The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Terri

 

 

Broken Truth
Second in the Broken series, the sequel to Broken Trust. You must read that one in order for this one to make sense.

Jelly gathered up his tools and slowly headed toward the chicken coop. He figured it would take him the better part of the day to fix the old building, but it needed doing. Winter was coming on and the chickens needed a warm place to hunker down when the weather got cold. That bunch of hens were looking a little scraggly as it was, with no one taking much care of them except to throw some food at them. When Theresa had been here her chickens had been treated like pampered pets. A small grin formed on his face as he remembered how protective she had been of those hens and how she was always fussing with them and cooking up strange concoctions for them to eat. His smile grew wider as he remembered the time Johnny had fallen prey to one of those concoctions.

Whatcha doin’ down there old man?”

Jelly raised his head, thumping it against the bottom of the sink, and glared at the young man. “Now what do ya think I’m doin’? Somebody has ta take care of this place before it falls down around our ears.”

Johnny grinned and jumped down from the stool he’d perched on, then sauntered over to the stove and sniffed at a large pot. “What’s Teresa makin’ for lunch? Smells good!” He lifted the lid, then took another sniff before reaching over and grabbing a bowl from the shelf. He was almost done eating when Teresa had walked in. She looked at him quizzically then started chuckling. “Is it good?” she snorted.

Johnny looked at her cautiously. “Yeeess.”

“I hope the chickens like it as much as you do” Teresa said sweetly.

Johnny’s eyes widened as his gaze darted between Teresa and the simmering pot. Suddenly, he grabbed his mouth and bolted out the door.

Jelly chuckled as he remembered that Johnny insisted on knowing the ingredients of everything he was served for weeks after that before he would touch it. Even then he would sniff it before cautiously taking a small bite as Teresa smirked. She teased him for months afterwards. He shook his head slightly. They always seemed so good together… at least until....Jelly’s face suddenly darkened as he remembered, and he glared at the chickens pecking around his feet. Should let the dang things freeze. With a sigh, he put his tools down and prepared to get to work. He guessed it wasn’t the critters fault they brought back bad memories.

An hour later he put down his hammer and wiped the sweat from his brow. The only thing left to do was the roof, but he decided to rest for a few minutes first to catch his breath. The roof was the biggest part and would take him the rest of the day. He shook his head in frustration at his own weakness. There was a time when this whole job would have taken him just an hour or two, but he was sure feeling his age lately and he had been thinking more and more about his own mortality. He knew he wouldn’t be around forever, but he had few regrets in his life. He had done and seen a lot of things, and finding a home at Lancer had been a stroke of luck. He loved the ranch with it’s wide open spaces and gorgeous scenery, and the people here were family. He was happy here, but at times he was still lonely.

Murdoch and Scott seldom come out and visited with him anymore, and the hands were too busy with their own work to give much thought to an old man. The few kids running around pretty much ignored him and when they didn’t they weren’t very respectful. Not like kids used to be. Not like the ones he had tried to raise. Truth was, he missed his boys. All the lost and orphaned strays he took care of and nurtured. They were scattered to the four winds now, and he was not likely to ever see any of them again. Not even Johnny.

He sighed noisily. That boy had worked his way into his heart more than any of the others. That hardened gunfighter had a heart of gold and a sense of fun that you just couldn’t help responding to. When he had been here, things were never dull and Jelly had never been lonely. Johnny made sure of that. But even then, even when things had been going well between Johnny and his family, there was a need and a worry in that boy’s eyes. Like he knew it wouldn’t last. Like he knew he wasn’t good enough and didn’t deserve the happiness he had found here.

A tear threatened to erupt, and Jelly angrily wiped it away. Johnny deserved it. Probably more than anyone, but it had been ripped away with just a few angry words and now he was gone. Lord only knew where he was, because no one at the ranch sure knew. Jelly hung his head. It certainly would be nice to see that bright smile again, hear that teasing again. But there wasn’t much chance of that happening. That boy was long gone. The first few years after Johnny had disappeared from that hospital, Jelly had kept expecting him to come riding into the yard with that sassy grin on his face, but as time had gone by that hope had faded. It had been twelve years now, and not a sign. He shook his head sadly. He just hoped Johnny had finally found some peace in his life. Heck, with his knack of finding trouble, he just hoped the boy was still alive.

Well, daydreaming certainly wouldn’t get the job done. He stiffly stood up and looked at the ladder that was leaning up against the coop. After a moment he jutted out his chin and began to climb. He was almost to the top when he missed the rung with his foot. He grabbed desperately at the ladder, but the sudden shift of weight caused the ladder to slide sideways. With a yell, he lost his balance and plummeted to the ground.

*****

Sam shut the door quietly behind him before turning and walking down the hall. He stopped before heading down to the Great Room, wondering just how many times he had walked down these particular stairs. A lot less since Johnny had left, that was for sure. Sam shook his head sadly as memories of those times came surging back. No, he wasn’t out here that often now, and he guessed that was a good thing, but it certainly didn’t seem like it.

Everything had sure changed, but he knew that was just a part of life. He smiled slightly as he thought about the grouchy old man down the hall. Jelly hadn’t changed much over the years, but now it was obvious the old man was finally showing his age. Weren’t they all, he thought morosely. He had been tending the people of this area for over forty years, and he was just about worn out. The long hours, the endless long buggy rides, interrupted sleep and the constant stress had taken its toll. He didn’t really want to retire, but a little help would sure be nice. Someone young enough to be able to get up in the middle of the night and not be worn out from it. Someone to just take up some of the slack.

He shook his head once more before starting down the stairs. He hoped that old man would listen to him this time. He had told Jelly time and again to take it easy, but evidently hard headedness was catching around this ranch.

“How is he, Sam?”

The old doctor shrugged as he made his way over to the liquor cabinet. “It could have been worse, but it’s bad enough. Sprained wrist, extensive bruising, and a dislocated hip. He’s darn lucky nothing’s broken.”

He poured a drink, then walked over and plopped on the couch. “He shouldn’t have been up on that ladder in the first place. How old is that old man, anyway? He never would tell me.”

Murdoch shook his head. “I have no idea. He won’t tell us, either.”

Sam leaned back and took a sip of Scotch. “He has to be at least eighty. Too old to be climbing ladders, anyway.”

Murdoch nodded. “I’ve told him that until I’m blue in the face, but you know how stubborn he is. I think he’s just scared to admit he can’t do the things he used to do anymore. He doesn’t want to admit he’s old. Every time I tell him to slow down he just gets mad.”

Sam snorted. “None of us want to think we’re too old to be useful. You’re going to have to find something he can do without putting him in danger, or maybe you can find him a helper.” He grinned suddenly . “You know how much he likes to be in charge.”

Murdoch nodded thoughtfully. “I’ll see what I can do. That old man may be stubborn, but he’s like family.” His face darkened suddenly and he dropped his head and sighed. “Like family,” he repeated quietly, “and I don’t intend to lose any more of them.” He slowly swiveled his chair around and stared out the window at his ranch. “Thanks, Sam,” he said quietly. “I’ll figure something out.”

Sam walked over to the desk and stood staring at Murdoch’s back for a moment before giving up. He turned and quietly walked towards the door. There was a time when he and Murdoch would have sat and discussed the problem over a drink, and he would have certainly been asked to stay for supper. There was a time when the hacienda was full of noise and life. There was a time when Murdoch was a powerful man, physically and mentally, and seemed to have everything. Now both the house and the man were nothing but an empty shell.

*****

Scott stomped his feet, trying to get rid of some of the mud that had collected on his boots. Giving it up as a lost cause, he slipped his boots off and placed them neatly by the door, knowing that Maria would make sure one of the numerous kids running around would clean them before morning. Stepping into the kitchen he saw Murdoch had already started eating so he slipped quickly into the nearest chair.

“Sorry I’m late. That bridge gave us some trouble.”

Murdoch nodded once. “No matter.” He looked up at his son. “Any other problems?”

“No Sir.” Scott looked around but didn’t see any sign anyone else had eaten and a trace of worry started to form.

“Isn’t Sean back yet?”

Murdoch nodded thoughtfully. “Yes, he came in about an hour ago and grabbed a few biscuits.” He nodded toward the door. “He’s in there reading.”

“He shouldn’t be inside reading! He should be out playing with the other kids!” Scott exclaimed. “He’s only ten years old! He’s too young to stay cooped up in here all the time. He needs to have some fun! He needs to stop being so serious! He needs….” Scott’s voice trailed off and he looked hopelessly around, as though searching for something that wasn’t there. “He needs his Mother and brother” he whispered “And so do I.”

Murdoch knew how badly his son was hurting. After Johnny had left, everyone had just about stopped living. The hacienda turned into a cold and gloomy place, and both he and Scott were weighed down with guilt. They stopped living and merely survived. One day melted into the next, with each day worse than the last.

 Then Ann had come into their lives. She was a bright ray of sunshine that filled the old house with joy. His son had fallen deeply and completely in love. By some miracle, she had understood what had been needed and had set about trying to ease not only Scott’s pain, but Murdoch’s as well. He had loved her like a daughter, and she had filled a void that he hadn’t known he had. He had mourned Johnny for so long he had never really allowed himself to grieve for Teresa. He had been furious with her, but in the deep recesses of his mind, he still loved her, even if he would never admit it, even to himself. Ann helped to ease some of that pain, and the two boys she had presented Scott with had further helped dispel the gloom. There was once again laughter and love in the house. Then, just like that, Ann and the youngest boy were gone, and once more the hacienda had turned cold.

Murdoch reached over and touched his son’s hand. “I’m so sorry Scott. I know how hard it is, but with time…”

Scott stared at his father. “And how long did it take you?” he snapped.

Murdoch shook his head. “I still miss them. All of them” he confessed. “I’m sorry Son, I was out of line.”

Scott sighed heavily. “I didn’t mean to snap. I just miss them so much and I’m still hurting from losing Johnny. When I married Ann, I was finally able to forget about Johnny a little. Not forget exactly, but it didn’t hurt quite as much. Then when Sean came along, and then Patrick, I thought I could be happy again, and I was.” Scott’s face darkened and he turned in anguish to his father. “Why, Murdoch? Why did that buggy have to turn over? Why couldn’t they have taken the surrey that day? Why did they have to die?”

Murdoch stood up and walked over to his son, then reached down and hugged him. “I don’t know Scott. Why does anything happen the way it does? You can drive yourself insane by wondering ‘what if’. Believe me, I know. All you can do is try to do your best and go on.”

“I know, Sir. I’ve been trying.” Scott sighed. “But it’s affecting more than me and right now I’m worried about Sean. He’s changed. He was always quiet, but now…” He shook his head. “Now he’s sullen. He does his work, but before this happened he really tried to do well and now he doesn’t. Now he resents it. He seems to resent everything I say, everything I do. I think he needs to talk about his mother and brother, but he refuses. He either leaves or gets angry. And…” He shook his head.

“And what?” Murdoch asked softly.

Scott looked up at his father with tortured eyes. “He always used to be so kind and so gentle and he got along with everyone. Now, he’s mean.”

Murdoch shook his head emphatically. “I don’t think he’s actually mean.”

Scott stared at his father. “I don’t know. I don’t want to believe it, but Cipriano said something the other day. He said the other hands had told him their kids had called Sean a bully. I don’t like other things I’ve heard, either. I don’t think he’s as respectful as he should be, and he thinks he’s entitled just because we own the ranch. I just don’t know what to do about it. I know he’s hurting, and I’m afraid punishing him will just make it worse, but I can’t ignore it, either.”

Murdoch patted his son’s shoulder. “I know you’ll do the right thing and it will all work out. He’s not a bad kid, he’s just confused and hurt. It’ll take time, but he’ll come around. Part of the problem may be that there are no other boys his age at the ranch. They’re either a lot older and already out working, or they’re several years younger. The older boys pretty much ignore him, and it’s probably natural that he boss the younger ones around a little, especially when they know he’s the owner’s son.”

Scott grimaced. “I don’t want him threatening anyone or expecting special treatment because he’s my son, and I’d better not catch him doing that, ever. As to him bossing around the kids that are younger, I don’t know, maybe that’s normal, as long as it doesn’t get out of hand.” He took a deep breath, then looked at his father, eager to change the subject. “How’s Jelly?

Murdoch smiled. “He’s starting to complain, so he must be feeling better.”

A tired grin broke out on Scott’s face. “I’m glad. I’m sort of fond of that old curmudgeon.”

“Me too, Son, me too!”

*****

Scott walked toward the house, slapping his hat against his leg as he went. It seemed lately that it had either been flooding or there was a drought. Three weeks ago he was worrying about the north pasture flooding, and now he was worried about the west pasture having enough water to sustain the cattle. It was always something. As he approached the house, a movement near the garden caught his eye, and he changed his course toward the hen house.

“Jelly, what do you think you’re doing?”

The old handyman jumped, then whirled around. “What in tarnation do you think YOU’RE doin’? Sneakin’ up on a fella like that just might give him a heart attack!”

“I was not sneaking! I just want to know what you’re doing. Sam was very specific when he told you not to do any work.”

Jelly’s chin jutted out as he appraised his boss. “I’m goin’ plumb loco just sittin’ around. Figure it wouldn’t hurt nothin’ ta slap a coat of paint on this old chicken coop. Don’t want all my hard work ta be for nothin’ if it falls down from neglect!”

Scott sighed. “Jelly… we already discussed this. You need to take it easy for a while. If you think that coop needs painting, get one of the boys to do the painting, and you can watch and make sure he does it right.”

“Scott Lancer, I am perfectly capable of painting that shed. I don’t need no young whippersnapper getting’ in my way and slowin’ me down. Now go on and git outta here and let me work.”

“Suit yourself,” Scott sighed, too tired to argue. “Just make sure you don’t overdo, and stay off of that ladder!”

“Now how am I supposed to paint up high without steppin’ on somethin’?”

“JELLY!” Scott threatened.

“All right, all right. I’ll stay offin’ that ladder. But don’t come crying ta me when that old hen house don’t look beautiful.”

“I’m sure it will be fine. Just BE CAREFUL!” Scott turned and stomped toward the house.

Jelly watched him go, then shook his head. He knew Scott was just watching out for him, but he didn’t need any help. He wasn’t as old and used up as everyone around here seemed to think. Besides, he wasn’t about to try to explain to him that he didn’t want the kids around because they made fun of him and teased him. He pretended it didn’t matter, but it did. He knew if he said something to either Scott or Murdoch, they would make sure the teasing stopped, but he didn’t like airing his dirty laundry in public. Besides, he knew that Scott would be furious if he knew the worst offender was his own son. Nope, that boy had enough on his plate without having another helping of misery heaped on.

*****

“Gol darn It! Where did my hammer go?” Jelly huffed and struggled to his feet. “I know it was right here a minute ago!” As he looked around he heard laughter coming from outside and he knew exactly what had happened to his hammer. “Gol darn it” he repeated. He headed toward the door, knowing he’d probably waste a good half hour just going on a hunt for the missing tool, and he didn’t have time for that nonsense. Didn’t have the energy either, for that matter. He had not quite made it to the entrance of the barn when a young boy stepped inside holding the missing hammer.

“We’ll, at least ya didn’t make me run all over creation for it!” Jelly grumped as he snatched the hammer out of the boys hand.

“I didn’t take it!” the boy protested.

“Then how’d ya get it?” Jelly snapped back.

“That other boy put it on top of that hay pile. I figured somebody would be looking for it, so I climbed up and got it. Besides, no sense leaving good tools out to rust.”

Jelly squinted at the boy. “You’re new around here ain’t you?”

The boy nodded.

“What’s your name?”

“Jimmy.”

“Well Jimmy, I’m Jellifer B. Hoskins, but you can call me Jelly. I sorta run this place. And I thank you for bringin’ my hammer back.”

“You’re welcome.” Jimmy hesitated a moment, biting his lip. “Do you need any help?”

Jelly looked at him in surprise then turned and walked back into the barn. “Shore do. Come on, you can help me fix this stall door.”

Forty five minutes later, Jelly stepped back and surveyed his handiwork. Nodding his approval, he looked down at the young boy standing next to him.

“Well, it looks real good. Now how about us goin’ and getting’ something ta eat?”

Jimmy nodded. “Okay. I have some money.”

Jelly chuckled. “You don’t need no money here. Any man that kin put in a day’s work gets three meals a day in the bunkhouse kitchen, courtesy of Mr. Lancer.”

Jimmy stopped. “I haven’t worked all day.”

“Well, we have some more work to do this afternoon if ya want.” Jelly looked hopefully at the dark haired boy.

Jimmy nodded eagerly. “I’d like that.” He glanced up shyly at the older man. “Can I work with you every day?”

Jelly stopped in surprise. “Well,” he said slowly, “I’d like that real good, but your Pa might have different ideas.”

Jimmy dropped his eyes. “No,” he said quietly. “My Pa is the one that said I needed to come and ask for a job. He said I needed to earn my keep.”

“Well, okay. As long as ya ain’t needed elsewhere I guess we got a deal.”

Jelly watched as a huge grin broke out on Jimmy’s face. That boy was gonna break some hearts with that grin in a few years, he thought. He didn’t know why his Pa felt like a boy this young had to work for his keep, but he must have his reasons. It was sure better than some of the boys who complained if they had to lift a finger.

“How old are you boy?”

“Ten and a half.”

Jelly nodded thoughtfully. Just about Sean’s age. He wondered just how well they’d get along. The two of them were total opposites. Sean was tall for his age, outgoing and blond. Jimmy was stockier, seemed a little quiet, and had dark hair. He chuckled as he remembered a similar pair of boys who had gotten along just fine. He guessed he’d just have to wait and see.

After lunch the two of them strolled back toward the barn as Jelly filled him in on some of the chores he’d be expected to do.

“In the mornin’, you can feed the horses and any other livestock that happens to be in the barn, and clean the stalls. Make sure the horses are clean, too, but a good grooming usually will have ta wait till evening cause the men like ta start early. Sometimes if they’re in a hurry, you need to saddle up their horses. When they get back, make sure the horses are cooled off, then clean out their hooves and give ‘em a good brushin’. Make sure their water pails are kept full, and give ‘em more hay and grain at night.” He looked at the boy skeptically. “Think you can handle that?”

The boy laughed. “Jelly, I’ve been taking care of horses since I could walk. I can handle it.”

Jelly nodded in relief. If Jimmy could take care of his morning chores, he might be able to sleep in a little longer on those days when his bones were aching. It sure would help.

“You don’t have ta bother with the horses in the big pen. The men here are each responsible for their own string. The horses in the barn are the only ones you have ta worry about; the draft and cart horses and the personal horses of the boss and his family.”

“Who is the boss, Jelly?”

Jelly looked at him in surprise. “The big Boss is Murdoch Lancer, but his son Scott pretty much runs things now.”

“Are they nice?”

Jelly nodded. “No better people anywhere. I remember one time a few years back…”

“GET OFF MY HORSE!” Jimmy yelled as he took off running toward the corrals.

Sean had just put his foot in the stirrup but the other boy’s yell made him take it back out. Jimmy rushed up and tried to take the reins out of Sean’s hand but he refused to let go.

“What’s the matter with you?” Sean yelled.

“That’s my horse and nobody rides him but me!”

“Says who?”

An out-of-breath Jelly caught up and grabbed Jimmy’s shoulder. “Now just settle down. What’s going on here, anyway?”

Jimmy glared at Sean, then turned to Jelly. “He was trying to take my horse.”

Sean snorted. “It’s not your horse. It belongs to the ranch, so it belongs to me.” He reached up and patted the pinto’s neck. “He’s real pretty and I think I’ll use him as my second horse.”

“No you won’t,” said Jimmy quietly. “My Pa broke that horse and gave him to me. He’s mine.”

“He’s still ranch property,” Sean shrugged and put his foot in the stirrup once more.

Jimmy twisted away from Jelly and reached over and grabbed Sean’s leg as he tried to mount. The horse spooked away from the commotion and Sean fell on his rump. A second later he launched himself at Jimmy and tackled him to the ground.

Jelly reached down and grabbed both boys by their collars just as Sean threw a punch. Jimmy was thrown backwards as the fist connected with his nose, and Jelly lost his balance and fell on his side. Jimmy hesitated and looked over at his friend, but another blow stung his jaw and he swung his fist at Sean’s face. A moment later both boys were lifted up off their feet.

“STOP IT RIGHT NOW!” Murdoch bellowed as Scott came running up and went immediately to Jelly, managing to shoot a glare at his son as he went past.

“Sean, get in your room NOW! I’ll talk to you later!”

“But he started it!”

“NOW!”

Sean threw Jimmy one last hateful look, then stomped toward the house as Scott helped Jelly to his feet.

“Dag blame it all, quit fussin’. I’m fine!” Jelly yelped. “Just lost my balance is all. Coulda happened to anybody! Now let me be!”

Scott watched the old man closely for a moment. “What happened?”

“Well, Sean and Jimmy here got in a fight.”

Murdoch rolled his eyes. “We saw that. Who started it?”

Jelly glanced at Jimmy, who was standing hanging his head. “Well, I tell you Murdoch, it was like this…”

“I did,” said Jimmy quietly, then looked at Jelly. “I’m sorry, Jelly. I didn’t mean to knock you over.”

“It’s ok, didn’t hurt me none. “

“Who are you?” Scott asked.

“My name is Jimmy, Sir.”

Well, Jimmy, what happened?”

“That other boy was trying to take my horse.”

Scott raised his eyebrows. “Your horse?”

“Yes Sir. My Pa broke him and gave him to me.”

Murdoch walked over to the Pinto and ran a hand down its flank. “It’s a fine animal. No brand, either.”

“It’s not stolen!” Jimmy protested.

“Hush boy. No one is accusing you of stealing it.”

Scott shook his head. “It’s not one of ours.”

“I told you, he’s mine!”

Scott turned to Jimmy. “Didn’t you tell Sean it was your horse?”

Jimmy nodded. “Yes Sir.”

Scott looked over at Jelly, who nodded uncomfortably.

“Jimmy told him.”

“And?”

“Well, Scott, you know how kids are…”

“What did he say, Jelly?” Scott commanded.

“Well…”

“JELLY!”

“Sean said it didn’t make no difference. That all of the horses on the ranch belonged to him, anyway, and he could take it if he wanted to.”

Scott’s mouth set in a grim line. “Oh he did, did he?” he fumed.

He turned toward Jimmy. “I’m sorry Jimmy. I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again.” He looked closer at the boy. “You’re new around here, aren’t you?”

“Yes Sir.”

Jelly spoke up. “He asked me if he could help me do my chores, said his father wanted him to earn his keep. He helped me all mornin’ and he’s a good worker. I figured he could help me with my work if it’s all right with you.”

Scott glanced at Murdoch and they both held back grins.

“I think it’s a great idea Jelly! Just don’t work him too hard!” Murdoch turned to Jimmy. “ And I don’t want any more fighting, understand?”

“Yes, Sir!”

Murdoch glanced around at the pinto. “Jelly, make sure that this young man’s horse is stalled in the barn. We wouldn’t want him to get banged up in the corral.”

Jimmy’s eyes widened. “Thank you!”

Murdoch grinned at the boy and reached out to ruffle his hair. “You’re welcome.” He nodded toward the barn. “Now you’d better get to work!”

“Yes Sir!” Jimmy immediately grabbed his horse’s reins and led him into the barn as the three men watched him go.

“He seems like a good kid,” Murdoch observed.

“He certainly has better manners than Sean,” Scott said sourly.

“It looked like he has a better right hook, too,” Murdoch chuckled.

Scott was quiet for a moment. “I wonder….”

“What?”

“I think it just might be a good idea to make sure Sean is around Jimmy for a while.”

“Are you crazy Scott?” Jelly exclaimed . “In case you didn’t notice, those two didn’t exactly hit it off.”

Scott shrugged. “No, they didn’t. But Jimmy didn’t back down from Sean, either. I think Jimmy might just be what Sean needs.”

*****

Jelly woke up and stretched, then glanced at the clock next to his bed. He sure didn’t feel like getting up, but he didn’t think he should leave Jimmy without supervision on his first day. Besides, the boy wasn’t that old and he was sure to make mistakes, and he’d need Jelly to show him the ropes. Jelly just hoped he wouldn’t have to wait long on him before he got started. He hadn’t really told him a specific time to start and he knew most boys liked to sleep in, but he didn’t want the livestock to suffer because Jimmy didn’t want to get out of bed. With a groan, the old man pulled himself out of bed and began to slowly pull on his clothes.

Jelly pulled open the door to the barn and was greeted by the sound of the horses grinding their corn and oats. He stepped inside and peered into the first stall. His eyes widened and he looked around the barn.

“Jimmy?” he called.

“Just a minute Jelly!” A moment later the boy stepped out of one of the stalls, carrying a small pot.

“What’re you doin’? “ Jelly asked.

“That bay in the last stall has a cut on his leg. I was just putting some medicine on it.”

Jelly nodded as he looked around one more. “Looks like you have everything in real good shape. Everything been fed?”

“Yessir. Hay and grain, and they’ve all had fresh water. Cleaned all the stalls, too, and the horses have been groomed.”

“You musta been up real early.”

Jimmy shrugged.

“Did you make up that concoction yourself?” Jelly asked, pointing to the pot in Jimmy’s hand.

Jimmy nodded. “It works real good. My Pa showed me how to make it.”

“Well, it may work, but Mr. Lancer’s horses need the best, and I’m gonna show you my secret recipe. I’ve been usin’ it for sixty years and only a handful of people know about it, so you make sure you don’t go blabbin’ about it. ” He looked around cautiously to make sure they were alone. “First you take some goose grease, then you add a little bit of turpentine and mix it up real good, then, my secret ingredient…”

“Honey,” Jimmy said confidently.

Jelly’s eyes bugged out. “Now how in tarnation did you know that?”

Jimmy shrugged, unsure if the old man was mad.

Jelly snatched the pot and smelled it, then slowly handed it back. “Hmmph. I guess it’s ok, but it could use some more turpentine,” he snapped.

“Yes Sir.”

“Well,” Jelly huffed, “if you’re done with the animals, start cleanin’ up the tack.”

“Okay.”

Jelly watched as the boy headed toward the tack room, then he slowly turned and walked out of the barn. He was pleasantly surprised at how Jimmy had taken over and done things. Everything was neat and clean, and the horses were all taken care of. Even though he was young, that boy sure did know a heap about horses. Seemed to get along with ‘em too. Jelly shook his head. Maybe…just maybe he could start slowin down a little. That thought should have made him happy, but for some reason it just made him sad.

*****

Jimmy looked at the pile of bridles next to him and heaved a small sigh. His fingers felt like they just might fall off, but all of the leather was cleaned and oiled and the bits polished. He had replaced several straps and buckles, and mended some of the stitching. His Pa would’ve skinned him alive if Jimmy had let his own tack get in that bad of shape. He sat there for a moment wondering if Jelly was mad at him for some reason, as he hadn’t seen the old man since he had left the barn this morning. He heard someone approaching and looked up, hoping it was his friend. Instead, Sean walked over and sat on a barrel across from him.

“What are you doing?”

Jimmy bristled at the other boy’s tone. “What does it look like I’m doing? I’m cleaning these bridles.”

“Why?”

“Because Jelly asked me to.”

Sean snorted. “That grumpy old man? Why do you listen to him?”

“Because I told him I’d help him. Besides, he’s nice.”

Sean shrugged. “So you work here?”

Jimmy nodded. “I’m supposed to take care of the horses and the tack.”

Sean stared at him for a moment, then smiled. “You see that buckskin in the third stall?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s my horse, Chief. I think I want to take him for a ride. Saddle him up for me.”

Jimmy looked at him for a long time, then shook his head. “Nope.”

“You work for us. You have to do what I say.”

“No, I work for Jelly. If he tells me to saddle your horse, then I will. But right now I’m busy. Saddle him yourself.”

“I could make you.”

“I doubt it.”

“Do you want me to prove it?” Sean snarled.

“Didn’t think we were supposed to be fighting.”

“You’re afraid!” Sean spat.

Jimmy studied the other boy. “Nope.”

“I can get you fired unless you do as I say!”

Jimmy felt a twinge of worry. He needed this job. He thought about it for a moment and almost gave in, but his temper and pride won out. “Go ahead. I told you, I ain’t saddling your horse!”

Sean hopped down from his perch and walked toward the boy, clenching his fists. Jimmy stood up and watched him warily, but didn’t back down. The sudden sound of voices approaching made Sean stop, and he hesitated as the voices came closer. He glared at the other boy in frustration, knowing he’d be in big trouble if he was caught starting a fight.

“I changed my mind. I have more important things to do than teach you a lesson. Besides, I wouldn’t want you touching him anyway,” Sean finally spat. “Don’t even go near him, understand?”

“If Jelly tells me not to,” Jimmy said, more calmly than he felt.

“I’m telling you not to, or you’ll have me to deal with.”

Jimmy looked back, then shrugged. “Okay.”

Sean looked at the other boy furiously, angry because he couldn’t intimidate the other boy. “You just wait. You’ll be sorry, “ he snarled before he turned and stomped out of the barn.

Jimmy watched him go, a worried look on his face as he wondered just how much trouble he was going to be in for refusing to saddle that horse.

*****

 “Jelly!”

“Jelly wake up!”

Jelly swam up out of sleep and looked around in confusion.

“Jelly come on!”

The old man’s eyes finally focused on the boy standing next to him, then he looked over at the clock. “What in tarnation? It’s one in the morning!”

“Jelly, there’s something wrong with Chief. He keeps rolling and biting at his flanks.” He took a deep breath. “I think he has colic.”

Jelly tried to bolt up out of bed and almost fell, but Jimmy grabbed him. “Hurry Jelly!”

Jelly dressed as quickly as he could and hurried to the barn as Jimmy raced ahead. When he reached the stall, Jimmy was already inside and trying to calm the agitated horse, but the animal didn’t even seem to see him. Jelly swallowed hard. It was covered in sweat and as he watched, it sank to its knees.

“Don’t let him roll!” Jelly commanded.

Jimmy grabbed the halter, but the horse was too strong and went all the way down, pulling the boy with him. Jelly hurriedly stepped in and clipped two lead ropes onto the agitated horse and handed one rope to Jimmy. The two of them pulled and yanked and shouted, but the horse refused to move. Despite the seriousness of the situation, Jelly had to smile when the ten year old boy got behind the horse and tried to push the thousand pound animal to its feet with sheer strength. Jimmy quickly changed tactics and started slapping the horse on its rump. Finally they brought the reluctant horse to its feet and Jelly shakily handed the rope to Jimmy.

“Take him outside and keep him walking and whatever you do, don’t let him go down. I’m gonna go make up a batch of my special medicine. Holler if you need help.”

“Will he be okay?”

“We’ll do our best, but he’s awfully sick. Now go on and make sure he doesn’t roll, I’ve got to get busy making my medicine!” he yelled as he hobbled off.

Jimmy watched the old man go, worried about how winded he seemed, but his mind was quickly snapped back to the problem at hand when the horse once more started to go down.

*****

Scott walked toward the barn, a cup of coffee in his hand. He always enjoyed this time of the morning when everything seemed new. It was later than normal; he had slept in a little. He took a last gulp of the strong brew, then tossed the dregs in the dirt and stepped into the barn. He noticed the stalls hadn’t been cleaned yet and frowned as he slipped a halter on his horse. He led Ulysses out of his stall, then saw Jelly walking up the aisle with a bucket of water, and his temper flared.

“Jelly, What’s going on? Why isn’t Jimmy doing that?”

“Shush! You’ll wake up him,” he said, pointing to the boy who was sleeping on a mound of hay.

Scott raised his eyebrows. “Shouldn’t he be awake anyway?” he asked pointedly.

Jelly stepped into the pinto’s stall and set the bucket down, then came out and carefully latched the gate. “Nope, he’s plumb tuckered. We had some excitement here last night. Seems Chief had a belly ache.”

“Colic?”

“Yep. Pretty bad case, too. If it weren’t for my special concoction he probably wouldn’t a made it.”

Scott walked over and studied the buckskin as the horse nibbled on some hay. “He looks okay now.”

Jelly nodded. “Fit as a fiddle!”

“So why is Jimmy so tired? Didn’t he just get here?”

Jelly shook his head. “That boy was here all night. He didn’t stop walkin’ that horse even for a minute and Chief sure wasn’t making it easy on him, neither. Fought him tooth and nail tryin’ ta lie down, but Jimmy just kept fighting back and kept that horse on his feet. Don’t know how he done it.”

Scott looked puzzled. “What time did Chief get sick? He was okay fairly late last night when I came back from town.”

Jelly frowned. “Yep, he was ok when I turned in a little later, too. Come ta think of it, Jimmy woke me up yellin’ that the horse was sick. That was at one in the mornin’. I know, cause I looked at the clock.”

“What was that boy doing out here at that time of night? His family must be worried sick.” Scott glanced at the boy once more. “Just let him sleep as long as he wants. I’m going out to where those new men are working and I’ll let his father know he’s okay.”

“All right. Make sure you tell him what a big help he was, too. That horse probably wouldn’t a made it without Jimmy fightin’ him the way he did.”

Scott nodded. “I’ll tell him. I don’t want him to get in trouble with his family because he helped us.”

*****

Scott rode into the yard and swung down from his gelding. Jimmy immediately appeared and reached out to take the reins and then led the sorrel into the barn. Scott trailed along behind him and watched as the boy took the tack off and started rubbing the horse down.

“You’re real good with horses,” Scott said.

“My Pa taught me.”

“Oh yes. About your Pa.”

Jimmy stopped and looked at Scott. “What about him?”

“Well, I talked to all of the hands and it seems no one knows you.”

Jimmy shrugged. “No reason for them to.”

“All right Jimmy. Just where is your father?”

Jimmy’s head dropped. “He’s dead,” he whispered.

Scott took a deep breath. “And your Ma?” Scott asked gently.

“She’s dead, too.“

Scott shut his eyes for a moment. “Why didn’t you tell us?”

Jimmy looked at him quizzically. “No one asked.”

Scott shook his head. “How did you end up here?”

“My uncle brought me.”

“So you do have relatives that could take you in,” Scott said in relief.

“No Sir. I don’t have any relatives. He’s not really my uncle. He’s just a friend. I wanted to go with him, but he said he had to do some traveling and he said he had things to do, so I couldn’t go with him.”

“Naturally,” Scott said in disgust. “But why did he bring you here?”

“I don’t know. He just told me to come here and ask for work.”

“So you’ve been sleeping in the barn.”

“Yes Sir. I didn’t think anyone would mind.”

Scott took a deep breath. “Well, Jimmy, it looks like you’ll be staying here for a while, at least until we can figure out what to do with you. But you can’t sleep in the barn.”

“I can sleep in the bunkhouse!”

“You definitely can’t sleep in the bunkhouse,” Scott stated emphatically.

“But Jelly promised I could work for him!” Jimmy argued desperately.

“You still can, but for now you’re staying in the house. Come on and let’s get supper.”

*****

Sean stopped cold, one hand on the bannister as he looked into the Great Room. He stared in disbelief for several seconds before bounding into the room.

“What’s HE doing here?” he shouted.

Scott moved to intercept his son. “You calm down RIGHT NOW!”

“But What’s he doing in OUR house!”

“He’s here because I asked him to be here. Now stop shouting.”

“I don’t want him here.”

“Sean, one more word and you’re going back upstairs. Do you understand?”

Sean glared at Jimmy before giving his father a small nod. “Yes, Sir.”

“All right, now come eat,” Scott ordered as he sat down at the table.

Sean walked over and slid into his seat next to his father, keeping his eyes glued on Jimmy, who was seated across from him.

“So Jimmy, Jelly tells me you’ve been a big help to him,” Murdoch said to break the silence.

Jimmy shrugged. “I haven’t done that much.”

Sean snorted and his father shot him a look before turning his attention back to Jimmy.

“Well, not to hear him tell it. He told me you pretty much saved Chief’s life last night.”

Murdoch looked up with interest. “What happened?”

“Evidently Chief got colic. Jelly told me Jimmy walked him all night, and had to fight him most of the way to keep him from lying down.” He stared pointedly at his son, who dropped his head.

Scott’s attention turned once more toward Jimmy. “Jelly says you’re really good with horses, and have been mending the tack, too.”

“I’ve been around horses all my life,” Jimmy mumbled. “and I’ve been riding since before I could walk.”

“Did your family live on a ranch?” Scott asked gently.

Jimmy nodded, his mouth full of potatoes. He finished gulping them down before he answered. “My Pa and I had a horse ranch. Ma died when I was born, so it was just the two of us.” His face darkened suddenly and he dropped his head. “Then he died,” he whispered.

Sean dropped his eyes, wondering what it would be like to lose both your Ma and Pa.

“I’m sorry about your Pa,” Murdoch said. “Do you have any other relatives?”

Jimmy shook his head. “No Sir, it was just the two of us.”

Murdoch looked at Scott. “Maybe one of us should ride over and find out if anyone knows anything more.” At Scott’s nod, Murdoch looked over at Jimmy. “Just where was your Pa’s ranch?”

“By Taylorsville.”

Scott looked quizzically at his father. “I’ve never heard of it.”

Murdoch shook his head. “Neither have I.” He looked at Jimmy. “Where is it?”

Jimmy looked confused. “I don’t know.”

Murdoch’s eyebrows shot up. “What large town is it by?” he pressed.

Jimmy thought for a moment. “I think it’s about two hours ride outside of Prescott.”

“Prescott? As in Arizona?” Murdoch asked in disbelief.

Jimmy nodded. “Our ranch was sort of in between, but a lot closer to Taylorsville.”

Murdoch and Scott stared at each other in confusion.

“You mentioned an uncle before, or someone who you thought of as an uncle,” Scott stated, trying to get more information. “Was he just traveling this way and decided to drop you off here?”

“No, he told me we were coming here when we left.”

“Coming to Lancer?”

Jimmy nodded.

“Did he tell you why?” Scott asked in confusion.

“He said that’s what Pa wanted. He said….he said I might have a home here. I don’t really know what he meant, but Uncle Val was real insistent.”

“Uncle Val?”

Jimmy nodded “Val Crawford. He’s the sheriff in Taylorsville. He and Pa are….were…good friends.”

Scott froze , then glanced at Murdoch, who still looked puzzled. Scott felt his stomach flip. Please lord… “Jimmy, what was your father’s name?”

Out of the corner of his eye Scott saw Murdoch stiffen as he finally figured it out.

“His name was Johnny. Johnny Madrid,” Jimmy answered calmly, not knowing he had just shattered two hearts.

Murdoch stared at the young boy in disbelief. Feeling the man’s eyes on him Jimmy raised his head, and in that moment, Murdoch knew. Good lord, why hadn’t he seen it before? The bright blue eyes and dark hair, the boy’s build, his habit of dropping his head, everything was the same. He looked over at Scott and saw the devastation on Scott’s face.

“How did…how did your father die?” Murdoch whispered.

Jimmy dropped his head. “He just…died. He got sick and…” Jimmy shrugged, “he died.”

Scott stood up and went over to the boy, then reached down and squeezed Jimmy’s shoulder. “Jimmy…I’m sorry, more than you know.” Scott squatted down and looked in his eyes. “But you need to know that you’re not alone. Your …Pa wanted you to come here for a reason.”

Jimmy looked up the man, waiting for him to explain.

“You see, Jimmy, your Pa was…he was…” Scott looked at his father hopelessly, unable to continue.

Murdoch swallowed hard. “Your Pa was my son, and Scott’s brother,” he whispered.

Jimmy’s eyes widened as he looked back and forth between the two men, then his eyes narrowed and he shook his head vehemently. “No! He would have told me, Uncle Val would have told me! You’re lying!” He jumped to his feet and ran toward the door.

Scott started after him, but Murdoch grabbed his arm. “Let him go, Scott. Let him calm down and think about it.”

“Think about it?” Scott shouted. “If he’s anything like his father, he’s already saddling his horse!”

“Scott, Jelly’s out in the barn. He’s not going to let Jimmy leave.”

“And if he tells Jelly why he’s upset…”

Murdoch shook his head. “Jelly has to hear it sometime, and maybe he can talk to Jimmy and calm him down. I don’t know why he was so upset in the first place.”

“Probably because he thinks his Pa lied to him.”

Murdoch sighed. “He didn’t. In his mind, he didn’t have a family anymore.”

“Well, he did, and I’m not going to sit by and lose his son.”

“Scott, he needs some time to get used to the idea.”

“Well you do what you like. I’m going out and talking to him.” Scott rose, then strode purposefully toward the door.

*****

Scott walked into the barn, and a quick glance at the stalls told him that Jimmy’s horse was still in its stall. With a relieved sigh he headed toward the back of the barn, and was stopped by Jelly.

“What in tarnation is goin’ on?” Jelly demanded.

“Where is he, Jelly?”

“He came flyin’ through here like a scalded cat and ran out the back door. Now what’s goin’ on?”

“He’s upset and I just wanted to make sure he didn’t leave.”

“Now why in tarnation would he want to leave? Did him and Sean lock horns again?”

“No, it wasn’t Sean.” Scott took a deep breath. “Did Jimmy tell you about his Pa?”

Jelly shook his head. “No, what about him?”

Scott shuddered slightly. “He’s dead,” he said quietly. “His Ma, too.”

Jelly shook his head. “That’s too bad. Guess that’s why he needed a place ta stay.”

“Jelly….” Scott hesitated, unsure of what to say.

Jelly studied the younger man, wondering why he was so upset, then his eyes narrowed. “Scott, that young ‘un needs a home. Now you can’t just turn your back on him. I know he’s a good worker…”

“Jelly.”

“…. And I’ll be responsible for him. Why, he can even bunk down in my room if…”

“JELLY!”

Jelly stopped in confusion. “What?”

“No one is going to turn their back on him.” Scott took a deep breath. “Jelly, Jimmy is Johnny’s son.”

Jelly’s eyes widened. “Johnny? Our Johnny?”

At Scott’s nod, the old handyman broke out into a huge grin. “Well if that don’t beat all. Johnny’s boy, come back to Lancer. I guess he…” the grin froze for a second before Jelly’s face crumpled as he realized the truth. “Johnny’s dead,” he said, looking at Scott hopelessly. When he received a nod in return, Jelly’s knees buckled as Scott grabbed him and helped him over to a nearby hay bale.

“Are you all right?” Scott asked worriedly.

Jelly nodded. “I guess as right as I can be.” He studied his friend’s face. “ ‘Bout as good as you are. What happened?”

“I don’t know. Jimmy said he just got sick.”

Jelly snorted. “All the times that boy was hurt. Never expected him ta…” He shook his head. “Sorry, Scott.”

“It’s just such a shock, and you’re right. I never thought that was what would happen. He was so full of life, so...” He buried his head in his hands. “Jelly, I miss him so much. I always thought that someday…” His voice broke, “Someday I’d see him again, that he’d come home and we could be brothers again, and now that will never happen. He’s gone and it hurts so bad.”

Jelly patted his friend’s back. “It’ll hit everybody hard. That boy had a lot of friends. Still does. I just wish he’d a known that.” A small smile broke out. “I tried not ta see it, but Jimmy kept reminding me of Johnny. He sure looks a lot like his pa.” He chuckled. “Seems ta be a little better behaved though.”

Scott smiled sadly. “Probably because Johnny never had anyone to care about him enough to teach him when he was a boy. Jimmy did and I think my brother did a great job.”

Jelly nodded. “Jimmy’s a fine boy.” He looked at Scott quizzically. “What was he so fired up about? Does he know?”

“Yes, we told him. I’m not sure he believed us.”

“Why wouldn’t he believe you?” Jelly asked.

“I don’t know,” Scott ground out as he ran a hand through his hair in frustration.

“Because my Pa didn’t lie!” Jimmy shouted.

Scott spun around to see the boy standing a few feet away. “I know he didn’t,” Scott agreed.

“He would have said something about you. He would have told me. He always said it was just the two of us, that we didn’t have anybody else.” Jimmy shrugged. “Except Uncle Val.”

Scott felt a twinge of jealousy and more than a little sadness that Johnny thought Val was more of a brother than he was. “Jimmy, you said that your Pa wanted you to come here.”

Jimmy nodded slowly.

“Well, don’t you think there was a reason he wanted you to come here, to this ranch and not anywhere else? Your Uncle Val brought you here because he said you’d have a place here, remember? He knew.”

Jimmy’s eyes shot up. “He said I MIGHT have a place here. He wasn’t sure.”

Scott reached out and put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Jimmy, you DEFINITELY have a home here. You’re family.”

Jimmy dropped his head. “If Uncle Val knew that you were my family, why wasn’t he sure I’d be welcome? And why didn’t my Pa ever mention you?”

Scott took a deep breath. “It’s a long story, and I can’t explain everything, not until you’re older. But you need to know that we, all of us, loved your Pa very much.”

Jelly nodded vigorously. “We shore did.”

“There was a misunderstanding,” Scott continued. “Your Pa didn’t think we wanted him here anymore. He didn’t think we cared, and he left.”

“But you did care?” Jimmy asked cautiously.

“Durn right we did,” Jelly emphasized.

Scott nodded. “We cared very much.”

“Then why didn’t you make him come back?”

Scott glanced at Jelly, then shook his head. “Your Pa, my brother, didn’t want to be found.”

“Why?”

