The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Terri

 

 

Title

Chapter One

Johnny left the barn where he had just finished bedding down Barranca and he headed for the house. He was almost there when he heard soft cursing. He couldn't quite catch the words, but the tone was perfectly plain. Someone was definitely upset, and the voice left no doubt as to who that person was. With a chuckle, Johnny headed for the kitchen door.

“Something wrong?” he asked quietly as he leaned nonchalantly against the door.

With a small shriek, Teresa spun around, her eyes flashing. “Johnny Lancer, you of all people should know better than to sneak up on someone like that!”

Johnny grinned. “I thought you might need some help.” He slanted a look at her. “Don't you know that ladies don't cuss? It's a good thing Murdoch didn't hear you.”

“And WHERE do you think I learned it?” she asked primly.

Johnny chuckled. “Better not tell him that.”

Teresa grinned back. “Don't worry, I won't. But if you don't help me haul this wash tub outside, I MIGHT tell him I learned it from you!”

Johnny lifted his hands in surrender. “All right, I give up. I'll help you. I don't want the Old Man mad at me.”

“What about me?”

“Definitely not. I wouldn't want you ta stop makin' cakes.”

The response earned him a swat with a dishrag, and he hurriedly grabbed the massive container and took it outside. He dumped the contents in the flower bed, then carried it over to the pump so it could be washed out. It was too large by far to be washed in the sink, and Johnny was too tired to tackle it tonight. Jelly could take care of it tomorrow. It was the least he could do after Teresa had spent all day doing his laundry.

Teresa would make someone a mighty fine wife someday, Johnny mused. She was an excellent cook and kept a clean house. And except for an occasional loss of temper, she was pretty good about keeping her mouth shut. Someone was going to be an awfully lucky man. He glanced up as the object of his thoughts walked outside. Not bad looking, either, he decided. She looked up at him, and caught looking, he ducked his head and headed for the house.

Murdoch looked up as his younger son walked into the room. “How was your day?”

Johnny nodded as he flipped his hat onto the rack. “Hot and dirty, but no problems.”

“Good. I thought you could go over to the lake tomorrow and check to see how low it is, and make sure the dam is in good shape.”

Johnny nodded. “Sure, as long as I can take a quick dip when I'm there. It's damn hot.”

“Watch your language,” Murdoch reminded him quietly.

“Teresa's in the kitchen.”

Murdoch smiled. While Johnny's language was often colorful, to say the least, he never slipped when there were any women within hearing distance. Murdoch wasn't sure how his son did it, because even he slipped and said something inappropriate in front of his ward once in a while, and he didn't curse half as much as Johnny.

“Supper's ready!” Teresa announced from the dining room, and both men headed for the table. Johnny slid into his chair while Murdoch held Teresa's chair before sitting down.

Johnny looked in appreciation at the table loaded down with food. It was something he still hadn't gotten used to in the year he had been here. At first, he thought Teresa and Murdoch had been making special meals to impress him and his brother, but he soon learned that wasn't the case. The bountiful meals and scrumptious deserts had continued, much to Johnny's delight.

Teresa looked up at Johnny. “I made your favorite tonight. Tamales and chili.”

Johnny grinned. “Scott must be gone,” he observed. While spicy food might be Johnny's favorite, it certainly wasn't Scott's. Usually the only time tamales and chili was served was when big brother was away.

Murdoch nodded. “I asked him to go to Stockton and deliver a contract. He should be home sometime tomorrow.”

Johnny looked again at the food in front of him and then grinned at his father. “Couldn't you figure out some way ta get him ta stay longer?”

Murdoch chuckled. “Maybe you'll be lucky and his horse will throw a shoe.”

Johnny nodded. “I guess I can always hope.”

Teresa looked at Murdoch hopefully. “Mabel Baker just had her baby, and she invited me over to visit tomorrow. We were going to do some baking.”

Murdoch thought for a moment, and then shook his head. “I don't want you going there by yourself. It's too far, and I don't have any men to spare tomorrow.”

Teresa sat back, disappointment etched on her face, and then she shot a hopeful look at her brother.

Johnny shook his head. “Sorry. Murdoch asked me ta check out the lake tomorrow.”

“Murdoch, please. Can't that wait? I really want to go over and see her new baby.”

Murdoch looked at her face, then looked at Johnny. “Well?”

Johnny shrugged. “I can take her to Mabel's, then head for the lake. It ain't that far. I can go back and pick her up in the afternoon.”

Murdoch nodded. “All right.” He looked pointedly at his ward. “Just make sure you're ready early. I don't want Johnny to have to wait for you.”

“Don't worry, I'll be ready!” She looked over at Johnny. “Thank you, and I promise I won't hold you up.”

Johnny smiled back. He knew Teresa wouldn't be a problem; she could ride as well as a lot of men. Besides, Mabel just might have one of her famous apple pies ready for sampling if he timed it right. “That's ok, Teresa, it's not a problem.”

Murdoch watched the interaction between his two children, and he smiled quietly. He was so thankful that all three of them got along so well. They were as close as any family that had been raised together, and he knew that Teresa was in safe hands. There had been a time when he had been worried about his ward being around the young gunfighter. He wasn't sure Johnny would treat her with respect. He knew Scott would be a perfect gentleman, but he hadn't been as sure of his gunfighter son. He had finally realized his initial fears had been groundless, and he knew that Johnny would die for Teresa if he had to. She was in safe hands.





Chapter Two

Johnny finished saddling Midnight, Teresa's horse, and then led him outside and tied him next to Barranca. He glanced up at the sun, wondering if Teresa would slow him up after all. A moment later, Teresa came running out, only slowing as she neared the horses.

“Let's go,” she ordered as she checked the cinch, and then swung expertly aboard the gelding. Johnny grinned as he hurriedly jumped on Barranca and spurred him after Teresa's horse. Barranca caught up with the smaller gelding after only a few strides, and after he had gained the lead, the palomino calmed down into a steady lope.

Johnny allowed the horses to stretch their muscles for several miles, then he reined Barranca down to a slower pace. The horse fought him, unwilling to let the black in front of him, but after a sharp word from his master, the palomino pinned his ears and reluctantly slowed. A moment later, Midnight also checked his pace, and Barranca managed to regain his position.

Teresa's cheeks were flushed from the exhilarating ride, and she turned and smiled at Johnny. “I could do that all day long.”

Johnny smiled back. “So could I, but unfortunately, the horses can't. We gotta let them rest a while. It's still quite a ways to Mabel's house.”

Teresa took a deep breath. “It smells like rain.”

Johnny inhaled sharply, then nodded. “Yeah, it does.” He squinted at the sky. “Doesn't look like it, though. Guess we'll just have ta wait and see.”

Teresa looked around at the parched earth. “We could use some rain. This summer's been hard on the cattle.”

“We still have a ways ta go until the rainy season. I wouldn't complain about a little summer storm, though.”

Teresa laughed. “Neither would I, as long as it waits until we're safely inside.”

Johnny grinned. “Then we'd better hurry,” he said impishly, and spurred Barranca ahead once more, with Teresa in hot pursuit.

An hour and a half later, the two riders pulled their horses to a halt in front of Mabel and Benjamin's cabin. Johnny helped his sister down, then walked with her up to the door. He rapped sharply, and a moment later, Benjamin opened the door.

“Johnny! Miss O' Brian! What a surprise. Come on in.”

The two young people stepped into the cabin, and Teresa looked around. “Where's Mabel?”

“She went over to Miss Sander's this morning. She didn't think you were coming.”

Teresa looked bewildered. “But I told her I would be here.”

Benjamin shrugged and smiled. “Mabel has been pretty busy, what with the baby and all. She doesn't know if she's coming or going half the time. She probably got mixed up. Sorry.”

“That's all right,” Teresa hurriedly assured him. She looked over at Johnny. “I'm sorry. Maybe you could take me to the Sander's?”

Johnny shook his head. “No. It's another hour's hard ride. I wouldn't have time ta go to the dam, and Murdoch was pretty clear I needed ta take care of that today.”

“I can't stay here,” she said hesitantly.

“No, you can't.” Johnny agreed. “It looks like you'll have ta come with me. I'm not gonna be doin' any work, I just have ta check out a few things.” He grinned. “It looks like you'll get that long ride, after all.”

“That doesn't scare me,” she grinned back.

“Why don't you sit down and rest a while first?” Benjamin suggested.

Johnny looked over at his sister. “Unless you need ta rest, we really need ta get going.”

Teresa nodded as she headed for the door. “I'm fine. Thank you, Benjamin, and tell Mabel I'll come and see her as soon as I can, all right?”

He nodded as he saw them out the door. “I sure will, Miss O'Brian, and sorry about the mix up. Bye, Johnny.”

Johnny helped his sister onto her horse and then jumped onto Barranca. He set a slower pace on the way out, and he glanced over at Teresa. “Are you sure you're up to a long ride? I could take you back to Lancer,” he said worriedly.

“Johnny, quit worrying. I'm fine, and I love to ride. You can check out the dam, and then we can head home.”

Johnny nodded uncertainly. He wanted to get that dam taken care of, but he wasn't sure if Murdoch would approve of taking Teresa with him. They were on Lancer land, so they shouldn't run into any difficulties, but with his luck, he never knew. He glanced up and saw only blue sky, and his worry lessened a little.

“All right, but if you change your mind, just let me know,” he ordered.

“Don't worry, I will.”

Johnny relaxed a little, but because Teresa was along, he was more alert than he usually was when he was on his home turf. He didn't want to take any chances on anything going wrong. Almost two hours later, they reached the tree line above the dam. The two riders swung down, and Johnny unsaddled the mounts, then tied the two horses where they could graze. He laid the saddle blanket on the ground and motioned for Teresa to sit.

Gratefully, she sank to the ground while Johnny rummaged in the saddlebags and finally drew out a brown paper bag. He walked over and sat down on the grass next to her, then drew out a huge sandwich and handed it to her. “Guess we shoulda asked Ben for another sandwich.”

“Oh, Johnny,” Teresa laughed. “There's no way I can eat all of this. We'll share it.”

“Are you sure?” he asked hopefully.

“Yes, and you can have ALL of the cake that I know is in there. I'll settle for the apple. All right?”

Johnny nodded happily. “Deal.”

After they had finished their meal, Johnny jumped up and began to saddle Barranca. “I need ta check out the dam. Will you be ok here? I won't be far.”

“I'll be fine. Go do what you have to do.” She grinned impishly. “I just might take a nap while you're gone.”

“Ok, but you better make it fast. I should be back in about thirty minutes.”

“Don't hurry. I very seldom get to take a nap during the day.”

Johnny chuckled. “If you promise you'll make me a cake, I might be persuaded to stay away for a while.”

“Johnny Lancer, that's blackmail!”

“Yep,” Johnny agreed.

“All right. But you'd better be gone at least an hour.”

“Done.”

Johnny checked the area one last time to make sure there were no hidden dangers, then swung up on Barranca. If you need anything, just yell,” he ordered.

“I'll be fine! Now go!”

Johnny turned Barranca toward the dam, but he paused halfway down and looked back. For some reason, he felt uneasy, but he couldn't figure out why. He'd just have to forget about that cake, because he had no intention of being gone anywhere near an hour. Something was definitely wrong.





Chapter Three

Johnny hurriedly checked the dam, and then pulled some brush away from the overflow, so the stream wouldn't clog and flood its banks. He worked quickly, but it still took him almost half of an hour. When he was done, he took off his hat and wiped his face with his arm. He put his head back to stretch his sore neck, and stopped dead. He had been so intent on getting the chore done, he hadn't been aware of anything else, and he cursed himself for being so careless. While he had been working, the clouds had turned dark and ominous. He watched in fascination as they boiled and rolled above him, and he felt the first drop of rain.

He ran over to Barranca and jumped on, cursing the whole while. They were bound to get soaked; they were almost five miles from the ranch house. He spurred the palomino up the slope, and to his relief he saw that Teresa already had her horse saddled and ready to go.

“Come on!” he shouted. “We have to hurry!”

Teresa nodded and climbed aboard her fidgety mount. The horses were skittish because of the impending storm, and needed no urging to head for home and the safety of their barn. Johnny took the lead and Teresa followed close behind. They had only gone a mile or so when the heavens opened and sheets of water poured down on them. Johnny reluctantly slowed his horse. The rain made it hard to see very far in front of him, and he didn't want to kill Barranca just to avoid a drenching.

Johnny headed down a slope toward a small river. It was hidden by shrubbery, but as they approached, he became aware of a roar that wasn't caused by the rain. As he broke into a clearing next to the water, he pulled his horse to a quick stop and stared in fascination at the river. The waterway, usually a sedate stream, was now swollen and angry. The water crashed over the rocks and tore at the many trees along its banks, trying to tear them free.

Teresa rode up and pulled her horse to a halt next to Johnny. “Can we cross?” she asked worriedly. They had to cross the river in order to get home.

Johnny watched the waterway for several seconds. He knew they had to cross in order to make it back to Lancer, but there was no way he was going to risk it. Not with Teresa along. If he had been by himself, he might have tried it. He was confident of Barranca's sure footedness, but he wasn't as sure of Midnight's. He glanced upstream, but knew it would be just as bad; the storm had evidently started up in the hills, and had caused the flash flood he was seeing. Downstream would be worse, because several streams dumped into this one a mile or so down. He turned to Teresa and shook his head.

“We can't make it across,” he yelled, the rain and wind snatching his words away as soon as they were out of his mouth. Finally, he gave up trying to talk, and motioned for Teresa to follow him. There was a line shack not far from here, and Johnny knew it was well provisioned. He and Scott had spent a couple of nights in it a month or so back when they were looking for stray steers.

Johnny headed for the shelter as the thunder roared and crashed above them. The rain slammed into them, making even breathing difficult. He guided Barranca in the general direction, hoping the palomino would know enough to head for the cabin and shelter. If he didn't, they might be in trouble, because Johnny wasn't sure he could find it in the blinding rain. The horse slid and fought for purchase in the slippery mud, and once Midnight went to his knees, but Barranca continued to head stubbornly in the same direction.

An eternity later, Barranca finally brought his rider into the small clearing surrounding the cabin. Johnny hurriedly dismounted and ran over and helped Teresa down. He took her by the arm and guided her into the welcoming shelter, taking a quick kook around to make sure there weren't any unwanted visitors. The cabin was dry but cold, and Johnny hurried to start a fire. He said a quick thanks that he and Scott had left the cabin well provisioned, with plenty of dry firewood stacked next to the stove.

Several minutes later, the fire was roaring in the stove, and Johnny finally turned his attention to the shivering woman.

“You ok?” he asked.

Teresa nodded, her teeth chattering.

“I'm gonna go outside and take care of the horses. While I'm outside, get outta those wet clothes and dry off.” He tossed her a blanket. “Wrap this around you and then get next to the fire.”

Teresa nodded. “What about you?”

“I'll dry off after I bed down the horses.”

As soon as he had left, Teresa tore off her wet clothes and bundled up in the blanket. She hung her clothes over a chair, then scrounged around for some coffee and something to warm up for supper. By the time Johnny returned, the smell of coffee was permeating the cabin, and he shot her an appreciative smile as he walked over to the stove to pour himself a cup.

“Smells good.”

“Johnny Lancer, you get out of those wet clothes right now! Do you want to catch your death of cold?”

Johnny grinned and started unbuttoning his shirt. “Never had a lady so eager ta get me outta my clothes before.”

Teresa blushed profusely. “You know exactly what I mean.” She tossed him a blanket. “I'll turn around. Tell me when you're decent.”

Teresa spun around and started concentrating on the meal. Several seconds later, she snuck a quick peek over her shoulder, and the blush came back darker than ever.





Chapter Four

Murdoch paced back and forth in front of the window, stopping to peer out into the darkness every third pass or so.

Scott had been watching him for over an hour, and the pacing hadn't stopped. Finally, Scott had had enough. “Would you please sit down!”

“I can't. Johnny and Teresa are still out there.” He glanced at the grandfather clock chiming the time. “They should have been back hours ago.”

“I'm sure they're fine.”

Murdoch turned and glared at his older son. “Have you taken a good look outside lately? This is the worst summer storm I've ever seen, and we didn't get much warning. They could very easily have been taken by surprise.”

“There's a good chance they stayed at Mabel's house.”

Murdoch shook his head. “Maybe, but what if they didn't?”

Scott took a sip of his brandy. “Murdoch, Johnny isn't stupid, and he'd be extra careful if Teresa were with him. I'm sure they at least made it to a line shack if they got caught out.”

“And THAT'S supposed to make me feel better?”

Scott looked at his father quizzically. “It should. They'll be safe there.”

“They'll BE THERE TOGETHER!”

Scott stared at his father for several seconds, then shook his head as he realized what his father was getting at. “Do you REALLY think Johnny would try anything with Teresa?”

Murdoch dropped his head and slowly shook it. “I don't know. I don't think so. I hope not. But…” he let his voice trail off.

“But you're not sure.”

Murdoch shook his head. “I just don't know. I know he wouldn't mean to, but two young people in a small cabin….”

“You don't have much faith in either one of them, do you?”

Murdoch brought his head up and stared at Scott. “Can you say for certain that nothing will happen?”

Scott kept his gaze for several seconds, then slowly shook his head. “I know Johnny wouldn't force her.”

“I know that too,” Murdoch said crossly. “But that doesn't mean things won't get out of hand. Teresa's young and impetuous, and Johnny is a very handsome young man. And you know how well they get along.”

“That doesn't mean either one views the other one romantically.”

Murdoch sighed. “It doesn't mean they don't, either.”

“I think you're worrying over nothing, Sir.”

“I hope so.”

Murdoch turned and looked out at the driving rain, flashes of lightening illuminating the yard at regular intervals. “I guess I should be praying that they made it to safety.”

“Yes, you should,” Scott agreed.

Murdoch resumed his pacing. “Tomorrow morning, first light, we'll go look for them.”

“And look where? Besides, if it's still raining this bad, we won't be able to see ten feet ahead of us. We'd never find them.”

Murdoch ran his hand through his hair. “We can't just wait until they come back. What if they're in trouble?”

“Like I said, Johnny wouldn't take any chances with Teresa along. They'll be ok.”

Murdoch nodded slowly. “I guess.”

“If they're not back by the time the rain clears up, we'll go try and find them. In the meantime, you need to get some sleep.”

“You go on. I can't sleep, not as long as they're both out in this.”

“Worrying won't help.”

Murdoch smiled ruefully at his son. “No, but it won't hurt, either. Go on to bed. I'll see you in the morning.”

Scott looked back at his father as he climbed the stairs. Murdoch was still pacing, staring out at the stormy blackness, a worried frown on his face.





Johnny glanced over at Teresa, wondering whether he should say something. She hadn't said a word to him since they had left the cabin, and he was afraid she never would again. He sighed softly, wondering what he could say to make it right, and realized it was far too late. After last night, she would probably never speak to him again.

As they rode along toward Lancer, Johnny cursed the fates that had thrown the two of them together in that damn cabin. It never would have happened if they hadn't been alone in that small house. The rain certainly hadn't helped, either. Having to get undressed in each other's presence had gone a long way toward starting the whole thing.

He wondered briefly what Murdoch would say if he knew what had gone on, and he shivered at the thought. His father would probably have a heart attack if he found out. One thing for sure, HE wasn't going to tell his father, and he doubted if Teresa would confess, either. At least he hoped she wouldn't. If she did, things could get ugly real fast. He doubted Murdoch would be very understanding when it came to Teresa's innocence.

Johnny glanced over at the young woman once more. Her tight lipped silence did nothing to reassure him, but it wasn't all his fault, either. He nudged Barranca as close as he could get to Midnight.

“Teresa.”

Silence.

“Teresa, we need ta talk.”

“I have nothing to say to you,” Teresa said with a sob.

“Teresa, please. I never meant ta...”

“To what?” she stormed. “Don't make it worse than it already is. Just shut up.”

“You can't blame it all on me,” he argued.

“Of course not,” she said sarcastically. “It was all my fault. I THOUGHT you cared about me. I THOUGHT I could trust you. I guess I was wrong.”

Johnny's head dropped. “I do care about ya,” he protested.

“I wish I'd never met you,” she said quietly. “I hate you.”

“You sure as hell didn't last night.”

Teresa turned toward him and slapped him on the face, hard. “How dare you,” she gasped.

Johnny closed his eyes for a moment. “Look, I'm sorry. That was outta line. But we have ta get along. If Murdoch finds out…”

“Is that all you're worried about? That Murdoch will find out?”

“Aren't you? He'd have a fit. He'd make sure you never got near me again.”

“Who says I want to?” she spat.

“I said I was sorry, what more do you want me to say?”

“I don't want you to SAY anything.”

After a moment, Johnny shook his head. “Teresa, I can't do what you want. In Murdoch's eyes, you're my sister. He'd never allow me to marry you, even after…” he shook his head. “I'm sorry.”





Chapter Five

Murdoch startled out of sleep, wondering what had awakened him. He sat up quickly and almost fell out of the chair he had spent the night in. He grabbed the desk to keep from falling, and felt his back lock up. He cursed quietly, then he remembered why he had spent the night in the chair and his eyes went to the window. He looked out and scanned the yard, hoping to see some sign of his missing children. They were nowhere in sight, but at least the rain had stopped. The sun was up, just showing over the nearby hills, and the men were already hard at work cleaning up the debris left by the storm.

Murdoch stood up and stretched, trying to get the kinks out of his back as Scott came down the stairs. His son looked at him and shook his head. “You slept there all night, didn't you?” he asked accusingly.

Murdoch grimaced as his back protested the motion, and he nodded. “One of these days I guess I'll learn.”

“I would have thought you would have learned by now.”

Murdoch shrugged. “I couldn't sleep. I was worried about them.”

Scott looked out the window. “The rain's stopped. They'll probably be home soon.”

Murdoch nodded noncommittally. “I hope so.”

“I think Ill take a quick ride out and check for damage. If Johnny and Teresa aren't home by the time I get back, I'll start looking for them, all right?”

Murdoch nodded. “Just don't be too long.”

Scott nodded, then grabbed his hat and holster off of the rack and headed for the door.

Murdoch walked around to try to loosen up his muscles before having breakfast. He had been awake for most of the night, his thoughts chasing each other around like rats in a cage. Heaven help him, he was more worried about Johnny and Teresa being alone together than he was about them possibly being in trouble. He knew Scott was right; Johnny was no fool, and he'd find shelter for them somewhere. It was the somewhere part that was bothering him. If they had stayed at Mabel's and Ben's, then it wouldn't be too bad. But if they had been forced to find shelter at a line shack, that would be almost asking for disaster.

He knew he should have more faith in his son than that, but he knew how quickly things could get out of hand, whether Johnny meant for them to or not. Murdoch wasn't blind. He had seen how well the two of them got along, and he had occasionally caught Teresa looking at Johnny with something that he thought was more than brotherly love. In spite of that, Murdoch hadn't done anything to separate the two of them. He just hoped his son wouldn't break the trust he had been shown.

Murdoch started to turn away from the window when a movement caught his eyes. He stared for a moment, and then a deep sense of relief welled up inside. At least they were all right. He strode over to the door and yanked it open, waiting for the two riders to arrive. As they approached, he watched them critically. He knew Teresa was all right, or Johnny would be helping her. His son didn't appear to have any injuries either, and Murdoch said a quick prayer of thanks.

The two riders pulled their horses to a halt in the yard, and Murdoch went out to greet them. “We were worried about you.”

Johnny's head shot up as he dismounted and he smiled wanly at his father, then glanced over at Teresa, who was just swinging off of her own horse. “We're all right. Just got caught in the storm. Had ta wait it out.”

“Did you stay at Ben and Mabel's?” Murdoch asked hopefully.

Johnny glanced once more at his sister. “No. We had already left there when the rain hit. We were by the dam, and had ta stay at the line shack just north of there.”

Murdoch felt his heart drop. “You're both all right?”

Johnny nodded silently, and Murdoch turned his attention to Teresa, who was heading toward the house. “Teresa?”

Teresa hesitated, then continued walking without turning around. “I'm fine, just tired. I think I'll go take a bath,” she ground out.

Murdoch watched as she stalked off, and his eyes narrowed. He turned back toward his son, who had his face buried in Barranca's mane. “Why is she upset?” Murdoch asked sharply.

Johnny hesitated, and then shrugged. “We had an argument.”

“About what?” The first glimmer of fear pierced Murdoch's heart.

Johnny hesitated once more, and Murdoch didn't miss the quick lick Johnny gave his lips before answering, nor the fact that his son hadn't looked him in the eyes once since he'd ridden up. “Johnny?” he said, almost pleadingly.

The gunfighter shrugged once more. “Nothin' important, Murdoch. Now I think I'll go change my clothes.” He stopped and looked down for a moment, as though deciding something. Finally he spoke. “Is Scott home yet?” he asked softly.

Murdoch nodded. “He came home yesterday afternoon, right before the rain started. He's out checking for damage and should be home shortly. Why?”

Johnny shook his head. “No reason.” He turned and walked into the house.

Murdoch watched as his son disappeared and wondered if he should go after him and try to find out exactly what was wrong, but he also knew pushing was one sure way of making Johnny shut down completely and not talk to anyone. Murdoch knew without a doubt there had been a problem, the question was, what? He hoped that Scott could pry it out of his uncommunicative brother, and in the meantime, he thought he might try to talk to Teresa as soon as she came downstairs. He just hoped she would enlighten him, and he prayed it was nothing serious. Murdoch stood in the courtyard, undecided, then slowly followed his son into the house.

Murdoch's unease grew when he saw Johnny helping himself to a shot of tequila at this time of the morning. Johnny threw the shot back, then closed his eyes and grabbed the side of the bar. Murdoch took a few hesitant steps in his direction, but as soon as Johnny saw Murdoch, he turned and headed for the stairs, leaving the rancher alone with his fears.





Chapter Six

Murdoch stalked back and forth from his desk to the bar, his temper getting worse by the minute. Johnny had quickly changed, then escaped out the back door without Murdoch seeing him. Now Murdoch's only hope was trying to find out what had happened from Teresa, and she still wasn't down yet. He didn't want to talk to her when there was anyone else around, in case the unthinkable had happened, but he HAD to know. His imagination was running wild, and he was certain it was much worse than the reality, but the way Teresa and Johnny had acted earlier had done nothing to allay his fears. He tried to calm down; his heart told him that his faith in Johnny hadn't been misplaced, but his mind wasn't so sure.

Finally, his ward appeared on the stairs, and he went over to meet her. She looked at him in surprise. “Murdoch, what's wrong.”

“Maybe you should tell me that,” he responded.

She looked at him in confusion, then dropped her eyes. “There's nothing wrong.”

“Well, there obviously is. Johnny told me...”

“He TOLD YOU!” she asked in disbelief.

Murdoch stopped and stared at the girl. “What do you think he told me?” he asked softly.

Teresa shook her head. “I have no idea,” she insisted.

“But there IS something to tell, isn't there?”

Teresa shrugged. “Not really.”

Murdoch took a deep breath and stared at his ward. “Teresa, if…something… happened in that cabin, I need to know.”

Teresa shook her head slowly. “I don't know what you mean.”

Murdoch closed his eyes, finding this conversation more and more uncomfortable. He wished Paul had had a boy instead of a girl. It would have made things a lot easier. “Did Johnny…was Johnny out of line?”

She looked at him, uncomprehending at first, then turned away as she understood his meaning. “No.”

“You don't sound too sure,” he pointed out.

“I said no!” she replied sharply. “What more do you want me to say?”

“Teresa! I have to know the truth. I have to know whether I need to talk to my son about marrying you!”

Teresa stared at him for a moment, then she shook her head slowly. “No.” She smiled. “Besides, I don't think Johnny would agree to that, do you?”

Murdoch's jaw clenched. “I'm not playing games! IF Johnny dishonored you, he WILL marry you. I don't give a damn what he wants. Now give me a straight answer, young lady!”

Teresa calmly met her guardian's glowering face for several moments before answering. “No,” she said calmly. “He didn't do anything wrong. Now if you're through interrogating me, I have to make supper.” She turned and flounced into the kitchen, the straightness of her back proclaiming her anger.

Murdoch watched her go, and even though he had received the answers he had prayed for, for some reason he still felt uneasy.





Johnny rode away from the hacienda, determined to put some distance between himself and Murdoch. And Teresa, he thought wryly. By now she had had plenty of time to get her hands on a gun. He shook his head ruefully. He never should have taught her how to shoot. It just might be safer for him to camp out for a few days. Or weeks, depending. Besides, if he went back, he'd have to face Murdoch, and thanks to Teresa's temper tantrum, his Old Man knew darn good and well there was something wrong. He knew Murdoch wouldn't let it go, either. Not until he knew the whole painful truth. And if that happened, Johnny figured, he really WOULD stay away for a while, because things would certainly be extremely unpleasant.

