The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Terri

 

 

Confusion

This is an AU/AR that starts approximately one month after The High Riders 

Chapter One

Johnny rode through the arch, wondering if he should just turn around and go back to town. He was tired of the endless arguments and the verbal battles that marked each meal and oftentimes continued well into the evening, usually only ending with one or the other of them storming off to their bedroom.

Johnny snorted; he had thought that families were supposed to get along, but that certainly didn't seem to be the case with this particular family. Maybe that was how all families acted; the life he had had with his mother certainly couldn't be called peaceful, either. Somehow, though, Johnny had always imagined that it would be different living with his father and brother. Johnny shook his head; it was different all right, but it certainly wasn't peaceful.

The battles between the two of them had become legendary, and some of the hands had even started taking bets on which one of them would be the first one to resort to violence. Johnny shivered; so far that had been avoided, but he didn't know how long that would be true. Each fight seemed to escalate, and bloodshed seemed more and more probable.

Johnny just couldn't understand why they seemed to fight so much. He couldn't understand his father's inability to realize that they were all new to this, and that it would take time to sort things out and get used to their new roles. Murdoch had certainly never been a father, at least to his sons, and neither Scott nor Johnny had had to answer to anyone for a long time.

Even though Johnny had worked on ranches a few times, he was far from being an experienced ranch hand, and he knew it. Most of the time that he had spent on ranches he had been there for protection, and hadn't been expected to do any actual physical labor. He had observed things being done, but watching and actually doing were two totally different things. Even though his experience was sadly lacking, his father treated him like he was an experienced hand, with the knowledge and skills of a seasoned rancher.

Johnny had tried to talk to his father about it; telling him that he didn't have the experience that Murdoch assumed he did, but his father wouldn't listen. Johnny sometimes wondered if Murdoch just chose to believe he had been working on ranches instead of accepting the truth about his background.

One thing was for sure; his father certainly didn't want to hear ANYTHING about his past. The few times Johnny had said something, his father had sent him a glare that could freeze the sun, and Johnny had wisely dropped it. He thought that it was stupid to think that by not talking about it would go away, but for now, he was more concerned with finding a way to stop the daily arguments. He figured that as soon as things calmed down, he would find out more about his family, and they would have the opportunity to find out about him.

Johnny still didn't know much about his brother, and he wanted to. He didn't even know for sure how old he was, and he figured his brother didn't know anything about him, either. He chuckled; his brother didn't even know he had once gone by a different name. He couldn't wait to try to explain THAT.

With a sigh, Johnny pulled Barranca to a halt outside of the hacienda and dismounted. He led the animal to the barn and took his time brushing the Palomino and bedding him down. It was so peaceful in the barn, and more than once, when the fighting had become too heated, he had come out here to sleep. He felt safe out here, and sometimes even more at home than in the grand house. He still wasn't quite used to it, and a part of him still expected to be kicked out. He really didn't deserve to live in a place like this.

His horse taken care of, he turned and walked determinedly toward the house. He thought that if the Old Man started in again tonight, HE just might be the one to resort to violence. He had just about had enough, and for once he'd like to be able to enjoy Maria's great cooking without wondering if bullets were going to start flying any minute.

He opened the door cautiously and then walked in. He threw his hat on the table and headed into the great room. His eyes raked the room, taking in the fact that his father was seated at his throne behind the desk, and his brother was standing, drink in hand, in front of the fireplace. Not a good sign.

His brother looked up and gave him a tight- lipped nod and then turned back toward his father as Johnny poured a drink.

“I'm sorry, Sir. I didn't know that cattle were stupid enough to run right through a barbed wire fence. I thought they would stop, or I assure you, I would have tried to turn them.”

Johnny winced as he took a drink. It sounded worse than usual. He went over and plopped on the couch, giving his brother a smile of sympathy. Murdoch however, was far from placated.

“You shouldn't have fired that shot in the first place!”

“I TOLD you,” Scott ground out, “Those coyotes were making the steers nervous. I was afraid they'd bolt.”

“It's stampede. Cattle stampede, horses bolt,” Murdoch said impatiently. “And by firing that rifle, you ENSURED they stampeded, so it didn't do you much good now, did it?”

Scott glared at his father. “As I explained before, I didn't know. The cattle were in a pasture, and I ASSUMED they had brains enough to stay in the pasture.”

“WELL, they DON”T!” Murdoch bellowed. “And now we've lost almost a hundred head because of your stupidity!”

Johnny gulped down his brandy. “Come on, Murdoch. Scott didn't know.”

“That's just the point! He doesn't know ANYTHING!”

“It takes TIME to learn everything! Maybe if you had brought me back here instead of pawning me off on Grandfather, I would be more like your perfect son, here,” Scott snapped, pointing at Johnny.

“Believe me, I ain't perfect, Scott.”

“Tell HIM that!” Scott snarled, throwing his glass into the fireplace and stomping off toward the stairs.

Johnny looked at his father and shook his head. “Why can't ya just ease up on him a little bit? Ya know he's tryin'.”

“Well, he'd better try harder, or he can go back to Boston!”





Chapter Two

Johnny slammed his drink down and followed his brother upstairs. He knocked on his brother's door, but there was no answer. He waited a moment and knocked once more. “Come on, Scott, let me in.”

Several seconds later, the door opened and Scott walked back to the window where he had been standing. Johnny stepped into the room and watched as his brother stood with his hands on the sill, his head bowed.

Johnny sighed. “Scott, he doesn't mean it.”

“Yes he does, and he's right,” Scott said flatly.

“No, he's not.”

Scott snorted and turned around to stare at his brother.“I seem to remember you telling me almost the same exact thing two days ago.”

Johnny dropped his head. “I didn't mean it; I was just upset.”

Scott nodded his head. “And you had every reason to be upset. I cost you almost a day's work.”

“It wasn't that bad.”

“Johnny, you and Murdoch are right. I don't know how to do ranch work. I've never done anything like it before, and there's a lot to learn.”

Johnny sighed. “I know it, and so does Murdoch. He just gets upset whenever anything happens that concerns the ranch.”

“He should be upset. It's important that he makes sure this ranch is run correctly.”

“Scott, you're learning. Like you said, it just takes time.”

Scott nodded. “I know. Look, Johnny, I'm tired and I'd like to be left alone, OK?”

“Scott…”

“Please, Johnny.”

With a sigh, Johnny turned and walked out of the room. As he pulled the door shut, he hesitated and looked once more at his brother. He started to say something, and then with a shake of the head, he pulled the door shut.

Scott heard the quiet click of the latch and his shoulders drooped. He knew that Johnny was trying to help him, but he didn't know when he had ever felt so much alone. He was an outsider here, and he felt he always would be. He had been brought up in Boston, learning how to make small talk at parties and knowing the proper etiquette for dining at the White House. He learned how to be a shrewd businessman and to verbally spar with opponents. He had learned how to be a gentleman.

Out here he was expected to rope and brand steers. He had to clear streams and move boulders, and most of the sparring here was done with guns and fists. Scott could hold his own with any man with a rifle, but his skill with a handgun was sorely lacking, and that was what was used the most in this country.

Scott put his head in his hands and rubbed his temples. He had so much to learn, and it didn't seem to ever stop. Every time he did one thing right, he did three things wrong. When he mastered one skill, he found out that he had ten more to learn. The problem was, he just didn't know anymore if he wanted to try. When he had first come here, almost a month ago, he had been excited about the prospect of starting his life over with his father and brother, but now he wasn't so sure it would ever work.

Johnny had intrigued him from the beginning. When he had found out the scruffy cowboy in the stage was his brother, he didn't know whether he felt disgruntled that his brother was an uncivilized cowboy, or happy that he actually had a brother. From that first meeting, he had fully expected his brother to be an uncouth, ill mannered bumpkin, but instead had been pleasantly surprised at the young man's quick wit and intelligence.

They hadn't exactly hit it off at first. In fact, they had gotten into a fistfight the second day they had both been at the ranch. Then, during the battle with Pardee, his brother had been shot, and Scott had felt his heart drop. He had been so afraid he was going to lose his brother before he had even had the chance to know him.

Johnny's recovery had been remarkably swift, but in the several days when his little brother had been laid up, Scott had seen the scars caused by years of abuse and hard living and had been even more curious. He couldn't understand how a man the age of his brother could have that many scars, many of them obviously caused by bullets. When his father had seen the scars, he had seemed sad, but not surprised. When Scott had asked about them, Murdoch had just shaken his head and changed the subject.

When Johnny had been awake and able to talk, Scott sat by his bed and told his brother about his own past; about growing up in Boston, his life at college, and then an edited version of his stint in the cavalry. Johnny had listened noncommittally; nodding in all of the right places and had asked a few questions, but hadn't offered any comments.

When he was though, Scott had expected Johnny to tell him a little bit about his own life, but his brother had remained silent. When Scott had pressed, Johnny had withdrawn and refused to talk. Scott was angry and hurt over the incident, but had respected his brother enough not to ask again. He had hoped that eventually Johnny would trust him enough to volunteer the information.

Since then he and Johnny had gotten along very well, and he felt like he and Johnny would someday be very close. Scott already felt a connection to his brother that he knew would be hard to break. He just hoped he wouldn't have to break it. The longer he was here, the less hope he had of things working out. As much as he wished he could stay here, it became more and more unlikely with each passing day and each mistake he made.

With a sigh, he lay down on his bed and closed his eyes, but sleep was a long time coming.





Chapter Three

Scott's eyes flew open, a sense of panic overcoming him. He had done it again. Overslept. He threw back the sheets and jumped to his feet, noting the sun was already streaming through the window. He grabbed for his pants, cursing, and quickly pulled them on. He reached for his shirt and grimaced as he saw a stain on it, but he knew the cattle wouldn't care, and there would be more dirt on it soon enough. He threw his shirt on and glanced in the mirror. He needed to shave, but that would take time, and he knew he was already facing a lecture.

In Boston, he never had to get up early. His grandfather said that gentlemen didn't need to arise before the servants. Even in the army the officers generally didn't get out of bed at the crack of dawn. He had gotten into the habit of staying up late and sleeping in, and he really wasn't a morning person. The problem was, he couldn't fall asleep early, no matter how hard he tried.

The first night at Lancer after they had signed the contract, he had been shocked when both Murdoch and Teresa had retired soon after supper. He had made some joke about it to his brother, but Johnny had simply shrugged. An hour later, his brother had gone to bed, leaving Scott to entertain himself in the sleeping household. He had looked at the clock in disbelief; it was only nine o'clock, and the whole household was already in bed. He had read until nearly two in the morning, and had been in the deepest part of his sleep when Johnny had barged into his room and told him to get up.

Murdoch had glared at him when he had finally dragged himself downstairs, and he had received a lecture about how ranchers were supposed to do a full day's work before noon. Since then, Scott had done his best, but his body simply wouldn't wake up at the right time. He had told Murdoch to wake him up, but Murdoch told him it was his responsibility and left it at that.

Now, he had overslept once more. He dashed down the stairs, rubbing his beard. Except for the time he had been in the prison camp during the war, he had always shaved. He didn't like feeling unkempt, but around here, he was rapidly becoming used to the idea. There simply wasn't time to complete proper grooming before starting work, and after work, he was too tired.

He strode into the kitchen, hoping there were at least some leftovers, but all he found was some cold biscuits that had been left on the stove. He resigned himself to another day without breakfast, and he grabbed the food as he hurried out the door. He waved at some of the men as he headed for the barn, and they waved back lackadaisically.

Scott knew they didn't respect him very much, but he was determined that they someday would. Part of the problem was he didn't speak their language, and he was the only one here who didn't. Spanish was the second language around here; in fact it was the primary language of most of the hands. Johnny spoke the language fluently, making Scott wonder if he had lived in Mexico at some point. Even Murdoch and Teresa conversed in Spanish, and there had been many times when he had stood uncomfortably while the people around him had bantered back and forth in a language that was incomprehensible to him. There had been more than one time when he knew he was the subject of the conversation, and probably the butt of some joke, but there was nothing he could do about it. It was just one more thing that had been added to his endless list of things he needed to learn.

He quickly saddled Charlie and turned the horse toward the pasture where he knew Johnny was working. With any luck, he could find his brother quickly and Murdoch wouldn't know he had been late once more. He knew from experience that Johnny wouldn't say anything to either him or to their father, and his brother had saved him numerous dressing-downs by keeping his mouth shut.

Scott sighed. He had never before avoided taking responsibility for his actions, but the ceaseless lectures were getting to him. He knew he deserved one for sleeping late, but he also knew he would probably receive several more today that he didn't deserve. For some reason his father and the hands expected him to know things he had no experience with.

He pulled his horse to a halt and looked down the small hill into the pasture, and spied his brother working on the fence. He spurred Charlie down the hill and Johnny looked up quickly at the sound, his hand going to the butt of his gun. Scott wondered why his brother was always so nervous; he knew there was a story there, and some day he was going to make his little brother sit down and talk to him.

By the time Scott pulled Charlie to a halt by the fence line, Johnny was already back at work and barely looked up at his brother's approach. Scott jumped down.

“Good morning.”

Johnny squinted up at the sun. “More like afternoon.”

Scott bit back the retort; he knew it was at the latest around nine o'clock. “What do you want me to do?”

Johnny shrugged. “Grab some of that wire and stretch it out so we can get ready ta string it.”

Scott turned toward the wire and cursed. In his haste to leave the house, he had forgotten his gloves. He glared at the wire for a moment, and then went over and started pulling it along the ground, trying to be as careful as he could, but the wire refused to cooperate and grabbed at his hands. He thought about going back and getting the gloves, but he wasn't in the mood for another lecture and he stubbornly continued.





Chapter Four

“Damn it!” Scott dropped the wire and put his hand up to his mouth, sucking at the deep cut on the ball of his hand.

Johnny walked over and grabbed his hand, then looked at his brother. “Where the hell are your gloves?”

“I left them at the house,” Scott ground out.

“And you were tryin' ta work that wire with your bare hands? I thought you was supposed ta be smart.”

Scott kept his temper in check; he figured he probably deserved that. It certainly wasn't the smartest thing he ever did. “I didn't want to lose more work time by going back and retrieving them,” he ground out.

Johnny snorted. “So now you'll lose a day or two ‘cause your hands are too torn up ta work.”

Scott pressed his lips together; it seemed as if he'd made another wrong decision. As usual.

Johnny examined his hand. “It'll need a couple of stitches.”

“Great. Now I get to waste more time by riding all the way into town.” 

Johnny looked at him incredulously. “For what?”

“To see the doctor,” Scott replied uncertainly.

Johnny laughed in disbelief. “For a cut hand? This ain't Boston, Boston. You don't need ta see no doctor. I'll throw a stitch or two in it for ya.”

Scott looked at his brother, hoping he was kidding, but he knew he wasn't. He knew he'd never get used to the blasé attitude these people had toward everything but the gravest of wounds, and he shuddered at the thought of his brother putting stitches in his hand, 

“What about infection?” Scott asked, almost hopefully.

Johnny grinned and went over to where Barranca was tied. He opened up his saddlebags and pulled out a bottle and held it up. “For medicinal purposes only.”

Scott looked closer at the bottle. “That's tequila!”

“Yep. I figured I might as well have some medicine that tasted good.”

Scott shuddered. “I think I'll pass. Just pour it onto the wound.”

Johnny shrugged and took a couple of swallows before pouring some onto Scott's hand. Then he turned around and rummaged in his saddlebags once again, and pulled out a small case containing a needle and thread. He threaded the needle and poured some of the tequila onto the needle. He looked at Scott and grinned. “Are you SURE ya don't want some medicine?”

Scott shook his head; he had tasted tequila soon after arriving at Lancer after being badgered into it by his brother. He swore he'd NEVER drink that stuff again. He'd stick to brandy. He reluctantly held out his hand, and Johnny grabbed it, turning it so it was at the correct angle.

“Have you ever done this before?” Scott asked apprehensively.

Johnny shrugged. “Once or twice.”

Scott watched as his brother quickly put a stitch in his hand, and then followed with another one. He had to admit, Johnny did as good a job as some of the doctors he'd seen. Johnny poured some more tequila onto the wound to wash the blood away, and then took another swallow before corking the bottle and putting it back in the saddlebags.

Scott looked glumly at his hands, and then with a sigh, he went back to work. Johnny pulled out a worn pair of gloves out of his saddlebags and tossed them to Scott, then without a word started to string the wire. Scott drew the gloves on with mixed emotions. He knew he should be thankful that his brother had given them to him, but for some reason he felt resentful. HE was supposed to be the big brother, but ever since he'd been here, he'd been made to feel like a fool. He yanked the wire tight and wrapped it around the pole, then waited until Johnny had done his side.

He knew his brother hadn't made him look bad on purpose, and he supposed he was being unfair; Johnny couldn't help it if he was so damn competent out here. He grinned as he thought about what would happen if Johnny ever found himself in Boston, and vowed that SOMEDAY he would talk his brother into a little trip. Maybe then he would be able to show his brother a trick or two. He yanked the wire and gave it a wrap, then moved to the next pole.

He snorted; Murdoch would never let them leave long enough for a trip back to Boston. The man didn't even believe in taking Sunday off. They worked every day, and there were always more chores to do. Scott decided he really didn't mind the work; it gave him a feeling of accomplishment. It was the fact that he never seemed to do anything right that gnawed at him. He wrapped the wire around the pole and moved on.

He vowed he'd do better, and one day he would be as competent and at ease out here as his brother was. It would just take some time, but he was learning every day and he would continue to learn. Most of the chores weren't difficult, it just took a skill he hadn't learned yet. He yanked the slack out of the wire and gave it a quick wrap.

“Damn it, SCOTT! Watch what you're doin!”

Scott's head shot up and he saw in horror that he had yanked the wire too soon and Johnny's hand was wrapped up with the wire. He ran over as his brother snipped the wire with the nippers and pulled his hand out.

Johnny glared at his bother then yanked off his glove and examined his hand.

“Are you OK?” Scott asked anxiously.

“Yeah. But if it had been my right hand I woulda shot you.”

Scott looked at him in confusion. “Let me see your hand.”

“I said it's fine!” Johnny snapped. “Now if ya THINK you can keep your mind on the job and avoid killin' either one if us, let's get back ta work.”

Scott felt the blood rush to his face. He was embarrassed that he'd let his mind wander and ashamed he had injured his brother, but he was more upset that his brother thought he was an incompetent idiot. He vowed that some day soon he would make him eat his words.





Chapter Five

Scott fell into bed, not even caring that he really needed to do a better job of cleaning up. He knew Teresa would shoot him for getting the clean sheets dirty, but he figured she might as well yell at him. Everybody else sure did.

He lay in bed, too exhausted to even fall asleep and he wondered again just why he was doing this. When he had first arrived, he had been full of excitement at both the prospect of a new life and the knowledge that he had a family he hadn't known he had. He figured it would probably take time to get used to both, but he never doubted that he could do it. Ranch work hadn't seemed too difficult on the face of it, and he had seen some of the men that worked for his father. Several of them didn't seem very smart, and he had no doubts that a man with a Harvard education could master the skills.

Scott shook his head; there was STILL no doubt in his mind that he could master the skills, but it seemed his father and even his brother had serious doubts. He vowed to try harder, and he was determined to prove his brother and father wrong.

As he lay there, he thought that maybe he was going about this all wrong. He needed to show Murdoch that he was good at SOMETHING, and Scott knew just where his strong points were. He had majored in business at Harvard, and he had done his grandfather's books for years. Scott had seen the books that his father kept, and even though his father managed to make sense of it, he was using an archaic system. Scott could switch the books over to the newer, easier system, and maybe even take over doing the books for his father.

As he lay there, he became more excited about that prospect, and after tossing for an hour, he decided to get up and start working on it. He figured by the time Murdoch woke up in the morning, he could have most of it done. He threw back the covers and leaped to his feet.

The orange sun was just making an appearance in the sky when Scott heard his father's heavy tread on the stairs. He glanced down proudly at the neat column of numbers staring back at him from the ledger, and knew he had finally done something his father would approve of. Scott still wanted to learn all aspects of ranch work, and he knew he still had a lot to learn about the physical skills, but at least he could feel he was carrying his own weight by doing the books until his ranching knowledge improved.

He closed the ledger and waited for his father. He watched as Murdoch stumbled blindly to the kitchen, and was secretly pleased that the Old Man wasn't exactly bright eyed and bushy tailed first thing in the morning, either. Murdoch poured a cup of steaming coffee, and then walked mechanically over to the desk, lost in thought.

Murdoch pulled up short when he saw Scott sitting at his desk, and his eyebrows went up. “Scott?”

“Good morning, Sir.”

“What got you up this early?”

Scott detected a small undertone of sarcasm in his father's voice, but he chose to ignore it. “I decided to put my skills to work.”

Murdoch looked at him enquiringly. “Skills?”

Scot nodded. “As you may or may not know, I majored in business in Harvard. I learned all about running a business and the proper way to keep books. I decided to update the ranch books to make them easier to do and to understand. Now all someone has to do is glance at them to find out all they need to know about the ranch's finances. We'll know EXACTLY where we stand at all times.”

He handed the ledger to his father and waited as the older man perused the book. Finally, Murdoch handed the ledger back to his son. “This is very interesting, but I prefer the old way. I've been doing it that way all of my life, and since I'm the one that does the books, I prefer to stick with a method I'm comfortable with. Now, you'd better get going. You and Johnny are supposed to finish cleaning out that wash today.” 

Scott stared at his father in disbelief. “But this way will save you a lot of time and work! I can show you how to do it, or I can take over that chore for you.”

Murdoch's mouth clamped down in a hard line. “You don't need to show me anything, I've been doing books since before you were born. And as for YOU doing the books, you have enough to do without that. You need to learn how to be a rancher, not a bookkeeper! You have a lot to learn!”

“Like how to clean out a wash? That takes a lot of skill!” Scott snapped in frustration.

Murdoch glared at his son. “You don't have the skill to do much else, and until you do, you'll be doing manual labor, just like any other new hand!”

“So why is Johnny having to work with me? After all, he knows everything!”

“I never said he knew everything! But he DOES know a lot more than you.”

“So why is HE cleaning out the wash?”

Murdoch hesitated a moment, then continued. “Because I said so, that's why!”

Scott's eyes narrowed as he thought about what his father had said. “He's doing it because you told him to keep an eye on me, didn't you? You think I can't handle myself out here.”

Murdoch sighed and shook his head. “Scott, this is different than Boston. There are all sorts of dangers out here for men that aren't familiar with this part of the country”

“I can take care of myself, Sir. My LITTLE brother doesn't have to babysit me.”

“He's not babysitting you. It's just that…Scott, you don't even carry a gun or know how to use it.”

Even though the rage was starting to build to an explosive level, Scott's voice remained calm. “I KNOW how to use a firearm, Sir. I have been shooting since I was a teenager, and I was one of the best marksmen in my company during the war.”

Murdoch shook his head. “I'm not talking about dueling pistols or rifles. Out here, a man has to carry a sidearm and be proficient with it in order to survive.” 

“I will be sure to add that to my list of things to learn,” Scott said sarcastically. “But in the meantime, I'll be sure to keep my rifle handy.”

Murdoch stared at Scott for a moment, and then nodded toward the hall tree where some holsters were hanging. “Why don't you take one of those and see if Johnny can give you a few tips on how to use it this afternoon?”

Scot felt his already frayed temper explode. “You want JOHNNY to show me how to shoot? Just what makes HIM such an expert?” Scott walked over and grabbed one of the holsters off of the tree. “Thank you, but I THINK I can figure it out on my own!” Scott turned and stomped out of the house and headed for the barn. He was going to learn how to use the damn thing if it killed him, and he vowed he'd practice with it until he was an expert. At least he would be better than his brother at SOMETHING.





Chapter Six

Scott mounted Charlie and spurred the gelding out of the yard. He was angry at his father, and frustrated that his effort to modernize the Lancer books was dismissed out of hand. He was tired of his father finding fault with him and pointing out his ignorance, and he was tired of always having his younger brother's skills thrown in his face. He was determined it was going to stop, one way or the other.

Charlie had gone quite a ways before Scott even noticed where he was. He had headed his sorrel up the road toward Morro Coyo, and was already almost halfway there. He was still on Lancer land, but he was nowhere near where any of the men were working, and he decided to pull off the road and practice for a while with the revolver.

He guided Charlie over to a small stand of trees and tied the horse where he could graze. He pulled the holster and gun out of his saddlebags and studied the weapon. He had seen many guns since he'd been here; unlike Boston, men regularly wore guns openly whether they were working or socializing. It was just another aspect of the west he would be forced to get used to if he intended to stay.

Back east, if a man carried a firearm at all, he carried a small derringer for protection purposes only, and he never appeared armed at social functions. This society had a totally different set of rules, and he was finding that out very quickly. Out here, men were expected to wear guns, and they were expected to use them to protect themselves, their family, and their property.

He hefted the revolver and found that it was heavier than he expected. The dueling pistols he had practiced on back in Boston were slightly lighter and the barrel was a little longer. He held the Colt out at arm's length and squeezed the trigger. The gun bucked in his hand and much to his chagrin, the shot went wide. He realized that it was not only heavier than the small pistols he was used to, it had more kick.

He took a firmer grip on the handle and raised the gun to eye level. He sighted as he would a rifle and firmly squeezed the trigger. He felt the gun jump in his hands once more, but this time his aim was better and the bullet nicked the edge of the tree he had been aiming at.

A half of an hour later, Scott felt he was getting the hang of the new weapon.He realized the gun was finely crafted and the aim was true. He hefted it once or twice and then slid it into the holster. He undid the buckles and wrapped the holster around his waist, unsure exactly how he should wear it. He knew his brother wore it lower than most men he'd seen, but he wasn't sure why.

He cinched it at his waist, but it felt uncomfortable, and he loosened it a few notches until it rested on his hips. He slid the gun in and out of the holster a few times, and then with a nod of satisfaction, he walked over and mounted Charlie. He decided that since he'd already taken most of the day off he'd go into town today; he hadn't had a day off for weeks, and he felt as if he deserved it. Besides, as inept as everyone thought he was, he probably wouldn't even be missed.



He rode into Morro Coyo and tied Charlie up to the hitching post. He felt self conscious about his new addition to his wardrobe, but no one else paid any attention at all. He walked into the saloon and ordered a pitcher of beer, then sat down and poured it into a glass. He began sipping it slowly then sat back and relaxed.

He sat there for almost an hour, feeling more and more guilty about not helping his brother with that wash. Johnny was probably doing it by himself, the whole time wondering where his brother was. Scott knew it was hot, dirty work, and it was hard enough with two men, let alone trying to do it by yourself. Finally, he shook his head. It was no good; he just hadn't been brought up to be a quitter or to shirk his duty. With a sigh, he downed the last of his beer, then stood up to leave just as two men entered the bar.

He made his way toward the door, but one of the men blocked him.

“Where do you think you're going?”

“Excuse me, I was just leaving.”

The man snorted. “Excuse you? EXCUSE YOU?  I'll excuse you.” He gave Scott a shove that threw him back against the bar.

Scott stood up straight. “I don't want any trouble, but I AM leaving now.” He strode toward the men and had almost made it to the door once more when one of the attackers grabbed him and sent him flying backwards again.

Scott's hand crept toward the gun that was strapped in his hip. The other man saw the movement, and his eyebrows went up. “You challenging me?”

Scott hesitated only a moment. “Yes.”

The man grinned. “Let's go.”

Scott looked at him in confusion. “Where?”

The man laughed. “Oh, you're a real expert, ain't ya?” His features darkened. “Outside.”

Scott nodded, then turned and followed the two men into the street. The other men headed toward the left, making sure the sun was behind him. Scott walked out, then turned and faced his opponent, not sure of the rules in this kind of a fight. This was totally different than the few duels he had observed back east. He studied his opponent, and waited for some sign. Finally, the other man spoke.

“Well, go ahead, anytime you're ready.”

Scott nodded; evidently the contest started when the first man made a move. He hesitated a second, and then flexed his fingers in preparation for his draw. The other man saw the slight movement and drew his own gun. Before Scott could even react, a bullet tore through his chest, sending him into blackness, and he crumpled to the ground.





Chapter Seven

Johnny pulled Barranca to a halt by the barn and wearily dismounted. He had been working since dawn and he was sore and exhausted. To make things worse, Scott hadn't shown up with his lunch and he was starving to death. Scott had better have as damn good explanation for standing him up. He yanked the saddle off of his palomino and led the horse into the barn. He rubbed him down and gave him some grain, then after a final pat, Johnny left for his own dinner.

He walked in and tossed his hat on the table then went over to the bar and poured a large shot of whisky. He stood tiredly for a moment, then threw it back.

“Johnny?”

Johnny turned around and looked at his adopted sister questioningly.

“Are you hungry? I have supper ready.”

Johnny nodded tiredly, and poured another drink before turning and following Teresa into the kitchen. He sat down and looked at the food for a moment, his exhaustion warring with his hunger. After several moments of smelling the tantalizing aroma of the tamales and chili, his hunger won out and he shoveled the food onto his plate.

“Where is everybody?”

Teresa shrugged. “Murdoch rode down to check on a bridge Cipriano said was collapsing. He should be home shortly.”

Johnny nodded and took another bite. “Where's Scott?”

Teresa looked at him quizzically. “I thought he was with you.”

Johnny shook his head. “Nope. Never saw him.”

“Maybe Murdoch sent him somewhere else.”

Johnny nodded and went back to his meal. He had only taken a few bites when Murdoch came stomping in and threw his hat on the counter.

“That damn bridge is going to have to be torn down and rebuilt before spring.”

Johnny nodded. “I thought we'd already decided that.”

Murdoch sighed. “Yes, we had. I was just hoping it would last for a little while. We've had a lot of expenses this year.” Murdoch glanced around. “Where's Scott?”

Johnny stopped eating and looked at his father in confusion. “Don't you know?”

“Why should I know? Wasn't he with you?”

“No,” Johnny said carefully. “I haven't seen him all day.”

Murdoch's jaw clenched and he looked at Teresa. “Have you seen him?”

She shook her head and Johnny put down his fork. “Maybe we should go look for him.”

“Where?” Murdoch snapped. “This is a big ranch.”

Johnny exchanged a quick look at Teresa. “He could be in trouble.”

Murdoch snorted. “When isn't he?”

“Murdoch, this is all new ta him. It takes time ta learn, and he's doin his best. In fact, he's doin' a lot better than some of the younger hands. Why are ya bein' so rough on him?”

“Because he's MY SON!”

“SO WHAT?”

Murdoch turned around and stared at his younger son and then dropped his head. “I don't know. I just…I just think he should know more.”

Johnny looked at his father in disbelief. “And how do you think he could learn when you left him in Boston all those years? If you wanted him to know about ranching, you should have kept him here instead of pawning him off on his grandfather.”

“How DARE you!” I TRIED to get him back!”

Johnny snorted. “Yeah? As hard as ya tried ta get me back?”

Murdoch shook his head. “I knew where he was. He was safe.”

“But he wasn't learning anything about ranching, was he?” Johnny studied his father. “Why are you trying to punish him?”

“I'm not!”

“Yes you are,” Johnny said quietly. “You're tryin' ta make him feel guilty because he grew up back there instead of here. You're tryin' ta convince him that he doesn't know anything; that he didn't learn anything in that fancy school and he just was wastin' his time.”

“He Was! He should have been here! His birthright is HERE, not in Boston! He should have been at Lancer, learning how to be a rancher!”

Johnny shook his head in disbelief. “Did you give him a choice? I think you're punishing him because you don't like his grandfather. But if you're trying ta convince him he woulda been better off being raised here, I think you're goin' about it all wrong.”

Murdoch slammed his fist down on the table, and Teresa jumped. Murdoch didn't even notice. “You BOTH should have grown up here!”

‘So why aren't you mad at me?”

“I'm not MAD at your brother.”

Johnny shrugged. “Ya coulda fooled me.”

Murdoch looked at his son for a moment, and then shook his head. “At least you know how to do things. You're not helpless.”

“Is THAT what you think?” Johnny snorted. “That Scott's helpless? Cause if you do, you don't know him very well.”

“Scott doesn't know how to survive out here. He's going to get hurt.”

Johnny shook his head. “The only way he's gonna get hurt is if ya keep pushin' him into doin' stuff he's not ready to do.”

“Then how else is he going to learn?”

“The same way I'm learning,” Johnny said quietly. “By watchin' and practicing.”

Murdoch shook his head. “You know how to do all of it. You told me yourself, you'd worked at ranches before.”

Johnny stared at his father, and then slowly shook his head. “Yeah, I worked on ranches before I came here. Do you know WHAT I did when I worked there?”

Murdoch cast his eyes down. “I expect you did the work any other hand did.”

“No, I didn't, unless it was a part of my cover. Most of the time I was only there for protection, when a rancher was havin' a problem. My job was to kill any one who tried to attack the ranch.”

“I don't believe that.”

“Well you'd better start.” Johnny shook his head at his father's steadfast refusal to acknowledge his past. He HAD to know, Johnny had seen the Pinkerton Report. Hadn't Murdoch read it?  “What do you think I am?”

“A RANCHER!”

“I'm tryin' ta be, same as Scott. But that's not what either one of us are, at least not yet. And if ya don't lighten up on Scott, he never will be a rancher, cause he won't stick around long enough ta learn. He'll go back to Boston where he THINKS he belongs.”