Scott shook his head hopelessly. “Jimmy, he’d been hurt a lot in his life, and I just don’t think he wanted to take the chance of being hurt again.”

Jimmy glared at Scott. “You hurt him?”

Scott shook his head. “No, not until that last time, and I would have given anything to take it back, we all would have, but it was too late. We couldn’t find him.”

Jimmy nodded slowly . “I guess Uncle Val must have known about you.”

“He did. Believe it or not, we were friends.” Scott hesitated. “Jimmy, we want you to stay with us. You belong here. This is your home, just like it was your father’s.”

Jimmy looked up at Scott. “Sean won’t like it.”

Jelly snorted as Scott chuckled, remembering how he and Johnny had fought at first. “Don’t worry, he’ll get used to the idea.”

Jimmy bit his lip nervously. “Can I still work with Jelly?”

Scott stared at him, surprised. “You don’t have to in order to stay you know.”

Jimmy looked at him quizzically. “My Pa didn’t hold with me not helping out.” He glanced shyly at the old handyman. “Besides, I like Jelly.”

Scott smiled. “I’m sure we can figure something out, but helping Jelly isn’t going to interfere with your schoolwork,” he said pointedly. “Your education comes first.”

“You sound like my Pa,” Jimmy sighed.

Scott smiled delightedly. “He said that?”

Jimmy nodded.

Scott reached over and ruffled Jimmy’s hair. “My brother was a very wise man. We’ll get you started in school first thing Monday morning, but for now come on back inside. I think Maria made apple pie for dessert.” He looked down at the boy. “You like Apple pie?”

Jimmy nodded. “Yes Sir, but I like chocolate cake better.”

Scott laughed as he put his arm around the boy’s shoulder. “I should have known.”

*****

Scott glanced up as the young boy entered the kitchen and tentatively approached the table. Scott motioned toward an empty chair. “Come have some breakfast.”

Jimmy nodded, then looked at the other boy sitting at the table, who never even glanced up.

Scott glared at his son for a moment then turned back toward Jimmy. “Did you sleep well?”

Jimmy nodded, his mouth full of pancakes. “I always sleep well.”

Scott closed his eyes, trying to keep his emotions in check. He was surprised that those four words could bring back such vivid memories.

Jimmy, oblivious to his uncle’s struggle, continued on. “It’s Saturday. Can I go help Jelly?”

Sean snorted, then lowered his head and shoveled a forkful of food into his mouth when his father’s gaze fell on him. Scott turned his attention back to Jimmy and nodded. He had planned something else, but he needed to straighten out his son first.

“You can help Jelly and I’m sure he’d appreciate it.” He hesitated. “But I was thinking about going into town and picking up a few things. I thought you might want to come along and maybe get a few clothes and a couple of other things.” Scott suppressed a grin at the boy’s reaction, completely missing his son’s look of disbelief.

“Shopping?” Jimmy asked in horror. “Shopping? I’d rather clean stalls! Besides, I have plenty of clothes, they’re still in my saddlebags,” he said hopefully. “Please don’t make me go shopping!”

Scott chuckled. “All right, you win! Go on out and help Jelly. We’ll go shopping a different day.”

As Jimmy jumped to his feet, Sean looked over at him. “I’m glad you’re not going,” he spat. “You can stay and work while my Pa and I have fun!”

Jimmy hesitated, then bolted out the door.

Sean stared after Jimmy for a moment, then realizing what he’d done, he slowly turned around to face his father. Scott’s expression was exactly what Sean feared it would be, and the boy quickly dropped his eyes. “Sorry, Sir,” he said quietly.

“Are you?” Scott ground out.

Sean nodded uncertainly.

“Well that’s certainly convincing.” Scott ran his hand through his hair in frustration. “This is not like you, Sean. You have been acting like a spoiled brat, and not just to Jimmy, but to Jelly and everyone else. You’ve been mean to Jelly and you used to follow him around like a puppy. What changed?” Scott demanded.

“I don’t know,” Sean whispered, shocked that his father knew about how he’d been acting toward Jelly.

“Well you had better try and figure it out, because I’m not going to tolerate it anymore!” Scott stood up and started to walk off, but a small voice stopped him.

“I’m just… I just...am…mad all the time.” Sean looked around hopelessly. “ I don’t know why.”

Scott came back, and with a sigh, he slid into the chair next to his son. He reached over and grabbed the boy’s arm, then gently turned him so he could see Sean’s eyes. “You miss them, don’t you?” he finally asked quietly.

Sean started to shake his head. Suddenly he tried to turn his head away so his father wouldn’t see him cry, but Scott refused to let go. As the tears started Scott grabbed him and held him close. “I’m so sorry, son. I miss them, too. I’d give anything if I could bring them back to us, but I can’t. I should have…”

“No!” Sean shouted. “It’s not your fault! It’s my fault! Mine and Jelly’s!”

Scott pulled his head back and looked in shock at his son. “It’s not Jelly’s fault and it certainly isn’t yours! Why did you say that?”

“Because it’s true,” Sean sobbed. “It’s true, it’s true,” he yelled as the sobs got louder.

Scott pulled his son once more into his embrace and held him close as the boy cried. It was several minutes before the sobbing tapered off, and Scott stood up and grabbed a towel. He wet it and then came back and handed it to his son. Keeping a hand on the boy’s shoulder as Sean wiped his face, Scott squatted down next to him.

“Sean, please. Tell me why you think that.”

“I don’t want you to know!”

“Sean, please. You need to tell someone what’s bothering you. I promise I won’t be mad.”

The boy shut his eyes and didn’t say anything for several seconds. Finally he took a shaky breath and started. “Jelly was supposed to drive us all into town in the wagon,” he said quietly. “I didn’t want to go and Jelly knew it. He had been helping me make a present for Patrick for his birthday, and I was running out of time.” He took a deep breath and let out a sob. “So Jelly…so Jelly told Ma he had forgotten to fix one of the gates and needed to stay here and get it done. Ma told him that she would just take the buggy into town. Then I said I wanted to stay and help Jelly, and she said all right, and then they left, and then…” He broke into sobs once more. “If I had gone, Jelly would have driven us and they wouldn’t be dead!”

Scott shut his eyes, and the words he had spoken to Murdoch about wishing they hadn’t taken the buggy bounced in his head. With a slight shake, he squeezed his son’s s arms. “Sean, it was an accident. You couldn’t have known what would happen.”

“But if I’d just…”

“You stop right there!” Scott commanded as he stood up. “You were just trying to do something nice, but you’re right. If you had gone, it might not have happened, and if I hadn’t been working, I would have driven and we would have taken the surrey. If your mother hadn’t forgotten the material she needed the last time she was in town, she wouldn’t have gone at all. If you’re brother hadn’t have been sick, she would have gone the day before, and the road might not have been as wet. Don’t you see, Son, ANYTHING could have changed it, and yet maybe nothing could have. It is so easy to look back and see what you should have done, but who’s to say you’re right? Maybe if you and Jelly had gone, the wagon would have tipped and I would have lost you, too. You CAN’T blame yourself or anyone else. No one wanted it to happen; it was an accident. Do you understand?” As he said the words to reassure his son, he felt a weight lifting off of his own chest; one he hadn’t even known was there.

A look of relief appeared on Sean’s face and he nodded slowly. “I guess.” He looked up at his father. “Do you hate me?”

“NO! Why do you even think that?” Scott asked, shocked.

Sean’s eyes dropped. “I know I haven’t been very nice lately and you’re upset with me all the time. We don’t do things together like we used to and…you seem to like Jimmy a lot.”

Scott shook his head and smiled. “Sean, you are my son and I love you. Nothing can ever change that. I haven’t meant to ignore you, and I’m sorry if I have. I’ll do better, I promise. Okay?”

“Okay,” Sean agreed.

“Now is that why you were mean to Jimmy? Because you were jealous?”

Sean shrugged. “I don’t know. I know that when I saw him with Jelly it made me mad.”

Scott nodded knowingly. “And then you thought I took his side when the two of you fought.”

Sean nodded. “Yeah. And then you were going to take you with him into town, without me.”

Scott’s eyebrows went up. “Actually, I was planning on taking both of you.”

“Really?”

“Of course.” Scott frowned. “But that was before you were so mean to him. I think that trip to town will have to wait, don’t you?”

Sean sighed. “Yes Sir. But he didn’t have to get so upset about me riding his horse.”

“Sean, how do you think Jimmy feels?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, he’s lost both his mother and father, and had to leave his home and come live in a strange place. His father gave him that horse and it’s probably one of the only things he has to remind him of his own family. How would you feel if that horse were yours and someone tried to take him?”

Sean sighed. “I guess I didn’t think about that.”

“No, you didn’t, and do you know how he repaid you after you were so mean?”

“No Sir,” he said in a small voice.

“Remember I told you that he stayed up all night walking Chief when he had colic? If it weren’t for him, your horse you love so much would be dead.”

Sean sighed and lowered his eyes. “I guess I owe him an apology.”

“I guess you do.”

Another thought popped into Sean’s head. “Are Jimmy and I really related?”

Scott nodded. “Yes. He’s your cousin.”

“We’re not very much alike.”

A smile formed on Scott’s face. “Jimmy’s father and I weren’t much alike, either. In fact in a lot of ways we were total opposites, but we were still very close.”

“But he wasn’t here,” Sean stated.

“No.”

“What happened Pa?

 Scott stopped and thought for a moment, not wanting to go into it, but thinking it was important for Sean to know. “Do you remember how close you were to your brother?” At Sean’s nod, he continued. “Well MY brother and I were just as close, maybe even closer.” His face darkened. “Then something happened and Johnny, my brother, left.”

“Why did he leave?”

“We thought he had done something bad and said some mean things to him. It wasn’t until after he left that your Grandpa and I found out that Johnny hadn’t done what we thought he had, but by then it was too late and we couldn’t find him. I never got the chance to make it up to him, and now I’ll never get that chance.” He looked at his son. “Sean, I learned the hard way that harsh words can never be unsaid, and they can hurt even more than a fist. You have to learn to be careful about what you say and think twice before you ever say anything mean.”

Sean nodded. “I understand, and I’m sorry.”

“I don’t think it’s me you have to apologize to, do you?”

“No, Sir.” He took a deep breath. “If we’re not going into town maybe I can go out with Jimmy and help Jelly.” His mouth quirked into a smile. “I sort of miss it.”

“That would be fine,” Scott smiled, grateful that his son was whole again.

*****

The sound of pounding hooves approaching the barn caused both Murdoch and Scott to look up. Murdoch swiveled his chair around to look out the large picture window behind him, and his son jumped to his feet and approached the window from the couch where he had been sitting. Scott’s face darkened when he recognized the familiar buckskin and pinto.

“HOW many times have I told those boys to keep their horses at a walk this close to the house?” he growled, throwing his newspaper on a nearby chair as he stalked toward the front door.

Murdoch chuckled. Maybe his son didn’t remember how many times he and his brother had been yelled at for the same exact thing, but Murdoch sure did. It hadn’t helped, either. At least once a week he had stomped to the front door and greeted his boys with a lecture about safety and protocol, but looking back, he didn’t think his lectures did anything to stop the inevitable. He shook his head. He didn’t know why he had made such a big deal of it in the first place. Johnny and Scott always slowed the horses down well before they came close to any people or livestock. Murdoch shut his eyes and sighed. He had finally realized just what was important in life and what wasn’t, but now it was too late.

A moment later he heard the front door close and Scott walked up to the desk. “I told them to cool off their horses and bed them down themselves before they come in here. I’ve just about had it with those two and there WILL be consequences this time!”

Murdoch nodded thoughtfully. “Just don’t make the mistake I did.”

Scott’s eyebrows shot up as he looked at his father.

Murdoch shook his head and smiled. “Don’t lose sight of the whole picture.”

“Sir?”

Murdoch chuckled. “Three months ago you were at wit’s end wondering if those two were EVER going to stop trying to kill each other.”

Scott snorted. “That’s for sure. I don’t think a day went by that I wasn’t stopping a fistfight.”

“And now?”

Scott hesitated, then looked at his father. “It’s been at least a few weeks,” he said thoughtfully.

Murdoch nodded. “More like a month. And in case you didn’t notice, the boys were laughing when they came in – well at least they were until they saw you,” Murdoch chuckled. His smile faded as he remembered just how quickly he used to be able to wipe the smiles off of his own boy’s faces, and he looked at his son. “They have to be safe, but they have to have some fun, too. They’re just boys, and they could be doing a whole lot worse things.”

A slight smile erupted on Scott’s face. “I’ll remember that, Sir. I just wish you would have had that revelation years ago.”

“So do I son, so do I.”

Forty five minutes later the two boys were standing in front of Murdoch’s desk, darting looks between him and Scott, who was standing next to his father’s chair.

“I’m sorry Sir,” Sean started. “It was my fault.”

Jimmy shook his head. “I was the one that took off first.”

“After I dared you.”

Jimmy shrugged. “I didn’t have to do it.”

“And I didn’t have to race you.”

Murdoch and Scott glanced at each other. The fact that both boys were trying to take the blame off of the other one wasn’t lost on either of the men.

After successfully holding back a smile, Scott glared at the two boys. “If you need to race your horses, you need to do it away from the house, understand?”

“Yes Sir,” the two answered together.

“The reason we don’t race inside the arch is for safety reasons. Do you understand that?”

Another chorus of “Yes Sirs.”

Scott continued to look at the two boys, hands on hips. Finally he spoke. “Tomorrow is Saturday. I think you need to help Jelly all day, don’t you?”

The two boys glanced at each other, their eyes big. “YES, Sir!” they shouted before turning and pounding toward the stairs.

Scott watched them go, wondering if it would be worth it to call them back and scold them for running inside the house. Finally he turned and looked at his father, then shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t even know why I bother,” he groused.

Murdoch chuckled. “You bother because you care. Besides, it will get through eventually. After all, you don’t run in the house or gallop your horse inside the arch anymore.”

Scott smiled wistfully. “I don’t have a reason to anymore,” he said quietly.

“I’m sorry, son. I didn’t think…”

Scott smiled at his father. “It’s ok. It just hurts sometimes. When I see Sean and Jimmy together…”

“It reminds you of you and your brother,” Murdoch finished quietly. “It does me too. It’s almost like seeing what it would have been like if you’d both grown up here.”

“It wasn’t your fault, Sir. You did the best you could.”

“It’s hard to admit that my best wasn’t good enough.” Murdoch’s voice suddenly rose. “If Johnny had been here longer, if he hadn’t had to be Johnny Madrid, if Teresa hadn’t lied, if…” He buried his face in his hands. “If I had been a FATHER instead of a raving lunatic…”

Scott walked over and put his hand on his father’s shoulder. “Murdoch, it was my fault he left, not yours. He…he was used to the two of you butting heads. He knew that you sometimes said and did things before thinking.”

“And that’s supposed to make me feel better? “

“Johnny would have come home, or at least let us catch him afterwards, after he and you had calmed down. No, it was my betrayal that made him leave for good. It was my betrayal that lost me my brother.”

Murdoch reached up and grabbed his son’s hand. “We both made mistakes. Mistakes that will haunt us the rest of our lives, and that Johnny – that we all - had to suffer for. Let’s just make sure we don’t make them again with Jimmy and Sean.”

Scott shook his head. “I don’t intend to.”

A small smile formed on Murdoch’s face. “You do know, don’t you, that after morning chores Jelly was planning on spending the day fishing?”

Scott smiled back. “Yes, Sir. I didn’t really do it for the boys. I did it for Jelly. He told me the other day that having those boys around was just like old times. He said he hadn’t been this happy since…” He glanced at his father. “Well, he hadn’t been this happy for years. I thought he would enjoy having the boys to boss around and tell them how to fish, instead of just having them do chores.”

Murdoch chuckled. “I’m sure he’ll have a good time, and fill our ears with just how bad it was when he comes back.”

“Well, as long as Jelly’s complaining, we know he’s ok. It’s when he stops complaining that we have to worry!”

*****

Scott was sitting on the veranda when the three fisherman returned. He watched as they rode up to the barn and slowly dismounted.

“Long day?” he asked as he walked toward the boys.

Sean nodded. “Yeah, but it was sure fun. Jelly showed us his secret fishing hole and we caught a bunch of fish!”

“I had a great big one,” Jimmy chimed in. It musta weighed ten pounds, didn’t it, Jelly?”

The old man nodded his head. “Mighta been closer to twenty,” he acknowledged. “That musta been old whiskers,” he went on. “That old fish has been gettin’ the best of fisherman round these parts for close to twenty years.”

“And I almost caught him, didn’t I Jelly?” Jimmy insisted.

“You shore did.” He looked over at Sean. “And you caught a big one yourself.”

Sean excitedly held up a stringer of fish. “See, it’s this one!” he said, pointing to a large catfish.

Scott grinned. “You’d better take those around back and give them to Maria, then go wash up. Supper will be in about an hour.”

As the boys ran off, Scott turned toward Jelly. “It sounds like they had a great time.”

Jelly nodded. “We all did. Those boys make life worth livin’ again The two of them, well, they’re just like….” His voice tapered off.

“I know, Jelly, I know. Murdoch and I said the same thing.”

Jelly looked towards the mountains. “About the only regret I had in life was that I couldn’t see that boy no more. But seein’ his son…well that almost makes up for it, don’t it?”

Scott nodded slowly. “Almost Jelly. Almost.”

“It shore is a beautiful day, ain’t it?”

Scott looked out at the beautiful Valley and surrounding mountains, and thought about the people on the ranch. “That it is, Jelly. We couldn’t ask for anything nicer.”

“Nope, we sure couldn’t.” Jelly turned and stretched. “Guess I’ll mosey on back to my room and turn in early.”

“Don’t you want to eat with us?”

“Nah. The boys brought enough sandwiches ta last till next year. I couldn’t eat a bite.”

Scott clapped his hand down on the old man’s shoulder. “All right, if you’re sure. And thanks, Jelly. Those boys had a lot of fun today.”

Jelly nodded. “Me too, Scott. It was a good day.”

Scott clapped his hand on Jelly’s shoulder once more, then turned and walked into the house.

*****

Murdoch sat back in his chair and sighed. As much as he loved the boys, they wore him out. He glanced over as his son came down the stairs and sank into his own chair.

“Those boys leave me exhausted just watching them,” Scott observed.

Murdoch chuckled. “I was thinking the same thing. At least they’re getting along.”

Scott snorted. “To tell you the truth, that might be worse. Before they were fighting each other. Now they’ll be ganging up on us.”

“You should know, Scott,” his father grinned.

“Johnny and I never ganged up on you!”

When his father kept looking at him, Scott amended his statement. “Well, almost never.”

“Most of the time,” corrected his father. “And you want to know a secret? Most of the time I was secretly thrilled. It meant you boys were getting along.”

Scott nodded. “We did get along, more than we probably should have, given the circumstances.”

“It makes me feel good that Sean and Jimmy will have that relationship.”

“Me too. But I might not have agreed with you at the supper table this evening.”

“No, I was ready to hog tie both of them, “ Murdoch chuckled. He suddenly turned serious. “I hope they didn’t give Jelly a bad time.”

Scott shook his head. “Both those boys love him. They wouldn’t do anything to hurt him. Besides, Jelly was in a good mood when they came back.” Scott smiled. “He kept saying what a great day it had been.”

“Jelly said that? Our Jelly?”

Scott nodded. “He didn’t even complain.”

“Well they MUST have had a great time. I guess missing lunch didn’t hurt them too much.”

Scott looked at his father, confused. “What do you mean?”

“Maria said they forgot the sandwiches she had packed for them this morning.”

“Jelly said they had a lot of sandwiches.”

Murdoch shrugged. “Maybe Jelly made them in the bunkhouse.”

Scott nodded slowly. “That’s probably it.”

Murdoch stood up and stretched. “I think I’ll turn in. You coming?”

Scott nodded. “Yes, in a minute.”

 Scott barely heard the footsteps on the stairs as his father retired upstairs. He didn’t know why, but he had a very bad feeling. Thinking back, the conversation with Jelly was full of red flags. He stood up, undecided. It was late and everyone was sleeping, including the old handyman. He didn’t want to wake him up, but if he was sick, he didn’t want to wait until morning, either. Maybe he could sneak out there and just peak in. Jelly was a sound sleeper and it was unlikely he would get caught. That decided, he grabbed his coat and quietly went outside.

Scott cautiously pushed open the door to Jelly’s room. A bright shaft of moonlight was falling on the bed, illuminating the old man’s face. Scott relaxed, seeing the huge smile on Jelly’s face.

“Sorry if I woke you. I was just checking…” Scott’s own smile froze as he realized the handyman face hadn’t changed.

Scott reached down and touched the exposed arm. “Jelly?”

“JELLY!”

*****

Scott watched from the porch as his son rode up to the house and slowly dismounted. It was only a few weeks ago that he had yelled at Sean and Jimmy for riding too fast, and now he wished it would happen again. The two boys had been getting along so well, and now he seldom saw them together. He didn’t know what was going on, but he intended to find out.

“Did you finish checking out that creek?”

“Yes Sir. It was fine. No problems.”

Scott nodded. “Didn’t Jimmy go with you?” The creek that needed checking was a little ways from the house and he had been adamant that the two boys go together. At their age, they weren’t expected to fix any problems, but they were old enough to check it out and report back.

Sean shrugged. “Yeah, he went with me, but he took his horse straight to the barn. He said he wanted to be by himself. He never wants to be with me anymore.”

Scott sighed. Jelly’s illness had been hard on both Jimmy and Sean. They had already lost so many people in their young lives, and both of them had been devastated by the realization that they might lose someone else who was important to them. Scott had been unprepared, however, for the anger Jimmy had shown.

When he and Murdoch had broken the news to the boys at the breakfast table that day, Sean had immediately burst into tears. Jimmy, however, had lashed out. “He promised me he would be here for me just like my Pa promised me! My Pa left me and now Jelly’s going to leave me! I hate him! I hate both of them…they lied to me…” Murdoch’s arms had enfolded the young boy and held him close. Soon the muffled yells turned to sobs.

Murdoch stroked the boy’s hair. “Jimmy, you know that your Pa didn’t want to leave you. He had no choice, or believe me he’d be here with you. And Jelly is still here.” Murdoch pushed Jimmy away far enough to see the boy’s eyes. “You know they both love you very much, don’t you?”

Jimmy finally shrugged. “I guess. But why did my Pa have to leave me?” he asked plaintively. “I didn’t want him to leave. It just hurts so much,” he whispered.

Murdoch’s tearful eyes shut as he pulled Jimmy close once more. “I know, son, believe me, I know.”

Jimmy wiped his eyes with his sleeve. “Jelly’s so sick, and he doesn’t want to even talk to us. He acts like he doesn’t care about anything anymore.”

Scott sighed. He knew that part was true. In a scene eerily reminiscent of when Johnny had been shot, Sam had verified that Jelly had suffered what doctors now called a stroke. Fortunately, his wasn’t as bad as Johnny’s had been, and the handyman had been able to move his arms and legs. At first he had been unable to move his mouth, but that had gradually improved. He could now eat by himself and talk, but he was still extremely weak and unable to walk.

In the beginning, Jelly had responded well and had excited about his recovery. He did the exercises prescribed by Sam, and was showing some progress. Then Sam had broken the news that he could have another incident or die if he didn’t have surgery. While Johnny’s problem had been caused by blood loss, Sam believed Jelly’s had been caused by a blockage in one of the arteries leading to the brain. The doctor told them that surgeries to correct the problem were being done successfully, however he himself couldn’t do the operation. He just didn’t know how and had never even seen it done. He had told them that Jelly would have to go to a hospital for the surgery and possibly stay there for a while until he recovered.

That bit of information had set the match to the dynamite. Jelly had adamantly refused. He said he didn’t want to leave the ranch and get shut away in some hell hole like Johnny had been in. The implication that Murdoch and Scott had had a choice in that decision had wounded them deeply. Sam had reasoned with them, saying Jelly was depressed and frightened. Even though Scott and Murdoch understood, it still hurt.

So now Jelly was a virtual prisoner in the house. He point blank refused to use a wheelchair, and just like Johnny before him, fought every attempt to help him. He no longer did any exercises, and was sinking deeper and deeper into depression. He had even managed to chase Sean and Jimmy away with his anger and perpetual gloom. So he sat in his room and stewed, and took his ire out on anyone who set foot over the threshold.

Scott knew that everyone missed the old Jelly and wanted nothing more than for him to recover. Murdoch had even managed to contact four of the boys that had been with Jelly when the old man had first come to Lancer. All of the now grown men had done well for themselves and they owed it all to the cantankerous old handyman. Willie was a fireman for the railroad, Sawdust was a blacksmith, and Pokey and Toogie were both in college. All of the others were doing well, too, and none of them had ever been in jail, something that Scott would have sworn was unlikely when they first met. The letters from the boys, instead of making Jelly happy, had set off a rant about how everybody had abandoned him.

Scott shook his head as he remembered how Jelly had entered their lives. If anyone had told him that one day he would consider Jelly a good friend, he would have laughed in their face. He would have laughed even harder if someone had told him how trustworthy the man would turn out to be. All of the Lancers would have trusted the old man with their lives and all of their possessions. Jelly had proven his worth and his friendship, time and time again.

Scott remembered that he and Johnny had loved teasing the old man, especially about his pet goose, Dewdrop. Scott’s smile faded away. Dewdrop had stopped eating and just faded away after Jelly’s stroke, even though just about everyone had tried to make him eat. When told that his pet was pining for him, Jelly had said “It’s just a no account bird.” That in itself had shown everyone just how depressed he was, but it had been another blow to Sean and Jimmy. The two boys had spent hours trying to cheer the bird up and force it to eat, to no avail. When the inevitable happened, they had both been inconsolable and had insisted on a proper burial for Dewdrop. Jelly, on the other hand, had barely acknowledged the loss.

Scott put his arm around his son. “You and Jimmy and Jelly are all going through a rough time right now. Things will get better.”

Sean sniffed quietly. “I guess. It’s just hard. We found some flowers and put them on Dewdrop’s grave. Jimmy went with me yesterday to put some on Ma’s and Patrick’s grave, too.”

Scott squeezed Sean’s shoulder. “That was a very nice thing to do. I’m sure they would appreciate it.”

Sean looked up at his father. “I’m glad they’re here.”

“What do you mean?”

Sean shrugged. “Well, if they had to die, I’m glad that they’re here, so I can visit them.”

Scott looked in confusion at his son. “I’m not sure I understand.”

Sean looked down. “Well, I can visit Ma and Patrick, but Jimmy can only visit Dewdrop. I think that’s why he stays in the barn so much. He says he feels closer to his Pa in there.”

He looked up at his father. “Jimmy’s so angry lately. He’s never happy like he was before. We got to be really good friends, but now sometimes I think he hates me.”

Scott bent down and looked in his son’s face. “Do you remember how you felt not that long ago? Like you were mad at the world?”

Sean nodded slowly.

“But even though you acted like you didn’t care about anyone, deep down you still did, remember.?”

“And Jimmy’s acting like I used to because he misses his Pa and is worried about Jelly,” Sean stated.

“That’s right. Don’t take the way he’s acting right now seriously. He needs you more than ever now. If it gets too out of hand, though, let me know.”

“Okay. I just wish he could talk to his Pa like I talk to Mom and Patrick. I think he’d feel better.”

Enlightenment dawned on Scott’s face. “Did he say anything to you about that?”

Sean nodded. “Yeah. He said I was lucky ‘cause I can go see my Ma anytime. He said his Ma died when he was born, and is buried on the ranch that he and his Pa used to have. He said he used to visit her, but he can’t now. He said he can’t visit his Pa, either, and sometimes he needs to talk to them. He asked me if I thought they could still hear him even though they’re far away.”

“I’m sure they can hear him, but maybe we can do something to help him,” Scott said quietly. He squeezed his son’s shoulder once more. “Go on and wash up. I’m going to talk to your grandfather for a few minutes before supper.”

As Scott headed into the house, he wondered why he hadn’t thought if it before, and he was angry with himself for not thinking of it. He strode into the Great Room and approached his father’s desk, ready for a fight. When Murdoch looked up, Scott got right to the point.

 “Sir, I know it’s a bad time to be leaving, but I’m going to Taylorsville. “

Murdoch’s eyebrows went up as he studied his son for a moment, and then nodded his head. “I think you should,” he agreed.

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

Murdoch smiled sadly. “Yes, I do. We need to find out what we can about Jimmy, and we need to find out what happened to,” his voice trailed off, “What happened to Johnny and we need to talk to Val.”

Scott nodded. “I agree, but from what Jimmy said, Val might not be there.”

“Even if he’s not there, SOMEONE will know something.”

Scott took a deep breath. “I want you to know that I’m going to bring him back here.”

“Bring Val back?” Murdoch asked in confusion.

Scott shook his head. “No, I’m going to bring my brother back here. It’s where he belongs.”

Murdoch nodded slowly. “I agree, but…”

“But what?” Scott demanded.

Murdoch dropped his head. “ Maybe Johnny doesn’t want to be here,” he said quietly.

Scott took a deep breath. “I guess we’ll never know that for sure, but I do know that I want him here. I also think Jimmy has a right to be able to visit his father, and I KNOW Johnny would want to do what was right for his son.”

Murdoch nodded slowly. “Do you want me to go?”

Scott was surprised at his father’s offer. “No, Sir. It was my idea and I’ll go. I want you to know, though, that I’m planning on bringing Jimmy’s mother back here, also.”

Murdoch looked into his son’s eyes. “Son, that’s fine with me, but she might have family there that doesn’t want her moved.”

“I hadn’t thought about that,” Scott admitted. “I guess I’ll have to cross that bridge when I come to it.”

Murdoch nodded. “Are you sure you don’t want me to go?”

“No, it’s something I need to do.”

“All right. When do you plan on going?” Murdoch asked.

“Tomorrow morning if that’s all right.”

“It’s fine. Do you think you should send a wire to Val before you go?”

Scott shook his head. “No, he’s either there or he’s not. It doesn’t really matter.”

Murdoch nodded once more. “Are you going to tell Jimmy or Sean where you’re going?”

Scott hesitated. “No, I don’t think I should.” He hesitated, the continued. “Maybe you can talk to Jimmy while I’m gone. Sean says he’s taking this pretty hard, and I agree by the way he’s been acting lately.”

“All right. And you be safe and keep in touch. Be sure and wire me if you need anything.”

“I will, and thank you, Sir.”

Murdoch snorted. “For what? He was my son, Scott. I loved him and I want him here, too.” He dropped his head. “That’s all I ever wanted, is to have the two of you home!” He slammed his fist down on the desk. “How could I have been so stupid! How could I have SAID the things I said to him? How could I have believed it?” He buried his head in his hands. “Bring him home, Scott. Please, bring him home.”

Scott nodded. “Don’t worry, Sir, I will.”

*****

Scott was tired, hungry and cross. He had taken the train most of the way, but the railroad didn’t go anywhere near Taylorsville, so he had been forced to take the stagecoach for the last leg of the journey. After being tossed around in the crowded stage for two days, he regretted his decision not to buy a horse and ride the remaining distance. At the time, it seemed that taking the stage was the better option, but he had begun to change his mind almost immediately.

 At the very first stop they had picked up two new passengers. Not only were the husband and wife drastically overweight, making the small coach impossibly crowded, but the couple had argued nonstop the whole way. Between her strident, high pitched voice and her husband’s inability to speak in anything less than a shout, Scott had developed a headache that wouldn’t quit. On top of that, the elderly lady next to him had immediately fallen asleep, using Scott’s shoulder as a pillow, while the man cuddled next to his other side obviously had a serious allergy to soap.

 He had figured he could last until they stopped for the night. A good meal, a night’s sleep, and hopefully a new seating arrangement when they continued their journey would make the next day bearable. Unfortunately his optimistic plan had come completely undone.

When they arrived at the stop, they found the man in charge of the way station had obviously decided he was tired of his job. All they found was a note saying the man had moved back east, a few stale remnants of food, a leaky roof, and some half-starved horses. Of course the arguing couple each decided it was the other one’s fault they were in this predicament. Scott happily slept in the shed with the horses.

An hour into the next day’s journey a wheel had broken when the stage had hit one of the numerous pot holes. The driver was forced to ride one of the horses into a nearby town and fetch the blacksmith in order to fix it, and Scott was ready to commit mayhem by the time he returned. After several hours the wheel was patched well enough to use, but the driver had to go slower until they reached their destination.

As Scott waited for his luggage to be handed down after finally arriving in Taylorsville, he watched in disbelief as the couple slowly disembarked. For the last mile they had actually been civil toward each other, and now they were clinging to each other and giggling. With a last frustrated glance in their direction, Scott turned and strode resolutely toward the jail.

Remembering exactly why he was there, Scott took a deep breath, then pushed open the door. One glance at the neat desk confirmed Val wasn’t around.

“Can I help you?”

Scott turned and looked at the man who had just appeared from the back. “I’m looking for Sheriff Crawford.”

The man appraised him for a few seconds before shrugging. “He ain’t here.”

The last several days had taken a toll on Scott’s temper. “I can see that,” he ground out. “Can you tell me when he’ll be back?

“Nope.”

Scott took a step closer to the deputy. “Look, this is important. I need to talk to him.”

The deputy shrugged. “Like I said, he ain’t here.”

Struggling to remain civil, Scott nodded. “Well can you tell me where to find him?”

“Nope.”

Scott reached out to grab the deputy and found himself looking down the barrel of a gun.

“Why don’t you just calm down before you get yourself in trouble, mister. Now what’s your name?”

Scott whipped off his hat in frustration. “Scott Lancer.”

“Lancer, huh?” Seems I heard Val mention some Lancers a time or two. Wasn’t real happy with ‘em, from what I could tell. Now what do you need ta talk to him about?”

Scott took a deep breath, struggling to remain civil. “I need to speak to him about my brother.”

“Who’s your brother?”

“Johnny Lancer.” After a moment’s hesitation, Scott added “He also went by Johnny Madrid.”

The deputy stared at him for a moment, then shook his head. “Your brother’s dead.”

“I know that. I just wanted to find out…” Scott shook his head. “Find out how.”

The deputy shook his head. “Guess that’s somethin’ you’re gonna have ta ask Val, and nobody knows when he’s gonna be back.”

“Where did he go?”

“Don’t know. He’s lookin’ for somebody, and I’m not gonna say anymore.”

“And you have no idea when he’s coming back,” Scott stated angrily.

“Nope.”

“Can you at least contact me when he gets back?”

“I’ll tell Val you’re lookin’ for him. It’s up to him whether he gets in touch.”

Scott stared in frustration at the deputy, who stood calmly looking at him. “Would you please tell me where my brother’s ranch is?” Scott asked finally.

“Just head outta town goin’ east. It’s about five miles out. Can’t miss it.”

“Thank you very much for everything, deputy,” Scott snapped sarcastically as he headed for the door. He jammed his hat back on his head as he looked around the small town. He took a step toward the only café, but the sight of the couple from the stage entering the eating establishment changed his mind in a hurry. Instead he crossed the street and entered the cool shelter of the livery stable.

The place was clean and smelled of hay, and Scott looked over at the horses stabled there. Walking closer, he could see they were all good animals and well taken care of. The thought crossed his mind that he might buy a horse and ride home instead of taking the stage, but then he realized he would need a team and wagon for the chore he had vowed to complete. Scott realized that just the thought made him feel slightly ill. It had been so easy to tell Murdoch that he would bring his brother home, but now that the time was at hand, he realized just how difficult this would be for him.

“What can I do for you?”

Scott turned and appraised the old man who had spoken. A smile formed when he was reminded of Jelly. “I was just looking at your horses. I need to rent one, and then later,” Scott hesitated, “I’ll need to purchase a wagon and team.”

The old man nodded. “That won’t be a problem. The teams are outside, but the saddle horses are in here. Take a look and see what you like. Except for the gray in the last stall, they’re all for sale.”

Scott was only planning on taking a quick ride out to his brother’s ranch. He didn’t need a great mount for that, but he had always prided himself on riding good horses. As he walked down the aisle, a nice looking palomino caught his eye. He slipped into the stall and ran his hands down the animals legs.

“That’s the best horse I’ve got. He won’t come cheap,” the old man cautioned.

Scott nodded, then stepped around to the other side. His hands ran over a brand, and as he studied it, he suddenly froze. He stared at the mark, mesmerized. Finally, he found his voice. “Where did you get it?”

The old man hurried over. “We had a fella, lived right outta town. He trained horses better’n anybody. Some folks called him a horse whisperer cause he could take a tough old cayuse off the range and turn it into a good cow pony in a few weeks.” He nodded at the horse. “This is one of his. I think he was plannin’ on keepin’ this one for himself, but he died. That brand, the circle JM, was his.

“Johnny Madrid,” Scott whispered.

“That’s right. You knew him?”

“He was my brother.”

“Sorry for your loss.” The man stared at Scott for a minute before nodding slightly. “I tell you what. Johnny was a good friend. I haven’t wanted to sell that horse ‘cause it reminds me of him, but I think maybe he’d want his brother ta have it. Just give me what you can and we’ll consider it done.”

Scott turned and smiled at the old man. “Thank you. It would mean a lot to me.”

“Like I said, Johnny was a friend.”

Scott held out his hand. “Scott Lancer.”

“Ben Wilson,” the old man offered as he grabbed Scott’s hand. “You’re last name’s not Madrid?”

Scott smiled at the thought of being Scott Madrid. “No. Actually Johnny’s name was Lancer, too. I’m glad he was known here for his way with horses instead of…” Scott’s voice trailed off.

The old man nodded. “I used ta live in Mexico. I recognized him right away, but I don’t think anyone else knew, exceptin’ the sheriff. Never had any gunplay around here, anyway, and the name Madrid wasn’t known this far north.”

“I’m glad. He didn’t like having to live by his gun.”

Ben nodded. “He was a good man and all the people around here would agree. He was always helpin’ everyone out. His wife was real popular, too.”

Scott’s head came up. “What happened to her?”

“She’s died when Jimmy was born. Johnny was real torn up about it, but he finally snapped out of it and raised that kid. Did a good job of it, too.”

“Yes, he did. Jimmy’s a good boy.”

Ben nodded. “Val said he was takin’ the young ‘un to Johnny’s kin. Guess he did, huh?” Ben looked at Scott thoughtfully. “Val wasn’t sure Jimmy would be welcome there.”

“Of COURSE Jimmy is welcome! So was Johnny! But…things happened. We didn’t even know where Johnny was. We hadn’t seen him in over twelve years! We tried! He just didn’t want to be found.”

Ben reached out and grabbed Scott’s arm to stop his rant. “You don’t hafta explain to me. Me and my brother had a fallin’ out, too. Haven’t seen him for goin’ on twenty years.” Ben dropped his head. “I just got a letter from him. He’s real sick. I’m gonna leave next week and go see him down in Texas.”

Scott nodded. “Before it’s too late.”

Ben sighed. “Like I said, I’m real sorry.”

Scott took a deep breath. “It’s too late, but I’m going to take my brother home.”

Ben’s eyebrows went up. “Is that what you need the wagon for?”

Scott nodded. “Maybe I should take the wagon straight out to the ranch.”

Ben’s eyes narrowed. “Mr. Lancer, Johnny’s not buried on that ranch.”

Scott looked puzzled. “Well then, where is he buried?”

“I don’t rightly know.”

“What do you mean you don’t know!” Scott shouted. “I thought you were his friend!”

“I was. But I don’t know where your brother is buried. He and Val went on a trip and evidently Johnny fell sick and died somewhere on the trail. Val never said where.”

Scott let his knees collapse under him and he sank down onto a nearby bale of hay. “Does anyone know?”

Ben slowly shook his head. “I doubt it. Val doesn’t talk much about it, but he and I go way back. You’ll have ta wait and ask him.”

“And Val is gone for who knows how long on some errands no one knows about.”

“Well, you’re right about no one knowin’ how long. Guess ‘till he finds who he’s looking for.”

“And just WHO is he looking for?” Scott asked in frustration.

Ben scrunched up his face. “He mentioned it once. Some name I’ve never heard of. Some lady.”

“Val’s looking for a lady?” Scott asked in disbelief.

Ben nodded slowly. “Yep. Let me think.” His eyes lit up. “First name was Teresa, just like my aunt. Teresa somethin. I remember thinkin’ it was an Irish name.”

Scott stared at the man in disbelief. “O’Brian? Theresa O’Brian?”

Ben nodded. “That’s it! Teresa O’Brian!”

*****

Scott rode the big palomino horse into the dark courtyard and tiredly dismounted. It had been a long ride back from Taylorsville, but he figured it was better than the stagecoach. He really should have stopped in Green River and rented a room, but he knew the road to Lancer like the back of his hand. Besides, there was a full moon.

He gave the horse a pat on the neck, then led it into the dark barn. The horse had been a pleasure to ride, had perfect manners, and had made the trip seem easy. Knowing that Johnny had trained and ridden the palomino had somehow made Scott feel closer to his brother, and it was easy to pretend the horse was Barranca. Scott gave a snort. This horse was a lot more patient and well behaved for him than his brother’s first palomino had been.

Scott stopped and lit the lantern, then undid the cinch and lifted the saddle off before leading the horse to the big stall near the front. There he hesitated for a moment before turning the animal loose in the stall. It was a big barn with plenty of empty stalls, so it had never been a burden to keep this one stall empty. Jelly had always made sure the stall had fresh bedding and water, and no one had ever had the heart to tell him to stop. Out of respect for Jelly, the new barn hand had kept up the ritual even though no horse had been in it since Scott had turned Barranca loose all those years ago.

Scott traced the letters on the aging sign, carved there by his brother. He wasn’t about to take the sign down, so he guessed the palomino had a new name. He had neglected to ask the livery man what the horse was called, but it was irrelevant now.

The first Barranca had always had a wild streak, just like his owner. The two had understood each other completely, and there had been an almost mystical bond between them. With Johnny, the horse had been well behaved and eager to please. With anyone else, the horse had been stubborn, contrary, and sometimes impossible to handle.

 Looking back, Scott realized that the only time Barranca hadn’t given him problems was when he had ridden the horse trying to get his brother back to the ranch after being injured. It was almost though the palomino had known. Barranca had certainly known something was wrong after Johnny had left that last time. He had turned mean and paced the stall continually. Scott had tried to ride him and had nearly gotten killed for his efforts. He remembered going out to the palomino’s stall and trying to talk to the horse, but Barranca had turned his back toward him and kicked out with both hind legs.

After the fight that had so badly injured his brother, Jelly had found the palomino tied at the back of the house. At that time, the horse had still allowed the handyman to care for him and had seemed to enjoy being in his old stall next to Scott’s horse, Charlie. Scott had been pleased when he came out to the barn and found the palomino in his old stall. For some reason it had given him hope that things could somehow get back to normal, and that Johnny would recover and stay home.

As it became apparent that Scott’s dreams would not come true, Barranca seemed to get worse. Scott had wondered if it was possible that the horse knew how badly Johnny hated them, and was reacting to that, or whether the animal somehow felt abandoned. Later Scott had realized that the whole time he was recovering, Johnny had never once asked about his beloved horse. As far as he knew, Johnny had never mentioned him again. It was like his brother knew that he would never be able to ride and had purposely closed that part of his life.

After Johnny had left for that hospital, Barranca had gone nearly insane. It was after Jelly had tried to handle the horse and received a bad bite that Scott knew what he had to do. The palomino had been in the corral where Jelly had managed to put him for some exercise before being bitten. The horse was trotting around, making his anger known to anyone who watched. Scott knew that Jelly and Murdoch might not agree, but he thought that Johnny would probably want the horse running free. With a lump in his throat, Scott had opened the gate and watched as the majestic horse had galloped past him without a glance, his eyes focused on the distant hills.

Scott wondered where Barranca was, and if he was still alive. Scott had looked for him several times throughout the years, but had never managed to catch a glimpse of the horse. He knew there was a band of mostly palominos running on Black Mesa that seemed to have a palomino herd sire, but he had never gotten close enough to verify its identity. As time went on, it seemed less and less likely that Barranca could still be alive, and Scott had stopped trying to find him. It was easier to believe the wily old horse was still running free and strong than to face the alternative.

Scott tossed a forkful of hay into the stall, knowing the horse would get a thorough grooming in the morning. After a last look, Scott turned off the lamp and left the barn. He quietly opened the door of the house, trying not to wake his father who would almost certainly be asleep at this hour, and he slipped inside.

Scott was halfway to the stairs before he noticed the light on at his father’s desk. His father was evidently sound asleep, with his head on a pile of papers. Scott walked over and lightly touched his shoulder.

“Sir, wake up.”

Murdoch immediately lifted his head and looked around in confusion before his eyes focused on his son. “Scott!” What are you doing back so quickly?”

With a sigh, Scott told his father about his trip.

Murdoch’s brows furrowed. “You mean Val is out trying to track Teresa down? Why on earth would he do that? What could he possibly want to see her for?”

“Maybe she robbed a bank,” Scott answered, only partly joking.

Murdoch glared at him. “That’s not funny.”

“I stopped seeing anything funny about this whole situation a long time ago,” Scott retorted.

Murdoch shook his head. “It just doesn’t make sense. Why would he want to see her?”

Scott sighed. “I don’t know. I’ve been thinking about it the whole way home. The only thing I can come up with is that maybe Johnny gave him a message to give to her.”

