting his gaze, and the feeling of dread intensified.  He stepped forward and grabbed Dolly's bridle, bringing the horse to a halt.

Johnny looked at Peterson, but the farmer glanced at his family and shook his head gruffly, and Johnny took the hint. He walked over and helped the women down and watched as they walked toward the house without a word.  Laura met his eyes for a moment, then dropped her head and followed her mother into the house.  He watched as they disappeared, and then he turned and slowly led the horse toward the barn.  He stopped Dolly in front of the building and started unhitching the horse as he watched the farmer apprehensively.  Peterson glanced at him, then dropped his eyes and headed into the house after his family.

Johnny led Dolly into the barn and started brushing her off.  He knew there was something wrong, and he felt sick to his stomach.  He couldn't understand why Peterson had looked at him that way.  Suddenly he realized what was wrong.  It was the only thing that it could be.  Somehow the rurales had contacted Peterson and told him to return Johnny to prison.  Johnny felt cold at the thought, and he tried to control his mounting panic. 

He forced himself to remain calm; certainly Peterson wouldn't force him to go back to that place.  Peterson had told him he was like a son to him, and the Peterson's were his family; they wouldn't betray him. They couldn't.   He swallowed hard when he remembered thinking another time that his family wouldn't betray him.  He prayed that Peterson was more honorable than Murdoch or Scott had been, but he had no faith; not anymore.

He threw the brush down and woodenly led Dolly to her stall.  He threw some hay in and then stood with his hands on the top bar, his head resting on his arms.  He stood unseeing, waiting for his world to collapse again.   Several minutes passed before he felt a presence and he turned around to see Peterson standing behind him, a grim expression on his face and holding a rifle in his arms.

 

 

Chapter Sixty Eight

Johnny stared at the man, waiting for the blow to come.  Peterson simply stared back at him for several moments.  Finally, the tension was too much for Johnny.

“Spit it out.”

Peterson dropped his head.  “We had some problems in town today.”

“What kind of problems?”

Peterson shook his head.  “Have you ever heard of Johnny Madrid?”

Johnny stared at the farmer without answering, and Peterson continued.  “He was in town today.  He…he …the women were over at the store while I went to pick up the mail.  Next thing I know I heard a commotion, and …” Peterson dropped his head.  “He had a hold of Laura and he was…touching her…  I yelled at him to stop, but he just laughed at me. Then, before I could get to her another farmer tried to interfere, and Madrid shot him.  Just then someone said the rurales were on their way into town, and Madrid left. But he said he would find Laura and finish what he started.”

Johnny felt his blood starting to boil.  This must be the same man that had killed Lopez's wife and child.  The man that had caused all of his pain.  He shook his head.  “It wasn't Johnny Madrid.”

Peterson's head shot up.  “How do you know?  You weren't there.  Besides, everyone said it was, and he himself said he was Madrid.”

Johnny shook his head.  “Trust me, it wasn't Madrid.”   He nodded toward the rifle, still wondering what was going on in Peterson's mind.  “What's that for?”  

Peterson shook his head.  “I know you're better with this than I am.  I thought you should have it.  I have the feeling we're going to need it.”  He held it out toward Johnny.

Johnny shut his eyes, his emotions trying to level off from the roller coaster they had been on for the last several minutes.  He felt ashamed that he had doubted Peterson, but he had a more important problem now.  He looked at the rifle, and knew that wasn't what he needed to stop that butcher using his name.  He shook his head.  “You keep it.”

  “I thought you'd help us.”  Peterson sounded disappointed, and Johnny hurried to reassure him.  “I will, but not with that.” 

“What do you mean?”

“A rifle won't get the job done.  Not against this guy.”

Peterson shook his head.  “That's the only gun I have.”

“No, it's not.”  Johnny stared at the farmer.  “If you want me ta stop this guy, I'll need it.”

The farmer shook his head vehemently as he realized what Johnny wanted.  “NO!”

“Why not?”

  “Because.”

  “Because isn't a good enough reason ta let your family get killed, and that's what's gonna happen if ya don't give me that Colt.”

“No.”

Johnny shook his head in frustration.  “WHY?”

Peterson dropped his head and refused to talk, and Johnny walked over to him.  “Why?” he asked softly.

  The farmer brought his head up and stared into the distance, his eyes unseeing.  “It was my son's.”   When Johnny didn't say anything, Peterson continued.  “He wanted to be a gunfighter.  I tried to talk him out of it, but he wouldn't listen.  I thought I'd finally gotten through to him; he worked for another farmer for almost a year, saving every penny he earned.  I thought he'd forgotten his wild ways.  Instead, one day he took the money and left the farm.  He came back a day later with that custom Colt that you saw in the drawer.  I was angry, but there was nothing I could do.  Both his mother and I pleaded with him, but he just laughed.  Three days later, he went into town and managed to get into a gunfight.   He died three days before his fifteenth birthday.”

Johnny sighed. “Look, I'm sorry about your son.  But not using that Colt won't bring him back, and using it might just save the lives of the rest of your family.”

Johnny could see the emotions warring in the man's face.  Finally Peterson shook his head.  “I'm not going to let that…DAMN…gun kill anyone else.”  

The shock of hearing the gentle man curse stopped Johnny for a moment, but then he answered back.  “That gun didn't kill your son, but it could save your daughter's life!”

“HOW?  That gun isn't a normal gun. It's a gunfighter's weapon.  It takes practice and talent to handle a gun like that!  The only thing that gun is good for is gunfighting, and there's no way either of us can challenge Johnny Madrid.  It would be suicide.  The only chance we have is to pick him off with the rifle before he gets too close.”

  “That's murder.”

“He THREATENED my daughter!”

Johnny shrugged.  “It's still murder.”

“Then what am I supposed to do?”  Peterson asked in frustration.  “Just let him attack my daughter?”

“No.  Give me the gun.”

Peterson shook his head, and Johnny took a step closer and stared into the man's eyes.  “Please.  I know what I'm doin'.”

The farmer held Johnny's eyes for several seconds before he dropped his head.  “All right, but I want your word that you won't call Madrid out.  I don't want you getting yourself killed.”

Johnny thought for a moment and then nodded; a small smile on his face.  “I promise I won't call Madrid out.”

Johnny followed Peterson up to the house and waited while the man went in to retrieve the Colt.  A moment later the farmer came out, the holstered gun cradled in his hands, and he handed it to Johnny.  Johnny unwound the holster and buckled it around his hips.  He cinched it tightly, and then pushed it down so it was even tighter, then leaned over and tied the bottom of the holster around his thigh.  Finally satisfied it fit correctly; he pulled the gun out of the holster and hefted it appraisingly.

  “Do you have any ammunition?”  

Peterson snorted.  “Yes, he bought plenty of that.”He turned and went back into the house, leaving Johnny to examine the weapon.  Johnny drew it out and felt the balance once again.  He hadn't lied to Peterson; this gun sure hadn't killed his son.  It needed some customizing, but it was the finest gun Johnny had ever seen.

He smiled, it would do.   Now he just needed time to practice.  After all, he couldn't take on Johnny Madrid without practice.

 

 

Chapter Sixty Nine

Johnny looked up as the farmer came out of the house and the gunfighter held out his hand.  “I need ta practice.”

Peterson shook his head.  “Johnny, you can't learn to use a gun like that in a few hours, or a few days.  It takes time.”

Johnny smiled and shrugged.  “I'm a quick learner.” 

  Peterson sighed and handed Johnny the box of ammunition.  Johnny hesitated.  “Do ya mind if I make some changes to the gun?”

  Peterson's eyes narrowed.  “No, but why do you need to?”

  Johnny shrugged.  “I just want to make it fit my hand a little better.”

  Peterson stared at his friend for a long moment and then nodded before turning and disappearing into the house.

Johnny turned and headed toward the nearby woods.  He knew where there was an isolated clearing, far enough from the house that the gunfire couldn't be heard.   As he walked, he continually drew the gun from his holster, trying to get a feel for the weapon, and hoping to limber up the leather a little.  He knew that time was his enemy.  He figured he would have precious little time to become proficient once again.

Several hours later, a discouraged Johnny walked back toward the house.  He snorted; if he had to fight anyone now, he might as well just shoot himself and be done with it.  His aim was still good; it was speed that was giving him trouble.  As soon as he tried to quicken his draw, the bullets went wild. Johnny shook his head; at this rate, he'd need at least a couple of weeks to even come close to his old skill, and he had the feeling he'd have a whole lot less time than that.

The next morning, he left before dawn.  He didn't want to go too far; he was afraid that the outlaw would show up very soon.   Around mid morning, he sat down and rested for a few moments, flexing his fingers in frustration.  He just wasn't as fast he used to be, and he wasn't sure if he ever would be.   A month ago, that wouldn't have bothered him.  He had no intention of ever being Johnny Madrid again.  But now…  Now Madrid, the REAL Madrid was needed to protect his family, and he swore he wouldn't let them down.  With a sigh, he stood up and went back to practicing.

Late that afternoon, he heard a sound and whirled around, his gun at the ready.  He took a deep breath, and then holstered the revolver.  “Don't ever sneak up on me like that.”

  Peterson watched the man closely.  “You've changed,” he observed.

Johnny met his eyes for a moment, and then dropped his eyes and shrugged.  “Not really.”

  “Yes, you have.”

Johnny shook his had.  “Look, I can't protect ya if I don't start thinkin' different.”

  The farmer nodded.  “Like you did when you first came here?”

“I can't afford ta be soft.  If I'm not tough, Madr…that outlaw will blow me away and then kill all of you for the heck of it.”

Peterson's eyes narrowed.  “Why are you so sure that it wasn't Madrid in town?”

  Johnny dropped his head.  “I know, that's all,” he said quietly.

Peterson continued to study his friend.  “I watched you for a few minutes while you were practicing.  You're a gunfighter, aren't you?”

  Johnny took a deep breath and finally nodded.  He knew there was no point in lying.  “Yeah.”

The farmer nodded his head slowly.  “So, you know the real Madrid?”

Johnny smiled.  “Yeah, I know him all right.”

Peterson slowly shook his head.  “OK.   Johnny…do you have a chance against this guy?  Maybe we should just run.  I don't want you getting hurt.”

Johnny's eyes locked on the farmer.  “You'd lose the farm.”

Peterson shrugged.  “It's only land.  It's not worth losing you over.”

Johnny felt his emotions starting to get the better of him.  Murdoch had never said anything remotely like it.  This really was his family, and he would make sure that outlaw wouldn't touch them, even if he had to die trying.

  “I can beat him.  I just need ta practice some more.”

  “Can I do anything to help?”

The question shocked Johnny.  He was so used to working alone.  The only time he really ever felt he had someone helping him or watching his back was when he was with Scott.   That's why it had hurt so much when he realized his brother had not only failed to watch his back; he had been the one who had stabbed him.   Johnny shook his head and brought his mind back to the present.  There was no sense in rehashing old memories; all they did was bring pain.  He had to concentrate on the present, or there would be no future for any of them.

Johnny nodded slowly.  “Would …Madrid…recognize you?  Would he know you were with Laura?”

Peterson shook his head.“No…I don't think so”

“I hate ta ask you, but do you think you could ride into town?”

  The farmer nodded.  “What do you need?” 

“I need ta know if the rurales are still around.

  “All right, but can I ask why?”

“If the rurales are gonna hang around for a while, I have some time ta get ready.  He won't try anything if the rurales are hangin' around lookin' for him.”

Peterson nodded.  “I'll ride in this afternoon.  I'll pick up some more ammunition, too.”  He turned to go and Johnny reached out and grabbed him by his sleeve.  “Whatever ya do, don't get near him.  Just find out what I need ta know, and then leave.”

  “Don't worry, “I'll be careful.”

Johnny watched as his friend left, then turned and went back to practicing.   He was getting better, but he still had a long way to go, and he was beginning to think it was hopeless. He'd need to be at the top of his game to take this guy, and right now, he wasn't even close.  He had the feeling that Johnny Madrid was really dead after all.

 

 

Chapter Seventy

Johnny walked dejectedly toward the barn.  He was tired, he had blisters on his hand, and he was totally discouraged.  He was improving, but his progress was so slow that he figured the outlaw would die of old age before Johnny could even stand a prayer of taking him. 

He looked up and shaded his eyes when he heard the wagon approach, and he heaved a sigh of relief.   He had been regretting his decision to ask Peterson to go into town since the farmer had driven off this morning.  Whoever this guy was that was pretending to be him, he was bad news.  In Johnny's estimation the guy was even worse than Day Pardee, and that was pretty bad.  He had been apprehensive all day that the farmer would get himself into trouble, but the sight of the wagon calmed his fears.  

Johnny walked up and grabbed Dolly's bridle as Peterson climbed down.

“Well?”  Johnny asked impatiently.

Peterson sighed.  “There are rurales crawling all over the town.  I'm not sure how long they're going to stay; they wouldn't tell me, but they seem pretty comfortable.”

Johnny sighed in relief.  “Good.  I need all the time I can get.”

“Is it that bad?”

Johnny nodded his head miserably.

“Maybe this is all for nothing.  Are you sure he's going to come here?”

“Nope.  I don't know this guy; he might have just been sayin' it.  But we can't take that chance.”

“No, we can't.”  Peterson stared at Johnny.  “I still don't think you should try and take this guy on.  Johnny, maybe we should just leave.  All of us.  Helen's sister and her family are leaving to go back east, they said it's too violent here.” 

Johnny shook his head.  “If this guy was just spoutin' off, you'll lose your farm for nothing.  But if he WAS serious, leavin' won't help.  He'll find us.”

“Johnny, I SAW this guy shoot the other day.  He was so fast I couldn't even see it.”  Peterson's head dropped miserably.  “I don't…think…you have a chance.”

Johnny sighed.  “I don't.  Not yet.  But if he gives me some time, then…then I can take him.”

“You don't know that,” Peterson said flatly.

“Yes, I do.”

Peterson's head came up and he looked at the young man cynically.  “You were that good?”

Johnny nodded.  “Yeah.”

  Peterson watched the young man for another few seconds, and then nodded slowly.  “Then I guess you'd better keep practicing.”

  “I plan to.”

Peterson sighed deeply, then turned and went into the house; still not sure that he was doing the right thing.  He thought that trying to stand up to a man like Madrid was a huge mistake.  The farmer wasn't a coward, but concern for his family made him cautious.  He didn't want to lose any of them, including Johnny.

Peterson shook his head, wondering about fate.  He had gone to that prison to get some temporary help, expecting a vicious criminal, and instead he had been blessed with a son.  That was how he thought of Johnny now, and he had no intention of losing the boy to that murderer.

Peterson had no use for gunfighters.  They were killers, pure and simple, and he didn't believe in killing.  Even killing animals for food bothered him, and he couldn't understand how a man could kill another man, especially for money.  It bothered him that Johnny had admitted to once being in that profession, but he knew the boy's soul was inherently gentle.

Johnny wasn't like his own boy, Nathan.  Nathan had been mean from the time he was born. He had been a bully and was cruel towards people and animals.  The farmer couldn't understand why his son had turned out that way; no one else in their family had a mean streak, but Nathan had surely made up for it.  The only thing he had been able to even remotely give thanks for concerning his son was that the young man had died before hurting anyone else.  He'd never admitted that to anyone, even to Helen, but it was the truth.  He had almost felt relief when the boy had died.

Peterson sighed quietly.  He knew that Johnny didn't have anything in common with his natural son, and for that he was thankful. He couldn't imagine what had driven this gentle young man to pick up a gun, but whatever it had been must have been catastrophic.  He wondered about the boy's family; why they hadn't been there for him when he had obviously needed them, and he realized that Johnny had been right; his family was dead to him.  Peterson vowed he wouldn't let Johnny down.  If Johnny needed him, he would be there, unlike Johnny's real father.

 

Johnny walked slowly into the house, his exhaustion apparent.  No one said anything as Mrs. Peterson served supper, although Johnny figured they were just being polite.  He had never wanted them to know about his past, especially about Madrid, but now it couldn't be helped. He knew he was their only hope if that outlaw really showed up.  Peterson had suggested shooting the man with his rifle as he approached, but Johnny knew that when the time came, the farmer wouldn't do it.  The man wasn't a murderer, even to save his family. Besides, the outlaw had been around long enough not to walk into a trap. 

The only way to take this guy down was to challenge him, preferably in front of witnesses, but Johnny didn't want to have to do it in front of the Petersons.   He didn't want them anywhere near him when it happened.  He figured the odds were pretty good that the outlaw would take him down, but Johnny hoped that before he died he would be able to hurt the guy bad enough to at least discourage him from going after his family.  Johnny had resigned himself to the fact that even if he won, he'd probably be hurt badly in the attempt, and he didn't want them to have to see that. 

Johnny shook his head.  Even if a miracle happened and he was unhurt, he didn't want his family to see that side of him.  He looked up and saw all of them darting cautious looks in his direction, and he sighed deeply. Who was he trying to kid, they had all seen that side of him already.  In their eyes he was a vicious killer, a hired gun.  Even if he won, he'd lose.  One way or another, he'd lose his family.  Again.

 

 

Chapter Seventy One

Johnny reloaded the pistol and slipped it back into his holster.   He turned and faced the targets that were lined up at chest height on a fallen limb, then closed his eyes and dropped his head for a moment.   A split second later, five shots rang out, the reports blending into each other so it seemed as if there was only one shot.  The cans flew in all directions, a neat hole in the middle of each one.  Johnny stood for another second, then walked over and picked up the targets once more and lined them up.

This time, Johnny stood to one side, his back turned toward the cans.  He took a deep breath, then turned and blasted the cans once more.  He reloaded his revolver one last time, then picked up the cans and piled them beneath the limb in readiness for the next day.   He flexed his hands several times, pleased that they were becoming more limber and the blisters were no longer bothering him.

He was beginning to think he might have a chance, if he could put off the confrontation for another week or so.   He didn't think he was as fast as he used to be, but he was close, and with any luck it would be enough.  Johnny really didn't care if he survived or not, all he cared about was stopping the outlaw.   He figured he'd lost his family, or he would as soon as the fight was over, and he didn't want to go through that again. 

As he walked, he convinced himself it would be better if he died; he knew that eventually the rurales would show up to haul him back to that prison, and if he was going to die, he'd rather do it as a free man.  He didn't want to die chained up in a cage like an animal.   The problem was, one way or the other he had to take out ‘Madrid' before he died.  That was all he cared about, and he vowed to himself he would do it, no matter what.  He wouldn't allow this family to suffer like he had Murdoch and Scott.

Johnny dropped his head.  No matter how much he tried to avoid it, the people at Lancer kept intruding on his thoughts.  He still missed them, and their betrayal still hurt.  He knew that it would always hurt, no matter how much he tried to forget or how much he cared about anyone else.   He had tried to come to terms with what had happened, but it was hard.  He knew that Murdoch and Scott had been tortured unmercifully and had blamed him for their pain.  He understood that they didn't want to take a chance of that happening again, and he understood their not wanting him around. 

What he didn't understand, however, was why they hadn't at least gotten him out of that hell - hole.  They could have told him to not come back once he was free.  The only conclusion he could come to was that he just wasn't worth it to them.  They really didn't care what happened to him, and that was the part that hurt.  Everything else he could forgive, but that betrayal had caused a hurt that would never heal. 

Johnny smiled sadly; one thing he had been wrong about, and that was his resolve to never care about anyone again.  It seemed as if he never learned that lesson, and he had finally accepted he never would, no matter how long he lived. He wasn't sure he wanted to learn that lesson anyway; he knew he needed people. There was something inside of him that required he continue to try.

He still couldn't understand why things were always so hard for him.  He didn't care about the physical hurts and pain he had endured; he knew that a lot of people hadn't had an exactly idyllic life.  What he couldn't come to grips with was why relationships were so hard for him.   Things that other people took for granted; love, family, trust; these were all things that had proven impossible for him to gain, time and time again. Maybe it was because these things had been so elusive that they had become so important to him.  Maybe this time he would have achieved those things.  Given time, he thought that the Petersons might have accepted him. He sighed deeply, it really didn't matter anymore.  He had the feeling that his time was about to run out. 

Johnny walked back to the farmyard and washed up in the small water barrel outside the barn.  He looked up when he heard the door to the house shut, and nodded as the farmer approached.

Peterson nodded back.  “How is it going?”

  Johnny shrugged.  “Better.”

  “I drove into town today.”

  Johnny's head shot up and he waited for the farmer to continue.

“The rurales are gone.  They left yesterday afternoon.”

“Any sign of …Madrid?”

Peterson nodded reluctantly.  “He was in town.”

Johnny sighed.  It didn't look like he was going to get that week.  “Don't go back into town, no sense askin' for trouble.”

  “I don't plan to.”

“And keep the women near the house and your rifle ready.”

  Peterson nodded, and then said hopefully, “Maybe he'll just ride on.”

Johnny thought for a moment, and then shook his head. “Nope.  If he was goin ta let it go, he wouldn't have come back.  He's hangin' around for a reason.”

  Peterson dropped his head.  “Johnny, Helen and I have discussed it, and we both think we should leave.  We don't want you to get hurt.  This farm just isn't worth it.”

Johnny's head dropped, remembering his earlier thoughts, and he slowly shook his head.  “I told ya, runnin' wouldn't help.  I have ta face him.” 

  Johnny watched as the farmers face fell and the gunfighter tried to reassure him.  “I can take him,” he said softly.

  Peterson nodded miserably, not believing it for a second.  “All right.”

 

Johnny lay awake most of the night, thinking about the upcoming confrontation that he knew was inevitable.  He doubted if the outlaw would be cooperative enough to wait until Johnny was ready to face him, and he had the feeling the man would show up in the next day or two.  Johnny shook his head.  He didn't want the fight to take place here, with the Peterson's watching.   

Finally, the gunfighter came to a decision.  Tomorrow morning he would go out and practice for a few hours and then he would go into town and find the outlaw.  With any luck, it would all be over before the Petersons even knew he was gone.  One way or the other, it would end tomorrow.

 

 

Chapter Seventy Two

Johnny woke up early and left the barn. He hadn't slept much the night before; his thoughts had run wild as he thought about his life.  He was tired, and he knew he had to get his mind straight before he faced the outlaw. He had to become Madrid, and he couldn't do it around the Petersons.  The gunfighter had to get out to the clearing and empty his mind of all of his emotions, it was the only way he had a chance of winning.He had only gone a few yards when he heard Peterson's voice.

“Johnny, hold up a minute.”

The gunfighter turned and walked toward the farmer.  “I was gonna go out and practice.”

The farmer nodded.  “Come in and have breakfast first.”

  “I don't have time. I'll get something later.”  He turned to walk off, and the farmer grabbed his arm.

“Johnny, we need to talk.  Please, come in the house.”

The gunfighter glanced at the sun.  He needed to get going, but he didn't want to raise the farmer's suspicion, either.  With a sigh, he turned and followed the man into the house, aware of the passing time. 

“Mornin', he greeted the already seated family as he slid into his chair.  He snuck a glance at Laura and shot her a quick smile that was quickly returned.  He turned his gaze back to the farmer. “What's goin' on?”

“I've decided we're leaving.  We all agreed that we don't want you facing this man, and it's NOT open for discussion.”

  “You'll lose your ranch!”

“It's better than losing you,” Mrs. Peterson said quietly.  

Johnny shook his head, genuinely confused.  “Why?  I'm nothin' to you.”

Peterson's fist came down on the table with a violence that surprised everyone, even himself.  His face reddened, but he continued.  “I don't EVER want to hear that again!  You ARE something to us; something very important.  You're a part of this family, and we're not going to allow you to sacrifice yourself to save this ranch.”  Peterson hesitated and glanced at Helen, who nodded slightly in support.  The farmer bravely forged on.  “You are as important to us as any other member of this family.  I love you like a son, and I'm NOT going to lose you like I lost my other son.”

Johnny dropped his head. So much for getting rid of his emotions.  “I can take him.”

  The farmer shook his head.  “Johnny, you might have been a gunfighter.  You probably were very good.  But Johnny Madrid is the best; that's a fact.  You can't hope to compete with him.  We don't have much.  I figure we can have the wagon packed and ready to go in a couple of hours.”

  “And where will you go?”  Johnny demanded.

“We'll find someplace.  We already discussed it.  We'll head for the border and cross over into the U.S. so we won't have to worry about the rurales anymore.  We haven't had much luck here in Mexico anyway.  All of us miss the States.”

  “And what makes you think that Madrid won't simply follow you?”

“We're willing to take that chance.”

  “Well I'm not.  It's better a face an enemy on your terms instead of leavin' the when and where up ta him.” 

  “If we hurry up and start loading the wagon, we won't have to face him.  We'll be long gone before he ever knows we've left.  He won't know where to look for us.”

  “Don't bet on it.”

  “Are you ALWAYS that much of a pessimist?”

  “Yes.”  Johnny dropped his head.  “Look, I know what I'm talkin' about.  Leaving is a mistake, and you make a mistake with a guy like this, and you'll wind up dead.”

  “And you fight Madrid, and you'll wind up dead,” Mrs. Peterson said quietly.

The gunfighter turned his gaze on her.  “Are you willing to sacrifice your girls to keep me from fighting this guy, because that's what you'll be doin'.”

Helen's gaze didn't falter, but she swallowed hard.  “We decided we're going to stick together.”

  Johnny shut his eyes and shook his head slowly. He would have given anything for his own father to say the words he had just heard in this room, and he knew without a doubt that this family would never betray him.  He had finally found the love and trust he had been looking for all of his life, but if he didn't convince his family to stay and let him fight, he knew he would lose them.

He shook his head in determination.  He wasn't going to let that happen. He brought his gaze up and locked it on the farmer.  “If you want to leave, you go ahead.  I'll take care of this guy and then I'll catch up with you.”

  “Johnny…”

“Like you said, this is NOT open for discussion!”

Peterson sighed and looked at his wife, who shrugged.  Finally, he turned his gaze back to Johnny.  “All right, we'll all stay, but you won't face this man alone.” 

  Johnny shook his head in frustration.  “You stay out of it, understand?”

The middle girl, Ann, had been upset by the arguing and had walked over to stare out the window.  “Pa.”

“We're not going to let you face him alone.  That's what families are for!”

“PA!”

  “What IS it, Ann?”

  “Company's coming.”

  Both Johnny and Peterson jumped to their feet and ran to the window.  Johnny studied the approaching man quickly, and he didn't need for the farmer to tell him that he was about to meet the infamous Johnny Madrid.

  Johnny quickly checked his gun and then turned toward the farmer.  “You stay in here.”

  “No, I'm going out there with you.”  

Johnny turned and grabbed the man by the shirt and slammed him against the wall.  “I ...don't…have...time…for…this!  If you come out with me and he takes me down, he'll kill you before you can even move!  You need to stay in here and protect the women!  If he gets by me, you'll need to use that rifle, understood?”

  “I don't know if I…”

  “You'd better know, because if you don't, I GUARANTEE he'll kill every one of you.  You have no choice!  Now stay in here and be quiet. I don't need any distractions, and I DON”T need ta be worryin' about you.”

Finally Peterson nodded slowly and dropped his eyes.  Johnny turned to go, and Laura ran over to him and wrapped her arms around him.  “Johnny, please don't go, I don't want to lose you.”

 

 

Chapter Seventy Three

  Johnny hugged her back for a second then gently tried to pry her arms away, well aware of her parents watching the whole thing.  “I'll be ok,” he said softly.  He glanced up at her father and saw the look of shock on the man's face, and Johnny dropped his head.  So much for being part of the family.  The gunfighter kissed the top of Laura's head and then handed the sobbing girl to her father before stepping quickly outside.  His nerves and emotions were going crazy, and he knew if he didn't calm down he didn't have a prayer.   He looked down the lane and saw the outlaw slow down cautiously, sensing a trap.  Johnny said a quick prayer of thanks that Ann had spotted him before he had gotten any closer, and he stepped out into the yard, away from the house.  He didn't want any stray gunfire hurting anyone inside, and he hoped Peterson had the brains to keep them away from the windows.

  The outlaw's hand crept toward the butt of his gun and he urged his horse forward slowly, taking in all of the surrounding area.  As Johnny watched the man ride closer, his eyes narrowed.  Juan Herrera.  The gunfighter snorted; he should have known.  The last time Johnny had seen Herrera, he had been a two bit outlaw with a mean streak a mile wide.  Johnny had ridden with him for a week or two several years ago, and even then the man was obsessed with fame and glory.  Herrera hadn't understood why Johnny didn't flaunt his prowess more, and Johnny was convinced the only reason Herrera had ridden with him was because he wanted to be associated with Madrid's fame.

Johnny had sent him packing after realizing that even though they were both half breeds with blue eyes, they had nothing else in common.  He had tired of the cowardly braggart, and had chased him away at the point of a gun.  Herrera had sworn revenge, but Johnny had just laughed.  Herrera had been fast, but not fast enough.  Now, however, it just might be a different story.  Johnny was sure the outlaw had been practicing, while Johnny hadn't even touched a gun for almost two years.