Johnny thought back to the time in the cabin, and he still couldn't quite believe what had happened. He had always thought of Teresa as his sister, but that had all changed the night before, and now he didn't know what to do about it. Teresa was as mad as hell at him, and he doubted if her temper would improve anytime soon. He just hoped she wasn't stupid enough to tell the Old Man what had gone on, or they'd both be in hot water. He hoped that with time things would go back to normal, although he doubted if he could ever look at Teresa the same way again. She wasn't an innocent kid any more. She was a woman.

Johnny finally caught up with his brother about an hour's ride out. Scott was clearing some brush from around a fence, and without a word, Johnny jumped off of Barranca and began to help him. Scott looked over and smiled. “I see you made it home ok.”

“Yep.” Johnny looked at his brother and grinned. “You think I can't handle a little rain?”

“I had no doubts about your ability to survive,” Scott admitted. “Although Murdoch was about at wit's end.”

“What? He didn't think I knew enough ta come in outta the rain?” Johnny asked, only half kidding.

“Well, your coming in out of the rain was only part of it. He was worried about what you'd do once you WERE out of it.”

“Huh?”

Scott shook his head. “He was concerned about you and Teresa being stranded somewhere.”

“Doesn't he know I'd take care of her?” Johnny said crossly.

Scott grinned. “I think he was worried that you'd take care of her a little too well.”

Johnny looked at his brother blankly for a moment, and then began to savagely tear at the brush. “That ain't funny,” he growled.

Scott studied his brother. “No, it's not,” he agreed. He watched Johnny work another few moments, then placed his hand on his brother's arm. “What's wrong?”

“Nothin'” Johnny spat.

“Johnny, do you need to talk to me about anything?'

“NO! Now just drop it.”

“Brother, if something happened…”

Johnny stopped dead, as if thinking. Finally he looked his brother in the eyes. “Nothin' happened, Scott, really.”

“Promise?” Scott asked lightly.

“Promise. I wouldn't lie to you.”

Scott nodded. “That should lighten Murdoch's worry considerably.”

“I hope so.” Then Johnny mumbled to himself, “If Teresa can keep her big mouth shut.”

“What?”

“Nothin'. Let's get this mess cleaned up. I'm tired. I didn't get much sleep last night.”





Chapter Seven

Murdoch stood watching the light rain that was coming down, and his mind went back to the day several months ago when he'd stood at the same window, worrying and praying that his children were all right. He had been so worried that day, and he still was. When they had first arrived home, his first reaction was relief that they were safe, then the next had been a worry that one of his nightmares was about to prove true. Both Teresa and Johnny were acting strangely, and neither one had an adequate explanation. For that matter, they were still acting strangely. Teresa was obviously angry, and Johnny was staying away from his sister as much as possible.

Before that day, Johnny and Teresa had enjoyed an easy friendship and they were always bantering and teasing back and forth. Now the little bit they talked was strained and forced. Both, however, had denied any wrongdoing on Johnny's part. Murdoch hoped Teresa wouldn't lie to protect his son, but he wasn't sure. After much worry, he had finally come to the conclusion that Johnny HAD gotten out of line, but Teresa had stopped him, and now she was angry at him for his betrayal. It was the only thing that made sense. He knew he needed to talk to Johnny, but so far his son had been totally uncommunicative. When Murdoch had tried to push, Johnny had slammed out of the house and taken off, doing nothing to allay Murdoch's fears.

Even though he had pretty much convinced himself that is what had happened, a part of him was ashamed at the thought. Johnny had never done anything to betray the trust Murdoch had shown him when he had accepted the gunfighter into his home. It had taken a huge amount of faith on Murdoch's part to welcome Johnny Madrid as his son, and many people had thought he was crazy. He had told them that no son of his could be that bad, but in his heart, he knew that wasn't true. Johnny, and Scott for that matter, had been raised by other people. Murdoch had had no say or part in either of his boys' upbringing. He wasn't too worried about Scott; no matter how much the rancher loathed Harlan Garret, he knew the old goat wouldn't tolerate any nonsense from his grandson. Johnny, on the other hand, had had absolutely no guidance, at least not of the positive kind. Murdoch hadn't known what to expect from his younger son, but he hadn't expected much. He had been pleasantly surprised when Johnny had thrown himself into ranch work and family life with a determination to succeed at both.

Murdoch spun around and faced his desk. Whatever was wrong, he knew it had to end soon. He had no intention of living the rest of his life with the hostility that emanated from his two youngest. He had even gone so far as to ask Scott if he knew what was wrong, thinking that one or the other would confide in him, but Scott had assured Murdoch that neither had talked to him, and he had no idea what was wrong. If Johnny and Teresa didn't get back to normal soon, Murdoch was going to sit them both down together and insist they talk.

That decided, he turned his attention to the mail that had been piling up on his desk. His mind hadn't exactly been on paperwork lately, he had been too worried about his children. He glanced up as the door slammed shut, the familiar jingle of Johnny's spurs hitting the tiles. A moment later, his son appeared. Murdoch glanced up at the clock and realized Scott and Teresa wouldn't be back from town for at least another hour. He took a deep breath as his younger son walked in, knowing it was a perfect opportunity to talk to him.

“How did it go today?”

“Fine. No problems, but we'll have ta send a work crew over ta work on the south bridge.” Johnny walked over and poured himself a drink, then plopped down on the couch and put his head back on the pillows.

“Tired?” Murdoch asked.

Johnny nodded without moving, and he closed his eyes. Murdoch stood up and walked over to the couch, then sat down next to his son. Johnny opened one eye and looked at Murdoch quizzically. “Somethin' wrong?”

Murdoch held his son's gaze. “You tell me.”

Johnny sat up and stared back at his father. “What's goin' on?” he asked softly.

Murdoch shook his head. “I wish I knew. You and Teresa act like total strangers, and frankly, I'm worried. I need to know what's wrong.”

Johnny sighed. “I told ya, nothin. Teresa's just mad at me, that's all.”

“And you won't tell me why.”

“It's nothing.”

“It's obviously SOMETHING!” Murdoch exploded. He saw Johnny's expression shutting down, and Murdoch made an effort to control his temper. “Johnny, please,” he pleaded, then hesitated. “Did you and Teresa…did you…” he stared at his son.

Johnny stared back, then jumped to his feet. “Don't you have any faith at all in me? I've told ya before, nothin' happened! Why do you always think the worst of me?”

“Because you won't tell me what's going on! My imagination is running wild!” Murdoch ran his hand through his hair in frustration.

“Murdoch, I would never do anything ta hurt Teresa, or any of you. I give you my word; I didn't touch Teresa, ok? She's mad about something else, somethin' that I'd rather not discuss. It's between her and me.”

Murdoch looked into his son's eyes and finally nodded. Relief rushed over him. He knew Johnny had never lied to him, and whatever it was that was bothering Teresa, it would eventually be made right. “All right. I won't bring it up again. And thank you, Johnny, for reassuring me. I'm sorry I doubted you.”

A small smile formed on the gunfighter's lips. “That's ok. I probably would have been suspicious, too. Now I'm gonna go wash up. I don't want ta do anything else ta make the cook madder at me.”

Murdoch watched as his son left, and he took a deep breath. He knew that Johnny wouldn't lie to him, but for some reason, the knot in his stomach was still there. He felt it was merely the calm before the storm.





Chapter Eight

Teresa paced back and forth in her room. She hadn't slept all night, even though she was exhausted. Her mind had been working frantically for several weeks, and she hadn't had a good night's sleep for at least that long. The problem was, she still didn't know what to do. She knew that the time had come to talk to her guardian, but she didn't know if she had the courage. He would be so disappointed in her, and Johnny as well. It was his reaction to Johnny that worried her the most. The two men fought frequently, and their arguments weren't exactly calm. Both men's tempers were infamous, and there had been more than once when she had expected the fights to turn violent. So far, that had been avoided, but this one just might be the one that broke that streak.

She walked over to the window and looked out. She needed to say something soon, before it was too late, but still she hesitated. Part of her just wanted to let it go, but she knew she had to do this. She had even considered leaving; it might be for the best for all concerned, but the little voice in her head told her that if she was very lucky, it still might work out. Besides, if she was wrong and if things got too bad, she could still leave. She didn't want to live with hate or distrust, but she hoped that would be only a temporary thing. If she remained calm and loving, he couldn't help but forgive her. At least that was what she was counting on. She knew he had a soft spot for her, and would never do anything to hurt her. No, he would forgive her eventually, and in the meantime she'd just have to wait it out.

She knew Johnny would be furious with her, but she also knew that Murdoch would give him no choice. He had made that perfectly clear. And then later, she could explain things to Johnny. She would make sure he understood that she had had no choice. She walked purposefully over to the door and yanked it open, but then she hesitated. Once done, there was no turning back. If either Murdoch or Johnny overreacted, it could get ugly. Did she really want to be the one who tore the two of them apart?

She stood by the door for several minutes, thinking things over, and then her common sense told her that Murdoch wouldn't hurt his son. For all of his bluster, she had never seen him become physical with anyone. As for Johnny, she knew he would never turn on his father. No, there would be screaming and probably some cursing, and then things would calm down. She knew it would take longer for Johnny to accept things, but she had no doubt that he would. After all, he didn't have much of a choice. With another deep breath and a quick prayer that things wouldn't get too bad, she headed for the stairs.





Murdoch looked up as his ward entered the room. He felt much better after talking to Johnny a few days before, but Teresa was still moody and quiet. She was still avoiding Johnny; the two of them barely looked at each other. Even Scott was being held at arm's length by his ward. In fact, yesterday she had gone up to her room right after supper, saying she didn't feel well, and he hadn't seen her all day today.

He watched her critically as she approached. She seemed pale, and her eyes confirmed that she had been crying. He felt his nerves scream a warning, and knew that he was about to find out what the problem was. Part of him wanted, no needed to know, but a part of him felt like jumping up and leaving before his peace was shattered. He fought down the urge to run and he remained seated. He was afraid if Teresa hit him with something horrible, his legs just might not hold him. He was definitely safer sitting.

“Are you feeling better?” he asked hopefully.

She shrugged lackadaisically, then walked over to his desk. Nervously, she picked up the paperweight and inspected it as though she'd never seen it before. Murdoch noted that the gesture was eerily reminiscent of Johnny when he was troubled. Teresa put the object down, then stared out the window, taking care not to meet Murdoch's eyes. Finally, she took a deep breath.

“I need to talk to you,” she whispered.

Murdoch felt the uneasiness he'd been living with and trying to ignore for the last several months roar to the forefront.

“Sit sown,” he said quietly.

She nodded, but continued to stand and he noticed that her hands were tying themselves in knots. “I don't want you to be mad,” she finally blurted.

“Teresa, just tell me.”

Teresa took a deep breath, and looked out the window. If she had any sense, she would turn around and walk out of the room right now, before it was too late. But if she did that, she would have to leave. She knew she couldn't stay here, and this was the only home she had ever known. She didn't know if she could stand having to leave the house, and especially the people inside it. She swallowed hard and closed her eyes, trying to figure out just how to proceed.

“I don't want you to be disappointed in me, but I did something, and I'm afraid you'll be angry.” She brought up her face and looked at her guardian with a pleading expression.

Murdoch's patience and fear made him reply more harshly than he intended. “For God's sake, Teresa, just tell me!”

Teresa's eyes fluttered closed once more and her head dropped. All of her carefully rehearsed phrases went flying out of her head. “That night it rained. Johnny and I…Johnny…” she brought her eyes up. “I'm going to have Johnny's baby,” she blurted.





Chapter Nine

Murdoch felt the blood drain from his face when he heard Teresa's admission. Even though he had been worried about the possibility, actually having it confirmed made him feel physically sick. His son had betrayed him in the worst possible way, and his anger began to take hold. In fact, he felt like he just might explode any second. All of the thoughts that Johnny would never hurt them flew right out the window.

He heard the front door open, and the unmistakable sounds of his sons laughing. His temper kicked up a notch. Johnny was acting like absolutely nothing had happened, and that infuriated Murdoch. As his sons walked into the room, Murdoch sprang from behind his desk, and with three long strides, he reached Johnny. His younger son had been saying something to Scott, and turned around just as Murdoch's fist crashed into his cheek, sending him flying.

Scott grabbed his father's arm, trying to stop the assault, but Murdoch easily shook him off, and he lunged once more at Johnny. Johnny scrambled to his feet, turning away from his father and trying to block the punches with his arm. He made no move to fight back, and finally sought refuge behind Murdoch's desk. His father stood glowering at him and Johnny looked at him confusion.

“What the hell was that for?”

“Damn you, boy! You know damn good and well what it's for!”

Scott quickly took hold of Murdoch's arm. “Sir, calm down! Now what's wrong?”

Murdoch pierced Johnny with his glare. “Why don't you tell him?”

“Tell him WHAT?”

Murdoch snorted loudly. “You can't even admit it, can you? You're not a man; you're nothing but a yellow coward. What are you going to do, deny it?”

“DENY WHAT!”

“Murdoch, tell me what's going on!” Scott insisted.

The rancher turned toward his older son. “Your BROTHER betrayed our trust. I should never have allowed him into our home. He's nothing but a filthy, lying, half b…”

“MURDOCH!” Scott bellowed.

Murdoch stood glaring at Johnny for several seconds, then shook his head. “All of his protests, all of his promises meant nothing. He lied to all of us.” Murdoch dropped his head in anguish. “He got Teresa with child,” he finally admitted.

Scott's mouth dropped open and he turned and stared at his brother. Johnny shook his head in confusion and looked at Teresa, who ducked her head.

“You told him that?” Johnny asked in disbelief.

The girl raised tear stained eyes to him. “I had to, don't you understand? I…I couldn't hide it any more.”

Johnny continued to stare at her and then he took a step toward her. Murdoch immediately reached out and grabbed his son by the shirt. “You son of a bitch. You stay away from her, do you understand!”

“I need ta talk to her!” Johnny insisted and took another step toward her. Murdoch slammed him hard against the desk.

“You don't need to talk to anyone, least of all her.”

Johnny pushed back, intending to get to Teresa, and Murdoch's fist once more connected with his son's face. Johnny went down and lay glaring at his father.

This time Teresa grabbed his arm. “Murdoch, please,” she pleaded. “Leave him alone.”

“Like he left you alone?” Murdoch asked sarcastically.

Johnny struggled to his feet and turned his glare toward Teresa. “Why, Teresa?”

She shrugged sadly. “I HAD to, Johnny. I told you, I couldn't hide it any longer.”

Johnny shook his head and turned toward his glaring father. “You're mind is made up, isn't it? You aren't you even gonna ask me what happened!”

Murdoch shook his head. “I don't want to hear any more of your lies,” he spat.

Johnny turned to Scott. “What about you, brother? You gonna hear what I have ta say? Or is your mind made up, too?” he challenged.

Scott stared at his brother, then slowly shook his head. “You lied to me, Johnny. I trusted you, I believed you, and you lied to me.” He turned away and walked over to his sister and put his arm around her and gave her a hug.

Johnny watched his brother in disbelief, and then looked up cautiously as his father approached. Johnny's hand inched toward his gun.

Murdoch stood staring at his son for several seconds, trying to find some shred of remorse on Johnny's face. Instead, he saw nothing but anger.

Murdoch made up his mind. “You WILL marry her,” he said matter of factly.

“Wouldn't think you'd want a half breed killer marryin' your precious Teresa,” Johnny snarled.

“I DON'T! But you WILL marry her.”

“Wanna bet?”

Murdoch locked his gaze on his son. “Yes.”

Johnny looked over at the tearful girl. “I wouldn't marry her if she were the last woman on earth,” he sneered.

“YOU marry her, or…” Murdoch took a deep breath.

“Or WHAT, Old Man?” Johnny asked sarcastically. “Gonna shoot me? Well, go AHEAD, try it!” His hand rested comfortably on the butt of his gun and he locked his eyes on his father's face.

“You're refusing?” Murdoch asked in disbelief.

“I'd rather die than marry that bitch!”

Murdoch took a step toward Johnny, intent on teaching him a lesson, and Johnny straightened, watching him come. Scott grabbed Murdoch's arm as he looked at his brother sadly. “Don't, Murdoch, he's not worth it.”

“You're right, he's not.” Murdoch straightened up and glared at Johnny. “Get off of our land, and stay off. I never want to see you again.”

Johnny eyes remained on his father for a moment, and then he shot a quick glance at Scott before reaching down and grabbing his hat off of the floor where it had fallen. He strode furiously out of the room and headed for the stairs.

Scott watched him go, then looked at Teresa, trying to read her mind. She returned his gaze for several seconds, and then started sobbing. “I'm sorry Scott. I never wanted this to happen! I'm so sorry!” She buried her head on his shoulder, her body racked with sobs. After a moment, Scott sighed and put his arms around her. “It's ok, Teresa. It certainly wasn't your fault.”

Murdoch watched them for a moment, then went over to the safe. He yanked it open angrily, and drew out some papers, then scribbled something on them before throwing them on the desk.

Scott looked up and saw what his father was doing. “Murdoch, don't.”

Murdoch ignored his son, and stood staring out the window at nothing. A few minutes later, he heard Johnny's spurs jangling angrily on the tile, heading for the door.

“Johnny! Come here! I need you to sign this!”

The footsteps hesitated, then Johnny strode over to the desk, carrying his saddlebags and rifle. He picked up the pen and scratched his name where his father indicated on the deed, then threw it down on the desk. He stalked past his family without a saying a word or meeting their eyes, and the door slammed behind him.





Chapter Ten

Murdoch lay awake, staring at the ceiling. This had been the worst day of his life. Even worse than the day Maria had left. Then there had at least been hope that he could find his wife and child and bring them home. This time, he knew that Johnny was lost to them forever.

Murdoch had said things out of anger. Things he really hadn't meant. He couldn't believe he had actually come perilously close to calling his son a half breed. Thank goodness Scott had stopped him, but he had seen the look on Johnny's face and he had known what his father had almost said. Murdoch hated that word, and he certainly never thought of his son as one, but Murdoch had just been so mad. All he wanted to do was to hurt Johnny. He wanted to see the pain on Johnny's face match his own pain of betrayal. And he had. He had seen the hurt and confusion on his son's face, until it had turned to anger. Until Johnny Lancer had fled and left Johnny Madrid in his place.

Murdoch sighed softly. He knew he had witnessed the death of Johnny Lancer. Now Madrid would take over, and there would be no turning back. From now on, the gunfighter persona would control his son until he lost his soul – or his life, and eventually both. That reality sent a dagger into Murdoch's heart. He hadn't wanted to lose his son. Maybe if Murdoch had managed to remain calm….but no. It didn't change the facts. And the fact was that Johnny had lied and betrayed all of their trusts. He couldn't just ignore that, or he might lose Scott and Teresa, too. No, he had done the right thing in kicking his younger son out, but it still hurt so damn bad.

He had held out a glimmer of hope that Johnny would do the honorable thing and agree to marry Teresa. If his son had been reasonable and calm, had shown remorse for his actions and a willingness to try to make things right, things would have been different. He would still have his son. Instead, Johnny had turned on Teresa and tried to make her feel badly for telling on him. Murdoch couldn't believe the hostility Johnny had shown his ward, and his anger resurfaced once more when he remembered the things Johnny had said to the girl.

Murdoch closed his eyes. Now poor Teresa was left to bear the brunt of his son's irresponsibility. He would do his best to make sure she and the baby were well taken care of, and he knew that no one in this household would blame her, but he also knew that he couldn't control everyone. There were plenty of close minded, mean spirited people out there, just waiting to find someone to crucify.

He had learned just how unreasonable and hard hearted some of the good citizens of the surrounding towns could be when Johnny had first come home. A frown formed on Murdoch's face. Maybe they had been right. If he had listened to them and kicked his son out back then, Teresa never would have been hurt. Murdoch had been so positive that Johnny really had wanted to change; that his son was a good person that had made a few bad choices. Now he knew he'd been wrong. Johnny had fooled all of them.

Murdoch still couldn't believe what had happened. After an initial uncertainty, he had trusted Johnny completely, in all things. He would have gambled his very life that his younger son would never betray or hurt any of them. How could he have been so blind? He knew that Scott had trusted his brother, too. Perhaps too much. He hoped Scott could get past this betrayal, but he had seen the look on Scott's face when Johnny had stormed out, and he knew that Scott had lost more than a brother with the slamming of that door.

Damn Johnny anyway! They had ALL lost a part of themselves. Maybe when things calmed down, he or Scott should try to go after him, try to talk him into coming back. But did he really want him here after what had happened? Could he ever really trust him again? With a soft moan, Murdoch shook his head. No, he couldn't trust him, and he couldn't welcome him back here and pretend like nothing had happened. The best thing for all concerned was to go on with their lives and try to forget about Johnny. It would be hard, but somehow they would go on.



Johnny lay under the stars, gazing up at the lightening sky. He hadn't slept all night, and he knew that was no way to start out. He had to forget about the Lancers, had to forget about the life he'd almost had and go back to what he knew. This time, however, he wouldn't make the mistake of letting his heart rule his head. He had finally learned that lesson, and he'd learned it well. Before, he had tried to figure out who was right and who was wrong, and he would let his heart dictate which side he would be on, even if they couldn't pay. That was why he was always broke, and that was why he'd gotten himself shot more than once.

He was good enough to command any price, and he would. No more worrying about other people. He'd look out for himself, and everyone else was on their own. He would finally be smart, just like Pardee. Just like Bushrod and Preacher. Before, he had always hoped that somehow, someday, he could leave that life behind. Now he knew it would never happen. No matter how hard he tried, no matter how he acted, in people's minds he would always be an unfeeling killer, so he might as well act the part. He had expected more from his family, but they had let him down. And Scott... Johnny closed his eyes and hardened his heart. He didn't have a brother any more. He didn't have anybody. All he had was his gun.





Chapter Eleven

Teresa walked idly through the house, picking things up and putting them down, studying pictures that she'd seen thousands of times. Murdoch had insisted that she not do any work, and the inactivity wasn't helping her already jangled nerves. She knew now that she never should have said anything. She should have just left. If she had left, there would have been a chance that one day she would have been able to put it behind her and been happy. She had miscalculated badly, and she was paying the price. Of course, so was Johnny. She had never wanted Murdoch to kick him out; she would have sworn that her guardian never would have done that, but she had miscalculated Johnny's anger at her for what she had told Murdoch. She had known he would be mad, but the hate in his eyes had nearly taken her breath away, and at that moment, she knew she would never be his wife.

That was all she had wanted. Murdoch had told her that if something had happened that day in the shack, that he would make Johnny marry her. He had told her that he would make sure of it, and she had believed him. She had never wanted Johnny to leave. Heaven help her, she loved him. Maybe if she'd waited and tried to talk to him some more, he would have realized he loved her, too. Now because of her stupidity, he was gone forever. A tear coursed down her cheek, and the house suddenly became stifling. She had to get out, had to get her mind off of the mess she had made of things.

She ran toward the door and ripped it open, then headed for the barn. Whenever Johnny had been upset, he always took a long, hard ride. Maybe it would help her, although she doubted that anything would make her forget.

She glanced quickly around, making sure there was no one around to stop her, but the yard was deserted. Everyone was out working. Even Murdoch was going out and working every day, and she knew it was to get his mind off of his younger son. No matter how angry he had been, she knew that he still loved Johnny, and his son's leaving had hit the older man hard. Scott had been even more hurt. He was quiet, almost withdrawn, and seemed to have aged ten years in the last month or so since Johnny had left.

Teresa's mind worked furiously as she saddled Midnight. It had been a whole month since she had made her ill- fated announcement, and she knew she had another problem now. One that she would have to take care of very soon, before it was too late. She just hoped it would work.

She swung aboard her horse and urged the black out of the stable and away from her problems. She realized it was the first time she had ridden her horse since that day, and a fresh spate of tears coursed down her face. She wished she could go back in time and do it all over again. Things would be different. She would still have some hope that she could someday be happy, and Johnny would still be home.

She spurred the horse down the road, then turned off and galloped across the pasture, the wind whipping her hair back. She reveled in the feeling of freedom it gave her. For a few minutes, she was able to forget her problems and concentrate simply on guiding her mount through the knee deep grass. She felt the tension drain away, and a small smile formed on her lips. Now she knew why Johnny had used this method of relaxation. Johnny. Her mind once more came back to her problem, and the smile disappeared and a frown formed in its place.

Her mind wrestled with the dilemma, and gradually, she realized what she would have to do. She certainly wasn't looking forward to it, but with any luck, she should be able to pull it off. After all, Murdoch ALWAYS let her have her way, and if she put her foot down, she was confident Murdoch would do as she asked.

That decided, she shut her eyes, just letting her mind go blank and enjoying the feel of the galloping horse. Suddenly, she felt Midnight swerve, and her eyes flew open as her mount stumbled wildly. She grabbed frantically for the saddle horn, but it was too late, and she sailed over the black's head as her horse fell heavily to his knees.





Murdoch and Scott paced nervously as they waited for Sam to come down the stairs. They had found Teresa unconscious in the south pasture, her horse lying next to her, his leg shattered where he'd apparently stepped in a hole. They had quickly put the horse out of its misery, and Murdoch had gently carried the unconscious girl back to the hacienda on the back of his sorrel. Scott had gone to get Sam, and the old doctor had been working on the girl for almost an hour.

Sam had known of Teresa's condition, although he hadn't examined her yet. He and Val were the only ones Murdoch had told the whole ugly truth to, and he knew they would never tell anyone else. Murdoch snorted; no one would have to say anything. Only an idiot couldn't put Johnny's leaving together with Teresa's condition and figure out the whole sordid mess.

Murdoch looked up as he heard Sam's steps on the stairs. He prayed Teresa was ok. He couldn't decide what he was hoping for when it came to the baby. Part of him hoped she would lose it, for Teresa's sake, but another part of him desperately wanted her to keep it. It was the only thing he had left of his son. He missed Johnny terribly, and cursed the day he had lost his temper, and with it his son.

“Well?” Scott asked, snapping Murdoch back to the present.

Sam sighed. “She's still unconscious. She took a bad bump to the head, and has a concussion. She also has a broken arm and numerous cuts and scrapes.”

“Will she be ok?” Murdoch asked impatiently.

“Cautiously, I will say yes, but I can't be sure until she regains consciousness.”

“What about the baby?” Murdoch asked softly.

Sam's eyes locked on Murdoch's. “What baby?”





Chapter Twelve

Murdoch looked at the doctor in confusion. “Teresa's baby. Is it ok?”

Sam stared at Murdoch and shook his head. “She's not pregnant.”

Murdoch's eyes closed. Now that he knew she'd lost it, he felt an overwhelming sadness at the loss of the last connection to his son. “She lost it.”

Sam shook his head. “You misunderstood me. She didn't lose it, she's not pregnant, and she never was.”

“What do you mean?” Scott demanded, confused.

Sam hesitated. “This should be privileged information, but Murdoch is her legal guardian and she's under age.” His face became hard. “And Johnny was…is… a friend.” He took a deep breath and looked Murdoch in the eye. “I mean, she's never been pregnant. In fact, she's never been with a man. She's still a virgin.”

Murdoch sat down suddenly on the couch. “I don't understand.”

Sam shook his head. “Neither do I, but I intend to find out.”

Murdoch sat on the couch, shaking his head slowly. “But that means…” He turned pale. “Oh my God! Johnny,” he whispered.

Scott jumped to his feet and began pacing agitatedly. Suddenly, he slammed his hand down on the nearby table, sending objects flying. “Damn it, WHY? Why would she lie?”

Sam sighed. “I have no idea.”

Murdoch sat without moving, playing the ugly things he had said to his son over in his mind. Finally, he buried his head in his hands. “I drove my own son away. I believed her and I never even let him defend himself.” He looked at the doctor pleadingly. “You couldn't be…mistaken?”

Sam shook his head. “No. She lied.”

“WHY?” Scott repeated. He looked at his father in confusion. “Why?”

Murdoch's face hardened. “As soon as she's awake, I'm going to find out.”

Sam shook his head. “Murdoch, she's badly injured. You'll have to let her recover a little before you start asking her questions, or she could get worse.”

“Right now, I really don't care!” Murdoch stormed. “She cost me my SON!”

“If you push her too hard, she might not ever recover, and then you'll never now the truth,” Sam argued.

“Truth?” Scott snorted. “Evidently she doesn't know HOW to tell the truth.”

Murdoch dropped his head. “I just can't believe it. I never dreamed she would lie about something like that.”

Scott went over to the fireplace and gazed into its depths. “All we would have had to do is listen to him, and maybe we would have realized she was lying.”

“But we didn't,” Murdoch said flatly. “And now he's gone.”

Scott's head came up and he looked at his father belligerently. “I'll be leaving in the morning. I'm going to find him.”

“Are you?” Murdoch said quietly.