Murdoch snorted. “Val seems to be going to an awful lot of trouble to simply tell her to go to hell.”

“Well, that’s the only thing that made sense,” Scott said defensively. He looked at his father curiously. “You haven’t heard anything from her or about her, have you?”

“NO! And I hope I never see her or hear from her again!” Murdoch snapped. He looked at his son. “Have YOU heard from her?”

“No, and my feelings toward her are the same as yours.”

Murdoch ran a hand through his thinning hair. “I guess there’s nothing we can do until we can contact Val.” He glanced up at his son. “I assume you left a message for him to contact us.”

Scott nodded. “I did. I’m not sure he will, though. The deputy wasn’t very hopeful. Or helpful, for that matter.”

“Well, we’ll just have to keep sending telegrams until he responds. Knowing Val, he’ll get tired of them and answer back eventually.”

“I suppose. But if we don’t hear from him in a reasonable time, I’m going to take a ride back there. I am going to get my brother!”

Murdoch nodded. “If that happens, I’ll go with you. I want my son home.”

“I rode out to his ranch, just to take a look at it.”

“And?”

“It was nice. I’m not sure how many acres it had, but there was a fairly big house and barn, and plenty of corrals and pastures. It looked like it had been well taken care of.”

“No one is living there now?”

Scott shook his head. “It was deserted.” His head dropped. “I saw his wife’s grave, but I didn’t think I should bring her here, not until we bring Johnny home.”

Murdoch nodded his head. “I think you did the right thing. I think it might upset Jimmy if we told him that we couldn’t find his father.”

He raised his head and looked at his son. “Do you think Jimmy knows where Johnny’s grave is?”

“No. The livery man told me was buried on the trail somewhere. Only Val knows.”

Murdoch sighed. “We’ll find him, Scott. Then we’ll bring him home where he belongs.”

Scott nodded, eager to change the subject. “How are the boys?”

Murdoch hesitated for just a moment. “As well as could be expected, I guess. Sean is holding up fairly well, but I don’t think he was as close to Jelly. Plus he has you. Jimmy’s been acting out some. Nothing major, but I definitely know he’s Johnny’s son,” he said with a wry smile.

“And Jelly?” Scott asked.

Murdoch shook his head. “The same. I could have killed him the other day. Jimmy finally went in to see him again, and Jelly just about bit his head off. Jimmy ran out, and when I found him in the barn he wouldn’t even talk to me. I knew he’d been crying.”

“Did you speak to Jelly?” Scott demanded furiously.

“What good would it do?”

Scott slammed his hand down on his father’s desk. “I am going to talk to him tomorrow, and for his sake it had better do some good. I am not going to let him make Jimmy more miserable, or anyone else for that matter! I have had enough of his temper tantrums! If he can’t behave, then he’s going to have to leave!”

Murdoch looked at his son in shock. “You don’t really mean that, do you?”

“The hell I don’t. I HAVE HAD ENOUGH!” Scott snarled before he turned and stomped toward the stairs.

*****

By the next morning, Scott had calmed down somewhat, but he was still angry with Jelly. The boys weren’t down yet, so he decided to check in on the old man before going down to breakfast. He slowly opened the door and took a step inside. Jelly was looking out the window and obviously hadn’t heard the door open. The sounds coming from the bed told Scott the man was crying inconsolably. Scott froze for a moment and thought of making a silent retreat, but before he found take a step, Jelly turned and looked at him.

“GET out! Was you raised in a barn!” Jelly shouted before twisting his head as far away from Scott as possible. “GET out, get out, get OUT!”

Scott remained standing where he was for a moment, then stepped further into the room and shut the door. He had planned on coming in and raising the roof with Jelly. Now, however, he just didn’t have the heart as he listened to the sniffles coming from the bed.

He stayed there a moment longer, then slowly approached the bed and stood silently watching as the old man tried desperately to compose himself.

“I told you’d you ta get out. Don’tcha understand English?” Jelly sniffed.

“I understand English just fine. Maybe you’re the one who has a problem understanding,” Scott said calmly.

“Understanding what?” the old man asked defensively.

“Just what you are doing to this family, especially Sean and Jimmy.”

“Hmmph. I ain’t part of this family,” Jelly argued.

“Since WHEN exactly?” Scott asked frostily.

“Since I became useless,” Jelly snapped.

“Is that what all this is about?” Scott demanded. “That you feel useless?”

Jelly jutted out his jaw. “It’s the truth. And I can’t expect you all ta keep me around if I can’t pull my weight. Can’t even do for myself. It ain’t right.”

“Jelly, you’ve been family for a long time,” Scott said softly.

“I still can’t do nothin’. I shoulda just died,” Jelly moaned.

Scott stared at the man for several seconds, trying to figure out just what to say. Finally a thought came to him. “Jelly, do you remember when Johnny was hurt that last time? How badly everyone felt?”

Jelly nodded. “Shore I do.”

“How all of us talked and pleaded and did everything we could to make him stay here instead of going to that hell hole of a hospital?”

“So? What’s that got ta do with me?”

“Was Johnny right?”

Jelly looked startled. “I don’t know. I know he didn’t wanna stay here.”

“Why? Was it because he hated us?”

Jelly scratched his chin. “Maybe. But I think mostly it was not wantin’ to rely on you.”

“Or not wanting us to have to do things for him. He felt embarrassed and didn’t want to feel beholden to us,” Scott suggested.

“Probably” Jelly agreed.

“How did it make you feel when you and Sam couldn’t talk him out of staying at that hospital he had insisted on going to?”

Jelly’s face suddenly darkened. “I don’t recollect ever feeling that bad. I didn’t want him to stay there. He belonged here, with his family.”

“Even if he couldn’t do things for himself?”

“Have you gone loco, Scott? Of course he shoulda been here!”

Scott simply stared at the old man, until Jelly finally shook his head. “I know what you’re tryin’ to do, but it ain’t the same. He was FAMILY!”

“He wasn’t YOUR family.”

“As good as!” Jelly snapped. “Don’t mean I can’t care about him!” Scott stared at him once more until Jelly dropped his eyes.

“Guess I’ve been actin’ like an ass,” Jelly whispered.

“More or less,” Scott agreed. “Now what’s really wrong?”

Jelly looked startled. “I told ya.”

“No, you didn’t. There’s something else. Now what is it?”

Jelly’s shoulders slumped. “I’m afraid. I’m ashamed ta admit it, but I’m scared.” He fiddled with the blanket. “Sam told me that unless I get that operation I’m gonna die. I know I’m old, but I ain’t ready ta die.”

“Then why don’t you get it?” Scott asked gently.

“Sam also said that at my age, the surgery was risky. He said I might not make it through the operation.” He raised tortured eyes to Scott. If Doc Jenkins would do it here, I wouldn’t wait. I just don’t wanna be in one a those hospitals if somethin’ goes wrong. I wanna be here, with…” he swallowed hard, “My family.”

Scott reached down and squeezed Jelly’s shoulder. “We love you too, old man. And you wouldn’t be alone at that hospital, you know. We’d be there.”

Jelly nodded. “I appreciate that, but it still ain’t the same. Iffen I’m gonna go, I wanna be here, not in some fancy jail.” He sighed. “Guess I’ll just wait a while. Maybe Sam will change his mind.”

“Maybe.”

Jelly chewed the inside of his lip. “I’ve been listen to them boys runnin’ around and sassin’ everybody. Seems like they need somebody to teach ‘em some manners.”

Scott nodded gravely. “I think they might. Know anybody that’s up for the job?”

“Well, maybe. But first I gotta get outta this gol darned bed. Tell Sam I need some more of them exercises.”

“Will do, Jelly.”

Jelly nodded abruptly. “See that you do.” He dropped his head. “I shore wish Johnny would a listened to you. I guess nobody coulda stopped him if you couldn’t. I know how much you tried.”

Scott nodded his head, unable to speak because of the lump in his throat. If only.

*****

After leaving Jelly, Scott strolled out to the barn, coffee cup in hand. There were no chores pressing, and he decided to check on the new Barranca to make sure he was settling in. Entering the barn, he looked around in satisfaction at the horses munching on their morning hay. The man who had taken over for Jelly was an older cowboy who had been there before Scott and Johnny had come home. He had helped them fight Day Pardee and had proven his loyalty time and again. When a belligerent steer had ended his riding days, Murdoch and Scott had kept him on at full pay even though he could no longer sit a horse. He had no trouble walking or doing light chores, and had always done his best with a difficult situation.

“Morning, Frank”

“Morning Mr. Lancer.” Frank grinned. “I sure was surprised to see that palomino in Barranca’s stall.”

Scott nodded. Frank and Johnny had been friends. “That horse was Johnny’s. I had a chance to buy it, and I did. Make sure he’s taken care of.”

Frank nodded, then smiled. “Will do. Just hope he’s friendlier than the other one, or I might just find myself missing some fingers.”

Scott laughed. “He may share the original Barranca’s name, but he doesn’t have his temper.”

“That’s a relief. Don’t worry, Mr Lancer, I’ll take care of him.”

Scott nodded, then dug in his pocket and checked his watch. The boys were running late for school. The lady who had taught school for the children on the ranch had moved away when her husband had decided to try his hand at farming. Until they could replace her, the kids had to ride into Green River to attend school. Scott hoped they could find someone soon. It was a long ride, and the wagon carrying the younger children took 3 hours both there and back. Most families just didn’t think it was worth it, and in bad weather, Scott was inclined to agree. He decided to make finding a teacher a top priority.

Scott looked once more at his watch, mesmerized by the memories it brought back. He turned it over and looked at the inscription:

‘To my son, Johnny, from his loving father’

Scott shoved the watch back into his pocket, anger welling up inside him. Murdoch had had the watch inscribed after the incident with the Strykers and Wes. To both their surprise, Johnny had still been carrying it when he had been injured that last time. When Johnny had left for the hospital where he was to stay, Scott had tried to get him to take the watch, but Johnny had adamantly refused.

“What the hell do I need a watch for where I’m goin’?” Johnny had tried to move his body to shove the watch back at Scott.

“I thought you might want to keep it just because,” Scott had argued.

Johnny looked at him in disbelief. “Because why? So I can remember all of those wonderful memories? Or maybe my loving family? You keep it. Maybe It’ll mean something to you.”

“If it doesn’t mean anything to you…if WE don’t mean anything to you, why did you keep it all this time?”

“To remind me ta never trust anybody,” Johnny ground out.

“Why don’t I believe you?” Scott asked lightly.

Johnny had glared at his brother. “Think what you like,” he had hissed. “But I don’t want the damn watch. I don’t want anything from you or your father. I just want to get the hell out of here!”

Scott had reached over and reluctantly taken the watch back, knowing it would probably just get stolen where Johnny was going, anyway.

“I’ll keep it for you until you come back,” Scott had assured him.

Johnny had just snorted and turned his face away. The next day he had been gone.

Scott mentally shook himself, then moved to Ulysses’ stall. He saddled his horse, then checked the time once more. “Frank!”

The hand popped his head up from where he had been measuring out some feed. “Yessir?”

“Would you please get out Chief and Cisco and saddle them? I’m going to find those two boys and see what’s taking them.”

Scott headed for the house, but just as he reached the patio, the two boys came running outside, pushing and shoving. They skidded to a halt when they saw Scott.

“You’re going to be late!” Scott admonished. “Frank is saddling your horses, now hurry up!”

The boys took off like a shot. “And don’t run those horses!” Scott yelled as the boys jumped on their mounts.

The boys kneed their horses into a walk while tying their lunches and jackets to the saddles, then straightened up and kicked the animals into a lope. They managed to stay in a lope until about two hundred yards before the arch, then both of them took off like a shot.

Scott watched in disgust as a cloud of dust bellowed up behind the racing horses. He was just turning away when he caught a disturbance out of the corner of his eye. He whirled back around and saw that Chief had evidently spooked at something. The buckskin careened into Jimmy’s horse, which desperately tried to keep its balance before going to its knees and cartwheeling to the ground, sending Jimmy flying.

Scott took off towards his horse at a run, and yelled at Frank. “Send somebody for Doc Jenkins and go and tell my father what happened!”

He didn’t wait to see if his instructions were followed as he leaped on Ulysses and tore down the drive at a dead run. By the time he got there, Cisco was on his feet, and Sean was standing staring at Jimmy’s motionless body.

Scott jumped off of his horse and ran over to where Jimmy lay. He knelt down and felt for a pulse and after several frantic attempts, he finally calmed down enough to find it. He slowly turned the boy over, trying hard not to do any more damage to a severely injured shoulder. The boy’s eyes were closed and he was deeply unconscious. There was a large bruise on his forehead and he was bleeding profusely from his nose.

“Pa, I’m sorry, I know we shouldn’t have…”

“Not now!” Scott ordered. He motioned toward Cisco. “Can he walk?”

Sean ran over and grabbed the pinto’s reins. At first he refused to move, and when he finally did, it was obvious the horse was severely lame.

“Get Chief and Ulysses back to the barn. Leave Cisco here.” Scott looked at his son. “Can you do that?”

Sean nodded and gathered up the reins. “Is he…”

“He’s alive, but hurt bad. I’m going to take him to the house. As soon as you get the horses to Frank, get in the house. Understand?” Scott asked as he scooped Jimmy up.

Sean nodded, wondering if he was going to lose someone else. He couldn’t help the tears that streamed down his face as he followed his father toward the hacienda.

Scott walked as fast as he could, concerned because the boy in his arms hadn’t moved. One of the hands galloped past them on his way to get the doctor, and he saw his father hurrying towards them, along with a couple of the hands.

“Mike, help Sean with the horses!” Scott commanded. He looked over his shoulder as the hand hurried past. “And Mike,” he said in a softer voice, “Take care of the pinto after we’re in the house.”

“How bad?” Murdoch demanded as he ran up.

“He’s unconscious, and his shoulder is either dislocated or broken,” Scott explained as he swept by his father and entered the house. He yelled for Maria as he bolted up the stairs toward Jimmy’s room, followed closely by Murdoch.

The two of them gently undressed the boy. Murdoch sat him up, glancing at his son. “The shoulder’s dislocated.”

 Scott nodded and supported Jimmy as his father grabbed Jimmy’s upper arm and slowly rotated it, thankful that the boy was unconscious during the painful procedure. A second later there was an audible click as the joint slipped back in the socket. Relieved, Scott laid the boy down and covered him up as Maria entered the room with a bowl of water and some cloths.

*****

Sean watched from the Great Room as the two men carried his friend up the stairs. Finally the yells coming from Jelly’s room registered with him, and he headed toward the shouts.

“What’s wrong?” the old man demanded as soon as Sean entered the room. “Frank came chargin’ into the house yellin’ bloody murder, then Murdoch tore outta here like a bat outta hell. What’s wrong? Who’s hurt?”

“Jimmy,” Sean answered in a small voice.

Jelly had managed to sit up. “Jimmy? What in tarnation happened to him?”

The tears started running down Sean’s face once more. “He fell.”

“Fell? Fell from what?”

“From his horse.”

Jelly relaxed back a little bit. “Well, it’s probably not too bad, then. Probably just sore. How did he fall off? Was he just foolin’ around and not payin’ attention?”

Sean shook his head vehemently. “We were racing.”

“Racing!”

Sean nodded. “He…our horses collided and Cisco fell.”

“While you was runnin?” Jelly yelled. At Sean’s nod, Jelly painfully swung his legs over the side of the bed. “Help me up!”

Sean went to the man and tried to help him up, but several minutes later they both accepted defeat and Jelly lay back down, panting.

“You tell your Pa ta come in here as soon as he gets downstairs!”

Sean nodded. “I think he was awful mad at me,” he said in a small voice.

Jelly noticed the tears on the boy’s face and patted the bed next to him. “Come sit down.”

Sean shuffled over and plopped down without looking up.

“What makes you think he’s mad?”

“We were running the horses inside the arch.” Sean admitted. “After Jimmy fell, I tried to talk and Pa wouldn’t let me.”

“You’re Pa may be mad, but mostly he’s just worried and scared,” Jelly explained.

“Jelly’s right,” Scott said as he entered the room and approached his son. “And so are you. I am very angry at you for racing when you knew you weren’t supposed to be. I am just as angry with Jimmy for breaking the rules because you both know better. I am not, however, angry with you for what happened. It was an accident and not your fault.”

“But Chief spooked and bumped into Cisco! I couldn’t hold him!” He looked up at his father with tortured eyes.

 Scott realized just how guilt ridden his son was, and knew he was going to have to do everything in his power to convince his son it wasn’t his fault. He didn’t want Sean to carry around the guilt like he did after his mother and brother were killed.

“Sean, I saw what happened. You couldn’t stop it from happening even though you tried. It just happened. Cisco could just as easily have bumped into Chief, and then you would have fallen. Or both of you. It was an ACCIDENT Sean, and Jimmy was just as much the cause of the accident as you were.”

“Jimmy’s going to die, isn’t he? Just like Patrick.”

Scott closed his eyes before taking a deep breath. “I don’t know, but I hope not. Doc will be here soon, and I’m sure he can fix him up.”

 He walked over to his son and lifted up the boy’s chin, forcing Sean to look at him. “Sean, if the worst happens we will face it together, understand?” He glanced over at Jelly. “That’s what families do, they support each other when one of them has a problem.” He ruffled the boy’s hair. “Now why don’t you stay in here with Jelly while I go help Murdoch with Jimmy.”

Sean nodded. He felt better but he was still worried that his father was angry with him. He was more concerned, however, about Jimmy. He realized Jimmy had become his best friend and he didn’t know what he’d do if Jimmy died.

Jelly looked at Sean, then clumsily patted him on the back. “He’ll be OK. He’s as stubborn as his Pa, and Doc Jenkins will patch him up. You’ll see.”

Sean nodded bravely before turning toward Jelly with a sob and burying his face in the old man’s chest.

*****

Sam slowly descended the stairs and looked into the hopeful faces looking up at him. He nodded to reassure them. “He’s got a very bad concussion and will have to stay in bed for a while. He woke up briefly and was pretty confused, but hopefully that will get better. He’ll want to sleep a lot, and that’s ok, just wake him up if he seems to be sleeping too soundly. Today and tonight I want you to wake him up every hour. If he seems more alert tomorrow, you can let him sleep for longer periods. If he stays confused or he’s not able to wake up, come get me.”

“What are his chances?” Scott asked.

Sam shrugged. “You know how head wounds are. I’d say he has a decent chance, but we’ll have to just wait and see.”

“And his shoulder?” Murdoch asked.

“It’ll be fine. I bandaged it to keep it in place, and it should heal up in a few weeks. You did a good job putting it back in place. The longer you wait with those, the more likely they are to pop back out.”

Murdoch nodded. “I’ve had practice,” he said ruefully. “Is there anything else wrong with him?”

Sam shook his head. “Nothing much. Some small cuts and bruises. He’ll be sore for a few days, but he won’t be getting out of bed, so it shouldn’t bother him too much. I’ll come back and check on him tomorrow afternoon.”

Murdoch nodded, then looked closer at the doctor. “Sam, forgive me for saying so, but you look like hell. Maybe you should stay here tonight.”

Sam shook his head with a sigh. “I have to go check on Bill Myers. Seems he fell off the roof trying to catch his wife’s cat.”

“You don’t need to go all the way back to town tonight. Murdoch’s right. You look exhausted,” Scott observed.

“I AM exhausted!” Sam snapped. “Night before last I spent sewing up the idiots from the Bar T. They decided to get drunk and take turns throwing each other through the store windows on Main street. I saw eighteen patients yesterday and didn’t even get to eat. I had just taken my coat off to go to bed last night when Mike Billings rode up and said his wife was having her baby. She had some trouble so I stayed with her all night and the twins were born at five am. Both mother and babies are doing fine, by the way. I had just pulled up to my office this morning when Dusty came flying up the street yelling for me to come here! I’m tired, I’m hungry, and I don’t just look like hell, I feel like hell!” He stopped and took a deep breath. After a long moment he shook his head. “Sorry. I guess I’m feeling sorry for myself.”

“You have every right to,” Scott observed. “That schedule would make anyone exhausted.”

Sam shrugged. “It’s my job. Speaking of which, how’s Jelly?”

“I’m just fine Doc!” Jelly yelled from the other room. “Don’t you be worryin’ about me!”

Sam chuckled in spite of himself, but Murdoch and Scott remained serious.

“Sam, you can’t keep going like this,” Murdoch protested.

“Oh?” Sam asked. “And just which patient should I have said “no” to? Your Jimmy? Mrs. Billings? I don’t have the luxury of saying no!”

“What’s wrong with Bill Myers? How badly is he hurt?” Scott asked.

Sam shook his head. “Not too badly I understand. He probably has a broken arm, but his neighbor didn’t think it was displaced.”

“And then you’re done?” Scott persisted.

“For now!” Sam snapped.

“Good!” Murdoch snapped back. “Bill’s place is only a few miles from here. I’ll have one of the hands drive you over in the buggy, then you can come back here for a decent meal and a good night’s sleep!”

“No one will know where to find me!”

“Then we’ll have one of the hands ride into town and leave a note on the door saying you’re here. And then,” Murdoch continued, “As soon as you get back into town you are going to advertise for a helper. There are just too many people in this area for one doctor to handle, and you know it!”

“It’s not that easy to find someone,” Sam argued. “Most doctors already have their own practice. The ones that are newly licensed just don’t have much experience with the type of doctoring needed out here, and most of them want to stay in the city anyway. They want to be on their own, not working for an old fashioned fuddy duddy like me!”

“Then you need to look harder,” Scott insisted. “Anyone could learn a lot from you! There must be someone out there that’s a decent doctor and willing to come here.”

“I’ll try again,” Sam agreed, too tired to argue. In his heart he knew Murdoch was right. He badly needed help. It was just his pride that kept him from agreeing whole heartedly.

“Good. I’ll tell Frank to drive you over to the Myer’s and then straight back here.” Murdoch reiterated.

Sam started to protest, then realized it would do no good. Besides, it had been a while since he had been a guest of the Lancers, and he missed it. He threw up his hands. “Fine! I’ll be in the buggy.”

Scott watched him go, then turned to his father. “That was easy.”

“I hope he meant it when he said he would try to find someone to help him,” Murdoch sighed. “If he doesn’t, I’m afraid we’re going to lose him. He’s not young anymore.”

“We’ll just have to make sure he does find someone,” Scott insisted. He looked around at his son, who was standing in the doorway to The Great Room. “In the meantime, I’m going up to go up and sit with Jimmy for a while. Would you like to come with me?”

Sean broke out into a grin. He had been standing quietly, wondering if he dared to sneak upstairs to Jimmy’s room. Having his father ask made him feel grown up and showed him more than words could that his father didn’t blame him for the accident. Sean nodded, happy that his father had thought to ask him.

*****

Sam walked down the hall towards Jimmy’s room. He couldn’t remember the last time he had slept that soundly. For once he wasn’t worried about a patient, or having someone pound on the door in the middle of the night. Even when he used to stay at Lancer, he’d been up most of the time, usually caring for Johnny or sometimes Scott. But Jimmy wasn’t in any immediate danger, and he knew Murdoch or Scott would wake him up if there was a problem, so he allowed himself to sleep all night.

Sam snorted to himself; more than all night. He had come back to Lancer from setting Bill Myer’s broken arm just in time to sit down to one of Maria’s scrumptious dinners. He had eaten to excess, and by the time the dessert was brought out he had fallen asleep at the table like a little kid. He’d stumbled up to his room and dove into the bed, and didn’t wake up until this morning.

He stepped into Jimmy’s room and saw Murdoch sitting next to the bed. “Why did you let me sleep so long?” Sam grumbled.

Murdoch shrugged. “Jimmy’s doing a lot better.”

“I’ll be the judge of that,” Sam snapped as he picked up the boy’s wrist to take his pulse. After a moment he put the wrist down and picked up first one eyelid and then the next. Just as he’d let go, both eyes fluttered open.

“How are you feeling?” Sam asked the boy gently.

Jimmy nodded, then winced when the movement hurt.

“Do you remember what happened?”

Jimmy thought for a second. “Racing. Horse fell,” he whispered.

Sam nodded. “I think you’re going to be just fine.” He looked at the boy seriously. “It’s going to take a while before your head feels better. You may be dizzy and have headaches for a while, but if they get worse or you feel you can’t stay awake be sure and tell someone. You also hurt your shoulder, and I have it bandaged up, but try not to move it. If you do what I say, you should be fine. Do you have any questions?”

“When can I ride?”

Sam chuckled and glanced at Murdoch, but the rancher frowned and shook his head.

Sam turned back to his patient. “Not for a while. We need to make sure there’s no dizziness, and that your shoulder is completely healed. I don’t want you riding or doing anything where you might fall for at least a month.”

“I’m not going to fall off of Cisco! He wouldn’t throw me!” Jimmy looked at his grandfather. “It wasn’t his fault that I fell.”

Murdoch nodded. “I know. You just rest now. We’ll discuss it more later.”

Jimmy looked at Sam beseechingly. “A whole MONTH?”

Sam chuckled. “We’ll see how well you follow my orders young man, then we’ll see. For now, though, you need to get some more rest.”

With a sigh, Jimmy nodded and Murdoch drew the covers over him. “I’ll send Maria in with some broth in a few minutes. In the meantime get some sleep.”

Sam followed Murdoch out of the room and pulled the door shut. “Now who did that remind you of?”

When Murdoch didn’t smile, Sam put a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “He’ll be fine, Murdoch.”

The rancher sighed. “I know. I’m grateful but…”

“But you wish it was Johnny,” Sam said softly.

Murdoch nodded. “I watch Jimmy and see the boy Johnny should have been. WOULD have been, if he’d stayed here. I see Jimmy and Sean interacting and I can almost imagine it’s Johnny and Scott. Heaven help me, sometimes I get angry when I see them. If Johnny had stayed here, if that …witch…hadn’t taken him…” Murdoch shook his head and his shoulders slumped. “I don’t know why I’m blaming her. It’s my fault as much as hers.”

“It wasn’t your fault! You did everything you could to get him back. I know, I was there, remember?”

Murdoch stared at the doctor. “And what did I do when he did come back? He was changing, Sam. Every day he stayed he came closer to being the man he should have been. Johnny Madrid was disappearing and leaving Johnny Lancer in his place. We would have won that battle if only I had kept my big mouth shut. If only I had given him a chance to explain,” he ranted. “If I wouldn’t have believed that lie in the first place! If Teresa hadn’t lost her mind. If I had…”

“Murdoch, stop! You can’t change the past. The only thing you can change is the future.”

Murdoch snorted. “A lot of good that will do Johnny,” he said as he headed down the stairs.

“Who knows, maybe it will.”

“What are you talking about?” Murdoch snapped.

“I’m talking about Jimmy. If Johnny had to make the choice between the two of them I guarantee he would want his son to have a happy and successful life. Right now YOU have control of that. If Johnny hadn’t thought you would do a good job of making sure his son was taken care of and loved, he never would have had Val bring him here.”

Murdoch stopped at the bottom of the stairs, looking perplexed. “I never thought of that.” He shook his head. “He sent him here because of Scott.”

“He sent him here because of you AND Scott. He had faith in both of you. Now all you have to do is live up to that faith.”

Murdoch motioned up towards Jimmy’s room. “I’m not doing such a great job so far, am I?”

“You’re doing a fine job. What happened was an accident. It couldn’t have been prevented without tying Jimmy up. He’s Johnny’s son, remember? I can almost guarantee I’ll be out here again.”

Murdoch finally chuckled. “I guess I just might rue the day I wanted to find out what it would have been like to have Johnny grow up here.”

Sam nodded. “I have the feeling you will.”

Murdoch walked into the kitchen and stopped dead when he saw Scott and Sean sitting at the table eating breakfast. He looked pointedly at the clock, then back to his son as Sam took a seat.

“I thought this was a working ranch,” Murdoch grumbled.

Scott chose to ignore him and handed the doctor a plate piled high with bacon.

With a shake of his head, Murdoch joined them and scooped up some eggs.

There was a knock on the door and Sean jumped up to answer it. Mike stepped into the kitchen, his hat in his hands.

“Excuse me, Mr. Lancer. I just wanted ta know what ta do with that pinto.”

Scott looked askance at the man before glancing at his son before answering. “I told you yesterday to take care of him.”

Mike nodded. “I did. It took me a while ta get him back ta the barn, but he’s in his stall with plenty of food and water.”

“I MEANT for you to make sure he didn’t suffer.”

Mike shook his head. “Oh, he’s not sufferin’ Mr. Lancer. He even ate some today.”

Scott closed his eyes. Mike was a good hand. He’d do just about anything as long as he had clear instructions, but he wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer. He tried once more.

“He needs to be put out of his misery.”

“Well, I tried, but I don’t know much about doctorin’. Nobody does since Jelly ain’t here. I tried…”

“SHOOT HIM!” Murdoch finally bellowed.

“NO!” yelled Jimmy from the stairway. “No, not Cisco! You can’t shoot him! My Pa gave him to me!”

Murdoch bolted to his feet and ran toward Jimmy, followed by Sam. Murdoch caught him just as he collapsed.

“I’ll take him upstairs and stay with him. Sam, you finish your breakfast. I’ll holler if I need you.” Murdoch ordered.

The doctor returned to the table and picked up Murdoch’s plate. “I’ll take this up to him.”

Maria came bustling out of the kitchen and grabbed the plate. “I’ll take it to Senor Murdoch. You go sit down and eat!” she commanded.

Sean grabbed Scott’s arm. “Pa, you can’t kill Cisco! He’s the only thing Jimmy has from his Pa! You just can’t!”

“Sean, you’ve lived here long enough for you to know that there are times when animals have to be killed in order to make sure that they don’t suffer.”

“Like Mike said, maybe he isn’t suffering.” He looked over at the doorway, but the hand had disappeared.

“Cisco can’t live with a broken leg. He would just be miserable and in pain until he finally died,” Scott explained.

“But what if it’s not broken?”

“It would still take a lot of work.”

“Pa, please,” Sean whispered. “I owe Jimmy, remember? He saved Chief’s life.”

Scott looked hopelessly at his son, then turned his attention to the doctor.

Sam shook his head. “Don’t look at me. I treat people. I don’t know the first thing about horses.”

“Could you at least tell if the leg is broken?”

“I can do that.”

“Please, Pa?”

Scott nodded. “All right. We’ll have Doctor Jenkins look at him. BUT, if his leg is broken, we’ll have to shoot him. If it’s not, and Doc here thinks he has a chance, you can give it a try. Deal?”

Sean swallowed hard. “Deal.”

Sam stood up and headed toward the door. “Well, come on. Let’s go look at that horse.”

Sean ran ahead as Sam and Scott walked to the barn. By the time they got there, Sean was already inside the stall.

“Let’s see him walk,” Sam ordered.

Scott clipped a lead rope on the horse’s halter and encouraged the animal to walk. After several attempts, the pinto lurched forward. Scott managed to get the horse to take another step before turning him around and coaxing him back into the stall.

Sam stepped inside and ran his hands down the pinto’s front legs. He quickly checked the back ones before once more feeling the front left knee. Finally he stood up and brushed his hands off.

“The leg isn’t broken.”

Sean jumped up in the air and yelled, causing Cisco to spook. The boy glanced at his father. “Sorry.”

Scott shook his head. “He’s still badly hurt.”

“I can fix him. I know I can,” the boy argued.

Scott gave his son a small smile. “If you want to try, you can, but it’s going to be a lot of hard work.”

“I don’t care.”

“You can’t let your schoolwork or regular chores suffer,” Scott warned.

“I won’t, not as long as Cisco’s going to be okay.”

“I didn’t say that,” Sam corrected.

Scott sighed. “How bad?” he asked the doctor.

“Like I said, I’m not a horse doctor, but both knees are bruised. The left knee is badly injured. The bone may even be chipped, but at the minimum there’s some bad bruising and the ligaments are probably torn or stretched. My guess is he’ll always limp.”

“It still might be better to put him down,” Scott told his son.

“You promised!”

“And I’ll keep my promise. I just want you to know what you’re up against. You’re going to work hard, and we might still have to put the horse down. Do you understand?”

“He’ll be okay. You’ll see.”

“At any rate, you’ll need some help, and I have a ranch to run.”

“Scott, you told me that Jelly still hadn’t used the wheelchair, is that right?” Sam asked.

Scott nodded, perplexed at the change of subject. “His attitude is better than it was, but he still said there was no reason to get up because he couldn’t do anything.”

Sam smiled slowly. “What if he had a reason to get up?”

Scott stared at the doctor for a moment, then a slow grin broke out on his face. “I think Jelly and his famous poultices are the only thing that might give this horse a chance.” He looked at his son. “What do you think?”

Sean grinned. “I think that’s just what Cisco needs.”

*****

Scott leaned against the corral fence, his arms draped over the top rail. As he watched the horse being saddled his mind wandered back over the last six months.

Scott was proud and a little surprised at just how hard Sean had worked on that pinto. He had gotten up early every day in order to have time to change the poultice and rewrap the leg. In the evening, he had run out to the barn to put the last poultice of the day on the horse’s knees. The right leg had healed fairly quickly, but the left knee had remained hot and swollen for almost three months. Even after Jimmy had been cleared by Sam and been able to take care of the pinto, Sean had willingly come out to help his cousin. Between them, they changed the bandages and mixed up the strange concoctions that Jelly swore would heal the horse.

At first the old handyman had just guided the boys from his bed, refusing the offer of the wheelchair. As the months wore on, however, he had decided that the treatments needed his personal touch. To the delight of everyone on the ranch, Jelly had finally swallowed his pride and allowed himself to use the chair. It had been rough going at first. The chair, ordered specially from Boston, had been designed for easy trips across polished floors and smooth walkways. The muddy and uneven yards at Lancer had proven impossible to cross, and Jelly had retreated back to his room, even grumpier than before.

The last disastrous excursion with the wheelchair had happened during the spring calving season, and Scott hadn’t had time to give the problem much thought. Early one morning several days later, however, Scott had walked out of the house and found Sean and Jimmy scraping a path from the house to the barn, with a pile of old lumber next to them. Sean had looked at his father cautiously as Scott has fingered the weathered boards.

“We thought we’d build Jelly a walkway so he could come out to the barn,” Sean explained. We were just going to scrape a path but Jimmy found some old lumber behind the barn. Bill said we could have it!”

Scott eyed the work the boys had already done. They had done a good job and must have been working for hours, but Scott could see it wasn’t going to work. He felt a little ashamed. The boys had managed to make time to help their friend, even though they were busy with schoolwork and chores. In fact, they were doing more chores than usual because the men were all busy with the herd, even though the calving had tapered off and things were slowly getting back to normal.

“You boys have done a great job and I’m proud of you, but this mud is hard to tackle. It was a good idea, but those boards are warped and wouldn’t work very well for a walkway.” As the boys deflated, Scott continued. “I’m going into town to pick up some supplies. While I’m there, I’ll pick up some good lumber and when I get back I’ll help you finish it off.” He looked down at the boys. “It will have to be painted to keep it from warping, and I expect the two of you to handle that, ok?”

“Okay,” they both chimed. “Thank you, Pa,” Sean said sincerely while Jimmy nodded in agreement.

The walkway had been built with a lot of help from Scott and some of the hands. While the men had been working, the boys had eagerly applied paint to the finished sections, resulting in more than one person winding up with fresh paint on their clothes. Scott resigned himself to purchasing new outfits for some of the hands, but to him it was worth it. Seeing the two boys working so hard together for a friend made him feel proud.

Sean and Jimmy could hardly contain their excitement as they cajoled Jelly into trying the chair one more time. The paint was barely dry when the old man tried the ramp for the first time. He had complained vociferously about how rough it was and what a waste of good lumber, but no one was fooled; the tears in the old man’s eyes had given him away.

Since that day Jelly had taken over the barn once again. He was in his element as he snapped orders and bossed the hands assigned to work with him. Sean and Jimmy hung around the barn with Jelly whenever they had free time and more than once when they didn’t. The pinto received attention from all three and his recovery was miraculous.

Scott brought his attention back to the present as Jimmy eased himself onto Cisco. He walked the animal around the pen a few times, then nudged him into a jog. He allowed the pinto to go faster one time around the pen, then with a beaming face, he pulled him to a halt in front of his uncle.

“He’s cured! He didn’t limp at all, did he?”

Scott smiled. “No, he didn’t.”

“He’s good as new,” Jelly chimed in from next to Scott. The old man had managed to work his wheelchair up next to the corral. “Just make sure to work him up gradually before goin’ faster and before goin’ for longer stretches. Don’t want ta set him back none.”

Jimmy jumped down off of the horse and climbed through the fence, followed by Sean, who had watched from inside the corral. Jimmy hugged the old man. “Thank you, Jelly.” He turned toward Sean. “And thank you, too. It means a lot to me,” he dropped his head and scuffed at the dirt with his boot. “I would have lost him without you,” he said softly.

Sean put his arm around his cousin. “That’s what best friends are for.”

Scott grinned at Jelly, then turned and headed into the house. He needed to talk to Murdoch, and there was no sense putting it off. Since the first trip to Taylorsville, Scott had gone back twice. Both times were a total waste of time. The last time, the deputy had smugly told him that he’d missed Val by two days. Scott came undone and narrowly avoided winding up in Val’s jail. Of course, he thought cynically, maybe that was the best way to find the elusive lawman. He and Murdoch had gone over and over the information that had been told to Scott the first time he had gone. Even Jelly had put in his two cents worth, and it was the handyman who had voiced the concern the other two had refused to acknowledge.

“Why in tarnation would Val go to so much trouble ta find Teresa?” Jelly had asked.

When Scott had suggested that maybe Val was trying to deliver a message to her from Johnny, Jelly’s reaction had been much like Murdoch’s.

“Deliver a message? Maybe deliver a bullet! Johnny wouldn’t leave no message for that gal unless it was ta tell her to drop dead, and I don’t think Val would go to that much trouble ta tell her that.”

“Well, there must be a logical explanation,” Murdoch insisted. “We just have to figure out what it is.”

Jelly’s eyes narrowed. “Did Johnny see her after she left here?”

Scott shrugged. “Not that we know of. Johnny wasn’t exactly talkative when we saw him.”

“What about after he disappeared.?”

“How should we know, Jelly?” Murdoch asked in exasperation. “We don’t even know HOW he managed to get out of that place. Even though the staff said he had somehow managed to walk a little, he had no clothes, no shoes, and no money! Plus, he somehow got past a guard and through a locked door! Someone should have seen him, and once he was out, he shouldn’t have been that hard to find, but NOTHING! It was just like trying to find him down in Mexico all those years ago. He just disappeared!”

“Yeah, Johnny could sure make himself scarce if he didn’t want to be found,” Jelly agreed. “I was just wonderin,…Nah, never mind. Don’t make sense.”

“What?” Scott demanded

“I said never mind,” Jelly huffed.

“We know what you said. We also know that you want to tell us, so get on with it,” Murdoch demanded.

“Well, all right, but don’t laugh.”

“OUT WITH IT!”

“Just this. What if Johnny ran into Teresa after he got out. What if he and her….well, what if Jimmy is Teresa’s son?”

Scott felt like he had been gut kicked. Murdoch slammed his hand down on his desk. “NO! There is no way! Johnny hated her and I KNOW my son wouldn’t force her. It’s out of the question!”

Jelly shrugged. “If you say so.”

“I say so,” Murdoch snarled. “Don’t mention it again.”

*****

That was the last conversation they had had on the matter. Scott knew there was another explanation; there had to be, he just couldn’t think of one. And in the quiet of night or when he was out on the range alone, Jelly’s voice came back to haunt him. No, he had to find out once and for all what it was all about before he went crazy. He had waited to tell Murdoch until after the spring busy season, but now he was going to leave and somehow find Val.

As Scott entered the patio, he looked up to see Sam’s buggy roll into the yard, Changing direction, he went out to meet the old doctor.

“Sam! What do we owe the honor?”

“I just came out to visit.”

Scott grabbed the reins from the older man’s hands and tied up the buggy. Sam slowly stepped down and followed Scott into the hacienda.

“Sam! This is a surprise!” Murdoch glanced at the clock. “It’s a little early, but…”

“I’d love one,” Sam interrupted as he poured himself a healthy drink from the liquor cabinet.

Murdoch and Scott shared a glance, then Murdoch shrugged. “What’s up, Sam?”

The doctor look at Murdoch. “What makes you think somethings up? Can’t a friend come out and visit?”

“He can,” Murdoch agreed, “but the last time you came out just to visit was about twenty years ago. And,” he said pointedly, I’ve never known you to drink Scotch.”

“Is that what this is? I thought it tasted funny.”

“Are you all right?” Scott asked, concerned.

“I’m fine,” he said as he spilled his drink.

Scott hurried over to help, and after the drink and the doctor’s coat were cleaned up, Murdoch tried once more. “Sam, you drove all the way out here to tell us something, so why don’t you just get it off your chest. It’ll make you feel better.”

“I doubt that,” Sam mumbled. He waited several seconds, and then sighed. “All right, I’ll tell you.” Another minute passed before he took a deep breath. “You know that ad I placed for an assistant?”

Both Murdoch and Scott nodded.

“Well, I didn’t get any response for a long time. In fact, I only got one, just yesterday.”

“Well, what’s the problem?” Scott asked.

“The problem is, I’m going to have to decline the offer.”

“What!” Murdoch yelled. “Sam, you can’t! You know you need an assistant! We’ve already discussed it!”

Sam nodded. “I know, but I’m going to have to wait for another offer.”

“Why?” Scott demanded.

“Because the person applying just isn’t right. I don’t think they will be well liked.”

“You don’t know that,” Scott argued. “No one thought I’d fit in, and I think I did pretty well.”

“I don’t want anyone angry with me,” Sam explained.

“Is he competent?” Murdoch asked.

“She,” Sam corrected.

“She?” Murdoch asked.

“Yes. She’s newly graduated from the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, with honors.”

“Well then, what’s the problem?” Scott demanded. “If she’s capable, she should be given the same chance as a male doctor. If people are that close minded, that’s their problem.”

“The problem isn’t her sex, it’s her name.”

“Her name?” Scott asked, totally confused.

“Her name,” verified the doctor.

“Why would her name…”

“It’s Doctor Martin. Doctor Teresa O’Brian Martin.”

“TERESA!” Murdoch bellowed.

“Yes, Teresa,” Sam replied calmly. “Evidently she matured enough to graduate with honors from a college that takes these things seriously.”

Murdoch sank down into a chair. “But how?” he asked in confusion. “That would take a lot of money.”

The doctor nodded in agreement. “That college is very expensive, and it is also very good. If she graduated from there, you can be sure she’s competent.”

“I assume she knew who she was corresponding with when she applied for the position,” Scott stated.

“Absolutely. She said she enjoyed the type of doctoring that could be done out here, and was hoping to be able to come back to where she grew up.”

Murdoch rose from the chair. “If she thinks she can just waltz back into our lives and onto this ranch, she’s sadly mistaken!”

Sam shook his head. “I don’t think she expects that at all. She was very specific that if she was hired, she would live in town, in one of the boarding houses. She was very adamant that she did NOT want to live at Lancer.”

Scott snorted. “As if that were an option.”

“Murdoch, Scott, It boils down to this: I need someone to help me. The reason I came out here today is because I don’t want anything or anyone to weaken our friendship. I haven’t answered her yet, and if you can’t stand the fact that she’s around, I’ll tell her no and wait until someone else responds. It’s your choice.”

Murdoch sighed. “You need an assistant, and if she’s the only one who responded in all this time, I don’t see where you have any other option. But if she’s here, I don’t want to even see her.”

Sam shook his head. “You know that’s not realistic. I’m sure you’ll see her around town, and there may even be a time she’ll have to treat one of you.”

“I don’t want her near me,” Murdoch snapped.

“Then I guess I’d better write her and tell her no,” Sam stated, shrugging his shoulders.

“And you think she’ll work out, knowing what you do about her?” the rancher asked.

Sam sighed. “I know what it takes to become a doctor. She had to work hard and grow up. I don’t think the woman who applied for that position will be anything like the spoiled brat who left here. I think she’s proven she’s changed, and I’m willing to give her a chance.”

“And forgive her, just like that.”

“I never said I forgave her. That’s not my place. I just said that I was willing to give her another chance.”

Murdoch stared at the doctor for several seconds, then turned toward his son. “What do you think?”

“I certainly don’t forgive her and I don’t particularly want her around,” Scott said slowly. “But…”

“But what?”

He looked at his father. “We’ve been trying for over ten months to get hold of Val. I was just coming in here to tell you that I was going back to Taylorsville.”

“So?” Murdoch asked impatiently.

“So, Val has been looking for Teresa. If we send a telegram saying Teresa is here…”

“Val would come to town and we could talk to him,” Murdoch finished.

Scott nodded. “He’d have to come here, and then we could get some answers.”

Murdoch nodded. “And after we get the answers, Teresa can leave.”

“No!” Sam said emphatically. “If she disrupts her life and comes all the way out here from Pennsylvania in good faith, she’s staying. I made a legitimate offer and I’m not going to let you do something that underhanded.”

“Oh, right,” Murdoch sneered. “We wouldn’t want to do anything that might get her upset.”

Sam drew himself up. “She either comes here, and STAYS here, as a doctor, or she doesn’t come at all.”

“We could tell Val we know where she is, and to come talk to us and we’d tell him,” Scott suggested.