Johnny glanced toward the house and noticed movement at the windows, and he swore softly.  Whatever was about to happen wasn't anything those girls should see.

  Herrera rode his horse into the yard and stopped when he recognized the man standing there.  His eyes widened in surprise, but he recovered quickly.  “I thought you were dead.”

  Johnny shrugged.  “Sorry ta disappoint ya.”

The outlaw laughed.  “I'm not disappointed.  I figure I can correct the problem and then take care of…”  his eyes darted toward the house.  “…other matters.”  Herrera grinned.  “Of course, farmers don't put up much of a fight.  That's why they're so fun ta kill.”

Johnny's eyes narrowed.  “I can't let ya do that, Herrera.”

The outlaw laughed again.  “Haven't you heard?  The name's Madrid.”

  “I've heard.  Why do ya think I'm here?”  

  “I have no idea.  I KNOW you don't have the mistaken idea you can take me.”

  “Now what makes you think that?”

Herrera shrugged.   “Cause whatever you been doin', you ain't been fightin.  Nobody's seen hide nor hair of you for at least three years.”

  Johnny smiled slowly, desperate to get some kind of edge.  “Just ‘cause I haven't been around here doesn't mean I haven't been fightin.”

  The outlaw's eyes narrowed.  “Then where ya been, Johnny boy?”

“None of your business, JUAN.”

The man snorted.   “It don't matter.  I'm faster than you ever were.”

Both men's attention was drawn to the house once more as the door flew open and Laura started out.

  “Looks like she can't wait for me,” Herrera smirked.

  “Get back inside!”  Johnny roared.  Laura stopped and stared before Peterson grabbed her by the arm and dragged her back inside. 

“Johnny!”  She yelled as her father slammed the door.  Both men heard the bolt being slammed into place.

  Herrera grinned.  “Well, isn't this interesting.  Looks like that little farmer lady is in love with Johnny Madrid.  Guess her dreams are about ta come true.”

  Johnny felt the anger surge from deep within, and he tried desperately to control it.  He knew by Herrera's sneer that the outlaw was aware of his rage and Johnny took a deep breath and willed his mind away from the girl.  If he couldn't keep his mind on business he knew she and the others didn't stand a chance.

  “Well, Johnny, what are ya waitin' for?”

Johnny squared off against the outlaw and willed his mind to clear.  He blocked out everything except his opponents eyes, and he watched those eyes with rapt attention, waiting for the flicker that told him the man was getting ready to draw.  Johnny stood there for what seemed like an eternity, unable to keep his thoughts totally on his opponent.  He kept waiting for another outburst from the house, and he knew that his lack of concentration would be his undoing.  He just prayed he could get off at least one shot before he died; he HAD to take Herrera down.

His mind snapped back into focus as his eyes registered the movement, and his hand snaked down toward his own gun.   The familiar colt leaped into his hand and he grasped it, then brought it up, faster than the eye could see.  His eyes tracked the progress of the other man's draw and he tried to speed up his own, already knowing what the outcome would be.

  The people in the house watched, horrified, at the scene being played out in the yard.  Too late, Peterson realized he should have never allowed his girls to watch, but for some reason he had thought he would have time to make them move before it started.  He hadn't realized just how fast it would happen.  He couldn't believe the speed of the two men, and he realized that when he had seen Madrid shoot the man in town, he hadn't seen the gunfighter's true speed.  He watched in awe as the guns blazed, one slightly behind the other, then watched in horrified disbelief as first one man and then the other fell face down in the dirt.

 

 

Chapter Seventy Four

Peterson opened the door and hurried out toward the men, his rifle at the ready.While he kept the gun trained on the fallen outlaw, his wife and daughters ran past him toward Johnny.  The farmer went over and nudged the outlaw with his foot, rolling him over.  A small hole was apparent between his sightless eyes, and the farmer shook his head at the deadliness of Johnny's aim.  He turned away and focused his attention on his friend.

As he approached he was afraid that he just might have lost another son. The boy's face and hair were bloody, and he was as still as death.  Peterson hurried over and glanced at his wife hopefully.

  “He's alive,” Helen reassured him.   “The bullet grazed his scalp.  I don't think it's too deep, but he's bleeding badly.”

  Peterson knelt down and examined the wound, then turned toward his daughter.  “We have to stop that bleeding.  Ann, go some clean cloths, and hurry.' 

As Ann hurried toward the house, Peterson grabbed Johnny around the chest and tried to pick him up, but the farmer's leg was too weak.   Helen grabbed Johnny's arms, and Laura picked up his feet.  Between the three of them, they managed to carry Johnny into the house and get him into the bed.   Peterson took the cloths that Ann had brought and wrapped Johnny's head, slowing the bleeding, but it was obvious it wasn't enough.  He looked at Laura.   “We need to get the doctor out here.  Johnny needs some stitches, at the very least.  Take Dolly and ride into town.”

“No!  I'm going to stay with him,” she said defiantly.

The suspicions the farmer had about his daughter and Johnny were becoming more apparent, and he couldn't believe he hadn't noticed before now.  It seemed that his daughter was in love with the young man and he wondered if Johnny cared for her as well.   He shook his head.  They would address that issue when Johnny was better.  That is, if he got better.

 “Go!   If we don't get as doctor out here, he might bleed to death.”

  Laura took one last look at the young man, then turned and ran out of the house.  Peterson caught his wife's eyes and he shook his head.  He had the feeling they were in for some rough times ahead.

 

The family waited anxiously while the doctor examined Johnny and then stitched his head.

“Well?  Peterson finally asked.  “Will he be all right?”

Doctor Newman shrugged.  “He should be.  The wound isn't very deep, and he has obviously been through worse.”

  “What do you mean?”  Helen asked.

  The farmer glanced at Laura.  “Never mind,” he told his wife.

“I want to know,” Laura said.

The doctor shrugged.  “He's had a hard life, which I'm sure you already know.”

Peterson dropped his head.  “I don't know much, but I figured his life hasn't been very easy.  I really don't know much about his background.”

Newman shook his head.  “All I know is what I've heard, and probably most of that is just tall tales.”

  The farmer brought his head up and stared at the doctor.  “You KNOW him?”

“No, not really.  I dug a bullet out of him once when I was in Tucson, about four years ago.  He took off before I could really talk to him.  I was surprised he could even walk.”

Peterson nodded his head before glancing at his wife and daughters.  “He told me he was a gunfighter.”

Newman snorted.  “That's sort of like calling General Grant a soldier, isn't it?”

The farmer looked confused.  “What do you mean?”

Newman stared at the farmer for several seconds, and then nodded toward the unconscious man.  “Don't tell me you don't know who that is?”

Peterson felt a tingle of apprehension as he slowly shook his head.

“That's Johnny Madrid.”

The farmer let out the breath he had been holding.  “No, you're mistaken.  Madrid was here, but Johnny killed him.”  When he saw the look on the doctor's face, Peterson continued.  “It was a fair fight,” he hurriedly explained. 

Newman shook his head slowly.  “I don't know who was killed, but THAT'S Johnny Madrid.”

The confusion was evident on the farmer's face, and then he remembered that Doctor Newman had been in town the day before.   “The real Johnny Madrid was in town yesterday.  I know you saw him.  He stepped right in front of you when you were leaving your office.”

Newman shook his head.  “I've done a lot of traveling around the border towns, and I happen to know THAT was Juan Herrera.  THIS is Johnny Madrid.”

Peterson stared at the doctor.  “But…”  The farmer's mind went back to a few of the things Johnny had said.  How he was so sure that the outlaw wasn't Johnny Madrid, and how Johnny had reacted when Peterson had asked him if he knew Madrid.  “Are you SURE?”  he whispered.

Newman nodded.  “Oh, yes, I'm sure.”  The doctor looked at the farmer quizzically.  “What's he doing here, anyway?  Did you hire him?”

Peterson shook his head, still dazed by the revelation.  “I got him out of prison to help me on the farm.”

The doctor's eyebrows went up.  “He's a prisoner?”

  “Well, technically.”

Newman shook his head.  “Then I'm surprised you're not “technically” dead.   Do you know how dangerous that man is?”

  “He is not!”  Laura blurted.  “He's gentle and kind and…”

  “Laura, don't,” Peterson said tiredly.

  “But…”

“Not NOW, Laura!”  The farmer looked back at the doctor.  “I don't know what to think.  He's never given me any trouble, in fact he saved my life.” He shook his head again.  “He saved all of our lives.” 

Peterson looked at the unconscious man, then continued quietly. “Everything I've ever heard about Johnny Madrid has been bad.  He's a vicious killer, he's robbed banks, he's…” the farmer glanced at his daughter and shivered as he remembered when Johnny had first listed off the things he had been put in prison for.  Had the boy been telling the truth then?  HAD he done all of those things, including rape?   Had he really trusted a man like that? 

 

 

Chapter Seventy Five

Peterson shook his head.  No!  The doctor had to be wrong.  The young man he knew wouldn't have done those things; there had to be some mistake.   “Doc, that young man COULDN'T be Madrid!   I don't care what you say, there's no way our Johnny is a man like that.”

“He's Madrid, all right, there's no mistake about that.”  Doctor Newman shrugged his shoulders. “But you're right about one thing; I've never heard of him doing the things that you said he did.From the stories I heard, he's not a murderer and he generally sides with the underdog.   There were a lot of stories told about him in the border towns that I visited.  I know he's killed a lot of men in gunfights, but I've also been told he doesn't start the fights, and as far as I know, he's never been wanted by the law.  In fact, he was pretty friendly with the sheriff in Tucson.”

  Peterson looked at the doctor in disbelief.  “What do you mean?  That's all I've heard since I've been here, is how mean Johnny Madrid is.  I've heard stories….”  The farmer shook his head, unwilling to even finish the thought.

The doctor looked at the farmer in confusion.  “I've only been down here for a month or so, but in the border towns I never heard anything like that.  I heard that he was pretty honest for a gunfighter. In fact, most of the people considered him as sort of a folk hero, like Robin Hood.  No one ever said anything that bad about him.  When I told you that you were lucky to be alive, I was just surprised he had allowed himself to be treated like a slave without trying to fight, or at least escape.  He might not be a murderer, but he IS capable of killing, and I sure wouldn't want to cross him.”

Peterson remembered back to the time right after Johnny had come to the farm, when the young man had flown into a rage. The farmer remembered the fear he had felt, and realized the doctor was probably right about how dangerous the young man could be.  He nodded slowly.  “You might be right about him being dangerous if you cross him, but I still can't believe he's capable of doing the things he's been accused of.  Are you sure we're taking about the same man?  I've heard plenty of bad things about Madrid since we've been here. ”

The doctor started to shake his head, and then his eyes narrowed as he realized what the farmer had said.  “No,” he said slowly.  “I don't think we are talking about the same man.”

“I don't follow you.”

“I know you're not a native.   How long have you been here in Mexico?”

Peterson shrugged.  “About two years.”

“I saw Madrid almost four years ago, and it was definitely this young man.  He had a pretty good reputation back then and he was generally well liked, at least by the common people.”  The doctor smiled.  “The landowners and the crooked rurales weren't too thrilled with him.”   

“Now, you said you've been hearing bad things about Madrid since you've been here, which has been around two years.   Well, if he's been here at your farm for a year and he was in prison before that, he's been out of commission for probably at least two years.  He COULDN'T have been doing all of those things that you heard about.  It had to have been someone else.  Come to think of it, the rumor was that he'd been killed by the rurales after a revolution down here several years ago.  Evidently, he wasn't really killed, he was in prison.”

Peterson stared at the doctor and then nodded slowly as the realization set in.  “You're right.  Looking back, Johnny was already here when I was told about some of those things he had supposedly just done.  It must have been …Herrera, did you call him?”

The doctor nodded.  “Evidently he's been masquerading as Johnny Madrid for some reason, and from what little I've heard about Herrera, he was more than capable of the doing those things you mentioned.  Besides, Johnny Madrid was known to stick around the border towns; I've never heard him coming this far down into Mexico.  Herrera probably never thought he'd run into the REAL Johnny Madrid this far down.”  The doctor smiled.  “I bet he was surprised.”

  The farmer nodded.  “I expect he was.  But I would have thought he would have backed down, if he knew who Johnny was.”

The doctor shook his head.  “That's not how it works.  Herrera would have lost all respect if he'd done that.”

“He would have been alive.”

Newman shook his head once more.  “Those men live with death every day of their lives.  It's a part of who they are.  If they're afraid of dying, they don't last long, one way or the other.  Their reputations are what matters to them.  Besides, Herrera probably really believed he could take Madrid.  After all, he probably knew Johnny had been out of the game for quite a while.  Actually, I think it's amazing that Madrid DID win after being unable to practice for so long.”

“He did practice. The last couple of days that's all he's been doing.”

“DAYS?”  The doctor snorted.  “I had a wounded gunfighter tell me one time that it took weeks, maybe months to get back into shape even after a short layoff.”  He glanced at the prone man.  “He must be as good as his reputation says he is or he wouldn't have stood a chance.”

Peterson shuddered.  It HAD been so close.  He couldn't even comprehend the speed the two men had shown, but Johnny had clearly beaten the other man.  He hadn't been quite fast enough to prevent Herrera from pulling the trigger, however.  The farmer remembered the pain he had felt when he saw Johnny fall, and his mind had flashed back to the other time he had lost a son.   At least that time he hadn't had to watch.  He still was angry with himself for not making his wife and daughters move away from the windows.  They didn't need to see something like that. 

He couldn't imagine what had forced Johnny into living that kind of life, but he was sure it hadn't been a choice.  His daughter was right, Johnny was a good man, no matter what he'd been forced to do in the past.  He'd already proven that time and time again.  Peterson sighed as he looked at his daughter, who was sitting next to the bed, holding the unconscious man's hand.  Now he'd just have to figure out what to do about that little problem. 

 

 

Chapter Seventy Six

“Johnny, the doctor said you weren't supposed to be up yet.  Now lie down!”   The farmer pushed Johnny gently back into the pillows.

Johnny struggled against the restraint.  “I told ya, I'm fine.  It was just a little nick.”

Peterson shook his head at the boy's stubbornness and continued to hold Johnny down.  “It may have been just a graze, but you lost quite a bit of blood and the doctor said you shouldn't be up yet.”  The farmer let go and stood with his hands on his hips, challenging the young man.   The rest of the family was at church, and Peterson had insisted on staying home with the gunfighter.  He wanted to talk to him in private, but so far all he had done was argue with the boy to try to keep him from getting out of bed.

“I've been hurt worse plenty of times.  The doctor don't know nothin'.”

“Well, evidently he knows enough to keep you alive, at least so far.  And from what he said it isn't the first time, either.”

Johnny immediately became still and leaned back against the pillows.  He studied the farmer.  “What do you mean?” he asked warily.

“Evidently he took a bullet out of you a few years back, up in Tucson.”

“He said that?”  Johnny asked skeptically.  When the farmer nodded, Johnny continued.  “What's his name?”

  “Doctor Newman.”

Johnny sighed and lowered his eyes.  He thought the man had looked familiar, but he couldn't quite place him.  Now he remembered.  His hands started fiddling with the blanket as he tried to get up enough courage to ask the question that was uppermost in his mind.  “Did he tell you who I was?” he asked softly.

  Any doubts that Peterson had about this boy really being Johnny Madrid vanished.  “Yes,” he said simply.

  Johnny couldn't force his eyes up.  He didn't want to see the farmer's expression.  “Now what?”  Johnny asked.  When Peterson didn't answer, Johnny cautiously brought his eyes up.  “What are you gonna do?”

The farmer was looking at him quizzically.   “About what?” Peterson finally asked.

Johnny shook his head, angry because Peterson was playing dumb.  “About me stayin' here.”

The farmer stared at the boy.  No matter who Johnny was or what he had done, that was how Peterson thought of him; as a boy.  And right now, he was a very vulnerable boy.  The older man could see the hurt just waiting to surface and he wondered again what had happened in Johnny's life to make him so hard in some ways and so very vulnerable in others.  “Johnny, this is your home,” the farmer said cautiously.  “But…if you want to leave, no one will stop you.”

Johnny's eyes came up and locked on the farmer's.  That certainly wasn't what he had expected to hear.  Anger, disappointment, even fear, but not acceptance.  “You don't care who I am?”

Peterson's shook his head slowly, more sure of himself.  “Of course I do.  But that doesn't change who you are.  You're still the young man that we care about very much, that we trust, that we love.   You're still a part of this family, and nothing will ever change that…Son.”

Johnny's eyes dropped again, the emotion overwhelming him for a moment.  His own father had never said those things, those words that Johnny had waited for so long to hear. But there was something else.  Something that had to be addressed.  Even now, he wasn't sure how she felt about him, but he knew how it must look to the farmer's eyes.

“What about Laura?”

Peterson shook his head.  “Well, I can't say I was expecting it.”

“I want you to know that I never betrayed your trust, that I never…”  he stopped.

“Johnny, you didn't have to tell me that.  I know it.  I know you'd never do anything to hurt any of us.”

“So what are we going ta do about it?”

  Peterson sighed.  “I don't know,” he said truthfully.  “What do you feel about her?”

“Does it matter?” 

“What is that supposed to mean?  Of course it matters!”

Johnny shook his head.  “Why?  I'm not exactly a free man.  The rurales could come and take me back to prison tomorrow. I can't take a chance on getting' involved with ANYBODY; it wouldn't be fair.   Besides, I KNOW you don't want your daughter marryin' a gunfighter.”

Peterson stared at Johnny, thinking he knew the answer to the question he had asked, even if Johnny wouldn't admit it yet.   But the farmer also knew that Johnny had a good point.  “You're right.”

Johnny dropped his head and nodded, but he still felt disappointed that Peterson had agreed with him so quickly.

“We need to make sure you won't have to go back to that prison.   As soon as you're able to travel, we'll leave here and head for the border.  Once we're across and settled, we won't have to worry about you being sent back to prison.”  

“I can't let you do that.  I don't want you giving everything up because of me.”

“Johnny, don't you understand, as difficult as losing the farm will be, we ALL agreed that losing you would be harder. We're not just doing it for you.  We're doing it for us.”

Johnny raised tortured eyes to the farmer.  “WHY?”

Peterson sighed.  “Johnny, why is it so hard for you to accept your own worth?   We love you.  You're a part of this family and I hope you always will be. If you left, it would hurt all of us.”  The farmer looked down.  “You haven't said how you feel about my daughter, but I want you to know that even if you don't love her in that way, we want you to stay.”

Johnny's eyes narrowed.  “Do you mean that?

Peterson's eyebrows went up. “Of course I do, and if you DO love her, and she loves you, then I would hope you'd marry her.”

Johnny shook his head in disbelief.  “You know who I am, WHAT I am.  You'd let Laura marry me?”

Peterson shook his head.  “I would hope that she wouldn't be marrying the gunfighter, that she'd be marrying the farmer.  But when it comes right down to it, they're the same man.  I'd be proud to have my daughter marry you.  I know you'd do your best to keep her safe and happy.”

 

  

Chapter Seventy Seven

Johnny dropped his head, not quite able to believe the faith the farmer had in him.  No one had ever shown him that kind of trust before.  He shook his head slightly.  Well, there HAD been one person, but Johnny had been wrong to trust him back.  He hoped that the farmer wouldn't betray him like Scott had, but he'd just have to wait and see.  In the meantime, he wouldn't worry about it.  He wasn't going to throw everything away because of what Murdoch and Scott had done.

Thinking of Scott still hurt, but Johnny vowed he was no longer going to let it ruin his life.  He didn't need him anymore, and he didn't need Lancer.He had a family, and with any luck he would be in the states soon, and free of the rurales forever.  He would be a free man.  With any luck.  That thought bothered him.  So far his luck hadn't been very good, but he was determined to change it. He had to.   In the meantime, he wasn't going to take anything for granted.

“If somethin' happens before we can leave, I don't want you to put yourselves in danger because of me.  I want you to take care of yourselves and not worry about me, understand?”

Peterson knew that Johnny was right, but it also strengthened the farmer's belief that he was right about the young man.   “All right, I promise, but let's try to avoid that, OK?  When do you think you can travel?”

  Johnny smiled.  “How about tomorrow?”

  Peterson laughed.  “How about one week?”

  “OK.”   Johnny turned serious.  “What about your leg?  You still need that operation.”

Peterson shrugged.  “When we get settled, I'll have the operation.”

“Where are we goin'?

“I don't know.  Any suggestions?”

Johnny shook his head.  “I don't know much about farmin'. I don't know where would be best.”

“I was thinking maybe California.”

  “NO!”  The words exploded before Johnny could stop them.  He breathed deeply and then bowed his head.  “I don't want to go to California.”

Peterson knew there was a reason, and it probably had to do with the boy's family, but he knew better than to push.  “All right. We'll just head north and go where the wind takes us.  We'll find somewhere.”

Johnny's head remained down.  “OK.”

  The next several days were spent packing and getting ready to leave.  Johnny felt better every day, and because Peterson's leg was bothering him, Johnny was doing most of the labor.  The only good thing was that the family simply didn't have much, so there wasn't a lot to pack.  They did need another horse to pull the wagon, however, so the farmer took the two young horses into town to trade for an older horse.  Johnny hated to see them go, but he knew it was necessary.  Maybe someday he would be able to train another one.  His mind went back to a certain palomino, and with an effort he pushed aside that memory.  From now on he was going to leave his past behind and look forward.  For the first time he felt real hope for the future.

Johnny put one end of a piece of limber wood into the slot he had made in the side of the wagon, and then bowed it until it slipped into another slot on the other side.  The bows would support the cover the women had made from the curtains that had been hanging in the house.  Johnny shook his head.  He never thought he'd be driving a covered wagon looking for farmland, but that thought didn't bother him anymore.  It was better than being a gunfighter. Anything was better than that.  He would do his best to be content with the lifestyle of his new family.  He put in the last bow and then started to spread the material over the slats.  It didn't look very pretty, but at least the women would have some shelter from the elements until they could build a house.

Johnny was deep in thought, but the sound of hoofbeats finally intruded into his thoughts.  Startled, he looked up and his eyes narrowed as he watched the men approaching, and his heart dropped.  He turned toward Mrs. Peterson, who was helping him with the wagon.  “You get inside and make sure you stay inside.”

  “What's wrong?”

He nodded toward the men.  “I don't think this is a social call.” 

She shaded her eyes and looked down the lane, then looked back at Johnny.  “LEAVE!” she ordered.

“NO!  Besides, without a horse, I don't have a chance of getting away.  You get in the house and you make SURE that NONE of you come out, no matter what you hear or see, understand?”

  “Johnny…”

“GO!  I'll be all right.  Just keep the girls in the house, understand?”

Helen hesitated for just a moment, and then concern for her girls overshadowed everything.  She ran for the house, praying the whole way that everything would be all right, but she knew in her heart that it wouldn't be.  She ran into the house, then turned and threw the bolt.  Laura and Ann looked up, startled.  “What's wrong?” they asked in unison.

When her mother didn't answer, Laura looked out the window.  She watched for a moment, and then headed for the door.  Her mother grabbed her arm.  “No, Laura, he wants us to stay inside.”

Laura tried to wrench her arm free, but her mother held fast.  “No!  Laura, I'm not going to let you go out there with those men.”

  “We have to help him!”

Helen shook her head, hating herself for saying the words.  “There's nothing we can do, and Johnny doesn't need to worry about us right now.  If we go out there, he'll try to defend us, and they'll hurt him.  The best way we can help him is to do as he asks.”  

  Laura knew her mother was right, but it didn't help.  It wasn't fair.  The women  looked out the window and watched as Johnny's hopes for the future were shattered.

 

 

 Chapter Seventy Eight

Johnny watched warily as the men rode into the yard.   There were three of them, and their hands were all hovering near their guns even as their eyes remained glued on the gunfighter. . Johnny realized as they came closer that they weren't rurales as he had first thought, and he wondered what the men were here for.  His instinct told him that they were trouble, but he just wasn't sure what kind.   Johnny thought briefly of fighting, but he didn't want to start a gun battle this close to the house.  He decided to wait to see what the men wanted and not jump to conclusions. 

The three men remained on their horses but spread out and surrounded the gunfighter, and Johnny forced himself to remain calm.  He watched the two men he could see, and shot quick glances toward the other.  “What do you want?” he asked, more calmly than he felt.

One of the men grinned.  “Now what do ya think we want, Madrid?  We want you!  The good doctor told us you were here.”

Johnny locked his eyes on the leader, wondering what the men really wanted.  He felt some relief that the men weren't after the Petersons. “You want ta fight?” he asked with a smirk.

The man snorted.  “We ain't that dumb.”  Johnny heard a revolver being cocked from behind him and a new voice spoke up. “Drop the gun.”

Johnny ignored the command, trying desperately to talk his way out of the trouble he knew he was in.  “If you're plannin' on handin' me over to the rurales, it's a little late.”  He nodded toward the house.  “The farmer here got me out of prison to work.  I'm still a prisoner.”

The man looked pointedly at Johnny's gun and snorted.  “Yeah, I can see that.  But that ain't our concern.   We're here ta collect a bounty on you offered from somebody up north.”

Johnny's eyes narrowed.  “I ain't wanted.”

The man shrugged.  “Never said ya was.  But somebody's willin' ta pay for your carcass, and he's not real picky if you're delivered dead or alive.  That, my friend will be up to you.”

  “Who?”

“None of your business.”

“I figure it IS my business if someone's offering a reward for me.”  Johnny realized that these men had probably come across one of the bounty posters that Lopez had distributed. He knew it would be impossible to convince them that the reward was no longer valid, but it didn't really matter.  They were the type that would kill him out of spite if they found out there would be no money.

Every instinct was screaming at him to fight these men, but he didn't want to take a chance on anyone in the house trying to interfere if things went wrong.  He knew Laura and the others were watching and listening and the chances were good that he wouldn't survive a fight against three of them.  Of course, if there really was a dead or alive bounty on him, his chances weren't too good if he waited, either.  These men were smart enough to know that it was a lot easier to deal with a body than a prisoner.  The best he could hope for was that he'd have a chance to get away later, and then if the worst happened, at least his family wouldn't be there to see it.

One of the men dismounted, then walked over to Johnny and handed him a folded and much worn sheet of paper.  Johnny unfolded the paper and as the words jumped out at him he froze in shock.  He re- read it, unable to believe his eyes, but as he finally accepted what it said, he suddenly felt sick.  Johnny never even noticed when one of the men lifted the gun from his holster.  The gunfighter stood in shock, unable to drag his numbed mind away from the words printed on the paper.  He didn't react as the poster was snatched away and his hands were roughly pulled behind his back and tied securely.  The men shoved him onto a horse then led him out of the yard and away from his family, and he never even noticed.   

 

Johnny sat with his back to a tree, not even feeling the pain in his abused body.  He had stopped feeling anything several hundred miles back, and he knew he'd never feel anything again.  Except hate.  That feeling now consumed him and overwhelmed all other thoughts.  So far he had managed to stay alive, simply because he didn't care.  The men had beaten him and tried to goad him into fighting back, but he didn't react to them anymore than he did to the flies that were drawn to the blood caked on his face.

  The hate had started as soon as the numbness had worn off, and had been growing with every mile and every blow he had received. 

He had one goal.  He would stay alive long enough to take at least one of them with him.  Both, if he was lucky.  They should have left him alone.  He had been willing to forget the betrayal and the pain, and he had made up his mind not to try to collect the part of Lancer that was legally his.  He had been willing to leave them alone to their own lives and forget they even existed.  All he had wanted was to make a new life with his adoptive family and start over.  But now… now they would pay.  Somehow, he would make sure his beloved father and brother would feel what it was like to lose everything.   

He knew that when it was over he would be wanted and he could never go back to the Petersons, but he didn't even care.  All he cared about was revenge for his life, and he suspected, his death.  He figured he'd wind up dying for his revenge, but that thought did nothing to dissuade him from his plan.  He was tired of trying and tired of always being hurt.  He had had enough, but he was going to make sure they paid for his pain.  They had both had love and acceptance their whole lives, while he had had nothing, and he would make sure they got a small taste of the pain he had lived with his while life.  Maybe then he could be at peace.


 

 

Chapter Seventy Nine

Scott lay on the couch, his feet propped up on the edge and a pillow stuffed under his head.  He had spent the last week devouring the new book his grandfather had sent him from Boston.  He was allowing himself to read quickly because he knew there were four more waiting for him upstairs.  He found he was reading more and more lately, and he realized it was his way of coping with the silence that had taken over the hacienda.  The arguments and commotion that had pervaded the house a couple of years ago were now just a memory, and there were times that Scott missed even the fights. 

He stared at the book, unseeing as he remembered those times.  He didn't know why he was thinking about his brother so much lately, but he knew the pain that he felt was as fresh as the day Johnny had died.  He had been told that time dulled the agony, but that hadn't happened in his case.  He still missed his brother terribly, but he realized that he didn't want the pain to go away, because if it did it would mean he was starting to forget. 