“Yes, and you aren't going to talk me out of it.”

“I'm not going to try,” Murdoch said tiredly. “But I don't think you'll find him, and even if you do, I don't think he'll come back. Not after the things I said. I think we've lost him.”

“I'm not going to give up.”

Murdoch smiled sadly. “You don't know how easy it is for someone to disappear down there. It took me twenty years to find him the first time.” He looked into his son's eyes. “I don't want to lose you, too.”

“So you're just going to give up without even trying?”

“No, I'm not going to give up. But I think I'd better go with you. I know my way around a little down there. Besides, if we do find him, it will take both of us to talk to him.” Murdoch snorted. “That is if he doesn't just shoot us.”

“I really wouldn't blame him if he did,” Scott said quietly. “Not after the way we treated him.” He took a deep breath. “When do we leave?”

“Day after tomorrow. That will give me time to talk to Cipriano and tell him what needs to be down, and we can ride into town and get some money.”

“What about Teresa?” Sam asked quietly.

Murdoch looked at the doctor for several seconds. “What about her? Frankly, right now I don't give a damn what happens to her. I'm certainly not going to stay and take care of her. Maria can do it until she's healthy enough to leave.”

Sam nodded slowly. He really couldn't blame Murdoch for feeling that way. “I'll drop in and check on her when I can. Let us know where you are once in a while, just in case.” He hesitated. “It's possible she'll take a turn for the worse.”

Murdoch's eyes pinned the doctor. “Like I said, I don't care. Right now my first priority is finding Johnny and somehow convincing him to come home, if that's even possible.”

“All right. I'll be back tomorrow to check on her, but someone should stay with her tonight.”

“I'll ask Maria if she minds. I have the feeling when she finds out what Teresa did, she WILL mind. In fact, I just might have trouble finding anyone who will be willing to help her.”

Sam looked at the rancher speculatively. “You're right. In fact, things might get ugly. Johnny has a lot of friends around here. Maybe you shouldn't say anything for a while, at least since you won't be around to protect her.”

Murdoch bit back a retort, then sighed and nodded. “All right. We'll keep this quiet, at least for now. No one else knows anything about it anyway, except Val. I'll let him know tomorrow.”

“All right,” Sam said as he headed for the door. “In case I don't see you tomorrow, you two be careful.”

“Don't worry, we will.”

As the door shut behind the doctor, Murdoch met his son's eyes. “I guess I really screwed up, didn't I?”

“We both did. I didn't exactly give him my support, either.”

Murdoch shook his head. “We're not going to get him back.”

“You seem pretty sure of that.”

Murdoch nodded slowly and stared at his son. “I am. I saw his eyes.”





Chapter Thirteen

Johnny sat in the cantina, nursing his tequila. He needed some work, and soon. The problem was, there weren't any good range wars brewing right now. For some reason, everything was disgustingly peaceful. He picked up his glass and smiled. Maybe he could get something started somewhere. After all, it wasn't hard. A few ‘accidents', the right word dropped here and there, and sometimes simply his presence, was enough to have neighbors at each other's throats. It had happened before.

He thought back to the tine he had helped that kid…what was his name? Andy. Andy…Cutler. He had been so stupid then. He had actually thought it mattered who was right or wrong. He had wanted to help the kid get through his anger before he did something stupid. Johnny snorted softly. What he should have done was keep his nose out of it. If the kid had turned to a gun, who cared? The boy wasn't anything to him.

Johnny took another sip and his mind wandered into unwelcome territory. He wondered if that bitch's lie had been found out yet, or even if it ever would. Of course, maybe she really was pregnant. For all he knew, maybe Scott had been jumping her bones. Or the Old Man. He smiled. Or Jelly. He still couldn't believe that at one time he had trusted her. Hell, he had trusted all of them, and they had betrayed him.

Before that night in the shack, he had caught Teresa looking at him with something other than sisterly interest. He had shrugged it off to a young girl's infatuation, and had tried to ignore it. He liked Teresa, but only as a sister. She just wasn't his type, and besides, he hadn't wanted to betray his family's trust. He choked as the tequila went down the wrong way. So much for taking the honorable path.

When Teresa had literally thrown herself at him in that line shack, he should have obliged. Instead, he had turned her down, and he had found out first hand about the old adage of ‘a woman scorned'. She had been furious with him for his rejection. He had tried to explain why, but she wasn't interested in an explanation. She wanted what she wanted, just like a spoiled child. And that was just what she was. Because of her betrayal, he had lost everything. His home, his family, his peace.

His face darkened as he remembered the last confrontation in the great room. Maybe he was kidding himself. Maybe he had never had any of those things. Both Murdoch and Scott had turned on him with a speed that had shocked him. He hadn't been totally surprised by Murdoch's reaction. The rancher frequently let his emotions take charge and acted in anger before he knew the facts. Later, when he calmed down and thought about things, he would apologize. No, it was Scott's defection that had rocked him to the core. He never would have thought his brother would turn on him. He would have bet his life that Scott wouldn't betray him, but he had been mistaken. It had been one of the few times in his life he had been totally wrong about someone, and it had cost him more than any other time. Before, it was simply his life that had been endangered by trusting the wrong person. This time, he had lost his soul.

With as sigh, he downed the rest of the drink and poured another. The nervous bartender scurried over with some more limes and shakily placed them on the table before retreating. He had vehemently refused any money for the drink, and Johnny had smiled and slipped the coins back into his pocket. Another perk for being the best. His glance wandered over to where one of the saloon girls was working on one of the other customers. She had come on to him earlier, but he wasn't in the mood. Not tonight. Not until he drummed up some business.

He had made a fortune in the last several months, but he had also spent a lot on booze and women. He had some in reserve, but not as much as he liked to have. He shook his head. He should have stopped off in Green River after he had left Lancer and helped himself to some of the ranch's money. Hell, he should have helped himself to all of it. The only reason he hadn't was because he knew without a doubt that Lancer would swear out a warrant against him, and he didn't want to start out with a wanted poster hanging over his head.

He took another swallow and snorted. He should have taken the money. He'd been skating closer and closer to being wanted anyway. Actually, by all rights, that wanted poster should already be out there, but he had been lucky. And ruthless. The only ones that knew he'd crossed the line were dead. He'd been very careful, but he knew that his luck wouldn't last. Sometime soon he'd make a mistake or simply be unlucky and wind up wanted by the law, but that fact didn't depress him as it once had. He figured it was inevitable. After all, when you were in the business of killing people, the line was pretty blurry in the first place. And he no longer cared whether he was right or wrong as long as he stayed alive and got paid.

He glanced up as a kid walked into the cantina. Johnny's glance immediately went to the gun at the youth's side, and a predatory smile formed on his face. He stared at the kid, the challenge obvious. When the young man avoided his glare, Johnny frowned. It looked like the boy wasn't looking for trouble, but he'd soon find out he'd found it, anyway. Johnny wasn't about to let him go. If he didn't want to play, he shouldn't be wearing his gun like that. It would be the last mistake the boy ever made.





Chapter Fourteen

Murdoch and Scott rode into the small Mexican town and pulled up in front of the shabby hotel. Murdoch sat in the saddle for several seconds, trying to get up enough energy to dismount. Finally, he sighed deeply and swung his leg over the back of his horse before dropping heavily to the ground. He untied his saddlebags from behind the cantle then grabbed his rifle and headed toward the hotel, followed closely by Scott.

The two men approached the front desk, and as a matter of course, Scott pulled the book toward him and scanned the signatures listed. He shook his head at his father and then added his and Murdoch's name to the book as the clerk handed him a key. Murdoch dug into his pocket and handed some coins to the man without saying a word, and then turned and walked tiredly up the stairs.



The two men dumped their gear in the corner and Murdoch lay down heavily on the bed and closed his eyes. Scott walked over to the window and looked out, automatically scanning the street for a familiar face. Finally, he gave up and let the curtain fall back across the glass, then sat down in the chair and put his feet up on the scratched and dented table next to the bed.

“We'd better go down and check out the saloon,” Murdoch stated without opening his eyes. Scott nodded in agreement, but he made no attempt to move, either.

“What town is this anyway?” Murdoch asked tiredly.

“I have no idea.”

“How long have we been on the road?”

Scott snorted. “Forever.”

Murdoch nodded. “Do you think he knows we're trying to find him?'

“Probably. I think we've asked about him in every town in Mexico. If he doesn't know, I'd be surprised. And if he does, he sure isn't making it easy on us.”

“After the way we acted did you expect him to?”

“No,” Scott sighed. “But I at least hoped we'd be able to talk to him. How are we supposed to apologize to him if he won't even let us get close enough to see him?”

Murdoch shook his head in resignation. “I don't know.”

Scott studied his father's face. “Why don't you take a nap? I can go check out the saloon and get us some food.”

Murdoch took a deep breath, tempted, but finally he sat up. “No. I don't know where we are, but wherever it is, it's no place for you to go wandering around by yourself. The quicker we go, the quicker we can come back here and turn in.”

“Are you sure?”

Murdoch nodded as he slowly stood up and stretched his back, grimacing at the tightness in his abused muscles. “Come on, let's go.”

The two men made their way back down the stairs and out into the street. There was no need to ask directions to the local cantina. The town was tiny, and the cantina was the only brightly lit building on the street. They headed in that direction, keeping their eyes open for any trouble. As tired as they were, they knew that this part of Mexico wasn't exactly safe, especially for gringos.

Murdoch walked up to the batwing doors and looked inside, a habit he had learned from his gunfighter son. It used to annoy him when Johnny would do that, but after wandering around the border towns for several months, the habit was now firmly entrenched in him and Scott both. He figured it had saved their lives more than once.

Murdoch pushed his way into the cantina and immediately went to the bar. He took a quick look around, satisfying himself that Johnny wasn't there and no one else appeared to be too threatening. He turned toward the bartender and ordered a couple of drinks. When the man shoved the glasses toward them, Murdoch pushed some coins in his direction.

“Keep it.”

The bartender nodded and stuffed the money into his shirt. “What do ya want?”

“We're looking for someone,” Scott spoke up.

The man nodded again as he wiped the bar with a dirty rag. “Who?'

“Johnny Madrid.”

The man stopped and stared at Scott. “What do ya want ta find him for?'

“It's personal,” Murdoch answered.

The bartender shrugged. “None of my business, but it ain't healthy ta go lookin' for a guy like Madrid. Most people go out of their way NOT to find him.”

“You're right,” Murdoch growled. “It isn't any of your business.”

“Just tryin' ta keep you alive.”

“He's not a murderer!” Scott insisted.

The bartender snorted. “Oh yeah? Then what do ya call it?” He nodded toward the table at the back of the room. “I saw him gun down a kid right there not a month ago.”

“I'm sure it was a fair fight,” Murdoch protested.

“Fair?” The bartender snorted. “That poor kid never stood a chance. He came in here and was mindin' his own business until Madrid pushed the fight. The kid tried ta back down, but Madrid wouldn't let him. He was like a rattlesnake goin' in for the kill, and the kid had about as much chance against him as a rat against a snake. When the kid finally got pushed to the wall and drew, he was dead before his hand even reached his gun. The law might not agree, but it was murder all right.”

Murdoch's jaw hardened. It wasn't the first time he had heard stories like that, and it worried him. He knew the man the bartender was describing was not the Johnny that Murdoch knew, but he was afraid they WERE describing the man his son had become.

“Do you know where he is?” Scott tried again.

The bartender shook his head. “Nope. After killin' that kid, he moved on. Can't say as anyone was real sorry ta see him go, either.”

“You don't have any idea which direction he went?” Murdoch asked tiredly.

“Nope. Sorry.”

Murdoch and Scott drained their glasses, then put them back on the bar and walked out. Another dead end, and another nail in Johnny Lancer's coffin.





Chapter Fifteen

Murdoch lay on the hotel bed, staring at the ceiling. This would be their last chance for a while of finding Johnny, and he knew in his heart it was hopeless. He and Scott had spent the last year looking, and they were no closer to him than they had been when they first started. There was no doubt in either of their minds that Johnny was well aware they were looking for him, but so far he hadn't let them even catch sight of him.

The closest they had come was in a small little Mexican town about nine months ago. They had ridden into town late at night, and because of their exhaustion, for once they had elected to go straight to the hotel. They had found out the next morning that Johnny had been in the saloon the night before. Both he and Scott had been so discouraged that they had headed home a week later, after hopelessly losing his trail outside of town. Since then, they had made several month long trips to try to find him; every time they heard a rumor of where he might be, and a few times when they hadn't heard a thing.

They had seriously neglected the ranch, and now they needed to go home and take care of business, but they had decided to check out a few more towns before turning back. Murdoch had sent a wire to Cipriano this afternoon, telling him they would be back in a month or so. He and Scott had decided to wait to make sure there wasn't a reply, and then they would head further south the next morning.

He glanced over at his son, and sighed deeply. Scott was a man driven, and it showed. The blond had lost weight to the point of gauntness, and the dark circles under his eyes were proof that he didn't sleep at night. Murdoch was pretty sure they matched his own. The sun was coming up before Murdoch's mind allowed him to close his eyes and sleep.

Murdoch forced his eyes open, unwilling to wake up. Finally, with a groan, he sat up and glanced over to where Scott was slowly getting dressed, and then reached for his own pants. The two men finished dressing, then stumbled tiredly down the stairs. They walked over to the small cantina and woodenly ate their breakfast before heading over to the telegraph office.

Surprisingly, the operator handed them a telegram, and Murdoch tore it open. His eyes widened as he read it, and then he wordlessly handed it to his son. Scott paled as he read it, then he stuffed it into his pocket.

“How fast can we get back?” Scott asked.

Murdoch shook his head. “It will take us at least a week.”

“Do you think we have a week?”

“I don't know, Scott. I just don't know. But we have to try.”

Scott nodded. “Let's go.”

As they rode along, pushing both their mounts and their own bodies, Murdoch allowed his mind to wander. Since Johnny left, nothing had gone right, and he had accepted that as a judgment of his actions. He knew he had erred badly, and he deserved to be punished. He also knew that even if he found Johnny again, he had lost his son forever.

He had also lost his ward. Teresa still lived at Lancer, but in his and Scott's eyes, she was no more than a servant. She didn't stay upstairs in her bedroom anymore, but in one of the downstairs rooms set aside for hired help, and she ate and socialized with the servants. Murdoch and Scott did their best to ignore her, even though she had done her best to apologize to them. Each time she had brought up the subject, she had been met with stony silence before being totally ignored. Murdoch had tried to find some forgiveness in his heart for her, but it was impossible. She was the reason he had once again lost his son. and her behavior and reason for it was inexcusable.

She had tried to explain; she had told Murdoch and Scott that she loved Johnny and wanted to be his wife. Murdoch had gaped at her in disbelief when she had told him that she thought Murdoch would force the gunfighter to marry her if she lied about having a baby.

Scott had shaken his head. “Do you really think Murdoch could have forced Johnny into doing ANYTHING against his will? Did you expect Johnny to just meekly go along with it? Even if he had married you, he would have hated you for it.”

Teresa's head had dropped. “I thought he would eventually understand.”

“And it didn't matter if Johnny was miserable,” Murdoch said flatly.

“I didn't expect things to get so out of control.” She looked at Murdoch accusingly. “Why did you have to get so angry? You didn't have to hit him!”

“What did you expect me to do!” Murdoch exploded. “You LIED to me, and I believed you! I LOST my SON because of you!”

Teresa whirled around and looked at Scott with pleading eyes. “Tell him, Scott. Explain to him.”

Scott snorted. “Explain what? That you're a lying bitch?”

Teresa had paled and run from the room. As he watched her go, Murdoch had thought about saying something to his son about his language, but then he decided that he agreed with Scott. She was nothing but a lying bitch. His ward was dead, just as his younger son was. The next morning, he had calmly given her the choice of leaving just as Johnny had, with no money and no belongings, or staying at Lancer in a far different capacity. Murdoch didn't really want her to stay, but he figured she would, and he was right. Since that day, they hadn't said much of anything to her, except to give her orders, and that was fine with him.

Now he had a real problem on his hands, and he wondered what he would find when he and Scott arrived at the ranch. He just prayed it wasn't too late.





Chapter Sixteen

Murdoch and Scott pushed their horses as fast as they could without killing them, only stopping to let them rest when they had to. When they stopped, the men choked down cold jerky and water, rarely taking time to make a fire. They finally made it to San Diego and the train station only three days after receiving the telegram. They checked into a hotel to wait for the next train north, and to clean up and get a decent meal. They both ordered baths and shaves, but fell asleep before making it downstairs to the café. For once, they both slept soundly and didn't awaken until the next morning. They hurriedly ate breakfast, then went across town to the train station, feeling much more rested than they had for weeks.

After leaving the train in Stockton, Murdoch and Scott headed cross country instead of stopping at any of the nearby towns, electing to get to the ranch as quickly as possible. They had taken the train as far as they could, and then had pushed their horses and themselves as hard as they could. They both were afraid of what awaited them, but they had to know. The telegram that Cipriano had sent was short and chilling. “Hurry. Range war.”

Now they were only a few miles from home, and both men were keeping a sharp eye out for any trouble. Nothing seemed amiss, but as they approached the Lancer property line, they saw men riding the fence line who were armed with rifles. As soon as the sentries caught sight of the two riders, their rifles came to bear. A moment later, they recognized their bosses, and they lowered their guns and rode toward the Lancers.

Frank tipped his hat. “Mr. Lancer, Scott. We sure are glad you're back.”

“How bad is it?” Murdoch asked tersely.

“Bad. We've lost at least a thousand head of cattle, and most of the line shacks have been burned. They seem ta know exactly how ta hurt us. Streams have been stopped and the fence lines are cut at different places every day, and the cattle run off. We just never know where they're gonna hit next, and the men are runnin' themselves ragged tryin' ya keep up.

“Who's behind it? Do you know?” Scott demanded.

Frank shrugged. “Cipriano says it's Chase Farley.”

Murdoch shook his head. “I should have known.”

Scott shook his head in confusion. “We've never had any trouble with him before.”

“Yes, Scott, we have.”

When Scott looked at him quizzically, Murdoch took a deep breath. “Chase Farley has been trying to get Lancer away from me for years. He and I settled here at about the same time, but he chose the other end of the valley and started the Lazy S. He actually chose first, and it just so happened that the year we came here, that part looked much better. There had been a lot of rain that year, and his property was green and lush, while Lancer was flooded in many parts. He made sure to rub it in as much as possible, and I was convinced I had made a huge mistake. Of course, the next year, his land was dry, and by the following year, he had to sell most of his stock while Lancer was thriving. Over the years, there have been a lot more dry years than overly wet ones, and Lancer has prospered, while the Lazy S has barely survived. Chase became more and more aggressive, and accused me of trying to ruin him.”

“Why would he say that? It's not your fault that Lancer is better situated.”

Murdoch shrugged. “Tell him that. He's just angry because he chose the wrong land, and he wants someone to pay.”

“So why can't we have Val arrest him?”

“Because I'm sure there's no proof he's behind it, is there?” He looked at Frank questioningly.

“No Sir. But he also says that the west river is on HIS land, not on Lancer. He's trying to keep us from usin' it, and if we can't use the river, we'll lose a lot more stock than we already have.”

Murdoch gritted his teeth. “We've been through this before. About two years before you and your brother came home, he claimed the same thing. It took almost a year to resolve it, and in the meantime, my hands were tied. No lawman would take a side until he knew for sure who was in the right. ”

“Then how can he claim the same thing again?”

“I don't know,” Murdoch said angrily. He turned his horse toward the house. “Come on, Scott. Let's go talk to Cipriano.” He glanced back at Frank. “Is he at the house?”

“Yes Sir.”

Scott followed his father, but he was puzzled. “Well, you have proof that the river is on Lancer land, and a copy of the ruling, don't you?”

Murdoch took a deep breath. “No.”

“WHY?” Scott bellowed.

“When Pardee was attacking the ranches, Farley tried the same thing, and his lawyer filed a lawsuit, saying the river was on Lazy S property. The court appearance was in Stockton, and I couldn't go because of Pardee. I guess Farley thought that I was too busy fighting to bother with him and would just let it go, and he would win. Instead, I gave the paper to my lawyer, and he went to court. He won, but before he could get the paper back to me, his office was burned, courtesy of Pardee.”

Scott nodded. “I remember now. You told us about losing some important papers in a fire when we went to the new office to sign the ownership papers.”

Murdoch nodded. “So it looks like we'll have to fight. If we wait for the courts to rule and the laws to step in, Lancer will be ruined. We'll just have to try and stop him as best we can, until he makes a mistake.” He spurred his horse faster, and for once, he didn't slow down until he was in the yard. He stepped off, and Cipriano walked up and grabbed the horse's reins. Scott jumped off his horse a moment later, and stood next to his father.

“Thank goodness you're home, Senors,” Cipriano said.

“We talked to Frank. He filled us in on what's happening,” Murdoch said grimly.

Cipriano looked around, and when he saw no one else was listening, he lowered his voice. “He doesn't know everything, Senor. He doesn't know who's leading the raiders.”

Murdoch looked perplexed. “I thought Chase Farley is behind it.”

Cipriano shrugged. “I think he is. But he's hired guns.” His head dropped. “Senor Johnny is working for Farley.”





Chapter Seventeen

Murdoch gaped at his segundo as he tried to make sense of what he was saying. He shook his head in confusion. “What do you mean?”

“Johnny is behind the attacks on Lancer,” Cipriano said reluctantly.

“You don't know that,” Murdoch growled.

Cipriano kept his eyes on his boss. “Si, Senor, I know. I saw Johnny setting a fire at one of the line shacks, and I also saw him leading some men away from where we found many slaughtered steers.” He shook his head. “Whoever is leading the raiders knows Lancer better than most of the men working for us. They know the ranch like the back of their hand, and they know our schedules and habits. No stranger could know the things they know.”

“You must be mistaken,” Scott insisted with finality.

Cipriano shook his head. “Johnny is my nephew, and it grieves me that he is involved, but I am not mistaken. I saw him, and he saw me.” Cipriano hesitated. “I saw his eyes. Make no mistake, Senors. Johnny Lancer no longer exists. The man who is leading the raiders has lost his soul.”

Murdoch sent a hopeless glance at his older son. “Well, I guess now at least we know how he feels about us.”

“I don't believe it,” Scott said flatly. “No matter how mad he is at us, he wouldn't hurt Lancer. He wouldn't side against his own family.”

“Is that what we are?” Murdoch asked softly. “His family? I think we lost the right to call ourselves that the day he left.”

Scott stared at his father for several seconds, and then after shooting a glare in Cipriano's direction, he stalked into the house.

Murdoch slowly followed his son into the house and watched as Scott poured a large glass of brandy. Scott took a long swallow, and then turned and looked at his father defiantly.

“I'm going to go talk to him.”

“No, Scott, you're not.”

“EXCUSE me?” Scott asked in disbelief. “Are you trying to tell me I can't talk to my own brother and try to fix this? Don't even go there, Murdoch! I don't care WHAT you say; I'm going to talk to Johnny!”

Murdoch sighed. “I don't think this CAN be fixed! Scott, Johnny obviously is more than just angry with us. He hates us, and he is trying to hurt us any way he can.”

“He has every reason to be angry!” Scott shouted.

Murdoch nodded. “Yes, he does. But that doesn't mean I'm going to take a chance on losing you to his anger!”

Scott stopped and stared at his father. “Johnny wouldn't hurt me.”

Murdoch's head dropped. “I never thought he would before, but now I'm not so sure.” He looked into his son's eyes. “Did you ever think that Johnny would ruthlessly slaughter cattle or set fire to our line shacks?” When Scott hesitated, Murdoch continued. “And what about all of those stories we heard when we were looking for him? You know that they weren't describing the Johnny that we know. He's changed, Scott, and we don't really know WHAT he's capable of doing anymore. I'm not going to take a chance on losing you, too.”

“So what are we supposed to do?” Scott asked in frustration. “Just wait until he attacks the ranch and then shoot him down like a dog?”

Murdoch sighed. “I could never shoot him, no matter what. But we can't just let him take over the ranch, either. He needs to be stopped, but I don't know how. I think we should take a ride into Green River tomorrow and talk to Val. If anyone will know what we should do, it's Val.”

Scott snorted. “Yes, he'll probably know what to do, all right. He'll shoot us and save Johnny the trouble.” He looked at his father in disbelief. “Don't you remember how angry Val is at us? Do you really think he'll tell us ANYTHING except to go to hell?”

“Do you have a better idea?” Murdoch asked angrily.

Scott ran his hand through his hair and sighed deeply. “No, I guess not. But after we let Val chew our tails, I'm still going to find a way to talk to my brother. I'm not going to just give up on him. Somehow, I'm going to get through to him that we still care about him and that we're sorry for what happened. I don't care if I have to get down on my hands and knees and beg, he's going to listen to me long enough for me to tell him how sorry I am and to let him know that we still love him.”

“I hope you CAN convince him. Believe me, I'm willing to do anything to get him back, too. But I'm not going to hold my breath. I know how stubborn your brother can be, and I know how hurt he was. If he had any interest in talking to us, he would have let us catch up to him months ago. And if he felt anything at all toward us except hate, he certainly wouldn't be attacking the ranch. I have the feeling he's letting us know EXACTLY how he feels about us.”

“Can you blame him?” Scott snapped.

“No, I can't.” Murdoch went over and shakily poured his own drink. “Scott, it doesn't matter if we think he has reason to or not, and it doesn't matter how much we still care about him or how sorry we are. We still have a huge problem.”

“You mean other than the problem of trying to get Johnny back?” Scott asked sarcastically.

Murdoch nodded his head. “Unfortunately, yes. I don't think that it will be possible to get your brother back, no matter what we say to him. Not anymore. We can try, but…” his voice trailed off and he took a large swallow of scotch. “Scott, we're still going to have to fight a range war, and we're going to have to fight it against Johnny Madrid.”





Chapter Eighteen

Murdoch and Scott rode into Green River and straight to the sheriff's office. They didn't even look at each other as they dismounted and made their way up to the building. They both knew that this was a long shot, but they had to try something. Murdoch glanced over at his older son and sighed. Scott had aged ten years since his brother had left. Personally, he thought HE'D aged twenty.

He had regretted his actions and the words that had come from his mouth that horrible day, but by then Johnny was gone. Murdoch's mouth set in a grim line. He had believed that lying bitch over his own son and it had cost him dearly. It had cost them ALL dearly. Especially Johnny. If the stories he and Scott had heard down in Mexico were true and if what Cipriano had said was true, then there was no hope for his younger son any more. He and Scott would pay every day of their lives for what they had done, but Johnny would pay WITH his life, and then with his soul.

Murdoch hesitated just outside the office. He locked eyes with his son for just a moment before taking a deep breath and pulling the door open. The two men stepped inside.

Val startled up and his feet hit the floor as he glared at the two men for a moment. After a long apprising look, the sheriff jammed his hat back down over his eyes and swung his feet back onto his desk before leaning back in his chair once more.

Murdoch stepped closer. “Val, we need to talk to you.”

“I got nothin' ta say to you.”

“We need your help,” Scott pleaded.

Val snorted. “Yeah, I bet you do, only you ain't gonna get it.”

Murdoch glanced at his son, then back down at the sheriff. “You know what he's doing, don't you?”

Val shrugged, the hat still firmly in place. “I've heard rumors.”

Murdoch leaned down and put his hands on the desk. “Well what are we going to do about it?”

Val slowly tipped his head back until he could see the rancher. “WE ain't doin' nothin. I'm stayin' out of it.”

“We're TRYING to get this settled without bloodshed!” Scott argued.

“Yeah, I bet you are, especially since it's your blood we're talkin' about,” Val chortled.

“We WANT to get Johnny back!” Scott insisted.

Val pushed his hat out of his eyes and stared at the blond. “That ain't gonna happen,” he said flatly.

“You don't know that!” Murdoch growled.

The sheriff's eyes shifted to the tall rancher. “Ya, I do. When you brought Johnny home, he had been wrestling with demons for a long time. He'd come close ta crossin' the line, and each day bein' a gunhawk had brought him even closer. He didn't know if he could change, he didn't know if he could ever gain your trust, but he wanted to. It was important to him. It was as important as havin' a home and a family for the first time in his life, and he made up his mind ta take a chance. He knew it was the last chance he'd get. It took him a long time ta trust the two of you; longer than you know. Trustin' wasn't easy for him; he'd been betrayed too many times. If the truth be told, he was scared. Scared of trustin' you, ‘cause he knew what it'd do to him if he was wrong about you.” His eyes pierced Murdoch's. “He was right ta be scared.”

Scott closed his eyes. “Please, Val, help us get him back.”

Val shook his head slowly. “It's too late. The Johnny you knew ain't even alive any more. He's been dead and buried since Johnny walked out of that house of yours.”