Murdoch shook his head. “He wouldn’t believe it. He knows how desperate we are to talk to him.”

“Well, we could tell him where she is, then try to intercept him.”

Murdoch shook his head once more. “No, something could go wrong, and this might be the only chance we have to talk to him.” He looked at the doctor. “Tell her to come, Sam, but I want to talk to her as soon as she arrives, deal?”

“I’ll tell her you want to see her, but I can’t force her.”

Murdoch glared at the doctor for several seconds, then finally lowered his eyes. “All right, Sam. You win. Go ahead and hire her. We’ll just have to cope.”

Sam nodded once. “I don’t think you’ll regret it.”

“For her sake, we’d better not.”

*****

Teresa checked her bags for the third time, then drew on her gloves as the porter picked up her luggage and carried it to the baggage car. With a final look around, she boarded the train that would take her back to her home. She had no illusions of ever staying at Lancer again, but she had come to love the land in that part of the country. Pennsylvania could be beautiful, but she couldn’t get used to the bone chilling cold in the winter. She had heard Boston was even colder and she couldn’t imagine how Scott had stood it.

It had always been a dream of hers to become a doctor. Even when she was just a child she had tried to watch Sam whenever he was treating anyone. At first he had chased her away, saying she was too young. But as she had aged, she had been able to help him more and more, and now she would be treating patients alongside him as an equal.

Well, maybe not an equal, she thought wryly. So much of what Sam knew could only be taught from experience. One of her instructors had pounded that into their brains. “No matter how much you know, there will be people who know more, and no matter how much you know, there will be times you will look like a total fool. Don’t ever get so arrogant that you forget that.”

On the other hand, the college she had attended was at the cutting edge of medicine. Many new procedures and treatments were tried there for the first time. It was exciting to think that she really might be able to make a difference, and might even be able to teach Sam something new. Teresa shook her head. Either way, she knew that medicine was what she was interested in. It was her life.

Even though she had always wanted to be a doctor, even at a young age she knew her dream was not practical. Medical school was not only wildly expensive, there were very few schools that would even consider accepting a woman. She had still hoped that somehow it would be possible, but when she had been forced to leave Lancer her dream had shattered completely, and her only thought was simply to survive.

With a sigh, she looked out the window with unseeing eyes as the landscape rolled past. Her father and Murdoch had always commented on how mature she was, how responsible and level headed. They hadn’t known anything. She had been so sheltered that she had never even dated. She had never experienced the crushes and heartbreak that most teenagers go through, so when she had developed a crush on Johnny, she hadn’t known how to accept rejection.

She realized now just how vulnerable she had been and how honorable Johnny had been. But at the time she had been humiliated. She hadn’t realized that he was protecting her from herself. She had lashed out in anger and hadn’t cared if she hurt him. She cringed as she remembered just how mean she had been.

She wondered now if she had really loved Johnny. It wasn’t anything like the love she had experienced with Richard. Maybe it was more the IDEA of being with someone as handsome and exciting as Johnny that she was in love with. But at the time, she thought it was true love, and she thought she would never love anyone again. She had no excuse for her actions, except that in her whole life, she had never really been told no. Not for anything important. Her father and Murdoch had both spoiled her unmercifully, and she was usually able to get what she wanted by pouting or acting upset. Even though she had never done it before, she thought that she could get what she wanted simply by throwing a fit. It had shocked her when it was Murdoch who had thrown the fit, and before she had time to react, Johnny was gone.

She had never meant to hurt him, but she had done more than that. She had destroyed him. She still felt sick to her stomach when she remembered just how bad it had been. She prayed every day that God would forgive her, because she knew that none of the Lancers ever would. When she had helped Johnny in that hospital, she was trying desperately to make up for just a tiny portion of the wrong she knew she had done to him. She hadn’t expected his forgiveness or for him to even stop hating her, but she had to do it.

Richard hadn’t understood, not really. But it didn’t matter to him. She had eventually told him the whole sordid mess, expecting him to turn his back on her and walk off, but he hadn’t. He had held her until her sobs had run out, then kissed her and told her he loved her.

They had been married in a small church near the hospital, and she had become Mrs. Richard Martin. Her husband had been one of the best neurologists in the country, and she had found herself living in luxury. She soon found that she didn’t want to live the useless life of teas and socials. She wanted to be a doctor. Richard had tried to dissuade her, but she was adamant. Finally, he had accepted that she was willing to put in the time and effort and he had supported her fully. On his recommendation, she had been accepted to the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. Richard was going to move his practice to be near her, and she thought she would burst with happiness.

He had died exactly two weeks before they moved to Pennsylvania. A stupid accident and she was alone once more. She had almost decided not to go, but in the end she had gone ahead with the move and started college. She had finally realized her dream, and now she was going home.

She had been shocked when she had seen Sam’s advertisement for an assistant in The Medical News; a paper that listed positions wanted or offered, new breakthroughs in treatment, and advice. She had been perusing it for possible offers, but most were positions in cities or extremely uncivilized areas and neither of those appealed to her. When she saw the name on the ad and the location, her heart had skipped a beat and a longing to return to the land that had once been her home.

But she almost hadn’t answered the ad. Sam and Murdoch were close friends and she figured that the doctor was about as impressed with her stupid stunt as Murdoch had been. The last time she had seen the doctor he had made it pretty clear exactly how he had felt about her. But something made her want to try. She knew she was no longer the stupid girl who had behaved so badly, and even though she could never make it up to the Lancers, she could be the best doctor she could be and help the community in general.

When she received the conformation letter back from Sam, she once again almost decided not to go. There was a tiny voice in the back of her head saying it was a joke; that she would make the long journey and then be laughed at or worse. After a lot of thought, she finally decided it was worth taking the chance. If it made the Lancers and Sam feel better to get revenge in that fashion, she wasn’t going to stop them, and if her fears were groundless, maybe she could be happy again.

She hadn’t thought of the Lancers much for the last several years; she hadn’t had time. Her life for the last ten years had been nothing but grueling classes and studying for impossible tests. She hadn’t had time to think about much else, but now she wondered idly how Murdoch and Scott were. She still missed them and would be happy to see them, even if the feeling wasn’t mutual. A small part of her wondered if they were even still alive. Maybe that was why no one objected to her coming, but she pushed that thought aside.

Her thoughts turned to Johnny. Her first love. She wondered how he was and what he was doing. She had prayed for him every night since she had left. Prayed that he had found happiness. Prayed that he was happy and well. Prayed that he had gone back to Lancer and his family. Well, in a few days she would know. Know whether somehow things had worked out for the family she had destroyed, or whether the nightmares she had lived with for twelve years were still real.

*****

Teresa stepped down from the stage and looked around. Unbelievingly, the town looked exactly the same. For some reason, since she had changed so much, she had expected this town to have changed as well, but the wooden sidewalk and dusty streets were the same as they always had been. Even the horses in front of the saloon looked the same. She turned in the other direction and saw the neat little house that Doc Jenkins lived in. His buggy was out in front, so she decided to go there first, and then figure out where she was going to stay later.

She felt a twinge of disappointment that no one had met her, but she realized that no one really knew when she was arriving. As she was thinking, her bags were thrown at her feet and she looked at them in consternation. With a sigh, she picked up the one with her small collection of medical instruments in it, then used her foot to shove the bag with her clothes in it up further onto the sidewalk. She hoped no one would bother it, but she’d rather lose clothing than instruments. With a last glance at the bag, she hurried down the street toward Sam’s house.

She stopped in front of the door, suddenly scared. With an effort, she shoved her fear away and opened the door. The bell rang and the doctor looked up from examining the wrist of a young boy, his mother hovering protectively next to the table.

“It will be fine. It’s just a sprain. I’ll wrap it, and he shouldn’t use it for a week or so, but there shouldn’t be any problems. Just have him stay out of trees for a while.” Sam was binding the wrist as he talked, and when he was done, he lifted the boy off of the table, then reached over to a cabinet and brought out a piece of candy. He presented it to the boy, who grabbed it eagerly before running past Teresa to the door, his mother in hot pursuit.

“Doctor Martin! I’m glad you could make it. Did you have a nice trip?”

Teresa grinned. “Oh Sam. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to you calling me doctor. Please, just Teresa will do.”

Sam looked at her sternly. “You had better get used to it. You worked hard to get that title and you have every right to use it. People need to respect you in order for you to treat them, so don’t be too quick to offer to let them use your first name. Make them earn it!”

“You didn’t make us call you Doctor Jenkins!”

“You all had earned it,” he said seriously. He glanced at the bag she was still holding. “Is that all you brought?” he asked in surprise.

“No, I left my other bag by the stage depot.”

“We can go get it with the buggy. By the way, I spoke with Widow Collins and she has decided to move back east with her daughter.” He looked at Teresa. “Do you remember the Collins’ place?” At her nod, he continued. “I took the liberty of purchasing it. If you want it, you can pay me back whenever you can. If you don’t want it, there are several people that are interested in it. She left all the furniture, so if you decide to take it, you don’t have to worry about buying more unless you want to.”

Tears welled up in Teresa’s eyes. “Oh Sam, that was so nice of you. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I mean…I didn’t really give you any reason to be nice to me.” She hung her head. “I just wasn’t expecting it, that’s all.”

“Teresa, the past is the past. As far as I’m concerned, the little girl that left Lancer all those years ago is dead. DOCTOR Teresa O’Brian Martin is a woman to be respected, and I hope she becomes a trusted colleague and a good friend.”

“Thank you, Sam. It means a lot to me. It’s so good to be back.” She bit her lip worriedly. “Sam, I want to know… “

Sam interrupted her. “Let’s go get your luggage, and take it to your new house.” He grabbed his hat and started toward the door.

A lump formed in the pit of Teresa’s stomach. She knew Sam was avoiding answering the question she had started to ask and she wondered what was wrong. She really didn’t want to know, she decided, and she followed the doctor out to the buggy.

*****

Teresa looked around her new home. It wasn’t elegant by any means, but it was well made and had a homey feel. It was less than a block from Sam’s, nearer the outskirts of town, and well away from the saloons. She had always admired the neat little house when she had passed by it all those years ago, and she had fallen in love with it as soon as she had walked in yesterday afternoon. She had spent last night putting her clothes away and rearranging a few pieces of furniture, and it already felt like home.

A tap on the door interrupted her thoughts and she went to open it.

“Sam! Come on in!”

Sam stepped into the room, then turned and faced her. “I’m going out to the Lancer ranch to check on Jelly. Do you want to come?”

She hesitated, unsure.

“Teresa, you need to know that Murdoch and Scott are still very angry with you, but they wanted to talk to you as soon as possible when you got into town. I promised them I would tell you, but I DIDN’T promise them that you would talk to them. I don’t need help today, and you don’t have to go if you don’t want to. It’s your choice.”

Teresa hesitated a moment and then nodded. “I can’t hide from them forever. I’ll go.” She looked at the doctor. “What’s wrong with Jelly?”

“He had a stroke.”

“How bad?”

“Bad enough. He can’t walk and he refuses treatment.”

“And everyone else?” she asked quietly.

“Let’s get in the buggy. I’ll tell you everything on the way out there.”

Teresa nodded, unsure if she really wanted to know everything.

*****

Scott looked out of the window and watched as the buggy approached the house. His brow furrowed as he wondered who was with Sam, but as they got closer, he recognized the other figure.

“MURDOCH! It’s Teresa!” he shouted as he went toward the door. Now that she was here, he really wasn’t sure what he would say to her. His father came in from the kitchen and stared out the window, watching as the buggy approached.

Murdoch suddenly whirled and took refuge behind his desk. He aimlessly sorted through a pile of papers as he waited. He finally heard the door open and felt his heart jump into his mouth. He really didn’t know what to say to her. He listened as the footsteps entered the Great Room and stopped in front of the desk.

Murdoch swallowed hard and forced his head up, meeting the women’s eyes. The two of them stared at each other for several long moments, then Teresa spoke.

“Murdoch, Sam told me everything that happened. I know you don’t want to hear it, but I am so sorry for everything.”

“Sorry?” Murdoch hissed. “Do you know why we wanted to see you?”

Teresa shook her head.

“We’re trying to find out where my son is buried!”

“I don’t understand,” the woman said in confusion. “I don’t know where…where he’s buried.”

“No, but Val does, and without you, we can’t find Val.”

Teresa shook her head in confusion, then turned to her ex brother with a questioning look.

Scott took a deep breath. “Val was with Johnny when he died. My brother is buried somewhere out on the trail, and we need Val to tell us where. We also want to ask him some other questions, but apparently he’s out trying to find you and we haven’t been able to find him.”

“Find ME? Why would he want to find me?”

“We don’t know,” Murdoch ground out. “We were hoping you could tell us.”

Scott watched the woman, praying that Jelly’s prediction of why Val wanted to talk to her was wrong. “You don’t know?” he reiterated.

“No!”

“You don’t know anything about Johnny’s son?”

“Just what Sam told me on the way over,” Teresa explained.

“You’ve never seen him?” Scott pushed.

“No! How could I see him? I haven’t even seen Johnny!”

Both Murdoch and Scott heaved a sigh of relief and Murdoch spoke up. “We’re going to try to contact Val and tell him you’re here. You WILL come back out here and talk to him when he comes!” he ordered.

Teresa glared at her surrogate father. “You don’t have to talk to me like that. I would have thought you had learned your lesson by now. Ordering someone around and ranting like some dictator won’t get you very far. You should know how well that worked with Johnny.”

Murdoch bolted to his feet and slammed his hands on the desk. “Don’t you DARE TELL me how I should have treated my son! Johnny and I were just fine until YOU decided to act like a spoiled brat and accuse my son of…of inappropriate behavior! I BELIEVED you! I never thought my ward, who I loved with all my heart, who JOHNNY loved as a sister, would betray this whole family! I threw him out of this house, HIS HOUSE, because of what you said. I lost my son because of you and your lies, so don’t you dare lecture me on my behavior!”

“I KNOW!” Teresa screamed back at him. “I have lived with that every hour of every day for twelve years! If killing myself would have fixed it, I would have done that years ago, but I CAN’T fix it! I can’t fix it,” she sobbed as she collapsed on the floor. “I can’t fix it, I’m sorry!”

Sam hurried over to Teresa to help her and he finally was able to get the sobbing woman on her feet. “Is there somewhere she can lie down?” Sam snapped at the two men who were standing and watching.

After several moments, Scott nodded. “In Maria’s room next to the kitchen. She’s not here today.”

Sam walked Teresa through the doorway and disappeared. Murdoch and Scott were silent and avoided each other’s eyes, slightly ashamed that they hadn’t tried to help. Several minutes later, the old doctor reappeared and went immediately to the liquor cabinet to pour himself a drink. He looked at it wryly. “It seems every time I come here I wind up needing alcohol.”

He took a large sip, then turned to Murdoch. “There was no need to yell at her like that.”

“Don’t YOU start! I have every right to yell at her! IN FACT…”

“You stop right there, Murdoch Lancer!” Sam commanded as he slammed his drink down onto a nearby table. “I think you are proving Teresa’s point quite well. You think by yelling that you can intimidate people into doing whatever you want, and unfortunately, you’re usually successful. However it doesn’t always work, and even when it does, there’s usually a better way of doing things. It sure didn’t work with Johnny, now did it?”

“I DON’T INTIMIDATE PEOPLE,” Murdoch yelled, “And CERTAINLY not my own family!” He turned to Scott for support, but his son had his back to him, getting his own drink.

“Murdoch, as painful as it is to admit, you had a hand in Johnny’s leaving. If you had had a good relationship with your son, he never would have left.”

“He LEFT because that…WOMAN…lied to me about him!”

Sam took a deep breath. “Yes, she did, and it was a horrible thing. She knows that, and she knows that nothing she can say or do can ever change it. Think about that for a moment. Think of all the mistakes that you made with your boys, Murdoch, when Scott and Johnny first came home. I remember you crying, praying that they could forgive you. And they did. What would you have done if they hadn’t? What would it have been like to go through the rest of your life knowing the two people who meant the world to you hated you?

“Then when Johnny left that last time, both of you talked to me individually about how devastated you were because Johnny wouldn’t accept your apology. I think you know what it’s like to beg forgiveness from someone and be denied, even when you would do ANYTHING to get that forgiveness.

“I CAN tell you that she regrets what she did from the bottom of her heart, and not just because it hurt you and Scott, or because you kicked her out. Whether you believe it or not, Teresa loved Johnny. Any doubts about the way she felt about him were erased when I told her on the way out here that he had died. She was inconsolable. Didn’t you notice how pale she was when she came in? How red her eyes were from crying? I should have taken her home instead of bringing her here. She was in shock. Then you started in on her. No wonder she collapsed.

“Murdoch, she did something that was incredibly selfish and stupid, but again, that wasn’t totally her fault, either. She was spoiled by both you and Paul. Everyone knew it. You always let her get her way, and it was only her inherent goodness that prevented her from becoming a horrible brat. If she had received proper discipline as a child, that stunt she pulled would never have happened. If she hadn’t found out that she could get whatever she wanted just by pouting or being difficult, it never would have happened. But it did, and you all have to take responsibility for it.

“Without your help SHE HAS taken responsibility and turned her life around. She graduated with honors from a notoriously difficult college, and she is a medical doctor; something only a handful of women have managed to do. She’s not the same girl who lied to you that day, and since then she has done nothing but try to make it right. Do you know she worked in the hospital where Johnny was?”

Both Murdoch’s and Scott’s heads shot up and they stared at the doctor.

“It’s true. She told me that she took a job there trying to support herself so she could get into nursing school. I know from seeing those places that it was a dirty, thankless job. She had no idea Johnny was in there, but when she found out, she did everything she could to try to help him. She dropped out of nursing school so she could spend more time with him. She gave up her dream to help him! It was TERESA that accepted the hate Johnny showed toward her and forced him to do exercises until he was able to walk. You know what Johnny was like when he was angry. It must have been hell for her, but she persevered. If it wasn’t for her, Johnny would have died, bedridden, in that hospital. He never would have gotten out, and he never would have had Jimmy. He at least had some happiness at the end of his life, and he had Teresa to thank for it.”

“Both of you have suffered because of the mistakes you made with Johnny, but at least you had each other. You could have fought and hated the other one for their part in what happened, but you didn’t. It wasn’t that hard to forgive each other because you still had Teresa to blame, and it was easier to blame Teresa for everything, to shift the guilt onto her. You had each other, she had no one. I hope to God that you never have to feel what she feels right now.” Sam marched back over to the table and downed his drink in one swallow.

Scott studied his fingers while Murdoch reshuffled the papers on his desk.

“He’s right you know,” Scott said softly. “Even when Teresa told that lie, we didn’t have to believe her. And even if we did believe her, we could have at least listened to him. She couldn’t have hurt him without our help.”

Murdoch nodded slowly. “I know. I’ve thought about it every day since he left. We ALL were at fault.” He snorted. “The only one that didn’t do anything wrong was Johnny, and he’s the one who suffered.”

“You ALL suffered,” Sam pointed out. “And you were ALL at fault. Johnny wasn’t totally innocent in that mess, either. He could have stayed and made you listen, but he chose not to. He chose to run instead of fighting for his rightful place here. You all were to blame, one way or another.”

“Scott and I DO know how it feels to beg for forgiveness that will never come. I guess I just hadn’t thought about it that way,” Murdoch admitted. He dropped his head. “I’m still angry with her, and I don’t know if that can ever change. I’m still angry with myself. But I understand more what she’s gone through. Still, I don’t think I can stand to have Teresa back at Lancer. Seeing her everyday…” He shook his head. “It would bring back too many bad memories.”

“She isn’t asking to come back here. She’s purchasing her own house in town. Teresa’s not asking you for anything, except maybe tolerance, and she’s not even expecting that. She’s harder on herself than you could ever be.” Sam looked at both men in turn. “She’s not asking for anything, but I am. I’m asking for you to treat her with the respect you would give any doctor, including me.”

Both men nodded slowly, and Scott sighed. “That she will get.”

Sam nodded. “I’m going to see if she’s up to checking on Jelly with me.” He looked at his old friend. “How’s he been doing?”

Murdoch shrugged, his mind miles away. “About the same. He’s still using the wheelchair and refusing to do his exercises, and he still seems depressed, though he tries to hide it. He is supervising all of the barn chores, though.”

“How is he getting out to the barn?”

Scott smiled. “Sean and Jimmy took it upon themselves to build a wooden ramp from the house to the barn. They needed a little help finishing it, but I certainly hadn’t thought of doing that. It’s really helped Jelly to be more independent.”

Sam frowned. “I’m worried that he’s still in the wheelchair, though. Do you think he’s too weak to walk, or does he just not want to do the exercises?”

“He says he just doesn’t want to do them, but I’m not convinced.”

“Any other symptoms or problems?”

“Not that we’re aware of.”

“All right. Is he in his room?”

“No, he’s out in the barn.”

“Okay, I’ll examine him out there.” Sam hesitated. “I feel so badly that I didn’t know about how to help a stroke patient when Johnny was here. If I had, maybe he would have stayed here long enough to heal. Maybe things would have ended up differently. I should have known.”

“Sam, you told us before, that kind of knowledge just wasn’t out there when Johnny was sick. It was only 4 or 5 years ago that you told us that you had read it in the Medical Journal.”

Scott’s brow furrowed. “How did Teresa know what to do if it wasn’t common knowledge back then?”

“Evidently she was dating, and ultimately married, a very well respected neurologist – someone who specializes in the nerves and treats stroke patients. It was his findings that I read about in The Journal. He must have told her what to do.”

“Teresa’s married?” Murdoch asked.

“Apparently her husband was killed in a trolley accident not long after they were married.”

“That’s where she got the money to attend school,” Scott surmised.

“I would guess that’s right, but It’s really none of our business.”

“No, it’s not,” Scott agreed. “We lost that right when we kicked her out.”

“I would say that you did. Now if you gentleman will excuse me, I’m going to see if Teresa will accompany me out to the barn.” Sam turned and walked toward the kitchen.

Scott looked at his father when Sam was out of the room. “It was so easy to put all the blame on Teresa.”

“That it was,” his father agreed. “It was certainly easier than admitting I was as much at fault as she was.”

“Like Sam said, we all were. That shadow has been hanging over all of us for a good long while. Maybe it’s time to let it go and forgive ourselves as well as each other.”

Murdoch nodded slowly. “Maybe you’re right.”

*****

Teresa walked out of Maria’s room just as Sam entered the kitchen.

“I’m so sorry. I don’t know what happened,” she apologized.

“Murdoch happened,” Sam said sarcastically. “He was being his usual charming self. I’m going out to the barn to examine Jelly. Would you like to come along, Doctor?”

A wan smile appeared on Teresa’s lips. “I would be honored, doctor.”

*****

Val sat next to the small campfire and sipped at the cup of coffee he held. There was a distinct chill in the air and the steaming cup did a good job of warming his hands. The coffee wasn’t half bad, either. He knew everybody made fun of it, but it was just the way he liked it, strong enough to stand a spoon in and just a little bit bitter. Did a good enough job of warming his insides, too.

As he drank his coffee, he wondered just what he was going to do. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the wrinkled telegram that he had received last week. It was just plain luck that it had come when it did, because he had only gone back to Taylorsville to check on things, and had been planning on heading out again the next day.

Val shook his head. He had been trying to find Teresa for well over ten months now, and it was like she had vanished into thin air. When he had started, he figured it would take a few weeks, tops. After all, he was a trained lawman and expert tracker, and she was just a girl. He snorted. No, she was a woman now, but if she was still as dumb as she had been when she pulled that stupid stunt with Johnny, he figured he shouldn’t have had any trouble.

The problem was, there was no real starting point. All he knew for sure was that she had worked in that hell hole Johnny had been in, but no one knew what had happened to her after that. Tracking down the people who had worked there had been a slow process, and none of them had been the least bit helpful. There had been just too many girls that came and went for anyone to remember any particular one.

It should have been easy just to look in the records, but if the records were still available, he wouldn’t have to find her in the first place. The whole place had burned to the ground only a month after Johnny escaped, and all the records had gone up in flames. Val shuddered, imagining what would have happened to his friend if he had been inside that place and still unable to move. Fire wasn’t an easy way to go, and he was thankful that at least Johnny hadn’t had to die that way.

He took the last sip of coffee and studied the telegram in his hand. He knew the Lancers had been trying to find him; he knew they wanted answers. If it had been up to him, he would have let them know what had happened right away, but he had made a promise to Johnny. Now, though, he was stuck. If Teresa really was at Lancer, he didn’t see how he could talk to her without Scott and Murdoch making sure they were in on the conversation. He didn’t see either man backing down just because he told them to.

Val shook his head. He had always thought Johnny was stubborn and hard headed, but he had nothing on his father and brother. No, he would have to explain, even though he had given his word. Besides, Johnny wasn’t exactly able to exact revenge on him for breaking that promise, a promise Val thought was stupid in the first place. What could Johnny do? Shoot him? He shook his head with a sigh. It would almost be worth getting shot just to have his friend back.

After a last gulp of coffee, Val stood up and started breaking camp. He would be at Lancer by tomorrow, and maybe he could finally get the answer he was looking for. He frowned as the thought crossed his mind that Teresa wasn’t really there; that Murdoch or Scott had sent that telegram just to be able to question him. He couldn’t really blame them, but if that was the case, they just might find out that they weren’t the only ones with tempers. Val was tired and cross, and it wouldn’t take much to let his gun do the talking.

*****

Teresa sat in the chair, staring at the fire that crackled noisily in the hearth. She was exhausted, but she knew that sleep wouldn’t come for a long time. It had been one of the hardest days she had ever had. When Sam had told her that Johnny had died, a part of her died with him. She knew he had no longer hated her, but she had hoped that maybe they could at least be friends again. Now that hope was shattered.

Murdoch and Scott had acted exactly the way she had expected them to, at least at first. She felt ashamed at the way she had collapsed, she thought she was stronger than that by now. The only excuse she had was that she just couldn’t take anymore at the time. Learning of Johnny’s death, then the verbal attack by Murdoch had just been too much. She had worked so hard to change, but she was still having to pay for her mistake. She knew that she was being childish, something she had tried to avoid for many years, but it was still hard to take.

Jelly hadn’t helped much, either. He had point blank refused to let her examine him, and she wasn’t even trying to see or do anything that might embarrass the old man. He simply treated her like she wasn’t there, and talked to Sam. She had been warned by several of her professors that one of her main challenges would be to get male patients to accept her and to allow her to treat them. She had been warned that examinations that required any state of undress might well be impossible at times. It was frustrating. Why should women have to accept being looked at by a male doctor, but men totally refuse to be looked at by a woman?

She had seen and heard enough, however to agree with Sam’s diagnosis of Jelly needing surgery to unclog the artery in his neck. She also had heard Jelly’s adamant refusal to leave the ranch to have it done. A thought had flitted through her mind, but she would have to discuss it with Sam before she said anything. She had seen the operation first hand when she had assisted her husband. It wasn’t that difficult, and she knew she could do it with Sam’s help. The only thing that was stopping her was the lack of a proper surgical room, and Jelly’s age. It would be risky for someone that old, and she didn’t want her first operation to end in failure. Especially when that failure meant she would lose a family member. And no matter how they thought of her, in her mind the people on that ranch were still her family.

She had been pleasantly surprised when Scott had spoken to her before she and Sam had left. She had wandered off from where Sam was speaking to Jelly, and Scott had approached her. He had just stared at her for a long time, and Teresa was just getting ready to say something she would have regretted, when Scott had spoken.

“I really commend you for becoming a doctor. I know how much hard work is involved, and you should be proud of yourself.”

Teresa had smiled at him. Leave it to Scott. Always the peacemaker.

“Thank you. It was hard, but I’m hoping it will be worth it.” She nodded back toward where Sam was speaking to Jelly. “It seems not everyone is impressed.” She dropped her head. “It seems no one is willing to forgive, either.”

Scott had actually smiled at her. “I don’t think Jelly not wanting you to examine him has anything to do with being angry with you. Teresa, it’s going to take time for people to get used to the idea.”

Teresa stared at him. “Which idea? The idea of me being a doctor or me even being here?”

“Both.”

Teresa had dropped her head and nodded. “But do you think that eventually it will work out?” Both of them knew she wasn’t talking about being a doctor.

Scott had taken a deep breath, then shrugged . “I don’t know. I guess we’ll just have to give it some time and then wait and see.”

Teresa nodded, then smiled at him. “All I want is a chance. Thank you for giving that to me.”

Scott had nodded, then walked off, and Teresa had watched him go. He hadn’t given her much, but it was enough.

Teresa finally decided she could sleep and banked the fire before heading toward her room. Today she started a new life, and she was going to do the best she could.

*****

After leaving Teresa, Scott had wandered up to the front of the barn and Barranca’s stall. He stroked the handsome face that appeared over the stall door, talking softly to the big animal. He found that he was riding the palomino almost exclusively, and was fast forming a bond with him that he had never before had with a horse. He wondered if it was possible for him to have a relationship with this horse as strong as Johnny had had with his Barranca.

The horse already had formed a strong attachment to him. The palomino’s whinnies reverberated in the barn whenever Scott appeared, and the man was hard pressed to keep the animal from following him when he dismounted to work. Scott realized that whether because of the horse’s connection to his brother, or something more intangible, Scott felt more affection toward this horse than any others that he had ever had. He had never liked losing a horse, but it had been more the thought that he had failed them somehow that had bothered him, more than the actual loss. During the war there had been one or two horses that he had been genuinely saddened to lose, but his relationship with those horses had been more like a business arrangement. He took care of them, and they took care of him.

Barranca was the first horse he had actually been glad to see in the morning, and who genuinely seemed glad to see him. He remembered once when the horse had been used hard all day in driving sleet. Both man and beast were near exhaustion when they had arrived at the barn.

Scott had cleaned the wet and muddy horse up as best he could and given him his feed. Scott had barely left the barn before he found out he had to ride into town to deliver an urgent message. He had gone to Ulysses’ stall, and the horse had turned his back on him and laid back his ears, his opinion of having to leave the warm barn and go out into the dark sleet perfectly obvious.

Barranca, however had left his food and literally begged to be taken back out. Scott had decided to take the horse’s best interest into consideration and had reluctantly ridden Ulysses. The palomino’s cries had followed him as he fought his unwilling mount to get it headed toward town. Since then, the palomino had proven his loyalty time and again. Scott decided he liked having a horse he could trust completely. Friends like that were few and far between.

Scott stepped inside the stall and ran his hands over the horse’s body, before coming to rest on the brand. His fingers felt the hairless area and he sighed. He missed his brother.

 He guessed he should just be thankful that a part of Johnny still lived on. Jimmy was bright, handsome, and had the same mercurial temperament as his father.

Jimmy had been thrilled when he had found the palomino in the stall. Scott had just walked into the barn with the boy when Jimmy stopped dead in his tracks for a second, then bolted toward the horse.

“Barranca!” he had cried, then turned and looked back at his uncle. “How did he get here?”

Scott hesitated, unwilling to tell the child just what errand he had been on when he had found the horse.

Undeterred, Jimmy had continued. “Did you buy him back from Old Ben?”

Scott nodded.

Jimmy had rubbed the palomino’s face. “I’m sure glad he’s here. Pa would be happy, he was Pa’s favorite. He said he reminded him of another palomino he had a long time ago. That’s who he’s named after,” he told a stunned Scott. “I never thought I’d see him again.”

“What happened to the other horses?” Scott asked.

Jimmy shrugged. “They were sold. Uncle Val said everybody wanted one, so it wasn’t too hard to get rid of them. Barranca and Cisco were the only two that were special. I’m glad he’s back.”

It seemed to Scott that the incident with Cisco and getting Barranca back had been a turning point for Jimmy. Like Sean had, many months previously, Jimmy had changed back to the happy young boy he was before. Maybe things would finally get back to normal.

*****

Val sat on his horse, staring down at the hacienda. He had been thinking all day on just how to handle this, but he still didn’t have a clue. He figured before it was over his temper would take over, and then any plans he had made would just go flying out of the window, anyway. He had been up here since dawn. He had watched Jimmy and another boy ride out, and he figured they must be going to school. It was just as well; he didn’t need that distraction. This would be hard enough as it was.

He was hoping he’d get a glimpse of Teresa, but he hadn’t seen anyone he’d recognized yet. Finally he decided he’d better just get it over with, and nudged his bay down off the hill.

Scott and Murdoch were discussing a contract they had received from the army. It had more clauses and addendums than usual, so they were going over it with a fine toothed comb. The knock barely registered with them, and they continued talking as Maria hurried to open the door.

Scott was the first to look up when he heard the footsteps coming into the Great Room.

“Val!” he exclaimed.

Murdoch’s head shot up and he stared at the lawman in surprise. “Val,” Murdoch said. He hesitated, unsure of what to say. “Drink?” he finally asked.

Val nodded, then walked over to the liquor cabinet and helped himself. He took a long swallow, then turned to face the two men. “Where’s Teresa?”

“She’s not here,” Scott started.

Val slammed his drink down with an oath, then spun toward the door.

“Wait!” Murdoch shouted. “She’s not at the ranch, but she’s close by. I’ll send someone to get her.”

Val glared at the rancher. “Just tell me where she is and I’ll get out of your hair,” he said, hoping they would fall for it.

“Not until we have some answers!” Murdoch demanded.

Val shook his head. “I promised Johnny I wouldn’t tell you nuthin’,” he insisted.

“And you’re not seeing Teresa unless we get answers,” Scott bluffed.

“You know I could get to her without your help, Scott,” the lawman said quietly.

“Val, Please! We need to know what happened to Johnny. We need to know where my brother’s buried. Please, Val, help us.”

Val looked at each of them, then finally nodded. “I think Johnny was wrong on this. I promised him, but if I can talk to Teresa, I don’t think it’ll make much difference anymore. I think the two of you have the right to know, but I’m only gonna tell this tale one time, so send somebody for Teresa. I’ll tell you all after I talk to her.”

Scott felt the tension he had been feeling leave him, and glancing at his father, he knew he felt the same way. Murdoch hurried to the door and spoke to one if the hands, then quickly returned.

“How’s Jimmy doin’?” Val asked. “I saw him heading ta school this mornin’.”

“He’s doing as well as can be expected after having his father die and then being abandoned by the only other ‘relative’ he had left,” Murdoch said sarcastically.

“Yeah, I know. But I had my reasons.”

“Was there a reason you told him not to tell us his name when he got here?”

“I didn’t tell him that,” Val protested.

“Well, no one knew who he was for several days.”

“Didja ask him? I mean, a strange kid wanderin’ around – I would a thought SOMEBODY would a asked who he was.”

“You COULD have come with him and told us yourself,” Murdoch suggested to hide his embarrassment in knowing Val was right.

Val shrugged. “I wasn’t prepared ta be answering a lot of questions.”

“And you are now?” Murdoch asked.

“I think so. Like I said, I’m gonna talk to Teresa first.”

“Why do you have to talk to her?” Scott asked curiously.

Val shrugged and turned toward Murdoch. “I been on the trail for a while. Don’t suppose my horse could get some good feed and I could have a bath while we’re waitin’?”

Murdoch nodded. “Of course. I’ll make sure your horse is taken care of. You know where the bathhouse is.”

“Much obliged.” He turned and walked out of the room.

Murdoch swirled the liquor that was in the bottom of his glass. “What’s so darn important that he has to talk to Teresa about? What could possibly be that important?”

Scott shook his head. “I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. At least Val said he’d tell us what we need to know.”

“He said he’d tell us after he spoke with Teresa. What if she chooses not to talk to him? Or she doesn’t have the answers he’s looking for? What then? Will he just ride out without talking to us?”

“No!” Scott nearly shouted. “No,” he said in a quieter voice. “He’s not leaving here until we have answers. I don’t care what he thinks. Johnny was my brother.” Scott turned and walked toward the fireplace, then flopped angrily down in one of the chairs to wait.

After Val joined them again, the three men sat down for lunch. None of them said very much; they were all waiting to hear the sound of buggy wheels that would signal Teresa’s approach. Once lunch was over, they again retired to the Great Room, each lost in their own thoughts.

When they finally heard the buggy approaching, all three men jumped up and raced to the door. Murdoch pulled it open, and Teresa was standing there, looking uncertain.

“Frank said you wanted to see me.”

Murdoch opened the door wider, motioning her inside. She stepped into the house, then stopped suddenly when she saw Val. He tipped his hat.

“Miss Teresa,” he said.

“Actually, Val, it’s Doctor Martin. Doctor Teresa O’Brian Martin,” Scott explained.

“Doctor, huh? Guess maybe that’s the reason I haven’t been able ta find you.”

Teresa looked at him curiously. “Why did you need to find me?”

Val nodded toward the Great Room. “If you don’t mind, I’ve got some questions ta ask you. Might as well get comfortable.”

As soon as they were seated, Val turned to the woman. “When did you start working at that hospital Johnny was at?”

Teresa looked confused. “I don’t remember the exact date.”

“Try.”

Teresa thought for a minute. “It was spring. I think…maybe March.” She nodded. “March 1873.”

“And when did you leave there?”

“Let me think. It was in September, the same year.”

Val nodded. “Okay. And was Johnny there the whole time you were?”

“What’s this all about, Val?” Murdoch demanded.

The sheriff turned and looked at him. “I told you I would tell you after I talked to Miss… Doctor …Martin, and I ain’t finished.”

Murdoch glared at him and Val glared back until Murdoch finally dropped his eyes.

Turning his attention back to Teresa, Val continued. “So was he there the whole time?”

Teresa nodded. “Almost. I left a few days after he did.”

“So he was able to walk by then?”

“Yes, barely.”

“Barely?”

Teresa fought back tears. “He was desperate to get out of there, but he wasn’t strong enough. I begged him to let me help him, I offered to let him stay in my spare room, but he refused.”

Val frowned. “So even though you thought he was too weak, you brought him clothes and shoes so he could leave?”

Both Murdoch and Scott turned and stared at her.

“You know what he was like! He was going to leave whether I helped him or not! And after…after what I did, I couldn’t let him down again,” her voice trailed off. “I brought him clothes and a knife and all the money I could borrow.”

Val nodded. “He told me it helped him a lot. And you’re right. He was gonna leave with or without your help.”

Teresa looked at Val gratefully. “Then I’m glad I helped him. All these years I wasn’t sure.”

Val nodded. “You said he was still weak. Do you remember exactly when he was first able to walk?”

“Maybe two weeks before he left.”

“No longer?” Val asked sharply.

“No! Val, what’s this all about?” Teresa demanded.

“You’re positive?”

“YES!”

The sheriff stared at her for a moment. “Would you be willing to testify before a judge to what you just told me?”

“Well, yes,” she replied in confusion. “But why?”

Val looked around, then sighed. “Because somebody said they saw Johnny Madrid rob a bank in May of 1873. There was a warrant out for his arrest.”

“You mean you’ve been looking for Teresa all this time so you could clear my brother’s name?” Scott asked.

Val nodded.

“Val, we appreciate it, believe me. And I’m sure Johnny would appreciate it, too,” Murdoch said in disbelief. “But you’ve spent almost a year on the road trying to find Teresa. Why didn’t you just ask us? We could have told you it was impossible for him to rob a bank.”

“Could you?” Val challenged. “When was the last time you saw him?”

A look of confusion crossed Murdoch’s face, to be replaced by understanding. “It was in April of ’73.”

Val nodded. “You couldn’t testify to nothin’, not without records ta back it up.”

“Well, there would be records,” Scott offered.

“That place burned to the ground in October, one month after Johnny left.” He turned toward Teresa. “Eighteen men died in that blaze. You should know that if it wasn’t for you, Johnny would have died in there, too.”

Teresa looked back at him, stunned.

Val nodded at her. “So will you go with me to Los Angeles to testify about what you just told me?”

“Los Angeles?” Teresa asked in disbelief. She looked around at the Lancers. “That’s a long way. Maybe I could just swear out a deposition.”

“You’re not willing to help Johnny?” Val demanded harshly.

“Of course I am, but a deposition should do it.”

“Maybe, but they’ll always want more information. It could go back and forth for months.”

“Val, at this point, what does it really matter how long it takes to clear Johnny’s name?” Scott asked sadly.

“It MATTERS because I don’t want my friend rotting in that prison one day longer than neccesary!

“Are you telling me my son is alive?” Murdoch shouted as he sprang to his feet.

Val nodded.

Scott stared at the lawman as if in a trance. Johnny was alive. He couldn’t quite grasp it. JOHNNY WAS ALIVE!

 “I’ll go with you!” Teresa reassured Val. “Just let me go into town and grab some clothes!”

Murdoch slowly sat back down, his head spinning. “Why? Why did be have to pretend he was dead? What happened?”

Val sighed. “I got a wanted poster for Johnny Madrid, wanted for bank robbery, from down in Los Angeles. We decided to go take care of it. When Johnny and I left for L.A., we thought it would be a quick trip. We thought that we’d clear up the obvious case of mistaken identity and be home in a few weeks. But that didn’t happen. When we got there, Johnny was immediately arrested, and the Marshall there pushed the judge into going to trial immediately.”

“There were four witnesses that were in the building at the time. Every single one of them identified Johnny as the man they saw robbing the bank. Two of the men said that they had actually seen Johnny down on the border years ago, and that’s how they had a name to put on those wanted posters. Whoever robbed that bank musta looked enough like Johnny to make those men think that’s who it was, and to fool the other witnesses.”

“I sent a telegram to that hospital, asking for something in writing to back up Johnny’s story. That’s when I found out that it had burned, along with all the records. I couldn’t even find out any of the names of people who had worked there. Johnny didn’t know the names of anybody except Teresa and Doctor Martin. I tried to track down Martin, and learned he had been killed.” Val looked at Teresa. “Sorry, ma’am.”

At Teresa’s weak nod, Val continued. “Then I tried to find you, Teresa. Johnny had a feeling you might have gotten married to Doctor Martin, and I found out later that you had, but that was all I could find out. I managed to verify your marriage license in San Francisco, and your husband’s death certificate, but nothing else. You just disappeared. That was Johnny’s last hope.”

“Why didn’t you contact us?” Murdoch demanded.

“For what?” Val snapped. “You couldn’t swear to anything. You couldn’t swear he couldn’t walk at the time of the robbery. You couldn’t even swear he was in that hospital. For all you knew, he could have done it.”

“Johnny wouldn’t rob a bank!” Murdoch shouted.

“All I’m sayin’ is that you couldn’t swear to anything in court. They would have torn you apart. Plus they would have asked you WHY you hadn’t seen Johnny for so long, and it would of come out what you had accused him of. Johnny would a been whole lot worse off than he already was.”

Val shook his head. “The trial was fast. Johnny really couldn’t prove he hadn’t done it. Both he and I testified, but it wasn’t enough; not with those witnesses against him. And not with the name Johnny Madrid. He was sentenced to 30 years to life at San Quentin.”

Teresa sobbed as Murdoch buried his head in his hands. “We have to get him out,” the rancher said.

Val nodded. “That’s what I’ve been tryin’ to do. I even took a few side trips down along the border to see if I could track down the real robber. Even with the offer of a pretty good reward, no one admitted to ever seeing a man fitting that description. If they HAD seen someone like that, it was Johnny that they’d seen. I finally gave up on that plan; I didn’t want to give anybody the idea that Johnny Madrid was still alive. He’d been able to pretty much leave that life behind in Taylorsville; nobody seemed to have heard of him there, or they didn’t care. I didn’t want to start the whole thing back up if I did manage to get him out.”

“I tell ya, I was just about at the end of my rope when I got your telegram. I was just plum outta ideas. Hell, I’d even hired the Pinkertons and they couldn’t even find anybody who had worked at that place, including Teresa.”

“You had the Pinkertons try to find me?” Teresa asked, startled.

Val nodded. “But they didn’t have much luck. Said you’d disappeared without a trace. Course, to be fair, they did suggest that they continue their hunt back east. I assume that’s where you went to school.”

At Teresa’s nod, Val sighed. “I’d better send a letter to them before we leave, calling off the search. No sense wastin’ any more money.”

Murdoch looked at Val seriously. “You write the letter while you’re here, and I’ll mail it. How much do you owe them, if I might ask?”

Val shrugged. “I had some money saved up. It wasn’t doin’ nothing. I owe that and more to Johnny.”

“It seems that he owes you, too. Not many people would spend as long as you have on the road, even for a friend. I’ll pay the Pinkerton’s bill. It’s the least I can do.”

“Not neccesary,” Val argued.

“Yes, Val, it is. I don’t want to hear anything more about it.” He smiled wryly. “Besides, as much as I’ve used their services, I might get a discount.”

“Well, hopefully we won’t need ‘em any more. Maybe things are startin’ to look up. Now that Teresa is willing ta testify, we might have a chance of reversing Johnny’s sentence, specially since she’s a doctor.”

“What do you mean, MIGHT have a chance?” Scott asked. “There shouldn’t be any doubt with Teresa’s testimony.”

Val shrugged. “It depends on how deep they want to dig,” Val explained. “A member of his family, someone who had feelings toward him at one time…they might not believe her.”

Teresa hung her head as Scott and Murdoch tried to think clearly when the only thought that their brains would focus on was that Johnny was still alive.

“So why did he have you tell everyone that he was dead?” Scott finally asked again.