With a sigh, he shut his book and looked over at his father.  Murdoch had aged ten years in the last two.  Scott figured they all had.  He watched as his father shuffled the papers, trying to make the numbers match, and Scott sighed deeply.  They were all getting along beautifully, the ranch was doing better than ever financially, and he would have given it all to have his unpredictable brother back.  Even more importantly, he knew his father would, too.

Scott stood up and walked over to the bar, where he poured a glass of scotch.  He was drinking more these days, too, and so was Murdoch.  He tossed the drink back, and remembered a childhood friend whose brother had died in a skating accident.  The two brothers had been inseparable, and the first month after the funeral, the remaining brother had been inconsolable.   Six months later, Scott's friend had been back to normal, laughing and joking with the rest of them.  Now Scott wondered if he really had healed, or if he had just become adept at hiding the pain.  Scott slammed the glass down on the bar.  Hell, he couldn't even hide it.

There were days that he was able to push his brother's memory into the background, but it was always there, just waiting to come forward once again, usually when he was totally unprepared.  For the first time, he wondered if maybe he was being haunted.  Maybe his brother had blamed him for his death as much as Scott blamed himself.  Maybe it HAD been his fault. Maybe he could have done more.  Maybe.  He just didn't know any more.

 

Murdoch watched as his son gulped down another shot of scotch.  He shook his head and then looked out the window.  In the setting sun he saw a rider coming and wondered idly what the stranger wanted.  As the man dismounted, Murdoch stood up and headed toward the door.  He pulled it open just as the man was starting to knock.

  “May I help you?”  Murdoch asked.

“Are you Murdoch Lancer?”

“Yes.”

The man held out a piece of paper and handed it to the rancher.   Murdoch glanced at it, then looked back up at the man. 

“We've got him,” the stranger said.

Scott came to the door just in time to hear the man's claim.  “Are you sure it's him?  Scott asked.

  “Yep.  No doubt.  We got a positive ID from a couple of sheriffs on the way here.  Ya want ta see the papers?”

Scott took the papers the man handed him and perused them quickly before handing them back and nodding at his father.  “They look legal.”

  The two ranchers looked at each other, knowing they should feel triumphant, but feeling only a deep sadness. Murdoch dropped his head.  “I'll get the money.”

  “Don't you want ta see the body?”

Scott's head came up.  “He's dead?”

The stranger shrugged.  “Not yet.  Ya want us ta finish him?”

  “NO!”

  “Where do ya want us ta dump him?”

Scott bristled at the man's attitude.  “We want you to take him back down to Mexico and turn him in to the rurales.”

  “No way!  That wasn't part of the deal!”

“We'll pay you extra,” Murdoch offered.

The stranger shook his head. “Look, mister, we was lucky ta get him this far without gettin' ourselves killed.  Ain't no way we're gonna haul him back ta Mexico.  He's all yours.”

Murdoch sighed and looked at Scott.  “All right.  I guess we can hire someone else to take him down.”

Scott nodded.  “I'll make sure the guard house is ready.”

As the man rode off, Scott headed for the guardhouse and Murdoch turned and walked into the house to get the cash.   Murdoch opened the safe and drew out a packet of money.  He riffled through it and counted out five thousand dollars, then stuffed the money in an envelope and set it on his desk.  He looked out into the darkness and hoped that this would be the end of the nightmare.  He knew Scott was still haunted by his brother's death, and he hoped this would bring some type of closure for both of them.  Maybe when this was over they could concentrate on the future and leave the past behind.

Murdoch looked up as he heard some horses approaching, and he grabbed the envelope and walked outside.  Scott joined him and they watched the riders approach in the moonlight.  One man was obviously hurt, and rode hunched over his mount, which was being led by another man. 

The riders pulled to a stop in front of the Lancers, and one of the riders dismounted and walked over to the prisoner. He untied the man's wrists from the saddlehorn and yanked the man off the horse, throwing him to the ground in front of the ranchers.  He reached down and yanked the prisoner's head back, revealing the man's features to the two stunned men.

Scott stared at the man, unable to believe his eyes.  He dropped to his knees next to the prisoner.  “JOHNNY!”

The prisoner looked up and Scott was stunned by the hate he saw in Johnny's eyes.  A second later, Scott was fighting for his life.

 

 

Chapter Eighty

  The two men rolled over and over in the dirt, and Murdoch stood rooted to the spot for a moment, unsure of what he had heard and what he was seeing.   He had to have been mistaken.   He watched in shock as the prisoner viciously pummeled his son, but Scott was obviously refusing to fight back.  Finally, Murdoch came out of his stupor and ran over and grabbed the prisoner, but received an elbow in the gut for his effort, doubling him over.  Before it landed, however, the rancher had seen enough of the battered face to know for sure that his lost boy was still alive. 

Murdoch waded into the fray once more and grabbed Johnny from behind, trying to pry him off of Scott without hurting his younger son.  Johnny fought his father wildly, landing several blows on the older man's body.  Murdoch grabbed him in a bear hug, desperately trying to calm him down and prevent him from hurting himself or his brother.  Johnny tore himself away from his father and went after Scott once more.  Before he could reach him however, one of the bounty hunters stepped up and hit Johnny viciously over the head with the butt of a pistol.  

Johnny dropped to the ground, unconscious, and Scott scrambled over and cradled his brother in his arms.  Murdoch grabbed the man who had hit Johnny and punched him in the mouth, sending the bounty hunter reeling backwards.  The bounty hunter scrambled to his feet, clutching wildly at his gun and Murdoch stepped toward him, his hand going toward his own Colt.   A gunshot brought both men up short.One of the bounty hunters that was still mounted aimed his gun at Murdoch.   “Hold it right there.  Give us the money, now, and we'll be on our way.”

Murdoch shot a look at his sons, then marched over to the man and threw the envelope at him.  “Get off of my ranch!” he snarled.

  The man that the rancher had hit stalked over to his horse and swung on before shaking his head at Murdoch.  “You're crazy,” he yelled.  “What did ya go and attack me for?  I probably save your life, ya crazy fool!  If ya didn't want him hurt, why did you put a bounty on him?”

“Get off of my ranch, NOW!”  Murdoch roared.

The first man counted the money and then nodded to the others.  The men rode off grumbling, and Murdoch raced over to where his two sons were.  “Is he all right?” he asked Scott worriedly.

Scott nodded numbly.  “My god, he's alive,” Scott said, stunned.

Murdoch knelt by his son, forcing his mind to comprehend. He gently swept the hair from Johnny's forehead as his eyes drank in the unbelievable sight of his lost  son. Finally he turned toward Scott, who was still staring at his brother in shock.

“Help me get him into the house.”

The two men carried Johnny into the house and carefully put him down on the couch.  Scott looked at his brother in disbelief, and then brought his eyes up to his father.  “I can't believe he's alive,” he said, shaking his head.

  Murdoch knelt down and felt Johnny's head, touching the knot on the top of his head carefully.   “I think he'll be all right, but I'd feel better if Sam looked at him.”

  Scott nodded.   “I'll tell Cipriano to ride into town.”  He stood up and hurriedly left the house.

Murdoch drank in the sight of his son, still not daring to believe that his family was whole once more.  The last two years had been a nightmare, and now it was over, and he said a quick and fervent prayer of thanks.

“Murdoch?  Is everything all right?  I heard a gunshot.”  Teresa stood at the base of the stairs, hesitantly looking into the great room.  She had been suffering from a cold for several days, and had gone to bed early that afternoon.  Murdoch had forgotten all about her.

Murdoch raised his head and motioned her over.  “Everything's fine, Teresa,” he said in a voice full of wonder. As she approached, she looked quizzically at the form on the sofa, and then her eyes widened.  “Johnny!” she breathed.  She sank to her knees next to the couch and looked up at Murdoch worriedly.  “Is he all right?”

  “I think so.  He took a hit to the head.  Scott sent Cipriano into town to get Sam.”

  “HOW?”  Teresa asked in confusion as she studied the unconscious man.

  “I don't know.  I can't believe he's really home.”

Scott came back in and sat on the couch next to his brother, unable to believe his eyes.  Murdoch looked up at his eldest and noticed the blood around Scott's mouth from a cut lip.  The rancher looked at his elder son worriedly.  “Why did he attack you?  Didn't he recognize you?”

Scott shook his head, troubled by the question.  “No, he recognized me.  I know he did.  I don't know why he went after me.”  What he didn't tell his father was the look of cold hate that Johnny had sent Scott's way right before the attack.  Scott hoped that Johnny had just been confused, but he had a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach that that wasn't the case.  He was afraid that there was something terribly wrong with his brother.

The door slammed opened and Jelly hurried into the room.  “Dan told me that some men brought Johnny here.  Is it really him?”  He went over to the couch and stood looking in wonder at the miracle lying on the couch, then slowly shook his head.  “He's home.”

Murdoch nodded his head slowly.  “He's home, Jelly, and that's where he's going to stay.”

Scott nodded in agreement, but he was still worried.  He had seen Johnny's eyes, and he was afraid they were all in for a hard time.  The man that had attacked him wasn't the brother that Scott had grown to love and admire; he was a violent stranger.  A thought insinuated itself into his mind and wouldn't go away.  Had Val been wrong?  Had the man that had been causing all of the havoc down in Mexico been Johnny all along?  Had something happened to his brother to turn him into the vicious killer that Scott had glimpsed out in the yard?  Scott slowly shook his head.  He would have to wait for the answers to his questions, but no matter what the answers were, Scott was prepared to fight the violent stranger and get Johnny Lancer back.  His brother had been gone too long, and Scott wasn't going to give him up again.

 

 

Chapter Eighty One

Johnny's eyes fluttered open and his father's face swam into view.  The young man froze for an instant and then tried to sit up.  Murdoch restrained him, and Johnny shrugged out of his father's grasp.   “Get your filthy hands off of me!”

  Murdoch let go in surprise, and stared at his son.  “Johnny, it's me, Murdoch.”

  “I know who the hell you are, now get away from me.”

Scott had been standing at the window looking for Sam and Cipriano when he heard the exchange and he hurried over. “Johnny, thank God you're home.”

Johnny glared up at him. “Leave me the hell alone, you son of a bitch!”  He looked over at his father. “Either one of you get near me again, I swear to God I'll kill you.”

Murdoch looked at his younger son in confusion, and then turned toward his ward, who was sitting by the fireplace, a shocked look on her face.  “Teresa, get upstairs!”  The girl shot one last look at Johnny and then fled from the room. 

Murdoch watched until she was out of sight and then turned back toward Johnny who was struggling to sit up and turning the air blue in the process.  Murdoch shook his head. “Johnny, calm down. I don't know what your problem is, but I won't tolerate that kind of language in this house.  Now what's going on?”

“I don't give a damn anymore WHAT you want, old man.  You're nothin' but a lyin' piece of shit.” 

Scott saw the tell tail shade of red creeping up his father's neck and intervened.  “Murdoch, let me talk to him a minute.”  When Murdoch hesitated, Scott glared at him.  “ALONE!” he clarified.  Murdoch gave both his sons a last warning glance and then walked outside.  Scott waited until the door slammed shut and then turned toward his brother.  “Thank God you're alive.”

Johnny didn't look up and Scott tried again.  “Johnny please.  I know you're angry, and you have every right to be, but please talk to us.”  When Johnny still didn't answer, Scott took a step closer.  “Johnny, what's wrong?”

  Johnny looked at his brother in disbelief, and then shook his head.  “Nothin,” he growled angrily.

“Talk to me, brother.”

“You ain't my brother,” Johnny spat.  “You're nothin' ta me.  Now hand me my boots, I'm getting' outta here.”

“You're not going anywhere.  Not until you're healthy, and not until you tell me why you're acting like this.”

Johnny leaned back on the couch and glared at his brother.  “Well I'm sure if ya think hard enough you can figure it out!”

Scott stared at Johnny for a moment, and then dropped his head.  “You're right.  I'm sorry.  I know why you're angry, and I don't blame you.  I should have stayed with you.  I never should have left you.  I'm sorry.  And then…Johnny, we thought you were dead.”

 Johnny stared at his brother for a moment and then leaned over and started rummaging around for his boots.

  “Johnny, PLEASE!  Talk to me!”

Johnny snagged his footwear and sat up, closing his eyes as a wave of dizziness came over him.  Scott put his hand out to steady his brother, but his hand was quickly slapped away.

Scott's mouth set in a determined line.  “Johnny, we're not going to let you leave!”  Both men heard a door open and looked up as Murdoch re-entered the room, flanked by Sam and Val.  Johnny glared at all of them and then leaned back against the pillows once more, watching the approaching men warily.  He locked his eyes on Murdoch and ignored the doctor as he approached.  Sam studied him for a moment, and then picked up Johnny's hand to feel his pulse.  “How are you feeling?  Murdoch said you took a pretty good blow to the head.”

  Johnny shrugged.  “I'm fine,” he said flatly.

“Sure you are.”   The doctor let go of Johnny's hand and reached over to examine the young man's head.  Johnny didn't object and Sam's fingers probed the wound lightly, causing Johnny to wince.  The gunfighter's gaze shifted to the sheriff, and Val stepped forward.

“Welcome back, buddy.  You don't know how glad I am that you're alive.  We thought for sure you were dead.”

Johnny didn't react to the words and kept his expression impassive as the doctor finished his examination.  Sam stepped back and studied his patient.  “You didn't answer me.  How are you feeling?”

“I TOLD ya I'm fine.  I don't need ya hoverin' over me,” Johnny snapped.  “Just leave me the hell alone.”

“JOHNNY!”  Murdoch thundered.  “Sam's just trying to help you.”

  “WHY?”  Johnny cried.  “Ya want ta make sure I'm healthy before ya lynch me?”

Everyone in the room stopped, shocked at the young man's words.  Murdoch shook his head in disbelief.  “Where in God's name did you get that idea?”

Johnny snorted.  “Oh, I don't know.  Maybe it had somethin' ta do with a five thousand dollar dead or alive bounty ya put out on me.”

Scott stepped forward.  “Johnny, we didn't know it was you.”

  Johnny laughed shortly.  “Ya, I can see where ya might be confused.  I guess I forgot ta tell ya that's my name.”

  “We thought YOU were dead!”  Murdoch interjected.

 “Yeah, well ya tried, but Medina died instead of me.  Sorry about your luck.”

“You think we WANTED you to die?”  Scott asked in disbelief.

Johnny shook his head at his brother's question.  “No,” he said sarcastically.  “I'm sure ya thought that prison was a right cozy place and exactly what I deserved.”

Scott couldn't believe what his brother was saying.  Johnny had every right to be angry that he had been left, but he surely couldn't believe they had done it on purpose.  “We thought you were dead,” Scott repeated.  “We had no idea that you had survived.  You DID tell me you wouldn't be taken alive and to not come back for you.”

  Murdoch and Val jerked their heads up and stared at Scott.  Although they had both had their suspicions, this was the first time they had heard anything to confirm their thoughts.  Murdoch shivered as he realized what had gone on there on that day.

  “Yeah,” Johnny said.  “Convenient, huh?”

Val could stand it no longer.  “Johnny, they're tellin' you the truth.  I went back ta check.  I even went to that prison and asked about you…”

Johnny's head shot up and he stared at the sheriff.  “It was you?” he whispered.  “You came to the prison to see about getting' me out?”

  Val nodded, confused at the wording Johnny had used.

Johnny stared at the lawman he had thought was his friend and he shook his head slowly; trying desperately to contain emotions that he thought had died a long time ago.  “Go to hell!”  he finally yelled as he looked around at the men in the room.  “All of you go to hell and leave me alone!”

 

 

Chapter Eighty Two

Johnny lunged forward, intent on leaving, and Murdoch grabbed him, wrestling him back onto the couch.

“NO!”  Murdoch shouted.  “You're not leaving!  Not like this! Not until we get this straightened out.”

Johnny twisted free and landed a blow to his father's jaw, sending Murdoch sprawling.  Val and Scott immediately grabbed Johnny's arms and forced him down. Johnny struggled a few more seconds and then gave up, glaring angrily at the two men.

  Val and Scott held him down for a few seconds before Scott started to let up.  “Johnny, give me your word you won't try to leave, and we'll let you go.”

Johnny glared at his brother defiantly.  “I ain't givin' you nothin'.”

  “Johnny!  We need to get this straightened out, and we can't do that if you won't stay and talk to us!”

“I've done all the talkin' I plan to do.  Now let go of me.”

“No!”

“Johnny, PLEASE!”

“Let him go,” Murdoch said quietly.

Scott turned and looked at his father in disbelief.  “Murdoch…”

  “I said let him go.  We're not getting anywhere like this.”  The rancher looked at his younger son sadly.   “Johnny, I'm sorry if we hurt you, we never meant to.  I know you don't believe it, but we're glad you're safe.”

Johnny wrenched his arms away from the two men and fumbled for his boots, keeping his eyes carefully away from the other men.  He pulled on his boots and slowly stood up, obviously dizzy.  He reached out and grabbed the back of the couch, standing with his eyes closed for a minute and trying to stop the room from spinning.

Sam watched the young man critically.  “Johnny, you need to rest.”

  “I'm fine.  I just need a minute and I'll be outta here.”

  Sam shot a warning glance at Murdoch.  “Johnny, if Murdoch and Scott give you their word that you can leave anytime you want, will you stay here overnight at least?  You can leave tomorrow and no one will stop you.  You know you can't make it tonight.  At least sleep a few hours and get some of your strength back.”

Johnny brought his eyes up and looked at the doctor, considering the words. Sam was right, he felt as weak as a kitten all ready, and he'd be lucky to make it to the arch.  He figured he'd have to walk, and he was in no shape to take a hike.  As much as he hated to admit it, he needed to rest and get some food in him if he hoped to leave.  It might be a trick, but he figured that as weak as he was it would be no problem for them to overpower him if they wanted to.  They'd already done it once.  He shifted his gaze to his father, who nodded slightly and Johnny finally nodded and dropped his head.

Both Scott and Murdoch sighed in relief.  Maybe they could somehow convince Johnny to discuss things with them before he left.  Murdoch walked over and reached out his hand to his younger son.  “Let me help you upstairs.”

  Johnny pulled away from the older man.  “No.  I'll sleep down here.”  He looked at his father challengingly.  “Unless ya want me ta sleep in the barn.”

  “Of course not!”  Murdoch barked.  “But you'd be more comfortable in your own room.”

Johnny shook his head.  “It ain't my room!”

“Yes it IS!”  Scott yelled.  “It always will be!  Why are you being so difficult?”

Johnny glared icily at his brother.  “You and your father made it real clear where I stood.”  He moved his gaze around the room.  “You all did.  I ain't makin' the mistake of trustin' any of you again or takin' anything for granted, and I ain't stayin' around ta ‘discuss' it.  Unless you plan on hangin me, I'm leavin in the morning if I have ta crawl, and heaven help any of you that try ta stop me.”

“Where will you go?”  Scott asked quietly. 

  “None of your damn business.”

  “It IS my business!  You're my brother!”

Johnny glared at his brother and then shook his head sadly.  “Not anymore, Scott.”  He looked around at the men watching him and shook his head.  “I think I'll sleep in the barn after all.”  He turned and walked unsteadily out of the house.  Every man in the room ached to help him, but they all knew any attempt would be violently rebuffed, so they watched helplessly as he left.

After the door closed, Murdoch sank down in his chair and buried his head in his hands.

  Scott shook his head as he looked at the other men.  “Well, what are we going to do?”

  Val shook his head.  “What's got into him, anyway?  Why is he so gol darned willing ta believe the worst?”

Sam shook his head.  “From what you've told me, that prison was pretty bad.  Anyone can break in a situation like that.  Maybe he just couldn't take any more and it affected his mind.” 

Scott brought his head up.  “You mean he's crazy?”

Sam shook his head.  “No, but it's possible he's not thinking right.  We don't know what he's been through since you last saw him.”

Scott shook his head slowly.  “No, Sam. That's not it. He blames me for leaving him there.”

  Val snorted.  “What about me?  I went down there and convinced all of you that he'd died.”

Murdoch shook his head slowly.  “And I put the bounty on him.  We ALL let him down, one way or another.  Now we have to convince him we really care.”

  “How?  He won't even talk to us.”

Murdoch's head came up as he thought.  Suddenly his eyes narrowed and he focused on Jelly.  “There's one person here that he has no reason to doubt.”

  Jelly's eyes got wide.  “Me?”

Murdoch nodded.  “Talk to him, Jelly.  He knows you won't betray him.”

Jelly nodded nervously.  “I'll do my best.”

Sam nodded.  “Take him some food when you go.  I imagine he hasn't had much to eat for a while.”

Jelly nodded, then went over to the bar and grabbed a bottle of tequila.  “This might help, too,” he grinned.  “Wish me luck!”

 

 

Chapter Eighty Three

Johnny managed to stay upright until he reached the barn, then he sank gratefully into the nearest empty stall.  He grinned to himself as he settled in.  It seemed that sleeping in horse stalls was becoming a definite habit.  He sighed deeply and scooped up some straw into a pile, then lay down on top of it.  He stared at the ceiling for a while, thinking about what the men inside had told him.  He wondered why they even bothered to lie to him.  If they wanted to get rid of him badly enough to put a reward out for him, why didn't they just say so?  And now that they had him here, why were they willing to let him go?  It just didn't make sense.  He shook his head; it didn't matter, he was tired of trying to figure it out.

The rage that he had felt all the way here was still with him, but he knew in his heart that as badly as he wanted revenge, he wasn't a murderer.  He wouldn't mind skinning his knuckles on the faces of the men inside, but he wouldn't, couldn't kill them.  He snorted; besides, even if he wanted to, he didn't have a gun.  Hell, he didn't even have a knife.   He didn't have anything but the clothes on his back, and they were pretty tattered from the numerous beating he had received on the way here.  He realized that getting home to his family was going to be harder than he thought.   No money, no horse, no supplies and unarmed.

He shook his head slowly.  He'd make it somehow.  Maybe he could stop and work somewhere long enough to be able to buy supplies.  One thing for sure, if he didn't get some rest, he wouldn't even make it off of Lancer land tomorrow, and that wasn't an option.  He wasn't going to stay here one minute longer than was absolutely necessary.

He had a new life now, and a new family, and he wasn't going to forget about them.  They might not be blood, but they were more of a family to him than Scott and Murdoch had ever been, and he wasn't going to forget that.  Whatever ties he had once had with the people here had been destroyed a long time ago.  At one time being at Lancer, with the people in that house, was all he had ever wanted.  Now all he wanted was to get home to his REAL family. 

Johnny heard the door open and wondered tiredly who was coming to talk to him.  He was betting it would be Scott, but Val was a possibility, too.  If it was the sheriff, Johnny thought he just might try to break the lawman's jaw for his efforts.  He had trusted Val, and the sheriff had betrayed him.  When his uncle had told him about the man who had come to negotiate for Johnny's release, he had never dreamed it was Val.  Johnny shook his head.  Val had known he was in prison but had ridden off and left him because Murdoch wasn't willing to pay the amount necessary to get him out.  He couldn't believe he had ever counted the sheriff as a friend.  It certainly wasn't the first time he'd trusted somebody he shouldn't have, but he thought it just might be the last.

 

“Johnny?”  The uncertainty was apparent in the old man's voice as he looked for his friend.

The gunfighter smiled sadly to himself.   “I'm here, Jelly.  Don't worry, I ain't gonna bite ya.”

The next instant the grizzled face popped around the corner of the stall.  Jelly held out the bottle of tequila.  “Thought ya might want a nip.”

Johnny smiled, tempted.  He hadn't had a drink for years, but he finally shook his head regretfully.  One way of guaranteeing a hangover was drinking tequila on an empty stomach, and he didn't need a worse headache then he already had.   “Thanks, Jelly.  Maybe later.”

“Then how about some supper?”  Jelly pulled out a huge sandwich of roast beef and handed it to Johnny.  Johnny's eyes widened in appreciation, and he grabbed the sandwich. Beef was another thing he hadn't tasted in years, and the fact that he hadn't eaten anything for two days hadn't exactly made him picky, anyway.

Jelly squatted down in the stall next to his friend, and simply sat while Johnny finished his meal.  When Johnny was done, he looked up at the old man.  “Thanks, Jelly.”

  “You're welcome.”  Jelly shook his head.  “Johnny, I'm glad you're back.  We all are.  We thought you was dead.” 

Johnny sighed.  “So I've been told.  Look, Jelly.  I'm kinda tired and I'm leavin' first thing in the mornin'.  I wanna get some sleep tonight.”

“WHY?  Why are you so gol danged mad at everybody?  They did everything they could ta help ya.  It's been like an undertaker's around here since you've been gone.”

“Jelly, it don't matter, I can't stay here.  You don't know…”

“I don't know what?  That your brother and Murdoch just about went crazy when they thought you was dead?  That Val rode down ta Mexico not once but twice ta try ta find ya?'

Johnny snorted.  “Yeah.  He tried real hard ta get me back, just like Murdoch did.”

“They DID!”

Jelly, please.  I just want ta go ta sleep, OK?”

  “Ya ain't even gonna give ‘em a chance, are ya?”

Johnny glared at the older man, and Jelly felt a flush of fear as the gunfighter's eyes pinned him.  “Like they gave me?   I AM givin' ‘em a chance.  I ain't gonna blow their heads off like I planned ta do when those bounty hunters were beatin' the hell outta me the whole way here.   I ain't gonna kill ‘em for leavin' me ta rot in that prison ‘cause they didn't want ta waste their precious money ta get me out.  All I plan ta do is walk outta here tomorrow and go home to my REAL family and forget that Murdoch and Scott Lancer even exist.  So you go back in there, old man, and tell them they're wastin' their time. The next time I plan on seein' them is in hell.”

 

 

Chapter Eighty Four

Everyone in the room looked up as Jelly shuffled back into the house.  

“Well?”   Murdoch asked hopefully.

Jelly shook his head.  “That boy's hurtin' bad, and he's madder'n a wet hen at all of us.”

Murdoch sighed.  “I know.  Did he say anything that would tell us what's going on?”

Jelly hesitated.  There was no sense hurting them anymore than they already were.  “Just that he weren't stayin.”  He shook his head.  “Said somethin' about goin' home to his real family.”

Scott's brow furrowed.  “Real family?  What did he mean by that?”

Murdoch shrugged.  “I don't know.  Maybe he meant his uncle.”

“Ruiz isn't his family, WE”RE his family!  He needs to stay here!”

The resignation was evident in Murdoch's voice.  “Scott, I don't know why, but he hates us.  We can't force him to stay.”

“Well I don't know about you, but I'm not going to just let him ride out of here tomorrow.”

  Val broke in.  “Ride?  He ain't got nothin ta ride out on!  He don't have nothin.  He can't leave until he gets some supplies.”

Scott nodded eagerly.  “That's right.  He can't leave until he at least has some supplies and a horse.  He'll HAVE to stay here for a while.”

Murdoch looked at his son and the sheriff. As tempting as their suggestion was, he knew it would backfire in the long run.  He shook his head.  “No, we can't do that to him.  He has a right to take anything he wants from this ranch, and you both know it.  If we try to force him to stay, we'll lose him forever.”

“And you don't think we'll lose him if we let him ride out?  I'm NOT going to lose my brother again!”

Sam broke in.  “Scott, Murdoch's right.  You know Johnny.  Even if he has to crawl, Johnny will leave tomorrow, and if you try to force him to stay, things could get really ugly.”

Scott dropped his head.  “I know,” he said resignedly.  “But it's just so frustrating.  None of it makes sense.  He has every right to be mad at me for leaving him, but why is he angry with the rest of you, especially Val?   Val went down there twice to find out if he was alive.”

Murdoch stood up.   “You're right, it doesn't make sense.  There's something else that's going on.  Something we don't know about, and we at least have a right to know why he's so angry.  I'm going to talk to him.” 

Scott bolted to his feet.  “Oh NO you don't!  You two have a way of turning a discussion about the weather into a war.  I'LL go talk to him.”  He strode out the door before Murdoch could protest.

Scott poked his head around the stall, and saw Johnny lying down, apparently asleep. He stood uncertainly for a moment, and then he heard his brother's voice.

“I was wonderin' how long it would take you.” 

Scott stepped into the stall and sat down next to his brother. “Johnny, please, we need to talk.  I don't understand.  I know why you're mad at me, but why are you angry with everyone else?”

“Look, Scott, like I told Jelly, I'm tired.  I want ta get some sleep, OK?”

“Then will you promise you'll talk to me in the morning?”  Scott pleaded.  He waited several seconds, but when he received no reply, he continued.   “Please, Johnny. You're my brother.  I don't want you to leave, especially like this.”

  “I'm sorry if it ain't what YOU want.  But I'm gonna do what I want for a change, and I don't want ta stay here.”