“It's his house, too.”

“That ain't the way I heard it,” Val said calmly.

Murdoch sighed deeply. “So what do we do now?”

“About what?” Val snapped. “About your precious ranch?”

Murdoch ran his hands through his hair. “I can't fight my own son.”

Val shrugged. “He ain't your son. Not anymore.”

“He IS my son, and I STILL can't fight him!” His voice lowered. “Will you help us?”

The sheriff looked at Murdoch in disbelief. “Help YOU?” Val bolted to his feet and grabbed the rancher by the shirt. “HELP YOU? Johnny was my friend, you son of a bitch! Probably the best friend I ever had. He deserved some happiness in his life, he deserved ta have a home and a family that cared about him.” He shoved Murdoch back against the wall. “You betrayed him. Hell, you destroyed him. I wouldn't help you for all the money on earth! You and Scott can rot in hell for all I care, and if there's any justice in this world, that's just where you'll end up.” He shoved the rancher away from him then turned and glared at Scott. “He TRUSTED you,” the sheriff said softly.

Scott dropped his head. “I know, Val. Believe me, I know. If I could do ANYTHING to try to make it up to him…”

“You can't,” Val snapped. “Seems ta me you ain't that sorry. You kept that damn whore there at Lancer.”

Murdoch's mouth set in a grim line. “She's under age. No matter how much I want to, the law says I couldn't just kick her out. She had no where else to go.” He dropped his head. “Besides, I promised Paul she could stay at Lancer. She can stay until she's of age, and then I never want to see her again.”

Val snorted. “You promised Johnny somethin', too,” he said quietly. “You sure as hell didn't keep that promise.”

Murdoch's eyes closed. “I know.”

Scott looked at the sheriff hopefully. “Will you at least tell him that we're sorry?”

Val snorted. “I ain't talked to him, and I ain't gonna.”

Murdoch looked at the sheriff in confusion. “Why?”

Val stared at the rancher. “Because I don't wanna know what's goin' on. Right now, as far as I know, this fight is between two ranchers. I don't know which one's in the right, and I want ta keep it that way. Johnny will leave me and my town alone, and I'll leave him alone.”

“You mean you're going to turn a blind eye to whatever happens,” Murdoch said angrily.

Val's chin came up. “Yep. But for old time sake, I'll give ya some advice.” He stared at the rancher. “Leave.”

Scott looked at him in confusion. “What do you mean, leave?”

“I mean, pack up your things and leave the valley.”

“You're put of your mind!” Murdoch yelled.

Val looked at him and shook his head slowly. “No, you are, if you think you're gonna win against Johnny Madrid.” The sheriff shook his head again. “He's just playin' with ya right now, but when he gets serious, he'll eat you for lunch.” He stared at the rancher. “Don't you understand? He's gonna kill you if you stay.”





Chapter Nineteen

Johnny sat in the cantina, a bottle of tequila in front of him. He dipped the side of his hand in the dish of salt and brought it to his mouth, then slammed the shot back and grabbed a lime from the dish. He wanted nothing more than to get dead drunk, but he knew that would be suicide. The bunch of rowdies he was running with was about as trustworthy as rattlesnakes, and just as deadly. Of course, he never trusted anyone, anyway.

In his line of work, he expected betrayal, and his expectations were realized more often than not. It was every man for himself, and heaven help anyone that couldn't keep up. It was like running with a wolf pack. Even the leader would be attacked and killed if he showed weakness, and Johnny was well aware of that. Survival of the fittest was the rule of the day. The big dog got the meat, and the others could go ahead and starve. He had been big dog for a long time now, and he had no intention of giving up his position.

He sighed deeply, then downed another shot. He never should have taken this job, he realized that now. He had the feeling it would be his downfall, one way or the other. He'd had a bad feeling since he'd arrived. At the time, he had jumped at the chance to get his revenge against the Lancers, but that was about as far as he'd thought. He should have known that his stubborn father and brother would never just give up and ride out, but he had hoped that he could convince them. After all, they knew very well just what he was capable of. The problem was he hadn't been as tough as he usually was, and he had heard the beginnings of grumbling from the pack. He had surprised himself when he had hesitated, and he really didn't know why he had. He didn't care one way or another about Murdoch and Scott Lancer, but he guessed he was giving them a chance, for old time's sake.

So far, though, they hadn't given an inch. He knew that by now they were very well aware of who was behind their trouble, and he was a little surprised they hadn't come into town to try and talk to him. He snorted. Knowing his brother, Scott would be the first one to try, and old Boston just might be surprised by the reception he received. Of course, there was always the chance that he had learned something from the disastrous trip in to town when Pardee had been after the ranch, but he doubted it. Scott would probably be feeling a little guilty about the day Johnny had left, and eager to make amends. Johnny smiled coldly. He'd make amends all right. One way or the other.

Johnny slammed back another shot and banged the glass down on the table. He heard the rowdy men in the other room and outside, but none of them had been brave enough to approach him this afternoon. They were very well aware of the fact that in the mood he was in it was tantamount to suicide. Of course, he had been in a foul mood since he'd arrived, but he figured his mood wouldn't improve until the Lancers were dead or gone. It was the only explanation he could come up with.

He tipped his chair back and his eyes narrowed as he thought. He had kept up the small raids and fairly minor attacks on the ranch, more to harass than anything else. Sometimes an adversary would get angry enough to do something stupid and make his job easier. He wasn't expecting Lancer to fall for it, but you never knew. The fact was, he hadn't seen hide nor hair of either Lancer or his son since he'd been here, and he wondered briefly if they were gone. He couldn't imagine what would be so important that they would both leave the ranch at the same time, but he guessed it was possible.

During the raids, he'd seen plenty of hands that he knew, but he doubted if they'd seen him. Cipriano, however, was another story. He knew the segundo had gotten a good look at him when he'd burned the south line shack, and had probably seen him again when his men had slaughtered those steers. It didn't really matter; he knew they'd figure it out eventually. At least Cip was smart enough to keep his distance. He didn't want to have to hurt his uncle, but he would if he had to. In the mood Johnny was in, he'd hurt anyone if they pushed him.

He wasn't sure what he hoped would happen with Murdoch and Scott. Part of him hoped they would choose to fight. He would enjoy seeing their faces when they realized they had been defeated, and that they were not only going to lose their precious ranch, but their lives as well. On the other hand, it would probably be easier if they just gave in and rode off. He smiled as he thought what the knowledge that the black sheep of the family was going to own the whole damn thing would do to them. The old man would probably have a heart attack. Of course, if Johnny was going to keep Lancer for himself, he'd have to take care of Farley first, but that was no problem. He didn't like the guy, anyway, and the Farley ranch would be another prize. What he'd do with Lancer once he got it, he didn't know. Maybe burn the whole damn thing to the ground. He knew he sure as hell couldn't go back to that life. It was much too late for that.

He stared at the bottle, wondering if he dared to drink any more, but he finally decided it wasn't worth it. The men were working themselves up into a killing mood, and Johnny had to remain alert. He shook his head, longing to drown his sorrows. Nowadays, the only way he could stop the bitterness and the self hatred he felt was by getting drunk. So far he'd been lucky and it hadn't gotten him into any real trouble, but once more, he knew it was just a matter of time. He was slipping, and he knew it. The incident with the steers proved it. He had been angry with his men for slaughtering the cattle, even though he knew it was the right move. He wasn't being tough enough to ensure a victory this time, and the men sensed the weakness. He figured his luck would run out pretty soon, and he really didn't care. He just wanted it to be over, one way or the other. He picked up the glass once more.





Chapter Twenty

Johnny slammed his glass down and tipped his head back. A shout from outside brought his head back up, and he looked toward the door. One of his men hurried in.

“You'd better come out here, boss.”

Johnny got to his feet and headed for the door, wondering what he'd find. He slouched outside, then a small smile formed on his face. Speak of the devil. He stood on the boardwalk and slipped his hands into his gunbelt as he studied the two people in the wagon. He had to hand it to them, they didn't seem frightened. His smile grew broader. At least not yet.

Scott stared at his brother. “Johnny, we need to talk.”

The gunfighter snorted. “Nothin ta talk about.”

“Johnny, please.”

“Go ahead and talk. I'm listenin', at least for now.”

Scott glanced around at the cutthroats and hoodlums standing around listening. “Can't we talk privately?”

Johnny shook his head. “Nope. I only let people I trust come in here, and you ain't one of them.”

Scott took a deep breath. “I'm sorry. So is Murdoch.”

“Yeah, I bet you are. Especially since you think you just might be losin' that fancy ranch of yours.”

“It's your ranch, too. We never filed that paper you signed.”

Johnny snorted. “Yeah, I bet. The only reason you're here is ‘cause you're scared to death you're gonna lose Lancer.”

“That has nothing to do with it!” Scott protested. “We LOST something a whole lot more important.”

“Yeah? And just what would that be?”

“YOU! Please, brother, come back to the ranch and talk to us.”

“I ain't your brother, and the next time I come to that ranch of yours, I sure as hell won't be doing much talkin'.”

“We want you back. Murdoch and I have been looking for you everywhere.”

“I'm right here,” Johnny smirked. “Although you might just regret findin' me.”

“I doubt that. Johnny, we were wrong.”

“I know it.”

“We never should have doubted you.”

“I know that, too.” The gunfighter stared at the man in the wagon, and then his eyes slid to the person sitting next to him.

“I see how sorry you are. You decided to keep the whore around.”

Teresa turned red, and Scott's mouth set in a grim line. “I brought her in to town so she could apologize to you.”

“Is that right?” Johnny smirked. He stared at the girl. “You want ta tell me how sorry you are?'

Teresa nodded eagerly. “I'm sorry, Johnny. Really.” The tears started pouring down her face. “Please, don't blame Scott or Murdoch for what I did.”

“I ain't,” Johnny said flatly. “I'm blamin' them for what they did.”

“Johnny, please, forgive us,” Scott pleaded.

The gunfighter stared at his brother for a long moment, and then smiled coldly. “Come on in.” He turned and walked back into the cantina.

Scott looked at Teresa and then the ruffians standing around. “Maybe you'd better come in, too.”

She nodded in agreement, and Scott tied the reins of the team to the brake before climbing down and helping Teresa down. He cautiously guided the girl into the cantina, and walked over to the table where his brother was sitting. He stood, uncertain, next to the table, and then Johnny kicked out a chair. Scott motioned for Teresa to sit, and Johnny turned on the girl with a snarl. “You can stand.”

Teresa looked uncertainly at Scott, who turned on his brother. “Johnny…”

Johnny brought his gaze to bear on his brother. “You shut your mouth and listen for once in your life. I don't give a damn about either of you, especially her. If you want to stay alive, at least for now, you'll listen to what I have ta say. First, you go back to that fancy ranch of yours and tell your old man that he has three days ta get his butt off of that ranch. He can take anything he wants, but anything that's left there after three days is gonna be mine. Secondly, anyone left on the ranch after three days is gonna die, and I don't care who they are.”

“You don't mean that,” Scott insisted.

Johnny smiled coldly. “Yes, Scott, I do. Don't make the mistake of thinkin' I still care about you. This is business, pure and simple. You can tell the old man that. He'll understand.”

“I don't believe you,” Scott said as he stared at his brother. “You're just trying to scare us.”

Johnny slowly allowed a smile to creep onto his face. “Is that so?” He shook his head. “Ya know, I always thought you were pretty smart and a fast learner, but I guess I was wrong. I would've thought you would have learned your lesson about comin' into town on your own during the last range war, but I guess you didn't. Maybe I'd just better give you another lesson.”

Johnny stood up and walked over to Teresa and grabbed her by the arm, then spun her around so she was facing him. He roughly brought her head up and looked into her eyes, a smirk on his face, and then he pulled her closer to him.

Scott bolted to his feet, but two men quickly grabbed his arms and pinned them behind his back, then lifted his gun from its holster.

“Johnny, don't,” Scott pleaded.

“Why?” the gunfighter asked, his face an inch from the trembling girl's. “Seems ta me I already paid for it,” he smirked.

“You're not a rapist,” Scott insisted.

Johnny let his eyes slide to Scott. “Seems like you thought that's exactly what I was.” His hands slid lower. “And maybe you were right.”

“Johnny please,” Teresa begged.

“What's the matter?” he spat. “Change your mind? You were beggin' for it before, weren't you?”

Teresa shut her eyes and a tear rolled down her face.

“WEREN'T YOU?” Johnny demanded.

Silently, she nodded her head, her eyes still closed.

The gunfighter stared at her for a moment, and brought his mouth close to her ear. “I wouldn't make love to you if you were the last woman on earth.”

Her eyes flew open as he pushed her roughly away from him. “Get out of my sight, you bitch!” He turned toward the men holding his brother. “Rough him up good and then send him home.” He turned and stalked from the room, and didn't look back as the men started to carry out his orders. Instead, he grabbed a full bottle of tequila and headed for his room





Chapter Twenty One

The trip back to Lancer was the longest Teresa could ever remember. She glanced at the back of the wagon, where Johnny's men had dumped Scott, and she watched for a second to make sure he was still breathing. They had beaten him unmercifully, and she had been forced to watch. The men holding her had taken delight in her hysteria, and she could still feel their filthy hands on her. She had called frantically for Johnny to help them, but he had disappeared. She had finally resigned herself to the fact that she was going to be raped, but thankfully, they hadn't gone that far. They had settled for terrorizing her and beating Scott senseless before dragging them out to the wagon and throwing them in. Teresa had managed to crawl into the driver's seat and had frantically urged the team out of town, praying the men wouldn't follow them and continue what they had started.

She was trembling uncontrollably by the time the wagon passed under the arch, and she whipped the team even faster. The wagon tore into the yard, and she hauled back on the reins, bringing the frightened team to a halt. One of the hands grabbed the reins, and others jumped in the back and started taking care of Scott. Now that they were safe, she allowed herself to break down, and she buried her head in her hands and started sobbing uncontrollably.

Murdoch ran out of the house and over to the wagon. He looked at her briefly, but his attention was drawn to the still form in the back of the wagon. His face paled until Frank reassured him.

“He's alive, Mr. Lancer, but it looks like somebody's beaten the hell out of him.”

“Bring him upstairs,” Murdoch ordered. He turned and led the way inside, then hurried to Scott's bedroom, and quickly turned back the sheets as the men carried his older son into the room.

“Cip, go get Sam,” Murdoch ordered.

The segundo left, and Murdoch bent over his unconscious son. Scott's features were battered and bloody, and the rancher felt the anger start to boil up in him.

“Who did this to him?” he fumed.

Teresa hesitated just outside the door, biting her lip nervously.

“Well?” he demanded of the trembling girl. “What happened?”

Teresa shrugged. “We went into town…” she started.

“WHY? Why would he go into town with YOU?”

Teresa hesitated. “I asked to go with him.”

“WHY?” Murdoch snarled.

She licked her lips again. “Scott went into town to talk to Johnny, and I talked him to letting me come along. I...I wanted to apologize to him.”

Murdoch glared at the girl. “What happened? Who did this?'

Teresa shrugged uncomfortably, the dropped her head. “Johnny,” she whispered.

Murdoch looked at her, uncomprehendingly. “What do you mean, Johnny?”

“Johnny ordered his men to beat Scott up,” she said quietly.

The rancher reached her in two long strides, and he grabbed her by the arms. “Don't you lie to me again!” he snarled as he shook her roughly. “Johnny wouldn't do that!”

“I'm not lying!” she insisted tearfuly. “He's…changed. He…” she dropped her head. “He's mean, and cold. He's not Johnny any more.” She wrapped her arms around herself. “I'm sorry,” she whispered, to no one in particular.

Murdoch glared at her for another second, “Get out.”

“I thought I could help,” she said bravely. “Maria's gone.”

“I don't need your help. WE don't need your help. Now get out of my sight before I lose my temper!”

Teresa turned and ran down the hall. Murdoch heard her footsteps as they disappeared down the stairs, then he turned back to his son. He picked up Scott's hand and squeezed it lightly, then grabbed a cloth and dipped it in the nearby basin of water. Gently, he began to clean his son's battered face.

“I'm sorry, son,” he whispered. “I'm so sorry.”





Sam bent over Scott one last time and then straightened up and looked at Murdoch. “He'll be all right, but he'll be pretty sore for a while.” He looked back down at the battered young man on the bed. “I can't believe Johnny would do this. Are you sure it was Johnny?”

Murdoch nodded slowly. “At least he was the one who ordered it, according to Teresa.”

Sam's face darkened. “What was she doing there?”

Murdoch shook his head. “Evidently, she talked Scott into letting her go with him. She said she wanted to apologize to Johnny.”

“That doesn't sound like it was a very good idea to me.”

Murdoch looked back down at his unconscious son. “Obviously not,” he said dryly.

“Is she ok?”

Murdoch shrugged. “She says she is, but she's awfully shook up, not that I really care.”

“Maybe I'd better talk to her.” Sam suggested. “Where is she?”

Murdoch shook his head. “I don't know, and I don't care. Downstairs somewhere, probably.”

Sam studied the rancher. This had been so hard on him. Murdoch had lost both a son and a daughter because of Teresa's stupidity and his own bad temper. The rancher looked like a broken man, and the doctor wondered if Murdoch had the strength or the will for the upcoming battle. “What are you going to do?” the doctor asked quietly.

Murdoch shook his head. “I don't know, Sam, I just don't know.”

“Are you going to fight him?” he asked cautiously.

Murdoch turned tortured eyes on the doctor. “How? How can I fight my own son? A son that I still love, no matter what? A son that doesn't deserve the things that have happened to him? Doesn't deserve the things I did to him?” He dropped his head into his hands. “It's all my fault. I betrayed him, I turned on him. He's my son, and I believed that…that… girl over him.”

Sam's gaze went back to the man lying on the bed. “Murdoch, you know how much I care about Johnny, but you may have to accept the fact that your son is dead. The Johnny I know would never have done this to his brother. He's giving you a warning, and I think you'd better heed it.”

“So what do I DO?” Murdoch stormed. “Just walk off and leave this ranch to the wolves? Or do I fight and take the risk of killing my own son? WHAT do I DO?”

Sam shook his head and sighed. “I don't know, Murdoch. I really don't know.”





Chapter Twenty Two

Sam drove his buggy cautiously into town. He had been warned by Val not to come into Morro Coyo, and he had seen first hand the dangers, but Emma Thomson was sick and he had no intention of shirking his duty. Besides, he didn't believe Johnny would actually hurt him. A small voice was telling him he wouldn't have believed the gunfighter would hurt his own brother, either, but he managed to banish that thought before he lost his nerve.

He saw the men gathered on the porch of the saloon, and a sickening sense of déjà vu swept over him. It was just like when Pardee had taken over the town. For all he knew, some of the same men as before were sitting on that porch. It wouldn't surprise him. They were a tough looking bunch, and it shocked him to realize that Johnny was in charge of them.

Sam closed his eyes for a moment. When the gunfighter had first come to Lancer, everyone, including unfortunately his own father, had been apprehensive and more than a little uncertain. Johnny had a fearsome reputation and no one was certain of his motives for staying. Murdoch had confided in the doctor that he wasn't even certain if Johnny had really sided with Pardee or not. Sam had certainly not expected to like the boy.

But when Sam had been called out to Lancer after Johnny had been shot, the doctor had been pleasantly surprised by the tough young gunfighter. He had seen the yearning in his eyes, the look of uncertainty and sadness, and most of all, the vulnerability that the boy had tried desperately to hide. Sam knew without a doubt that Johnny wasn't as tough or cold as he wanted people to think he was, and the doctor hadn't backed off even when Madrid had made an appearance. The two had slowly forged a friendship, even before Johnny had allowed himself to trust his family.

The doctor had seen the gunfighter struggle between two worlds, and finally allow Johnny Lancer and his family to win. Sam snorted softly. At least he had until his family had broken that trust. The doctor still couldn't believe that both Murdoch and Scott had turned on Johnny the way they had, and he feared that incident was enough to kill Johnny Lancer for good. From what Val and everyone else was saying, and from what he had seen with his own eyes, Johnny Madrid was back with a vengeance.

“Well, what do we have, here?”

The sarcastic voice jolted Sam out of his musings, and he looked up to see one of the gunmen from the porch holding his horse's reins.

“Let go of my horse!” Sam demanded.

“You gonna make me?”

“I have a patient to see.”

“Is that right? Well, they might just have to do without a doctor,” the man sneered. “Get down off that buggy, old man.”

Sam felt the first twinge of fear, and he looked up, hoping to see Johnny, but the gunfighter was nowhere in sight.

“Come on, old man, MOVE!”

Sam sat frozen, not sure what he should do, and the gunman drew out his pistol and pulled back the hammer. “I gave ya a chance old man,” he sneered. “Ya shoulda listened.”





Johnny sat alone in the saloon, his bad temper still keeping his men and everyone else at bay. He was regretting his hasty decision in getting involved in this stupid range war even more, now. He had thought that he wanted revenge, but now he wasn't so sure. What he wanted was to just leave and forget about the whole thing, and more importantly, forget about his ‘family'.

When Scott and Teresa had ridden into town, all he had felt was anger and disbelief that they could be that stupid. But later…he shook his head. He was ashamed of the way he had acted with Teresa. Scott was right; he hadn't sunk that low, at least not yet. But he had sunk low enough to order his own brother beaten, he thought morosely. He tried to tell himself that it was for the best, that it would ensure that Scott wouldn't come back into town, that his brother wouldn't make the mistake of thinking he wasn't serious. But for some reason, it still bothered him, although he wasn't sure why. Scott Lancer was nothing to him, at least anymore.

Johnny threw back another shot. If he didn't get his mind back on business, and soon, this would end up a disaster, although he had the feeling it might, anyway. Old Man Lancer wasn't about to just give up and go away, and that meant an all out war. Right now, Johnny figured the sides were about even. Lancer had a few more men, but they weren't trained killers, just hired hands. His men, on the other hand, WERE killers, every one of them. He knew they would do what they needed to do to come out on top. The question was, could he?

He cursed softly. When it came down to it, he wasn't sure he could kill his own family, no matter how angry he was at them and no matter how much he tried to convince himself that he could. He guessed he'd just have to wait and see. In the meantime, he would do his best to convince Lancer that he could do just that. Maybe then the old man would do the smart thing and leave. Of course, Lancer wasn't known for doing the smart thing, and he sure as hell wasn't known for avoiding fights. He was as stubborn as they came, as stubborn as Johnny himself, and Johnny had the feeling that when Lancer was pushed, he'd push right back, hard.

Johnny smiled sadly. When it came right down to it, he knew Lancer wouldn't care WHO he was fighting, he wouldn't give up that precious ranch of his, even if it meant killing his son, and he sure as hell wouldn't bat an eye at killing Johnny Madrid. No, this was going to end up with at least one of them dead, the question was which one? Johnny threw back another shot. Either way, it would be the end.





Chapter Twenty Three

The gunman raised his Colt and aimed it at the doctor. “I warned ya, old man. You shoulda done what you were told.”

“You're not just going to shoot me down in cold blood,” Sam argued.

The gunman laughed in disbelief. “Why not?”

“Because it's murder! You'd hang!”

“You see any law around? You see ANYBODY around that'd testify? Good try, old man, but you're goin' down.”

“I wouldn't,” Johnny said softly.

The gunman whirled around and looked at his boss in confusion. Johnny flicked his eyes to the old man sitting in the buggy.

“Long time, Sam.”

The doctor heaved a sigh of relief before nodding. “Long time.”

“Want a drink?” Johnny asked, a slight smile on his face.

Sam nodded nervously. “All right.” He glanced over at the gunman, who was watching him curiously, and then the doctor climbed down from the buggy and followed Johnny into the cantina. The men that were gathered on the porch watched him carefully, but backed off and let him pass.

Sam sat down nervously and watched as Johnny slid into the chair opposite him.

“Sorry about that, Sam,” the gunfighter said as he poured a glass of whisky for the doctor and a shot of tequila for himself. “They're getting sort of bored.”

Sam lifted the whisky to his lips, trying to keep his hand from shaking. A minute ago he thought he was going to die, and it wasn't a very pleasant thought. If Johnny hadn't shown up, there was no doubt in his mind that he'd be dead right now. He took several large gulps, trying to steady his nerves.

Johnny didn't seem to notice, and drained his glass with one gulp. Sam frowned. The gunfighter had never been a big drinker, and the doctor had never seen him drink this early in the day. Johnny had told Sam one time that he couldn't let his guard down enough to get drunk. He certainly didn't seem drunk now, but from the amount left in the bottle, he should be. Sam looked up and saw Johnny studying him.

“So, what're you doin' in town?” the gunfighter asked.

“Mrs. Thomson is sick. I came here to see if I can help.”

“Can't help anybody if you're dead. Don't ya know it ain't healthy for you ta be in Morro Coyo right now?

“I didn't think I was in any danger. I never thought they would harm an innocent bystander, and certainly not a doctor.”

Johnny shrugged. “Like I said, they're gettin' bored.”

“I thought you were in charge.”

Johnny smiled. “I am.”

“And you condone what they're doing?”

The smile remained. “Most of it, I ordered.”

Sam shook his head. “I don't believe it.”

Johnny shrugged. “Suit yourself.” Johnny poured another drink for both of them, and swung his feet up onto the table. “I'll tell the boys ta leave you alone, but I still wouldn't come around unless you have to. I ain't always here, and they play rough.”

“Yes,” Sam said icily. “I know. I saw what happened to Scott.”

Johnny dropped his head. “He was stupid. He shouldn't have come in ta town. He should have learned that from Pardee.”

“I'm sure that he didn't think it was the same. I doubt if he thought that he was in any danger from you.”

Johnny snorted. “He should have. He knows exactly what I'm capable of. He was pretty clear about that when I left.” Johnny downed another shot. “Besides, I'm sure he got an earful down in Mexico.”

“All he wanted to do was come in and talk to you!”

“Nothin' ta talk about,” Johnny said flatly.

“He's your BROTHER!” Sam fumed.

Johnny shook his head slowly. “Not anymore.”

“You can't just say it and make it the truth.”

“Why not?” Johnny shot. “They sure did. Murdoch made it real clear when I left that I wasn't his son, and I sure didn't see Scott arguin' with him. He went over and put his arm around that Puta. He made his choice, and so did the Old Man. Hell, she's still livin' with ‘em.”

Sam shook his head. “That's my fault.”

“Oh?”

“Johnny, two wrongs don't make a right. She's very sorry for what she did. I'm not defending her, but she's underage and has no where else to go. Believe me; Murdoch and Scott don't want her there. Johnny please, they know they were wrong.”

“Little late,” Johnny snorted.

“They've spent the last year trying to find you.”

Johnny smiled. “Well, they found me.”

“Did they?” Sam demanded. “Did they find you? They were looking for their son and brother. Is that who they found?”

Johnny shook his head slowly and tossed back another shot. “He don't exist any more. Johnny Lancer is gone. Long gone, and he ain't comin' back. All that's left is Johnny Madrid, and even he's changed.”

Sam stared at the gunfighter. “Johnny, don't do this. I know you're angry, and you have every reason to be, but don't do this.”

“Too late, old man,” Johnny said harshly. “I can't back down now. Even if I did,” he pointed at the men outside. “They wouldn't. They'd kill me and take Lancer anyway. I already made my choice, and now Lancer will have ta make one, too.” He leaned forward and looked straight into the doctor's eyes. “You tell Lancer that I ain't backin' down. That if he don't leave, it'll be war, and we don't aim ta take any prisoners. You make sure he understands I ain't his son anymore, and if he stays, he'll lose everything, including his life, understand?”

Sam swallowed hard. There was no doubt in his mind that Johnny meant what he said. The gunfighter's eyes were hard and dark, and the warmth and hint of mischief that used to sparkle in them was gone. The eyes that had first convinced the doctor to give the boy a chance were no longer there. These eyes were cold and dead, and a chill went through Sam's body. These eyes had no conscience, and he knew the gunfighter was right. Johnny Lancer was dead.

Sam picked up his glass and drained it in one swallow, hardly aware that he was even drinking it. He set it back on the table and nodded, not meeting Johnny's gaze. He didn't want to look into those eyes again. “I'll tell him.”





Chapter Twenty Four

Sam pulled his buggy to a halt and sat with his head bowed for several seconds. He didn't remember ever being so tired. This was one of the worst days of his life, but he had the horrible feeling that it wouldn't be the worst one for long. After several moments, he slowly stood up and climbed down out of the buggy. He picked up his bag and stepped into the great room. There was no one around, so he went over to the bar and poured a drink. He took as small sip, and then trudged up the stairs.

“How is he doing?” Sam asked as he stepped into the bedroom. Murdoch was sitting next to the bed, holding his son's hand, and unreasonably, the sight angered the doctor. When Johnny had needed his father, Murdoch hadn't been there.