Chapter Eight

Johnny stood up, scraping his chair along the tile. Without a word, he walked into the great room and grabbed his hat. Murdoch followed his son into the room. “Where are you going?”

“I'm going to find my brother.”

“Where? It'll be dark soon.”

“Then I'd better hurry, hadn't I?”

Murdoch shook his head for a moment, and then sighed. “I'll go with you.”

Johnny headed for the door. “Don't put yourself out,” he spat.

Murdoch glared at his son, and then went over and picked up his holster from the tree. “You make it sound like I don't care.”

Johnny started to answer, and then clamped his mouth shut. Arguing with his father wouldn't help matters, and right now the important thing was finding his brother. He had the feeling Scott was in trouble. “Let's go.”

The men saddled their horses in silence, and then headed up the road toward Morro Coyo. They had only gone a few miles when a rider came toward them at a gallop. They pulled their horses up and waited for the man to approach. Johnny recognized one of the hands that had gone into town earlier, and he felt his stomach clench in fear. The man yanked his lathered horse to an abrupt halt.

“Mr. Lancer, you'd better get into Morro Coyo, quick.”

“What's wrong?”

“Scott's hurt, and it looks pretty bad.”

Neither Johnny nor Murdoch waited to hear any more, but turned their horses toward Morro Coyo and spurred them in the direction of town. After a hard forty five minute ride, they arrived in the small town and headed for the run down hotel. The tiny town had no doctor, and when Sam had to treat someone here, he used that building as his office. It was the only place where an injured man could be taken. The two men slammed the door open, and when the clerk saw who it was he pointed toward the stairs.

“Number three. Doc Jenkins is already up there.”

Johnny raced ahead of his father and swung open the door. Sam looked up as the two men walked in. “Wait downstairs! I'm almost done!” he snapped.

Johnny took a step forward, and the doctor stopped and looked at him. “I need to finish up, now go downstairs and wait.”

Johnny locked eyes with the doctor for a moment, and then, with a last look at his brother, he turned and followed his father out of the room. The two men sank down into a couple of overstuffed chairs in the dated lobby.

“I wonder what happened,” Murdoch mused.

“Does it matter? I TOLD you we should have gone looking for him earlier.” 

“How was I supposed to know?” 

Johnny shook his head, and the two men sat in silence, waiting for the doctor.

Several minutes later, Sam came down the stairs and sat next to the two men. With a sigh, he started talking. “The bullet hit him in the chest. It managed to miss his heart and lungs, but it did a lot of muscle damage. He's very critical right now.”

Johnny was starting at the doctor. “Bullet?” he asked incredulously.

Sam nodded. “I guess he called someone out.”

Johnny shook his head in disbelief. “Called them out? He doesn't even wear a gun!”

Sam shrugged. “He was wearing one today.”

Johnny shook his head in confusion, and then glanced at his father. Murdoch's expression made Johnny pause, and his voice turned cold. “Where did he get the gun?” he asked his father softly.

Murdoch's eyes remained downcast. “I gave it to him.”

“WHY?”

Murdoch's head jerked up and he glared at his son. “He needed to learn how to use it. I gave it to him and told him to ask you to teach him to shoot.”

Johnny shook his head angrily. “Well, he obviously decided ta skip that little step.” Johnny stood up and started to pace angrily. “Why do you treat him like a kid? He KNOWS how to use a gun. You didn't have to make him feel like an idiot. He just needed ta practice a little and he woulda been fine.” Johnny kicked the foot of the chair. “I can't BELIEVE he called someone out!”

Sam interrupted. “The way I understand it, he didn't really start it. Two guys started roughing him up and then it went outside. He never even had a chance too draw. I don't think he knew what he was getting into.”

“Obviously not,” Johnny said dryly. “Why did they go after him in the first place?”

Sam looked uncomfortable. “Bill said they thought he was a gunfighter. He was wearing his gun low.”

Johnny closed his eyes and stood up. “I'm going upstairs and sit with him.”

“No, I'll go,” Murdoch insisted.

“The two of you had better take turns. It might be a while,” Sam suggested.

“I'll go,” Murdoch repeated.

Johnny hesitated for a second and then nodded his head. “All right. I'll be up later.” He watched as his father disappeared back up the stairs and then turned toward the doctor.“Those two men, they still around?” he asked calmly.

Sam studied the young man. “I don't know.”

Johnny nodded, and then reached down and pulled his gun from its holster and broke it open. He checked it quickly, then snapped it back together and gave the cylinder a roll before slipping it back into the holster. “I think I'll find out.”

Sam grabbed his arm. “Johnny, those men are dangerous. Wait for the law to handle it.”

“What law?” Johnny asked sarcastically. “Besides, if Scott called ‘em out, they didn't do nothin' wrong.”

“Then let it go! Johnny, there's a good chance that Scott won't make it. Murdoch doesn't need to lose you too.”

Johnny smiled coldly. “Well, he should have thought about it before he drove Scott ta usin' that gun, shouldn't he? Besides, I have no intention of dyin.” He pulled his arm away from the doctor and strode out the door.

Sam watched him go, and considered going up and telling Murdoch, but finally decided to let it go. He didn't think Johnny was about to be talked out of it. He just hoped he wouldn't have two Lancers lying upstairs before the day ended. He decided he'd better go lie down. He had the feeling it was going to be a long night.



Johnny sauntered into the saloon without taking his usual perusal of the room first. In the mood he was in, he really didn't care who was in there, and if anyone tried anything, they'd have to deal with Johnny Madrid. The room fell silent as he walked in, and he glanced around, noting two strangers at the far table. He headed toward the bar and leaned up against it, facing the room. The bartender scurried over.

“Tequila,” Johnny ordered, without taking his eyes off of the two men. The bartender hurriedly filled the order, not even trying to talk to Johnny as he usually did. He had the feeling that this wasn't his friend Johnny Lancer standing here, but someone far more dangerous, and he had no intention of getting on his bad side.

Johnny downed the shot, and then glanced at the bartender. “Those the two that went after Scott?” he asked softly.

The nervous bartender nodded his head and glanced back and forth between the two men and Johnny before whispering, “Yeah, they shoved him and pushed the fight, but Scott was the one who called them out. I'm sorry, Johnny, but I couldn't stop it.”  He reached over and refilled Johnny's glass, but the gunfighter never even looked at him.

Johnny continued to stare at the men who were conversing quietly at the far table. The two men glanced up a few times, and then went back to their conversation, but Johnny's gaze gradually wore on them. Finally, one of the men stood up arrogantly and addressed Johnny. “What're you lookin' at?” 

Johnny smiled and dropped his head. “Oh nothin'. Just a couple of jackasses.” He brought his eyes up and locked them on the man.

“Who're you callin' a jackass, BOY?”

Johnny shrugged and deliberately turned his back on them and faced the bar. He downed the tequila and motioned for another shot. The bartender hurriedly refilled the glass, and then glanced at the two angry men across the room. He finally realized what was coming, and hurriedly reached up and removed the mirror from in back of the bar and set it on the floor, then scurried away to the safety of the backroom.

“I'm ASKIN' you a question!” the man said belligerently.

Johnny played nonchalantly with his glass. “Well, if you don't know who I'm talkin' about, you must be stupid as well as a jackass.”

The man's face darkened. “You better watch your step, boy! I already done killed one man today.”

Johnny's smile disappeared. “You didn't kill him, he's still alive, and he's gonna stay that way. And by the way, that man happens to be my brother, and I don't take kindly ta anyone messin' with my family.”  

A cold smile broke out on the man's face. “Lancer is your brother and you want revenge, huh? Well you're gonna learn I don't like anyone messin' with ME!” He turned toward his friend. “Looks like I'm gonna have ta teach him a lesson, just like I taught his brother.”

Johnny stared at the man, the cold smile returning. “I think you'll be the one who learns a lesson.” He turned toward the other man. “And then it'll be your turn.”

The first man's eyes narrowed. “You think you can take both of us?” he asked incredulously.

“Yep.”

“Well why don't we just see about that.”

“OK.”

“Outside.”

Johnny nodded and then strolled out the door behind the men, pulling on a soft glove as he walked. When he reached the middle of the street, he stopped and faced his adversaries.

The two men confidently faced the lone gunman. “Hey, sure you know how ta do this? Your brother didn't have a clue. Maybe we should tell ya how it's done.”

Johnny smiled back. “I think I can figure it out. It ain't like I never done it before.”

The other man's bravado slipped a little at the gunfighter's words. Johnny's confident stance and glove did nothing to reassure him. He wet his lips nervously. “That right? You've done this before?”

Johnny nodded and then grinned. “Once or twice.”

“Don't matter.” The man laughed uncertainly. “You probably fought men like your brother. He sure was bad. His hand never even got to his gun.” He shook his head. “Besides, you're not that good or I woulda heard of you.”

Johnny shrugged. “I didn't always go by Lancer, but like you said, it don't matter.”Johnny's eyes never wavered. “Anytime you're ready.”

The man nodded. “You go first, Lancer.”

“It ain't Lancer. It's Madrid.”

The man's face blanched. “Madrid?” He swallowed convulsively. “JOHNNY Madrid?”

Johnny nodded slowly.

“If I draw on you you'll kill me.”

“Well, ya shoulda taken that into consideration before ya shot down my brother.”

“I didn't KNOW he was your brother!” the panicked man pleaded.

Johnny shrugged. “Your tough luck. Now draw.”

Johnny watched as the man's eyes darted back and forth, then Johnny saw a movement out of the corner of his eye. He turned toward the second man who had decided to take advantage of the situation and try to get off a shot. Johnny's bullet caught the second man in the chest, felling him instantly. He then moved the barrel of his gun toward the first man, who was just making his move. Johnny shot him in the belly, then walked over and stood above the fallen man, who was groaning in agony.

“Nobody messes with my family,” Johnny said coldly, then walked back toward the hotel, leaving the dying man lying in the street.

Johnny pulled off his glove and stuffed it back into his belt, then strode up the stairs and pushed open the door where his brother was lying. Murdoch was sitting by Scott's bed, a damp cloth in his hand.

“How is he?” Johnny asked quietly.

“About the same. Sam said he probably wouldn't wake up tonight.”

“I'll sit with him a while. Go have dinner.”

Murdoch looked at Johnny quizzically. “Where did you go?”

Johnny shrugged. “The saloon.”

Murdoch nodded. “You feel better?”

Johnny smiled slowly. “Yeah, I think I do.”





Chapter Ten

Scott slowly opened his eyes and looked around him in confusion. A slight moan escaped him, and immediately a face swam into his view.

“Johnny?”

“Hey, Boston, you had us worried.”

Scott blinked rapidly to try to get his eyes to focus. “I'm fine.”

“Sure ya are.”

“What happened?” Scott's brow furrowed as he tried to think about what had happened.

Johnny shook his head. “Don't you remember?”

Scott closed his eyes and tried to concentrate. Slowly, bits and pieces of what had happened filtered into his brain. “I guess I was in a duel.”

Johnny smiled. “It wasn't no duel. It was a gunfight. Big difference.”

“Obviously,” Scott sighed, “I guess I didn't win.”

Johnny snorted. “Not even close.”

Scott looked at his brother. “You sure know how to make me feel good.”

Johnny smiled. “I thought that was what brothers were for.”

Scott sighed deeply,  “Murdoch's mad, isn't he?”

Johnny snorted. “So am I. I thought ya had more smarts than ta pull a hair-brained stunt like that. You're lucky ya weren't killed.”

“What was I supposed to do? Just let those men walk all over me?”

Johnny sighed. “No. I guess not. It looks like I'd better show ya a few things.”

Scott's temper flared and he glared at his brother. “You don't have to teach me ANYTHING. I think I can figure it out on my own!”

“Scott,…”

“I mean it, Johnny. I'm tired of always having my ‘little brother' showing me what to do.”

Johnny dropped his head and nodded. “All right. I was just tryin' ta help.”

“I'm sure you were, but I'm quite capable of taking care of myself.”

“I know ya are, but gunfightin's serious business. If ya don't know what you're doin' you can get killed.”

“I guess I'll just have to take that chance.”

“But, Scott…”

“I mean it, Johnny. I know you mean well, but I want you to BUTT OUT!”

Johnny nodded. “All right. Since ya put it that way, I guess you're on your own.”

Scott nodded. “Good.” His eyes closed briefly and a slight moan escaped him. Johnny immediately picked up a glass on the table and then put his hand behind his brother's head, forcing him up. Johnny held the glass to Scott's lips and the blond fought for a moment to keep from drinking the hated medicine, but his brother was implacable and finally Scott gave in and drank. Johnny set the glass down by the bed and watched as his brother fought the inevitable effects of the medicine.

Scott's eyes started to close, then popped open again and he smiled weakly. “Thanks, Johnny, for offering to help. I didn't mean to be rude, but I have to start figuring things out on my own.” His eyes slid shut once more and he drifted off to sleep.

Johnny sat and watched his brother, deciding he'd talk to him when he felt better. There was no way Johnny was going to let him learn about handguns by trial and error. That was one lesson he wasn't going to let Scott learn the hard way. Johnny knew he'd have to be careful, his brother was prouder than any man he'd ever met.

Johnny's head came up when he heard the door open and shut, and he watched as his father walked in. He could see from the man's posture that he was angry, and Johnny had a pretty good idea why.

“How is he?” Murdoch asked.

“He was awake for a while, but he's sleeping now.”

Murdoch nodded, then walked over and looked at his younger son. “I heard you were busy while you were at the saloon.”  

Johnny shrugged, watching his father carefully. He wasn't sure how his father would react. This was the first time Murdoch had seen any of Madrid's handiwork. Murdoch turned away and went over and stared at his older son. “Why did you kill those men, Johnny?”

Johnny looked at the man in disbelief. “Why do ya think?”

“I don't know. Why don't you tell me,” Murdoch said calmly.

Johnny glanced over at the man lying in the bed. “Because I ain't gonna let anybody mess with my brother,” he ground out.

Murdoch relaxed slightly. “Did you have to kill them?”

Johnny glared at his father. “I didn't have time to aim good enough, since I was fightin' both of ‘em at the same time. Besides, I didn't want ta take any chances on Scott decidin' ta get revenge and goin' after them by himself.”

Murdoch nodded slowly and then sighed. “All right, just don't make a habit of it, OK?”

“I don't plan on it.” Johnny couldn't believe his father was that accepting.

Scott heard the voices in the distance, but couldn't make out the exact words. He tried to focus, and finally realized that it was his brother and father talking. The fuzzy state of his brain told him that he had been given pain medication and he fought to clear his head.

Murdoch nodded. “I have the feeling Scott won't be to happy about it.”

“Better than bein' dead.”

The words registered through the haze and Scott's brow furrowed as he tried to figure out what they were talking about.

Murdoch shook his head. “I don't understand that boy. What was he trying to do?”

Johnny shrugged. “He didn't know what he was getting' into. You never shoulda given him that gun without making sure he could use it. When he's better, I'm gonna have ta teach him a few things.”

Murdoch nodded. “Make sure that you do. I don't want him to get hurt again because he can't handle a gun.”

Scott felt his temper start to rise. He realized they were talking about him, and he didn't like what they were saying. He knew how to handle firearms and he didn't appreciate his family treating him like a bungling greenhorn. If they thought for one minute that he was helpless, they were sorely mistaken, and his previous resolve to prove them wrong intensified. He would show them he wasn't a man to be trifled with.





Chapter Eleven

Scott eyes fluttered open and he immediately focused on his brother.

“Hey, Scott.”

Scott's brows furrowed, knowing there was something important that he needed to remember. He fought to recall what he had overheard, and he finally succeeded. His eyes slid away from Johnny and he closed his eyes.

“You OK?”

Scott nodded imperceptibly, having no desire to talk to his brother until he figured out in his mind just how he was going handle Johnny and his father. He knew he couldn't continue to be treated like a helpless kid; his pride insisted that he be treated with respect. He needed to prove to them that he wasn't defenseless and he was certainly no child. His anger flared; Johnny was several years younger than he was, and no one treated HIM like a child. If ANYONE was a kid, it was his little brother.

“Scott? Are you thirsty?”

Scott turned his eyes back toward his brother. “Just what won't I be happy about, brother?”

“What?”

“Murdoch told you that I wouldn't be happy about something. What?”

Johnny became still and then shrugged uncomfortably. “Nothin'.”

“I don't appreciate being lied to. I heard you and Murdoch talking, now WHAT am I going to be upset about?”

Johnny's eyes dropped for a second, and then he grinned. “I figured you wouldn't be in any shape ta get even, so I helped ya out a little.”

“Get even?” Scott asked icily.

“Yeah. I mean we couldn't just let ‘em get by with it.”

“And just what exactly are you talking about?”

Johnny shrugged again. “I'm talking about those two idiots that suckered ya into fightin' them.”

“No one ‘suckered' me!” I WANTED to fight them! I'M the one who challenged THEM!” 

“Like I said, they suckered ya. You were set up, Scott. They WANTED ya to call ‘em out so they could take you down.”

“How do YOU know?”

Johnny shook his head slowly. “I just do.”

Scott glared at his brother. “Well, you're wrong, but don't worry, I plan on teaching them a lesson as soon as I'm on my feet.”

“Yeah, well, it's like this…”

“Get it said, brother.”

“I already taught ‘em a lesson.”

Scott's glared intensified. “And just how did you teach them a lesson?”

Johnny avoided looking at his brother. “Well, I called ‘em out.” 

“You called them out? Both of them?” Scott fought to keep his voice calm, although his temper was already past the boiling point.

“Well, yeah. I figured they were both in on it.”  

“And you also figured it was up to you to fight MY battle?”

Johnny sighed. “Scott, I told ya. I thought by the time you were well enough ta go after ‘em, they'd be long gone.”

“And what made you think that I WANTED to go after them?”

Johnny stared at his brother, nonplussed. “Well, why wouldn't ya?”

“That's just my point. It should have been MY decision, not yours! You had no right to take matters into your own hands!”

Johnny ducked his head. “I was just tryin' ta help.”

“Well DONT! I can fight my OWN battles. I don't need my kid brother protecting me!”

Johnny's voice rose. “I WASN”T protecting ya! I was mad because those two shot MY BROTHER! I'm sorry if I cared!”

“Don't you DARE turn this around! It was none of your business!”

Forgive me for carin'! Next time I'll just ignore it when somebody tries ta blow your head off!”

“GOOD! Butt OUT!”

Johnny stood next to the bed, glaring at his brother, who was glaring back. Finally, Scott dropped his eyes and sighed. “Look, Johnny, I know you were just trying to help, but I can handle myself.”

“I know ya can, Boston, but you don't know nothin' about gunfightin'.”

“Well then I'll learn!” Scott snapped before shaking his head. “Johnny, how do you think I'd feel if you had been hurt?”

Johnny snorted. “Not likely.”

Scott shook his head. “You're not that good. No one is unbeatable.”

Johnny shrugged. “Then I guess I got lucky.”

“Yes, you did.” Scott took a deep breath. “What about those two men? Now they're going to want revenge for being shot.”

Johnny couldn't stop the smile from forming. “Somehow, I doubt that.”

Scott's eyes narrowed. “Why?”

“It's sort of hard ta get revenge when you're dead.”

“BOTH OF THEM?”

“Yeah,” Johnny said cautiously.

Scott clamped his mouth shut and shook his head, trying desperately to hold onto his temper. He heard the door open, and his father walked in.

“Scott!” Murdoch said delightedly “You're awake!”

Scott nodded. “Yes, Sir.”

Murdoch looked back and forth between his sons, sensing the climate in the room wasn't exactly pleasant. He decided to ignore it and walked over to the bed and picked up his son's hand. “You had us worried.”

“Why?”

Murdoch drew back slightly and shot a look at Johnny, who shrugged. Murdoch studied his older son. “What's wrong, Scott?”

Scott looked at his father in disbelief. “What's wrong? What's WRONG? Oh, I don't know, maybe I just get tired of being treated like some sort of an idiot!”

Murdoch slowly shook his head. “No one is treating you like an idiot.”

“OH? Murdoch, I'm an ADULT. I'm not some stupid kid that needs a babysitter all the time.”

“No one is treating you like a kid!” Murdoch ground out.

“Yes, you are!”

Murdoch shook his head. “You just need to learn to fit in.”

“I'm TRYING, but I DON'T need my kid brother holding my hand the whole time!”

“I AIN'T holdin' your hand!”

“Then what do you call it?” Scott shook his head and looked at his father. “You find fault with everything I do. No matter how hard I try, it's not good enough, while Johnny here can do no wrong!”

Scott swung his gaze to his brother. “And you think you have to protect me! I'M the one who should be protecting YOU! I'M the older brother!”

“I don't need no protectin',” Johnny protested.

“NEITHER DO I!”

Johnny stared at his brother belligerently. “You're right, at least most of the time. I KNOW you can take care of yourself in a fistfight and just about any other type of fight, but a gunfight is different and I AIN'T gonna just stand by and let ya get killed to save your feelins'.

“Well, TRY,” Scott snarled. “Because the next time either one of you treat me like a kid, it'll be the last time.”

“Is that a threat?” Murdoch demanded.

Scott shook his head calmly. “No, Sir, it's a promise.”





Chapter Twelve

Three days later, Sam allowed Scott to make the trip back to the ranch in the back of a wagon. Scott had managed to climb in without help, and Murdoch went up to the front to drive. Johnny had stood next to wagon, undecided. He had planned on riding with his brother, but he didn't want to set Scott off again. He didn't want Scott to think he was hovering. Then Johnny got angry; if he couldn't show his concern without his brother taking it wrong, that was Scott's problem. He jumped in the wagon and sat down next to him, receiving a glare for his efforts, which he chose to ignore.

As the wagon lurched along, Johnny knew from experience that his brother was probably in quite a bit of pain from the incessant jarring. Scott had refused to take any painkiller for the trip home, even though they had all tried to talk him into it. Johnny watched as his brother tried to ignore the discomfort, but Scott wasn't completely successful. Johnny glanced up at Murdoch's back, then reached into his shirt and brought out a small flask, which he held out to his brother.

Scott looked at the container suspiciously for a moment, then a slight smile appeared on his face and he accepted the offering. He took several swallows before recapping the flask and handing it back to his brother. Johnny knew it wouldn't stop the pain, but it might put a dull edge on it. He stuffed the container back into his shirt.

By the time they arrived at the ranch Scott was exhausted, and in spite of the whisky, he was hurting pretty badly. He allowed his brother to help him down, but immediately shrugged Johnny off.

“I can make it,” he insisted.

Johnny looked at his brother skeptically, and then shot a glance at his father. Murdoch shrugged, and Johnny watched as Scott walked into the hacienda under his own power. He stayed close, just in case, and a few steps from the stairs Scott collapsed. Johnny grabbed him before Scott hit the ground, and Johnny and Murdoch carried him up the stairs and tucked him in bed.

Murdoch watched Scott for several moments, making sure he was sleeping comfortably, then motioned for Johnny to follow him downstairs.

Murdoch handed his younger son a glass of brandy and then poured one for himself.

“He sure is stubborn,” Johnny commented.

Murdoch snorted. “I wonder where he got that from?”

Johnny smiled. “Well, I KNOW it wasn't from me!”

Murdoch smiled back. “It must have been from his mother.”

Johnny's smile left. “What are we going to do? There's no way I'm gonna let him get himself killed, no matter HOW mad he gets!”

Murdoch shook his head. “Neither am I. It's dangerous in this part of the country. Ranching is dangerous. Not only that, but mistakes can hurt other people and destroy this ranch.” He sighed. “I don't know what to do.”

Johnny hesitated. “Maybe he should work with somebody else for a while. Maybe Cipriano? I don't think he appreciated me tellin' him what to do.”

Murdoch slammed his fist down on the table. “I don't CARE if he gets his feelings hurt! He has to learn, and I'm not willing to lose him OR this ranch in the process. He'll just have to swallow his pride and accept that he doesn't know EVERYTHING!”

“Right now, he doesn't feel like he knows ANYTHING! That's the problem. Why don't you have him work on things he DOES know how to do for a while?”

“Because both of you need to know how to run this ranch. All of it, not just part of it!”

Johnny smiled cynically. “I don't remember you tryin' ta teach me the books lately.”

Murdoch waved his hand at his son. “That's different.”

“WHY? Why is it so different?”

“It just IS! It's the RANCHWORK that's important! I can still do the books, but I need you and Scott to know how to run the rest. The quicker Scott learns, the quicker I can relax.”

Johnny studied his father as Murdoch turned his back and helped himself to another glass of brandy.

“What's goin' on?” Johnny asked quietly.

“What do you mean?” Murdoch asked without turning around.

“I mean, why is it so all fired important for us to know everything about runnin this ranch?”

Murdoch spun around. “It just IS! You're my sons, and I want to make sure that if …something…happens to me, it's in good hands.”

“Like what?

“ANYTHING!” Murdoch exploded. “Besides, this isn't about me, it's about Scott! Don't change the subject!”

Johnny shook his head slowly. “I don't think this IS about Scott. Now are you gonna tell me what's goin' on, or not?”

Murdoch took a deep breath. “It's nothing.”

Johnny walked over until he was face to face with his father. “You tell me, Old Man. What's this about?”

Murdoch turned around and busied himself rearranging the bottles on the bar. “It's nothing,” he finally sighed. “Sam just said I should take it easier.”

“Why?”

Murdoch shook his head. “He said I'm not as young as I used to be.”

“And?” Johnny said implacably.

Murdoch turned around and glared at his son. “He said my heart wasn't as young as it used to be, either.”

Johnny glared back. “And just when were you gonna let us in on this little secret?”

“It's NOT a Secret!”

“Well, this is the first time I heard about it! I think I'll have a little chat with Sam next time I see him.”

“That's NOT necessary!” Murdoch growled.

“I think it is, since I'm obviously not getting the whole story from you.”

Murdoch sighed. “Right before I sent for the two of you, I had a mild heart attack. Sam told me then to start taking it easy; get someone else to run the ranch.”

Johnny looked at his father in disbelief. “That's why you sent for us, isn't it? Not because of Pardee.”

Murdoch shrugged reluctantly. “Pardee was part of it, but the main reason was that I wanted you boys to have your birthright; I wanted to make sure the ranch was in your hands if something happened to me.”

Johnny shook his head. “Why didn't you tell us? Why did you let us believe the only reason you sent for us was to help you defeat that land pirate?” 

Murdoch shrugged. “I…I wanted to make sure this land meant something to you. I didn't …know you, either of you. I didn't want you to…” His voice trailed off.

“You didn't want us waitin' around till you were gone, then sellin' it.”

Murdoch nodded miserably. “Yes,” he whispered.





Chapter Thirteen

“You know we wouldn't sell the ranch,” Johnny said.

“I know. But I still want to know Lancer is in good hands, if something should happen to me.”

“Nothin's gonna happen to you!”

“Johnny…”

“Murdoch, you don't have to worry about it. If and when something should happen to you, Scott and I will take care of things.”

“But it can't be all one sided. If Scott can't pull his weight you'll start fighting.”

Johnny shook his head. “Scott will pull his weight, no matter what. He's no goof off.”

Murdoch shook his head. “I don't want you boys fighting.”

“Don't you see, Scott and I would be perfect together.Scott is great at doin' books and contracts and all the paperwork. He can keep track of the money and oversee stuff. Things I don't know how ta do. He doesn't HAVE to be a great cowboy to do his share, but I have the feeling he's gonna surprise you even on that. He already knows how ta do most of the stuff, and before long, he'll be an old hand.' 

Murdoch looked at his younger son hopefully. “You really think so?”

“I KNOW so.” Johnny chuckled. “The problem's gonna be when you try ta teach me the books.”

“You need to learn,” Murdoch said seriously.

Johnny grinned. “Later. Right now, you and Scott have that covered.”

Murdoch nodded. “All right, when he's up to it, I'll start working on him with the books and make sure he understands all the contracts we have out.”

Johnny nodded. “And IF he'll let me, I'll show him how to use a revolver.”

Murdoch nodded. “We're going to make this work, no matter what. I don't plan on losing either one of you.”



Scott woke up the next morning feeling much better. He was still tired, but he wasn't as sore as he had been. He cautiously sat up, and was pleased to discover that it wasn't too big of an effort. Before he could swing his legs out of the bed however, his brother came breezing in with a breakfast tray.

Johnny strode over and set the tray down on the side of the bed, forcing Scott to abandon his plans of getting up. He hadn't thought he was hungry, but the smells emanating up from the tray changed his mind in a hurry. All he had been allowed to eat since he'd been shot was some broth and toast.

He studied the bacon and eggs and hash browns on the plate, and then looked up at his brother quizzically. “Am I allowed to eat this?”

Johnny grinned. “Nope. I guess I got your tray mixed up. I can take it down and fix it if ya want. Seems I saw some broth down there in the kitchen.”

Scott grabbed the tray protectively as Johnny reached out to take it back. “Over my dead body,” Scott protested. “I'm sick of broth.”

Johnny plunked down in a chair and watched his brother until Scott looked up and glared at him. “Do you always watch people eat?”

Johnny shrugged. “I already ate my breakfast this morning at about six.”

Scott's brow furrowed. “What time is it now?”

Johnny shrugged. “About ten. Almost time for lunch. I've already done a half of a day's work while you've been up here lazin around and gettin' your beauty sleep,” Johnny kidded.

Scott put down his fork and glared at his brother. “You don't have to worry. I'll be back on my feet shortly and pulling my own weight.”

“I was just kiddin', Scott.” 

“Well I'm NOT!” He shoved the tray away, his appetite suddenly gone.

“Scott, no one expects ya to work when you're hurt. I was just kiddin' ya.”

Scott nodded. “Of course they don't. No one expects much of me anytime, do they?”

“That's not true!”

“Yes it is. You all think I'm nothing but a helpless dandy.”

“What's got into you, anyway?” Johnny asked.

“YOU! It seems like YOU never do anything wrong. Hell, if you were hurt, you'd probably manage to save the ranch and stop a stampede at the same time.”

“I WAS hurt, remember? And I sure as hell wasn't in any shape ta stop no stampede. In fact, I remember lyin' around for a lot longer than you.”

Scott continued glaring at his brother for another second, and then dropped his eyes and sighed. “I'm sorry, Johnny. I guess I'm just feeling sorry for myself.” He reached out and pulled the tray back towards him. “And thanks for breakfast.”

“You're welcome, just don't tell on me if ya get caught eatin' that stuff. I don't want one of Maria's tongue lashings.”

Scott smiled. “I won't. Besides, in a few minutes, there won't be any evidence left.” He ate quietly for several moments, and then he looked up at his brother. “So how's that bridge we were working on coming?”

Johnny shrugged. “It looks like it still needs a lot of work. We're havin' ta replace all of the main beams.”

“Well, don't work too fast and in a few days I'll be able to help you.”

Johnny looked at his brother and grinned. “Nope, you don't have to. Murdoch's going to show you how he does the books and the contracts.”

Scott froze and stared at his brother. “And why is that?”

“I thought that's what you wanted to do,” Johnny said cautiously.

“And what if I did?”

“Me and Murdoch thought it would be better if you took care of the books and stuff.”

“You just decided that on your own?”

“Well, we thought you should do what you're good at.”

“Meaning that's ALL I'm good at,” Scott fumed.

“NO! We just thought it would be better if you knew how ta take care of the books while I took care of the work.”

Scott was furious. “Meaning you think you are going to do all the work while I sit around on my rear.”

“NO! Scott, why are you twistin' this all around? All we're tryin' ta do is ta make this work.”

Scott slammed the tray to the floor. “Well, you won't have to worry about making it work anymore, because the problem won't be here!”

“What problem?” Johnny asked suspiciously.

“ME! I'm leaving as soon as I can ride.”





Chapter Fourteen

Johnny watched angrily as his brother neatly packed his clothes into his suitcase.

“You're really leavin' aren't you?” he challenged.

“Yes, I am,” Scott replied.

“WHY?”

Scott stopped and stared at his brother. “Because I'm tired of being the odd man out around here.”

“Come on, Scott. Give it a chance.”

“I did.”

“Scott, it takes time ta figure things out. You haven't even been here for two months!”

“And one month of that I spent recovering from a bullet wound because I was too stupid to know what I was doing when those men challenged me!”

“Like I said, it takes time to learn everything. How do you think I would fit in back in Boston?”

“You wouldn't, but that's beside the point.”

“Why? ‘Cause you think you're smarter than me?” Johnny challenged.

Scott chose to ignore his brother's desperate attempt to stop him and threw the last things into the suitcase then slammed the lid down. “I just don't fit in around here, and I'm not sure I ever will. I feel like I'm just banging my head against a stone wall.”

“You've only been here TWO months!” Johnny shook his head. “At least give yourself a chance.”

“I did, and I have the feeling that I could be here another two years and I STILL wouldn't fit in.” Scott shook his head. “It's a totally different world out here. Everyone plays by different rules than I'm used to, and you can't play the game when you can't figure out those rules.”

“So you're givin' up. I never figured you for a quitter.”

“I'm NOT a quitter. I just know when something's impossible.” 

“Well, ya sure gave it a long try,” Johnny said sarcastically.

“Long enough.” 

Johnny nodded. “I guess you just don't think we're worth it.”

“That's not fair.”

“Yes it is. You think two months is a fair test? You think that two months is long enough ta waste on us?”

Scott dropped his head and sighed.