You can just leave us, just like that?  Johnny, you're part of this family.  We need you!”

“Well I don't need you! Not anymore!”  Johnny's voice softened as he continued, “There was a time when I did.  I needed you badly, but you weren't there for me, so I learned ta live without ya.   Now I have my own life, and it don't include you or your old man.”

“He's your father, too!”  

Johnny shook his head.  “No, Scott, he's not.  He never was a father to me, not in any way that counted.  Like I said, I don't need him or you anymore.  I've got a real family waitin' for me, and I'm not gonna leave ‘em.”

“A real family?  Who?   Ruiz?”

Johnny glared at his brother.  “Ain't none of your business.”

“Yes it IS my business!  If they're your family, then they're my family, too, and I have a right to know!”

Johnny shook his head sadly.  “You don't get it yet, do you?   You're NOT my brother any more.  You ain't nothin' ta me.”

“You don't mean that.”

“Yes, Scott, I do. I hurt for a long time, and it only stopped hurting when I stopped caring. I ain't never gonna hurt like that again, not because of you.  Now leave me alone.  I want ta get some rest.”   Johnny rolled over and turned his back on Scott.

Scott watched his brother for several seconds, wanting to say something to make Johnny change his mind, but no words came.  Finally he stood up, then turned and left the barn.  He wasn't sure what he was going to do, but no matter what Johnny said, he wasn't going to give up.  He wasn't going to lose his little brother again.

 

The next morning, Johnny awoke late.  He cursed himself for oversleeping and knew that now he'd probably have to fight his way out of here.  He knew how stubborn both his father and brother could be, but he still couldn't figure out just what they wanted.   First they couldn't wait to get rid of him, now they acted like they wanted him to stay. 

With a sigh, he managed to get to his feet, and he stood unsteadily for a few moments.  He wasn't sure if he would be able to walk very far, let alone work, but without money or supplies he knew he'd have to find a job soon.  He hated asking the Lancers for anything.  He hoped they would at least give him some food to last for a few days until he felt better, but he'd be damned if he was going to beg.

 

 

Chapter Eighty Five

Johnny walked out into the yard, and, as expected, Murdoch and Scott were waiting like vultures.  

Murdoch stepped toward his son.  “Johnny, how are you feeling?”

“I'm fine.”

“There's breakfast in the kitchen.”

Johnny hesitated.  As much as he wanted to get out of here, he knew he could walk further if he managed to eat something.  He nodded his head.  “Thanks.”  Murdoch and Scott followed him into the house like lost puppies, and Johnny bit back a retort.  He just wanted to get some food under his belt and get out of there.

Maria and Teresa fussed over him, but he remained distant.   He was polite, but nothing more.  He knew he was hurting the women, but he couldn't allow himself to feel anything.  Once he let the feelings start, he was afraid he might not be able to stop them.  He ate as much as he could, unsure when his next meal would be.  Finally, he stood up to go.  His father and brother had remained silent throughout the meal, but as he stood, Murdoch nervously spoke up.  “Johnny, before you leave I'd like to talk to you for a moment.  Would you please come into the great room?”

Johnny's first instinct was to say no, but the civility of Murdoch's request made him pause.  He couldn't remember his father ever speaking that politely to him, or asking him to do anything instead if demanding.  Murdoch had always simply bellowed what he had expected Johnny to do.  With a nod, Johnny followed his father and brother into the other room.

Murdoch went over to the desk and fumbled in the drawer, drawing out a packet of papers and an envelope.   He looked up at his younger son.  “Johnny, we don't want you to leave, but we're not going to try to force you to stay, either.  We just want you to be happy.” Murdoch hesitated and shuffled the papers nervously.  “If you're sure you want to leave…”

Suddenly, Johnny knew what his father was so nervous about. “Don't worry, I'll sign,” he said crossly.

Murdoch's head came up.  “What?”

  “I'll sign over my share of the ranch. It ain't mine, anyway.”

  “Yes, it is!  It ALWAYS will be!”  Murdoch yelled.

Johnny shook his head.  “I won't be here.”

“It doesn't matter, Johnny, you're still one third owner,” Scott stated matter of factly.  

“No.”

“This isn't open for discussion,” Murdoch interjected.   He picked up the packet of papers.  “I want you to take this.”

“What is it?”  Johnny asked suspiciously.

  “These are checks, drawn on our bank in Green River.  They take two signatures, and I already signed them.  You just need to sign them when you want to use them.”

Johnny stared at the checks and then looked back up at his father and shook his head.  “Nope.”

“Johnny,” his brother said impatiently.  “You're going to need some money.”

“I don't want your charity.”

“It's not charity!  It's yours!”

Johnny thought for a moment.  “I'll take some gear and some food, if it's OK.”

“Johnny, you can take anything you need or want.” Murdoch held out the envelope.  “Here's some money.  If you ever need more, you can wire us.”

  Johnny took the envelope and riffled through it.  “There's probably ten thousand dollars in here.”

  “Fifteen.”

Johnny looked at the two men in disbelief.  “You're willin' ta give me FIFTEEN thousand dollars now?”  He threw the envelope back on the desk.   “Keep your damn money! You weren't willin' ta part with it ta get me outta that hell hole, I can make do without it now!”  He turned and stalked out of the room, enraged.

Murdoch and Scott exchanged glances.  “What the hell just happened?”  Murdoch asked.

  “I don't know,” Scott sighed. “But something sure set him off.”

“I wish I could understand that boy.”

“You and me both.”

 

  Johnny stalked into the kitchen and began stuffing food and supplies into a sack.  He was so angry he could hardly see straight. Murdoch and Scott couldn't part with five thousand dollars to get him out of prison, and now they were offering him fifteen thousand.  Why?  It just didn't make sense. He finished stuffing the bag and stomped out of the house.  He hadn't planned on taking a horse, but now he would.  It was the least they owed him.

Johnny strode out towards the barn and then stopped dead in his tracks.  Tied to the hitching rack in front of the barn was a very familiar looking palomino.  In a daze, he approached the horse, speaking softly to him.  He ran his hands down the animal's flanks, and then moved up to the front.  He studied the animal, not wanting to jump to conclusions, but knowing it was his horse.  Someone had put a nice saddle and saddlebags on him, and there was a rifle in the scabbard.  A holster and handgun were looped over the saddlehorn.

Johnny stared at the horse, feeling as if his head just might blow off.  He looked around and saw his father and brother standing by the barn, watching him for his reaction.  Scott spoke up first.

  “We don't want you to leave, Johnny, but Barranca's yours.”

Johnny kept his voice neutral, not wanting it to betray the pain he felt.  “You bought him from the rurales?”

Murdoch smiled.  “We knew you wouldn't want him left there, so we brought him home.”

“How much?” Johnny asked softly.

“It doesn't make any difference.”

  “How much?” he asked through clenched teeth.

Murdoch and Scott exchanged glances.  “Three thousand.”

Johnny closed his eyes for a moment, struggling with his feelings, but he was far from successful.  He reached up and yanked the cinch loose and grabbed the saddle off of the palomino, then removed the bridle. 

  “What are you doing?” Murdoch cried.

“I don't want him.  He means so damn much to you, YOU keep him!”

“”He's your horse!”

I'M not the one who paid THREE THOUSAND DOLLARS for a DAMN horse!”  Johnny marched over into the corral and grabbed a bay gelding that was closest to the gate and slipped the bridle on him.  “Is this one OK?”

  “Yes, any one.  But what's wrong with Barranca?”

  “Nothin,'” Johnny spat.  “I just don't want him remindin' me that my FAMILY cared more about a damn horse than they did about me!”  He threw the saddle and gear on the bay, and then quickly swung aboard.  A moment later, he was gone, leaving his stunned and confused family behind.

 

 

Chapter Eighty Six

Scott watched as his brother rode out, and then he strode resolutely over to the barn.  A few moments later he reappeared, leading Charlie.  He tied the horse to the hitching post and then headed for the house.

  “What are you doing?”  Murdoch asked.

“I'm going to follow him.”

“He won't like it.”

“Right now I don't give a damn what he likes.  He's not thinking straight, and I plan on finding out what the hell is going on.”

Murdoch sighed.  “I'm not sure you should go.”

  “Well I am!”  Scott disappeared into the house, and Murdoch stood in the yard, feeling lost.  Finally he walked into the house and over to his desk.  When Scott came down the stairs, Murdoch called him over and handed him the envelope full of money.  “Here.  You might need it.”

  Scott stuffed the money into his pocket and then took his holster off of the rack.  “I'm not sure how long I'll be gone.”

Murdoch nodded.  “Be careful, and bring him back if you can.”

“I will.” 

Murdoch wasn't sure exactly what Scott was agreeing to, but he nodded. He hoped Scott would accomplish both.   “Send a telegram when you can.”

“I will.”  Scott turned and strode out of the house, knowing if he didn't hurry, there was a good chance he'd lose his brother.

 

Johnny started looking for a place to camp late that afternoon.  He had really wanted to stop earlier, but had forced himself on.  He was still dizzy and he felt sick from his injuries, but he wanted to put as many miles between himself and Lancer as he could.  The first hour or so after he had left the ranch, he had pushed the gelding ruthlessly.  He didn't know when he'd ever been as angry.  He couldn't believe his father and brother had actually paid three thousand dollars to bring Barranca home, but had been unwilling to pay five thousand to the rurales to free him.

Now that he'd calmed down a little, he regretted not taking the palomino. After all, it wasn't Barranca's fault that his family hated him, and he and the palomino had been compadres.  At least Barranca had never let him down.  With a sigh, Johnny reached down and patted the bay's neck, silently apologizing for the initial headlong flight.  The gelding wasn't as good a horse as the palomino, but he wasn't bad.  Besides, Johnny thought, he was good enough for a farmer, and that was what Johnny was going to be.

Finally, as the sun was setting, he found a small glade next to a tiny stream.  He pulled his horse off of the trail and tied the bay so he could graze during the night.  Johnny started a fire and tiredly rummaged in the saddlebags for some jerky.  He didn't feel like eating anything else so he settled for the traveling food and some coffee, and then lay down next to the fire, using his saddle as a pillow.  He watched the stars, and after several hours, the peacefulness of the night finally calmed him down enough so that he could sleep.

  The next morning, Johnny awoke early and headed out once more.  He was still feeling sick and knew he wasn't very strong, but he didn't want to wait.  He knew he had a long way to go, but he was eager to get back to his family.  He would put Lancer out of his mind and look toward the future.  In a way, he was glad that he had gone back to the ranch, even if it was against his will.  There were no longer any lingering doubts about where he belonged.  His place was with the Petersons, and he would never again return to California.

After several days on the trail, he started to feel better.  His appetite came back, and he was no longer dizzy.  He became more aware of his surroundings, and he figured that it had happened just in time.  He crossed over into Mexico late in the afternoon, and after he crossed, he sat on his horse above the river, looking down the trail he had just come up. He had the feeling he was being followed, but so far he hadn't seen anything.  He watched for almost twenty minutes before reluctantly turning away and heading south once more.

Once in Mexico, he skirted all of the major towns.  He didn't want to take any chances of either being recognized or finding himself face to face with the rurales.  The deeper he got into Mexico, the more he was convinced that someone was on his trail.  He never saw or heard anyone, but his horse occasionally looked behind him with interest, and one night he thought he smelled smoke from a campfire.

Finally, after being in Mexico for almost a week, he descended into the small valley where the Petersons had their ranch.  As he got closer, he kicked the gelding into a lope, eager to get home.  The horse broke through the trees on the outskirts of the farm, and Johnny guided the bay toward the house.

  As he approached the yard, Johnny pulled his horse to a halt.   He stared at the scene in front of him, and his gut clenched with fear.  Without thinking, he urged the horse closer, taking in the scene of devastation in front of him.  The barn was burned to the ground and the corrals stood empty, as did the chicken coop.   The house had obviously been abandoned, its windows violently broken out.   The front door hung ajar, its hinges broken.

As if in a dream, Johnny dismounted, drawn to the house.  He had to look inside, although his heart told him not to. He knew what had happened.  The rurales had come for him, and when he wasn't there they had taken their revenge on the Petersons.He hesitated just outside the house and took a deep breath before walking through the doorway.  He stepped inside and then stopped dead in his tracks as he took in the scene.

 

 

Chapter Eighty Seven

The young couple was sitting at the table eating.  When they saw Johnny, they jumped up and the man pushed the woman behind him.  “What do you want?”  the young man asked.

“Where are the Petersons?”

The man shrugged.  “I don't know.”

“Where ARE they?”  Johnny asked threateningly.

“I told you I don't know!”

“You know somethin'.”

The man put his head down and nodded.  “The rurales came into town day before yesterday.  They were looking for the Petersons and they were very angry.  They asked the townspeople if they knew where the family was, but no one knew.  Finally someone said they had seen the Petersons leave in a wagon a few days before, heading north.  The rurales rode out after them the next morning.”  The man dropped his head.  “My wife and I have no money to start a farm.  We thought we'd try to live here, since it is deserted.”

Johnny walked out of the house, cursing himself.  He had probably come close to them on the way here and hadn't even known it.  Now he'd have to head north and try to find them before the rurales caught up with them, if they hadn't already.  The Petersons probably didn't even know they were being followed and would be taken totally by surprise.  He shivered as he thought of what would happen to them if the Mexicans caught up with them.  He had to get to them first, but the rurales had a day's head start.  The only thing that might be in his favor was that he doubted if the posse would be in a huge hurry.  They probably figured they were after easy prey and would take their time.  Johnny might have time to head off the slaughter, but he'd have to hurry.

He led his horse over to the small stream and let him drink, and filled up his own canteen before swinging aboard and pointing the bay back in the direction that they had come from. Now he wished more than ever that he had taken Barranca; he'd need his palomino's stamina to catch up to his family in time.

The next two days went by in a blur.  Johnny pushed both himself and his horse relentlessly, only stopping to let the horse eat and drink occasionally.  During these brief stops, Johnny would refill his canteen and choke down a few pieces of jerky before hauling himself back into the saddle and forging on.  So far, he hadn't even bothered to look for tracks.  He reasoned that the farmer would take the easiest road out of Mexico, and there was only one in this part of the country.  If the Petersons somehow managed to cross the Rio Grande before he or the rurales caught up with them, then he would have to start figuring out which way they had gone. 

Later that day, he topped a small rise and saw a small bunch of riders ahead of him on the road leading to the Rio Grande.  He watched them for several moments before he knew without a doubt they were the rurales.  There were only eight of them, but it might as well be a hundred.  Without the element of surprise, he didn't stand a chance of winning a confrontation with them. If he had help, he might be able to take them, but he wasn't going to wait until they caught up with the farmer.   He knew Peterson would try, but the man just didn't have it in him to be a killer.  It would be better for Johnny to try to stop the bunch before they caught up with his family.  At least he might be able to inflict enough damage to discourage them and make them head back.He watched them for several moments, and then spurred the gelding down the hill.

 

Charles sat in the wagon, looking at the wide river flowing by in front of them.  Almost two years ago, he had crossed this same river into Mexico, hoping to find a life for his family.  Now he was running back, broken and beaten.  He had no money and precious few belongings.  And the one thing of value that they had found in this accursed country had been ripped violently from them.  He sighed softly as he thought about Johnny, but without knowing where the men had taken him there was no way for them to find him, and they couldn't hire someone without money.   His wife had heard enough to know that the men were bounty hunters, and she had heard them say they would take him dead or alive.  Peterson knew that his adoptive son was probably dead already, and the thought sickened him.  He had to look to the future, but he knew it would be hard.  They had lost a member of their family.

Right now though, he had to concentrate on keeping the rest of his family alive.   They needed to cross that river and then find a place to live.  He wouldn't feel comfortable until they were safely out of Mexico and away from the threat of the rurales.  Life wouldn't be easy with no money as back up, and he knew the next year or so would be extremely difficult.  He continued to watch the river, and then with a glance at his wife, he slapped the reins down on the backs of the horses, urging them down the bank and into the water. 

They found a small house about ten miles from the border and decided to stay there for a day or two and rest the horses.  It was small and dirty, but at least it had a roof and some protection from the night air.  Peterson needed to try to go hunting and get something for them to eat, and it would give the women time to wash clothes.  After that they would start looking for a permanent place to stay.  He and Helen had talked it over, and decided they would try to get jobs somewhere and save up some money to start over.   He hated to see his wife work, but it was the only option they had at this point.   He was just unharnessing the horses when he heard gunshots in the distance.  He grabbed his rifle and herded his family into the house, hoping the violence wouldn't come this way.

 

 

Chapter Eighty Eight

Johnny rode into the group of rurales before he had a chance to change his mind.  He had never before simply killed men without warning, but he figured these men didn't deserve a chance.  It was enough that they had made his life hell for so long, but knowing they would brutally murder his family if given a chance was enough to destroy any guilt he felt.   He managed to take out two of them before the others responded, and when the inevitable return fire started, he ducked low on his horse's neck and headed toward some nearby trees.  The bullets whizzed around him as he quickly and expertly reloaded.  As he neared the trees, he turned back and sent several more rounds toward the milling men.  He was relieved when another man fell, knowing the odds were becoming slightly better.  He urged his horse into a dead run straight into the trees, and when he had gone several hundred feet, he slid his horse to a stop and jumped off.   He crouched next to a fallen log and watched as the five remaining men headed straight toward him.  He slammed some more cartridges into the chambers and brought the revolver up, ready to fire. 

They were almost within range of his gun when he heard a rifle firing from the ridge they had just left.  The rurales stopped, uncertain which threat to address first.  Johnny held his fire, wondering who was firing at the Mexicans, but relieved that some of the pressure had been taken off of him.  He watched as the rurales glanced in his direction, and then turned and rode back toward the new threat.  Johnny watched them leave, and then jumped on his gelding and spurred his horse through the trees in the direction he figured the Petersons had gone.  He didn't know who was firing on the rurales, and at this point he really didn't care.  Whoever it was was on their own.

He had only gone a short ways when he slowed the bay to a lope.  The unknown gunman was bothering him for some reason.  He couldn't figure out why anyone would attack the rurales when they could have just waited for Johnny to take another one or two out.   It was almost as if the gunman had fired to keep the rurales from going after Johnny.   He pulled his mount down to a walk, listening for sounds coming from where the battle had shifted.  From the sound, he figured the man with the rifle had been pinned down.  He turned his horse around, uncertain whether to go back.

He heard a noise from behind him, and he spun his horse around to face the new threat.  He stared at the approaching figure, and a slow smile appeared on his face as he recognized the farmer.   He waited for Peterson to notice him, and a moment later, he heard Charles' surprised shout.  “JOHNNY!”

Johnny rode over to where the farmer was standing and he jumped off of his horse.  Peterson grabbed him in a big bear hug, and Johnny self consciously hugged him back.  The farmer stepped back and studied the young man.  “Thank God you're OK.”

Johnny nodded, and then looked back toward the clearing as another burst of gunfire erupted.

“What's going on?”  Peterson asked.

  “The rurales were following you.  I discouraged ‘em some, and then another gunman started firing at them.  They've got him pinned down in those rocks up on the ridge.”

  “Who is it?”

“I don't know.”  But even as Johnny said it, it felt like a lie.  An idea that had started as a fleeting thought had now insinuated itself into his brain.  The feeling that he had been followed since he left Lancer gave him a pretty good idea who the man pinned down on the ridge was.   It was the only thing that made sense.  He looked once more toward the ridge, listening as the gunfire reached a crescendo.  He dropped his head, trying to block out the noise.

“Johnny?”   Peterson placed his hand on Johnny's arm.  “Are you all right?”

Johnny nodded, his conscience warring with his feelings of betrayal.  He had told himself that he wanted to see Murdoch and Scott dead, and he had almost convinced himself of that.  The problem was, he wasn't sure if it was true. He was furious at them, and didn't want anymore to do with them, but that was a lot different than wanting them to die.  He wasn't sure if he could live with himself if he didn't at least make sure he got Scott to safety. 

  With a sigh, he looked at Peterson.  “I'm goin' back.  Besides, I need ta make sure those rurales won't be botherin' you again.”

“I'll go with you.”

Johnny shook his head.  “No.  You stay here.  I'll be right back.”

“I can watch your back.”

Johnny hesitated, remembering who else had said those same words but who had let him down when it had counted.  “No, I said I'll be along. Now go on.”  Johnny swung up on his horse and headed back toward the ridge, leaving Peterson behind.

Johnny was halfway back to where the battle was taking place when the gunfire suddenly ceased.  He kicked his horse to a faster gait, suddenly frightened that he would be too late.  As he rode, he pulled his rifle from the scabbard and looked up the hill for any sign of movement.  He saw a flash of color, and pulled his horse to a halt.  Two rurales were approaching a large boulder about halfway up the ridge, their guns drawn.

  Johnny brought his rifle to his shoulder and sighted his quarry.  He squeezed the trigger, and then quickly moved his gun to bear on the other man.  The last rurale stopped, trying to figure out where the shot had come from, and Johnny pulled the trigger once more, then hurried his bay up the hill.

He stopped his horse next to the large boulder and jumped off.  He quickly made sure the rurales were dead, and then walked around the end of the boulder, his gun drawn.  He stopped as he saw Scott lying face down behind the rock, his hair soaked with blood.

 

 

Chapter Eighty Nine

Johnny numbly put his gun back into its holster and hurried over to where Scott was lying.  He knelt down and felt for a pulse and was relived to find one. He swept the hair back from a deep gash on the side of Scott's head where a bullet had dug a furrow.   He checked him over and could find no other injuries. Johnny sat back and studied the man for a moment and then reached down and grabbed his wrists so he could drag him over to Scott's patiently waiting horse.

  “Is he OK?”

  Johnny jerked toward the voice and saw Peterson standing there, his rifle at the ready.  

  “I told ya ta go on.”

  “And I wasn't going to leave you if you needed help.”  He nodded toward the man.  “You didn't answer me.  Is he all right?” 

“He'll be fine.  It's just a graze,” Johnny said crossly.  He started to lift Scott and the farmer stepped up to help.  Between the two of them, they managed to secure Scott across Charlie's saddle and Johnny scrambled up behind him.  Peterson mounted the bay and the two men started down the hill.  Peterson pointedly looked away from the bodies of the rurales sprawled across the landscape, once again reminded just how dangerous his son was.  For some reason, though, it didn't bother him like he thought it would. In fact, in a way it made him feel safe. He knew that if it weren't for Johnny, he would have lost the rest of his family several times.

When they reached the trees, Johnny turned Charlie away from the farmer and started to head in a different direction.  “There's a town about ten miles from here that should have a doctor. I'm gonna take him there and drop him off, then I'll be back.”  

  Peterson shook his head.  “You said it was just a graze.”

“It is.”

“Then bring him to the house.  We can take care of him there.”

“No.”

The farmer looked at Johnny in surprise. “Why?  We owe him that much, at least.  From what I understand, he saved our lives.”

  “He'll be fine in town.”

“Johnny, bring him to the house.  Ten miles will be hard on him.  If it really is just a graze, he can rest there tonight and he can leave tomorrow.”

Johnny dropped his head, preparing to argue.  He didn't want Scott around his family.  He shook his head slowly.  “I don't want him there.”

Peterson thought for a moment.   “Is he dangerous?”

Johnny couldn't quite repress a smile.  “No.”

  Peterson put his hand on Johnny's arm.  “Come on, son.  Whatever is going on between the two of you, it's better to face it.  Bring him back to the house.”

  “What makes you think there's anything between us?” Johnny asked cautiously.

  Peterson merely raised his eyebrows and stared at the gunfighter until Johnny dropped his head.

Johnny looked at Scott for several seconds and then brought his eyes back up to the farmer.   Peterson stared steadily back, and finally, with a sigh Johnny turned the horse around and followed the farmer.  A half of an hour later, the men rode into the small yard in front of the shack.  The women rushed out and after hugging Johnny they helped him carry the wounded man into the house.  Johnny put him down on a makeshift bed then turned toward Mrs. Peterson.  “I'm gonna have ta sew him up.  I need some water and clean cloths.”

As his wife ran out to the wagon to retrieve the supplies, Charles watched Johnny as he cared for the other man.  “Who is he, Johnny?”

  “Nobody.”

Peterson let it go, but he wasn't fooled.

Laura stepped up next to the bed.  “Is he going to be all right?”

Johnny nodded.  “He'll be fine.  He'll just have a headache for a while.”

Laura studied the man in the bed and smiled.  Even through the blood and grime, she could tell he was handsome.  “I wonder what his name is.”

“Scott,” Johnny answered without thinking.

Laura looked at the dark- haired young man quizzically.  “You know him?”

Johnny stopped what he was doing and looked at the unconscious man.  “I used to,” he said quietly.

  She opened her mouth to ask another question, but her father shook his head warningly.  With a sigh, Laura pulled a chair up to the bed and watched Johnny work.  Mrs. Peterson came back into the house and handed the supplies to Johnny.  “Do you need help?” she asked.

  He shook his head, and then said with a wry grin.  “I've had plenty of practice.”

When Johnny was finished, he stood up and walked out of the house.  He unsaddled his bay and Charlie, and turned them out into a small corral next to the shack.  He stood with his hands on the top rail and his head down for several minutes.  He should be feeling happy.  He was back with his family and the rurales were no longer a threat, but Scott's appearance had shaken him.  He didn't want him here.  He just wanted to be able to go on with his life and forget about Lancer, but he had the feeling that wasn't the way it was going to work. 

“Johnny?”  He turned around to Mrs. Peterson's worried gaze.  “Are you all right?”

  He smiled at her concern.  “Yeah, I'm fine.”

She smiled back.  “We've been worried about you.  We wanted to look for you, but we didn't know where to start.”She bit her lip nervously.  “Who were those men that came to get you? I heard them say there was a bounty on you.”

He dropped his head.  “Just a mistake, that's all.”

  “They didn't hurt you?”

Johnny shook his head, but didn't meet the lady's eyes.

She put her hand on his arm.  “Supper's ready.  Come in and eat,” she said softly.  “And Johnny, welcome home.”

  He brought his head up and smiled at her, then followed her into the house.  He glanced over to the bed where Scott was still unconscious.  Laura was sitting next to the bed, and he felt a moment's unease.  She sure seemed interested in him.  He shook his head, scolding himself for jumping to conclusions.  She was worried about him, that was all.

 

 

Chapter Ninety

The women had managed to clean up the house a little since they had arrived, and it looked much more presentable.  It was still awfully small though, and there was hardly room to turn around without bumping into someone.   Johnny hoped it didn't rain; he thought that having that many people in a room much smaller than his bedroom at Lancer would get old mighty quickly.  

The though of Lancer drew his eyes back to the man lying on the bed and Johnny's thoughts went back in time.  How many times had they stood by each other's bed while the other was recuperating from some injury?  How many times had he prayed that he wouldn't lose his brother?  Johnny shook his head.  Too many times.  It seemed as though God had played a cruel joke.  He hadn't let Scott die, but Johnny had lost him just the same.  He also knew that no matter what he told anyone else, the pain would never go away.  He had lost part of himself, and it would always hurt.

He watched as Laura picked up the blonde's hand and said something to the unconscious man, and Johnny turned away.  He didn't need to be here.   Someone else could watch over Scott this time.  He was through with him.  Johnny sat down at the crude table and helped himself to the meager fair, concentrating on anything but the man in the bed.It looked like he had better go hunting tomorrow.  He had the feeling that Scott wouldn't be ready to leave the next day, and Johnny had no intention of sticking around and playing nursemaid.

Laura's voice broke through his musings.  “Johnny, I think he's waking up!”

Johnny ignored both Laura's announcement and the Peterson's quizzical looks and continued eating. After a moment, Mrs. Peterson stood up and walked over to the bed in time to see a pair of confused blue eyes flutter open.

Scott immediately started looking around, obviously trying to get his bearings, and Laura grabbed his hand and spoke soothingly to him.  “It's all right, you're safe.”

Scott stopped and brought his eyes to focus on the girl. He stopped struggling, and a moment later a small smile appeared.  “I must be in heaven.”

Laura smiled back.  “Not exactly. You're in Texas.”

Johnny rolled his eyes at the exchange, then stood up abruptly and stalked out of the house.  Charles watched him leave and then turned his attention to the young man lying in the bed. 

Mrs. Peterson lifted Scott's head and offered him some water, and after taking a few sips, Scott lay back against the pillows.  “Where am I?”

“We're the Petersons.  The rurales were after us, and you attacked them for some reason.  Afterwards, we brought you here.”

Scott closed his eyes, trying to remember.  Suddenly, his eyes flew open.  “JOHNNY!”  

Mrs. Peterson nodded her head.  “He helped bring you here.”

“Is he OK?”

“He's fine.”

Scott relaxed.  “Thank God.  I thought for sure they would shoot him.”

From the table, Peterson looked at the man with narrowed eyes.  He certainly seemed concerned about Johnny; much more than Johnny seemed to care about him.