The rancher looked up and nodded. “He's asleep right now, but he's been awake most of the morning.”

“Good,” Sam said curtly as he walked over to the bed. He set his bag down then picked up the young man's hand and felt his pulse. After a moment, he pulled put his stethoscope and listened to Scott's chest. Abruptly, he stood up and folded the stethoscope before placing it back in the case and snapping the bag shut.

“Well?” Murdoch asked.

“He'll be fine,” Sam said distractedly.

“Sam, what's wrong?” Murdoch asked worriedly.

The doctor took a deep breath before turning and facing the rancher. “I talked to Johnny today.”

“And?” Murdoch said eagerly.

Sam shook his head sadly. “And Val's right. He's not Johnny any more.”

Murdoch's eyes closed. “What did he say?”

“He told me to tell you that he's not going to back down, and that if you don't leave…” his voice trailed off.

“If I don't leave, what?” Murdoch pressed.

Sam dropped his head. “If you don't leave, you'll die.”

Murdoch brought his gaze up and focused on the man in the bed, then slowly shook his head. “We're not running.”

“It isn't RUNNING!” Sam argued. “You don't have to fight!”

“Yes, Sam, I do,” Murdoch said softly.

“You're going to fight your own SON? Is this damn ranch that important to you?”

Murdoch slammed his fist down on the nearby table. “If I could get Johnny back, I'd give up this DAMN ranch in a minute! But you and Val and SCOTT have convinced me that my son no longer exists! And I'm not going to just sit idly by and let Farley have it.”

“Even if it means fighting Johnny? Could you really shoot him?”

The fight went out of the rancher. “No, not even to save my own life.”

“Murdoch, it might very well come down to that.”

“I couldn't hurt him, and I refuse to believe he would really kill any of us.”

“Believe it, Murdoch,” Sam warned. “And what about Scott? What if Johnny goes after him and you have to choose between them?”

“DON”T! I don't want to hear about it! I won't let that happen!”

“Murdoch, you have to face reality, and the reality is that it might very well happen.”

Murdoch sank down in the chair and buried his face in his hands. “I don't know what to do.” He reached out and touched his son's arm. “If we leave, I will have thrown away my son's and my grandsons' inheritance. And for what? We still won't have Johnny back. We won't have anything. That isn't exactly fair to Scott, either.”

Sam shook his head. “Even if you fight, do you really think you have any chance of winning?”

“I don't know. A lot of the men have left.” He snorted. “They wouldn't fight Johnny Madrid. But the ones that are left are willing to fight, and are good with guns…” his voice trailed off.

“Just because you won't shoot Johnny doesn't mean some one else won't.”

“I know. I'll have to make sure no one does.”

“Do you really think that in the heat of battle, if a man is being shot at, he won't shoot back?”

Murdoch raised his head and stared at the doctor. “So what's the solution? What do I do to protect BOTH of my sons?”

“I don't know. But I do know that if you fight, at least ONE of you will wind up hurt or killed.”

Murdoch shook his head. “I'm not going to let that happen.”

Sam stared at the rancher. “Murdoch, you're a fool if you think you're going to have any control over what happens once the fighting starts.”

“I'm not going to have a choice,” Murdoch said tiredly. “I'm not going to let either one of my sons wind up dead.”

Sam slowly shook his head at the stubborn rancher. “I think Scott will be fine, but if you need me, you know where I am.”

“Thanks, Sam.”

The doctor nodded. “I just hope no one else gets hurt before this is over. I'll see myself out.”

Sam walked downstairs feeling tired and helpless. He knew that one way or the other, he was going to lose at least one good friend very soon. He pulled open the door and stepped outside, then looked around and wondered how much of this would be standing when it was over. He glanced over to the vegetable garden and his eyes narrowed and he headed in that direction.

“Teresa,” the doctor said flatly.

The girl looked up, startled. “How's Scott?” she asked worriedly.

“”How do you think he is? He was almost killed by his own brother. A brother he still loves.”

Teresa dropped her head. “I told them I was sorry.”

“Do you REALLY think that changes anything?” Sam stormed. “You DESTROYED this family! You ruined any chance they had of being happy!” He shook his head. “You're nothing but an ungrateful little…” he broke off, unable to say the word he had in mind. “You deserve to rot in hell for what you've done.” He turned and stalked back to the buggy.

Teresa watched him go, then sank to her knees and buried her head in her hands.





Chapter Twenty Five

Teresa brought her tear stained face up and watched as the buggy carrying the doctor disappeared in the distance. With a shudder, she knew what Sam had said to her was true. She had destroyed the family that she owed everything to. Murdoch and Scott hated her and Johnny…. She shuddered again. Nothing had turned out the way she had thought it would. She had imagined herself as Johnny's wife, the position as mistress of Lancer firmly in her grasp. Instead, she was nothing more than a slave. Everyone here hated her. She knew she deserved it, but she had hoped that eventually Murdoch or Scott would relent and accept her back as a member of the family.

Now, however, that seemed unlikely. Johnny's arrival in the valley and his obvious hatred of them had effectively destroyed those hopes. She bit her lip nervously. Johnny was planning on attacking Lancer, and she was pretty sure that Murdoch would fight back. No matter what happened, she would be an outcast, and if Johnny won…. She remembered the men in that cantina pawing her and she wondered if Johnny would do anything to stop them. She thought it unlikely.

She hauled herself to her feet, then reached down and grabbed the basket of vegetables she had just picked, then walked into the kitchen and set the basket down on the counter. Maria turned and glared at her, then with a sniff, turned back to the stove. Teresa shut her eyes briefly before walking through the kitchen towards her small stark bedroom. She quietly closed the door behind her, then went over and sat on her bed. She grabbed her pillow and clutched it to her, using its fullness to stifle her sobs.

After a while, she just sat, staring at the pictures on the table. He father stared back at her, and she imagined the look of disgust on his face. She knew he would have never forgiven her for her betrayal, and she was sure he would have kicked her out, even if Murdoch hadn't. When Murdoch had given her the option of staying, she had jumped at the chance, grateful to be given an opportunity to try to redeem herself. She knew now that it had been a mistake. She should have left. She would never be wanted here, never forgiven or accepted. This wasn't her home anymore, anymore than it was Johnny's.

With a sigh, she stood up shakily and walked over to the small bureau next to her bed. She opened it and took out a small purse, then tipped it upside down and watched the coins as they spilled into her hand. Twenty dollars. It was all she had left in the world. That and a few clothes and the pictures on her table. She knew it wasn't enough, but it would have to do. She couldn't stay here any longer, no matter what. She would catch a stage and go somewhere and start over. She would forget Lancer and everyone connected with it. Maybe someday, she could even forget what she had done, although she doubted it. She knew that no one else ever would.

She pulled her small suitcase from under the bed and ran her fingers over the embossed leather. It had been a present from Johnny, and he had made it himself. At the thought, the tears welled up once more. She sniffed them back and began placing her folded clothes inside. Next, she picked up the pictures and put them in, then shut the case. Resolutely, she picked it up and headed for the door.

She stood outside the great room for several minutes, steeling herself for the next chore. Finally, she took a deep breath and walked inside. Murdoch looked up, but when he saw who it was, he looked back down at the papers strewn on his desk. She approached and stood in front of him for several seconds before Murdoch spoke.

“What do you want?” he growled.

Teresa swallowed hard. “I've decided to leave. I was wondering if I could borrow a buggy to take me into town.”

Murdoch stopped and stared at her and the suitcase in her hand, and for a moment Teresa felt a wild surge of hope that he wouldn't let her leave. Instead, he slowly nodded before turning his attention back to the papers.

“I'll have Cipriano harness a buggy and drive you into Green River.” After a moment, he added with a growl, “It isn't safe in Morro Coyo.”

Teresa's head dropped, and the tears glistened on her lashes. “I'm sorry,” she said softly.

Murdoch continued perusing the papers as if he hadn't heard her.

“I'm sorry,” she repeated. “Please believe me,” she pleaded. “I never meant for it to happen that way. I never wanted to hurt Johnny, or any of you.” She waited for several seconds hoping for a response, but the man continued to ignore her.

“Please! Say something!” she pleaded desperately.

Murdoch slammed his fist down on the desk, making her jump.

“I loved you like a daughter! I TRUSTED you! I would have given you anything you wanted, but you wanted more! You betrayed me, you betrayed ALL of us, and in the worse possible way. YOU COST ME MY SON! You'll probably wind up costing me EVERYTHING before it's over. I wish to God I'd never laid eyes on you, and if you weren't a woman, I'd kill you for what you've done. I'm just glad your father isn't here to see what you've become. You're nothing but a damn whore! Now get off of our ranch and stay off! I never want to see or hear from you again, understood?” He nodded toward the suitcase. “And if you've taken one thing that doesn't belong to you, I WILL have the sheriff after you!”

“I haven't!” Teresa protested. “I'm not a thief!”

Murdoch nodded. “No, you're just a lying bitch,” he said calmly.

Teresa sobbed loudly and fled the room. She ran out of the house, her tears blinding her, and pounded down the lane leading to the arch. She couldn't see where she was going, and she didn't care. She just had to get away. She had gambled everything and she had lost.





Chapter Twenty Six

Murdoch watched the girl as she ran down the path toward the arch, and tried to muster up some sympathy for her, but he couldn't. All he felt toward her was a cold rage and bitter disappointment. He had loved her, and now he hated her. He knew he should go out and tell Cipriano to harness the buggy and go after her, but for some reason, he couldn't. He watched as she finally slowed down to a stumbling walk, then he turned away and headed for the stairs. He needed to check on his son, the only child he had left.

Murdoch climbed the stairs slowly, like an old man. He had never been as tired in his whole life, and he didn't know if he could survive the next several days. In fact, he wasn't even sure that he wanted to. Tomorrow morning would be the end of the third day that Johnny had given him, and he knew that his younger son wouldn't back down. There would be a fight tomorrow or possibly the next day, a fight that no matter what happened, Murdoch knew he would lose.

After taking a deep breath, he pushed open Scott's door, and stopped. Scott was sitting on the edge of the bed, trying to pull on his shirt.

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

“Getting dressed,” Scott ground out.

“You shouldn't be up yet.”

Scott shoved an arm through a reluctant sleeve. “You're going to need my help tomorrow, and you know it.”

Murdoch shut his eyes. “Maybe he was bluffing.”

Scott looked at his father in disbelief. “Do you really believe that?”

Murdoch slowly shook his head. “No,” he replied reluctantly. “But you still shouldn't be up.”

“I don't have a choice. We're going to need all the guns we can get.”

Murdoch studied his son. “Do you hate him?” he asked softly.

Scott hung his head. “No. I don't hate him, and I know without a doubt I couldn't hurt him.” He brought his head up. “But the rest of that bunch is fair game as far as I'm concerned. Maybe if we can take enough of them down, Johnny will give up.”

Murdoch's eyebrows went up. “Do you really believe that?”

A trace of a smile showed on Scott's face. “No, but I figure that's the best we can hope for. That or Johnny having a change of heart at the last minute, and after the other day, I wouldn't count on that.”

Murdoch dropped his head. “All I care about is keeping BOTH of you safe.”

Scott smiled quietly. “Not saving the ranch?”

“No,” Murdoch admitted. “All I want is to somehow get through this. I'll figure we've won if all of us survive.”

“Somehow, I don't think that's very likely, do you?” Scott asked quietly.

Murdoch shook his head in defeat. “No, Scott, I don't. I just wish there was SOMETHING we could do to stop this.”

“So do I,” Scott whispered. “But I don't think anything can stop it now.”

Murdoch nodded as he looked out the window. “The sun will be up in a few hours. I guess we'd better get ready.”





Johnny sat in the broken down hotel room and looked out the window. He could hear his men partying downstairs, but he had no inclination to join them. He wasn't in the mood. He shut his eyes and tipped his head back, trying not to think of what the dawn would bring. It had been three days, and Murdoch and Scott were still firmly entrenched at Lancer. What Johnny wanted more than anything was to just ride away, but he knew it was too late for that. The men downstairs wouldn't let him, and even if somehow he got away, he'd never work again. Every gun would be against him. Besides, he couldn't leave before this was finished. He had to see how it would play out.

He rubbed his eyes wearily. His men had been watching Lancer, and they had reported that even more of the hands had left after Scott's beating. The handful that Lancer had left were loyal, but Johnny knew they wouldn't stand a chance against his bunch. The men left at Lancer were hired hands, not professional killers. Lancer was not only outnumbered, they were badly outgunned. Johnny knew all of the men that had stayed, and the only one that really concerned him was Scott. He knew that Scott was capable of wreaking havoc with that rifle of his, and he would have to be stopped as soon as possible.

Johnny knew that it would be up to him to somehow get inside the house and render both Scott and Murdoch defenseless, one way or the other. He sighed deeply. He still didn't know what he'd do when it came right down to it. He doubted if he could disarm them without at least wounding them, and he knew that even if he didn't kill them, his men would be worked up and out for blood. Even if Johnny tried to keep them alive, he doubted his men would let him. Johnny knew that if he and his men won, Murdoch and Scott would probably wind up dead.

He dropped his head in his hands. He wasn't sure if he could get through the next day, and he wasn't even sure he wanted to. He was more tired than he could ever remember being. He was tired of the never ending struggles and the constant violence of his life. He was tired of the hate. He was tired of being alone. Hell, he was tired of living, but it wasn't in him to just give up. If it was, he would have put a bullet in his brain a long time ago. No, he would do his best to stay alive and come out on top. He would let it play out and see what happened, but deep inside, he knew how it would end.





Chapter Twenty Seven

Johnny sat on his horse on the hill overlooking Lancer. It was full dark, and the moon was only a sliver in the sky, so he knew he couldn't be seen. It had been three days since Lancer's time was up, and he figured that by now they figured he'd changed his mind. He also knew that any sentries out there would be exhausted, and the chance of slipping past them was good.

He had decided that the best way to handle things was to try and take Murdoch and Scott by surprise inside the hacienda. If he could render them helpless, then their men would back down, avoiding a lot of needless bloodshed. His men had grumbled openly at the plan. They had worked themselves up and were ready for a fight. They had killing on their minds and weren't ready to do things the easy way. When Johnny said he was going in alone, several of them had openly defied him until he had suggested they draw on him to settle things. Then they had backed down, but had insisted that a few of them go with him to make sure things were ‘handled'.

Johnny glanced over at the five men who sat next to him, and his jaw hardened.

“You boys stay up here until I give you the signal to come in.”

“Why should we?” the oldest one spat. “You plannin' on havin' all the fun yourself?”

Johnny glared back. You'll do as you're told!”

“Will I?” one of the men spat.

“Yes,” Johnny said quietly, staring at the man. “You will.”

The man met his gaze another second, and then shrugged. “All right, you're the boss.”

Johnny nodded, and then looked at each man in turn before dismounting and handing one of his men the reins. He headed down the hill, keeping to the shadows and watching for any movement that might signal that he had been seen. He finally made it to the side of the house, where he opened a small door leading to the cellar. He took one last glance around, then slipped through the opening and closed it quietly behind him.

Once inside the cool cellar, he leaned up against the wall and took a deep breath. He still wasn't sure what he would do once he confronted Murdoch and Scott, but he guessed he'd find out. He pushed himself away from the wall and headed for the stairs leading up to the kitchen. He climbed the stairs, avoiding the third and tenth step because he knew they squeaked, and he cautiously put his ear next to the door to listen for any sounds. He knew that the kitchen should be empty this time of night, but he wasn't taking anything for granted.

After several moments, he straightened up and slowly turned the doorknob. The door swung open, and he peered into the darkened kitchen. He waited several seconds, then drew his gun and stepped into the silent room. From underneath the door, he could see a light in the great room, and he quickly crossed over to the final door. He swung it open slightly, and peered through. He could see Murdoch sitting at his desk and Scott sitting on the couch by the fireplace. Both of them had their guns on, and Scott's rifle was sitting next to him. Johnny smiled wryly; evidently Scott had recovered from his beating. He wondered briefly where Teresa was, but then figured it really didn't matter.

Johnny pulled back and let the door swing shut. He closed his eyes, then took another deep breath. Finally, he silently swung the door open once more and walked stealthily into the room, his gun trained on Murdoch. He was only about twenty feet away when Murdoch looked up. To Johnny's surprise, the old man didn't go for his gun.

“Johnny,” Murdoch whispered.

Scott's head shot up, and Johnny's gun moved in that direction, but like his father, Scott made no move towards his weapons. The two men locked eyes for a moment, then Johnny's eyes swung back towards his father.

“Unbuckle your gunbelts.”

Murdoch's eyes closed. “Johnny, I'm sorry. Please forgive us.”

Johnny tried to block out the words. He had to keep this strictly business, or he'd lose his nerve.

“I said drop your guns. Both of you. And do it real slow.”

“We're not going to fight you,” Murdoch insisted.

Johnny snorted. “If you had no intention of fighting me, why didn't you just leave?”

“I said we wouldn't fight YOU. I never said I was going to let Farley or that bunch of cutthroats take over my ranch.”

Johnny smiled coldly. “Those cutthroats are my men. And as for Farley, he's out of the picture.”

“What do you mean?” Scott asked.

Johnny shrugged. “I paid him a visit the other day. He wasn't real bright. He decided ta draw on me.”

“He's dead?” Murdoch asked cautiously.

Johnny snorted. “Now what do you think?” he asked sarcastically.

“Johnny, we can talk about this. Please, we're sorry for what happened.”

“Yeah, I bet you are…now.”

“Please give us another chance,” Scott pleaded.

“You had your chance. So did I for that matter. It's too late now, for all of us. Now drop those GUNBELTS!” he ordered.

“What's the matter, Johnny, gettin' soft?”

Johnny's head snapped around at the sound, but he kept his gun pointed at Murdoch.

“I TOLD the five of you to wait outside!” Johnny growled at the men standing behind him.

One of the gunmen shrugged. “Yeah, well, we haven't been too happy about the way you've been runnin' things lately. Thought you might be gettin' ready ta sell us out, and thought we'd better check.

“Nobody's selling anybody out,” Johnny snapped.

“Ok,” the man nodded. “Then kill ‘em. That WAS the plan, wasn't it?”

Johnny glared back. “There's no need ta kill ‘em. We've got the ranch.”

“So?” the man said belligerently. “If we let ‘em go, they'll just try ta get it back. Maybe hire men of their own to come after us. You know that. If we don't kill ‘em now, we're all as good as dead.”

Johnny sighed and nodded. “Yeah,” he said softly. “I know that.” He turned and looked back at Murdoch and Scott, who met his gaze calmly.

“You won't just gun us down,” Scott said quietly. “You're not a murderer.”

Johnny shook his head sadly as he met his brother's eyes. “You're wrong, Scott.”





Chapter Twenty Eight

Scott watched in disbelief as his brother slowly swung his gun around and pointed it directly at him. Johnny's eyes were hard and there was no sign of recognition in them. Scott felt his stomach lurch as he wondered if he was about to be killed by his own brother, and for some reason that idea bothered him more than the thought of his impending death. Murdoch took a step forward, meaning to come between his sons, and the loud sound of Johnny's Colt being cocked seemed to echo in Scott's head.

Murdoch froze, staring at his younger son, and Scott watched as the gun swung away from him and in the general direction of his father, before once more turning toward him, as if Johnny was undecided on who to shoot first.

“Johnny, don't,” Murdoch whispered. “He's your brother.”

“Come on, Johnny, what're you waitin' for?” one of the gunmen complained.

Scott stared at his brother, and the two men's eyes locked. Scott knew that Johnny was deciding what to do, and Scott had the feeling he'd be the first to know about his brother's decision. Scott stared at Johnny, trying to silently get through to him, but he wasn't going to beg. It was going to be Johnny's decision.

“Come on, Johnny, hurry it up,” one of the men grumbled.

Slowly, a small smile formed on Johnny's face. “Why don't you draw, BROTHER,” Johnny smirked.

Scott kept his eyes locked on Johnny, looking for some sign that his brother was still in there somewhere, but so far he wasn't encouraged. Johnny wasn't giving him any sign, and Scott knew that not only his own life, but also his father's hung in the balance.

Johnny turned his attention to Murdoch. “You too, Old Man, why don't you try it at the same time as your perfect son? Maybe between the two of you, you have a chance.” He slowly slipped his gun back into its holster.

“I'm not going to shoot you,” Murdoch protested.

Johnny snorted. “You got that right, Old Man. No way you can take me.” He smiled as he nodded toward the men behind him. “You might be able ta take one of them, but not me.” Johnny let his glance slide toward Scott. “You don't stand a chance against me, Boston, but that's the only chance you're going ta get. Now make up your mind, I don't have all day.”

Murdoch darted a look at Scott, who made up his mind. “You heard him, Murdoch, we can take him,” he said calmly.

Murdoch looked back and forth between his sons, and then nodded slowly. “All right.”

Johnny's smile widened. “Go ahead and try it, Old Man.” He turned his head slightly and spoke to the men behind him. “You stay out of it, understand?”

The men grumbled mutinously, and Scott knew they had no intention of staying out of anything. He took a deep breath, praying he wasn't mistaken, but he figured there wasn't a lot he could do about it if he was. He couldn't outdraw his brother, and even if he could, Scott knew he could never shoot him. He glanced over at his father and hoped he felt the same way. He saw that his father was ready, and after saying a short prayer, Scott went for his gun.

Suddenly the room exploded with sound and Scott felt a bullet slam into him. As if in slow motion, he saw his father aiming his gun in Johnny's direction as Johnny spun around and began firing.

“No!” Scott yelled at his father before he realized that Murdoch was firing at the men behind Johnny. Murdoch was crouching by the bar and sending shot after shot at the gunmen. Scott's gaze went to his brother, who had fallen with a bullet in his leg and was firing at the three men who were still fighting back. Johnny pulled himself behind the sofa and Scott dove behind the desk as their enemies scattered and took refuge behind the remaining furniture. The gunfire escalated as both sides tried to get the upper hand.

Scott aimed his own gun, and ignoring the pain in his side he sent a volley of shots toward the trapped men. One of the men suddenly launched himself at the nearby window and went crashing through, but when another man tried it, a bullet caught him in the chest and he sprawled lifelessly half in and half out of the house. One of Scott's bullets caught the remaining man, but he continued to return fire and Scott realized that there were now only two guns answering the gunman. He looked around, and he realized it was Johnny's gun that had been silenced. He tried to look behind the sofa, but a bullet slammed into the wall above him, and Scott returned fire automatically.

A moment later, the last gunman was silenced by a shot from Murdoch, and Scott immediately pulled himself forward, trying to see his brother. Murdoch appeared at his side and pushed him back down.

“Are you all right?” Murdoch asked worriedly.

Scott nodded. “It's just a scratch. Where's Johnny?”

Murdoch picked up Scott's shirt and looked at the wound, then shook his head. “It's more than a graze,” he growled. “We have to get the bleeding stopped.” He ripped off his shirt and wrapped it tightly around Scott's chest.

“Johnny didn't shoot me,” Scott insisted. It was more of a plea than anything.

Murdoch shook his head. “No, I know he didn't. It was one of the others. Johnny killed him.”

Scott tried to sit up. “Where is he?” he insisted. Murdoch pushed him back down. “You stay here!” he ordered as he stood up and went over to where Scott had last seen Johnny. He watched as his father crouched down in back of the sofa.

“Is he all right?” Scott yelled.

When Murdoch didn't answer, Scott tried to force himself to his feet. He swayed dizzily for a moment before giving up and sinking to his knees. He took a few deep breaths and then tried again. He stood shakily for a minute, and then using the furniture to lean on, he forced himself over to where his brother lay.

Johnny was lying on the floor in a pool of blood. His eyes were closed, and Murdoch was supporting his head and talking quietly to him, his voice wavering. Scott stared at his brother desperately, looking for some movement to indicate he was breathing, but didn't see any. Scott's throat constricted as he watched his father's tears falling on Johnny's body, and Scott sank to his knees next to his brother.





Chapter Twenty Nine

Scott scooted over and looked at his father questioningly.

“He's alive,” Murdoch verified. “Stay here with him. We have to get Sam out here.” Murdoch lurched to his feet and disappeared.

Murdoch headed toward the door, but before he could reach it, Cipriano burst in, holding a rifle.

“Are you all right, Senors? We heard gunfire, and then we saw some men riding away.”

Murdoch shook his head. “Send someone for Sam.”

The Segundo nodded. “I will go. The rest of the men are chasing the raiders off of Lancer.”

“Is there anyone else hurt?”

“No, Senor, at least none of our men, but several of the raiders are dead.” Cipriano bit his lip. “I did not see Senor Johnny.”

Murdoch nodded his head with a sigh. “He's in here and he's hurt and so is Scott. Hurry, Cip.”

The Segundo glanced over to where Scott was kneeling next to his brother, and his eyes widened. He spun around and ran back outside as Murdoch shut the door behind him and turned once more toward his sons.

Scott knelt awkwardly next to his brother, cradling Johnny's head in his hands. The two men's blood was mingling together, staining both their clothing and the floor red. Murdoch swallowed hard and knelt down next to the two of them.

“Cip went to get help,” he said quietly.

Scott nodded. “He's still alive, but we need to get him off of the floor and stop the bleeding.”

“Yours too,” Murdoch insisted.

“I'm fine. I told you, it's just a graze.”

“Then why is it still bleeding?” Murdoch demanded. He shook his head, knowing Scott wouldn't let him see to his wounds until Johnny was taken care of.

“I'll lift him. I don't want you straining.” Murdoch gently scooped Johnny up and carried him toward the stairs. Scott struggled to his feet and his father turned around. “You stay right there until I come back.”

“I can make it.”

“I'm sure you can, but you're not going to try,” Murdoch ordered. “I said I'll be right back.”

Several minutes later Murdoch returned and helped his older son up the stairs.

“I want to be in with Johnny,” Scott protested as his father guided him toward his own room.

“Scott, I can't take care of your brother if I have to worry about you. Now just lie down until Sam gets here, then I'll have Cip help me move another bed into his room.”

Scott started to protest, but his father ignored him and led him into his own room. Scott sank gratefully down onto the bed, the weakness forcing him to accept his father's decision.

Despite Scott's protests that he was fine and his pleas to take care of Johnny, Murdoch quickly checked his son's wound before rewrapping it and covering him with a blanket.

“You stay still. I don't want to have to worry about you falling while I go check on Johnny.” He stared at his son, waiting for a response.

Scott nodded slowly. “Take care of him,” he ordered as his eyes slowly closed. Murdoch reached down and placed a hand on Scott's cheek for a moment, saying a prayer of thanks that his son was still alive. That both of his sons were alive. His jaw clenched. He was getting another chance, and he wasn't going to lose either one of them ever again. He turned and headed toward Johnny's room.





Murdoch closed his eyes in exhaustion. He couldn't even imagine how Sam felt. The two of them had worked for hours on Johnny, then turned their attention toward Scott. Both Scott and Johnny were asleep and Sam assured Murdoch they wouldn't awaken at least until morning. Murdoch's eyes shut. If they woke up at all.

Sam had assured him that Scott would be fine, although he had lost quite a bit of blood. The bullet had torn a deep gash in his son's chest that required time consuming stitches, but thankfully it had done no major damage. With rest and barring infection, Scott should make a full recovery.

Johnny on the other hand…. Murdoch rubbed his eyes tiredly. His younger son had been shot three times. He had a deep graze to his head, which had bled profusely and required stitching, and he had a through and through wound to his right shoulder. Neither of those wounds were life threatening, although the blood loss from the two of them had greatly contributed to his son's weakness.

The third wound was the one that worried the doctor the most. The bullet had torn through bone and muscle and had shattered before the pieces had lodged deep in his son's chest. It had taken Sam forever to find and remove all of the fragments and to stop the bleeding, and he still wasn't sure if he had been successful. Only time would tell.

Murdoch tipped his head back against the chair and tried to sleep, but the thoughts that were racing around his head kept rest at bay. For an agonizing moment today, he actually thought that Johnny might shoot them. His son's eyes had been hard and cold, and no emotions had shown on his face. He had seen Johnny Lancer angry before, and had seen Madrid in action a time or two, but today he had realized that he had never really been on the receiving end of Madrid's anger. It was something he never wanted to experience again. He finally knew without a doubt why Johnny Madrid was so feared. Murdoch had actually been afraid of his own son, and at the same time afraid for his son.

When Murdoch had almost resigned himself to the inevitable, there had suddenly been a flicker of emotion in Johnny's eyes. He had seen it as surely as if someone had turned on a lamp, and Murdoch's hope had returned. The two of them had locked eyes for a long moment, and Murdoch had felt his knees actually go weak. He knew that no matter how much his son was fighting it, Johnny Lancer was still alive and struggling to survive. Murdoch glanced over at the still figure on the nearest bed and sighed. He just hoped he stayed that way.