“Scott, anything worth havin' is worth workin' for. Give it a chance, unless you've already made up your mind it ain't worth it. That WE ain't worth it. There's another thing you need ta think about. If you give up and go back ta Boston now, how're you gonna feel a year from now? You gonna regret it, or is that fancy lifestyle what you want? I thought my brother was tough, but I guess I was wrong. Guess he IS just a Boston dandy after all.” Johnny turned and walked out of the room, hoping his brother was more stubborn than he'd shown so far.

Scott watched as his brother stalked out of the room and he slammed the lid down on the suitcase. He wasn't a coward, and he'd never quit anything in his life. Johnny was right; he'd have to make up his mind about what he really wanted and then live with his decision.



Murdoch looked up when he heard Johnny coming down the stairs and he watched as Johnny stormed out of the house and headed for the barn. Murdoch was disappointed and more than a little bit angry that Scott had decided to leave. This should be Scott's home, not Boston. He shook his head in frustration. He should have fought Harlan all those years ago and refused to let his son grow up with his grandfather.

His son had learned everything; manners, business acumen, the social graces, he had graduated from Harvard with high marks and had a distinguished service record. If Murdoch could have handpicked the qualities of his son, he couldn't have done better. The only problem was most of the things he had learned were no use in the wilds of California. Scott needed to learn the basic things; things that almost everyone around these parts took for granted.

And that was the whole problem. Every time Scott professed his ignorance about some aspect of ranch life, it was brought home to Murdoch how he had failed to keep the boy with him. It made him angry that his son had grown up in Boston, learning how to make small talk and do bookwork when by all rights he should have been here at Lancer, learning how to be a self sufficient rancher. As much as Murdoch hated to admit it, he should have known that with Scott's upbringing he would be a quitter. Everything had always been handed to his son on a silver platter. He hadn't had to fight for anything in his whole life.

Johnny, on the other hand… That boy had been a pleasant surprise. He had had to fight from the time he was born. He had arrived almost two months early, and Sam had been pessimistic of his chances. Johnny, however, had proven the old doctor wrong.

Murdoch knew exactly what kind of a life his son had led, from the time his mother had spirited him away until he had come home. Murdoch had instructed the Pinkertons to find the boy and offer him one thousand dollars to come home as soon as they had found him, but by then Johnny had disappeared.

The first Pinkerton report that Murdoch had received had come almost three years ago, and it had informed the rancher that his son had killed the man that had murdered his mother. The report said after that the boy had drifted and then started to live by the gun.

The details from that report had been sketchy, but Murdoch had been able to read between the lines. Since then, he had received six reports, the last one only a month before Johnny had returned home, but he hadn't even opened them. He figured there were some things he didn't want to know.

He was just thankful that his son hadn't lost his soul in the process and that he hadn't become a hardened killer. Murdoch had been relieved that he had never heard of the gunfighter Johnny Lancer, and he thanked God that his boy had managed to somehow stay alive without becoming so immersed in that lifestyle that he couldn't quit.





Chapter Fifteen

Scott watched as his brother rode off. The two of them had spent all day fixing a portion of the fenceline, and Cipriano had just come up and asked Johnny to help him with a couple of cows that were down. Scott had offered to come, but both Johnny and Cipriano had insisted they could handle it. Scott shook his head angrily; what they had probably meant was that he'd just be in the way. Both Johnny and Murdoch had been much more patient with him lately, but on the other hand, he had been working his tail off, and his mistakes were fewer and further between. He thought he just might be getting the hang of things.

Scott looked up at the sun. It was already late afternoon, and Johnny had told his brother he'd meet him back at the house when he was finished. Scott was delighted. He hadn't had a chance to sneak off for several days, and he was getting impatient.

Scott finished up the section they had been working on, and then mounted Charlie. Instead of heading back to the hacienda, he turned his sorrel toward the hills and rode several miles to a small box canyon hidden in the hillside. Scott led his horse inside, and then pulled some brush over the entrance. He had found this isolated canyon almost three weeks ago when they had been looking for stray steers, and Scott had carefully remembered where it was so he could return. It was perfect for what he needed, and it was highly unlikely anyone would know he was there. He had been told that this part of the range was deserted this time of the year.

Scott took out a sack that had been concealed under some shrubbery, and then pulled out six tin cans. He placed them on a fallen log at one end of the canyon, then turned and walked several yards away. He reached down and readjusted his holster, then he hesitated. Scott tried to focus, blocking out everything else but his gun and those cans, then he took a few deep calming breaths. A second later, the sound of gunfire echoed loudly against the nearby stone walls.

Scott looked at the log with a frown on his face. Of the six cans he had set up, three were still standing. He had come a long way in the last three weeks, but he still wasn't satisfied. For the last several days, he had seemed to make no progress, and three cans had been the most he could knock down. When he had decided to stay, he had made a vow to himself to learn everything there was to learn about ranching and about survival in this primitive setting, and survival meant learning how to use a revolver. Johnny had offered to help him, but this was something Scott had to do on his own. He had to prove to himself and to everyone else that he could take care of himself, and that he didn't need his little brother to help him.

Scott focused once more on the remaining cans, then swiftly pulled the gun from its holster. This time there was one can left, and Scott sighed. This was tougher than it looked. He could shoot all of the cans off of the log with no difficulty if he took time to aim, but from what he had seen in the one gunfight he had been in, aiming wasn't an option. He had been shocked at just how fast the man that had shot him had been. As fast as he THOUGHT the man had been, however, he knew he must have been mistaken if Johnny had managed to beat him.

Scott shook his head. He couldn't imagine just how fast some of the notorious gunfighters were. He had read about some of them on his trip west, but at the time he had figured he was reading a bunch of tall tales. The gunfighters had been made to seem larger than life. Some of them had been portrayed as soulless killers, while others had been described almost as latter day Robin Hoods. The stories had kept him entertained on the long journey, but now he wished he had paid closer attention to some of the details.

He had finally figured out why the gun should be worn low and tight; it made it that much easier and faster for his hand to reach the gun, but one thing he had learned from those articles; if you wore your gun low, you'd better be good enough to handle it. A low hung rig was like wearing a sign saying you were good with a gun and you weren't afraid to use it. For now, Scott was content to wear his gun high like most of the men around. He only wore it low while he was practicing. He would wait until he was ready before letting people know he was no longer a man to be taken lightly.

He walked over and set up the cans once more. He wondered if his brother ever practiced. He had only seen him shoot a few times, but he seemed to be proficient enough. If he had beaten those two men in town, he had to have been reasonably fast, but he also knew his little brother was cocky as hell. Even if he couldn't shoot worth a darn, it would be just like Johnny to wear his gun low. Scott shook his head. He hoped that cockiness didn't land his brother into a situation that was well over his head. He didn't think Johnny would back down from a fight, even if he was facing a professional gunhawk.

Scott took a deep breath, then turned and shot, and was pleased to see that this time four cans had fallen. He was getting better. It was slow progress, but as Johnny had pointed out, anything worth having was worth fighting for. Scott knew it would take some time and a lot of work, but when he did something, it was never halfway. He was going to be the best.





Chapter Sixteen

Scott glanced up at the sun and realized he had spent longer in the canyon than he had planned to. He hurriedly picked up the cans and stuffed them back in the bag and then placed them under the shrub. He looked around to make sure he hadn't left any evidence, then quickly mounted Charlie and spurred the horse toward the estancia.He glanced again at the sun that was just setting behind the distant mountains, and he urged the horse faster.

Even though he was late, when Charlie finally passed under the arch Scott pulled him to a walk to cool him down. By the time they reached the barn, the horse had cooled down sufficiently to feed and put away. Cipriano came out and offered to take Charlie, but the army had instilled in Scott the importance of taking care of his own horse.

By the time Scott finished bedding down Charlie and cleaned up, the sun was long gone. He took a deep breath in anticipation of the chewing out he was sure to get, then he pushed open the door and walked into the great room, glancing at the empty dining room as he walked past.

“What took you so long? You know you're supposed to be back in time for supper.” Murdoch was leaning against his desk, and Johnny was standing by the fireplace.

Scott shot his father an apologetic look. “Sorry. I got tied up.”

Murdoch started to say something, but a look from Johnny silenced him; a fact that didn't go unnoticed by Scott. Murdoch fixed his stare on his elder son. “Your supper is in the kitchen. Go grab a dish and then come in here. We need to discuss a few things.”

“Can't I at least eat first?” Scott asked.

“If you wanted to eat in peace, you should have been home on time. You can eat while we're talking. Now go on.”

Scott turned toward the kitchen, angry about being treated like a wayward child. He angrily scooped some food onto a plate, then walked back into the great room and set his plate on a small table next to the couch as he sat down. “What's going on?” he asked.

“Martin Cabral of the Triple C has been trying to get part of Lancer for years. He's used various methods, but so far, none have worked. Cipriano told me today that he found several fence lines cut, and evidence that Cabral has been running his cattle onto Lancer land. He's done it before, but never so blatantly. It has to stop.”

Scott shook his head in confusion. “The Triple C has plenty of graze. Why would he take the chance of pushing them onto Lancer? In fact, why would he even want to?”

Murdoch nodded. “He does have plenty of graze, at least at this time of the year. It's water that he's short of. His cattle need water, but he also figures that every mouthful of Lancer grass his steers eat, the more graze he'll have further along in the season.”

“If he doesn't have enough grass, he should run fewer cattle,” Scott observed.

“Yes, he should,” agreed his father. “But he won't. He has almost fifty thousand acres and in his mind he should be able to run as many cattle as he wants. Most years it works just fine, the problem comes in the dry years. As the water dries up, the graze dies and his cattle starve. He bought that ranch a year after I bought Lancer. I warned Cabral at the time that there wasn't enough water on that land, but he wouldn't listen.”

“He and I have been butting heads almost from the beginning. Every time his water holes and streams dry up, he expects Lancer to bail him out, and a few times I did.Four years ago, I let him run some cattle on our land, but the drought was a long one, and when Lancer started losing cattle, I told him to put his stock back on his own land. He kept stalling, and as a result, we lost quite a few head. Before it came to blows the rains came, but since then I've told him no, and he's gotten increasingly hostile about it.”

“How hostile?” Johnny asked.

Murdoch took a deep breath. “When Pardee was trying to take over the valley, several of us felt that Cabral had made some sort of a deal with him. The Triple C was one of the few ranches that was never touched, and several people saw Cabral and Pardee talking. Personally, I think he has his eyes on Lancer.”

“Don't mean he was in on anything,” Johnny observed. “He might a just been tryin' ta save his own hide.”

Murdoch nodded. “He might have been, but I still don't trust him. I want you boys to keep your eyes open and be careful. I wouldn't put it past Cabral to resort to violence or scare tactics.”

Johnny smiled slowly. “Well, he just might be in for a surprise if he does. I don't scare easy.”

His father glared at him. “You be careful, and don't be starting anything. We don't need a range war.”

Johnny glared at his father. “I won't start anything, but I sure will finish it if he tries anything.”

Murdoch nodded. “Just be careful, both of you. I've told the men to watch the fence lines and their backs, and I want the two of you to do the same. I want you to work together until we know what's going on.”

Scott saw his chance of more practice disappearing. “I don't need a babysitter.”

“Neither does Johnny,” his father snapped. “But I'd feel better if the two of you were together to watch each other's backs.”

Johnny watched as Scott's face darkened, and his own broke into a scowl and his temper flared. “Don't worry, Scott. You don't have ta watch my back; I wouldn't want ta put you out or anything.”

Scott dropped his head in frustration. “Johnny, it's not that.”

“Then what the hell is it, Scott, ‘cause ya sure haven't been very friendly lately.”

Scott looked at his brother and sighed. “I've just had other things on my mind.”

Johnny glared at his brother. “Yeah, I know there are a lot more important things than me, so why don't ya go ahead and have them watch your back.” The gunfighter turned and stalked out of the house, slamming the door behind him.





Chapter Seventeen

Scott walked over to the bar and poured a glass of brandy, waiting for his father to start yelling. He had been out of line, and he knew it. He hadn't meant to be, but if he had to stick with his brother for the next several weeks, he wouldn't get a chance to practice at all, and right now, that was his top priority.

Scott glanced over at Murdoch, waiting for the outburst, but instead, his father merely got up and left the room, leaving Scott alone with his thoughts. Scott tossed back his drink and then stood, wondering whether he should go after his brother and try to patch things up. He hadn't meant to hurt his brother's feelings, but he had a feeling that was just what he had done.

All Scott wanted to do was to have some time to himself so he could practice some more. He felt as if he was close to being good enough to hold his own, but he had already set his sights quite a bit higher than that. He wanted to be the best around, and for that he needed to practice. He figured it would take at least another several weeks before he could consider himself on the level with the top guns, and that was only if he could practice every day.

He didn't want anyone to know what he was doing; at least not yet. He wasn't sure of their reaction, and he didn't want anyone trying to talk him out of it, or worse, wanting to help him. This was something he wanted to do by himself. No, he NEEDED to do this by himself. He had to be successful at something without his brother or father coaching him the whole way.

He poured another drink and stood looking out the window, wondering where Johnny had gone. He wondered briefly if his brother might be the one person who would understand his need to practice. Johnny had obviously done at least a little practicing to be good enough to have taken those two men down. He thought his brother might understand his need to do it by himself, too, but he couldn't take the chance, at least not yet. He wanted to be better than his brother before Johnny saw him shoot, but the problem was, he wasn't quite sure just how good that was. He knew his brother had killed those two men in town, so he had to be fairly fast, but he was sure that Johnny wasn't as good as some of the top gunfighters. Even though his brother wore his gun low, he knew that Johnny had worked on ranches before he came home, and a professional gunfighter wouldn't do that. Scott figured his brother was just a rancher that happened to be good with a gun.

Scott thought about what his brother had done that day in town, and he wondered what it was like to purposefully set out to kill someone. He had killed men during the war, but it was impersonal somehow. He had never been in hand to hand combat, and the men he had killed had been too far away to see their eyes.Also, all of the killing was done in the heat of battle, with adrenaline taking away all of the fear and most conscious thoughts. In that type of battle, instinct took over and there wasn't time to think. It was also kill or be killed; there was no choice in the matter.

What happened during a gunfight was more like a duel. He had fought in one duel back in Boston, and had witnessed several. There were differences, however. One difference was that men seldom died in a formal duel, and a wound would stop the fight immediately. A duel was fought under very strict rules that were always obeyed. A gunfight seemed much more lethal and lot more brutal. He shook his head slowly. He lived here now, and he would have to make an effort to fit in, and fitting in meant learning how to use a gun.

Scott slowly finished his drink and then turned toward the stairs. He would talk to Johnny tomorrow, when his little brother had a chance to calm down, and explain to him that he just needed a little time alone. Hopefully, his brother would understand and give Scott the space he needed.



Johnny was still in a bad mood the next morning. He stopped in the kitchen long enough to grab a few bites of breakfast, then headed toward the door, but he was stopped by his father's voice.

“Johnny, may I see you for a minute?”

Johnny turned and headed for the great room, hoping whatever his father wanted wouldn't take too long. He wanted to get out and start working. Maybe if he drove himself hard enough he could forget about the way his brother had rejected him the night before. Johnny stopped in front of Murdoch's desk.

“What do you need?”

“Teresa has been asking to go into town all week. I promised to take her today, but this contract has to be written up right away, so I'd appreciate it if you would drive her into Spanish Wells for the day.”

Johnny's sigh was audible, and his father shot him a sharp look. “Do you have a problem with that?”

Johnny kept his father's stare for another minute, and then dropped his head with a sigh. “No, no problem.”

Murdoch nodded. “Good. She's upstairs getting dressed. She should be down in a minute.”

Johnny went outside to harness the team, mumbling to himself the whole time. It wasn't that he didn't like Teresa; it was just that it felt an awful lot like babysitting when he took her into town. It was also awfully boring. He had to keep an eye on her and behave himself while doing it. Even the saloon was out, because the Spanish Wells saloon was in the opposite end of town as the stores Teresa would be interested in.

With a sigh, Johnny pulled the team up to the door and climbed down to help his sister into the buggy. His bad mood abated somewhat when he saw how excited Teresa was. He managed to remain in a good mood during the two hour ride and the girl's incessant jabbering, but by the time he pulled the team to a halt in front of the mercantile, he was glad to see her disappear into the store.

He led the team over to the water trough and then tied them under the shade of an old tree. He looked around, but he didn't see anything unusual, so he sat down with his back against the tree and pulled his hat over his eyes and dozed.





Chapter Eighteen

Johnny sat up and pulled his watch out of his pocket. When he saw the time, he sighed deeply. He still couldn't figure out just how Teresa could spend that much time in a store, after all, there was only so much to look at. He jumped to his feet and decided to check on her and see how much longer she planned on staying. He was getting pretty hungry. Maybe he could talk Teresa into taking a break and eating some lunch before resuming her shopping spree. Afterward, maybe he'd have time for a beer or two after all.

He strolled across the street and entered the store, and immediately saw Teresa fingering some yardage. He walked up behind her, and said softly, “Are ya planin' on makin' Scott some more shirts?”

She jumped at his voice, then turned around and swatted his arm with her hand. “You're just in time. Which one of these do you like the best?” She held up some pink material with darker pink flowers on it, and a light yellow bolt with white flowers, and looked at him expectantly.

“I don't think Scott would like either one,” he said.

“I'm making a dress for ME!”

Johnny smiled. “Oh! In that case, I like this one.” He pulled out a bolt of dark blue cloth and handed it to her.

Teresa bit her lower lip nervously. “Really?” She shook her head. “Now I'm really confused.”

“Well, why don't ya think about it over lunch? I'm starved.”

Teresa took a last look at the material, and then nodded her head. “All right, it will take me at least that long to make up my mind.”

Johnny shook his head, wondering again what was so difficult about picking out some material.

Teresa looked at him worriedly. “Do you really like the blue cloth the best?”

“Teresa, get whatever you like.”

“I just want your opinion.”

Johnny looked at his sister and shook his head. “I thought I already gave it.”

“But I really like the pink.”

“Then get the pink,” Johnny replied, slightly exasperated.

“What about the yellow?”

Johnny turned and glared at her. “Why don't ya get all three?”

Teresa immediately brightened. “I think I will! Thanks, Johnny!” 

Johnny shook his head. Somehow, he knew the Old Man was going to blame him for Teresa bankrupting the ranch. He took her arm and guided her into the small café and over to a corner table. He hoped the food here was good. He had never eaten here; in fact he was seldom in this town. The first month he had been at Lancer he had ridden into Spanish Wells for a drink, and hadn't liked the service or the liquor that had been served. That, plus the fact that they charged five cents more a shot than either Morro Coyo or Green River had effectively made sure that he stayed away as much as possible.

Johnny let his mind wander as they ate and Teresa told him all about her plans for the material.

“…And I think I'd better get a new hat. After all, my old one is pretty frayed looking. Maybe you can help me pick one out.”

Johnny's head jerked up at the thought of picking out hats. “Sorry, I told Murdoch I'd check on a few things while I was in town.”

Teresa sighed. “All right, but hurry back. I should be done in about an hour.”

Johnny nodded. Just enough time for him to get a couple of drinks, but not enough time to get into trouble. “OK. I'll walk you back to the store, and then I'll come pick you up in an hour or so.”

Ten minutes later, Johnny walked into the saloon and ordered a beer. He was totally bored, but he figured that was all right. With Teresa along, he didn't want any excitement; in fact Murdoch would probably shoot him if he found any. He took a sip of beer and thought that the next time his sister needed to go into town, he was going to stick Scott with the chore. Picking out hats was probably right up his alley. Johnny smiled as he thought about what his brother would say if he told him that, and thought maybe he would tease his big brother a little.

With a sigh, Johnny decided that would probably be a bad idea. Scott had been about as prickly as a porcupine lately, and Johnny had given up trying to tease his brother. Scott took everything that was said as a personal attack, and Johnny was getting pretty tired of it. Johnny always teased people he liked; it was part of his personality. The last couple of months Johnny had made a conscious effort not to harass Scott, but it had taken all of his willpower, and it was making him feel like his brother was a stranger.

Scott was acting like a stranger, too. Johnny couldn't put his finger on it, but there was something different about his brother lately. Scott was cockier and much more self confident than he had been only a short time ago, but Johnny wasn't sure he liked the change. His brother was almost too confident, and although not arrogant, he was stand offish. Scott could no longer be considered a novice at ranch work, and could hold his own doing almost any chore, but he was still driving himself as though he had to prove something.

What really bothered Johnny however, was the fact that he had caught Scott looking at him appraisingly a couple of times, almost as if he were challenging him. The look was there and gone in an instant, but it still made Johnny nervous. It was a little too close to the looks he was used to getting from young gunhawks who were trying to figure out if they could take him or not. Johnny shook his head. It was probably his imagination. It had to be.





Chapter Nineteen

The man watched as the gunfighter left the saloon and walked over to the store. He pretended to be tending to his horse as he waited for the gunhawk to come back out. When he finally reappeared, Madrid's eyes swept over the street and locked on the man's for a second before they moved on. Bill noticed that even though he was carrying several packages for a young lady, the gunfighter was alert to any danger. The man's eyes narrowed and he watched as Madrid put the packages in the buggy and then helped the young woman up before climbing in and driving the buggy out of town.

The man watched until the buggy was out of sight, and then climbed aboard his horse and sped out of town. Almost an hour later, he pulled his lathered horse to a sliding stop in a ranch yard and flew out of the saddle. He ran to the house and pounded furiously on the door. Several moments later, the door swung open.

“What in tarnation's wrong with you, Bill?”

“Mr. Cabral, you'll never believe it,” the man panted.

The rancher stood aside and motioned the man into his house. “What won't I believe?”

“Lancer. He's hired a gunfighter.”

Cabral snorted. “I don't believe you.”

“It's true, Mr. Cabral.”

Cabral's eyes narrowed. “How do you know?”

“I saw him myself, he was right there in town.”

“Where?”

“In Spanish Wells.”

Cabral shook his head. “How do you know he was workin' for Lancer?”

“He was drivin' a Lancer buggy, and he was escortin' Lancer's ward.”

Cabral scowled as he thought. “Maybe Lancer just hired the man as a bodyguard for some reason,” Cabral said uncertainly.

“No SIR! Not THIS gunhawk!”

“You know him?”

The man shook his head. “No sir, but I seen him once, down around the border. He's the best there is, and he don't hire on as no bodyguard. When he shows up, there's gonna be some killin'. Lancer's got a range war in mind.”

“We haven't done anything to warrant Lancer starting a range war,” Cabral said uneasily.

“Mr. Cabral, I'm tellin' ya, Madrid ain't here for the salubrious climate. He's got killin' on his mind.”  

The rancher's head jerked up. “Madrid? Johnny Madrid?”

“Yes sir!”

Cabral sank slowly into the chair, realizing he might have finally gone too far. He had pushed Lancer for years, but he had always been careful to stop just short of violence. He had no desire to actually go to war against the rancher. He knew that Lancer had more money and resources to throw into a fight then he did, and he had the feeling that the Scotsman was a formidable opponent. He swallowed hard. “What should I do?”

Bill snorted. “I think you'd better start hirin' guns.” 

“Hiring guns! I don't have enough money ta do that!” 

Bill shook his head emphatically. “Then I guess you'd better crawl over there and apologize before ya wind up dead.”

Cabral shook his head. “Are you SURE it was Johnny Madrid? I heard he'd gotten himself killed.”

“It was Madrid all right, and he sure as hell wasn't dead.”

Cabral thought for several moments before dropping his head and sighing deeply. “Well, I guess it wouldn't hurt ta pay a little visit ta Murdoch. He can't afford ta keep Madrid there forever. We'll just pull our horns in for a little while, until things get back ta normal.”

“I think that's a real smart thing ta do.”



Murdoch looked up when he saw a rider approaching the house. He frowned when he realized it was the owner of the Triple C, and he wondered just what the man wanted now. He was getting tired of Cabral's unreasonable demands and dirty tricks and was ready to take a stand. He went over to the door and threw it open.

“Martin.”

Cabral nodded his head and whipped off his hat. “Murdoch, may I come in?”

Murdoch hesitated a moment, taken aback by the man's seeming contrite attitude. Then he stepped aside and motioned the man inside. He led the way into the great room and offered the man a drink. Cabral took the glass and nervously whirled the drink in his hand.

“I just wanted to apologize for my cattle getting onto your land. It won't happen again.”

Murdoch's eyebrows rose in surprise. “I'm glad to hear that.”

Martin nodded. “I just wanted you to know it was an accident, and I told my men to make sure the fences were all fixed.”

Murdoch nodded slowly. “I appreciate that, and I'll make sure my men watch the fences, too.”

Cabral nodded nervously. “That's right kind of you, but my men will make sure no cattle cross over. I just wanted to make sure you knew that.”

“All right, Martin.”

Cabral licked his lips nervously. “There's no need for any violence.”

Murdoch shook his head in confusion. “I certainly hope not.”

Cabral tried again. “There's no need ta go hirin' guns.”

“I'm glad to hear that.”

Cabral began to lose his temper over Murdoch's calm attitude, and he straightened up and looked Murdoch in the eye. “I don't want ta have ta hire me some guns, but I will if I have to.”

Murdoch drew himself up to full height. “Is that a threat?”  

Cabral's chin jutted out belligerently. “Take it any way you want to.”

“Be advised that Lancer doesn't back down from anyone. If it's a fight you want, we're more than willing to protect our property. We have no intention of starting anything, but we WILL finish it.”

“Yeah, you've made that REAL clear, Lancer. But the Triple C can take care of itself too, and you try anything, you'll have a fight on your hands. It don't matter how many guns ya got. Any man can get himself killed.”

Murdoch glared at the other rancher. “I hope that wasn't another threat, because if you hurt ANYONE on this ranch, you'll pay for it.”

Cabral glared back. “You'd just better watch yourself. Keepin' that kind of company, I'd watch my back if I was you!”

“I think you'd better leave before I forget my manners!” Murdoch growled.

“With pleasure. Just remember what I said!” Cabral strode to the door and jerked it open, then slammed it behind him, leaving Murdoch to try and figure out just what had happened.





Chapter Twenty

“I have no idea what that man is up to,” Murdoch said.

Johnny shook his head. “Still sounds ta me like he's tryin' ta start somethin'.”

Scott took a sip of brandy. “I agree.”

“But why would he come over here in the first place?” Murdoch shook his head. “Something sure set him off. And when he first came, he was polite. Apologetic almost, like he was afraid. It just doesn't make sense.”

Johnny shrugged. “Well from what you say, he sure wasn't apologetic when he left. Sounds like a threat ta me.”

Murdoch shook his head. “He's never resorted to violence before.”

“Don't mean he won't.”

Murdoch looked at both of his sons. “I want both of you to be very careful. I didn't like the comments he made about anyone being able to die and for me to watch my back.”

Scott looked at his father contemplatively. “Do you really think he's going to hire guns?”

“I have no idea!” Murdoch snapped in frustration. “I still don't know why he's so worked up.”

“Sometimes a man don't need much of a reason ta get violent,” Johnny said softly.

“I know that's true,” Murdoch said. “But he's never been this way before.”

Scott shrugged. “We can't know what's going on in his mind, so I agree, we need to be very careful.”

Murdoch nodded. “I'll tell the men to watch the fenceline carefully and make sure no cattle from either ranch strays. I have no intention of giving him any excuse to start a range war.”

“Like I said, sometimes men don't need a reason.”

Murdoch sighed at his younger son's comment. “No, they don't. But I'm going to make sure he doesn't have one. If he starts one anyway, there's nothing we can do about it.”

Scott nodded, then took another sip of his drink. “Do you still want me to take Teresa into town tomorrow?”

“NO! She's been into Spanish Wells a dozen times in the past three weeks. She can stay home for a while, at least until we know what's going on.”

Scott smiled. “Then you can tell her. I have no intention of getting the cook mad at me.”

Murdoch glared at his son for a moment. “All right, I'll tell her.” He shifted his glare to Johnny. “Besides, thanks to someone she has enough material to last her a year.”

Johnny shrugged. “I can't help it if she can't make up her mind.”

“Uh huh.” Murdoch looked at both of his boys. “Will one of you ride into Spanish Wells tomorrow and pick up some supplies?”

Johnny jumped at the chance. He thought he just might have a little business in town tomorrow, and if not, the Triple C was right on the way home. “I'll go.”

Murdoch looked at him in surprise. “I didn't think you liked that town.”

Johnny shrugged. “It's not that bad.”

Murdoch looked at his son speculatively. “You stay away from the Triple C, understand?”

Johnny looked at him for a moment, and then nodded reluctantly. At least the Old Man hadn't told him to stay away from Cabral, and Johnny had heard the rancher spent a lot of time in Spanish Wells. With any luck, he wouldn't have to set one foot on the other ranch, but he definitely planned to have a little talk with Mr. Cabral about his threat on Murdoch's life.



Johnny rode into Spanish Wells the next day, hoping to see the owner of the Triple C, but except for a few cowboys, the streets were deserted. He went over and picked up the order from the general store, and then went over to the saloon, hoping that if he stayed a little while longer the man would ride in.

An hour later, he finally gave up. If he stayed too much longer, Murdoch would have his hide, and he wasn't in the mood to get yelled at. With a sigh, he stood up and tossed some coins on the table. He still thought the bartender watered his drinks, but it was the only place to get a drink in this crummy town.

He sauntered out the door and headed over to the wagon when he saw some riders approaching. One of them was the owner of the Triple C, and the other man was a stranger. Johnny had never met Cabral, but he had seen him once in town. Johnny stood by the wagon and stared at the man as he approached, purposely ignoring the cowboy riding with Cabral.

The cowboy noticed the gunfighter and said something quietly to his boss, and Cabral's eyes swung toward Johnny. After a moment, the rancher dropped his eyes and rode past, but the tension was evident in his shoulders. Johnny watched until the two men dismounted over by the store, and then walked over.

“What do you want, Madrid?”

Johnny smiled as he detected the quiver in the man's voice. This might be easier than he thought. Johnny smiled.

“I heard you paid Murdoch a visit yesterday.”

“It was just a social call.”

“That ain't the way I heard it.”

The fine bead of sweat on Cabral's brow made Johnny smile again, and he stared at the rancher, his voice soft. “I just want you to know that if ANYONE on that ranch gets so much as a splinter, I'm comin' after you personally.”

“There's no call for violence. I already told Lancer that.”

“Was that before or after ya told him ta watch his back?”

“I didn't mean that as a threat!”

“Sure sounds like one ta me. That bit about anyone being able ta die sure sounded like one, too. If I were you, I'd watch my mouth, or I just might take it personally.”

“I have no intention of starting anything.”

Johnny nodded. “See that ya don't, or I'll be lookin' for you, and I guarantee that it won't be a social call.”

Cabral nodded nervously. “Just don't be getting trigger happy. You tell Lancer that I don't have any quarrel with him.”

Johnny smiled. “Not yet, anyway.” 





Chapter Twenty One

Murdoch's head came up when he heard the knock on the door. He waited a moment to see if Maria would answer it, but when she didn't appear, Murdoch hauled himself to his feet and headed for the door. Teresa was upstairs sewing, and Maria was evidently busy.

He opened the door and was surprised to see Cipriano and a young man he hadn't seen before.

Cipriano took off his hat. “May we come in, Senor Lancer?”

Murdoch nodded and led the way into the great room. He reached his desk, then turned around and looked at his Segundo questioningly.

Cipriano nodded toward the young man. “This is Juan Andrade.”

Murdoch nodded. “I don't believe we met. I'm Murdoch Lancer.”

The man stuck out his hand. “Mr. Lancer.”

“Juan is my sister's boy,” Cipriano offered. “He has been working up north and is on his way to see his family down in Mexico. He stopped to visit us on the way and came through Spanish Wells on the way here.”

Murdoch nodded and studied the young man, and then realized the youth was no rancher. His gun was worn low and there was a cocky air about him. Murdoch waited for Cipriano to continue.

Cipriano nodded at the young man. “Tell Mr. Lancer what happened in town.”

Juan shrugged. “I was on the way into the saloon when I saw Johnny Madrid.”

Murdoch's eyes widened. “Johnny Madrid! Are you sure?”

“Si. I am very sure. I saw him a year ago down in Mexico. It was him that I saw in Spanish Wells. He was talking to another man.” 

“What were they talking about?”

“I don't know. I do know that whatever they were discussing was serious. Madrid was smiling, but it did not reach his eyes. The other man looked nervous and was looking around like he was afraid someone would see him.”

Murdoch shook his head, wondering what the infamous gunman was doing in town. Then he had a very unpleasant thought.

“The man who he was talking to, do you have any idea who it might have been?”

“Si, Senor. After Madrid walked off, the other man and his friend came into the bar. They talked for a while. They said they were going to fight, and that Lancer would have a fight on its hands. I stood up to leave, and the man that had been talking to Madrid came over and said that his name was Martin Cabral  He thought I was a gunfighter and he offered me a job.”

“Doing what?” Murdoch asked.

“As a hired gun, Senor. He said there was going to be a range war and he needed a lot of guns.”

Murdoch closed his eyes. He couldn't believe what was happening. He hadn't given Cabral any reason to go to war. Finally he nodded. “Thank you for telling me. At least now we won't be taken by surprise.'” He turned toward Cipriano. “We need to tell the men what's going on and make sure they're armed.”

Cipriano nodded and then Murdoch looked up quickly when he heard the front door open. A moment later his son walked in.