  Scott looked around, but it was an effort.  His head was killing him.  “Where is he?”

“He's outside.  He left as soon as you woke up.”

“That figures,” Scott sighed. “He still hates me, but as long as he's all right….”  Scott's eyes slid shut and he drifted off once more.

Helen looked over at her husband.  “What's going on?  How does he know Johnny?”

Charles shook his head.  “I don't know, and right now Johnny isn't talking.  As soon as I tried to ask, Johnny clammed up and refused to discuss it.  I know he didn't want to bring Scott here.”   He pointed toward the man in the bed.  “I have the feeling we'll find out more from him.”

 “Do you think he will be all right?”  Laura asked.

Mrs. Peterson nodded.   “He should be.  He's awake and he seems to be thinking OK.”  She looked at her oldest daughter.  “I'll sit with him the rest of the night.  I want you to go to bed. It looks like you'll have to sleep in the wagon one more night, at least.”

  “I'm not sleepy!”

  “Laura, go; and take Ann and Julie with you. It's way past their bedtime.”  Reluctantly, Laura herded her little sisters out of the house, glancing back one last time at the man on the bed.  Ann and Julie raced toward the wagon, but Laura looked over and saw Johnny standing by the corral, gazing out at nothing. She knew by his posture that he was upset.  Laura looked back to make sure her sisters were safely in the wagon, and then walked over to Johnny.

  “Are you all right?”

  Johnny laughed softly.  “I will be if everybody stops askin' me that.”

“We've been worried about you.”  Laura dropped her head, the emotion apparent in her voice.  “We thought you were dead.” 

Johnny snorted and shook his head.  “Seems like there's a lot of that goin' around lately.”

“I don't understand.”

“Never mind.”  He nodded toward the house.  “He's awake?”

Laura nodded.  “Yes.”

Johnny scuffed the toe of his boot in the dirt, not sure he wanted to know.   “Did he say anything?”

“He asked about you. He was worried that you'd been shot.”

When Johnny didn't answer, Laura continued.  “Who is he, Johnny?”

Johnny stood up and looked at the girl.  “Nobody.  I'm gonna turn in.  I'll see ya tomorrow.”

  “Aren't you even going to go in and see him?”

“Nope.”  He turned and headed toward the small shed where he'd stowed his gear.

  “Don't you even care if he's all right?”

He stopped, considering the question.  “I figured if he'd died, ya woulda told me.  By the way, tell your Pa I'll be leavin' early tomorrow ta go huntin'.  I'll try ta make it back by evenin', but don't worry if I don't.”

  Laura watched him go, wondering how he could be so cold toward someone who obviously cared so much about him. He had always seemed so kind, but now she wasn't so sure, he seemed different somehow.She wondered just what had happened between the two men to make Johnny hate him so much.   Laura shook her head, wondering once more if the man inside would tell them what they wanted to know.

 

 

Chapter Ninety One

Charles woke up early and looked around, confused for a moment about where he was.  He heard the sound of a horse's hooves and looked out the cracked window just in time to see Johnny ride out.  He glanced over at the bed and noticed that his wife had fallen asleep in a chair just as he had and he straightened up, trying to get the stiffness out of his back.  As he stretched, he studied the sleeping man.  Scott's color seemed better and he was snoring softly, and the farmer said a quick prayer of thanks that the man looked like he'd recover. 

Peterson stood up and walked over to his wife, gently shaking her.  “Helen, wake up.”

His wife's eyes came open and she smiled at her husband before turning her attention to the man on the bed.  “He's still asleep,” she said. 

The farmer nodded.  “Let's have some breakfast.  Johnny went hunting and hopefully we'll have something decent for supper.”

A few moments later the three girls came in and the Peterson's finished up the last of their food.  Helen kept back something to eat for Scott when he woke up and for Johnny to eat when he came home, but there wasn't very much to share.  They had just finished and the girls had gone out to take care of the horses when the farmer heard a small noise from the other side of the room.  Helen hurried over to the bed and felt Scott's forehead as he opened his eyes.

“Good morning,” Helen said.

“Morning,” Scott whispered.

Mrs. Peterson handed the young man a glass of water, and Scott sipped it slowly.  When he was done, she took it and set it on the small table next to the bed.

  “How are you feeling?”

“OK.”  Scott looked around at the people and the small house.  “Where's Johnny?”

Helen glanced at her husband before answering.  “He went hunting; we needed some food.”

Scott sighed and shook his head.  “You mean he left to avoid me.”

Mr. Peterson walked over.  “Why is Johnny so angry with you?”

Scott shook his head slowly to avoid the pain he felt when he moved too quickly.  “I don't know.”

Charles shook his head.  “Don't lie to me.  Johnny's a part of this family, and if he doesn't want you here you'll have to leave.”

Scott sat up and stared at the farmer.  “What do you mean he's part of your family?  Who are you?”

“I'm Charles Peterson, and this is my wife, Helen.”

Scott's eyes narrowed.  “Johnny's not related to you.”

Peterson returned the young man's challenging stare.  “That's none of your business, but it doesn't matter if he's related or not.  He's still family.”

“Just how do you know him?” Scott demanded.

Peterson studied the man for a moment and then shook his head slowly.  “I think before I answer I'd better ask you the same question.” 

Scott brought his head up defiantly.  “I'm his brother.”

Peterson stared at the young man skeptically.  “I don't believe you.”

“It really doesn't matter if you believe me.  It's the truth.” 

“You're nothing alike,” Helen said calmly.

“We're half brothers.  We had different mothers.”

“You don't speak the same, either.”

“Look, we didn't grow up together. We didn't even know each other until around three years ago, when we both came to live with our father.”

“So why does he hate you?”

Scott shut his eyes and shook his head.

“What did you do to him?”

“NOTHING!”  Scott shook his head and then looked at the farmer.  “Now you can answer MY question.  How do YOU know Johnny?”

Peterson shrugged.  “Johnny….worked for us.  He helped us and now he's a member of this family.”

Scott stared at the man, trying to see any sign of deceit, but all he saw was an honest, gentle man.  “We thought he'd been in prison all this time.”

  “He was supposed to be,” the farmer admitted.

  Scott shook his head, and then realized what the man was saying.  “You bought him from the prison, didn't you?”

Peterson dropped his head and reluctantly nodded.  “I…I didn't know what to expect.  I thought…I was desperate.”  Peterson laughed softly.  “I know now just how lucky we were to get Johnny.   He could have hurt us or taken off any time he wanted to, but he didn't.”  He stared at the young man.  “I don't think he cared.  He'd been hurt…badly, and I don't mean physically.”   He looked at Scott challengingly.  “He said his family was dead.”

Scott dropped his head and nodded in acknowledgement.  “It was my fault he was in that prison,” he said quietly.

“What happened?”

“It's a long story, but we had all wound up in that prison, our father and Johnny and I. We were in there for quite a while before we finally managed to escape.  The rurales were catching up and we couldn't make it.  Murdoch, our father,  was unconscious, and we only had one horse.  Johnny was hurt and couldn't hold Murdoch in the saddle.  He insisted on going back and buying us some time.  We went off and left him.”  Scott's voice broke as he relived that day.  “And then...then we left him in there.”

  “WHY! How could you!”

Scott blinked quickly, trying to keep the tears from forming.   “We thought he was DEAD!”  Scott dropped his head.  “The warden had a private vendetta against Johnny and my brother told me he wasn't going to be taken alive.”

  “And you didn't bother to find out for sure?”

  “Of course we did!  Our friend went back to Mexico to check and the Pinkerton's sent a detective down to make sure also.  They said he was dead!”

  “Does Johnny know that?”

  Scott shook his head.  “I don't know. We tried to tell him when he came home, but he wasn't exactly in the mood to listen.”

The farmer shook his head in confusion.   “When did he go home?”

Scott shut his eyes, knowing how this must sound to these people.  “We heard about a man who was pretending to be Johnny. We were angry that he was blaming all of the horrible things he did on my brother.  We…put a reward out for him.”

Helen looked at Scott, her mouth agape.  “It was YOU?  Johnny's own family put a bounty out on him?”

  Scott's head dropped and he nodded miserably.  “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

 

 

Chapter Ninety Two

  Peterson shook his head slowly.  “How could you put a bounty on him?  Didn't you stop to think about what would happen if Johnny was still alive?”

“We didn't think there was any chance that he was, and we wanted to stop the man that was pretending to be Johnny.”  Scott shook his head.  “To tell you the truth, I'm not sure now that it wasn't Johnny doing those things all along.  He's changed.”

Peterson shook his head.  “You don't have much faith in your brother, do you?  No wonder he said he didn't have a family, with that kind of support.  Does your father doubt him, too?”

Scott started to argue, but then his head dropped. He knew the farmer was right.   “Murdoch and Johnny have always locked horns.  That was why Johnny left and how he ended up in prison.  Someone in Mexico had put out a bounty for Johnny Madrid.  It was a case of mistaken identity, but it didn't matter.  Men kept coming and challenging Johnny and Murdoch blamed him.  When Johnny suggested to our father that Johnny should leave, Murdoch agreed.”

  “How did you and your father wind up in prison?”  Helen asked.

  “We went after him to bring him back and got in an argument with the man who had put out the bounty.  During the argument, the man fell and hit his head.  We were arrested.”

“Then you DO care about Johnny?”

“Of COURSE I CARE!  He's my BROTHER!”

The farmer shook his head slowly.  “It seems that Johnny doesn't believe that you do, and I don't think I would either if I were him.”

  “I know we've made some mistakes, but I followed my brother back here from California to try to convince him to come home.  He belongs with his family.”

Helen's head came up and she stared at the young man defiantly.  “Johnny BELONGS where he will be happy, and that has to be his choice.”

Scott nodded reluctantly.  “I know.  He has a right to be happy; he's had a hard life.   His whole life he's had to fight just to survive.”  Scott dropped his head.  “When he was just a child he killed the man that had murdered his mother.  After that, the only way he could survive was to be a gunfighter, but my brother wasn't a killer.  It ate at him, and he hated that life.  He tried so hard to quit, and then we…”  Scott sighed.  “Even if that was him that was causing all of the trouble, he had every reason to turn mean.”

“Like I said, you don't have much faith in him and you obviously don't know him as well as you think you do.”  

  “And you do?”  Scott challenged.

  “I KNOW he's a decent young man.  He doesn't have to keep convincing me, he already has, more than once.  And for your information, you don't have to worry about that man anymore.  Johnny killed him.”

  “How?”

“A gunfight a few days before the men you had hired took him away.”

Scott nodded.  “Well I'm glad to hear that, anyway.  I'm surprised Johnny could take him, after being out of the game so long.”He looked at the farmer and his wife.  “I want to thank you for not only helping me, but helping my brother and for treating him right.  You were obviously there for him when he needed someone, and I'm forever in your debt.”

  Peterson shook his head.  “Johnny doesn't owe us.  We owe him.  He's saved all of our lives and even if he hadn't he's been a blessing to our family.  I feel badly that his own father doesn't feel the same way toward him.  He deserves better.”

Scott stared at the farmer before nodding his head.  “Yes, he does.  Mr. Peterson. I want to try to talk to him.  I want to try and convince him to come home, but I'll respect his decision.  I know he cares about you and he's happy here. When he was in California, he told us he was going home to his family.  I didn't know what he meant, but I do now.  I just don't want him to think that we don't care.  I want him to know that we love him and try to convince him that it was all a huge misunderstanding.”

  Helen nodded her head.  “We want Johnny to stay here, but he needs to know the truth, one way or the other.”

  Peterson nodded.  “Yes, he does, but you be SURE that's what you tell him; the truth.  I don't want him hurt anymore, and I'll shoot you myself if I think you're lying to him.”

  Scott nodded.  “I won't lie to him.  I want my brother back.”  He looked at the farmer.  “Johnny won't want me to stay.” 

“No, he won't.  He was pretty clear about that.”

Helen smiled at her husband.  “Scott can't leave if he's still hurt.”

The farmer smiled back.  “No, he can't.”  He looked at Scott. “You'd better slow down your recovery a little bit if you're planning on staying.”

Scott grinned back.  “I'll see what I can do, but Johnny isn't dumb.  He knows how fast I should recover.”

“Head wounds are hard to predict.  You never know when you're going to have a setback.”

Scott shook his head.  “That's right; in fact I think I feel one coming on as soon as Johnny gets back.”

  The farmer nodded.  “Just remember what I said.  The only lie I want to hear is about the state of your health.  If I think you're doing anything to hurt him, Ill chase you off with a shotgun, and don't think I won't.”

“I'll remember. And no matter what you think, I'd never do anything on purpose to hurt my brother.  I want to get this settled.”

  Helen stood up and went over to the table.  “Are you hungry?  We don't have much, but hopefully Johnny will find something for supper.”

  Scott laughed.  “Oh, I'm sure he will.  I know how my brother likes to eat.”

  Helen brought over a plateful of food and handed it to the young man, then started to clean up the small cooking area.  As she worked, she thought about the conversation they had just had.   She had mixed feelings about Scott.  She liked him; she thought he was a very nice young man, but she also felt protective about Johnny and didn't want him to be hurt anymore.  She was also afraid that if Scott was successful, they would lose Johnny forever.  She felt a lump form in her throat just thinking about it, but she and Charles wouldn't stand in his way if he wanted to return to his real family. They wanted him to be happy.

 

 

Chapter Ninety Three

Johnny walked his horse back into the small clearing in front of the house and tied him to the fence.  He looked over and frowned when he saw that Charlie was still in the corral. He hadn't really expected his brother to be gone, but he had hoped that he would be.  He didn't need that complication in his life right now.  They needed to find a place to settle and get a crop in the ground.  If they didn't plant quickly, it would be too late for this year.

He sighed.  Actually, it was probably already too late. He didn't now that much about farming, but he knew that crops were planted in spring, and it was already heading into summer. They'd have to get some living money somewhere else.   He knew Charles couldn't work; not with that leg.  Johnny would have to get a job somewhere and try to support the family through the winter. He shook his head again.  Damn, he should have reined in his pride and taken some of Murdoch's money.  Now they would be scrambling just to eat.  When would he learn to think ahead?

He untied the deer from the back of the saddle and dragged it to the ground, then unsaddled the horse and led him into the corral, promising him a rubdown later.

Johnny looked up as the farmer came out of the house.  Mr. Peterson walked over and examined the deer.  “Looks like we'll be eating venison tonight.”

  Johnny nodded.  “I got lucky.”

  Peterson smiled.  “I have the feelin it was more than luck.  By the way, your brother is feeling better, but he's still not well.”  Charles watched Johnny for any reaction, and was disappointed when he saw none.

  Johnny took a knife out and started butchering the deer.   “He told ya, huh?”

 “Yes, he did, and I'm surprised you didn't.”

“Nothin' ta tell.  He ain't nothin' ta me.”

“He's your brother.”

“I'm tellin' you the same thing I told him: not anymore.”

  “Johnny, you can't just forget about him.”

  Johnny stopped and looked at the farmer.  “Why not?  That's what he did ta me.”

  “Are you SURE about that?  He seems to care very much, and he seems to be a very decent young man.”

Johnny snorted.  “Yeah, well, looks can be deceiving, can't they?”

  Peterson dropped his head and shook it sadly.  “He cares about you, Johnny. The least you could do is to give him a chance.”

Johnny jumped to his feet.  “I ain't gonna shoot him, and I'm tellin' you right now if it had been anybody else that did what he did, I'd a killed him.  I figure that's good enough of a chance.” 

“I've never seen you like this.”  

“Like what?  A killer?”  Johnny dropped his head and wrapped his arms around himself.  “It's what I am.”

Peterson immediately grabbed Johnny's arm and looked him in the eye.  “No, it's not.  You've had to kill to survive, not because you wanted to, and don't ever confuse the two.”

  Johnny looked at him, confusion evident in his blue eyes.  “How do you know?”

The farmer smiled and squeezed Johnny's arm.  “Because I know you.”

Johnny sighed.  “I can't…give… Scott any more.  I don't care about what he thinks anymore. THIS is my family now, if you still want me.”  He dropped his head, afraid of the farmer's reaction.

“Johnny, you're like my own son. In fact…” he hesitated.  “You're a much better man than my son could have ever hoped to be.  You'll ALWAYS be a part of our family, and…you'll always be my son.”

Johnny swallowed hard, once more hearing the words of acceptance that he'd longed for so long.  He realized that this was what he'd been looking for his whole life.  He nodded.  “Thanks.  I thought I'd lost my father, but I guess I didn't after all.  I found him instead.”

  Peterson nodded, his own throat tightening.  “Johnny, you know you can have two families.”

  Johnny brought his eyes up and looked the farmer in the eyes.  “I know I can, but I don't.  I only have one, and that's the way it's gonna stay.   I don't need anyone else.”

  Peterson sighed.  “At least talk to him.”

  Johnny dropped his head and went back to butchering the deer, and the farmer finally gave up and went back into the house. He looked over at their guest and noticed that Laura was talking to him again.  She had spent a good portion of her time next to him since he'd arrived, and he frowned.  He wasn't sure he liked it.  He had thought Laura was in love with Johnny, but now he wasn't so sure. 

Twenty minutes later, Johnny walked in after washing up at the nearby creek.  He glanced over to where Scott and Laura were talking quietly, and then sat down at the small kitchen table and grinned at Mrs. Peterson.  “Where do ya want the deer?”

Mrs. Peterson smiled. “You'll have to ask Charles where he wants the rest of it, but I want a roast right in that stewpot. We can make a fire outside and roast it over the coals.”

  Johnny smiled.  “It sounds good, and I'm starvin'.  I think I'll go start the fire now.”

  Helen laughed.  “I figured you would.”

Scott watched as his brother left the house without a backwards glance, and he felt crushed.  Johnny hadn't even cared enough to see if he was all right. He dropped his head, fighting back the disappointment.  He knew it would take time, but he was beginning to think it was impossible.  He was starting to think that he'd lost his little brother forever.

He felt a soft touch on his hand, and looked up at Laura's smiling face.  He managed a smile back, and his hand tightened on hers.  She was the one bright spot in this whole mess and he wondered about fate.  If he weren't preoccupied with getting his brother back, she would be receiving his full attention.  His smile grew wider.  Maybe after he had convinced Johnny to come home, he could get to know her better.  Much better.

 

 

Chapter Ninety Four

Johnny didn't bother to come in for breakfast the next morning.  Instead, he started repacking the wagon. He had no intention of letting Scott keep them from leaving, besides they were still a little too close to the border for his liking.  He was just refilling the water barrel when Mr. Peterson walked up, a sandwich in his hands. 

  “Here, I figured you'd be hungry.”

Johnny accepted the offering. “Thanks.”

The farmer nodded.  “Scott is still pretty unsteady on his feet.”

“I bet he is.”

“Johnny we can't just go off and leave him.  We'll have to stay until he can ride.”

“He can ride just fine.”

  “Are you really sure about that?”

“Yep.”

Peterson sighed.  “Johnny, go in and talk to him.”

“No.”

The farmer put his hand on Johnny's arm.  “Please.”

Johnny shut his eyes a moment before slamming what was left of the sandwich back into Peterson's hands and marching into the house.

Mrs. Peterson saw him coming, and noticed the look on his face.  She shot Scott a look of sympathy before herding Ann and Julie out of the house.  “Come outside, Laura,” she called out as she shut the door.

  Laura looked over at Johnny and then back at Scott, who nodded.  “Go on, we'll finish this conversation later.”

  Laura glared at Johnny as she swept past toward the door.  “You be nice to him,” she ordered.

As the door slammed shut, Johnny grabbed the chair and sat down and studied his brother.  “It looks like you feel just fine.”

Scott dropped his head.  “I still feel pretty dizzy.”

“Uh huh.  You stickin' with that story?”

“Johnny, we need to talk.”

Johnny stared at his brother.  “Why?”

  “Because I want to know why you're so angry!”

Johnny snorted.  “Why shouldn't I be?”

  “That's what I'm TRYING to find out.”

Johnny stood up and started for the door, and Scott bolted to his feet.  “WAIT!”

Johnny spun around and a smirk formed on his face.  “See, I knew you could get up if ya tried.  My father told me ta talk to ya and I did.  Didn't say for how long.”

“Your FATHER is back in California, worried sick about you!”

“Murdoch doesn't know HOW ta be worried about me even if he wanted to, which I doubt, and he sure as HELL doesn't know how ta be a father.”

“Murdoch didn't leave you, I did.  Don't hate him for something I did,” Scott said quietly.

“I ain't.  Now since you obviously ain't sick, I want ya ta get your ass on that horse and get outta my life.”

  Scott started to reach out for his brother, but the look in Johnny's eyes stopped him.  He dropped his eyes.  “Johnny, please.  I know I let you down, and I know you'll always hate me for it, but DON'T hate Murdoch.  He didn't do anything.  If you come back to Lancer, I'll leave if you want me to.”

“I ain't goin' back.  There's nothin for me there.”

Scott started to shake his head, and then he stopped.  “Johnny, yes there is.”

  “Scott, I don't…”

  “Please, Johnny, just listen.  “I've been talking to Laura…”

“Yeah, I noticed.”

“…and they need a place to farm, right?”

“Yeah, so?”

“Remember the old Cooper place?”

Johnny shook his head warily.  “What about it?”

“Old man Cooper died and we took over his farm.  Murdoch didn't really want it, but Cooper left it to us.”

“No!”

“It has the best soil in the valley and we need somebody to work it.  We're going to have to hire somebody, it'd be perfect!”

“NO!”

“WHY?”  

“Cause I don't want ta be in the same state as either one of you.”

“Even to help your new FAMILY?”

“You leave them outta this, Scott.”

“I'm NOT going to leave them out of this.  If you won't leave them, then bring them to California.”

Johnny shook his head.  “It ain't gonna happen. Now I want you to leave.”

Scott sat down abruptly on the cot.  “I don't think I can ride yet.”

Johnny bolted over to the bed and grabbed Scott by the shirt, pulling him to his feet.  “Quit playin' games!”

“Then you stop being so dang stubborn!”

“Get OUT!”

“No,” Scott said calmly. “I think I'll stay.  I'd really like to get to know Laura a little better, anyway.”

The punch hit Scott in the gut, sending him sprawling back onto the bed, and Johnny immediately pounced on him, landing several more punches before Peterson pulled him off.

“JOHNNY!  STOP!”

“STOP!”

“JOHNNY!”

Finally the words started to register and he pulled away and stormed outside.   Johnny threw a saddle on his bay and galloped away from the house.

Peterson watched worriedly as Johnny left, and then turned his attention on Scott.  Scott struggled to sit up and he saw the worried look of the farmer.  “Don't worry, he'll be back.”

“How do you know?”

“Because I lived with him.  Every time he was upset or angry he'd take off like that.” 

Peterson shook his head.  “What happened in here?”

“He wanted me to leave.” 

Peterson dropped his head.  “Maybe you should.  I don't think you're getting anywhere.  All that's happening is that Johnny's getting upset.”

“May I ask you a question?”

The farmer nodded. 

“My family owns property in California.  There's plenty of land there to farm, and all of you would be more than welcome there.”

Charles thought about it for a moment, and then shook his head.  “That's very generous of you, but I don't have any money for land or supplies.  We don't even have money to get there.”

  Scott shook his head.  “You don't need to pay for the land.  It isn't being used, and we can make sure you have the money for traveling costs and supplies.”

Peterson shook his head regretfully.   “I appreciate the offer, but I can't take that kind of charity.  Besides, Johnny has made it perfectly clear that he doesn't want to go to California, and I have to respect that.”

“Mr. Peterson, please, think about it.”

The farmer shook his head.  “Thank you, but it's Johnny's choice, not mine, and I don't think he'll change his mind.”

“Can I stay and try to change it?”

  Peterson stared at the desperate young man and shook his head.  “One more day, but that's all.  My family's been through enough.”

  Scott sighed.  “So has mine.”

 

 

Chapter Ninety Five

Johnny sat in the small shed by the corral and cursed the water dripping onto his head.  It had been raining for three days, and the storm was hard enough that they couldn't travel.  Hell, it was hard enough that Scott couldn't even travel.  Johnny shook his head in frustration.  He had spent the last several days trying to avoid his brother, but in the small house it was pretty hard.  Finally, he had escaped to the shed, but he wasn't sure the leaking roof was better than having to cope with Scott.

Johnny pulled the blanket closer around him.  Thank goodness it wasn't really cold, but he preferred warmer, and definitely dryer, weather.  He thought that by the time the storm was over, he just might explode.  The forced inactivity was driving him crazy, and he was itching to do something physical.  He snorted. Maybe he could start another fight with Scott.

He still didn't know what his brother wanted.  Johnny's family had made it clear how they felt about him when they'd left him in that prison; and he knew that no matter what Scott said, nothing had changed.  He wanted his brother to leave him alone; he just wanted to forget about the past and live for the future. He had his family; now he wanted to have a home, and as long as they were stuck here, that wouldn't happen.

He glanced up through a crack in the roof and cursed once more.  All he wanted was to get settled somewhere and try to get his life on the right track, and it seemed as if everyone and everything was trying to prevent that.  He pulled the blanket closer once more, then tipped his head back out of the path of the drip and closed his eyes.

He knew that Scott would be out here before long; there wasn't any room in the house for everyone to sleep.  Johnny knew that no matter what Scott had done to him, his brother was too much of a gentleman to make one of the others leave the house.   Johnny sighed.  He also knew that no matter how mad he was at Scott, he wouldn't make his brother sleep outside in the rain. The wagon cloth wasn't waterproof, so this was the only other place that offered any shelter.  Well, sort of shelter.  He glared once more at the dripping roof.

Johnny heard the footsteps hurrying through the rain, and he rolled over onto his side and shut his eyes.  With any luck, Scott would accept that he was asleep and leave him alone.  He heard the door of the shed creak open, and could almost feel Scott's eyes boring into him.  He slowed his breathing and forced himself not to move, and after a few moments, he felt Scott lie down next to him in the tiny shed.  A long time later, Johnny finally drifted off to sleep.

The next morning Johnny was up early.  He wanted to get out before his brother woke up, and he pulled his boots on and grabbed his saddle and rifle, then quietly slipped out of the shed.  The rain had finally stopped, but the sky was still overcast, and the yard was a quagmire.  He slogged his way over to the bay and threw the saddle over the horse's back.  A moment later, he was headed away from the house.

Johnny headed up toward the nearby hills, purposely avoiding the site of the battle of the week before.  He knew that once they started traveling he wouldn't be able to do much hunting, and he wanted to get some more meat.   At least that was what he told himself.  In reality, he thought he just might go crazy if he didn't get out and move a little bit, and being cooped up with Scott for the last several days had been a supreme test of his temper.   He didn't want to test it any more, because he was afraid that if he lost it he just might shoot Scott before he found it again.

Johnny glanced up at the sky and saw in relief that the clouds seemed to be leaving.  With any luck, the storm was over and the ground would dry up.  They could be on their way in a day or two.  Just knowing they would be traveling lightened his mood considerably, and the deer that walked into his rifle sights a few minutes later completely chased his foul mood away.  He quickly gutted the deer and lashed it across the back of his saddle.  At least they wouldn't be short of meat for the next week or so, and he might even dry some if he had the time.   

By the time he turned the bay into the yard, he was actually humming.  He had managed to put things in perspective and he knew that the last few days had only been a minor setback.  In a few days, they would be on the move toward their new home and Scott wouldn't have any more excuses to stick around.  Things were definitely looking up.

He pulled his horse to a halt next to the corral and untied the deer, then undid the cinch and pulled the saddle off.  While he was working, Mr. Peterson walked up and stood next to him.  The farmer didn't say anything, and Johnny felt the tension he had spent the last several hours getting rid of start to surface once more.

  Finally, Charles spoke, but it wasn't what Johnny expected to hear.  “Do you think the rurales might send more men after us?”

  Johnny stopped and looked at the farmer.  “I don't know.  Maybe.  That's why we need ta get goin.”

  Peterson nodded.  “If they do, we'll be hard pressed to defend ourselves.”

“What are you getting at?”

Peterson sighed.  “Scott pointed out something that I think we should consider.  We're heading northwest, and so is Scott, at least for a while.   Since we'll all be going in the same direction, it would be best if we traveled together, for protection.”

Johnny felt his temper start to erupt, but as angry as he was, and as much as he didn't want to be around Scott any longer, he knew his brother was right.  If the rurales did find them again, they would stand a much better chance with Scott along.  He wasn't going to let his personal feelings endanger his family.  With a sigh, he nodded.  “Fine, just tell him ta stay away from me.”

  Peterson nodded.   “I think he already knows that.”

 

 

Chapter Ninety Six

They started out the next morning, and Johnny immediately rode ahead, leaving Scott to ride with the wagon.  Johnny was in a foul mood, but he figured that he only had to put up with Scott for another ten days or so, and he'd never have to see him again.   Surprisingly, that thought didn't bother him.  Knowing that chapter of his life was over only brought a bittersweet feeling of closure.