Chapter Thirty

Murdoch sat slumped forward in a chair that had been pulled up next to Johnny's bed. He held his son's hand so he could feel any flicker of movement, but so far, Johnny had been as still as death. Murdoch's head was buried in his arms as he tried to rest his eyes for a few minutes. His back was killing him and he hadn't had more than a few hours sleep in the last week. He was exhausted and gradually losing hope that his son would recover. Right after Johnny had been shot, Sam had been pretty pessimistic. Johnny had lost a massive amount of blood, and Sam was afraid that it was too much for Johnny to survive. Right after that, though, Johnny had seemed to be improving. Sam was pleased that there didn't seem to be any internal bleeding, and the usual fever hadn't appeared. Murdoch had begun to believe the worst was over. But somewhere along the road to recovery, Johnny had simply turned around. There were no specific symptoms, still no fever or sign of infection, but Johnny was definitely failing.

“Any change?” Scott asked tiredly from the doorway.

Murdoch shook his head without even raising it. “No. And you shouldn't be up. Sam said for you to rest. You're still not healed.”

“You're father's right, young man. You should be in bed,” Sam admonished as he came up the stairs.

“I'm fine,” Scott insisted. “You two worry like a couple of mother hens. It's Johnny you need to be worried about.” He stepped into the room and tiredly walked over to his brother. Sam followed Scott into the room and grasped Johnny's wrist. “Has he come around at all?”

With a sigh, Murdoch raised his head, grimacing as his back protested the movement. “No,” he said quietly.

Sam reached over and lifted Johnny's eyelid, then slowly let it drop before checking the other one. “If anything, he's deeper than he was before.”

“Why?” Scott demanded as he sank into a chair next to the bed. “What's keeping him unconscious?”

Sam slowly shook his head. “I don't know. I wish I did.”

“Do you think it's the head injury?” Murdoch asked.

Sam took a deep breath, and then shook his head. “I don't think so, but I can't be sure. Head injuries are funny things. Sometimes one that looks severe causes no trouble, and sometimes seemingly minor ones can. But my instinct tells me it's something else.”

“Like what?” Murdoch demanded. “You've ruled out just about everything else.”

Sam shrugged. “You're right. There just doesn't seem to be anything that would explain why he hasn't come around. As far as I can tell, there's no reason he shouldn't be awake.

“At least no physical reason,” Scott suggested quietly.

“What do you mean?”

Scott stared at his brother sadly. “I don't think he wants to wake up. I don't think he wants to live anymore.”

“Why do you think that?” Murdoch asked in shock.

Scott shrugged and shook his head. “Just a feeling. I saw his eyes that day, remember?” He shook his head again. “He just seemed so…lost. So hopeless.”

“He wouldn't just give up! He's always been a fighter,” Murdoch protested.

“There's not a whole lot for him to fight for now, is there,” Scott said quietly.

“Of course there is!” Murdoch protested.

“Really?” Scott asked sarcastically. “Like what? A home? A family? A future? He HAD them! For the first time in his life! And we destroyed them all for him!”

“He didn't have those things before, all those years before he came home. He survived then,” Murdoch mused.

Scott snorted. “Yes, he did. He survived because of hate, remember?”

Murdoch dropped his head. “I remember. But now he DOES have something to live for. He does have a family and a home. He has a future.”

“Does he?” Scott asked quietly.

“Of course he does!” Murdoch snapped. “We're just going to have to convince him of that, aren't we?”

“How?” Scott snapped back. “How do we convince him of that if he's not going to even wake up?”

“I doubt if it will come to that,” Sam broke in. “'I've never heard of anyone willing themselves to die when they're unconscious.”

“No?” Murdoch asked hopefully.

“Then why isn't he coming around?” Scott demanded. He shook his head. “I wouldn't put ANYTHING past Johnny. I think he's more than capable of doing anything he sets his mind to do.” He looked at Sam. “How many times has he proved you wrong before?”

Sam sighed. “Point taken. But that's why I don't think it will happen. You may be right. Johnny may be depressed. He may feel hurt and angry, but he's never been a quitter. Just give him some time. He'll start to fight eventually.”

“Before it's too late?” Scott asked bitterly.

“I hope so, Scott. I hope so,” Sam sighed.





It was nearly midnight the next day when Murdoch felt the first flicker of movement. He raised his head, wondering if it had been his imagination, or even a dream. He stared at his son, willing him to move, to wake up, to come back to them. He watched in relief as the blue eyes slowly came open, trying desperately to focus. Murdoch stood up, knowing from experience that Johnny would start to panic if he thought he was in danger.

“Easy, son. You're safe.”

The bleary eyes swung toward him, then managed to focus. A moment later, the animation went out of Johnny's face, and he turned his head away.

“Johnny, you're safe. You're at Lancer,” Murdoch reassured him.

Johnny nodded slightly, but kept his face turned away and refused to look at his father. Murdoch continued to talk to his son in a reassuring tone, but Johnny never gave any indication he was listening. Gradually his eyes slid shut and Murdoch watched as Johnny's body finally relaxed into sleep. The rancher kept hold of his son's hand, squeezing it gently to let Johnny know he wasn't alone. A part of his mind told him that Johnny might WANT to be alone rather than here, but he purposely ignored it. Lancer was where Johnny belonged, and by God, it was where he was going to stay.





Chapter Thirty One

Murdoch looked out the window, trying unsuccessfully to block the incessant sound of Scott's footsteps pacing the floor. Scott was doing his best to wear a path in the tile, and Murdoch was convinced he had done it. Sam was upstairs with Johnny, and it seemed as if he'd been up there for hours. Murdoch had sent for him at first light, and Sam had come out to the ranch immediately. The gruff old doctor usually kept a professional detachment when he treated his patients, but Sam had always been partial to Johnny and hadn't tried to hide it. Murdoch sighed. At least he used to be. After Sam's run in with Johnny in town, that might have changed. Sam hadn't said much after the meeting, but Murdoch knew that the doctor had been deeply shaken by the way Johnny had acted. After Murdoch's own encounter with Johnny Madrid, he couldn't really blame him.

He couldn't believe the change he had seen in his son. The Johnny he had come to know had been as quick to smile as he was to anger. He had never seen Johnny be cruel or antagonistic. The man he had seen in the great room the other day bore little resemblance to his son. Johnny Madrid was all business, without a trace of emotion, and Murdoch wondered if it was already too late. Even if Johnny lived, the man he and Scott knew might be gone forever.

Murdoch dropped his head. He knew without a doubt it was his fault. He had made the biggest mistake in his life when he had believed Teresa over his own son. A son that had been betrayed and hurt his whole life. A son who had tried so desperately to prove himself worthy of his new life.

He wondered idly where Teresa was right now, and he realized that he didn't even care. There had been a time when she had been the most important person in his life. Before his sons had come home, she was what had kept him going, kept his hope alive. She had saved his life, literally, when he had been shot by Day Pardee. She had nursed him back to health and urged him to overcome his fears and send for his boys. He owed her everything, and yet right now he felt nothing toward her. She might as well be a stranger to him, and in a way, she was. He shook his head slightly. He still couldn't believe she had acted the way she had. He had never known her to be malicious or even stupid, and that one time, she had been both.

Murdoch glanced over at the clock once more, but its hands still hadn't moved. With a sigh, he turned back around and stared sightlessly out the window once more.

His musings were interrupted by a flurry of activity, and his attention was caught by Cipriano, who was finished telling the men their assignments for the day. The men were mounting up, and he noticed all of them were carrying guns. They all appeared to be going out in small groups, and he wondered idly if Lancer would be attacked by any surviving raiders. The men had hunted down seven of the marauders right after the attack. The raiders had been on the hill in back of the hacienda, apparently waiting for Johnny to signal all was clear.

There had been a gun battle, and all of the raiders had been killed and two of Lancer's hands had also died. Murdoch hoped there were no more men waiting out there, ready to attack, but he just wasn't sure. At any other time, that knowledge would send him into a state of near panic and consume all of his thoughts. This time, he hardly cared. He was much more worried about his son than he was his ranch. He was worried about both his boy's body and his soul.

Murdoch shivered slightly, and he wondered just how close it had been. Had Johnny really intended to kill them and changed his mind at the last moment? Or had it been ruse from the beginning? Murdoch sighed deeply. He doubted if he'd ever really know. He would like to think Johnny would never really hurt them, but in his mind he wasn't quite as sure.

After glancing at the clock one more time, Murdoch buried his head in his hands. Johnny had awakened the night before, but he hadn't said one word to either he or Scott the whole time. Murdoch had expected anger, but instead it was if Johnny had simply shut down.

He glanced back at the clock and then looked in annoyance at his elder son. “Would you PLEASE stop pacing! It's driving me crazy!”

Scott turned and glared at his father. “How can you just SIT there!”

Murdoch took a deep breath. “Pacing won't help.”

Scott glared again, and then looked pointedly at the large glass on Murdoch's desk. “Neither will getting drunk!”

Murdoch looked at the glass and shook his head. No, it wouldn't help, but it might deaden the pain that Murdoch knew was sure to come. He grabbed the glass and took a huge swallow.

Murdoch wasn't sure why, but he knew something was wrong. He had expected anger, maybe even rage, but his son's apathetical attitude was somehow more worrisome. Johnny acted like he just didn't care, and Scott's dire warning from a few days before came back to haunt him. Both he and Scott had tried to talk to Johnny, but they hadn't gotten far. Johnny had seemed to listen to them, and had even said a few words. He had been polite and quiet, just not inclined to talk. And he wouldn't look either one of them in the eyes.

A sound on the stairs drew both men's attention and they watched as Sam slowly descended the stairs.

“Well?” Scott demanded.

Sam looked at the young man and then took a deep breath. “Sit down, Scott.”

Scott paled but remained standing. “What's wrong?”

Sam shot a glance at Murdoch before replying. “He's suffered from what we call apoplexy.”

Murdoch looked at him blankly and Scott shook his head slowly.

Sam waited a moment, and then explained. “It some times happens after severe blood loss. It's a type of brain injury.”

Scott finally sat down, suddenly not sure if his legs would hold him. “How bad.?”

Sam shrugged. “His speech and thought process don't seem to be affected, but I'm afraid his left side is almost completely paralyzed.”

“For how long?” Murdoch asked.

Sam sighed and looked out the window. “Permanently.”





Chapter Thirty Two

“Here,” Scott coaxed as he held the cup to his brother's lips. Johnny took a few swallows and then lay back against the pillows that were piled on the bed, carefully avoiding Scott's gaze.

“Are you hungry?” Scott asked hopefully.

Johnny looked out the window and shook his head.

“Do you want me to get you anything?”

“No thank you.”

“How about a game of chess?”

Johnny shook his head once more. “No. I'm sort of tired. I think I'll take a nap.” Johnny clumsily rolled over, turning his back on his brother.

Scott hesitated, wanting to say more, needing to get some sort of reassurance that his brother was still in there somewhere. He needed to know that Johnny was still his brother, but so far, it might just as well be a stranger lying in that bed. Even if Johnny would rant and rave, curse them for their stupidity and betrayal, Scott would feel better. At least then he could hope things could someday be worked out between them. But this was different. No matter what he or Murdoch said or did, Johnny was quiet, calm, polite, and totally impersonal.

“All right,” Scott said uncertainly. “I'll be up later.”

Johnny lay on his side without answering.

Scott resisted the temptation to ask Johnny if he'd heard him, and instead he walked over to the door and took hold of the knob. He hesitated for a moment and then looked back. He opened his mouth, but couldn't think of anything more to say. In the last week and a half, everything that could be said had been said. There were no more words left. With a sigh of defeat, he pulled the door open and walked out.

On the way down the stairs, Scott kicked the wall in frustration. Since Johnny had awakened ten days ago, he and Murdoch had talked to him until they were blue in the face, and had totally failed to get any kind of a reaction. They had apologized and explained that they knew they had made a horrible mistake. They had tried to talk to him about what Sam had said about his condition. They had told him they wanted him home and how much he meant to both of them. Nothing. Absolutely no reaction. No emotion. Nothing. Johnny was polite and answered questions, but that was about all.

The only time he had shown the slightest reaction was when Murdoch told him that Teresa had left. Before then, Johnny hadn't asked about her, but Murdoch thought Johnny would be pleased that she was apparently gone for good. Apparently, he wasn't. The words Johnny had said weren't surprising to Scott, but the way they were delivered was. Johnny's voice was flat and unemotional; so unlike Johnny's normally emotional arguments. It was almost a parody of his and Murdoch's usual arguments.

“So you kicked her out, too,” Johnny had said quietly. “That figures.”

“I didn't kick her out! She left!” Murdoch insisted.

Johnny shrugged. “She just left, and you had nothing to do with it.”

“I didn't tell her to leave!”

“Maybe you didn't have to. I'm sure you did nothing to make her stay, either.”

“I thought you'd be glad that she was gone!”

Johnny shrugged. “Don't matter to me. Ain't my house.”

“Yes, it IS!” Murdoch ground out.

“Not anymore. Besides, I'm sure you didn't kick her out because of me.”

“I TOLD you, I didn't kick her out!”

“No, you just let her know she wasn't welcome here anymore.”

Murdoch dropped his head. “I really didn't care. I was more worried about you at the time.”

“Or your ranch,” Johnny mused.

“I don't give a DAMN about the ranch! I was worried about YOU!”

Johnny shook his head. “I believe you.” He looked at Scott. “You'd better be careful, you'll probably be next.” He shrugged. “Then again, I guess he'd be stupid ta get rid of his perfect son. Maybe you're safe after all.”

“I'm hardly perfect!” Scott protested.

Johnny shrugged. “Perfect enough ta keep around. I guess Teresa and I were expendable.”

Murdoch ran his hand through his hair. “Johnny, I TOLD you, we made a mistake, we're both sorry and want you to stay! You're certainly not expendable!”

Johnny smiled sadly. “Don't matter, anyway. I don't have much of a choice right now, do I? Guess you're stuck with me whether you want me here or not, at least for now.”

“What do you mean ‘at least for now'?” Scott asked suspiciously.

Johnny shrugged. “It means that at least for the time bein' I'm stuck here no matter what any of us want.” He shut his eyes and turned his back on them. “I'm tired.”

Murdoch and Scott had left, feeling frustrated and angry. If only Johnny would show some emotion, things might get better, but that just wasn't happening.

With a sigh, Scott's thoughts returned to the present and he walked over and poured himself a drink.

“Did he say anything?” Murdoch asked tiredly.

“As usual, nothing except ‘yes' and ‘no'.”

Murdoch sighed. “I just don't know what to think.”

Scott took a large swallow. “Neither do I. I still think he's given up, but at least he's eating and drinking. I was afraid he'd simply refuse.”

Murdoch nodded slowly. “Sam is still worried about him, and so am I. He's just not acting like I'd expect him to act.”

“He needs to let himself get angry. He needs to get it off his chest.”

Murdoch nodded slowly. “I know. I'm just afraid that when he finally does, all hell will break loose.”

Scott slammed back the rest of his drink. “At least we'll know Johnny's still with us. I'd rather have that than the shell that's lying up in that room.”

Murdoch nodded in agreement. “He didn't even seem that upset when Sam told him his paralysis was permanent. That bothers me.”

“Me too.” Scott shook his head. “I can't believe Johnny taking the news that he'll never walk again that calmly. I'm afraid he's planning something, and I'm scared to death to find out what.”

Murdoch nodded slowly. “So am I.”





Chapter Thirty Three

Johnny lay in his bed, silently cursing his family, himself, and his predicament. He hated being dependant on Scott and Murdoch for anything, and now he was dependent on them for everything. He hated it, he hated them, and most of all, he hated himself.

When he had awakened after the shooting, he had thought very seriously of killing himself, but when it came right down to it, he couldn't do it. Not because of any lack of desire, and not because it was a mortal sin, although he knew it was. He was under no illusions as to where he was headed when he died, so it really didn't matter if he committed one more sin. He knew nothing could save him now, anyway.

No, he couldn't kill himself because he knew he deserved to suffer, and this was worse than any hell. If the devil had hand picked his punishment, he couldn't have made it worse. Johnny snorted. For all he knew, he had. It seemed as if he had belonged to the devil since he had been born. At least that's what the old padre had beaten into him when he was a child, and Johnny had pretty much spent his whole life proving the old man right.

There was a short time when he thought he just might have beaten the devil, but then… Johnny closed his eyes, refusing to think about that time. He had done enough thinking about it for the last year, torturing himself by wondering if it had somehow been his fault. If there was something wrong with him that made people distrust him, that kept them from getting too close, that kept him from having anyone.

He sighed deeply. It didn't matter any more. There was no one left to get close TO. In spite of Murdoch's and Scott's protests that they cared, he didn't believe them. Not any more. He figured they felt guilt over what happened, but that was all. Besides, it was too late. He no longer cared about anyone or anything, and he doubted if he ever would again. As for the Lancers, if they didn't trust him before, they sure as hell wouldn't trust him now. He had crossed the line; he knew it, and so did they.

He took another deep breath that came out more as a moan. He had come so close to actually shooting his family. He dropped his head. He hadn't really planned it. He had made such a point of telling himself that he would do it, that he COULD do it, but deep down, he knew he couldn't. But then in the house, seeing his father and brother so comfortable and so…content, all of the rage he had thought he had hidden came flaring back. At that time, he knew he COULD shoot them, and that thought had frightened him. He suddenly realized just how far he had fallen, how hopeless he had become. And in that second, he had made up his mind. It hadn't taken conscious thought, he knew that it was the only choice he could make and still live with himself.

Johnny snorted once more. And now he had to live with himself. He got just what he deserved. He wondered idly how long he'd live. How long he'd be locked in this prison that was his body. Hell, even convicts got paroled. As that thought crossed his mind, his brows furrowed. Maybe he could make the life he had left at least bearable. He wouldn't be happy, but he wasn't expecting that. He knew he had to pay for his sins, but maybe he could at least not be reminded of what he had lost every day of his life. He frowned in concentration as he came up with a plan. He was sure Murdoch and Scott wouldn't go along with it, but he was determined to get what he wanted. They wouldn't have a choice. And if they didn't give in… He wasn't sure how far he would go, but he thought he could convince them that he was serious. He smiled slightly. He knew he could.





A light rap on the door announced Sam's presence, and Johnny hid a smile. Right on time.

“How are you feeling, Johnny?”

Johnny shrugged his good arm. “Ok.”

Sam nodded. “Murdoch says you want to talk to me.”

Johnny nodded. “Yeah.” He licked his lips, wondering if he was crazy. Finally, he plunged ahead.

“Sam, I can't stay here.”

Instead of the expected surprise, the doctor merely shook his head sadly. “Johnny, I know how hard this is for you, but believe me, staying here is best.”

“Not for me,” Johnny said coldly. “I don't want to be here. I don't want to be around them, and I sure as hell don't want them waitin' on me.”

Sam hesitated. “Johnny, Murdoch was afraid you'd feel that way. He said if you wanted, he'd hire somebody…”

“NO! I don't want him spendin' his money, either.”

“Johnny, as much as I hate to say it, you really don't have a choice. Why don't you give Murdoch and Scott a chance?”

“I DID give ‘em a chance, but they didn't give me one.” He shook his head angrily. “I don't want to stay here. I mean it, Sam.”

Sam sat down on the side of the bed. “Johnny, there really isn't any other place for you to go.”

“What about one of those hospitals I read about.” He dropped his head and fiddled with the edge of the blanket with his good hand. “The ones for people like me.”

Sam swallowed hard. “Johnny, you don't want to go to one of those places. They're…they're not very nice. Murdoch and Scott would never let you go to one of them.”

“It's NOT Murdoch or Scott's decision! It's MINE!”

“Then I won't let you!” Sam insisted.

“It's not your decision, either.” He brought his eyes up and locked them on the doctor. “I'm serious, Sam. I want you to make the arrangements.”

“Johnny…” Sam said with a sigh.

Johnny's jaw clenched. “You tell the old man and his son that they don't have a choice. I aim ta get my way, one way or the other.”





Chapter 34

Johnny clamped his mouth shut and refused to take a bite of the offered food.

“Come on, Johnny. You haven't eaten anything in two days.”

“And I don't plan to,” Johnny said through gritted teeth.

“This is NOT going to work!”

Johnny shrugged lopsidedly. “We'll see,” he said quietly.

“What do you hope to gain by this show of stubbornness?”

“I told ya what I want,” Johnny said calmly. “I ain't changed my mind, and I'm not going to.”

“And WE told you we're not going to let that happen,” Scott said just as calmly.

Johnny looked toward the wall. “Then I ain't eatin'.”

“We've been through this before. There's no way that Murdoch and I are going to send you to a place like that.”

“You ain't sendin' me anywhere. I WANT to go. It's my choice.”

“Well, you're not going to get your way. Not on this.”

Johnny turned and drilled Scott with a look. “So I'm your prisoner?” he asked calmly.

“NO! But we're not going to let you make a stupid decision, either.”

Johnny snorted. “Yeah, you've NEVER let me do that, have you?”

“What do you mean?” Scott asked cautiously.

“Seems like you were the one that convinced me ta stay at Lancer in the first place, then you did it again after I shot that Stryker kid. You tried to convince me I had a life here, had a family, people I could trust. Seems like you've talked me into a lot of bad decisions.”

“They weren't bad decisions,” Scott answered quietly.

“Oh?” Johnny said flippantly. “You coulda fooled me.”

Scott ran his hand through his hair. “This is totally different, and you know it. You don't really want to go there. You're just trying to punish us.”

“Think what you like.”

“Instead of trying to make us feel guilty, why don't you use that famous stubbornness of yours and fight back!”

“Nothin' ta fight for.”

“You don't mean that and you know it.”

“Yes, I do. And I don't want to stay here,” he said flatly.

Scott's temper finally snapped. “Johnny, dammit! I've SEEN those places. They're hell – holes. I'm not going to let my brother go to a place like that!”

“I ain't your brother, Scott.”

“The hell you aren't. You might be mad and you might be hurt, but you ARE my brother.”

Johnny shook his head and looked into Scott's eyes. “No. I'm not.”

Scott took a deep breath, trying to calm down. “What do you want me to do?”

“I want you to arrange for me to get there.”

“I'm not going to do that.”

“Then we ain't got anything more to talk about.”

Scott's head dropped. “Johnny, please. I know you hate me…us. I guess you have every right to. We let you down badly, and I'd do anything to take it back, to do it over. I made a mistake. So did Murdoch. Please, Johnny, give us another chance.” His voice cracked. “I want my brother back.”

Johnny continued staring at the wall. “Your brother's dead,” he said flatly. “Now get out and leave me alone.”

Scott's eyes closed briefly before standing up. He placed the untouched meal on the small table next to the bed, in the vain hope Johnny might change his mind and eat once he was left alone. “I'm sorry, Johnny,” Scott sighed as he left the room.

Scott trudged down the stairs, defeat etched into his features. Murdoch glanced up hopefully, then when he saw his son's face, he lowered his head back down and stared at the books he had been pretending to work on all day.

“He didn't eat,” Murdoch said.

Scott shook his head. “I don't know what to do any more. You know how stubborn he is.”

Murdoch nodded as he brought his head up. He turned his chair and gazed out the window at the peaceful scene, as if that alone could give him the answer he was looking for.

“I don't want him to leave, and I sure don't want him in a place like that,” Murdoch said quietly.

“Neither do I,” Scott agreed. But I'm beginning to think we won't have a choice.”

Murdoch swung around suddenly and crashed his fist down on the table. “There must be SOMETHING we can do to convince him to stay!”

Scott snorted. “Maybe if we both shot ourselves,” he said sarcastically. He shook his head. “He doesn't want to be around either one of us, and I can't really blame him.”

His anger spent, Murdoch dropped his head into his hands and rubbed his eyes tiredly.

“Maybe we can have Sam force feed him,” Murdoch suggested cautiously.

Scott looked at his father in disbelief. “For how long?” he shot back. “You KNOW that will just make him angrier, and if we do that, he'll just find some other way to hurt himself.”

Murdoch nodded slowly. “I know. I just…” he sighed deeply. “I don't know what to do anymore.”

“Neither do I.” Scott dropped his head. “I don't want to lose him, but…”

Murdoch's head shot up. “But what?”

“If he could be happy somewhere else, away from us, I guess I'd settle for that.”

Murdoch stared at his son. “I don't think I would.”

“We might not have a choice!”

Murdoch shook his head slowly. “Scott, right now, Johnny wants to get away from here...from us. But do you REALLY think he'd be happy if he succeeded? Once he was where he says he wants to be, do you really think he would adjust? You told me yourself you know what those places are like, even the ‘good' ones. I can't see Johnny being happy or even surviving in a place like that. Not for long, anyway.”

“Neither can I,” Scott admitted quietly. “But we can't just let him starve to death, either.”

“No, we can't.” He hesitated. “There's more going on than him just hating us. If it were that simple, he wouldn't care if he thought he was inconveniencing us. He wouldn't care if we spent money to have someone help him. No, Scott, it's more than that.”

“Like what?”

“I don't KNOW!” Murdoch said in frustration.

“Well, we'd better figure it out, and soon, or we're going to lose him, one way or the other.

“I think we already have,” Murdoch admitted. “One way or the other.”





Chapter Thirty Five

Murdoch watched as the wagon disappeared in the distance, and he closed his eyes in defeat. He and Scott had tried every trick in the book to make Johnny see reason, but it hadn't done any good. They had pleaded, begged, threatened, and cajoled, but he had been adamant about leaving, and in the end there was nothing they could do about it.

Sam had agreed to make the trip with Johnny, with Jelly going along to drive the wagon. Johnny had point blank refused to let either Murdoch or Scott come along, and Murdoch finally threw up his hands and admitted defeat. He hoped that after spending a month or so in one of those places, Johnny would be more willing to listen to reason.

Sam had assured Murdoch that he would find the best place he could, and Murdoch had given the doctor a substantial amount of money to pay for a decent place. Even so, the thought of his son staying in a facility like that made him sick inside. Johnny belonged here, at Lancer. Not in some asylum surrounded by strangers.

With a sigh, he turned and walked back into the house. Scott handed him a drink, and the two of them sat on the couch, neither one of them knowing what to say. There was really nothing TOO say, Murdoch decided. Through their own stupidity, they had lost Johnny, probably for good. Murdoch had never felt so ashamed and so lost in his entire life.

“Do you think he'll change his mind once he gets there and actually sees what it's like?” Scott asked quietly.

Murdoch shook his head. “You know how stubborn your brother is. If he changes his mind at all, it will take a while.”

Scott put his drink down with a sigh. “I don't care how long it takes; I plan on getting my brother back.”

Murdoch nodded, sounding more sure than he felt. “We will, somehow.”





Jelly pulled the wagon to a halt in front of the large grey brick building, and Sam slowly climbed down. He hated doing this, and he glanced back at Johnny, who was lying in the back of the covered wagon. The young man hadn't said more than a dozen words the whole trip, and nothing Sam or Jelly said to him appeared to make any difference whatsoever. Johnny was bound and determined to do this, no matter what the cost to himself.

Johnny looked back at the doctor and raised his eyebrows. “Well, what're you waitin' for?” he asked sarcastically.

With a sigh, Sam turned and entered the building. As soon as he entered, the smell assaulted his nostrils. The smell of strong carbolic soap vainly trying to triumph over the underlying odors of sickness and death. Sam swallowed hard. This was even worse than the first place.

He had tried to get Johnny into a reasonably decent place a few blocks from here; a privately run hospital that had a good enough reputation. It was no Eden, but at least it was better than this. Sam had made the arrangements and they had carried Johnny in, but unfortunately, one of the administrators had made the mistake of mentioning pay in front of Johnny. Sam had glared a hole in the man, but it was too late. The damage had been done.

“What kind of pay?” Johnny had growled.

The man had looked flustered, knowing he had goofed, but not sure why. “Well, of course there is a fee for you to stay here.” He looked over at the doctor. “But don't worry, it's been taken care of.”

Johnny turned and glared at Sam. “I told ya, I didn't have any money. You said that there were places that were free.”

Sam took a deep breath, praying that for once, Johnny would give in. “Those places aren't fit for animals to stay in, and I'm not going to let you go there,” he ground out.

“Sam, don't make me force the issue again. Now get me outta here and over to where I told ya to take me.”

Jelly shook his head. “Boy, quit bein' so damn stubborn and listen to the Doc for once!”

“And you stay out of it! Nobody asked you!” Johnny spat.

Sam and Jelly had looked at each other hopelessly before admitting defeat and taking Johnny back to the wagon, none of the men saying a word.



Now Sam stood and looked around helplessly as Johnny was brought in. Jelly had walked in, taken one look, then squeezed Johnny's shoulder before turning and nearly running out. Sam couldn't really blame him, he felt like running from this place himself.