“Scott, come over here. We have a problem.”

Scott nodded to Cipriano, then turned toward his father. “What's wrong?”

“It seems as though Cabral has decided to up the stakes. He's hiring guns.”

Scott looked questioningly at Cipriano. “How do you know?”

Because my nephew here saw Cabral hiring Johnny Madrid.”

Scott's eyes widened. According to the newspapers, Madrid was a legend.

“What are we going to do?”

Murdoch looked at his son. “What do you think we're going to do?” he asked sarcastically. “We're going to fight.”

“Are we going to hire guns, too?”

Murdoch shook his head. “No! We'll fight our own fight. Lancer takes care of itself.”

Cipriano spoke up. “Senor, how can we fight against a man like Madrid? The men won't like it. No one here is a professional, except maybe for Senor Johnny.”

Murdoch shook his head and then froze. “Johnny!  He went in to Spanish Wells today!”

Scott shook his head in confusion. “So?”

“So, if your brother knows Madrid is working for Cabral, he just might try to take him.”

Juan shook his head. “No one can beat Madrid.”

Murdoch looked at Juan. Did you see my son while you were in town?”

“I am sorry, Senor, but I don't know your son.”

Murdoch looked out the large window, hoping he would see Johnny returning, but the road was empty. He shook his head. “If by some good fortune Johnny didn't find out about Madrid being in town, I don't want him to know.”

“Why?” Scott asked.

“Because I don't want him to challenge him!” Murdoch looked at all of the men. “I don't want anyone mentioning Madrid, is that clear?”

Cipriano nodded. “Si, Senor.”

“Make sure the men know.”

The Segundo shook his head. “No one else knows about Madrid being in town. Juan told only me.”

“Good. I'm not going to let that killer gun down Johnny.” Murdoch pointedly looked at Juan's holster. “Will you consider staying and helping us?”

Juan hesitated, and then shook his head. “I am sorry Senor, but I don't fight any more, and I am needed at home. I'm leaving right away.”

Murdoch nodded. “All right, and thank you for letting me know, and make sure you take some supplies for your trip.” His gaze shifted to Cipriano. “I want to talk to the men tomorrow morning. We'll need to make a plan.”

Cipriano nodded and left the house with his nephew, and Murdoch walked over to the bar and poured a drink before turning to Scott. “It looks like we're going to have more trouble,” he sighed.

Scott nodded, wondering if his brother really had been a hired gun at some point. Evidently Cipriano thought so, and Murdoch didn't dispute it. Scott shook his head; it didn't matter. He wondered if this might be the opportunity to prove to his family that he wasn't a liability. With any luck he would be able to win this fight. He would make sure he'd practice some more tomorrow. If he was going to take on Johnny Madrid, he'd have to make sure he was ready.





Chapter Twenty Two

Both men looked up as the door slammed shut, and Scott heard the familiar sound of his brother's spurs on the tile floor. Johnny entered the room and stopped when he saw his father and brother.

“What's wrong?” he asked suspiciously.

Murdoch shot Scott a last warning look and then took a step toward Johnny. “It seems as if our friend Cabral is going to cause trouble after all.”

“Yeah?” Johnny hardly appeared concerned as he walked over to the bar and poured a drink.

“Apparently he's getting ready to start a range war.”

Johnny's eyes narrowed. He didn't think Cabral had the guts to start anything, especially after their little talk. “What makes ya think that?”

“Apparently Cabral is hiring guns. Cipriano's nephew, Juan overheard Cabral hiring a gunfighter. He also overheard Cabral saying that Lancer was in for a fight, and that they were going after Lancer. Then Cabral wanted to know if Juan would join them in the fight against Lancer.”

“How does Juan know it was a gunfighter and not just somebody lookin' for work?”

“Apparently Cipriano's nephew used to be a gunfighter and he recognized the man.”

“Yeah? Did he say who it was?”

“No,” said Murdoch quickly. “Just that he was a professional.”

Johnny shook his head. “Just where around here would Cabral get a gunfighter?”

Murdoch shrugged. “I don't know, but he's obviously serious, and we have to get ready for a fight.”

Johnny shook his head. “Cabral's a coward. We don't have ta worry about him. Unless he can get somebody else ta do his killin' he won't try nothin'.”

“That's the problem. He's not trying to fight himself. He's hiring professionals.”

“So?” said Johnny.

Murdoch shook his head in exasperation. “So, it's going to be hard to win a fight against professional killers.”

Johnny grinned and dropped his head, then brought his eyes up and locked them on his father. “What do ya think I am?” he asked softly.

“You're a RANCHER!” 

Johnny glanced at his brother who was looking at him with his mouth open and then the gunfighter dropped his head. “I'm tryin' ta be, but right now I think you need me ta be a gunfighter more than ya need me ta be a rancher.”

“I don't EVER need you to be a gunfighter. We're RANCHERS, and we'll fight this battle as ranchers.”

Johnny snorted. “If Cabral's got anybody good, then we'll DIE as ranchers. We need ta fight smart.”

“Just what do you mean by that?”

“I need ta pay Cabral a visit and then find some of his gunhawks and see if I can change their mind about startin' somethin'.”

Murdoch glared at his son for a moment. “I don't want you do anything stupid. We'll fight Cabral together, and we WILL win. Now I want your word that you won't go after any of those men he's hiring on your own.”

Johnny shook his head. “That's not be the best way to do it. If I can take out a couple of ‘em…”  

“NO! I want your word you won't go after them.”

“But Murdoch…”

“I MEAN IT!”

Johnny finally shrugged reluctantly. “All right, at least for now.”

“No, not for now, not at ALL, understood?”

“Murdoch, this is my kind of fight! I KNOW what I'm doin'.”

“NO! We're going to wait for Cabral to start this. I have no intention of starting a range war.”

“If you let me do what I want, there's a good chance there won't BE a range war! If I can take out or at least intimidate his top gun, then Cabral will probably fold before anyone else gets hurt.”

“I'm not going to let you go after Cabral's gunfighter!”

“WHY?”

“Because you can't win, that's why!”

Johnny snorted. “Thanks for the confidence.”

Murdoch shook his head, still unwilling to tell his son just who Cabral's gunfighter was. “Johnny, I want your word you'll let me handle it my way, at least until the fighting starts.”

“But Murdoch…”

“I MEAN IT JOHNNY!”

Johnny slowly shook his head. “All right, but you're makin' a big mistake.”

With a sigh, Murdoch put his drink down on the table. “I don't want to discuss it any more tonight. We'll talk about it more in the morning. We'll meet with Cipriano and see if we can come up with a plan…” He looked at his younger son who had just opened his mouth.

“Don't even say it!” Murdoch threatened. “Cipriano and I will come up with something. We've done it before.” He glared at Johnny until the gunfighter dropped his head, then he continued. “We'll figure something out, and we WILL win!”



Scott walked into his room and shut the door behind him. He stood for a long moment with his head resting on the door. Finally, he stood up and went over to the window and looked out. For all of the problems he had encountered here and the insecurity, he knew this was where he belonged. He was beginning to love this land, and he knew he loved the people on it, even if they didn't respect him.

He just needed to do something to prove to his father and brother that he wasn't helpless; that he was capable and that he was no quitter. He knew exactly what he needed to do. He needed to carry out Johnny's plan and go after Cabral's gunfighter; Madrid. Scott had been practicing quite a bit and knew he was fast and accurate. Now he just needed a little luck.

Tomorrow he would go and practice for an hour or two and then ride into Spanish Wells. With any luck he would find the gunfighter, but at the very least he would at least make sure to get a message to him. Unless Madrid was a total coward, he would answer the challenge, and then Scott could take him down. If things happened the way his brother said they would, there was a good chance he could prevent the range war that Murdoch was sure was coming. He could prove to his father and brother once and for all that he wasn't a liability.





Chapter Twenty Three

The next morning, Scott left early. He rode to the small canyon, and expertly set up the targets. He walked several paces away and concentrated on what he needed to do. He stood for several moments, then turned and fired. Six cans flew in the air, and Scott grinned. He had come a long way in a few short weeks, and he was confident that he could take just about anyone. He knew without a doubt that he was faster than his brother, and he was probably at least as fast as most of the top guns. He just hoped he was faster than Johnny Madrid.

He practiced several hours, then put away the cans and mounted Charlie. For the first time, he left his gun tied down low instead of raising it, and it made him feel more confident. He wanted people to know he was a man to be reckoned with. He turned toward Spanish Wells, eager to meet Madrid and prove his worth once and for all. Maybe once he'd killed Madrid and prevented the range war, his father and brother would realize he wasn't helpless.

He followed the signs to Spanish Wells, not exactly sure how far it was. The few times he had been into town he had preferred the more civilized Green River, although he had accompanied his brother into Morro Coyo a few times. As he rode, he thought about his father, and wondered what plan he and Cipriano would come up with. Hopefully, after today, they wouldn't have to do anything.

An hour later he finally entered the town. He looked around, hoping to see the gunfighter, or at least Cabral, but except for a few cow hands the town was deserted. He dismounted in front of the saloon, figuring it would be a good place to wait and to get some information.

He entered the building, and after a quick look around, he walked over to the bar and ordered a beer. The bartender put the mug down in front of him, then turned back to wiping some glasses. Scott took a sip of beer and looked out the window, watching the men walking by.

“You new around here?”

Scott looked up and saw the bartender studying him. Scott nodded. “Yes.”

The bartender nodded toward Scott's gun. “You here for any particular reason?”

Scott stared at his glass. “Maybe.”

The bartended continued to stare, and finally Scott nodded. “I'm looking for someone.”

“Who?”

Scott took a drink, then set his glass down and stared at the man. “Johnny Madrid.”

The bartended shrugged. “Dangerous man ta be lookin' for,” he said calmly, then went back to wiping the glasses.

“Do you know where he is?”

“Maybe.”

“Well?” Scott asked impatiently.

The man shrugged again, and Scott reached into his pocket and drew out his wallet. He withdrew a few bills and tossed them onto the bar. The bartended scooped them up and stuffed them into his shirt. “He works at a ranch just north of here.”

“I know that,” Scott ground out. “Does he ever come into town?”

“Once in a while. He was in here yesterday, so he probably won't be back for at least a few days.”

Scott thought furiously. He had no intention of riding out to the Triple C and confronting Madrid on his own turf and he certainly didn't want to have to wait until he came into town. He looked at the bartender. “Can you get a message to him?”

“I ain't a messenger. You want ta see him, you'll just have ta wait.”

“I'll make it worth your while.” Scott held out several more bills. After a moment's hesitation, the bartender grabbed the money and stashed it with the others. He nodded. “What do you want me ta tell him?”

Scott thought for a moment. It was already getting late, tomorrow would be better. “Tell him to be in town tomorrow at noon. I'll be waiting for him.”

The bartended nodded. “You got a name?”

Scott hesitated. If things went wrong, he didn't want Madrid to think Murdoch was behind the attempt on his life. “It doesn't matter. Just tell him what I told you.”

“And if he doesn't want ta come?”

“You tell him I'll find him.”

The bartended sighed. “All right. Hope you know what you're doin'. Madrid's the best gun alive.”

Scott shrugged. “Maybe he WAS.”

The bartender shook his head, and went back to his glasses. Scott finished draining his mug, then walked out of the bar. He looked around, hoping to see someone from the Triple C, but the streets were still almost empty. With a sigh, he mounted his horse and headed for home. He was disappointed he hadn't run into the gunfighter today. Now he'd have to figure out a reason to come back tomorrow.



About a half of an hour from the house, Scott stopped and readjusted his gunbelt, then headed Charlie toward home. He was angry that he'd have to wait until tomorrow to face the gunfighter. He had wanted to get it over with, and he knew that he'd have to be careful not to let his emotions get the better of him tonight and give him away. He also knew that waiting could make him careless tomorrow. With a sigh, he dismounted and led his horse into the barn. The familiar chore of grooming the horse calmed him down, and by the time he walked into the house, his normal demeanor was firmly in place.

He walked into the great room, and was immediately met with a glare from his father. Johnny looked at him in sympathy as his father stood up from behind his desk. “Just where the hell have you been?”

“I went into town,” Scott replied angrily. “I was trying to see if I could find out anything useful.”  

“What you NEEDED to do was to stay here and help us come up with a plan! Tomorrow, we are going to discuss this. ALL of us, and you'd BOTH better be here!” He glared once more at Scott, then stalked off into the other room. Scott sighed as he watched his father leave, and he went to the bar and poured a drink for himself. He hardly noticed when Johnny left to answer the knock on the door.





Chapter Twenty Four

The next morning, Scott woke up early. He went downstairs, hoping he could get the talk with Murdoch out of the way quickly. He had to be in town by noon, and if possible, he'd like to practice for a while first. He walked into the kitchen and was surprised to see Johnny already eating. He wondered briefly what his brother was doing up so early.

Johnny glanced up as Scott walked in. “Mornin'.”

“Good morning. What are you doing up so early?”

Johnny shrugged. “I just want ta get this discussion over with.”

Scott went over to the stove and poured a cup of coffee, then sat down at the table. He glanced over at his brother. “Do you think we can win?”

Johnny shrugged. “We CAN, don't mean we will, especially if we have ta do it Murdoch's way.”

Scott hesitated. “Have you ever fought in a range war before?”

Johnny glanced at his brother, wondering if he was kidding, but one look told him that Scott was serious. He nodded. “A few.”

“Does Murdoch know that?”

Johnny snorted, thinking about the Pinkerton reports that he knew were locked in his father's desk. He had seen them a few weeks after he had come home, and had wondered if the only reason his father had sent for him was because of what was written in those reports. Murdoch had to have known that with Johnny Madrid on Lancer's side, defeating Pardee was almost a sure thing. When his father hadn't asked him to leave after the battle, Johnny had realized Murdoch wanted him there, and that revelation had surprised the gunfighter.

At times, however, Murdoch's refusal to acknowledge Johnny's past was a little bit frustrating. First his father had insisted Johnny knew more about ranching than he really did. Johnny had managed to bluff his way through on sheer determination and stubbornness, but he wasn't nearly as experienced as Murdoch thought. And now, Murdoch was blindly insisting on handling the threat from Cabral without his son's professional help. How his father had managed to ignore the fact of who he was continued to baffle Johnny. One thing was for certain, however. If it came down to a fight, he would handle it, with or without Murdoch's approval. He had no intention of letting any of his family get hurt or of losing the ranch because of his father's stubbornness.

“Well? Does he?” Scott repeated.

Johnny shrugged. “Yeah, he knows, he's just choosing to ignore that fact for some reason.”

“Why?”

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

“Do you really think that you could stop the range war by taking out Cabral's top gun?”

“Yep. Cabral's a coward, and if I can manage ta get rid of the top man, the rest will probably take off and refuse ta fight.”

“What if you lose?”

Johnny snorted. “Not likely.”

Scott studied his brother. “Are you really that good?”

Johnny looked down. “Yes.”

“Did you ever really hire out?” Scott asked softly.

Johnny brought his eyes up and locked them on his brother. “Didn't Murdoch tell you?” he asked.

Scott opened his mouth to reply, when another voice cut in.

“Tell you what?” Murdoch looked at both of his sons, then walked over and poured a cup of coffee before sitting down.

“Didn't you tell Scott about my past?” Johnny continued.

Murdoch glared at his younger son. “There was no need. You're a rancher, not a gunfighter.”

“I TOLD ya, you're gonna need a gunfighter if we go ta war!”  

“NO! WE DON'T!” Murdoch yelled. “And I don't want to hear any more about it! IF we get forced into a range war, we'll fight the way I tell you to, and we WILL win! Now let's start discussing this. Cipriano will be in here any minute and we need to come up with a plan.”

Johnny closed his eyes and sat back in his chair. He knew any suggestions he made would be ignored. Murdoch wanted to do this his own way, even if it cost them the ranch. Johnny would try to get through to him, but he doubted it would do any good. He glanced up at the clock. He just hoped this stupid meeting would be over in time for him to get to Spanish Wells by noon. With any luck, they wouldn't need any plans. He could take care of it this afternoon.

Several hours later, a thoroughly frustrated and angry Johnny tore toward the barn. The meeting was finally over, although for as much as he had been listened to, he could have left before it had even started. Murdoch and Cipriano had come up with all sorts of plans and suggestions, all of which were useless against a professional opponent. Johnny had finally clamed up and just listened, his temper threatening to erupt at any time. He had managed to keep his mouth shut, and convinced them he was going along with the plans, although he had plans of his own, and the first one entailed getting to Spanish Wells before noon.

He hurriedly saddled Barranca, knowing that the only chance Lancer had was if he took this gunfighter down. He sure wished he knew who it was he was going up against, not that it really mattered. Johnny was the best, and he knew it, as did the other gunhawks. He hadn't been out of the game long enough for him to have lost his edge, and there was at least an even chance he could chase the other gunfighter off without even having to draw blood.

The problem was, he would have to hurry to get to town in time. If he didn't show up, the other man would become confident that Madrid didn't want to fight, and that would mean Johnny would have to prove he wasn't afraid. Blood would be spilled.

Johnny pulled the cinch tight, then looked up in surprise when he heard his brother.

“Where are you going?” Scott asked.

Johnny froze. He certainly didn't want his brother to go with him. “I thought I'd go check out the south pasture.” 

Scott nodded and started to saddle Charlie. “Murdoch told me to check out the east bridge before it rained.”

Johnny's eyes narrowed. It was eighty degrees and wouldn't rain for months. He didn't know what his brother was up to, but as long as he wasn't headed toward Spanish Wells, it really didn't make any difference.

“Well, see ya tonight.” Johnny's eyes locked on his brother's.

Scott nodded, hoping he really would see his brother tonight. He knew he would need luck to win the upcoming battle. “Yes, I'll see you tonight.”





Chapter Twenty Five

Johnny rode into town and looked cautiously around as he rode. He didn't see anyone new, but that didn't mean they weren't there. Whoever it was that had challenged him should be hanging around by now, but it bothered him that they weren't making their presence known. According to the clock in the old tower, it was exactly twelve o'clock. He normally liked to get into town early and scope things out, but he had been forced to take a detour into town to make it look like he was really heading toward the south pasture, and it had cost him some time.

He rode Barranca toward the hitching post of the saloon, then stopped and cursed. Riding toward him from the opposite direction was a very familiar form. Johnny thought quickly about just hightailing it out of town before his brother saw him, but as he thought about it, he caught Scott's eye and knew it was too late. With a sigh, he turned his horse away from the saloon. He didn't want his brother getting involved in a gunfight because of him, and he figured it would be safer to wait for the challenger somewhere else. Besides, he didn't want the bartender to blab about the challenge. He didn't want to have to explain it to Scott or try to keep him from getting involved.

Johnny guided Barranca toward the small store at the far end of town and dismounted, then sat down in one of the chairs to wait.



Scott looked in disbelief at his brother. He couldn't believe Johnny had lied to him about where he was going, then he blushed slightly as he realized that he hadn't been exactly honest, either. He wondered what his brother was doing in town and thought briefly that he just might be ignoring Murdoch's orders and planning on confronting Madrid. Scott smiled grimly. Johnny would just have to wait in line; he had challenged the gunfighter first. Besides, as far as he knew, Johnny didn't even know who it was that Cabral had hired.

Scott looked around the town, trying to catch a glimpse of the infamous gunman, but he didn't see anyone who could possibly be the gunfighter. He wondered briefly if Madrid had chickened out, then shook his head, knowing that was extremely unlikely. He knew an unknown challenger wasn't going to worry a man like Madrid, but the gunfighter just might be surprised.

As he rode up, he glanced over to where his brother was sitting and wondered why Johnny had avoided the bar, but he was glad that he had. After all, he wouldn't want that stupid barkeeper to say anything about the challenge Scott had made.He knew Johnny would try to interfere, and he had no intention of letting his little brother take on a man like Madrid, not if he could help it. With a sigh, he decided to join Johnny on the sidewalk. At least from there he could keep an eye on all the comings and goings, and hopefully spot Madrid before his brother did. He turned Charlie toward the store.

“I thought you was gonna check out the bridge,” Johnny smirked as Scott approached.

Scott's brows raised. “And I thought YOU were going out to the south pasture.”

Johnny smiled. “I did.” It wasn't a lie, he had ridden right through it on the way to town. “Everything was fine, so I decided to come into town and have a drink.”

“Really. Then why aren't you at the saloon?”

“Thought I'd just sit here and relax for a while first.”

Scott nodded. He thought briefly about heading for the saloon himself, but with his luck Johnny would follow him. Besides, he could wait here just as easily. “I think I'll join you.”

Scott noticed the frown appear on his brother's face and smiled to himself. He was pretty sure Johnny was waiting for Cabral's gunfighter to show up, and he was messing up Johnny's plans. Of course, Johnny was doing a pretty good job of messing up his plans, too.

Scott sank down into the chair next to Johnny. “How long are you planning on staying in town?”

Johnny shrugged. “A while.”

Scott nodded. “Me too.”

Several minutes later Scott took out his watch and glanced at it.

“What time is it?” Johnny demanded.

“Ten after twelve.”

Johnny sighed, and his fingers started drumming the side of his chair. He couldn't figure out why Cabral's gunfighter would challenge him, then back down. It just didn't make any sense. His eyes shifted to Scott. Not that he was complaining; he didn't particularly want to get into a gunfight with his brother around.

Scott stood up and paced back and forth a few steps, and Johnny's eyes narrowed. “Why are you wearin' your gun like that?” he demanded.

Scott cursed to himself; he had forgotten about his low hung rig. He turned toward his brother and smiled disarmingly. “It's more comfortable this way.”

Johnny's eyes bored into his brother's. “Uh huh.”

“What difference does it make?”

Johnny sat straight up. “The DIFFERENCE is wearin' it that way is just askin' for trouble. It might be more comfortable, but it won't matter if you're dead!”

Scott turned around and glared at his brother. “I can handle myself.” 

Johnny stared at him for another moment, then turned away. He would explain things to Scott later. For now, it really didn't matter. Johnny would make sure no one messed with his brother.



An hour later, one of the hands pulled his horse to a halt in front of his employer's house. Cabral came out before the cowboy even had a chance to knock.

“We got big trouble, Mr. Cabral.”

Cabral felt his gut clench. “What now?”

“I just came from town. Madrid's got hisself some help.”

“What kind of help?”

“Another gunfighter. They was sittin' in front of the general store, just as calm as you please. They was waiting ta start somethin' I'm sure.”

“Are you sure the man with Madrid was another gunfighter?”

“Yes, sir. He wore his rig low, and the two of them seemed as thick as thieves. They're workin' together, all right. Bill's waitin' ta see what happens.”

Cabral took a deep breath. “What are we gonna do?” he asked to no one in particular.





Chapter Twenty Six

At one o'clock, Johnny decided that he'd waited long enough. He stood up impatiently, and after taking one last look around, he turned toward his brother. “Guess I'll head on back to the ranch.”

“I thought you wanted a drink.”

Johnny shrugged. “I changed my mind.” He looked at Scott quizzically. “You comin'?” 

Scott stood up regretfully, then glanced around the deserted street and finally nodded. “I guess so.” 

The two men mounted their horses and headed out, but before they had gone more than a few steps, Johnny pulled Barranca to a halt and looked at his brother innocently. “Are you sure you don't want a drink?”

Scott shook his head. “No, I guess I'd better get back to work before Murdoch has my head.”

Johnny nodded. “I think I'll go in and get a beer before leavin'. I'll see ya back at the ranch.” He turned the palomino toward the saloon, a slight grin on his face.

Scott glared at his brother's back. His brother had suckered him into leaving for some reason. If he didn't know better, he would think his brother was trying to get rid of him. Scott glanced up and down the street again, hoping to see Madrid, but the street was still empty. It would be just his luck, however, to have the gunman show up right after he rode out. Scott thought for a moment, then guided his horse back to the other end of the town. He pulled Charlie up to the blacksmith's shop and dismounted. He would explain to his brother that one of Charlie's shoes was loose and he had to have them checked. He thought Johnny might buy it.



Johnny walked into the saloon and dropped some coins onto the bar. He wasn't in the mood for a drink, but since he was here he might as well have one. The bartender got downright cranky when someone sat in his bar without contributing to the bartender's income. “Beer.”

The bartender nodded and placed a glass in front of him. Johnny took a sip and then sighed. He still couldn't quite figure out why Scott was in town. He didn't like the fact that his brother was wearing his rig low like that, either. It was just asking for trouble. He knew if he tried to say anything, Scott would jump all over him, but Johnny still had no intention of letting it go. It was just too dangerous. Scott would be challenged continually, and Johnny wouldn't always be there to protect him.

“Guess you settled your differences,” the bartended observed.

“What?” Johnny asked, confused.

The bartender shrugged. “I saw you and the other gunfighter sittin' across the street. You didn't exactly look like you was at each other's throats.” 

Johnny snorted. “That wasn't a gunfighter. That was my brother.”

The bartender's eyes glanced up quickly before dropping back to the glasses he was washing. “You're brothers?”

Johnny nodded, then turned toward the big windows. He saw a horse approaching slowly, and his eyes narrowed.

“Is that who sent the message to meet me?”

The bartended nodded at Johnny's question without looking up. “Yeah.”

Johnny set his drink down on the bar and stepped to the door. He watched as the man approached. It took a second before the gunman saw him, then a smile formed on the stranger's face and he nodded slightly.

Johnny reached down and quickly checked his Colt, then drew on his glove before stepping outside.



“Your horse has a shoe that's twisted a little. It's not hurtin' him yet, but I'd better yank it off and put it back on right.”

Scott looked over at the blacksmith in surprise. Charlie hadn't given him any indication anything was wrong. Scott walked over and ran his hand down his horse's leg. He picked up the hoof and studied it, and his eyes widened. He guessed he wouldn't be lying to his brother after all

Scott talked soothingly to the horse as the blacksmith pried off the bad shoe. Charlie pinned his ears, and would have turned to nip the blacksmith if Scott hadn't been holding him. Scott smiled. As tractable as his horse usually was, the one thing he hated was anyone messing with his feet. He had become more tolerant since Scott had been riding him, but he still always gave at least a token protest at the indignity.

Scott glanced up and saw a stranger riding into town from the opposite direction. He watched with narrowed eyes as the man pulled his horse to a stop in front of the saloon and dismounted; the low slung gun obvious even from this distance. He glanced down as the blacksmith gave a final wrench and pulled the shoe free. Scott waited until the man stood up, then handed Charlie's reins to the blacksmith and walked quickly toward the saloon.



Johnny stepped into the street, his eyes glued on his opponent. “Cabral hire ya?”

The man nodded.

Johnny's mouth quirked up. “You know who I am?”

The man nodded again, with only a slight hesitation.

Johnny saw the hesitation. “Why don't you just forget about it? Whatever he's payin' ya ain't worth dyin' for.”

The man licked his lips nervously for a second, then straightened. “I can take you.”

Johnny shrugged. “Your call.”



Scott charged onto the boardwalk several feet away, then stopped as he realized he was too late. He heard the bartender tell a shopkeeper in a hushed tone, “That guy doesn't stand a chance against Madrid. He's a fool ta call him out.”

Scott swung back toward the scene in panic. His brother was going to die, and it was his fault. If he hadn't challenged Madrid, the gunfighter wouldn't be here right now, and Johnny wouldn't be out there facing him. Scott cursed softly, but knew he couldn't say anything. Even though he knew Johnny couldn't hope to win, he didn't want to take away the slight chance his brother had by distracting him.

Scott watched the gunfighter for the first sign of movement, and he knew that he would be facing him himself in a few minutes. He might die trying, but he was at least going to try to get revenge for his brother. Scott saw a flicker of movement, but before his mind could even register it, it was over.





Chapter Twenty Seven

Scott watched in stunned surprise as Madrid froze, his hand hovering halfway to his gun.

Scott tore his eyes away and saw to his surprise that his brother had his gun out and aimed at the man's heart. Johnny's cold blue eyes bored into the gunfighter unwaveringly. “Your choice, friend,” Johnny said softly.

Madrid swallowed hard, then carefully moved his hand away from his gun before turning and walking toward his horse.

“If I see ya around here again, you ain't getting' a second chance,” Johnny called after the man.

The man swung aboard his horse, then nodded at Johnny. “You won't see me,” he said as he spurred his horse out of town.

As Johnny talked to the gunfighter, Scott was only half listening. He finally realized just how close he had come to being killed. As fast as he thought he was, he couldn't even approach the speed of his brother. Scott hadn't even been able to react to Madrid's movement before Johnny had his gun out and aimed at the other gunfighter. The speed of his draw had been impossible to even track.

Scott shook his head slowly; he knew now that he wasn't even close to being good enough to be in a gunfight, and that thought made him feel frustrated. He had practiced until he thought his hands would fall off, and had been confident of his ability. It was a bitter blow to realize that his confidence had been misplaced and he still wasn't competent with the sidearm. His brother sure was, though. The only thing Scott couldn't quite understand was how Johnny could be that much faster than a man like Madrid. It just didn't make any sense.

Scott's eyes were drawn back to his brother, who was still standing in the street, watching as the man left. Scott saw his brother slowly relax and then take a deep breath. He watched in fascination as Johnny changed from a highly competent gunfighter to his easy going brother right before his eyes.



Johnny glanced over at his brother, then slipped his gun back into its holster. He took a deep breath before heading for the sidewalk, wondering what his brother would have to say about the gunfight.

Johnny looked at his brother and saw a look of stunned surprise on Scott's face.

“You're alive,” Scott whispered.

Johnny's mouth quirked up in a smile. “Yeah, it seems that way, don't it?”

Scott shook his head. “You beat him.”

Johnny shook his head slowly, wondering why his brother was so amazed. “He wasn't that good, Scott.”

Scott's eyes widened and he stared at his brother. “What do you mean he wasn't that good? He's a legend!”

Johnny's eyebrows raised. “A legend? Him?” Johnny shook his head again. “I don't think so, least ways not as a gunfighter. I sure as hell didn't know who he was.”

Scott looked at his brother in disbelief. “You fought him and you didn't even know that was Johnny Madrid?”

Johnny stopped and stared at his brother, wondering what the joke was. He glanced around and realized that the bartender and a few townspeople were listening to the exchange with interest, so he grabbed his brother's arm and guided him over to the other side of the street. When they were by themselves, Johnny turned and faced his brother. “What kind of a joke are you tryin' ta pull?” he asked quietly.

Scott shook his head in confusion. “It's not a joke! He really was Madrid. Cabral hired him.”

“And just where did you get THAT idea?”

Scott's mouth set in a firm line. “Cabral hired Madrid to help him take on Lancer.”

Johnny shook his head slowly. “That's what you really think?”

Scott's head came up. “I know it.”

Johnny snorted. “Wanna make a bet?”

Scott's eyes narrowed. “On what?”

“Take your pick. That Madrid wasn't gonna hire on with Cabral, or that the man that just rode out wasn't Madrid.”

“If that wasn't Madrid, then who was it?”

“I have no idea. We didn't exactly introduce ourselves. You are right about one thing, though. He WAS workin' for Cabral.”

“Then Madrid's still around!”  Scott looked up and down the street. “It's all my fault.”

“Scott.”

“I should never have sent that message to Madrid that I wanted to meet him in town today.”

Johnny's eyes widened. “That was YOU that sent the message?”

Scott nodded and then his eyes narrowed. “How did you know about that message?”

“'Cause I'm the one that got it.”

“You got it? That stupid bartender was supposed to deliver it to Madrid,” Scott fumed.

“He did.”

Scott looked at him in confusion and Johnny sighed. “Murdoch didn't tell ya, did he?”

“Tell me what?”

Johnny just stared at his brother, shaking his head slowly, until Scott's temper frayed. “Tell me WHAT?” Scott repeated.

“Scott, I'M Johnny Madrid.”

Scott stared at his brother for a second then snorted. “Right. NOW who's joking.”

“It ain't a joke.”

Scott's eyes bored into his brother's and Scott's mouth slowly came open. “You?” he breathed.

Johnny nodded slowly. “Murdoch really didn't tell you,” he said in disbelief.

“Johnny, I hate to break the news to you, but he doesn't know, either.”

Johnny's head shot up. “What do you mean he doesn't know? He has the Pinkerton reports on me, I saw them!”

“Well, he obviously didn't read them,” Scott retorted. “What do you think this whole problem with Cabral is about?”  

Johnny shook his head slowly and Scott continued. “Cipriano's nephew said he saw Johnny Madrid in town, talking to Cabral. Then Cabral told Juan he was hiring guns.”

Johnny's eyes closed. “And Murdoch thinks Cabral hired me.”

“No, Murdoch thinks he hired Johnny Madrid.”

Johnny smiled slowly. “And Cabral thinks Murdoch hired me.”

Scott's eyebrows went up. “And why would he think that?”

Johnny dropped his head. “'Cause when Cipriano's nephew saw me talkin' ta Cabral, I was sorta tellin' Cabral I'd shoot him if he tried anything.”

“You SORT OF threatened him?”

Johnny nodded. “Murdoch's gonna kill me.”





Chapter Twenty Eight

Bill once more charged his horse into Cabral's yard and hurriedly dismounted. He tore over to the house and was met by an apprehensive rancher.

“Well?” Cabral asked impatiently.

Bill shook his head. “I think we're in big trouble.”

“What happened?”

Bill shook his head again. “That so called gunfighter you hired just got his ass kicked by Madrid.”

Cabral turned a sickening shade of gray. “He's dead?”