Late that afternoon, Johnny found a small clearing next to a stream, and rode back to tell the others.  When he rode up, Scott was driving the team with Laura beside him, and Mr. Peterson was riding Charlie alongside the wagon.  Scott pulled the team to a halt and Johnny scowled; in his opinion Scott was getting just a little too friendly with Laura.

Johnny dismounted and looked up at Scott.  “I know you're tired of sittin'.  Why don't ya go ahead and ride due north about ten miles. There's a clearing next to a stream.  We'll meet you there.”

Scott met Johnny's stare.  “I'm fine.”

  “Well I'm not,” Johnny said crossly.  “I want ta drive a while.”

“Scott is still a little dizzy.  Maybe he shouldn't be riding,” Laura offered.

  Johnny turned his glare on her.  “Is that so,” he said quietly.  He turned back toward his brother.  “Is that right?  You're still too hurt ta ride?” he challenged.

Scott met his brother's gaze for several moments, and then shrugged.  He wrapped the reins around the brake and turned toward Laura.  “Johnny's right, a ride will probably do me good.  I'll see you this afternoon.”  He climbed down and mounted the bay, then rode off. 

Johnny climbed aboard and picked up the reins, then slapped them down on the horses' backs a little harder than he needed to.  The wagon lurched forward once again, and Johnny slanted a look at Laura.  Her expression left no doubt that she was angry, and a moment later she turned toward him.  “Why are you so hateful toward him?”

“Because he was hateful ta me.”

“I don't believe you!  Scott's a perfect gentleman.”

Johnny turned and glared at the girl for a moment, and then turned away from her and stared out over the backs of the horses.  “Yes, he is a gentleman.  And he's also not very trustworthy.”

Laura shook her head vehemently.  “I don't believe you!”

Johnny pulled the team to a halt and stared at the girl.  “Don't trust him, Laura.  You'll wind up gettin' hurt.”

She kept his stare for a moment, and then turned away.  “You can't tell me what to do.  I'll make up my own mind.”

Johnny bit back a retort and urged the team forward once more.  He decided that this trip was getting longer by the minute.  He should have taken his chances with the rurales and told Scott to get lost; he had the feeling he would be regretting the decision to let his brother come along.  He darted another look at Laura and resigned himself to the silent treatment.

 

The next week went by, one day much like the next.  Johnny had been keeping track of the miles, and he figured Scott would be turning off in the next day or so, and Johnny's mood was getting steadily lighter.  Pretty soon Scott would be gone and things would be back to normal.  At least Scott had given up on trying to talk to him.   Since they had started traveling, Scott had kept his distance, and except for conversations necessary to get the various chores taken care of, he hadn't spoken to his brother. 

It had become a routine; Johnny would ride ahead during the day and scout things out, and Scott would drive the wagon.Except for that first night, Johnny hadn't been able to find a good place to stop, and they had been forced to make do with a dry camp each night.  Johnny scanned the nearby landscape as he rode, looking for any sign of water.  They needed to find some to replenish their supplies, and Johnny knew they'd all like to be able to wash up.

Near noon, Johnny spotted a grove of trees off to the left, and headed the bay toward it.  The shade from the trees was cool in the midday sun, and would also serve as a windbreak at night.  A few minutes later he heard the unmistakable sound of running water, and he was rewarded with the sight of a stream nestled in among the trees.  A doe, startled while drinking at the stream, looked up and with a flash of her tail disappeared into the bush.  Johnny smiled.  They were getting low on meat too, and he hadn't had time to hunt.  With any luck, he'd replenish their supply tomorrow morning.  He turned and kneed the bay into a lope back to the wagon.

That evening they made a cozy camp next to the water.  After their meager supper, Johnny announced he was going hunting the next morning.  “If ya want to go ahead, I can catch up after I get some meat.”

  Charles shook his head.  “The ladies want to wash some clothes.  I think we'll camp here for a day or two and give the horses a rest while you go hunting.”

  Johnny nodded.  “Fine with me.  I'll leave tomorrow, first light.”

  Scott caught Johnny's eye.  “If you want, I can go with you.”

  “No,” Johnny replied flatly as he turned around and walked off.

Scott sighed and nodded his head.  He thought by now he would have been able to at least talk to his brother, but Johnny was as distant as ever.  Scott had done as his brother had asked and left him alone, but it had been hard.  There were times that Scott wanted to grab Johnny and shake him and make him listen, but he knew that would just drive his brother further away, if that was possible.

Scott no longer knew what to do, and now there was a further complication.  Johnny wasn't in any mood to listen to him, and Scott was running out of time.   He dropped his head, and realized that if he couldn't talk them into coming back to Lancer, he needed to figure out some reason to stay with them.  Leaving them behind was not an option, and he would do whatever it took to succeed.

 

 

Chapter Ninety Seven

Johnny headed out at first light, leaving the quiet camp before anyone else was up. He was afraid Scott would try to go with him, and Johnny wanted to be by himself.  He headed for where he had seen the deer the night before and then turned upstream, in the direction the doe had gone.   He hadn't gone far when he came across some tracks leading away from the water.   He studied the tracks and decided that the path was used regularly by deer and probably led to some prime grazing or a salt lick. 

Johnny followed the path for about a quarter of a mile, and then the path opened up into a large field.  He dismounted and tied his bay in a thicket so the horse couldn't be seen, and then Johnny hunkered down by a tree on the fringes of the field to wait.  Almost immediately a doe stepped into the meadow, but as he raised his rifle he saw she was followed by two spotted fawns.  He slowly lowered his gun and watched as the animals grazed in peace.  He laughed a few times at the fawns playful antics, and the scene helped pass the time.  Sometime later, several yearlings approached cautiously, along with a huge old buck, but Johnny decided to wait.  The yearlings looked pretty scrawny and old deer's meat would probably be tough.  Besides, there was something about the grand old man that made Johnny feel the deer deserved to live.  Johnny shook his head.  He was definitely getting soft.

Two hours later, he was rewarded by the site of a large doe mincing her way across the field, looking for food.  He waited a moment to make sure she was alone, and then raised the rifle to his shoulder.  A second later a shot rang out and the deer dropped to the ground.  Johnny walked over and put his rifle back in the scabbard, then swung up on his horse to go and collect his prize.  He quickly gutted and cleaned the deer, then tied its legs together and threw it over the bay's back.

  Johnny rode back to camp with the deer tied behind the saddle.  He noticed immediately that Charlie was gone and wondered where his brother had disappeared to.  He swung off and pulled the deer onto the ground, then started to undo the cinch.  Before he could pull the saddle off, Mrs. Peterson came out of the wagon.

“I see you were successful!” she beamed.

Johnny grinned.  “Just lucky.”

  Helen smiled.  “I doubt that, but either way we won't be going hungry.”  She looked around the camp.  “Have you seen Laura?”

  Johnny shook his head.  “No, I didn't see anyone, why?”

Helen nodded, then shaded her eyes and scanned the surrounding landscape worriedly.  “She said she was going for a walk, but she's been gone a long time.  She left hours ago. Charles went to look for her, but he's been gone a while, too.”

Johnny reached under his horse's belly and pulled the cinch tight once more.  “She went for a walk?  Why?”

  Helen smiled ruefully.  “She said she was going crazy and that she had to think.”

Johnny laughed.  “Yeah, I know that feeling, but she shouldn't be wanderin' around alone.”

“I know, I told her to wait until one of you could go with her, but she said she needed to be alone.   Johnny, I wouldn't ask you, I know you just got back, but I'm worried about her.  I'd ask Scott, but he's not here, either.”

Johnny glanced around.  “Everybody's gone?  Did they say where they were goin'?”

Helen shook her head.  “Scott said he was going to try his luck finding a deer too, that we could use all the meat we could get, and Charles simply said that he was going to take a look around.  I have no idea where Laura went.”

  Johnny frowned.  “Scott and Charles shouldn't have left you and Laura alone.”

  Helen shrugged.  “I'm all right.  Please, just go look for Laura.”

Johnny nodded.  “I'm sure Laura's OK, but I'll go look. You stay here by the wagon, all right?”  He swung aboard the bay and nudged him away from the camp.  He knew there was no reason to worry, but he didn't like the fact that Laura was alone in an unknown territory.  Besides animals, the possibility that more rurales had tracked them was never far from his thoughts.  He didn't like the fact that Mrs. Peterson was alone, either.  Scott should have known better than to ride off and leave her, even if he did want to go hunting.

Johnny rode in the opposite direction than he had gone that morning, and headed downstream.  He knew she hadn't gone the other way, or he would have seen her, and he figured Laura would stay by the water, if only to help her find her way back to the camp.

He had only gone a short ways when he found her tracks, and Charlie's tracks on top of hers.  He felt relieved that Scott had found her, or was at least looking for her, but then his eyes narrowed and he shook his head, puzzled.  If Scott had found her, why hadn't he brought her back?  The tracks were at least an hour old. He urged the bay a little faster, worried that something had happened.  If the rurales had followed them, Scott and Laura could be in big trouble.

Johnny followed the tracks downstream for quite a ways, and then saw a flash of color in a small glade slightly below him and set back from the stream.  He headed in that direction, and when he got close he dismounted and tied his bay to a bush, then slipped his gun from its holster.  Quietly, he made his way through the brush, aware of the silence surrounding him.  He cautiously pushed some brush aside and stepped into the glade, pulling up short at the sight that awaited him.

 

 

Chapter Ninety Eight

Charles rode downstream, his mind going over his options.   He was worried, but he didn't want anyone to know it, at least not yet.  He had heard there was some good farmland near Abilene, and that was where he was headed.  The further west he went, however, the dryer and less arable the land seemed to be.  He hoped he hadn't made a mistake.   He knew central and east Texas had good farmland, but he also knew land would be costly in those areas.  He had gambled that farmland to the west would be cheaper, not that he could afford anything right now, anyway.  They'd have to save some money to buy land and supplies, and to do that, at least one of them would have to get a job.

He knew he certainly wasn't in any shape to work, especially for someone else, and he was hesitant to bring it up to Johnny.  It was hard enough letting the young man handle almost all of the chores without asking him if he'd go to work to earn money for the rest of them.  He was afraid Johnny would say no and leave.  He knew the boy had been hurt before, and he was afraid Johnny would think he was being used.  Charles shook his head.  Actually, he was.  It was unfair to ask Johnny to join them and then ask this of him, and the farmer didn't want to lose the boy.  Maybe something else would come up, but Charles doubted it.  He just wished his leg was better.

His mind wandered to the offer Scott had made, and he wondered if the man had been kidding.  It sounded too good to be true, and Charles had learned from long experience that when something sounded too good, it usually was. He wondered what Scott had hoped to gain, but then he knew.  The man was desperate to win his brother back any way that he could.  Charles had been nervous that Scott might succeed, but so far Johnny hadn't shown any sign of making up with his brother.  The farmer had mixed emotions; he wanted Johnny to be happy, but he didn't want to lose him, either.  He hoped things would work out for the best, but the thought of Johnny leaving made him almost feel sick.

As Charles rode, he glanced idly down at the ground and saw some tracks.  He was certainly no tracker, but it was obvious that the footprints were fresh, and that they were made by a woman.  He glanced up the trail from where the tracks had come, and realized they had come from the direction of their camp.  He figured it was probably Ann or Laura, but neither of them had any business out here by themselves.  It was just too dangerous.  He turned Charlie and followed the trail.  

He finally found her, pacing back and forth in a small clearing and talking to herself. She was waving her hands, and acted like she was talking to someone else.  Charles smiled.  Her mother did the same thing when she was trying to sort out a problem.He watched for several moments and then steered Charlie toward her.  Laura looked up, startled, and a small shriek escaped her lips before she recognized who it was.

“You frightened me!”

“Good!  You shouldn't be out here by yourself.”

“I needed to think,” Laura replied.

Mr. Peterson stepped down from the horse and approached his daughter.  About what?”

Laura dropped her head miserably.  “You'll be mad.”

  Charles smiled slowly.  “Why don't you let me be the judge of that.”  He limped over to a large log and sat down, then patted a spot next to him.  “Here, sit and tell me what's on your mind.”

  Laura hesitated for a second, but she knew she had to discuss it with him.  She sat down on the log and took a deep breath.   “I don't quite know how to tell you this, but I think…no, I KNOW I'm in love.”

  Peterson smiled.  “I know, Laura.”

She looked up at him, shocked.  “You do?”

  The farmer nodded.  “I've known for quite a while.”  He looked at her quizzically.  “Why did you think I'd be mad?”

  She shook her head.  “I don't know…” her voice trailed off.  “I just thought you would be.”

Peterson shook his head.  “He's a fine young man, and I already told him I'd be proud to have him as a son in law.”

“He ASKED YOU?”

Charles shrugged.  “Not exactly.  But the subject did come up.”

“When?”

“After he'd been shot.  He thought I'd be mad, too,” Peterson chuckled.

“But he didn't even know me then!”  She replied, confusion evident on her face.

Charles brows furrowed.  “Sure he did.  He'd been at the farm for almost a year.”

Laura froze and she stared at her father.  “You think I'm in love with JOHNNY?”

It was the farmer's turn to be confused.  “Of course, who else would you be…”  Realization dawned, and he breathed the name. “Scott.”

  “I love him.”

  “You don't know him!”

  “We've done nothing but talk for the last two weeks, and I KNOW he feels the same way about me.”

  “How do you know?”

  Laura shook her head.  “I just do,” she replied evasively.

  Peterson's eyes narrowed.  “He'd better not have touched you.”

Laura's head came up.  “He's been a perfect gentleman.”

Peterson's head shook slowly as he tried to digest this new information.  “What about Johnny?  I thought you loved him.”

  Laura shook her head.  “I do, like a brother.”

“Laura, Johnny hates Scott.”

  “That's HIS problem.”

  “No, it's OUR problem.  Johnny's family.  And I don't know what happened between the two of them, but I know Johnny well enough to know that whatever it was had to have been serious.  Johnny's not the kind to hold a grudge.”

  “And I know Scott well enough to know he COULDN'T have done anything bad.  I know he loves Johnny.”

  “Laura, do you think Johnny's in love with you?”

  “NO!”

  “Are you sure?”

Laura shook her head, a little less confident this time, then looked at her father beseechingly.

  “That's what I thought,” Peterson sighed.

 

 

 Chapter Ninety Nine

“Well, we'll have to break the news to Johnny, and I think we'd better do it when Scott isn't around.”

Laura's eyes flew to her father's.  “Johnny wouldn't hurt him, would he?”

Peterson shook his head.  “I don't think so, I hope not, but they will probably fight.”  He looked at his daughter.  “You'd better be SURE about this.”

Laura jumped to her feet and started pacing.  “I don't want to hurt Johnny; I really do care about him, just not in that way.”  She dropped her head.   “I don't know what to do.  I don't want anyone to be hurt, but…”

Charles stood up and took his daughter in his arms.  “You have to do what will make YOU happy; the rest of us will get along.”

Laura looked her father in the eyes.   “I love Scott, and I know he loves me.”

“Did he tell you that?” her father asked her gently.

“Yes,” she whispered.

  “Laura, I'm not asking you to give him up if you're both sure, but I want you to BE sure. You know how Johnny's going to take this.”

“I don't want to hurt him, but I AM sure.”  She looked at her father.

Charles kissed the top of her head.  “Then I guess we'd better find Johnny and  tell him.”

“Tell me what?”  Johnny stepped into the clearing and cautiously looked at the two of them.

“Johnny!”  Laura spun around and watched him warily.

  “What's goin' on?” he asked softly.

Peterson took a deep breath.  “It seems we have a problem.”

“Oh?”  Johnny looked back and forth from Laura to Charles, and he felt his heart drop.  He had the feeling he was about to hear something that was going to ruin his life again, and he wrapped his arms around his body in a protective gesture.

The farmer decided the direct approach was the best, and he took another deep breath.  “Laura just told me that she and Scott are in love.”

Johnny froze and stared at Laura.  “No,” he said.

Laura took a step forward.“Johnny, I don't want to hurt you, but I love your brother.”

  Johnny shook his head, trying to keep his temper in control.  Finally, he brought his head up.  “Did he tell you that he loved you?”

  Laura met his gaze.  “Yes.”

  “We'll see about that,” Johnny said angrily, as he turned and headed toward his horse.

Laura rushed toward him and grabbed his arm.  “Johnny, please don't be mad.”

Johnny stared at her for a moment.  “I ain't mad at you, but he's usin' you to get ta me, and I AM mad about that, and I ain't gonna let it happen.  He's not gonna mess with MY family.”  He tried to leave but she hung on tenaciously.

  “What are you going to do?”  Laura cried.

  “What I shoulda done when he first showed up.  I'm gonna have it out with him one way or the other.”

“But I LOVE him!”

  “I ain't gonna let him hurt ya, and that's what he's plannin' on doin.”

Peterson spoke up for the first time.  “Are you sure about that?”

  “As sure as I can be.  But I'm gonna find out one way or the other.”

Peterson nodded.  “Johnny, don't let it get out of hand.”

Even as angry as he was, he couldn't help but think about the trust the man showed him.  Peterson knew he wouldn't kill his own brother, no matter what.  He nodded.  “I won't.”  He pried his arm away from Laura and swung up on the bay.

  Laura watched him go, and then started toward Charlie.  “We have to warn Scott!”

Peterson grabbed his daughter.  “No!”

  “You said yourself, they'll fight!  Scott's still not well!”

  The farmer shook his head.  “Scott's fine.  Those two need to talk and maybe this is just what they need to get started.  Maybe they'll be able to settle their differences once and for all.”

  “And what if they can't?”  Laura asked sarcastically.  “Then we get to pick up the pieces.”

“We'll follow to make sure it doesn't go too far, but we're going to give them some time first.”

  Laura looked at him with tears in her eyes.  “Are you sure?”

Peterson tipped her face up to his.  “Yes.”

 

Johnny spurred the bay back toward the camp, hoping he could find Scott before his brother returned to camp.  What he planned on saying to his brother wasn't fit for women to hear.  He skirted the camp and rode toward a bunch of trees to the west.  Johnny figured it was the only other way Scott could have gone to have any hopes of finding game.  He studied the ground, and before long he saw Scott's familiar tracks.

He followed the footprints, using the time to try to control his temper, but he wasn't having much success.  Scott had no right to interfere in his life any more, and Johnny was going to put a stop to it.   He couldn't believe Scott had actually used Laura to get to him, but it wasn't going to work. All it did was make him madder at his brother and surer that he wanted nothing to do with him.

  He looked up and saw his brother in the distance, dragging a deer back toward camp.  Johnny smiled grimly and spurred the bay again.  He rode the horse straight toward his brother, only veering slightly at the last moment.  He hauled on the reins and brought the horse to as sliding stop, jumping on Scott before the animal had come to a complete halt. 

Both men crashed to the ground, and Johnny landed a punch to Scott's face before dragging him to his feet.

“DAMN YOU!  You leave her alone!”  He punctuated his words with another punch, sending Scott rolling.

  Scott lurched to his feet.  “What the hell's WRONG with YOU!  I'm tired of getting hit!”

“You had NO RIGHT draggin' Laura into this!”

“I DIDN'T drag her into it!”

  “Then what do you call it?”

  Scott looked at his brother belligerently.  “I love her.”

 

 

Chapter One Hundred

  Johnny stared at his brother.  “I don't believe you.  You're usin' her ta get ta me.”

Scott brought his face up and met Johnny's gaze.  “Is that what you think of me?”

Johnny shook his head.  “I don't know WHAT to think of you.”

“Do you really think I could sink that low?”

Johnny nodded his head sadly.  “Yes.”

Scott grabbed his brother by the shirt.  “WHY, JOHNNY?  WHY?”

Johnny tore away from his brother's grip.  “Don't ever touch me again.”

  Scott ran his hand through his hair.  “Why do you hate me so much?” 

“YOU LEFT ME IN THAT PLACE!”

“I thought you were DEAD!”

“Convenient, huh?”

Scott slowly shook his head.  “I don't know what you want from me anymore.”

  “I WANT you to leave Laura alone!  I want you to leave ME alone.  I just want you to go away.”

“I'm not going to do that.  I love her.”

Johnny shook his head.  “I can't let it happen.  I'm not gonna let you hurt her like you hurt me. I care too much.”

Scott stared at his brother.  “Do you love her?” he asked quietly.

Johnny's head jerked up.  “Of COURSE I love her, just like I loved Teresa!”  His head dropped and his voice softened.  “Just like I …loved… you and Murdoch.”

Scott felt his heart break and he took a step toward his brother and touched his arm.  Johnny immediately jerked away and glared at Scott.  “Why can't you leave me the hell alone?”

“Johnny, please, can't you just give me a chance?”

“I DID give you a chance and you stabbed me in the back!  I NEVER trusted ANYBODY like I trusted you!  You BETRAYED me!  I would have DIED for you, and you just turned your back on me!”  Johnny spun away from his brother with a sob.  “Go away, just go away and LEAVE ME ALONE!”

“I can't do that.  I'm not going to go off and leave Laura, and I'm not going to leave you. Not yet.  There's something else that's bothering you, something that I don't know about, and I'm not going to leave until I figure it out!”

  “What's ta figure out?  You left me in there ta rot ‘cause you and your Old man didn't want ta spend the money ta get me out!”

“MONEY had nothing to DO with it!  WE thought you were DEAD!”

“Uh huh.”

  Scott felt his temper starting to unravel.  “You told me you weren't going to be taken alive, remember?” Scott ground out.

“Yeah, I did.  Sorry I messed up.”

Scott glared at his brother and continued.  “After we crossed over into Arizona, Val went back to check.  HE found evidence that you'd been killed.  After Val, we hired the Pinkertons.  THEY verified you had been killed.  Then Val went BACK down to MEXICO.  He even went to that prison and checked the list of prisoners.  You weren't on it!”

“Don't give me that bullshit, Scott.  Ruiz overheard Val negotiating for my release.”

  Scott's mouth gaped open.  “WHAT?”

Johnny shook his head in disgust.  “Don't ‘what' me.  I told ya, Ruiz heard everything.”  Johnny snorted, “Never figured I'd know about that, did ya?”

  “KNOW about WHAT?”

Johnny shook his head and looked away.  “So much for honesty.”

“Johnny, I'm TRYING to figure this out.” 

“So am I.  I'm tryin' ta figure out why my so called FAMILY managed ta pay THREE THOUSAND DOLLARS ta bring a HORSE home and weren't willin' ta pay five thousand ta get me outta that place!  The only thing I can figure out is they really didn't want me out.  I coulda accepted it if I knew ya thought I was dead.  I coulda even accepted it if I knew ya didn't have the money. But you KNEW I was in there, and you obviously HAD the money!”

  “Johnny, I don't know what you're talking about.  No one negotiated for your release.  Like I said, we thought you were dead.  Believe me, we would have paid ANY price to get you back if we had any IDEA you were there.  The only thing that was negotiated for was Barranca.  We sent one of Cipriano's cousins to try to bring him home. We thought it would be important to you.”

  Johnny shook his head.  “That ain't the way I heard it.”

  “I don't care WHAT you heard!  You heard WRONG!”

  “My uncle wouldn't lie to me.”

  “Why?  You think your father and brother did,” Scott said calmly.

  “There was NO reason for him ta lie about it.  He had nothing ta gain.”

  “And WE did?” 

  Johnny shook his head.  “I don't know.  I don't know nothin' anymore.   All I know is that these people are my family and I'm not gonna let ya hurt ANY of ‘em.”  

  “I don't plan to, but I'm not going to let this go.  We need to figure out what happened.”

  “I KNOW what happened!”

  “NO, you DON'T!  Johnny, what did Ruiz say?”

  Johnny shook his head.

“Johnny, PLEASE!”

  Johnny sighed; he hated reliving the memory of that horrible day that he had found out about his family's treachery.  “He said that a man representing Madrid's family met one of the guards in the barn.  He was negotiating for my release.  The guard…the guard demanded five thousand dollars, and the man said you'd never go for it.  He said he could only offer two thousand.”  Johnny brought his eyes up to his brother.  “He obviously didn't accept it, because I wasn't released.”

  Scott stared at his brother.  “Johnny…that man wasn't negotiating for YOUR release, he was negotiating for Barranca.” 

  Johnny shook his head.  “Nice try, but Ruiz heard the conversation.”

  Scott nodded eagerly.  “All right, tell me what he said.”

Johnny shook his head slowly as he looked at his brother.  “He SAID ‘If Madrid's family wants him back, that's what it will cost them.'”  Johnny snorted.  “The man told the guard that he was out of his mind, that I wasn't worth it and that my family didn't want me back that bad.”  Johnny's eyes were closed and his arms were wrapped around his body as he relived the pain.

  “That's the same exact thing that Cipriano's cousin told us.  Johnny, you have to believe me, he was talking about Barranca.”

Johnny looked at his brother.  “I don't have ta believe nothin'.”   He shook his head.  “Beside, it don't matter.  The Petersons are my family now.”

 

 

Chapter One hundred One

Scott looked at Johnny in disbelief.  “What about your REAL family?”

  “I already told ya, I don't have one.”

“Johnny, I just explained to you, you were mistaken about what happened.  No one ever tried to get you out because we KNEW you were dead.  The man that your uncle overheard was trying to buy Barranca.”

Johnny shrugged.  “Maybe,” he said tiredly.

Scott shook his head.  “If you think that I might be right, then WHY are you still willing to just walk away and forget about us?”

“Cause I don't know the truth and I never will.  You could be tellin' me the truth; you could also be lyin' through your teeth and I'm tired of tryin' ta figure it out.”

  “Come back to Lancer and ask Val and Cipriano, they'll tell you what happened.”

  Johnny snorted.  “And they wouldn't lie for Murdoch?”

  “Val is YOUR friend!”

“He was.”

“WHY won't you find out the truth before you condemn everyone!”

  “I TOLD ya, I spent too many sleepless nights tryin' ta figure out the truth, and I don't plan on spendin' any more.  It coulda happened like you said, it also coulda happened the way my uncle said.  I'll never know for sure.  Whatever happened, its past, its done.  I'm gonna go on with my life.”

“Without us,” Scott said sadly.

Johnny nodded. “Without you.”

  “Even if we did nothing wrong.”

  Johnny sighed.  “It don't matter anymore, Scott.  When I see you, all you do is remind me of the worst time in my life, and you can't do anything ta change that.”

  “WE LOVE you, Johnny.”

  “Do you?”  Johnny asked flatly.

Scott shook his head in disbelief.  “Of COURSE we do!”

“Do you know how hard it was for me at Lancer?”  Johnny asked softly.

Scott shook his head at the change of subject.  “What are you talking about?”

  Johnny took a deep breath.  “While I was growin' up, all I ever got was abuse. Nobody cared about me, nobody wanted me.   I was beaten and whipped.  Nobody cared if I ate or if I had a place ta sleep.  I grew up like an alley cat, not trustin' anybody.  I didn't KNOW how a family should act toward each other.  When I came to Lancer, I thought I'd come home.”

  “You did, and it's STILL your home.”

“It was so much better than anything I'd had before, and I thought that was what havin' a family was all about.   I knew…I thought… that Murdoch cared about me, so I tried real hard ta do what he wanted, even when I thought he was bein' unreasonable. I tried ta make him proud, I tried ta make him like me, but it didn't work.   I did my best, but all I ever got from him was lectures and disappointed looks.”

  “That's not true!”  Scott immediately protested.

  Johnny brought his head up and stared at Scott.  “Isn't it?  Name ONE time you ever heard him tell me he was proud of me.  Name one time he ever said he cared about me.  Name one time he said he trusted me.”

Scott stared at Johnny and then shook his head.  “Murdoch has trouble saying those things, but he DOES feel them.”

  “Yeah?  How do I know?”  Johnny shook his head.  “All he ever did was complain and yell.  Those last couple of months, when the gunfighters were comin outta the woodwork after me, he never ONCE told me ta be careful, he never ONCE backed me up.  All he did was yell when he found out that I'd defended myself.  Even when that Stryker kid tried ta shoot me in the back, Murdoch took his side.  I think the Old Man woulda been happy if the kid had shot me, as long as he wasn't reminded of what I was.”

  “He was worried about you.  He told me so.”

  “Well he never told ME!  It took me a long time and meeting these people ta know what real love is all about, what a real family is all about.  I finally realized that even though Murdoch never hit me, he was abusive, the same as my Mama and all those men we lived with.  Somebody doesn't have ta hit ta hurt ya, and Murdoch did a good enough job with his tongue.”

  “I'm sure he didn't mean it that way.”

  Johnny shrugged.  “Maybe, and maybe not.  But the Peterson's NEVER hurt me.  They didn't know me, in fact they had every reason not ta trust me, but they did, more than Murdoch ever did.  They were never angry or disappointed in me when I was forced ta fight; they told me ta be careful and they backed me up.  They CARED about me, and they showed it.  I didn't have ta read between the lines, and let me tell you something; for the first time in my life I felt like maybe I was worth somethin'.  That I wasn't just a two bit, half breed gunfighter.”