One of the workers shoved some papers at Johnny and he signed them without reading them, then lay back and closed his eyes. They quickly carried him through a heavy door and into a huge room. The men's ward, obviously, Sam thought. Beds were lined up a few feet apart in rows throughout the room. There were only a few small windows, tightly shut, and even with the lamps burning the place was depressingly dark. Sam suspected the lamps stayed on all the time, in order to let the few nurses see their patients. There was no privacy, and the groans and cries of some of the more desperately ill men was enough to drive a person crazy if they had to listen to it for long. The stench was worse in here, Sam realized, and that, along with the lack of fresh air made him want to retch.

He couldn't imagine having to stay here, and he took a step closer as Johnny was settled into a bed. “Johnny,” he said quietly. “It's not too late.”

Johnny snorted softly without meeting the doctor's eyes. “Yes it is. It's always been too late for me.”

Sam looked at him in desperation. “Johnny, you don't belong here. Let's take you home.”

Johnny looked at the scene around him while Sam held his breath and prayed. Finally, Johnny closed his eyes once more. “Yes, I do belong here, and this IS my home,” he said flatly. He shook his head. “Thanks for bringing me, Sam. Now go on and get outta here, and make sure Lancer knows I don't want no visitors.”

Sam watched for a few moments, knowing he couldn't change his friend's mind.

“Good bye, Johnny.” He looked around hopelessly, knowing what he was about to say was impossible. “Take care of yourself.” He hurried out, making no attempt to keep the tears from falling.





Chapter Thirty Six

Johnny lay in his bed, staring at the ceiling. He had counted the cracks in the ceiling dozens, no thousands, of times. He knew every spot and every fly speck on the filthy surface. There was even some splatter that he swore looked like blood, but if it really was, he couldn't imagine how it had gotten there. Occasionally the boredom was broken by a cockroach skittering along upside down above him. He couldn't figure out how they could keep their footing, and always expected then to fall onto his face, but so far they never had. At least while he was awake, he thought with a grimace. But even with the bugs, looking at the ceiling was ten times better than looking at the other patients. Occasionally he stared out the small window on the other side of the room, but the angle was bad, and he soon got a stiff neck. He still looked, though. The first week he was here, he had actually seen a bird fly by. He had stared at the window the rest of the day, hoping it would reappear, but it never did. He figured it would come back eventually.

He no longer noticed the smell very much, thank God. The first couple of weeks, that's all he had been aware of. His stomach had been upset continually from the smells, and keeping food down had been impossible, adding to the stench. Gradually, though, he had stopped noticing it except early in the morning, when he first woke up. Then the full force of the odor hit him like a hammer until he was able to focus on something else. With practice, he had also been pretty successful at blocking out the cries and shouts of the other patients, and managed to actually sleep once in a while. He was becoming more and more successful in escaping into his own little world, and he was resentful when something happened to draw him back to reality.

He glanced at the young lady who had just silently brought him his meal. She looked exhausted, and the dark circles under her eyes confirmed it. She set the bowl down and turned to go without even glancing at him. She really wasn't bad looking, and at one time he would have tried to get to know her, but now he just didn't care. Since he'd been here, he had answered questions, but other than that, he had been silent. He simply didn't feel like talking. He had learned that most of the girls working here were actually students who were studying to become nurses. They were young, and when they first started working, were chipper and pleasant. The longer they worked, the harder and grumpier they became. He guessed he couldn't blame them, and not many of them lasted long. This place wasn't exactly paradise, and most of the men here were bitter and angry. Many of the patients made it almost a game to see how difficult they could make it for the nurses.

Johnny simply couldn't make himself play that game. No matter how angry he was at his situation and life in general, he couldn't be mad at the young women who were just struggling to make a living. He felt sorry for the girls, who labored long hours and did the most menial and distasteful chores without complaint. Besides, he thought it was pretty stupid to alienate someone who could either make your life somewhat bearable or a complete hell.

He snorted softly. Who was he kidding? It was hell anyway. He figured it was nothing more than he deserved, but it was hard and he knew it wouldn't get any easier. He had decided at the beginning of this that he wouldn't kill himself, although he had managed to convince Murdoch and Scott he would. No, he wouldn't kill himself, he would accept his punishment, but that didn't mean he wouldn't welcome death. For him, it was the only way out. He knew that death would probably just mean more time spent in hell, but he figured that maybe eventually he would be done paying. That was the only thing that he kept him somewhat sane. He figured that someday, with any luck, he could just be dead and wouldn't have to feel anything anymore. Someday.

With a sigh, he looked over at the food the girl had brought. He hated the food almost as much as he hated everything else about this place. He would give anything for tamales and some tortillas instead of the monotonously bland and tasteless food that was served. No matter what the dish was supposed to be, it always tasted the same. Like the damn gruel that Teresa used to give him when he was recovering from a wound. He shut his eyes for a moment, forcing his mind away from the past. Instead, he resignedly picked up the bowl and began to eat.

When he had finished, he put the dish back on the table and glanced at the stack of books and packages of food that sat on the stand. He hadn't touched any of it, and he had no intention of it, but he guessed it wouldn't hurt to let someone else enjoy the gifts. He sure as hell didn't want them.

Murdoch and Scott had shown up with the packages a week ago. Johnny had been a little surprised that it had taken so long, but he had begun to hope they wouldn't come at all. It had been uncomfortable for all of them. Johnny felt helpless and at a disadvantage as they stood by the bed, but he had forced himself to remain calm and distant. They had stayed for over an hour by Johnny's guess, and spent the whole time trying to get him to come back to Lancer. He had refused to even discuss it. In fact, he had refused to talk to them at all, and finally they had given up and left. He could see the hurt and disappointment on their faces, but he figured it was just because they couldn't have their way. He knew they didn't, couldn't really care about him. Not after what he had done. And he couldn't let himself care about them. Not after what they had done. There was nothing left between them. Whatever ties or trust they had once shared had been completely and permanently broken.





Chapter Thirty Seven

Scott walked out to the barn and watched as Barranca trotted angrily around the corral. He watched for several seconds, and then turned away with an oath. He had been putting it off, but he knew that he couldn't wait any longer, or someone would get seriously hurt. Just this morning, the palomino had given Jelly a nasty bite, and Scott knew there was no longer any reason to wait. Barranca hadn't let anyone ride him since Johnny had left, and barely tolerated being handled at all. He had bitten or kicked everyone who tried to get near him.

When Johnny had been living at home, the palomino had allowed Scott to ride him without an argument, but since Johnny had left for the hospital, Barranca had turned downright mean. The one time Scott had tried to ride him, the palomino had not only dumped him, he had also kicked him when he tried to get back on. It was as if the horse knew what Scott had done to his brother. With a sigh, Scott walked over and opened the gate. The palomino charged out of the corral and pounded down the lane, then turned and headed for the wild country where he had been born.

Scott felt the tears well up in his eyes as he watched the palomino disappear, and he thought about Johnny. He and Murdoch both had done everything they could to get him home, but it was a hopeless cause. They had visited Johnny several times now, and each time Scott had to use every shred of self control he had to merely walk into the hospital. Once inside, he had made it a point of concentrating on Johnny and ignoring everything else. He was afraid if he didn't, he just might get physically sick. He thought he was the only one who felt that way until Murdoch rushed past him the last time they had seen Johnny and heaved into the street outside the hospital.

Merely the thought of Johnny languishing in that place was enough to nearly drive Scott insane. But as upset as he was, he was also angry. He knew his brother was stubborn, but Johnny was carrying this to an extreme. The only reason he could think of why Johnny insisted staying in that hell hole was to punish his family by making them feel guilty. And Scott DID feel guilty. More than he ever had in his life. He knew he had betrayed his brother's trust. He had turned his back on a man he had once sworn to protect from any more hurt. But still… a small part of his mind insisted that Johnny could have stayed and fought for his rightful place in the family. He could have made them listen to him, he could have told them she was lying. Instead, Johnny hadn't even tried. He'd never said one word in his own defense, but simply turned his back and walked out of the house and out of their lives.

Later, Johnny had to have known how desperately his brother and father had tried to find him. He had to have known that they had found out the truth, but he hadn't allowed them to catch up with him. It was as if even then he didn't want to hear any apologies – he preferred to stay mad. And that's what bothered Scott. Even if Johnny had decided he didn't want to come back to Lancer, he could have at least heard them out instead of avoiding them like the plague. Scott didn't expect an easy reconciliation, but Scott at least wanted to feel as if there was some hope that one day they could be a family again, but right now, that prospect seemed awfully unlikely.

He and Murdoch had hoped that with time, Johnny would gradually mellow enough to be reasoned with and allow them to bring him home, but that hadn't happened. The last time they had visited him, Johnny was as distant and angry as he had been when he first arrived at the hospital. Scott had thought that after being in that place for a while, Johnny would decide that ANYWHERE was better than being there. Scott shook his head. He didn't know how Johnny could stand it. Scott knew that if he were stuck in a place like that, he would either go crazy or he'd die. It was that simple. He would at least be pleading to get out, but Johnny never said a word, and that bothered Scott. His brother had always been a fighter, but lately, he hadn't been fighting at all, except against them.

Scott sighed. Johnny had even refused the gifts they had brought. They hadn't been all that much, simply a few things to make his stay a little less miserable. When they had arrived this last time, one of the nurses had informed them that Johnny hadn't touched anything they had left the time before, but had instructed the nurses to give them to the other patients. Murdoch had given the nurses extra money to take better care of Johnny, but even that hadn't worked. Johnny had evidently figured it out and according to one of the nurses, he had refused any special treatment.

Now he and Murdoch didn't know what to do. The last time they had tried to visit, they had been informed that Johnny had made it clear that he didn't want any visitors. According to the hospital's policy, a patient had that right. Murdoch had at first tried to talk their way in, and then had tried to bribe the staff to let them in. When that didn't work, Murdoch had quickly escalated to yelling and threats, until the staff had threatened to call the police. Murdoch had finally stomped out, and the two of them had returned home.

Since then, Murdoch seemed to have almost given up. He didn't talk; he just sat at that desk of his and drank all day. It had fallen to Scott to run the ranch, but he hated it. He wasn't sure what he would do, but he knew he couldn't continue this way forever. His heart simply wasn't in it anymore.





Chapter Thirty Eight

Johnny watched disinterestedly as a nurse changed the soiled bedding of the man next to him, then he turned his head away and stared at the ceiling. He thought that he just might be going crazy, and he decided that wouldn't be such a bad thing. If his mind was gone, he wouldn't know where he was and he wouldn't hurt anymore.

He sometimes wondered if he should have stayed at Lancer, but he always managed to convince himself that staying would have been even worse than being here. Having Murdoch and Scott hover over him and take care of him would have been sheer torture. At least here the nurses were all nameless ghosts who came and did their work and then disappeared. He didn't have to talk to any of them, and they had long ago stopped trying to talk to him.

With a sigh, he turned his head and looked out the window. He had seen the bird exactly eight times since he'd been here, and he wondered idly if it was the same one each time. As he watched, his eyelids grew heavy and finally closed. He wasn't asleep; he still had trouble dropping off in this place, but it was getting a little easier every week. After all, that's all there was to do. Sleep and eat. Day after day, and he suspected, year after year. With a soft sigh, he turned his head away from the window and struggled to fall asleep.

As he fought for oblivion, his mind betrayed him as always, and memories came flooding back. He was powerless to stop them, although he never stopped trying. Sometimes he thought about his childhood, and sometimes he remembered his life as a hired gun. In all of the memories, it was hard to remember any truly good times, but the bad ones were easy enough to recall. There were so many. The happy ones were a lot harder. The only really good things he could remember had happened at Lancer, and he wondered how one place could be the source of both the very best and the very worst memories of his life.

His mind rebelliously turned to the people who were the source of those memories. He thought about them so much, but he still didn't know if he hated them. Every time he thought about them he felt confused. How could he hate someone and love them at the same time, and yet both feelings were there. Some days he felt one way, and some days the other, but neither emotion ever won out completely enough for him to find peace, and he figured he never would.

His eyes slowly opened and he glanced out the window again. He thought that it was early spring, although it was hard to tell in this place. It always seemed to be dark inside. The only window he could see was facing either south or north, and the sun never hit it directly. There were times when he wondered if the sun still existed at all. He was cold all of the time, and the thought of being able to sit in the sun and let it warm him seemed like heaven. He snorted softly. He didn't have to think about being in heaven. That sure as hell wasn't going to happen.

With another soft sigh, he craned his head and looked out the window once more. Spring. Time for the round up back at Lancer. He wondered how the round up was going and tried his best to convince himself that he was lucky to not be there, fighting cattle and eating trail dust, but he wasn't entirely successful. No matter how much he tried to convince himself otherwise, he missed it there, and heaven help him, he missed his family. He closed his eyes once more. It didn't matter. It was too late. It was too late for everything.





“Johnny!”

The voice seemed to be beckoning him from sleep, but at the same time was part of his nightmare. The dream resumed, and in it, he was in the great room, with his brother and father looking at him with loathing, and Teresa was standing by Murdoch's desk, looking at him pleadingly.

“Johnny, please!” Teresa begged.

“Go on, get out of my sight and off my land!” Murdoch ordered. “You're not welcome here anymore!”

Johnny looked at his brother hopefully. “I would never hurt Teresa, she's like my sister! Scott, you have to believe me! Please!”

Scott shook his head. “You're not my brother!” he spat. “I never want to see your lying face again!”

“Johnny!” Teresa cried.

Johnny glanced at her angrily. “Why, Teresa? Why are you doing this?”

“Johnny, I'm so sorry.”

“WHY, Teresa! Tell me! I have a right to know!”

“Get off my LAND!” Murdoch roared. “You're no son of mine. You're nothing but a filthy half breed killer! You're what's always been wrong around here!”

“All right!” Johnny shot. He headed for the door, still vainly hoping that Scott or Murdoch would call him back, but knowing that wouldn't happen, that this was the end of everything.

“Johnny, please!”

The familiar voice was soft but urgent, but he had no desire to listen to it. It had already brought him enough misery.

“Johnny, wake up!”

Slowly, his eyes opened to a pair of brown ones right above him. He blinked several times, trying to separate the dream from reality, and not sure he was succeeding. He stared at the familiar figure for several seconds before he finally realized this wasn't a dream, and his eyes widened.

“Johnny, what happened? What are you doing here?”

“None of your business. Now get the hell out of here!” With an effort, he turned away from her and closed his eyes, not wanting to even look at her.

“Johnny, talk to me!”

“Get out!”

Teresa's voice was calm. “I can't do that.”

“Why not?' Johnny asked sarcastically without opening his eyes.

“Because I work here.”





Chapter Thirty Nine

Teresa tried to concentrate on her own chores, but her attention kept going back to Johnny. She had been watching him all day, and she was as confused as ever. She watched as another nurse washed Johnny's face without him putting up any kind of a fuss at all. In fact, he didn't even seem to notice, and that bothered her.

At Lancer, Johnny had been badly wounded several times, and each time he had fought tooth and nail against any kind of assistance. If he was conscious, he figured he could do things himself and would adamantly refuse their offers to help him. His attitude had caused quite a few heated battles, but it usually took Johnny falling flat on his face before help could be given. More than once, both Murdoch and Sam had threatened to tie him to the bed, but she doubted if even that would have helped.

Now she watched as he just accepted anything and everything that was done to or for him without a fuss. She wanted so badly to talk to him, but he had made it clear he didn't want her around. In fact, that was the only time since she had been here that he had shown any sign of his old fire. The other nurses had been shocked at the way he had acted toward her, and told her he had never shown any sign of a temper before. They just couldn't understand it, and she certainly wasn't going to enlighten them.

She closed her eyes briefly as she recalled what she had done. She knew without a doubt that she had been horribly wrong, and that she would rot in hell for the havoc she had caused. She wished that somehow she could make amends, but she knew it was far too late for that. As much as she wished she could return to her old life, she knew it was impossible. She decided she would be happy if she could just somehow make things up to her family, even if she was no longer part of that family.

She glanced down at the older man she was supposed to be bathing, and he was looking at her with a questioning expression. She smiled reassuringly and began the chore, letting her mind wander as she continued. She had left Lancer with only a few dollars and no plan. She had run blindly and without thought, and had ended up in Spanish Wells. She had known that she couldn't stay that close to Lancer, so she had asked to purchase a ticket to the furthest place she could afford and still have a little money left for room and board until she got a job. She had had a choice between San Francisco and Carson City, Nevada, and she had chosen the former, simply because she had visited there a few times and it seemed a little less frightening to her.

When she had arrived, she had obtained a room at a small boarding house and then set about finding a job. She quickly found that the choices for honest work available to a lady were extremely limited, and few paid enough to even pay the barest necessities. Depressed and frightened, she had overheard two young ladies talking about nursing school, and she had shamelessly eavesdropped long enough to find out a few particulars.

By the following week, she had enrolled in the nursing school and was given a job in this hospital. She didn't make much – the hospital took most of her wages to pay for her tuition, but she made enough to barely pay her room and board. She'd have to get another job to pay for any other expenses, but it would be hard. She was either working or attending classes virtually all of the time. It was a far cry from her life at Lancer, the memory of which was fast fading to a distant dream.

With a sigh, she looked back over at Johnny and wondered what had happened to put him in this place. She had managed to get a peek at his chart, and to her surprise it said that he had suffered from apoplexy. She knew what it meant because it just so happened that she had attended a school lecture on the subject the previous week. She had assumed Johnny had been shot or injured in some other way, and was shocked to learn what was really wrong. She wondered what had happened to cause it.

One thing that was clear, however, was the fact that Johnny was still on the outs with Scott and Murdoch. His chart had stated that he refused any visitors, and she wondered if they even knew he was here. She couldn't imagine them putting him in a place like this, no matter how mad they were, but someone had obviously arranged it; he couldn't have come here on his own. She wondered if there was some way she could fix things between them, but she doubted it. Johnny obviously hated all of them, and especially her, and she didn't think that that would ever change.

She supposed she could live with his hate; after all she didn't have much choice. She couldn't afford to quit and besides, she knew she deserved it. What she wasn't sure she could live with was watching Johnny waste away in this horrible place. She had been shocked when she first started working here. She had thought hospitals were supposed to be clean and bright, but this was just the opposite. Evidently, there simply wasn't enough money to care for all of the patients properly, and the staff was just too overworked and underpaid to care. She couldn't imagine having to stay here, day after day, month after month, with no hope of getting out. No wonder Johnny was depressed.

Teresa shook her head. He might have reason to have given up, but she wasn't going to. She refused to just stand by and watch as he slowly died. Somehow, she was going to figure out a way to make him start living again. But how? Finally, she realized what she'd have to do. She wasn't sure if she was strong enough, but she knew she had to be, for Johnny's sake. She wasn't going to let him down again.





Chapter Forty

Teresa stood just inside the door, trying to prepare herself for the ordeal to come. Finally, she took a few deep breaths and grabbed the basin she had prepared, then walked resolutely toward Johnny's bed. She had convinced the other girls she worked with that she alone should take care of Johnny. It was the only way her plan would work. She knew her supervisors wouldn't care; the only thing they cared about was that the girls worked long and hard, and that is exactly what she planned to do. The only problem was what would happen when she wasn't there, but thank goodness she had been able to transfer to the day shift. The night shift was bare bones and seldom did more than clean, so hopefully no one would sabotage her efforts. Working the day shift would mean putting her schooling on hold, but this was more important. Much more important.

She stood over the sleeping man for several seconds, and then steeled herself.

“Wake up!” she ordered harshly.

Johnny startled awake and looked around groggily before his eyes focused on Teresa. As soon as he recognized who it was, his eyes turned hard.

“Go away,” he said flatly.

“No, I'm not. You're stuck with me, so you'd better get used to it.”

Johnny glared at her for a moment, and then turned away.

“It's time for your shave.”

“No.”

“Yes.”

“I don't want one,” Johnny said slowly.

“I don't really care what you want,” Teresa snapped. “I said it's time for your shave, and that's what's going to happen. I don't have time for any of your nonsense. Now either cooperate, or I'll have one of the men tie you down. You decide.”

Teresa held her breath for several moments. Then, with a sigh Johnny rolled over and coldly stared at the girl. Teresa bravely met his glare for several seconds, and then reached for the basin. Her hand was shaking as she soaped his face, and she refused to look him in the eyes, even though he continued to stare at her. As she plied the razor, she did her best to keep the tears from forming. The ease with which Johnny gave in told her just how low he had sunk into despair, and she knew this wasn't going to be easy for either one of them.

She finished quickly and stood and looked at him, but Johnny's eyes had closed half way through, and she had the feeling his mind was miles away. She stayed there for several seconds, then grabbed the basin and left. She stalked outside and emptied the soapy water while she planned her next move. Johnny hadn't gotten as angry as she had hoped he would, but she had time on her side. After all, it wasn't as if Johnny was going anywhere. She had plenty of time to make him angry enough to fight back.

At lunchtime, Teresa brought Johnny his tray and set it down on the side of the bed, then stood and looked at him as he stared back.

“Your lunch is ready.”

Johnny shrugged as he looked everywhere but at her. “I ain't hungry.”

“You need to eat.”

“I SAID, I ain't hungry. Maybe if you go away, my appetite will come back,” he said sarcastically.

“Maybe. But I'm not leaving,” she replied sweetly. She stood with her arms crossed, staring at him.

“Suit yourself, but I ain't eating.”

Teresa smiled. “Want to bet?”

Johnny finally looked at her and smiled back. “Yeah.” He reached over and tipped the tray onto the floor, sending the food flying, and then looked at her calmly. “No more problem.” He rolled back over, dismissing her completely.

Hot tears stung her eyes as she bent and scooped up as much of the ruined food as she could and dumped it onto the tray. She glared at Johnny's back, but couldn't think of anything to say. Besides, she was afraid if she tried to talk, her voice would betray the fact that she was in tears. She cleaned up the mess as best she could, then picked up the tray and disappeared.

A few moments later, she bravely returned with a fresh basin of water and plopped it down on the small stand next to Johnny's bed. Once more he startled and shot her a glare before resolutely shutting his eyes. Teresa took a deep breath and grabbed his right arm, and he quickly jerked it away without opening his eyes.

“You need to wash up,” Teresa ordered.

“Get someone else ta do it.”

“It's my job.”

“No it ain't. You've never done it before.”

“Well I am, now.”

“No, you're not.” He turned away from her.

“Johnny, I meant what I said,” Teresa said resolutely. “I don't have time to argue with you. I need to get my chores done or I'll get fired.”

“Good!”

“You don't mean that and you know it.”

Johnny snorted. “The hell I don't.”

“If I lose my job I'll starve.”

“So?”

Teresa changed tactics. “Don't think I won't force this.”

Johnny slowly rolled over and looked at his nemesis. “Teresa, I mean it. Go away and leave me alone, or you and I are gonna have some major trouble.”

“We already have that,” she shot back. “Besides, what are you going to do about it?

Johnny's eyes darkened as he stared at the girl. “Why don't you try it and see?”

Teresa swallowed hard and stared at him for a moment, then reached for his arm again. He jerked away from her grasp once more, and like a snake, his hand jerked down and grabbed her by the wrist.

“Let go of me!” she ordered.

“If you promise to leave me alone.”

“You're hurting me! Let GO!” She tried to wrench her way free, but he stubbornly held on.

“Promise me!”

“NO!” She struggled harder, and as she fought the panic starting to surface, several of the male orderlies appeared and roughly grabbed Johnny, wrenching his hand free and shoving him back against the pillow. He fought them as best he could while they roughly tied his good hand to the bed. As he struggled, his eyes caught Teresa's, and the look he shot her was pure hatred.





Chapter Forty One

Johnny didn't think he had ever hated anyone in his life as much as he hated Teresa. Even his loathing of the man who had kicked him and his mother out had been tempered with a small niggling doubt. He knew what his mother was like; what she was. Even though Johnny chose to use his hatred of Murdoch Lancer to keep him alive all of those years when he was growing up, in the back of his mind he knew there might be a different side to the story. And when he had finally come home he had let himself believe Lancer's lies. He had dropped his guard and let Murdoch and Scott Lancer into his heart.

When he had been kicked out of his home once more, he had thought he had hated his father and brother. In fact, he would have sworn to it, until he had to make a choice that day in the great room. If he really hated them, wouldn't he have just let them die? Wouldn't he have shot them himself? He shook his head with a sigh. He didn't know anymore, and to tell the truth, he didn't care. He just wanted all of them to disappear so he wouldn't have to wonder about it anymore. So he wouldn't have to remember what things had been like for that brief time at Lancer, when he had a home and a family.

Some family. He looked over to where Teresa was scrubbing the floor. A small smile played over his lips. With her compulsion to keep everything spotless, he thought it must be driving her crazy to be in this place. It was impossible to keep things clean here. Every time she got one mess cleaned up, there were two to take its place. He smiled wider. Served her right. The damn bitch had been making his life hell for days now, and he didn't know why. Maybe she blamed him for being kicked out of Lancer. It would be just like her warped mind to think that way, to figure herself the innocent one in all of this.

Johnny craned his neck and looked out the window. The amount of light told him it was about time for Teresa's shift to end. Once she was gone, he could relax and drift back to that place where he didn't feel anything. Before she had come here, he had gotten very good at escaping from reality. It wasn't hard, really. He just let himself drift off into sleep and it would all go away. Well, some of the time, anyway. Sometimes his dreams were as bad as reality, and he would wake, sweating and shaking. But right before Teresa had come, the dreams had been subsiding, and he had been sleeping almost round the clock.

He glanced over at Teresa once more, and she looked up and caught his eye. He widened his eyes dramatically and then glared at her. She hadn't let him sleep once during her shifts. If he drifted off, she was there with some reason to wake him up. He had caught on pretty quickly. If he was awake, she would more or less leave him alone, but if he fell asleep, he would be jarred out of his peace with some new method of torture. He turned and looked at the window again. He figured another hour and he would be free.





Johnny once more startled awake. He looked at the girl in confusion for a moment, and then his face darkened. “What the hell do you want?” He looked out the window and then turned back to her. “Your shift is over, so get out of here and leave me alone.”

“No.” She reached over and picked up his useless left hand.

“Let go of me,” he snarled.

She met his glare with one of her own. “You can either cooperate or I can have you tied again. Your choice.”

In answer, he grabbed his left arm with his right and wrenched the limb from her grasp. “Go to hell.”

She stood up and stalked away, and Johnny shut his eyes, hoping it was over, but he had the distinct feeling that it wasn't. His suspicions were confirmed a few minutes later when she reappeared with a burly aide. Johnny fought him as best he could, but it didn't take long until Johnny's right hand was once more tied to the bed.

“Anything else Miss Teresa?” the aide asked.

Teresa shook her head. “Not right now, Matt, thanks.” The man disappeared and Teresa once more picked up Johnny's left hand and began moving it.

Johnny winced as Teresa rotated his arm in a circle, and then moved it up and down. He bit his lip and concentrated on remaining stoic, but the pain in his shoulder and arm intensified. As the torture continued, he finally broke his silence.

‘What the hell are you doing?” he ground out.

“You need to move your arm.”

“That would be a trick,” Johnny snorted. “In case you haven't heard, I can't.”

“You can't now, that doesn't mean you can't ever.”

Johnny's eyes narrowed. “It's permanent. Sam said so.”

Teresa brought her eyes up and looked at Johnny. “Sam was wrong.”

“Yeah, like you know.” He looked at her with a smirk. “You become a doctor all of a sudden?”

“No, but I attended a lecture by Dr. Martin, who specializes in patients who have had apoplexy, or strokes, as he calls them.”

“Oh, you attended a lecture,” Johnny said sarcastically. “Well that sure as hell makes you an expert.”

Teresa's cheeks burned. “I went and talked to him after the lecture. He told me all about his studies, and he told me that it's possible for stroke patients to recover use of their affected limbs.”

“Now when did he tell you that, before or after you jumped into bed with him?”

Tears sprang into Teresa's eyes. “Damn you, Johnny, I went there to see if I could help YOU!”

“Yeah? Well I don't want any help from you! I don't want ANYTHING from you! Now go to hell! Don't you know I hate you?”

With an effort, Teresa stopped her hands from shaking, and she resolutely started moving Johnny's arm once more. “I don't care if you hate me, and you're not going to chase me away. I'm going to do this, with or without your cooperation, so get used to it!”





Chapter Forty Two

Johnny glared at the young woman, unable to hide the loathing he felt for her. Before he had come here, he had always tried to hide what he was thinking. He had learned that lesson early in life, but now it was impossible. His feelings were too powerful and all encompassing. Of all the times he had hated in his life, he had never felt it as strongly as he did right now. He was beyond reason, and he knew without a doubt that if he had the chance, he could hurt her. The thought that he had sunk so low that he could actually hurt a woman depressed and angered him even more, but he was powerless to stop the hatred he felt. He itched to feel his fingers around her throat, but so far she had been too cautious to come close to him without those damn aides, who were just waiting to throw their weight around.