Bill snorted. “No, but I can guarantee he's still runnin'. Madrid didn't even have ta shoot. He had the idiot beat by a mile. His gun was aimed at your gunfighter before your man even moved. Madrid's the suddenest man I ever saw.”

Cabral blew a breath out through his cheeks. “I've done everything I can to convince Lancer we don't want no trouble. We've been mindin' our own business and makin' sure our cows stay on the right side of the fence. He just ain't bein' reasonable about this.”

“Maybe you should go talk to him again; see what he wants.”

Cabral slowly shook his head. “It LOOKS like he wants my ranch.” He drummed his fingers on the side of his pant leg. “Maybe I SHOULD go talk to him.” He looked at Bill quizzically. “Are Madrid and his gunfighter friend still in town?”

Bill shrugged. “They were when I left, and I came here as quick as I could.”

Cabral nodded. “Maybe I should go talk to Mister Lancer now. He might be a little more cooperative without his hired help around.”

Bill nodded slowly. “Maybe, but I ain't hangin' around if those two show up.”

“With any luck, we'll reach an understanding with Lancer and be long gone by the time they show up.”

“I guess,” Bill said reluctantly.



Murdoch looked up when he heard a knock on the door. He waited for a moment, and then realized that Cipriano had taken Maria into town and Teresa had gone with them. He was all alone in the hacienda, although when he glanced at the clock, he realized the boys should be back soon. He stood up, and the small pain in his chest that had been bothering him all morning intensified.

He stood for a moment, waiting for it to ease, then walked over to the door and swung it open. He was surprised to see Cabral standing there with his foreman, Bill. Murdoch hesitated just a moment, and then opened the door wider and motioned them in.

“Martin, Bill, what can I do for you?” he asked politely.

Cabral took several steps into the hacienda before turning on Murdoch. “What you can DO is stop playin' dumb. Now just what is it you want, anyway, Lancer?”

Murdoch shook his head in confusion. “I don't know what you're talking about.”

“Quit lyin'. I want a straight answer for once. What are you after?”

“I'm not after anything. All I want is to prevent a range war that YOU seem to be determined to start.”

“ME? That's sort of callin' the kettle black, isn't it?”

“What do you mean by that? I haven't done anything to provoke you!”

Cabral snorted. “Aside from havin' a live in gunfighter, you mean? How long are you planning on keeping him around, anyway?”

Murdoch's brow furrowed for a moment, and then he shook his head. “You mean Johnny?” he asked in confusion.

“No,” Cabral said sarcastically. “I mean your handyman, Jelly.”

“Johnny is here permanently, not that it's any of your business.”

“Permanently! What did you do, offer him part of the ranch?”

“As a matter of fact, that's JUST what I did!” Murdoch said belligerently.

Cabral shook his head, taken aback by Murdoch's confession. He glared at Murdoch, and then made up his mind. If Lancer wanted to play dirty, then so would he. He was tired of Lancer holding all of the cards, and if he was going to save his ranch, he would have to take a stand. “All right, Murdoch. I think you and I had better have a little talk.” He drew his gun. “I want you to tell that killer to leave, understand?”

“I will not!”

Cabral put his gun to Murdoch's chest. “I have no intention of standing idly by while you take over the whole valley, starting with my ranch.” Cabral shook his head. “I never would a thought you were the greedy type.”

“I'm NOT! I have no intention of taking over ANYTHING! All I'm trying to do is to keep my ranch safe from people like you!

“People like ME? I've been mindin' my own business!”

Murdoch snorted. “By hiring gunmen?”

“That was self defense, after I found out about your gunfighter.”

“Johnny isn't here to cause any trouble.”  

“Yeah, right!” Cabral said. “That's why he threatened to shoot me and he chased one of my men out of town.”

“I don't believe you,” Murdoch said uncertainly as his hand wandered to his chest.

“It doesn't matter what you believe; you're going to get rid of him, understand? Then MAYBE we can get back to normal around here.” Cabral punctuated his words by poking Murdoch in the side with the gun.

“And if I don't get rid of him? Murdoch asked. “What are you going to do? Shoot me?”

“Mr. Cabral, we've got company,” Bill said quietly.

Martin swung around. “Who is it?”

“Madrid and his gunfighter buddy.”

Cabral swung furiously around toward Murdoch. “Now are you going to tell him, or am I going to have to get rough?”

Murdoch closed his eyes. It seemed that Cabral held all of the cards, at least for now. He knew his sons were due home any time, and he didn't want Madrid to be here when they returned. He was afraid Johnny would try to take on the gunfighter if he even suspected what was going on. He would go along with Cabral until his sons were safe.

“All right, Martin. I'll tell him to leave, but you get rid of your hired guns, too.”

Cabral looked up as the door slammed and Bill disappeared. “Guess that's already taken care of,” he snorted. “I think I'll just keep this gun right where it's at until you tell him to leave.” Martin cursed his cowardly foreman and he turned back toward Murdoch, keeping the gun pointing steadily at Murdoch's head. Both men watched the door apprehensively, waiting for Madrid.





Chapter Twenty Nine

Scott and Johnny rode toward Lancer in silence, each lost in their own thoughts. Scott glanced quickly at his brother, unable to believe that Johnny was really an infamous gunfighter. He remembered how he had snapped at his brother when Johnny had offered to help him learn how to shoot, and Scott felt the red creep up his face in embarrassment.

All of the little comments Scott remembered making about his own ability to shoot came back to haunt him. He couldn't believe some of the things he had said, and wondered why Johnny hadn't just shot him to prove his point. It would have served him right for his arrogance.

Scott sighed heavily. It seemed that he had screwed up again. Since he'd come to Lancer, it seemed as if that was all he was good at. He grinned slightly. He sure picked a heck of a skill to become an expert at. He would have been better off spending his time learning to knit, but knowing his luck, Teresa was probably a world class knitter.

He shot another look at Johnny and shook his head. “So why didn't you say anything?”

Johnny turned and glared at his brother. “I TOLD ya, I THOUGHT you knew. Hell, I thought EVERYBODY knew.” He pulled his horse to a stop. “In fact, I think everyone else DOES KNOW. The bartender sure knew who I was, and so did Cabral.” He kneed Barranca forward, then pulled him to a halt once more. “Why the hell didn't Murdoch read that damn report? Now SOMEHOW I'll get blamed for this while mess.” He nudged the palomino forward once more, and Barranca tossed his head, impatient with his master's indecision.

“Well don't blame ME!” Scott snapped. “How the hell was I supposed to know if Murdoch didn't tell me?”

Johnny sighed loudly. “I just can't believe the Old Man spent all that money havin' the Pinks find out about me and then didn't even bother ta read the reports.”

“Maybe it didn't matter to him,” Scott offered.

“More like he was afraid of what was in ‘em and he didn't want ta know the truth,” Johnny said glumly.

“So are you going to tell him?”

Johnny snorted. “Sure, why not? I might as well get it over with. Besides it ain't exactly a secret. The only one in the whole damn valley that doesn't know is my father. I'm just gonna make sure I'm packed first. I have the feeling he won't be thrilled with the news.”

“He's not going to kick you out. If he kicks anyone out, it'll be me. I can't seem to do anything right.” He shot another look at his brother. “I had PLANNED on becoming a top gun, but apparently that spot's already taken.”

“Believe me, Scott, that's one thing you don't WANT ta be the best at.” He glanced over at his brother. “So you've been practicin' huh?”

Scott nodded. “Yes, but apparently not enough,” he replied dryly.

Johnny tried to hide a smile. “Scott, it takes more than a couple of weeks ta get good with a gun.”

“I found that out!” Scott snapped.

“Don't take MY head off! It's not my fault you were actin' like an ass.”

“Well, excuse me! I was TRYING to fit in!” Scott spurred Charlie through the arch and headed for the house, his temper and his pride both smarting. Johnny followed along behind, trying to figure out why on earth his brother thought that fitting in meant being the best with a Colt.

The two men rode into the courtyard and dismounted. Johnny studied the rangy bay that was hitched to the rail, and he reached out and grabbed Scott by the arm. “Seems like we got company.”

“Yeah, so?” Scott shrugged out of Johnny's grasp and headed for the house as Johnny took a closer look at the animal. “It's got a Triple C brand,” Johnny observed.

Scott stopped and looked at the horse, then glanced at his brother, who had drawn his gun. “Do you think Cabral is here to cause problems?” Scott asked worriedly.

“Don't know, but I don't aim ta be careless.” After a moment, Scott drew his gun, too, and the two men entered the house.

Cabral looked up as Scott and Johnny entered, and his courage faltered slightly. He waited until they saw him, and then he cocked his pistol. “You stop right there, boys, or I'll blow Lancer's head off,” he said desperately.

Scott and Johnny stopped, and Cabral licked his lips nervously when he saw the steely look in their eyes. “Lancer here has something ta tell ya.”

Before Murdoch could say anything, Johnny locked his eyes on the man holding the gun. “Cabral, you'd damn well better get that gun away from Murdoch's head and leave while you're still able to. I'm warnin' you, you hurt one hair on my father's head, I'll tear you apart with my bare hands. I won't need no gun.”

Cabral gaped at Johnny for several seconds before he finally spoke. “Your FATHER?” he croaked.

Scott nodded. “OUR father. Maybe you'd better just get out of here before we do something we'll all regret,” Scott added.

A trace of a smile appeared on Johnny's face as he heard Scott's threat, and he nodded. “I don't know,” he drawled. “I don't think I'd regret it much.”

Cabral stared at the two gunmen, and his courage left him. How could he be expected to face down two notorious gunfighters? He couldn't believe how stupid he had been. It looked like he'd have to leave Lancer alone; after all, the Bar T on the other side of the valley had plenty of graze. If things got too bad, he could push some of his steers onto that range. At least the only kids old Peter Hardy had were girls. “All right, it was just a silly misunderstanding, anyway. Wasn't it Murdoch?” he asked the rancher hopefully.

Murdoch glared at the other rancher. “Get off my ranch, Martin, and don't come back. Lancer takes care of its own, and don't you forget it.” Murdoch kept his gaze on the rancher, but Cabral seemed much more worried about Scott and Johnny. Murdoch grimaced as the dull pain intensified, and his hand once more went to his chest.

Cabral nodded eagerly and edged toward the door. He kept his pistol pointed in the general direction of Murdoch as he slipped through the door and was gone. A moment later the sound of rapidly disappearing hoof beats could be heard.





Chapter Thirty

Johnny slowly slid his Colt back into the holster and walked over to his father. “You ok?”

Murdoch nodded. “I'm FINE! I don't know what got into that damn Cabral. He came over here and started accusing ME of trying to start a range war by hiring guns! I can't believe the nerve of that man! HE'S the one who hired a top gunfighter!” He stopped suddenly when he realized he had said too much, and he shifted uncomfortably. He hurriedly changed the subject. “It doesn't matter now, anyway. Apparently the men left with their boss. Maybe now we can all forget about this nonsense and get back to work.”

Scott glanced at Johnny, who shrugged.

“Murdoch,” Scott said, “There are a few things we need to discuss.”

“Later. But right now, I want to know where you were this morning.” He glared at Scott. “I sent Cipriano over to the bridge and you weren't there. I TOLD you we needed to get that done. If you expect to stay here, I want you to…”

“I'm not.”

Murdoch stopped in confusion, and Johnny stared at his brother.

“You're not what?” Murdoch asked in bewilderment.

“I'm not staying.”

“What do you mean you're not staying?” Murdoch's hand crept toward his chest once more.

“Yeah,” Johnny chimed in. “What do ya mean?”

Scott took a deep breath. “I mean, I'm not staying at Lancer. I don't fit in here.”

“That's not true!” Johnny protested.

Scott snorted. “I can't do anything right.”

Murdoch waved his hand dismissively. “It will just take some time, and you need to try harder.”

Scott's jaw clenched. “I AM trying hard, but it seems as if I never seem to do the right thing here, and I'm tired of always looking like an idiot.”

“Come on, Scott, nobody thinks you're an idiot,” Johnny pleaded.

Scott turned and glared at his brother. “That's easy for you to say. NOBODY would dare to say anything bad around you, would they?”

“Right. After all, I'm nothin' but a cold blooded killer, right?”

“I didn't say that!”

“Ya didn't have to!”

“Look, that's not the way I feel, But you have to admit, no one wants to make you mad!”

Johnny glared back. “Knock it off, Scott. Nobody at the ranch even knows who I am.”

“What the hell are you two talking about?” Murdoch asked.

The two young men continued glaring at each other for several more seconds, then Johnny sighed and shifted his gaze to his father. “Why didn't you read those damn reports, and save us all a lot of grief?”

“What reports?”

“THE PINKERTON reports that are sittin' in your desk right now!” Johnny shouted.

“What the hell does THAT have to do with anything?” Murdoch shouted back.

Johnny dropped his head and took a deep breath. “Scott here told me you wanted ta make sure I didn't fight Madrid.” He raised his head. “Why?”

Murdoch shook his head in confusion. “Because I didn't want you to be killed, that's why.”

“You're that sure he'd kill me?”

“Johnny, don't,” Scott started.

“Butt out,” Johnny snarled. “I want ta hear what Murdoch has ta say.”

“Yes, I KNOW he'd kill you. Madrid is a cold hearted killer.”

“That's what you think?”

“That's what I KNOW! Everybody knows that!”

Johnny nodded quietly. “Guess I'll be leavin' with Scott.”

“That's not fair, Johnny! He doesn't even know!” Scott shouted.

“Seems he knows plenty.”

“Would SOMEONE tell me what the hell you're talking about!” Murdoch shouted.

Johnny looked into his father's eyes. “I'M Johnny Madrid.”

Murdoch continued staring for several seconds, then shook his head slowly. “No,” he whispered.

Scott stepped up. “He's still your son and my brother, and the same man we both know.”

Murdoch shook his head in disbelief, then shut his eyes.

Scott watched for a moment, then turned toward Johnny with a sad smile. Suddenly, Murdoch grabbed his chest and gasped in pain. Johnny and Scott rushed in time to grab him before he fell. They eased him over to the couch and laid him down. He was out cold. Scott unbuttoned Murdoch's shirt and felt for a heartbeat. “He's alive.”

“It's his heart,” Johnny told Scott.

“How do you know?”

“Cause he had a heart attack before. That's why he sent for us.”

Scott looked at his brother in disbelief, and Johnny shook his head. “Look, we can argue about this later. Right now we need ta go get Sam.”

Scott nodded. “I'll go.” He reached down and took his father's hand for a moment, then squeezed it lightly. “Just hang on, I'll be right back, and Sam will fix you up.”He glanced at Johnny, then strode quickly toward the door.



Two hours later, Johnny and Scott were waiting anxiously in the Great Room, while Sam worked on Murdoch upstairs.

“How do you know Murdoch had a heart attack before?” Scott asked quietly.

Johnny took a deep breath. “He told me.”

“When?”

Johnny shrugged. “A few weeks ago.”

“And neither you nor he thought it necessary to tell me,” Scott stated matter of factly.

“Scott…it wasn't like that.”

Scott sighed. “I guess it really doesn't matter. I won't be staying, anyway. You and Murdoch can handle things just fine without me.”

“I have news for you. Murdoch won't want me here now. You saw his reaction to the news I was Johnny Madrid.”

“Of course he will want you to stay. He was just surprised, that's all.”

“I don't think surprised is exactly the right word. The news gave him a heart attack!”

“YOU didn't do that.” Scott dropped his head. “I did. Didn't you see him grab his chest when I told him I was leaving?” 

“I guess we both did a pretty good job of puttin' more pressure on him. He brought us here ta reduce some of his stress, and instead, all we did was give him a heart attack.”  Johnny snorted. “He was worried about Pardee, but it looks like his own sons did a pretty damn good job of tryin' ta kill him.”

Scott dropped his head. “Well, I don't know about you, but I plan on righting that. I'll be leaving as soon as I know he's all right.”

Johnny sighed deeply. “Me too. I just hope he IS all right. I don't think I'd ever forgive myself if he's not.”

Scott nodded miserably. “You and me both.”





Chapter Thirty One

Sam came down the stairs and both Johnny and Scott looked up expectantly. The doctor glanced at them, then went over to the sideboard and poured a drink. Johnny looked worriedly at his brother.

“Well?” Scott demanded as he watched the old doctor.

Sam walked over to the sofa and sank down, then looked up at the two anxious young men. “He's had another heart attack, which I'm sure you've already figured out.”

Scott swallowed hard. “How bad?”

Sam shrugged. “It could have been worse, but it's still not good.”

“Sam, tell us,” Johnny said impatiently.

“It's going to lay him up for quite a while. Every one he's had has been more serious, and it's taken him longer to heal each time. I expect this one to take him at least several months to recover from, and that's only if he does what I say and not get upset and he doesn't push himself. I DON'T want him to have any more, because I'm afraid if he does, it could be fatal.”

Johnny shook his head in confusion. “How many has he had?”

“He's had three other heart attacks besides this one.”

“THREE? He told me he'd had ONE other one,” Johnny said in surprise.

“He had the first one right after your mother left, Johnny. He had a small one about five years ago, and then another one right before you boys came home. When I saw they were becoming more frequent, I told him that he had to take it easier, and get someone to help him run this ranch.” Sam smiled. “He said he didn't trust anyone to run Lancer, and he wasn't going to let some stranger take over. That's when he decided to send for the two of you.”

Johnny snorted. “Yeah, well I hate ta tell ya, but that wasn't such a good idea.”

Sam's eyebrows rose. “Why?”

“Cause we haven't exactly reduced his stress level.”

Sam shook his head and smiled. “I'm sure you have. Murdoch has told me more than once how much it means to him to have the two of you home and how much safer it made him feel. He said he was proud of the way the two of you were fitting in, and he felt the ranch was in safe hands, no matter what happened.”

“Well, he sure hasn't given us that impression,” Scott said. “I seem to do nothing but make him yell.”

Sam shook his head. “Murdoch yells at EVERYBODY, it's just part of his personality. It was one of the things I told him he had to stop.”

“Well, he sure don't listen very well,” Johnny snorted.

Sam dropped his head and smiled. “No, THAT trait seems to run in the family.” He brought his eyes up and studied the two young men. “The two of you will have to run the ranch for a while. I think he'll recover, but I don't want him doing anything for a while.”

Scott sighed softly. “How long before he can run it again?”

“Why?” Sam grinned. “I'd think you'd love to get the chance to do things your way for a while, without Murdoch looking over your shoulder.”

“Believe me, I don't care HOW sick he is, he'll still be lookin' over our shoulders,” Johnny said.

”Well, that's probably true, but at least you don't have to tell him everything.”

Johnny grinned. “Is that an order?”

Sam grinned back. “Why not?”

Johnny glanced at his brother, and the two men locked eyes. “We'll do our best,” Johnny finally said, as Scott nodded reluctantly.

Sam studied the two men, then nodded. “See that you do. Murdoch doesn't need to worry about things right now.” He hesitated and looked at Johnny. “Now, do you want to tell me what's bothering the two of you?”

“Ya mean besides Murdoch havin' a heart attack?” Johnny asked sarcastically.

Sam just glared at the gunfighter, and Johnny finally dropped his head. “It's our fault he had another attack.”

Sam shook his head. “No, Johnny, it's not. It's been coming on for a while. Believe me, you didn't do anything to cause it.”

“Maybe, but things got pretty…intense… between us right before it happened. Murdoch was awfully upset.”

“Johnny, he would have had it anyway. It might have come on a little sooner if he became very agitated, but it WOULD have happened, no matter what.”

“Maybe,” Johnny muttered. “But we sure didn't help it.”

“Look, I've known your father a long time. He's always been very reactive, and that's part of his problem. He brings on a lot of the stress himself. If he'd learn to relax and not have to control everything, we wouldn't be having this discussion.”

“That's the reason he's made such a success of the ranch,” Scott observed. “It takes a man like that to be successful. You have to pay attention to details and monitor everything. You can't leave anything to chance.”

Sam shrugged. “We'll, there are different ways to be successful, and I just might remind him of that. And if he doesn't calm down a little, he won't be around to enjoy his success, anyway. That's why I told you not to tell him everything. He doesn't need to get upset over everyday problems.”

“Everyday problems isn't exactly what did it,” Johnny snorted.

“Well, whatever it was, just let it go for now. You and Scott can handle it. You have to keep Murdoch as calm as possible and that means the two of you will have to handle any problems.”

Scott sighed. “Like Johnny said, we'll do our best.” 

Sam nodded. “I gave him something to make him rest, so he shouldn't wake up until morning. One of you should stay with him tonight, and if you need me, you'll know where to find me. Make sure he doesn't get out of bed, and I'll be back tomorrow to check on him.”  

“Would you like to spend the night?” Scott offered.

“Thanks, but I still have a few patients I need to check on. I'll be back tomorrow.”

As Sam left, Johnny and Scott finished their drinks. “Well,” Scott said, “it looks like we won't be leaving for a while.” 

Johnny nodded, then smiled at his brother. “I can't say I'm too upset about the prospect.”

Scott smiled back. “Me either.”





Chapter Thirty Two

The next morning, both men were up early, in spite of having been up most of the night checking on Murdoch. He still wasn't awake, and they decided to leave his care in Teresa's capable hands for a few hours. As they ate breakfast, they discussed the day's chores.

Johnny smiled at his brother. “I have ta go check out the south pasture. Make sure I didn't miss anything yesterday.”

Scott snorted. “I think that might be a good idea. I have the feeling you just MIGHT have missed something during your very thorough inspection. Meanwhile, I'll go and inspect the bridge.”

“Scott…” Johnny said hesitantly.

“What?”

Johnny licked his lips and hesitated.

WHAT!”

“I don't want ya to get mad.”

“Well, I'll guarantee I'll get mad if you don't tell me what's on your mind.”

“Murdoch said he was way behind on the bookwork.I'm no good at doin' books or paperwork. We also have a couple of contracts that need to be signed and sent back. Why don't you work on that while I do something I CAN do?”

Scott opened his mouth to argue, then realized that Johnny meant it about not wanting to do paperwork and wasn't trying to patronize him. Scott shrugged. “I don't think Murdoch wants me messing with his books. Last time he got pretty upset.”

“Well that's just too bad, isn't it?” Johnny snapped. “After all, we're both part owners and we have a right ta ‘mess' with anything we want. Besides, we can't just ignore the books until Murdoch gets better, and those contracts have to be gone over before we sign ‘em.”

After Scott thought for a minute, he realized that his brother was right. The bookwork couldn't wait until Murdoch could do it. Even if his father became angry, it had to be done, and if this was going to work both he and Johnny had to do the things they were capable of doing. “All right, I'll work on the books, but as soon as I'm done, I'll help you with the other chores.”

Johnny nodded. “Just don't expect me ta help you with the books, and we'll get along fine. I'll come back in for lunch and ta make sure Murdoch's doin' ok. If ya need me in the meantime, you know where I'll be.”

“All right, see you at lunchtime.”

Johnny grabbed his hat and gunbelt off of the rack and headed for the door, while Scott walked into the Great Room. He went in and sat in Murdoch's chair behind the massive desk, feeling somehow that he was trespassing. After several moments, he opened the drawer and pulled out the ledger and a pencil.

Several hours later, he put down the pencil and rubbed his eyes. He had brought the books up to date and started reading the contracts, but his tired mind was beginning to wander. He stood up and stretched, then went upstairs to check on his father.

Scott hesitated outside the door and watched as Teresa sat next to the bed, holding Murdoch's hand, talking quietly.

“Is he awake yet?” Scott asked as he entered the room.

“Yes, he's awake,” Murdoch grumbled weakly.

Scott walked over and stood by the bed. “How are you feeling?”

“Fine. I should be back to normal by tomorrow.”

Scott glanced at Teresa, who shrugged, and Scott's gaze went back to his father. “Sam said he doesn't want you doing anything for at least several months.” 

Murdoch bolted upright. “WHAT!”

“Murdoch, calm down!” Scott ordered.

“You can't expect me to calm down after telling me that! I CAN'T stay down that long. This ranch will fall apart!”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” Scott said dryly.

Murdoch waved his hand in dismissal. “I didn't mean it that way, but there are things I have to do.”

“No, there aren't!” Sam exclaimed from the doorway.

“Sam…”

Sam cut the rancher off before he could get started. “Don't threaten me, Murdoch Lancer! You are not going to be doing anything for quite a while.” Sam turned toward Teresa and Scott. “I need to check my patient,” he ordered. “I'll see the two of you downstairs.”

Scott and Teresa exchanged glances, then nearly bolted out of the room and slammed the door. Neither one had any desire to be in the room when Sam laid down the law to their father.

Once downstairs, Teresa went to the kitchen to start lunch, and Scott walked back over to the desk and sat down once more. He pulled out another stack of papers and began going through them. A few moments later, the pile of envelopes containing the Pinkerton reports on his brother came into view. He pulled them out and stared at them, and verified to himself that only one had been opened.

He still wasn't reconciled to the fact that his brother was Johnny Madrid, and he wondered if he and his brother could ever be close enough to really know each other, let alone trust each other unequivocally. He always knew that he and Johnny were different, but he never dreamed just how different they really were. He couldn't imagine killing people for money, and he couldn't imagine really trusting anyone who did.

The problem was, he DID trust Johnny, at least to a certain point, but he didn't understand him. He needed to know his brother better if there was any hope of them ever becoming really close. He needed to know WHY his brother became a gunfighter. He shook his head, wondering why he was even bothering. He wouldn't be here long enough to even try. He sat for another minute, then he unfolded the letter that had been opened and started to read.

The door slammed open, and Scott jumped. He hurriedly stuffed the paper back in the drawer and stood up as his brother walked into the room.

“How's the Old Man?”

“He's awake, and pretty upset about being told he can't do anything for a while. Sam's upstairs with him right now.”

Johnny nodded and threw his hat on the table. He glanced at the pile of papers on the desk and smiled. “Anything interesting?”

Scott hesitated, wondering if he should tell his brother the truth.





Chapter Thirty Three

Scott hesitated, then nodded. “I came across the Pinkerton reports. Only the first one was opened. The rest are still in sealed envelopes.”

Johnny studied his brother intently. “Did you read them?” he asked softly.

Scott took a deep breath. “I read the first one.” 

Johnny stared at his brother but didn't say anything, and Scott continued. “I didn't read the others.”

“Are you going to?”

Scott locked eyes with his brother. “No. Not unless you want me to.”

“Why not?” 

Scott shrugged and dropped his eyes. “I don't know. Maybe because I don't need to know all of the details.”

“Then why did you read the first one?”

Scott sighed. “Curiosity about why you chose that line of work, I guess.”

Johnny continued to stare at Scott, and then finally asked, “Did it tell ya what ya wanted to know?”

Scott shook his head slowly. “It told me the facts, but nothing else.”

“What else is there?” Johnny asked sarcastically.

“I wanted to know what was going on in your mind; what REALLY happened.”

Johnny looked at his brother in surprise, then a slight grin crossed his face. “Next time, ask me.”

Scott looked at him in disbelief. “You'd tell me?”

Johnny grinned. “Nope. But you can ask.”

Scott swatted his brother with his hand. “Then maybe I'll read those reports after all.”

“OK.”

Scott stopped and looked at his brother in disbelief. “You don't care?”

Johnny shrugged. “You can read ‘em.” As Scott gaped at him, Johnny continued, “Of course, then I'd have ta shoot ya.”Johnny shrugged. “Your choice.”

“Seems like I've heard those words before, fairly recently,” Scott said dryly.

“Yeah, and that guy made the right choice. It'd sure be a shame if I had ta shoot my own brother.”

Scott stopped and looked at Johnny, unsure until he saw the glint in his brother's eyes. He decided to play along with the lunacy. “Well, yes, but remember, I've been practicing. I don't scare easy.”

“I don't aim ta scare ya, I aim ta shoot ya.”

The two men looked at each other until smiles broke out on both of their faces.

Scott looked toward the stairs. “Speaking of shooting, it's awfully quiet up there. I wonder if Sam's all right.”

Johnny shrugged. “Didn't hear no gunshots. Besides, I'm speakin' from experience when I tell ya that Sam's tougher than he looks.”

Scott nodded. “Then until we hear screams or gunshots, I vote we stay down here.”

Johnny nodded. “Let's go eat.”



Sam stared at he man in the bed and Murdoch glared back. “I Am NOT staying in bed for three months!”

“Then give me your word that you won't do any work, including paperwork, and I'll let you go downstairs…in three weeks.”

“This ranch won't SURVIVE that long!”

Sam shook his head. “Johnny and Scott are more than capable of running this ranch for a couple of months.”

Murdoch snorted. “They're not even going to be here.”

“What do you mean?” Sam asked in surprise.

“Both Johnny and Scott told me they were leaving right before I had my heart attack.”

Sam sat down in the chair next to the bed. “Why would they leave?”

Murdoch dropped his head. “Scott doesn't feel comfortable here. He says he doesn't belong here.”

“Of course he belongs here,” Sam protested. “He's done a great job of fitting in. Everybody likes him, and you said yourself that he's quickly learning the ranching business.”

“He is.”

“Then why does he think he doesn't belong?”

“I don't know,” Murdoch admitted.

“And Johnny?”

Murdoch shook his head slowly, then turned his eyes toward the doctor. “I don't think he'll fit in, either.”

Sam shook his head in confusion. “I don't understand.” 

“I knew he was a gunfighter,” Murdoch whispered. “I just didn't know…” his voice trailed off.

“Know what?” Sam pressed.

“I guess I didn't want to know, not really. That's why I didn't read those reports. I knew if he'd been making a living by the gun for all of these years, he'd have to be good, or he wouldn't have survived.” He dropped his head. “I just didn't want to know how good. I didn't want to believe my sweet baby boy had become a stone cold killer.”

“He's not!”

Murdoch nodded his head sadly. “Yes, he is, and I made a mistake by bringing him here.”

Sam shook his head. “What are you talking about? That boy is no more a cold blooded killer than I am.”

Murdoch stared at the doctor. “Do you know who he is? 

“He's your son, Johnny Lancer.”

“No, he's not. He's Johnny Madrid.”

Sam gaped at him. “Johnny Madrid?”

Murdoch nodded, then lay back and closed his eyes, suddenly exhausted. “It seems I'm not going to have any help, after all.” He shook his head. “I never should have brought them here. It would have been better for everyone.”

Sam's head shot up. “Better for whom? Johnny? If you hadn't brought him here, he would be dead right now. Is that what you wish?”

“No, of course not,” Murdoch said crossly. “But all it did was raise my hopes, and all for nothing.”

Sam studied his friend. “So why is Johnny leaving?”

Murdoch looked up in disbelief. “I TOLD you!”

“All you told me was that he was leaving,” Sam said calmly. “You didn't tell me why.”

“He's a GUNFIGHTER!”

“You knew that before you brought him home, and he's been a rancher the last couple of months.”

“A man like Johnny Madrid can't just stop.” 

“No, but a man like Johnny Lancer can.”

“You're not making sense,” Murdoch complained.

Sam shook his head. “Murdoch, this last month or so, did you think Johnny was fitting in? Doing a good job? Staying out of trouble?”

Murdoch nodded.

“Then what's changed? Just because you found out he used to go by another name?” Sam asked belligerently.

“Sam, you don't understand.”

“No, Murdoch, I don't. You have both of your boys here; something you've prayed for and worked toward for years. And now, you're going to throw it all away without a fight. You're right, I don't understand, and I don't think you do, either. But you damn well better think about it.”





Chapter Thirty Four

Johnny walked up to the house and slapped his hat against his legs to try to get some of the dust off his clothes. Then he carefully scraped his boots on the mud scraper because he knew Teresa would shoot him if he tracked mud onto her floor. Finally he opened the door and entered the house. He tossed his hat on the table and hung up his jacket on the rack. Despite Murdoch's protests, he still kept his Colt with him in the house.

The day had been long and hard. He had fought the barbed wire endlessly, and had to drag several ungrateful cows out of mud holes. It was hotter than Hades, and the dust had stuck to his sweat dampened clothes, making them stiff and itchy. He was tired, sore, and generally miserable, but it was still better than being a gunfighter. He wondered if he could get a job somewhere else when the Old Man kicked him out. He had some experience as a rancher now, and maybe he could head north, away from the border towns and away from his past. Maybe Johnny Madrid could just disappear and he could become a simple ranch hand. Maybe.

With a sigh, he entered the Great Room, wishing he was good at paperwork. He knew Scott hadn't had as rough a day as he had. He glanced over at the desk, and came to a halt. His brother was sound asleep, his head resting on a massive pile of papers, with more piled around him. Johnny smiled; maybe his big brother hadn't had such an easy day either.

Johnny went over and poured a large drink for himself, then as an afterthought, poured another one. He took a long swallow from his, then walked over and set the other glass on the desk.

“Hey, Scott.”

Scott startled awake and looked up in confusion. His eyes focused on his brother and he smiled slowly. “I guess I dozed off for a minute.”

“Looks like it.” Johnny nodded at the glass. “Have a drink.”

Scott nodded and picked up the glass.

“How's Murdoch doing?” Johnny asked.

“All right, I guess. He's not in a very good mood.”

Johnny snorted. “That's nothin' new.”

“He hasn't said much. I think there's something on his mind.”

“Oh, yeah, ya think?” Johnny asked sarcastically. “I mean he's had a pretty hard couple of days.”

Scott dropped his head and nodded. “Well, the least we can do is make sure the ranch is in good shape when he's back to running it.”