  “I NEVER made you feel bad about your past, and I ALWAYS backed you up!”

  Johnny nodded slowly.  “Yeah, you did, except at the end.”

  “I did then, TOO!”

Johnny shrugged.  “Maybe ya did.   Like I said, I don't know anymore.  But I found something here with these people that I never had before, and I'm not gonna throw it away.  If you're tellin' me the truth, I'm sorry, but I made my choice, and I ain't gonna change my mind.  Even if I tried ta come back ta Lancer, there'd always be that doubt about what really happened.I trust the Petersons and I know they'd never hurt me, and I can't say the same for you and Murdoch.”

Scott stared at his brother and realized that Johnny was telling the truth.  No matter what had really happened, there was no way he could ever prove it to his little brother and there would always be that doubt between them.  More than anything else, Scott wanted Johnny to be happy, and it looked like he was.  The only problem was, Scott had lost his little brother.

  Scott swallowed hard, feeling the sting of tears that he tried hard to hide. “I love you, Johnny, and I want you to be happy.”  He turned away, unable to hide his pain.

 

 

Chapter One hundred Two

Johnny watched as his brother stood with his back turned and his head bowed, trying to regain his composure.  Finally, Scott spoke.  “Do you still hate me?”

“If I really hated you, you'd be dead,” Johnny said matter of factly.

Scott nodded without turning around.  “So where does that leave us?”

“Nowhere.”

Scott nodded once more.  “I love Laura, Johnny, and I plan on marrying her.  It has nothing to do with you.”

  “You don't even KNOW her!”

Scott turned around and smiled sadly.  “I know her well enough to know she's the one I want to spend the rest of my life with.”

“You decided that in what?  A few weeks?”

  Scott shook her head.  “I remember a few times you were ready to marry someone you'd known for a lot less time.”

Johnny shrugged.  “I guess.”

“Is everything OK?”  Peterson asked.

  Johnny glanced up and saw that the farmer had followed him.  Johnny realized just how upset he had been to have allowed the farmer to walk up unnoticed, and that thought bothered him. When Scott was around, he always had trouble concentrating.   Johnny looked around.  “Where's Laura?”

Peterson smiled.  “I took her back to the wagon before I came here.  I figured she didn't need to hear whatever you boys were discussing.”

Johnny smiled back, then dropped his head before nodding.

Charles studied the two young men.  “I see you're both still standing.  Did you get things settled between you?”

Johnny darted a quick look at his brother.  “As good as they're gonna be.”

Scott shook his head slowly.  “I guess.”  He looked at the farmer.  “I need to talk to you, and I guess now is as good a time as any.” 

Peterson nodded his head.  “I figured you would.”

Johnny looked back and forth between the two men, then turned toward his horse.  “I'll see you back at camp.”

“No!  Johnny, please stay!”  Scott exclaimed.  “You need to hear this too.”

“I don't know if I want to.”

Peterson spoke up.  “Please stay, Johnny. Scott's right, you need to be here.”

With a shake of his head, Johnny came back and plopped down on a fallen log.  He sat with his eyes down, waiting for his brother to start talking.

Scott paced for a moment, getting his thoughts together.  Finally, he faced the farmer.  “From what Johnny said, I guess you already know that Laura and I are in love, and I'd like your permission to court her.”

Before Peterson could say anything, Johnny spoke up.  “And how are you gonna do that when you're back at Lancer and she's here in Texas?”

  Scott glared at him.  “For now, I plan on riding along with you.”

Johnny returned his glare.  “Who says you're invited?”

“Boys, stop it right now!”  Peterson turned toward Johnny.  “I need to know the truth, and I trust you to tell me the truth, for Laura's sake as well as ours. First of all, are you in love with Laura?”

Johnny looked up at him in surprise.  He thought briefly about lying, but decided it would just cause complications, and right now he didn't need any more complications in his life.  He shook his head.  “No, not in that way.”

  Peterson nodded, not sure whether to be happy or sad at that news.  “All right, the next thing I need to know is that aside from your personal feelings, is there any reason that I shouldn't allow Scott to court and marry Laura?”

Johnny felt both men's eyes on him, and he glanced at his brother, whose face was grim and his jaw was clenched.  Johnny knew that Peterson was leaving it up to him.  He glanced at Scott one more time, knowing that he could get revenge for all of the pain Johnny had been through.   However, Scott had planted a tiny bit of doubt in Johnny's mind about just what had happened, and if his brother really was telling the truth, he had no reason to get revenge.  Besides, if Laura was really in love with Scott, he had no desire to hurt her.  He dropped his head. 

“No, there's no reason.”  He brought his head up and looked his brother in the eyes. “But if you hurt her, I'll kill you.”

  Scott returned his brother's stare.  “I won't,” he said calmly.  Still, Scott had seen the look in Johnny's eyes and knew it wasn't an idle threat.  That, more than the previous conversation, convinced Scott that his brother was beyond his reach.

  Peterson nodded to Scott.  “All right, you have my permission to court her, but there won't be a wedding for a while.  I don't want either of you to rush into anything.  And as Johnny said, don't you dare hurt her.”

Scott smiled.  “I have no intention of it Sir, and thank you.”  He turned toward his brother.  “Thank you, too, Johnny.”

  Johnny turned his back and went over to the deer.  He hoisted it over his horse's back and tied it on, then swung up behind.  “I'll see ya back at camp,” he said as he rode off.

Peterson looked over at Scott.  “I have Charlie.  We can ride double.”

  “Thanks.”

Peterson shook his head as he watched Johnny ride off.  “He's still mad at you.”

  Scott snorted.  “I didn't think it was that obvious.”

  The farmer laughed.  “Lucky guess.”  He shook his head slowly.  “Maybe he'll come around.”

Scott's expression darkened.  “I don't think so.”

Peterson studied the young man.  “So does he have a right to be mad?”

Scott sighed.  “I don't know.  I know he thinks he does.”

“What about you?  What do you think?”

  Scott's head dropped.  “I KNOW we didn't do the thing that he's the most angry about, but he probably does has a right to be mad.  I guess we didn't try hard enough to find him.”

  “Did you do your best?”

Scott shook his head.  “It isn't that simple.  I THOUGHT we did at the time, but now….now I don't know.”

  Peterson clapped his hand on Scott's shoulder.  “It'll work out.”

“Mr. Peterson, I'd still like for you to consider coming to Lancer. You're all more than welcome.”

“Thank you, Scott, but I couldn't.”

“Because of Johnny?”

Peterson shrugged.  “Partially, but also because I want to have my own place. I'll find what I'm looking for in west Texas.  Don't worry, we'll be fine.”  

Scott nodded.  “All right, but remember, you're always welcome.”

Peterson smiled.  “Maybe we can come visit Lancer sometime.  After all, it looks like my daughter will eventually be living there.”

  Scott smiled back.  “I certainly hope so.”

 

 

Chapter One Hundred Three

The wagon topped a small rise and the people looked out over the land that stretched in front of them as far as the eye could see.  It was the grasslands they had been looking for, that they had traveled hundreds of miles to reach and that everyone had told them was prime farmland.   They stood staring out at the vastness in shock.  The land was dry and barren, with dust clouds swirling into the air. 

They knew there was a drought, they had been hearing about it for weeks in every town they had passed, but they had expected at least SOME moisture in the land where they were heading. 

  Peterson took his hat and slapped it against his leg in disgust.

  “Well, now what?”  Johnny asked quietly.

  The farmer shook his head.  “I don't know,” he replied in frustration.

  Johnny studied the landscape and saw a small stand of trees in the far distance and he pointed in that direction.  “Let's go that way.  There might be some water by the trees.”

  Peterson nodded.  “OK. Let's go,” he said tiredly.

They were all tired.  They had been on the road for over a month now, and it had been a long, dirty trip. The last week the sun had been scorching and the water scarce.   They were all ready to stop and settle down, and the sooner the better.

Johnny had been giving Scott some subtle and not so subtle hints to make him leave them and go back to Lancer, but his brother insisted he wanted to know where they settled first so he could come back and visit Laura.  Johnny snorted; he could just see Murdoch letting Scott take off every few months to go visit a girlfriend.

  Johnny guided his horse toward the trees, hoping there was at least a pond there so they could replenish their water supply.  He was quite a bit ahead of the wagon when the bay entered the small grove.  The temperature immediately dropped twenty degrees and Johnny took off his hat and swiped his forehead.  He nudged the horse deeper into the shade, reveling in the coolness.  He followed a small path around a bend and stopped at the sight ahead of him. 

The grove opened up into a small valley that, despite the surrounding land, was green and inviting.  A fast moving stream ran through it, and the surrounding grasslands were relatively flat.  For a moment, Johnny felt as if they had found their place, but then he spotted a house nestled in the valley, almost hidden in the trees.  He glanced behind him and saw no sign of his family, so he nudged the horse on.  He figured he'd check out the house and whoever lived there, just to make sure there was no trouble.

  As he approached the house, he looked carefully for any sign of life, but saw none.  His hand crept to the butt of his gun.  He really wasn't expecting any trouble, but old habits were hard to break.  He rode the bay up to the house and called out, but was greeted with only silence.  He cautiously dismounted and approached the house.  He yelled out once more, and then slowly pushed the door open.  The attack, when it came, was totally unexpected, and the gun went flying out of Johnny's hand.

 

  Mr. Peterson guided the wagon into the trees and felt the instant relief of their shade.  He looked over and smiled at his wife, who sat on the seat next to him, and she smiled back.  At least they would have a cool and protected place to spend the night.  If they could manage to find some water, they could stay a few days and wash clothes and rest the horses.

Peterson followed the path and when he came around the bend, he stopped and stared.  Below was the most beautiful land he had ever seen, and running through it, a sparkling stream.  He grinned at his wife.  Maybe they had gotten lucky.  Maybe this was going to be their dream home after all.  The farmer eagerly studied the land and knew that they could grow just about anything here.  All they had to do was make sure someone else didn't have a prior claim.

  He clucked to the horses, sending them down the small incline toward the bottom.  The further he drove, the more excited he became. This was a perfect place.  He guided the team over toward the stream and pulled the horses to a halt.  He helped his wife down, and the girls immediately jumped down and headed for the water.

As the women splashed and played in the water, Peterson glanced behind them, wondering if Scott would find them here.  The young man had gone into a nearby town to send a telegram, saying he would catch up.  The farmer had expected him before now, and hoped that Scott hadn't run into trouble.  He looked around once more, wondering idly where Johnny was.  He wasn't as worried about him, Johnny had a habit of disappearing for hours at a time.  When he had first done it, the whole family had worried, but now they simply waited.

As Peterson looked around, he noticed what looked like a house up ahead, hidden among the trees.  He studied it carefully, and some of his excitement died.  It appeared someone else had found this valley first.  With a sigh, he realized they'd have to keep looking.  He just hoped the owner wouldn't mind if they spent the night.  He thought he saw Johnny's horse tied in front of the building, and he figured that was what Johnny was doing; asking permission for them to stay.

  He turned around and watched his family for a moment, and then stooped down and untied his own shoes.  A little wading would feel pretty good.  His good mood started to come back. They would find their own place, but for now he just might go fishing for their supper. 

 

 

Chapter One Hundred Four

Johnny chuckled as he watched the raccoons as they played in the house.  He had forgiven them for that first attack, he figured he had surprised them and they had been scared.After watching them for several moments, he looked around the house.  It was well built of stone, and was fairly large. It had a huge fireplace and a small kitchen, as well as two separated sleeping areas.  It had obviously been abandoned for some time except by the raccoon family, and Johnny wondered what had happened to the previous occupants.   His attention was drawn back to the raccoons and he smiled wryly.  “Sorry, guys.  I think you just might be losin' your house.”

  They chattered back at him, and he headed back outside to tell his family the good news.  He rode the bay toward the wagon and laughed as he saw the Petersons playing in the water.  After watching them a moment, he remembered just how hot and dusty he was, and a few minutes later, he had joined them. 

Scott followed the tracks down into the valley and spotted the wagon up ahead.  He had sent another telegram to Murdoch, but he hadn't explained much, just that he was trying to talk Johnny into coming home.  He'd save the bad news for when he saw his father in person.  He rode up to the stream and watched as his brother light –heartedly played in the stream with the Petersons.   Scott felt his throat constrict as he watched the former gunfighter, and he shook his head.  He couldn't remember ever seeing his little brother so carefree and happy.  Scott dropped his head in defeat.  No matter how much he wanted his brother with him, maybe Johnny was better off here.

 

By evening, the raccoons and other wildlife that had taken refuge in the house had been evicted and the Petersons were firmly ensconced.  The women had thoroughly cleaned the inside and the men had brought in most of the belongings from the wagon.  Scott and Johnny had chopped wood and fixed the corral next to a small barn, and Mr. Peterson had managed to keep his promise and catch their supper.  

Charles looked around the house as they ate.  “This is better than I ever hoped.  The house doesn't even need much work.”  He chuckled.  “I'm not even sure where we are, but maybe we can find a town around here and find out.  If we can lay a claim, maybe we can hurry and plant a crop.  I should be able to get enough seed if I sell the other horse.”  As he talked, he got more and more excited.  “We can look around tomorrow and see if we have any neighbors.  Maybe they can tell us something.”

Johnny smiled as he listened to the farmer talk.  The man's enthusiasm was contagious, and he found himself looking forward to giving this place a try.  He grinned to himself; even the prospect of more plowing didn't seem too bad.  It was better than the uncertainty they had all been living with.

The next morning, Scott and Charles rode off in different directions, with the hope of finding out what they could about their new home, while Johnny finished fixing the house and barn. Peterson came back several hours later and reported that he hadn't seen anyone or even any signs of people.

  “That's not good.  If there's not a town nearby, we won't be able to buy supplies or have anywhere to take the crop to sell.  Besides, for safety's sake we have to have people around us.”  

Johnny shook his head.  “There HAS to be a town around here.  We just have to find it.”

  “Well, I sure hope that Scott had better luck than I did.”

It was nearly dark when Scott returned and both Johnny and Charles met him at the door.  “Well?”  Johnny asked.

Scott grinned.  “We are NOT in Texas anymore.”

  Peterson looked surprised.  “We're not?”

“No, we're in New Mexico.  In fact, we're not that far from Santa Fe.”

“How far?”  Johnny asked.

“About thirty miles.”

“Any closer towns?”  The farmer asked.  

Scott nodded.  “There's a small town called Landers between here and Santa Fe.  It doesn't have much, but there's a general store that sells farming supplies, including seed.”

“Well, that sounds promising.  Did you ask anyone about this place?”

  “As a matter of fact, I did,” Scott beamed.

  “And?”  Johnny asked impatiently.

  “And it seems the former owner left to go back east after his wife died.  He abandoned this place.”

  “So who owns it?”  Peterson asked impatiently.

Scott grinned and held up a deed.  “You do.”

Peterson took the deed cautiously and looked at Scott in confusion.  Johnny stepped in and scowled.  “We don't need your help.”

Scott turned toward his brother.  “Then consider it a loan.”

  Peterson shook his head and reluctantly handed the deed back to Scott.  “I can't take a loan.  I don't know if or when I could pay it back.”

Scott glared at his brother before running his hand through his hair in frustration and he turned back toward the farmer.  “Look, don't worry about it.  I want to do this.”

“Scott…”  Johnny said threateningly

Scott whirled toward Johnny.  “The money I used was from the money Murdoch tried to give you before you left.”

  “If I'd wanted it I woulda taken it,” Johnny snarled.

  “It's YOURS!”

“Not any more.”

“And you won't accept it, even for your family's sake?  Because if they don't have the deed, they won't be able to stay.”

  Johnny shut his eyes and shook his head, and he immediately felt Peterson's hand on his arm.  “We don't need to stay, Johnny.  There'll be other places.” 

Johnny opened his eyes and saw Mr. and Mrs. Peterson looking at him and nodding quietly, and he said another prayer of thanks that he had found these people who were so kind and accepting.  He brought his eyes up to Scott and shook his head slightly.

Scott stared at his brother.  “Johnny, I didn't mean to make you angry.  I was just trying to help.”

“I know,” Johnny sighed and reached out his hand for the deed.  “Thanks, Scott.”

 

 

Chapter One Hundred Five

Johnny pulled the horse to a halt and wiped his face with his arm.  It had been too late to plant corn or wheat, but they had decided there was time to plant a late season crop.   By selling one of the horses, they had money to buy the necessary supplies.   They had chosen to plant onions, and had plans to plant corn and barley come spring.  They had even talked of trying a few grape plants.  He and Charles had read everything they could about different crops that were successful in this part of the country and chosen those as the most promising.  Johnny wasn't sure about the grapes, but Charles had his heart set on trying to make some wine.  His father had run a vineyard over in Europe, and Charles thought he could make a go of it. With any luck, they would be able to sell their crop to get money to see them through the winter and buy some grape plants, but first the onions had to be harvested.  

Johnny stood there for several minutes and took a few swallows of water from his canteen.  Pulling onions was hard, backbreaking work.  The kind of work he had sworn never to do.  One of the reasons he had become a gunfighter was to avoid doing exactly this kind of labor, but for some reason he really didn't mind anymore.  It was better than being a gunfighter, and it was worth it to have a family. He chuckled softly as he thought about everything he'd gone through just to get back where he started.   He could have saved himself a lot of grief by just staying and working in the fields when he was a boy.   He stretched his neck back to get the kinks out and went back to harvesting the crop, throwing the onions in the small wagon being pulled by the horse.  

He couldn't believe they had been here for almost five months.   The house had proved to be comfortable and well made, and Johnny had added a small room on for himself, so he no longer had to sleep in the barn.  It wasn't fancy, but it was beginning to feel like home.  He had built fences and repaired the barn, and generally made the farm livable.  The climate in this small valley was pleasant, and the soil seemed rich.  With any luck, they would do well here.

Scott had come back and visited several times, and he and Laura were finally getting married next week.  Johnny had hoped that they would decide they weren't right for each other, but that hadn't been the case.  If anything Laura and Scott had become closer, and Johnny had resigned himself to the fact the Scott was going to become part of his family.

During Scott's visits the two of them had talked some, and had become a little more relaxed in each other's presence, but Scott hadn't tried to convince Johnny he was wrong anymore   Scott had had kept things pretty impersonal, and although Johnny had insisted that was what he wanted, he felt a little bit disappointed.  Right now, he didn't know what he wanted, and the feeling of indecision was leaving him tense.  He just wished Scott would go away so he didn't have to think about it anymore. 

Johnny yanked out some more onions and threw them into the wagon.  He was not looking forward to the wedding, and if it wouldn't hurt his family, he would leave for a few weeks.  He still wasn't sure he could do this and he was afraid that he would ruin Laura's day.  He figured he could handle Scott, but unfortunately Scott was bringing the rest of the family and friends to the wedding. It was the others that were worrying him.  Teresa was no problem and he couldn't see himself getting into a shouting match with Sam, but Val and Murdoch were a different story.

No matter what anyone said or how much they tried to convince him, Johnny still wasn't sure of any of their innocence, especially Val and Murdoch.  He had gone over and over what had happened in his mind, and he had to admit, it could have happened the way Scott insisted it had.  The problem was, it also could have happened the way Johnny thought it had.  There was just no proof, and Johnny was tired of trying to figure it out.  As he'd told Scott, even if he knew they were innocent, Johnny had made his choice, and he had chosen the family that he knew wouldn't betray him.  He tried to ignore that niggling little voice telling him that if he was wrong, his real family had never betrayed him, either.

He knew that Murdoch and Scott and all of the rest would be working on him to come back to Lancer, but he wasn't going to give in.  This was his home now, and this was his family.  They could say anything they wanted and promise him anything, but he wasn't going to leave his family.   If it hadn't been for the Petersons, he might consider it, but they had shown him what a family should be like and he didn't want to lose them. He was finally happy.

There were still times, late at night, when he missed the relationship that he thought he'd had with Scott.  He missed the late night trips into town to gamble and drink, he missed the practical jokes.  He missed the good natured squabbling and the friendly competition.  He missed having someone to talk to.  He missed having a brother, but he knew it couldn't be helped.  That part of his life was over, and his brother was dead.  He had died the same time his father had died; the same time Johnny Lancer had died.

With a sigh, he turned down the next row and glanced at the sun. Another couple of hours left, then he'd have to feed the stock and chop some wood.  Charles still hadn't had his surgery and until he did it meant all of the work fell on Johnny.  Peterson had gone to several doctors, but none of them were surgeons and none could recommend any close by.  Charles had been upset that the work was falling on Johnny's shoulders, but Johnny had reassured him that they should wait until after the wedding before going to one of the big cities and having the operation.

Several hours later Johnny led Dolly back to the barn.  He finished his chores and washed up in the water trough, then stood outside and looked out over the field. This valley was beautiful and peaceful, and he hardly ever thought of another valley anymore.  A valley that he once thought was the most beautiful place in the whole wide world, a place he would never see again.  Lancer.

 

 

Chapter One hundred Six

Murdoch glanced over at his ward, and when he saw her worried expression, he squeezed her hand.  Teresa looked at him and smiled weakly, and he smiled back, trying to reassure her all would be well, although he was far from convinced himself.  He knew she was worried; they all were.  He glanced over and saw the determined expression on Val's face and knew the lawman was just as desperate as the rest of them.   This might be the only chance they had to try and win Johnny back, and they were all afraid of making a mistake. 

Murdoch had used all of his self control and had left his younger son alone the last six months, but it had been difficult.  When Scott had returned after following his brother to the Peterson's, Murdoch's first instinct had been to go after Johnny and force him to listen to reason, but Scott had talked him out of it.  Scott had told them that Johnny wasn't ready to listen to them right now, and they needed to give him some time.  Murdoch had reluctantly agreed, but he was afraid that the longer they waited the harder it would be to win Johnny back.

Scott had made several trips back to visit the Petersons since then, and his elder son and Laura had finally announced their engagement.  Murdoch knew that Scott was deeply in love with the girl, but he also knew his son's happiness was being badly affected by the loss of his brother.  This should be the happiest time in Scott's life, but Murdoch knew that no matter how happy his son was with Laura, the loss of his brother would temper that joy.  Scott wanted his brother back.  They all wanted Johnny back.

Murdoch shook his head slowly.  Scott had told him he had finally been able to talk to his brother and Johnny had told him why he was so angry.   Murdoch's first reaction had been disbelief that Johnny could think that they had purposely abandoned him, and then he had been angry that his younger son had such little faith in them.  It had taken quite a while and some long talks with Sam to realize how badly Johnny's judgment and outlook had been affected by his captivity and the abuse he had endured.   Murdoch dropped his head.  When he had finally taken the time to look at things from Johnny's perspective, and examined the ‘facts' that his son had ‘known', it certainly did make them look guilty.  And the undeniable fact that they hadn't gotten him out of that place certainly didn't help.   Johnny had been trapped in that place and his family had obviously made no effort to get him out.

Now they were on the way to the Peterson's and to Scott and Laura's wedding.  With any luck, they would be able to talk calmly to Johnny and make him realize just how mistaken he was.  They had all gone over their strategy and agreed that they couldn't gang up on him or become angry with him.  They couldn't try to force him into anything.  The best thing they could do was to show Johnny how much they cared without hitting him over the head with it. Let him know that no matter what his final decision was, no matter where he decided to live, he was always a part of their family, and part of Lancer would always be his. 

Murdoch shivered slightly.  From what Scott had told them, he was afraid that Johnny just might choose the Petersons over his real family.  They seemed like fine people and had obviously earned Johnny's trust.  Murdoch knew he should be grateful that they had been there for his son when he had needed help, and he was.  But he also felt a strong resentment of them.   They had taken his son away from him, and he was jealous of Mr. Peterson, especially.  From what Scott had said, Peterson had completely usurped his own role as Johnny's father, and that thought galled him.  He knew he hadn't always been there for his son, but he had always loved him and would have done anything for him.  The fact that Johnny was able to push Murdoch aside so completely hurt more than he would ever admit.  He was afraid that it would be exceedingly difficult for him to even be civil to the farmer, but he knew that being hostile to Peterson would be a sure way of chasing Johnny even further away, if that was possible.   No, he would have to grit his teeth and simply show Peterson the utmost courtesy and the very real gratitude he felt toward the man for saving his son.

Murdoch glanced over at the doctor and smiled.  Sam had made sure they all understood just how important it was to keep calm and avoid overwhelming Johnny and making him feel guilty.  They had all agreed, although Val had been very reluctant.  It had taken all of them ganging up on him to convince the stubborn sheriff that they shouldn't just hit Johnny over the head and bring him back to Lancer.  The sheriff had even told them that his jail had room to lock his friend in until he came back to his senses, and Murdoch was afraid he was only half kidding.   Murdoch sighed.  As much as he agreed with Sam, he was afraid that Val's plan was the only chance they really had of getting Johnny back.   He had the sick feeling that Johnny was permanently lost to them.

He glanced over at Scott, who was riding Barranca.  Johnny had hinted to Scott that he wouldn't be upset if the palomino made an appearance, and Murdoch had jumped at the chance to make points with his lost son.  He had made arrangements to have the horse shipped on the same train that had brought all of them to Santa Fe, and they had hired a large buggy and several horses when they had arrived in New Mexico.  Now they were only about an hour's ride from the Peterson's farm, and Murdoch felt his stomach starting to churn.   He had never been so afraid in his life. 

 

 

One Hundred Seven

Johnny watched as the small cavalcade entered the yard.  Mr. and Mrs. Peterson walked up to the buggy holding Murdoch, Teresa, and Sam, but Johnny's attention was drawn to the palomino that Scott was riding.  He shoved himself off from the fence and walked over to where Scott was stiffly dismounting.  He ran his hands over the palomino's face, speaking softly.

After a moment, Johnny turned toward his brother.  “Why are you ridin' him?'

  Scott looked at him, confused.  “I didn't think you'd mind.”

 Johnny shrugged.   “It don't matter what I think.  He ain't mine anymore,” he said wistfully.

  Scott's eyes closed momentarily.  He was tired of the game.  “He's yours.  Just ask him,” he snapped before handing his brother the reins and walking away.

  Johnny watched him go, carefully keeping his eyes from the others, and then he headed toward the barn, grateful for the opportunity to avoid the rest of the people in the yard.  He led the palomino into the barn and tied him to a rail, then reached down and undid the cinch.   He heard a noise behind him, and wondered briefly who it was, but didn't turn around to find out.

  “Aren't you going to come out and say hello to your family?  Mr. Peterson asked. “They're waiting for you.”

  “I already told ya, they ain't my family.  They're Scott's.”

“And Scott's your brother!  We've already talked about this.  You can't just decide that you're not related!”

“Too late.  I already have.”  Johnny pulled the saddle off of the horse and picked up a brush.

“It seems to me that you're being awfully stubborn about this.  I let it go before because I had hoped you'd come to the right conclusion by yourself, but apparently you haven't.  You need to talk to them, REALLY talk to them, and you need to LISTEN to what they have to say.”

Johnny shrugged.  “I've done all the talkin' I plan to do.”

Charles stared at his friend, and then shook his head.  “Will you at least come in and talk to them?”

“Nope.”

Charles waited several seconds, and then turned and left the barn.  He walked into the house, where his wife was serving their guests some coffee and pie to hold them until suppertime.  He shrugged his shoulders at the inquiring eyes.  “He's taking care of the horses.  I'm not sure when he'll be in.”

Murdoch's jaw clenched and he attacked his pie with a vengeance.  Teresa put a hand on his arm to try to reassure him.  “Why don't I go out and talk to him?”

Val had been standing uncomfortably in corner, and he took a step forward.  “No.  Why don't you all stay here, and I'LL go talk to him.  Maybe I can get through that hard head of his.  You all just stay in here and enjoy your pie.”

  Murdoch started to stand up, and Val turned toward him.  “Leave us alone, and don't you dare leave this house!  He and I are gonna TALK!”  The sheriff stalked out and slammed the door behind him.

  Murdoch looked at Scott, who shrugged.  “That sounded like an order to me.”

  Murdoch sat back uneasily and once more listened to the small talk drifting up from the table, but one ear was cocked toward the barn.  He wasn't sure what he was listening for, but he was sure he'd find out.

 

Johnny heard another set of footsteps behind him just as he shut Barranca's stall door, and he crossly turned around.  The blow hit him in the jaw and sent him flying.  He grabbed the side of the stall to keep from falling, then turned and faced the sheriff in disbelief.

  “What the hell was that for?”

  “For puttin' everybody through hell,” Val spat.  “And for bein' an ass!”

“I think you got that backwards,” Johnny spat.

Val shook his head. “Boy, you really have changed.  The Johnny I knew woulda knocked my block off and then asked why I'd done it.”

Johnny glared at the man.  “Yeah, maybe I have changed.  But whose fault is that?”