“Jimmy,” the lawman replied. “He didn’t want Jimmy worryin’ about him and maybe getting teased by the other kids ‘cause his daddy was in prison. If he was dead, he knew Jimmy would mourn, but then he would get on with his life. He didn’t want that mourning to go on for years if Johnny couldn’t get out. He didn’t want to ruin his kid’s life.”

“And he didn’t want us to know,” Murdoch sighed.

“No, he didn’t. But not for the reason you’re thinking. He didn’t want any of you to have to worry about him bein’ locked up, knowin’ you couldn’t do anything about it. He knew you’d want to come visit, and he didn’t want that. He said he didn’t want to mess up any more lives. He thought it would be simpler if everybody thought he was dead. He figured he would be soon, anyway, if he had to stay in that prison.”

“What are we going to tell Jimmy?” Scott asked.

“Nothing!” Val ordered. “If and when we get Johnny out, he can handle it. And if we can’t get him out, Johnny will still be dead to Jimmy. That boy doesn’t need to mourn twice.”

“Whose idea was it to bring Jimmy here?” Scott asked quietly.

Val snorted. “Whose do you think? Johnny knows you’ll look after his son and raise him right. He said the two of you would make sure he stayed on the straight and narrow and wouldn’t grow up to be like him.”

“I hope to God Jimmy grows up to be just like his father,” Murdoch stated. “Val, Scott and I are going with you.”

“No!” Val responded. “You can’t do any good there, and he still doesn’t want to see you,”

“He was willing to let us raise his son!” Murdoch argued.

“Yep. When he wasn’t around.”

“He still can’t forgive us, can he?” Scott said sadly.

“It ain’t a matter of forgiving. Part of it is that he just doesn’t want to be hurt again, and as much hurt as that boy’s had in his life, I don’t blame him.”

“And the other part?” Murdoch asked.

Val shrugged. “Ain’t my place to say. But you ain’t going.”

“Val’s right,” Scott said quietly.

“Are you insane?” Murdoch bellowed. “I’m not going to let him disappear again.”

“He won’t,” Scott replied calmly.

“And HOW do you know that?”

“Jimmy,” Scott said quietly. “If Johnny gets out, he’s not going to leave his son.”

Murdoch calmed down. “We can’t just sit here doing nothing!”

“We won’t. Do you remember last year when George Stoneman became governor of California?”

“Yes, so?”

“We served together for a very short time in the cavalry. More than that, I saved his life. I think he would be willing to listen to what I have to say about my brother.”

“And you couldn’t have mentioned the small fact that you knew him when I was fighting that legislation last year?” Murdoch asked sarcastically.

Scott shrugged. “I don’t believe in forcing someone to do what I want just because I did them a favor a long time ago, but for Johnny, I think I’ll make an exception.” He looked at Teresa. “Can you go with me to see Judge Baker tomorrow? I’ll make sure our lawyer is there and you can give your deposition so I can take it with me.”

Teresa nodded. “Of course. Just let me know what time.”

Scott nodded. “As soon as I have that document, I’m going to leave for Sacramento. Val, I really think I can get Governor Stoneman to release Johnny. Are you still going to go to Los Angeles?”

Val nodded. “Might as well. The way my lucks been running, the governor will be in Africa or somethin’. We need to have everything covered. San Quentin is a tough prison and we need to get Johnny out as soon as possible. Teresa, as soon as you’re done with that deposition, we need ta leave.”

He looked over at Murdoch. “I’d appreciate it if you’d have one of your men drive us to the train station. I’m gonna have to leave my horse here.”

When Murdoch nodded, Val looked back at Teresa. “The train goes all the way into Los Angeles, then we’ll rent a buggy once we’re there.”

“That’s fine. If need be, we can ride.”

Murdoch interrupted. “Val, I’m going to instruct my bank to wire you money if you request it. If you need it for any reason, go ahead and use it. I don’t want you to have to wait until they contact me to send it to you.”

Val studied the rancher for a moment, then nodded. “Much obliged.” He hesitated for a moment. “For what it’s worth, I’m gonna do my best to get Johnny to come back here and stay here. Even if he won’t admit it, it’s his home, and he belongs here.”

Murdoch nodded. “Thank you, Val.” He looked at each of them in turn. “You all travel safe. I’ll be here if you need anything. Now bring him home. Please. Bring my son home.”

*****

Scott realized his confidence in getting his brother released had been misplaced. It seemed as if nothing about this was going to be easy, and if he thought that Val would be successful, he’d jump back on that train and head home.

When he first arrived in Sacramento, he thought it would be simple to request an appointment with Governor Stoneman. He had soon learned differently. The governor wasn’t even IN Sacramento, although Val had been wrong. He wasn’t in Africa, either. He had taken a trip to San Francisco to meet with some shipping companies, and wasn’t due back for two weeks.

Scott thought seriously about heading to San Francisco and trying to meet with him there, but common sense had ultimately prevailed. He had checked into one of the better hotels and had just waited.

Normally, if he had been in Sacramento with nothing to do, he would have been attending plays and operas, and maybe some high class gambling establishments. This time, he just couldn’t. Not when he thought of his brother in that prison, possibly fighting for his life. Even though Scott knew it really didn’t make any difference if he enjoyed himself, for some reason it felt like he was betraying Johnny if he had fun.

So, Scott sat around doing nothing. He would take a walk each day and find some small, out of the way place to eat. Actually, some of them had food that was quite good, not that he tasted much of it. His mind was too focused on Johnny, and how he was faring in that prison.

After eating, he would continue on to the Capital Building to see if Governor Stoneman had returned yet. Each day the Governor’s secretary would shake his head and tell Scott that he was wasting his time. He said that even when Governor Stoneman returned, he had meetings to attend and appointments to keep. He told Scott that about the earliest he could expect to see the governor was in a month and a half to two months.

There was no way he was going to wait even a week. His brother had waited long enough to get out of that place, and Johnny was going to be a free man even if Scott had to travel clear to Washington to talk to the President.

He knew Val had done everything he could to find Teresa and free Johnny, but Scott couldn’t help but be angry with the sheriff for not coming to Lancer first. If he had, it was possible Johnny would be home by now.

*****

Val looked at the woman sitting across from him, and watched as she stirred her food. She hadn’t eaten a bite, but the sheriff could sympathize; he hadn’t either. What he could really use was a stiff belt of whiskey, but he figured that was a bad idea, especially with Teresa along. He doubted if he could stop at one, and getting falling down drunk, though tempting, wouldn’t solve anything.

There was a time, not so long ago, that he had hated Teresa. Hell, he had hated all of the Lancers for what they had done to his best friend. The only friend he’d ever really had.

He and Johnny had ridden together for a while when Johnny was still Madrid. They had saved each other’s life, more than once, but when Val had gotten an offer to be sheriff of a small town below Los Angeles, he had jumped at it. Johnny had been mad, and their parting hadn’t been very friendly. Val figured one way or another, he’d never see the young gunfighter again.

A year later, he had received a job offer from the Cattlemen’s Association in Green River, asking him if he was interested in a job as sheriff. He wasn’t. That is until he had read the short, handwritten note accompanying the letter. He had been mesmerized by his friend’s signature, and promptly accepted the offer.

He had been amazed at the difference in Johnny, and every month, the difference was more obvious. Until. Until Teresa had managed to destroy his friend’s life. Val had stayed in Green River, simply because he had nowhere else to go. He refused to even talk to the Lancers, but he had stayed. Even after Johnny had come back that last time and then had to go to that hospital, Val had stayed, hating the Lancers and hating his job.

Two years after Johnny left for the last time, Val had received another letter. In it, Johnny said he had a small horse ranch in Taylorsville, was married, and his wife was expecting their first child. As soon as he read it, he threw his badge on the desk and walked out of the office without a backward glance. One week later, Val was helping Johnny raise a newborn baby.

Val had arrived at Johnny’s ranch and found a thoroughly despondent Johnny, a hungry baby, and a huge mess. Johnny had just buried his wife the day before and the doctor was looking for a wet nurse without much success. Johnny was trying to feed the baby by soaking a rag in cow’s milk, a tedious and difficult chore. There were dirty dishes, diapers and rags strewn around the cabin, and the smell was pretty rank.

Val stood in the doorway for a minute, taking in the sight of Johnny Madrid changing a diaper, before stepping in and getting to work. Two hours later, the house was in somewhat normal shape, the baby was fed, a row of clean diapers hung on the line outside, and Johnny was in an exhausted sleep with his son cradled in his arms.

The doctor had come out to check on Jimmy and told them there were no wet nurses to be found. It was a small town and there weren’t even any women available to help with the baby more than occasionally; they were all busy raising their own children and caring for their own houses. He encouraged Johnny to put the boy up for adoption; there were several couples that were willing to take him, but Johnny refused to even consider the idea.

The next couple of months were more or less a blur. The baby was sick most of the time and neither man slept much. The doctor had finally managed to get a glass bottle that he said should be boiled each time it was used, and after they had started using that, Jimmy has been fine. They had fed the infant on watered down cow’s milk with a little sugar in it, and had finally managed to fashion a somewhat usable nipple out of twisted muslin.

By the time Jimmy was a year old, things had pretty much calmed down. Jimmy was eating solid food and thriving. Johnny had fashioned a slated wooden cage next to the corrals where Jimmy could play while his father worked the horses, but Jimmy spent most of the time watching his father work instead of playing with his toys.

When Jimmy was five, Val had been offered the sheriff’s job in Taylorsville, with a house that came along with the job. Val moved out, but still spent most of his free time for the next five years at the ranch. Johnny and Jimmy were the only family he had, and he wasn’t about to lose them.

When the wanted poster hit Val’s desk, he had almost just ripped it up, but decided that really wouldn’t solve the problem. Instead he had talked to Johnny and the two of them decided to meet the issue head on. Johnny told his son that he and Val were leaving to look at some horses, and Jimmy had to stay home because of school. They sent Jimmy to stay with Ben Wilson, figuring the boy would keep busy helping at the stable, and the two of them headed for Los Angeles.

A month later, Val returned home without his friend, and had to tell Jimmy that his father was dead.

With an oath, Val threw down his napkin and stood up. He dropped a few coins on the table and strode out the door, Teresa following miserably in his wake. He finally came to a stop across the street in a small park, and Teresa slid onto a bench next to where he was leaning against a tree.

“I’m sorry” she whispered. “I…I didn’t know what to do.” She dropped her head. “I should have lied.”

Val took a deep breath and looked at the devastated woman. “Weren’t your fault. That old judge would a done anything to keep Johnny in that prison. Even if you had lied, he would have found something else. And if you would have lied, he would have checked it out, then you would have been behind bars, as well as Johnny.” He shook his head. “No, we’re just gonna have to hope Scott convinced the governor to let him loose.”

He stepped over to stand in front of the young woman huddled on the bench. “Don’t worry, that brother of yours is as stubborn as his old man. Scott will make sure Johnny’s released, don’t you worry about that, none.”

“Thank you, Val, for trying to make me feel better, even though you hate me.”

Val shrugged. “I did. But you’ve done everything you can to make it right, and right now Johnny wouldn’t even be alive if you hadn’t helped him in that hospital. It don’t make it exactly even, but it helps.”

“Johnny wouldn’t have BEEN in that hospital if it weren’t for me,” Teresa said miserably.

“Probably not, but things have a way of happening to Johnny. Who knows? He mighta wound up in there anyway.”

“Thanks, Val.”

The sheriff nodded. “Let’s go back to the hotel and send a message to Scott. See if he’s doing any better.”

*****

Val stood at the hotel counter writing out a message. He finally finished and handed it to the clerk, who looked at it, then back at Val. “Are you Mr Crawford?”

When the sheriff nodded, the clerk reached behind him and pulled out a telegram from a cubicle. “This came for you a few minutes ago. We hadn’t had time to deliver it to you.”

Val grabbed the piece of paper, then closed his eyes.

“What’s wrong?” Teresa demanded.

Val raised his head and looked at the worried woman. “It’s over,” he said simply

“What’s over?” Teresa asked fearfully.

Val scowled at her for a moment, before breaking into a smile. “He’s out. Scott’s picking him up tomorrow’”

Teresa shrieked with joy and hugged the sheriff, who froze until the woman suddenly let go.

“Sorry, Val,” Teresa blushed. “I’m just so happy!”

“That’s okay, Teresa. Guess we’re both a mite happy. I didn’t think Scott was gonna be able to pull it off. Guess I owe him an apology.”

*****

Scott waited nervously outside of the prison. He was sitting on a small log bench, with the remains of dozens of cigars and cigarettes scattered nearby, attesting to the many people who had waited for loved ones. There was even a rough path worn in the dirt around the bench showing where people had paced. He hadn’t started pacing yet, but it was just a matter of time.

He was worried about how Johnny would greet him. He figured his brother would either give him the silent treatment or punch him in the jaw. That is, if Johnny was even well enough to do either. Scott was hoping for the punch; at least that meant his brother was still strong. He had been worrying about Johnny ever since he had found out he was in prison, and not any prison but the notorious San Quentin.

Scott shivered. He had heard horror stories about this place, and was worried about his brother’s mental state as well as his physical one. But as long as his brother was alive, they would get through it. After thinking Johnny was dead and mourning him for months, Scott was getting another chance. A chance he had no intention of messing up.

At least his brother was still alive. His imagination had nearly driven him crazy while he had been waiting for Governor Stoneman to return. He had had visions of going to the prison with release papers and being told that his brother had died. Well, he wasn’t dead. Now he just had to convince his stubborn brother that he belonged at Lancer. He dug inside his pocket for his watch for the tenth time. It seemed as if he had been waiting here forever.

The Governor had finally arrived back in the state capital two days ago. Scott had been there within hours of his return, haunting the waiting room outside the man’s office and arguing for an opportunity to see Stoneman. He had been turned down repeatedly by the secretary, and had just been threatened with having a policeman called if he didn’t leave, when the Governor had poked his head out of his office to see what all the commotion was about.

Scott had turned and automatically saluted. “Governor Stoneman, I’m Scott Lancer.”

The man had squinted at him for a second, then strode over, sticking out his hand. “Lieutenant Lancer!”

“Actually, Sir, I’m a civilian now,” Scott corrected.

“So am I,” the Governor said in a conspiring tone, “We just won’t tell anyone.”

The two men had visited for a few seconds when the Governor had turned toward his secretary. “Mr Lancer and I are going out to eat. We’ll be back later.”

“But Sir, the Senator has an appointment….”

“Have him wait!” snapped Governor Stoneman as he turned and walked briskly out of the office.

Scott had waited until they were seated at the restaurant before broaching the subject of Johnny. The Governor had listened while Scott told him about the case of mistaken identity, and then, at Governor Stoneman’s request, had given him a brief history of the Lancer family. Scott had told the man that he had a deposition stating his brother had been in a hospital, unable to walk at the time of the robbery, but the Governor hadn’t seemed interested.

 When they were done eating, they both stood, and Stoneman had shaken Scott’s hand. “Any time you are in the area, be sure to stop by, and if you ever need anything, please contact me.”

Scott, desperate, had asked the man if he wanted to see the deposition.

Stoneman had looked Scott in the eye. “Can you give me your word that your brother is innocent?”

“Yes, Sir!” Scott said without hesitation.

The Governor had stared at him for several moments, then nodded. “I’ll sign a pardon for him this afternoon, and have it wired to the prison immediately. I’m sure he would rather be found not guilty, but I have no authority to overturn a conviction, and besides, it takes forever.”

 He studied Scott. “I assume you want to get him out as soon as possible.”

“Most definitely, Sir.”

The Governor nodded. “You’ll want to come back later today, and I’ll leave two hard copies with my secretary for you to take with you when you pick up your brother. If you have any problems, send me a wire.”

“Thank you, Sir. I am forever in your debt.”

“As I am in yours. Good day, Lieutenant Lancer.”

Scott had joyously sent a telegram to both Murdoch and Val, letting them know that he was on his way to get his brother out. After they had been sent, he had gone to the train station to buy a ticket to San Francisco. He found out that he had just missed the evening train, so he was forced to wait for the morning run.

While he was waiting, he decided he’d better buy Johnny something to wear. He didn’t think his brother would appreciate having to use his prison garb any longer than neccesary, but he knew how picky his brother was about his clothes. He doubted he’d find anything Johnny’s style here in San Francisco,, but he would do his best. Johnny could pick out some clothes he liked better when he had a chance.

Four hours later, he had purchased a pair of dark brown pants that he thought his brother wouldn’t hate too much, and two shirts. One was a dark red, and the other a medium blue. At least they didn’t have ruffles, Scott thought with a grin. He also purchased a jacket, a new Stetson, some socks and underwear. The cowboy boots were his last purchase, and burdened down with packages, he made his way back to the train station.

When he finally settled into his seat on the train, he was exhausted. He had decided to get some rest during the short trip to San Francisco, but sleep was elusive as he once more went over his plan. He had decided to hire a buggy for the trip from San Francisco to San Rafael, the closest city to the prison. The train actually went all the way in to San Rafael, but he still had to pick his brother up at the prison, and buggies were not always available in the smaller cities. He didn’t want to take any chances. He had dismissed the idea of riding horseback, simply because he didn’t know what shape Johnny would be in. He might not be in any condition to ride.

When he arrived in San Francisco it was still morning. He immediately left the train and flagged down a cab that took him to the nearest livery stable. It wasn’t even noon when he was in the buggy headed for San Rafael.

When he finally arrived at his destination, he was pleasantly surprised to find a small but fairly nice hotel. He immediately booked the last room available, then went to find something to eat. It was too late in the evening to go out to the prison, so after supper he went back up to his room and fell asleep, too tired to even remove his clothes. After a surprisingly peaceful night, he got up early, ate a quick breakfast and ordered a hot bath to be sent in as soon as he and Johnny got back. With that taken care of, he headed for the prison.

Now Scott was waiting impatiently for Johnny to be released. He had delivered one of the hard copies of the pardon this morning and had been told it would take several hours to do the paperwork and finalize the release. The guard hadn’t seemed very happy about it, and Scott was worried for his brother. It was now late afternoon and he hadn’t seen any activity, plus it was getting colder.

Scott took to rubbing his hands together and stomping his feet, at the same time berating himself for not bringing a coat, especially for Johnny. It had been so warm when he started out this morning, he hadn’t even thought about it.

His musings were interrupted when the big gate at the front of the prison creaked open. A few seconds later a man appeared, looking uncertain, and Scott took off at a run. He stopped a few feet from his brother and just stared. Johnny was thinner than he could ever remembered him being, and he looked…frail. A word that Scott had never associated with his brother before now. Johnny swayed slightly, then looked up and saw Scott.

A look of anger flashed across his face. “What are you doin’ here?” he asked. Scott supposed his brother had wanted the voice to sound angry, but the words were almost whispered, followed by a harsh cough.

“I came to get you out, brother.”

Johnny looked at Scott for a minute, then sighed. “I guess Val couldn’t keep his big mouth shut,” Johnny complained, as he swayed again.

Scott watched his brother carefully, then took another step toward him. “If he hadn’t told us, you’d still be inside.”

“Might be worth it,” Johnny answered sarcastically.

“It can be arranged,” Scott quipped.

“Maybe later,” Johnny whispered. “I don’t feel so good.”

Scott stepped forward and grabbed his brother just before he fell

“Easy now, I’ve got you,” Scott reassured his brother as he helped him toward the buggy. He had noticed the hiss of pain when he had grabbed him and he figured that at the very least Johnny had some broken ribs. His brother tried to insist on getting into the buggy by himself, but Scott managed to lend a subtle hand when needed.

Cursing himself again for not thinking to bring jackets, Scott jumped into the buggy and slapped the reins down on the back of the horse. Johnny was sitting up fairly straight, but he was shivering from the cold. His eyes were closed and his complexion pale.

“How’s Jimmy?” Johnny asked without opening his eyes.

“He’s fine.”

Johnny nodded, then dropped his head, almost seeming to fall asleep, except for his heavy breathing.

Scott managed to keep one eye on his brother and still drive the buggy, grateful that it wasn’t a long trip. By the time they pulled up to the hotel, both men were glad the ride was over. After the hostler had taken the horse, Scott guided Johnny to a side staircase, not wanting to go through the main lobby.

Johnny looked with trepidation at the long flight of stairs. “You couldn’t find something on the ground floor?” he complained, then slowly began to climb. He stopped partway up, wracked with coughs.

Scott followed anxiously while his brother tackled the stairs, knowing any attempts to help him would be rebuffed. However when Johnny hesitated and couldn’t seem to stop coughing, Scott stepped up and put his arm lightly around his brother’s shoulder. Johnny tolerated it for a few seconds, but as soon as the coughing stopped, he twisted away and continued up the stairs.

When they reached the top, they stepped into a short hallway. Scott led the way to the room, fumbled with the key, then swung the door open. Johnny stumbled inside and sank into the chair next to the window.

“I’ll be right back. I’m going to send for a doctor,” Scott said.

“No,” Johnny argued.

“Look, Johnny, I know you’re hurt. There’s no sense trying to hide it.”

“I’m not hiding anything. I don’t need a doctor.”

“I saw you holding your ribs earlier,” Scott countered. “And I don’t like that cough.”

Johnny shrugged. “This cough’s nothin’ new. Had it for a while. The doc in the prison said it was just ‘cause of the dampness in there. Said it would go away when I got out. And I’m just stove up a little. They beat me up some as a sort of a goin’ away present. Nothing’s broken, I’m just good and sore.

“You don’t know nothing’s broken.”

Johnny looked at Scott and snorted softly. “I’ve been beaten up enough to know when I need to see the doc. I’m fine. If this cough doesn’t go away in a few days, then I’ll think about havin’ it looked at.”

“You look like hell.”

Johnny glared at Scott. “Yeah, you think? Maybe that’s cause I’ve been in prison.”

Scott’s head dropped. “I’m sorry,” he said softly.

Johnny shrugged. “Ain’t your fault.” He hesitated a moment. “Where’s Val?”

A surge of jealousy shot through Scott, but he managed to keep his voice calm. “He went down to Los Angeles with Teresa to try and reverse your sentence.”

“He found Teresa?” Johnny asked, coughing.

Scott nodded.

A slight grin formed on Johnny’s face. “I didn’t think he’d be able to do it, but I know he gets like a hound dog on the trail when he’s after somebody. I knew I could count on him.”

“He’s a good friend,” Scott said quietly.

“He’s more than a friend, Scott. He and Jimmy are my family.”

The two men stared at each other for a long moment. Scott rubbed his hand over his face in frustration.

“Look, Johnny…”

Scott was interrupted by a knock. It added to his worry when Johnny just turned and stared out the window as Scott opened the door.

“Your bath, Sir.”

Scott motioned the men into the room, where they efficiently set up the tub by the small fireplace and filled it with hot water, then exited as quickly as they came.

“I thought you might like a hot bath,” Scott suggested to his brother’s back. “The hot water lines are down temporarily, so this is the best they could do.”

After several moments Johnny turned and stared at the tub, then glanced at his brother.

“It might help get rid of some of that soreness,” Scott said hopefully. “I can go downstairs while you bathe if you like.”

With a sigh, Johnny struggled to his feet and approached the tub. “No need ta leave,” he reassured his brother as a fit of coughing overtook him, and he held his arms tightly around him, as if to support his ribs. The coughing died down in a few seconds, and Johnny stood, getting the strength to get in the tub.

As Johnny dropped his shirt and then his pants, Scott tried to look somewhere else, but his brother’s emaciated and bruised body held his gaze, and he felt a lump forming in his throat. He finally turned away and picked up the new clothes he had purchased for Johnny. Unwrapping them, he laid them out on the bed.

Johnny sank into the hot water with a sigh and closed his eyes.

“Would you like me to get a barber up here?” Scott asked quite a while later, after Johnny sat up and began to wash.

Johnny hesitated several moments, and then nodded. “Guess I need a shave and a haircut pretty bad.”

“Well, you definitely need a shave, but your hair isn’t much worse than usual,” Scott teased. To his dismay, Johnny merely shrugged.

“I’ll go tell the front desk. I’ll be back in a minute,” Scott informed him.

“No doctor, Scott!” Johnny reminded him.

Scott slammed the door on the way out.

By the time Scott returned with the barber, Johnny was out of the tub and he had put on the brown pants. Scott frowned. He should have taken into account just where Johnny had been for the last year or so. Even though they were the size Johnny used to wear, after his stay in prison, they were obviously way too big.

While the barber was busy with Johnny, Scott dragged the tub out into the hall and threw the prison clothes Johnny had worn into the trash, then straightened up the room. By the time he was done, Johnny looked somewhat normal. He knew from his own experience that the sunken cheeks and deep hollows under his brother’s eyes would take time to fill in. Scott paid the barber, then watched as his brother finished dressing.

There was another knock on the door and a room service attendant wheeled in a cart.

“I thought you might want to eat in tonight,” Scott stated.

Johnny nodded. “I’m a little tired.”

Scott waited until the servant left, then pushed the cart over to where Johnny was sitting and took off the lids that were on the plates.

Johnny stared at the steaks for a second, savoring the delicious smell. He had dreamed about food like this for months. Everything looked good, even the green beans. He glanced up as Scott pulled up a chair and sat down, then he dug in.

About ten bites in, he stopped abruptly and put his fork down. He sat there for a second with sweat dripping off of his brow. Scott glanced up just in time to see his brother struggle to his feet and stagger toward the water closet. He jumped up to follow and arrived just in time to have the door slammed in his face.

Scott stood outside the door, listening as Johnny heaved his insides out, in between bouts of coughing. After a few minutes, Scott dejectedly turned around and sat down. The longer he sat, the angrier he became with himself. He should have known Johnny couldn’t eat anything that rich. He had botched this whole thing from the start. No wonder his brother hated him. First the missing jacket, then the stairs and the too big clothes, and finally the rich food.

Scott buried his head in his hands as he berated himself unmercifully. Couldn’t he do ANYTHING right? He grabbed the cart with the intention of flipping it over, but at the last second, years of training stopped him. Instead he grabbed it and pulled it to the doorway. Yanking the door open, he sent the cart careening down the hall with a violent shove, then slammed the door.

He stood there, trying to get himself under control and mostly failing. A slight sound caught his attention, and he whirled around to see Johnny leaning against the wall just outside of the water closet. Scott immediately went over and offered his hand to steady his obviously shaky brother.

Johnny brushed him aside, then turned and shuffled toward the bed, where he more or less collapsed.

Scott watched him for several minutes, trying to make up his mind. He knew Johnny needed to see the doctor. He was obviously in pain, and the coughing had Scott very worried. He had seen men die during the war from lesser symptoms than his brother had. But he also knew Johnny didn’t trust most doctors, and would be livid if Scott brought one in without his permission.

Their relationship was on shaky enough ground as it was. Johnny, while not exactly chatty, was at least talking to him. He knew that if he tried to force Johnny to get medical help, his brother might not forgive him.

Maybe the doctor in that prison was right. Maybe the cough would go away with some fresh air and rest, and maybe Johnny’s ribs weren’t broken. Maybe his brother would be just fine. Maybe.

*****

Johnny slept late the next morning. So late that Scott was beginning to worry they were going to miss the afternoon train. That is, if they were even leaving today. He had decided last night that if Johnny didn’t seem better this morning, Scott was going to get a doctor to come in, even if his brother became angry with him. He wasn’t going to take a chance on losing his brother when he had finally gotten him back.

 Scott was hoping that Johnny wasn’t as sick as he had seemed yesterday, and his brother could wait until he got home and then see Sam. He knew that Johnny trusted Doctor Jenkins, and would be more inclined to follow his advice than a strange doctor’s. Hopefully, Sam would say that all his brother needed was some rest, and Johnny could get that at Lancer. He didn’t think the train ride would tire him out too badly; the trip was short and the train was comfortable. Scott could even rent a private sleeping car if neccesary and if he felt Johnny needed to lie down.

He figured that he probably needed a sleeping car as badly as his brother. Scott had slept poorly for at least the last week. A combination of worry and excitement had guaranteed that his mind wouldn’t relax long enough to let him get much rest. Last night he had been worried about his brother, and yesterday’s fiasco had weighed heavily on his mind. He was also disappointed that Johnny still apparently hadn’t forgiven him. He had hoped time and distance had softened the hate his brother felt, but that didn’t appear to be the case.

Scott was just debating on whether to run downstairs and order some breakfast to be delivered when Johnny finally stirred. He slowly woke up, then started to stretch before wincing and changing his mind. Scott was again reminded of how fragile his brother looked.

“Good morning brother,” Scott greeted him cheerfully.

“Mornin’,” Johnny replied flatly as he swung his feet over and sat on the edge of the bed.

“How are you feeling?” Scott asked anxiously.

Johnny shot a quick look at him. “Just fine and dandy.”

Scott looked at him dubiously for a moment, wondering if he was telling the truth, then nodded. “Do you want me to send out for some food?”

Johnny shook his head. “Not neccesary.”

“If you feel well enough I thought we could head home today.”

Johnny’s head shot up and he stared at Scott. “And just where would home be?” he asked softly.

Scott held his gaze. “Lancer.”

Johnny snorted. “MY home is in Arizona, and that’s where I aim to go.”

“Johnny…”

“Don’t Scott. We already had this conversation a long time ago, remember?”

“I was hoping you had changed your mind.”

“Nope. I plan on going back to my own ranch.”

“Really? Scott asked innocently. “You want to go straight there?”

“Yeah,” Johnny responded belligerently.

“I guess you want us to keep Jimmy, then,” said Scott nonchalantly.

Johnny sprang up toward Scott, intending to grab him, but his body betrayed him and he stumbled. He would have fallen, but his brother deftly grabbed him, then eased him back on the edge of the bed.

“I ain’t goin’ to Lancer,” Johnny repeated after coughing a few times. “And you’re sure not keepin’ my son. Val can pick Jimmy up and bring him back to Taylorsville with him.”

“Oh, and you just ASSUME that Val doesn’t have anything better to do, I suppose.”

Johnny shrugged. “He’s the sheriff there. He has to come back.”

Even though Scott was angry, he noticed that the movement didn’t seem to cause his brother pain like it had the day before. “Do you really think they’ll want him back when he’s been gone for close to a year?”

“What do you mean, he’s been gone?”

“HE’S BEEN ON THE TRAIL, LOOKING FOR TERESA, AND TRYING TO SAVE YOUR ASS!”

“He didn’t have to,” Johnny sulked.

“He did it because he is a friend, and now you want to take advantage of him.”

“I’m not taking advantage of nobody.”

“OH?” Then what do you call it? Unwillingly or not, YOU left Jimmy. It is YOUR responsibility to explain to him what happened, not Val’s. And how do you think Jimmy is going to feel when he finds out you were this close to him and couldn’t be bothered to go get him yourself? Instead you went straight back to Arizona to wait for someone to ‘deliver’ him?”

“He’ll understand.”

“You really think so?”

“Yeah, I do,” Johnny insisted.

“Oh, I’m sure he’ll say he does, anyway,” Scott countered.

Johnny glared at Scott before hanging his head. “I don’t want to go back there.”

“WHY NOT?”

Johnny shrugged again, but before he could say anything, Scott continued. “And don’t you DARE say that you don’t belong there. You belong there as much as I do, and as much as Murdoch. You are a third owner, remember?”

“If you say so.”

“I say so, and so does Murdoch. Like we told you before, we never filed that paper that you signed. In fact, Murdoch burned it.”

“After he found out Teresa had lied, I’m sure.”

Scott hung his head. “We should never have believed her. I’m so sorry.”

Johnny shrugged. “I’m happy in Taylorsville. Besides, I can work with horses there instead of digging post holes for the rest of my life, and I can get a beer after work without somebody tearin’ my head off.”

“You can do that at Lancer.”

Johnny snorted. “Ain’t likely.”

“Do you have any idea what YOUR father did after we found out that you had escaped from that hospital?”

Johnny shook his head.

“He tried so hard to convince himself that you were coming home that he added onto the barn. Twenty new stalls, three of them big enough for broodmares. He also fenced and cross fenced that area north of the house, the one you kept saying you wanted to use to breed horses. He also put up ANOTHER thirty stall barn by those pastures, with more foaling stalls, and ran water to it. AND, I can tell you right now he didn’t do it for his beloved cattle. Murdoch Lancer, our penny pinching father, has maintained that empty barn and those useless pastures for TWELVE YEARS waiting and praying for you to come home!”

Scott ran his hands through his hair in frustration. “Johnny, Murdoch and I made a huge mistake, and we’ve been paying for it for a long time. Can’t you at least meet us halfway?”

Johnny just sat there, head down.

Scott sighed. “What do you want me to do? Do you want me to get on my knees and beg? Because I will if it will bring my brother back.”

Scott made a move, and Johnny, thinking Scott was going on his knees, lurched to his feet and grabbed him. “STOP IT! It’s not you, it’s me! Can’t you understand that? IT’S ME!” Johnny shouted as he started coughing again.

Scott guided his brother to the chair and stayed there until the coughing subsided.

“Johnny, whatever you think it is that’s keeping you away, we can work it out.”

“There’s nothing to work out. Whatever chance I had to be at Lancer was destroyed years ago.”

“You can try it again!”

“No, Scott, I can’t,” Johnny insisted with conviction.

Scott was afraid his brother was going to disappear again, and he thought desperately for an argument.

“If you went back to Taylorsville now, think how it would affect Jimmy. You’re sick. You can pretend all you want, but you wouldn’t be able to hide it from your son. He’d be worried to death. Just come to Lancer and let Sam look at you. Please?”

“They have doctors in Prescott.”

“Do you know what Jelly told me!”

Johnny finally smiled. “That old man’s still alive?”

“Yes, he is. And he said the one regret he had in his life was that he didn’t get to see you one last time. Would it really kill you to make Jelly happy? To make us ALL happy? I know you’re angry with Murdoch, but he is your father, and he’s not getting any younger, either.”

After a long pause, Johnny finally nodded. “I’ll go back long enough to see Sam, then Jimmy and I are leaving. We have our own ranch to run that’s probably falling apart by now.”

Scott heaved a sigh of relief. He had his brother for a little while longer. “Do you feel well enough to travel today?”

Johnny nodded. “I’ll be okay once I rest some, and I can do that on the train. Just can’t seem to catch my breath.”

“Then we need to get going if we’re going to get to the station on time. Maybe we can eat on the train.”

“That’s fine with me.” Johnny played with his sleeves. “Scott, I know it’s my responsibility to tell Jimmy, but I’m worried about just showin’ up. I mean, what’s he gonna think if he sees me and no one’s told him what’s goin’ on beforehand?”

Scott nodded slowly. “Maybe Murdoch can talk to him and explain it a little. You’ll still going to have to talk to him about it when you get there, though.”

Johnny nodded. “I know. I just don’t want to scare him to death.”

“We can send a wire at the train station, but we’d better hurry.”

The two men dressed and Scott was relieved to see that Johnny wasn’t coughing as much as he had been, and seemed to be moving easier. After Scott checked out and settled the bill, the two men started walking. He had told the livery owner he was only renting the buggy one way, and had been instructed to leave the rig at the hotel. Apparently the livery had a deal with the hotel and they knew that a client would need the buggy sooner or later.

The train station in San Rafael was just a block from the hotel, and they made it in plenty of time to send the telegram, even though Scott had kept a slow pace. Twice he’d had to steady his brother to prevent Johnny from falling, and Johnny’s cough had gotten worse once again.

By the time the two men were seated in the train, Johnny was exhausted. He put his head back against the seat and shut his eyes, coughing occasionally, and struggling to breathe. Scott was beginning to think he had made a mistake on not insisting Johnny see a doctor, but it was too late now. The train pulled away from the station, slowly picking up speed, as Scott worriedly watched his brother.

*****

Murdoch sat at his desk, staring at the piece of paper in his hand and wondering how he got roped into breaking the news to Jimmy that his father was alive. He knew the boy would be happy, but he was afraid that when that initial feeling was over, he would start asking questions that wouldn’t be easy to answer. Plus, he didn’t have a clue how to start this conversation.

As Murdoch thought about it, he realized he would have to tell more than Jimmy. The hands would need to know and… he sat up straighter…Jelly. He hadn’t said anything to anyone. He had decided to wait until he knew they had managed to get his son out of that prison, and until he knew Johnny was actually going to come back to Lancer. There was no point in raising everyone’s hopes, just to have them dashed. Now, he was the only one left at the ranch to do it.

With a sigh, he stood up and headed for the barn. He would let Jelly know, and then maybe the old man could help him break the news to Jimmy. He was afraid he’d need reinforcements.

He looked around as he stepped into the building. The smell of hay and horses always calmed him. Before Johnny had come home, the barn had always been where he had taken refuge when he had a problem. He had been surprised when his younger son seemed to have the same habit. Then when he and Johnny had locked horns in the beginning, Johnny had beaten Murdoch out to the barn several times, and Murdoch had gradually stopped going out.

He looked around and found Jelly’s chair in the middle of a pile of tack, the old man busily cleaning the leather. The old man looked up. “Howdy Boss.”

“Jelly,” Murdoch responded as he sat down on a nearby bale of hay.

Jelly rubbed a cloth over the leather for several minutes with neither man talking. Finally the older man put down the piece of tack. “All right, out with it. It doesn’t take a genius to know somethin’s bothering you.”

“Jelly, I’m going to need your help.”

“What’s wrong, Boss?” Jelly asked worriedly.

“I have to tell Jimmy something. It’s good news, but I’m afraid that at some point, he’s going to be upset by it.”

“What news?”

“You know that Scott left here a week or so ago.”

“Yes,” the old man said cautiously.

“And I know you saw Val and Teresa here, too.”

“Teresa didn’t go and do somethin’ stupid again, did she?”

Murdoch chuckled. “No. Actually, Teresa and Val were helping.”

“Helping with what? Or are you gonna make me keep asking questions for the next ten years?”

Murdoch smiled. “Helping to get Johnny out of prison.”

Jelly’s jaw dropped. “Outta prison? JOHNNY’S ALIVE?”

Murdoch nodded. “He was accused of robbing a bank. It was a case of mistaken identity, but he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to prove it. That’s why he had Val tell everybody he was dead. In case he couldn’t get out.”

“And he didn’t want Jimmy worryin’ about him if that happened,” Jelly surmised.

Murdoch nodded.

“I don’t know Murdoch. I can see where Johnny was comin’ from, but it mighta been better to tell that boy the truth.”

“I agree, Jelly. I’ve never known Johnny to lie before, about anything,” Murdoch said glumly. “I don’t know why he did this time.”

“To protect his boy.” He looked at Murdoch knowingly. “Dads will do just about anything ta protect their kids.”

Murdoch snorted. “Except for me. I not only didn’t protect him, I hurt him.”

Jelly shook his head. “You gotta quit beatin’ yourself up about that. Yeah, you hurt him, but I know you’ve regretted it ever since, and it seems you paid for it. You need to forgive yourself.”

Murdoch sighed. “How can I forgive myself when I cost my son his home?”

Jelly shrugged. “Did they get Johnny outta that prison?”

“Scott managed to talk to the governor and get him to pardon Johnny. They’re on their way home.”

“Here? Johnny’s comin’ back here?”

Murdoch nodded. “I don’t know for how long. Maybe just to pick up Jimmy. I hope he means to stay longer, but I just don’t know.”

“He’ll stay. He has to. Lancer is Johnny’s home, and if he’s forgotten that, we’ll just have ta remind him.”

“That may be easier said than done.”

“Well then, we’ll just have to gang up on him and make him see it. We’ll just have to out- stubborn him!”

Murdoch chuckled. “THAT might just be harder than you think.”

“I don’t know, Boss. I think that boy got most of his stubborn from his Pa, and I think his brother got a healthy dose of it, too.”

“And I think some of it might have rubbed off on you too, Jelly.”

“Durn right! That boy don’t stand a chance!”

“Jelly, I’d like you to explain what happened to the hands, if you would. Scott and Johnny should be home tomorrow.”

Jelly nodded. “I can do that.” He hesitated. “When are you gonna tell the boy?”

“When he comes home from school. I was hoping you could be there when I tell him.”

“I’d be happy to. Are you gonna tell Sean at the same time?”

Murdoch shook his head. “I don’t know.”

“I think maybe you should tell him private -like. Just in case. He might be embarrassed if he gets all worked up.”

“All right. I’ll ask Jimmy to come out here after school, and we can tell him then.”

“That’ll work.”

*****

Murdoch watched as the two boys trotted their horses slowly into the yard. It seemed as if they had finally learned their lesson about running their horses, at least for now. When the boys had dismounted and were leading their horses into the barn, Murdoch stood up. He wasn’t looking forward to this; he just hoped it was going to go better than he was afraid it was.

He took his time, and sauntered casually to the barn, giving the boys time to take care of their horses. He had just reached the door when Sean bolted through the entrance, narrowly missing his grandfather.

“I’M GOING TO GET THE LAST PIECE OF CAKE,” he tauntingly yelled back at Jimmy. “Sorry, Grandpa,” he said as he ran past.

“YOU CHEATED!” Jimmy shouted back at his cousin.

Murdoch intercepted Jimmy just as he started to run out of the barn, chasing after Sean.

“Wait a minute,” Murdoch commanded, grabbing the boy’s arm.

“Sorry, Grandpa. I know I shouldn’t be running, but Sean’s going to get the last piece of cake, and I’m starving!”

“Maria baked another cake this morning. There’s plenty.” He spied Jelly just rolling his chair around the corner. “Now come sit down. I need to talk to you.”

“Am I in trouble?” the boy asked warily.

Murdoch chuckled. “Should you be?”

Jimmy shook his head tentatively.

“Then you’re not, at least for now.” He nodded over at Jelly. “Come on over.”

Murdoch lowered himself onto a hay bale, then studied his hands as he tried to figure out what to say, but his mind had deserted him. Finally, he decided he’d just better dive in.

“Jimmy, I have something to tell you. Something wonderful.”

The boy looked up at him expectantly.

“When Val told you that your Pa had died, well, he was mistaken.”

Jimmy frowned, not understanding.

“Your Pa didn’t die. It was a mistake. He’s still alive.”

Jimmy’s expression turned from confusion to understanding, and a big grin broke out on his face. “He’s alive?” he asked happily.

Murdoch nodded.

“Well, where is he?” he shouted, looking around.

“He and Scott should be here sometime tomorrow morning.”

“Really? You’re not teasing me?”

“I wouldn’t tease about something like that,” Murdoch assured him.

“Where has he been?”

Murdoch shot a glance at Jelly, who shrugged. “Someone said he had done something bad.”

Jimmy’s face clouded over. “Like you and Scott.”

Murdoch stared at the boy for a moment, wondering how he knew about that. “Yes,” he admitted. “Something like that. Only this time, they put him in jail, and he couldn’t get out until Scott convinced them your Pa didn’t do it.”

“He’s been in jail all this time?” Jimmy asked quietly.

Murdoch nodded. “Yes, he has. And he might be a little sick when he comes home.”

Jimmy sat quietly for several moments, thinking. “Why didn’t he tell me?” he whispered.

“He didn’t want to worry you,” Murdoch explained, knowing how weak it sounded.

The boy looked at him in disbelief. “He didn’t want to WORRY me? I thought he was dead!” Jimmy’s face crumpled. “All this time I thought he was dead and I was never going to see him again! I cried every night,” he sobbed. “He always told me to tell the truth, no matter what, and he lied to me!” Jimmy yelled as he sprang to his feet and ran toward the door.

Sean, who had brought a piece of cake out to Jimmy, but had stopped when he heard the conversation, stood with his mouth open as Jimmy ran by, slapping the cake out of his hands as he passed.

*****

Murdoch pulled the surrey up to the hitching post by the train station and set the brake. The train was due in at eight o’clock, and he knew he was early, but he just couldn’t wait any longer. The need to see his younger boy was almost an ache. He just hoped Johnny would be happy to see him, too. He knew that was being optimistic, but he refused to even think about the alternative.

Jimmy was in school, and Murdoch had decided not to get him out to come to the station. In the telegram, Scott had said Johnny was sick, and Murdoch wasn’t sure just how bad his son was. He had stopped by Sam’s office on the way here, but the sign said he wouldn’t be back until the late morning. Murdoch had left a note asking the doctor to come out as soon as possible when he returned. He just hoped Teresa wasn’t the one to get the note, if she was even back yet. If she did come, he didn’t know what Johnny’s reaction to Teresa would be, but he was sure it wouldn’t be good.

He still wondered if he should have taken Jimmy with him, but he was very worried by the anger that Jimmy had shown. He didn’t think Johnny needed a public scene with his son as soon as he stepped off of the train.

Murdoch had tried to talk to Jimmy a few hours after the first conversation in the barn. The boy reminded him so much of Johnny. The youngster had been polite, listening quietly while Murdoch tried to explain, then excused himself and went to his room. Later that evening, on the way to bed, Murdoch had looked in on the boy. He was sleeping huddled up in a ball, with the streaks on his face proving he had cried himself to sleep.

He knew that boy loved his Pa, he had seen it in his eyes when Jimmy had talked about him, but he had also seen the deep hurt when he found out Johnny had let him believe he was dead. Murdoch hoped that they could get past it, it would be horrible if something like that drove them apart, but he knew how easily it could happen.

Murdoch closed his eyes. Jimmy had gone through so much; they all had. Maybe when Johnny finally came home things could get back to normal. Johnny. His lost boy. He had been through the most of all. Murdoch didn’t know what it would take to keep his son here, but he was bound and determined this time not to fail. Like Jelly had said, he’d just have to ‘out – stubborn’ him.