Johnny nodded. “That pasture was a mess. I told Cipriano to get a work crew out there first thing on the morning. We need ta get it ready for when we move the herd.” He took another sip of his drink. “How're the books coming?”

“The books seem fine, but I have some concerns with a few of the contracts. There are some clauses in them that I'm not comfortable with. I'm going to have to look into it a little bit more. ”

Johnny grinned wryly. “Sure ya didn't just hear about how much fun I had today and decide not ta join me tomorrow?”

Previously, Scott might have taken exception to Johnny's teasing comment, but now he recognized it for what it was and he smiled. “Maybe.”

“I thought so. Guess I'll have to make sure I have even more fun tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow, I plan on sitting here all day with a tall glass of lemonade and my feet up on the desk. But I WILL think about you once in a while.”

Johnny snorted. “Murdoch catches you with your feet on HIS desk, you won't be able ta think of anybody. You'll be dead.”

Scott nodded. “Maybe you'd like to stay here tomorrow and get caught at Murdoch's desk and let me go wrestle some cows.”

“No thanks. “I'll stick with ornery steers. At least if they get too obnoxious, I can shoot ‘em.”

Scott nodded, then stood up. “Think supper's ready?”

“It better be. I'm starvin'.”

The two men headed for the kitchen and dished up their plates, then fixed another one for Murdoch.

Scott looked at his brother. “Ready?

Johnny sighed. “Yeah, I guess, but I have the feelin' my appetite will be ruined.”

“Remember, Sam said not to make him upset, and to keep the subject off of the ranch as much as possible.”

“I DON”T think keepin the subject off the ranch will be a problem. Keepin' him from gettin' upset might be a little harder. I have the feeling he'll have some pretty definite ideas about what we told him the other day.”

“Just TRY to keep your temper.”

Johnny shook his head. “Tell HIM that.”

They reached their father's door and cautiously pushed it open, halfway hoping he'd be asleep, but his head immediately turned in their direction.

“Boys.”

“How are you feeling?”Scott asked.

“Fine. I told that old pill pusher that. There's no reason I can't be up.” He looked up at his sons anxiously. “How did it go today?”

“Fine, no problems,” Johnny offered as he set a plate down on his father's lap.

Murdoch looked at Scott, who nodded. “Everything's fine.”

Murdoch relaxed slightly. “I should be up in a few days.”

“Sam said you need to stay in bed for at least several weeks,” Johnny bravely stated.

Murdoch glared at his son. “There's no way I'm going to stay in bed that long! I have a ranch to run!”

“You don't trust us,” Scott said.

“Of course I trust you. That's not the point.” Murdoch dropped his head. “Besides…I…I didn't think you were going to stick around.”

Scott glanced at Johnny. “We decided we'd stay until you were on your feet and could take over running the ranch again, if that's ok with you.”

Murdoch closed his eyes in relief. “It's fine, and I appreciate it.” He opened his eyes and looked at his sons. “Thanks.”

Scott and Johnny nodded, and Murdoch watched the two of them as they sat down next to his bed and started to eat. It seemed as though his sons were getting along pretty well. He was glad of that, but they were still strangers to him, and it looked like things would remain that way.It didn't look like they'd ever get the chance to become a family, and Murdoch didn't know what to do about it.





Chapter Thirty Five

The next morning, Scott and Johnny sat at the breakfast table and discussed their plans for the day. Scott realized with some surprise that he was no longer having trouble getting up early, and watched in amusement as Johnny fought to wake up.

“Bad night?” Scott asked his brother.

Johnny looked at him for a moment before answering. “Yeah. Couldn't sleep.”

“I thought you always slept well,” Scott said with a trace of a smile.

Johnny grinned. “Don't believe everything ya hear.”

Scott took a sip of strong coffee. Another thing he was finally used to. Back in Boston, coffee was half as strong and was served with cream and sugar. He didn't think he'd ever forget the look of amusement on his family's faces when he had poured both into his cup the first morning at Lancer. “If ya wanted a cup of cream and sugar, why didn't ya just start with that,” Johnny had observed.

With a wry smile, Scott drained his cup. Now that he was used to drinking it black, he preferred it that way. He was grateful for the energy the strong brew gave him first thing in the morning.

“So what are you planning on doing today?” Scott asked his brother.

Johnny sighed. “We need ta get that south pasture ready for the herd. We've got ta move it soon.”

“Why?”

“Because there's not enough water where they're at this time of year, and they're startin' ta overgraze their pasture. We need ta move them before that happens.”

Scott nodded in understanding, thankful Johnny never seemed to mind him asking questions, and never made him feel dumb when he didn't know the answer. “I want to go over a few of those contracts with you tonight, and we have to figure out which one of us is going to re-negotiate that army contract. Murdoch had it on his calendar for this week.”

Johnny nodded. “Ok.” 

“In the meantime, I'm going to work on that pile of bills on Murdoch's desk and see if I can make a dent in it.” Scott shook his head. “I never realized there were so many expenses.”

“It takes a lot of money ta run a spread this size.”

“I'm beginning to find that out.” He glanced at his brother. “I should be all finished with the books and paperwork this evening, and I can give you a report.”

“What about Murdoch?”

Scott shrugged. “Sam said he didn't want him discussing the ranch business at all.”

Johnny snorted. “Probably because he knows the Old Man doesn't ‘discuss'. He rants.”

Scott nodded in agreement. “Yes, but I have the feeling not knowing what's going on is just as bad for him.”

“Maybe.” Johnny grinned at his brother. “But a whole lot better for us.”

Scott smiled back. “Brother, you might have something there.”

Johnny reached over and grabbed his hat off of the rack before gulping down the rest of his coffee. “See ya,” he shouted over his shoulder as he headed for the barn.

Scott sat for another minute, then with a sigh, he walked into the Great Room to face the mountain of bills.

Johnny's pace slowed slightly as he neared the barn. He had one chore today that he wasn't particularly looking forward to, but he knew it had to be done. He looked around and saw Cipriano giving the men their assignments, and figured now was as good a time as any. He walked toward the group of men who were assembled and waited patiently as Cipriano finished. The Segundo turned toward him and said respectfully, “Anything else you wish to add, Senor Lancer?”

Johnny shook his head. “No, you men know your jobs, and I've already told you what needs to be done. But there is one thing I'd like to get straight with all of you.”

Cipriano looked at him quizzically, and the rest of the men shifted uncomfortably, wondering what their new boss was unhappy about.

Johnny hesitated, wondering just how to say what was on his mind. Finally, he looked at the Segundo. “You know I was a gunfighter before I came here,” he stated.

Cipriano nodded. “Your father shared that information with me.” He glanced quickly around. “But I did not tell anyone else.”

Johnny shrugged. “It don't matter. It's not exactly a secret.” Johnny hesitated. “Unfortunately, Murdoch didn't tell you all of it. In fact, he didn't know himself. If he had, it would have saved a lot of trouble.”

Cipriano nodded. “Go on, Senor.”

Johnny took a deep breath and locked eyes with the segundo. “It was me your nephew saw in town that day.”

Cipriano frowned in confusion. “I don't understand. He was sure it was Johnny Madrid that he saw.”

“It was.”

Cipriano continued to frown for a moment, until understanding took over. “You are Johnny Madrid?” he asked hesitantly.

Johnny glanced at the rest of the men, who were watching intently with various expressions. Most of them simply looked surprised.

“Si,” Johnny said simply as he waited warily for the man's reaction.

Cipriano's frown remained intact for several moments, then he reached out and gave Johnny big hug. “Welcome, Senor Madrid. Our people owe you a debt of gratitude.”

“For what?” Johnny asked in surprise.

Cipriano smiled. “Your feud with the rurales is well known.”

Johnny smiled. “Yeah, well, most of the time I didn't have much of a choice.”

Cipriano shrugged. “That is irrelevant. You still gave the people hope.”

Johnny shrugged. “If any of you have a problem with who I am, I want to know now.” His gaze swept the group, but to his surprise, he saw none of the expected speculative looks or averted eyes, and he nodded at the men. “All right. As long as I'm here, I'm Johnny Lancer, understand?”

The men nodded in agreement. “Si, Senor,” Cipriano stated. “We understand.”

As he rode out to the pasture with the men, Johnny thought about how his news had been received by the men. He had been pleasantly surprised at their reaction. He wished his own father had been as accepting. If his father would just give him a chance, he just might make it here, but he knew that wasn't likely to happen.





Chapter Thirty Six

Johnny noticed the doctor's buggy as soon as he rode into the yard late that afternoon. He hurriedly tied Barranca to the hitching post and headed into the house. He stopped short when he saw Scott and Sam sitting in front of the fireplace, drinks in hand, but a quick check of their faces reassured them that there was nothing major wrong. His eyes went to his brother. “Glad ta know you've been workin' hard. I think I'll take ya up on that offer and do the books tomorrow.”

Scott grinned. “Too late. They're all done.”

“Figures,” Johnny grumped. He turned his attention to the doctor. “How's Murdoch?”

Sam nodded. “He's much better, but as I told Scott, I don't want him doing anything for a while. If he doesn't take it easy now, he could have another attack.”

“We have no intention of letting him do anything for a while,” Scott reassured the doctor.

“How are things going? Any problems?”

Johnny shook his head. “No problems. Everything's going fine, at least on my end.” He looked at Scott expectantly.

“No problems with the books. They're all in order.”

Sam nodded. “Good. Murdoch's a lucky man to have the two of you.”

Both Scott and Johnny shifted nervously and they didn't meet the doctor's eyes. Sam studied them for several moments, then sighed. “I hope you two aren't still thinking about leaving. Murdoch needs you.”

“Tell HIM that,” Johnny snorted.

“He knows it,” Sam insisted.

“No, he doesn't,” Scott stated firmly. “He doesn't need us and he's done a pretty good job of convincing us he doesn't want us here, either.”

Sam slammed his glass down on the nearby table. “He DOES want you here, and he DOES need you!” His voice lowered. “He's just… he just doesn't know how to tell you that.”

Johnny shook his head. “It don't matter. We'll be movin' on as soon as he's on his feet.”

“I wish you'd reconsider.”

“I don't think that will happen,” Scott said with finality. “Now when do you think he can get back to work?”

Sam sighed. “I don't know for sure. Maybe in a couple of weeks he'll be ready for some light work.”

Scott nodded. “We'll do our best to make sure the ranch is in good shape by then.”

Sam nodded and then finished his drink before standing up. “I'll be back out here to check your father in a day or two.” The doctor headed to the door, and Scott saw the man out, then shut the door softly and walked back to the Great room.

“We have a few problems,” Scott said without preamble.

“What kind of problems?”

Scott shrugged. “I'm not happy with the wording of the contracts Murdoch uses. The way they're set up, the buyer has the advantage in the transaction and Lancer bears all of the responsibility if things don't go right.”

Johnny shrugged. “I would think the seller WOULD have most of the responsibility of making sure everything is ok.”

Scott shook his head. “That's what most people think, but that's not necessarily true. I think I should reword it slightly, to give Lancer a little more leeway.”

Johnny smiled. “It's all right with me, ‘cause I don't have a clue what you're talkin' about. That's your department.” Johnny went over to the sofa and plopped down, resting his feet on the small table in front of it.

Scott looked at him in surprise. “Don't you want to hear the particulars?”

“Nope. I trust ya.”

Scott locked eyes with his brother and shook his head slightly. “Murdoch might have something to say about it.”

“Then don't tell him.”

Scott's eyebrows went up. “Do you think that's wise?”

Johnny smiled crookedly. “Yep.”

Scott laughed. “All right. Now what about that army contract? One of us has to go to Fort Humboldt and re- negotiate a new one.”

Johnny shook his head and patted his gun. “I think you'd better do it. The only way I'm good at negotiatin' is with this, and I KNOW Murdoch wouldn't approve of that.”  

“Are you sure you want me to go?”

“Yep. I'll hold down the fort and you go take care of that contract.”

“All right, but what are you going to tell Murdoch? He'll have a fit if he knows where I've gone.”

“”Well, I guess he'll just have to learn how to cope, won't he?”

Scott sighed. “Sam said not to get him upset.”

“Look, Scott. He just doesn't have a choice. If he wants us ta help him, he's gonna have ta trust us. He can't have it both ways.”

“You're right. But I'm going to leave it up to you to tell him. AFTER I've gone.”

“Thanks, brother.”

Scott came over and sat next to Johnny, reveling in the closeness. He knew he couldn't stay at Lancer; not with the way his father was treating him, but he would sorely miss his brother. He had a brief thought of leaving with Johnny and becoming a gunfighter, and the thought made him smile. The next thought, of Johnny coming back to Boston with him to live, made him chuckle.

Johnny looked at him quizzically. “What's so funny?”

Scott shook his head. “Nothing. Just thinking, that's all.” He took another sip of his drink. “I found out something else today. You know how Murdoch keeps talking about improving the herd?”

Johnny nodded. “I think that's ALL he cares about.”

Scott nodded. “I thought so, too. But apparently it isn't.”

“What do you mean?”

Scott hesitated. “For the last year, Murdoch has been making inquiries about buying some prime bulls. Several months ago, the stock he wanted finally became available.”

“Why didn't he get them?”

Scott looked at his brother. “He gave us the money instead. It went to pay for bringing us here and for the listening money.”

Johnny stared at Scott for several moments, and then dropped his head. “Guess he made the wrong decision, huh?”

“Not necessarily. Most of Lancer's good stock was killed off by Pardee. He probably would have lost it, anyway.”

“Guess the Old Man's luck hasn't been too good lately.”

“No, it hasn't, but maybe we can do something to change it.”

“Like what?”

“The stock might still be available,” Scott said neutrally. “The seller's not that far from the fort.”

Johnny's head came up and after a moment, he nodded. “I'll get you my money.”





Chapter Thirty Seven

Johnny rode into Green River and headed for the saloon. He had decided to leave Murdoch in Teresa's capable hands for a few hours and ride into town to get a cold beer. Since Scott had left a week before, Murdoch had been in a pretty foul mood, and Johnny was getting tired of getting his tail chewed for no reason except his Old Man was angry at being cooped up.

When Johnny had told his father that Scott had left for Fort Humboldt to re- negotiate the army contract, Murdoch had ranted for an hour about how Lancer would be ruined. Johnny had been told how difficult it was to deal with the army, and how it had taken Murdoch years to learn how to handle the negotiations. It had been all Johnny could do to keep his father in bed instead of letting him jump up and ride after Scott. Finally, Murdoch had calmed down, but he was still morose about Lancer's future, and made sure he reminded Johnny of it at every opportunity.

Johnny had pointed out that Murdoch couldn't possibly do it, and that he should give Scott a chance. Murdoch had growled back that he didn't exactly have a choice, but he sure wasn't happy about it. Sam had walked in about then and joined Johnny in trying to convince the rancher to wait and see how Scott did before jumping to conclusions, but they weren't very successful. Murdoch remained convinced that Lancer was finished, and it would be all Scott's fault. And of course Johnny's, for letting him go.

Johnny tied Barranca up to the rail in front of the saloon, and after taking a quick look around, he walked in and took his customary place in the far corner. The bartender brought him a beer, and Johnny took his time enjoying it, letting the stress from the last several weeks drain off him.

Murdoch was recovering, and Johnny figured he would be able to leave soon. He had expected his father to want to discuss the revelation about who Johnny was, but Murdoch hadn't brought it up. He thought about bringing it up himself, but then decided against it. He figured it would just lead to an argument, and since he was leaving anyway, it would be pointless. Murdoch had made it pretty clear how upset he was by the news, and Johnny figured he still was. All the discussion in the world wouldn't change who and what Johnny was.

With a quiet sigh, he took another sip of beer. If he was honest with himself, he realized he didn't really want to leave. The work here was hard, but for the most part he enjoyed it. It was sure better than being a gunfighter. For the first time in his life, he had a home and people to care about, and that cared about him. It would be hard to give it up. He would miss his father and sister, and most of all Scott. He was surprised by how much closer he felt to his brother since the gunfight in town. He finally knew he and Scott could become friends if given the chance, but it looked like they wouldn't get that chance. He smiled at the thought of convincing his brother to leave with him and become a gunfighter, then grinned wider when he considered going back to Boston with Scott. Johnny shook his head. Maybe they could keep in touch, but even as he thought it, he knew it wouldn't work. A gunfighter never stayed in one place long.

Johnny's eyes darted up as a man entered the saloon, and he locked eyes with the newcomer. The man stared back, then went to the bar and ordered a beer before turning and studying Johnny. Finally, he picked up his beer and walked over to the table where Johnny was sitting.

“Johnny Madrid.” 

Johnny tilted back in his chair and perused the newcomer. “What's a low life like you doin' here?”

The man frowned. “Looks like you still got a smart mouth, boy.”

Johnny took a sip of beer, using his left hand to pick up his glass. “Yeah? You wanna try and close it for me?”

“Maybe,” the stranger growled, keeping his eyes glued on the gunfighter.

“Anytime,” Johnny smirked. He kept his eyes on his adversary until the man shook his head slightly and snorted.

“I don't want ta waste my bullets on the likes of you.”

“Now that's original,” Johnny retorted. He studied the stranger once more. “So what are you doin' in Green River?”

“Seems like I could ask you the same question.”

Johnny hesitated for a moment, then shrugged. “I'm workin' for a ranch just outside of town.”

The stranger nodded slowly. “I heard there was a range war brewin'. Shoulda known you'd be at the bottom of it.”

Johnny snorted. “Not much of a war. It's already been settled.”

“Then you'll be movin' on?”

Johnny took another drink, then nodded. “Looks like.”

The stranger studied the gunfighter for a few minute, debating with himself. He had made the offer before, over the years, but had always been turned down flat. Madrid didn't go for his idea of work. “I could use ya.”

Johnny studied his glass. Working for this man wasn't what he wanted, but he needed a job. He had thought that he might try to quit fighting for a while, but he knew it would be hard to get honest work, especially with his reputation. Maybe he should consider this offer.

“I'll think about it.”

The man looked at him in surprise. “”Yeah?”

Johnny nodded solemnly. “Yeah.”

“Well, this calls for a drink.” He turned toward the bartender and signaled for a couple more beers, then looked at Johnny. “Mind if I sit down?” he asked sarcastically.

Johnny hesitated, then kicked out the chair. It wouldn't hurt to listen to what he had to say. Johnny sighed softly. It looked like he wouldn't be giving up his gun for a while.





Chapter Thirty Eight

Murdoch cautiously threw back the bedcovers and sat up. He knew if Teresa caught him he'd be in for an argument, and he wasn't in the mood. Hopefully, she was doing the laundry and would leave him alone for a few hours. He was tired of being treated like an invalid when he felt fine. That damn sawbones didn't know what he was talking about, and besides, there was work to do. He stood up slowly and then walked over to the chest and pulled out his clothes. A moment later, he was headed down the stairs.

When he reached the bottom, he looked around, somehow expecting it to be different, but it was still the same. At least on the inside. He wondered what kind of a shambles he'd find outside. A ranch this size took a lot to run, and unfortunately his sons just didn't have the skills or the knowledge. Apparently, they didn't have the desire, either.

Murdoch shook his head. All along, he had hoped that at least Johnny would choose to stay here and help him, but now he knew that was impossible. No matter what Sam said, there was no way that Johnny Madrid could fit in here. His son was a gunfighter, not a rancher, and that thought darkened his mood considerably.He realized now that Johnny had been right; he should have read those damn reports. It would have saved him a lot of heartbreak, not to mention money. Maybe he should have purchased those bulls after all, instead of sending for his sons. Of course, if Johnny and Scott hadn't come home he probably would have lost the ranch to Pardee, but it appeared it was just a matter of time before he lost it, anyway.He wasn't getting any younger and he just couldn't do the things he did ten years ago.

With a sigh, he went over and poured a drink, then as an afterthought, grabbed the whole bottle. He then walked slowly back to his desk, bottle in hand. He was going to read those Pinkerton reports, and he had the feeling he was going to need some liquid courage to get through them.

An hour later, he slammed the last report down on his desk and rubbed his eyes. Surprisingly, the bottle stood almost untouched on his desk. He felt that if he drank anything, he just might be sick. He dropped his head and buried it in his hands. He wished now he had never read them. He wasn't sure he could live with the knowledge of what his son had been through. He knew he should have tried harder to find him when the boy was younger, maybe then he would have had a chance of saving him. Now it was far too late. Johnny Madrid was firmly established and nothing could change that now.

He leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. Suddenly he was tired, and he had the feeling it had nothing to do with his physical condition. The whole time he had built up his ranch, he had hoped that one day he could leave it to his sons and grandsons. Now it looked like that would never happen. Scott would soon be on his way back east, and Johnny…well Johnny would be gone too. What was the point of trying any more? He should have just let Pardee have Lancer and moved on.

Murdoch looked out the window at the deceptively peaceful scene and he sighed. Once the boys had left, maybe he would, too. He could sell this ranch before he lost it, and travel for a while. He had always wanted to see the world. He could send Teresa to a boarding school back east for a while; it would be good for her to learn more about the world than what happened on this ranch. He could travel, then maybe settle down somewhere and start a business. One that wouldn't drain all of his energy, something simple just to keep him in spending money. He would forget his dreams of an empire and live the simple life.

With that decided, he leaned back in his chair and just watched the scene, feeling strangely detached. Sam was right; this ranch had been too much for him. Now he could rest and do what he wanted. He dropped his head, trying not to listen to the little voice saying THIS is what he wanted.

He watched as a rider approached, and wondered idly who it could be. As the figure came closer, Murdoch recognized the features of their new sheriff. Murdoch still wasn't sure about the man. He had come highly recommended, but the man himself had been a disappointment. Murdoch had paid him a visit at the sheriff's old place of employment right before the boys had come home, and had caught the sheriff with his feet on the desk, sleeping. A quick glance around the office told Murdoch the man was a slob, and the three day old food stains on the sheriff's shirt had confirmed it. Talking to the man had not erased any of the rancher's fears, either. The sheriff was closed mouth and abrupt. Diplomacy certainly wasn't his strong suit, but the Cattleman's Association had already hired him, and a sheriff was badly needed. Murdoch figured they could keep him until they found someone more competent.

Murdoch wondered what the man wanted. He hoped there wasn't more trouble with Cabral. He didn't have the strength for a range war now. Murdoch stood up and walked over to the door, opening it before the sheriff could knock.

“What can I do for you, Sheriff?”

The sheriff appraised the rancher, not sure if he liked the man or not. Their first meeting had certainly not done anything to endear the rancher to him. Lancer had walked into the office like he owned it, and the rancher's looks of disgust had been ill- disguised. The lawman had the feeling his first assessment of the rancher was right. The man obviously thought he was above everything, even the law. There was trouble brewing in this town, and the lawman was bound to stop it before it escalated. And from what he had heard, Lancer was the one that had started it.

“I'm here on business,” the sheriff said abruptly.

“Business?” Murdoch repeated.

The sheriff nodded. “I'm lookin' for Johnny Madrid. I heard he was workin' for you.”

Murdoch's head came up. “What do you want to talk to him about?”

The sheriff appraised the rancher coolly. “That really ain't none of your concern, but I guess you'll hear about it eventually. Martin Cabral was gunned down and killed, and I need ta talk to Madrid about it.”





Chapter Thirty Nine

Murdoch's face paled. “Cabral was killed?”

“I THOUGHT that's what I just said,” the sheriff replied sarcastically.

Murdoch turned abruptly and walked over to the window. He looked out, unseeing, not really wanting to hear the answer to his next question. “How did it happen?”

The lawman shrugged. “Apparently he was bushwacked. The killer hid up in some rocks just south of town and caught him unawares. Shot him in the back.”

Murdoch shook his head. Was his son capable of something like that? None of the reports indicated he was a back shooter, but those reports certainly wouldn't know everything. The facts given were damning enough. Johnny had been making his living as a gunfighter for a long time, and he knew that his son had to have come perilously close to losing his soul, if he hadn't already. Johnny had said more than once he'd like to get rid of Cabral, and maybe he'd decided to follow through on his threat. Even though Martin had backed down quickly when Johnny had faced him, the gunfighter had probably known Cabral would try again eventually. Johnny probably figured he'd take care of the problem permanently, and that thought made Murdoch sick inside. He didn't want to believe Johnny was capable of cold blooded murder, but those damn reports indicated that he just might be.

“I'm sure Johnny wouldn't do something like that,” Murdoch murmured.

The sheriff's eyebrows shot up. “You don't sound too sure.”

Murdoch shook his head. “My son is a stranger to me.”

The lawman gaped at the rancher. “Your son?”

Murdoch nodded, then walked over to his desk and picked up the full glass of scotch. He decided he could use a drink after all.

The sheriff took a step closer. “Madrid swore he'd kill you.”

Murdoch's eyes shot toward the sheriff. “You know Johnny?”

“We've met.”

Murdoch's head dropped. “He's a stranger to me,” he repeated.

The sheriff snorted. “And whose fault is that? You threw him and his mother out when he was just a kid.”

“That's NOT the way it happened! His mother left. She…I…I didn't throw her out.”

“That ain't the way I heard it.”

“Then you heard wrong! Besides, it isn't any of your business!”

The lawman shrugged. “No, I guess not. And I guess ya must have convinced Johnny you're tellin' the truth, or you'd be dead.”

Murdoch turned away, glass in hand. “He wouldn't shoot his own father.”

The sheriff snorted. “You sure don't sound too convinced. Don't sound too convinced he ain't a murderer, either.”

Murdoch slammed the glass down on the desk. “I TOLD you. I don't even know him!”

“Seems strange ya don't have more faith in your son,” the sheriff observed.

Murdoch picked up the Pinkerton reports on his desk, then held them out to the lawman. “These reports hardly give me much to feel confident about. He's been a gunfighter since he was just a boy. He's killed dozens of men, been involved in range wars, served time in prison…” Murdoch slammed the papers back down on his desk. “There's nothing in there to indicate he's NOT capable of murder.”Murdoch looked up at the sheriff. “You said you know him, and you certainly think he is, or you wouldn't be here.”

The lawman shook his head slowly. “Where is he? Like I said, I need ta talk to him.”

Murdoch shook his head. “I don't know for sure.” Murdoch's mind raced. He had never done a dishonest thing in his life, but could he stand idly by and watch his son hang, even if he had murdered Cabral? He thought that watching his son die just might do him in. Murdoch took a deep breath and made a decision. “I think he's in the west pasture. I can send one of the men for him if you want.”

The sheriff's eyes narrowed. “I think maybe I'll just ride over and see if I can find him.” The sheriff nodded to the rancher. “Thanks for your help.”

Murdoch watched as the lawman rode out, then grabbed his hat from the rack. Johnny had told him that morning that he was planning on riding fence in the east pasture. With any luck, he could get to his son and warn him. His conscience fought valiantly, but Murdoch couldn't stand by and watch his son hang. He would give him this one chance and then tell him good bye.

Murdoch hurried to the barn and quickly saddled his horse. A few moments later he galloped under the arch, headed for the east pasture. The lawman sat on his horse in back of the house and watched as the rider galloped away, then with a wry grin he turned his horse and followed the rider. Lancer had surprised him. He thought for sure the Old Man would turn his son in, but evidently Lancer felt something for his son after all. Not that it would make a difference in the long run. Madrid was no fool.

Murdoch spurred the laboring horse up the last rise, then pulled him up short and scanned the small valley that held the east pasture. He looked frantically for several seconds before he spotted the familiar palomino, and he once again sank his spurs in his mount's side.

Johnny looked around when he heard the running horse, and frowned when he recognized his father. He stepped forward as the rider approached, knowing something was terribly wrong. He grabbed the horse's reins as the animal came to an abrupt halt next to him, and Murdoch stepped quickly down.

“What's wrong?” Johnny demanded.

“You have to leave.”  

Johnny looked at him in confusion. “Why? Why now?”

Murdoch shook his head. “The sheriff was at Lancer looking for you.”

“So?”

Murdoch shook his head in frustration. “So, they found Cabral's body just south of town.” Murdoch dropped his eyes. “He'd been ambushed.”

Johnny stared at his father for several seconds. “Is that what you think of me? That I'm a murderer?'

Murdoch's head remained lowered. “I don't know what to think of you,” he said softly.

“Think what you like,” Johnny spat as he turned and headed for his horse.





Chapter Forty

Murdoch watched as Johnny rode off, wondering if he'd ever see his son again. The guilt from warning him was already eating at him, and he knew he'd have a hard time reconciling his actions. He knew, however, that no matter how wrong it was he could never simply allow his son to hang. With a sigh, he turned back toward his horse and was surprised to see the sheriff sitting on his own horse, watching him.

Murdoch raised his head and stared at the man, wondering privately what the penalty for aiding and abetting was. He decided to try and bluff his way out. “Can I help you, sheriff?”

“Guess not now.” The sheriff looked in disgust toward the hill where Johnny had disappeared. “”I ain't chasin' him all over creation. Guess I'll have ta wait till he gets back.” 

Murdoch looked at the sheriff in surprise, relieved the man was obviously too lazy to chase his quarry, but amazed that the lawman thought that Johnny would actually return. Murdoch gathered up his horse's reins and climbed aboard, then turned his mount back toward the hacienda. The sheriff immediately guided his horse next to Murdoch and joined him.

“Hope ya don't mind if I wait for him at the house,” the sheriff asked.

Murdoch shook his head. “Not in the least.” Murdoch thought privately that the sheriff just might have one hell of a long wait.

The two men rode back to the hacienda in complete silence. It wasn't until they stepped into the hacienda and Murdoch offered the sheriff a glass of scotch that the lawman spoke. “No thanks. Never touch the stuff when I'm on duty.”  

Murdoch nodded and poured a drink for himself.

“So what didja say ta him ta get him all riled?” the sheriff asked.

Murdoch's eyebrows went up, wondering how a man that stupid could function as a peace officer. He was tempted to tell the sheriff, but didn't want to admit his transgression in warning his son. He shrugged. “It was personal.”

The sheriff snorted. “Still can't believe Johnny's here.” He smiled. “Leastwise, with you still bein' alive. I thought for sure he'd make good on his threat ta kill ya.”

Murdoch's eyes narrowed. “You sound like you know my son pretty well.”

The man shrugged. “Ya might say that. Me and Johnny go way back.”

“I guess a lawman would make it his business to know Johnny,” Murdoch mused.

The sheriff shook his head. “The first time we met, I weren't no lawman. I had ridden down to Nogales. There was a range war down there, and I was looking ta hire on.

“You were a gunfighter?” Murdoch asked in surprise.

“Nope. Never got that far. I thought I was good, but I wasn't near good enough. Didn't know it then, though. I rode into Nogales as cocky as you please, and walked into the local bar, lookin' for trouble. Found it, too. These four Mexican pistoleros didn't take kindly to a gringo invadin' their turf and shot the gun right outta my hand when I tried ta pull it on ‘em. Roughed me up some, and were fixin' ta slit my throat me when Johnny walked into the bar.”

“What happened?”

“Johnny watched for a few minutes as they tried ta get me ta beg, then he told ‘em ta leave me alone. Didn't yell or nothin, just said it in that soft drawl of his. He hardly looked at ‘em when he said it. I didn't know who he was at the time, and figured he was crazy. No way those toughs were gonna let me go just ‘cause this kid told ‘em to. In fact at the time, I was sorta hopin they'd leave me alone and start in on him.” The lawman shook his head and smiled. “Those bunch of tough Mexican bandits fell all over themselves tryin' ta get outta that cantina. Later on outside, two of them found a little courage and decided ta take him on, but even the two of them weren't no match for Johnny.”

Murdoch dropped his head. “He's really that good?” he asked softly.

“Yep. He'd make one hell of a lawman, but I never could convince him ta try it.”

Murdoch snorted. “Well, it's too late now.”

“Why?”

Murdoch stared at the moron. “Because you just told me you were going to arrest him for the murder of Cabral.”

The lawman smiled at the rancher. “Arrest him?” He shook his head. “I wanted ta see if he'd help me track down whoever did it!”

It was Murdoch's turn to gape. “You don't think it was Johnny?”

“Do YOU?” The sheriff shook his head slowly as he watched the rancher's expression. “You do, don't you? Your own son.”

Murdoch dropped his head. “When you said you wanted to talk to him, I just assumed….”

“The worst.” The lawman shook his head again. “No wonder he doesn't want ta stay.”

Murdoch shook his head slowly. “I don't know anything about him.”

The lawman stared at the rancher for several seconds before speaking. “Johnny is probably one of the most honest, most law abidin' men I know, and that's sayin' quite a bit.

Murdoch looked at the lawman in confusion. “But he's Johnny Madrid! He KILLS men for money!”

The sheriff nodded. “Sometimes. And sometimes he just does it ta get rid of a real snake that everyone else is afraid of. One thing I DO know. When someone does hire him, he always makes sure the man he's gunning for really deserves ta get himself killed.” He glared at the rancher. “And he ain't no murderer.”

“But… I had the Pinkertons looking for him before I knew who he was. I finally read the reports they sent. They certainly weren't very complimentary. I was willing to overlook his past, willing to give him a chance for a new life, but now…” Murdoch shook his head. “Everyone knows what kind of a man Johnny Madrid is.”  

“Evidently his own father doesn't, or ya wouldn't be sayin them things about him. Everyone that really knows him, knows better than ta believe all the talk, and that's all it is; talk. You outta be ashamed of yourself.”