Time had a way of blurring in this place, but he figured Teresa had been torturing him for about a month now, and she didn't show any signs of stopping. Every day she would move his arm and leg, sometimes for hours. After countless sessions it had stopped hurting, but just having her so close was torture enough. And it wasn't just the exercises she insisted on doing with his limbs, it was the rest of the things she did, too. She insisted on taking care of him, and no matter how rude or difficult he was, she refused to leave him alone. All his anger got him was a strap tied around his good hand, and occasionally around his good leg as well. He had never felt so helpless in his life, and it did nothing to improve his temper.

He snorted softly. One thing for sure, he no longer felt like he didn't have a reason to live; his one all consuming goal was to somehow figure out how to make her pay. Just as his hatred for his father had at one time kept him from giving up, now hatred was once again keeping him alive.

“All right, Johnny. Now you try it.”

Johnny continued to glare, but refused to speak. He didn't know why she kept trying; he hadn't said one word to her in almost a month.

Teresa looked at him in exasperation. “You're only hurting yourself. If you'd just TRY a little, this might work.”

Johnny continued to stare at the girl, but she stared back. “I would think you'd want to get out of here, and to do that to have to put out a little effort. You might think you're hurting me by not cooperating, but the only one you're hurting is yourself. Now why don't you try helping yourself for a change instead of just lying there feeling sorry for yourself?”

Johnny's glare never wavered, and finally with a sigh, Teresa stood up. “Suit yourself. I'll be back later.”

Johnny watched her go, then closed his eyes for a moment. As much as he hated to admit it, Teresa was right; he needed to do SOMETHING to get out of this hell hole, and the only way to get out was to walk out. He turned his head and contemplated his useless arm for several seconds. He didn't know if Teresa was right about being able to use it someday or not, but it was about the only chance he had. He looked over to see if she was anywhere in sight, and satisfied she was gone, he reached over with his good hand and grabbed his useless left arm. Slowly, he began to move it. He figured it wouldn't hurt anything to try; besides it would give him something to do besides staring at the ceiling. But he'd be damned if he was going to give her the satisfaction of seeing him do what she wanted.





Johnny let go of his arm and relaxed back onto his pillow. He had been secretly exercising his arm and leg for weeks now, and nothing was happening. Between him and Teresa, his arm and leg were being moved almost constantly, but he still couldn't feel a thing. He had known all along it wouldn't work. Sam knew what he was talking about, and wouldn't have misled him. Teresa on the other hand… He snorted softly. This was probably just another plan to make him feel miserable. Build up his hopes just so they could be crushed once more. Well, he was done. She could do whatever she damn well pleased, after all he didn't have a choice, but he was through trying.

“It's time for your bath.”

He refused to open his eyes. This had to be some sort of nightmare he was living. It just had to be. He was afraid if he opened his eyes and found out it wasn't a dream, he just might go crazy. He kept them shut as an aide strapped his good arm to the side of the bed.

“I know you're not asleep, Johnny.”

Slowly Johnny opened his eyes to Teresa's face hovering over him. “Get somebody else to do it,” he snarled.

“No,” she replied sweetly. “It's my job.”

“The hell it is! Now go away.”

“Sorry, I can't do that. You wouldn't want me to get fired now, would you?” She plunked the bowl down on the bed next to him and grabbed his arm.

He studiously ignored her while she soaped his arm, but when she moved to his chest, he felt that he just might explode. He ached to feel his fingers around her throat, and he curled his fingers as he imagined it in his mind. He glared at her as she stared down at him. Maybe he finally had gotten through to her, because she was no longer trying to wash him. She was just standing there, a shocked look on her face.

“Do that again,” she ordered softly.

“Do what?” he snarled.

“Move your fingers.”

He looked at her, confused, then he noticed she was staring intently at his left hand. He followed her gaze, but didn't see anything unusual.

“Johnny, you moved your fingers!” she said excitedly. “Do it again!”

Knowing it was some kind of a trick, that she was just playing with him, he half heartedly willed his fingers to move, then watched in fascination as they sluggishly responded.





Chapter Forty Three

Johnny stared at his hand as though he had never seen it before. He watched in disbelief as his fingers moved, and suddenly a surge of hope welled up in him. Maybe, just maybe Teresa had been right. Maybe Sam had been wrong and he COULD walk out of here. For the first time in a long while, he felt that he just might have a chance at a future instead of shriveling up and dying in this hell hole.

He felt his mind start working again as he thought about the possibilities, then he frowned as his mind took another turn. Teresa had refused to give up, no matter how difficult he had been, and now she had proven that she had been right all along. Maybe he owed her some thanks. As soon as the thought crossed his mind, he shook his head angrily. No, he refused to believe that this had anything to do with her. It would have happened even without her help. He snorted. Probably sooner, too. If she hadn't been yanking his arm around all this time, he probably could have moved it months ago. She had just been trying to make him miserable.

He looked up at Teresa, who was beaming at him.

“What are you grinnin' at?” he demanded angrily.

Her smile faltered. “Johnny, you can move your hand!”

“Really,” he said sarcastically. “I hadn't noticed.” He closed his eyes. “Besides, it don't mean nothin'.”

“Of course it does! If you can move it a little bit now, with more work you might get full movement back!” she explained excitedly.

“And I might not get anything. I ain't gonna get all worked up just ‘cause I can wiggle my fingers. Don't mean I'll ever walk again. Like I said, it don't mean nothin'.”

“But it could!”

Johnny shrugged. “It don't matter.”

“You HAVE to try!” Teresa pleaded.

His eyes flew open and he glared at the girl. “WHY? For what!”

She shook her head in confusion. “So you don't have to stay in this place!”

He snorted. “Oh, yeah, like I have a better place ta go.”

“Anyplace is better than this,” she insisted.

“It's all the same ta me.”

“How can you say that? This place is horrible!”

“I've been in worse places.”

“You've been in better ones, too.”

“Not many.”

She stared back. “What about Lancer?” she asked softly. She took a step back at the rage she saw on his face.

“Just ‘cause it was fancy don't mean it was any better. I'd rather be here than there any day.”

“You can't mean that.”

“There are a lot worse things to put up with than dirt and lousy food,” he snapped. “All in all, I'd say Lancer was just about the worst place I ever stayed and I ain't never goin' back there,” he growled.

“It's your home,” she tried again. “And Murdoch and Scott are your family.”

“It AIN'T my home! You saw to that! And I ain't got no family. You saw to that, too. So you tell me, what the hell do I want to get out of here for?”

Teresa's head came up. “It seems like just about anything would be better than staying in here. And you're wrong, Johnny. You do have a home and a family; you're just too stubborn to admit it.”

“You heard Murdoch kick me out, and Scott stood there and agreed with him.”

“And they spent over a year trying to find you and bring you back, and you know it!”

Johnny shrugged. “Too late. They already made their feelings about me real clear.”

“Because of what I had told them!”

“They didn't have to believe you. They didn't even give me a chance to say anything. If they had trusted me even a little bit, they would have listened to my side of things before judging me.”

“It was all my fault,” Teresa said miserably.

“Yeah, you started it, but like I said, they didn't have to believe you.”

“Johnny, they didn't know!”

“Well, they SHOULD have!” Johnny snapped. “They should have known I wouldn't have…” he shook his head and sighed.

“Hurt me?” Teresa said softly.

Johnny nodded slightly without meeting her eyes.

“Yes, they should have,” she agreed. “And I never should have said what I did. I never thought Murdoch would actually do anything to hurt you, and I certainly never thought he'd tell you to leave.”

Johnny stared at her, then snorted softly. “You heard all the fights we had before that and you know how he treated me. What the hell did you expect him to do? Send me to my room without supper?” He looked at the girl plaintively. “Why did you do it, Teresa? Why?”

Teresa dropped her head. “I thought Murdoch would make you marry me,” she said quietly.

Johnny stared at her in disbelief. “And you thought I'd just keep my mouth shut and go along with it? I told you up in that cabin that I couldn't marry you.”

Teresa dropped her head and stared at the floor. “I know better, now. Johnny, I am sorry. I never meant to hurt you.”

“You're nothing but a spoiled brat. You threw a temper tantrum because you couldn't get what you wanted.”

“I know,” she said softly. “And I know I can never make it up to you. But please give Murdoch and Scott another chance. Johnny, do they even know you're here?” Teresa asked hesitantly.

“What do you think? Johnny snapped. “You think I crawled here?”

“They brought you to this place?” Teresa asked in disbelief.

“Nope. Sam and Jelly did.”

“I don't believe you,” Teresa argued. “They wouldn't bring you to a place like this.”

“Why not? I'm nothin' to them. It's good enough for a half breed killer.”

“Murdoch didn't mean that, and you know it.”

“The hell I do! Like I said, he and his son finally showed their true colors. I should never have tried ta fit in there.” He lowered his voice. “I should never have trusted them in the first place.”

Tears welled up in the girl's eyes. “I'm so sorry. I would do anything to take back what I did.”

Johnny stared at her for a few seconds before looking away. “So would I,” he said quietly. “But it's too late now, and at least I found out what they really thought of me before I made an even bigger fool of myself.”

“Johnny, they love you!”

“They don't even know me,” he sighed before shutting his eyes. “Please, I want to be left alone.”

Teresa stood there for another moment, looking uncertainly down at her foster brother, then turned and walked slowly away. “I'm sorry,” she said again softly. “Please forgive me.”





Chapter Forty Four

Johnny stared at nothing as he moved his arm. It had been a month since that first flutter of movement, and progress had been agonizingly slow. That first day, he figured he'd be back on his feet and out of this place in a couple of weeks, but that certainly hadn't been the case. He could move his whole arm now, but it was difficult and sometimes painful. There were times when he just wanted to forget about the whole thing and go back to not trying. It would be a hell of a lot easier that was for sure. He snorted softly. Except for Teresa. She had proven to be a harder taskmaster than the Old Man had ever been. She wouldn't let him lie down during the day, but made sure he stayed sitting up, doing those darn exercises. Well, to hell with her, he was tired. With a sigh, he relaxed back into the bed and closed his eyes. But even though he was exhausted, his mind wouldn't let him sleep.

Johnny lay there for a long time, trying not to think of anything, but his mind wouldn't cooperate. Even though he hadn't admitted it to Teresa, he had been excited about the prospect of getting out of this place. At least at first. Later, he had glumly wondered what difference would it really make. What he had told Teresa was the truth; even if he managed to walk out, he didn't have anywhere else to go. He had no place to stay and no money. Hell, he didn't even have any clothes. A slight smile played across his lips. Well, it wouldn't be the first time, he guessed. And Teresa was probably right about one thing; anything would be better than being in here. He slowly began to move his arm and leg once more. He'd figure out the details if and when he got out of this place.

Hid mind wandered once again, and he wondered about the girl. At first, he had been convinced she was just doing those things just to make his life miserable, but now he wasn't so sure. Whatever her motives, her tactics had worked and now, for the first time in a long time, he was thinking about living again. Of course, maybe it had nothing to do with her. Maybe he would have regained the use of his limbs without her jerking his arm and leg around. And maybe she hadn't really wanted him to get better, but it had happened anyway. He sighed deeply. He guessed he'd never know, and just maybe, he didn't want to. He didn't want to owe her anything.

He glanced up as she walked up, and his eyes turned hard. He'd be damned if he was going to sit up just because she wanted him to. He glared at her, but for some reason she seemed unsure.

“Johnny, this is Doctor Martin. He's the man whose lecture I attended.”

Johnny's glare shifted to the doctor. The man was younger than he expected, with a self assured manner. The doctor was tall and slender, with sandy blonde hair and a military bearing. Johnny's mouth clenched as memories of another man flashed unbidden into his head.

“Mr. Lancer,” the doctor said pleasantly.

“It's Madrid,” Johnny snarled.

The doctor's quick glance at Teresa did not go unnoticed, and Johnny stared at the girl, daring her to say something. Instead, Teresa dropped her eyes. The doctor shrugged, then turned back to Johnny.

“Miss O'Brian told me about your circumstance.”

“Yeah?” Johnny smirked. “Did she tell ya everything?”

The doctor shook his head in confusion. “I'm not sure what you mean.”

“Did she tell ya just why I'm here?”

The doctor looked confused. “I assume you're here because you are paralyzed.”

Johnny snorted. “You mean she didn't tell you the rest?”

“Johnny, please,” Teresa pleaded quietly.

Johnny glared at her, but the doctor interrupted before he could say anything. “All I'm concerned about is your physical problems. Whatever other problems you have, including any concerning Miss O'Brian, you'll have to work out on your own.”

Johnny snorted and shook his head. The doctor studied him for a minute and then took hold of his wrist and moved it. “Does that hurt?”

Johnny sullenly shook his head.

“My understanding is that you had no movement in your left arm or leg when you first arrived,” the doctor stated.

“Nope.”

“Well, then, the exercises seem to be working. I'll give Miss O'Brian a list of some different types of movements to work on.”

“Give ‘em to me. I don't need her help,” Johnny demanded.

The doctor's eyebrows went up. “You can't do those exercises by yourself. You'll at least need someone to help you.”

“Then I'll get someone else. I'm sick of her hoverin' around me.”

The doctor stared at the bedridden man. “Who are you going to get? All of the nurses and aides here have enough to do. They're not going to take time out of their busy schedules to help you, not unless you pay them. Do you have money?” he asked pointedly.

Johnny shook his head sullenly.

“Personally, I don't know why Miss O'Brian spends so much of her time on an obviously thankless task. You could at least show her a little respect after everything she's done.”

Johnny raised his eyes and locked them onto the doctor, who took a step back at the rage he saw in those eyes.

“Don't talk to me about ‘everything she's done'. If I gave her what she deserved, she'd be dead.”

“He doesn't mean that,” Teresa spoke up as she saw the shocked look on the doctor's face.

“The hell I don't,” Johnny spat.

The doctor shook his head as he looked at Teresa. “I don't know why you're bothering, but I will caution you to be careful. I believe that in the right circumstances, Mr. Madrid could be dangerous.”

In spite of herself, Teresa dropped her head and smiled, unwilling to meet Johnny's gaze. “Oh, I have no doubt.”





Chapter Forty Five

Johnny sat on the edge of the bed, the sweat beading on his forehead. He closed his eyes for a minute, trying to work up the energy to try one more time. He had been working for hours now, and was no nearer his goal. He knew he could stand if he could just get to his feet, but the problem was there was nothing to pull himself up with. This bed didn't have a headboard like the one at Lancer, so he was forced to simply try to push himself upright from the bed itself, but it was so low he hadn't been successful. Finally he took a deep breath and shoved with both of his arms. For a second he thought that he might make it, but then his weaker left arm gave way and he fell back onto the bed.

Frustrated, he threw himself all the way back on the bed, cursing. It was either curse or cry, and he'd be damned if he'd show any more weakness than he was forced to. He lay there, trying to figure out how to get himself upright, but he knew he'd already tried every way possible, and the furthest it had gotten him was the floor.

“Are you SURE you won't let me help you?”

Johnny closed his eyes. No, he didn't want any help, especially from her. But there was no one else, and he finally resigned himself to the fact that he wasn't going to make it to his feet on his own. He forced himself to nod his head slightly, and Teresa was immediately next to the bed. “Here Johnny, take my arm.”

Johnny hesitated several seconds before sitting up and scooting once more to the edge of the bed. He swung his legs over the edge before reluctantly grasping Teresa's arm with his right hand and pushing away from the bed with his left. He didn't think she could support him, so he tried to take more of his weight on his left arm, but once more it betrayed him. He felt himself starting to fall but Teresa refused to let go and this time he finally made it to his feet. He stood there next to the bed for several minutes before he was forced to sit back down. His legs hurt, he was dizzy, and he would have fallen flat on his face if Teresa hadn't been there, but at last he had done it. He had stood on his own two feet, and despite the pain, it had felt good. Teresa reached over and tried to wipe the sweat off of his face, but he jerked away. He had no choice but to accept her help if he was going to get out of this dump, but that didn't mean he would accept anything else from her.

Teresa put the cloth down, then stood watching for a moment. “Scott was here again,” she said softly.

Johnny shrugged.

“Why won't you talk to them?”

“Nothin' ta talk about.” He looked up and glared at her. “Why don't YOU talk to ‘em?”

She dropped her eyes. “I doubt if they want to talk to me.”

“Do they even know you're here?” Johnny asked.

She shook her head. “No,” she said softly.

“Are you sure?”

She looked at him in confusion. “No, how could they? I told you I haven't talked to them when they've come.”

Johnny snorted. “They could know if they were the ones who put you here in the first place.”

Teresa's mouth dropped open. “Is that what you think?”

Johnny shrugged. “I sure wouldn't put it past them, or you, either.” He concentrated on a raveled edge of his blanket. “I wouldn't talk to them, so they decided to put someone in here to tell ‘em what was goin' on.”

“I haven't spoken to either one of them since I left,” she ground out.

He still refused to look at her. “So when did you leave?”

“I LEFT after that little trip into town. You remember, the one where Scott was beaten senseless? Of course, I stayed long enough for both Murdoch and Sam to rip me to pieces. Couldn't deny them that, now could I?”

Johnny just stared at her, and Teresa shook her head. “The only place they ‘sent' me was packing, and the only reason I came here was because I needed to eat. I was as shocked as you were when I saw you in here.”

Johnny finally looked away, uncertain.

“Johnny, why don't you think about what you're saying? If Murdoch and Scott hated you, or didn't care about you, why would they keep trying to see you? Why wouldn't they just forget about you, like they did me?” her voice broke as she finished. “Johnny, because of me, they made a mistake, one they've had nightmares over since it happened. They'd do anything to get you back.”

Johnny snorted and shook his head and Teresa's voice rose. “I know how much better off you have it here, away from them. I know that you're much happier here in this wonderful place, and more than that, I know how you're enjoying being by yourself and acting like an ass, but just remember, the only reason you're here is because you're too pig headed to admit the truth; Murdoch and Scott love you! And one more thing. If you REALLY hated them as much as you think you do, they'd be dead and you know it.”

Johnny's eyes flashed at her. “They almost were! I went to Lancer to kill them, but I got shot instead! It ain't my fault they're still alive!”

Teresa looked at him calmly. “I don't believe you.”

Johnny snorted. “Yeah, I just faked this so I could enjoy this place's hospitality. I thought it'd be fun.”

“I didn't say I didn't believe you were shot. I said I didn't believe that you REALLY wanted to kill them. Like I said, if Johnny Madrid wanted them dead, they would be.” She shook her head. “I think you need to quit lying, especially to yourself.”





Chapter Forty Six

Johnny slowly stood up, then wobbled a few steps. He clenched his jaw, determined not to show any more weakness than he had to. It still hurt like hell; all of his muscles were screaming at him to stop, but he blithely ignored them. He was too happy to be on his own two feet instead of flat on his backside. He forced his reluctant body to walk to the far wall, then he carefully turned and shuffled back, doing his best to look nonchalant. He stopped by the edge of the bed, panting from the exertion, and looked at the other man hopefully.

Dr. Martin smiled encouragingly. “You've come a long way. I think you'll make a complete recovery if you keep working as hard as you have been. Just don't stop.”

“I don't plan on it,” Johnny said grimly. He put his head down, unwilling to show his disappointment if the doctor didn't give him the answer he wanted. “So when can I get outta here?” he asked casually.

The doctor shook his head. “Johnny, walking a few feet is one thing. Taking care of yourself on the outside is another. You're not ready to leave yet.”

“I'll manage,” Johnny argued.

Martin shook his head. “I'm sure you would try.”

Johnny's eyes turned hard. “I SAID I would be ok.”

The doctor met his patient's glare calmly. “How? Do you have any clothes? A place to stay? Food? Any money to get those things? A job?”

Johnny looked away and the doctor continued. “Mr. Madrid, I'm sure that before all of this happened, you were used to being self sufficient. However, you are going to have to realize that things have changed, at least for the time being. I have no intention of releasing you early just so you can go out and starve to death or die of pneumonia.”

Johnny glared at the doctor. “And just how in the hell am I supposed to get any of those things when I'm locked up in this place?”

“I don't know.” The doctor thought for a moment. “Maybe you could ask your family.”

“NO!”

Teresa, who had been standing quietly watching, stepped up. “Johnny…”

“I said NO!” he snapped.

She looked hopefully at the doctor, but Martin shook his head. “It will have to be your choice, Mr. Madrid, but I have no intention of releasing you until you at least have a place to stay.”

Johnny glared at the doctor, then plopped down on the bed. “Then I guess I did all of this for nothin', ‘cause I can stay in here for the next hundred years, and I STILL won't have anywhere ta go.”

“You have a place to go,” the doctor said implacably. “You just refuse to listen to reason.” He nodded toward Teresa. “Why don't you listen to her?”

“'Cause somebody LISTENIN' ta her is what got me in this mess in the first place,” Johnny grumped.

The doctor shrugged. “As I said, I cannot release you until I know you have a place to stay. When you figure it out, let me know.” He watched his patient for a moment, but when Johnny didn't respond, the doctor turned and walked away.

Teresa stared at Johnny for a moment, then bit her lip uncertainly. “Johnny, I know you hate me, but I have room…”

“NO!”

“At least it's a place to stay!”

“I SAID NO!”

Teresa brought her chin up. “You'd rather stay in here?” she asked challengingly.

Johnny turned slowly and stared at her. “Yes.” They locked eyes for a moment, and then Teresa looked down. “I'm just trying to help,” she said softly.

Johnny whipped back around and glared at her. “You REALLY want to help?” he asked angrily.

“Yes,”

His eyes narrowed. “Then get me some clothes and a gun and then get out of my way,” he spat.

She shook her head. “Johnny, I can't do that. You heard what the doctor said. You still need help.”

He snorted and looked away. “Then don't ask me what you can do to help, not if you don't mean it.”

“I DO mean it, but I can't help you do something that I know will hurt you,” she said plaintively.

He snorted softly and his eyes found hers once more. “Stayin' in this place will hurt me worse,” he said. “Teresa, I've been on my own my whole life. I don't need anybody's help to survive out there.”

Teresa looked pleadingly at him. “But this isn't like other times, Johnny. You're still not strong.”

“I'm strong enough!”

“Johnny, if you won't let me help you, at least let me contact Murdoch and Scott.”

Johnny glared at her. “No. You promised.”

“Well, I shouldn't have. No matter what you think, they obviously care about you or they wouldn't keep trying to see you. Can't you forgive them even a tiny bit?”

Johnny's eyes dropped. “It ain't about forgiving,” he said quietly.

“Then what IS it about?” Teresa insisted.

Johnny hesitated, and then shrugged. “I almost killed them,” he admitted quietly.

Teresa shook her head in confusion. “But you didn't!”

“Don't matter. I could have. It was real close.”

“Then you DO care about them,” she challenged.

“I care enough about them that I don't want to see ‘em dead,” he said crossly. “And if I go back, that's just what might happen.”

“Why do you think that?”

“BECAUSE! You were there. You saw how the old man and me locked horns all the time. More than once we almost came to blows.”

“But you DIDN'T!”

“Yeah. “But now…” He shook his head and started speaking so softly that Teresa had trouble hearing. “Before I KNEW I could never do anything to hurt them. I don't know that any more.”

Teresa brought her head up and stared at Johnny. “I'm sure they've forgiven you for almost hurting them; they love you!”

Johnny sighed. “Maybe. But I can't forgive myself, and I'm not willing to find out the hard way just what I am capable of.” He shook his head sadly. “Besides, I don't trust them anymore, and I can't live with them. It's as simple as that.”

Johnny glared at the girl. “So, do you really care enough about me to help me get out of this place, or have you been lyin'- again?”





Chapter Forty Seven

Johnny lay in his bed, trying to figure out the missing pieces of his plan. He had no intention of staying in this place one second longer than necessary, and he had spent the last week figuring out how to escape. He had stubbornly ignored all of the problems he'd face once he was out; he'd worry about that if he finally made it out the doors.

He figured the best time to try to sneak out was late at night. That shift had the fewest workers, and Teresa wouldn't be around to stop him. Of course, she hadn't been around much lately, anyway. She had made herself pretty scarce since last week when he'd asked her to help him get out of this place.

The last several days he had spent scoping out the rest of the building. He had told the nurses he was having trouble sleeping and had been given permission to walk around. He had decided that escaping out of this room would be easy. The few women working at night were kept busy and hardly noticed what was going on around them, besides, he had made sure he walked at various times during the day and night. If anyone saw him, they would figure he couldn't sleep and was simply exercising again. The room he was in opened up into a hall which was usually deserted late at night. The only problem he could see was the guard by the main entrance. The man might be hard to get past, at least if he was awake. Several times Johnny had caught him sleeping, and he was apparently a sound sleeper. Johnny figured he could saunter casually out to the main hall and if the man was awake, he could turn around and go back to his bed without raising suspicion.

Johnny snorted. Of course, once he was outside he would raise plenty of suspicion. He couldn't figure out how to get any clothes except what he and all of the patients wore, and he was sure the baggy gray clothes were as recognizable on the outside as prison stripes. Being barefoot just might raise a few eyebrows, too. He figured he'd have to try and hide somewhere until he could somehow steal some decent clothes. He sighed. Hide where? He didn't know anything about this city except it was crowded, and hiding would be pretty damn hard.

He closed his eyes. He'd have to get clothes and food and some sort of weapon, then he would get a job and save enough money to get out of this damn city. He knew it would be hard, but he also knew he would survive. He always did, one way or another. He would do what he had to do and get on with his life. He shook his head as realized that he'd come full circle. He would have to get along with nothing just as he had as a child after his mother had died and left him so alone. Well, he would be alone again, but he was no longer an innocent child. He would do whatever it took to survive, only this time he wouldn't make the mistakes he had before. It would be a fresh start, and he was determined to do it right.

With a sigh, he swung his legs over the edge of the bed and sat up. No time like the present. He sat there for a moment, gaining strength for the ordeal to come.

“Johnny.”

Johnny's head snapped up at the quiet voice, and he knew his chance of leaving tonight was shot. “What do you want?” he snapped.

Teresa bit her lips nervously. “I…I've been thinking about what you said.”

“Yeah? So?”

She stared at him for a moment, and then held out a small bundle.

He looked at it suspiciously. “What's that?”

Her gaze never wavered. “Clothes.”

His eyebrows went up and he took the package as he stared at the girl. After a moment he opened the bundle and studied the items. There was a shirt, pants, shoes, and even a jacket.

“I couldn't get the gun,” Teresa said apologetically. “But…but there's a knife in there.”

Johnny pulled out the weapon and fingered it, then put it back with the clothes. “Why?” he asked without looking at her.

“Because I finally realized that it had to be your decision and no one has the right to force you to do anything.” She swallowed hard. “Johnny, I meant what I said. I have room if you want to stay with me…”

“No.”

Teresa nodded sadly. “All right.” She hesitated. “I don't have much, but there's a few dollars in there. Enough to buy some food and to get a room for a few weeks.”

“I don't want to take your money.”

“Please, Johnny, at least let me do that much. Please?”

He looked up into her tearful eyes, and after a moment, he nodded.

“Will you be ok?” she asked softly.

He smiled sadly. “Yeah, I'm always ok.” He dropped his head and took a deep breath. “Thanks, Teresa. For helping me.”

She nodded slightly. “Will you go back to Lancer now?” she asked hopefully.

“No.” He smiled softly. “What about you? Murdoch and Scott have probably forgiven you by now.”

Teresa shook her head and dropped her eyes. “No. I don't think they'll ever forgive me, and I don't expect them to. What I did was unforgivable and I know it.”

He shrugged. “Seems to me you've grown up. I think maybe they wouldn't mind seein' the new Teresa.” He hesitated. “So are you gonna keep workin' here?”

She smiled. “Richard…I mean Dr… Martin asked me to come work for him.”

Johnny smiled slowly. “Richard, huh?”

Teresa blushed. “I mean…”

“That's ok, Teresa. I know what you mean, and I'm glad you won't be alone here. I hope it works out.”

She smiled back. “Me too. Maybe…maybe things will work out ok after all…eventually. Johnny, I know they hurt you, but please think about giving Murdoch and Scott another chance.” She dropped her head. “They love you, and I want you to know that I still love you, too. I always will, but not that way anymore. You'll always be my brother.” She looked at him hopefully.

He dropped his head, still unable to give her what she wanted. “Will you ever go back to Lancer?” he asked softly.

She smiled sadly and shrugged. “Maybe, someday, when I get my life back together and I don't need anything from them. Maybe then I'll write them and see if they want to see me. What about you?” she asked softly.

He hesitated, then suddenly smiled back at her. “Yeah, maybe someday, when I get my life back together and I don't need anything from them. Until then…” He shrugged, then he picked up the clothes that were lying next to him and began to get dressed.

 

~ end ~

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