  “I don't know,” Val said belligerently as he approached his friend.  He stood next to him and leaned in.   “But I sure as hell know it ain't mine.”

Johnny snorted.  “No, I guess not.  It wasn't your fault that you left me in that place.'

  Val threw another punch, and Johnny was only partially successful in blocking it.  “Would ya stop it?”  Johnny yelled.  “I'm tired of gettin' hit!” 

  “Make me stop!”  Val stormed.  “I'M tired of getting' accused of stuff I didn't do!”  He threw another punch.  “And this one's for believin' I could do that to ya… that ANY of us could do that to ya.”

  “Val, so help me, if you don't stop, I'll…”

  “You'll what?”  Val spat.  “Your brother and pa have been tiptoein' around you ‘cause they're scared they'll lose ya for good.  They don't realize they already have lost ya, and good riddance.   I don't know why they're so all fired anxious ta get ya back, anyway.  Anybody that thinks their own family could do what you're accusin' ‘em of doin ain't worth the trouble.  THEY were hurt, just as bad as you were.  They went through hell for years thinkin' you were dead, and if you'd stop feelin' sorry for yourself long enough ta THINK about it, you'd know I'm tellin' the truth.   Why in hell would they try ta get you back and then put up with all the bullshit you've given them if they were guilty?  And why would they pay THREE THOUSAND DOLLARS just gettin' your damn horse back?   He ain't WORTH that much, except to you!  If they didn't care about ya, they wouldn't have done it, and they sure as HELL wouldn't have tried so hard ta get YOU back!”

  Val shook his head.  “I agree ta come here because I wanted ta see what was goin' on for myself, and I guess I did.  You're the one that betrayed them, not the other way around!  You're right; the Johnny I knew is dead.  My friend never woulda turned his back on his family and friends.  I just hope Murdoch and Scott come to their senses and tell you to go to hell!”  He reached down and snatched his hat off of the floor before stomping out, leaving Johnny trying to stop the bleeding from his cut lip.

 

 

Chapter One Hundred Eight

Murdoch watched as Mrs. Peterson cleared off the table.  Val was still outside, and Scott, Laura and Teresa had disappeared, so he and Sam were the only ones left with the Petersons. He took a deep breath.  “I want to thank you for helping Johnny when he needed it.”

  Charles smiled.  “I think you have it backwards.  He helped us.”

Murdoch nodded.  “Maybe, but from what I understand, you could have made it hard on him when you…when he first came here.”

Charles grinned.  “He could have made it hard on me, too.  I didn't realize how hard until much later.”

“I'm glad he…”  Murdoch groped for words before giving up and dropping his head.

Mrs. Peterson spoke up.  “Mr. Lancer, we've tried to get Johnny to talk to you, but he doesn't want to.  We still don't really know what happened, or what your relationship was before we knew him, but Scott has told us a little bit.  We want you to know that we're not trying to keep him from reconciling with his family.”

Murdoch snorted.  “I've been told that he thinks of you as his family now.”  He brought his gaze up and focused on the farmer.  “And he thinks of you as his father,” he said belligerently.

  “I never asked him to,” Charles returned calmly. 

  “You've never done anything to DISCOURAGE it, either!”  Murdoch yelled.

“Murdoch, easy,” Sam warned.

“What did you want me to do to discourage it?”  Charles asked.

Murdoch ran his hand through his hair.  “I don't know,” he admitted.  “It just seems that no matter what I do, I can't keep Johnny.  I lost him when he was a baby, and when I found him again several years ago, I swore I wouldn't lose him again.  Then I thought I'd lost him again in that prison, and when I realized that he was alive, I got down on my knees and thanked God. Only I found out that I hadn't really gotten him back after all, and I don't KNOW WHY!”  

Charles shook his head.  “I can't answer that.  But I CAN tell you that Johnny believes that you didn't want him; that you abandoned him.”

“We never abandoned him,” Murdoch snapped.  “We thought he was dead.  As hard as it was, we did everything we could to make sure.”   His voice faltered.  “I guess we didn't do enough.”

Charles studied the rancher, and then shook his head.  “I know it's none of my business, but there must be an explanation as to why he would doubt you in the first place.  I know that he doesn't trust easily; he must have some reason not to trust people.”

  “Did he tell you anything about his past?”

Charles shrugged.  “Not much.  I know he was a gunfighter, and a very good one.”

  Murdoch glanced at Sam before continuing.  “His mother ran off with another man when he was a baby.  He had a very hard childhood, and she filled his mind with lies about me.  She told him that I had kicked them out and that I didn't want them.  When he returned as an adult, it took a long time to convince him that wasn't the truth.  He hadn't even been back a year, and we still had our problems when this all started.”

  Charles nodded slowly.  “Well, that explains a lot. Mr. Lancer, I'll do what I can to help you convince him, but it will have to be his decision.”

  “Obviously,” Murdoch sighed. “I am grateful he has someone, I just miss him, and I want him home. And Scott probably misses him even more than I do, if that's possible.  They were so close.  I thought for sure he could get through to his brother, even if no one else could.”  

Mrs. Peterson shook her head.  “Johnny has gone out of his way to avoid Scott.  He doesn't even like to talk to him.”

Murdoch nodded.  “I know, and it's killing Scott.  He wants his brother back.” 

“Scott's been very patient, but so far, it hasn't helped.  Johnny can be very stubborn,” Charles observed.

Sam choked on his coffee, and Murdoch glared at him before smiling wryly.  “I think that's an understatement.”

Charles smiled back.  “It must be a family trait.  Scott has been pretty stubborn, too.”

“It's definitely a family trait,” the doctor offered. 

Murdoch smiled at his friend.  “Yes, they must have gotten that trait from their mothers.”

Sam's eyebrows went up.  “Obviously,” he said dryly.

Charles watched the exchange with a smile on his face.  “Your sons are good men, even if they are stubborn.”

“Yes, they are good men, but unfortunately, I can't take the credit for that.”  He looked up at the farmer.  “Laura seems like a wonderful young lady, too.  I think Scott's a lucky man.”

“Thank you, she is.  She's very special to me.”  He dropped his head.  “It's going to be very hard on us to let her leave.”

“Why don't you come, too?  I know Scott already asked you, but I want you to know that you're welcome.  We have plenty of land,” Murdoch offered.

Charles hesitated, and then shook his head.  “Thank you, but we couldn't.” 

“Why not?”

“As I explained to Scott, it's Johnny's decision, too, and he's made it plain he doesn't want to go.  Besides, we don't want charity.  Thank you, but no.”

Murdoch nodded slowly.  “I hope you'll at least come visit.”

Charles shrugged.  “Maybe sometime, but when I can leave, I'm going to have to get surgery on my leg.  I can't leave all the work for Johnny anymore.  I've done that for too long.”

  “Scott told me about your leg.  Where are you getting the surgery done?”  Sam asked.

Charles shrugged.  “I don't know yet.”

  Sam glanced at Murdoch before continuing.  “Why don't you go to San Francisco?  I know one of the top surgeons in the country who practices there, and I'm sure he'd be happy to operate on you leg.”

  “Yes, and you and your family could stay at Lancer while you're recovering, and visit Laura,” Murdoch hurriedly interjected.

Charles looked at his wife.  “I don't know,” he said hesitantly.  “That's awfully generous of you.  I'll have to think about it.”  

 

 

Chapter One Hundred Nine

  Johnny sat in the barn, nursing his wounds and thinking about what Val had said.  He couldn't believe the sheriff had actually attacked him.  He had known Val for almost his whole life, and they had never fought.  Oh, they'd had their arguments throughout the years, but it had never turned physical, at least until today.  Of course, he'd never figured Val would betray him, either.  He sighed.  If he had betrayed him.  He didn't know what to believe any more.  The things Val had said had made sense.  And even though he didn't want to admit it, what Scott had been saying all along had made sense, too.   They had brought up things that had been bothering him for a long time, usually late at night when he couldn't sleep.   But it was so much easier to just keep believing his family had betrayed him.  That he hadn't been wrong all along.  And he couldn't believe his uncle had lied to him.  For what purpose?  He dropped his head.  Besides, he had been angry at them for so long, he wasn't sure he could stop even if he wanted to.  It had become a habit.

If he chose to believe what Val and Scott were telling him, the chances were he'd lose his new family, and he didn't think he could stand to lose people who he cared about again.  He had suffered too many losses in his life, and he'd sworn to himself he wouldn't put himself in that position again.  On the other hand, if he decided to believe his real family's side of the story, he'd get them back.  He snorted.  Maybe.  From what Val had said, they had decided to cut their losses and let him go.  Maybe that was for the best.  Take the decision out of his hands.  He shook his head. He'd made his decision a long time ago, now he'd live with it.  Right or wrong, good or bad.  He wasn't going to spend the rest of his life trying to figure it out.  Now if everybody would just stop trying to change his mind, he would be perfectly happy.  He closed his eyes.  Perfectly happy.

He hauled himself to his feet, then walked outside to the pump to clean up.  He didn't particularly want to have to answer questions about why he looked like he'd been in a barroom brawl.  Of course, he had, even if it had been one sided.  He stood up, thinking again about a comment Val had made.  The sheriff was right; he had changed.  The problem was, he wasn't sure if he liked the change.  He gingerly touched his swollen lip.  He should have made Val happy and knocked his block off.  Next time, he would oblige him.

  He glanced up as Scott approached.  The blond looked at him quizzically.  “What happened to you?”

  “I ran into the barn door,” Johnny snapped.

  “Uh huh.  Are you sticking to that story?”

  “What do you want?”  Johnny asked impatiently.

  “I was just wondering…”  Scott hesitated.  “If maybe…”

  “Get it said!”

Scott dropped his head.  “I know you don't want to be my brother any more; you've made that perfectly clear.  But do you still hate me?”

  Johnny sighed loudly.  “We already had this discussion, remember?  And I told ya I didn't.”

  “If I can't have my brother back, I'd like us to at least be friends.”

Johnny turned and looked at the blond.  “Don't push your luck,” he said sarcastically.

  Scott smiled slightly.   “Will you at least do me a favor?”

“What?”

  “I was wondering if you'd be my best man.”

Johnny straightened up.  “Get Sam or Murdoch ta do it!”  He started to leave, and Scott grabbed his arm.

“I want you to do it.”

“No!”

  “Why?”

  Johnny pulled his arm away.  “Why would you want me too?  We don't exactly get along.  Seems ta me you'd want somebody who was close to you stand up with ya.”

“Johnny, you ARE close to me.  You might not want to be my brother any more, or even my friend.  But that doesn't mean I feel the same way about you.  You're still the best friend I ever had, and you'll ALWAYS be my brother, no matter how much you deny it.”

“I think it'd be better ta ask somebody else,” Johnny said flatly.

  “Will you at least think about it?  It would mean a lot to both me and Laura.  I was afraid you'd say no, but she insisted I try.” 

Johnny closed his eyes.  Saying no to Scott was one thing, but Laura was more difficult.  “I'll think about it,” he grumbled.

  “Thanks, Johnny.”

Johnny nodded, eager to change the subject.   “Yeah.  Where's Laura?”

Scott smiled.  “She's showing Teresa around the farm and I had the feeling I was just in the way.   They're already acting like best friends.”

  “She hasn't had many friends her own age.  In fact, neither one of them have.”

“I know.”

Johnny smiled.  “Yeah, you probably do.”

  “I hope Laura likes it at Lancer.”

  Johnny felt a quick flash of jealousy.  “She will,” he said quickly.

  “How do you know?”

Johnny shrugged.  “What's not ta like?” he snapped.  “When I first saw it, I thought I was in heaven.”  As hard as he tried, he couldn't keep the wistfulness out of the statement.  He made an effort and hardened his voice.  “That is, until I learned better.”

“Johnny, come back home.  Bring the Peterson's along if you want, but come HOME,” Scott pleaded quietly.

  Johnny turned quickly away, before Scott could see his expression.   “I am home,” he replied curtly.  “Now leave me alone.”

“Will you talk to Murdoch?”

“I guess I'll have to eventually, won't I?”

  “He's not going to push you, but he misses you.  He wants you home.  We all do.  Johnny, please, at least think about it.”

Johnny whipped around and grabbed Scott by the front of his shirt.  “I SAID, leave me alone!”  He shoved the blond away, then turned and stalked off.  He needed to get away to think, and he didn't need Scott or Val or anybody else trying to confuse him.  He was tired of everybody interfering in his life.

 

 

Chapter One Hundred and Ten

Johnny sat up on the hill above the farm and watched the sun set.  He knew that he'd have to go back down eventually, but he was putting it off as long as possible.  Today had been harder on him than he thought it would be, and he had been expecting to be miserable.  He licked his lips, and winced as his tongue hit the cut that had been put there by Val.  It seemed as if everyone had ganged up on him today, at least everyone but Murdoch.  He was sure that his Old Man was just waiting to pounce, and he just wasn't in the mood for another confrontation.

  Even Teresa had cornered him after he had escaped from Scott, and it had taken all of his will power just to be civil.  Val and Scott had done a good job of putting him in a bad mood, and poor Teresa had been forced to bear the brunt of his anger.  He guessed he owed her an apology.  He shouldn't have been so short with her, but he was tired of the lectures, and she hadn't exactly played fair.  He could handle Val's method a whole lot better than Teresa's tears.  He had felt like a heel when she'd started crying, but he hadn't felt bad enough to give her what she said she wanted.   He couldn't tell her he was coming back with them.   She had told him how miserable they had all been. And how miserable they all still were.  Well he had been miserable, too, and he had gone on with his life.  They would just have to do the same.

He'd just have to suck it up and try to get along for another couple of days.  The wedding was tomorrow, and Scott and Laura were leaving on their honeymoon the following day.  He figured the rest of them would be leaving then, too, and then things could get back to normal.  If only he could figure out a way to keep from talking to Murdoch, he just might survive.

  With a sigh, he heaved himself to his feet just as the sun slipped behind the distant hills.  He might as well get it over with.  He wondered briefly what tactic Murdoch would employ; Val's or Teresa's, and he chuckled.  He THOUGHT he could survive Murdoch beating on him, but he wasn't sure if he could handle it if the old man decided to cry.

Johnny made his way down the hill and headed for the house.  Just as he stepped up onto the porch, he heard a burst of laughter come from inside, and he hesitated.  He looked through the window and saw them crowded around the table, joking and laughing, and his eyes dropped.  He reached for the door handle, and then stopped.  He really didn't want to go in and be sociable.  He'd rather be by himself.  He turned and walked to the barn, undecided about what he wanted to do.   He went inside and wandered over to Barranca's stall.

He stood looking at the palomino for several moments, and Val's words came back to him.  Why would they go to that much trouble to get Barranca back if they didn't care about him?   He dropped his head.   Scott and Murdoch had made a huge effort to bring him the palomino, and he hadn't even thanked them.  What was wrong with him?He restlessly went over to where he'd placed his bedroll, and stood looking at it.  Even with him giving up his bedroom, he knew someone would have to join him in the barn, and he knew it would probably be Val and Scott.

He stood staring down at his makeshift bed for several seconds, and then resolutely turned and went back to the palomino's stall.  He hurriedly saddled the horse, and then led him out of the barn before swinging aboard.  He'd spend the night in town. 

  As he let the palomino have his head, he felt the horse's muscles bunch beneath him, and the wind hit his face as Barranca raced down the moonlit road.  Johnny felt the tension drain from him, just as it always had when he'd ridden the palomino.  He sighed deeply and let his mind wander as his body became re-acquainted with the horse.   He'd missed Barranca terribly.  Of necessity, farmer's horses were picked for strength, not speed or agility.  A cowpony wasn't much use pulling a plow.  He wondered briefly if he should send Barranca home with Scott. After all, he didn't really need him anymore.  If times got bad, which happened regularly when you were a farmer, the extra feed would become a hardship, especially for a horse that literally couldn't pull his weight.  But for now, he was going to enjoy the reunion with his friend.  Barranca was the only one that didn't put any pressure on him, that didn't demand anything or want anything from him.  And he KNEW Barranca had never betrayed him, but a small niggling voice kept telling him that his family hadn't, either.

The ride and the feel of his beloved horse brought memories back, unbidden.  He tried to clear his mind, but it was impossible.  Flashes of memory surged through his head, and he loosened the reins and closed his eyes, leaving the palomino to make his way on his own.  Visions of friendly poker games with his friends and his brother, sitting by the roaring fire in the great room, hotly contested chess games, holiday suppers with good natured wrangling over who was going to help with the dishes, they all came flooding back.

He pulled Barranca to a halt and sat in the middle of the road, thinking.  There were so many good memories of the time he'd spent with his family, at least until they'd wound up in that prison.   Had he been wrong?  Had he thrown it all away because of a misunderstanding?  How could he ever be sure?  That was the problem, he couldn't.  And the memories he had from the short time he'd been with the Petersons were good, too.  Different, but good.  He realized that his relationship with the Petersons was calmer and more restrained.  Unlike the time he'd spent at Lancer, there were no big arguments, no huge problems or life and death battles.There was nothing but mutual support and calm discussions.  The same thing, day in and day out.  For the rest of his life.  Isn't that what he had wanted?  No more arguments, no more doubts about his place in the family?  He dropped his head.  It was.  The only problem was it was the wrong family, and he knew it.

 

 

Chapter One Hundred Eleven

Murdoch looked down the road for the hundredth, no thousandth time.  He had wanted to talk to Johnny the day before, but his son had managed to avoid him, and then had disappeared.  He knew the talk would have to wait, now.  He wasn't going to get into what would probably escalate into an argument today.  This was Scott's day, and he wasn't going to ruin it.  Of course, if Johnny chose to stay away for Scott's wedding, Murdoch figured that would go a long way towards ruining it for his elder son, anyway.

  Finally, he saw a flash of gold coming up the street toward the church, and sighed with relief.  Apparently, Johnny was at least going to attend the wedding.  Murdoch watched as his younger son slid off the palomino and walked over to where Scott was nervously waiting.  The two men talked for a moment, and then the two young men smiled at each other before disappearing inside.  The rancher said a quick prayer of thanks that at least for the moment they seemed to be getting along.  He glanced down at his ward and smiled, then guided her into the cool church, followed by Val and Sam.

Murdoch took a deep breath as he surveyed the scene in front of him.   He didn't know which part to be more thankful for.  He was glad that Scott had found someone to love, but he was also deeply thankful that both of his sons were alive and well.  He was ecstatic that Scott had made it clear he and his new bride would be living at Lancer, but Murdoch wanted more. He wanted his family whole once again.  He dropped his head for a moment, wondering whether this would be the last time he saw his two sons together.  He thought it seemed likely.  If anyone could have talked Johnny into coming home, it would have been Scott.  Murdoch would do his best, but he knew his track record for talking with his son was far from perfect.If he was going to talk to Johnny, it would have to be tonight.   They were all leaving early tomorrow morning; Scott and Laura for San Francisco, and the rest of them for home.   Tonight was the last chance he would have to get his son back.   That resolved he turned his attention back to the ceremony.

 

Johnny sat on the hill above the farmhouse, looking out at the tranquil scene.  He had managed to get through the day, and thankfully, everyone had pretty much ignored him.   He knew they were all leaving the next morning, and he figured Murdoch would be looking him up soon.  He really wasn't sure what he would say to the man, but he figured Murdoch would certainly have plenty to say to him.  He dropped his head and closed his eyes, wondering how long he'd have to wait.  He knew he wouldn't be lucky enough to avoid it, and now he just wanted to get it over with.

  When he heard the hesitant steps, he smiled at the thought that he had known what the man would do, then brought his eyes up.  He looked at the man in surprise and smiled.   “I figured it would be Murdoch.   Guess you wanted a chance ta yell at me first.” He slanted a look at the doctor.  “Or are you gonna take the more direct approach like Val?”

  Sam shook his head and clumsily sat down next to Johnny.  “I'm not going to yell at you.”  He chuckled.  “Or hit you, although I might if I thought it would do any good.  Actually, Murdoch asked me to talk to you.   He was afraid you'd both just get mad if he came up here.”

That was the problem, Johnny thought.  He and his father just couldn't talk without locking horns.  He sighed.  “I ain't tryin' ta make anybody mad at me.  I just want ta be left alone.”

“Like you were alone all your life before you came to Lancer?  You told me once you were tired of being alone.”

  “You know what I mean,” Johnny said crossly.

“Yes, I do.  You don't want anyone to upset the neat little life you've made here by making you face reality.”

Johnny glared at the doctor.  “You're right, I don't.  I'm tired of my life bein' turned upside down.”

  “So why does it have to be?” the doctor asked belligerently.  “Why can't you be close to both families?  You don't have to make a choice.  You can have both of them.”

Johnny snorted.  “In case you haven't noticed, we ain't in California.  It ain't like I can go back and forth.  I had ta make a decision, and I did.”

  Sam shrugged.  “I told Mr. Peterson that there were some very good doctors in San Francisco.  Murdoch offered to let the Petersons stay at Lancer while Charles recovered, and you know the Cooper farm is just sitting empty after Angus left it to Murdoch.”

  Johnny looked at Sam in shock.  “What did they say?”

  The doctor locked his eyes on the gunfighter.  “They said they'd have to think about it, but they wouldn't do it if you didn't want to.”

Johnny snorted.  “So they're leavin' it all up to me, huh?  Figures.  Well I don't want to.”

“So it doesn't matter what's best for the Petersons.  It's all about you.”

  “That's not true! Charles can still go to San Francisco, but that doesn't mean I have ta stay at Lancer.”

  “Why?  Why are you so afraid of going back to Lancer?”  Sam asked quietly.

  “I ain't afraid,” Johnny snapped.

“Yes, you are.”

  Johnny glared at the old doctor, and then dropped his head.  “I'm tired of getting' hurt.  I don't want ta set myself up for anymore falls.”

  Sam nodded slowly.  “I don't blame you.”

  Johnny looked at him uncertainly.  “You don't?”

  “No.  So why don't you just leave everybody behind and be a hermit the rest of your life?  That way you'll be sure to not be hurt.”

“The Peterson's won't hurt me,” Johnny said emphatically.

  “Neither would Murdoch or Scott.  Or Val or I either, for that matter.”

Johnny dropped his head and shook it slightly, and Sam looked at him quizzically. 

  “Or is the reason that you know the Petersons won't hurt you is because they can't?”

  Johnny looked away, but didn't reply.

  Sam shook his head.  “Johnny, you have two families willing to do anything to make you happy.  Why don't you give them that chance?”

  “You're right, I'm afraid,” Johnny whispered.

“Here I always thought you were brave.”

  “I've been hurt my whole life.  I'm tired of always gettin' hurt.”

  “So instead you'd rather be miserable for the rest of your life because you're too frightened to take a chance?” 

  “I TOOK A CHANCE!”  Johnny shouted.  “And look where it got me!”

  “It got you HERE, right now!  It got you two families that love you.”

Johnny shrugged uncertainly.  “Val said they were tired of tryin' ta get me back.  That they were gonna wash their hands of me, so I guess it really doesn't matter, does it?  If I made a mistake, I'll have ta live with it.”

The old doctor slowly shook his head.  “You know that's not true.  Yes, they are frustrated because you won't believe them, we all are.  But we ALL want you back, especially your family, and I think you know that.”

Johnny didn't respond, and Sam stared at the young man for several seconds before he finally sighed.   “Johnny, do you remember the first really long conversation we had after you came to Lancer?”

Johnny thought for a moment, and then nodded.  “It was after Scott had been shot, and I was afraid...I was afraid I was going to lose him.”

  “So now you've made the decision to lose him.”

  Johnny wrapped his arms around himself but kept his head down.

“Do you remember what else you told me that day?”  Sam demanded.

Johnny shrugged.  “I said a lot of things.”

Sam stared at the young man.  “You said that you'd almost ruined your whole life because of a lie.  You said that you had almost thrown away the only good thing that had ever happened to you because of that lie.”   Sam lurched to his feet.  “Well let me tell you something, Johnny.  That's exactly what you're doing right now.  You're throwing your whole life away because of a lie.  And you're not just ruining your own life, but everyone who cares about you.  You think about that.”

 

 

Chapter One Hundred Twelve

Johnny sat on his palomino and looked down at the peaceful scene below.   A small smile formed on his lips, knowing he'd made the right decision.  He had agonized for a long time over what he should do, and had spent many sleepless nights going over his choices.   But he had finally made up his mind, and he no longer had any doubts about where he wanted to be or what he wanted to do.

When Murdoch and the rest had left after the wedding, he'd done a lot of thinking about what they had all said to him and everything that had happened throughout the years.  He had finally accepted that Scott and Murdoch hadn't abandoned him on purpose, but surprisingly, it hadn't changed the way he felt very much.  For some reason he couldn't explain, he still felt like they had let him down by not getting him out.  He thought they should have tried harder, and he was still hurt that they hadn't.  And he wasn't willing to just abandon everything he had now and go back to the life he had had at Lancer before this all started.  Even though he had loved Murdoch and Scott, life there had been far from idyllic.  He and Murdoch had butted heads frequently, and he didn't want to start that all over again.  The almost daily fights between the two of them had made him want to leave, more than once.   He didn't need to be living in his father's house.  It was just asking for trouble, and he knew it.

Even though he knew Scott and Val and Sam had been right in some ways, he still didn't want to go through it all again.   He knew that he could be happy with the life he'd made for himself with the Petersons.  Maybe Sam had been right.  Maybe he felt safe with the family because they could never hurt him like his real family could, but it didn't really matter.  Even though the depth of feeling wasn't there, he still cared about them.  He knew he would never do anything to hurt them, and they would never hurt him. 

He also knew that they needed him.  If he wasn't around, they would be hard pressed to survive, and he couldn't just abandon them.  Mr. Peterson would be laid up for quite a while after his surgery, and there was no guarantee he would ever heal completely.  No, they needed Johnny, and that was fine with him.  It was nice to be needed, and he certainly didn't resent it.  He would continue to work the land as long as he needed to.  Maybe someday in the future, he could do some ranching.  When things settled down, he could even fulfill his dream of raising and training horses.  He knew now that he could do it, and he knew no one would deny him the right to try.

He looked down at the valley, and at the far end he saw a large expanse of farmland stretching off toward the distant mountains.  The land here was incredibly fertile, and they should be able to raise just about any crop they wanted to.  He smiled.  Charles was just itching to try grapes so he could make wine, and they had been assured the climate was right.  The farmer just might have his vineyard yet.  They'd have to get some equipment and put up some buildings, but it could be done.   It would take some work, but anything worth having was worth working for.

His eyes roamed to the house that sat on the farm land, and he knew it was a fine home.  A lot of work had been done to it and additions put on since the first time he had seen it, and it now could almost be called a mansion.   It wasn't as big as the Lancer hacienda, but he didn't know of any other house that could rival that imposing structure.  It didn't matter; the farmhouse was more than big enough for all of them.  No one needed twenty extra bedrooms.  He smiled as he wondered what Murdoch had been thinking when he had built the monstrous house, but it looked like now at least a few of the unused bedrooms would be put to use.  He wondered if Laura had redecorated them yet.  He figured Murdoch would put his foot down if anyone tried to mess with his great room, but Scott's wife would have plenty of other rooms to play with.  Especially the nursery.

The letter that had come from Laura last month had announced the impending arrival of a new addition, and Johnny had seen the look of longing on the Petersons' faces as they read it.  They hadn't said anything, but Johnny knew that they wanted to see their grandbaby.   Actually, he wouldn't mind seeing Scott's and Laura's baby, either.  Johnny shook his head as he remembered Scott's addition to the letter, asking Johnny if he'd be the baby's godfather.  Scott knew full well that being a godfather was something that Catholics took seriously, and Johnny wouldn't say yes if he couldn't be there and help raise the child.   It was a blatant attempt to make Johnny come back to Lancer, and they both knew it.

Johnny's thoughts turned inward, and he hoped that someday he would be able to do what Sam said and have two families.   He wasn't ready yet, but he knew that someday he would be, and maybe as they both got older, he and Murdoch could manage to get along.   Maybe, just maybe, he would finally have some luck and find himself better off than he had ever been. Better than he had ever dreamed of being.All he had ever wanted was a family to love and be loved by in return, and maybe with some effort he would be doubly lucky.  Right now, though, he was content to let things happen one day at a time.  Take things as they came, and not tempt fate by asking for too much.  He figured if it was meant to be, it would happen.  Either way, he knew he had finally found peace and he had hope for the future.  He was happy.

  He looked around as the wagon came up and stopped next to him on the narrow road.  He smiled as the Petersons looked down in awe at the scene below, and he remembered the first time he had seen it, so many years ago.   Teresa had stopped the buggy and gazed in pride at the land below, just as he was doing now.  He had felt hope then, just like he felt it now.  He could even remember the words she had said, and he repeated them to the Petersons.

  “There it is.  As far as the eye can see.   The most beautiful place in the whole wide world.  Lancer.” 



 

~ end ~

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