Murdoch dropped his head, not sure what to think, but the sheriff's next question jarred him back to reality.

“By the way, where were YOU this morning?”





Chapter Forty one

“ME?” Murdoch yelled.

“Yes, you,” the sheriff said calmly. “Where were you this morning?”

“I was right here!”

“Do you have any witnesses that will vouch for that?”

“YES!” Murdoch stormed. “I do.” 

“I'll have ta talk to ‘em.”

“I'm sure you will,” Murdoch ground out. “In the meantime, why don't you go try to find the REAL killer?”

“That's what I aim ta do, as soon as Johnny gets back,” the sheriff replied implacably.

“Why do you need him so badly? Are you that afraid of whoever did it?”

“First of all, I don't KNOW who did it, so how can I be afraid of ‘em?” the sheriff asked. “I just need Johnny ta read the tracks. They were a jumbled up mess ta me.”

Murdoch looked at the sheriff in surprise. “Johnny knows how to track?”

The lawman snorted. “He's the best tracker I know.”

“I wonder where he learned that,” Murdoch mused.

“Probably from those Apaches he stayed with for a while.”  

Murdoch's head shot up. “He lived with Indians?” he asked in disbelief.

The sheriff stared at the rancher for several seconds. “Seems like you don't know much of anything about your son, leastwise, nothin' good.” He shook his head as he studied the rancher. “Maybe ‘cause that's all you want ta know, is the bad stuff people say about him. I still don't know why Johnny didn't make good on his threat ta kill ya. With your attitude, I sure wouldn't a blamed him.”

Murdoch glared at the lawman, then went over and sat down at his desk. “I have some work to do. I'm sure you'll make yourself comfortable.”

The sheriff nodded. “Thanks, I believe I will.” He glanced around. “Ya got anything ta eat in this place?” 

“In the kitchen,” Murdoch answered without looking up.

The sheriff wandered into the kitchen, and Murdoch glared down at the pile of papers sitting neatly on the desk. He stared at them for several moments, and then absent- mindedly began shuffling through them. He was too upset for a while to really see them, but gradually something caught his attention, and he picked up the paper and started to read.



Murdoch was jarred back to reality when the door slammed shut, and he heard the unmistakable sound of Johnny's spurs on the tile. He was surprised he could hear anything over the snores of the lawman. He glared over at the sofa where the sheriff was still sprawled, then looked up as Johnny entered the room.

Johnny glanced at his father, then turned and stared at the form on the couch for several seconds. “What's he still doin' here?” he asked.

“I told you he wanted to talk to you,” Murdoch answered.

Johnny walked over to the bar and poured a drink. “About Cabral.”

Murdoch studied his son. “Yes. “ He dropped his head, ashamed that he had jumped to conclusions. “He said he wanted your help.”

Johnny nodded slowly. “I told him I'd think about it.”

Murdoch's eyes narrowed. “When did he ask you? Cabral wasn't killed until today.”

Johnny shrugged. “Don't matter. By the way, what're you doin' up? Doc said…”

“I don't CARE what Sam said. I feel fine, and I refuse to stay in that bed one minute longer.” He glared at his son, daring him to say anything more about it.

Johnny shrugged. “If you want ta be an idiot, that's your decision.” Before his father could respond, Johnny walked over and nudged the sleeping sheriff. “Hey Val, wake up!”

The lawman started awake, then glared at Johnny. “Ya don't have ta yell.”

Johnny smiled. “Val, I don't know how you've stayed alive as long as you have, as sound as you sleep.”

Val sat up. “I've managed,” he said grumpily.

“With a little help,” Johnny snorted.

The sheriff shrugged. “So ya gonna help me again? I need somebody ta help me track whoever killed Cabral.”

Johnny glanced at his father. “Is it OK with you if I take some time off?”

Murdoch stared at his son for a moment, then nodded.

“All right, I guess I can give ya a hand,” Johnny told the lawman.

Val shook his head. “I was hopin' you'd take me up on my offer and help me permanent.”

Johnny shot a quick glance at his father, then looked back at his friend and nodded. “I said I'd think about it, and I will.”

Val nodded. “All right, but for now, let's get goin'. Ain't much light left.”

“Let me grab somethin' ta eat,” Johnny said as he turned and walked into the kitchen.

Murdoch watched him go, then turned to the lawman. “What did you mean you wanted him to help you permanently?”

“I asked him ta be my deputy.”

“Your DEPUTY!”

“Yep.”

Murdoch glared at the lawman. “He has enough work to do around here.”

Val shrugged and glared back at the rancher. “He said he wasn't stayin', and I know he don't want ta go back ta fightin'. He'd make a good lawman.”

Murdoch shook his head slowly as he studied the lawman. “How do you know he wants to stop being a gunfighter?”

Val shrugged. “He's been tryin' ta quit for a long time. It ain't no secret, leastwise to his friends,” Val smirked. “I'd think his father would know that, too.” He appraised the rancher. “Then again, maybe not. You sure as hell don't know much about him. Nothin' important, anyway.”

Murdoch glared at the lawman. “Then why hasn't he quit?”

Val shrugged and stared back. “Sorta hard with nothin' and nobody ta back ya up.”

“He never told me he wanted to quit,” Murdoch observed quietly.

Val snorted. “He's here, ain't he?”

Murdoch nodded slowly. “Yes, I guess he is.”

“Ready?” Johnny asked from the dining room.

Val looked up and smiled when he saw the huge sandwich in his friend's hands. “Doesn't look like you're gonna starve, anyway. Let's go.”

Murdoch watched as his son headed for the door. “Johnny!”

Johnny turned around and waited to see what his father wanted.

“Be careful!”

Johnny looked at his father, surprised; then nodded and followed Val outside.

Murdoch watched as the two men rode off, then he went back to his desk and stared out the bay window until he could no longer see through the darkness. Finally, he lit the small lamp on his desk and noticed the stack of contracts he had been perusing while waiting for Johnny to come home. He riffled through them, then looked out the darkened window once more, deep in thought.





Chapter Forty Two

The sun streaming into the window finally woke Murdoch. By the position of the sun, he knew it was late, and he cursed Teresa for letting him sleep this long. Teresa had found him sitting at his desk the night before and had fussed at him until he gave up and went back to bed. He hadn't been able to fall asleep until early this morning, his thoughts jumbling over and over in his mind and preventing him from sleeping.

He threw back the bedcovers then stood up and started getting dressed. He had wasted enough time lying about in bed. It was time to get busy and see just what shape the ranch was in after being neglected by him for several weeks. He also wanted to spend more time studying the books and contracts that were sitting on his desk.

Murdoch made his way downstairs and snuck into the kitchen. He wasn't going to let Teresa talk him out of this, but he could do without the argument.

“Hungry?”

The tone of her voice made him freeze, and he stared at his ward, who was standing by the stove. He decided to act like nothing was wrong. “Yes, I am.” He slid into his seat, ignoring her glare.

She slammed a plate of bacon and eggs in front of him and then slopped some coffee into his cup before sitting down across from him. He pointedly ignored her stare, and shoveled a bite of eggs into his mouth, which promptly went down the wrong way. She jumped up and pounded him on his back as he choked, and Murdoch thought that she was hitting him a little harder than necessary. Finally, his coughs subsided, and it was his turn to glare at her.

“That wasn't necessary,” he growled.

Teresa shrugged. “I didn't want you to choke to death,” she said sweetly.

Murdoch finally gave up. “Look, Teresa, Sam said I could get up in a few weeks as long as I didn't overdo it. Now with both of the boys gone, I need to check up on a few things. I promise I'll be careful.”

Teresa's voice remained light. “If you want to ignore Sam and have another heart attack, that's your business.”

Murdoch looked at her cautiously. “Then what are you so upset about?”

“Because you are the most pig headed, stubborn, and STUPID man that I have ever met!”

He looked at her in disbelief. “What did I do?”

She looked at him as if he'd lost his mind. “Oh, I don't know. Doesn't the fact that both Johnny and Scot are planning on leaving because of YOU bother you the least little bit?”

Murdoch shook his head. “They're not leaving because of me,” he argued firmly.

“OH?”

Murdoch shook his head. “Teresa, you don't understand.”

“No, Murdoch, I don't.” Her response was eerily similar to Sam's, and he had just about had enough of being yelled at by everyone. Pretty soon Cipriano would be turning on him. He slammed his fork down. “I'm going for a ride. I'll be back later,” he growled as he grabbed his hat from the stand and slammed it on his head. The kitchen shook with the force of the door closing, and Teresa threw the dishes in the sink in tight – lipped silence.

Murdoch stood outside the kitchen for a moment, trying to calm himself down. Sam had been pretty specific when he told him he'd better start keeping control of his temper, but Murdoch didn't know how he could with everyone doing their best to make him lose it. Finally, he headed toward the barn. No one was there to watch him as he groomed and saddled his horse, and he wondered where all of the men were. He hoped Cipriano had enough sense to take over if Johnny had given him instructions that didn't make sense, but he wasn't sure.For all he knew, the men could have been doing nothing but chasing their tails the last few weeks, and that thought made him hurry even more. He was afraid of what he'd find, but he had to know.

As he rode out of the yard, Murdoch thought about his younger son. Johnny had told him from the beginning he didn't know as much as Murdoch thought he did, but the rancher had ignored his protests. As far as he knew, Johnny had been competent at the chores that had been given him, but running a crew, let alone a ranch, was an entirely different proposition. He just hoped his son hadn't messed up too badly. Even a few weeks of bad management could make the difference between a money making year or a losing one.

Murdoch spurred his horse toward the south pasture. He knew the herd was overdue to be moved, and if the pasture needed a lot of work, it might be another week or two before that was possible. After he checked the pasture, he'd have to check out the herd and see what kind of condition they were in. He hoped they hadn't waited too long; if the cattle were too weak, they could lose a lot of head in the move.

He topped the rise above the south pasture and came to a surprised halt. A herd of cattle was peacefully grazing in the lush grass, and he felt some of the anxiety leave him. As he watched, he caught sight of Cipriano riding toward the gate, and he urged his own horse down the ridge toward his Segundo.

“Cipriano!”

The segundo rode his horse through the gate, and then spurred his mount toward his boss. “Si Senor?”

Murdoch nodded toward the herd. “I'm glad you moved them. I was worried about it.”

Cipriano nodded. “Senor Johnny had us move them last week.”

Murdoch's eyebrows went up. “Johnny told you to?”

“Si, Senor.” He looked at Murdoch cautiously. “I thought he was in charge. Didn't you want them moved?”

Murdoch nodded slowly. “What else did he have you do?”

Cipriano hesitated, wondering if he was going to be in trouble, then he started listing Johnny's orders.





Chapter Forty Three

Murdoch walked into the house, deep in thought. He had checked out the south pasture, then ridden over to the bridge on the east side. From there, he had gone to the fields where the crops were being grown, then finally headed back and checked the barns and the horses. Everything was in order. In fact, it was more than in order. Everything was in perfect shape and the chores were being done ahead of schedule. There was even a new herd of wild horses in the pens in back of the barn, just waiting to be broken. Pretty good quality, too, from the looks of them.

He had stopped and talked to a few of the men at random, and he had detected nothing but respect in their tone when he asked about his sons. He had taken Cipriano aside and asked the segundo what he thought about Johnny, and Cipriano had admitted that Johnny had told them all who he was. Murdoch had been surprised when his friend had told him that he felt honored to be working for a man like Madrid, and that the men felt the same.

Murdoch took one more look around then, with a shake of his head, he walked into the house and went immediately to his desk. He sat down and picked up the stack of contracts and shuffled through them, and then glanced at the pile of receipts for recently paid bills. He sat back in his chair and gazed out the window. How could he have been so wrong about his sons? The re-written contracts bore mute evidence that Scott was sharper than he was about such things. By a simple rewording of a few lines, his son had conceivably saved them thousands of dollars.

Murdoch opened the books and studied the entries. He had to admit, Scott's method was certainly clearer, although it would take some getting used to. Murdoch had been doing it the way his father had taught him for as long as he could remember. It was the only way he had known. His mind went back to the time he had left Scotland, searching for his own life and a way to make his own way in the world. He had left for only one reason. His father. His father was a hard man, and had to have things done his own way. Sean Lancer didn't suffer fools or dreamers lightly, and in his eyes, Murdoch was both.

Murdoch dropped his head, remembering how he had wanted to help his father build up their small farm and how his father had dismissed his ideas and plans out of hand. All Sean Lancer wanted was a hired hand, and he had driven his son to leave with his unyielding ways and sharp tongue.

Murdoch picked up the small picture of Johnny's mother that sat on the edge of his desk, and remembered the fiery lady who had been his wife. He had loved her, but he hadn't been able to keep her. Could he keep his son? Could Johnny Madrid change? More importantly, did Johnny want to? Crawford seemed to think Johnny did, and his son certainly seemed to be throwing himself into ranch work. Murdoch couldn't have asked for it to have been run any better in his absence. The men all seemed to respect him, too. The fact that he was Johnny Madrid certainly didn't seem to bother them, so why should he let it change anything?He had known his son was a gunfighter, and just because he turned out to be the best shouldn't make a difference.

Murdoch reached down and picked up the Pinkerton reports, then stood up and walked over to the fireplace. He stood for several seconds before dumping the lot into the fire, then watched as they burned. Maybe Sam was right. Maybe this could work. He glanced back over at the desk and realized that his prayers had been answered, and he had been too blind to see it. He had prayed his boys would come home, and he had prayed they would want to stay and help him run the ranch. They had done both, and he had almost thrown the miracle away.

He walked over to the bar and poured a glass of scotch. He smiled as he saw a bottle of tequila and a bottle of brandy sitting next to his scotch. He just hoped those bottles would always be there, and he resolved to do everything in his power to make sure they were. He had been wrong about both boys. Murdoch smiled. They were hardly boys anymore, but men. Highly competent men who would be able to take the Lancer ranch to new heights. With his experience and his son's ideas and enthusiasm, they would be an unbeatable team.

There was a knock on the door, and Cipriano walked into the room. “Excuse me, Senor, but you need to come.”

“Is something wrong?”

Cipriano shook his head. “No, Senor. Please, come.”

Murdoch followed his segundo outside and over to the barn. Four strangers were sitting on their horses in the yard, and between each of them was a huge bull. Murdoch appraised the animals as he approached and knew that the bulls were prime stock. He had dreamed of owning bull like that someday, but he knew his dream would have to wait a little longer. One dream at a time, and he had to work on the most important one now.

“May I help you?” he asked the men.

The closer man nodded. “We have instructions to deliver these bulls to the Lancer ranch. I need ya to sign here.” He reached over and handed Murdoch a sheet of paper.

Murdoch examined the paper. “I didn't buy these bulls,” he said in confusion.

The man shrugged. “All I know is what I was told, and I was told ta deliver these animals to Murdoch Lancer.”

Murdoch shook his head. “I'll be right back.” The man nodded in agreement, and Murdoch walked into the house to sign. He looked again at the document, and shook his head at the price that was listed on the form. It was a huge price, but they was obviously top quality animals, and worth every penny. He walked over to his desk and perused the document again, then noticed a signature in the middle of the form. His eyes narrowed for a moment, then a rueful smile broke out on his face. He signed the bottom of the paper, indicating his acceptance, and walked out of the house.

He handed the paper to the man on the horse. “Can you put them in those pens over there?” he asked, indicating several small corrals next to the barn.

The man nodded, and the riders led the bulls into the pen, being careful to keep the animals between them. Murdoch watched them move the bulls and shook his head. Apparently he had misjudged his older son's ability to judge animals, too. The bulls were by far the finest he'd ever seen.





Chapter Forty Four

Johnny rode along, occasionally checking the ground for tracks. He and Val had found the spot where the bushwhacker had holed up and waited for Cabral, and now they were following the tracks, hoping to find the murderer. So far, the tracks had been pretty easy to follow, and Johnny's mind wasn't entirely on his job. Apparently, Val's wasn't either.

“So what do ya think, Johnny? You gonna be my deputy?”

Johnny shrugged. He didn't want to commit just yet. He supposed that helping Val was the best he could hope for, but a part of him was still hoping that his father would ask him to stay at Lancer, although he had to admit, that option was looking pretty unlikely. His father had made it pretty clear that he not only didn't want him there, he didn't trust him, either.

“I don't know, Val. Maybe,” Johnny said glumly.

Val shot a quick look at his friend. “What's keepin' ya from makin' up your mind? You ain't still plannin' on stayin' at Lancer, are ya?”

With a deep sigh, Johnny shook his head. “No, Val. I ain't stupid. I know the Old Man doesn't want me there.” Saying it out loud finally made him realize that it was the truth, and he suddenly felt tired.

“But you still want to be there, dontcha?”

Johnny looked at his friend in exasperation, wishing he'd just drop it. “Now why do ya think that?” Johnny snapped.

“Cause I know how bad ya want ta get outta the game.”

“There are other ways ta get out,” Johnny said quietly.

“I ain't countin' gettin' yourself killed.”

“Neither am I. There are other jobs.”

Val snorted. “Yeah, but not many of ‘em are as nice as livin' at Lancer.”

Johnny nodded. “That's for sure.” He grinned at his friend. “One thing I know, it sure beats wearin' a tin star and havin' ta deal with drunks every night for a few bucks a month.”

Val snorted. “I can't argue with ya there. Now if I could find a nice cushy job at a ranch somewhere, I might consider leavin' my line of work.” He slanted a look at his friend. “Problem is, I don't take orders too good, and last time I looked, neither did you.”

Johnny sighed. “No, guess not. I knew it wouldn't work, but…”

“But ya wanted it to,” Val finished.

Johnny nodded. “Yeah, I did.”

Val shook his head. “I don't know. Livin with that old man didn't seem like too much fun. He seems awfully hard nosed ta me. I figure ya probably woulda wound up shootin' him before too long and then I woulda had ta run ya in.”

Johnny smiled sadly. “You're probably right. Me and the Old Man butted heads pretty regular when I was there.” Johnny dropped his head. “Still, I think I could get used to it, if he'd give me half a chance. I sorta enjoyed the ranch work. Besides, he wasn't the main reason I wanted it ta work.”

Val looked at his friend quizzically. “No?” The sheriff thought a moment, then grinned. “It didn't have anything ta do with you getting' a piece of that great big old ranch, would it?”

“Well, that part didn't hurt none,” Johnny admitted. “But the main reason I wanted it ta work is that I wanted ta get ta know Scott.”

“Who's Scott?”

“My brother.”

Val drew his horse to a halt. “You have a brother? I didn't know that.”

Johnny smiled as he nudged Barranca past the sheriff's horse. “Neither did I ‘til I came here.”

Val hurriedly caught up to his friend. “Have I met him?”

“I don't think so.”

“What's he like?”

Johnny smiled wider. “A Boston Dandy.”

Val stared at his friend in disbelief, and Johnny finally laughed. “At least that's what he looks like.” Johnny shook his head. “But inside, he's tougher than you or me combined. Smart, too.”

Val shrugged. “If he's so smart, why would he want ta hang around with you?” he asked skeptically.

Johnny snorted. “Ya know, Val, you have a point there. Maybe he ain't so smart after all.”

The sheriff nodded. “That's the way I figure it.”

Johnny pulled his horse to a halt and studied the ground. “He turned off here.” Johnny looked up and scanned the horizon. “Looks like he's headin' toward the Triple C.”

“You sure about that?” Val asked.

“Nope, he might just be cuttin' across their land. We'll have ta see.”

Val followed his friend as they cut across the fields of the triple C. They had gone about three miles before Johnny pulled his horse to a halt at the bottom of a hill.

“The triple C ranch house is just on the other side of that rise, Johnny stated. “Evidently he wasn't just passin' through.”

“How do ya know that for sure?”

“Because he headed straight here. Woulda been easier ridin' a different way if he was just tryin ta make time. No, he knew where he was goin'.” 

Val nodded. “Makes sense ta me.” The sheriff looked up at the top of the hill. “Well, let's go. With any luck we can get this done and be home by tonight.”

Johnny followed the sheriff up to the top, and the two men stopped their horses and watched the scene below.

“Looks awful quiet for a workin' ranch,” Johnny observed.

Val nodded. “Maybe they heard about their boss and decided not ta work.”

Johnny shrugged. “Could be, I guess.” The gunfighter looked around at the surrounding hillsides, then he nudged his friend. “There's only one other way out of here. Let's ride around and see if we can pick up his tracks leadin' out. Then we'll at least know for sure if he's down there.”  

“You go. I'll stay here and see if I can see anything.”

Johnny nodded, and turned Barranca back down the hill. Twenty minutes later, he was back, and the sheriff looked at him expectantly. “Anything?”

Johnny shook his head. “Nope, he's still down there.”

“What if he changed horses?”

Johnny shrugged. “Could be. Guess there's only one way ta find out.” He grinned at the lawman, who grinned back. “Let's go.”





Chapter Forty Five

Scott rode slowly under the arch leading to Lancer. He was tired and dirty, and he just wanted to get home and clean up. He snorted softly. He'd have to stop thinking of Lancer as home. By now, Murdoch should be better and he could leave, and he wasn't sure how he really felt about it.Mostly, he felt as if an opportunity had been ripped from him. An opportunity for a better life, an opportunity to do something worthwhile, an opportunity to really know his brother. Now all he had to look forward to was retuning to Boston and hearing a bunch of ‘I told you so's' from his Grandfather.

Maybe he could keep in touch with Johnny, but somehow he doubted it. He had the feeling that his brother wasn't the kind to stay in one place very long, and keeping in touch would be almost impossible. Scott also knew that before long, he would be back in Boston and back to his old routine of attending balls and spending his evenings gambling and drinking and sometimes even more pleasurable pursuits. He would go back to that routine, but he had the feeling that it wouldn't be quite as gratifying as it had been before.

He pulled his horse to a halt in front of the barn and wearily dismounted.He gratefully handed his horse to Cipriano, and quickly untied the saddlebags before the segundo led the horse off. He wearily made his way to the great room door and quietly entered.

“Scott!” Murdoch looked up in surprise as his son walked into the room.

Scott nodded at his father. “You're looking well, Sir.”

“I'm fine.”

Scott nodded once more and headed for the bar. A drink was just what he needed the wash to trail dust out of his throat. As he poured, he wondered if Johnny had told Murdoch the purpose of his trip. His father seemed pretty calm.

“So?” Murdoch interrupted Scott's thoughts.

Scott turned around, an inquiring look on his face.

“Did you re- negotiate the contract?” Murdoch asked.

Scot nodded, then shrugged his saddlebags off his shoulder. He opened the flap, then dug in and came up with some papers. He walked over and handed them to his father, wondering what Murdoch would say. The colonel he had been forced to deal with had been about as stubborn a man as Scott had ever seen. Scott had worked and sweated for every concession the army had given, and it hadn't been much. Scott had left feeling as if he'd been put through a ringer, and disappointed with the final results. He'd hoped for something spectacular to impress his father, but instead, he had been bracing himself for Murdoch's rage the whole way home. The only consolation was that he knew that he'd done his very best.

Scott stood watching as Murdoch pushed back in his chair and studied the contract. The blond watched as a frown began to form on his father's face, and he decided another drink was definitely a good idea. He quickly polished off the first drink and poured another, then stood and waited for Murdoch to finish reading.

After several minutes, Murdoch looked up. “How was your trip?”

Scott's eyebrows went up. “Fine, Sir.”

Murdoch nodded and tossed the contract on the desk, then whirled his chair around and faced the window.

“Is there something wrong?” Scott asked.

Murdoch continued staring out the window, and slowly shook his head, wondering if he should tell Scott about Johnny yet. “No.”

“I did the best I could with the contract,” Scott said in frustration.

Murdoch continued looking out the window, then suddenly turned and looked at his son. “What?” He stared at Scott in confusion for a second, then shook his head in dismissal. “I'm sure you did.”

“And you're disappointed,” Scott stated flatly.

Murdoch snorted softly. “Disappointed? No.” He pointed at the papers. “It's exactly what I expected of you.”

Scott gulped the second drink and slammed his glass down on the nearby table. “Well, if you'll excuse me Sir, I think I'll go clean up. It's been a long trip, and since you seem to be fully recovered, I'll be leaving tomorrow.” He turned and stalked from the room, and Murdoch watched as his son disappeared, too startled by his son's outburst to reply. He heard his son's heavy tread as he stormed up the stairs, and Murdoch shook his head, wondering why Scott was so upset.

Murdoch turned back to the window with a sigh. It seemed he didn't understand Scott any better than he had understood Johnny. He slammed his fist down on his desk. If he couldn't figure it out and come up with some way to get through to Scott, both of his sons would be gone forever. He had lost Johnny last week, and now it looked as if Scott would be gone tomorrow.

This whole week, he had been waiting anxiously for Scott's return. He hoped that he would at least be able to have one of his boys at the ranch. After going through all of the paperwork and contracts Scott had been working on, Murdoch had been convinced that his son would get the best terms possible for Lancer from the army, and he had hoped he could convince him to stay at the ranch.

When he had read the contract Scott had brought back, Murdoch had been pleased but not surprised that Scott had been able to get the concessions that he had. The army was notoriously difficult to deal with, and he had heard from other ranches that this year was worse than most. After perusing the contract, he had acquired a new respect for his older son. He shook his head as he thought about Scott's reaction doing their conversation. He had told his son that he wasn't disappointed and that he had expected no less of him, but for some reason his son had become angry.

Murdoch swung his chair around once more and buried his head in his hands. He had already lost one son, and now it looked as if he was going to lose another. Why was it so difficult? Why did he keep making mistakes? 





Chapter Forty Six

Scott looked out the window of his hotel room, wondering if he should go down to the café yet. He didn't like having to talk to his brother in that place, but it was the best they could do. Besides, if they talked in a more private place like one of their rooms, they might have to talk about something serious, and they were both doing their best to avoid that. So far they had done a pretty good job of pretending that everything was normal.

Scott had gathered his few belongings and had ridden into town two days previously, right after Murdoch had broken the news to Scott of Johnny's leaving. There was no longer any reason for Scott to stay at the ranch, especially after the reception he had received from his father after the army trip. As soon as Murdoch had told him Johnny was working as a deputy in Green River, Scott had told his father exactly what he thought of him and what he could do with his ranch and then ridden into town.

For the last two days Scott had sat in either the café or the saloon, depending on the time of day. He wanted to spend as much time as he could with his brother while waiting for the weekly stage headed east. Johnny would come in and visit whenever his job allowed, but it seemed to Scott that Green River had never been so rowdy. Not that it really mattered. The trouble was, there really wasn't anything left to say to each other. As much as they wished things could be different, they both knew their lives would once again take separate courses. Scott knew he couldn't stay here in California, and he knew Johnny would never come to Boston. No matter how much they wished things were different, in their hearts they knew that once Scott got on that stage they would probably never see each other again.

Scott snorted softly. Murdoch hadn't even ridden in to see him off, not that he really expected him to. The Old man was probably sitting at his desk, counting his money as well as his lucky stars that he had managed to get rid of his sons before they ruined his precious ranch. Scott shook his head. He could understand Murdoch not wanting a greenhorn like himself around, but it angered him that his brother had been dismissed as well. Johnny had proven himself invaluable at running the ranch, and it galled him that his father couldn't see that. Instead, the stubborn old fool insisted on believing whatever was in those stupid Pinkerton reports.

Scott smiled when he finally saw his brother head for the small café. Johnny was later than usual, and Scott figured he must have had a hard night. Scott turned and grabbed his hat before heading for the door. His stomach had been growling for the last hour and he couldn't wait to get some of Esther's pancakes. By the time Scott entered the café, Johnny was already seated, and there were two cups of coffee on the table. Scott slid into the chair opposite his brother and looked at Johnny curiously. “Rough night?”

Johnny merely nodded and took a sip of coffee.

“I didn't hear any commotion,” Scott observed.

“Then you musta been the only one in town.” Johnny shook his head. “It's enough ta make a person swear off drinkin', seein how much of an idiot a man can make of himself when he's drunk.”

“A man doesn't necessarily need to be drunk to make a fool of himself. Look at Murdoch.”

Johnny grinned at his brother. “Well that's a fact.”

“So what did you decide? Are you going to keep the job?”

Johnny shrugged. “I don't know. It sure ain't my first choice, but right now I don't have a hell of a lot ta choose from. I'll give it a try for a while, but…” his voice trailed off and he looked out the window.

Scott looked at his brother worriedly. “You're not thinking of going back to fighting are you?”

“I don't know, Scott. I just don't know. I might be foolin' myself thinkin' I can quit. Sheriffin' is just another way of livin' by a gun, and after last night, I'm beginnin' ta think it's more dangerous. Besides, the pay's lousy. I'd be better off goin' back ta fightin', and the longer I'm out of the game, the worse my chances are when I get back in.”

“Then DON'T get back in! There are a lot of things you can do!” Scott snapped.

“Like what?” Johnny asked sarcastically. “Maybe bein' a schoolteacher?”

“You're a good rancher!”

“And anybody that hired me would want me for more than a ranch hand, or would dump me as soon as he figured out just who and what I was. Hell, my own father proved that.” Johnny dropped his head. “Besides, I don't take orders too good, and you know it.” He brought his head up and stared at his brother. “Besides, what about you?”

Scott looked at his brother blankly. “Me?”

“Yes, you! You told me you hated runnin' your grandfather's business and you were glad you weren't gonna have ta do it the rest of your life.”

Scott shrugged uncomfortably. “It's what I have been trained to do my whole life.”

“Well I've been trained ta fight.” Johnny shook his head. “I guess we can't change who we are,” he said softly. “We'll just have ta learn ta live with it.”

“Being a bookkeeper isn't likely to get me killed,” Scott observed.

Johnny grinned. “I don't know. From what you tell me about that old man, it sounds pretty dangerous ta me.”

Scott grinned back. “You might have a point there.” A black look crossed his face. “Or I might succumb to good old boredom.”

Both men sighed at the same time, then grinned slightly at each other. After a moment, Scott lifted his coffee mug towards his brother. “To the future,” he said sarcastically.

After a moment, Johnny lifted his mug with a wry smile and clicked it against his brother's.





Chapter Forty Seven

Johnny and Scott sat in the café, neither one wanting to leave. They knew time was getting short; Scott would be leaving on the afternoon stage. They had already said almost everything they were going to say to each other. Both men wanted to say more, but were afraid of letting their feelings show so blatantly. So they kidded each other and enjoyed each other's company, and pretended everything was normal, but inside both of them were in agony.

“So!” Scott said. “Are you going to write?”

Johnny shrugged as he played with his coffee mug. “Never was much of a writer.”

“Then I'll write you and send the letters here,” Scott said hopefully. He watched as his brother dropped his head without answering.

“You're not staying, are you?” Scott asked softly.

Johnny shook his head without looking up. “No. I ain't cut out ta be a sheriff.”

Scott felt the fear for his brother welling up in him. “Will you at least write and tell me you're OK once in a while? You don't even have to write a letter,” Scott pleaded.

Johnny's eyes came up and he looked at his brother. He wanted to say yes, but he knew that if he went back to fighting, the time would come, probably fairly soon, that his brother wouldn't get a letter. It would be better to sever the relationship before Scott got hurt. He slowly shook his head. “Like I said, I'm not much of a letter writer.”

Scott sighed quietly and sat back in his chair. “Maybe I can come out west sometime. We could meet somewhere.”

Johnny smiled slowly. “So if we ain't writin' each other, how are we gonna know when and where ta meet?”

“I don't know!” Scott said in frustration. “Can you come up with a better idea?”

“Yeah. I think we'd better go on with our own lives and forget about each other.”

“Just like that,” Scott said flatly.

Johnny nodded. “Just like that.”

“DAMN Murdoch!” Scott exploded.

“I wish I'd never come here,” Johnny said quietly. “Before it wasn't so bad. I didn't know any different, I didn't know what I was missin. Now…” Johnny shook his head and looked out the window. “I guess I'd better get back ta work before Val fires me.” He stood up, wanting to leave before he made a fool of himself.

Scott stood up and grabbed his brother's arm. “Johnny.” He didn't know what else to say, and he stared into his brother's eyes. A second later he took a deep breath. “Make sure you find me before the stage leaves.”

Johnny nodded. “I will.” He pulled away and walked out the door, silently cursing his father with every step. He headed blindly over to the jail and slammed the door open. Val jumped and spun around, then scowled at his friend. “What the hell is the matter with you?”

“Nothin',” the gunfighter spat.

The sheriff watched as his friend paced around the office like a caged animal. “Wanna talk about it?” he asked.

“No!”

“Boy are you a grump!” What's the matter? Somebody step on your toes?”

“Lay off, Val,” Johnny growled.

The sheriff looked out the window and saw Scott leave the café across the street, the same café that he knew Johnny had just left.

“You have a fight with the dandy?”

Johnny spun like a cat and grabbed the sheriff by the shirt. “Don't you call him that!”

Val looked calmly back at his friend. “Back off, Johnny. I didn't mean nothin', and you know it. I like Scott.”

Johnny stared at his friend for a moment, then let go and dropped his eyes. “Sorry, Val.”

Val nodded and looked at his friend uncertainly. “Scott's leavin' today, ain't he?”

At the gunfighter's stricken expression, Val knew what the problem was. “Ya wanna take the day off, ya can.”

Johnny stared out the window, then slowly let Madrid take over. “No. No reason to.” He took a deep breath and clamped his emotions shut. He went over and opened the door, and after a second's hesitation, he stepped out.