The shrill whistle of a train jarred him from his musing, and he tied off the reins and stepped down from the surrey. He wiped his suddenly sweaty palms on his trousers, then stepped up onto the platform, staring at the train as if he could see inside

He waited impatiently while other passengers disembarked, then he finally spotted Scott. Murdoch looked in disbelief as the figure next to him came into view. The man was thin as a cadaver, and by the way Scott was holding onto him, obviously weak. Murdoch stood rooted to the spot for a few seconds, then reached the two men in three long strides.

“Hello Son,” Murdoch said, wrapping his arm around Johnny on the opposite side of Scott. “Let’s get you into the surrey.”

Murdoch literally lifted his son into the rig, and crawled in after him. Scott climbed into the front and turned the horses towards home. Johnny sat with his eyes closed and allowed his father to support him. Murdoch watched him, happy that his son was allowing the contact, and worried to death at the same time. He knew Johnny must be extremely sick if he wasn’t fighting the closeness.

“Do you need to lie down? We can stop and get a wagon if you’d be more comfortable.”

Johnny shook his head. “I’m fine.”

As worried as he was, the typical response brought a smile to the rancher’s face. “We’ll get you home as quick as we can. I left a message for Sam to come out to the ranch, and I’m sure he’ll have you fixed up in no time.”

Johnny coughed heavily before nodding, never opening his eyes.

The ride back to Lancer took an eternity for all three men. On the train, Scott had seen his brother get weaker as each mile passed, and he had been afraid Johnny was going to pass out long before they reached their destination. He was kicking himself for not insisting that his brother be seen by a doctor before leaving. He felt guilty about that and all the other things that he had done wrong on this trip. As hard as he was trying to get his brother back, it seemed as if fate was conspiring against him.

Murdoch felt the heat rising from his son’s body. “How long has he had a fever?”

Scott turned around quickly. “He didn’t seem to have one when we left.”

“Well, he does now,” Murdoch confirmed.

Scott brought the reins down on the backs of the horses, urging them to a faster gait.

Murdoch pulled Johnny closer to him, as if he could ward off the illness that was consuming his son, and felt him shiver uncontrollably. Another spasm of coughing tore through the young man, and Murdoch felt a twinge of panic.

*****

When the surrey finally pulled into the courtyard at Lancer, both Scott and Murdoch really were panicking. Johnny had pretty much lost consciousness almost an hour before, and the two men had debated on whether to return to Green River or continue on. In the end, they had decided they were too close to Lancer to turn around, and had kept the horses at a fast trot the rest of the way. The ride wasn’t very comfortable for the two men, but Johnny was past caring, his ragged breathing the only sound as the surrey raced toward home.

Scott jumped out and ran into the house, yelling for Maria. He quickly explained the situation, then went back outside to help his father. He met Murdoch coming in through the door, carrying Johnny.

“Let me help you,” Scott demanded.

Murdoch rushed past him toward the stairs. “No need, he’s light. I think Jimmy probably weighs more than he does.”

Johnny was placed in the bed in his old bedroom, and Scott removed his shirt and pants while Murdoch ran to see where Maria was. He bounded down the stairs and just missed mowing the woman down as she came out of the kitchen. He grabbed the water bowl from her hands, then turned and ran back up to Johnny’s room.

*****

Sam walked into Johnny’s room an hour later. Murdoch and Scott were both sitting in chairs next to the bed, and Scott was trying to mop Johnny’s forehead, but he kept getting his hand slapped away by the patient.

“I can see time hasn’t changed Johnny’s opinion of being fussed over.”

All three men turned and looked at the doctor.

“Tell ‘em to knock it off, Sam. I’m fine,” Johnny managed to choke out before coughing violently.

“Well, you certainly sound fine to me. Maybe I’ll just go home,” Sam quipped.

“That’s all right by me,” Johnny agreed.

“JOHN!” Murdoch warned, “You WILL let Doctor Jenkins examine you!”

“Now I remember why I didn’t come back here,” Johnny mumbled.

Murdoch looked stricken, but Scott chimed in, “Yes, because you are too damn stubborn to know what’s good for you!”

Johnny glared at his brother while Sam grabbed his wrist and took his pulse. “How long have you been coughing?”

Johnny shrugged. “Sorta lost track of time in there. Maybe a couple of months.”

“A couple of months?” Murdoch asked. “Weren’t you able to see a doctor?”

Johnny snorted, “Yeah, he told me it was from the dampness in the prison. Said it would go away when I got out,” he gasped in between coughs.

“Have you had trouble breathing all that time?” Sam asked.

Johnny shook his head. “No, and the cough just got real bad the last day or two.”

“Since you got out?” Sam asked.

“Yeah. Don’t know why.”

“Does it hurt when you breathe?”

“Yeah. It hurts the worst when I cough. Feels like somebody’s got a knife in me.”

Scott spoke up. “Sam, Johnny said he’d been beaten up right before he was released. When I first saw him, he was holding his ribs, and he’s pretty bruised up.”

The doctor felt Johnny’s chest and ribs, noticing the dark bruises and how his patient winced when he touched the left side.

“Does it hurt on both sides of your chest?”

Johnny thought for a moment. “Some, but worse on my left side.”

Sam pulled out a thermometer and stuck it in Johnny’s mouth. Next he felt the bruising, then put a stethoscope up to the young man’s chest. “Breathe,” the doctor ordered.

Doctor Jenkins was able to listen for several moments before another spate of coughing interrupted the exam. He grabbed the thermometer Johnny had pulled from his mouth and studied it before putting it back in his bag.

“Well?” Murdoch demanded.

The doctor looked over at Johnny, who was leaning back against the pillows with his eyes closed, exhausted from the coughing, and struggling to breathe.

“He’s a very sick young man, who needs to rest.”

“As soon as I see Jimmy,” Johnny insisted.

“He’s in school, he’ll be home soon,” Murdoch replied

Johnny started to say something else, but was interrupted by more coughing.

“All right! No more talking. Johnny, you need to rest, and I’m going to give you something to help you sleep, AND,” Sam’s voice raised when Johnny started to protest, “THAT IS NOT OPEN FOR DISCUSSION!” He quickly filled a syringe and injected it into Johnny’s arm, then covered him up with the sheet.

Johnny’s eyes grew heavy immediately and Sam shepherded Scott and Murdoch out of the room and down the stairs.

*****

Scott poured them each a drink, then joined Sam on the sofa. “Well?” he asked the doctor.

Sam sighed. “I’m worried. I believe it is pneumonia, although it doesn’t sound exactly like it. If it is pneumonia, and when it’s been going on for as long as his evidently has…” He shook his head before taking a sip of his drink. “And on top of that, he has a collapsed lung. He’s also suffering from severe malnutrition and is extremely weak.”

“Are you saying he’s not going to make it?” Scott asked quietly.

“I just don’t see how he can,” the doctor admitted.

“I’m not going to lose him again, Sam,” Murdoch said.

“Murdoch, it’s out if my hands. At this point, all we can do is try to treat the symptoms and hope for the best. You’ve got to keep the fever down. Sponge him off with cool water, and just use a sheet to cover him; blankets are too warm. He needs as much rest as he can get, and when he’s awake, plenty of liquids. Willow bark tea is good, and maybe some chicken broth. Don’t take no for an answer; he has to eat, but not too much at one time. We don’t want him to throw it back up.”

“He might stand a chance of surviving the pneumonia if we could reinflate his lung, but that’s going to take time. There’s also a good chance that the bruising in his chest has caused fluid build up around the lung, preventing it from inflating. It sounded like that may have been what is happening. The main thing is, he has to stay quiet. Moving around and even talking will make his cough worse.”

“Is there any hope at all?” Scott asked.

“There’s always hope, and Johnny’s surprised me before. He also has something very worthwhile to live for. Jimmy. Let that boy spend as much time with him as he can, and have him talk to his father. Johnny has to be reminded that there’s something here worth fighting for.”

Sam studied both of the men. “I know how the two of you feel about Teresa, but I would at least like to get her thoughts on this, if you’ll allow it. She might have an idea that I haven’t heard about, yet. If you really want Johnny to have every chance at recovery, we need her input, too.”

Murdoch stared at the doctor for several seconds before nodding. “I’d allow the devil himself to look at him, if it would save my boy.”

“All right. But I’m warning you right now that I will not tolerate you treating her with anything but respect. She very well may have an answer to his recovery that I don’t.”

He stood up and snapped his bag closed. “Now I’m going to leave and go get some things from my office. Teresa and Val are supposed to be in on the afternoon train. Unless there’s an emergency, we’ll both be back here this evening. Johnny should be awake by then.”

After the doctor left, the two men sat for several minutes, just watching the unconscious man. Finally Scott sighed. “What are we going to tell Jimmy?”

Murdoch shook his head. “The truth, I guess.”

“What?” Scott snapped. “Jimmy, I know you thought your father was dead, but he’s actually alive, but now he’s really going to die.”

“He’s NOT going to die!”

“Murdoch, you can yell and demand all you want to, but that’s not going to change anything. I saw men die from pneumonia during the war. All of them younger and in better shape than Johnny is right now.”

“You heard Sam. Johnny’s a fighter.”

“He doesn’t have any strength left to fight with.”

Murdoch glared at his son. “You’re giving up on him, just like that?”

“Of course not. But we have to be prepared. All of us, and that means I have to talk to Jimmy.” Scott stood up. “The boys will be home soon. I’m going to go out to the barn and talk to Jelly while I wait.”

Murdoch nodded absently and continued to bathe his son’s face. Scott stopped at the door and looked back as his father took Johnny’s hand and started to pray.

*****

 “Jelly!”

The old man looked up from the saddle he was mending. “Scott! You’re back! Where’s Johnny?”

“He’s in the house.”

“Guess he decided he’s too uppity to come say hi.”

Scott dropped his head. “He’s real sick, Jelly. Sam…Sam doesn’t think he’s going to make it.”

Jelly blinked furiously, trying to keep the tears back. “Shore he’ll make it, Scott. He’s got that young’un to take care of. Johnny won’t leave him again, it just wouldn’t be right.”

Scott sighed. “I’m going to talk to Jimmy as soon as he comes in. Maybe you can bring Sean inside the barn and explain it to him while I take Jimmy into the house.”

Jelly nodded vigorously. “You can count on me, Scott. And do ya think we could figure out a way I could go up and see Johnny? I’ve been waitin’ to see that boy for a long time.”

Scott nodded. “Of course. Let me talk to Jimmy first and then we’ll figure something out. And thanks, Jelly.”

A few minutes later, Sean and Jimmy rode their horses up to the barn and jumped down. “Uncle Scott, is my Pa here?” Jimmy yelled.

“Yes, he is. Let’s go inside.”

“Sean, can you come in here and help me?” Jelly yelled from the barn.

Sean rolled his eyes, but a look from his father sent him hurrying to see what Jelly wanted.

Jimmy started running toward the house, but Scott reached out and grabbed his arm. “No running, remember?”

“But I want to see my Pa!” the boy explained.

Scott guided the boy into the house. “And you will. But we need to talk first.” He pointed to the kitchen table. “Sit.”

Scott handed the boy a glass of milk and some cookies, but Jimmy just stared at him. “What’s wrong? Why can’t I see Pa?” He dropped his head. “Doesn’t he want to see me?” he asked softly.

“Of course he does. Just about the first thing he asked me was where you were.”

“Then what’s wrong?” Jimmy persisted.

Scott took a deep breath. “Your Pa’s real sick.”

The boy’s face paled. “Is he going to die?”

Scott looked at the boy hopelessly. He didn’t want to lie to him, but he couldn’t bring himself to tell him the whole truth. He ran a hand through his hair. “I don’t know.”

Jimmy started crying. “I want to see him!” he cried, jumping to his feet.

Scott nodded. “Let’s go upstairs.” He gently grabbed the boy’s shoulders and turned him until they were facing each other. Scott bent down and looked into the boy’s eyes.

“Jimmy, he’s lost a lot if weight, and he doesn’t look much like himself, but he’s fighting hard to get better, okay?”

“Okay.” He took Scott’s hand and headed for the stairs.

*****

Jimmy glanced at his grandfather, then stared at the motionless figure on the bed before cautiously approaching. He studied his father’s face for several moments before reaching up and taking Johnny’s hand.

“Please don’t leave me again, Pa. I’ve missed you so much.” Tears started running down the boy’s face. “I’ve tried to be good, and do what you’d want me to, but it’s been hard sometimes.”

The boy brightened a little bit. “Uncle Scott brought Barranca here. He and Cisco were real happy to see each other. Maybe when you wake up we can go for a ride, just like we used to. You can show me all those pretty places here that you used to tell me about. When you used to tell me about it, I thought you just worked here. I was so surprised when Grandpa told me you were his son. Uncle Scott and Grandpa have been real nice to me, and I have a cousin. His name is Sean, and he’s my best friend. Uncle Scott told me you and he used to be best friends, too. Maybe when you feel better we can all go for a ride together.”

Scott and Murdoch looked at each other, both holding back tears, and both surprised that Johnny had told the boy anything about the ranch. They vowed separately that if, no when, Johnny got better, they would go on that ride together.

*****

Teresa and Sam were both quiet on the way out to Lancer. Doctor Jenkins had filled Teresa in on Johnny’s condition, and she had been devastated. Neither one of them held out much hope for a good outcome for the young man, but both were wracking their brains trying to find a way to beat the odds.

 “Sam, do you know what caused the collapsed lung?” Teresa finally asked.

“No, not for sure. By the looks of the bruises and by what Scott said, Johnny received a pretty harsh beating right before they released him.”

“And you think there is fluid preventing the lung from re-expanding?”

“Yes, although it could have just been deep bruising around the lung.”

Val rode next to the buggy carrying the two doctors. He was only half listening to the conversation. He didn’t know what they were talking about, but whatever it was, it didn’t sound good. He hoped between the two of them, they could come up with something that would save his friend’s life. He had always had a great respect for Sam. He had seen the old doctor pull off some near miracles, and no matter what, he always tried his best. Not like some of the frauds he had seen. Sam knew what he was talking about.

He hadn’t seen Teresa treat anyone yet, but Sam seemed to have the utmost confidence in her, and strangely, so did he. He had seen the change in her on the trip down to Los Angeles. She wasn’t a spoiled brat anymore, but a very competent and decisive woman. He had seen a thirst in her; a drive to prove herself, and somewhere along the line, he had begun hoping that she would. It sure would be nice if she could prove it by curing Johnny. Either way, between Sam and Teresa, he knew his friend was in good hands. He started listening to their conversation again.

“So you think he’s too weak for surgery?”

Surgery? Val thought. Where did that come from?

“Absolutely,” Sam responded. “Anything we do will have to be done without putting him all the way under.”

“We’ll have to examine him more thoroughly before we can decide what the best course of action is,” Teresa responded.

“It will be difficult, as hard as he’s coughing.”

Teresa nodded, trying to seem clinical when all she wanted to do is cry.

*****

Val stepped off of his horse and secured the reins to the hitching post in front of the hacienda. He waited until Sam’s buggy came to a stop, then stepped around and helped Teresa out before securing the horse. Sam and Teresa hurried into the house, with Val trailing behind.

“Uncle Val!” Jimmy shouted as he ran toward the man. Val opened his arms and Jimmy embraced him. “Pa’s real sick, and I don’t want him to die!” he said, tears welling up in his eyes.

Val patted the boy’s back. “Your Pa’s strong, Jimmy. He’ll be okay.” He nodded toward the two figures climbing the stairs. “They’re gonna take real good care of him and fix him up good as new.”

Jimmy stepped back and looked at the lawman. “You promise?”

Val hesitated for just a moment, then nodded. “I promise.”

Jimmy stared at him. “You lied to me before. You told me that Pa was dead.”

“I know I did, and I shouldn’t have done that, but your Pa didn’t want you to worry. He wanted you to get on with your life in case he couldn’t come back to you.”

“Pa told you to lie to me?” Jimmy asked in disbelief.

“See, Jimmy, you gotta understand. He didn’t want you to be thinkin’ about him all the time and not be able to see him. He was tryin’ to make it easier on you.”

“Well I DID think about him all the time!” Jimmy yelled. “And I COULDN’T SEE HIM! It wasn’t easier at all! He shouldn’t have lied to me!” He turned and ran out the door.

Scott was just coming out of the kitchen with some broth. He handed the bowl to the sheriff. “Here, take this upstairs. I’ll make sure he’s ok and see if Jelly will talk to him. I’ll be up in a minute.”

Val sighed deeply. He hadn’t liked lying to the boy from the beginning, but he also understood Johnny’s reasoning, too. If Johnny hadn’t been released from that prison, there never would have been a problem, but now he was afraid that father and son were in for some rough times. That is, if Johnny lived. He looked at the door Jimmy had run out of, undecided, but he knew Scott would talk to him and calm him down. Val decided to go up and see his friend first, then talk to the boy. He turned and headed for the stairs.

When Val walked into the room, Sam and Teresa were standing next to the bed, and both of them had their stethoscopes resting on Johnny’s chest. Johnny’s eyes were darting between the two and he was taking ragged breaths.

“Can you sit up?” Teresa asked.

Johnny nodded and started to push his body up from the pillow, then Murdoch grabbed him and pulled him the rest of the way up. “Thanks,” Johnny whispered.

“Don’t talk!” Sam ordered. “We need to hear your lungs before you start coughing again.”

The doctors moved the stethoscopes to Johnny’s back, listening intently.

Val could see his friend’s face start to turn red as he tried desperately not to cough. A moment later, he lost the fight, and a booming bark exploded from his mouth.

“Sorry,” he wheezed when he was finally able.

Sam patted his shoulder. “It’s ok. We heard what we needed to.”

Teresa nodded in agreement. “Johnny, when you cough, is it always a dry cough?”

Johnny nodded.

“Has it been that way from the beginning?” Sam asked.

Johnny thought for a moment, then shook his head. “No. Before it wasn’t, but it was almost gone a week or so ago, then the day I got out it got worse again.” he whispered.

“Have you had a headache or any confusion?”

“Yeah, my head hurts some.”

Sam and Teresa looked at each other, and Sam nodded. “I think your pneumonia may actually be getting better.”

“Then why do I feel worse?” he wheezed. “It’s hard to breath, and it hurts like hell. Sorry Teresa.”

“I think you have an infection around your lungs rather than in them,” Sam explained, then looked at Teresa. “Do you agree, Doctor?”

Teresa nodded. “Definitely. At one point you probably had pneumonia, but it was starting to resolve itself.”

“The pneumonia either caused the infection next to your lungs, or possibly it happened when you were beaten,” Sam continued. “Either way, your lung collapsed and the fluid from the infection is preventing it from reinflating.”

“So what are you going to do about it?” Murdoch demanded.

“The infection needs to be drained,” Sam explained.

“No!” Scott ordered.

Everyone looked at the young man, who shook his head vehemently as he entered the room. “I saw that done during the war,” he explained. “And every single man who had it done died from infection within a few days. I’m not going to let you do it to my brother.”

“There are risks,” Sam conceded. “But if we do nothing he will die for sure. It has to be drained.”

“There has to be another way,” Scott insisted.

“Sam, have you ever used a water seal drainage system?” Teresa asked.

“No, I haven’t heard about it.”

It’s fairly new. You simply put the distal end of the tube into a jar of water. That prevents air and contaminates from backing up into the chest. The results with it have been very good.”

“You know how to do it?”

“Yes.”

Sam looked at his patient. “It needs to be done.”

Johnny stared at Teresa for several seconds, then nodded his head.

“I want YOU to do it, Sam!” Murdoch ordered.

“Teresa is the one who knows how to do this,” Sam argued.

“I don’t care!” Murdoch argued.

“Well I do,” Johnny stated. “Let Teresa do it.”

“You TRUST her?” Murdoch demanded in disbelief.

Johnny looked back at Teresa, who met his gaze calmly. “Yeah, Murdoch, I do.”

Sam nodded, then looked at Murdoch, who was glaring at him. “It’s Johnny’s choice, so there won’t be any more discussion about it. We can do it up here, but we’ll need some clean cloths.”

“I also need a large sterilized jar filled with water,” Teresa added as Murdoch left to find the needed supplies.

“Sam, do you have the rubber tubing?” Teresa asked.

The doctor rooted around in his bag and drew out a black rubber hose. “Is this long enough?”

Teresa nodded, then looked at the sheriff as she handed him the hose. “Val, could you take that into the kitchen to Maria and ask her to sterilize it and my instruments?” At the sheriff’s nod, she handed him her bag, then looked back at Sam. “What about anesthesia?”

“We can’t put him all the way under, not with the trouble he’s having breathing.”

“I agree, but he’ll need something. What do you have?” she asked.

“Ether, Morphine, and cocaine.”

“I don’t need anything,” Johnny insisted in between coughs.

“Johnny, we have to cut a hole between your ribs to get the hose into your chest next to your lung, and you’re going to have to stay still. If you move, Teresa could cut your lung accidently,” Sam explained.

“I’ve had worse. I can stay still.”

Teresa shook her head. “We could use morphine…”

“NO!” Johnny shouted.

“We’ll give you just a little to dull the pain, then I’ll use cocaine around the wound to numb it locally.”

“Does that work?” asked Sam

Teresa nodded. “It’s not perfect, but it might be enough. It’s the best we can do without knocking him out.” She turned to Johnny. “It’s still going to hurt. I’m sorry, but we have to do it.”

Sam pulled a syringe out of his bag and drew up some morphine as Johnny watched warily. “Just enough to take the edge off, I promise.”

At Johnny’s nod, Sam quickly injected the drug.

“Hey, Doc,” Johnny said quietly. “Any chance of me dying when you’re doin’ this?”

Sam looked at him in surprise. “No, I don’t think so. Why?”

Johnny fiddled with the blanket. “I need to talk to Jimmy. Murdoch said he came in before and I was passed out from whatever it was that you gave me. I really need ta talk to him,” he managed to say before coughing for several moments.

“Jelly’s talking to him now, Johnny,” Scott said quietly after his brother had stopped hacking. “You need to just concentrate on getting better.”

“He’s mad at me, isn’t he?”

“I think he’s disappointed, but I also know he loves you very much. Don’t worry, Johnny. He’ll be okay.”

“I’m gonna hold you to that, Scott,” Johnny said as he lay back, exhausted, as the two doctors waited impatiently for their supplies.

“Here are the jar and the cloths,” Murdoch said sometime later as he walked in. “Where do you want them?”

Teresa took them from his hand without looking at him, and started packing the cloths around Johnny’s side. When she was done, she turned toward the old doctor.

“Sam, Where’s the cocaine? I need to mix it with some water and then inject a small amount where I plan to insert the tube. It should numb the area slightly.”

Sam watched as she prepared the mixture. “I never thought of doing that,” he admitted, “but it makes sense.”

“It works pretty well, but I have to go so deep that he’ll still feel it. Sam, can you prepare the site while I disinfect my hands?”

She turned her head toward Scott and Murdoch, who were standing together near the window, watching. “You may want to leave,” she suggested.

Murdoch shook his head. “I’m staying.”

She glanced at Scott, who also shook his head.

Val walked in, holding the tubing and instruments in a towel.

She took a deep breath, then turned to Johnny. “I’ll be as quick as I can.”

He gave a curt nod. “Let ‘er buck.”

*****

Val stood by the hitching rail, staring out at the barn. He needed to talk to Jimmy, but he really had no idea what to say to him. He knew that boy needed answers about why his Pa had done what he did, but every explanation just sounded so darn weak, even to Val’s ears.

At the time, Johnny had been convinced he wasn’t going to come out of there alive. He had made all his plans with that in mind. He must have been thinking about it the whole way down to Los Angeles. While Val had been upbeat and not particularly worried, he realized now just how quiet Johnny had been. When he had been found guilty and sentenced, he hadn’t even seemed surprised. Val guessed he hadn’t been, either. Not after the judge’s reaction at the beginning of the trial to the name ‘Johnny Madrid.’

After the sentencing, Val had been able to visit his friend only one time. That was when Johnny had told him to sell all his stock, except for Cisco. He had told him to keep the ranch in case Jimmy wanted it someday and to keep it up enough that it would still be liveable if that happened. Johnny had saved up quite a bit of money, and the sale of the stock had given him still more. He told Val to hang on to it until Jimmy was older.

Val had been surprised and a little bit hurt when he had told Val to take Jimmy to Lancer. That boy was almost as much his boy as he was Johnny’s, but now Val knew it had been the right decision. As angry as he was with Murdoch and Scott, the sheriff knew that Jimmy was in good hands. And being a sheriff wasn’t exactly a safe occupation. If Val got himself killed, Jimmy would have been alone once more.

No, that was the one thing Johnny HAD thought out. It was just the other part where he had messed up. Johnny had so desperately wanted to shield his son that he had done something without thinking it through. He was so used to things going wrong he had acted without thinking about what would happen if it went right for a change and he got out of that prison.

Val snorted; now why should that surprise him. Thinking things through wasn’t Johnny’s long suit.

No, that wasn’t true, Val mused. When they first met and were working together, Johnny ALWAYS figured out every possible angle before he even took a job. He used to drive Val crazy trying to be ready for every eventuality. It was part if what had made him so good. He was always ready for anything.

It was just where his family was concerned that Johnny always seemed to derail and go flying right off the tracks. And not just where Jimmy was concerned. When Johnny had been at Lancer, it seemed he was always thinking with his heart instead of his brain. If it wasn’t Johnny’s well developed sense of guilt doing him in, it was his famous temper. When he had been at Lancer, it seemed at least once a month Val would have to talk him out of doing something stupid.

 He just wished he could have talked him out of leaving when Teresa had accused him. Val had been delivering a two bit prisoner to Stockton, and hadn’t even been in town. He still felt guilty about that. Maybe this whole mess could have been avoided if he’d just been there for his friend.

Well, he hoped he could always be there for them from now on. He wanted to stay wherever Johnny and Jimmy settled, and he hoped his friend would decide to stay here; it was where they belonged. And no matter how much Johnny denied it, it was where he had been happiest. Val thought that if they stayed at Lancer, maybe he could get a job as sheriff again. He liked it here better than Taylorsville, and since coming back, he’d liked it even better. No matter what though, he would do his best to take care of Jimmy and keep him from making the same stupid mistakes as his Pa. He had the feeling he was going to have his work cut out for him, though. That boy had the same stubborn streak as the rest of the Lancers. He had the feeling if he knocked all their heads together, all that would come out were rocks.

He watched as Sean pushed Jelly from the barn into the house. That meant Jimmy was probably alone, maybe crying, but more likely brushing the hair off of Cisco. One more thing he had learned from his Pa. Val shook his head. He guessed there was no sense putting it off. With a sigh, he planted his hat more firmly on his head and marched into the barn.

*****

Murdoch sat next to the window, watching his son sleep. Everything had happened so fast that he was just now able to think about things and allow himself to realize his son was alive. He prayed that Johnny would stay that way. Sam had seemed a little more optimistic after the procedure, but he had still cautioned Murdoch and Scott not to get their hopes up too high. Johnny was still very sick and extremely weak.

Murdoch’s eyes kept being drawn to the black snake like hose running from Johnny’s side to the jar next to the bed. The contraption seemed to be working fine, if the amount of fluid being sucked into the jar was any indication. Johnny’s breathing seemed to be much better, also. Better yet, he’d only coughed a couple of times. Sam and Teresa both had seemed pleased with the results, especially after they had listened to Johnny’s chest. Maybe, just maybe his son had a chance.

It had been hard watching Teresa poke that hole in his son’s side. He had felt like grabbing the instrument of torture right out of her hands, but he had to admit, she seemed to know what she was doing. He had been surprised at just how quickly and decisively she had made the first incision. His eyes had gone from her hands to Johnny’s face. His son had grimaced and flinched, but had stayed still. Murdoch couldn’t believe how his son had done it, although the sweat pouring off of his forehead attested to the pain he had endured. It took a couple of cuts to get deep enough to put the drain where it needed to be, but it was all over in just a couple of minutes.

Johnny had been given a light sleeping potion in the cup of water Sam had handed to him afterward. The fact that he had accepted it without a fuss further proved just how much pain his son had been in. Sam said that Johnny was worn out and would probably sleep for a while. He obviously hadn’t gotten a good night’s sleep for quite some time, both because of the cough and the difficulty with his breathing.

Teresa had volunteered to go back to town in case anyone needed a doctor, leaving Sam free to stay at the ranch and monitor Johnny for a while. Sam had seemed surprised when she had suggested it; he just wasn’t used to having someone fill in for him. She had checked Johnny and the drain one last time and told Sam to stay as long as he wanted, that she would handle things. Then, calling him Mister Lancer, she had very formally asked Murdoch if it was all right to go down to the kitchen to clean her instruments.

He had answered her in kind, calling her Doctor Martin and giving her his permission. He knew he should thank her for what she had done, and part of him had winced at the formality, but he just couldn’t force himself to change it. After she had walked out he had caught Sam’s disapproving look, but Murdoch decided to ignore it . Nothing was said between them, and now the old doctor sat in a chair opposite Murdoch, his eyes on his patient and only occasionally nodding off. Scott, meanwhile hadn’t left his perch on the end of Johnny’s bed.

A shuffling noise drew Murdoch’s attention to the door and he gasped in surprise when Jelly came into view, walking unsteady and being supported by Sean.

“Jelly!” Murdoch exclaimed, drawing the attention of the others. “You’re walking!”

The old man stuck out his chin. “Well, it seems that was the only way I could get up here ta see that boy!” he grumped, shooting a look at Scott.

Scott blushed and dropped his head. “I’m sorry Jelly. With everything going on, I’ll admit, I just forgot.”

The old man immediately softened. “That’s all right, Scott. I know how busy everybody was. I’ve been workin’ some on standing for a while, but I just couldn’t wait any longer.” He smiled at the boy standing next to him. “Sean here helped me up them stairs.”

Jelly wobbled over to the bed and looked down at the unconscious form. “Sean, this here’s your Uncle Johnny. Johnny, this is Sean. Him and Jimmy are best friends.”

The old man sat clumsily on the edge of the bed and picked up Johnny’s hand. “We all sure are glad ta see you. You had us all worried, and when you get better I’m gonna give you an earful about scarin’ us all to death. I don’t know what you were thinkin’, having Val tell everybody you was dead. I think I’d better let him know what I think a that plan, too. You was both just plum loco.”

Jelly patted Johnny’s hand. “Now you get some sleep and don’t you worry about nuthin’. Old Jelly will be here ta make sure everything’s all right.” He put the hand down and looked over at Murdoch. “Boss, you look plum tuckered. Me and Doc Jenkins can take care of things for a while. You and Scott go get some shut eye,” he ordered, jutting out his jaw.

*****

Murdoch carried the breakfast tray into Johnny’s room and set it down carefully on the table next to the bed.

“Maria thought you might be up to some more substantial food this morning.”

Johnny glanced at the tray and shrugged. “Looks good,” he said quietly.

Murdoch placed the tray in his son’s lap and sat down in the chair next to the bed.

Johnny picked up his fork and unenthusiastically took a bite of egg.

Murdoch watched as his son forced himself to eat his breakfast and knew there was more wrong than his physical problems.

It had been three days since Teresa had put in the drain, and it was working splendidly. At first, Murdoch had been worried. They all had been. After the procedure Johnny had slept almost continuously for two days. Sam had explained to him that his son was simply exhausted, and sleeping was the best thing for him. Last night was the first time since Teresa had put in the drain that he had been awake for more than a few minutes.

In the last several days, both doctors had listened to Johnny’s chest more times than Murdoch could count, and last night both of them had actually smiled.

“Well, Johnny, how do you feel?” Sam asked.

Johnny shrugged. “Better.”

“No more pain when you breathe?”

“No.”

Sam nodded. “That drain is doing the trick, and on top of that, your lung has reinflated and both lungs are almost clear.”

“He’s not coughing as much,” Murdoch offered.

“No, he’s getting better,” Sam beamed. The doctor patted Johnny’s shoulder. “We’ll be able to take that drain out in a week or so, and in the meantime, I want you to continue to get plenty of food and rest. Without having to cough continually, you should be able to sleep better. We’ll have you back on your feet in no time. I am absolutely delighted that I was wrong.”

Johnny continued to stare out the window and merely nodded.

“Are you hurting anywhere else?” asked Sam.

“No, I’m fine. Thanks, Doc.”

With a last concerned look, the doctor picked up his bag. “I’ll be back tomorrow.”

After Sam had left, Johnny had gone to sleep without saying a word.

This morning Johnny had still been quiet and Murdoch knew something was bothering his son. He decided to take a chance and try to find out what it was.

“Johnny, we never really got a chance to talk since you got here. I want you to know how much it means to both Scott and I to have you home.”

“Well don’t get used to it. As soon as I’m able, Jimmy and I are leaving .”

“Leaving for where?” Murdoch demanded.

“Home.”

“This IS your home!” Murdoch insisted.

“Our home is in Taylorsville, not here. I appreciate you lettin’ me stay until I feel better, but it’s not my home.”

Murdoch closed his eyes. He wanted to argue with his son, but that discussion would have to wait. Johnny just wasn’t strong enough yet. With an effort, Murdoch let it drop.

Johnny put down his plate and started playing with the blanket. Murdoch knew that was a sure sign his son was working up the courage to say something that wouldn’t be taken well. Murdoch mentally braced himself.

“Where’s Jimmy?”

Suddenly Murdoch knew what was bothering his son. Jimmy had only come in for a minute or two last night, and Sean had been with him. When Sam and Teresa had come in the room, the two boys had left and hadn’t come back. Jimmy hadn’t come in at all this morning. It was obvious that there was something badly wrong.

“I’m not sure. I think he’s helping Jelly.” Murdoch stood up. “If you’re done, I’ll take the tray back to the kitchen. Do you need anything else?” Johnny shook his head and Murdoch picked up the tray and left the room. He was going to go find that boy and see if he could smooth things over between them. Johnny didn’t need any more pain.

Val met him on the landing. “How is he?”

Murdoch nodded. “Better, he’s awake.” He hesitated. “Jimmy hasn’t been up to see him. I’m going out to the barn now to see if I can talk to him.”

“As long as you talk and don’t start yellin’. Jimmy’s hurtin’ too. He don’t need his head bit off on top if everything else.”

Murdoch nodded curtly. “I’ll try to remember that.”

“See that you do. I’m gonna go talk to Johnny. See if I can help on that end.”

*****

Val pushed open the door and approached the bed. “Well you’re lookin’ bright eyed and bushy tailed this morning.”

Johnny glared at his friend. “What the hell’s the matter with you, traipsing all over the place for a year and getting yourself fired just to find Teresa?”

Val stopped and glared back. “Well, I don’t know. Guess I shoulda just let you stay in that place. I mean I had all your money. I musta been plumb stupid. Besides, who said I was fired?”

Johnny shrugged. “Scott figured you were.”

“Hope you and him had a nice old chat about me. What else did he say?”

“Nothin’, And we didn’t have any nice chats,” Johnny snapped. “Hardly talked at all.”

“Well I hope you talked long enough to thank him.”

“Thank him for what?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe for goin’ to Sacramento and talkin’ a blue streak to the governor ta get your sorry ass outta that prison.”

“I thought you and Teresa managed that.”

“Well you thought wrong. Teresa and I went down to L.A. to talk to the judge who’d sentenced you, but he was about as cooperative as a mule with a burr up his butt.”

“Teresa went with you to L.A.?”

“Yep. I figured we’d have better luck in person than with a written deposition, but it didn’t matter. He wasn’t gonna let Johnny Madrid out no matter what. Probably went home and kicked his dog when he found out the governor pardoned you.”

“Wonder how Scott managed that,” Johnny mused.

“Your brother can be pretty stubborn. Don’t know where he gets it,” Val sneered.

“He ain’t my brother!”

“The hell he ain’t. You think a stranger would go ta all that trouble of gettin’ you out and then hauling your sorry carcass back here?”

“You would!” Johnny shot.

“Yeah, well, nobody ever accused me of bein’ over bright. Besides, I ain’t exactly a stranger.”

“No,” Johnny agreed. “You’re family. The only family I’ve got, except Jimmy. Still mad at you, though for tellin’ them I was alive.”

“The way I count it, you’ve got a site more family than me and Jimmy. And in case you hadn’t figured it out, if I hadn’t blabbed, you’d still be in prison!”

“They’re not my family anymore,” Johnny said quietly.

“Well, they’re sure doin’ a good imitation of it then. Murdoch and Scott both dropped everything ta get you outta that prison, and all Teresa did was save your life. Then of course there’s Jelly. He told your brother that the only regret he had was not seein’ you before he died.”

Johnny’s head came up. “Is that old man dying?”

Val shrugged. “He had a stroke, just like you. He needs an operation to fix whatever’s wrong, but he won’t do it.”

“Murdoch and Scott should force him.”

Val snorted. “Yeah? How? Tie him up or hit him over the head?”

“They could figure something out.”

Val took off his hat and slapped it against his leg. “They’re too busy tryin’ ta figure out some way to make you stay here.”

Johnny snorted. “Yeah, they’re pulling out all the stops, all right. Scott told me Murdoch had built a new barn and paddocks. Can’t believe the old man would spend that much of his hard earned money on something like that, especially for me.”

“Oh ya can’t, huh? You know what Murdoch told me right before me and Teresa left for Los Angeles?”

Johnny shook his head and stared down at his hands.

“He told me he was gonna tell the bank to send me money if I needed it. He said anything I needed to get you out to just send a wire to the bank. Hell, I coulda taken enough ta live like a king down in Mexico. Probably shoulda. I’m just beatin’ my head against a rock up here.”

“Have you talked to Jimmy?”

“Don’t change the subject!”

“I’m asking about my kid!” Johnny exclaimed.

“All right, but we’re gonna talk more about this later. Murdoch’s out talkin’ to Jimmy now. Tryin’ to get his head on straight.”

“His head is just fine, it’s mine that’s on crooked.” Johnny sighed. “You were right, Val. I never should of lied to him.”

“No, you shouldn’t have. But Jimmy’s bright. He’ll figure out why you done it.”

“And what if he doesn’t?” Johnny asked quietly. “I don’t want to lose him. I…I don’t think I could take that.”

“You ain’t gonna lose him, Johnny. He loves you, just like you love your Pa.”

Johnny’s head shot up and he stared at his friend in disbelief. “I hope he loves me more than that.”

“The only one you’re lyin’ to is yourself. And I’ll tell you one thing for certain. It don’t matter how much Jimmy loves you, you’ll always love him.” At Johnny’s nod, Val continued. “Just like your Pa loves you.”

*****

Teresa examined the tube attached to Johnny’s side, then stood up and listened to his chest once more. With a nod, she pulled the stethoscope off of her neck. “Any coughing? Shortness of breath? Pain?”

“Nope.”

“Well then, I think we can take the tube out.”

“Yeah?” Johnny asked, brightening. “I was beginning to feel like a horse tied to a hitching post. Couldn’t even turn over.”

“I’ll take it out, but I have to warn you that it will probably have to go back in, just for a little while. Sometimes we don’t get everything out the first time.”

Johnny’s eyes widened. “You mean cut on me again?”

“No,” Teresa smirked. “I’ll leave the wound open for a few days. If we need to, we can put it right back in. If there’s no problems, I’ll suture the wound back up.”

“But I can get up, right?”

“You can get up,” she agreed. “But NO riding. I don’t even want you to go in the barn or around the horses. In fact, you stay inside or on the veranda for now.”

“Come on Teresa,” Johnny pleaded.

“NO!”

Johnny opened his mouth to protest, but she cut him off. “Johnny, I know you always push yourself, but this isn’t about that. I’m going to put a loose bandage on the wound, because some air needs to get to it. But unfortunately, that means dirt can get to it, too. If even a little bit of dirt gets in that opening, it will get infected, and if that happens, at the very least we’ll have to put in another drainage tube. Most likely, though, you’ll die.”

Johnny stared at her for a second, then finally nodded. “At least you explained it to me. Sam usually just yells, and well, I don’t follow orders too well.”

Teresa laughed. “Really? I never knew that.”

“Yeah, I kept it hidden real well,” he said, grinning. The smile slowly faded. “I guess I never thanked you.”

“Johnny, I’m a doctor. It’s what I do.”

Johnny shook his head. “I’m talking about the other stuff. Forcing me to work my arms and legs so I could walk outta that hospital.” He shook his head. “I know I was real mean to you, and I apologize for that. I was outta line.”

“Johnny, it was ok. You had every reason to be angry. I’m just glad it helped.” She dropped her head. “I made you mad on purpose. I figured if you got mad enough, you’d want to get out of bed just to strangle me.” She gave him a small smile.

“It’s not funny. I could have hurt you; there was sure more than once when I wanted to. You shouldn’t have taken that chance.”

“You wouldn’t have hurt me.”

Johnny shook his head, not wanting to argue. “You also brought me clothes and money so I’d have a chance when I got out. I shouldn’t have taken that money. I know you couldn’t have been making much at that place. You probably went without for months because of it. And going with Val down to Los Angeles to try and get me out. I owe you for all of it, plus saving my life.”

“Johnny, it was my fault that you were in there in the first place. You don’t owe me any thanks.” She dropped her head. “I was so wrong, I…”

“You STOP RIGHT THERE!” Johnny shouted. “I’ve done a lot of thinking over the years. Yes, I was hurt and more than a little angry with you, but I don’t think you did it to hurt me. I think you were confused.”

“That doesn’t make it right.”

“No, it doesn’t. But let me ask you something. If you had known what was going to happen, would you have still said what you did?”

“NO!” Teresa exclaimed, shocked. She dropped her head. “I had no idea Murdoch would get so angry, and Scott…” Teresa let out a sob. “I am so sorry. I never meant that to happen.”

Johnny reached out and grabbed her hand. “I know,” he said, looking in her eyes. “Teresa, you’ve more than paid for it, and you need to stop beating yourself up about it. I forgave you a long time ago. It’s over. Let it go.”

“But,” she sniffed, “You still won’t come back to Lancer. Johnny, it’s your home.”

Johnny dropped his head. “I said I forgave you. I never said I forgave the Old Man or Scott. Now why don’t you go ahead and take out that tube so I can get outta this bed.”

With a sigh, Teresa nodded. “Let me wash my hands first.”

When Teresa was done, Johnny glanced out the window. “It’s almost dark. You need to stay here tonight.”

“I can’t do that, Johnny.”

“Yes, you can. Even if Murdoch’s mad, he wouldn’t want you driving home in the dark, and I know I wouldn’t.”

“I’m not going to stay.”

Johnny shrugged. “Suit yourself. Then I’m just going to have to drive you.”

“You can’t!” Teresa exclaimed. “I won’t allow it!”

“YOU won’t allow it?” Johnny smirked.

The two of them stared at each other for several moments before Teresa dropped her head. “I didn’t mean to come this late. I just got so busy…”

Johnny shook his head. “You’re going to stay. I’ll talk to Murdoch, and if I need help, I’ll holler. He can’t handle both of us yellin’ at him.”

Teresa chuckled. “No, he can’t. And thank you.”

*****

Johnny hobbled down the hallway to what he hoped was his son’s room. Teresa had gone to her room shortly after he had told Murdoch she was staying for the night, and surprisingly there had been no argument. He had then told Murdoch he was going to take a nap, so the rancher was downstairs by himself going over some bills. He hadn’t seen hide nor hair of Scott, and he sort of wondered about that, but right now his focus was on Jimmy. He had heard the boys come home, and once again, Jimmy had simply poked his head in the room before leaving to do his homework.

He really wished Val was here, he would like some reinforcements, but Val had ridden out this morning, and besides, Johnny figured he’d gotten his own self into this mess and it was his responsibility to get himself out. The door stood open, and Johnny peeked inside. Jimmy was lying on the bed, absent mindedly playing with a piece of leather. So much for having to go do homework. Johnny took a deep breath and entered the room.

Jimmy looked up and his eyes widened when he saw his father. “You’re up!”

Johnny nodded. “And you’re not doing your homework,” he said pointedly.

Jimmy shrugged. “There wasn’t as much as I thought.”

“Uh huh. You gonna stick with that story?”

Jimmy looked up defiantly. “Yeah!”

“You know it’s a lie.” As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Johnny realized his mistake as his son pounced.

“So? Why should I tell the truth?”

Johnny sighed. “It’s never okay for you to lie.”

“But it’s okay for you.”

“No! It wasn’t okay for me. I made a mistake.”

“Why didn’t you tell me? Uncle Val knew, why couldn’t I know?”

“I didn’t want you to worry,” Johnny said quietly, realizing how weak that sounded.

“So, instead you let me think you were dead. You think that was easier?”

Johnny dropped his head. “No.”

“You didn’t even say goodbye!”

 He raised his head back up and stared at his son. “Jimmy, when we left, both Val and I thought we’d be back shortly. Neither one of us had any idea how bad it would be.”

Johnny watched his son play with the piece of leather, refusing to talk. “I really didn’t think I would ever get out of that place. I thought that…that if you thought I was dead you wouldn’t spend all your time worrying. You could get on with you life and be happy.”

Johnny studied his son, but Jimmy kept his head down. “I never really meant it as a lie. I figured I wouldn’t make it out of there, and there was no need for you to spend months worrying about me and then me dying anyway.”