Val watched him go and sent up a silent plea that no one in town decided to act up today. If they did, they would find out they were dealing with gunfighter Johnny Madrid instead of Deputy Johnny Lancer, and things just might turn ugly. He didn't think Johnny was in any mood for diplomacy, and might just welcome the chance to blow somebody away.

Johnny made a point of staying away from his brother throughout the day, and he realized Scott must have had the same idea, because he didn't see his brother at all. Of course, Johnny carefully stayed away from both the café and the saloon. To Val's relief, everyone else managed to stay out of Johnny's way too, and no one was shot.

Johnny struggled to keep his emotions under control all afternoon, but when the big old clock in the center of town struck three, Johnny felt his heart drop. At almost the same instant, he heard the unmistakable sound of the approaching stage. He closed his eyes for a moment, then headed toward the sound.

Johnny caught sight of his brother from across the street, and then took a deep breath and grinned slightly as Scott walked up to him. “You take care of yourself, Boston.”

Scott nodded solemnly. “You too.”

The two men looked into each other's eyes for a moment, not sure what to say, then the driver called for passengers to board. Scott closed his eyes and turned toward the stage.

“Johnny! Scott!” Both men's heads whipped around at the voice, and watched as Sam hurried over to them. “I'm glad I found you.”

“What's wrong?” Scott asked.

“Cipriano just rode into town. Murdoch collapsed.”

“How bad?”

Sam shook his head. “Cipriano said it was bad. You'd better come.” He turned and hurried toward the buggy.

Johnny started to follow the doctor, then realized Scott wasn't following him. He glanced back at his brother, who was staring at the stage. “Comin'?” Johnny asked.

Scott took one last look at the stage and felt a moment of relief, he then looked back at his brother and nodded. “Let's go.”





Chapter Forty Eight

Scott looked around at the now familiar room, trying to keep his thoughts from what was going on upstairs. When Sam had told them that Murdoch had collapsed, heaven help him, he had felt nothing but relief that he didn't have to board that stage. Immediately afterward, however, he had been consumed with guilt that he should think of his father's attack and feel happy.

He glanced over at Johnny, who was pacing around the room like a caged tiger. Scott suspected that Johnny had been feeling many of the same emotions that he had, because on the way home Johnny had been smiling, but he now wore the same guilty expression that Scott knew was on his own face. Even though they were both glad to still be together, Scott figured that it was probably only a temporary reprieve. Unless… his mind wandered over the possibility of what would happen if Murdoch died. He had no idea who Lancer would go to in that case. According to the terms of the contract, it wasn't binding until he and Johnny had been at Lancer for one year. Up until then, Murdoch could do whatever he wanted with the ranch. For all he knew, Murdoch had left the ranch to Teresa or even Cipriano. He and Johnny could fight that ruling in court, but there was no guarantee they'd win. Murdoch had promised each of them a third, but it wasn't binding for another eight months.

Scott sighed softly and took another drink of his brandy. “Would you sit down? You're wearing a hole in the floor,” Scott scolded his brother.

Johnny turned toward Scott. “What if he dies?” he asked softly. “I said some pretty hateful things to him before I left.”

Scott nodded slowly. “So did I. I'm not very proud of the things I said to him and I'm sure you're not, either, but he deserved them, and you know it.”

Johnny shrugged. “Maybe.”

“What do you mean, maybe?”  

“I know he was wrong about you, but he never said anything about me that wasn't the truth.”

“Somehow I doubt that!” Scott snapped. “Besides, it wasn't what he said, it was what he thought that mattered.”  

Johnny shrugged. “He can't help what he thinks.”

“Murdoch thought you were perfect until he read those damn reports. How could he let something like that change his mind? Especially when he already knew you?”

“Scott, I've done some pretty bad things. Maybe Murdoch's right. Maybe I can't change what I am.”

“And he wasn't willing to even give you the opportunity.”

“Not his responsibility,” Johnny shrugged.

“He's your FATHER!”

Johnny glanced up at his brother. “He didn't give you much of a chance, either.”

“That's different,” Scott protested.

“Why?”

“Because when I leave, I'm not going to get myself killed.”

Johnny's eyebrows went up and a trace of a smile formed on his face. “Thanks for the vote of confidence.”

Scot shook his head in frustration. “How good you are with a gun has nothing to do with it. It doesn't matter how fast you are, eventually your luck will run out.”

“Well, that comes to us all, brother.” 

“Will you be serious!”

Johnny shook his head. “I am. But I can't change things.”

Scott hesitated. “What if Murdoch does die?” he asked softly. “Will you stay?'

Johnny dropped his head. “I don't know.” He brought his head up and looked at his brother. “Will you?”

Scott shrugged. “It depends.”

Johnny smiled softly. “Yeah, I guess it does.”

The two men stared at each other for a moment, and then looked up expectantly when they heard the sound of the doctor descending the stairs. Scott bolted to his feet and Johnny turned toward the doctor with a worried look on his face.

Sam glanced over at them, then walked over and helped himself to a drink before turning and facing them, a troubled expression on his face.

Johnny spoke up first. “How bad?”

Sam shook his head. “I'm not sure.”

Scott took a step closer. “What do you mean?”

“I mean I'm not sure what's wrong with him.”

Johnny shook his head in confusion. “I thought you said it was his heart.”

Sam nodded slowly. “It was.”

“But it's not now?” Scott asked.

“His heartbeat is steady, and his pulse is normal. To tell you the truth, I don't know why he passed out.”

“Is he still unconscious?” Johnny asked.

“He's semi-conscious.”

“But you don't know why,” Scott said.

Sam shook his head. “No, I don't.”  

“Then what do we do?”

“We wait. Maybe when he regains consciousness he can tell me what's wrong, but right now, I can't find any reason for his collapse.”

“Don't you mean IF he regains consciousness?” Johnny said sarcastically.

Sam shrugged. “Until I can find something wrong, or until I at least know what symptoms he had before he passed out, I can't figure out what's wrong,” Sam said patiently.

Johnny ran his hand through his hair. “I know, Doc. I'm just worried, that's all.” 

“I know. But he's tough. There's a good chance he'll be fine.”

Scott nodded. “I hope so. Thanks, Sam.”

“I'll be back tomorrow to check on him. In the meantime, if you need me, I should be in town. If he comes to, try to find out how he felt before he passed out, and if he's had any symptoms.”

“Anything we should watch for?” Johnny asked.

Sam shrugged. “Anything unusual, or if he seems as if he's in pain, come and get me.” He turned and headed for the door, then stopped and turned back toward the two men. “By the way, I'm glad you're both still here.”

Scott smiled. “So are we.”

Sam laughed. “I'm sure Murdoch is, too.”

Scott's smile disappeared. “Don't bet on it.”

Sam sighed. “I know he didn't act like it, but I also know he wanted you boys to stay.”

“How did you know that?” Johnny asked belligerently. “Because we sure as hell didn't know it.”

Sam nodded. “I know, and I'm sorry.”

“You aren't the one that needs ta apologize.”

“Well, maybe Murdoch will get the chance.”

Johnny snorted. “Even if he gets the chance, I doubt he will. He was tickled ta death that we were leavin. He ain't gonna change his mind now.”

“Well, you never know,” Sam observed. “He might come to his senses.”

“Somehow, I doubt that,” Scott said tiredly.

“Well, we can hope, anyway,” Sam said. “Personally, I believe in miracles.”

Johnny shook his head. “Sam, I stopped believin' in those a long time ago.”





Chapter Forty Nine

Scott tossed and turned for several hours before giving up and reaching for his pants. He pulled them on, and then headed down the hall toward his father's room. He pushed the door open and looked in. Johnny was sitting next to the bed, staring out the window at nothing as Murdoch lay silently and apparently still unconscious in his bed. Scott watched for several moments, then walked in.

“How is he?”

Johnny sighed. “About the same.”

Scott bent down and felt his father's forehead. “He doesn't seem to have a fever.”

“No, but somethin's sure keepin' him down.”

“He hasn't come around at all?'

“Nope.”

Scott continued watching his father for a while, then he pulled up a chair and sat down next to Johnny. “I wonder what's wrong with him.”

Johnny shook his head. “I don't know, but what worries me is that Sam doesn't know, either.” 

“He's a good doctor. He'll figure it out.”

“Maybe. I just hope he figures it out in time.”

Scott nodded. “Me, too.”

Johnny sighed and glanced at his brother. “It looks like we'll be stuck here for a while.”

Scott nodded. “Again.”

A smile formed on Johnny's face. “When he wakes up, the Old Man's gonna have a fit when he finds out we're still here.”

Scott smiled back. “I just hope he doesn't have another heart attack. He's going to be pretty upset that his plan to get rid of us didn't work.”

Johnny's smile faded. “It did work. One way or the other he's gonna be rid of us.”

Scott looked at the unconscious form of his father. “Why do you think he sent for us in the first place? He obviously didn't want us here.”

Johnny shrugged. “Who knows? Curiosity, maybe.”

“Well, I guess he found out what he wanted to know.”

“Yeah. That he should have let us stay lost.”

Scott's head dropped. “I guess I really disappointed him.”

Johnny looked at his brother in disbelief. “You? Scott, I hate ta break the news to you, but any problem he had with you flew right outta his mind when he found out just who I was.”

“I guess neither one of us was exactly what he expected.”

“That's an understatement,” Johnny chuckled.

Scott shook his head slowly. “I still can't believe he let those reports change his opinion of you.”

“Who said they did?”

“It was obvious. He thought you could do no wrong until he read them.”

Johnny shook his head. “Until he found out who I was.”

“What DIFFERENCE does it make WHO you are? You're the same person you've always been. The same person we've known all along.”

“You don't know me, Scott. And neither does Murdoch. All you've known is what I've let you see.”

Scott locked his eyes on his brother. “I know you're a good person.”

Johnny snorted. “I know a lot of people who wouldn't agree with you, and Murdoch is one of them. If you knew what you were talkin' about, you'd be thinkin' the same way.”

“That's not true!” Scott protested.

“Sure it is. Johnny Lancer might not have been too bad, but Johnny Madrid sure as hell was.”

“Don't give me that bullshit! They're one and the same, and you know it.”

Johnny shrugged. “Maybe. Doesn't say much for Johnny Lancer, does it?”

“I'm tired of you saying how bad you are. Maybe I haven't known you that long and maybe I don't know all of your little secrets, but I do know you're a good man. A man I'm proud to call my brother.”

Johnny ducked his head. “I'm glad you're my brother, too, Boston.” A small smile formed. “You ain't such a dandy after all.” He laughed. “I learned that the hard way. You have one of the strongest right crosses I've ever felt.”

“Yours isn't so bad, either.” Scott dropped his head and sighed. “It isn't fair.” 

“What isn't?”

“I wanted a brother my whole life. Now when I finally found you, we're going to be separated again.”

“Life ain't fair, Scott. I learned that along time ago. I don't want ta lose you, either, but I don't see any way around it. The only way we coulda stayed together is if we stayed here, and we both know that'll never work. The Old Man don't want us here, and there's nothin' we can do about it. As soon as he's on his feet again, we'll be goin' our separate ways.”

Scott nodded slowly. “I wish I'd never come here.”

Johnny nodded sadly. “You and me, both.”

Scott swallowed hard. “I'll watch Murdoch tomorrow. You'd better check on how the ranch is doing.”

Johnny nodded. “Round up is coming up. I hope Murdoch wakes up soon, so he can decide how many cattle ta sell and which ones ta keep for breedin'.”

Scott shrugged. “If he's not well yet, you might have to do it.”

Johnny shuddered. “I hate ta imagine what Murdoch would say about that. He'd have another heart attack for sure.”

“He might not have a choice.”

“And he MIGHT kill me if I try it.” 

“At least I'll be safely doing the books.”

Johnny's head dropped. “Damn him, anyway. This coulda worked if he'd given us a chance.”

Scott nodded. “I know. But he's not likely to change his mind. This ranch means too much to him.”

“His FAMILY should mean somethin' to him! I was almost convinced my Mama had lied about how cold hearted he was, but I guess she was tellin' the truth after all.”

“Maybe we just wanted to believe in him,” Scott mused. “I remember when I was young; I always believed that one day he'd show up and take me home with him.” Scott shook his head slowly. “He never did, but I never stopped hoping. Not until I was a grown man, and even then, I think I still carried that hope in my heart. It's the only explanation I can think of as to why I came here in the first place.”

Johnny nodded. “Every time I'd get myself beat up as a kid, I always thought that one day he'd show up and protect me. That he'd tell me it had all been a huge mistake, and he really did want me. I thought I'd finally come to terms with the fact that it would never happen, but maybe you're right. Maybe that's one of the reasons I came. To see if somehow at least part of my daydreams would come true.”

Scott dropped his head. “I guess we won't wonder any more, will we?”

Johnny shook his head. “Nope. Now we know.” He snorted. “All those years I wasted wantin' ta be with him. I was probably better off without him.”

“We both were.”





Chapter Fifty

Scott poked his head in Murdoch's room the next morning, and saw Johnny sleeping, his head resting on the windowsill. Scott walked quietly over to the bed, and after reassuring himself that his father was still sleeping, he turned and left the room. He headed down the stairs and into the kitchen, where he planned on preparing a breakfast tray to take upstairs so he could eat with his brother.

He had just finished frying the bacon when Johnny appeared. “Smells good,” he observed.

“I happen to be an excellent cook,” Scott bragged.

“Uh huh.” Johnny walked over and poured a large cup of coffee, then plopped down in a chair by the table.

“Anything happen last night?” Scott asked.

“Nope, no change at all. He moved around a few times, but that was all.”

“He's not awake yet?” Sam asked as he walked into the kitchen.

Scott smiled at the way the doctor just walked in and made himself at home. “No, he hasn't come to at all, and we've been with him the whole time.”

Sam sat down at the table and took a sip of Johnny's coffee, then made a face. “Do you always drink your coffee this strong?”

“Yeah,” Johnny snapped. “It keeps other people from drinkin' it.”

Scott set a mug in front of the doctor, and Sam nodded his thanks. A second later, a plate of bacon and eggs joined the mug. Johnny watched hungrily as Sam started in on his breakfast, but he soon had his own, and the three men ate silently for several minutes. Finally, Sam looked up. “My compliments to the cook.”

Scott grinned. “Thank you. I was tired of eating cold biscuits while Teresa is gone.”

“She picked a poor time to go visiting.”

Johnny shrugged. “We're doin' ok.”

Sam nodded slowly. “Still, if something happens to Murdoch…” his voice trailed off.

“If Murdoch gets worse, we'll send someone for her,” Scott reassured the doctor.

Sam nodded once more. “You might need to. It's not good that he's not awake yet.” He took another bite and then slowly stood up. “Well, I'd better go check my patient.” He walked out of the kitchen and headed for the stairs.

Scott and Johnny pushed the rest of their food around their plates, their appetites suddenly gone.



Sam pushed the door to Murdoch's room open and approached the bed. He studied his patient quietly for several seconds, then reached down and grabbed the rancher's wrist. He held Murdoch's wrist as he took the man's pulse, then he reached down into his worn black bag and pulled out his stethoscope. He listened to the rancher's heart for almost a minute, then quietly put the instrument away. He sat down next to the bed and studied his patient's color and respirations, then sat back and thought for several minutes.

Finally, he stood up and shoved his chair back, then walked to the door. He shut the door noisily, then crept back toward the bed and stood next to the headboard, watching his patient intently. Several seconds later, Murdoch's eyes popped open and he looked cautiously around, only to meet Sam's stern frown.

“Murdoch,” Sam said coldly. “How nice of you to join us.”

Murdoch's eyes dropped. “I guess I've been unconscious for a while.”

“I GUESS you've been faking it!”

Murdoch looked decidedly uncomfortable. “I really was sick.”

“Uh huh.” Sam glared at the rancher. “Are you going to stick with that story?”

Murdoch sighed heavily. “Look, Sam, I had my reasons.”

“What POSSIBLE reason could you have to worry everyone to death, not to mention wasting MY time when I have patients that really need me!”

“I'm sorry.”

“Why don't I believe you?”

Murdoch shook his head. “Sam, I had to.”

“WHY?”

“Because I was going to lose my boys. It was the only way I could think of to keep them here.”

“Did it occur to you to TALK to them?” The doctor asked sarcastically.

“I couldn't,” Murdoch mumbled.

“Why not?”

“I didn't think they'd listen,” Murdoch admitted. “They hate me.”

“And whose fault is that?” Sam asked harshly.

Murdoch's head dropped. “Mine. I admit it. I did everything wrong with them.”

“Yes, you did.”

“Sam, what else could I do? I was desperate! I couldn't let them leave.” 

“The why didn't you tell them that!”

“Like I said, they wouldn't have listened to me.”

“How do you know that? Have you even tried?”

Murdoch shook his head sadly. “It's too late. I've ruined everything.” He looked up at the doctor. “I heard them talking last night. They didn't know I could hear them. They said they wished they'd never come here. They said they'd be better off without me. They hate me.”

Sam pulled up a chair and sat down. “Both of those boys love this ranch. I can tell that just by the way they talk about it. And they love you, or they wouldn't have stayed as long as they did, and they sure wouldn't have stayed when you collapsed. Give them a chance. Tell them how you feel.”

“Why? So they can tell me to go to hell?”

Sam shook his head. “So what are you going to do? Stay in bed the rest of your life to keep them here?”

“If I have to,” Murdoch snapped. “Sam, I'm not going to lose them again. I spent twenty years trying to get them back, and I'm not going to let them go now. If I have to stay in bed to keep them here, I will.”

“Why don't you just tell them that?”

“Because if they don't believe me, there won't be anything to keep them here and I'll lose them for sure. I'm not willing to take that chance.”

“I think you're crazy. But if you're going to continue with this charade, you can count me out. I have no intension of going along with this idiocy.”

“Are you going to tell them” Murdoch asked fearfully.

Sam stared at his friend for several seconds, then shook his head. “No. I'll leave that for you to do. But you'd better tell them. They're not dumb, and eventually they'll catch on, and I have the feeling they won't be very happy about it. You'd be better off telling them now, but I don't expect you to listen. You never have before.”





Chapter Fifty One

Johnny walked in and threw his hat on the table. When it skittered across the top and fell off the other side, he merely glared at it before continuing on to the bar. He poured a huge drink, then plopped down on the sofa and propped his feet up on the table in front of him.

“Hard day?” Scott asked from the desk.

“Damn right,” Johnny growled before taking a large gulp of tequila.

“What happened?”

“What DIDN'T happen?” Johnny sighed. “Cip checked the fence line in the lower pasture two days ago, and everything was fine. We moved that last herd there this morning, and those damn cows headed straight for a huge break in the fence. It took us most of the day ta round ‘em all up. Then Pete managed ta get himself thrown and broke his arm. Then the windmill in the north pasture broke and I had ta send half my crew over there ta get it fixed. On top of that, Barranca stepped in a gopher hole and pulled off a shoe so I wound up walkin' home.” He tipped his head back and shut his eyes. “All I've been doin' all day is chasin' my tail. I didn't get a damn thing done, and I've never been so tired in my whole life.”

Johnny opened one eye and pinned his brother with a stare. “How about helpin' me tomorrow? Maria can keep an eye on Murdoch.” He took a gulp of his drink. “By the way, how is the Old Man?”

Scott shrugged. “About the same. I still think there's something wrong with him, although Sam doesn't seem too concerned. Ever since Murdoch woke up the other day, he hasn't shown one bit of interest in this ranch, and you KNOW that's not like him.”

Johnny shrugged and took another gulp of his drink. “Maybe he thinks there's no hope since we're in charge again, and he's just resigned to that fact.”

“Probably,” Scott sighed. “By the way, we received an offer from the railroad today. We can sell them what amounts to all of the beef we were planning on selling, for $3.00 a head less than what the market is now, but they'll guarantee the price, and they'll come and collect them.” 

“Well,” Johnny said thoughtfully, “I guess we'll have ta figure out how much it costs ta drive ‘em, and what percentage of stock loss to expect before we can make a decision.” He shook his head. “Even so, I think we'd better ask the Old Man.”

“I think so too. I know I don't know enough to make that kind of a decision.”

Johnny nodded. “He'd better get well pretty soon. We're gonna have ta make some hard decisions real quick, including which stock ta sell off. Cipriano said he wasn't going to take responsibility, so if Murdoch won't do it, that leaves us.”

“Don't look at me, brother. That's your department, remember?”

Johnny's eyebrows went up. “Yeah, but if Murdoch shoots me, that'll leave you to do everything.”

“Good point. Maybe we'd better go ask him.”

Johnny nodded and drained his glass. “Let's go.”

The two men made their way up the stairs and pushed open the door. Scott looked in to make sure his father was awake, and when Murdoch turned his head, Scott walked in with Johnny following.

“How are you feeling, Sir?”

Murdoch nodded slowly. “All right, I guess.”

Johnny stepped up. “Murdoch, We hate ta bother you, but you need to make some decisions. We need to know which animals you want to sell, and Scott said we got an offer from…”

“You boys will have to handle it,” Murdoch interrupted. “I'm just not up to it.” 

Johnny glanced at Scott. “We don't know enough about ranchin' ta make those kinds of decisions.”

“Then you'll have to learn!” Murdoch snapped. “No one taught me!”

“Murdoch,” Scott started.

“Look, I'm tired. We'll discuss it later.” His eyes closed, and Johnny and Scott stood there for several seconds before giving up and walking out.

“Well, that accomplished a lot,” Johnny said as he closed the door.

Scott shook his head. “It looks like we'll have to make some decisions.”

“Well I ain't makin' ‘em by myself. These are gonna be joint decisions,” Johnny warned.

“I have the feeling it won't matter. No matter what we do, it's going to be wrong,” Scott said resignedly.

Johnny stopped and looked at his brother contemplatively. “Ya know what? I don't think so.”

“What do you mean?”

Johnny thought for another minute, then motioned for his brother to follow him and led the way downstairs. Once they reached the great room, Johnny whirled around and looked at his brother. “Don't you think that Murdoch is actin' just a little bit strange?”

Scott shrugged. “As far as I'm concerned, he always acts a little bit strange.”

Johnny shook his head emphatically. “Look, before it would have sent the Old Man into a panic if he thought we was all that was standing between him and bankruptcy.”

“That's true,”

“Well since his ‘illness', Murdoch don't seem ta give a damn one way or the other.”

“I know. What are you getting at?”

“I don't know,” Johnny sighed. “I thought you could figure it out from there.

Scott snorted. “Personally, I don't care why he's changed; I hope he stays this agreeable. If he did, I might even consider staying.”

“You and me, both.” Even as Johnny said it, the two of them looked at each other, slow grins forming on their faces.

“You thinkin' what I'm thinkin' brother?”

Scott nodded. “I think I am. But if he wanted us to stay, why didn't he just tell us?”

“Beats me,” Johnny shrugged. A sly smile crossed his face. “Wanna test our theory?”

Scott smiled back “Of course. But if this results in any gunfire, I'm going to blame the whole plan on you.”

Johnny nodded. “Fair enough. But if he resorts to his fists, I'm shovin' you in front of me.”

“Deal.”





Chapter Fifty Two

Scott and Johnny stood nervously outside of their father's room.

“Are you ready?” Scott asked.

Johnny nodded. “Yeah, but I'm still not totally convinced that this is the smartest thing we've ever done. I mean, isn't it a little like gettin' a grizzly bear mad at you on purpose?”

Scott shrugged. “Yes, but at least we'll know. Besides, No matter HOW mad he gets, I can't envision him chasing us clear into town in his long johns, and by the time he gets dressed, we'll be long gone.”

“I guess,” Johnny said dubiously. “Just stay outta my way if he gets outta that bed. I'm too young to die.”

“Don't worry; if he even moves I'll be in front of you all the way.” Scott grabbed the doorknob, and after a last look at his brother, he pushed the door open.

Murdoch looked up from the book he was reading and smiled at his sons. “Boys,” he said cheerfully. “How are things going?”

Johnny and Scott glanced at each other, then Scott cleared his throat. “Actually, Sir, we've had a few problems.”

Murdoch looked at his older son questioningly, and Scott shot a look at his brother before taking a deep breath. “Well, Sir, we told you the other day that we had a chance to sell our stock to the railroad…”

“Yes, so you decided to go ahead with it?” Murdoch asked disinterestedly.

Scott nodded. “Yes, we made the deal. We sold almost all of the cattle, because we figured we could always buy more. We only kept the culls. The railroad should be picking the rest of them up any day.”

Murdoch raised his eyebrows, but he didn't say anything.

“Anyway, we decided we'd better buy some more stock with all of the money, so Johnny and I made arrangements for the new stock to be delivered.”

Murdoch's eye's widened. “You put ALL of the profits back into more stock?”

Johnny nodded. “Yeah, we thought it'd be a good idea.”

Murdoch swallowed hard, trying to keep his temper. “Well, all right, I guess if you boys thought it was all right, it will probably work out, although I usually try to keep some money back for emergencies.”

Scott looked at his brother. “Gee, we didn't think of that.” 

Johnny shook his head emphatically, then looked at his father. “Nope, I guess we shoulda kept some of the cash but I'm sure you have some money saved up that we can use.”

“Use for what?” Murdoch asked suspiciously.

“Well,” Johnny hurriedly explained. “That emergency you were talkin' about. We got a great deal on that new stock, but we had ta agree ta buy all of ‘em.”

“And we didn't have quite enough from the sale of the cattle,” Scott added.

Murdoch sat straight up. “You went into debt to buy more stock that we wouldn't have needed if you'd kept back some breeding stock?”

Scott shrugged. “Well, it seemed like a good idea; after all, we had all of those pastures just standing empty.”

“Just how much more money do you need?” Murdoch ground out.

“Oh, not much.” Scott glanced at Johnny. “Five thousand should do it.”

Murdoch turned white. “Five thousand DOLLARS?”

Johnny nodded. “Yeah, they wouldn't take pesos, I know, I tried.”

Murdoch looked back and forth at his sons in disbelief, and Scott hurriedly reassured his father. “Don't worry; we can probably make most of the money back in a year or two.”

“A year or two?” Murdoch looked like he was going into shock.

Scott nodded. “Yes, and besides, we can always make money selling the wool.”

Murdoch slowly turned his head and glared at Scott, and then in a single movement, he jumped out of the bed and grabbed Scott by the neck. “SHEEP? You bought five thousand dollars worth of SHEEP?”

“Actually more,” Johnny said calmly. “Don't forget the original money.”

Murdoch turned and looked at his younger son, who hurriedly took a step back.

“Johnny!” Scott gasped.

“Of all the stupid, hair brained, IDIOTIC things I've ever heard! What are you trying to do? Start a range war?” Murdoch stormed. “I ought to kill both of you! You CAN'T be related to me, you just CAN'T! I'm RUINED!” He let go of Scott's neck and strode over to the dresser, where he started rummaging for his clothes, cursing all the while. “I can't believe the two of you are actually planning on bringing SHEEP onto this ranch!

“I don't know,” Johnny said calmly. “Personally I think those sheep are pretty good things.”

“WHAT!” Murdoch bellowed. “You can't mean that! This is a CATTLE ranch!”

“Maybe, but those sheep seemed to have cured you,” Johnny said quietly.

Murdoch looked at his younger son uncomprehendingly for a second, and then his hands slowly dropped to his side. “I…it was just the shock. I still don't feel well.”

“Save it,” Johnny said coldly. “You've been lyin' to us all along, haven't you Old Man?”

“About what?” Murdoch hedged.

“About you bein' sick, that's what.”

Murdoch took a deep breath, then slowly shook his head as he looked into his son's eyes. “I didn't mean to,” he finally admitted. “I'm sorry.”

“Why did you do it?” Johnny asked.

Murdoch dropped his head. “I didn't want you to leave,” he whispered.

Johnny glanced over at his brother, who shook his head slowly.

“Why didn't you just tell us that?” Johnny asked.

“I was afraid,” Murdoch admitted.

“Of what?” Scott added.

“That you would leave anyway. I wanted to make sure you couldn't, that you would have to stay.”

“So you tricked us!” Scott said angrily.

“Yes,” Murdoch said quietly. “Can you forgive me?”

Scott looked over at Johnny, and then glared at his father. “There has to be trust for a partnership to work, let alone a family relationship. That was a lousy trick to pull on us. We've been worried sick about you besides working our tails off while you were playing possum. Well, Johnny and I aren't going to put up with it any longer. We have had enough! Come on Johnny, let's go! Good day, Sir!” Scott turned and stalked out of the room, followed by Johnny.

When Murdoch heard the door slam behind them as they left the house, he sank down on the bed and buried his head in his hands.





Chapter Fifty Three

Murdoch rode slowly underneath the arch and reined his horse toward the barn. After Scott and Johnny had left, he had hurriedly dressed, intent on following them and preventing them from leaving for good. He figured they'd be headed for Green River and the stage, and he could catch up with them there. He had pushed his horse unmercifully, but when he'd arrived in the small town, there was no sign of his boys. He had waited around for a little while, and then realized they had probably decided to take the train. He had exchanged his tired horse for a fresh one from the livery stable, and then ridden as hard as he could toward the train station in Stockton.

It had taken him another day before he finally arrived in Stockton, but after interrogating the station master, he realized his boys hadn't been there, either. Again he waited, in case he had somehow managed to arrive before them, but they hadn't shown up. That was when he had begun to lose hope. Apparently Johnny and Scott had decided to ride their horses to wherever they were headed, and that both reassured and worried him. He knew Scott wouldn't ride horseback back to Boston, so his older son must have decided to stay with his brother.

He knew that together the two of them could handle just about anything, but he also knew Scott might be getting in over his head if Johnny had decided to go back to fighting. He knew that Johnny would never knowingly put his brother in danger, but trouble obviously had a way of finding the young gunfighter. The thought of Johnny having to go back to that lifestyle made Murdoch's heart clench. He was going to bring his boys home. Both of them.

Murdoch had stayed overnight in Stockton and then headed back. On the way he had stopped in Spanish Wells to see if anyone had seen his sons, but they had apparently not shown up there, either. The ride from Spanish Wells to Lancer had been one of the longest in his life. He knew how badly he had botched things, and he had only himself to blame for his sons' disappearance.

He looked out at the empty pastures and smiled slightly. He figured the sheep story was just that; a story, although his sons just might have decided to pull a stunt like that to get even with him, and he had to admit, he probably deserved it. He shook his head; he'd put up with a whole ranch full of sheep if his boys would come home. He realized that this ranch meant nothing to him without his family, and he was angry with himself for not recognizing that sooner. If he hadn't been such a pig headed old fool, his boys would be home right now instead of God only knew where.

He tiredly rode his horse up to the barn and stiffly dismounted. He hadn't spent so much time in the saddle in years, and his body was reminding him that he wasn't as young as he used to be. He cursed softly. He was going to get them back. He'd get down on his knees if he had to, but he wanted his boys safely at home. He figured he'd have to hire the Pinkertons once more, and he could imagine what the agency would think of an old man who kept losing his family. With a deep sigh, he handed his horse off to the waiting hand and headed for the house.

He went in through the kitchen, grabbing a couple of biscuits on the way, then entered the great room. He had only gone a few paces when he stopped and stared. Johnny and Scott were sitting on the couch, a chessboard in front of them.

“What the hell are you two doing here?” Murdoch asked in surprise.

Johnny's head came up and his face darkened at his father's tone. “We THOUGHT you meant it when you said you wanted us here, but I guess we were wrong.” 

As Johnny stood up, Murdoch realized his mistake. “I DO want you here!” he explained hurriedly.

“Well, you sure have a hell of a way of showin' it.”

Murdoch shut his eyes. “I'm sorry. Please, sit down,” he pleaded.

Johnny glared at him another moment, and then reluctantly sat. “Where the hell have YOU been the last couple of days?” Johnny demanded. “Did ya decide ta take a vacation?”

Murdoch stared at his younger son. “I was looking for you!”

Scott shook his head in confusion. “Looking for us? Why? We were right here.” 

“You SAID you were leaving,” Murdoch ground out.

“Yeah,” Johnny agreed. “We were goin' into town ta get a beer. We figured we deserved a day off. After all, you'd been lyin' around on your backside for a week, and we decided YOU could handle things for a while.”

Murdoch's mouth hung open. “Do you mean I've ridden all over the damn state to find you and you were here all along?”

“Yep,” Johnny said happily. “Guess you should have asked us, huh?”

Murdoch turned toward his older son. “Did the two of you do that on purpose?”

Scott shook his head innocently. “No, we can't help it if you took what we said wrong.”

Murdoch sighed and walked over to the bar to pour a drink. “Evidently, it's a family trait, along with jumping to conclusions.” He turned and looked at his two sons. “I'm sorry I was so quick to judge the two of you, and I'm sorry I didn't come out and tell you how much how much it means to me to have you here and how desperately I want you to stay.”

Scott and Johnny looked at each other, and then back at their father. “We want to stay, too,” Scott admitted.

Murdoch looked at Johnny, who nodded seriously. “Yeah, except one thing.”

“What?” Murdoch asked worriedly.

“Well, I never did fancy workin' on a sheep ranch.”

Murdoch's eyes widened, and he wondered if his son was pulling his leg. Then he remembered his earlier thoughts, and realized it really didn't matter. If he had to become a sheep farmer to be with his sons, so be it. A small smile formed on his face. “Well, I guess we'll just have to muddle through together. Deal?”


 

~ end ~

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