“Do you understand?” Johnny asked in frustration.

“Yeah,” Jimmy said quietly.

Johnny sighed, knowing his son hadn’t meant it Maybe if he could get Jimmy back home, he could talk to him more. “I’m feeling better, and I should be able to ride in a week or so. We can leave then.”

Jimmy’s head shot up. “Leave?”

Johnny nodded. “We need to go home.”

“I don’t want to go!”

“Jimmy, our home is in Arizona.”

“But I like it here! Uncle Scott and Grandpa are nice to me. What would Jelly do if I left? And Sean! He’s my best friend!”

“Jimmy, we can’t stay here.”

“Why? We don’t even have any horses left on the ranch, and Uncle Scott said there were bunches of them here. You could stay here and break them just as easy!”

“I can’t do that.”

“WHY?” Jimmy yelled. “I want to stay here!”

“It’s not your choice!” Johnny snarled. “We’re going back to our own ranch. You have friends in Taylorsville., too.”

“Who? They all told lies about you.”

“What kind of lies?” Johnny whispered.

“They said you used to be a gunfighter.”

Johnny paled and he sat down in a chair next to the bed.

“Who said that?”

Jimmy shrugged. “I don’t know who started it, but all the kids were saying it. I told them it wasn’t true.”

Johnny looked hopelessly at his son. “Jimmy, there was a time, a long time ago, that I did make my living that way.”

Jimmy stared at him in shock. “You were a gunfighter? You killed people for money?”

Johnny nodded weakly.

“I hate you!” Jimmy screamed. “Always telling me not to lie, telling me violence was wrong! It was all a lie! All of it!” He turned and ran out the door.

*****

Jimmy slammed the saddle down on the stall rail, spooking Cisco and making him rear. Unmindful of his horse’s fear, he undid the stall latch and banged the gate open, increasing the pinto’s anxiety.

“Come Here!” Jimmy yelled at the frightened animal as Cisco backed away from him.

“I SAID COME HERE!”

The panicked horse whirled, desperately looking for a way out, when Jimmy felt a hand on his shoulder.

“You’re gonna have to wait till he calms down. Now come on outta there before you get hurt,” Jelly commanded.

Jimmy tried to twist away, but the old man’s grip was like iron. With a sigh, Jimmy followed Jelly out of the stall and closed it behind him.

“Now what in tarnation was that all about?” Jelly demanded. “You know better than that. Your Pa wouldn’t be very happy.”

“I don’t care what my Pa thinks!” Jimmy yelled. “I hate him!”

Jelly guided the boy over to a hay bale. “Sit!” he commanded while he perched himself on another one.

“Now what’s all this nonsense. You don’t hate your Pa.”

“Yes I do! He lied to me, about everything!”

“Well, maybe he had his reasons.”

“He always told me to tell the truth. Always. And he always said violence wasn’t the answer. He was a GUNFIGHTER!”

“You found out about that, didja?”

Jimmy nodded, sniffing softly. “He killed people, Jelly.”

“Yep, he did. But so has your Uncle Scott and your Grandpa. I even killed somebody once.”

That’s different!”

“How do you know?”

“Because.”

“Maybe he didn’t have no choice,” Jelly argued.

“Sure he did! He killed people for money!”

The old man watched Jimmy for a few seconds, then nodded toward Cisco. “So where was you goin’?”

“Away.”

“Any particular place?”

“No.”

Jelly nodded. “Well it’s gettin’ dark. Maybe you should lite out before it gets any darker. I don’t see no saddlebags on that saddle of yours. Weren’t you gonna bring any supplies?”

“Didn’t think of that. But I don’t need any,” Jimmy said defiantly.

“The ground gets awful hard without a blanket or two. Looks like it’s gonna rain pretty soon, too.”

“I’ll get by.”

“Shore you will. Do you got any money?”

Jimmy shook his head. “I’ll get a job.”

“Whatcha going to eat until then?”

Jimmy shrugged. “I’ll find something.”

“There’s some berries out there still. Just make sure they ain’t the poisonous kind. If you see a bear eating ‘em, you’re probably safe.”

“A bear?”

“Yep. Lots a them around here, you know that. You have a knife dontcha?”

Jimmy reached into his pocket and pulled out a pocket knife.”

Jelly looked at it dubiously. “Well, maybe you better stay away from those berries. But I’m sure you can find something. You can sometimes eat tree bark, if you know the right kind of trees. Needs to be boiled though.”

“There are a lot of bears around?” Jimmy asked softly, biting his lip.

“Sure are. But don’t worry. They’ll usually stay away from a big old campfire. You need one anyway, to boil up that tree bark. You do have matches, dontcha?”

Jimmy shook his head.

“Well, don’t worry about it. You can start a fire by rubbin’ two sticks together. Takes some practice, but you’ll get the hang of it in a week or so. You’ll have to ride at least that long to get clear of anybody that might know you. Can’t take the chance on goin’ into any towns. But you’ll do fine. I ain’t worried about ya, but you better get outta here, try and beat that rain. Probably be thunder and lightening, too.”

Jimmy nodded, then stood up and headed for his horse. He stood next to the stall for several moments, then looked over at Jelly. “Maybe I can stay in the barn, tonight.”

“Well, I don’t know. Not many people will let you just stay in their barns. Might as well git used to sleepin’ out.”

Jimmy nodded, and picked up Cisco’s bridle. “Do you think there’s anything to eat out there besides tree bark?”

Jelly shrugged, then grinned. “You could try fishing! All you need is a few hooks, and that fire will come in handy if you do catch some. Never did take much of a hankerin’ ta raw fish, myself.”

Jimmy wilted a little bit more. “I don’t much care for fish, anyway.”

“Well then, you might have to ask people along the way. Sometimes they’ll let you work for a few bites of food. Sometimes, though, after you do all their chores, they just send you on your way with a kick on your backside. Not much you can do about that. Just try again, I suppose.”

“People would do that?” Jimmy asked in surprise.

“’Course they would. There’s lots a varmints out there that’d take advantage of a kid. You bein’ on your own you’ll just have to get used to being knocked around some. Comes with the territory.”

“But the sheriff wouldn’t allow that.”

Jelly snorted. “What sheriff? Besides, not all lawmen are like your Uncle Val. Most of ‘em would be the first one to kick your behind outta their town. That is, if they didn’t lock you up in their jail. Nope, you’re on your own when it comes to protecting yourself.”

“I have my knife,” Jimmy offered.

“That little bitty thing? What’re you gonna do when there’s three or four of them?”

“I don’t know,” Jimmy whispered, looking miserable.

“I’ll tell you what you’d do. You’d get a gun as soon as you could, wouldn’t you? Just to protect yourself.”

“I guess.”

“Shore you would. And a gun ain’t much good if you can’t use it. So you’d start practising.”

Jimmy nodded.

“Now you’ve been tryin’ ta get a job for quite a while. You done a lot of pitching hay and mucking out stalls. Pretty tough jobs. Sometimes you’d get some food for doin’ those things and sometimes you wouldn’t. But cash money was pretty scarce. Then one day somebody offers you some of that cash money. More money than you’ve ever seen, and all you have to do is scare somebody with that gun of yours. Sounds a lot easier than muckin’ out stalls, and winter’s here and you got no shelter. With that money you can get outta the cold for a little bit and get something to eat besides tree bark. Would you do it?”

Jimmy nodded. “I’m not stupid.”

“Never said you was. But after you git your money for scarin that fella, somebody thinks he’s better with a gun than you are, and wants you to fight him in the street, with guns. You’re scared ta death, but the other fella just won’t stop. If you don’t fight him, he’s gonna kill you. And there ain’t no sheriff in sight. What would you do?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t? REALLY?”

“I guess I’d fight him.”

Jelly nodded. “You shore would. You’d have no choice. And if you’re real lucky you won’t git yourself killed. But once you live through that gunfight, more and more men are gonna call you out, just to see if you’re as fast as everyone says. Sometimes you don’t git off so easy. Sometimes one of their bullets finds you, even if you are faster. Then you have to hole up by yourself and try to heal, or die. Sometimes you even have to dig that bullet out yourself. Point is, nobody wants to help you, and you can’t trust nobody. And gittin’ an honest Job? That won’t happen no more. They’re too afraid of you. The only ones that come looking for you want your gun. Either they want you to fight them, or they want you to help them fight someone else. You hate it, but there’s no way you can ever stop.”

“Is that what happened to my Pa?” Jimmy asked in a small voice.

Jelly nodded. “Jimmy, he was just about your age when his Ma died and left him all alone.”

“What about his Pa?”

“Well, his Ma had left your Grandpa when your Pa was just a baby. He didn’t know his Pa wanted him, he’d never seen him. Anyway, he was on his own, just like you would have been if you had left. No supplies and not knowin’ how ta take care of himself. He had a lot of lonesome days. Had a lotta real bad days, too. Days when he’d get beat up and didn’t have no food and no place ta get outta the weather. Good days were mighty scarce.”

“But he lived here, didn’t he?”

Jelly nodded. “When he was all growed up. He’d been a gunfighter for a lot of years by then, but I’ll tell you, he did his darndest to hang up his guns and be a rancher when he came here. He hated bein’ a gunfighter.

 Jimmy, your Pa’s a good man. He’s an honest one, too. Never known him to lie about anything. I don’t know exactly why he lied about bein’ dead, but I can tell you for certain, he didn’t do it to hurt you. Your Pa loves you and would die for you, and I DO know that. He made a mistake, pure and simple.”

Jelly thought for a moment, then continued. “Jimmy, remember when you and Sean were racing, and Cisco fell and hurt himself?”

The boy nodded.

“Now you know it was your fault that your horse was hurt, because you weren’t supposed to be racing. How did it feel, knowin’ that, and knowin’ Cisco might die because of your mistake. Would you have taken it back if you could?”

“Of course!”

“Well, I have the feelin’ your Pa would take back that lie, too. He never meant to hurt you. And you tellin’ that horse of yours that you were sorry wouldn’t have changed nothin’ if he had died. But that’s all you could do, is say you’re sorry. You can’t go back and change what happened, no matter how much you want to.”

Jimmy nodded. “I guess. “

“You have some thinkin’ to do,” Jelly commanded. “Now why don’t you go inside…”

Jimmy looked at Jelly curiously when he didn’t finish his sentence, and as he watched, Jelly stiffened up, then toppled off the bale and hit the ground.

*****

Against his better judgement, Johnny was giving Jimmy some time to cool off. He was still keeping one eye on the big picture window, ready to bolt if he saw the pinto fly past, but for now he needed to sit for a minute. He was exhausted from being up, but wanted to talk to Jimmy before going back to bed. Although his eyes were watching for the pinto, his ears were tuned to the strained conversation going on at the supper table. Since Jelly was in the barn, hopefully with Jimmy, and Scott was missing, it was just Murdoch, Teresa, Sean and himself to try to carry on a conversation.

“So, Murdoch, where’s Scott?” Johnny finally asked.

Murdoch gave his son a grateful look. Anything was better than trying to maintain a civil dialogue with Teresa. “He and Frank went up to the north pasture to check out the new stock. They should be back soon.”

Johnny nodded. Maybe. It just seemed strange that Scott had taken off so soon after Johnny’s return. Inwardly he shrugged. Why should Scott stick around anyway? It wasn’t like they were close anymore. His eyes returned to the window, and he sat up straighter, his gaze taking in the running form of his son. Johnny was already on his feet when Jimmy burst into the room.

“Grandpa! It’s Jelly! He passed out!”

The rest of them jumped up and ran, with Johnny struggling to keep up.

Once in the barn, Johnny knelt down and cradled Jelly’s head on his lap.

The old man’s eyes fluttered, and he weakly shook his head. “What happened?”

“You passed out!” Jimmy volunteered.

“I just got a mite dizzy.”

Teresa bent down and took hold of one of Jelly’s wrists in her hand, then looked at Johnny worriedly. “We have to get him inside.”

Johnny started to scoop him up, but was stopped by a yell from his father. “I’ll get him! You haven’t even recovered yet.”

“I’m fine!” Johnny shot back.

“You’ll do as you’re told!” Murdoch ordered as he grabbed Jelly out of Johnny’s hands. “And get out of that dirt! You’re not even supposed to be out here!”

Johnny watched angrily as Murdoch hurriedly carried Jelly into the house, with Teresa next to him. After kicking the nearby hay bale, he followed along.

Murdoch started up the stairs, but Teresa stopped him and motioned toward the kitchen. Carrying him past the abandoned dishes in the dining room, Murdoch carefully deposited him on the kitchen table after Teresa had swept it clear with her hand.

“I already sent Walt for Sam,” Johnny volunteered as he entered the room.

Teresa shook her head as she examined her patient. “He needs surgery to remove the blockage, and he needs it now. I don’t know if I can wait for Sam.”

“Don’t want no surgery,” Jelly said weakly.

Johnny stepped up next to him and took the hand of his friend. “Jelly, you need it.”

The old man shook his head. “I was just waitin’ ta see you, now I can die happy.”

“Then I never should have come back!” Johnny exclaimed. “Don’t you put this on me, old man! You’re going to have that surgery!”

“Johnny, it’s his choice,” Teresa pointed out.

“The hell it is! We ALL have a say in this – Sean and Jimmy, you and Murdoch and me! He looked down at his friend. “Your family! Do you want to let everybody down?” He pointed over at Sean and Jimmy, who were huddled together in the corner, crying. “Do you want to let THEM down?”

“I’m scared,” Jelly admitted.

“Of what! You already said you were ready to die!” Johnny said with a smirk.

“I ought a take you over my knee.”

“You let Doc here operate, and I just might let you.” Johnny turned serious. “Jelly, I’ve had a lot of doctors work on me. Some good, some bad. But there’s only two of them I ever trusted, and one of them is standing right here, ready to help you.”

Jelly looked at his friend a long time, then nodded. “Okay, we’ll do it your way.”

Johnny stepped back and looked over at Teresa. “What do you need?”

Teresa bit her lip. “I wish Sam was here, but I don’t want to wait. Can you get Maria? She can help me.”

“Do you need us for anything?” Murdoch asked as Johnny left the room. When she shook her head, he headed to the Great Room with the two boys following him.

When Johnny and Maria came back, the woman hurried into the kitchen while Johnny went into the Great Room to wait. He went to the liquor cabinet and poured two drinks, then walked over and handed one to his father. Murdoch looked up and nodded, then turned his attention to the two boys. “Can the two of you go out and take care of the stock?”

Sean and Jimmy fled gratefully, and Johnny plopped down on the couch. Jimmy hadn’t spoken to him at all. He gulped down the rest of his drink, then slammed the glass down on the counter.

“Jelly will be okay,” Murdoch assured him.

“Yeah, I know.” He fiddled with a loose thread on the sofa. “I’m worried about Jimmy,” he finally admitted.

Murdoch’s eyebrows rose. “What’s wrong with Jimmy?”

“Nothing’s wrong with him. It’s me. I messed everything up.” He hesitated a moment, then forged on. “I think I lost him,” he whispered.

“Because of the lie you told him?” Murdoch guessed.

Johnny nodded. “That, and he found out I used to be a gunfighter.”

“Did you try to talk to him?”

“Of course I did,” Johnny snapped. “He didn’t even listen and I don’t blame him. What excuse can I give him? I messed up. I don’t have an excuse.”

“All you can do is keep telling him you’re sorry and try to make sure he knows you love him,” Murdoch said quietly. “There’s nothing you can do to force someone to forgive you.”

“And what if he doesn’t forgive me?” Johnny snapped. “What then?”

“You keep trying,” Murdoch said sadly. “You try with every breath you take for the rest of your life, and pray every night that somehow, you’ll be forgiven.”

“That’s IT? Just pray and hope for the best?” Johnny shook his head. “I’m not buying that. There’s got to be something else I can do!”

“If you can come up with something, believe me, I’d like to know.”

“I’ve got to make him believe me! Make him understand that I didn’t mean to hurt him. That I’d do anything to take it back, but I CAN’T!” Johnny broke down and tried desperately to hold back the tears. Murdoch immediately went to his son and held him until he had calmed down. Surprisingly, Johnny didn’t pull away from him.

“You were talking about me and you, weren’t you?” Johnny finally asked.

Murdoch nodded.

“How did you stand it?” Johnny asked quietly.

“I didn’t and I still don’t,” Murdoch admitted. “But right after you left I pretty much went out of my mind for a while. Scott bore the brunt of it. I don’t know why he stayed, except he had guilt of his own.”

Johnny dropped his head as he pulled away. “How could you believe that I did it?”

“I don’t know if I can explain it. I’m not even sure myself.”

“Please,” Johnny prompted.

“I had looked for you for so long. I never gave up hope. But…when they finally found you, and told me…” Murdoch paused

“Told you about me being Johnny Madrid,” Johnny finished.

“Yes.” He closed his eyes. “Johnny, you have to understand, I DIDN’T KNOW YOU!” Every single gunfighter I had ever seen or even heard about was like Pardee. I hoped, I PRAYED you were different, but deep inside, I just didn’t know. I was afraid. For Teresa, for Scott, for all of us if you came here.”

“I understand,” Johnny assured him. “But by the time that happened, I had been here long enough that you should have known I wasn’t like that.”

Murdoch nodded his head. “Yes, I should have. Part of me, in fact most of me, did.”

“But there was still some doubt.”

Murdoch nodded once more. “Everywhere I turned, I heard gossip. I heard innuendo, I heard horrible accusations about you. I tried to ignore it, and I thought I had. Until.”

Johnny dropped his head. “Until you heard Teresa say the same thing you’d worried about.”

“Yes,” Murdoch whispered. “But even then…” his voice dropped off.

“Even then, what?”

“Johnny, I NEVER believed you had forced her. Never. And even though Teresa had never lied to me before, I wanted to believe I was wrong. I wanted you to deny it! I wanted you to get mad and tell me I was crazy!”

Murdoch shook his head sadly. “I know how badly I behaved. I should never have hit you. Before you walked in, I was planning on talking to you like a parent. But this DAMNABLE temper of mine took over.”

“Like in the barn just now,” Johnny asked, pulling further away from his father and looking at him.

“In the barn?” Murdoch asked quizzically.

Johnny nodded. “You jumped down my throat when I tried to pick Jelly up.”

Murdoch stared at him for a moment, then smiled softly. “That wasn’t my temper, that was me being a parent.”

“What?”

“Johnny, will you do me a favor?”

“Yeah,” Johnny said cautiously.

“Pretend that you were me, and Jimmy did exactly what you were doing in the barn, in the same shape you are in right now. What would you do?”

Johnny scowled for a moment, then finally smiled and shrugged. “I guess I would have yelled, too.”

“I know you would have. Johnny, please stay here, give me another chance.”

Johnny stared at his father, then shook his head. “I may have acted the way you did in the barn, but no matter what, I wouldn’t have acted the way you did the day I left. I would have believed my own son,” Johnny said angrily.

“That’s just it!” Murdoch shouted. “How could I believe you when you never denied it! YOU NEVER SAID ANYTHING to make me believe you hadn’t done it. You just stormed out!”

“I shouldn’t have HAD to defend myself! That’s what parents are supposed to do! To defend their kids, to protect them! I NEVER had anybody to protect me or stand up for me! Never! I guess I thought that for just once in my life my brother or my father would have done that! I know I would have done it for either of you. I would have DIED for you, before you pulled that, you know that? You destroyed me.”

Johnny bowed his head. “You asked me to stay here. I CAN’T. Don’t you understand? When I left this ranch, I changed. I might not have been capable of doing what you accused me of at the time, but I sure as hell was capable of it after that. I COULD HAVE KILLED YOU! I CAME HERE TO KILL YOU! Don’t you know that?”

“I don’t believe you,” Murdoch said quietly.

“Well, you’d better, because it’s the truth.”

“Then why aren’t Scott and I dead? If Johnny Madrid had really wanted us dead, we would be.”

“I don’t know,” Johnny said miserably. “I guess I lost my nerve.”

“Bullshit! You didn’t kill us because you’re not a cold blooded killer, and that was what it would have taken to shoot us down.”

“I still wanted to see you die!”

“I don’t believe that, either. If that was true, why didn’t you just stand aside and let your ‘business associates’ shoot us? You not only didn’t let them, you STOPPED them, and damn near got killed in the process.”

Murdoch sighed deeply. “Johnny, you have to stop lying to yourself. You have every right to be angry. Every right to hate us, but it’s not in you to hate like that. You’re not a cold blooded killer and that IS something I’ve known from the first day you came to Lancer.”

“I’ve changed.”

“We all have. Johnny, the last twelve years of your life you’ve done NOTHING but be a respectable rancher and an amazing father. If you had as much hate in you as you think you do, you never could have done either of those things. You would never have hung up your guns. And I know you have. Do you know why? Because since you’ve been here you haven’t worn a gun once.”

Johnny snorted. “ I don’t have one to wear, or believe me I would.”

Murdoch shook his head. “Before, you would have found one, any one. You wouldn’t go without. You’re not a gunfighter any more. And even when you were, I was always proud of you. Always. I was proud of how you managed to be caring and responsible without anyone showing you how to be that way. You did it yourself. You did EVERYTHING yourself, and did a mighty fine job.”

“You sure didn’t act proud of me before,” Johnny said quietly.

Murdoch dropped his head. “No, I didn’t. And I’m ashamed of that. But after you left, I realized it wasn’t you I was angry with, it was me. It was your mother. It was fate. Call it what you will. Every time I saw you struggle to learn something you hadn’t been taught, something that should have been shown to you when you were a child, I became angry. Not at you, but the fact that you had to struggle all your life! You weren’t able to stay here and be my son! You had to be a gunfighter to survive! I hated ALL of that, but I never hated you! I love you, son, and I always have. NOTHING CAN EVER change that. I love you as much as you love your son.”

Murdoch stared at him. “Please, Johnny, just think about staying. I want you to stay here, at Lancer. I want you to stay with us in the main house. But if you can’t or don’t want to, I’ll build a house for you anywhere on the ranch. You won’t have to work with the cattle anymore. We have the facilities now to raise those horses you always wanted. I’ll even buy some foundation stock for you, if that’s what you want.”

“Twenty of the top Andalusians from Spain?” Johnny asked.

Murdoch blanched, then nodded.

“And ten dollars a day pay?”

“Yes,” Murdoch choked.

“And we get rid of the cattle completely and buy all horses?”

“Now wait a minute!” Murdoch exploded, then stopped when he saw his son laughing.

“I just wanted you see how far you’d go with your bribes.” He turned serious. “I ain’t looking for a free lunch, Murdoch. All those things you said you’d do, I appreciate, but that doesn’t change the way I feel.”

“I know. I was desperate,” Murdoch admitted.

“Look. Jimmy said he wanted to stay. I’ll think about it, okay?”

Murdoch looked at his son gratefully. “Thank you.”

Johnny nodded. “I’ll tell you right now, though. If Scott and I can’t come to some sort of understanding, I’m not staying.”

“Scott feels just as badly about what happened as I do.”

“Maybe, but he’s gonna have to do better than that before I stay. He hurt me, bad.”

“And I didn’t?”

Johnny shrugged. “I sort of expected it from you. I never expected it from him. He cost me a lot, and I’m going to make sure it never happens again, one way or the other.”

Murdoch nodded, ashamed of the way Johnny felt about him, but worried more about how he felt toward Scott. How could this be fixed?

*****

Teresa walked into the Great Room and stared at the two men. They both looked worn out, but content, and she wondered if the two of them had finally talked. She hoped so, otherwise she knew that Johnny would leave once more, and she couldn’t really blame him. She knew Murdoch loved his sons, just as he had once loved her, until she had destroyed that love. The thought brought tears to her eyes, and she angrily swiped then away. She thought she was past those feelings. With an effort, she composed herself and stepped closer to the two men.

Johnny looked up first, and got to his feet, with Murdoch following a second later. She looked at both of them and motioned for them to sit, while she sank into the chair between them.

“I cleared the blockage and he’s resting comfortably.”

“He’ll be okay?” Johnny asked anxiously.

“He came through the surgery all right and there were no complications. Barring infection, he should do fine.”

Johnny grinned at her. “When did you start talking like a doctor?” he asked, teasing.

She smiled back at him. “That’s the first class I took at medical school.”

The smile faded as she looked at Murdoch, who was frowning at her. Her glance slid away and she stood up, but his voice stopped her.

“Teresa!”

She slowly turned and looked Murdoch uncertainly. “Yes?”

“I want to thank you for helping both Jelly and Johnny. I think that if you hadn’t been here, I might have lost them both.” He hesitated, unsure of what else to say.

“He’s not out of the woods yet. Something could still go wrong,” she explained softly.

Murdoch nodded. “I know that. But you tried. After…after the way we…I… acted toward you, I’m surprised you even did that.”

“I’m a doctor. I don’t pick and choose my patients. I help whoever needs me,” Teresa snapped.

Murdoch nodded once more. “Anyway, thank you. And no matter what you say, you didn’t have to offer to do that surgery.”

Teresa’s head rose and she stared at the man who had once been her whole world. “I wouldn’t do that! Especially to Jelly! I love him too, you know,” she said softly. “Just like I still love all of you,” she admitted. “I know I’m nothing to you, but you’ll always be my family.”

She and Murdoch locked eyes for several moments before Teresa turned to Johnny. “I don’t want you lifting yet, could you please get a couple of men to put Jelly in his bed?”

Johnny nodded, then stood up, giving her a wink on the way out. She smiled softly and turned and went back into the kitchen, her heart lighter.

*****

Johnny walked into the barn, looking to see if any of the hands were inside. Walt was just unsaddling his horse, so he asked the man if he would get some help and go into the house. Walt nodded, and Johnny turned to go, but he spun around when he heard a noise behind him.

“Doctor Teresa is going to be mad,” Jimmy said.

“Is that so?”

The boy nodded. “You’re not supposed to be in the barn.”

“And just how is she going to find out?”

Jimmy smiled at his father. “Well, MAYBE I won’t tell, but it’s going to cost you.”

Johnny leaned against a support post and smiled back at his son, grateful that it looked like he was getting another chance. “So, what’s it going to be?”

Jimmy shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said. “What are you offering?”

Johnny shook his head. “Oh no. You first.”

Jimmy stared at his father for a moment, then his face crumpled and he ran into Johnny’s waiting arms. “I’m sorry, Pa. I didn’t mean it! I love you!”

Johnny pulled the boy close. “Sshh. It’s okay. I know you didn’t mean it. And I love you, too.”

Jimmy sniffed a couple of times, then pulled away from his father. “I’m sorry.”

Johnny shook his head. “No, Jimmy. I’m sorry. I never meant to lie to you. I know it’s hard to understand now, but one day, when you have kids, you will. I was trying to protect you. I didn’t want you to worry about me. I wanted you to be happy.”

“How could I be happy if you were dead?”

“When you were here, before I came back, you had some happy times, didn’t you?”

Jimmy shrugged. “I guess. Maybe a few.”

Johnny smiled. “It’s okay to admit that you did. That’s what I wanted; for you to be happy. And the longer I was gone, the more happy days you would have had. I didn’t want you to spend your whole life worrying about me if you knew where I was. Do you understand?”

“I guess. But Uncle Val knew, and he worried.”

“Yes, he did. But he’s an adult.”

Jimmy bit his lip. “Why didn’t you tell Grandpa and Uncle Scott? They’re adults.”

Johnny sighed, unsure of what to say, but determined not to lie to his son anymore. “Your Grandpa and Uncle Scott and I just aren’t close anymore.”

“Why? Because they hurt you, like Uncle Scott told me?”

“He told you that?” Johnny asked, surprised.

Jimmy nodded his head. “He said that you thought they didn’t want you here, and you left. He said they tried to find you, but they couldn’t, and he said that he’d give anything to take it back, but it was too late.”

Johnny dropped his head, and slowly nodded. “I guess that’s about it.”

“Why can’t you forgive them?”

“It’s not that simple.”

“Jelly said it was because they hurt you, and you didn’t want to be hurt anymore.”

“Well, I guess Jelly’s a pretty smart man.”

“What about me?” Jimmy sobbed. “Are going to leave me?”

“Leave you? Of course not! Where did you come up with that idea?” he asked as he held his son once more.

Jimmy swallowed hard. “I hurt you, when I said I hated you.”

“Oh, Jimmy, that’s different. I know you didn’t mean it.”

“But neither did Uncle Scott. He told me so. Why can’t you forgive him?”

Johnny opened his mouth to reply, then shut it again. He didn’t have an answer, at least none that would make sense to Jimmy. “I don’t know.”

“You always told me that family should stick together. Well Uncle Scott and Grandpa are our family, too.”

Johnny smiled at the boy and ruffled his hair. “When did you get so smart?”

Jimmy smiled, then grabbed his father’s hand. “Come see Barranca!”

Johnny stopped abruptly. “Barranca?”

“Yeah. Don’t you remember? I told you when you first came home that Uncle Scott had bought him from old Ben and brought him here.”

“Oh. That Barranca. And no, I don’t remember you telling me that.”

Jimmy shrugged. “I guess you were asleep,” he admitted.

Johnny laughed. “Well, that might explain it.” He let the boy drag him to the palomino’s stall, and he lightly fingered the old sign before greeting the horse.

Barranca nuzzled him for a second, then continued nervously looking toward the barn door.

“What’s he looking for?” Johnny asked.

Jimmy shrugged. “Probably Uncle Scott.”

“Has he been riding him?”

Jimmy nodded vigorously. “He rides him all the time. He said Barranca’s the only horse he was ever close to. Jelly says they belong together, just like you and your Barranca belonged together.”

“He did, huh?”

“Uh huh.”

Jimmy’s brow furrowed. “I wonder why Scott took Ulysses?”

“Where did he go? Do you know?”

“Nope. Probably out working.”

“Probably.” He walked over the pinto’s stall. “How’s Cisco doing? You been taking care of him?”

“Yeah,” Jimmy said quietly.

Johnny shot him a sharp look. “What happened?”

Jimmy hung his head. “Well, Sean and I were racing. We knew we weren’t supposed to, but, but well,”

“Okay, go on,” Johnny said, hiding a smile as visions of he and Scott racing swam into view.

“Well, I don’t remember exactly what happened, but Cisco fell.”

“Were you all right?” Johnny asked, concerned.

Jimmy shrugged. “I guess I was knocked out. Doctor Jenkins said I had a…con…con…”

“Concussion,” Johnny said.

“Yeah. A concussion. I hurt my shoulder, too, but Sean told me Grandpa and Scott fixed it before the doctor came. It was out of place or something.”

“Dislocated,” Johnny said seriously. “Are you okay now?”

“Yeah! I’m fine. Cisco was hurt, though. Grandpa was going to shoot him, but Sean wouldn’t let him. He and Jelly doctored him the whole time before the doctor let me out of the house, and now he’s good as new.” He dropped his head. “I snuck out a few times though. I didn’t think anybody knew, but Doctor Jenkins told me I was just like you. That you always snuck out, too.”

Johnny chuckled. “Yeah, I guess I did. And I guess I’d better go back in the house before I get in trouble. Come on, we can play some checkers.”

“Okay, Pa. Maybe we can get something to eat, too. I’M HUNGRY.”

Johnny lightly slapped Jimmy’s shoulder. “Me too!”

*****

Johnny thought he just might be going crazy. Teresa had finally sewn up his incision three days ago, but hadn’t given him permission to actually do anything. She said until it healed, he was still supposed to stay away from the horses and not strain. Staying home every day with Murdoch was driving them both to drink. Val and Scott had disappeared, and he was thinking completely uncharitable thoughts about both of them for leaving him alone with Murdoch. And of course Jelly. He couldn’t forget Jelly. That old man had somehow found the cowbell he had used the first time he came to Lancer, and was running both of them ragged answering its ring.

The good news was, of course, that the surgery had been a success. Even though Jelly was trying to convince everyone that he was dying, everyone, including Johnny, noticed how much better he looked. The old man would probably live till he was a hundred.

Johnny’s thoughts were interrupted by the clanging of the bell, and his previous estimate of how long Jelly would live went down considerably. He was going to be lucky to survive today if Johnny had his way. With a sigh, he put down the sandwich he had just made and headed for Jelly’s room. As Johnny left the kitchen he was almost run down by his father, who was coming from the Great Room.

“I’ll get it,” they said in unison.

“Go sit down, Murdoch. I’ll see what he wants.”

“You’ve been hopping for him all day, and you’re still not strong. I’ll go.”

“Murdoch, I’M FINE! Nothin’ else to do, anyway. Now go finish your contracts or whatever it was you were doin’.”

Murdoch turned away, mumbling under his breath while Johnny continued on. He stood in the doorway for a minute, watching Jelly ring the bell furiously. It wasn’t until Johnny heard a bellow from his father that he finally entered the room.

“Well, it’s about time. Man could starve ta death just waitin’ for a crumb around here.”

“Is that so?” Johnny asked.

Jelly nodded vigorously and set the bell down.

“It seems to me that the bacon and eggs I brought up an hour ago would prevent that,” Johnny stated as he picked up the bell and played with it.

“Well you thought wrong!” Jelly insisted. “Besides, Teresa said I had to eat ta get my strength up.”

“That was over a week ago, Jelly. Your strength should be just fine, since you’ve been eating Murdoch out of house and home since then,” Johnny said as he walked over to the window.

“Well, I have to make up for all them meals I missed when I was feelin’ so poorly. After all, being cut open and nearly bleedin’ ta death takes a lot outta a man! I’m so weak I can hardly move my fingers, and Teresa said not ta push it. Said to wait till I got my strength up before tryin’ ta git up!”

Johnny opened the window, then turned and faced the man. “You missed exactly two meals, and Teresa said you didn’t lose more than a few drops of blood,” he said as he threw the bell out the window.

With a squawk, Jelly swung his knees over the edge of the bed and stood up. “What’d you go and do that for! How in tarnation am I gonna get help when I need it?,” he asked as he hobbled toward the window and peered down.

Johnny just stared at the man until Jelly finally realized what he had just done.

“See what ya made me do?” he blustered, “The scare of you throwin’ the only thing keepin’ me alive out that window forced me ta fight for my life!”

Jelly sagged against the window and moaned. “I’m so weak. You probably set me back two weeks on my healin’.”

Johnny went over and helped the old man into bed, drew up the covers, then sat down. “What’s this all about, Jelly?”

“What’s it to you?” he snapped.

Johnny just stared at him.

Finally Jelly lowered his head. “You’re fixin’ ta take off, ain’t you? You and Jimmy.”

“Is that what this is about?”

“Johnny you don’t know what it was like, livin’ here with you and Scott gone.”

Johnny’s head came up. “Scott left?”

“Well, he didn’t really leave. But he wasn’t here, neither. Didn’t talk much, never came out ta just gab like you and him used to do. It was mighty lonely. Got pretty down, thinkin’ maybe Old Jelly would be better off just goin’ ta sleep and not wakin’ up.”

“Don’t talk like that, Jelly.”

“Can’t help the way I felt. But then Jimmy showed up. Didn’t know he was your boy, but he sure did remind me of you. He helped me and would come and talk to me. Didn’t think I was useless.”

“You’re not useless,” Johnny argued.

“Well, maybe I am and maybe I ain’t. Fact remains I sure can’t do what I used to. But I don’t FEEL old, ya know? Especially since Doc Teresa fixed me up. Feel better’n I have for a long time. But if you and Jimmy leave, I’ll go right back ta feelin’ useless, everybody ignorin’ me and pretendin’ I ain’t there.”

Johnny took a deep breath. “Jelly, I know what you’re asking, but I don’t if I can give you the answer you want. I just don’t know yet what I’m going to do. I will tell you that I already told Murdoch, that I’d think about staying.”

“Ya did? Well, why didn’t ya tell me?” he said as he swung his feet around to stand up. “I been wastin’ good time! I got lots ta do. That barn probably looks like a tornado hit it without me out there runnin’ things!”

Johnny reached out and steadied the older man. “Just slow down. You’re still not supposed to be doing anything hard yet.”

Jelly swatted his hand away. “I ain’t gonna do nothin’ hard. Just make sure that barn ain’t fallin apart. Now hand me my britches!”

Johnny passed the man his trousers. “Jelly, I want you to know, if I do leave and go back to Taylorsville, well, you know you’re welcome to come along.”

“Thank you, Johnny. That means more to me than you know,” he said, with tears in his eyes. “But we both need to be HERE. Murdoch needs us, even if he won’t admit it, even to himself.”

Johnny shrugged. “He has Scott.” He looked at Jelly shrewdly. “Where is he, anyway?”

Jelly shrugged. “Don’t know. Like I told ya, he don’t tell me nothin anymore.”

“Val didn’t happen to tell you where HE was going, did he?”

“Nope. Nobody tells old Jelly anything. Now hand me my shirt, then you can help me out to the barn.”

*****

Johnny leaned his back against the stall and finally relaxed. The familiar and welcome scent of hay and horse soothed him and he shut his eyes. Jelly had tried to get him to go back in the house, but he had refused, arguing that he wasn’t doing anything to strain himself or get dirty. The old man had finally given in and returned to the house himself, mumbling something about ‘impudent pups’, but Johnny was too relaxed to let it bother him.

Johnny swam back to consciousness when the sound of a horse whickering intruded into his dreams. He stretched and stood up to see Scott leading an exhausted chestnut into the barn.

“Tough day?” Johnny asked sarcastically.

“As a matter of fact it was. Productive, but tough.”

Excited whinnies drowned out Scott’s voice, and the hard thud of a hoof hitting the stall door reverberated through the barn.

“Looks like Barranca’s glad to see you,” Johnny observed.

“Well, at least somebody is,” Scott answered pointedly. He led his horse to the stall, undid the saddle and tossed it down, then turned the chestnut loose before turning to the palomino who was demanding his attention.

“I’m glad to see you’re okay,” Scott said, over his shoulder as he rubbed Barranca’s forehead.

“I’m fine. Course you would have known that if you’d stayed.”

“I had something important to do.”

“Yeah, I bet.”

“Johnny, I’m tired, hungry and sore. If you want to keep sniping at me, feel free, but don’t expect me to return the favor, because I’m just too tired.”

Johnny dropped his head. “Sorry. I guess I thought you’d stick around, but I guess there was no need.”

“You were healing well when I left, and as I said, I had something important to take care of.”

Johnny watched as Scott fussed over the palomino. “Val said you were the one who managed to get me freed from that prison.”

Scott stopped and looked over at his little brother. “You’re welcome. I expect you’d do the same for me. It’s what brothers do.”

“Scott,” Johnny started, but Scott held up his hand. “I know. I’m not your brother. Well, I may not be YOUR brother, but YOU most certainly are MINE. And since I’m not planning on landing in prison anytime soon, I doubt if you’ll have to worry about returning the favor.”

Barranca reached over and lipped Scott, who grinned before giving the horse one last pat and walking over to his brother. “By the way, you did a great job on this horse. He’s the most beautifully trained mount I’ve ever had. It’s going to be hard to replace him.”

Johnny’s head shot up. “Why would you have to replace him? Something wrong with him?”

Scott shook his head. “No, but he’s your horse.”

“Just how do you figure that? It’s your name that’s on the bill of sale. Unless, of course, you stole him.”

Scott just looked at his brother. “Trying to get me in prison so soon? Are you that eager to return the favor?”

Johnny snorted. “In case you didn’t know, they hang horse thieves. They don’t put them in prison.”

Scott shook his head. “It doesn’t matter who has the bill of sale. You trained him, he’s yours.”

“And you bought him. You own him,” Johnny insisted.

“I wouldn’t have been able to buy him if you hadn’t been in trouble. And I’m not going to argue about it.”

“Neither am I. We’ll just let Barranca settle it.” Johnny went over and flung the stall door open. The palomino hurried past him to reach Scott.

“See,” Johnny said. “Your horse.”

“Johnny, really, I have Ulysses.”

“Scott, believe me. A horse like that palomino only comes around once, if you’re lucky.”

“That’s why you should have him.”

Johnny shook his head. “You don’t understand. To me, that horse is just a pretty, nicely trained horse. I could get a dozen horses that I feel the same about. To me, he’s nothing special, because the connection isn’t there. When I first got him, I was hoping I could get what I had with the first Barranca. That’s why I named him that. But it just didn’t work out like that. We never ‘clicked’.

“Maybe if you worked him some more…”

“Look, Scott. If you don’t want him, sell him. I don’t want him.”

“Ben said he was your personal horse. So did Jimmy.”

“So? Ulysses is yours, right?”

“Yes.”

“Would you sell him if you got a good offer?”

“There are times,” Scott said, remembering the many times he had fought the stubborn animal, “It wouldn’t even have to be a GOOD offer.”

“So you ride him because he’s the best you have, but he’s just a good horse. Nothin’ special?”

Scott nodded. “All right, I see what you mean. If you really feel that way about that palomino, I would love to keep him, and thank you.”

“For what? Like I said, you bought him. I’m gonna keep looking. Maybe one of these days I’ll find what I’m looking for.”

“I hope so,” Scott answered. “By the way, can you ride, yet?”

Johnny snorted. “Sure I can. I’m not SUPPOSED to, though. I swear, Teresa is worse than Sam.”

“Well, when you ARE ALLOWED to ride, I was wondering if you would go with me to see some stock.”

“Why?”

“Because I’d like your opinion. Besides, I thought you’d rather take a ride than be stuck in the house with Murdoch.”

“When you put it that way, when can we leave?”

Scott held up his hands. “Not until you’re cleared to ride by your doctor.”

“Come on, Scott. You can put me on the pokiest old piece of crowbait you got. Just let me go for a ride.”

“All right. Tomorrow, but you owe me.”

“Sure. What’s wrong with today?”

“Because I would like to get cleaned up and have something to eat.”

“All right, tomorrow,” Johnny agreed sulkily as he headed toward the barn door as Scott returned Barranca to his stall. “Besides, I’m hungry, too. I never did get my sandwich this afternoon.”

“What?”

“Say, you don’t know about Jelly, do you?”

“What about him?”

“Teresa had to do surgery on him. I guess something in his neck was blocked so the blood couldn’t get through. He’s okay now, though.”

“Well I’m glad he finally agreed to do it,” Scott stated as he caught up with Johnny. “Teresa’s probably checking up on him. That must be why she’s here.”

Johnny turned and glared at him. “You knew she was here?”

Scott shrugged. “She was getting out of her buggy when I rode in. She said to tell you that you could probably ride, but she just wanted to check your sutures first.”

“And you didn’t think to inform me of that before I ‘owed you one’? Johnny asked while drumming his hand against his thigh

“You know that’s a lot more intimidating when you’re wearing a gun,” Scott observed. “Besides, you never asked.”

“I oughta…”

“You don’t want to tear those stitches, now do you?” Scott said before quickly ducking into the house.

*****

The next morning, Johnny regretfully pulled himself out of bed. Teresa had given him the go ahead to return to normal activities, as long as he didn’t overdo. He and Scott were supposed to ride out first thing this morning to look at some horses that had been captured and penned in the new corrals Murdoch had built. Scott suggested that Johnny look them over and maybe pick out one or two to break and keep.

He was excited at that thought; the place where the horses had been found was the place where the original Barranca had been captured. It was possible that there were still some horses in the bunch that were related. He froze for a second, wondering if that was the business that Scott had been on. The horses in that bunch were wild, spooky, and notoriously hard to catch. There were similar herds scattered all over the ranch that were easier to corral.

Johnny continued dressing while he thought. If Scott had gone after that herd hoping to win points, he had another think coming. First Murdoch and now Scott were trying to bribe him like some two year old toddler, and he wasn’t happy about it. He jammed his foot into his boot and stood up, then walked over to shave.

He looked at himself critically in the mirror. The dark circles under his eyes were almost gone and his cheeks were filling back in. He no longer looked emaciated, just thin. He was feeling better, too. He still was pretty weak, but he knew that would take time. He would be well enough to leave for home in a week or so, in fact, he knew he could make it now if they took the train.

The problem was, he just didn’t know what to do. Part of him wanted to ride out and never look back. But there was another part of him that wanted to stay. The part that had been in the barn yesterday. He had stayed awake most of the night, replaying the conversation that he and Scott had had in the barn that afternoon. The back and forth and the teasing had been so natural, just like there had never been any trouble between them. Just like it used to be. Johnny felt an ache to get back what they once had, but he just didn’t know if it was worth it any more. He didn’t need Scott like he once had. He had Jimmy and Val. Maybe that was enough. Some things just weren’t worth the aggravation, he decided. He looked at the razor in his hand, and tossed it back on the shelf. To hell with shaving, he thought as he headed for the door.

Johnny walked into the kitchen and stopped cold. Val was sitting at the kitchen table with Murdoch and Scott, all doing their best to demolish a huge stack of Maria’s pancakes. The conversation they had been having stopped abruptly when Johnny walked in.

“Well don’t mind me,” he snapped. He looked over at Scott. “You ready?”

“Johnny, sit down and eat, first,” Murdoch ordered.

“I ain’t hungry.”

Maria came storming out of the kitchen with another platter of pancakes and sausages.

“EAT!” she ordered as she slammed the plate down on the table in front of him, daring him to disobey.

With a sheepish look, Johnny sat down and grabbed his fork as Val smirked. Johnny leered back, then grinned. “What are you all spiffied up for? You got a date or something?”

“What do ya mean? I ain’t dressed up,” Val, growled.

“Sure you are. Your hair is combed, you got on clean clothes, hell your boots are even shined,” Johnny observed as he ate.

Val surreptitiously brought his feet back under the table. “Just cuz a man doesn’t want to be a slob all his life don’t mean he has a girlfriend.” He looked Johnny up and down. “Wouldn’t hurt you to spend a little time in front of the mirror, yourself.”

Johnny shrugged. “I ain’t planning on going to a dance.”

Scott stood up and started toward the door. “I’ll go saddle the horses.”

“Hey, Scott,” Johnny said. “Teresa gave me a clean bill of health, so if you had any plans on giving me some piece of crowbait, don’t!” he warned.

With a wave of his hand, Scott acknowledged the warning and left the house.

A few minutes later, Johnny stood up and put his hat on. “You want to go with us, Val?”

The sheriff shook his head. “I’ll see you later. I have some things to do in town.”

“I bet you do,” Johnny smirked as he walked out the door.

*****

Johnny pulled up short as he and Scott topped the rise and he saw the layout below him.

“Whhooee! That’s some spread!”

Scott nodded. “Our father spared no expense. The main barn has thirty stalls. Four of them are oversize for foaling stalls. The barn over there on the right is the stud barn. It has extra thick planking, with iron bars above the dividers to keep the horses from fighting. There are ten stalls in that one. All the pastures have running water powered by windmills, and there’s running water at both barns. There are four large pastures, about twenty acres each, and about ten smaller ones of various sizes. There’s also a breaking pen and several bigger pens to work the broke horses.”

Johnny shook his head. “And you let the Old Man do all this?”

Scott shrugged. “Why not? It made him happy.”

“What a waste,” Johnny said as he shook his head.

“It wouldn’t be a waste if it was used,” Scott observed.

Johnny shook his head again, then nodded toward a group of horses in one of the large pens.

“I guess that’s the bunch you wanted me to see.”

Scott nodded. “There are some nice horses in there. We could never get close to them before, but we were finally able to trap them in that canyon on the north rim.”

“Well, let’s go look at them,” Johnny commanded impatiently.

As they rode closer, Johnny started being able to study individual animals. “It looks like a nice even bunch” he observed. “Good color and decent conformation.” He turned toward his brother. “Did you manage to catch the herd sire?”

Scott nodded. “He gave us quite a fight. That wily old devil just about ate Frank and I for lunch.”

Johnny pulled his horse to a halt. “So that was why you were gone so long. What was so important that you had to go after this herd now?”

“Because,” Scott explained as a horse charged the fence, screaming. “I thought you might be interested in that stud.”

Johnny’s eyes swung toward the enraged animal and he felt himself pale. “Barranca” he whispered.

Johnny swung down off of his horse as if in a trance, and started toward the corral. As he approached, the palomino bolted away and ran to the far side, staying as close to the mares in the next pen as he could. Johnny moved to slip under the bars of the corral when he felt a hand on his arm.

“Johnny, it’s been a long time since he’s seen you. He went after both Frank and I. Make sure he knows it’s you before going in there.”

Johnny shook Scott’s hand away and once again started under the bars, when he heard a gun being cocked. He swung around to see Scott holding his colt, ready to fire.

“Put that away!” Johnny commanded.

“No,” responded Scott calmly. “I saw how he acted when we caught him. I’m not going to let him hurt you.”

“Barranca wouldn’t hurt me!”

“No, he wouldn’t. But that’s not Barranca in there, it’s a wild herd stallion that has been fighting off predators and younger horses for years just to survive. He’s not going to change back into your pet without a fight, and you know it. Now if you go in there and I see him charge you, I WILL shoot him.”

“You’d better not,” Johnny spat.

“I’d rather have you mad at me than dead.”

“Mad wouldn’t even begin to cover it. Hate might come close.”

Scott shrugged. “You already hate me, so it doesn’t really matter does it? I WILL shoot that horse if I have to.”

Johnny stared at the other man. Hate? Did he hate Scott? He mentally shook himself and looked back out at the stallion, who was stomping and sending a clear challenge to the men. Johnny turned back to Scott and nodded.

“You’re right. I need to give him some time to calm down first. I just..just never thought I’d see him again.” He looked critically at the horse. “He’s not in bad shape for pushin’ twenty.”

“No, he’s not. Like I said, he gave us a heck of a fight, but we still tried not to run him too much when we were trying to catch him. I was really surprised that he’s still alive, to tell you the truth. I was even more surprised to find him with that band of mares. That’s all I had gone out to find, was the mares. I was hoping you could find a young horse to train that might be a relative of Barranca.”

Scott nodded toward the large pen next to them. “It looks like there are plenty to choose from, if you still want one.”

Johnny nodded. “There are some fine animals in that bunch, and I know they’re Barranca’s babies. I’ll cut out a couple and work with them. Barranca will be fine for riding, but he’s a little old for cutting cattle.”

Scott’s eyebrows went up. “Cutting cattle? Are you planning on staying, brother?”

Johnny’s face reddened. Leave it to Scott to pick up on his slip of the tongue. He didn’t even know why he’d said that. He hadn’t even been thinking about cattle.

“Nope. But I was thinkin’ about running a few cattle when I get home.” There, that should shut him up.

“My mistake,” Scott said tartly.

Johnny turned back to watch his beloved palomino. “Look, Scott. You just don’t get it. I know you’re trying to bribe me into staying, but it won’t work. You could have saved yourself a bunch of work and the aggravation it took to bring these horses in. Probably got in trouble with the Old Man for nothing. There’s nothing for me here, anymore. My home and family are in Arizona.”

Scott was silent for several long moments before he answered. “You’re wrong,” he said flatly. “I think I finally do get it.” He turned and walked toward his horse.

Johnny heard something in his voice and turned around to see Scott’s back walking away from him. “Where are you going?”

“What difference does it make?”

“Oh, so you’re just going to leave me out here to bring him up to the house by myself?”

“I’ll send back one of the hands,” Scott replied without stopping.

“Figures,” Johnny snapped. “Knew I couldn’t count on you.”

Scott stopped in the middle of putting his foot in the stirrup and spun back toward Johnny. He marched back toward his brother, his face unreadable. As soon as he got close enough, he lashed out and punched Johnny in the jaw.

“There,” he said. “That should pretty much finish off any relationship we ever had.”

“What the hell was that for?” Johnny asked, trying to pick himself up off the ground.

“For being an ass!”

“What did I do?” Johnny asked as he finally regained his feet.

Scott just stared at him, shaking his head. “I have been a fool for so long. Feeling guilty for chasing you away. I didn’t chase you away, and neither did Murdoch or Teresa. You WANTED to leave. You were just waiting for a good excuse.”

“You’re crazy.”

“Am I? You took off and you never wanted to come back. You used every excuse you could to stay away,” Scott exclaimed.

“Did you really expect me to stay after what you and the Old Man did? I TRUSTED YOU!”

“Well I trusted you, too, at least I did.”

“I NEVER did anything to betray your trust. I never hurt you like you did me! You’re wrong, Scott. I DID care. I DID want to come back. I just was tired of getting hurt. I didn’t want to be disappointed any more. I didn’t want to take the chance of being hurt anymore.”

Scott looked at Johnny in disbelief. “You NEVER HURT US?” You hurt us plenty.”

Johnny snorted. “Fine. I hurt you when I left. Big deal. You’re the one who chased me off.”

“Like I said, you could have stayed. You could have fought. You CHOSE to run. We didn’t mean enough to you to fight for.”

“That’s bullshit! There wasn’t anything left to fight for. You made sure of that.”

“Why?” Scott fumed. “Because I hurt your feelings?”

“You hurt more than that,” Johnny said quietly.

“So, let me get this straight. You’re allowed to hurt us, but we’re not allowed to hurt you, is that it?”

“Like I said, I never hurt you.”

“You really believe that don’t you?” Scott asked in disbelief.

“It’s the truth.”

Scott shook his head. “When you were living at Lancer, you hurt me all the time,” Scott said quietly. “Every time you’d stalk off and disappear I’d hurt, wondering if I’d ever see you again. Every time you would take off on Barranca instead of talking to me, I’d hurt, thinking somehow I’d failed you because you found more comfort in that horse than you did in talking to your own brother. Every time you got shot I’d hurt, pacing while the Doc patched you up. Wondering if that would be the time he’d say he couldn’t save you. Every time you’d duck you’re head I’d hurt, knowing everything you went through as a child. Every time you didn’t trust me enough to let me help you when you needed help, I HURT!

“Every single one of us have been hurt more than we wanted to be, by people we should have been able to trust. Murdoch was hurt, first by my mother dying, then by your mother leaving. He was hurt when he couldn’t find you, and when he couldn’t get me back from my grandfather. I was hurt when I was a child and I thought my father didn’t want me. I was hurt when my best friend Dan accused me of doing something horrendous during the war. I was hurt when my wife and son were senselessly killed in a buggy accident. Even Jimmy was hurt when his father and Uncle both lied to him. He was hurt that the two people he trusted most betrayed him.

“Hurting is a part of life. It’s a part of having friends and family that you care about, and the only way you can stop hurting is by not caring. Maybe that’s what you’ve decided, that it wasn’t worth caring. That WE weren’t worth caring about. Maybe you never did care, I don’t know. All I know is that I’ve finally decided that I’m tired of beating my head against the wall.

“I went after those horses because I thought my BROTHER might appreciate it. I wanted to do something nice. Yes, I had hoped you’d stay, but those horses weren’t a bribe, although a ‘thank you’ would have been appreciated. At the time, I just wanted to give my brother something that I thought would make him happy.

“Johnny, to tell you the truth, right now I think it’s better if you don’t stay. I don’t think I want to spend the rest of my life having to tip toe around you, and wondering if everything I say or do is going to hurt your feelings. I don’t want to get close to you again, only to have you disappear in a fit if anger. I had forgotten how it was when you were here. Everyone always worried that you would decide to take off for some stupid reason.

“I wish to God I could take back what happened that day, and so does Murdoch, but I’m tired of trying to apologize and just getting shot down. You either forgive me or you don’t, and right now, I really don’t give a damn. I have had enough!”

Scott swung up on his palomino and looked down at Johnny. “Val said you sent Jimmy to us because you wanted to make sure he didn’t grow up to be like you. Murdoch made the comment that he hoped he DID grow up just like you, and at the time I agreed. But now I realize I was wrong. I hope to God Jimmy doesn’t turn into the cold, insensitive, spoiled brat that you are. I’ll send one of the hands out to help you. When you’ve picked out the ones you want, turn the rest loose. I never want to see them again,” he said as he wheeled his horse around and took off.

*****

Johnny led his horse into the barn and tore off its saddle. He and Walt had fought Barranca for almost three hours, just to get him into the pen next to the barn. He had wanted to work with the horse tonight, but as angry as he was, Johnny knew it was his temper that was rubbing off on Barranca and making him more difficult. He knew it would only make things worse to continue. His mind hadn’t been much on the palomino, anyway. Scott’s words had really stung him, and being called a spoiled brat did nothing to calm him down.

He turned the horse into its stall and had just closed the latch when a voice behind him made him spin around.

“Thought you’d bring that palomino home sooner or later,” Val observed. “But I figured you’d be riding him by now.”

“Wanted to, but he needs to calm down a little first.”

“From the way Scott came tearing in here earlier, I don’t think the horse is the only thing that needs ta calm down.”

“Stay out of it, Val!”

“Hey, I am stayin’ out of it. I just wanted to talk to you for a minute. By the way, here,” he handed Johnny his holster and gun.

Johnny took it gratefully and buckled it on. “Is that where you were?”

Val nodded as he handed his friend a small medallion and a beaded bracelet. “Decided to take a little trip while everyone was busy. By the way, your brother is right. I don’t have a job there anymore. Guess they liked the way my deputy ran things and gave it to him.”

“Well, you can help me on the ranch.”

The lawman shook his head. “Hell, I’m too old to be breakin’ horses.” He looked down and studied his boots. “Your Pa and brother offered me my old job as sheriff here in Green River. Thought I’d take them up on it.”

Johnny shook his head. “You don’t have time for that. We aren’t staying. I’m going to leave as soon as I can tame Barranca down enough to ride him on the trip home.”

“I wish you’d stay, Johnny.”

“Can’t,” Johnny snapped. “We can leave in a few days.”

“I ain’t leavin’,” Val said quietly.

Johnny glared at the lawman. “What the hell do you mean, you’re not leaving?”

“I mean I’m staying here.”

“Without me,” Johnny said flatly.

“If I have to. Sure don’t know why you can’t stay, too.”

“I just can’t,” Johnny snapped. “Boy, this has been quite a day. First Scott turns on me, and now you.”

“I AIN’T TURNIN’ ON YOU!”

“Then WHAT DO YOU CALL IT?”

“I call it doin’ something for me, for a change.” Val explained.

“Come on, Val. Since when did you care where you lived?”

The lawman shrugged. “I just like it here,” he said carefully.

Johnny studied him, then grinned. “You’ve got a woman!”

“So what if I do?” Val blustered.

Johnny shrugged. “So bring her along.”

“I told you, I ain’t goin’. I’m staying here.”

“Boy, hen pecked already.”

“I ain’t hen pecked.”

“Sure sounds like it to me.”

“Leave it, Johnny.”

Johnny shrugged. “You can at least tell me her name.”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Just because, that’s why.”

“Is she ugly?” Johnny asked.

“No.”

“Is she legal?”

“YES!”

“Then why the heck won’t you tell me?”

“Cause I don’t want to hear it, “ Val explained.

“Hear what?”

“Why I shouldn’t be seein’ her.”

“Now why would I tell you that?”

“Cause you might not like it that we might get together.”

“Do I know her?”

“Yeah,” Val admitted. “Johnny, so help me, if you make fun of me, I’ll never talk to you again.”

Johnny shrugged. “Why would I make fun of you? Besides I don’t know anybody here anymore. The only woman I know is…” He broke off and stared at his friend. “No.”

“Well, it ain’t even like we’re courtin’. Not really. Just took her to the dance, is all. Then we went out ta dinner a few times.”

“And she’s still speaking to you?”

Val nodded. “She invited me to her house for supper tonight.”

“Val, you’re old enough to be her father!”

“The hell I am. I’m not THAT much older than you. Only about twelve or thirteen years difference between her and me.”

“Well, you’re both old enough to know better, so I guess it’s none of my business. So, like I said, bring her along.”

“It ain’t that serious, at least not yet. Besides, maybe neither one of us wants to leave here,” Val repeated.

“Fine,” Johnny snarled. “Jimmy and I will go. Hope you’re happy, sleepin’ with the enemy.”

For the second time that day, Johnny found himself scraping himself off the ground.

“I ain’t sleepin’ with her, and she sure wasn’t the enemy when she saved your life!” Val yelled.

“I’m tired of getting hit!”

“Then stop acting like an idiot!”

“I’m not,” Johnny said, sulking.

“I swear, Johnny, you can be about the most generous man I know, but there are times when you act like a spoiled little kid. Just ‘cause I don’t want to go to Taylorsville don’t mean I’m betraying you. I spent the last year doin’ nothing but tryin’ ta help you. It’s somethin’ I wanted to do for my best friend. I settled in Taylorsville because you asked me to, and before that I came to Green River. All because you wanted me to. I think I’ve earned the right to do something I want to do for a change, don’t you?”

Johnny nodded reluctantly. “So if I’m so difficult, why did you put up with me?”

“I put up with you because you’re the closest thing to a brother that I’ll ever have. I know you sometimes open your mouth before you think, and I also know you don’t have a mean bone in your body. I know you care more about people than you’ll ever admit, even to yourself. That’s why it hurts me to see you tryin’ ta chase everybody away. I don’t know why you do it, but you do. I think maybe you want to dump them before they have a chance to dump you. I think that’s why you over reacted when Scott and Murdoch took Teresa’s side.”

“OVEREACTED? I TRUSTED THEM AND THEY BETRAYED ME!”

“Yes, they did. And you had every right to be furious. But if all you were was furious, you would have stayed. You would have confronted them and made them see the truth. You might even have punched ‘em, or given them the cold shoulder for a while. But that wasn’t enough. They had hurt you and you wanted to hurt them back, just as bad. That’s why you left. And that’s why you didn’t go back, even when you knew they were looking for you. Even when you knew they were sorry. Even when leavin’ meant going to that hell hole of a hospital. You wanted to get even. I swear, Johnny. You’d cut off your nose to spite your face and convince yourself you didn’t have a choice.”

“I didn’t want to get hurt again!”

“I know that. And you had every reason to feel that way, at least for a while. But how long can you carry a grudge, Johnny? Because that’s what this has become. It’s not about you hurtin’ anymore, it’s about how much you can hurt them, especially Scott. But it’s not just hurtin’ them anymore, it’s hurtin’ Jimmy. Is that what you’re going to teach your son? Not to trust anyone? Not to get close to anyone? He’ll have an awfully lonely life if that’s the case.”

“You need to stop thinkin’ about the one bad thing they did and concentrate on all the good. Scott took off for Sacramento the very next day after he found out about you bein’ in prison. He somehow finagled a meeting with a very busy governor and convinced him to free you on Scott’s say so alone. Then he went to the prison and did his best to make getting’ out as easy on you as he could. And I bet you’re so bound and determined to hurt him you never even thanked him, did you?”

Johnny shook his head guiltily. “I didn’t thank you, either, Val.”

“Hell, Johnny. I know you’re grateful. You don’t have ta thank me, cause I know you’d do the same for me. You saved my butt more times than I can count. But the thing is, it isn’t just you and me anymore, and Jimmy sees everything you do, and copies most of it. THAT’S what you have to think about. You’re going to have to decide if you still really are afraid of being hurt by them again, or if you’re just out for revenge. You’re going to have to decide if you want Jimmy to live the rest of his life without his whole family around him. And you’re going to have to take responsibility for that, and for the fact that eventually you might just lose him over it.”

“It wasn’t just revenge, Val,” Johnny said quietly. “For a long time I was worried about hurting them if I came back here. You know that.”

“Johnny, I know how mad you were. I was, too. I think there was a time I could have hurt them myself. And I know you were full of hate. We both were. But through the years, mine died, mostly because of Jimmy. I think yours did, too. I think you care more about that boy than getting revenge. Even if you still hated them, and I don’t think you do, you wouldn’t gun them down, because of what it would do to Jimmy. I think you need to admit that to yourself, and I think you need to do what’s best for your boy, just like you always done.”

*****

Johnny slipped out the door and made his way to the barn. It was going to be a beautiful fall day; just enough chill in the air to keep you cool, but not cold enough to need a jacket. He hurriedly saddled the roan he had ridden the day before. Not a bad horse, but a little too easy going for his taste.

He lifted the saddle onto the horse’s back, then slipped the bit into its mouth and led him out of the barn. He had gotten up early in order to avoid Jelly and everyone else. He didn’t want to talk to anyone; he needed to think, and riding his horse always relaxed him and helped him to get his head on straight. Of course, this wasn’t really his horse, but he would soon be riding Barranca again. He looked over at the palomino, who was still pacing angrily, bugling for his mares. ‘Later,’ he promised the stallion as he swung up onto the roan and kneed it out of the yard.

He had been surprised when Scott had told him they had been hurt and worried whenever he had ridden off. Except for that one time with Wes, he had never wanted to leave, had never even considered it. He really hadn’t wanted to leave that time, either. What he had wanted was for Murdoch to tell him to stay. To tell him he was making a mistake. To fight for him. Instead his father had counted out his pay to him just like he was a no account hired hand. It still hurt him to remember that scene.

But Scott. Scott had come after him, tried to talk some sense into him. Tried to make him stay. With a pang of regret, Johnny realized that he had pretty much ignored him. He had nonchalantly dismissed Scott’s arguments, just as he had dismissed Scott. Dismissed him just like he was some casual friend. Hell, he’d even shaken his hand, like some…He slowed his horse. Like some no account hired hand. Maybe he had hurt Scott when he did that, even though he hadn’t meant to. And if he hadn’t meant to, maybe Murdoch hadn’t meant to hurt him, either. Maybe Murdoch was waiting for him to fight to be there. He automatically nudged the horse into a lope.

But those other times. The times he had ridden off without a word. He had no intention of leaving, he just needed some space and time to cool off and think. To get his head on straight. Surely they knew he wouldn’t just leave without saying something. Didn’t they? He thought back on the times he had returned after one of his angry flights. Usually late at night, sometimes early in the morning. Scott, and sometimes Murdoch, would be up. Occasionally both. They would make some comment about not being able to sleep, or just getting up to finish some paperwork before they forgot, but looking back, Johnny realized whatever problem they had would be resolved as they’d climb the stairs together. They had stayed up waiting for him to come home! Every single time. Had they worried about him? Johnny snorted. Obviously, though at the time he hadn’t realized it. Once or twice he remembered that he thought they might have been waiting up for him and he had made some snide remark about needing a babysitter. Had he hurt them?

Johnny remembered several times when Scott had tried to get Johnny to confide in him. Johnny had refused, and usually made a joke about it, because he didn’t want to bother his brother, didn’t want Scott to think he couldn’t handle his own problems. Had Scott been hurt because of that? Looking back, Johnny realized that Scott had always been quiet and a little stand-offish after being rebuffed. Yes, he had been hurt, and Johnny was too wrapped up in his own feelings to recognize it. Maybe Scott and Val were right. Maybe he was a spoiled brat, just thinking about himself all the time. He’d never had to think about anyone else growing up, because he was alone, and he guessed he had never really learned how.

He didn’t think he was selfish about other things; he always tried to help anyone who needed it, and gave regularly to the church, but maybe…emotionally…that was a word he’d learned from Scott, maybe emotionally he was selfish. He guessed he’d have to think about that.

He pulled his horse to a stop on the rise overlooking the ranch. This used to be his favorite view. He always used to imagine a big barn and corrals over to the north of the house, and now it was there. His dream, sitting vacant except for the herd Scott had gathered. The horses had finally settled down and were nibbling on the hay scattered in the small pasture. He hadn’t had time to check them out yesterday, his mind had been focused on Barranca. That is when it wasn’t wandering back to his brother’s tirade.

His brother. He hadn’t allowed himself to think of Scott like that for a long time. This morning though, for some reason the thought had come naturally. Why? Scott had made it clear he was done with him. That thought caused an ache, an ache that hadn’t been there when Johnny had turned his back on them. Was it because he wasn’t the one doing the walking away for a change? Instead he was the one being rejected. It didn’t sit very well with him that his brother may have been right. Maybe he HAD been hurting them all along. He shook his head. It didn’t matter. It didn’t make what they had done right.

Johnny nudged his horse down off the hill so he could check out the band of horses. He had wanted to leave in a week, but now he figured he wouldn’t be able to have Barranca and a couple of others broken that fast, and he certainly wasn’t going to leave without them. He still wasn’t strong enough to be breaking horses, though he might have a go at Barranca. With any luck, he could get the palomino to remember him before he crawled on his back. It would probably save a lot of bruises.

 He rode around the pasture several times, studying the various horses. There were about twenty nice mares, and about the same number of yearlings, indicating most of the mares had weaned their foals several months ago and were probably due to foal again in spring.

There were some two and three year and older fillies in the mix, but all of the older colts had been run off. It looked like Barranca ran his herd about as tightly as the Old Man ran Lancer. He was disappointed. He had wanted a couple of Barranca’s sons.

A couple of the yearling colts sure looked like they showed some promise, but they were years away from breaking. Maybe he’d still take a few of them and gentle them early, then turn them back out until they were old enough to work. It was an idea he’d thought about for a while.

Johnny shook his head. What was he thinking? He couldn’t get that many horses home with him. He’d have to go after one of the bachelor herds and find a promising young horse that way. The only trouble was, he couldn’t be sure they were Barranca’s, and for some reason that was important to him. To keep some of his old compadre’s blood going. But he still wanted to take one or two that were ready to break and maybe he could take a daughter or two.

Even with that many, he’d have to herd them instead of leading them. And the only way he could take all the horses he wanted was if he had Val to help him. Jimmy was just too young. Besides, he NEEDED Val, and not just to help him herd horses. He felt a flash of irritation. Val was the only friend he had, and he counted on him. He had never let Johnny down before. Maybe he could change Val’s mind and convince him to go with him.

Johnny snorted. Besides, what was Val staying for? Val and Teresa. He couldn’t believe it. It would never work anyway. Val was an uneducated slob. Teresa would never fall for someone like that. He would probably stay here and then Teresa would dump him anyway. It would serve him right, too. Val needed to come with him.

Johnny pulled up short. What the hell was the matter with him? Was he so selfish that he had to wish that his friend failed at something he obviously wanted very badly? Johnny should be supporting him, not tearing him down, just like Val had always supported HIM. Besides Val hadn’t been a slob for a very long time, ever since Jimmy had been born. And uneducated? Maybe. But not dumb. In fact Val was about the smartest man he knew.

Scott had told him he took advantage of his friend, and now, with a sickening realization, he knew he had. Val had always helped him out. Had always been there when he had needed him. Always. He’d drop whatever he was doing and come to Johnny’s side. Johnny had taken it for granted that Val would always be there for him. He’d figured that was the way it should be. And now when Val had maybe found some happiness, Johnny was willing to tear him away from it. He couldn’t believe how selfish he was, and the realization sickened him.

What about Murdoch and Scott? Had he left Lancer and stayed away just to hurt them? To get even for the hurt they’d given him? Was Scott right? Johnny closed his eyes. He hadn’t at first. When he had left, he had run almost blind from the hurt. The hurt that had gradually turned to rage, the rage that had driven him back to gunfighting, the rage that had driven him to do things he had never stomached before.

That rage had also gradually died down, and left him with a self loathing that tore at him with every job he did, every man he killed, and every time he edged closer to crossing that invisible line between gunfighting and murder. Hell, he knew in his own mind he HAD crossed that line, more than once. The law might not agree, but he knew in his heart that he had. And every time he had skated closer to that black hole, he had blamed the Lancers. Not himself, not for anything. It was all Lancer’s fault. Every man that died could be laid at his family’s feet. Johnny hung his head as he allowed himself to remember what he’d done. He HAD wanted them to suffer. To know what he was doing and blame themselves. He thought he’d gotten over that, years ago, but for some reason when he had seen Scott, all of the hate had come boiling back.

He remembered that it had taken being in that hospital to finally put the brakes on his runaway slide into darkness. To finally own up to the fact that it was HIM, not the Lancers, who was responsible for the mayhem he had caused. He’d had almost a year in that place to do nothing but think, and his thoughts about himself hadn’t been very flattering.

It had taken a year in that hospital and two very special women to straighten him out. Johnny smiled sadly. Well, two women and a baby. Teresa, harping at him day after day; making him mad enough to want to strangle her, mad enough to get better. And then there was Emma. She was the daughter of the first rancher he’d hired on with after he got out of that hospital and out of California. He still had been pretty weak, but the rancher had taken a chance and hired him. There was no chance of him returning to fighting even if he’d wanted to, his hands still weren’t working right. But he hadn’t wanted to. Most of his rage was gone, and soon the weakness had disappeared, too.

He had worked at the ranch and fallen hopelessly in love with the rancher’s daughter. He courted her for several months before marrying her, with her old man’s blessing. He and Emma had decided to stay at the ranch so he could help run it for her ailing father. The older man had lived to know he was going to be a grandfather before peacefully passing in his sleep. Five months later, his daughter had joined him, although that hadn’t been peaceful; his wife’s agonized screams still haunted his dreams. She had died in his arms and he had held her, with his eyes firmly shut, while the doctor took the baby. The first cries of his son had been a wonder to him, and had brought him back from the brink. He would raise Jimmy. He had to. It was all he had left of his wife.

He shook his head. And Val had been there, from the first day. Taking care of both Johnny and Jimmy. He had been there for years, for both of them. Putting his own life on hold.

He guessed he WAS a spoiled brat, and he owed both Scott and Val an apology. He doubted Scott would accept it, but he would try. He still hurt from what Murdoch and Scott had done, but he finally realized he wasn’t blameless, either. They had all made mistakes. Mistakes that were over and done. It was time for all of them to get on with their lives.

Johnny sighed. Either way, it looked like the decision on whether to stay was already made for him. Like he had told Murdoch, he couldn’t stay if he and Scott couldn’t get along, and yesterday’s run in with Scott had given him his answer.

Johnny left the pasture and started back to the ranch. He was just topping a rise when he looked down and saw Jimmy and Sean on the way to school. He watched the boys talking and yelling, and he realized just what his son was going to lose. Leaving was going to be harder than he thought, but he knew the way things stood it would be harder to stay. He sat there a few minutes longer, then turned his horse around. He wasn’t ready to go back. He had some more thinking to do.

*****

Johnny reined his horse to a stop near the barn and clumsily dismounted. For some reason he felt exhausted and he shook his head. Thinking always wore him out faster than digging post holes. No wonder Scott was so grumpy.

He turned and led the horse into the barn and tore off its tack before turning it into its stall. He stood there for a few seconds, watching as the horse shook itself before attacking the hay that was left from its interrupted breakfast.

Johnny still wasn’t absolutely sure what he was going to do. He needed to talk to Murdoch again, and depending on his answer, he guessed he needed to talk to Scott, but he sure wasn’t looking forward to that conversation.

“You gonna just stand there daydreaming all day?”

Johnny smiled as he turned around. “Maybe. What’s it to you, old man?”

“Must be nice,” Jelly groused. “Not havin’ ta work for a livin’. Me, I gotta work my fingers to the bone just ta keep from gettin’ fired.”

“Uh huh. You need some help?”

“Course not. I’m used to no one helpin’ me.

Johnny’s smile disappeared. “Doesn’t Jimmy help you?”

Jelly nodded vigorously. “He shore does. He’s a fine boy, Johnny. You should be proud.”

“I am.” He thought for a second, then asked, “Are he and Sean really that close?”

“They sure are. Oh they had their differences in the beginning, but that stopped soon enough. Them two is closer than ticks on a dog. Just like you and Scott.”

Johnny snorted. “Not anymore.”

“Sure you are. You just won’t admit it.”

“I don’t think Scott would agree with you.”

“If you ain’t the Gol darndest stubbornest man I ever met! Of course Scott would agree with me! He went to all that trouble of gettin’ you out and bringin’ you home, didn’t he?”

Johnny nodded reluctantly.

“Johnny, do you WANT to stay here?”

“I DON’T KNOW!”

“Have you really thought about it?”

Johnny snorted. “That’s about all I HAVE thought about lately.”

“Okay. Let’s do this scientific like. Why do you want to stay?

“Jelly…” Johnny shook his head. “Stop.”

“Nope. I ain’t gonna stop. We gotta get this straightened out. Now, why do you want to stay?”

Johnny shrugged. “Jimmy wants to stay. He doesn’t want to leave Sean. Or you.”

Jelly nodded. “I don’t want him to leave, neither. Now what else?”

“I don’t know. Jelly, this is stupid.”

“No it’s not! I’m tellin’ you, it works. Now trust me!”

Johnny sighed. “I like it here, on the ranch. I like the weather and the scenery, and being able to ride all day and still be on your own land.”

“All right. What else?”

“Val’s staying in Green River.”

“He is?”

Johnny nodded, almost spilling the beans about the sheriff and Teresa, but deciding it wasn’t his story to tell.

“You’d miss him if he stayed,” Jelly observed.

“Yeah. We’ve been together quite a while. “

“Anyone else you’d miss?” Jelly asked innocently.

“You know I’d miss you, old man.”

“I’d miss you too. Now anybody else?”

Johnny smirked. “Maybe Dewdrop. Where is that old bird, anyway?”

Jelly’s face crumpled. “Oh, Johnny. I killed him.”

“What?”

Jelly shook his head. “When I was feelin’ so sorry for myself right before you came home, I just ignored him. The boys tried ta get him to eat, but he just wouldn’t.”

Johnny put his hand on the old man’s arm. “You were hurting Jelly. You didn’t mean to hurt him. Maybe it had nothing to do with you. Maybe it was just his time. Besides, that old bird had a great life. You can’t beat yourself up about it.”

“I know”, Jelly sniffed. “But I shore do miss him. It just ain’t the same around here without him.”

“I agree,” Johnny said truthfully. “But you know who I miss? Barranca. I think it’s time that old horse and I had a discussion.” He started to walk away, but Jelly stopped him.

“Johnny, we ain’t done. Now who else would you miss?”

Johnny sighed. “You’re worse than a dog with a bone. All right, I guess I’d miss Murdoch and Scott,” he said, shocked at his own admission.

Jelly nodded. “I know you would. You care more about them than you want to admit. Even I know that. Now, why do you want to leave?”

Johnny shrugged.

“Come on, tell me” Jelly insisted.

“Well, I sure wouldn’t miss digging post holes or wrangling those damn cows.”

“I don’t blame you none for that. So don’t do it! Just tell Murdoch you're going to be working horses."

Johnny stared at the old man as Jelly’s words hit home. He made it sound so easy, but he doubted his father would agree to that. “Look, I appreciate what you’re doing, and it did help. I just need to make sure I’m doing the right thing for both Jimmy and me. Now I’m going to go talk to Murdoch and then work that horse before I get any more tired.”

*****

It took Johnny a while to find his father. Murdoch was over at the blacksmith shed, shaping a shoe for his horse. That was one chore he always insisted on doing himself, and he was good at it. Johnny leaned up against the house and just watched his father until he was finally noticed.

Murdoch put down the hammer and wiped his brow. “Johnny! Everything okay?”

Johnny nodded. “I’d like to talk to you when you’re done.”

Murdoch removed his heavy apron and walked over to a nearby bench, motioning for Johnny to sit next to him. After a moment’s hesitation, Johnny sat down.

“I’ve been thinking about whether I should stay here or not.”

“And?” Murdoch asked, his heart in his throat.

“You said before that you’d let me build a house somewhere on the property. Did you mean it?”

Murdoch nodded, his heart feeling lighter. “If that’s what you want, but you know you’re welcome to stay in the house.”

“I know. I just think it would be better to have my own place.”

“Can I ask why?”

Johnny nodded. “Mostly I just don’t want to be answering to somebody all the time. I’ve been grown and on my own for a lot of years and I don’t want to always be explaining what I’m doing or where I’m going. If I want to go into town for a beer, I don’t want to have to stop and ask permission.”

“Johnny, you don’t need permission…”

“Please, Murdoch, let me finish.” He licked his lip and decided to go for it. “If I stay, I don’t want to be working cattle anymore. Doesn’t mean I won’t help you if you’re in a bind or at Roundup time, but for the most part I want to break horses and sell them. I was making a pretty good living at it in Arizona and I know now I can do it here. I don’t expect you to pay for my house. I have money saved up, and I’d like to put a house down by those corrals you built, if it’s okay with you and Scott. I can pay you rent, if you want, and I’ll pay my own expenses and keep my own profits.”

Murdoch nodded thoughtfully. “It seems like you thought it out pretty thoroughly.”

“I have. I haven’t been thinking of much else the last couple of weeks. But if you and Scott aren’t happy about it, I can still go back to Taylorsville. No hard feelings.” He looked anxiously at Murdoch.

“Johnny, I would like you to stay here, in the house, but I understand why you don’t want to. I don’t have to ask Scott. This is as much your ranch as ours, and I built that horse facility for you. It’s yours, and if you want to put a house down there, you can. You don’t need permission from either one of us. But I will pay for it.” He held up his hand when Johnny started to protest. “We owe you for almost fifteen years of your share of the profits. I’ll take it out of that. I’ll also take some of that to pay for some imported Andalusians, if that’s what you still want.”

Johnny’s mouth dropped open. “I was kidding about that.”

“Well I wasn’t. Also, if you want to keep your expenses and profits on your horse operation separate, that’s your decision. I WILL tell you, however, that the ranch has been extremely successful the last five years, and it may prove to be better for you financially if you make your operation part of Lancer.”

“You won’t care that I don’t work with the cattle?”

Murdoch smiled. “I think you’ve dug enough post holes. No, Johnny. If you want to work with horses, that’s what you need to do.”

“You really mean it?”

Murdoch smiled. “Yes Son, I do.”

Johnny grinned back. “Thank you, I appreciate it.” His smile faded. “But Murdoch, what I said before still stands. If Scott doesn’t want me here, I won’t stay.”

“Have you talked to him?”

“Not about that,” Johnny admitted glumly. “I figured I would this evening, after I work Barranca.”

Murdoch nodded and patted Johnny’s knee. “Talk to your brother. I don’t think there will be a problem.”

Johnny stood up. “Thanks, Murdoch.”

“You’re welcome, Son. And thank you for staying and giving us another chance.”

Johnny shrugged. “We’ll give it a try.”

*****

Johnny held a rope in his left hand and kept his right hand free as he stepped into the small pen. He watched as the palomino charged around the larger pen next to him, looking for a way out. He was just getting ready to tell Mike to let the horse in when his concentration was broken. He glanced over to his left, where Sean and Jimmy had just climbed up onto the fence to sit on the top rail.

“You boys get down. Jimmy, you know better than that.”

Sean climbed down and stood next to his father, who had just walked up. Jimmy looked over at the running horse. “I thought Barranca was already broke.”

“He is, but he hasn’t been around people in a long time. Now get down.”

Jimmy started to stand up on the rail to climb down when a startled oath caused everyone to look over at Mike, who was manning the gate between the two pens. He had been holding the gate, ready to open it at Johnny’s command, but had become distracted and allowed it to open slightly.

The horse, seeing a chance, bolted toward the opening, hitting the gate and sending it, and Mike, flying.

Jimmy froze, then tried to turn to climb over the top, but his boot slipped and he tumbled into the pen. Johnny, realizing he was too far away to intercept the horse, drew his gun as Scott leaped into the corral and scooped up Jimmy. With a surge of adrenaline, he tossed the boy over the top rail, and without a backwards glance, started to climb the fence as the enraged horse bore down on him.

“BARRANCA!” Johnny shouted pleadingly as he leveled his gun at the horse’s head.

The palomino hesitated and swung toward Johnny as Scott threw his leg over the top and jumped down to land next to Jimmy.

“Are you okay?” he asked the boy.

When Jimmy nodded, Scott looked back toward the corral and watched as the horse danced in front of his brother, snorting a challenge. He undid the loop of his gun and drew out the weapon, then stepped closer to the corral fence.

The horse stood, dancing in place, in front of Johnny, seemingly mesmerized by Johnny’s voice. The spell only lasted a few seconds before the horse broke contact and took off running.

He ran around several times, then approached the man again. This time, he stayed longer and allowed Johnny to touch him. The dance continued for several minutes, with Barranca relaxing more and more each time.

After he was able to touch everywhere on the horse, Johnny turned and walked to the gate, letting himself out. Scott relaxed and re-holstered his gun, then turned away from Johnny and strode toward the house.

Johnny went over to his son. “Are you okay?”

Jimmy nodded. “I’m sorry, Pa.”

Johnny shook his head. “You know better than to sit on the fence when I’m breaking a horse.”

“I thought Barranca was already broken! I didn’t know he was going to do that! Honest, Pa!”

Johnny nodded, then ruffled the boy’s hair. “All right. Just be more careful in the future, okay?”

Jimmy nodded. “Okay. Sean and I are going to take a ride over to the South Pond and go fishing! Wanna come?”

Johnny smiled. “Maybe next time. You two go have fun, and be careful!”

Johnny watched as the two boys argued good naturedly about the best bait to use, then climbed onto their horses and headed toward the arch. He watched after them for several seconds, then turned toward the house, his smile fading as he thought about the upcoming conversation with Scott.

*****

Johnny walked into the Great Room and approached his brother, who was sitting at Murdoch’s desk, going over some paperwork.

“Just what the hell did you think you were doing?” Johnny demanded.

Scott looked up at his brother in surprise. “Saving your son’s life? I didn’t think you’d mind,” he sniped.

“You know damn good and well what I’m talking about, so don’t play cute.”

Scott shook his head with a sigh. “No Johnny, I DON’T know what you’re talking about. NOW what did I do to make you mad?”

Johnny stopped and stared at his brother, the dropped his head. “I ain’t mad. I just wanted to know why you’d do something so careless. You scared me.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You turned your back on an enraged horse and just calmly climbed up that fence and took your sweet time about it.”

Scott’s eyebrows went up. “I wasn’t exactly taking my time.”

“It sure looked like it to me.”

“What is your point?”

“My point is, why did you turn your back on that horse? He could have killed you!”

“No, he couldn’t have,” Scott said calmly.

“What are you talking about? Barranca was pretty much out of his head and you just went ahead and turned away from him!”

“You had my back,” Scott explained softly.

“What do you mean?” Johnny asked in confusion.

“Right before I jumped into the corral, I glanced over at you and saw you had your gun out. I thought that if Barranca went after me, you’d stop him, one way or the other. Unless I was mistaken?”

Johnny shook his head in confusion. “No, you weren’t mistaken,” he said quietly. “But how did you know?”

“How did I know what?”

“That I’d shoot my own horse.”

Scott shook his head. “YOU’RE MY BROTHER! Or was I mistaken about THAT?”

“I didn’t think you wanted to be my brother anymore,” Johnny said softly.

Scott shot to his feet. “You’ll ALWAYS be my brother! And I’ve always WANTED you to BE my brother! YOU’RE the one who didn’t want that relationship anymore, not me!”

“I never said that!” Johnny protested.

“You never said ANYTHING! Always cool, calm, and collected while you made your pointed little remarks! Well I’m tired of being used as target practice. I’m sure Murdoch is, too, although he’s so desperate to have you back he’ll put up with just about anything, at least for a while. Then I’m sure you’ll eventually manage to chase him away, too.”

“So, even though you’re through with me, you still think I’d make sure you didn’t get hurt.”

“Johnny, it doesn’t matter what our relationship is now, I STILL trust you. I always will.”

“Except for when it mattered,” Johnny replied, then winced. Why did he say that?

“Well, I THINK my life mattered,” Scott snapped as he sat back down. “And you just made my point. Johnny, I’m only going to say this one more time. I MADE A MISTAKE! I was hurt and confused, and you didn’t deny you’d done it. I’m sorry! I can’t go back and change the past. Like Murdoch said, right or wrong, it’s over and done. Believe me, I wish I could go back and change things. Not just that day, either. I would change your mother taking you away from here when you were a baby. I’d change you having to pick up a gun just to survive. I’d change every time you got shot. I’d change,” Scott choked, “losing my wife and son in that buggy accident!”

He took a deep breath. “If you somehow know how to change those things, I’m all ears. But until then all we can do is do the best we can and go on. Whether you decide to go on by yourself or with your family is your choice, but I am DONE discussing it! Now if you’ll excuse me…”

“Scott.”

“I told you I didn’t want to discuss it further.”

“I know,” Johnny said. “I just wanted to say that I’m sorry about your wife and son. I never told you that before and I should have. I also never thanked you for getting me out of that prison. I guess you were right about me only thinking about myself, and I’m sorry. I should have been here for you, and I’m sorry for that, too. I know it’s probably too late, but if you need to talk about it…”

He hesitated, waiting for Scott to say something, but when he didn’t, Johnny continued. “I was also thinking about what you said about how I hurt you, and I want you to know I didn’t mean to. I…I didn’t know I was.”

Scott nodded, still upset.

Johnny knew Scott was still angry, and his heart sank. “Can I ask you a question?”

“What?” Scott said impatiently.

Johnny’s mouth went dry and he licked his lips. “Do you care if I stay?”

“Of COURSE I CARE!”

Johnny’s head dropped. “That’s what I thought. Sorry, Scott. I won’t bother you again,” he said as he turned and walked out of the room.

Scott sat at the desk, trying to figure out what just happened. He played the last of the conversation back in his mind, then jumped to his feet. He caught his brother just inside the door and grabbed him by the arm.

“I CARE that you stay here. Meaning I WANT YOU to stay here instead of leaving!”

Johnny studied his brother for several seconds. “Are you sure?”

“Very.”

Johnny looked into his brother’s eyes and knew he was telling the truth. “Even if I’m a spoiled brat?” Johnny asked with a hint of a smile, even though he was serious.

“THAT I won’t put up with, but I guess I’ll just have to straighten you out,” Scott explained, with a hint of a smile of his own.

“I am sorry, Scott. I guess it’s gotten to be a habit, making those snide remarks. I don’t mean them anymore, they just sort of slip out. I didn’t even realize what I was doing. And I never meant to hurt you.”

“And I never meant to hurt you. Now are you going to stay?”

Johnny nodded. “I talked to Murdoch and he said I could build a house down by the new barns. I think that would be easier for everybody than if I stayed in the house.”

“It’s your house, too,” Scott said gently.

“I know, but I think it’s better if I don’t. I do want to stay and as long as you’re okay with it. I’ll give it a try. We’ll just have to wait and see how it goes.”

Scott nodded, then reached into his pocket. “I have something of yours. I meant to give it to you before. I thought you might like to have it for Jimmy,” he said, as he placed the watch in his brother’s hands.

Johnny stared at the watch as memories flashed through his mind. “Thanks, Scott.” He hesitated for a moment, biting his lip. “There is one thing, though…”

Scott’s eyebrows went up. “Get it said, brother.”

“You’re going to have to rename that piece of crowbait of yours. The real Barranca would be insulted. Besides, Barranca is gonna want his sign and his stall back, and I ain’t gonna be the one to explain to him that he can’t have it.”

“Anything else?” Scott asked sarcastically.

“Yeah. Do you know where we can get a baby goose?”

 

 

~ end ~

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